The Snake Catcher’s Son
Before sunset, through my window, the wild red banana flowers glint golden on their pointed tips.
I was seventeen when I saw from a bridge that savage red among the green of banana fronds. It was an early Sunday afternoon, and I was coming home with my Chinese friend Huan from a peasant’s house where we students took up residence during the week. We had moved with our school out of the city after the Americans began bombing North Vietnam. On this morning we heard the sirens against air raids, and we tried to cross the bridge into the city before the planes showed up. We were on the bridge just as the American jets came roaring over. I had barely jumped off my bicycle when the explosions blasted the air with a furnace heat. The river gushed up as a bomb hit the water, then the bridge shook and clanged. Dirt stung my eyes, my nose. The air singed. Stinging hot on the skin. Suffocating with a burned-match odor.
I was lying on my back. Pains shot up to my head. I found myself in a wreckage of the bridge. Metal scraps, bent and twisted, smoked. An iron top brace from the bridge, completely torn off, fell and trapped both of my legs. The pain surged. I clenched my teeth, fighting the pain. Then I felt it go away only to come screaming back. My arm flung over my face, I saw a blue sky. Dust fell into my eyes. I turned my head sideways and saw the railroad track gleaming down the center of the bridge and metal debris strewn across its floor. The pain throbbed in my temples and I closed my eyes.
“Giang!” My friend Huan was pulling at me.
I heard shouts, footfalls thudding against my back. I shook my head at Huan. His face, smeared with dust, looked like a stranger’s face. People were looming up from the other end of the bridge that led into the city. Now they were running onto the bridge. Dark-colored pantaloons. Black trousers. Like a horde of giants about to trample me. Then faces looked down at me. They all wore pith helmets. They stared and stared and someone touched the heavy iron bracing that trapped my legs under. “How’re your legs?” he asked, bending down over me. “Can you feel anything in your legs?” another man asked, peeking into the dark crevice under the iron beam. “How do we get him out of this?” the first man asked, shaking his head. I looked up at Huan, his face drawn up painfully, at the dark-attired people towering over me. Suddenly I heard the planes. “Comrades!” a man shouted. “Take cover!” They all dove to the floor of the bridge and Huan, too, collapsed on top of me, his hands covering his head. I saw the planes swoop down, low, so low I could see the pilots’ heads in the cockpits, and the planes fired at the bridge, and the flashes of the gun muzzles were sudden flares in the sun, and the throaty bursts of guns were steady, then the shrieking noises of metal against metal when volleys of fire hit the bridge. I wrapped my head with my arms, forgot the pain in my legs. The floor shook. Bursts of gunfire came up from the ground from the other end of the bridge. Then they roared, deafening. The machine guns, the antiaircraft battery. Wind-born smokes thick, pungent, drifted onto bridge. Soon the gun sounds died down, the planes droning away, and the air was tinged with an acrid-charcoal, hot metal smell. My friend rose, dusted his hair with his hands. “Will you lose your legs, Giang?” he said. “Will you?” I shook my head, licking away gritty dirt on my lips. “How bad?” he said, clasping my hand. “It hurts,” I said. His soft hands pressed hard against my hand, his long-lashed eyes fell. People were yelling and shouting from the bridge’s end, where the gun emplacements were dug in, well camouflaged with green-leafed branches. They came running up onto the bridge, joining those who had showed up earlier. Two men, wearing goggles, appeared to be the gunners, and a girl in a white short-sleeved shirt and black trousers carried a first-aid bag over her shoulder.
The goggled man, the tallest, pushed up his goggles to the crown of his head and looked me over. “Gotta send for help,” he said. “We can’t do a thing here for the boy.”
The man in the pith helmet who had wondered how to remove me from the wreckage raised his voice. “Can’t cut through the iron with bare hands if we want to.”
The tall man singled out a man who had sharply high cheekbones. “Go to the city. Get those who can do the job out here. Hurry!”
