Back in Vietnam, there was a story. It was about a monster, a she-devil, who terrorized the farmers and peasants all across the countryside. Late at night, while the good people slept, exhausted from a hard day’s work in the fields and paddies or the sea, this monster would choose one hut and creep silently into it. Sometimes she would make off with a man, sometimes a woman, although she seemed especially fond of succulent young children. She would do this two or three times in a night, traveling widely across the country at the speed of dreams. Although many had claimed to have seen this creature, descriptions varied widely. Sometimes she was dark and winged, like a bat. Other times, she was slender, scaled and limbless, like a snake. Sometimes she took a human form, albeit a grotesque one. Part of the difficulty in capturing her was this ability to transform herself from one shape into another—that, and the hallucinatory unpredictability of her attacks.
One day, a young widow living in a small farming village could no longer bear the perpetual fear of losing her life or, worse yet, the life of her infant son. So, she devised a plan. She gathered together all the people of the village and told them what they must do to rid themselves of their nightmare.
The night of the next full moon, the six strongest men of the village, armed only with the toughest nets they could secure from the neighboring fishing village, lay in wait. They had smeared themselves with mud and leaves and hid among the brush at the edge of the river. Six more men, the next strongest, hid in the trees a short way downwind, armed with shovels, hoes and planting sticks, awaiting their signal that the monster had been caught so they could descend upon it and destroy it, once and for all.
At the moment the moon was at its full height, the young widow stepped to the riverbank. In her arms, she carried what appeared to be her infant son, wrapped in cloth, but it was in fact a large stone. She raised it into the air and called out:
“She-demon! Flesh-eater! I am a widow, and alone. I can no longer bear the burden of this child. I can no longer bear the memory of my dead husband this child brings back to me always. Here! Come and take it! It is yours!”
In a flash, the she-demon appeared, this time as a gruesome hag with a disfigured face and sheaths of stiff white hair.
She approached the young widow, drooling in anticipation.
Just as the white fingers were about to clutch the cloth-wrapped parcel, the young woman tossed it into the river, where it disappeared at once into the black water. Driven by her ravenous appetite, the she-demon pushed the young widow aside and bent to the dark water, searching desperately for what she thought to be the child.
Just then the men tossed their nets, enmeshing the creature, who cried out in a voice that sent chills through all of the townspeople. In moments, the other men appeared and killed the demon with their tools and sticks.
The she-demon sank into the river, where a magical transformation took place. The body of the monster changed into a huge leech. In moments, the cause of her hideous appetite became known: She was pregnant. From her body, thousands upon thousands of smaller leeches poured, infesting the dark waters.
That was the origin of the leech, whose lust for blood is so strong it must be burned off the flesh with a smoldering stick.
Lan Tran hated that story. Lan Tran hated all the stories told to her by her mother-in-law, that stupid, wretched woman. Why did she fill her stupid head with such foolishness? Why was she always trying to fill Lan’s head as well? Now this. The old woman had gone for her Sunday morning trip to the market and returned only with this—a carton of salt. Had her memory failed her? Where were the meat, the noodles, the fish? Had she lost her mind? Now she was in the other room, on the telephone, jabbering in Chiu Chow to one of her ancient friends, filling another ear with yet another ridiculous story, this one about a monster without a head.
Lan sat at the kitchen table, staring at the carton of salt. How much longer could she live like this? How could she go on? She looked at the picture on the deep blue label. It was a drawing of a pretty young girl in a yellow dress, walking along beneath a white and lavender umbrella. The salt she carried was spilling out behind her. She was young and carefree, young and pretty. Lan remembered when she, too, was young and pretty and carefree. She remembered her childhood in Vietnam, the three-story house, and the servants who tended to everything. She remembered how she looked in the mirror, a pretty young girl with white teeth, smooth hands and shiny long black hair.
How merciless the years had been. Although only twenty-five, she looked older. Her teeth were browning at the edges. Her hands were rough and cracked, like ducks’ feet. Her hair—her pride—once thick and lustrous, was now lifeless and thin. That other, younger, prettier girl was a lifetime away—before the soldiers had taken away her father, before her mother died of poverty and grief, before she was taken into marriage with a man she had never met prior to the wedding day.
