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from the November 2018 issue

A Dream

In this surrealistic piece, a sleeping man wakes up to find a visitor watching him. 

He comes to find me on a day I don’t remember, by the time I’ve gotten up he is already sitting on the other side of the table to watch as I eat my breakfast. He does not say a word as I stir the coffee, the spoon’s collision with the side of the glass making a dispassionate clang. I’ve been sleeping for a while, not sure how long a while, he must have arrived as I was dozing off, coming softly without a sound. As I burrowed into the dark, I imagine he was taking a stroll along the nearby streets, walking slowly, with short regular steps, the footsteps so soft, without hurting a single dry twig, without leaving a trace in the fine powdery soil, then circling the neighborhood, then perhaps passing my door, once and then many times and almost stopping, probably pushing the door open to take a stroll in the small garden, crouching over a cluster of flowers, every once in a while gazing at the window, waiting for me to get up. Now he sits silently across from me, I smile as a show of greeting. He keeps silent and I wonder whether he lives far away or somewhere in the neighborhood. There is something very familiar about him, as if he’s known me from the childhood days I was still wearing pants with crotch holes and I have been seeing him daily since then. “Have you forgotten me already?” He’s probably about to ask that question. “How could I forget, we are so close.” “You’ve been waiting for long? Sorry then.” “Just been sleeping and sleeping, I didn’t think I’d have to sleep any longer. Here, have a cigarette. Anything strange on your end lately?” “Strange on my end? I’m still so-so, so-so, as always. You seem different than before, what are you up to now?” “Not up to anything, how about a couple drinks with me to ease the boredom.” “You’re bored? You’re bored? You’re bored? You are with me and you are bored? You are with me and you are bored? You are with me and you are bored? Bored . . . bored . . . bored . . . bored . . . bored of what, what is boring you? What do you do? Huh . . . huh . . . huh . . .? You’ve forgotten about me . . . forgotten about me.” He silently sits across from me, I look for a cigarette to light. An invitation to join a friend’s baby’s one-month birthday is open on the table. After having a child he looks noticeably different. I brought the little girl a set with a white sweater and pants, and a matching hat, socks, and gloves. I insisted on putting the clothes on the baby and took her into my arms. I praised my lover for getting the right sizes. Next year we will have a wedding ceremony. I wanted to share with him this private joy of mine. In the house painted bluish-green, I placed the little child in the rattan cot covered in white veils and rocked the cot lightly. “I was born once, too, right?” He remains silent, the cigarette has shed its first body of ashes on the table surface, the coffee cup has about a sip left. “I was born once, too, right?” The little child in the cot slightly stretched her two legs, raising her two hands wrapped in white socks to rub her face. I told my friend’s wife, “Remember to trim the child’s fingernails or she might scratch her face and since she’s a girl, we ought to preserve it for her or else, if she turns into a leftover woman, she might hold a grudge against her parents. Her eyes are gummed up, you should give her drops.” Now I said, I would like to have a little child to carry in my arms. Hey would you like that? He keeps silent. Before my friend’s wife gave birth, I said I would be the child’s godfather if it were a boy, don’t know why I prefer boys to girls, but my friend ended up having a girl so I did not get to be the godfather. “Do you prefer boys or girls?” During the birthday celebration meal, I got to meet a couple of good friends. “How come you look so sad?” A friend took a picture of the child as I was holding it in my arms. I said, “At the end of the year I’m getting married and having a boy, and we shall become in-laws.” I petted the baby. “Be good and I’ll let you be my daughter-in-law, alright?” Someone spoke up, “But that wouldn’t be right, it’s fine for the wife to be younger than the husband but not the other way round.” “Oh, right, why is that the case? I shall make my boy do it then, if he refuses he is not my boy.” Everybody laughed. “Do you agree with me?” He kept silent. It wasn’t long after the wedding with everyone’s good wishes that their first daughter came along, chubby and adorable. I was born once, too. She is now one month old, then she will grow, she will be like me, she will get married and have a family. She might become my daughter-in-law. Then she might have a child of her own. I fold the letter four times then dispassionately crumple it in my right hand before throwing it in the bin by the table’s leg. “Please have a drink with me.” The paper ball makes a sound as it skims against the edge of the bin and falls to the attic floor. I bend down to pick it up and a pushpin pierces my ring finger—the ring was bought by my fiancée. How did that pin get here? Lucky no one stepped on it. “You’re wearing shoes, aren’t you?” A bit