PodCastle 623: Caring For Dragons and Growing a Flower
Rated PG-13, for found footage and lost loves.
I dedicate this story to my grandfather and father: one who I’ve never met and one I’ve known since I was born, yet both are men in my family who have my eternal respect and admiration.
Caring for Dragons and Growing a Flower
By Allison Thai
31 October, 1974
Sleep easy tonight, darling. I’m well and alive at the barracks the Party had seized in Sóc Trăng. Because I had sided with the enemy, I expected to be shot, or be assigned to clear the mines. Instead, the commander told me that medical training is like imperial jade: a precious resource and hard to come by. It would be wasted, with a bullet to my head. So I renounced the treacherous ways of the enemy, and I was given the honor of caring for the dragons of the People’s Army. They’ll be the key to winning the war and driving out the American invaders. Every day we inch closer to victory and uniting our country. Every day I thank the Party for my spared life. I will henceforth contribute my efforts to the glory and prosperity of the Party.
How are things back home in Hà Nội? Have you been taking care of the seed I gave you on our wedding day?
30 November, 1974
I’m grateful for the commander’s mercy. I heard that dragons aren’t easy to tame. Please take care. I’m relieved the Party gained possession of all the dragons in Vietnam before the enemy could get their hands on them. Americans can’t even handle chopsticks without spilling food all over themselves, so the thought of them trying to handle dragons, our national treasures, makes me sick. The dragons are in good hands. Your hands.
As for the seed, it hasn’t sprouted yet. I’m so sorry to tell you that the lovely pot you put it in for me has a crack underneath. That’s why it leaks when I try to water the soil. I’m sure the pot you gave me was flawless. Bombs dropped by the enemy make the ground shake, so that must be to blame for the crack. I need to move the seed to another pot. A bigger, stronger home that won’t crack or leak.
With love, Thi
31 December, 1974
I’m treated well at Sóc Trăng. The pillows and blankets are so soft that the commander must’ve ordered clouds of Heaven to come down just for me. Nothing soothes the aches and chills from work in December better than hot claypot catfish and sweet potato shrimp fritters. Yours are the best, of course, though food served by the camp cooks is a close second.
These luxuries, however, only come when I fulfill the duties expected of me. You’ve known me since I moved to the city so I could learn how to treat people, but I’m back to caring for animals. Life has a funny way of returning me to my roots after I’d been branching out. But these dragons aren’t my family’s livestock — thinking that would be a mistake. I’m not fattening them up for slaughter. Instead, I must always keep them lean and sharp, in top fighting form. That means feeding them rations of red meat — parts of pigs and cows — to nurse their thirst for blood. Work up an appetite for enemy soldiers. Weaning dragons from their natural diet of fish is challenging. I also have to keep them from injuring each other. Each dragon needs space to slither around, or hair and scales would fly. Dragons enjoy gliding above the clouds, but they must be confined to the ground, constantly on tethers, so tanks and planes don’t shoot them down. This breeds bad tempers and snapping teeth that could easily take my hands. I can calm them down and save my hands if I reach their sweet spot: gaps between their impenetrable armor of scales.
Each dragon has his or her own sweet spot. [REDACTED] has a bare patch behind the horns that likes a good scratch. [REDACTED] enjoys a rub on the spine between the fifth and sixth segments of her body. [REDACTED] can’t get enough of a massage just around his noodle-like whiskers. I could go on and on with each dragon, but I don’t want to bore you and turn this letter into a novel. I’m on a quest to find all the different sweet spots. When the dragons lie still, I can see the sky caught in the globes of their eyes. Clouds swim like white koi in the ponds of their tears. When you’re privileged to be on their side, up close, you can appreciate that beauty. The enemy can only see monsters. The fangs and claws.
If you need to find a new pot, ask my uncle Vinh. He may be a fisherman, but he makes a second business of tending an army of potted plants. Uncle Vinh gets many of his pots from overseas. I had insisted to him that I give you a homemade pot for our wedding. Now I admit that an imported one would be better for our flower to-be.
31 January, 1975
I envy you for being assured of a good night’s rest. Planes zoom over our house like flies I can’t swat away. Dragons don’t need engines. Only the wind beneath them. Bullets and propellers don’t keep the dragons from taking down planes in their scaly coils. They swim through the sky and snatch up planes like fish. I’m sure we had won that airfight I saw last week.
Two days before I wrote this letter, the Trần family was arrested for keeping magazines that protest the Party. Mr. Trần spat at an officer’s feet, cursed our Chinese allies, and uttered obscenities against Ho Chi Minh, so he was shot just outside his home. I thought our neighbors were decent, quiet folk. If only Mr. Trần had kept his mouth shut. Now who’s going to catch and sell the freshest eels at the market? One man’s folly leaves the rest behind to suffer. There’s no thought for everyone’s good in southern sympathizers. It’s hard to trust anyone these days.
