The Dragon

Part 1 of 2

The old people, the ôngs and the bàs, with their crooked backs and etched faces, they said the lake was haunted. If you went to the lake at night, they said, the spirits would call you down. You could gaze into the moon-shimmered water and see them there, the white, twisted faces staring back at you. It was the last thing you’d ever see.

The local boys, they didn’t care. Every evening, they’d gather on the lake’s muddy shores to fish with their bamboo rods, smoke tobacco they stole from their papas, and jump into the cool water from rocks that poked from the surface like noses. The older ones, especially, rolled their eyes. There were no spirits; that’s ngốc, they said—stupid—and they pinched the cigarettes between their thin fingers and squinted like teachers.

Even if there weren’t pale-faced ghosts, Phúc knew there was something down there. His brother had told him; a rồng giận dữ—a large, angry dragon—slept deep at the bottom. No one knew who’d first discovered it, but for as long as Phúc could remember, only a few boys had seen it for themselves. His brother was one: Phúc still remembered the day he went out there, his back caramel with sweat, his arms shadows as he paddled to the center. Then he had disappeared, and Phúc had panicked. Had he woken the monster? Would he see his brother again? A lifetime of years passed, but finally his brother’s head broke the surface, and as he gasped and thrust a fist in the air, Phúc had felt something like a weight removed.

On shore, the older boys had slapped his brother’s back and congratulated him. Had he been taller in that moment? It was possible: he’d seemed invincible. That night, Phúc had peppered him with questions . . . How big is it? Did you see its face? How did you do this thing?

But his brother had only smirked. “Phúc, if you want to see it, then go see it. But you must be quiet. Quiet, and brave.” 

Even a year later, only a handful more had made pilgrimage to the rồng giận dữ. When they returned to shore, the other boys still crowded them with wide eyes and learned that the dragon was, indeed, still there. But Phúc’s brother had said you needed to be quiet to see the dragon. If that was true, he didn’t know how the older boys did it.

They weren’t quiet at all.

Phúc stood on the edge of the lake and contemplated this conundrum. Even now, the boys made enough noise to wake this rồng and all the other rồngs throughout the whole of Vietnam. “Di di di!” they yelled all around him—”go go go!”—and their voices bounced all the way to the low, green mountains beyond. It was a situation as old as the oldest ôngs and bàs: Huy had climbed the giant tree that overlooked the lake. Quốc had given chase. A fevered competition ensued. Phúc knew the outcome even before it started: Huy would win. Huy always won. He wondered why the boys made so much clatter and thought about the thing that lived in the center of the lake.

When Huy finally dropped to the ground, he was alone. The other boys crowded him; they slapped his back and crowed to the sun. Sweat glistened from Huy’s bare torso, and his arms were etched with red scratches. As he surveyed the group, with a wide, tight grin Quốc dropped behind him like a ripe coconut.

“Here’s Quốc!” said Huy. “Quốc the dog—” he paused and swept his eyes across the crowd—”the dead dog!” The other boys erupted. Quốc screwed up his face and massaged his foot. It was still twisted from a bike accident years ago, and Phúc felt a pang of sympathy for him. It had been a silly accident, and he was still a good climber.

Huy, however, showed none of it. He looked over the group as a farmer surveys his crop and bellowed, “Who among you will climb now?!”

The group erupted as each boy clamored to be next. Huy scanned each boy’s face in turn, and as he did so, he invoked their names in the best American accent he could muster, all heavy vowels and blunt syllables:

“Tinh?”

Tinh puffed his chest.

“Văn? Is Văn the dude?”

Văn seemed pleased.

“Trọng? Where is my Tony Stark? ‘Avengers, Assemble!’ “

The boys laughed. Phúc’s chest grew tight as Huy’s dark eyes fell across him.

“Phúc!” Huy yelled. “I think little Phúc will be next!”

