Sometime in the night the woman woke. The wind had died down and the rain had stopped and now she could hear something bang against the piles of the house. Sitting up on her cot, she listened. In the sound of water lapping the piles there was the knocking of something. She listened to its cadence. Then she parted the mosquito net, rose and walked barefoot across the wooden floor to the door. She unlatched it, felt it tremble against the wind and pushed it open just a crack to look out into the night.
Down below, hung from a stilt, the lantern was bobbing like a pale yellow orb on the water. Chained to the wooden posts, cushioned by two rubber tires and covered with a white plastic sheet, her boat rocked on the current. Above the water she could see tips of grass that fringed the bottom of the boat and she could smell in the wind the warm, wet smells of quack grass and water chestnut. Then she saw a large plank on the water directly below her and it hit a post each time the wind pushed the current. There was a body on it.
She made her way down the ladder, saw floating planks that got caught between the piles, curved planks with rattan ribands trailing behind them. They looked like wreckage from a boat. The floodwater of September was warm, chest-high, as she waded around the piles to the plank. There she stood, hands on the body’s shoulder. It lay prone in a white short-sleeved shirt, the back of which was ripped open, the white color turned dark purple from blood-red stains. Then a leg suddenly moved. It caught her eyes. She looked at the bent leg in dark gray trousers. Then she heard a moan.
He opened his eyes. The first movement of his body caused the cot to creak. He kept still. His body felt warm, reeking of alcohol. There was a damp odor of timber in the air. Lying on his side, he saw through the mosquito net the glimmering wooden floor perhaps a foot beneath the cot, and the low-lying cot had the same old brown color as the floor. At the door sat a woman, half turned toward him. Her long black hair that draped over the floor shocked him with its length. She had a bowl in one hand, a round bottle in the other. She poured herself a bowlful, set the bottle on the doorsill and raised the bowl with both hands and sipped. The bottle had a cockroach-reddish-brown color, topped with a cork. Outside it was gray. He couldn’t tell if it was morning or dusk. His head felt heavy, his limbs tired, a deep tiredness in the joints. Yet he remembered stumbling in the water with the woman trying to steady him as they made their way to the ladder and up its steps, his vision cloudy from dizziness, his body so weak, like it was made of dough.
He felt an awful thirst. All his saliva had dried up and his throat hurt when he swallowed. He turned over, looking up at the ridge of the mosquito net, and a dull pain stabbed the small of his back. He rolled onto his side, groping with his hand to feel the wound on the back where, as he recollected, he’d lost so much blood that his mind finally slipped away. There was something soft padding his lower back and it was tied in place with a thin string around his abdomen.
He was about to ask for water when the woman rose from the doorsill and turned and came toward him holding the bowl in her hands. A huge woman, yet she moved with grace, barely making a sound. He pushed himself up on his elbow, his head hurting, as she sat down by the cot, folding one leg under her, and her husky frame and her abundant hair draping around her took his breath away.
Drink this, she said, pulling up the front panel of the mosquito net, and brought the bowl to his lips. She had a deep, hoarse voice.
He sipped. It was burning in his throat. Liquor. He gasped, blew air out of his mouth.
You’re a man, she said in an even tone. Don’t drink like a sissy.
He could tell it was strong liquor, and she had been drinking it like drinking water. If it was still early in the morning, he’d be damned to hell to know who she was. He held the rim of the bowl against his lips and peered up at her.
Ma’am, he said, can you spare me a glass of water?
I don’t drink water. There’s no good water around here. Well, there is. The vat out there. No good under floodwater now.
He understood. It must be a vat that kept rainwater for her cooking. Without a word he sipped, holding the liquor in his mouth till its burning sensation went away, and gulped it down. He could drink liquor but not like this, when his body felt dead. His skin on the neck, the chest smelled of liquor, too. She must have rubbed his body with it when she brought him in. The dryness in his throat now went away. Maybe the liquor did it. It felt hot now in his empty stomach.