You speak of the dragons as if they’re new friends you’ve made. You keep dangerous company, but at least they seem to like you. Plants are much easier to care for, I think. Your uncle has been helping me care for the seed. Will you come home to watch it grow?
With love, Thi
28 February, 1975
As long as the enemy rebels, I must keep serving and helping the Party educate them. Sóc Trăng is my new home, and the dragons are more than friends. They’re my sons and daughters now. Like children, they need enough food, sleep, and space to keep them from squabbling. I hope you understand, darling. Unlike Mr. Trần , my loyalties are in the right place. That will keep me safe and well cared for.
We have our roles to play in this war. I must care for the dragons, and you have to grow the plant, even if I can’t be around to watch it bloom. You’ll be fine on your own. No, you’ve always been. Three years ago — three years already? — you crossed the busiest street in Hà Nội without a miss in your stride, without anyone holding your hand. Nothing and no one could hold you back — not the swarms of motorbikes, not the men who offered to escort you. By the time you reached halfway across, I knew you were the woman I wanted to marry. You can cross any street, no matter how busy and big and scary it might be.
Did you know that talking to a plant helps it grow faster? Plants don’t just feed on light and water, but on our breaths, too. Talk to the seed as much as you can. Tell it the stories we heard from the laps of our grandparents. Tell it about the fairy queen, her one hundred eggs, and her eldest son who became our first emperor. Tell it about the golden turtle in the lake. And tell it about the dragons.
You say otherwise, but I think that caring for dragons and growing a flower aren’t so different. We’ll fuss over them for a while, but not forever. From the ground we nurse them in, dragons and flowers have only one way to go: up, up, up, towards the sky. I know that our seed will grow into a beautiful flower. Already in my dreams, I see it bloom with all the colors of a rainbow.
31 March, 1975
Forgive me, I shouldn’t be selfish in wishing you could come home. You are home. All of Vietnam is our home, even the rebellious south that insists on keeping us divided. I know you’re working hard to make the southerners open their eyes.
Trời ơi, Cương, I think you keep forgetting that I’m hardly the first city girl to cross a busy street; I was just the first city girl you had seen. You were a scared, lost farm boy, late on your first day of training at the hospital nearby. Still, you held out your sunbaked hand, offering to help me cross. I said yes, but only because I wanted to help you across! The neighbors still laugh when I tell them the story.
You fell in love with me when I crossed the street in Hà Nội. I love you for your wisdom. You came to the city lost but filled with good sense from the rice fields. That’s why your trousers were so loose and baggy. There wasn’t enough room in your head, so you carried proverbs and good advice in your pockets. Do you whisper them to the dragons? Do they listen?
I’ve been talking to the seed in its new pot since you sent your last letter. The seed’s not a shoot yet, but I’ll keep talking. I’ll tell the stories over and over. I’ll tell it all about you whenever I miss you.
With love, Thi
30 April, 1975
31 May, 1975
30 June, 1975
July 30, 1975
I’m sorry that it took this long to get a letter to you. I’m on American soil. It’s firm, steady, and doesn’t shake under my feet from the bombs and mines. I’m free to say whatever I want. Finally, no more dodgy, coded talk of pots and plants and flowers and seeds. But so much has happened that I don’t know where to begin. All I can think to do is write down what we’d been unable to say in our past letters: our baby girl’s name, in big bold letters taking up their own sheet of paper.
August 31, 1975
A month in Houston seems like a lifetime without you. I’ve been burning letters with Vinh’s cigarette lighter so the smoke can carry what I say up to you, wherever you may be. I owe Vinh a lifetime of gratitude for stowing me and Huệ away on his boat so we could escape Vietnam. Of course, I owe you a thousand lifetimes over for pointing me to him. “Thank you” is such a tiny pair of words, almost an insult.
That was the only English I knew when I had set foot into America. I must’ve made our sponsors’ ears fall off with my broken-record English. Vinh knows a handful of basic phrases, so we get by. I plan to learn English quickly and get off welfare as soon as I can. Vinh will move to Galveston where he’ll keep fishing and shrimping.
America is missing things that make me long for home. No one sells eels or chicken feet. Nobody drives a motorbike on the freeway. No one takes off their shoes inside the house. Strange new foods, words, customs — the spin and swirl of it makes me dizzy, like motorbikes at a roundabout in Hà Nội. This is the busy street you were so scared of, Cương. It’s my turn to be scared now. I wish you could help me across.
