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Authors: John Shors

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

Dragon House (3 page)

BOOK: Dragon House
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An ample woman dressed in a gray sweater and jeans nodded. “Hello, Iris. Sorry to . . . drop by like this. May I come in?”
“Oh,” Iris replied, opening the door wider and stepping backward. “Of course.”
Mrs. Woods stepped inside and glanced around. Iris noticed that her visitor’s face seemed haggard, that she looked to have been crying. “Here,” Iris said, lifting a pile of books from a cracked leather chair. “Please sit down.”
“Thank you.”
“May I bring you something to drink? I don’t have much. But I could put on a pot of tea.”
“There’s no need to trouble yourself.” When Iris nodded but made no reply, her visitor shifted on her seat and finally made eye contact. “Locust Street seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?”
“It was a long time ago.”
“I heard that our house is for sale again. We should never have left.”
Iris remembered watching from across the street as men filled a moving truck. “We were all sad to see you go,” she replied, clearing off another chair.
Mrs. Woods leaned forward. “I’m so sorry about your father. I didn’t know him well, but he must have been a good man to have such a daughter.”
“He was wonderful.”
“How’s your mother doing? I called her yesterday, and we caught up, but some things don’t always get said on the phone.”
“Oh, she’s fine, thanks. Busier than you might expect—traveling with friends, still playing bridge.”
“And you?”
“I’m okay. I miss him.”
Mrs. Woods looked at the piles of books. “You know, we’re all really proud of you. You’re famous around here. At least, to those of us who read book reviews.”
Iris pushed a tendril of her long hair from her face. “Thanks, but I don’t think there are many of you left.”
“You might be surprised.”
“Well, that would be nice. But with the Internet and iPods and everything else, sometimes I feel like I’m only writing for myself.”
“Trust me, Iris, your words have meaning. If they didn’t . . . publishers wouldn’t send you so many books.”
Iris smiled faintly, wondering why she was entertaining Mrs. Woods, whom she hadn’t seen in several years, but not wanting to ask. “How’s Noah?”
The older woman’s demeanor immediately changed. Her body seemed to sag, her lips pressed together, and she shook her head. “He’s not good,” she replied, easing her hands beneath her thighs.
“Why not?”
“Did you know he was in Iraq?”
“No. No one’s told me anything. Did something happen to him?”
Mrs. Woods pursed her lips. She closed her eyes for a moment. “His Humvee hit a roadside bomb. And he . . . he lost part of a leg. And the side of his forehead . . . Oh, Iris, they had to stitch him all back together.”
Iris moved toward her visitor and, kneeling, took Mrs. Woods’s hands in her own. “I don’t know what to say,” she confessed, her eyes, lately so accustomed to tears, glistening once again. “I’m so terribly sorry.”
“He’s been home for five months. He’s so depressed. So angry. I hardly recognize him. It’s just terrible . . . for us all.”
Iris shook her head, as if she could deny what she was hearing. Noah, three years her junior, had always been such a happy boy. She remembered him following her home from elementary school, stepping in her tracks in the snow. Years later, she had been aware that he’d had a crush on her, and had pretended not to notice his awkward advances. He’d been much shorter than she, and older boys had often teased him about his misplaced affections. But Noah had never seemed bothered by their antics.
“He was always so active,” Iris said softly. “Running around, dribbling his basketball. I can’t imagine him . . . without a leg.”
Mrs. Woods wiped her eyes. “He has a prosthesis, of course. But it hurts him. And he hardly moves. He sleeps until noon. He drinks too much and too often. He doesn’t listen to me, though I don’t blame him for that. I don’t know what to say to him. How could I?”
“Has he been to see a—”
“Sometimes I worry that he wants to die. It’s so awful, Iris. He doesn’t smile. Doesn’t call his sisters.” Mrs. Woods closed her eyes, shaking her head. Iris handed her a tissue, which she blew into and held tight. “I just don’t know what to do. I’ve tried everything. And I mean everything in the world. But he won’t . . . he won’t do anything. He’s so miserable. So lost.”
“What about—”
“Will you take him with you? Will you please take him with you?”
“Take him with me?”
“I heard about your trip. About how you’re spending a month in Vietnam to open your father’s center. Can you take Noah? Take him there and give him something good to do. Give his life some meaning.”
