EIGHTEEN YEARS BEFORE THE DISAPPEARANCE
Twelve hours north of saigon by bus and fifteen by motorbike, low red hills covered the land like a maculopapular rash. Their slopes were horizontally striped with rows of coffee plants and staked peppercorn vines, and in the flat stretches between the hills farmers also tended patchy plantations of durian, lychee, cashew, and avocado trees. But the widest, evenest expanse of land—just west of Ia Kare, the small and unremarkable town to which it belonged—was occupied by the cemetery. The local people’s council would occasionally petition for the graves to be exhumed and their contents relocated so that the valuable acreage could be converted into more farmland, but they were never successful. Here, the living looked after the departed. Though they themselves lived in drab boxes of brick and thatch, they enshrined their dead in tombs painted peach and celadon and gold, with eaves that curled heavenward like lotus petals. From a distance, the cemetery resembled a dazzling miniature city with a skyline formed from the layered angles of crosses and stupa spires. On important anniversaries, painstaking care was taken to clean the graves and offerings were burned by the interred inhabitants’ progeny, so the air was usually spiced with smoke and sandalwood from somebody’s devotions. There were some, of course, whose families had not been able to afford stones, so they lay beneath simple mounds of earth ringed with bricks, their incense sticks jabbed directly into the ground instead of arranged carefully in ceramic vases. One wealthy local clan with several well-polished tombs to their name had cultivated an elaborate cactus garden around the perimeter of their plot, designed to shield from view the five small dirt heaps of the adjacent tract where five children were buried, all of them dead from malnutrition back in the early eighties. A thumb-shaped chunk of pale limestone, worn egg-smooth, marked the final resting place of an elephant named Su-Su, who had passed away in 1953.
Towering dark and noble over the graves at the center of the cemetery was the envy of all the neighboring towns: the new war monument. The statue was over fifteen feet high, carved out of sumptuous black granite. It depicted a dead or dying soldier draped across the lap of a seated woman, his fingers still clenched around his rifle, the shirt of his uniform falling open to reveal the artist’s careful rendering of his abdominal muscles. Because it was unclear whether the woman was supposed to be the soldier’s mother or his wife—her head was bowed, the face obscured by a conical hat the size of a fishing boat—she had been given the grandiose appointment of “An Emblem of Vietnamese Womanhood.” Storks used to try and nest on top of her hat until the local branch of the Fatherland Front’s Commission for the Defense and Preservation of Meaningful Landmarks hired someone to chase them all away.
The man whose funeral was being held this afternoon would not have his name engraved under the granite woman’s toes on the base of the monument with the other war martyrs, even though he, too, was once a soldier, and now he, too, was dead. He would not be immortalized with his friends in the black granite because, instead of dying face-down in an unfamiliar rice paddy, he returned home after the war mostly intact, then fathered a dozen children in fifteen years and drank himself to early liver failure. Now his widow, their twelve offspring, and an assembly of other family members in the mourning party, their heads swathed in ceremonial white bands, wailed as they carried him to the waiting tomb.
Watching the funeral party from a distance were three dirty children in school uniforms, aged seven, eight, and nine. Two boys and one girl, squatting atop a turquoise-colored tomb, barefoot and balancing on their heels with their toes hanging over the edge of the large headstone. The boys were clearly brothers, for their lips and ears and noses were identically shaped. But the eyes of the bigger boy were narrow and heavy lidded like a contented house cat’s, while the smaller boy had the bulging eyes of a goldfish. They wore navy trousers rolled to the knee and button-up shirts that were not quite filthy enough to disguise the fact that they had once been white. The girl was wedged between the two brothers, one scrawny arm draped casually over the shoulders of the larger one. Someone had made a valiant earlier attempt to contain her hair in two thick plaits, but dark locks had broken free and were sticking out at odd angles, as if she had recently been electrocuted. Her white blouse was the dirtiest of all, and she had taken it upon herself to deflate its poofy cap sleeves by snipping slits all around their cuffs. Their massacred edges flapped sadly when she moved her arms. All three of the children had taken the red neck scarves of their school uniforms and knotted them around their heads with the tails dangling down their backs in a parody of the mourners’ head-cloths.
As the funeral party wound its way through the cemetery like a line of ants, the children watched them carefully: the elders preoccupied with their displays of grief up near the coffin, and the younger, lower-ranked women of the family trailing toward the back. Far from the elders and safe from their reproaches, these women were noticeably less enthusiastic in their lamentations, stopping periodically to fan themselves or have a covert chat. But behind them there was one other: a man, alone. Both of these details were unusual. The children’s eyes narrowed in unison, puzzled. He should have been with the other men toward the front of the line, impatient for the burial to be over so that the post-ceremony drinking and gambling could start. Or, if he were a relatively new in-law—say, the husband of one of the dead man’s nieces—he should have been staying close to her, attentive and careful not to offend anybody. But this man did not seem to mind that he was lagging farther and farther behind.
