About the Author

Yasuko Thanh

Books by this Author
Mistakes to Run With
Excerpt

The previous year, in September 1987 when I was sixteen, a psychologist wrote to my probation officer in my case file: “Her responses on the Rorschach are the type of responses that might be expected from a neglected and deprived child and leave me wondering about the adequacy of care that has been provided by her parents, even in the most basic physical areas.”

In a city known for its trees, I grew up on a street with none. Victoria, 1974. My father, a Vietnamese national who spoke four languages and had a degree from a Parisian university, found work in a shoe store, a far cry from the financial industry and the bank he’d thought would employ him. Before immigrating to British Columbia and settling on the west coast he’d studied business management. He’d met my mother in Europe when he was twenty-seven and she was sixteen. Handsome as Bruce Lee, he promised a ticket away from her home in dour grey postwar Germany. They came to Canada in 1970, a year before I was born. My mother had fantasized about riding escalators in glamorous North American shopping malls, but what greeted her in Victoria during those heady days of Trudeaumania was more grey. Rain. A rooming house. More rain. My father found himself walking to the shoe store next to a bowling alley to sell pumps to women who couldn’t understand his thick accent and asked him to repeat “What size do you take?” My mother still spoke to me in German at home. During the afternoons, when the sun shone on our balcony, we played school. She practised the English phrases she’d heard on TV while I sat cross-legged next to her, writing “Mama, do you love me?” in an orange exercise book.

When my brother was born, in the winter of 1976, my parents gave him my room. I was relegated to a flip chair—Her responses leave me wondering about the adequacy of care—that unfolded into a kid’s bed a few feet from the front door. I didn’t understand why I had to give him anything, to share anything. Why didn’t they put him in the living room? Or in the kitchen? Better yet, why couldn’t they take him back to wherever he’d come from? I’d trade him in for a Barbie doll.

When my parents needed the living room to watch a movie or the news, they put me to sleep in their bed. I once squirted my mother’s nose drops onto her pillow to wet it the way tears would so she’d know I was sad. My mother didn’t notice the wetness; or, if she did, she said nothing about it the next day.

It shouldn’t have surprised me. Comfort was a foreign currency in my family. If I was upset, my father would splash my face with water cold enough to take my breath away. This much I knew: voicing unpleasant emotions made you unlovable. My craving for acceptance and my inability to express my need made me misbehave; my father would spank me with a thick wooden ruler. My mother’s slaps, they at least touched me. I must be a bad girl, I thought, yet I didn’t understand why. My parents’ expectations of me were as baffling as they were mutable. All day I would follow the rules to have my mother confront me at bedtime with a list of sins I’d committed without knowing it.

In the years to come I would give them perfect report cards, ribbons won at track, certificates of academic achievement. I went to church and volunteered, spoon-fed boys and girls crippled with cerebral palsy at the Queen Alexandra hospital. I’d bring home these offerings yet saw no reason to be proud of my achievements. Perfection was expected. Not praised.

For my entire childhood—and still, today, part of me waits—I’d needed to hear three simple words from my parents: You Are Good. Good. Worthy. Valuable. You are valuable to me. You are valuable to the rest of the world. Not because of what you do but because you are you, inherently important to us. You are not a bad girl. You are good.

I plotted revenge against my brother, and would pinch him to make him cry. But there was something else. I pinched him not to hurt but to comfort him, so that I’d have a reason to pick him up, dry his tears. Whisper, “Hush, hush, hush.”

To escape my confusion I’d often play outside our apartment building near where the grass ended and the road into our housing project began. There the grass grew tallest and the St. John’s wort was bushy enough to act as a forest.

I had one doll—my father had inexplicably thrown away all my toys when the rest of us weren’t home—and my favourite game was doctor. I inflicted Barbie with injuries, scrawled blood drops with red ballpoint. One day, when I was five or six, I decided to run away. Woolco would be a good, safe place to go, lots of toys, bright lights, a Popsicle machine. I knew the way down the road that circled our building toward a busy six-lane street. A friend’s mother saw me on the road, fiddling with my doll, and invited me to their apartment for a cup of tea. She felt sorry for me. I drank the tea instead of running away, enjoying how much sugar I could use, when helping myself, to sweeten my cup.