Iris pushed her hair aside. Though she wanted to help Noah, she couldn’t imagine having to watch over him on top of everything else. How would she ever open her father’s center if she also had to worry about Noah? “I don’t know,” she replied, twisting a ring. “I just don’t think I could take him. I’ve already got more than I can handle. And he’s probably better off here, with you. Wouldn’t he be better off with his family?”
Mrs. Woods reached for Iris’s hands. “He’s alone . . . and in so much pain,” she said, tears streaming down her face, her voice cracking. “He’ll go with you. I’m sure he will. He’s always looked up to you. And yesterday, after I spoke with your mother, he asked about you. And when I told him what you were doing, he actually asked me another question. He seemed . . . interested. Not like the old Noah, but at least . . . at least he spoke more than three words.”
“But I just don’t think—”
“Please, Iris. Please don’t let me watch my boy die. Please don’t. He’s dying now, and watching him die is killing me as well.” Mrs. Woods shuddered, drawing Iris closer. “Please, please, please take him. If it doesn’t work, I’ll come for him. I’ll bring him home. But please try. He’s a beautiful soul and watching him suffer is just . . . It’s too much.”
“And you really think he’d like to go?”
Mrs. Woods nodded, her eyes bloodshot. “A mother . . . knows her children, Iris. And I know Noah. He used to speak about you so often. I think he loved you . . . in his own way.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“And he loves children. He always has. What you’re doing . . . what your father was doing . . . he’ll respond to it. I just know he will. He wants to go back to who he was. But he doesn’t know how.”
Iris took another tissue and wiped Mrs. Woods’s face. “I’m leaving so soon. In four days.”
“That doesn’t matter. The sooner, the better.”
Iris thought about her father, about how he also came home shattered from a war that wasn’t of his making. A marriage and a daughter hadn’t saved him from his demons. Why would Saigon save Noah? Though Iris was unsure, she knew what her father would say, knew he’d want her to bring Noah. “I’ll take him,” she finally replied. “If he wants to go. If he really wants to go.”
Mrs. Woods leaned against Iris, hugging her tight. “Thank you, thank you, Iris. You don’t know what this means to me. To my family.”
Iris stroked the older woman’s back, wondering how Noah’s presence would change things, wondering what the future held for them both. In four days she’d be on a plane with Noah, and they’d arrive in a country that had both destroyed and redeemed her father. How could a place have such power? Such influence?
As Mrs. Woods continued to thank her, Iris wondered what Noah would find in Vietnam. What would she find? Would her father come to her, as he’d promised? Would she somehow manage to fulfill the dream that had occupied his last years of life? Or would she fail him? Or watch Noah die?
Anxious about her trip and what she might discover, Iris glanced atop a pile of books to where her plane ticket rested. She suddenly wanted to hold the ticket, to feel one more connection to her father. She wanted to leave.
 
 
AT THE MOMENT THAT IRIS GLANCED at her plane ticket, a new day was unfolding in Vietnam, a country of a thousand faces, a thousand voices.
To the south, immense wooden barges plowed through the muddy waters of the Mekong Delta. The barges were often blue with red trim and were curved like bananas. Though their profiles were almost majestic—with brightly painted wheelhouses and rigging—the barges fought the currents like slugs making their way up a brown leaf. A pair of owlish yellow-and-black eyes was painted below each bow. These eyes warned countless smaller vessels that behemoths approached. Despite the size of the owl-eyed barges, the Mekong Delta was several miles wide and dwarfed everything atop it. The murky waters contrasted powerfully with the vibrant foliage on either shore. Flowering water lilies bobbed against the current. Children swam in the shallows. Ancient houseboats filled with tourists journeyed toward Cambodia. And perhaps most prominent, floating markets drew buyers toward canoelike vessels filled with vegetables, fruits, and fish.
North of the delta, narrow roads led toward Saigon or, as it was known these days, Ho Chi Minh City. The roads thrived with life, carrying commerce the way a vein moves blood. They brimmed with countless motor scooters, trucks, and ox-driven carts. Most of the roads were lined with stalls—rusty shelters that sold axles, bricks, food, lamp-posts, refrigerators, and everything else that the mind could conceive. Occasionally, the stalls would vanish into the jungle, within which hundreds of hammocks hung from slender trees. The hammocks held travelers who, for a nominal fee, could park their vehicles in the shade, drink something sweet, and then sleep for as long as they’d like.
