Anh Mai - Fragility

Anh Mai wore her history as some wear a faint perfume. You don't have to see her in Saigon in 1972 to feel it. It is there as she stands in line at Coles on Thursday night. It is skin deep and flows out like a heavy aura; the smell of temples and wet paddy fields and burning. She carries it with her and at times people find themselves stepping back and averting their eyes; moving away from her liquid passivity as though it were a trap.

In Saigon, in 1972, her brother was somewhere. In those days, one's whole family was somewhere, usually where you couldn't write or call. The North had begun their offensive and bombs were falling in parts of the city. Worried Vietnamese were leaving messages with their American guardians. Messages asking to get out. Messages offering gold, furniture, daughters, opium, anything for a seat out of the city. Out of the country.

It was a scant rehearsal to the real drama that would unfold in three years' time but for those involved it felt like the end.

Her brother was regular army. Through a clerk in the Embassy she learned he had been placed in a field hospital north of Saigon. Through this same American she found that the hospital - and those in it - had been abandoned to the advancing Viet Cong.

She beat her small fists against the clerk's chest and yelled at him in an undecipherable language and he nodded his head and took the beating on the chest and three years later, in Spokane, he blew his chest open with a shotgun and died (he had read of people with massive head wounds living in hideous disfigurement).

In Saigon, in 1972, he was far from killing himself. There was too much death around him for that thought. It wasn't the beating that had hurt him; it was her slow walk as she left the office.

If the lowly clerk had ever been close to God it was as he watched her square form grow smaller as she walked away from him down the tiled corridor, straight and defiant and accepting.

Anh Mai had a father and mother and younger brothers and sisters. None of them found their American guardians willing to help them leave. They sat in their middle class Vietnamese house amongst belongings they would hand over in a minute for a rope to hang on, just a rope under a chopper getting out of the city.

For three days they sat and looked at each other and waited for death. Then, Anh Mai decided to walk north and get her brother. Death being inevitable, it should be faced as a family.

Wearing a pair of American sneakers, she left Saigon and headed for the Field Hospital and her brother.

She had the north-bound road to herself.

On the first night, not 6 miles from Saigon, she found a half-burnt hut and crawled inside to sleep. Just before light, a group of soldiers pulled into the semi-circle outside her hut and began to argue. She woke; the voices were hard and English but not American. They were arguing about fuel, or beer, she wasn't sure which. Inevitably, they began to push down the huts and search for whatever it was soldiers searched for at that stage of the war.

When they found her they were at first polite, almost gentle. Had there been other people left in the village, she would have been herded off with a few gruff words. As she was alone, they were worried. Once again, the hard voices harried to and fro in argument. They were Australian. They were arguing about her.

A large man who seemed in charge sat down and motioned for his men to search the village. Watching her with small, suspicious eyes, he began to peel a banana and eat it. After a time, he called a young soldier over and motioned something to him. The young man came to Anh Mai and pulled her up gently, leading her back to her half burnt hut.

She sat in the shadows of the hut for a short time. Outside, the hard voices concerned themselves with the business of war and unexplainable things men speak of when grouped together.

Listening, Anh Mai could almost imagine she understood their English (which she did not) simply by the rise and fall of their combined voices.

This is why she noted the change. First there was a silence, then a rough statement, then another silence and a series of boyish voices raised in a vulgar whine.

A silence again and then a sound near the broken door of the hut. A young soldier moved inside. His face shadowed and gaunt, older than it had been outside. Even then, Anh Mai felt no fear.

He came and sat in the mud next to her and she saw he was trembling. He raised his eyes to her just once and then lowered them quickly and she began to be afraid. Afraid for both of them, though she could not tell why. The young soldier was pulling his belt and boots off. `Does he want to sleep?' she thought stupidly and that was the last stupid thought she had.

As he put his boots in the mud he looked up at her as one would look at a cow or a chicken about to be killed. Still trembling, he held his fingers to his mouth and moved closer to her.

Someone was shaking the half-collapsed hut. There were voices again outside and now Anh Mai could catch a phrase. She would remember it as one remembers a nursery rhyme or a school-yard taunt,

`Poofter Evans! Poofter Evans! Poofter Poofter poof!'

The young soldier's trembling became a shake and for a moment Anh Mai wanted to reach out a hand to comfort him. What was this? The pain of war was an ever-expanding experience.

She touched his cheek and then cried out as he pushed her back against the burnt timber of the hut. His breathing had fallen into rhythm with the chant outside as he pulled his muddy pants down and raped her.

He was not large and he was not strong but the certainty of the victor was behind him as he trembled and lunged at her and finally fell back. He was close to tears. It was quiet outside and he seemed to need something. He looked round the hut as if he might find it and then, with a touch of inspiration, he groaned and smashed her jawbone with his clenched fist.

