#1. Ma, I killed a man

“Ma, I killed ‘im”

I told ma, my voice was sinking amid the mournful and dreary tunes of an old, worn-out cai luong cassette. Outside, the April rain was falling hard like a flood in October. The downfall was ready to sweep this poor neighborhood away to the dark, unfathomable sea. The loudspeakers at every street corner yelled tirelessly, “Prepared for a small flood tonight; everyone, please find a high place to stay; if necessary, you have to climb to the roof.” What they meant was, We know this flood is some shit, and whatever Hell you end up in, we don’t care.

My ma sat there on her bamboo bed, motionless. Her wrinkled hands held the teapot comedically in the air. She remained calm and indifferent as if whatever storms there were outside, they cannot reach her demeanor. Maybe she hadn’t contemplated the meaning of what I had told her. Maybe all the noise of the rain, the thunder, and the loudspeakers had stripped the sentence of any ferocity. Or maybe, just maybe, this ending was an obvious ending to her. I got a feeling that in Ma’s life, everything came as no surprise at all.

“Ma, I killed him,” I repeated. He’s as good as dead now.” My voice trembled a little at the word “dead,” my fingers twisted.

“Does your sister know of this?” Ma asked. There was always this strange tranquility, hidden in her monotone voice, that calmed me.

“No. I didn’t tell her where I was going last night.”

“Does anybody know?”

“It was a dark alley under the bridge.”

A silence suddenly came spreading. All I could hear was the loudspeaker’s rusty sound, “Everyone, please find a high place to stay.” And the rain. I looked outside. When did the sky turn so dark and bleak? When did everything start to fall apart? If I just weaved my hands quickly through this mess, could I collect all the fractures that used to be my life? The female singer in the cassette sang forlornly, Farewell, my dear husband/Though the road ahead is full of seduction/Please don’t betray our love. I mimicked the singer, eyes wide open, Farewell, my dear husband.

I thought about the future. Tomorrow, someone will discover that disgusting dead body. Tomorrow of tomorrow, someone will come to this house saying, Ma’am, your son needs to go with us. It always struck me as a marvelous thing, I mean. The way a person’s life end. Not at his own will. But look at him. Look at me. Look at how dearly I want to change all of that.

Ma always said that tomorrow is always a better day. It’s funny how her saying that was a thing of the past. She never says it now, I mean. Since the day that happened. As if the act of stop saying something so frivolous was her way of atonement. My hands clenched tight. It was not my way of penance. I was never a person of beautiful symbolism. I went straight to action because, in the end, symbols were dead things. And dead things can’t change anything. Not that my action can change anything. Because my action was also a dead thing. I tried to open my eyes wider so that the tears won’t come out. But it was useless. The tears burnt my callous skin, leaving a trail of bitter regrets that I never knew I had. And here I thought I had erased all them stupid conscience. The bastard I killed used to say, Poor people can’t afford the luxury of conscience.

“Do you ever think of hiding?” Ma asked without looking at me.

“Where can I hide? You know the cops will dig up eight feet of dirt to find me.” I snorted. Isn’t there a saying, Take an eye for an eye? I opened my palms, and looked at the intertwining lines on them, trying to decipher where my life will lead to in the not-so-bright future. And the not-so-bright future told me, Man, will it make any difference?

“Right.” Ma nodded. Her voice brought me back to the thatch-roofed house. In a small corner, the rain was trickling down. The water was rising. Outside, the country looked like a vast expanse of an endless ocean. Ma didn’t seem to care for the pooling water. She continued the conversation with the same monotone, “But what if you go to the South West of Nam? They won’t find you there. Find the most distant and remote place. You may even find a new job.”

“What does it matter? We are all dying.”

“Dead is not the worst thing.”

I laughed bitterly. In this country, the dead had it better than the living.

“We are all dying,” ma put her teacup down and finally looked at me, “and though we were not granted the privilege of choosing the life we were born into,” her eyes squinted, her lips stretched into a line that resembled a smile, “I would prefer to think we can at least choose how we end it. My son’s life won’t end in the hand of a sick bastard who uses his power to prey on an innocent girl.” She changed the cassette. The Life of Miss Luu.

Can we choose our ending? As the male character in the cassette shoot Miss Luu’s son, my mind drifted off to another place. I remembered the first time I had been the champion of my school’s sports tournament. My sister was cheering me on. Ma stood quietly by the race and smiled shyly at all the commotion around her. My friends congratulated me; and my homeroom teacher said to me personally, “You are the best athlete I’ve ever had in my class.” I would pay anything to end my life there. It was better to die in vain hope than to die under the guillotine of despair. But vain hope can’t kill, and the guillotine of despair dragged its dreadful legs across the soil of this country, always on the lookout for a new victim. The days went on. No more sports tournaments. Being the sports champion could never bring my whole family the money they dearly needed. Miss Luu’s scream startled me. I looked up. Outside, the sky was getting darker and darker.

“Tomorrow will always come, son.”

“You mean it’ll be better?” I snickered, but ma’s silence shut me right up.

“I can’t say if it’s better or not. And even if it will be better, I can’t be sure that it will be better for you or them, but – “

“But what?”

“Can I at least live in the vain hope that it will be better for my children?”

She looked straight at me. My blood turned cold. I finally knew where the bitter regrets came from, and they were desiccating the essence of my whole being.

“Say, ma.”

“Say what?”

“Say, after all is done, and I cannot choose my own end, and things will only get much, much worse, and – I don’t know – maybe we can’t be who we used to be, do you still love me?”

I looked at her. A constant static noise rang louder and louder in my brain. I didn’t know if I’m hoping or despairing. Hoping for what? Despairing for what? In the hanging moment, I felt like a person standing on a chair with a noose around his throat. Her words can make the person step down. But they can also make him push the chair away.

But my questions were never answered. I solemnly wiped my face. I thought I was crying again, but I can’t feel the tears. The agony is desiccating.

That night, the flood didn’t come. Maybe the agony desiccated the flood, too. In the middle of the night, the dead body wasted away in the dim alleyway. Its eyes stared at my staggering figure satirically as I found my way out of the neighborhood. The darkness of the night in Nam swallowed me whole, and as I was drowning, I whispered, Lord, can one survive on vain hope?

*****************

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