I finished the tea and went back outside. I found an abandoned construction site. Standing atop a pile of wood I became Queen of the Two-by-Four, Queen of Nails, Queen of Drywall. I picked out my bedroom and showed my doll hers. It was all there in plywood and rebar—the framework to a happy life.

Years passed. My parents’ tenacity and dreams gave way to disappointment—misfortune has a way of misering its victims. My mother did not get her promised yearly trip home to visit her six brothers and sisters; it was out of the question. Winter rains ushered in mud puddles and a road wet with oil slicks. My mother told me later that in those years she dreamed of running away across the rooftops of our neighbourhood, clutching a suitcase in one hand and my hand in the other, my brother on her hip as we escaped. It haunted her.

The nights my father worked late, my mother, brother, and I occupied the chesterfield, bolstered by pillows my mother had made herself. The awkwardness that blossomed between us as I grew dissolved when we watched TV. Sometimes I even pretended to fall asleep because when I did my mother would smooth back my hair and kiss me.

We didn’t live in absolute poverty, only the relative sort. My classmates had money for nail polish and velour sweaters from Woodward’s; they went to movies, slept in a bed, rode a bike. I did these things too, but much later than everyone else.

At eight years old I’d take the bus to the Y downtown. Every Saturday I saw other parents dropping off their children, but I never expected a ride. I’d sit in the seat to the right of the bus driver reserved for people with mobility issues. I’d look forward to chatting with him. He asked lots of questions.

Forty years have gone by since the two photographs were taken that I withdraw from a shoebox and place before me, their corners yellowed. It’s difficult to reconcile the images I see of myself in old photographs with how I felt at the time.

A crack runs through one of them: I’m nine or ten, turning a cartwheel on matted grass. I have on the red vest with pink crosses that my mother had knitted me. I remember disliking the vest but wearing it anyway, guilty about not loving it more. In the photograph my mother hunkers ten feet back, watching me from the front steps in sunglasses, a shiny blouse. She cups her chin—no, mashes it—against her cheek. It is the face of a general, grimacing, frowning.

My mother loved the idea of hope, feeding it with more dreams than it could swallow. By now she’d taken up with an evangelical God, telling the Christian stories of resilience—mouth painters who’d become quadriplegic in horrible accidents, Holocaust survivors—that filled my childhood. She inducted me into the Pentecostal army of God with a vengeance, and I complied enthusiastically.

My mother was like someone behind glass that divided her from me, froze her gaze. Yet I fantasized that beneath her cold blue eyes she had a fire, an inner Mrs. Brady, because I’d once turned my head to see her turn her own cartwheel. In that moment of laughter I saw her spirit. Somewhere in there another woman, the happy version of my mother, was trapped and trying to get out.

We moved from the apartment to a townhouse down the street. I was entering grade three, eight years old. I don’t remember packing. I don’t remember moving trucks. What I remember is walking through the empty new house followed by the echo of my footsteps. What legroom and breathing space smelled like. The dresser left behind in one of the rooms was antique—I took the drawers out, examining their workmanship. Why? Because that piece of furniture would reveal something about the earlier occupants. I found a handwritten receipt with a 1940s date on it.

The townhouse had three bedrooms, a tiny yard; it faced a playground with a concrete elephant covered in graffiti, a swing set on which older kids would sit after I’d gone to bed. I could hear their hoots and hollers through my window, their robust party yells. The sound of breaking glass after they’d lobbed an empty bottle—I imagined the high arc of some smooth, clear, exotic bird following its own trajectory through the night to inevitably, thrillingly, crash down to earth, strike the asphalt, and explode in a rainbow prism of glass that I’d sidestep the following day as I played. All I had to do was show my face in this community space separated from the adult world by an invisible force field, sacred ground preordained for small feet alone, and approach a kid. “Wanna play?”

For the next hour we’d pretend that only these swings, this gnarly apple tree, this concrete elephant existed. This tree is a fort. The ground is covered in snakes. You can’t go down or you'll be eaten. These apples are grenades. Launch them at the boys.

These days, having my own room means survival in a world that presses in. My own room is the bubble that surrounds me; I retreat there when the pressures of the world get to be too much as if into a diving bell under a hundred feet of ocean. If I sense a crack, I seal it up by halting communication with the outside.

