translated by Anna Moi and Rana Dasgupta
extract from the novel
In the middle of the night, I finally identified the nature of the noise. Not really a noise, the sound was barely perceptible . repetitive, like the echoes of a dream. But it is not a dream, because I am not sleeping.
The others sleep. Around me, silence is frail after the tumult of the day, the slamming of doors, the clanking of chains and the cries. Through the silence, I heard the humming. It was barely audible, and obsessive. How many of us heard it that night, and after, every night for one hundred nights, three hundred nights or thirteen hundred nights?
I could describe the sound by comparing it to the rustle of dead leaves brushed by the wind. Also the wind could be heard sweeping the top of the cashew nut tress. But these gusts were out of rhythm with the other sound, an insistent cadence at times slightly syncopated.
I could also smell the sweet scent of ripe fruit of the cashew nut which extended below it like a question mark. Once the door banged shut, I examined the yard through a crack in the battant and gazed at the splendor of the leaves of the cashew nut, thick and fat.
Many interrogations about all that happened since our arrival; but tonight were still pending, the first night, I searched only for the origin of the distant purr.
The cement block which is my bed is cold against my back. We are four, two on the block and two on the ground, in a room of five feet by eight. less than three square feet per person. It is cold. I warm myself again by leaning against the back of my sister Tao. She is sleeping. From time to time she grinds her teeth but I am the only one to hear the light scratching of her molars. We are exhausted. The night before, in the bilge of the ship, no one slept. Soaked by sea spray and thrown against each other, the passengers of the ship spend a restless night. Less than an hour after departing from Vung Tau, when the ships leaves the bay to enter the South China Sea, which flows into the Pacific Ocean a little further down, the waves swell and heave. The soft rocking become violent. The bilge, at first merely damp, is soon covered by pools of water as the sea insidiously seeps in, creeping over our heels, then our knees and finally our thighs. When the water reached the waist, several women whimpered and others let out more strident cries like a swarm of insects in distress. The hub-bub was intensified by the jangling of chains and the babies crying. Only two babies. Four hundred women. Two hundred men. I will not forget what the men did that night. Their arms knotted horizontally over the water level had created a litter to hold the bodies of the weaker ones. The men were so thin, following months or near-starvation, and it was nearly impossible to imagine they were able to cradle in their arms, for hours, the lifeless women.
I am the youngest. I am fifteen. The men offered me their arms but I said no.
"Guard your strength", they called.
"Guard your strength for the others", I answered.
Tired, yes, I am. But at the age of fifteen I feel invincible.
The ordeal caused by water was not by followed by fire but by silence. No one was permitted to speak. Even cries were treated as words and were reprimanded. Neither I nor my sister cried.
After warming myself against her back, I stretched out on the floor. Overhead the oblong design of the cross bars were partially obscured by the darkness, but my eyes picked them out. Twenty cross bars transected by one in the middle.
It is my first night in a tiger cage of Poulo Condor prison, and the sound that I hear is the Pacific Ocean.
The door of our cell is made of wooden slates. A moonbeam pierced the joints on the left side of the door. All day long, Tao and I had bickered over who would take the coveted position to gaze through the crack at the vast scene outside, the landscape outside our cell. In truth, the crack in the door revealed little: one or two large and thick leaves, some limestone shards on the wall opposite, the slight curve of a bell.
Now that Tao was asleep, I had the envied spot to myself, but the moonlight did not clearly reveal the leaves swelling with sap.
It was the first time in four months that we are allowed to sleep in the dark. In the communal cell of the former women.s prison in BiÃ Hoa, on the mainland, the fluorescent lights had blushed us night and day. I never got used to it. Sleep was interrupted by interrogations and, worst of all, by the erratic blinking of the neon lights.
If it were not for the odor, I would doubtlessly have been able to sleep. After making us discard our shoes and chaining our feet to the iron bars of the cell at the edge of the cement block, our bed, the guards left us alone.
We could detect the odor as soon as we entered through the metal fate at the entrance to Camp nÂ4, formerly Camp nÂ3 and recently renamed Camp Phu Hai, the Camp of the Sea of Prosperity. The stench had infiltrated the rows of kitchen gardens cultivated by prisoners. Past the sundecks and the little gate with a tinkle bell just before the tiger cages, it became overwhelming.
The stink came primarily from the latrines: lidded wooden buckets. The chains didn.t interfere with our movements inside the tiger cage, and the bucket was placed near the entrance to clear the greatest possible rest area. Tao and I, on our block, are privileged. The other women slept on the ground.
"Sometimes, they leave us with buckets for weeks, so of course there is some overflowing, says Phuong.
"What can we do about this?
"Nothing, nothing at all."
I felt slumber starting to sink in, at last. Little by little, my nostrils filtered the disgusting mold and replaced it with the discharge of decaying fruit. No one had gathered it and the fruit had rotted. Even rotten, it carried for the longest time a smell of summer.