‘Vision Impaired’ is from Pham Thi Hoai’s short story collection, Sunday Menu, translated by Ton That Quynh Du, and published by Pandanus Books in 2006, http://www.unireps.com.au/isbn/1740761774.htm.
It was also published in Etchings Magazine Issue 2, March 2007
The original short story ‘Ám Thị’ in Vietnamese can be found at www.tienve.org
On the first session I put on three layers of clothes above and two layers below the waist. My husband said this tam quat master wasn’t a master of martial arts with wall-piercing fingers, so there was no need to protect myself with so much armour. The master was wearing dark glasses, my husband added, and wouldn’t be able to tell a woman from a man, if he hadn’t been told. But I thought otherwise, that clothes were not just to shield or to conceal your body; even in coffins, bodies are fully clothed. I wanted to be tactful to show my goodwill the first time a stranger’s hands were to touch my body. Not all men are as progressive as my husband, and the blind men that I know all seem to be behind the times, as if they live in a faraway world of their own, a world where the sun neither rises nor sets. I was fearful that if I was not careful I might cause offence to a person with a disability. Feeling the bra beneath the thick layers of my full set of clothes, surely he would understand that I regarded him as a person of goodwill. Then both of us could trust each other more easily, as not only was this my first time, he had never worked on a woman before.
Tam quat is not for women. My husband had to go through a great deal of trouble to bring the master home. What kind of a world are we living in, my husband complained, that it’s easier to hire someone to beat up your wife than to find someone to give her a thumping back rub? Everywhere he went, they all thought he was making mischief and found polite excuses to turn him down. Women bring bad luck, they would say. Only this master answered my husband in full. ‘Wouldn’t it be better for you to buy your wife some of those machines? Machines that massage, vibrate, suck and slap, machines that work on your feet, massage your belly, tickle your armpits, that use infrared technology. Everything under the sun is available these days. Those Chinese machines with plastic nibs and sticks that rub and beat you simultaneously, they are a penny a dozen and they last you a lifetime. I don’t know why you bother with us, we who have nothing but our humble bare hands. We aren’t worth your trouble.’
My husband liked the mocking acerbic tone of this master. When he persisted in asking, the master gave him a further blast: ‘And if you’re after a genuine experience then take your wife to a hotel. There real people give you real services. A massage to freshen your skin on your way in, a sauna to warm your flesh on your way out. It’s entertaining, gentle and elegant. All we can do here is twist your neck and crack your back, quite savage and beastly really, not at all suitable for women.’
My husband became even more interested. He has a natural affinity with the eccentric. He would befriend anyone with a reputation of being a nonconformist, sparing no effort to entertain them at home. For a long time our house was full of artistic guests, but after a while he came to the conclusion that they were just pretending to be eccentric, because if one harbours the wish to be celebrated by others then one cannot disdain society from a distance. In any case, these artists proved to be thorny and unique only in pure talk, their artistic creations as smooth and conformist as the next, their sense of abrasive individualism nowhere to be seen. In the end my husband didn’t quite know what to do with them. For a while he regretted the missed chance to make friends with a famous non-artist, a former official of the French time, who claimed to follow what he called thank-you excuse-me ism, who declared himself the last person in the world who still knew how to use these two endangered phrases; as long as he was alive, those were the only words he ever uttered. But unfortunately my husband came a little too late. The man’s tongue had frozen stiff and my husband got there just in time to take his body to Van Dien cemetery for burial.
So for the whole of this year, my husband has been feeling sorry for himself and for the rest of mankind. To him, the young have lots of front but not much flair, the old are out of touch but not out of the ordinary. This tam quat master, although young, spoke with the maturity and depth of an independent thinker who held his own considered opinions. My husband turned on all his charm, taking the master out to have a few drinks of sparkling wine at a place where the owner had a reputation for being arrogant, serving only a select few. In the end, the master accepted my husband’s request out of a sense of obligation, but added that he had never worked on a woman before, so if something went wrong he would count on our magnanimity.