Anh Mai cried out. The voices outside were raised in mock discipline,

`Easy tiger, leave something for us...'

'Yeah yeah yeaaah-hh!'

The young soldier pushed her aside and stood for a moment as he adjusted his pants. The voices outside were shrill,

`Next!'

'Numbers, mate..'

`Let 'im give it to her before..'

It was all nonsense to Anh Mai. She couldn't understand the sharp taunts of the spectators any more than she could understand the sharp, frightened look of the young soldier. There was a chorus outside the hut. The young soldier looked down at her and she smiled (god knows why - even today she doesn't know). With a sharp intake of breath (it may have been the gasp before vomiting) he kicked her in the face and she blacked out.

It was not unusual, not even worth reporting. Anh Mai spent three weeks walking in her American sneakers before the Viet Cong finally pulled back into the jungles. By that time, her brother had been dead for over 6 weeks. The Australians had gone and within three years the Americans would be gone too and it was left to the foolish and the abandoned to trade.

Anh Mai and her family had little to trade with and were swiftly drawn into the sweet green grass of re-education and death and soft voices outside the hut which were similar to the hard voices of the friends but not the same for they would not go away...

In 1978 Anh Mai sold a skilfully hidden Buddha and her sex for a guaranteed boat trip to Darwin, Australia.

She never told anyone (not even Don) about that trip except to say that her child had died in her arms. It was not her child. Perhaps it was not even a child, but it had certainly died and when the sad, unseaworthy craft was finally towed into Darwin harbour the manifest read thirty where once there had been 79.

On the docks a translator weaved and spoke to the survivors and reported back to the freckly faced administrator who noted the names and ages of the boat people. Someone began to cry. A child and then an old man. The administrator blushed bright red and worked at his tight collar with an uncomfortable hand. He thought of the pioneers who had fought such a terrible battle to push on into an arid land and then he thought of the 8 week journey these people had made; one out of three of them dying. But they were not the same. These people had the look of resignation and Jewishness about them. An acceptance, a familiarity with horror and swift, mindless cruelty. He thought of his two terms in Vietnam and became angry.

`These faces...they ask to be kicked. They look at you - as if you've already done it. Where will they bloody go?'

Don stood three feet from the administrator and looked on the scene with a true journalist's sadness. There was no story here. Another boat. Another and another and another. Somewhere three  hundred miles to the north pirates were sailing warm waters and raping and killing (they seldom got money or goods worth the weeks of waiting) and the victims dribbled into Darwin harbour by luck or miraculous navigation and three hundred miles to the north the pirates sailed...

He didn't want a beer and yet he didn't want anything else. He was turning to leave when a clear French voice curled over the sing-song crowd.

`Je nouse souz mon petite bast-ard!'

The Frenchman was small and pockmarked and his large nose fell from dark eyebrows which ran in one double wave across his brow. He was ugly and yet the woman bedded him with such alarming compliance that he himself never ceased to wonder at the miracle of it nor lose the advantage.

`Jean Paul.'

`Donny Donny Donny, eh?'

`What the hell are you doing here?'

Jean Paul began to lift his sparrow shoulders; a gesture which would spread to his elbows and end in a quick flick of the palms towards the sky,

`Why yes? Why not? Here or there?'

`No wars.'

`Ah, but the footnote, see? Ah?' His arms were still engaged in the slow, heaven-wards shrug and he used his head to nod at the crowd of Vietnamese. There was a second voice now above the chilling battle of cries,

`Khong co tien!' The words cannot convey the note or the prolonged agony in the cry Anh Mai had made. An assistant from the Department of Immigration stood red-faced and helpless before her, `I just...'

`Leave it son.' a man in uniform with rough freckles and an unhealthy sunburn round his hairline pushed the assistant aside gently and stood before the woman, `Xin ong ra cho kia' (Go over there) his full hand moved before her face to indicate the line he wanted her in. Anh Mai stood firm.

`I...' the assistant was now as red as the soldier's hairline and he held a small jade amulet in his hand, `I just asked her if this was hers...'

`It is mine.' Anh Mai's voice was wavering but she did not move. The soldier didn't look at her. `Don't make a fuss, son.'

`Here! For christ's sake, give it to her.' the assistant pushed his clenched fist with the amulet into the body of the soldier and fled. The soldier looked down at the ground where the jade piece lay and Anh Mai kept her eyes on his head. She would not bend down to pick it up.

`Ass-hole.' Jean Paul walked up to the soldier, scooped up the amulet and pressed it into Anh Mai's hand, `Which war? Which war my friend?'

`Which fucking war do you think? Against these!' the soldier was now red to the edge of his chin and a thick layer of perspiration had sprung out of his face in neat patterns. Jean Paul looked up at him for a moment, rummaged in his coat pocket and pulled out a card. With a fat old fashioned fountain pen he scribbled something on the back and placed it in Anh Mai's hand.

