Translated by Nguyen Qui Duc from Vietnamese original “Bắt Hến Ở Hồ Isabella”
A couple of weeks after our family came to the United States and settled in this town, Chung came to visit. A week before, there was Father Tue, who brought us a load of frozen meat wrapped in yellowed paper. Mother put it all in the fridge, and it took more than a week for us to discover that the load of precious food had gone a full year past its expiration date. Mother reluctantly put it all in the trash bin, still unable to forget the baskets of rotten fish that stank up our entire neighborhood in Saigon, near the state shop where people were always fighting each other. "Buddha be a witness," she said. "I won’t speak ill of him. He was kind enough to bring us the food." Naturally, I said nothing. In our family, it was always the women who worried about such things. Chung arrived without any packages of frozen meat, but he had a complete toolbox in the back of his gray pickup truck. He went around our one-bedroom apartment, empty of things but crowded with people, checking each electrical outlet, all the faucets in the bathroom, the gas oven, and the brand-new refrigerator, which my sister, who’d come to America years before, had bought for us. We all followed Chung and watched everything he did. One of us always had a quick and ready answer to his questions. Chung’s first visit was enough to make my mother quite fond of him. ‘What a terribly nice man!" My wife turned a smile toward my unmarried sister, then said to my mother, "The guy’s married with two kids, Mother." My sister was irritated. "Such a dark-skinned man. Who’d want him?"
Mother ended the discussion with a rather fine proverb: "Indeed, it’s soot sneering at charcoal!"
Chung and I quickly became friends. In my third week as a refugee, I got a humble job at a local restaurant. I would continue to find such humble jobs in the years following. On his days off, Chung called to invite me over, usually in the evenings. At his house, we sat at the dining table in the kitchen to drink beer and talk about our affairs and other people’s. His wife never joined us on such occasions. She didn’t speak Vietnamese. She replied to her husband’s questions in the soft drawl of people from a southern state. She was an American woman half a head taller than Chung and quiet. She had a round, freckled face that seemed sadly peaceful, or peace fully sad, as if these two things necessarily went together. Later, I found out that Chung had worked hard for years supporting her while she studied for a nursing degree at the university west of our town. He continued to work hard after she graduated and found a job. A machinist, he seemed to be happy with his line of work. Even now, I still don’t know how it was that the young American woman and the Vietnamese veteran came to be married Chung never told me, and I never asked.
The town we lived in was set deep inside a flat valley that stretched for hundreds of miles. From the town, you could go in any direction and face vast fields and, far beyond, one mountain range after another. Once in a while, Chung would take me to the newly harvested fields. We would walk along the dirt banks, bending down to pick up stray garlic or onion bulbs and potatoes. We soon filled up plastic bags from Safeway or Von’s and carefully tied them before putting them in the back of the gray pickup truck. We were always excited on our way back, so we didn’t care about our faces and hands being dirty. On these occasions, Chung often recounted stories about finding yams and beans when he was young. He’d quickly clean the pieces of purple yam, not much longer than a small finger, and put them in his mouth, chewing loudly. "They were so sweet, my friend!" For some months afterwards, we went on such "harvest" trips, sometimes with a few Vietnamese friends from town. Chung’s wife and kids never came with us. "They keep asking why I won’t buy the vegetables at the supermarket since they don’t cost much and it’d save time," Chung replied whenever someone asked about his family.
One day, Chung called, excited. "Come on over, I have something special." When I arrived, Chung was moving about in the kitchen, all alone. His wife and kids must have gone out shopping or something. He was grilling thin, fiat rice cakes on the electric range. The "something special" was pungent with the smell of onion and garlic and lay steaming in a large porcelain dish on the dining table. It turned out to be fried oysters. "Where did you find such small oysters?" I asked. "They’re not oysters. Clams," Chung answered in a firm voice. I didn’t know there were clams around here. They were the size of your thumbnail and had shells the color of moss, the kind my mother often bought to make basil soup. It’d been a long time since I’d had any basil soup. There was no basil growing around here, and certainly no clams where we lived. I took a closer look at the black shells. These were baby dams. "Where did you find them?" "At a lake up in the mountains. We’ll go up there sometime," Chung replied in the same firm voice.
