Si and his mother had been in Hue for three days and the heat was growing more oppressive by the hour. It was the middle of August and the monsoon brought fresh sheets of dark rain from beyond the Truong Son Mountains. There was talk among the foot jugglers that a typhoon could hit any day. Three years ago, their tent had been plucked from its moorings and a new tightrope walker was unceremoniously blown off to sea. Si listened to their fears with disinterest.
He was on summer vacation and traveling with his mother’s circus. Outside Saigon, the people of Hue gave his mother her warmest welcome, not like those stiffs in Hanoi who applauded politely at best, even when her tigers jumped through triple hoops of fire. At first, Si had been eager to join his mother. During the school year, Ma didn’t permit him to accompany the circus and so he stayed in Saigon in the care of an aging, ill-tempered ex-clown. But Si quickly grew tired of the road: the twice-daily performances, the watered-down sugarcane juice, the audience’s predictable gasps.
His mother didn’t want him dirtying his hands either, and this exposed him to charges of being a spoiled half-breed brat. His spotless clothes and trimmed fingernails only made matters worse. While the circus workers struck down the tents or handled a recalcitrant elephant, Si read his books. “You’ll be a scholar,” Ma told him again and again until Si believed her. It was true that studying came easily to him, especially mathematics. Problems seemed to solve themselves, the numbers lining up like so many prancing horses.
It was the circus’s first Saturday night in Hue and the crowd was large and raucous. Si recognized a few faces from previous shows, mostly men who’d approached his mother after her performances, inviting her to dinner or for a swim at the beach. After the initial formality, they sought a more familiar tone that she didn’t appreciate. Ma spurned the men, who skulked away as submissively as her tigers, only to return again for the next show. Si was grateful, at least, that his mother’s steady lover, that idiot strongman, was absent from the tour on account of his wrenched back.
The music started frenetically and off-key, as usual. The tent darkened and a searchlight lurched this way and that, exciting the crowd, until it rested on the most beautiful of the trapeze artists high on a platform. Yi-Yi was Chinese and taller than any man in the circus. She wore a red-sequined leotard and white lace-up boots with stars sewn on the ankles.
How often Si had dreamed of unlacing those boots, of caressing Yi-Yi’s sweet feet. Every time he thought of this—in the toilet or beneath his mosquito net—his penis grew so hard it no longer seemed a part of him. In Yi-Yi’s presence, Si merely stared at her, feeling acutely his own ungainliness. He’d heard other performers talking about the glamorous trapeze artist. One of the plate spinners, who’d professed to having spent the night with her, said that “she was built for a man.” Si had no idea what that meant, but the other men had laughed.
Yi-Yi balanced a handstand on the solo trapeze then swung down for a double somersault, grabbing the padded wrists of her catcher at the far end of the tent. The audience applauded wildly. She bowed then pulled a handkerchief from her bodice and blindfolded herself. On her back swing, Yi-Yi added a complicated body twist. As a finale, she hung from the corde lisseand did an endless dental spin. Si grew dizzy trying to count the number of turns, a hundred at least.
The twirling reminded him of how certain planes fell out of the sky in a whirlpool of metal and flame. Long ago, Ma had told him that his father had died like that, in a crash in the central jungle. His remains, she’d insisted, had never been found. But Si knew she was lying. The faint blue vein pulsing in her temple gave her away. Si understood that his mother lied to protect him, so he tried to leave her in peace. Sometimes, though, he couldn’t help asking more questions.
It’d taken him until last year to learn his father’s name—Domingo Chen—and that he was a musician. His mother told him that Domingo meant Sunday in Spanish, and so Si decided to save everything significant for that day. Then he discovered that his father had been born in Cuba and had Chinese and African blood. So what, Si wondered, did that make him?
His father had left behind two books from the army library at Ma’s apartment: a collection of cowboy stories and a book on classic airplanes. When Si was five, his mother had scraped together money for a Vietnamese-English dictionary. Si had spent his childhood painstakingly translating the books, as if everything he needed to know was encrypted on its pages. Sometimes he imagined his father riding a horse through “purple miles of pine, a world of serene undulations, a great sweet country of silence.” Other times he saw him as a World War II fighter pilot shooting down German ace General Adolf Galland in his Messerschmitt 109.
The clowns had taken over the ring with their ridiculous antics. The lachrymose one was walking the Russian bear, Masha—a recent gift from the Moscow circus—as if it were a pedigreed dog. Masha also roller-skated, rode a bicycle, played several musical instruments (including the flute and the lithophone) and crossed the tightrope balancing a tiny flowered umbrella. The bear’s arrival last spring had caused a furor among the performers, who’d feared that they’d be upstaged. Even the monkeys and geese were skittish around the creature. The head animal trainer was thoroughly charmed by the bear, and so Masha stayed.
Lately, Si had been having the same nightmare. In it, a flock of geese circled his bed, creating an updraft that sucked him up, naked and screaming, to the clouds. The dream frightened Si so much that he found himself checking the sky above his tent before settling down for the night. But everywhere they traveled that hot sticky summer, nothing but the usual stars filled the heavens.