`Ngoc mang chesue' (he's a stupid bastard).

Don looked at the thin Vietnamese woman. She had not stooped nor wavered nor moved an inch while the drama had taken place. She stood still, waiting for the soldier to physically take her life in hand and place her in the line he had decreed.

Moving back to the customs line Jean Paul had a thought which stopped him. Bouncing on the balls of his feet he called back over the heads of the crowd, `Je sous name?' (what is your name?). Don could not see the woman but he heard her voice as clearly as he had heard the first cry of anger and rebellion,

`Anh Mai Trung'

`Such lovely names they had, hm?' Jean murmured. `Time for a beer?'

Jean Paul wandered back to Sydney and sat behind a desk for twelve months, dreaming of war and women and the stoned euphoria of fear. Don got lucky with a 6 part series on the boat people and stayed on to drink in the rough childishness of Darwin; he had an open-ended brief, cheap living and times almost as good as an undeclared war.

He saw her again 4 weeks later. In a class in the back of the town hall where the heat rubbered the walls late into the night, she sat with her dark head bowed over a floppy childrens' book, her back taut with attention,

"Good evening. My name is.."

"Anh Mai.." the teacher prompted and a titter of laughter loosened the earnest atmosphere.

"Anh Mai" she responded with the correct intonation and the class let out a rolling, high pitched laugh. Through this Anh Mai sat with the faintest of frowns, untouched by the small tendrils of friendship which were springing between the teacher and his charges.

She looked so serious Don stayed till the class was finished.

"I saw you down the dock...Jean Paul..."

"Yes." she didn't smile and she didn't pull away. For a time her stillness repulsed him but he had been struck to the core by her serious bent back and the kangaroo stickers on her exercise book.  In him, the magnet turned and the energies followed their course. She was too fragile for the steamy unpredictability of the night and he was strong enough to carry her like a loved flower to some place where the smile might return.

His courtship was drunk with gallantry but the stillness would not leave her. Even as she moved to him she remained at a distance he could measure with his heart. For a great while, this unfamiliar pain was precious to him, a yardstick by which he knew love and thus himself.

They married and moved to Sydney. He thought of Cambodia and Africa and other wars he was young enough to follow but these paled beside the intensity of the pain and the joy.

Then, slowly, the pain diminished and something else took its place. A longing? You cannot long for something you can touch. Perhaps it was fear which turned the exquisite sadness to drink. Fear that the very stillness he reached into clothed a hollow soul, empty and unloving and forever denied to him.

Anh Mai felt the ebb and flow of his confusion and was saddened by the emptiness between them. The gulf grew wider as the difference in their suffering was spoken. He could not understand the karmic solidity of her foundations and came to hate them. She could not explain a thousand years of Buddhism and the war and came to protect these things beneath a silence that he drank to mockingly.

And then there was the child she would not have. Don had never wanted a child but he wanted to forge some link between them which would dispel the inevitable. He lied first to himself and then to her; the child would be his love for her, a lucky talisman of a new hopeful world, something finer than any words he had ever written...

Anh Mai listened and at times bowed her head before answering (just as she had bowed her head over the exercise book before speaking her name), but the voice never wavered and the refusal was given so softly it was like a gift. This too he began to hate.

Anh Mai herself broke the nexus. The marriage was two years old and falling to pieces. Don was still drinking at home but the nature of his drinking would soon need wider fields and violent companions. The good humour of the drunk had frayed to self pity and sarcasm. Anh Mai watched these things and grew to know the nature of the 'white man' she had married. She could accept it, as she accepted all things, but she could not change her fibre to accommodate it. She told him that she would not have a child because she had been raped in the war and her uterus damaged.

For Don, the news brought a long, sober week before the anger surfaced. With the awful and certain clarity of the abstinent white man, he saw that she was not simply what she was, she was damaged. The damage could only be made right in punishment. Slowly, this sharp pain of futility found a target. It grew in his mind till the rapist became the new child which would bind them.

Anh Mai was tired. She stood silent while Don's sorrow became an obsession and she raised her voice only once as his plan unfolded,

"You don't have to find him - you have to find a thousand men!"

But for Don, the simplicity of her wisdom was unproductive. He, who had reached out to a void for so long could feel the tingle of anticipation in his fingers.

The man was living in a little house with a little garden and three kids and didn't give a damn about the pain he'd speared into two lives so many years ago.

Slowly and carefully, Don set out to find him.

His network was wide-spread if reluctant. For a time, heart-breakingly, Lance Corporal  P. Evans was found to be dead. He relinquished the chase and returned to the bottle, angrier than before.