Sometimes the space contracts around me, mordant, until the sound of my own breathing swallows me. The awareness that what protects me sanctions my survival doesn’t stave off the ensuing claustrophobia. The patient in an oxygen tent still hates her immobility. Her weakness. The sickness that put her there in the first place. She wishes she could get up and walk through the transparent walls—beyond them she can see others living their lives—yet what she’s suffered makes this impossible. Any outside contact carries the potential of a fatal infection. So the patient learns to live with her lot. Learns to appreciate her separateness.

Back then, before having my own room, my own setting to house the items symbolically meaningful to me, I’d choose a section of hallway in the apartment, between the living room and the bathroom, and lay out the books I’d withdrawn from the library earlier that day in a row. My own room meant I could do the same thing but in private, with more than books. I took meticulous care in arranging every object I owned. Tiny plastic animals the dentist gave away after an appointment, ceramic figurines from tea boxes, my stuffed animals, my dolls—each had a location, a private corner they didn’t have to share with anyone.

I also had my own closet, which, small as it was, stood for another world, separated from my room with its own door. Though not large enough for me to play in, I’d shrink myself to fit the space, contort enough to allow the door to at least shut behind me. In that sanctuary I’d fend off attacks from my little brother, who would often invade my room with the force of an advancing army. This was the universe’s way of preparing me for that haven’s forfeiture, not to my brother but to my grandparents, who will be sponsored by my father in a few years’ time. They will take my room. I’ll move in with my brother. Then, after another few years, they’ll move to France where my aunt and uncle live, where they will stay until they die.

A few weeks or months after moving in I got my first real bed, with captain’s drawers that slid out from under the mattress, all my clothes folded and placed inside. Like an interior designer I’d sit back and look at the tableau of my neatly made bed, my fluffed pillows. Ponder. Absorb. Rearrange. Able to stop only when it felt “right.”

It never did.

Even then the clash between the blue-painted wall and the olive carpet, between my mismatched bedding and the wall papered burgundy, disrupted the peace I was trying to cultivate.

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Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains
Excerpt