“Yes, comrade,” said the chosen man. “The city got bombed too. Don’t know if they would send anyone our way.”
“Tell’em we’ve got no equipment out here. They’ll understand.”
The tall man looked at the girl then back down at me. “She’ll take care of you. We have to use runners now for things like this. Our telephone lines are down.”
I nodded. He had a solemn face like one of my schoolteacher’s. A face I could trust. His olive-green khaki shirt had sweat stains on the armpits. After he ordered his men to their tasks he knelt down on one knee beside me and across from Huan. “You must be brave,” he said to me.
“Yes, sir,” I said, drained from fighting the pain.
He looked at Huan. “Are you with him?”
“Yes,” Huan said meekly. “He’s my friend.”
“Stay with him or go tell his parents about his situation.”
The man studied my face. I fought back the pain, trying to look calm. I felt sweat break out on my forehead. The man, pushing on his knee to rise, said to me, “I have to leave you here. Anything else you want to ask me?”
I hadn’t asked him anything yet, but I shook my head then said, “Can I have a cigarette?”
He sat back down, his shoulders drawn up. “You need a cigarette? Ah. The pain must be very bad then.” He went into his shirt front pocket and placed a cigarette pack in my hand. “Keep it, son. It’ll be awhile.”
Before I could thank him, he went into his trousers pocket and fished out a matchbox and left it in my hand that clutched the cigarette pack. I said, “Thank you, sir” as he left. I took hold of Huan’s arm. “Go home. Not safe here.”
“What about you?” he said. “You can’t be safe here either.”
I raised myself up on my elbow. “If I can walk like you—” I stopped. My sharp tone had him drop his head, and he fingered the front of his shirt. The pain like a blackest evil seized me. Pain, anger made my temples throb.
The girl swung the bag down. It had a red cross painted inside a white circle on its front. “Let me wash your face,” she said gently, flinging back her long hair plait over her shoulder. She poured water from a bottle onto a white kerchief. My throat felt sand-dry.
“Can you spare me a sip of water?” I asked her.
She handed me the bottle, waited as I tipped up the bottle and drank. Her eyes watched me calmly. Dark eyebrows were two neatly curved ink strokes, the pupils two perfectly round black dots. I handed her the bottle. My hand touched hers. Something tender permeated my soul. I kept myself propped up on my elbow. I didn’t want to lie down while she cleaned my face. The fresh smell of linen, the wet, soft fabric. My eyes closed, I held still. A sudden stab of pain in my legs jerked my body uncontrollably.
“You must be hurting badly,” she said, her voice concerned.
“You have aspirins for him?” Huan asked her.
“Yes,” she said, hands going through the bag. “I was about to give him some.”
She let me hold the bottle and fed two round pills into my mouth. They tasted bitterly sour. I swallowed them with a swig from the bottle. My fingers brushed hers when she took the bottle back. My throat felt thick.
“That’d keep the pain at bay for a while,” she said, folding the kerchief.
“How soon can they be here?” Huan pulled at her elbow.
She crimped her lips. The strawberry-red of her lips was wholesome. “It’ll be awhile,” I said to him. “Go on home. There’s nothing you can do here.”
“But I can’t leave you here,” he said, almost pleading with me.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” she said, nodding at him. “Because I don’t know when help will arrive.”
“Go!” I raised my voice as pain flared up in my legs. “Your parents might try to find you.”
Gingerly he rose to his feet. Then he stood looking around. “What about your bicycle?”
“Leave it there,” I said.
“Do you want to read in the meantime? I’ll leave you a novel. You want it or not?”
The pain shot a glare inside my skull. “Read a novel?” I snapped at him. “With this filthy pain—”
“Do you want me to read it to you?” she said with a half nod at me.
