By George Potter
October 31, 2006
God gave Mary one son, and the state took him away. To fight a war, it said. Freedom was at stake, the state told her. Democracy and liberty were in jeopardy, it claimed.
The state spoke in the rational voice of very official letters and the brisk typeset tone of brooking no excuse. Her son, that God gave her, was a strong and healthy young man. He must answer the call of duty.
Even he accepted it before her. It was his duty he reluctantly told her, and beyond the not insignificant fear in his eyes, beyond the miniature images of her own reflected and terrified form, she saw the hint of excitement.
Her son was just fresh from boyhood, fresh from a short lifetime crammed with romantic matinees about the fighting men of a just ended era, an era that lingered in the imagination of a nations youth as fresh and rose colored as their memories of childhood.
She began grieving even before he left, damning herself for a cynic and a weak willed doubter. Her own father had fought in the Pacific. She had been taught to revere the duty he had performed. She had always felt a fierce pride for him. Her grandmother had been placed in this exact same situation, and she knew from that womans own words that she had never given up hope, from the final embrace goodbye until the day he stepped off the boat and found her arms once more.
She had accepted eventually, grudgingly. She had willed herself into a facsimile of hope, with the help of a few glasses of wine in the evenings when the dark rolled around, bringing with it the doubt and fear. With the wine in her she could pretend to be proud, pretend to hold onto the reins of hope, pretend that her son was risking his life for something important and that he would be back safe and sound and soon.
But her son still died, thousands of miles away from his mothers arms, and she was damned if she could tell a difference his death made to the world other than her own personal world. That difference manifested as two new possessions, her consolation prize for the loss of the son God gave her: a broken heart, and a belly full of hate.
Her name was Quy Hue but in the singsong patois of the streets she ran they called her Round Eyes.
The round eyes were from her father, a conscript wanderer who had conceived her one night drunk and desperate for human warmth in a hotel in Saigon.
He died in the jungle a month later.
She never met him, our Quy Hue. But when she was five she watched the helicopters flee the embassy downtown as the Northern troops at last took the territory they had long claimed.
She did not know a great nation state had finally been defeated. She just thought: "My father is gone forever."
The Northerners killed her mother a year later, for harboring a rich couple who had collaborated with the former Southern regime.
Left alone she ran, joined in with the crazy secret tide of the crowded streets of Saigon. It was either that or starve.
She stole and whored and killed three men. She ate when and what she could and lived the best life she could tear from the world with naked force and cunning.
She learned the ways of the knife, the quiet step, and the empty heart. But in her dreams her father smiled down on a precious lily flower, and she woke herself crying often.
She died in a Saigon gutter at the age of thirteen, stabbed twenty four times, seven of which had pierced her heart.
She was killed for stealing a radio. It was a radio that belonged to a larger and meaner and faster gang than the one she ran with. It was a radio that she knew that she should leave alone but could not resist. Because it was brand new and beautiful in its shiny plastic gleam, and the songs that emerged from it as she slunk past on her last day of life were an irresistible siren call.
Round Eyes, our Quy Hue, had never owned anything new.
She kept her treasure only two hours.
Then seven boys found her and rendered her unable to ever own anything again.
They took my boy, the old man often thought. And sent me back a mad dog.
Chuck screams in his sleep often. He drinks too much. He's missing a foot. Sometimes Chuck stares at the stump. He stares at the missing foot. And he just has to hit someone. That someone always turns out to be his father.
It's a sad game, his father tells himself, for a fifty nine year old man to make excuses for bruises.
"I killed a little girl." Chuck sometimes slurs. Usually at this point he has discarded the pretense of mixing drinks and is slugging clumsily the cheap rotgut he favors right from the bottle. "I thought she had a bomb, but it was just an old radio."
The rotgut doesn't really let him forget the little girl, just as it doesn't really let him forget the foot blown off by an actual bomb placed on a roadside by some of the people he went to the desert to help liberate. But it allows him not to care about either for as long as it numbs his brain.
Such is life, he always thinks, making excuses, but he fought for our freedom. It's a terrible excuse and he knows it even as he makes it. He can't really believe it any more. The whole pretext for the war has gone through such convoluted turns and twists that only the most irrational flag waver can believe it had anything to do with freedom. But he lies to himself, just as he lies to the world about the bruises.
And Chuck is trapped, drinking himself towards the grave he narrowly avoided , staring at a missing foot, a dead child, and a radio that didn't even work.
Two young men sit on a garage roof and contemplate the stars. Between them is a half depleted bottle of Kentucky bourbon. Passing between them in a lazy ritual rides an almost finished joint.
