by Ngan Nguyen
“You are a silkworm in a cocoon, a bird in a cage, an oyster hiding itself. I’m done!”
These are my Scottish husband’s last words to me. I curl up in bed like a ball, hearing the door closing. My husband goes out after our quarrel as usual. I don’t understand why, after ten years together, there is still a barrier between us. We fought as always over nothing, and I withdraw myself into my own world, pushing him away.
I lie on bed tormenting myself, then fall asleep. When I wake up, it takes me ages and lots of energy to haul myself up off my bed. My attic bedroom at the top of the house makes me feel like a bird in a cage. The more I lie in bed, the more I think I am a bird trapped in this room. So, I shuffle into the kitchen and make myself a drink. A ray of lemon yellow light streams onto the window sill as I step into the living room. Holding a mug of hot chocolate, I fix my eyes on the movement of the natural world; fast-moving clouds wash out of the horizon to reveal the lush green rolling hills and a patch of blue sky appears above the distant North Sea. I glance at my watch, it is around four now, so I hurriedly grab a coat then head to the street. The river Don is like glass, showing pebbles lying motionless through its crystal blue water and the banks wear a verdant coat scattered with colorful flowers. I take a deep breath, enjoying the delicate fragrance of wild garlic. The gentle spring is the renewal of a dead winter. My thought is interrupted by a man in black, leading a big Alsatian dog, approaching from the opposite direction. From a distance of about ten meters his face is still a blur because of my short-sightedness. I turn right towards the water to obey the social distancing rules in this Covid-19 pandemic. I am surprised to see there are four police-men wearing reflective clothing on the opposite bank observing the water. I wonder whether someone drowned or perhaps there has been a crime. Then my instinct tells me to turn back to see the man in black passing by. He greets me and now I can see his uniform clearly with the word police written in white on his back. I step forward but am startled to see a baby black bird lying on the bare ground. Its tiny beak, closed eyes and wet feathers cause a current to pass through my body. It must have blown out of its nest in the howling wind. Returning to the path, I see a woman holding her son’s hand, both walking slowly; sometimes she bends her head down towards him. She speaks so softly that I can’t work out what language she is speaking. Suddenly, the boy looks over his shoulder; perhaps the noise of my boots reaches his ears. I am drawn to his attractive dark eyes, as black as longan seed, sparkling with innocence and curiosity in his Asian face. He stares at me for a while, his knitted brow slowly relaxes, then he turns back to the path, keeping pace with his mother. That little boy leaves me in a very strange state of mind. I remain motionless, feeling my loneliness, letting the fragrant summer air breathe over my face and an old childhood memory comes flooding back.
Bao, my neighbour’s oldest son was five years older than I. I was seven at that time, my black hair hanging below my ears. His brown skin contrasted with his bright eyes and he always wore dark clothes, sometimes black, brown, green or blue but never bright colors like mine. My parents were busy on the farm for most of the time and my brother always sneaked out, so I followed Bao. He carried a big bag and a sickle. Whilst he knelt down to cut wild sam vegetables to feed the pigs, I squatted and plucked them by hand.
“Bao brother, why do you wear that black shirt? It’s said that black is the color of funerals. I love bright colours, you see my red flowered clothes.”
He paused, glanced at me with a broadening smile. “Your clothes are very pretty. Never believe what adults say to you.”
“Why? Even our parents?”
“They are still kids somehow.” Bao shrugged his shoulders.
“What if you grow up one day, will I believe you?”
Bao laughed at my question. He never answered it. Instead he pointed his index finger to the sky where swallows were flying, then spread his arms. I stood up and mimicked his action.
“We’re birds, flying with the wind,” Bao yelled.
I closed my eyes and in my imagination I was a swallow swooping in the sky. The wind in the field that afternoon was gentle and it brought the pleasant fragrance of freshly cut plants. Bao cut a bunch of oxeye daisies, then made a headband from them. I was glad to wear it, pretending to be a princess and he my servant. We walked home in an orange sunset, wild grass dancing like the waves in the river.
My brother brought home a bird cage, four times the length of my hand and hung it on a guava tree. It was made from bamboo, and a small bamboo stick placed across the cage made a perch. For water it had a tiny plastic cup cut from a bottle and another small lid for food. He would often join a group of boys, carrying a slingshot to hunt birds in the orchards whilst everyone else was having a nap. He never let me join them. One afternoon I woke up to see a blackbird standing in the cage. I sat down on the swing made from an old tire from my father’s tractor, and swung back and forth. The bird and I looked at each other.
Another day, my brother came home after his hunting, his eyes were sparkling and a big smile crossed his face.
“Guess! What is in my hand?”
“Sweets?” I gave my hand to him.
But when he opened his hand, there were two tiny turquoise eggs. I trembled as my brother handed them to me. I had never seen eggs with such a beautiful color.
“Beautiful!” I murmured.
“Can’t wait to see what kind of bird.”
