*Non-Fiction — April 2, 2017
Things have gotten so serious with my skinny Vietnamese lover that he wants me to come home to his village in the central highlands for Tet this year, and I know it’s a mistake because the relationship will end in disaster but he promised that I could watch an exorcism at his cousin’s house so I go along. The motorbike ride takes an entire day; I lose most of the feeling in my lower half by hour six. To keep my legs from atrophying I try hopping off at every red light and sprinting ahead along the side of the road for twenty seconds until Skinny Lover catches up with the bike and slows enough for me to jump back on, to the amusement of the other drivers. I do this until we reach the foothills of Gia Lai and I encounter a large snake and decide that there are worse things in life than having a numb ass. The stoplights are few and far between now anyway.
When we arrive, the only members of Skinny Lover’s family not immediately skeptical of me are his two nieces, who are six and eight. They tell me quite frankly that my face and my accent are weird, but otherwise seem unfazed by my foreignness. At night I share a bed with the two of them and their mother—Skinny Lover’s sister-in-law. The younger girl sloth-grips me with her arms and legs while she sleeps, rendering me immobile and unable to protect myself when the older one has a violent nightmare and starts smacking me in the face. There is a mosquito net covering the bed but it must have a loose edge because in the morning I am peppered with little pink bites, though neither of the nieces or the sister-in-law seem to have any.
When I wake up, itching, I learn that Skinny Lover has already been up since dawn selling fish at the market with his mother, where I am expected to join them. I pry myself free from the sleeping nieces and bathe in a bucket behind the house. I know I didn’t make the best impression last night, stumbling in red-eyed and disheveled after twelve hours of dusty wind and accidental gnat-swallowing on the back of a motorbike. The Mother thinks I am a slovenly American hussy and so today I am determined to get in her good graces, though this is unlikely because I have already overslept. I put on a shapeless, dun-colored blouse and long pants, trying to style myself like the girls in old propaganda paintings who are always modestly-dressed and smiling while they stand in front of factories or brandish guns in a lotus field.
The fish stall isn’t a stall, exactly. It is an uncovered collection of enormous tubs—tubs larger than the one I’ve just bathed in—filled with fish, sprawling over the entire southeast corner of the marketplace. There are fat carp packed into their tubs so tightly they can barely move, glittering rose-colored fish that vaguely resemble snappers, and lots of black, cucumber-shaped snakehead fish. The Mother sits at the middle of the tubs, before a chopping block that is really just a huge, sanded-down tree stump. In one hand she holds a knife with a blade nearly the length of my arm, and in the other she has a thick wooden club. Skinny Lover has his pant legs rolled up and is darting around between the buckets and the drive-by customers on their motorbikes, catching whichever fish they point to, weighing it on an old scale, and then bringing it to the Mother, who clubs it to death and then hacks it apart with the big knife.
My first assignment is to collect money from customers, dig out the correct change from the Mother’s blood-spattered money pouch, and run it back to them along with their gutted fish. I am slow at math to begin with, and fare even worse when forced to use it in the metric system and in Vietnamese; the customers grow impatient as I bungle sums and recount bills and clumsily wind my way around the tubs.
“Auntie!” a woman waiting on her catfish calls to the Mother from her bike. “Where’d you get this kid? What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s half-American,” the Mother grumbles back, reaching a gloved hand into the fish belly and deftly yanking out the innards.
“Ah,” says the woman. “So that’s why she’s fat.”
In the early afternoon several of the snakeheads attempt an escape at once. They fling themselves over the edge of their tub and begin flopping away in different directions. I rush to help catch them— the sight of the fish squirming around on the sandy marketplace floor is oddly disturbing to me, and I want to put them back in water as quickly as possible. One is wriggling around in my vicinity and I reach for it. However, I make the mistake of attempting to grab the very long, slippery—and, as I will shortly discover, aerodynamic—fish with both hands around its middle, which results in it shooting away from me like a torpedo, with surprising velocity, and landing in the neighboring vendor’s cabbages.
Skinny Lover comes to my aid; he apologizes profusely on my behalf, swiftly scoops up the dusty fish with practiced ease (one hand cupped beneath the belly and the other guarding the head, I note), and plops it back into the tub.
After this display of ineptitude the Mother demotes me: She sits me down on a tiny stool next to her cutting board/stump, hands me a plastic bag tied, bindle-like, to the end of a stick, and tells me to use it to wave away the flies from the leftover fish heads that she will sell for a discount at the end of the day. It is a job for children. Or idiots.