They contrast sharply, the way truly good friends often do. Chuck is large and muscular, a boy built to run and lift and labor. Arthur is thin and pale, with thick glasses that make his dilated eyes look almost comically stoned. A boy built to think and write and figure. They not only contrast, but counterpoint each other, and have since they met on their first day of school. Chuck kept the bullies and bastards from his small friend and Arthur kept Chuck's grades high enough to get him on through the next day. They were a team.
"I calculated it once." Arthur says, words dragging a bit, but clear enough. "And if you take into account that there are three and a half billion people on this planet, and you count every second as three and a half billion consecutive seconds, then every moment that passes is just over a century long." Arthur blinked, remembering his calculation.
They were talking about God and the Universe in a roundabout way, as they usually did when they were stoned.
"That's completely nuts." Chuck said, and hit the joint. It burned his fingers and he flicked it away suddenly. He held the smoke for a few seconds, then let it whoosh out with a sigh. "But kind of cool."
"Now think about what that means." Arthur continued, grabbing the bottle and taking a burning gulp. "Let's say that God, or the Universe, or what have you, isn't exactly omnipotent. It's just that He or It exists on a time frame that rivals the subjective time frame of not only every human that exists but every human that has ever existed and maybe will ever exist." Arthur is gently lecturing now, piling speculation onto speculation in a heady rush.
Chuck pondered on that, as instructed. He loved to hear his friend dissect the world. "So you are saying that humans are God? Or that they make the Universe?"
"Me?" Arthur laughed. "I'm just philosophizing to maximize my buzz, brother." He adjusted his glasses and laid back to better enjoy the canopy of the Milky Way spread out above them. "But look at it this way. In just the subjective time frame I calculated, a single day to God would be nine million, five hundred and eighty nine thousand freakin' years. When you think about it like that, six days to create a simple thing like a planet ain't that far fetched." The thick lenses gleam in reflected starlight, masking the eyes. "It wouldn't take omnipotence to create a universe on that sort of time scale. Just talent and persistence. Like a sculptor. Or a composer." He chuckles at his own idle speculation. "Yeah, a composer. The universe is a long and baroque symphony."
Chuck grabbed the bottle and took his own slug. He capped the brown fire and leaned back himself. He let his blurry eyes scan the sky, the stars doubling their already impressive number as the alcohol rode in his veins.
"I like it." Chuck finally said. "I like that idea. That the universe -- all that -- is just..." he groped for words. "...a song. A song the human race sings together." He smiled. "I really like that."
Arthur smiled as well. "You got the soul of a poet, bro." The smile died as he thought of where his friend was headed, as those moments that were only moments to him ticked too quickly by. "Remember that." he said, in a low voice. "When you're over there. Remember that things are more than they sometimes seem. Sometimes people disappear and no one knows where they went, or appear in crowds and no one knows where they came from. Things happen. "
Chuck sensed the shift in mood and didn't like where it was going. So he laughed. "Well," he says "how 'bout you put that big brain to work on how our drunk asses are gonna get off this roof without any broken bones?"
Arthur returned the laugh, and they began to plan. It would be the last thing they ever do together.
In less than twelve hours, Chuck would climb onto a bus and begin a journey that would eventually lead him to a blazing death in a jungle.
In less than twelve hours, Arthur would climb into his beat up Chevy Impala and begin a journey that would take him far north to a university where he will begin work on a degree and eventually lead him to a failed marriage and a late born son that he would name after this friend of his childhood.
Mary Vintner, who was seventy nine, ate her usual breakfast with her usual lack of relish. The fork and the knife made mechanical clockwork motions; precise and humorless. She barely tasted the eggs and sausage and toast she consumed. They sated no hunger, gave her no pleasure. They were a matter of sour and practical habit, as Mary was a creature of sour and practical habit.
She'd been this way for forty years, from the moment the letter had arrived with the news that her son was dead, that her worst fear had come to pass, that she had hoped in vain.
She'd settled forever into this creature who now wandered the world like a corporeal ghost when the empty coffin had been lowered into the grave and the preacher spoke words that meant nothing to her heart. She had nothing left of him, not even the dog tags. Her son had been caught in a bombing run. Vaporized they said.
If only I had something of him, she still sometimes thought, perhaps I could grieve properly and let it rest. But nothing was what she had. An empty coffin in a crowded cemetery, a letter from the government, and memories of a strong and handsome boy that to this day were still so bright and vivid that they caused her heart to ache.
She allowed the world to see none of this. Sitting here in this bright cafe, surrounded by people she had known all her life, she revealed nothing. She ate here every morning, and never conversed. She had nothing for the people she passed on the street but a cold glare and a quickened pace. Several generations of children had considered her a witch and were too frightened to even egg her house on Halloween.