of blood oozes from the fingertip, a sensation of mild pain. I squeeze the finger with the other hand, hoping the blood stops flowing. I daub a drop of fresh red blood on the white sheet of paper where I had previously smeared two mosquitoes, now dead and dry. At the top of the sheet is written: “My beloved Quyên, I have been dying to write you since . . .” This is a letter I intended to write long ago but haven’t gotten round to. “How horrible of me, you know, intending to do something then procrastinating. You see that letter there, my lover could have died and I wouldn’t even know.” I smudge the drop of blood into a fat smear. “These two mosquitoes bit me so I had to kill them, no other choice. I was once born. I was once born. How about you? You must have been waiting for me a long time. I’ve been sleeping since I don’t even remember when. Such a pleasure it should be to sleep so much. Everybody probably assumes that. Not true. No. So much time for hallucination. So much time for terror. So much time we cannot forget, cannot leave behind. Right, I’m sitting across from you now. Why you? Why me? Why am I not an object like a table, a chair? Why am I not you? If I were you I would not have come here. I already consider myself a discarded thing. I’d like to close my eyes and sleep some more. Until whenever, and perhaps not wake up, never wake up again.” He kept sitting in the brown chair. Quyên once sat there. How come she doesn’t anymore? Where did she go? Dũng once sat there. How come he doesn’t come around and invite me for a drink? And the same for my other good friends. My younger brother once sat there. What has he been doing and why has he not returned to let me lecture him before I turn on the stove to make eggs and toast for him? Such a shame. How come my parents . . . neither, right, neither of them, has sat in that chair. Ever . . . I hunger for sleep. He’s about to get up, his left leg touches the chair’s leg. Just slightly. He puts his hands in his pockets and stands up. “Where you going? You think I’ve been cold to you? No. No. No matter how things are between us—especially after I’ve woken up—full of anger, hate, revenge, competition, we’re still the same. Still . . .” He turns his back on me. A wide stern back. He looks in the direction of the bookshelf. Ancient sages are still lying silently there. “Who would you like to meet? Confucius, Nguyễn Du, Goethe, Du Fu, Faulkner, Hồ Xuân Hương, Lê Quý Đôn . . . it’s impossible to list them all. You know them. You know them too well.” He turns to the right and slowly starts to walk away. “That’s a piece of ephemera from my mother, you want to take a look?” He keeps quietly strolling around the room. I light another cigarette. It seems the calico cat is sunbathing on the porch, playing with the yellowed leaves that fell last night. On a branch of the pomegranate tree a magpie-robin is singing, perhaps a familiar guest is calling at my door. He circles around me. Why doesn’t he sit down? Why is he walking in circles? Why is he still silent? My hand glides across the table, across so much dust, why is there all this dust? I look for the duster. I hung it by the closet but it’s not there. The birdsong sounds slightly off. If there were a slingshot to shoot a rock at it, it would fall and quiver to death. Magpie-robins are hard to nourish, they often swallow their own tongue to commit suicide. Right, why do birds let humans cage them up as decorative pets? Why do humans let brutes command, instruct, and discipline them with power, leather whips, the daily grind . . . Who moved the duster? Or is it he who took it? The duster has feathers from the rooster’s tail whose magenta softness recalls a precious shade of silk. Quyên’s shirt had peacock feathers with round mirrors glimmering like silver. Could it actually be he who took it? I’ve been sleeping. Who would enter this house other than him? What did he take the rooster-feather duster for? He hurries back. He must have known I was thinking nasty thoughts of him. But who could guarantee he isn’t nasty? He’s got to be nasty one way or another. Why won’t he talk? I stand up and walk to the drawers, stick my hands in and start stirring around, could I have put it in here? If I’m going to leave the house now, the first thing I should do is have a quick pee, wash my hair, and comb it a little to look tidy and clean. I should have climbed the rope a few times after waking up to be more alert. But the rope tied to the sea-almond tree broke after last season’s rain started to rot it out. Too bad I didn’t listen to the shop-owners’ advice. What would I say to them now? It’s my fault. That rope was enough to hang myself. It was good enough. I stick my hand in the drawer and scare the cockroach which ends up running straight into my shirt sleeve. Unacceptable, such filth. This wingless kind of cockroach smells horrific, its resin flowing all over my arm, disgusting. I brush it from my body. Where’s it going to go? How is it going to escape death? Who escapes death? I rip off my shirt. “Excuse me.” It’s disappeared. Heavens, my body smells terrible, I must take a quick shower. I steal a look at him to check whether he shows any signs of irritation. Absolutely none. “Ah, before I went to sleep, I had