Then he put the two eggs in the cage. I was excited to look after the bird, hoping to see baby birds. My brother and I hunted grasshoppers in the fields and I never forgot to give the bird clean water every day. But one day when I changed the water, I saw broken pieces of eggshell and the yolk was dry, and the blackbird’s feathers stood on end. It looked at me with blurry eyes.
“Such a waste.” My brother startled me. His brow furrowed, then he left without letting me know what I should do with it. I fixed my eyes at the cage again whilst the bird looked up at the blue sky appearing above the leaves.
“What are you doing?” Bao leaned on the guava trunk, handing me a mint.
“Did you fall? Are you hurt?” I asked when I saw a bruise on his left cheek.
He didn’t answer so I told him about the eggs. He moved close to the cage, observing it. I could see his tears and a shaft of light lingered on his bruised cheek which made his skin look like the broken turquoise eggshell.
“Can I give it freedom?” Bao had never wanted anything from me before.
“Yes.” I stopped moving on the swing.
He opened the cage, but the bird stood still.
“Is it too weak to fly now?” I whispered, afraid that my voice would scare it.
“Maybe not. But when someone is kept in a prison too long, they may forget how to live.”
I didn’t understand why Bao said someone rather than it for a bird. We sat on the lower branch of the guava tree and I felt the mint flavor melt in my mouth. I didn’t know what I was waiting for but I kept silent. It must have been ages and my neck was sore. So I glanced down to watch groups of ants carrying food to their nest. Lots of different types, small black ants, tiny red ants and big brown-yellow ones.
“It’s gone,” he said.
“What?” I looked at the cage, it was empty now. “I missed that moment.”
“The important moment of life,” he murmured.
I had no idea what he was talking about, nor if he was saying it to me or the escaped bird.
That winter afternoon five of us watched Bao flying the dragon kite and my brother the butterfly one; they slowly rose up in the high blue sky. The melodic sound from these kite flutes flew through the open sky which gave me a thought that this music was always better when it is played by the wind rather than humans. Some cows grazed. We shouted whenever a kite flew lower. The river bank was big enough for a small field but it had been abandoned when the owner left town. So the children used it for playing football and flying kites. Suddenly the dragon flew up in the sky, we shouted at it then looked at Bao. There was no sign of him.
“Bao fell into the river!” someone shouted.
We hurriedly ran to the river bank, where Bao had slipped on crushed grass and wildflowers. He was moving up and down in the river. His black shirt made the water dense in darkness and his hands kept splashing the water furiously.
My brother ran off, shouting “Help! Bao is drowning.”
Someone threw a piece of wood into the river. Bao stretched out his hand but he couldn’t reach it. One more time, he struggled with the splashing water which was shining in the sunlight.
I stood still, placing one hand on my heart to stop its fast beat.
“Move. All of you!” Some adults arrived.
The children huddled together on the grass. We stood there, our hearts thumping.
When a man carried Bao out of the water, others rushed to help him. His body lay on the man’s shoulder like a wet towel. Then he was laid on the grass, his black shirt now dirty with mud. They pumped his chest, blew air through his lips.
“Bao, wake up!” I cried, jumping towards him but my brother grasped my hand. “Stand here!”
Bao’s mother came. She knelt down next to him, hugging him. “Wake up, my boy. Wake up. I promise I will never let him beat you anymore.” Her crying was louder than any clap of thunder I had heard in my life.
Bao’s stepfather knelt down and touched Bao’s motionless legs. His eyes were red but there was not a single teardrop.
His mother’s crying seemed too far away in my memory but I will never forget the way her son lay in her arms, so reassuringly. That position and her green work clothes and his black T-shirt reminded me of the statue I had seen somewhere, a mother kneeling down to hold her dead son, a soldier. Bao seemed to be having a peaceful sleep. His step brothers and sisters knelt down around him. People were so crowded that I was afraid that Bao could hardly breathe. A crow flew across the sky and croaked mournfully. People said that crows are the messenger of Death. I never believed what adults said, as Bao had told me. I wondered if that was Bao.
I dig a hole among the wild garlic with a tiny piece of bark, placing a layer of their leaves on the soil and laying the dead bird on it, then making a blanket of the white garlic flowers to cover the poor creature. I don’t know what this little bird suffered in his short life but from now on nothing can disturb his peaceful sleep as garlic will protect him from evil. How could it die without having had a chance to fly? I have this thought when I cover the bird’s grave. I didn’t have an opportunity to see Bao again after that afternoon. I stood next to the guava tree, watching people carry him in a small black coffin. The wind blew the black and white clothes and papers in different directions. His mother’s crying was swallowed into the funeral music which was similar to crying cats and the birds crowed repeatedly making the afternoon the saddest I had ever known. Adults didn’t allow us children to attend his funeral because they were afraid that his ghost would come back to tempt us to play with him in another world. I looked at the empty bird cage and suddenly I felt how close I was to Bao.
The scent of wild garlic lingers on my fingers. Whatever. I don’t care. Bao will never die. I’m sure that he had turned into a crow on that winter afternoon, in a far away country named Vietnam. I continue my walk, knowing that my husband will be somewhere on the same river path.↑