At first, my husband told me to lie down on a divan to be within easy reach of the master. But the master said, ‘We’re more used to sitting down on a mat. I hear that at the Institute of Traditional Medicine they offer a training course for masseurs where the patients lie on a table and the practitioners stand up, dressed in white blouses. But tam quat is a tradition of the common people. Let’s remain informal, it suits our style better.’
My husband quickly rolled out a mat, saying that he was in total agreement with the master; this was an intimate space, not a public arena, and that we were here to enjoy ourselves in comfort, not to endure stiff formality, and that the master should also feel at ease here. The master sat down on the mat. I climbed down from the divan and lay down. My husband said, ‘Her head is to your left and her feet to your right, master.’ He had tidied up our house with care, as usually our home was full of haphazardly placed furniture, books, pot plants, bric-a-brac, gifts from our onetime artistic friends and curiosities collected by my husband. This master did not have a walking stick, nor a dog or a child to guide his way, as if he expected things to get out of his way and not the other way round.
I lay down rigid. I felt restrictive no matter which position took—on my stomach, on my side or my back—as if lying down was something I’d never done before in my life. Lying on my stomach, my buttocks felt protrusive; the more I pressed my thighs together, the more prominent the buttocks felt. But if I relaxed my thighs it felt a little revealing. Lying on my side showed even more. On my back, it felt wide open. As soon as the master’s hands touched me, my body tensed up, a mass of watchful hypersensitive flesh.
The master said, ‘Your wife’s not comfortable.’ My husband asked, ‘How come my wife is not comfortable? What do you mean, not comfortable?’ The master replied, ‘When we were young, on the occasions when we got a caning, we usually tensed up like this.’ My husband laughed out loud, gave a long commentary on love delivered through the cane, and said, ‘That’s why I love this form of traditional massage. It’s physical and unrestrained, every blow as memorable as the next, unlike the so-called massages of modern times. I hate pretentious fakes. Give her the real experience, you must not pull your punches.’
I like whatever my husband likes and detest what he hates, from the very beginning to the very end. To be a wife is to trust your fate in someone else’s hand, to give him all you’ve got, body and soul, holding nothing back as your own. My husband regards that attitude as too passive, taking the end point, obligation, as the starting point of the relationship. So I alter my position a little, saying that I trust him with my body and soul, that I entwine my fate with his, because we share our hearts. I don’t see what difference it makes to have a common heart or a fateful obligation as a starting point. But if it pleases him, then so be it.
The master said, ‘Oh yes, we like to use a bit of force too. Clients who get a real pummelling feel that they get their money’s worth. Today we’ll work free of charge on the hands and the feet, the marginal extremities that aren’t worth charging for. If you feel that it does no harm then the next time we won’t hold anything back, Mr Teacher.’ My husband agreed, but stressed, ‘You hold back only this first time, yes? next time we must dispense with all these silly formalities. It wouldn’t be a genuine experience of tam quat if we hide behind these qualifications and hedges.’
Each of my hands is less than twenty square centimetres in size but the master took a whole fifteen minutes to finish. Most exquisite was the care with which he rolled my fingers, caressing every square millimetre. After half an hour, my husband joked, ‘By now you probably know my wife’s hands better than I do’, and the master replied, ‘You’ve got a point there, Mr Teacher. It’s quite common for people to know a face or a voice. To recognise someone by their smell is less common, and rarer still by the sounds of their footsteps. But most uncommon is to know somebody by their hands. That’s not surprising for the old days when we were unaccustomed to shaking hands, but even in these modern, hand-shaking times we still don’t know each other’s hands. Even those who spend all day wringing their obsequious hands don’t know their own hands.’ My husband broke in, ‘So you must really know other people’s hands.’ The master said, ‘No, not really. We know only the backs usually. Our customers aren’t concerned with hands; it’s the back that’s most important. All we need to do for their hands is to crack the knuckles, making ten sharp sounds, which takes ten seconds. That’s all it takes to keep them happy. With some customers only nine joints crack, taking nine seconds—less than the time it takes for a perfunctory handshake, Mr Teacher.’