The only good part about being relegated to Fly-girl is that I can now focus my attention on eavesdropping. With the stray bits of gossip I catch while I sit there waving my stick, I can begin piecing together the marketplace politics. I learn that Skinny Lover’s extended family runs most of the fish business; there is one other family with a seafood stall, but they are smaller and specialize in eels and shellfish, so the two aren’t usually in direct competition and coexist peacefully. Several families run the various vegetable stalls so there is a very complicated,perpetually shifting system of alliances. The vegetable seller to our left and the Mother are currently nemeses because of something that happened last month with the Mother’s water buckets (and I did not help matters by sending a projectile fish missile into her cabbages). When the market starts to wind down and we buy vegetables to cook for dinner, we have to go get them from the seller on the far side of the arena.
Before we go, the Mother thwacks her knife into her tree stump and leaves it there, sticking out Excalibur-style, where it will remain until dawn.
Back at the house I take another bucket bath because I am flecked with scales and slime and blobs of blood from sitting near the Mother’s fish-hacking zone. I can’t quite get the smell of it off my skin.
The sister-in-law doesn’t trust me enough to help her cook, but after dinner I get to wash the dishes in largely uncomfortable silence with her at the garden spigot while Skinny Lover and his brother get drunk on snake wine with their uncles in the front room. I wonder when I will get to see the exorcism I was promised. Skinny Lover told me that the house has a noisy poltergeist that needs expelling. The sister-in-law breaks her silence to ask me if my family in America washes dishes this way at home, and I shrug and tell her yes because I don’t know how to describe a dishwasher without sounding like I’m bragging about it. Before I came to this country I thought that speaking in an unfamiliar language would make me more honest because there was less vocabulary to twist or nuance to hide behind. But now I realize that it is really much easier to lie. The clumsy Vietnamese I use feels like Monopoly money, so I dole it out carelessly.
I get my laptop and put on the animated Little Mermaid for the two nieces to watch before bedtime. Even though it’s undubbed I’m hoping they might enjoy the film just because of their familiarity with marine life from the family business. “Look at the girl who is half-fish!” I say, pointing at Ariel brushing her hair with a fork. “Isn’t she silly?”
“What kind of fish is she?” a niece asks.
“Salmon,” I say, because it is both my favorite and the only species I can name in Vietnamese. “That’s why her hair is red.”
They humor me by watching half of it and then ask me to put on Doraemon instead.
Before we go to sleep I make sure all the edges of the mosquito net are tucked under the mattress, and I wear long sleeves and cover myself with a blanket even though it is oppressively hot because I am determined not to be bitten. The older niece has nightmares again.
I wake up earlier the next day, but I am still late to the market. And the itching is even worse; the mosquitos got in again and were feasting on the thin skin at my exposed ankles and wrists.
This morning the Mother keeps me on as Fly-girl at first, but because it is Tet-Eve everyone is buying last minute food to cook for family gatherings and our stall grows crowded. Soon I am also helping put the fish into bags and splashing the blood off of the Mother’s knife and doling out change again. I think I have improved slightly. When a snakehead fish leaps out of its tub again I rise to go catch it, even as Skinny Lover shoots a worried glance at me from across the tubs. I am confident that I will catch it this time, and approach the fish with steady hands. I am certain that I pick it up in exactly the same way as Skinny Lover, but the snakehead still squirts through my fingers, makes a small arc in the air, and bounces back onto the ground. I run forward and try again. Squirt. It shoots another two feet into motorbike traffic and I panic. Everyone has stopped to watch now. I only manage to capture the fish by kneeling onto the ground in the middle of the lane and scooping it up into the front of my shirt. I bundle it against my chest and bring it back to its tub amid titters from the other stalls, then sit back down on my stool, trying to hide the smelly damp patch on my shirt the fish has left. Sister-in-law is eventually called in to help, and I furiously fan the severed fish heads and try not to notice her easy banter with the Mother and the other ladies of the market.
I recall reading once that dipping a metal spoon into hot water and then touching the back of it to a mosquito bite will stop the itching. So when we get home I borrow a spoon and kettle and roll up my pant legs and proceed to burn myself in the kitchen while Skinny Lover’s family watches with fascinated horror. He is showering out back and isn’t there to translate, and I struggle to explain, unable to remember the Vietnamese word for “itch.”
“Mosquito!” I try instead. They just stare at me blankly. “Arrrrrgh!” I yell, with pantomimed scratching. I am getting desperate. “Mosquito! Arrrgh!” Then I realize that I have mixed up my accents and am actually yelling “Salt!”
