Jacob William Cox
Capable—if unreliable—little motorcycles, a used Honda Win can be had for around US$200. Boasting 110cc engines, endlessly replaced, welded and salvaged clutches, wheels, brakes, handlebars, frames, rims and gearboxes, with not a one having a working odometer, speedometer or gas gauge, and so on, these bikes are, for the traveller possessed of an adventurous heart, the magic key to the dramatic landscapes of northern Vietnam.
In Meo Vac, a dusty town in a sheer valley near the Chinese border, two boys and two girls sat over beers in the lobby of the guesthouse. The fifth foreigner to arrive was Felix, and he made an unforgettable entrance. Anybody stumbling and covered in blood will make such an entrance; Felix was no exception.
The four travellers gazed at the entrance, the door swinging closed, the bloodied man swaying on his feet. Felix himself seemed to have no idea how to follow it up. Holding a cracked helmet in his hands, he turned to face the empty reception and inquired politely about the price of a room.
“Yes, just for one,” he said to no one. “It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.”
“You all right, mate?” Thijs set his beer down on the table. “You know there’s nobody there, yeah?”
Felix’s eyes passed over him, over the other three at a table stacked with empty beer cans. Edwina burped. Felix, as if he hadn’t seen them at all, turned back to the receptionist, who wasn’t there. “Passport? Yes of course.” This passport Felix fished from his little day bag. With commendable dexterity he opened it to the cover page and placed it on the desk. He smiled.
Then he lost his feet. He went down in a thump.
The four travellers got up and bent over him, jabbering like monkeys. Thijs asked the girls to find the owner and when they could not, and the boys could not rouse Felix, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Thijs and Joel, who had met just this morning at a cafe in Ha Giang, carried the wounded man up the stairs. Felix was a large man and they had to set him down for a moment in the hallway on the second floor. Sandy and Edwina poked around and returned saying there was an unlocked room around the corner. Toward that bed they hefted him. Sandy had turned on the light and once they had him on the bed they studied him, his eyes spinning like weighted doll’s eyes as he muttered something about stupid kids and slingshots, the peculiar way sound travels up mountainsides…
“German,” Felix informed the travellers in a clear voice. “They were speaking German, I’m sure of it.”
“He’s gone batshit crazy,” said Thijs.
“If we don’t wash these cuts out they’ll get infected,” said Edwina.
“He must have hit his head pretty hard, poor thing,” said Sandy.
“He needs a hospital,” said Joel.
“Did you see any around?” asked Thijs, grinning. “This isn’t France.”
“I think I remember seeing a sign for a clinic,” offered Sandy. “Just after we came into town.”
“We can help him,” said Thijs. “Look at him, it’s not so bad. The doctors here, maybe they make him worse. Maybe they give him an infection or something.”
They stood for a soundless moment, in a part of the world about to enter night, considering the wounded stranger. When nobody said anything, Thijs continued, “We need bandages. Antiseptic. Joel, there’s a pharmacy down the street, near to where we had dinner.”
Joel nodded. He went out of the room and down the stairs and Sandy, because she did not like blood, went after him. A minute later, as Edwina opened the door to the narrow balcony for some fresh air, she could see them on the street, looking at a motorcycle. She went back in and helped Thijs pull off Felix’s shoes, pants and jacket. His eyes, though wide open, seemed to be taking in scenes very far from that room in a small town in northern Vietnam.
While Felix stood in the shower, steadied by Thijs, Edwina rubbed him down with a soapy rag.
“Really get in there. You have to get all the dirt out.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“Poor bastard,” Thijs said, looking at the naked stranger. “What the hell happened to you?”
“If you don’t know where you’re going,” Felix replied, eyes glazed, “you often end up going nowhere.”
“Talking to himself.”
“I think he hit his head hard.”
“That’s a lot of h’s.”
Edwina, 19 years old, looked up at Thijs’ grin and shook her head. It was no time for little jokes. She returned to the work, nonplussed about the blood, which fingered and curled in red swirls amid the water heading to the drain. “There, there. We’ll have you right in no time,” she said, passing the bloodied cloth one last time over Felix’s shoulder.
She stood and looked at Thijs. “Let’s dry him off.”
Five minutes later, as Felix stood shivering, Joel and Sandy returned. They unpacked the plastic bag and watched Edwina drip the brown antiseptic onto the cuts and scrapes, raw and fleshy pink after the vigorous scrubbing.
“His bike,” Joel said. “The front wheel is bent like this.”
“What’s he riding?”
“Honda Win. Seriously it is amazing that he could ride it here.”
“Maybe he crashed outside the hotel?” Sandy said.
Joel shook his head. “No. He must have been going fast. I think it was pretty far away.”
Edwina agreed. “Some of the cuts were already coagulating.”
“Look at you,” Sandy said. “A proper nurse.”
With Sandy’s help Edwina wrapped Felix, the left shoulder and arm, torso, and left hip and knee, till he appeared halfway a mummy. Gingerly, they laid him down on the stiff bed. Beads of sweat were forming on Felix’s brow and his lips wandered, uttering things much too soft for his helpers to hear.