With love, Thi
September 31, 1975
I try to write letters every day, but it’s impossible. If I start writing, I end up tearing apart unfinished drafts. I’ve been censoring myself. I think you’d get tired of hearing the same thing. I’ve gathered up a few months’ worth of frustrations and unfortunate events: I’m still being corrected in what seems like a hundred times a day on my pronunciation. I want to choke my English tutor. I don’t think I’ll pass the citizenship test. I’m still living off food stamps. I can’t get out of my dishwashing job. Vinh’s fishing boat in Galveston was burned by men in pointed white masks. Huệ’s having all sorts of trouble in kindergarten. She’s not doing her homework and hasn’t made any friends. Yesterday she got suspended for biting on a boy’s ear. The boy pulled back his eyes at her — still, she almost bit his ear off. What should I do with her, Cương? We put in so much work to pluck her from violence back home only for her to find it in America.
I wish you were here. It’s not your fault that you can’t be. I hate the dragons for taking you away from me and Huệ. Did you have to lie in your letters, too? Did you really eat and sleep well at the barracks in Sóc Trăng, or were you held at gunpoint to say that?
Where are you, Cương? Vinh and I hadn’t heard anything of you, let alone from you, since we came to America. I don’t know if you’re dead or alive. Are you still a dragon medic at Sóc Trăng? Are you up in the sky, flying free with the dragons that didn’t last through the war? Or are you just buried in unmarked dirt on the other side of the world? I have too many questions, and you’re not here to answer any of them.
With love, Thi
September 31, 1975
I was going to burn the letter I wrote in September when rain poured down. I thought it was the usual bout of rain in Houston, but I tasted salt on my lips. That wasn’t rain. Those were tears. Could they be yours, Cương? Were you crying with me? For me? Or are they dragon tears?
I shouldn’t hate the dragons. They were victims, too. Unwilling participants in a war that twisted them into bloodthirsty killing machines. According to the local radio channel, the population came close to being wiped out by the fall of Saigon. Vietnamese dragons may be extinct soon. Huệ may very well never see one. I’d forget that before the war, since the dawn of our country’s history, dragons brought rain to us when we needed to keep our rice fields green. The war made them forget how to water the crops, and forget what the skies and seas were like before the invasion of planes and ships. I didn’t expect dragons to fly this far. Thank you for sending them to me, Cương. I can’t see them, but I like to think that they came. Fighting and killing turned dragon rain into tears. Maybe forever.
Huệ joined me in the backyard and cried into my skirt. She said she’ll try harder in school. Standing in the rain makes her feel better because no one can see her tears. She gets that from me.
I won’t burn any more letters. Dragon tears fell before I ever lit up the paper. You must’ve read my heart. That’s enough for me to know that you came all the way here.
With love, Thi
August 26, 1976
This is Huệ. I am starting first grade today. Má stopped writing letters but I have to write in my journal every day at school. I will write in English for my teacher. I will write in Vietnamese for you. Maybe I can teach you English like I am teaching Má.
It was raining when Má kissed me goodbye next to the bus. She kissed me on my left cheek my right cheek then my forehead. That means she is really happy. She got a new job, and Uncle Vinh has a new boat. Other kids do not like getting wet, but I do. Rain means that you came down with the dragons to kiss me goodbye too.
Today for art my class had to draw self-portraits. That is a big word for pictures of ourselves. I drew myself as a flower in a pot. I used all my crayons for the petals. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. Colors of the rainbow. My teacher Ms. Johnson said that was not right. She said that does not look like me. I am supposed to have two arms and two legs and hair. Not a stem and leaves and petals. Má talked and talked with Ms. Johnson after class. She told Ms. Johnson my favorite story. The story with you in it. I heard it so many times but I like hearing it again. Má does not have the letters from you anymore but she remembers every word on them.
After hearing the story Ms. Johnson did not make me redo my self-portrait. It stopped raining this afternoon. That’s okay. I’m not sad. You and the dragons will come back to see me. It rains a lot in Houston.
About the Author
Allison is a second-generation Vietnamese-American who got her first taste in stories from true accounts of how her parents fled from communism as Vietnam War refugees. When she isn’t writing about dysfunctional families, talking animals, and cultures real and imagined, she’s studying medicine and caring for axolotls: her favorite critters and the closest thing she has to Pokemon.
About the Narrator
Jennifer Tran is a Creative Writing major at SJSU bumbling through their senior year. When they’re not writing, drinking tea in excessive amounts, or looking up Wikipedia articles for various deep sea creatures, they like to fantasize about living the life of a modern day bog witch. You can hit them up on twitter @jennnnnntran (if you want, no pressure).