In Saigon, Si and his mother lived near the airport and the regular drone of departing planes metered his afternoons. He had no friends except for Le Thuy, a girl as shy and bookish as himself. She, too, dreamed of leaving Vietnam. After all, what was left for them here? A future selling fish broth amid the rubble of the streets? Le Thuy’s favorite uncle, a physicist, had fled the country at the end of the war and now owned a donut shop in Los Angeles with two Cambodians. Le Thuy wanted to join him when she was old enough and open a little bookshop next to his place.
Si had different dreams. First he wanted to find his father, wherever he was, and listen to him play his Cuban drums. Then he wanted to go to engineering school in America and build an airplane that would never fall out of the sky. He’d spent years analyzing take-offs and landings, not just of the planes he could see from a distance at the airport but of every manner of bird, local and migratory, in the lakes and parks of the city. His goal was to make a plane that could land as precisely as an osprey on a flimsy perch.
* * *
The Nguyen brothers took over the center ring, tossing a pair of huge ceramic urns to each other with their stockinged feet. Soon they proceeded to foot-juggle a black lacquered table ornately set for tea. Si found it amusing that the brothers could catch anything with their feet but were downright clumsy with their hands. The regular jugglers—who could keep double-bladed axes and burning torches flying while riding their unicycles— were constantly jeering at them. But of what practical use, Si thought, were any of their skills?
Earlier in the day, he’d gone with one of the clowns to visit the Forbidden Purple City, where Tu Due’s tomb was nestled among frangipani trees and a grove of pines. The emperor had ruled in the last century and lived a life of unimaginable luxury. At every meal, the guide told them, 50 chefs had prepared 50 dishes served by 50 servants and Tu Due’s tea was made with dewdrops collected from the leaves of his lotus plants. He’d kept 104 wives and countless concubines, but none of them ever produced an heir. Only eunuchs had been permitted in the inner sanctum where the concubines lived.
Si had difficulty imagining himself with one girl, much less an entire palace filled with beauties. Two years ago, he’d come home from school with a stomachache and found his mother and the wrestler together in bed. He’d watched as the wrestler moved over Ma with a steady precision, as if he were hammering a nail in the wall. Si had gone to the park for the rest of the day and vomited in the lake. Afterward, he’d felt his mother’s love to be a more precarious thing.
The ringmaster announced the next act with exaggerated fanfare. The man irritated Si to no end. On duty or off, the ringmaster spoke at top volume. “Pass me the noodles!” he’d holler with drama at a simple common-pot supper. He snored and shat loud enough for an entire army. A half-dozen horses with fancy bridles galloped into the ring with acrobats on their backs. The perform- ers, dressed in glittering silver, somersaulted from horse to horse with impressive synchronicity. Finally, they sprang onto the back of a speckled stallion and formed a three-tiered pyramid.
Tomorrow, his mother had promised, they’d hire a boat, just the two of them, and cruise along the Perfume River. Si doubted this would happen. In Hoi An, they’d taken a cyclo together to the coast but Ma’s fans had engulfed them, demanding her autograph. Si had stormed off and carved his name deep into the trunk of a palm tree. One day, he vowed, he’d lead a life free of his mother’s annoying fame. Such thoughts made him feel guilty. Why, he might’ve ended up like one of those poor boys selling coconuts at the beach!
“You’re a good son,” Ma murmured each time Si massaged her tired feet. If only she knew all the terrible things he was thinking. His mother liked to talk more than she listened and she never asked him anything of significance. Besides, what difference did his feelings make? He understood that his mother lived for him. But whom did he live for?
* * *
Ma’s was the best and final act. The tent went pitch-black and a loud clanking announced the arrival of the tigers’ wheeled cage. One, two, three, Si slowly counted before the tigers growled in unison, right on cue. The audience shrieked with fear. Then the lights blared brightly and his mother appeared, golden and glorious, her whip held high in the air. The crowd roared their welcome: “Tham Thanh Lan! Tham Thanh Lan!” Ma bowed gracefully, not too low.
Snap! Snap! The tigers fell into line, ready to do her bidding. Si watched his mother’s tigers executing their intricate choreography. How did their lives differ from his? What if, for once, their true nature emerged? What if his did? Would this kill Ma? Night after night she bullied the tigers into performing unnatural acts, like dancing a Viennese waltz. Night after night she stuck her pretty, determined head into their mouths until only the coiled bun at the nape of her neck showed.
In the middle of her performance, Ma caught his eye. She smiled at Si from between two wrestling tigers, but he didn’t smile back. What I teach you, son, is not from books but from my suffering. Last week Si had stolen her peacock brooch, a foreign gift from a wealthy suitor in Bien Hoa. He fancied that one day it would buy his freedom, although it was probably no more than rhinestones and painted gold. Si ate a handful of salted nuts and scrutinized his mother from head to toe. There was a small tear in Ma’s flesh-colored fishnet stockings, barely visible behind her left knee. Who else would have noticed this but him?