Seven of Diamonds, Six of Hearts

They say wherever you go, there you are. In ’90s Nha Trang it is not too difficult to clamber up the sides of beached wooden boats, jump aboard, wander about the wood plank decks. But there are times you must ask. And here, where only men crew boats, the tough- looking, sinewy, muscular men, with straight black hair, sun-lashed high cheeks, leathery faces, reluctantly nodded yes.

Eagerly, I hoisted myself over the gunwales, and carefully walked about the enormous piles of green nylon netting. Carefully inspected but did not touch the heavy steel winch cables, mechanical loading gear, coils of rope, sea weathered buoys. Guts and slime washed away, there is still the stink of yesterday’s catch hovering about the boat. After a time, I trained my compact Leica on one particular sailor—he is older, grey-haired, bearded—engrossed in stuffing his pipe with tobacco. To signal him, I cleared my throat. Unblinking, he looked straight into the camera, gritted his yellowed teeth and snarled. Why, I don’t know.

A red light blinked inside the camera.

“Goddamn it,” I said, stepping away. I’d run out of film. To replace the roll in daylight, using my pack as a darkroom, I would need to sit down. Not here, I reckoned. Too bright. Or there, by the cabin. Too busy with men going in and out. But that spot, there, toward the bow, that would be fine. I walked over, comfortably seated myself, opened my pack, put the camera inside, set to work. Quickly, I opened the camera, retrieved the spooled film, inserted the new roll, wound it forward, snapped the camera shut. Thirty-six shots ready to shoot.

When I looked up, I was surprised that half the crew were glaring at me. Frantic, hands flailing, they pantomimed “Get up! Get up!” What was the matter? As if in reply, a young muscular sailor grabbed both my arms and lifted me off my well chosen seat. Angrily, he pointed to the remains of incense I’d been sitting on. To the faint but visible calligraphy. Christ. I should have known to ask. These hard working, sea-bitten men, who distrust all foreigners, especially Americans—would have said “No. Do not sit in the wooden box filled with sand that we use to pray to our ancestors and for good luck. Didn’t you see the burnt remains of the joss sticks? Try to imagine us praying. How could you do such a thing? Americans are idiots. Leave. Just leave.”

I’d been backpacking for months. Singapore. Thailand. Cambodia. Laos. From Vientiane I’d  flown to Hanoi, traveled by train down the coast. The beaches of Haiphong. The islands of Ha Long Bay. To Vung Tau, where I’d once spent six days trying to enjoy its tranquil waters, only to drown by night at the officers’ club in liquor and drugs and women. On the seventh day of my R & R I boarded a flight and returned to the war: patrol, jungle, ambush, monsoon. Three weeks later, a sudden snap, a lightening BANG, the staccato roar of small arms fire, the medic, then all went quiet. Months would pass before I could walk without crutches. But that, as I often say, was quite some time ago. I’d done well trading stocks and was taking a hard earned break.

They say a Purple Heart and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee. Throw in a bachelor’s in English, a master’s in French. An MBA. You’d think I’d know better. But I screwed up.
The pipe smoking sailor squatted before a bunched pile of torn net in need of repair. Skilfully, he darted the long needle and thick nylon thread in–out, in–out, loop and knot, in–out, as if crocheting an immense underwater blanket. Occasionally he drew on the pipe, expelled a puff of smoke, continued his business of mending.

I approached him. Palms together, I bowed slightly from the waist. The sailor merely shook his head. Politely shooed me away. Look. I didn’t mean that to happen. Perhaps. But the rest of the crew, mumbling harsh words to themselves, ignored me. One last look at the boat. It’s scrolls of sea corroded paint. Paths of worn down deck. The creaking wood. The squawking gulls overhead. I turned and climbed down and did not look back.

Trekking across the wide beach, even with sandals, the blinding sun on the white sand burned the soles of my feet. Another hundred yards to the main road. Quickly, quickly, as the Marines would say.

I came to the main road. Unlike the urban center, the nearby islands, the busy main port, certain areas of Nha Trang have yet to recover from what is called here “The War Against the Americans.” Few cars or mopeds pass on this derelict street. Even fewer people walk about. The few shabby homes are encircled by rusted barbed wire fences. At their foundations, the inquisitive eye detects the tattered remains of rotted sandbags. But that, as I say, was quite some time ago. Truth to tell, at sharp or loud or unexpected sounds, I crouch or spin left or right; a souvenir from ducking at every hint of an ambush. I did that many times.

