#8. The Flood Is Always There (Even When You Are Not Looking)

I was standing in the dark, wet corner of the house – every corner of this house is a dark, wet corner – when uncle Hai came in from the fish pond in the backyard. He said, “It’s gonna rain hard today, ya be sure to pull in those clothes.” He meant the old, worn-out, threadbare rags he hung out this morning. I said, “Why you still wear them? They’re not gonna last anyway.” He hit me with the spatula and laughed, “Nothing’s gonna last, boy, not with the way you use ’em.”

I remembered them days when it was raining hard on our thatched-roof house by the sea. My ma would sit on her wooden bed, watching my sister poured buckets and buckets of flooding water out of our porch. She said, “Nothing’s gonna last in these rains. I swear, nothing’s gonna last.” And the rain was flooding in. Nonstop. Was her swearing gonna help? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now.

Nevertheless, her “I swear” had become a tradition of the rainy season in our house. The moment she swore was the moment the flood came, and that is that. Rain and flood – they are the first thing I tasted every morning and the last thing I tasted every night, going home from the construction site. Sha. Sha.

I haven’t seen her for how long now? Two weeks? Three weeks? It felt longer than that. Perhaps a month. Perhaps a year.

Or perhaps, it’s been my entire life.

Uncle Hai clicked his tongue, mumbling something about bad weather and bad fate, then went out. He always went to see the paddies when the sun was right above his head. “I won’t be back for lunch, ya don’t wait for me. Where’s the young thing?” he yelled from the porch. The damn old man thought everyone was as deaf as him.

“He’s been up the village. He’s got himself a job somewhere, I guess.”

“Ya with ya guessing.” He laughed while shaking his head slowly. “Now what? Ya gonna suck up his money like a leech sucking blood?”

I guess. And I’m gonna suck up your blood and bone, too, old man. That I didn’t say. I’ve got to the point where a single word would cost me so much. So damn much. But it doesn’t matter.

I’m just a useless, filthy, spineless coward branded criminal, anyway.

So this spineless coward was sitting on the aging wooden bed folding clothes when the young thing rushed in. This spineless coward was, of course, a little bit surprised. Was he discovered, after all? Was he to be caught up and sentenced to death right this moment, after all? Was his effort in not uttering a single word ended up useless just like his filthy self, after all? 

This spineless coward saw the sweat dripping in large beads on the young thing’s face. The looming darkness of fear weaved from barely-existed thread was reflected in the round, black irises. This spineless coward stared ahead in bewilderment, and swallowed swallowed swallowed all them words. Should he say the young thing’s eyes were beautiful, but they were masked by death? No, he swallowed it. What happened? No, he swallowed it. 

“Nha, where did you say you were from?” Hai asked, his eyes were emptier and emptier after each short breath.

“Somewhere in Da Nang.” Why? I did not ask a thing, but the voice sprang loud from my non-existence mic. Why? It echoed.

“Nha, didn’t you hear anything? Oh fuck, of course you cannot hear anything. Nha, Nha, Nha – ” He chanted my name. But I did not ask a thing. Should I hear anything? “Nha, your hometown, Da Nang, is flooded. Completely flooded. I saw houses being swept to the sea. I saw street lamps being blown up and torn apart. I saw them – Nha, I saw the people – floating in the water, their bodies were nothing but sandbags. Nha, Nha, Nha – “

But I didn’t hear him talking. I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t stretch the old rags in my hands. I didn’t crush his shoulders to the wall. I didn’t scream. I didn’t howl. I didn’t bellow. That was just the doing of the spineless coward in me who could not even see his ma’s face in his dying dream. “Ma,” I heard him roared, “Ma, ma, where you at, ma?” But his ma, too, didn’t hear nothing. Was she drowned? Was she floating in the water like the sandbags Hai saw? But Ma, you said tomorrow everything will be different.

No, you’re wrong. The coward in me said. Your mother said, “Nothing’s gonna last in these rains. I swear, nothing’s gonna last.”

I heard Hai stumbling out the porch. He said – what did he say? I couldn’t make it out amidst the heavy rain which started to fell down on my shoulders with the weight of all the sins I ever committed. What did you say, Hai? Did you say you could save my ma from the dark water? Did you say you could bring my sister to me, living and breathing? Did anyone say anything? Oh, ma, ma, ma –

She said, “Nothing’s gonna last in these rain. I swear, nothing’s gonna last.”