placed the duster under the headboard to shoo away the mice.” I hurriedly turn over the straw mat covering the bed and take out the duster. “My wandering memory causes me such pains. Who could love me, who could pity me, everybody has come to hate me. Why do you still come here, why can’t I act? I allow myself to become powerless, fortunately, otherwise, if I had a sharp spear in my hand, I might . . .” He lightly shakes his head. Does he know I intend to murder him? I take the duster and brush the dust off the table. Clouds of dust materialize in the air. I have known him since long ago. I was once born, too. Why was I born? Why do you still come here? I would like to sleep. He turns his face toward me. I hang the duster in its old place, and sit still. Outside in the garden the sun is up. A child is playing there. A few flowers are blooming. Please don’t pick them. Flowers here are rare, people cherish a variety called Swine Feces and marigolds. Swine Feces feed on dog shit. Marigolds are fertilized by money and appearance. If I had said that out loud they would have strangled me long ago. His hand is still here. I know it. Hey little child, little child, please sing out. The dust zone fades slowly from dark gray into pink as soft light floods in. “Whose child are you?” “I am Daddy’s child.” “If that's so then go sleep with your daddy, you’re not allowed to sleep with Mommy anymore.” “I am Mommy’s child.” “Move away then, Daddy will not go to work to buy bread for you anymore.” I covered my face and wept. “Who gave birth to you?” “Mommy.” “Who gave birth to you?” “Daddy.” “Not true, you crawled out from the earth, right, you crawled up from beneath the ground, do you know where that is?” “No.” “Touch your own head. See? That day I was feeding the buffaloes, I heard some child crying so I lit a lamp and saw you crawling out from under the buffalo’s dung, I took you in so Mommy could charitably wash you. Mommy was lazy and did not wash you properly so you have buffalo dung all over your head. Now go over there, heavens, so filthy, smelly, covered in buffalo dung, how could anyone bear you.” I covered my face and wept. “Oh poor child, poor child, Daddy was kidding, come here and let me hold you.” I brushed my eyes red. I was once born. “Where do you come from? “Mommy’s belly.” “From where exactly?” “From where exactly?” “Who gave birth to you?” “Mommy.” “From where exactly?” “From where exactly?” I covered my face and wept. I was once born. “Daddy gave birth to you. Daddy gave birth to you by the armpit, right here, right. You were in my belly until you grew, then I took a knife and made an incision, I inserted my hand and pulled you out by the leg. That was all.” I was once born, too. Like everyone else, like everyone else right? Back in those days I already met him and saw in him something beautiful. I cried and laughed. I had fun with the other children, picked flowers, caught butterflies, played catch, went swimming in the river. “The jar of candies is too high to be reached. The guava is too high to be picked. Why would a child want to act like an adult. Stop it. Stop it.” His innocence receded and turned into ambitions. I grew up. He grew eager desires. I grew up. He burst into growth with tempting mysteries. I was born, my mother birthed me. Like everyone else. Right. My parents gave birth to me. My grandparents gave birth to my parents, my great-grandparents gave birth to my grandparents . . . one could retrace the lineage like that, but who was the first human being? Who gave birth to humans? The supreme being gave birth to humans. Who is the supreme being? Who is the supreme being? Who birthed the supreme being? I was born. My children will be born. Until when? Why do birds have wings whereas I don’t? Why can fish survive in water whereas I can’t? Why do chickens lay eggs whereas my wife gives birth to human beings? Why do dogs eat feces whereas I eat rice? Why do buffalo and cows graze whereas I don't? Why don’t I have the woolen fleece of sheep? Why do I have to wear clothes? I shall ask no more. Why don't humans eat each other? I want to sleep forever in my parents’ embrace. But my ancestors have died. My father died. My mother died. My brothers scattered. The house was set on fire. The villages and fields were emptied. My kinsmen killed each other . . . I want to be a dog. I simply want to be a dog to eat the dog-meat stew with noodles and bamboo shoots boiled in broth, or drink some wine with grilled dog doused in the golden hue of turmeric. Right? Right? Right? He is standing up now. The sunshine is overwhelming. He is walking firmly now. “Do you know what I wanted to do then? I wanted to love a young woman. Damn it, why love?” The rising sun lingered over the country street. She walked from the direction of dawn to the school gate, her diaphanous shirt looked as delicious as white marble. Her red lips summoning sugary persimmons to be bitten by the teeth. Her hair long like a stream of silk. Her footsteps melting diaphanous strands of cool light. Look. She is looking my way. I love you. I love you. Why are you smiling, ripe amber sea almond? Why are you running, flame tree branch? Why so silent, pale marble? Why so still, luminous lake surface? Why so rosy, sunshine? Why? Why? Why? Why