He was not an immediate family member of the deceased, for instead of a white cloth, the man was sporting a cowboy hat of dust-colored suede with a tattered brim. Everything about him was slightly ill-fitting and askew: the hat was too big, so he wore it far at the back of his head, tilted at an angle that was more precarious than jaunty; the sleeves of his dark suit were too short, making his hands appear disproportionately large, which in turn made the too-small leather briefcase he carried seem even smaller. His hair was long, worn in a low ponytail that would have been stylish at this point in the early nineties were it not quite so greasy. It was barely gray—only lightly streaked in a couple patches—but the man’s lined face suggested that he was much older. The children could not fathom his true age. He was not a handsome man; if considered separately, and belonging to a different individual, the features of his face might have been charming—the eyes were framed by long, dramatic, almost feminine lashes and thick lids, the mouth wide, with strangely plump lips that curved up at the edges, the nose of a noble height—but collectively gave an unpleasant, almost mannequin-like impression.
The funeral party was drifting farther away, but the man still did not appear concerned. As he passed the great granite statue, he stopped for a moment in the shade provided by the dead soldier’s bottom to fish a cigarette out of his jacket pocket and light it. Then he strolled on again, taking languid puffs of the cigarette and pausing now and then to read a name on a tombstone. At one point he frowned, stooped, picked something up from the ground, and then slipped it into his pocket. He did this several more times, and the children craned their necks to try and see what it was that the man was collecting, but he was too far away to tell. The girl knew they should watch him a little bit longer, just to be certain that he was the right choice, but her curiosity made her hasty. She gave an executive smack to the boys’ backs and they hopped down from their perch in unison and landed noiselessly. Because the scrubby ground of the graveyard had been baked to burning by the mid-afternoon sun and their feet were bare, they needed to move fast. They ran in a tight triangle with the girl in the lead, only breaking formation to dart around the graves that lay in their path. When they were within twenty yards of the man in the suede hat, they slowed down, first to a lope, then a slink, dividing and circling like a trio of jackals.
By now, the man had run out of room in his pockets. He set his small briefcase down on top of a squarish, moderately sized stone (but not before patting it gently to thank its occupant, the late Mr. Le Van An, for allowing him to borrow it momentarily) and began fiddling with the combination lock. Then he heard the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him and his hand froze.
Each of the children was staring at him from atop an individual gravestone. The girl, of course, had chosen the tallest and most imposing one—a slab of gray stone guarded by two painted lions whose heads she now employed as handholds. She cleared her throat again, more authoritatively, and the man in the hat finally turned. He looked from the girl to the two boys flanking her on their smaller graves and then back to the girl again. The younger of the brothers was regretting the stone he had chosen; its top was curved and finely polished, and he was struggling not to slide off. He hoped that this would not take too long.
The man in the hat removed his cigarette from his mouth. “Hello there,” he offered, after a beat.
“Hello there,” the girl parroted with a grin. Her voice was disconcertingly husky and low for someone so young. “Hello, hello, hello.” Then she dropped the smile. “What’s in your pocket?”
“I’ve been tidying,” the man replied, though it wasn’t really an answer to her question. He didn’t seem sure whether he should be addressing just the girl, as she was the apparent ringleader, or her two silent comrades as well. He set his still-lit cigarette down next to his briefcase on the stone (mentally apologizing to Mr. Le Van An), then reached into his jacket and showed them a handful of what appeared at first to be red and saffron-colored confetti. After a moment the children recognized that they were scraps (corners, mostly) of joss paper—fake money for burnt offerings—though what the man was doing with all of them was unclear. An unexpected breeze suddenly lifted a few of the paper scraps from his fingers and sent them floating down to the hot ground, causing the man to curse under his breath as he scrambled to collect them again. When he had recovered each piece, he unlocked his briefcase, emptied all the paper particles into an unseen compartment inside, checked in his pockets for any that might have escaped or were hiding, and then clicked the briefcase shut once more. He finally retrieved his neglected cigarette and took a careful drag, then looked up, seemingly surprised to see the children still there.
“Why?” rasped the girl in that alarming voice of hers, suspicious.
The man lifted his hat to tuck a few stray hairs in place behind his ears. “To finish the offerings, of course. People are so careless these days—they don’t bother to burn the papers completely. How do they imagine that makes their ancestors feel?
“I know it doesn’t seem all that important,” continued the man, half to himself, “but something burned should be burned completely. Unfinished business leaves dangerous openings. And in my experience, it will always come back to haunt you.” Then he looked at the children and frowned. “You should be in school!” he said, as if just realizing it. The little girl was confident that they had chosen an ideal victim: superstitious, absentminded, and not a very important member of the funeral party—now grown small in the distance—for they had not sent anyone back to come and look for him. “We ’re here to protect the cemetery,” she said to him, grin back on.
