Story: Softly Come Her Steps
By: Khanh Ha
The letter said, “Madame Thị Lan is very ill. Be kindly advised of our necessary action to be taken for gravely ill residents. This will be the only correspondence from this office to our resident’s family concerned. Respectfully.” Having taken ten days by postal mail, it arrived from the village office that oversaw the leper colony where her mother had been an inhabitant for the past three years.
The last time, seven years now, they were together was in an afternoon when her mother took her to a seaside town to meet her husband-to-be. She was seventeen. It was on a ferry in Central Vietnam of her hometown that he had seen her. Crossing the river that day to her school. Later in the day his chauffeur in a white shirt and black pants had politely asked her at the school recess that someone would like to have a few words with her. That someone was a man triple her age. An overlord from the deep south of the Mekong Delta. He stayed at a hotel. That night he sent his chauffeur to pick up both her and her mother. Her mother, a schoolteacher then, in a traditional áo dài the color of yellow cocoon silk, looked timid as she greeted him. The man wore a charcoal gray three-piece suit; a white silk handkerchief peeked from his breast pocket. In a white blouse and navy blue skirt, she looked like a French schoolgirl, the man complimented her.
“Let me take her around the town,” her mother said to the chauffeur. “You can come, if you wish.”
“I’ll be right here, ma’am,” the chauffeur said. “I think I should.”
Barges cluttered the waterway and fishing nets threw silhouettes across the fiery water. She breathed in the metallic tang of fish, the wetly sweet smell of rot timbers, of boats and barges and waterlogged wooden stilts. Overhead crows circled, cawing noisily. Some came down flapping their wings in front of the slaughterhouse that sat back from the street. The birds waddled, preening themselves, waiting for throwaways of guts that butchers tossed out.
A liveliness seeped through her veins. This would be her new home. The Main Street clanged with noises and sounds. Little shops of Chinese and Indians sat among local stores. See the porters bent under those bales of garments? Yellow and gaunt and barefooted. See them pull the two-wheeled carts on their cranelike legs? Half naked, oxblood skin covered with sweat. See the grimy children stand bare to their waists laughing? Gaps in their teeth, snots in their eyes. She would belong here, this race, this people.
The street was narrow and jammed with huge baskets sitting on wooden trestles. Women vendors gawked at her, talking among themselves after she went past. An American middle-aged man nodded slightly at her. Hello there, he said. Hello, she greeted him.
They passed stalls selling delicacies and confections and she felt her stomach gnaw. Maybe she should eat something, for all she had since breakfast was a bowl of rice gruel.
Now the sights of confections tempted her and she stopped in front of a stall set against the loam-packed wall of a hut. A little girl came out of nowhere carrying a child astride her hip. The child’s nose was smeared with snot, her dark velvety eyes rheumy. They gazed at her and at her mother whose face was shadowed by a palm-leaf conical hat. Then their gaze dropped at the assortments of preserved fruits on wooden trays. Tangerines, plum, dates, tamarinds.
She said to the girl, “What do you like,” and the girl looked up at her, surprised, and put her finger between her lips, sizing up the sweets. Then she pointed at a tray lined with round barley sugar, each sandwiched by round rice papers the size of a fig.
“I see,” she said and then to the confectioner, “five, please.”
While she paid, she watched the girl take the barley sugar wrapped in paper and held the bag as if she didn’t know it was given to her. “Eat,” she said, pinching an imaginary confection and putting it into her mouth. The confectioner grinned as they watched the girl open the paper, pick one candy and let the child lick it.
Sunlight had become mild and shadows grown on the street and across the water. When they went back up the street, a crowd of people was gathering on the sidewalk. People turned their heads to gaze at the two of them and then stepped back to give them a view.
She looked down at an American man lying on his back, his face beet-red, drooling like a baby.
“He aint dead,” a woman said and someone repeated, “No, he aint dead, just drunk out of his skull.”
Her mother searched for the bottle. “Drunk?”
A woman spat red saliva of betel chew and wiped her swollen lips with the back of her hand. “Drank chum-chum over there. I saw him. Came out here talking to himself . . . looked like a madman.”
Her gaze lingered on the man lying still at her feet. An olive visor cap sat cock-eyed on top of his head.
“He’ll die,” her mother said. “Call the authorities.”
“Sis,” the woman said, “he’ll be all right. These fools ruin their health because they’ve heard of this chum-chum’s notoriety. It could pass for poison this rice liquor the locals brew. All sorts of impurities are let through during distillation. But cheap. And lethal.”
She took one last look at the man, his mouth still foaming. When they left, walking back toward the pier, she turned to her mother. “I guess these men don’t have families here.”
“Yes, darling. It adds up when you’re alone.”
She began to know that feeling—alone in a strange place away from home.
By midmorning two days later, after the letter’s arrival, her boat reached a bend in the river winding like an S and after another bend they entered an open space filled with sandbanks. A wall of gigantic bamboos swallowed them with their tall, thick trunks throwing their shade out on water. In their blue shade was a lonesome promontory.
