by Barry Brennessel
When his father leaves Thái Nguyên City for the northernmost reaches of French Indochina, Bùi Vân Minh must shoulder new responsibilities to help keep the family afloat. His mother’s blindness and his uncle’s caustic personality add to the young man’s challenges.
A chance meeting with a captivating youth, Ngô Công Thao, throws Minh’s life off-kilter in a most exciting and confounding way.
The young men soon discover their feelings for one another transcend mere friendship. But the struggles under French colonial rule and the effects of the Great War alter their lives to a degree they never could have imagined.
This novella expands and significantly develops a story that first appeared in our highly acclaimed anthology A PRIDE OF POPPIES. The author’s screenplay adaptation of the story received an honourable mention and was a finalist in the 15th annual American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest, judged by Francis Ford Coppola, and also won the Best LGBT Feature Screenplay category at the New Renaissance Film Festival, Amsterdam 2018.
28,500 words / 120 pages
Publication 1 May 2018
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“It’s sublime writing, so authentic and beautiful.”
Review by Kazza K, On Top Down Under book reviews with substance
Today the trail back from the city felt double in length. His mother’s gait had slowed considerably, and her grip on Minh’s arm had tightened the closer they drew to the hut. After they crossed the footbridge just below the outermost edge of the property, they knew it was real: it would be just the two of them, fending for themselves, for weeks and weeks.
Minh knelt down outside the hut, to the right of the entrance, as his mother ventured inside. He set down the flowers. There were five plants in all, but one had broken in half. He hoped it was salvageable.
He had his doubts.
Minh heard a noise just then. A grunt.
He couldn’t believe his eyes when a pig raced by, followed by a boy in hot pursuit. The boy’s pained expression as he glanced at Minh seemed a plea for help.
After a moment’s pause – Who was this boy? Was he stealing a pig? – Minh decided it would be a noble thing to offer assistance. He brushed the soil from his trousers and hurried down the path.
Were it not for the far-off squeals, Minh might have lost track of the pair. When he rounded a steep bend, he spotted the boy on his knees, his body wedged against the pig, which in turn was trapped against a tree stump and the remnants of a stone foundation from a long-gone structure.
The boy was winded, sweat streaming down his face.
Perhaps the eyes, deep pools of brown, were the reason. Or the hair, swept to the right, beneath which thick eyebrows peeked through. The cheekbones? Or the nose, which somehow blended into his face but remained distinct at the same time. The boy gave Minh a strange feeling.
He’d been noticing boys in this manner for the last few months. Confusing. Guilt-inducing. Exciting. Terrifying. Titillating. Whatever the trigger, when Minh studied this boy, he felt a tingle in his stomach, a flutter in his chest, and warmth as strong as sunlight throughout his body.
“Thank you,” the boy said, with heavy breath.
Even though this boy had concluded, logically, that Minh was there to render help, Minh found it presumptuous. He felt suddenly annoyed by the boy’s attitude. What did he expect Minh to do? Minh wasn’t exactly keen to lay his hands on a pig.
The animal squirmed. The boy laboured to restrain it.
It was then that Minh noticed the boy had nothing with which to tether the thing. “Are you stealing that pig?” A harsh question, Minh knew. But how did he know that the pig belonged to the boy? Something about the situation seemed off.
The boy scowled. “Selling!” he called out. “Eventually.”
Minh moved a few steps closer. “How do you control it?” he asked. The animal was too large and feisty to carry, even for two people.
“I lost my rope!”
“Well, I have no rope,” Minh said.
The boy was silent. He stared up at the sky. He looked back down at the pig. He eased his grip, leaned out of the pig’s way, and nudged its backside with his right hand. The pig trotted away, its squeals almost in song.
“What are you doing?” Minh protested, watching the pig disappear in a stand of trees farther down the hillside.
The boy stood. “It’s obvious. I granted him freedom,” he said.
“Was it honestly yours to free?”
“Do I honestly look like a thief?”
He wore dark brown trousers, hiked up above the ankles, with a mud-caked white patch over the left knee. His white shirt was missing two buttons, one in the centre and one on the bottom. The unfastened cuffs flared out above his wrists. He wore nothing on his feet.
“I’m happy for him,” the boy said, not waiting for Minh to answer his question. “My father hoped to sell him to a family nearby, for the festival. I’ll try to convince my father it got away too fast for me. I’ll be punished, but … I never wanted him to die. He was my favourite. I gave him a name. I don’t care if it’s a foolish thing to do.” The boy spoke quickly, his eyes darting about, some words spoken so softly it was as though he were conversing with himself.
“A pig is so valuable! You cost your father a lot of money just now.” Who was this boy to do such an inane thing on his own like that? To squander his father’s hard work and income. “Besides, it might end up in a bad position. A situation more painful than a quick slaughter. We can still try to catch it. Somehow.”
The boy’s eyes grew wide. “I’m not going to take away his freedom.”
“He won’t be free when someone else catches him.”
“Do you always think the worst will happen?” the boy asked.
“Are you always so impetuous and irrational?”
“Bất hợp lý. I hear that one a lot. That’s a very grown-up word.”
“I like to study grown-up words. It’s not exactly a crime.”
“And I don’t study words? Because I spend all my time farming pigs? Or because I’m a thief.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“I speak French too. Which language should I use to apologise for my love of words?”
The boy smiled. He made a sound, a sort of chuckle, that he seemed to be trying to suppress. Not the reaction Minh was expecting.
“I’m sorry,” the boy said. “I was rude.”
Minh swallowed air. His mouth went dry. His throat felt as if it was closing up. “I … I was rude, too. So I’m also sorry.”
The boy swung his arms to and fro, his fingers fluttering in all directions, as though he were playing a musical instrument. “I’m sorry you feel sorry. Are you sorry that I feel sorry?”
Minh lifted his head, his brow furrowed. “Sorry?”
A pause. The boy’s limbs and digits stopped moving.
Both boys burst out laughing. When the laughter faded, they regarded one another.
The boy tapped himself on the chest. “Ngô Công Thao.”
“Bùi Vân Minh.”
They smiled at one another.
“What was your pig’s name?” Minh asked.
They burst into laughter once more.