They all four looked at him. For all the excitement only half an hour had passed.
“What now?” Sandy ventured.
“Let him rest. But someone should stay with him tonight, in case he needs anything.”
“I’ll do it,” Sandy said, looking at Edwina. “You snore, anyway.”
Edwina smiled faintly and turned to Joel. “Does he have any bags on his bike?”
“Yes. There was a bag.”
“I’ll bring it up,” Thijs said. “And see if I can find that owner.”
Downstairs he did come across the owner, standing over the drops of blood on the white stone. He had been with his family in the back room eating supper. Apparently he hadn’t heard a thing. Thijs tried to explain the situation, but it came off poorly without much language between them, and so he motioned for the man to wait. Thijs went out to the street. After examining the damage done to the Win, which by all appearances seemed to have hit a car or wall head-on, Thijs returned with the faded red backpack and led the owner upstairs.
The owner took one look at Felix and wagged his finger at the rest of them. He made a curious series of gestures like he was warding off bad spirits. Then he turned to Thijs. He assumed all the foreigners were together, though they had arrived separately, the pair of boys and then the girls, and because Thijs was the biggest, the hotel owner directed his words at him.
“Pay for room.”
Thijs laughed. “Yeah yeah, you greedy bastard. We’ll pay, don’t you worry.”
“Pay for room,” he repeated.
Thijs, raising an eyebrow, went over to the pair of tattered pants on the floor and dug around for Felix’s wallet. The price of the room was 120,000 dong; Thijs extended the currency to the owner, who went downstairs to write it in the ledger. He came back up with Felix’s passport, which he had seen lying on the desk.
They were all still there, looking at Felix.
“Pay more. So much blood,” the owner said.
“We’ve been very careful,” Edwina said. “All his cuts are wrapped.”
“Blood. Blood. Blood,” the owner said, pointing at Felix.
“Why does he know the word for blood?” said Thijs, laughing.
Felix, meanwhile, was gazing at the owner. He smiled wanly. “The pho was very good,” he said. “Mhmmm. Yes, very good.”
By the time everything had been sorted with the owner, night had settled over the town. Meo Vac was sparsely lighted, the stars were bright and clear overhead and the few streetlights left great stretches of the town in darkness. Thijs, after commenting on how dangerous the roads were—part of his plan to have the girls ride with him tomorrow—went out to join Joel, who was standing on the balcony. They smoked a cigarette and talked about the crash while thinking very disparate thoughts. Thijs said it made a hell of a story. But Joel was more melancholic. Having come up from Saigon, in the country for nearly two months already, Joel had seen his fair share of accidents and had had the correlating number of close calls. This trip had gotten Marion off his mind, for the most part. Especially up here in the north where it was almost impossibly beautiful. Yet nothing brings back memories of lost love as assuredly as a reminder of death and he wondered if he were to crash, if he were to die, even, how would his old love would react to the news?
“What’s your plan, mate?”
“Where are you headed after here? I don’t think I’ve asked you.”
“No. I will do this loop, the same one as you. And then I will go to Sapa. That will make the whole country, more or less.”
Thijs flicked the cigarette butt over the balcony, watched it twirl to the street. “I’ve just come from Sapa, actually. Beautiful. Very beautiful. But so many tourists. I want to go check out Cao Bang. That’s the province in the east. I met this guy in Ba Be who said there’s a huge waterfall out by…”
Joel nodded along, but he wasn’t entirely there. He was thinking of Marion, of Paris, of the night she had left him and what he might have said to make her stay. In the room, Sandy and Edwina studied Felix in the dim light from the bathroom. They agreed he was very handsome, and tried to deduce from his passport stamps where he had been, what he had done there and who he was as an individual. They wanted to contact his family, but they didn’t know where to begin. Anyway it was getting late, the internet connection was terrible and even if they could make a call, whom would they call? Everyone agreed it was best to see what the morning brought.
Sandy, as she had offered to do, sat with Felix, editing the photos she had taken these last few days. Downstairs the other three were playing drinking games. She could hear them talking. Really, she had had quite enough of Thijs. Pretentious guys like him never attracted her, though he was quite good-looking. Just the nonstop one-upmanship… He wasn’t her type, to say the least. And the longer she gazed through the shadows at the injured Canadian, the more she was moved by his handsomeness and his plight. What had he been doing? How had he crashed? Was there perhaps a Missus Canada waiting for him back where snow covered the ground?
October in northern Vietnam still brought hot days, but the nights carried prophecies of what would come. Cold rain, hail, overcast skies and brutal winds funnelling through the valleys. It was the most beautiful now, almost terrifyingly so with the warm early evenings and the mature rice like varnished gold on all the terraced hillsides. She liked to see the women and boys leading their water buffaloes and the men bent over the rice paddies. A little someone to snuggle with during the cold nights wouldn’t be half bad, Sandy thought. Meanwhile in his tortured sleep Felix mumbled. The bag, the bag, Sandy could hear him say. The bag.