My husband said he’d like to hear the ten cracking sounds, just to see what it was like. The master placed one of my hands, with its palm open, inside his palm then closed in. His thumb moved smoothly along the knuckles of my hand as though they were the ivory keys of a piano. Four neat cracking sounds. Then his thumb moved quickly to the lower knuckles at the base of my fingers. Another four sounds, four notes lower than the previous, then his thumb and his index finger closed in around my thumb and neatly cupped it, making a low muffled cracking sound. The tenth note came from somewhere deep below the base of my thumb. My other hand also sang ten notes. My husband was impressed. The master said, ‘It’s a simple little trick really. Anyone with a little dexterity can do it. If you practice at it you’d master it in no time, Mr Teacher.’
Then it was my feet, and my husband was visibly moved. When the master massaged the mound of my foot, rubbing each toe and between the toes, massaging the ankle, then placing my foot, which also measured less than twenty centimetre squares, in the palm of one hand, the other hand covering my foot from above, gently nursing my foot in the way one would protect a fragile little bird, my husband smiled at me. I smiled back. When I am unsure what my husband might be thinking, I always smile. The master’s warm hand closed around my ankle. His other hand chopped, knocked, and slapped unceasingly on the sole of my foot. He tickled me lightly and my foot jerked back in a movement that jolted from heel to knee. My husband said, ‘And you said that tam quat was barbaric.’
‘Yes,’ the master said. He yanked hard and my ankle sang a low snapping note. ‘Or you could say it’s common, Mr Teacher’, he added. Again he yanked hard and my other ankle cracked with the same low, sharp sound. My feet remained attached to my legs, yet they felt so light and so weightless, soft and lazy like two large wilting leaves, and so comfortable; all they wanted was to remain forever in this blissful state, so that they could continue to be so nursed, tickled and indulged. They’d become spoiled rotten.
‘You know, modern pleasures are too easily available but ephemeral, and people with depth, like you, Mr Teacher, feel unsatisfied and turn to the simplicity of traditional practices. It doesn’t take much to learn, otherwise people of darkness like us couldn’t get a grasp on it. There is no foundation for it really. We simply copy from others, the whole lot, the good and the bad. We don’t know what to discard or what is of real value, so we adopt everything in the hope that it might do the trick. Outsiders don’t see how it works. They think it’s mysterious, a bit like thinking that snakes must have legs to move so fast. Acupuncture or acupressure may have some scientific basis, but just to give a rub and a thump like this, orang-utans can do just as good a job. It’s a way for us to eke out a living. We would love to have another way to make a living but as fate has dictated it to be this way, we have no choice.’
My husband didn’t know what to say. We have had many eccentric visitors to our home, and sometimes they speak in profound ways that border on insanity, but no one was quite as ambiguous and difficult to pin down as this master. All day long he spoke in a mocking but humorous tone. We didn’t know if he wanted to keep a distance from us or to get closer. Did he regard us with contempt or did he think highly of us? Was he being honest with us or was he testing the water with his circular style of talk? But one thing was clear: professionally, he knew what he was doing, and my husband insisted on ordering a cyclo to take him home and bring him back the following day. My husband did not say it out loud, but I knew this enigmatic master was to be a welcome visitor to our home for quite a while.