I nodded then shook my head. Pain clouded my thinking. But I would not let her treat me like a person on his deathbed. My friend waved at me with a small hand gesture as he walked to his bicycle lying on its side near the track. I watched him tottering to find his balance on his wheels until he rode off. I should have kept my temper with him. I dropped my gaze. Her sandaled feet were next to my elbow. Plain toenails, neatly clipped.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
Her voice startled me. I caught my breath as pain was pounding my lower limbs. Then regaining my breath I told her where I stayed in the city.
“Your parents might already worry themselves sick,” she said.
I nodded. Then on second thought, “I live with my friend’s family.”
“Are you from the city? Born here?”
Again I nodded. Her large eyes held a gentle look, not shifty, not devious like those eyes I was accustomed to seeing. There was a tremor in her eyes when I gazed into them.
“You don’t speak with the city accent,” she said.
“No, actually I’m not from here. Where I’m from…it’s in the countryside, an hour from here by train.”
“So your parents have no way of knowing….”
Her voice trailed as she put the water bottle back in her bag. I shifted my body to ease the numbness on my arm and lit a cigarette, took a few deep drags to blunt the pangs. She sat down, folding her legs under her, the bag in her lap.
“Do you want to rest your head?” she asked.
“Rest my head?”
The gritty asphalted floor, out of the mid-afternoon sun now, was still warm.
“Here,” she said, placing the first-aid bag behind me. “Lie down and rest.”
I did what she told me, the cigarette in my mouth, my face upturned looking at her long plait hanging down her front. So black on her white shirt.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Seventeen.” I took another drag. The nicotine helped forget the evil pain briefly. “What about you?”
“Eighteen.” She glanced at my cigarette as I tapped it with my finger to break the ash. “You smoke often?”
“Fifteen?” She arched her brows. “Why?”
“It kept me warm. Those cold mornings when I had on just a shirt. Sat in a market, wrote letters for those who couldn’t read or write.”
“Were you a scribe?”
“Something like that. If they want to make out an application or petition, if they need to write a letter to someone, they tell me their stories. I put them down in words. It was so cold some mornings my hand shook, couldn’t hold the pen straight. A man let me have a puff of his hand-rolled cigarette, said, ‘Keep ye warm, eh?’ It surely did. I smoked their cigarettes till I had enough money to buy our Northern cigarettes.”
“Your parents didn’t reprimand you for smoking?”
I inhaled the smoke deeply, held it until my head swelled, the pain dimmed, then slowly exhaled. The sun was behind her, bronzing the railings of the bridge, and the contour of her head glowed golden. I pinched a shred of tobacco from my lip. “My father just let me take care of myself. I was old enough.”
“He wasn’t around anymore when I was fifteen.”
“What about your mother?”
“She died when I was five. Then when I was twelve my father died. So I left my village and went to the city and stayed with my friend’s family. We used to go to our village school together before the Land Reform in the North.” I took one last drag, drawing hard, until the cigarette burned to my thumb and finger, and I flicked it away. The men in pith helmets were directing traffic on the bridge—cyclists, pushcarts, light trucks—routing them to the other side of the track, leaving it empty on the side I was lying. They were tossing the metal bits onto wheelbarrows, and the metal clanged noisily, and soon they carted off the rubble in wheelbarrows one after another, rolling on their squeaky rubber wheels into the slanting saffron-yellow beam of sunlight and then out of it. “I used to be my father’s helper after school when I was eight. Learned how to haggle for every xu we earned from selling stuff.”
Her elbows on her thighs, she rested her chin in her hands. “What stuff?”
I did not look at her but at the rusty red on the collapsed brace that weighed on my lower legs. I tapped out another cigarette and saw her eyes fall to the cigarette. I waved the match out, holding the smoke in my mouth as long as I could, and drove the smoke out of my nostrils. “My father,” I said, meeting her intent gaze, “caught snakes for a living. Eventually he died from a snake bite. Before that he was one of the wealthy landowners in the southern region of the Red River Delta.”
She nodded. “I’ve heard that the Land Reform changed many people’s fortunes. But I’ve never met anyone in real life—victims of the purge. At least until now.”