Hai came back, a rectangular-shaped thing was in his hand. He said – what did he say? I stared at him, at his crystal black irises, at his gaping mouth. He looked like a stranded fish. What did you say? He kept on gaping, but there’s no sound escaping from his taut throat. I screamed. “What are you saying?” Everything seemed to be muted like a broken radio. Then he shoved the phone in my hand. “Call,” the words fell out, “Call now.” I dialed my sister’s phone number. It said, You’ve got the wrong number. I dialed. It said, You should try again later. I dialed. It said, There’s no signal at the moment.

I dialed. I dialed. I dialed –

Uncle Hai came back. I heard him laughed. I saw him holding onto the door frame as he walked into the bare living room. Then I heard him stopped laughing. “Good God,” he said. I wanted to shout at him that there was no “good god,” and even if there was, they all died in the flood when no one was looking. 

Then he said – what did he say? Hai pulled the phone out of my strong grip. “The battery is dead,” he said, “Nha, can you wait a moment, just a moment, Nha?” But I didn’t loosen my grip. My sister would be on the line shortly. Don’t you take this away from me. Don’t no one take the only opportunity to hear my sister’s voice and my ma’s swearing from me. This thin link, this threadbare connection. Was she there? Were you there, Tinh? Were you there? I thought I heard her voice. It sounded too much like the voice of the things I used to have. She said, “Hello, Hai*.” I sticked the phone to my ear, “Hello, Tinh, hello, is ma there? Is she good? Are you good? Tinh, did you nailed up the windows like I used to do? You did not. Of course. I was the man of the house, Hai should do it. But Hai did not. Tinh, Tinh, are you crying? You must miss me. I miss you a lot, too. A whole lot. You’re not gonna say you love me, are you? There, I knew it. I know you hate me, you hate me, you hate me –”

There’s no answer. I snickered, Good God, did you die in the flood, too? I must be deaf after all these rains. And yet, I can still hear Hai muffled his crying somewhere beside me. I can still hear uncle Hai exhale a long, heavy sign. I can hear the sound of the rain beating on the thatched-roof, on my heart, on the hope that someone will pick up the phone at any moment.

“Tinh,” I kept on talking, “Tinh, you know how I wish to be there. I would plunge myself into the flood. I would drag you and Ma away to God knows where. And we would live together. And we would die together. Tinh, can you hear me? Can you hear me –.” The phone was dripping with tears and snots. It got harder and harder for me to hold the rectangular shape in my hand. “No, don’t lose your grip, Nha, don’t lose your grip,” I mumbled, but I was losing my grip, like the way I was losing everything. 

The phone slipped to the ground with a loud thud like the sound of the final prayers for the dead. “Don’t lose your grip, Nha, don’t lose your grip,” I said, but I was only grasping onto thin air. Nothing was ever there. Nothing was built to last.

Ma said – what did she say? Ma, can you tell me once more what you said in these fucking rains? I can’t hear you over the flood that was rising up faster than the speed of our neighbors’ running feet. And the flood was always there, even when I was not looking.

Hai slowly untwined my hard, cold, curled up fingers. He warmed them up in his palms, but they can’t be warmed up. They were dead. They turned to stone. They tried to catch the all these dying people, but they cannot. They were the sinners. Hai knew they were. But he didn’t turn away. He held them close. He patted them. He whispered to their skin, “You will be alright, Nha.” I heard him chanted my name again, his voice sounded too much like the gleeful, chirping voice of the small, sweet, little girl in some flooded country. “Nha, Nha, Nha,” he said. “Nha, Nha, Nha,” she said.

“Where’s the phone?” I stared blankly at Hai, “Hai, give me the phone. My sister was on. I heard her voice. I heard she said she hated me. I heard –”

“Nha, she was never on.”

I took a good look at him. All my life, I couldn’t have imagined how a person can tear my flesh away with just four simple words. She was never on.

“The flood is always there, even when I’m not looking, Hai.” I said.

“Right.”

“Why is the flood always there? Doesn’t it have better things to do?”

“Right.”

“Every year, it’s the same old story. Some floods come in. Someone’s gonna die. A lot of them. After the storm, the corpses – human corpses, animal corpses – lie on the paddies like a Christmas decoration.”

“Right.”

“Why is it always us? Hai, can you tell me, why is it always us? And if we try to live a decent life – if we try just a bit harder to be decent – will tomorrow be different?”