The second day, my husband was even more nervous than I was. He urged me to lie down on the mat before the master arrived. I lay down on my stomach, closed my eyes and let my mind roam. The master didn’t know my face. His hands sometimes felt warm and sometimes refreshingly cool. He spoke with a mocking voice full of barbs. The way he talked, he was probably having fun at my husband’s expense. Perhaps he was also contemptuous of me. But if that was true, then how come he caressed my feet with such loving care? Even the most dedicated and indulgent pedicurist would be no comparison. I now knew that I had two feet, not just for walking, but also for making demands, to be spoiled rotten and even for daydreaming. Our feet work so hard, yet I brush my hair several times a day and never brushed my feet. Every night my husband sought out my breasts several times but ignored my feet. But after the master’s first visit, all of a sudden, he gave my feet a long and wet kiss with more passion and urgency than the kiss he gave to my lips, and it felt deliciously fresh and unfamiliar, just like our wedding night. I was moved to tears. There wouldn’t be that many women who have had their toes sucked by their husband.
My husband told me to wear a silk blouse and a pair of silk pants. ‘That’s sufficient,’ he said, ‘men usually wear only a pair of shorts at tam quat. I didn’t go through all these troubles to bring him here to massage your layers of sartorial resistance,’ he added. ‘This is all about your skin and flesh which I love and indulge. I am doing this for you; you would never have sought these pleasures for yourself. What’s more, too much protection would suggest that we suspect the other party of ill intent. My wife is not like those girls who sit with legs crossed into knots and walk with joined knees. Too much protection is just like an invitation to invade.’
The silk made me feel soft, or maybe the master’s touch had become familiar. Had I already begun to feel in tune with his hands? First came the circular movements, rubbing gently, moving from the shoulder blades along the back, spreading across the small of the back, down towards my buttocks. Again I smiled at my husband. The master said, ‘The back is alright, but the shoulders and buttocks will take quite a bit of work.’ My husband looked perplexed. The master explained, ‘it will take only two sessions to loosen the muscles of the back, that’s no problem. The shoulders and the neck are so stiff and knotted, they’ll take at least a week. But the sides seem a little bit misaligned. We’re not sure yet. If it’s a curved spine, then there’s nothing we can do, Mr. Teacher, you’ll have to get a doctor. Tam quat masters can make no difference whatsoever.’ My husband begged the master to examine his wife more closely. The master insisted that his ability was limited. While this conversation was happening, my husband’s hands moved to one of my buttocks and began to massage it, and the master’s hands the other one. The stiff formality of the day before was well and truly discarded, as agreed. In the end, my husband conceded to the master’s wish, and praised the master’s remarkable humility, so different from the boastful quacks, who were equipped with only cheap sticky medicated patches but claimed to be able to treat all kinds of illness. He also quietly congratulated himself for having a keen eye and good judgment of people.
For the duration of the session, the master took his time, leisurely explaining to my husband every move and every trick. ‘This is punching, fluid and shallow punches only, withdraw as soon as the blows connect, the force coming from the wrist and not the arm. A good pummelling must sing cracking pleasure to the ears. I’ve said tam quat is for the common folk. Our folk like noisy crowds. That’s why we fear solitary confinement more than execution. At executions, at least there’s gunfire and yelling spectators. This is called patting, your hand forming the dome shape of the tortoise’s shell, cupping air and slapping down. You must also make a nice slapping sound. This is the chop, this is a friction rub, this is pinching, pulling, hacking, squeezing, pressing, rolling, they all sound like torture. I’ve said tam quat is not an art of gentle caressing. This is called catching the mouse. Along the back, here and here, under each side of the ridge, there hides a mouse, you have to flush it out to make it run like this. This is called the march of a thousand ants. Use the tips of your fingers lightly, but the customer must feel the goose-pimples rising if you’re any good at it. But many customers have backs that are as broad and thick as a divan, and marching ants are nothing, in which case we have to resort to using our fingernails to dig into the flesh like a cricket burrowing its nest and then maybe they’ll feel something. Those people love nothing more than a good pummelling. Now this is called the wading stork: your fingers walk like the deliberate and rhythmic feet of a stork. Take your time and don’t rush. You can also call it the pecking stork, pecking in single strokes, in a leisurely and unhurried manner. A flurry of typist finger strokes may cause the customer to feel he’s reaching the height of pleasure, but that’ll be no good. The height of pleasure must be when it hurts the most, the waves of pain followed by a moment of feeling faint and then, a few seconds later, pleasure hits at its most extreme. And this is called the horizontal snake roll. I’ve told you, tam quat is savage and beastly. Marching ants and pecking storks, catching the mouse and rolling the snakes; no dragons and phoenix here. These terms are down to earth but they grate on your ears the first time you hear them. Snake rolls are just the ways we roll the skin. There are five places on our body where you can do this: the elbows, the knees and the back. A good roll is when the skin rolls along, one spot chasing another like waves. And now, the height of pleasure, it’s simply called plucking. You start plucking here at this spot of the back, and move down, all the way to the coccyx, like this.’
