Nhi Huynh and Minh Nguyen
The smell of roasted peanuts takes over our one-room thatched hut. My stomach growls and churns. Numbers from the multiplication table bounce around. I close my eyes picturing the glossy golden peanuts waiting by the open fire pit. The fire pit is five steps away from Bu’s wooden box. My mother keeps her dry goods in the box. She sleeps on it with her three youngest children.
“Recite!” Bình raps my head with his knuckles. I should call my immediate brother Older Sixth Brother. But we call one another by name from number three down to number nine. I like it. I feel equal.
“Six times seven is forty-two. Six times eight is . . . ” I try to pick up where I left off. But the aroma pulls me into a trance. My sisters are chopping and dicing and slicing. So no one is tending the peanuts? If only I could sneak into the kitchen and grab a handful.
“Finish it up,” Bình urges. “Still have to fetch water.”
“What are sisters cooking? I smell peanuts.”
“Your chicken,” answers Third Brother with a sideways grin as he enters. He has to bend his head to get through the door. His hair is slicked up just like Elvis Phương’s. My brother is taller and leaner and much more handsome than the Vietnamese Elvis. Lots of girls from the church pinch my cheeks and say what a cute little boy I am. But they can’t help sneaking a glance at my brother. Sometimes they give me candies so that I will pass their notes to him. I often eat the candies and dump the notes. The poems all sound the same.
“They can’t kill White Dragon!” I shoot an angry look at Third Brother.
“Your chicken is not laying eggs. She’s dead meat.”
“Maybe Bu will let you eat her butt,” Bình chimes in.
I take the pencil out of my mouth and aim it at Bình. If not for the sound of Bu’s slippers dragging on the dirt alley I would make fish sauce out of him.
“Fat Minh!” my mother calls before reaching the gate. I love the way Bu asks for me when she comes home. She always adds her northern twang to the word “fat.” Her voice rises and falls like singsong. My mother never thinks that I’m a pig. She brings lumps of brown sugar and slices of fresh fruit from the market for me.
“Bu, you’re home early.”
“We have a guest tonight.” Bu rushes inside. With two baskets on each end her shoulder pole bends like a bow. She tucks a few loose strands of hair into her bun. My mother works day and night. She has no time to pretty herself. Except for Tết and Christmas and Easter. She doesn’t dress up for my father. The drill sergeant is too busy toughening up the recruits to be home.
“Who’s coming, Bu?”
“Don’t ask too much. Go to the river and fetch water with Bình.”
Bu sends us out to play. Through the window I see our parish priest Father Hoạt sit on my mother’s wooden box while she stoops nearby. Third Brother must have lined it up against the center of the wall. Right under the Our Lady of La Vang 1973 poster calendar. September 8 is marked in red. Three days before the Mid-autumn Festival. Can’t wait for lanterns and mooncakes.
The military chaplain in Dục Mỹ is our special guest. His thinning black hair is pomaded like my father’s. The heat in the hut bothers him. He twists and turns. He fixes his stiff collar. He smooths his shiny hair. Sweat oozes out of his skin. I want to go in and help Bu fan Father Hoạt. Maybe take a sip from his ice water. But she has told us to stay outside. She will call us after our guest leaves. I’m sure the food will be all gone by that time.
“It’s your chicken!” Bình whispers. He keeps craning his neck to catch a good glimpse.
Father Hoạt laughs. He pretends not to look at the bowls and plates of food and three bottles of Beer 33 that my sisters are bringing in. How did they make seven dishes out of White Dragon?
“You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble,” Father Hoạt says. “This is enough to feed the whole village.”
“Please forgive us for this meager meal. We will never be able to express our gratitude to you.” Bu stands with head bowed down and hands clasped together. My mother has on her best áo dài. The one with the reddish purple of ripe mangosteen that she wears only during Tết. Her hair is braided and rolled into a bun. In the shape of a lotus.
“I’m only doing God’s work. Your boy is the best in the village.” Father Hoạt crunches a piece of rice cracker and dips a piece of grilled meat into the bowl of shrimp sauce. The dip drowns chunks of pineapple and lemongrass and snippets of garlic and hot chili.
I recognize that pinkish gray sauce.
“No!” Bình screams as he pushes me away from the window. “My dog,” he cries. “My dog,” he whimpers and slouches against the clay wall.
You don’t eat the seven dishes of dog meat without shrimp sauce.
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