At dusk, lights came on in the town the river ran through. The river, now dark, carried with it the lights like starlights, and cajeput flowers that had fallen from the riverbank floated white on the water.
He bought from a ferry peddler sweet rice cooked with mung bean, packed in a banana leaf, and black coffee in a styrofoam cup. He ate while the riverboat waited for passengers to board. Then he took off the cloth cover of the birdcage, set the cage on his thighs and began feeding the myna with leftover sweet rice.
“You like sweet rice or you like papaya,” he said, watching the bird peck a yellow bean from his palm.
“Papaya,” the bird said, bobbing its head twice. “Yummy yummy.”
“What’d Ly give you?”
“Papaya.” The bird purred deeply.
The bird looked around, then bobbed its head repeatedly.
“Call Ly,” he said. “Call her.” He watched the bird as it fluffed its feathers then called out, long, clear, Ly Ly Ly Ly. Then it cocked its head and watched him intensely.
The new passengers were coming on board, a woman and a young girl, who sat down on the bench seat across from him. He smiled at them and the bird bobbed its head and croaked, “Hello guest!”
The girl’s face beamed. “A talking bird!” she said.
She bent forward and looked at the bird. It tilted its black-crowned head, studying her. “What’s your name?” the bird squawked.
The girl broke out laughing, her hand covering her mouth. She had an eyetooth that made her smile charming. “He can really talk,” she said to him.
“Yeah. He can mimic all kinds of sounds.”
Just then another riverboat was passing by out in the broad water, its motor chugging steadily. The myna looked around, shifting on its thin legs and making some deep-throated sounds.
“He heard the boat I think,” the girl said.
“Yeah. He can neigh like a horse, meow like a cat.” Stroking the bird on its breast with his finger, he said, “What the cat say?”
“Meow,” the myna let out a crystal-clear cat’s sound.
“Oh my,” the girl said.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
He glanced up at the woman who had been watching them. She wore an indigo blue headscarf, sitting with a carry-on bag on her lap. “Where’re you folks going?” he asked her.
“The Plain of Reeds.”
“Oh. It must be in the flood season now.”
“It already was when we left last week. And where’re you going?”
“The Plain.” He lied.
“Oh really? Visiting?”
“No. I live there.” He knew nothing of the Mekong Delta.
“Well, neighbor, you must’ve been away then. We had early flood this year. What d’you do there?”
“I have a fishing boat.” After lying the second time he looked down at the myna and then at the little girl. “Kim, you want to feed him? Here. Just give him bits of this.” He put some sweet rice in the girl’s palm. “Let him pick from your hand what he wants to eat, bean or rice. There.”
The girl gently touched the bird’s head with her finger. The bird pecked a yellow bean from her palm, tossed its head back to down the food and sang, “Thank you, Ly, thank you.”
The girl laughed. “Oh, you’re so sweet.” Then she looked at him. “Who’s Ly?”
“My lover. I mean my girlfriend.” He caught the woman smiling as she adjusted her headscarf.
“The same, isn’t it?” she said to him.
“Lover and girlfriend.”
“You have a lover?” the little girl said, all perked up.
“Yeah. She’s his favorite person. He knows her well.”
“Where is she?”
He thought for a moment and the woman said, “Your lover.” He glanced at the woman and then at the girl. “She’s home.”
“When are you going to marry her?” the girl said.
“Shhhh,” the woman said.
“I’ll ask her to marry me when I get home,” he said, smiling.
The girl’s face beamed. “You should, I think. Will she say yes?”
“Yeah. I know she will.” He picked up his cup of coffee and let the myna drink from it. “She’s carrying our child.”
“You mean she’s pregnant?”
The woman dipped her head toward him. “Are you serious?”
“She told me yesterday.”
“Then I think you ought to marry her. Soon.”
“That’s what I’m planning for.”
The little girl stroked the myna’s back as it dipped its beak in the coffee. Then she said, “Is she a nice girl?”
“What does she look like?”
The woman giggled. “Don’t mind her.”