Leaving behind the orchards, Highway 178 winds close to the upper part of Kern River, which the locals call The Killer River. From here, Highway 178 turns into a dangerous pass. The road narrows, the two-lane highway zigzags between the mountain on one side and, on the other, a cliff dropping down three hundred feet to the torrential river. Every few miles along the road, there is a space carved deep in the mountainside-or sitting precipitously on the edge of the cliff-where broken-down or slow-moving cars can stop to get out of the way of other cars. At the top of the pass, where the road ends, is Lake Isabella, once a natural valley at the foot of the tall mountains. Here, rainwater and snow melting each spring would collect before pouring into the upper part of Kern River in a colossal waterfall. The southern edge of the lake was hemmed in by a concrete dam, and at each end of the dam were large rocks from which gnarled trees grew. The lake was vast, and a pebbled path ran along its edge. On weekends, people from nearby towns went there to camp, fish, and water ski, turning the area into an active and noisy park.
It was to Lake Isabella that Chung and I drove to find clams. We stopped at a quiet part of the lake. Bringing along a small rake and canvas bags, we waded out to where the water came to our waists, then began digging and raking in the black mud. There were quite a lot of them, so our task wasn’t that difficult. After just a few hours, the four bags were filled with small black clams. Chung threw them in the bed of his truck, and we set off excitedly. As we drove down the mountain pass, the cliffs on my side sometimes disappeared from view when we rounded the dangerous bends. I felt sick to my stomach. Down below, the Kern twisted and turned noisily between the steep mountainsides. Chung completely ignored my nervousness. Once in a while, he would take his eyes off the winding road and look into the rearview mirror. I assumed he was thinking of the baby clams-as he insisted they were-in the bags in the back of the pickup.
Chung never tired of repeating his stories about catching clams along the banks of Cai River. A newly dug river had robbed the Cai of its water, and it was drying day by day. In some places, the riverbed was just stretches of sand. Clams the size of thumbnails collected in the areas where the water came up to one’s waist.
Chung was born in the central part of Viet Nam to a poor family. His father died early on, and his mother worked hard all her life to support the family. Chung was obsessed with the sandy roots of purple yams, the precious rice grains that had been dropped on the newly harvested fields, and the moss-colored dams in the shallow parts of the river. "Sometimes I’d catch mussels. I’d crack them open to look for pearls!" I laughed at the idea of there being any pearls in a mussel "I was a kid then," Chung said, "real stupid I was always thinking of the story of Trang Thuy and My Chau." Our impoverished homeland has many legends. Almost any Vietnamese would know the story of how Trang Thuy’s father, king of the Trieu kingdom, had sent him to the court of the Thuc to steal the magic bow that had thwarted his attacks time and again. Prince Trang Thuy married the Thuc princess My Chau, and they found much happiness in each other until Trang Thuy was able to swap the magic bow with a fake one and had to return home. "If anything happens and you need to flee your kingdom, leave traces so I can find you," Trong Thuy told the princess. Holding a down pillow to her chest, My Chau replied, "Follow the path with goose feathers and you’ll always find me." The Trieu’s next surprise attack was like a tempest. Casting away the useless bow, the Thuc king threw his daughter on the back of his horse and rushed away from the imperial city of Co Loa as it burned. In haste, Princess My Chau was only able to grab her goose-down pillow, upon which she had rested her head nightly to mourn the end of happy days with her husband. The soft goose feathers fell along the escape route. The Thuc king and his horse rested by a lake that poured into the sea. The lake was too big to cross, and then came the echoes of the Trieu’s galloping horses. The king turned his head just as the last feather fell from the princess’s hand The escape route, littered with goose feathers, had shown the enemy the way. The Thuc king drew his sword on My Chau, and she fell down by the water’s edge, her blood pouring into the big lake. The lake’s oysters would embrace My Chau’s drops of blood and mix them with the shiny liquid that turned into pearls. But that would happen later, long after Trang Thuy found his way there. A traitor always appears too late, but punishment sometimes comes quite early. People later said that pearls from the big lake would be more sparkling, more beautiful if they were washed with water that came from the well in Co Loa where Trang Thuy drowned himself after finding the princess. Perhaps the prince’s decision to kill himself came from unbearable guilt or grief, or both. The pearls were taken to China, where emperors, princes, and princesses would have them sewn onto their courtly outfits for ceremonies and celebrations. There were no pearls for a boy looking for clams in the river running through a small village in central Viet Nam.