Walking down the American blacktop, before I saw it, before it bounced a second time, plop, got away, catlike I grasped the multicolored ball mid-air and spun round to see who threw it. A wide-eyed girl, a child, a toddler really, stared at me. I offered her the ball, but she could not decide whether to run from the tall stranger, smile at him, or hide behind the trousered leg of the thin, gap-toothed man who had caught up to her.

If not for the color it might have been a grenade. Ordinarily I would have thrown myself down, rolled right, curled, knees to head, braced myself for the concussive blast, the unbearable pain, hot metal burrowing into my flesh. But that day I snatched the bomb, hurled it back—BOOM—and screaming over their screams, I ran forward, firing point blank, until the barrel glowed red and the shrieking stopped and they grew quiet.

Look at her. Look at her lustrous black hair. Delicate nose and mouth. The openness of her clear widening eyes. What beauty there is in this world of war and peace and war again. I tried a second time to make a gift of it. Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you. Here. Take. Go ahead. Take. But she would only peek from behind her father, who accepted the toss for her. What to do? What?

Rummaging through my pack, I found the playing cards I used to pass the time on Vietnam’s slow-moving railway, built by the colonial French. I made adjustments. Beckoned the father and daughter to the shade of a tree.

They say wherever you are on this planet, whatever country you may find yourself in, pantomime is the traveler’s default lingua franca. And all children love magic—love its theatrical slight-of-hand. Its baffling mystery. In my left hand I held the fanned deck of cards. In my right, I offered her the seven of diamonds, the six of hearts. Her father whispered to her. Gingerly, she accepted the cards. I pointed to my eyes, to the six and seven, to the side of my head. “Look at them. Got it? Don’t forget!”

I waited as the excited child whispered again to her father, who nodded assent. Smiling, eyebrows raised, I pointed to the diamond, next the heart, the splayed deck. She understood. Gingerly, her left thumb pressed to her mouth, she sought to place the cards into the pack. That’s it. Go ahead. With my thumb and index finger, I semaphored “Great!” and snapped the fanned pack shut. The girl hugged herself. Shivered with delight. What could possibly be next?

To dispel all doubt, I raised my right hand, empty palm outward, unwittingly forming…a mudra, was it? Yes. Like the bronze Bodhisattva seen at the temple at Haiphong seated on a lotus in eternal repose. While other tourists sauntered into the sacred room, took photographs and moved on, for thirty minutes I stood there transfixed by that image of stark tranquility. Stood there transfixed. Something immutable passed between myself and the girl. Her father noticed it too. Immediately, I placed my right hand on the deck, half-closed my eyes, appeared to summon spirit energy, flicked my right wrist, in triumph held the six and seven the child had buried deep in the deck of my American cards.

Astonished, as if I had committed a punishable sin, the girl pressed both her hands to her widening mouth, stood there dumbstruck with fear. Her father too was taken aback. This was not the effect I had intended. Should I teach them the slender secret of long-fingered hands well suited to legerdemain? That unseen I had placed the six of diamonds atop the cards, the seven of hearts beneath them. How I gripped the sides of the deck with the fingers and thumb of my left hand, pinched the seven with my right thumb below, the six with middle finger atop, in one lightening movement pulled the deck forward, the counterfeit pair trapped in my pincer-like grip, the human mind conflating the imagery. Viola! A trick, really. A clever, rehearsed, child’s play trick.

No. I would try something else. Vietnamese is a tonal language. Compared to English it is impressively difficult to speak fluently. But as well as trains, the French had bestowed their language on the country and here was my chance to use it.

I knelt before the girl, who clung to her father, who seemed to have figured things out. If you think of it, sleight-of-hand is a bit like shoplifting. Misdirect the watchful eye. Push here. Pluck there. Hide and seek and undetected steal away. But magic, done for the goodness of it, is the proper opposite of petty theft—an impressive gift to what is possible.

“Monsieur. C’est magique. Bonne magie. Bon pour le coeur.”

It is good magic. Good for the heart.
The father grinned, bent to his daughter, uttered the words into her ear. She brightened, gleefully clapped her hands.

I pointed to my camera, which lay atop my pack. This time I knew to ask.

“Une photo, s’il vous plait?”

The father did not hesitate. “Oui,” he said.

In the shade of the tree, we stood either side of the girl. I managed to take the photo one-handed.

Click. Flash. For a few seconds, or was it centuries, we disappeared.

Merci! Merci! Bon Jour! Bon Jour!

When I had walked some distance I turned around.

They were gone.

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First published in Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 2022.