She took the bowl from his hands and drank and handed it back to him. Her face was white, the bland white of water chestnut’s flesh. It looked spooky against the ghastly black of her hair.
Is it morning? he said.
She nodded and her hand pushed the bowl toward his mouth. He sipped as she watched. Her eyes were longish, narrow. In them was smoldering a look of neither anger nor hate but something that made him think of a wounded beast being cornered. It unsettled him.
What happened to you? she said, barely moving her lips, like her voice had just come up from nowhere.
A barge hit us.
Up the river. Broke the boat to pieces. Wasn’t anything left of it. They all died probably.
Why didn’t you?
I was sitting in the bow.
The bowl in his lap, he sat up on the cot now with the gauzy panels of the mosquito net draping his back. He’d been flung into the river the moment the barge hit the boat and its impact nearly took out all his senses. His back hit something sharp over the gunwale. When he came up to the surface the river was black and quiet and the barge had been gone save for a faint whirring of its motor somewhere downriver. He swam. His head was numb, his back throbbing. The river was wide and he didn’t know where he was in the darkness and there was nothing in sight not even the riverbanks, except some blurred shapes of debris floating by. Then he felt a sharp pain in his leg and the cramp in the calf pulled him down, sinking, and he kicked and kicked with his other leg to keep himself buoyed and water then got into his nose, his mouth, and then his hand hit something hard. It was a big curved plank from the boat.
Now she took the bowl from his hands and drank, tipping back her head, and the liquor went down with a gurgling sound. Licking her lips, she set the bowl on the floor.
What’s your name? she said.
Your family, they’re on that boat?
No. He looked away. I don’t have a family.
When he looked back at her she was gazing at him, her eyes still like she was gauging something in her head. She wasn’t fat, just large. She wasn’t pretty. Far from it. But her full lips were, and they looked out of place on her squarish face, her heavyset frame.
I thought you were dead, she said. Dead like a coon. You know that? Thought you were a man.
He was a man. Barely twenty, though. But he didn’t want to disagree with her on that.
Most boys your age look funny with a beard, she said tonelessly. Not beard, just a few hairs like a baby goat.
He grinned, and stopped, when she ran the back of her hand against his chest. It went across its breadth and down to his abdomen. She tested the tightness of the string that looped around his stomach.
You’re fine now, you were cold as a clam, she said. Just rest on your side and you’d be all right. Her hand came up now to feel his full beard, from one side of the jaw to the other. Where were you heading to?
South. To the seaside.
Maybe near Cà Mau.
Got relatives there?
Nah. Just looking for work.
You mean at the fishing villages?
She didn’t see him nodding as she took his hand in hers and spread out his fingers like a palm reader, bending back his fingers, squeezing his hand hard with her hand, thick, powerful. Good, she said in her impassive voice, you’ve done hard work before.
I used to fish on a riverboat, he said, letting her feel the calluses on his knuckles, his fingertips.
Are you any good? she said, checking his wrist bones.
I’ve done it since I was ten.
Good boy, she said with a muted satisfaction. You’ve got thick wrists. You’re big-boned.
He saw her smile, just a flick of the corner of her mouth, the pretty lips barely parted. Why’d you quit? she said.
My uncle died. He owned the riverboat.
Died, eh? Folks don’t live long today. He drink?
I’ve never found a fisherman who don’t drink. Half of them die from that. Hope I won’t.
What’d you do?
Fishing. Making a living here and there doing odd things.
My uncle he just fished. Fixed boats too.
I’ve got a good hand.
You need a job, well, I’ve got a job for you.
Your boat needs fixing?
It needs many things. And I need somebody to haul in fish on days I can’t.
He didn’t want to ask why, deciding that was none of his concern. Where am I now? he said.
Plain of Reeds, she said. Can’t you tell by the flooding? This plain in Mekong Delta is seven feet now under the water.
How can you get around?