Phúc’s stomach fell through his pelvis. The boys’ eyes fell on him, and the tightness in him became a vice. Still, he made no sound, and the lake grew silent with him; he was aware of the wind as it brushed the treetops and the insects as they zipped around his head. Here and there, a ray of sun pierced the veil above him. He could think of nothing to say. He shrugged his shoulders and sucked in his chest, as though by making himself smaller, the other boys would forget he was even there.

The boys did not forget. They snickered. They jostled. To Phúc, the moment seemed to last forever.

“Well? Will you climb the tree, Phúc?” Huy stood with his fists on his hipbones. His hair displayed in shocks.

Phúc was silent.

“OK—pleeease, Phúc. It would please Huy very much, Anh.”

Still, nothing.

“Phúc has lost his tongue!” Huy announced. The other boys brayed. Before Phúc realized what had happened, Huy stepped forward and shoved his hands into him. Phúc stumbled back. The other boys howled in approval as they formed a circle around him. “Where is your tongue, Phúc?” Huy yelled. He shoved him again, and Phúc fell back into the hard red dirt. The boys jeered louder. The sound of it rang in Phúc’s ears.

“Get up, baby Phúc! Climb the tree!” They bellowed as they stood over Phúc like a brood of hens. He waved his hands and looked at the pack that surrounded him. “He won’t climb the tree. He is a baby, like his brother!”

The aching tightness in Phúc’s chest spread to his skull; it swelled, and his eyes burned like suns. He willed himself not to cry.

“My brother was not a baby,” Phúc said, trembling.

“What’s that?” said Huy.

“My brother was not a baby!”

Huy looked down and smirked. “Well, where is your brother now?”

Now a chorus rose among the boys: I hear your brother looked like a ghost in his last days! I hear your mother had to change his diaper! My uncle says he got sick because he played with a buffalo’s cu-cu!

Phúc’s eyes stung and he fought to hold it back. “I hope the dragon eats you for dinner!” he burst out, even before he knew it was there.

The boys erupted into laughter. They pointed their faces upwards and sent the sound into the clouds. Three birds, startled, flapped and took flight. Suddenly, Huy was silent. The rest of the boys went quiet. He pointed a finger toward the lake.

“Why don’t you go ask it yourself? It’s right there.”

Phúc looked across the still waters. The sun danced on the surface like a polished mirror. In the distance, mountains shimmered. Phúc wished he could be there now, far away from Huy and the other boys with their dirty faces and sharp voices. Then, without even a warning, Phúc heard himself say:

“I will.”

It took only a moment for him to realize what he had done. The boys, too, registered it—they looked at each other with eyes like plates. For a moment they were still, and the absence of din was horrible. For the first time, Phúc noticed the wet, acrid scent of the mud beneath him. Then the boys began to laugh again, louder than they had before. Phúc? Swim to the monster? It seemed their laughs would never end.

Phúc rose to his feet. There was nothing left to do but go to the lake. His stomach was a mess of serpents that twisted into tighter and heavier knots. At the lake’s edge, he paused and looked out again at the low mountains. He wondered who might live there, and what their day might consist of. Surely, they were not swimming into lakes to disturb dragons.

As he waded into the lake, the cool water flowed around his shins. Behind him, the boys continued to jeer. When the water reached his waist, he fell forward. He pumped his arms and thrashed toward the spot where his brother had gone before him. He swam so hard he thought his arms might fall off; they burned like rope left in the hot sun. His lungs worked like bellows that stoked a great flame. And despite it all, the spot never seemed to get closer. He thought of the stories of the ôngs and the bàs, and he had a horrible vision of faces below him, leering at him as he floated just overhead. He glanced down. That was it.

Phúc coughed and sputtered. His hands became fists as he swallowed great mouthfuls of water. As he struggled to hold onto his breath, he worried that he might not stay afloat. He knew he could go no farther. He turned back, and as he approached the shore the boys’ cries became even louder.

Ed. Note: See Part Two, the conclusion in the January 2024 Issue.


For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com


Matthew Chabe
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