Killing a man is easy. Life is fragile, for one. And the world is poisonous, for two. How poisonous? Cobras, mush­rooms, stonefish, apple seeds. Consider the datura plant. Datura stramonium. White flowers the shape of a trumpet and the size of a human heart. The seeds, crushed with a mortar and pestle, are easily processed. Thieves and prostitutes favour its killing properties. Georges-Minh has seen the results in his practice and he has such a flower blooming in his courtyard.
      Five men plotted in a circle. Five men, none of them yet thirty. Five men, cross-legged on Georges-Minh’s bed, which took up half the room, no mattress in the Chinese style, carved from the rarest red wood, Georges-Minh’s command centre, where he ate, slept, played cards, and officiated the meetings he held at his house twice a month.
      “Mysterious Scent of the Mountains,” said Khieu, who owned an inn with his wife and spent his spare time painting poetry onto the inside of rice-paper sun hats. Had it not been for winter, / the falling snow / might have been cherry blossoms. One day he would close the inn and just sell the hats whose words could be read only when they were raised to the rays of the sun.
      His suit was the same type of linen as Georges-Minh’s except that Georges-Minh’s was ironed. His knees sloped, and the collar of his white shirt, where it met the dark line of his stubble, was wrinkled like the rings of a pineapple tree. Smaller than Georges-Minh’s, his thin mouth appeared somewhat lecherous. His powdered hair smelled like jasmine.
      He sat to Georges-Minh’s right, so close their knees touched. Georges-Minh stared at his best friend’s thick betel-nut-coloured hands rolling a cigarette as he shielded the tobacco from the wind of a small oscillating fan, wondering why he hadn’t spoken of his wife in so many months.
      “No, no, no. I still like Fighting Dragon,” said Trinh Van Phuc, the musician of the group, in an accent that sounded like he was chopping vegetables. Rumour was he’d been married, though he never talked about his wife.
      “Or, like I said before,” Khieu said, staring straight at Georges-Minh, “we can make a poison.” He looked at the back of his hand, examined his nails.
      Georges-Minh’s cheeks grew hot. “How’s your brood, Khieu?” Georges-Minh asked nervously, trying to change the subject.
      “Don’t know.” Khieu lowered his gaze, picked up his hand of cards.
      “Mysterious Scent of the … whatever is too … too …” Phuc waved his teacup, trying to catch the right word.
      “Don’t know?”
      “Haven’t seen Mai in months,” Khieu said sheepishly.
      “Perfume sounds like something from a song,” Phuc said. “We’re a revolutionary group—not minstrels.”
      “Perfumes are transcendent,” the third man, a horticultural­ist, said. The fellows called him Bao, though at his shop he responded with equal ease to Bao or Victor or Mr. Le.
      “Not even the kids?” Georges-Minh said. Mostly they kept their private affairs private. Still, the revelation shocked him because Khieu had been married to his wife, Mai, for seven years; they had three children together.
      “These things happen,” Phuc said and shrugged.
      How did they happen? Like a storm that washed your memory of a family the way a rain washed a road in a sudden burst? Or did they happen the way a thief with a bludgeon attacked a family, leaving death in his wake? He imagined Mai running the inn alone, looked down at his cards as if it was his hand that troubled him.
      “How many soldiers can there be?”
      “Thirty or forty?”
      “I heard fifty,” said Khieu.
      “You’re both wrong. The exact number is eighty.”
      “Do you know nothing? They number over two hundred!”
      “We will drive out the French bandits.”
      “We will restore Vietnam.”
      “We will create a democratic republic.”
      “No, a monarchy.”
      Their hearts were in the right places, these members of the MFYM, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, who didn’t yet have a name, perhaps because most of their meetings were spent drinking and playing cards. They discussed lofty ideals. Drank. Outlined what a free and democratic Vietnam would look like. Drank. Compared international political sys­tems. Drank. Cited historical precedents. Cursed the French.
      Each man held some playing cards and a glass of mulberry wine. They were teacups, not wine glasses, and none of them matched, but Georges-Minh wanted people to believe he didn’t care about such trifling details. He could have afforded match­ing wine glasses, but only shallow men cared about such worldly things.
      “If we can’t agree, let’s move on,” suggested Bao, who raised moonflowers and other exotic flora for an exclusive clientele.
      Le Bao Victor’s father was the junior minister of the Annamese cabinet of Cochin China. As a child Bao had travelled with his father to the Dutch East Indies and France, when his father had still thought he might follow in his footsteps and enter the cabinet himself. But the junior minister’s power was in name alone. Had the family any jurisdiction at all, perhaps only the alleys knew it. The jackfruit trees. The sewers and opium dens. Delinquents with slingshots. Women at the market. Shoeshine boys.
      The Les flaunted their material wealth as if in spite. Tennis lessons for the children. Rowing. Elocution. Music appreciation.