He shrugged. “First time I saw her, she was coming down the road one night on this beautiful white horse. I could hardly breathe while I stood in front of her. I knew I would never be the same again without knowing her.”
“Oh.” The little girl’s mouth fell open. “I always love horses. I wish one day I have a horse of my own.”
“They are beautiful. I have a quarter horse myself. She has a stallion. We’d ride around together sometimes late in the night.”
“Can she still ride?” the girl asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Of course. Why?”
The woman laughed and patted her daughter on the head.
“Sure she still can ride,” he said.
“Can he stay on her horse’s head while she rides?” The girl touched the myna’s beak with her finger. “I saw mynas standing on buffalos’ backs.”
“Yeah. I’ll tell her. We’ll try that next time we ride out.”
The riverboat sounded its whistle. The girl sat back on the bench seat, looking at him as he put the cloth cover on the cage.
“What’re you doing that for?” she asked. “How can he breathe?”
“Just so he keeps quiet and won’t bother other people with his talking.”
“Can I hold the cage, please?”
“Sure, Kim.” He leaned forward and placed the birdcage in her lap. She wrapped her arms around it, her eyes gone soft and dreamy.
It was evening now and the river was quiet. The water was dark red as blood where it ran into seaward tributaries. In the cabin, lights had gone out and the passengers were sleeping. The girl slept, her head resting on her mother’s shoulder, the birdcage in her lap secured by her arms around it. Sometimes in the night it began to rain as the riverboat passed a town and its lights beyond the wooded bank blinked like diamond dust. He woke hearing the sound of rain and, in its empty cadence, thought he heard her voice. He imagined the sea almond trees around the servant quarter standing solemn, dripping rainwater from their lacquered leathery leaves, the fruits ripened and red, and if it rained early in the evening the resident bats would not come out. That was where he had stayed and worked for her husband, who was twice her age, sexually impotent, even before he married her. He was also suffering incipient throat cancer. The night she spent in his room, she said to him in a toneless voice, “Recently, my husband has asked me to do something for him. If I do it, it might help save him from dying.” She went into a silence and he didn’t want to break it nor volunteer his voice. Then she said, “He wants me to have a child. That his impending misfortune could be avoided if we have a child to raise as his descendant. He said the severity of one’s own evil karma might be assuaged by receiving an auspicious birth of a child into one’s life.”
He’d often thought of the consequence of their act in that room, driven by her own choice to have a child for her husband. The thought of seeing her carry a child had troubled him, how painful it would be should it become a reality. Then one evening after dinner, having gone back to his room and sat down on the bed and taken off his shirt, ready for a night bath, he heard a knock on the door. He flung the shirt over his shoulder as he opened the door. On the dark veranda she was standing, arms folded on her chest, back turned toward him, gazing at the grove of sea almond trees.
“Hi,” he called out to her.
She turned around. “Can I come in,” she said, barely loud enough for him to hear.
He stepped back to let her in and closed the door. In the cage hung from a ceiling hook, the myna croaked, “Hello guest!”
“Hello there,” she said, touching the cage as the bird tilted its head to regard her. Then she spoke without looking at him, “He must be speaking very well by now. Am I right?”
“What he likes to do is birdcalls. He’s alone by himself most of the time so he picks up anything he hears from outside.”
“Poor little one.”
He draped the cage with his shirt and then brought the only chair he had and placed it in the center of the room under the naked light bulb in the ceiling. Then, after she sat down, he stood around, his hands jammed in his pants pockets, and then slowly sat down on the edge of his narrow bed. She was still in her business suit, single-breasted navy-blue gabardine and cuffed pants legs, and the air had a scent of her perfume, which he remembered well.
“I hope you’ve been fine,” she said, her hands clasped in her lap.
“I have no complaint. How’ve you been?”
“Okay.” She nodded then brushed back a strand of hair that had slipped down on her forehead. “I found out yesterday that I’m pregnant.”
Something very cold went through him and he shivered in his bare torso. He simply nodded.
“I’ve thought I was at one point,” she said, holding in her breath and then slowly exhaling. “But I wasn’t positive of it till yesterday when our physician confirmed it.”