Many times Lan had considered suicide, but she could not. The reason lay in the second of the three bedrooms. Her young son, Luke, now five, was playing by himself, oblivious to the mad chatter coming through the door from the other room. What a strange child. Lan thought. What a lonely boy. Mercifully, he looked not at all like his father. Perhaps if he had, Lan would have taken her own life and the child’s as well, just to spare the world the agony of another Phong Tran.
Perhaps she would have fed them all to the She-Devil!
Lan laughed cynically.
“Of all the things for the old bat to remember, it would have to be salt,” she thought to herself. Salt was her husband’s great passion—that, and the half a dozen or so women he kept, of course. Nothing Lan cooked was ever right—nothing she did was ever right—but especially her cooking, which her husband never even tasted anymore before dousing it with the white condiment.
Lan thought of the countless nights she had sat across the Formica table from her husband, watching him stuff food into his grotesque, fleshy face, unable to eat herself because the sight of him sickened her so. An only son, he had been spoiled miserably, even by Chinese standards. She thought about his hands, puffy but smooth, and always manicured. She closed her eyes and winced at the thought of how those same hands, clenched into pudgy fists, had stung her many times, made her eyes black or her stomach ache, because she had failed at some minor household task.
“There is dust on the television screen,” he would shout, empurpled with indignation. “I can’t see a thing!”
“My underwear has shrunk,” he would howl like some wounded beast. “What are you trying to do, castrate me?”
A spoiled boy becomes a creature of appetite. Now, except on occasion, Phong Tran’s appetites for food and for violence were the only ones he regularly brought home. Lan was glad of that. Better the fist than that ugly pig’s face grunting above her after he had forced her legs apart and entered her.
The night of the wedding, when she failed to bleed on the sheets, he paced around the room, cursing and smoking and accusing her of not being a virgin.
She had always believed it was because his penis was too small.
But she would bleed for him, that way and in many others, in the years that followed and there were times, son or no son, when she had envisioned suicide. Her mother-in-law was less than a comfort.
“Men are men,” the old woman said as Lan sat weeping after one especially violent night. “How much more clearly can I explain?”
“You are his mother,” Lan spoke between convulsions. “You could tell him to stop. He might obey you.”
“I am an old woman, and you are a wife,” the woman said without pity. “And his father is dead, and he is the man.”
Lan cursed in Vietnamese. The old woman slapped her hard, across the face, with the back of her hand.
“Stupid, ungrateful girl!” The old woman spat. “You have had an easy life, the life of a princess. You should have known real suffering. When I was a young woman, during the famine, I ate soup made of spiders. Spiders! Look at you! You have food, all that you wish. You have a home. You have no needs.”
The old woman hissed like a large snake, but she was not finished.
“And most important of all, you have a son. You have a son to carry on the family name. And on your first try, yet!”
Lan could hardly forget the night her son was conceived. The old woman had insisted that the couple leave their bedroom door open, so that she could listen and make sure that Lan was submitting to the proper role of a wife. Even to this day, on those occasions when her husband determined to enjoy her, the door was to be left open.
“Stupid, ungrateful girl,” the old woman muttered, returning to her room.
Lan thought about her son. She had sheltered him as best she could. Now, at five, he would begin to understand more. Already, he would cower, half hidden behind his bedroom door, when his father returned home, demanding greeting. She could barely force from her mind the image of the boy standing in the shadow of the door frame, his beautiful moon face utterly expressionless, watching as she picked herself up off the floor. How could she go on? She would have killed herself a long time ago, were it not for the child. Then, later, without warning, there was Jerry.
Lan got up and went to the kitchen sink. As she washed and rinsed the breakfast dishes, she looked out the window. The houses in this part of the neighborhood were set close together. Jerry’s blinds were drawn, but if they were open, she could see into his bedroom. She could see the photograph of his daughter, now in her early twenties, a brash, loud woman who was always asking for money and insisted upon calling her father by his first name. There was no photograph of the girl’s mother. She had run away with a man who called himself an artist, although he neither painted nor drew nor sculpted nor did anything except smoke marijuana and express his opinions on anything. She could see his bookshelf, even recognize some of the titles on the spines, the names of the poets and authors whose work filled his evenings, sometimes well into the night, as he lay in bed wearing his wire-rimmed glasses, reading and thinking all his marvelous thoughts.