“I –” he stuttered, finding the right words. Then, seeing as even the best words would not be able to ease the pain, he settled with a simple, “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know, because it will not. My Ma always says that nothing’s gonna last in these rains. She swears on it. Nothing’s gonna last. And you know what I see? I see them people dying on the paddies, their corpses are turning slowly into something. Into numbers. Into words. Into promises that can never be reached. You know what I hear?”

“What do you hear, Nha?” Hai whispered. His fingers gently stroke mine. It’s a wonder how death can make the toughest fighter put down his weapons and turn him into a human. A vulnerable, flesh and bone human.

“I hear them words on the radio every year as I squat on my roof, watching the flood. They say so-and-so many people dead, so-and-so many loss, so-and-so worth of money gone. I thought, Isn’t the flood a miracle? Uncle Tam, uncle Ba, aunt Bay – all living, breathing, and walking humans – all turn into cold, hard statistics. The children I saw just yesterday, celebrating the mid-Autumn festival, singing the out-of-tune melody – now they are all numbers on paper.”

“Right.”

“What you see is the dried, cold, black ink. A piece of an announcement on TV. The same announcement is set to show at the same time every year. You don’t see the corpses, Hai. You don’t see them lying there, waiting for their loved ones to pick them up. You don’t see the bloated face of uncle Tam, uncle Ba, aunt Bay, and the children.”

“Right.”

“And because you don’t see them, you don’t care. Just like how these corpses are a number, your care is just a promise that can never be reached. Will my Ma be a number? Will my sister be another number?”

“But Nha –”

“Don’t you tell me it will be different. You know it will not.”

“Nha, we will – we can –”

“Can what? You know, I never regretted killing that damn governor. And if I’m given another chance, I’d probably do it thousands and thousands of times. The laws don’t protect my dear sister, or me, or anyone. After all, are the laws protecting anyone?”

“I see.”

“But I’m a damn coward. A useless, filthy, spineless coward. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of never seeing my sister again. I’m afraid of never hearing my mother mumbling to herself when the rain comes. Her swearings. Her tiny teapot. Her buckets and baskets – those old ones she used to pour the rainwater out our front porch. Uncle Hai, I don’t want to die.”

“I see, child, I see.”

“But why is it always me? Why is it always us? Can anyone please please please tell me, why is it always us poor people? Uncle Hai, is being poor a crime?”

Uncle Hai didn’t say nothing back. He turned his head to the broken, tattered door. Because he knew. He knew that being poor is indeed a crime. That the laws don’t protect the poor. That if the Good God was ever there, he would be on the same side as the rich ones.

Hai picked up his phone and went out in the rain. “I’m going to charge it at the café where I work, you just wait here,” he said. The sound of the world going berserk in the torrent of rain suddenly became crystal clear to me. It drowned me in an unfathomable, blank space. I was blinded by the whiteness of my surroundings. I can’t see anything. I can’t see my Ma. I can’t see my sister. I can’t even see me. The whiteness crept slowly to the ground, the walls, and the dark, wet corners of the tattered house. The same whiteness that looked a lot like my sister’s innocence. The whiteness that was stolen from her and all the other children by mankind’s force. And it was the very same whiteness that pushed me to be a criminal. How beautiful it is. How cruel it really is. I sat in that agonizing white world silently until Hai came back. But I can’t see him. I can only hear his footsteps. Then the phone touched my fingers.

In a strange way, the colors came spreading out slowly. They bloomed before me like flower buds in spring. I dialed again. The phone was stuck to my ear. I promised myself that this time, I will not lose my grip.

“Tinh, Tinh? Are you there? Good God, how long has it been? Hai miss you so damn much. Where’s Ma? Ma? Can you hear me? Are you all alright? Is there anyone there to turn the blanket for you at night? Tinh doesn’t do it, does she? She never cares for anyone but herself. No? She’s been good? Can I talk to her then? Yeah? Tinh, Ma said you’d been good. You know what’s crazy? It’s raining here at my place, and I heard in the rain – I heard Ma’s voice in the rain. She said, “Nothing’s gonna last in these rains. I swear, nothing’s gonna last.” Is she still saying that now, Tinh, is she –”

It said, The person you’ve dialed may have been dead or missing, please try again later.

*Hai: has the same meaning as “older brother” in English.

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

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