He wondered if their personal doctor knew, too, of the truth of her pregnancy. He felt overwhelmed. She ran her fingers through her hair. Her jacket sleeves stopped just at the wrists, where they revealed the white cuffs of her shirt. She lowered her gaze at his bare torso and then looked up into his eyes.
“I want to tell you something,” she said, “and I want you to be ready for it.”
“You can’t stay here any longer.”
He slumped and then immediately straightened his back. “I hear you,” he said.
“You rarely ask questions, I notice.”
“I don’t think my questions would change anything.”
“You don’t even want to know the reason, do you?”
He fixed his gaze on her face. The hollow in him was so desolate he saw her face like just another face. Then he saw in those almond-shaped eyes the sorrow he had sought words for. He knew he loved her. More than ever. He nodded. “Yeah. I want to know.”
“He won’t tolerate your presence around here when I tell him. The father of my unborn child.”
Again he nodded. Then words came to him. “I think I know how he would’ve felt.”
“Do you? And do you know how I feel?”
He crimped his lips. “I wish I knew.”
“I must live with the guilt that I’ve put you through all this.”
“Is that all?”
She pursed her lips like she was stuck with thoughts. Then she let out a deep sigh.
“You have no feeling for me?” he said.
“What do you think?” Her voice was nearly inaudible. “Must I speak it?”
“That’s what I thought,” he said, hearing the muted pain in her voice.
She looked down at the linoleum floor, sighed, and looked back up at him. “You must leave tomorrow morning. Your foreman will drive you into town. Once I tell my husband tonight, he would want you out of here.”
“I can leave any time. I’m more worried about you.”
“I can take care of myself. May I ask where you’ll be headed to?”
“I don’t know.” He smiled. “I wish I knew.”
“Is that the truth?”
“I never lie. At least that’s what we have in common.”
“Only that much?” Her eyes were half closed with the familiar softness he knew well.
He drew a deep breath. “Sometimes,” he said, “what isn’t said says a lot more.”
After she left, he took a bath then went to the barn and saddled the quarter horse. Her stallion wasn’t in its stall. He led the horse out of the stable and down the gravel walk to the gate. As he opened the gate, standing in the cold silver illumination the lamps cast about him, he looked up toward the second-floor veranda where the railing etched quietly in white against the night. Her husband in the wheelchair wasn’t there.
Night dew had wet the sand, and the water in the pond by the parsnip field looked pale in the moonlight. Toads croaked, their throaty calls echoing in the swale. He stood the horse and gazed at the field. Gone now were the breathtaking yellow flowers that dotted the field like myriad butterflies fluttering. Now the stalks, slender and broken, had browned, and the stubbled field was sterile looking. The horse lowered its head to nip at the stalks. Paperlike seeds lay scattered on the ground, and in the stalks fireflies blinked and the field seemed to be speaking to any soul that understood its soundless voice.
He rode along the dirt path toward the lighthouse and up the slope, cresting it under the peaceful creamy moonlight that bathed the sea, the dunes. In the breeze the whistling pines smelled of dried cones now lying like well-worn rocks among a mat of rusty red needles. When they shed and had paved the ground thickly, hamlet children would come and rake them and bag them for firewood. The air then reeked of a pleasant odor.
He rode down the slope through a patch of goat’s foot vine, the horse snorting heavily, kicking up sand as they crossed a long, long tract carpeted with evening primrose flowering pink and white, and among them dune sunflowers rose tall and yellow as the moon. Sea breeze brought their heady scents so thick he had to breathe through his mouth to clear his head.
Wolf spiders were coming out of their burrows in the sand where the horse stood grazing. He watched them push out the tiny pebbles they plugged their holes with against floodwater. He turned the horse back, heeled it hard and it took off like a crazed horse. He was riding hard until he saw farther up the shore her white horse standing on the watermark the waves left, and up on the sand she was sitting, her knees drawn up to her chin, her hands hugging her knees.
When he reined up he couldn’t hear his own breathing for the heavy snorting of his horse. He got down.