Jerry would be at church now, Lan thought. Then he would go to lunch with his mother, and perhaps stop at the store to pick up a bottle of wine, a white zinfandel, which he would sip and pretend to enjoy, although Lan knew that he found it too sweet and that he chose it because it was the only wine that she enjoyed, the only wine that did not burn her tongue with its bitterness.
Jerry Adams had moved in four years ago. At first, he did not much impress Lan. He was older than she, seventeen years, and very unassuming. For months they saw each other only on Thursday mornings, as they rolled the big cans back to their places after the trash had been hauled away. He would smile politely, even shyly, and wish her a good morning. On those mornings when her face was black and blue, she would watch through the blinds until his car was gone before going out, face obscured by a bandana, to haul the cans back to the side of the house.
It was a Saturday morning in early June. The coastal haze had still not burned off. It felt cool against Lan’s skin as she knelt in her garden, her hair, thin but still long, tied back. She was tending to a patch of the holy basil she had planted. Her husband claimed to like the taste of basil, but how he could detect it, drowned in all that salt, Lan could not fathom.
When she turned to reach for a trowel, she gasped at the sight of pants, men’s pants. She let her eyes drift up to see not her husband, fuming with some new indignity, but the smiling face of Jerry Adams. His longish hair moved slightly in the breeze. It was streaked with white.
“I thought you might like these,” he said in gentle tones. “My tree is lousy with them.”
In his cupped hands were five lemons. He held them out to her. Lan thought that they were the largest, yellowest, roundest lemons she had ever seen. She thought they looked like five perfect suns.
She stared at the ground and muttered thanks.
“I’ll just leave them here, if that’s all right,” he said.
She nodded and he was gone.
She never used those lemons, the first five, although she would use the ones that came later, along with the oranges, the kumquats, the plums and, finally in the month of January, the roses. Her mother-in-law eventually found the lemons shriveled and useless in the back of the refrigerator. She threw them away, thinking nothing other than how stupid a woman it was that her eldest son had married and wishing her own husband had had the position to arrange better.
As the months passed, Lan and Jerry Adams spoke more and more. He worked with computers, consulting, and in September he fulfilled his dream. He quit his job with his company and began working for himself, out of his second bedroom, which he converted into an office. After that, he and Lan would see each other daily. Mostly they would talk across the cyclone fence, discussing the weather, which had been unseasonably cool, or the progress of her garden, or the state of his fruit trees. Many times Lan hungered for more.
“My English,” she lamented. “There are things I want to say, but I can not find the words.”
“I’ll help you,” Jerry said. “I can help you learn. It’s not so tough.”
“No!” Lan fairly shouted. Then, embarrassed, added: “My husband will not allow it. He believes that education in a woman is a dangerous thing.”
Jerry scuffed at the ground with the toe of his shoe.
“What do you think?” He asked quietly.
At first Lan didn’t know how to respond. No one had ever asked her for her thoughts before. On anything. She cooked the way her mother-in-law showed her and cleaned the way her mother-in-law ordered her and did the things in bed the way her husband wanted them done—all in the same way, unquestioningly.
“I—” She stammered. “I think that it is good to learn new things.”
Lan was deep in her memories when the door to the master bedroom burst open and her husband emerged. He strutted into the kitchen, dressed casually but smelling strongly of his expensive cologne.
“I am going to meet my partners for dim sum,” he announced.
Lan wondered just what strange kinds of dim sum were served at the Hollywood Palms Motel, where every room came equipped with a Jacuzzi, a big-screen television, and a library of adult videos—or so advertised the matchbook she had found in her husband’s pocket the time she laundered his clothes after he had returned from dim sum at eleven o’clock at night, stinking of alcohol, cigarettes, and the expensive perfume she was not allowed to purchase for herself. Jerry had explained the words she did not understand.
A short time later, as always, her mother-in-law announced that she was taking the boy to his auntie’s, so the other grandchildren would have someone to play with while the old women played mah jongg and gossiped. She imagined her son playing with children. It made her smile. Although he would never have brothers and sisters, she would secretly do anything to prevent that, it was good to think of him among his small friends, carefree, like the child on the carton of salt.
