Image Courtesy of Hadi Zaher. Shared via a Creative Commons license
All night long, her flaxen hair shimmying like disco lights in the full moon, the river showered its blessings on our predicament. In the pitch of the blackout, the candle on the bamboo table flickered wanly; the wick, ungraceful in the gluey wax, wasting away. I was grateful that a compassionate moon loitered on the porch while we, the matter and I, deliberated over an argument for spiritual mediation. Sleep at a chess marathon. Sleep for both of us, the matter and me, a Trini in Nam.
Now I’m seeing things that remind me of other things. This scene playing out before me – the moon river, the river moon – proves that I may have been more than a little prescient in M.P. Alladin’s art class at the British Council on upper Pembroke Street when I’d carved it in wood a mere eight years ago at the age of 12! Eventually, the flax on the downstream current glittered off and took the argument out of sight, a good ways behind the American cargo boats so big and fat down at the docks that they leave footprints in the water.
The Saigon sun was already rinsing its face in the river when we tangled out of the sofa, bedraggled like leftover trees in a storm. Like rubber trees in the Michelin Plantation following a napalm run in the Iron Triangle. I nourish no suspicion towards occult lore (though it grew up around me on Laventille hill and Behind the Bridge, a small ways from Royal Theatre), so the bellwether might well have been a nod to the order of the day, but it would take more than an omen, I swear, for me to back out of the task at hand. Any man can be saved; It would be the sermon of the day.
At midday Mass in the city, something spooky turned up. I had a pull in my heart. It felt like a coachman’s twitch on the bridle, and it punched in just on time during the sacrament. Ushered along by a sip of wine, the spare little wheel from God arrived at the soul cold and damp.
All of a sudden, it seems, melancholia was sketching the mind a dull jab jab blue. Would that I could dress it in buttery pastels, like Degas’ paintings! Then I could pick up the pre-monsoon wind sweeping the aisles, then flattening out through the canted stained-glass windows to empty into the steam bath gridlock outside. Such a head trip would not be enough to lance this unholy mess or pry open the clutch on my heart. Instead, I’m left to surrender only to principles, or whatever influences the whip hand under these circumstances.
At the end of Mass, we, this grave matter and I, catch up with the Vietnamese priest in the sacristy, where truth, unhinged from conscience, summons up a surprise confession that gives the cleric enough reason to be disturbed. His olive face admitting some sag, the bantamweight priest, fortyish, at once gathers himself. Sitting at a wooden desk, small in the fullness of the twin-spired cathedral, he fidgets with thick black-rimmed glasses until the comfort zone on the bridge is secured. A small drama unfolds when he plants his elbows as a fulcrum to plop his head in stubby but delicate hands, swinging it like a pendulum on double-time.
“Americans. Americans.” he murmurs in a French-Vietnamese accent. “You Americans. So arrogant.”
Such sanctimony! In itself it carries an ironic surfeit of arrogance.
The priest affects an air of disgust, as if borrowing an attitude from the pulpit. He brushes back dark, stringy, Brylcreemed hair that humidity has rearranged, smooths limp noodles neatly into place, packs the strips of dough into a bowl-ish head, the halo slipping off and tumbling down the chasm between his arched torso and the straight-backed wooden chair.
The signal is to retreat from this battlefield, just as a homily from the lectern at the cathedral in downtown Port of Spain begins to well up in flashback — Stephen being stoned to death in the Book of Acts. A dread story that hasn’t drifted too far from my moral consciousness. Well, ain’t that a bitch.
We are in dangerous space now, between the cape and the bull. Have we already inherited the insanity of the fight? I can’t speak for him, but this new American – they call me “Preece,” for I had been an altar boy — is supposed to be enjoying a three-day respite from combat. Picking up new glasses, the old ones waylaid in the scramble of a rocket attack at a firebase in Phuoc Vinh.
Now, here we are, exchanging robber talk in a crevice of God’s soul.
“You won’t be able to get away with it.”
Oh, he merits a sniper’s stare, this enemy priest. His face, all but an impotent disciple of authority is flushed. Fr. Brylcreem is now dead to my needs.
I wheel back to the sanctuary. Darting eyes hurdle serried racks of votive candles and their wobbly light bare-ass naked and divine amid the pious hush; beyond the early rows of pews, smart and soldierly in their close-order drill. There they are. My friends. Pinky and Maria. Their faces flash surprise at my unmistakably altered state. They worry over this ersatz assassin’s blanched complexion, his peculiar grip on the dagger. They’d been keenly aware that I’d sat up all night.
Both 22, they travel as an offbeat act that crosses dogma with erotica.
Maria, the coolheaded one, juggles religious and secular responsibilities. A Mexican-American nun who counsels Saigon whores. Pinky, the passionate other, is a civilian nurse. She wears a prickly aura beneath gossamer charm. A wedding band, still new and shiny, wears on her right hand, but a divorce from a bomber pilot serving in the war is in the mill.
We check out of the cathedral, out of this cul-de-sac of curiosity, the swelter of Fiat and Cyclo traffic slapping us like a boxer’s paw, the soot swinging back with the carriage of the priest.
The bells in the church tower strike telling blows in counterpoint.
Ha! You Americans!
In Vietnam, I am American. In America, I’m an immigrant. In the bush, a plain ol’ grunt. The new ugly American.
Such a dichotomy! I must analyze later this strange creature, its head braided in a stars and stripes bandanna, dropped just so in the lap of my psyche. For now, another contretemps looms. The order of the night’s events.
Wait a minute!
For right now, that bright afternoon on a Christmas Day of my early teens is re-indexing itself, spitting hot shocks of neon and setting the brain on edge. A young church colleague, who, like myself, lived in a slum community, but who, unlike me, mindlessly gravitated beyond the altar, found himself in the mad embrace of a knife fight on a street Behind the Bridge. Truth to tell, not a real bridge. More a synthetic construct without girders, a demarcation line between a city teeming with mercantile mercenaries and its victims, including teething gangs that would lop off an arm over a tart or a steelband issue.
In such an environment, yes, it was there that I lost one of my best friends.
There are no sermons for the hardships that delineate a culture at war under colonial exploitation. Not Homer’s. Not Milton’s. Not Shakespeare’s. Life in the bush shapes those born into its lore. Not that each of its denizens is prepared for death, but it continually flashes before their eyes. The brackish dry river and the polluted Gulf of Paria are one and the same tributary of horror.
So now I’m left to ponder such pop-psych trauma as a heady mix of virtue and sin. I’ve been in-country only a few months, and already a lot of us have been lost in the devil’s little acre.
Well, then, shall I kill the sonofabitch before taking Pinky to dinner? Or, for the second day, R&R at her villa, since the VC bombed the military hotel a few hours before I arrived in the city. Then what? Mindful of the 10 p.m. curfew, slingshot back to Cholon to waste him?
The enemy Vietnamese, a Viet Cong in civvies, whose sleight-of-hand rip-off at dusk during a blackmarket money transaction still addles the brain a month later?
Don’t mean nothin’.
Dalton Narine is an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker. Born in Trinidad, he migrated to the United States and has worked as a journalist and as an editor for the Village Voice, Ebony, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and The Miami Herald. His latest film MasMan is a portrait of the Trinidadian designer Peter Minshall. Narine, who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a decorated veteran of the American war in Vietnam.