The atmosphere in the village is electric in the last hours before the New Year. People start setting off their homemade fireworks before the sun even sets, and the air remains tingly and sulfuric long after midnight. The nieces and the other children run up and down the back streets shrieking because their excitement is operating at a frequency too wild for words. Most of the men are drunk and gambling. Skinny Lover’s father puts an entire piglet into a small cauldron and sets it over coals the whole night long. At twelve the ABBA song “Happy New Year” is blasted on repeat over speakers in the town’s war memorial park, and during the chorus everyone sings along to the refrain in off-key English, happily unaware that the rest of the lyrics are awfully depressing. After listening to it four times in a row it is almost unbearable to be the only one who understands the words. I suppose that Skinny Lover would be able to understand them too, but he is not paying attention.
Tonight I am not taking any chances with the mosquitoes. I put on long pants and a sweatshirt and put the hood over my head and yank the drawstrings tight, leaving only a three-inch circle of my face around my mouth and nose for me to breathe. I wear one pair of socks on my feet and one pair on my hands, like the mittens you make babies wear to keep them from scratching their faces. I look insane and the nieces scream with laughter when they see me. I do not care. I am tired of itching.
When I wake up I have exactly one bite: right on the tip of my nose. This seems unnecessarily vindictive on the mosquito’s part.
The chaotic energy of the previous evening has now faded into something slower and more pensive. The men continue downing shots of rice wine, but the drunkenness they achieve today is of the somber, ceremonial sort, rather than bacchanalian. The piglet in the pot has rendered down to a fatty, bone-studded jelly, the coals beneath it now cold. We go from house to house visiting various factions of the family, and at each gathering I am lumped in the corner with Skinny Lover’s young-ish female cousins who are home on break from university in Pleiku, the closest city. The girls are cautiously friendly. None of them know English but when they speak they use very deliberate and simple Vietnamese for me. They all wear short lacey dresses and are miraculously capable of sitting very comfortably and demurely on the floor mats we are eating on. I am also wearing a dress to be festive, but I accidentally flash someone every time I shift my weight to try and reach the food at the center of the mat, so eventually I just give up on eating.
We are back at work at the fish stall the next morning. It is still officially a holiday but people need to eat and so the market is open, though it is not particularly busy. I wave my flies away lazily. ABBA is still stuck in my head. A small, solitary snakehead fish plips over the edge of its tub but I am the only one who sees and I do not immediately go over to rescue it. The Mother is rinsing her hands in the back and Skinny Lover has stepped out for a coffee. The fish lies twitching gently on the ground. I wait for nearly a minute, watching its movements slow, before finally rising to my feet. This time I lift it easily and slide it back into the water without mishap, and no one is there to watch me do it correctly. I think to myself that the real trick to catching a fish must be to let it almost die first. Years later I will read an article about snakehead fish and learn that it was never really in danger because their kind can survive for hours out of water, sometimes up to three days.They have a special chamber in their head that allows them to breathe air for a time.
The exorcism is finally taking place at the cousin’s house that afternoon, and Skinny Lover’s mother lets us go early so we can see it. Thirty family members and assorted villagers have gathered in the attic to watch, and the smell of Tet-hangover-sweat mingling with incense smoke is overpowering. According to the shaman in charge of the ritual, the poltergeist is causing a ruckus in the house because the family keeps leaving out chickens as offerings, and the ghost had been a vegetarian. The banishment of the spirit is a spectacle: things are set on fire, the shaman and his two assistants kneel and chant and write out runes in ash, a woman in the audience faints. It takes over two hours. And then without warning it is over. The shaman tells us that the spirit is gone and stands up. I look around the room, trying to detect a change in the atmosphere, some sense of a return to normalcy. The shaman coughs a few times and rubs his hands together uncomfortably until Skinny Lover’s cousin comes and invites him to take refreshment in the garden. All thirty of us go downstairs with them, and we pass dishes of watermelon seeds and green mangoes with chili salt to the shaman and his assistants and make strained small talk about the weather. This part feels even more surreal than witnessing the exorcism itself.
There is a power outage that night, lasting for several hours. Skinny Lover and his family and I sit in the darkness on the front steps, where it is cool. The nieces sit on either side of me and ask me to tell them various animal names in English, which they then repeat back in low, exaggerated warbles, the vowels comically drawn out.
“Caaaaaaaaat,” they intone in unison. “Dooooooooog.
It is only fitting that the word they like to say best, and the only one they will remember the next morning, the morning when Skinny Lover and I drive back home, is “Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiish.”
Originally published in No Tokens Issue No. 6. View full issue & more.