Sunday, July 10, 2011


There was this dinky book-for-rent store in Huế, Vietnam, my older brother and I used to haunt. I was nine. We would pool our money we got from grandma and rent all the books we could read, most of them Chinese classics. My favorites then were The Tale of the Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West. One day we ran out of books to rent.

Bookish addiction! Gnawing! I started making up stories in a chapbook and hid it from my brother. I wanted to charge him one đồng for a reading. I never got a xu from him when one morning he recited the stories I wrote—in my face. Did I want to become a writer someday? No. But something was sowed in my fertile mind during that time. It must have started with The Count of Monte Cristo. Fifty some volumes of it in Vietnamese translation, pocket-sized, were sent to us in serial each week from my mother who was then living in Saigon. I would devour each volume and grow hungry for more. Outlandish worlds. They would ebb and flow in my mind, leaving the fecund silt on its bottom and one day in my adulthood I wanted to become a writer.

In the village where my father came from there was a wizened old man. Folks called him "The Eye". He lived alone in a thatch hut, its earthen walls studded with hand-rolled cigarette stubs. I asked him if he could help me become a writer.

"Did you pass the shrine when you entered the village?" he asked, rolling himself a cigarette. "We built it in memory of a man from this village. He died a year ago in a tiger hunt." He took a deep drag, I coughed in the burning smell of the smoke.

"Not too long before he died, a man came to me," The Eye said. "He was our village's schoolteacher. He said, 'Elder, I was told by several fortune-tellers that someday I would become wealthy and influential. But that was many years ago. I'm now in my forties. Why am I still poor?' I told him I could make him rich with a potion. It would have to be made from a tiger's whisker. And he had to get it himself. He was speechless. Then he left. A few days later the village was alerted to a lurking tiger. From the footprints, they said it's the three-legged tiger. You know what that means?"

He gave me his hand-rolled cigarette, its chewed-down stub wet with his spit. I shook my head. He took a quick puff and said, "The year before they set a trap and he got away. But he lost one leg. Now he was wiser, meaner. The village sent out a team to hunt him. And you know what? Our schoolteacher tagged along. One morning a crow flew over the village's communal house, cawing his head off. Then he perched on the roof, shrieking, with a bone in his beaks. He cawed on till sunset. When the villagers chased him off, he dropped the bone. A wristbone. The dead man was one of the chaps that went after the tiger. He was the casualty when the tiger got away. After that the villagers built a shrine to house his spirit. They would talk to him through a medium. He told them when the tiger would come back. He wanted that tiger. Bad. He said."

"What happened to the schoolteacher?" I said.

"Back with the men hunting the tiger," The Eye said. "Second time now in a year."

"What if he becomes the next casualty?" I said.

"He was willing . . ." The Eye said, "that counts."

"And if he gets the whisker?" I said.

"There is a small problem," The Eye said, fumbling in his shirt pocket for his tobacco pouch. It was empty. He sniffed at the pouch then said, "There's no such potion."

At my scowl, he turned to the earthen wall and peeled off a hand-rolled cigarette stub. He lit it, puffed hard. Then, blowing bluish smoke out of his mouth and his nose he offered me his skinny cigarette stub moist with his saliva. Again I shook my head.

"You know," The Eye said, "all that time and energy he's spent chasing after the tiger . . . well, he could've used all of it to catch his dream. For me, all I wanted in my life is a tiger's whisker for a toothpick."