“Hi,” he said as he took off his sandals and stood holding them in his hands.
“Hi,” she said, lowering her head to rest her chin on her knees. She was barefoot in her tight blue jeans. The breeze fluttered the loose sleeves of her white shirt.
“I thought you’d never come out this way again,” he said, standing in one place as his horse found its friend and now stood side by side with the stallion.
“I thought so too about you.”
“Well, looks like we have to say goodbye one more time.”
“One more time, yes.” She didn’t brush back the stray hair the breeze left tangled on her face.
“I kinda wished that you’d be out here. But, well, I also wished that you wouldn’t.”
That drew a faint smile from her. “Why?”
“I don’t know why. Maybe it’d be very hard to say goodbye again.”
“I imagine so.” Then she gazed up at him. “Why don’t you sit down with me?”
He placed his sand-coated sandals between his feet, sitting with his arms cradling his knees next to her. The breeze brought an herbal fragrance from her hair and suddenly he felt lightheaded.
“How’s the little guy doing,” he asked without looking at her. The autistic boy was the son of her husband and his now deceased wife. After his wife died and before the man remarried her, twenty-five years his junior, some sickness has left him sexually powerless.
“He’s fine,” she said. “I don’t know what to tell him when he notices that you’re gone.”
“How could you tell that he could tell?”
“I just know.”
“You want me to give him the myna?”
“No. If there’s someone you want to give it to, it’s me.” She smiled a gentle smile.
“Then it’s yours. It can say your name very clearly. It said where’s Ly now after you left tonight.”
“No, keep it. I don’t want it to remind me of something that’d haunt me thinking about it.”
He gazed out toward the distant mud flats, dark and shimmering. The blind man wasn’t in sight. The first time he knew about the blind man, he was riding on the beach with her and she raised her arm and pointed toward a small human figure, slumped and pale in the moonlight, working on a sand flat halfway between them and the bonfire. The figure moved a hand net along the wet sand, a basket hoisted on the hip. “See that person?” she said. “He’s blind.”
“I see him.”
“He’s from the hamlet. Born blind. He picks clams and fish, those dropped by fishing nets when they haul them out of the boats in the late afternoon.”
“I guess he never needs no light on the beach to do what he does.”
“No. Just have to be aware of the tide cycle and the moon cycle. You don’t want to be swept away by high tide when you’re out here by yourself at night. He told me every night he goes out and away from the hamlet as far as he could, till his ears could no longer pick up any sound, human and dogs, from the hamlet. He did get lost sometimes though. Told me when that happened he had to rely on his nose to smell the wind, even use his tongue to test the wind to find his way back.”
Now she caught him gazing and said, “What’s out there?”
“I guess I wouldn’t see him again before I leave tonight.”
“The blind man.”
“It’d be late when he’s out there during high tide.”
“Sometimes I caught fish out that way and just threw them back in the water ’cause he wasn’t there.” Then he shook his head. “His is a different world.”
She broke her gaze with a nod of her head. “Ours too.”
“You and me?”
“Your world and mine.”
“You know what I often wish for?”
“You’re a man of few words so I’d be delighted to hear.”
“That when I met you, you’re just an ordinary girl from a poor home like me.”
“What made you think that would work out for you and me?”
“You’d have nothing to give up for.”
“You’ve never said you love me.”
He looked into her eyes, gentle and demure, and in that moment he saw the graceful softness that had melted his heart once and again. “I love you,” he said. “But it’s never easy for me to say it.”
She leaned her forehead against his and, her eyes closed, touched his face with her hand. “Do you regret that you met me?”
“No.” He tried to smile. “I learned from you to like surprises.”
“Did you really?”
“Do you regret it?”
She shook her head and put her finger on his lips. Her face felt cold against his and the fragrance of her hair brought him the very name of sorrow.
He woke twice when the boat docked to let off passengers and pick up new ones. Night riders who came on board as quietly as thieves, their clothes rustling, some carrying nothing while others lugging with them merchandise wares. Once, past midnight, the boat docked and ferry peddlers sang out their food choices from the landing. The woman woke, looking around in the faint reflection of lights from the food stalls.