Lan lowered the dark paper blind above her kitchen sink halfway and then poured into her palm a teaspoon of ground red pepper. She took a deep breath, and exhaled toward the window of her lover, sending aloft the signal he had been waiting for, that she was coming to him soon, that he should presently ready himself for her.
How had they come up with such a crazy sign? So much had happened that first day they spent together in his bed, so many crazy words and dreams flying this way and that. When it was safe, she would lower the paper blind halfway. Then, she would puff a teaspoon of cayenne from her kitchen window toward his bedroom. The scent of the pepper brought it back like a memory of yesterday. She remembered the first warmth of his lips on her neck. She remembered him taking the rubber band from her hair, his big fingers stroking it as it lay along her back. She remembered being held—finally being held, the way a woman should be, not in anger but in tenderness. She gave herself to him without a sound. For months they had both known this was to come—the inevitability of it lingered after the last words spoken, lingered after their gaze broke as they turned from the garden fence and went back to their lives. One afternoon, she had unthinkingly gone to collect the laundry and, from his back porch, watching, he had seen it: the bruise blooming across her cheek.
It was the first time she had ever seen a man weep. It was the first of many firsts to come.
She remembered the gentleness of his entry. She remembered how he did not turn away when he was finished, but rather pulled her to him, protecting her with his big arm and firm shoulder. She remembered the words he spoke, a brand new kind of English, different from the other and one that she wanted to learn even more.
What had begun as quiet Sunday afternoons, sitting together across his kitchen table after making love, reading together aloud from his books of poetry and stories, became for Lan the second reason for her life. She could endure. She had found her strength.
“Why do you put up with it?” Jerry asked her, more than once. “Why don’t you just leave?”
“In my culture—”
“You’re in America now.”
“In my culture, it is a great shame for a woman to be divorced. People think bad things, say bad things about a woman like that. I don’t want my son to grow up thinking his mother is a piece of trash.”
“But, darling,” he would say, exasperated but still gentle. “What good will you be for your son once he’s finally killed you?”
“Better dead than a disgrace,” she would reply.
“You could call the police—”
“We don’t bring strangers into our lives.”
“You brought me.”
“That’s different. You saw. You saw my face. How could I lie to you?”
“We could run away,” he said, finally. “I can work anywhere. I could sell the house and we could run away and take Luke with us. We could go somewhere where they’d never find us.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why?” His voice grew ragged with pleading.
“For all the reasons that I’ve told you, and for all the ones I can’t find the words to speak.”
The American man from Kansas sat at the table, shaking his head. The Chinese woman from Vietnam put out her hand and touched his.
“You’ve taught me many things, and you’ve taught me well,” she said. “But there are some things it seems I am unable to learn.”
The scent of red pepper tickled her nose as she quickly slipped out of her apron. In moments she was in his room, in his arms, holding his head in her hands and kissing him hungrily. She was like a woman who had not eaten for a week, ravenous. She wanted to taste everything, to swallow him whole, to fill herself with him so she could endure the six days of separation to follow.
“Go slow,” he said breathlessly. “We have time.”
Those were the three words that haunted Lan Tran as she stood on the sidewalk, watching the white ambulance speed away, sirens crying out in the warm Sunday afternoon. She shook her head as if she could dislodge them, as if she could toss them back out through her ears, which should never have listened to them in the first place. They were bad luck. They were a curse. Why had he said them? Why had he brought this upon himself, upon her?
The ambulance disappeared down the street and the siren finally faded to a timid whine. The neighbors went back inside their homes, the word having passed among them that Jerry Adams had suffered a heart attack, a minor one, and he was being taken to the hospital for a few days of tests and observation. Lan made up her story quickly and well. She had been working in the kitchen when she heard Jerry Adams cry out in pain. She had found the back door unlocked, let herself in, and discovered the man lying in his bed, clutching his side. She immediately dialed 911. Even with her poor English, she had communicated what needed to be told.
She could never tell a soul what had actually happened, how, during the course of their sex, her lover’s face had contorted, or how, breathless with the pain, he had rolled off her, gasping of all things an apology.
Lan slipped back into her house and paced about the kitchen. There was nothing more she could do. The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. Worse was the shame at her own stupidity. She had called the emergency number and then stood there watching him twist in agony, not knowing what to do, a miserable figure, a pathetic, worthless good-for-nothing, the very picture of what her husband’s words had all these years attempted to paint her to be.