She did not care, for she wanted nothing of this world. For many years, the only human being she had even the slightest affection for was Arthur Cannon, her son's childhood best friend. She didn't truly care for Arthur Cannon the human being, merely the Arthur Cannon who complemented the memory of her son.
When the government had started this latest round of sending sons off to die, Arthur's boy had been sent. She'd felt sympathy. But, when his son returned missing only a foot, and Arthur had came to talk with her, had the utter nerve to pretend his loss was somehow on the same level as hers, she had ran him away, and let even that last spark of human connection gutter out.
"Your boy came back you awful, greedy man! How dare you! Your boy came back!" she had screamed at him as he stumbled down her porch stairs, open mouthed and round eyed at her sudden raging outburst.
He has changed into someone else, the man had whined. The nerve. The utter, hateful nerve.
She trembled slightly, remembering. Suddenly, the brightness and chatter of the cafe was too much for her to bear. She struggled up, placed the meal price and a dollar tip on the table, and hobbled with the aid of her cane to the door. A man entering held it open and smiled politely at her. She ignored him, moving purposefully and angrily out the door and down the street, for the cool dark comfort of her quiet house.
Quy Hue opened her eyes to discover what the after life had in store for her. There was no question that she was dead. She may have been an illiterate street runner, but she knew death well.
For the moment all was blackness, and a comforting cool soft feeling. She remembered the feel of the blades entering her body, the weight of the three boys who had held her down and the taunting babble of the four who had stabbed her. She shuddered at the memory, but realized that its power was fading here in the cool darkness. Already the memory of the pain was dull and muted.
She rested there for a long time, enjoying the first peace she could remember since the long ago death of her mother.
Then, at first thinking it was merely her imagination, she began to hear the music.
It started low and deep, bass notes throbbing a careful and confident rhythm, more feeling than sound. The pattern was complex and interesting, and oddly soothing. It reminded her of her earliest memories, her head resting against her mothers chest, a calm heartbeat lulling her to sleep.
Then came the melody, like a chorus of voices. Sweet voices, singing in unison. A song unlike any she'd ever heard; a song so beautiful it made the voice of the radio she had died for seem transparent and vulgar, gaudy and crude. It was a song, she realized, that she could listen happily to forever, content here in the cool soft dark, with only the music for company. She closed her eyes again to do just that.
But that was not to be.
"Hello Quy Hue." said the voice, softly yet perfectly clear against the background of music.
She opened her eyes. Standing before her was a small girl, whose complexion matched hers, and who's clothing was as ragged and humble as those she had worn in life.
"No one calls me that." Quy Hue whispered, feeling her voice was an insult to the song. "Everyone calls me Round Eyes."
"I know." said the young girl. "But that is not your name."
The blackness had been replaced by a pale luminescent white, and it appeared that she and the girl were alone in that unending radiance. But as soon as that thought crossed her mind, she knew it was not true. They were only two amongst a vast multitude, she was certain; she could feel their presence the way she had felt the crowded streets at midday even if she closed her eyes and covered her ears and wished for quiet.
And the radiance was far from blank, and not at all still. It was, she realized, a torrent of briefly glimpsed scenes, haphazard and undecipherable. As if she were being given glimpses from billions of different eyes.
"Where am I?" Quy Hue whispered again, then felt foolish. Her voice, and the voice of her companion, did not insult the song. Their voices did not mar its delicate beauty and delicious swell. Their voices were small but integral instruments in that overwhelming chorus.
"We rest in the Moment, the Universal Now. Inside the Song Of Existence." The child laughed. "I can not explain it, and there is no need. Because this is not your place to be. You are not supposed to stay here."
And then Quy Hue, with a gasp that spiraled from her like a lovely note, saw that the child was holding a radio. It was old and worn now, filthy and abused, but she recognized it at once. Perhaps, the thought came to her, some of those stains are my own blood.
As she stared, the child continued.
"The Song has no false notes, no mistakes. How can it be flawed when it is the fountain of reality? Yet sometimes, if a composer is truly gifted, intentional dissonance will be inserted. This serves as a counterpoint to beauty, as pain counterpoints joy. These motifs know no boundary of time or place, no limitation of simple understanding. You and I are notes in this motif. We are notes played and spent, while other notes still hum in the solid walls of reality."
The child moved closer, and offered the battered object to her with a gesture of calm surrender. "It is time for your note to be struck again, Quy Hue."
With an inner trembling, Quy Hue accepted the gift, cradled it to her thin chest, feeling pure gratitude.
"Who is this great composer?" she asked, no longer afraid of marring the song. "Who creates such beauty?"
The child was fading, shimmering, becoming more deeply ingrained in the weave of the song, the flickering montage of the moment.
"We are both instrument, and song, and composer. You, and I, and uncounted secret singers. And him."