“Where are we?” she asked him.
“I don’t know.” He craned his neck looking out toward the pier. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“No. I brought food with me. Would you like some?”
“No, thanks. If I eat now, I’d stay awake for a while.”
“You mean you want to save your stomach for what she has for you at home.”
“Does she know you’d be home soon?”
“Aren’t you excited?”
“I am. I mean, knowing she’s home waiting.”
“You forgot the little one inside her, too.”
“You can’t go anywhere long enough without thinking of them.”
“You tell me. You been there before.”
“Yes. I’ve been there before.” She lay her cheek on her daughter’s head and smiled. After a while she said, “Where are you exactly on the Plain?”
“Where?” He cocked his head to one side. “You know where the canal ends into the Plain?”
“Hmm. I think I know where.”
“I’m somewhere around there.”
“Maybe someday I’ll take my daughter there to visit you. She loves horses.”
“Sure.” He looked back out to the landing and the woman, at his silence, didn’t inquire further of his whereabouts. Then he said to her, “When will we arrive there?”
“By early morning. I thought you knew that.”
“Well, not exactly. This is my first time away from home.”
“You can’t wait to get home to see her again, can you?”
“I’m happy for you.”
Soon the riverboat was moving again. He slept and then woke to see the velvety black of the night glowing with myriad tiny lights, yellow and green, that the fireflies made in the trees that lined the banks. He watched those stars until the boat left them behind. In his sleep he smelled the strong smells of horses and heard the sound of waves and, waking again, saw that it was getting gray in the sky and that the banks were yellow with riverhemp in bloom. Among them were gnarled trunks, like black giants, of the mangrove trees. It was drizzling and the wind came up from the land and he could smell the fragrance of cajeput flowers and soon he saw them, tiny and white, crowding the riverbank, the cajeput trunks wetly black like buffalo horns. The Plain now came into view, flat, immense and steely gray, without boundaries, brimming with floodwater. Past clumps of bushwillows with the tops of their bushes above the water, he heard moorhens calling, and rain now falling and popping like packets of broken needles on the surface of the water, the wind damp, and in that grayness a heron rising to air.
The riverboat found the ferry landing in the rain. The woman woke her daughter up.
“We’re here, sweetie,” she said to the girl.
The girl rubbed her eyes and looked toward the landing. “Is daddy there waiting for us?”
“He’ll be there.” She picked up the birdcage from her daughter’s lap and gave it to him. “Well, we’re getting off here. Yours the next stop, I guess.”
The girl pulled the cloth just to peek at the myna. “Hello baby,” she said.
“Hello,” the myna said.
“He never sleeps, does he?” she asked him.
“I’ll miss him, I know I will.”
As they stood up, the woman with the carry-on bag now in hand, he said to them, “Wait.”
They looked down at him. He took the girl’s hands and put the birdcage in them. “Kim,” he said, “you take him home with you now, okay?”
“Oh my,” she said.
The woman smiled, shaking her head. “You’re spoiling her now.”
“Teach him something new every day,” he said to the girl.
“Will he forget what you’ve taught him?”
“He won’t. He’s a very smart bird.”
“Would he say Thank you, Ly, when I feed him?”
“You tell him your name. That’s all you do, hear?”
“Will he love me like he loves her?”
“I’m sure he will. He needs affection. Like us.”
“Thank you so much.”
He sat back, hands on his thighs. “You all have a good day now.”
“You’ll be home soon yourself,” the woman said, tapping him on the shoulder.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling at her, “home, yeah.”
After they departed from the boat, he leaned his head against the sash and gazed across the water. Farther up he could see a huge mangrove tree, gnarled and shaggy, rising out of the water like an ancient landmark. Beyond it, a house, still a small dark shape on the low, gray horizon. Beyond that, the final destination of an unnamed landing where the riverboat would stop.
He heard the little girl calling out to her father on the landing and then the myna’s croaking voice, “Hello guest.”
The rain was coming down hard. It was the rainy season again.