The master changed his position so fast I didn’t have time to panic. By now he was bent over me completely, his fingers feeling my backbone from my waist, gripping the skin and plucking hard. With each pluck my back made a cracking sound and it sang a series of notes as his hands moved further and further down. I trembled in silence. Another sound, another and another then he would reach that mole. It took months of total intimacy for my husband to discover the existence of this mole, right there at the hidden spot at the base of my spine, the coccyx. It’s a matter known only to the two of us, it’s private and strictly forbidden territory.
By now my husband was so captivated, almost hypnotised, that if the master had mounted his wife he would have found it OK. They probably call this riding a buffalo to pluck rice seedlings. The master actually climbed over me. I have seen tam quat practitioners sitting astride their customers’ buttocks like this before. So these moves and positions all followed a certain script. I know my husband likes to act cool, but surely he was going to intervene, surely he was not going to allow his wife to go that far, my thighs ending up on the master’s shoulders like I’ve seen at some kerbside tam quat.
But the two men were engrossed in their task, with one patiently explaining everything and the other listening with such intensity, drinking in every word. For almost a year, my husband had not listened to anyone like this. I almost passed out when the master’s four fingers circled the mole and the last sound cracked in a low soft tone.
In the middle of the night I woke up to find my husband straddling my back, loving and gentle, passionate and crazy, a gigantic crawling ant, a pecking stork and a slithering snake all at once. So I had worried unnecessarily over a mole the size of a pea.
On the day that I shed my silk blouse, but kept my bra on, an idea occurred to my husband and he replaced the electric lights with candles. This was on my account, to provide me with a sense of privacy, because as far as the poor master was concerned lighting made no difference. And he was right. The master calmly took hold of my naked back, taking minute care of it like previous times, giving my neck and shoulders his every attention. As for me, my pleasures seemed to permeate even more deeply and my husband probably enjoyed watching his wife’s body bathed in the soft candlelight.
Many days later, my husband asked me to remove my bra as well because the straps around the neck and the middle of the back got in the way of the master’s hands, spoiling his smooth movements. In addition, by now, my back was so smooth and my neck was almost tension-free, but my chest and abdomen had yet to feel the touch of his hands. My husband feared that if we didn’t remind him the master might gloss them over, so he insisted that the master show him the manoeuvres for the front half of the body. The master firmly refused. My husband resorted to sulking, saying, ‘So I see you’re bound by social taboos like everyone else, hey! Or do you regard us with such contempt?’ The master replied, ‘No, I wouldn’t say that. You are one in a million, Mr Teacher, who dares to live your own way. Nobody would treat you with contempt, and even if they did, it wouldn’t worry you. The simple truth is that we have had no experience in handling women, and we don’t want our inexperience to give us a reputation of clumsiness.’
My husband tried a provocative tack. ‘Oh, men or women, aren’t we all humans? If even a person like you would discriminate then what hope is there for equality? I had thought that you and I had agreed on this at the beginning.’ As my husband was so insistent, the master reluctantly agreed, on one condition. ‘OK, but if we mishandle things a bit, you must forgive us, Mr Teacher.’
