Monday, July 6, 2009

Ma-Lai (Part 1)

My uncle, on my mother’s side, was a handsome man in Vietnam. So handsome it caused him to be narcissistic and didn’t find any of the women in his village attractive. No matter how beautiful the girl was, he didn’t feel the chemistry – none what so ever. He would wander the village and lived a life of mediocrity because he didn’t feel that life had any value or any pleasure because he was alone without that significant other to share his life with. Months after months, he got more depressed and wanted a miracle, a stranger to walk into the village, but that never happened. One day, after a year of being unhappy, my uncle went to the family and told them that he was leaving. He wanted to travel to see what the world can offer. He wanted to see if the gods had a wife for him because the women at his village weren’t suited for him.

On the night of the full moon, he packed his belongings and took all the cash he had, gave my mother a hug and said his good-byes to everyone. My mother cried, her mother cried and the rest of the sisters cried. He truly was handsome. He was taller than most of the men in the village. His hair was black and not dark brown and his eyes were big. He had a strong jaw line and was built like Tarzan from working in the fields. He wasn’t just a fieldworker; he had a brain, he had imagination and ambition. He came up with a method to collect all the rainwater into big jars for drinking and bathing. Owning a refrigerator in Vietnam was expensive because electricity was hard to come by. The kind of refrigerator they had was a box made of metal and you would have to go to the market to buy a huge cube of ice to put into the box. Then you can store the food you wanted to keep cold. Fish would make things smell bad, so they would never put the fish in the ice box. He came up with the idea of preserving the fish so that the family wouldn’t have to throw away the rotted fish. Uncle told the family that you could make fish jerky. He also knew how to bargain with the locals for goods without paying the usually price that everyone else had to pay. “Yes, your uncle was a catch all right,” my mother would say.

My mom is a good storyteller - probably where I got my gift. I like to tell stories. I just need to hear it once and I’ll remember it to recite it, like I am reciting to you now. Are you ready? You really should crawl into your bed and get comfortable because I am going to explain what happened to my uncle – his life before the Communist came in and took over Vietnam.

My uncle traveled from one village to the next for 6 months. He would stay for only a couple of months in each of the village until he came to this one particular village that was different from the others. It was gloomy like his mood. He didn’t ask questions. They didn’t ask questions. They all kept to themselves and never talked about they lives. They didn’t care who you were, what you wanted or what you liked. They were just people who were there because they were just there. My uncle liked this. He was able to be and did not have to try hard to prove himself. No one spoke to my uncle unless he asked him or her a question. After two months of solitude, my uncle got restless. He started noticing a particular girl in this village. She wasn’t beautiful, she wasn’t plain looking; she was more ugly than anything. Her body was different from most Vietnamese people. He didn’t quite know what it was, but there was something different. She had two arms, two legs and a proportionate body, two hands with 10 fingers and two feet with10 toes. What was it that was different about her? He wasn’t sure. Because Uncle liked to solve problems, his curiosity drove him to speak to her. Her eyes! Yes, her eyes were haunting. They were a little darker than usual with a white cloud in the center. Was that it? Or maybe it was the way she looked at him, the intense stare, as if her eyes were weaving a spell over his mind, his heart, his soul.

A month later, they were married. His new bride wanted to leave the village and start a new life. Her name was Ngoc, which means Pearl in Vietnamese. They moved to the next village where my uncle taught the villagers how to harness the rainwater and preserve their food for the rationing. They lived a very good life there in the village because everyone valued my uncle’s knowledge. He was in good spirit because he finally had a wife and was an important person to the village.

After a year of living at the village, a plague hit the village. People were dying in the village, but it would always be the day after the full moon. No one would understand why this plague would strike randomly without a sign of illness at all. One day, the person would be alive and healthy, then the next morning, that person is die. As the French would say, “Fini!” Ka-put, Dead, Gone, No More.

One day, my uncle was walking by a tall rice field and over heard two elder women talking. “I tell you, this never happened until that young man, Quan, moved in with his wife.” Said one lady as she was cutting the rice grass.

“You right, that young man is good, but the wife if bad. You see her neck? You see how many lines she has on her neck?” Asked the woman who was gathering the grass into bundles.

“You are correct! She has one too many lines on her neck. One too many.”

“We must tell the head monk and ask for help.”

Uncle didn’t want to hear anymore and left without being noticed. He wondered what the monk would say, because my uncle could not understand what they were talking about: One too many lines on her neck? What does that matter? How many lines are you suppose to have? Crazy old women! Forget this, we’re leaving as soon as I get paid for my work.

That month, before the next full moon, my uncle and his wife moved to another village. They started they lives over, built a new home, showed the villagers how to ration their goods and how to preserve the rainwater. Things were good again. The villagers liked my uncle; they respected him and valued his input.

After five months of the good life, my uncle decided they should start a family. He thought it would be romantic to make love to his wife under the full moon that night. He was full of ideas and went into the jungle to scout a good spot for their romance. As he was walking he thought of all the little children and wanted to bring them home to his family in Vung Tau. My uncle couldn’t contain himself anymore and ran to his house.

“Wife, wife, it’s almost dark, come with me.” But his wife wasn’t anywhere to be found. He went through the village asking for his wife, but no one saw her. That night, he slept alone until past midnight. His wife came back and crawled into bed with him. She was full of energy and full of life. She wanted her husband and they made love that night in bed.

The next morning, his wife looked satiated, as if she had eaten her fill for the week. A knock at the door. Both husband and wife look at each other curiously. No one has knocked on their door at 8am before. My uncle opened the door to see one of the elders of the village. “Good morning, brother. Are you well?”

“Yes, but there is news in the village. Mr. Tam died this morning.” Announced the elder.

“Oh no! Are you sure? Mr. Tam is a healthy young man. He’s only 33, right? How can he die? He doesn’t even smoke!”

“His wife tried to get him out of bed this morning to go to work. That was when she realized he felt cold and hard. Poor woman, a widow at 23 with three young kids!”

“Thank you for letting us know! We’ll come over and give our respect. What time will the villagers be there?”

“I think 3pm. Good, good. I will see you then.” The elder answered quickly. He needed to announce the news to the rest of the village.

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