That’s what a boat is for. No boat, no go. She picked up the bowl and got to her feet nimbly. The air stirred with a wet alcohol smell. Looking down at him with her hair hanging to her knees and framing her chalk-white face, she canted her head to one side to appraise him. Looks like you need some clothing, she said, or you can wear mine while you’re here till I get you something you call yours.
Yes, ma’am, if it isn’t much to ask.
I’ll fix you something. You like corns?
I’ll eat anything.
You like it roasted or boiled?
You just do it, ma’am. I’m not gonna be difficult bout that.
Good boy. She turned and went to a brick hearth shaped like a half circle, which took up the whole corner to the left of the door. She bent and gathered an armful of twigs, each thin and mottled gray, and dropped them with a dry crackling sound onto the ashes in the hearth’s pit. He left the cot and came to sit down next to her by the hearth, watching her stuff cajeput leaves dried and brown beneath the twigs. Then she flipped open a chrome lighter, its brushed metal a gleaming silver, and flicked it against the small heap of leaves. He watched the blue flame burning clean through the leaves as they curled and twisted, sending up smoke. The flame rose, tingling warm and changing to orange. She leaned into the corner where sat a reed basket and grabbed four ears of corn with both hands, each still clad in grasshopper-green husks, whiskered tips of auburn silks. She placed them on the leaves, now singed to brittle black layers, then, sitting back with one leg folded under her, the other stretched out behind him, gazed at the corns.
He watched them in silence. The husks now shrank, charred black along the edges, and the silky tufts frizzled. Then she leaned forward to turn over the ears of corn, barehanded, her long thick hair falling in abundance into the smoky fire. Just as she hitched up her shoulder like she always knew what to do, he reached and pulled back her hair.
I won’t burn myself, she said, sitting up with a toss of her head. Don’t ever think I’d let myself burn.
He shrank back. Yet the tone of her voice was casual and her faint smile put him at ease. From her long lavender blouse pocket she lifted a cigarette pack, badly bent, the figure of the camel distorted, slit the pack open with her finger and pulled out the only cigarette left in it. Then she tossed the crumpled pack into the flame on top of the smoldering corns and leaned in to touch the tip of the cigarette against the flame, which rose occasionally when the wind blew in through a chink in the wall. She took a deep drag, turned and handed him her cigarette.
C’mon, she said, exhaling smoke. Keep yourself warm.
He didn’t smoke but he took the cigarette. It was bent like a crooked finger and as he smoked it he could smell the strong dark smell of the cigarette and the wood-burned fire. He blew the smoke between his legs as he sat on his haunches, and looking down he could see a crack along the mortared base of the hearth and through it the silt-brown color of floodwater beneath the house.
Don’t see many boys with a full beard like you, she said, pinching the cigarette he handed back. I mean, you don’t look odd or out of place or anything. What made you?
My cousin, he said, she died. Then my uncle died. I guess I didn’t care much for nothing else after that.
Ah, you poor soul. What got them?
What got them? he said, arching his brows. Bad things got them. Bad.
Sickness? Accident? She handed him what was left of her cigarette and he took a long drag and another long one, squeezing the stub with his thumb and forefinger, feeling the heat against his palm. He shook his head and tossed the stub into the fire.
Ni, he said, she was raped. They found her body up a creek.
The woman frowned. She pulled the ears of corn from the fire and set them on the rim of the hearth. The yellow-edged husks were paper-dry as he peeled them back. He inhaled their aroma, the thick steam wetting the tip of his nose, and rolled the burning ear of corn back and forth from hand to hand while she yanked the husks off the ear, stroking down its length to gather the husks at its base, and sank her teeth into its kernels. He did what she did, sucking in the stinging heat that cut through his palms, and ate. His teeth ached sharply from the fiery heat in the kernels, his eyes teared.
Did you find who did it to her? she said.
No. Nobody did.
He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. This is good corn, sweet, fresh, he thought. But you eat it this way every day your teeth will be gone in no time. In silence they ate.