How could the master’s sure hands mishandle things? These are the hands that rolled my fingers, caressed my feet without neglecting a square millimetre, fingers that never actually touched our sacred spot, always just surrounding it and letting it go, circling and teasing, those fingers that pulled bunches of my hair to make a ticking sound off the scalp, grabbing exactly twenty-nine—my age—strands of hair at a time, the hands that pulled my ears so hard and crisp that it made such a sharp cracking sound, never making a mistake at any of the seventy-eight spots of my body capable of making a sound, those hands that sliding under my armpits always stopped so marvellously close to the base of my bulging breasts. Hands are the eyes of the blind: ten fingers the ten eyes.
Now those hands were hugging my abdomen, then spreading themselves over my belly, fanning across my sides, investigating and probing before determinedly circumventing around my navel. Then with one hand in pursuit of the other, he began a circular rubbing motion that became an ever widening divergent motion, with one hand veering towards the lower abdomen while the other waded up towards the chest area. Then his hands sweetly rubbed hard against my skin with a lot of friction along the bones of the ribcage. Then again and again they rubbed along that narrow strip from my neck to my sternum, taking care to avoid my breasts, squeezing their way in between. My husband thought they were in the master’s way, so he took hold of the nipples and parted them to make more space. Then I couldn’t tell whose hands were whose anymore.
Then one day my husband told me to discard my pants so that the master could show him with clarity the misalignment of the curved spine. If left untreated, this condition can cause backaches in mild cases, and in severe cases can cause disruptions to periods and even early menopause, my husband said, having looked this up in a book. The diagnosis of my condition was confirmed, the slackness of my left side causing tension on my right side. My husband confirmed that his wife had exhibited all the symptoms, especially the tendency to be picky with food, constipation, being prone to colds and flus, and difficulty sleeping. If the master did not have the courage to treat his wife, he would do it himself. But the master must advise him, must give a demonstration for him to follow. The master hesitated, then said, ‘You are a book person, Mr Teacher. Everything you do is underpinned by theories you read in books, you can attribute success or failure to theory. We, as mere practitioners, can base our practice only on our own experiences. Our success or failure depends on lucky chances. We really wouldn’t dare invade the territory of the sciences. We would like to retreat.’ But by now my husband was quite used to this verbal game of tug-of-war. He knew he would prevail in the end, no matter how complex and ambiguous the master’s arguments might be. Deep down, he had even begun to feel a certain kind of disdain for the master, dismissing the way he crafted his circular arguments and the way he pretended to be humble—which served to accentuate his virtues—as typical traits of the useless Asian style of discourse. Yet he took delight in catching the master out and gaining the upper hand. This time, my husband replied quite brusquely, ‘Look, Master, if you were the type who would be happy to work the street, I wouldn’t have bothered to ask you home. You and I have a common problem. We are ambitious and secretive. We hold others in contempt but we fear being laughed at by the same people we despise. If you allow a small task of realigning a curved spine to defeat you then what are the chances of realigning the stars of fate, realigning the affairs of the world?’
The master protested, ‘Aya, to realign the stars you’ll have to ask someone else, Mr Teacher.’ My husband grasped at the master’s words, ‘OK, but for straightening a curved back, you’ve got to help me, OK?’ The master nodded in agreement. By now, the two men knew each other very well. They talked to each other in this manner because they liked to hear each other’s words, and the more they could anticipate the other’s arguments and ideas the more pleasure they derived from the conversation.
The master took the lead and my husband followed. He was clumsy. The master’s knees felt soft when pressed against my back. In contrast, my husband’s knees felt like a pair of heavy pestles. The master had finished my thigh on this side quite some time ago, but my husband was still struggling, not quite finished. My leg, placed over his shoulder, had gone a little numb. And how could he finish? He had insisted that I wear the pair of underpants embossed with the initials of our names. Maybe the master could decipher our initials by touch and feel. The master showed him the difficult manoeuvres. Massaging the muscles of the pelvic floor, rotating the hips. My husband grasped very quickly all those complex moves, even putting forward his own propositions that sounded quite scientific about collapsed discs, arthritic hips and exercises of the pelvic floor.