A large red flag fluttered in the breeze at the tip of the landing. She leaned out from under the cane-laced dome and said to the guide, “There the red flag. I recognize it now.”
“What’s it for, Ma’am?” the guide said.
“It cautions travelers. There’s a leper hamlet up beyond. Listen, we’re in the vicinity of my destination.”
He rose from the bench and found his balance toward the cabin where she sat. An enormous man in his fifties, hired by her husband to escort her to the leper hamlet, he now lowered himself to sit on the narrow bench, his hands resting on his knees, and, without looking at her, spoke, “Ma’am, are you really ready for this?”
“I am.” Her eyes squinted at the empty promontory and as the boat passed it she said, “How do we get there? I forgot. It’s been two years.”
The guide asked the brown-garbed boatman standing at the stern and ordered him to find an entry to the hamlet, for the promontory was barricaded with a wooden stockade. They went under the shade of bamboos feathering the sandbanks and found a stream hemmed in by inclines yellowed with reeds and castor beans. Out of the bamboo shade the boat followed the stream and sunlight gilded the mist with glitters like gold dust on the banks. Both the boatman and his wife rowed silently in the harsh cries of peacocks calling one another behind the hillocks, and up on a hill where breadfruit trees stood laden with their pendulous fruits they saw the ruin of a pagoda charred by fire.
There was no entry but a steep climb etched into the clay soil by stones and rotten logs. The boatman and his wife rested their oars while the guide helped her find her footing up the perilous steps. In fact, she helped him find his balance on the treacherously narrow rungs by making him look up, not down, as they ascended the stairs. Somewhere on the face on the sheer slope, where maidenhair fern leaned out for sun from every cleft, they saw above them a family of black gibbons seating themselves on a bed of rocks, tranquil like fixtures of rock themselves. When the guide rose enormously from below, they shot into the woods like hallucination.
A trail led them into the woods past the abandoned pagoda and brought them in front of a bamboo stockade. There was a hut outside the latched gate. She waited under the shade of a mangrove as the guide approached the hut. The landscape began appearing familiar to her. She saw a human figure stir up in the dim hovel. Moments later the guide came back and told her the hut was used as the infirmary to treat the lepers for their sores, malaria and dysentery. Neighboring villages shared the medical costs. Here it also received food relatives from those villages brought for the lepers, and the food would be taken into the hamlet and placed outside the lepers’ huts.
A man came out of the hut. A small, middle-aged man with an awed look on his face as he stood in front of the guests. He kept scratching his head, his small eyes darting back and forth between them, and he stammered when he spoke. She gave him her mother’s name, and he said he did not know. She asked him of a woman named Thị Lan and he shook his head at the name. He said someone from the village might know, because he was just a hired hand from another village.
“Nobody wants this kind of job,” he said. “I don’t mind.”
“What did you do before?” the guide asked.
“I . . . I went from one place to another, sir. I begged.”
“And now you treat the lepers for their ailments?” she said.
“That’s right, ma’am. They have all kinds. But sores are what bother them most.”
“What kind of lesions?” she asked.
“Holes on their legs, ma’am. Sometimes on their bodies.” He pointed to his abdomen. “I bind them up and . . . and they’d come back the next day. Same spots. Asked them what happened to the gauze I tied those sores with. Don’t know, they always say. I know what they did with those bandages. They took them off and used them as handkerchief. Yeah. The long one they wrapped round their head. Keep head cold away, they said.”
Her eyes turned pensive. “I saw the warning flag on the promontory. What’s the reason to barricade it? It wasn’t there two years ago. How can they wash themselves? Where do they get water?”
The man shook his head. “Ma’am, it’s blocked all around so they can’t get out and go into the villages to beg. It’s a long story. They used to come down there to get water for cooking. Yeah. To bathe. But some drowned in the river cause they couldn’t swim. And then some slept there cause it’s a long way to hobble back. Ma’am, many of them have no legs. The tigers ate them. And once those tigers knew where to get their meals, they’d keep coming back.”
She sighed as she looked into the hamlet through chinks in the stockade. “They told me last time they moved my mother to another place. How can we find out where she is in the hamlet?”
The man simply looked at her and then at the guide.
“Ma’am,” the guide said, “I wonder if you can even recognize her if you find her again.”
The man rubbed his nose a few times and said, “You can go into the hamlet. Just don’t let them follow you out.”
“Why?” The guide knitted his brows.
“They do that, sir. Sometimes they got out cause some visitors took pity on them and find a place for them in some leprosarium.”
She nodded. “We understand. But if anyone of us were like them, wouldn’t we wish for a chance to be cared for?”
The man said nothing and dropped his gaze. She gestured toward the shut gate. “Would you let us in?”
The man threw open the latch and the gate creaked swinging on a half arc. As she entered the hamlet with the guide, the man said, “There’re two men from this village in there. They just came in. You can ask them.”