      Bao’s wife, Mimi, married him not because she wanted a better life. Not only because. But if she’d known a few rooms next to a flower shop awaited her? He turned his back on politics two years after their marriage. Began wearing a bicycle chain for a belt. Fell in love with orchids, chrysanthemums, bellflowers, hibiscus. After reuniting with his elementary-school mates Georges-Minh and Khieu in a bar.
      “Let’s talk about what we’re actually here for,” Bao said, “as our esteemed colleague Khieu suggested when he brought up a rather interesting idea. Why don’t we talk about that?”
      Khieu and Georges-Minh had been best friends since grade school, when they’d run loose around Saigon’s back alleys, climb­ing trees and scaring cats.
      Khieu, whose family lived in one of the many shacks built over the river, hated the sellout, the collaboration of his family with the enemy that included his Christian name, Henri, but he stopped short of hating the urchins who called to him across the alleyways of Cholon—“Hon-riii, Hon-riii, give us a tien, give us your school tie”—who worshipped anything French, giving themselves French nicknames for fun.
      “Chosen well, a good name helps define a group’s beliefs, bestows desired traits,” Georges-Minh said, because Khieu was the kind of person who as a child had given away his pencils and schoolbooks to those same urchins, and now sat with a cracked teacup of wine in his hand goading him. Even as a child Khieu had cared about things. Georges-Minh couldn’t have cared less. Georges-Minh was too busy lusting after a new mechanical boat or model train. Khieu, who’d had nothing, had ideals, and hadn’t even wanted his French name. Georges-Minh shrugged. “Look at all the fuss and divination that goes into choosing a child’s name.” He would go to as much trouble when he named his son. When he had a son. When he found a woman. When he got married. Which he would. Any day now.
      “Not a monarchy, a republic,” Khieu said. “Haven’t you read Rousseau?”
      “They should die like dogs.”
      “They should die like a snake under a rickshaw driver’s wheels.”
      “They should die a bad death. Not a ‘death in the house and home’ but a ‘death in the street.’ ”
      “They should die like an iguana in the mouth of a hungry dog, swelling at head and tail until they burst under the pressure of his powerful jaws.”
      “Poison the lieutenant colonel of the garrison with gan cong mak coc, liver of a peacock, bile of a frog.”
      “No. People should use a beautiful woman to kill a king.”
      “Yes, love them to death.”
      “You’re suggesting a strategy?”
      “Poison doesn’t always kill. Did you hear about the guy who was dying? Of cancer. So he took liver and bile and the poison started to cure his cancer.”
      “Actually?”
      “Actually.”
      “They can die like a lover in the arms of a woman,” Khieu said. “I don’t care. So long as they die.”
      Making a poison strong enough to kill a man is easy. Remove the seeds from the stamen. Crush with a mortar and pestle until the dry seeds stop crackling. The powder is now so fine as to be invisible and weightless. Season chicken, shrimp, or buffalo with the dust. Steeped in fish sauce, the poison is tasteless.
      Because he was a little drunk, Georges-Minh fell against Khieu. He righted himself and dabbed with his thumb at the spilled wine on the wooden bed slat. “I don’t mind talking about the group name some more. A thing becomes its name and vice versa. Can you imagine a militant group with the word ‘bananas’ in its moniker?”
      “Bananas is definitely out.”
      “I second.”
      “Third.”
      “Obviously.”
      “This is absurd.”
      “What was that name you said? Mysterious perfume …”
      “Mysterious smell.”
      “Fragrance.”
      “No, it was mysterious scent, but I like perfume better.”
      “Me too.”
      “Perfume then,” said Chang. Chang was an ethnic Chinese, born in Cholon, a court translator and lover of books. “But mysterious is the important part, because it’s how we must remain. Elusive. Who said elusive? As in impossible to catch. By soldiers, police, any and all enemies.”
      “Well, perfumes are important, too,” said Bao, who would have said such a thing.  “And sweet, right, because that’s what we want to be. But the transcendence. That’s the part that’s important. When something becomes a perfume it transcends its lot as a fragrance to become something else. See?”
     “Maybe you’re not that much of a blockhead,” said Chang, the translator with the thick and beautiful lips. “Sweet as a flower that rises in the spring. In the spring there’s hope. Especially in the north.”
      “Where at present,” said Georges-Minh, striking a serious face, “the news is one in three women are now prostitutes because of the regime. Did you know they’re starving in Tonkin? Picking individual grains of fallen rice from between stones with their fingers. Eating farm animals dead of disease.”
      The men sympathized with silent nods.
      “Invisible as a fragrance,” Chang continued. “Invisible as hope, invisible as a guerrilla fighter. Mountains, of course, are a symbol of strength. Where were we then, mountains?”
      “Don’t forget, prayers are invisible, too,” Phuc said, chain-smoking. The rich ate, the poor smoked.
      “True,” said Georges-Minh.
      “Like the fart I just let out?” Phuc said.
      “God, Phuc. Will you ever grow up?” Bao said.