It was his drinking that gave new life to the hunt. A man he didn't even know, a friend of a friend down at the RSL. A boisterous man, large and fond of slapping your shoulder and leaning close when he spoke. A repulsive man who gave Don a sharp stab of hope when he tilted his head and rolled his eyes in a confidant fashion.

"Evans? Young bloke then? Shit no, he wasn't killed! Came back and went through demob with a bunch of us. Phillip, or was it Peter? Brisbane kid I think, you want to do a story on him?"

"I want to do a story on him."

With this flicker of information, Don cooled to a fine point of calm, shaping himself carefully for the climax. He held it to himself with a joy which was almost frightening and never once rehearsed in his mind how it would be.

When they met. When he faced the mouth which had sucked the love from his wife. When he stood before the man...

Don never rehearsed in his mind how it would be.

The details were simple. His mother's address (perhaps he hadn't married...), a phone number, a middle name.

Then one morning, looking at his wife, a passion passed through him. An inspiration, like a line which brings tears.

"I've found him."

Anh Mai blinked at this, but she knew who he meant.

"I'll give this to you and let you decide. It's yours. I couldn't find a thousand men but I found one."

Don gave her the well creased scrap of paper which was all he had allowed himself of the numbing hunt. She took it but he couldn't read her eyes.

And he couldn't read them the next day, or the next. But something had broken between them and Don cleared the wine bottles from the garage and returned to her bed.

The sweetness of the agony was like their first love all over again. She held the piece of paper and she held him in her stillness and this power seemed right and proper in her.

How long can something so unburdened last? A man may love a goddess but he loves humanity more. Frailty and imperfection bind us more than strength and goodness ever could.

Don, the white man, found he could not flow in her river of forgiveness. The taste, which had been like chilled water to a parched man, grew stale and heavy. He choked on it. He raged and slept silently in his office, chilling the wine each night but not needing it. This was the white man's strength; his anger. It could build citadels and ransack cities and rebuild them again, spear the enemy and mourn him like a friend. All this was the power which lay in a man - but the power is unfuelled if you cannot meet the enemy.

Anh Mai saw this, or felt it rather. At some stage, while he lay in his office and she in their bed, she knew that there was enough strength in herself to bend. And she knew that she wanted her white man back again. Drunk, blind or destructive, he was the karma she had desired and she was his.

She took the bus into town and then boarded a second bus for the long ride to the mother's house.

When she returned that night she said nothing. The next morning she brought coffee into the office and sat with Don, stroking his temple and smiling.

"Please don't ask to see him."

Don winced and pulled away. She had not heard resignation in his voice before,

"You have then..."

Anh Mai knew then that she had faltered; even knowing his heart she had strangled hope rather than release it.

"No."

Once again, she bowed her head, but now her submission was not to the threads of fate but to her own folly.

"Come."

Don rose and dressed and they got into the car in silence.

Anh Mai fumbled in her purse for the slip of paper.

Don didn't take his eyes from the road,

"I know the address."

"No, Don, you do not know the address."

On the back of the grey slip a second address was written in a foreign hand.

The grounds of the hospital were as old as the city. The buildings were a mix, the ancient stone surrounded and hemmed in by new red brick and fibro. No one met them at the gate and Don followed the signs leading to the "Packaging Section".

There was no one to challenge their entry. A disorderly office sat just inside the door, empty and busy with unfiled invoices and a ringing phone. The section itself was a long building with a high roof, noisy but strangely muted in its activity. A middle aged man worked on the bench nearest the door, wetting labels and pasting them painstakingly on each box. Don noticed that the labels were placed in the exact middle of each box, straight and true as a machine would desire.

Beyond this there were more benches; people ladling shredded paper into boxes for fragile goods, some gluing boxes together, others sorting and weighing. At the far end of the work area there was a large machine, all arms; hissing and clucking to itself in a heartbeat rhythm. Perhaps the machine was able to perform its single task untended; the man sitting before it seemed not so much to be running it as encouraging it to acknowledge his presence.

Anh Mai took Don's hand and they walked past the benches and the interested stares of the workers.

Phillip Evans looked up at them once and then back to his machine.

His smile began as he touched its grey panel. He nodded in satisfaction and let his head bob in time to its heartbeat whunk whunk whunk.

Don knew without her telling him that Evans had been here since the war, smiling at the machine or perhaps at the grey mist which had swept in to cover memories.

Looking at the boy by the machine, Don felt compassion as pure as a warrior's. It sank through him with such a weight that he allowed the tears to roll down his face untouched.

"To mourn our enemy fallen." he thought to himself. Anh Mai's hand gripped his with more strength than he had felt in their twenty years of marriage.

The compassion remained alive in him, welling and flowing to its rightful place. He turned to his wife with the shock of discovery in his eyes.

"I love you." he said simply. For the first time.