But with the simple moves, such as cracking my back, he was hopeless. He held on to my waist, bit at the nape of my neck and mauled my breasts, but my back did not make a sound. The master, on the other hand, simply sat firmly behind my back, supporting me with his knees, his chin resting lightly on the nape of my neck, his arms circling under my armpits around the shoulders, fingers firmly locked together. Then the master gave a gentle push and my back sang a series of beautiful notes. My body arched backwards, my feet in the air hovering above but not quite touching the mat, and my head falling to rest on his chest. The master bent forward, his cheek touching my cheek for a moment, his mouth mine for a second. His hands slowly and quietly let go of the shoulders, catching the falling breasts in the process. Slowly my breasts swelled, my two nipples perked up shamelessly. The master said, ‘Tam quat is quite tactless and inelegant, please forgive my clumsiness, Mr Teacher.’ Then he calmly continued to massage with circular, deliberately slow movements. Gradually, I sank into his chest, and could hear the calm even beats of his heart. Can he visualise what I look like? Maybe he could only feel that women’s bodies are just like men’s, with a few extra curves? Does he feel any affection towards me, and how can his heart beat so calmly? Is he doing this to give me pleasure or to please my husband?
For more than one month, tam quat became our passionate ritual, my husband diligently tidying up the house, rolling out the mat, burning incense and lighting candles. I’d take a bath, spray a little of perfume on myself and then the master would arrive at eight o’clock on the dot. In October, it was dark at eight o’clock. The soft candlelight, the three of us became one. My husband was badly hooked; it was never enough for him. He even felt that my underpants, embossed with our initials, were in the way. ‘Every other area of your body has enjoyed this pleasure unhindered, why does this part of your anatomy have to be deprived,’ he asked me. How a piece of clothing can hinder the pleasure to a part of my body I don’t know, but if taking it off pleased my husband then take if off I would. Again I closed my eyes and rested my shoulders on the master’s chest like the other times, but the master’s hands came to a sudden stop halfway through. The master gave an involuntary start, I sensed, followed by a sudden but reluctant release of his grip, half wanting to let go, half wanting to hold firm. I held my breath. Did the master feel uneasy because my breasts had swollen too much? Were they spoiled too much today? Or did the master forget for a moment that he was sitting on a mat in the middle of a tam quat session? The tam quat mat is a place for torture, where the body is to be given a pummelling and then left alone. Brutal and barbaric. Or sophisticated? But the master paused a little too long and when I opened my eyes I could see my husband looming between my thighs.
I don’t know whether I sat up or the master pushed me off. Or did my husband yank me away from the master’s grip? It happened so quickly and crazily that I am not sure what took place. What I could say to put my husband’s mind at peace? The master gave a start; what did he sense? What did he hear, what did he smell? Or what did he see that changed his attitude? How come he stopped so suddenly midway through a session? Why did he turn his head away for a fleeting moment when my husband began to love me? My husband is a very tactful man. Even at the moment of release he’s quiet, as if nothing is happening. If the master had not seen, heard or felt something, why did he get a little rattled? He left in a huff, like a man with an injured pride, left while the candles were still burning, saying not a word.
The following day my husband decided not to light any candles. It got dark. My husband said, ‘If he really is in the realm of darkness then to him darkness is light. Let’s find out if this master of tam quat is just sharp of wits or also sharp of eyes.’