For a while, I continued to go with Chung to look for clams and for onion and garlic. Then life began to be burdensome. There were concerns more pressing than gathering baby clams from a man-made lake in the mountains. Work, daily necessities, and new problems in my marriage demanded time and attention. When I turned down Chung’s invitation to go look for garlic, he couldn’t hide his disappointment. "Isn’t there anyone else who could go with you?" I asked. "They keep asking why I won’t buy the vegetables at the supermarket, since they don’t cost much and it’d save time." The occasions on which I joined Chung to go to Lake Isabella became rarer, and then I stopped going altogether. The disagreements between my wife and me seemed insurmountable. We finally decided that we would try to solve the problems separately. And so we said goodbye, taking with us the same problems without solutions and the sadness that came from our individual failures. Later, Chung occasionally visited my tiny apartment, bringing strands of garlic still covered in dust and sand, or clams still in their black shells. It seemed his wife and kids and his Vietnamese friends in town only wanted the garlic you buy at the supermarket. Even the tasty plates of clams fried with onion and lemongrass and the crispy rice cakes would be bland if you had to eat them by yourself. I learned about the accident on the Highway 178 pass from the eleven o’clock news on a local TV station. The gray pickup had fallen down a rocky cliff and sunk into the thrashing water of Kern River, scattering the bags full of small dams. "It was too late by the time the driver of the semi caught sight of the man at the back of his truck. The victim and the gray pickup were sent over the cliff’s edge, falling down three hundred feet into Kern River, and were dragged downstream immediately by the forceful currents. All that was left was a long line of small oysters, smashed into smithereens by the wheels of the semi." The camera focused on the tarred road, and I could see the shattered shells. Nothing was said of the bags, which had fallen into the water with the pickup and the ill-fated man. "No one will ever know why this man had recklessly stopped around the dangerous bend, by a steep cliff just above the violent Kern River." That was how the television reporter ended his story. Believing I understood a little of what had happened, I couldn’t agree with the reporter’s account of the crash.
The canvas cover above the pickup’s bed had somehow flown open, and the small dams from one of the bags had been scattered on the road. I can easily imagine Chung stopping his truck next to the precarious cliff to refasten the cover. He might have even tried to look, in the darkening light of the evening, for the dams that had spilled onto the bed of the pickup or onto the road. The TV reporter would never understand how someone could take such a risk just because of some worthless clams.
My homeland had no legends about dams. The bright-white pearls that came from My Chau’s drops of blood and were worn on the outfits of emperors, princes, and princesses at ceremonies and celebrations had nothing to do with lowly clams, either in my homeland or in America. The ugly little black clams from Chung’s bags either would be smashed on the rocks in the river or would sink into the violent currents and be dragged downstream. A terrible journey for the pitiful clams. Some would get stuck among the rocks, others thrown out of the water, landing on stones and becoming food for hungry birds or otters. Luckier clams would continue downstream, where the current would slow down and pour into a another lake.
Surrounding this small lake are pine, linden, and eucalyptus trees, which cast a cooling shadow over the sets of gray metal tables and chairs. On weekends, people gather here to spread their food on the long tables, sharing laughter and conversation over a meal and keeping an eye on the kids playing or swimming in the water. I come here too, sitting by myself on the stone bench by the lake, eating potato chips, watching my young daughters in their bright swimsuits chase graceless geese on the sandy shore. When they’re through chasing, they rush into the lake, dipping themselves in the cooling water. Sometimes they go deep below the surface to search the bottom perhaps to find a pebble of no particular shape, perhaps a single dark strand of grass. Sooner or later, they find what I want them to find. Then they rush up to stand around me, in their excitement fighting to talk to me. "Guess what we found." Of course I know. Daddy knows everything! "A goldfish," I answer, and they burst into laughter. "There’s no goldfish in this lake. You can only find goldfish in the tanks in a Chinese restaurant didn’t you know that?" one of them reminds me. And the other carefully opens her small hand. "A baby oyster!" they shout in unison. I take the oyster into my hand to examine it for a while, and then I correct them. "No, this is a clam. It is called hến." Their tiny pink lips open, curl up, and twist around, and from them comes the word hến, sounding round and clear like the sound of a flute. The girls laugh loudly again. Pulling them to me, I turn toward the southeast, where a green mountain range sits in the afternoon sun. Lowering my voice as though about to unleash some deep secret, I tell them about the journey of the small clam in the palm of my hand-starting not from the high summit above Lake Isabella, nor from the steep cliff three hundred feet above the violent Kern River, but from a small village on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, where a passing river would, in time, dry up.