She looked at Felix’s red backpack, which Thijs had stood up against the wall. The door was closed. She listened for footsteps on the stairs, but heard only the deep undertone of Thijs’ voice. In the backpack, beneath a wad of dirty clothes, she found a wooden box. It was, more or less, the size of a breadbox, because that was what it was.
Inside was a fortune. Stacks and stacks of crisp 100,000 dong notes. Sandy turned her eyes to the door. Her pulse increased, blood flowed to her heart, her lungs, and from somewhere in the hotel floorboards groaned. On reflex she shut the box and stashed it again where she had found it. She hurriedly retook the seat, looking back at Felix, and tried to slow her adrenaline. His state had not changed. He squirmed and writhed in the bed and when out of pity Sandy went over to him she found him hot with fever. But she was at a loss for what to do. This was all too much. And didn’t she have a right to be overwhelmed? She was only 19, after all. This was her first experience of the world outside Australia.
She left the room and went downstairs to the lobby, where the owner was sitting at the desk with an attitude of certainty that nobody would pass through the front door. He gazed at the television while the four travellers discussed what to do about the fever. In the end it made little difference, though they did what they could. Thijs and Joel rode their motorcycles around the dimly lit town. The boulevards were empty and wide, much too wide, as if the town were expecting the population to double any day now. A supermarket was open, about to close, and they managed to convey that they needed ice. This ice Edwina wrapped in towels and positioned under Felix’s armpits and on his neck. Sandy held ice to his forehead while Edwina crushed two aspirin and let them dissolve in a glass of water from which she let drips fall between Felix’s slightly parted lips.
They watched him for a long while, speaking softly, hoping to perceive some sign he was doing better.
Only many hours later, after first Joel and then Thijs had gone off to bed, did Sandy tell her best friend what she had discovered. When Edwina didn’t believe her, she showed her, and for an hour they excitedly discussed why he had all that money. They agreed Felix was definitely not a thief. And if he was not, they could not be thieves either. In the end they decided to leave it at that. Edwina said good night and went off to their room. Sandy stayed awake a while, running it all over in her mind. She generally saw people in the best light, and she couldn’t imagine someone as handsome as Felix doing anything immoral. He must have changed a lot of money—that was it, certainly. With that comforting thought in mind Sandy drifted off. She did not hear Felix’s last gasping breaths, nor witness the beautiful dream that carried him off.
He could feel the wind on his face. And far, far below the mountain road he could see a broad river valley and tidy fields, where the cut stalks of corn were arranged in teepees to dry beneath the autumn sun. The river, narrow and blue, perfectly bisected the flat valley, and on either bank stood clusters of thatch-roofed homes on stilts for when the heavy rains would fall and the river rise. You would find it hard to believe, looking into that crisp blue sky, that it might ever rain. Yet of that and many other things Felix was certain. All that remained was crossing the border, somewhere beyond this mountain range. As he stood on the precipice he felt the world on the cusp of revealing its mystery to him. It was there, the meaning of life, right there on the tip of his tongue. And from somewhere, carried by a gust of wind, perhaps, Felix heard mirthful exclamations in what, oddly enough, he knew to be German. He called out, but heard only laughter in reply.
Edwina, waking in the early morning to pee, went to check on Felix again. She took a moment, in which she found herself curiously unfazed, before poking Sandy awake. “Sandy,” she hissed.
Sandy’s body felt heavy, sluggish, not her own, and she blinked uncomprehending lids over the image of Edwina. When she understood finally and inspected the handsome corpse herself she could not help but weep. It was all too much. To think this Canadian boy, whom they had failed to save, would never again flex a muscle, take a breath or piss; never run in pleasure, drink or grin at the end of witty banter—it was horrible that it had to end here, so far from home.
But it was still very early. And though she had drunk quite a few beers only a few hours ago Edwina could see it all clearly, like the moves ahead in a chess game. Sandy sniffled and watched her best friend calmly take the wooden box out of Felix’s backpack.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“What does it look like?”
The two girls packed quietly. While Sandy strapped the bags to their motorcycles, the avenue dark and empty, Edwina tore the last page from the ledger. There is no way to start a motorcycle quietly, and the crack and rumble of the little engines coming alive caused Thijs to turn over in his sleep. But nobody woke, and only a disinterested shop owner saw them go. Once they had left the valley and the town behind there was no light beyond the single beams of their headlights—if you do not count starlight. It was magic, the chill air on their faces, the hypnotic rhythm of the winding mountain road; the darkness, the blind feel of the bike like a needle along the record’s groove: Oh, it was such a grand adventure.
They stopped to watch the sun crest the mountains in the east. The valley was broad and flat below them and on either bank of the river rose a village built on stilts. The cut stalks of the corn harvest had been arranged in teepees to dry in the sun and the two girls watched, breathless, as the light climbed down the canyon wall. Then half the valley stood in shadow, and the rest in sunlight. Beyond, in the general direction of Hanoi, the jagged mountains ranged on, and on and on beyond each other till they were little more than a blue haze; a faint suggestion of infinity.
Jacob William Cox is a Guest Writer for Panorama.
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