I lay there, safely cocooned in the comforting darkness, feeling compassion for my husband but unease for the master. I prayed that the master’s world was truly darkness, limitless darkness stretching to the point of hopelessness, and that my husband would be spared of his distress. Spared of having to trace in his mind the master’s moves, every one of which now caused my husband acute pain. Didn’t the master avoid our secret mole a little too adroitly? Didn’t he give the pubic bone just so much attention? Didn’t he get to know my body, from head to toes, like the back of his hand? No need to retrace the words that the master used, words that my husband drank with a mixture of anticipation and emotion, but were now coming back to haunt him. Didn’t the master say one day, ‘One spot chasing another like waves’? Waves are things you cannot describe without seeing. Didn’t he also say, ‘Your hand should be cupped like the shell of a tortoise’? Has the master ever seen a tortoise? What about ants? Storks? Snakes? But didn’t he say, ‘Fate had dictated us to be like this and we have to oblige’? What did he mean? ‘To be like this’ is to be like what? True, he did say, ‘People of darkness like us’. But he said people of darkness; he didn’t say blind people. This bastard chose his words so cleverly, full of double meanings, laden with ambiguities and impossible to pin down. He was not leery but tactless and clumsy. He did not grope your wife’s breasts, but mishandled them. Each day he ‘accidentally’ pushed against your wife’s buttocks and spread your wife’s thighs wide open a couple of times. And the curved spine! He could see through every millimetre of your wife’s body and yet he said, ‘not so sure’. Accusing him of deception would be like calling public attention to our stupidity. Asking around would simply make people laugh. They’d say that out of ten of those who wear dark glasses and work at tam quat, fortune-telling, busking or begging, nine are faking their blindness. Real blind people usually pursue wholesome lines of work such as making toothpicks, basket weaving, shelling peanuts or paring onions. Nobody would know who the master was from our description. No names. With such a difficult temperament, he could have been an out-of-work portrait artist, wandering around speaking in that disdainful manner. Once the bastard even hinted that he wanted to follow a different line of work. What kind of work? Sketching realist charcoal portraits? That line of work requires an eye for detail. Now my husband was in an impossible quandary. That’s what you get for becoming familiar with the common people. His vision impairment was fake but your judgement impairment was real. You poured your heart out and your wife bared all her flesh. Darkness descended and enveloped both of us. In the dark, the blind can see better than the sighted.
The master did not arrive at eight o’clock. Nor at nine o’clock. Darkness was tense. My husband said nothing. The house was untidy, furniture lay haphazardly arranged. Anyone who tripped over them would fall over the bottles and jars on the tables. I lay in tense anticipation, just like in those nights of my childhood waiting to catch sight of ghosts. This time I would not fall asleep waiting. In November, the nights are long. Nine out of ten may well be fakes, but I didn’t care. I counted on the master being the one out of ten who is genuinely blind. My husband usually possesses a healthy scepticism of the opinion held by the majority, preferring the perspicacity of the visionary minority, but on this occasion he seemed to have gone along with the nine out of ten majority. The night was still young and I still invested my trust in a pair of eyes worthy of impairment. I prayed that the master was blind. Blind in a clear, perceptive and proud manner. A blindness that would make things easier for the master and bring relief for everyone else involved. Genuinely blind, permanently blind, without any hope of regaining sight. Blind as though his eyes had been gouged out. Blind so that my husband could be grateful for a special friendship, so that the master could continue to be a special guest in our home. He can even be blind from this day onward, I thought; it’s never too late. I will act as his guide taking him anywhere he needs to go. I know my way around. I have waited to the point of ripeness. But why is the master not coming, stepping around things with his easy gait like every other day, so that I can again sink my head into his chest?
I can’t remember how many days I waited. I can’t remember how much torture was dished out to me in the tam quat sessions that my husband continued to give me until my body became a bag of bloody bruises and swollen flesh. And when there was nowhere left unbruised on the misshapen bag of flesh that was me, my husband did not touch me anymore. Then he also left, without a word, just like the tam quat master.
Ton-That Quynh-Du was born and grew up in Hue, Vietnam. In 1972 he came to study in Australia. He has worked as a translator and court interpreter, and has taught at Deakin University, Monash University, and the Australian National University. In 2000 his translation of Phạm Thị Hoai’s novel, Crystal Messenger, won the Victorian Premier’s Aaward in the literary translation category.