The child hummed from existence, and Quy Hue felt the hand on her shoulder.
She turned and let her gaze wander up. A pale but smiling man stared down at her. The hand on her shoulder squeezed once, gently.
He led her into the song, through the moment, and -- as Quy Hue felt the proper point surge toward her; felt the return of weight and breath -- she wept with joy to have finally met her Father.
Then the song surged and the note that was Quy Hue of the round eyes was once again struck on the deep strings of the real and solid.
Chuck was going to kill him this time, Arthur knew.
"Give me that bottle you worthless shit!" his son screamed at him, hobbling towards him on crutches with blood in his eyes. His right hand clumsily held the stubby, cruel shape of the .38.
They were having this ugly confrontation in front of the house, on the sidewalk, before the eyes of God and their neighbors and the steady pulse of traffic. Arthur was afraid that if he shattered the bottle, his son would shoot him. But if he relented and let him have the bottle, Chuck would drift one more fifth of a gallon closer to death.
It's a hellish place to be trapped, between fear for your life and the love of your child.
"You are killing yourself, Chuck. Please." Arthur said, past tears, his voice shaking and pleading. "You're killing yourself and forcing me to watch and I can't do it anymore!"
Chuck threw his head back and howled. There on the sidewalk, filthy and unshaven, hair a mat of tangles and dirt, stinking and bare chested, his son was transforming into an animal. An armed animal.
* * *
Mary Virtner was just a block from the relief of her house, passing the Cannon place, when that howl yanked her from her blank rejection of the rest of the world and pulled her head around to the awful scene on the other side of the street. That screech raised the hair on the back of her neck and shot the first real pang of feeling through her heart in four decades.
She saw that wreck of a man raise the pistol and point it at the childhood friend of her long dead son.
* * *
On the level of existence where the universal song played in all its glory, the tableaux stretched like a still life. The father, the wounded son, the mother with the blackened heart. A tripod of shattered dreams. Three notes of a dissonant motif that was destined for a conclusion.
And guided by two notes that no longer lingered, the final note pierced the moment and worked the alchemy of a tune well played.
* * *
Mary saw the child appear in the street first. Saw the car moving too fast, and the driver distracted by the drama on the sidewalk.
She opened her mouth and cried out:
Her voice, a sound louder than she thought herself capable of, penetrated Chuck's rage. Like a puppet on a string, he felt compelled to turn, the gun dropping to the ground.
He saw, in the middle of the street, a dark complected child carrying an old radio.
And he saw the car, finally braking, but too late, too late...
He acted, from a deep well of regret that words cannot describe, a deep regret like dark music in his heart. Letting the crutches fall he ran, the stump of his foot slamming painfully into the ground, pain that he ignored. His rage forgotten, his thirst forgotten, the world forgotten save for a burning thought that forced his mind and muscles down a single desperate track:
I will not watch you die again.
At the last moment he leapt, grunting, to shove the child towards safety and intersecting the ton and a half vehicle with his own poor form.
Arthur screamed as he saw his son bounce off the fender of the car, twisting like a broken puppet as he bounced from the hood and smashed viciously into the windshield. The windshield shattered and sank in as the car finally screamed to a halt in a flare of burned rubber and aching hot brakes.
The girl slammed into Mary who grabbed her and managed, miraculously, not to fall.
A sudden hush. Arthur frantically ran to his son, the contested bottle of liquor falling from numb fingers. He reached Chuck, tears streaming down his face, babbling ridiculous reassurances to his twisted form.
Mary straightened herself, catching her breath. She stared down at the child who had just been saved.
She stared down into the round and green eyes of Quy Hue and the recognition was an electric shock.
She stared down into the round and green eyes of her dead son.
Something left of him. her heart whispered. Something left to let me grieve.
And those eyes stared back up at her, and there was recognition in them as well.
Quy Hue clasped herself to the old woman, and wept, voice calling a word over and over:
"Dahn tu! Dahn tu!" Grandmother.
Arthur cradled his sons head as the boy coughed blood. Arthur was weeping silently now, no longer babbling. Because in the eyes of his broken child he could see a clarity and peace that had been as missing as his foot in the last few long months. In those round eyes was a strange gleam of happiness, as if he were hearing a lovely song on a calm afternoon.
* * *
And the motif finishes at last, with a woman at last grieving with a gift from a long dead son, and a father grieving over one who longed for death. With an old radio shattered in the middle of the street. With four pairs of eyes round and startled at the song of the universe, wide to the beauty and the pain and the mystery of that song.
They will never truly understand, but it does not matter. For in that moment -- that fleeting eternal moment -- a pause has been reached.
And the song swells, crescendos, sighs in minor conclusion, but it does not end...