What got your uncle? She tossed her finished ear of corn with husks and all into the fire.
Poisonous snakes. Happened when he went to the graveyard where she was buried.
What a curse!
I don’t believe in none of em things. But things happened.
What’d you do with his boat?
Not his boat no more after his creditor claimed it. He gnawed off the last row of kernels and picked up the second ear on the hearth’s rim. She didn’t touch hers. It would be good if she stopped asking questions about what he dreaded most. It would be good if he never had to talk about it again.
How old was . . . what’s her name? she said, picking up her share and putting it down in front of him.
Ni. He plucked the blackened silks. Seventeen.
And how old are you now?
You’re only young once, she said. Yeah.
He didn’t know what she meant by that.
He felt a fever coming on while he stood in the doorway looking down at the boat. The water-covered plain reddened as the sun went down, water and sky for one brief moment reflecting each other in a flaming red, and looking across the shimmering water he could see nothing in sight but clumps of tall bushwillows and beyond them dark rain clouds now rolling in from the horizon, gigantic billowing black shapes quickly filling up the sky, and distant roars of thunder reverberating over the horizon, seemingly coming from deep in the earth like drumrolls.
He came back in and sat down on his haunches by the hearth. The fever had turned to chills. Wrapping his arms around his torso, he shook, pressing his chin hard against his chest, teeth clenched.
Lie down, she said. That’ll pass.
He didn’t hear her footsteps. But he knew she was behind him. He nodded and lay down. She had spread a blanket on the floor and, as he rolled onto his side, draped him with another blanket. The howling wind blew the door shut. Then rain fell, lashing the roof, and he could hear its drumming in crescendo. She came with a bowl in one hand, a small knife in the other, sat by him and pulled down the blanket. Without a word she turned him over on his stomach and he felt her hand touching the wound on the small of his back.
I’m gonna wash it and change the bandage, she said.
What’s in that bowl you’ve got?
Some ground leaves, some ground tobacco.
She snipped the binding string. The cold knife blade pressed against his skin. He closed his eyes, shuddering, the muscles in his chest shaking uncontrollably because of the chills, as she slowly poured alcohol on the wound, pausing and dabbing it with a piece of cloth. He sucked in his breath at the sting of alcohol.
A nasty gash you’ve got there, she said. What got you?
I don’t know, he spoke with his eyes shut. They had all kinds of bins and baskets on the boat. Got glass cutters, handsaws, machetes. Coulda been a scythe.
He tried not to shiver while she fixed him up, yet his limbs, his body shook badly. When she was done with bandaging she pulled up the blanket to his neck, bending slightly, and her hair hung down, tickling the side of his face.
He woke to see her sit next to him. In her hand she held a bowl and steam was rising from it. A rich smell.
Sit up, she said, lowering the bowl to her lap.
I don’t want to eat.
What’s in it?
Mung bean soup.
Can I have some water? Then he remembered there was none.
All right. She brought the bowl to her lips and sipped, her eyes downcast. He laid his head on the fold of his arms, eyeing the olive-colored blanket and breathing in its musty odor. The chills were not coming as regularly now, though he felt damp even under the blanket. Then he saw her rise to her feet. From the floor he looked up at her huge shadow looming on the wall. It was dark now, save the glow of the fire in the hearth. Sitting down on the rim of the hearth, she cleaned the bowl with some cajeput leaves, the fire behind her a bright orange against the pale lavender of her blouse. As he watched, dimly thinking about the water, she began to unbutton the front of her blouse, her hands going down, her head bent forward. He stared. She opened the front of her blouse and, with one hand cupping a breast, began to knead it with her other hand. She paused, then, open-palmed, stroked down her breast. She stroked it firmly, patiently, her chin pressed down against her chest, her hair draping the sides of her body, till at last she reached for the bowl and brought it to the tip of her nipple. She kneaded her breast, hard, the bowl firmly held in place, and she didn’t let up. Then she lifted her chin, gasped, and her hand slid away from her breast. Changing hands, she squeezed her other breast, unhurriedly, coaxing the milk to come forth. In the quiet the fire popped, spurted. She picked up the bowl again, her nipple kissing the bowl’s rim, and strained herself till the liquid stopped flowing.