“Them people died from execution. If they survived it, they’d die later from hunger, ’cause none of them was allowed to work any decent job unless they left their native place.” I held the cigarette against my lips so she couldn’t see me swallowing the smoke. It numbed my head, took my mind off my lower limbs. I spoke through my clenched fist. “In the beginning, my father broke rocks. All he owned were a hammer, an anvil. Broke rocks and sold their chips to those who needed them for road and housing construction. Sold them for money, trade them for foods—manioc, rice vermicelli, salted duck eggs. Broke rocks from dawn to dusk. I helped. Was eight years old then. He got me a smaller hammer, taught me how to pound rocks without hurting my wrist, how to whack them without blinding my eyes with flying chips. Broke rocks, both of us. Till one day his back gave. Then he started catching snakes. Breaking rocks you sit in one place all day long. But catching snakes you must go from place to place. By evening your legs are dead. He got a large jar of tam xà liquor, his only treasure beside his moon lute, and he rubbed his legs at night with the snake liquor.”
“What’s the tam xà liquor?” she asked in her melodious voice.
“You catch three kinds of snakes and then preserve them in whole in a jar of liquor. The tam xà make up that special liquor. Through that clear jar you could see them coil up in it, one on top another in their beautiful colored spots.”
“Heaven!” she blurted. “Three kinds of snakes? Dead?”
“Dead for sure. The spectacled cobra, the banded krait and the rat snake.” I drew deeply on my cigarette. “After he killed them, he’d would hold each of them up by the head and squeeze its body down the length to the tail till a green slime oozes from its anus. He said if you don’t do that, the snake liquor will stink.”
She shook her head.
“He smoked hand-rolled cigarettes,” I said, “drank snake liquor every night till he passed out. Played his moon lute in our early days after we’d lost everything. The lute was the only thing left with him, kept him company at night when he played. Then he started getting drunk every night, and I had to wrap the lute and put it away. He didn’t want to look at it anymore than he wanted to remember his wealthy past. He kept going because of me. Without me he’d be better off dead. I know that.”
“I thought they killed all the landlords during the Land Reform.”
“The People’s Court did just that to most of them, those condemned by the peasants, the wretched poor, the labors-for-hire. If you were rich and cruel to the classless poor, you were doomed before the People’s Court even handed down the verdict. Most of them got buried alive because the firing squad couldn’t shoot them dead—they didn’t know how to fire a gun before. If you were rich and your cruelty wasn’t notorious, you’d get sent to prison. And if you were rich and not cruel to the poor, you’d only lose all your wealth and get the first taste of how to be dirt poor. That was my father’s fate.”
“Where were you then when all this was happening against your father?”
“I was in the crowd watching him suffer humiliation.”
“Those who worked for our family. Now they turned against him. They accused him of all things imagined. Many of these classless folks couldn’t read and write, so the Việt Minh cadres would put them through rehearsals before the denunciation sessions. The cadres taught them the hand gestures, made them memorize words, phrases so it would look real and spontaneous during the denunciation session. I watched my father crawl on his hands and knees to the dirt platform before the tribune. Fourteen of them, all illiterate peasants, sat on the lowest tier and seven more on the middle tier, and there were huge pictures of Mao Tse-tung and Hồ Chí Minh on the top tier. Then came his former employees taking turns to denounce him with insults and accusations. The committee chief, a woman, on the middle tier, would shout down at him, commanding him to rise and fall on his knees again and again. My father lasted the early part of the day before he was dragged to the tribune to sign his confession. Confession for everything he was accused of. Many of them were make-believe. The most wicked landowners would suffer the trial for two or three days before they were executed.”
She spread her fingers and her hands that cupped her face almost covered it. She peered down at me through the gaps between her fingers. “They took everything away from him after that?”
“So where was home after that?”