Lan wept. What if he had died? How much of her would have died with him? How much would remain of her for her son, her first reason? Surely, she should never have entered his home. They should have remained neighbors, talking over the fence, remarking upon the weather or about the beautiful, perfect lemons that overburdened his trees.
There are things it is better for a woman never to learn, Lan thought. Education for a woman is a dangerous thing.
That was a lie. That was her pitiful self talking to the courageous one, the one who had dared to take a man into her arms and suck from him all the passion her heart could hold. That was a woman she wanted never again to see staring back at her from the mirror, her cheeks puffy and red, black circles around her eyes.
Jerry was going to be all right. He was. The paramedics had said it was only a minor attack. By the time they arrived, it had practically passed.
“You a friend of his?” The nice American in the white uniform was taking down notes.
“A neighbor,” Lan answered.
The man explained that Jerry was to undergo observation and tests. As they took him through the door on a stretcher, he smiled up weakly and signaled to her with his hand that things would be all right in time. She thought about the smell of red pepper on the breeze.
“He’s going to be all right,” the paramedic said. “He’s just going to have to take it easy for a while. Exercise in moderation. Watch his diet. Lay off the fat and salt.”
Lan sat staring at the salt. The pretty girl in the yellow dress was as carefree as ever, oblivious, unburdened by the knowledge that the white power in the container her blonde beauty graced had the power to take away a life. Lan was excited. She marveled at the wonder of salt. Surely, salt could bring flavor to food, could make a bad dish palatable and a good dish superb. But it could do much more. Salt could preserve a duck egg for a thousand years. Salt could remove the stains of wine carelessly spilt upon a white dress by two lovers in the first tanglings of passion. And, Lan thought, salt could kill.
Why had she never thought of it? When she was a child, she and her brother, now dead, had been playing in the paddies, wading and splashing while the peasants labored in the hot sun. Called home for dinner, they had been shocked and disgusted to see their legs covered with leeches—several upon each leg, some short as a toothpick, some as long as chopsticks. They lay against the pale skin, fat brown blotches turning purple as they gorged on blood.
Frantic, they ran home, entered the living room dripping, tears of fright mixing with the paddy water on the floor.
Father came down the stairs just as mother entered from the kitchen.
“So, you’ve brought friends for dinner, I see,” father joked.
This only made the children cry all the more.
“Come on,” father said. “Let me light up a cigarette. We will have to burn them off.”
The children shuddered, but father’s sure tone of voice reassured them, and they stopped sobbing.
“No,” said mother. “You might scar their pretty legs. There’s another way. I learned it from an American. Come.” She motioned for the children to follow her.
In the kitchen, mother took down a porcelain jar. With a teaspoon, she dipped into the white granules within. She took Lan’s leg as she sat, pulled it straight, and dusted the granules generously across one of the brown blotches. The leech snapped into a ball, like a stretched rubber band suddenly released, falling as it did to the floor, where it writhed like a thing on fire.
For all these years, that man, her husband, had been sucking the life from her, just as surely as a leech sucks the blood. She had been weakened, dizzy, and ineffectual. She had, however, learned something this day, and she understood quite clearly. Knowledge was a dangerous thing.
She could see the weeks and months ahead unfold before her like clean laundry in the wind. She was to become a wife reborn. How energetically she would cook for Phong Tran, and how much harder for her son and, secretly, for Jerry Adams, who must watch his diet so that he could live to be with her. How creative she would be in her craft. How her husband would marvel, for the dishes that she cooked would never again fail his standards. No, they would be richer, spicier, saltier than he could ever have dreamed. Why, as the weeks and months progressed, they would get even better still, so full of the tastes that flamed his appetite that he would be unable to stop at one, two, three helpings or more: every soup brimming with salted pork fat, every stir fry thick with dark soy, every dumpling swollen to bursting with the densest of ham.
She would set the trap, but it would be Phong Tran’s own appetite that betrayed him, just as it betrayed the flesh-eating demon, the mother of all leeches.
She imagined her husband’s heart, a brown worm growing ever fatter, until one day—and she knew this day would come, and sooner than she dared hope—engorged with the richness of his blood, it would beautifully explode, and she would be as carefree as the little yellow girl on the deep blue label of the carton of salt.
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