      Khieu took a sip of his wine, then drained the cup, avoiding the chip on the rim. After lighting a cigarette he said, “If we’re not going to move on to the poison until after we choose a name then I say let’s add ‘yellow’—Mysterious Perfume of the Yellow Mountains. Makes us sound more poetic.”
      Was Khieu playing it straight with the group? Yellow? Georges-Minh couldn’t tell much about the man these days. Khieu had always dreamed of travelling to distant places, Africa, Borneo, and Antarctica, and carried maps with him wherever he went. Then one day he’d thrown them in the river. He had recently started growing his hair long again, like some of the Hindu holy men in the marketplace. He had discarded his topknot and traditional turban in favour of clipped hair long ago, but now he no longer kept it sleek, no longer washed it. He wore his hair unkempt and ran around the marketplace pushing a broom or borrowing rickshaws that didn’t belong to him. This, in itself, wasn’t completely new. But he’d changed since the hauling of those French contraptions of horror into the square, the guillotines.
      Georges-Minh hated the French—he could say those words. But could he write someone’s name in poison? Georges-Minh didn’t know if he could kill a man. Maybe one man. But could he poison a whole garrison? Poison. Khieu’s earlier words hung in the air along with his cigarette smoke, waiting for Georges-Minh’s response.
      The truth was, ever since that day as a schoolboy, when Khieu with his one green eye that emphasized his craziness had stood nearly naked in the marketplace in Cholon, Georges-Minh had admired him because he was everything Georges-Minh was incapable of being by nature, lacking the inner rigour. Or thought he had admired him because at least he stood for something. A few years later, as a teenager, when Khieu stole a driver’s rickshaw one afternoon and pretended he was a coolie, returning the rick­shaw and all his earnings to the rightful owner that evening, Georges-Minh had wanted to be him. Khieu, who had a neck as solid as an ironwood tree, was strong. Even now, as an adult, when he returned to Cholon and swept the streets with a broom or collected garbage with his hands, barefoot as a peasant—for the love of work or to prove a political point, Georges-Minh wasn’t exactly sure—everyone knew him by name. Now Khieu was looking at him and Georges-Minh could feel whatever small admiration he’d built up for himself in Khieu’s eyes over the years slipping away by degrees like a small village down a water­logged hillside during the monsoon rains. Khieu, looking again with that provocation in his eyes Georges-Minh decided was his friend’s way of mocking him, for being weaker than him, teasing him for his reluctance to get involved. Provoking him into being more than the wimp he always was. Taking a stand.
      Khieu still enjoyed mathematics, detective novels, astronomy, searching with his telescope for alien life in the skies, but another part of him had evolved into something Georges-Minh no longer recognized after hearing men screech nationalist slogans, watch­ing the blade fall, heads tumbling into baskets. The heads were collected and mounted onto spikes as warnings to others. Punishments were distributed to Vietnamese who tried to remove the heads too soon. Even as he sat there now, with Khieu waiting for his response—would he or would he not make a poison to kill the soldiers stationed at the French garrison of Saigon?—he knew he was disappointing his friend. And his country by extension.
      He was the natural choice. The doctor of the group. Private doctor to the lieutenant colonel of the garrison.
      Georges-Minh looked out the window. Subterfuge. An irra­tional ploy. Smile and no one will bother you. Look away and what you don’t want to see turns invisible. Gazing at the river that flowed out back. Now the shade of a ball bearing. Now the shade of dirty cotton. Now the shade of belly button lint. He could pretend the river was something fleeting. A minnow, a swordfish, a dragon. Then the dreaded thing happened. It must. It had to.
      “Yes, of course. He could make the poison.”
      “Naturally, he’s a doctor,” Bao said, scratching his eyes. His lids were swollen again. Last night, he’d gotten drunk and sat with the cuttings, singing to them. “March to victory, sway, sway.” Using the wine bottle as a door knocker, he’d tried to wake Mimi. She, angry as usual, had refused to join him in the room where he nurtured the rooted plants, encouraging them to grow.
      Who knew this was something he’d be good at? If sore eyes was the price? He stumbled to each pot, ensured the proper mix of soil versus food. His own blend of which he was proud. Sang to them, while Mimi hollered he would wake the dead.
      “What do you say?” Phuc said.
      “Georges-Minh?”
      “Aren’t you listening?” Phuc said.
      “He’s drunk.”
      “Could you or couldn’t you?”
      “Daydreaming.”
      “No, I was paying attention. Poison.”
      “Well?”
      “There are many ways to poison a man.”
      Georges-Minh stared into Khieu’s one green eye. Mulberry wine made all the fish in the near dark leap out of the river and hover over the water. They spun and danced and gal­loped through the air, a synchronized ripple, the way the water puppets shimmer and perform boisterous art over Saigon River currents.

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