“In a graveyard. He fixed up a shelter, and we stayed there, and soon I found all kinds of snakes also living there. The graveyard was crawling with reed grass, which attracted the cuckoos to build their nests there. Soon I found out that cuckoos fed on snakes. They would pound the snakes to death with their strong bills and swallow them headfirst. We got used to living with birds and snakes. We knew about snakes like we knew about the weather. So when my father quit breaking rocks he knew what he wanted to do next.”
“But how do you make a living from catching snakes?”
“You sell snake meat to the eateries and the gallbladders to the Chinese herbal stores.”
“I could imagine eating fowls in any imaginable way.” She shook her head repeatedly. “But not snakes.”
“Snake meat is tasty.” I jabbed my cigarette at her. “You can’t tell if it’s chicken or fish—if you don’t know what you’re eating. My father used to roll small chunks of snake meat in a flour-and-egg mixture and fry them. He used birds’ eggs he caught ’cause we couldn’t even pay for chicken eggs. I told him the meat tasted like chicken and he said, ‘Right, son. I soaked the meat in saltwater for two days so it wouldn’t taste of blood and gaminess.’ But the snake’s gallbladder is what medicine men like those Chinese herbalists wanted most.”
“He said different parts of a snake have different medicinal values. Said if you sun-dry a snake body and then cut it up and grind the pieces into powder, then you can cure the stomach and intestinal problems ’cause it’s high in protein and enzymes. But the tam xà gallbladders brought him more money from the Chinese men than anything he could make off a snake.”
“Why those three kinds?”
“They’re poisonous snakes. My father hunted just those three kinds. After he got a basket full of them, he’d bring them to the herbal stores. He lay down the basket on the floor and began chewing a wad of wild tobacco he used to roll cigarettes with. Then he rubbed his hand and forearm with the chewed tobacco and opened the basket’s lid and snatched up a spectacled cobra. He got the cobra by the neck with one hand and squeezed it so hard its mouth flew open so wide you could see its long ugly fangs. Behind the counter the Chinese owner folded his arms and watched as my father drove a small pointed knife into the midsection of the cobra and slit it open. In no time he gouged out a blue-black thing like an egg. He plopped it down on a saucer and tossed the dead snake back into the basket. Them dead snakes would later end up in the eateries. Brought him much less money than gallbladders. Then he grabbed a banded krait. Beautiful snakes with black and yellow bands. This type has a blue-green gallbladder. Then he got the rat snake, the smallest of the three.”
“But what kind of medicinal value, these snake gallbladders?”
“For treatment of bronchitis and cough.” I stopped, swallowing my cough, and waved off the cigarette smoke that made her squint her eyes. “They heat-dry the gallbladders and grind them with the dried tangerine peels to powder. It’s one of the best cough medicine.”
She laced her hands in her laps, watching me draw my last drag. “Someday you’ll need that cough medicine yourself. My uncle is a heavy smoker. Whenever I hear the sound of coughing, I know it’s him.”
Her soft tone soothed me all over. I cupped the cigarette with my other hand and spat out shreds of tobacco on my tongue. “My friend, Huan, said the same thing. His father is a Chinese herbalist, lives a healthy life, so I respect that. At night when I need a puff of cigarette, I’d go outside on the street.”
“Has he ever bought snake gallbladders from snake catchers?”
I couldn’t help chuckling. She smiled.
“He has,” I said. “Sometimes they brought him one of those three kinds ’cause they knew what he wanted. These weren’t snake catchers by trade though. So none of them knew how to remove a snake’s gallbladder. It’d be me who slit the snake open and took out its gallbladder for him.”
The noises of the wheelbarrows grew fainter beyond the bridge. A breeze came up, fanning my face. In a brief lull I heard my stomach grumbling. She asked me to sit up and reached for her bag. She went through it and her hand came out holding a small bundle of brown paper. She slid the bag back under me.
“You’re hungry, right?” she asked as she opened the paper. Inside was a smaller bundle wrapped in a banana leaf.
I was starving. I had not eaten since we left the peasant’s house in the morning. She peeled away the banana-leaf wrapping. I could smell the fragrant leaf as she gave me a rice dumpling.