She brought the bowl to where he lay. He sat up, dazed. A smoky odor of wood and fire hung about her as she sat down, folding one leg under her.
Drink this, she said. Till I can get water after the flood.
He took the bowl from her and looked at the white liquid in it. At his hesitancy she said, Drink it. He drank in one gulp, not registering the taste. An aftertaste remained on his tongue, of something neither salty nor sweet but warm and thin. Then he handed the bowl back to her.
Thank you, ma’am.
Cover your head with the blanket, she said. Keep mosquitoes off. Rain like this keeps them out, otherwise they’ll suck your blood dry. She stood up, looking down at him. I’ll remember to get myself some more cajeput leaves. Them leaves when you burn drive mosquitoes away.
He watched her turn the twigs in the hearth. The taste on his tongue didn’t go away. He wondered how a woman could make milk like that and after a while fell asleep with no answer.
The first sound of a motorboat that went by before it was light woke him. It came from a distance. He could hear the whirring of its motor die away. Outside the air was cool, the sun still a mild orange disc over the horizon where the water shone silver.
A merchant boat was coming toward him, splitting clumps of flat sedge as it churned up water. The boat idled in the shadow of the house. As he moved in the water to its side, the boat owner was lifting up two one-gallon jugs of liquor and setting them down on the gunwale.
These here for the missus, the man said, tipping up his wide-brimmed hat to wipe his brow.
I’ll need something else, too, he said, taking hold of the plastic jugs the man handed down.
Yeah. The missus told me. Got it right here.
The man picked up a clear plastic bag. Inside was a three-foot-long snakehead covered with crushed ice.
Fresh? he asked the man.
Hell yeah. Day old. Won’t charge you for the bag and ice.
Only for the missus.
He gave the man the rolled-up bills. The man shoved them into his trousers pocket, wiped sweat off his forehead with the heel of his palm. You her new helper? he said as his gold-capped front tooth glinted.
You’re gonna stick around?
I don’t know. I might.
You good with boat?
Yeah. He nodded, squinting up at the man. You know her well then?
Know, but not well. Sell her more stuff whenever she hits those jugs. She’s just holed up in there. The guy before you did all the fishing for her. Just like you here before he quit.
Really? When was that?
Say, two months now?
That’s my conjecture. Left her with her big tummy.
Damn. Didn’t see no baby myself.
Didn’t materialize. That’s what I’ve heard.
None of my business.
She won’t hurt ya.
I’m still learning my way around her.
Smart businesswoman. Fucked up in the head sometimes. Around here she’s a legend.
And what’s that?
First time I heard it, I asked what legend meant. They said legend is something that did happen, is authenticized and true. Hehe.
She’s authenticized all right. He grinned, looking at the man’s gold tooth.
Tell her I’ll come back for the mushrooms next week. . . . You need anything else? I won’t be around for the rest of the week though.
Oh. Give me a carton of cigarettes.
Right on, chief.
The man’s forefinger moved across the merchandise up and down the deck. It guided him with three steps over the goods strewn about him and he came back with a carton of one-humped Camels. Here goes, chief, he said.
She always smokes this type? He pointed at the camel on the carton.
Damn right. She won’t smoke any other shit. Cussed me out once the time when I was out of it.
All right, he said, handing the man another bill for the cigarette carton. I need to get back to work.
The man revved up the boat, swung it in a half-circle turn and left the way he came in.