Green and yellow were the only colors in the bamboo forest. Ocher was the color of footpaths feathered with thin leaves the pale green of grasshoppers. In the quiet they heard the peacocks again, answering one another from some unseen bushes, and the melancholy creaking of bamboo trunks. She told the guide to keep walking and not to bother with her trailing behind. She told him bamboos were masters of their habitats where no other plants could grow, so a walk in a bamboo forest was easy. Yet he walked half-turned, eyeing the ground, wary of broken bamboo thorns.
Then the first hut came into sight, then another, nested under tall giant trunks of bamboo, shadowed by their laced tops so that they sat like toy huts sheltered by a canopy of smoky green. On each crude palm-woven doors, most of them shut, was hung a square, white cloth numbered in black ink. Looking at them she thought perhaps that was how food was brought to each hut. By the door of each hut sat a wicker basket, its handle dangling with a small white cloth inked with a number. She understood that the inhabitants were fed—how often she did not know—unlike in some leper hamlets where the lepers were left on their own to raise fowls and pigs and scavenge for foods in the forest.
When the trail had led them far into the hamlet, at times winding around thick bamboo trunks the size of a man’s leg, at times skirting bamboo hedges hollowed at the base with openings so that peering through them they saw the dwellers, they stopped at what they saw.
Lepers had come out in front of their huts, as if they had watched the trail for visitors. They materialized from behind the giant bamboo trunks, emerging through man-sized holes in the hedges. Limbless dwarfs, hideous deformed humans. Some limped, some crawled, some were pushed sitting on little box carts, some, blind, were led by the hand.
Her voice restrained, she told the guide to keep walking, while her gaze fell upon looming faces filled with livid sores, lumpy with red knots, hollowed with purplish cavities. She heard the guide. He told the inhabitants to keep off the trail and yet they came closer. Looking down she saw eyes like fishes’, many filmed with mucus, faces like masks because their skins had gone dead, hands with nubbed fingers because their tips had been eaten away by leprosy. Those hands were bent like claws. She felt them tugging at the hems of her dress. She kept walking, hands clutching the sides of her dress. Pity made her want to stop, perhaps because she was pulling away.
The guide’s voice startled her. He ordered the lepers to back off. They relented. Now the cortege trailed them the best they knew how. Grotesque cripples on stumpy legs, crook-backed mutants in swinging gait.
She followed the enormous guide, seeing his broad back, shielded by his huge body. The strange noises of the lepers’ bodies made in their motion, of their laborious breathing. The sights of their hovels, those animal’s lairs, so low only the lepers could enter because most of them trundled themselves on hands. She thought of those who had been here, like herself and the guide, those who showed mercy and took lepers to a more human haven.
She heard gibberish of sounds. A commotion. Then a crackling noise. Ahead, off the trail, thin columns of smoke spiraled up the great tall trunks of bamboo and soon the air smelled foul. A hut was burning. Closer she stood, hands clenched, watching two men throwing bundles of straw and twigs around the hut. Flames licked the thatch roof and rose in blue and orange and the roof popped noisily and began to sway. Suddenly a figure stirred inside the inferno. Like an effigy set on fire. Watching, she thought her soul was being sucked away by horror. A leper still alive inside the hut. It staggered to the blazing door and fell. The fire roared, ashes swirled, black smoke pumped in furious blasts up the sky. She could smell the stench of burned woods and straw and flesh.
When the fire died down and the ground was a black pile of debris and charred woods, the two men, spade in hand, approached the body. They turned to look at the visitors who came toward them. Behind them the lepers watched.
“Are you gentlemen from the village?” the guide asked.
“Yessir,” one man said, leaning on his spade.
“We’re looking for someone here. Perhaps you know her.”
“A former schoolteacher.”
The men looked at each other.
“Her common name is Thị Lan,” she said, seeing their confused look.
The man who leaned on his spade scratched his ear and then, hesitatingly, pointed at the charred corpse. “There she is, ma’am.”
She felt a shortness of breath. She blinked at the sight of the burned body. It looked so small like a child’s. She heard the guide question the men. The same man said, “She hadn’t touched her food for three days now, sir. You know what that means. So we were ordered to burn down her hut before the body gets eaten by rats. That’s the law, sir. You don’t want contamination in the hamlet.”
“She was still alive,” the guide said.
“She could be,” the man said.
When the guide turned to her, she felt lightheaded. She heard him ask gently if she could make her way back and she nodded. Then she closed her eyes. In them the blue-red flames danced, the tall bamboos spiraled in smoky gold.
[Khanh Ha’s debut novel is FLESH (June 2012, Black Heron Press). He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. His new novel has earned a 2013 Leapfrog Fiction AwardHonorable Mention. His short stories have appeared in Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, Red Savina Review (RSR), Cigale Literary Magazine, Mobius, DUCTS, Lunch Ticket, The Mascara Literary Review, Taj Mahal Review, Glint Literary Journal, and forthcoming in the summer issues of Zymbol,Yellow Medicine Review (2013 September Anthology), The Underground Voices (2013 December Anthology), and The Long Story (2014 March Anthology).
Visit author’s website at: www.authorkhanhha.com]