“Here,” she said, placing it in my hand.
She brought the other dumpling to her lips and took a small bite. I ate. Inside the white glutinous dumpling was a paste of red bean. It tasted faintly sweet.
“Where’d you get them from?” I asked.
“I made them. They’re my lunch.”
I stopped eating. “Now you’d go half hungry.”
Chewing slowly she smiled, her lips curling up slightly. “I wish we had mushroom and pork cubes to make the fillings. Tastier. We could only buy fish once a month. Rarely meat.”
“Do you have a big family?”
“Five of us and my parents.”
“What’s your father do?”
“He works at a factory. My mother and I wake up at five in the morning so she can cook breakfast and lunch for Father to take with him to work. The same for breakfast and lunch every day: cooked vegetables and rice. Sometimes she packs a steam-cooked manioc and sprinkles brown sugar on it. That’s dessert for him. We have government food ration. For all city people. We might have chicken every three months. And if we can afford fish once a month, it’d be a treat. I don’t remember what pork or chicken tastes like any more.”
I suppressed a deep sigh. The last bite of dumpling seemed stuck in my throat. She saw me try to sit up and quickly got out the bottle of water.
“Take a big gulp,” she said.
I washed it down and handed her the bottle. She still had half the dumpling between her fingers. I had drunk her water and eaten her food. She’d hardly sipped her water and finished her lunch. I knew how it felt living on food ration. Your life was continually preoccupied with food. Looking at her holding half the dumpling in one hand, the bottle of water in the other, I felt so tender again I merely gazed at her. Then I told her in the city quarter where I stayed there was a public water tap on each street for every house on that street. I always drank from the tap, never bottling water like her. She sat the bottle on the bridge’s floor and told me she never drank tap water but would carry it home in a five-gallon pail. She had to make several trips, standing in a long line each time, to fetch enough water for the whole family to cook, bathe, drink. For drinking water, she boiled tap water and bottled it so her father could make tea when he got home from work. By the time he came home, her mother had already gone to the city stores to buy food and household things. Rice, firewood for cooking and heating were the most expensive.
“What’re you doing out here on a Sunday?” I asked her as she eased the last morsel of dumpling into her mouth.
“I’m a volunteer in the City Vanguard Youth,” she said, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Some of the boys I know volunteer too. Said if you volunteer the government will exempt you from the military service. Said if you’re classified as sons or daughters from a bourgeois or landlord class, the government will erase it off the record.”
“Why didn’t you volunteer then?” Slowly she folded the banana leaf.
“They can erase my bad classification all they want, but that won’t make it right for me and my father. He’s done gone.”
“But you can join the Vanguard Youth to help clean up the city, help the wounded after we’re bombed by the Americans.” She took a small sip of water, said she belonged to a platoon that was stationed at this bridge. Her platoon was part of a company many of which made up a battalion that employed the city youths like her to repair roads, build pontoon bridges where main bridges got bombed.
I dropped my gaze to her hands. She was wrapping the folded banana leaf inside the brown paper and folding them up together. She saw me watching and said, “I re-use them. Sometimes we can’t even buy banana leaves.”
The sun was low now on the horizon where the river glinted red. Shades grew across the bridge spreading to the riverbanks thick and green with banana groves. In the deep green of banana fronds were splashes of red.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” she said, following my gaze.
I nodded, riveted by the banana flowers’ breathtaking red, the cardinal red so brilliant you can’t take your eyes off. There was a racket on the bridge, and we both turned to look. A railroad trolley was coming toward us. One man was pushing it and three others were running alongside the track.
“Here they come,” she said quickly. “They bring the equipment to cut the metal for you.”
Suddenly I felt so hollow. I didn’t feel relieved as help arrived. She stood up, looked down at me, her plait falling across her chest. Her face looked shadowy in the twilight, and on the riverbank the last glimmer of sun glowed golden on the pointed tips of wild banana flowers.