do I love you? Look at the hesitant way she goes. "I love you." "I love you, too." Feet are swiftly moving on water. Why has everything become ordinary around me? My mother died. The house was burned down. Villages and fields were emptied. My people of the same uterus killed one another. My kinsmen killed one another. I want to be a blueish-green stone to be thrown across the stale pond. He came to me with an aura of sadness and later turned blithely distant. Why did he come? I will marry you, I will share my life you. Look, she is approaching and leaning her body on my lap. Why do rose petals open a shy smile? Why does the silvereye sing? Why is light bright and beautiful? Why are leaves green and fresh? A small house enveloped by shrubberies, with a brick-tiled yard. The house shall have a porch for me to sip tea and rest in the afternoon. But why is there only one body? But why are there only guileless impulses? He came with a snide aura. I want to beat him to death now. Night falls slowly over an illusory zone where traces of light will start to glow. I watch as he floats off in a numb daze. He is still beside me. He walks forward. He is still around me. He is silent. Night has fallen weary like salt dew on an early winter morning. Slowly fading, darkening, fading then dissolving. He stayed there, so why did he come? Why does he keep coming? What is he exactly? Now he is again sitting across from me. What do my limbs do? What does my brain do? Am I still me? My child will be born, my grandchild will call me grandfather, my great-grandchild will call me great-grandfather . . . He keeps walking forward into a languid nothingness. He is ever around me. What did he come for? Why do I have to face him? Why does he remain silent? "Who are you?" I want to scream aloud. I want to sleep. I want to sleep and never get up. Night has fallen. Night is here. I have been bearing an evil intent since childhood to someday secretly carry a weapon and hide in a dark corner—in the street where life goes by. As each figure would step forward, I’d firmly grab them by the collar and murder them one by one. I ponder and consider practicing to make the execution more rapid and skillful. When should I lie in wait? How should I hold the knife in my hand? Surely the knives or other weapons currently available are not worth using. My weaponry must be different, for sure. How should I grab each of them? I don’t want them to have time to utter a cry or a breath. Where in the body should I slay? Decapitate or stab the heart, the stomach, the legs? I think after I finish the task I will walk alone through the streets they walk. How I would enjoy the satisfaction. I will anoint myself the hero and no one knows that I am filled with human sins, that I carry them alone and in the name of these sins I will have an excuse to die. But not right now. Perhaps due to the presence of this evil intent, I have been carrying my body through endless stupor. For the past twenty years, I haven’t slept at all. I have imprisoned myself in a world of stupor. Someone once pointed at my face and said: The bastard without a family. Without a god. Without a nation. I open a smile and start to sing. That was high praise for the newcomer. I call out my name and face the one who speaks. I show the palm of my hands and invite him to join a short outing. Each time I go out, I wear a rose-colored shirt, a yellow headscarf, a mauve pair of palace shoes. I invite my company to wear a bluish-green tunic, a bucket hat, a red pair of shoes. I will invite them to walk with me to a market. The market is always crowded, I say: “You are invited and you are now the host. Do you think the market is familiar to you? There are the usual logs, rice, fish sauce, fruits, plants, birds, meat, seafood. You have passed by and spotted all these, haven’t you?” “Yes, so why did you say this is a novel place? If it weren’t novel, why would you take me out here? Aren’t these things available everywhere?” “I did not say that. I have been here many times. I like the place and like to guide visitors here. But it all depends on your eyes. Your eyes give the correct vision. My eyes are like ghost eyes! So, can you see?” “Yes, of course, I will start. Starting with the night-blooming jasmine logs: highly flammable, keeps the coal going, great scent. These are straws and dry grass collected from the recently harvested fields, they could be woven into warm nests for winter. These large pots of flowers, such fresh and strange flowers, gorgeous colors and aromas, these marble-like white flowers. Let’s go to a restaurant. These types of cakes. Let me treat you.” “I am not hungry.” “Have some candies then. Let’s go to the rice restaurant, such white rice, sure to be aromatic and sticky.” He jabbers on. I want to say to him: This market is strange. Those logs are simply arms and legs bound together and dried to death. Some limbs are naked, some are covered in shreds of former clothes. They come in all sizes, fit for women, children, adults. Hairs have been gathered and piled into mounds like straw, coming in Eastern European brown, Central Asian black, or short and black, typical of South African hair. People have made a bizarre thing. They severed lips and stuck them onto