The bag of iced fish slung over his shoulder, the cigarette carton under his left arm, he carried the two jugs back up the ladder and left the plastic bag on the landing. So she just had bad luck with her pregnancy, he thought. He drank her milk, which could have been there for the baby. Well, just mind your own business. Inside the house he leaned the cigarette carton against the wall beneath the wall-nailed wooden shelves on which she kept cans of cooking ingredients and cloves of garlic and ginger roots and bulbs of papery reddish shallots. There was a square glass jar of lard on the bottom shelf and next to it the cockroach-maroon round bottle of her rice liquor. It was empty.
The sun felt hot on the back of his neck and his face was sweating by the time he had filled three cavities in her boat. He got off the boat and was about to head up to the hut when he saw her standing barefoot on the landing, a cigarette dangling between her lips, testing the firmness of the snakehead with her toe. Silhouetted against the sun, her face was dark, shrouded by the mass of her black hair, and the white of her blouse hurt his eyes.
She got small feet for a woman her size. He watched her plump toe pushing the little ice cubes toward the edges of the bag. In the shade the thick, firm body of the fish shimmered in bluish black, striped with whitish lavender from head to tail. She spoke without looking at him, He must’ve got it yesterday, eh?
He must of. That’s what he said.
Take the grill in there, she said with an upward jerk of her chin. Build me a fire.
She was setting up the grill over the fire. Her face glowed in the heat, her rouged lips looked blood red.
The woman watched the fire, now and then adding some more twigs to keep the flames just high enough so that they wouldn’t burn the fish’s skin. Droplets of fat were dripping into the fire with small hisses and the flames shuddered. A fatty odor hung in his nostrils. He knew he was very hungry. Once as he glanced up at the fire, he could see her watching him through her narrowed eyes. He could feel the heat of the fire tingling on his bare torso and he’d stop occasionally to wipe sweat off his face, his chest. She lowered her head to look at the underside of the fish, where the flames were browning its skin into tiny warts and the fat-filmed skin glistened.
She looked at the stack of rice papers he’d wet. Separate them, she said, or they’ll stick like glue.
He began peeling each of them. She was crushing some hot peppers in a little bowl with a spoon, the red of their skins as fierce as the color of her lips. Finished with the hot peppers, she brought out from the cupboard a small jar filled with a paste the color of burned sienna. She dipped her finger into the jar.
What’s that stuff? he asked.
Tamarind paste, she said, rising to her feet. From a wall shelf she picked up the fish sauce jar, unplugged the cork, and poured till it half filled the bowl. Watching her stir it up into a deep amber liquid with red flecks, the spoon going round and round with tiny clinks, his mouth watered. She eyed the fish. It was smoking now with a thin vapor hovering over its blistering skin and it permeated the air with a dark, fatty smell. Get the liquor, she said.
He lifted one of the two jugs of liquor on the floor beneath the shelves and grabbed an empty bowl, the plain blue crockery she used for drinking. On the rim of the hearth she had spread out a large banana leaf and now lifted the fish by the rod and brought it down onto the leaf. She sank the knife into the fish’s fat side and slit it open, letting out a steaming aroma.
She wiped her hands on the front of her blouse, hoisted the jug onto her lap, and sat stroking it like a pet. Go ahead, she said, checking him with her eyes. Make me a roll.
Okay, he said and gathered the smoking meat with his fingers, firming it up, and opened the jar of peanuts. He passed it under his nose. A dark, fresh aroma of ground peanuts. He sprinkled some of it on the white meat, then some of the fried shallots, and rolled the rice paper up from the base, tucking in the meat with his fingertips to keep it tight, then folded the sides in. The roll felt compact in his palm.
She took the roll he handed her, weighed it in her hand, stroking it to feel its firmness. Her fingers caressed its whole length, back and forth. Then she dipped it in the sauce, twisting it to slather it in the sauce, and brought it to her mouth. He watched her chew, her eyes closed, her vividly red lips wet. His mouth watered.
Pour me a bowl, she said, dipping the roll again in the sauce.
He opened the jug and poured a half-full bowl.
