Kiều arrives in the brothel of Lâm-Tri (extract)
She travels impossibly far, across bridges
powdered with hoar-frost, past forests
glowering with broody clouds, through fields
of rumourmonger reeds, whispering and wild,
raked by the knife of a north wind
that ruffles their reed-heads to a skittering sea.
And still the road reels out before her.
She crosses unnamed bridges, climbs unguessed-of hills,
through autumnal forests where red and amber
stain the blue-green leaves. The cries of sad birds
remind her of the family she has left behind.
By night, the witnessing moon looks down
and she remembers her now-broken vows.
It waxes and it wanes till they reach Lâm-Tri.
The beaded carriage creaks to a halt before a gate.
A woman waddles out to greet them.
Her face is skimmed with ricepowder paste.
Kiều wonders what kind of diet
provokes a person to get so fat.
She greets Kiều with a bustling ‘Hello, how are you?’
and helps her out of the carriage. Kiều follows
where the woman leads, and steps inside the house.
The room is full of people. Along one wall
sit girls with eyebrows plucked and pencilled;
along the other, four or five smirking men.
In the centre is an altar lined with smoking incense;
above it, the image of that grinning hairy god
who is worshipped in such green pavilions.
The faithful bring him flowers. They burn candles day and night.
If an unfortunate girl runs out of customers,
she comes to this god, strips off her clothes,
kneels down, lights incense, utters a prayer,
then gathers up the faded blooms. When she does
all this, many customers follow. Those bees begin to buzz.
Kiều knows nothing of such places. She kneels
where she is told to kneel, while her hostess prays:
‘Let luck and looks and money rain on this house!
Let us dance all day and smooch all night!
Let every man be smitten with our new girl,
let orioles and swifts flock to find us –
let poems and love letters pour through our door!
Let them queue at the front door, let them queue at the back!’
These words sound strange to Kiều’s bewildered ears.
She guesses now what kind of place this is.
After her prayers, the old one settles on the couch.
She says, ‘Now, come and kneel before me. I’m your Aunty Tú.
In a moment, you must kowtow before your uncle Mã.’
‘Bad luck has banished me from home,’ says Kiều.
‘To pay my father’s debts, I agreed to play this role,
but it seems you want this swift to be an oriole.
I’m too young to understand how this business works.
But Mã paid us bridal gifts; there was a wedding;
I thought I was a concubine. I’ve shared my husband’s bed.
Please explain more clearly if I’ve a different role instead.’
When Mrs Tú hears these words, three demons leap out of her.
‘A concubine!’ she says. ‘A concubine then, is it?
I see now what my aul feller’s done. I send him out shopping
to bring me a girl – a pretty girl, I told him, a nice bit of girl –
and he sends me a creature that thinks she’s his wife,
or his half-wife, or whatever they’re calling it these days.
I’ll teach that gobshite the meaning of the word concubine.
That half-witted chancer, that prick-for-brains,
him and his shagging itch, he had to scratch it,
he couldn’t leave it well alone, he had to put his bloody mitts
all over my brand new tablecloth. I might as well
have thrown my money out the window
as trust it to that gormless ape. And as for you,
Miss Flibbertigibbet, I’ve paid for you,
you’re in my house, and you’ll do what you’re damn well told.
What were you thinking, to let him have his way?
An old lech like him? Why didn’t you slap his face?
You’re a bold young girl with a one-track mind,
and now you’ll feel the lick of my switch.’
She grabs a whip and prepares to crack it.
Kiều says, ‘O endless skies! O vast earth!
I threw my life away when I left home:
now there is nothing left to live for.’
She slips the hidden knife out of her sleeve.
Horribly, she finds the courage to stab herself.
The old frump hides her face in her hands.
But must such beauty come to an end
at the blade of a sharp knife?
There is a commotion. People pour into the room.
Kiều is unconscious, covered with blood.
Mrs Tú stands and shakes, scared half to death.
Kiều is carried to a western room.
Someone cradles her head. They call a doctor.
She is not quite dead. Near comatose,
she senses Đạm Tiên appearing at her side
to whisper: ‘Your time has not yet come.
You cannot escape your duties to the world of sadness.
Your cheeks are still as fresh as peaches.
You want to leave this life but heaven will not let you.
So live. Follow your destiny, frail reed.
I’ll meet you later, in the Tiền-đường river.’
They give her balms and medicines all day
and Kiều slowly regains consciousness.