rib bones that have been split into thin ingots, turning them into flowers to be inserted in skulls, the branches and leaves are made of ears, of skins. Those long slopes of lips carry traces of young women’s lipstick. Of old women’s withering. Screaming and weeping curves of lips . . . The guest takes me to a restaurant, my brother starts eating a cake, which I see as eyes. The guest bites hard into the eyes covered in viscous blood. The fruits he eats are fresh red hearts and kidneys that still retain their brown shade. The rice is dry bones, finely ground. All products at this market are processed human bodies. Cut, chopped and scattered. Countless wars have occurred, and continue to last! Countless jail cells, prison houses, concentration camps—places all over the world where human bodies are abandoned like herbal plants—seem to have been transferred here for this market, this society, to process and sell. But these sins, who committed them and who is responsible? Certainly no one thinks they themselves are. If so why should I not kill them off one by one? Erase this extant society. Then in the name of innocence and guilt, I make the world . . . Twenty years on my body, twenty years of stupor without a single second of sleep, and minute by minute I grow to hate everyone around me, every arm of friends, relatives, villagers, people from all horizons who relentlessly reach out to hold me, to convince me to forget the vengeance, rage and rebellion in me. That is why their lives were eliminated. The key thing for humans to survive now is to be conscious of the loneliness surrounding vengeance, rage and rebellion. Throughout these twenty years I have witnessed and contemplated death. My mother was shot. My sister was decapitated. My cousin was buried alive. My friends suffered the same—but it was the friends themselves who killed each other. My relatives were besieged in a zone where bombs and bullets were dropped. My tribe has been rendered alien from itself, commanded to take guns and knives to kill each other, my country is divided and scattered. And world fraternity has rotted at the hands of vengeance, borders, skin colors, ideals. On Earth countless people scream. With thoughts burdened and tortured by days and months, I carry my body among strangers whose eyes are covered, whose backs are turned away. I loved a woman and pleaded. Dear Quyên! Please carry me out of the past—carry me out of vengeance, rage, and rebellion and teach me to love people the way you love me, carry me back to the old house where I was sheltered with you. That way I wouldn’t have to kill people then kill myself, that way would I still be me, and you still be you? Night is here. Devils and angels are dating in dark corners. Hey dear. Hey dear. Why is it no longer you? Why is someone else sitting across from me? Why is it him again? Why is it him again? Where is he from, how long is he staying, and where will he go? Where will I go? He got born. I also got born. Night is here. Then day will begin. Then what? He is going in circles. “Do you hear sounds coming from the garden? Do you see something in the garden?” Has the magpie-robin already flown away? Where did its song go? I am about to cry again. How to make the paper kite fly a little higher, where is the wind, how to fly a little higher, where is the wind and why has it not blown yet? I want to sleep, I want to sleep and never get up. Get up for what really? Get up for what? He is still sitting across from me. “I know you too well, but why do I keep having to see you? Do others see you often like I do? Is everyone like this?” I guess so. It is highly likely. Why not? Everyone sees him. Everyone has to see him. Who has died, why is the music so mournful? Has the child who plays in the garden left? The young man who swings around the guava tree and forgets his book is returning. He is walking off without looking back. He is in such a hurry, perhaps he has a date with his lover. Where is Quyên at this hour? I want a cup of coffee. The cigarettes have run out. There is an old man coming with a cane, and a funeral passes. What unknown fortune lies within the footsteps? He is still sitting here. I remember now. When I die with my arms let loose, they will bury me in the ground and plants will grow. And then what? Where will I go? Where is paradise? Where is nirvana? I was born. Like everybody else. It is him. It is him. I know him. I know his name. But I can’t call out his name. His name is . . . is . . . “What is your name? Your name is . . . My name is . . . born in the year . . .” He has come to me since the day I was born. I want to kill him. But the knife I thought I was holding in my hand turns out to be his. My hand is his. I thought I could stab him but in fact I have stabbed me. I know his name. I know it well. “What is your name? Do you speak? I will scream.” He remains silent.

“Một giấc mơ” © Dương Nghiễm Mậu. From the short story collection Sợi tóc tìm thấy (A found hair strand). First published 1966 by Những Tác Phẩm Hay Press, Saigo; republished by Tao Đàn Press 2018. By arrangement with Tao Đàn Press. Translation © 2018 by Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên. All rights reserved.


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