Go on, eat, she said, lifting up the bowl to her lips, and took a small sip, rolling the liquor on the tip of her tongue, and then took a longer sip. The bowl was near empty as she set it down, sliding it toward him. Try it, she said, licking her lips. Moonshine rice liquor.
He got a banana leaf and made himself a roll. The sauce was stinging hot, deliciously good. It made his mouth burn, his eyes wet and all the while he could taste a ginger-scented fatty flavor in the thick chunk of fish. Then he took a drink. It tasted wickedly tart, washing his insides with glowing warmth. He breathed in its faintly sweet and palely dry aroma. Whew! He pushed the bowl to her.
She was serving herself a large hunk of fish, dousing it liberally with the sauce. Then she broke the chunk in half and finger-fed herself. By the time they turned the fish over and carved off most of it, they no longer ate it with the rice paper. She stopping briefly to make another fresh bowl of sauce, crushing the hot peppers and licking their seeds off the spoon, her face glistening with perspiration yet hardly red. Her lips had lost the rouged red, now looking fuller and fuller. She never changed her sitting posture, sitting with one leg folded under her, the other stretched out in such an angle that caused the front of her pantaloons to pinch and crease sharply at her crotch. Each time he lifted his gaze he could see that she wore nothing underneath. He looked back down at his share, wondering why there were no chairs around. So he asked her that as she was lighting her first cigarette from the new carton.
I have no use for them, she said, dragging deeply on the cigarette, and then reached for the bowl and took a swig.
Why you asked? she said, leaning toward the pit to flick off the cigarette ash.
I hate wearing shoes, I never drink from glasses, I don’t like sitting in chairs, or anything uncomfortable. I like these. She pinched the side of her loose-fitting blouse that draped around her waist, jangling the keys in its pocket. He could see that she wore no bra under it, and the loose blouse didn’t hide the abundant flesh of her breasts either. As he was scraping the flesh along the spine of the fish, her hand that pinched the cigarette came within an inch of his eyes. The curling smoke smelled acrid. Then the butt came to his lips and he just had to part them to take a drag without lifting his gaze at her.
Before he was awake he saw himself lying on the dew-wet straw somewhere in the translucent dawn, and there was a black snake slithering through the leg of his pants and up to his crotch. It crawled across his groin, stopped and twisted itself around his penis. He felt it squeezed, relaxed then squeezed again till he became achingly hard and yet he felt no pain. Then he woke.
Dark, save for the pale white of her blouse, she was sitting beside him inside the mosquito net. He felt her hand on his penis. His groin felt cool. His boxer shorts were down around his thighs. He held still. In his nostrils was a faint odor of wood smoke, a redolent trail of rice liquor. He felt her hand caressing his manhood like a holy object, the flesh of her palm warm, fingertips touching the tip of his sex, circling and then trailing down its length, then the caresses becoming firm, the fingers twining round the pulsating shaft. Her hair draped across his chest, hiding her face. In the dark, the only raspy breathing wasn’t his but hers coming behind that blackest mass of hair like the moaning of a spirit. He had no thoughts. He wanted to think of nothing but hold still, not scared just hollow and estranged. He could feel her hand working feverishly, opened then closed, her wheezing coaxing her hand, small hisses between her teeth, the ripe sweet smell of rice liquor coming back again like it was part of her flesh. Then she stopped.
In the dark he saw her rise halfway up from the floor, working herself out of her baggy pantaloons, and as his insides churned wildly he stifled his breath the moment she climbed over him, heavy and large, her hair falling thick onto his chest hiding her face save a pale white of her throat as she tossed back her head trying to work her way down into him. Then a hand took hold of his hardness just momentarily like it was the only thing that throbbed in their nocturnal existence, like it was a churning passion that wedged its way into a crevice of delirium.
Khanh Ha’s debut novel is FLESH (June 2012, Black Heron Press). He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. His works have appeared in the Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, and Red Savina Review. He is at work on a new novel.