Even though the day was young, Ho Chi Minh City pulsated like a hive containing every insect species on Earth. The city was a kaleidoscope of old versus new, memories versus ideas, stone versus chrome. Dilapidated bicycle taxis mingled with customized SUVs. Sparkling hotels rose like rays of sunlight above squalor and sin. Red flags bearing a yellow star fluttered in a dirty wind. College students sat drinking lattes and text messaging friends, while crippled veterans of the American War begged on street corners. And two children—a brother and sister by all accounts other than blood—awoke beneath a bridge and wondered when they would eat and if they’d be beaten that night.
Farther to the north, the country rose and fell. Mountains resembling green waves were rife with ancient shrines, underground tunnels, scents of flowers and decay. Stonesmiths cut white and black marble from deforested foothills, while more distant rises were almost untouched by human hands. Snaking around the mountains, scores of rivers created a seemingly infinite network of waterways. Villages hewn out of the jungle thrived beside the rivers. To the east, salt-encrusted towns bordered the South China Sea.
As in the rest of Vietnam, the weather in Hanoi was already damp and hot, infused with the breath of people, machines, and creatures both seen and undiscovered. The new capital moved slower than its counterpart to the south. Women in conical hats sat in open-air markets and sold dried shrimp, rice, natural medicines, vegetables, eels, and flowers. At the city’s center sprawled Hoan Kiem Lake, one of Hanoi’s most famous sights. Massive willow trees surrounded the large body of water. On a treelined path strode students and lovers. In small courtyards women practiced tai chi.
Beyond Hanoi, farmers labored in secret fields, growing poppies that they refined into opium. Indigenous tribes traveled by elephant through rain forests. Malaria-ridden mosquitoes attacked nursing babies. Traders ferried goods to Laos and China. Children sat in classrooms, hunted giant catfish, and worked in fields and factories.
Though the day was just unfolding, Vietnam was already changing. People had died. Mothers had ushered new life into the world. A cloud was being painted on a ceiling of the Iris Rhodes Center for Street Children. A cancer-stricken girl named Tam clung to her grandmother’s back and was carried to a market where they’d spend the day begging. A nearly blind policeman tried to catch criminals. And the bones of lost Americans were overturned by a plow.
Vietnam, a country that had known little but war for many generations, was strangely peaceful, as if the spirits of the slain had somehow infiltrated the prejudices of the living. Hope abounded across the land. Hope often obscured by shanties and brothels and misery but, nonetheless, the collective aspiration for a better tomorrow.
TWO
Steps to Nowhere
M
aking her way back to her seat, Iris glanced at Noah, who stared into the blackness beyond his window. She saw the unmarred side of his face, which was defined by a thin, almost delicate nose and jaw. His blond hair was short and ungov erned by gel or spray. It was almost accidentally stylish, as if he’d come from a movie set. His eyes were turned away from her, but she knew they were a light blue—to her the color of the oceans on a world map. Though his scar faced the window and not her—which she assumed was no accident—she’d seen where his skin had been pulled together. The forced fusion of torn flesh started above his right eye and curved back into his hairline. It looked like a trail of purple lipstick.
Though he was not a large man, Noah’s knees pressed into the seat in front of him, and as soon as Iris sat beside him their elbows touched. She looked at his tray table, which bore two Heineken cans that the stewardess hadn’t bothered to remove. A third can was in his right hand. Though Iris had tried to initiate conversations during the long trip to Asia, he hadn’t seemed eager to talk. During their school years he’d always been the first to speak, and she found herself repeatedly surprised by his silence.
“Why did you come?” she asked quietly, finally voicing what she’d wondered for the past few days.
Noah didn’t turn to her but continued to stare at the blackness that would soon become Ho Chi Minh City. He raised the beer to his lips and drank. When he set the can on his tray table and shifted in his seat, Iris followed his movements and saw the outline of his prosthesis beneath his pant leg. “Because of my mother,” he replied, his voice smooth and soft, so unlike the wound on his forehead.
BOOK: Dragon House
13.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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