The man in the hat was fascinated. Could the children be guardian spirits, perhaps?
“That one getting buried over there,” the girl continued, gesturing with her thumb toward the far-off mourners. “He must have been pretty important. We know because we saw the size of the flowers they were carrying. Those are the expensive kind. He was probably part of the Ma family. Maybe a cousin.” She chewed pensively on the inside of her cheek for a moment. “Okay,” she finally said, “five thousand đong.”
“Pardon?” The man frowned again.
“Five thousand đong. That’s what you’re going to give us in order to keep his grave safe.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
The girl leaned forward ever so slightly. “Here’s the deal: if you don’t pay us the money to protect it, something bad could happen. My friend”—she pointed to the larger of the two boys—“might come back here after sunset with a bucket of buffalo shit and empty it”— here she made a grand, expansive gesture with her hands—“aaaaaall over the spot where that important man is buried. Or,” she continued, gleefully, “it might not even be buffalo shit. My friend here loves to eat, but he has a very bad stomach.” The older brother contributed a doleful shrug. “For dinner tonight,” the girl went on, “I think he’s going to eat cabbages and eggs—a lot of eggs—in fish sauce and, hmm, a little bit of durian, and maybe a couple river eels too. And then, when his belly is good and bubbly, he’ll come and squat on top of the tombstone himself!” The little girl emitted a gravelly chuckle, and it was a truly dreadful sound. “Just think how angry that would make that fancy man’s ghost! And it would be all your fault for not protecting him when you had the chance, wouldn’t it? So, when his spirit comes back looking to get even, he’ll come for you!” The older brother laughed along with her this time, his eyes turning into crescent moons. The younger brother was soundless, but he gave a very gummy smile as he struggled to stay mounted on his tombstone.
The man sighed. “Yes, yes, enough, I understand.” He couldn’t help but be slightly disappointed that he had not stumbled across a new kind of guardian spirit, after all, but junior racketeers. Good ones—he was so impressed by their bravado that he was tempted to just hand over the money. He imagined that they would probably go on to find great success in local politics. A twinkle appeared in his eyes. He checked the position of the sun over his shoulder and estimated that there was a safe two-hour window before it set. Blue-black clouds, the exact same shade as the granite statue, were beginning to gather in the southwest, foretelling the impending arrival of the afternoon monsoon.
“You drive a hard bargain,” he said, “but could I counter with an offer of my own?”
This was the first time that someone had ever tried negotiating with the children. Nine times out of ten, their victim would decide that it was better to be safe than sorry where the spirit world was concerned and pull their wallet out for the little graveyard hooligans, though there were a couple times in the past that they picked the wrong mourner—someone a little too cantankerous and not superstitious enough—and were chased out of the cemetery and pelted with rocks. They were always prepared for this other possibility, though they were sure that they were too fast to ever get caught. But the man in the hat, unexpectedly, was neither cooperating nor attacking them, and this made the two boys visibly nervous. Their leader, however, remained unflappable.
“What’s the offer?” said the girl.
It was the man’s turn to smile now. He dropped his finished cigarette into an incense pot and then put his briefcase down on the tombstone once more and twisted the dials. Embossed golden initials in the leather flashed in the sunlight, and the girl squinted but couldn’t read them. “You are clever children,” he said brightly. “I can see that. Calculating. Entrepreneurial. But foolish—talking about desecrating tombs, provoking spirits . . . most people would be too afraid to do that here. You think you’re not afraid of this place . . .” He swept out a hand to indicate the cemetery around them. The briefcase clicked open. “But how brave are you? My offer—my wager, really—is that I can show you something that will frighten you so badly you’ll run away screaming, and you’ll never be the same again. If not, I’ll give you each five thousand đong. What do you say?”
The little girl scoffed at him. “There’s nothing that can frighten us in the daylight,” she said without hesitation.
“Are you sure?”
The looks on the faces of the two brothers certainly indicated that they were not sure. While the older boy had a penknife in his pocket, they had never had to use a weapon before. The girl’s swagger did not reassure the boys. Something new and sinister was at hand, something that they did not know, and did not want to know.
But the girl’s response was to rise and stand up on top of her headstone with her arms crossed defiantly. She did not wobble once. She nodded.
The man shrugged. He removed his hat with a deliberate flourish and laid it down next to his briefcase. The younger brother shivered.
“I had something of an accident when I was younger,” the man began. “When I was about your age, in fact. Or a bit older. I had an encounter with what I will call a bad thing, for lack of a better word.” He reached into the briefcase, dug around, and recovered a few scraps of the joss paper from earlier. “But I was lucky; it left me mostly myself, but with . . . well, I just call it my little party trick. Care to see?”
He held the paper bits in one palm, pulled out his lighter with the other, and then swiftly brought the flame down to his cupped hand. One of the brothers audibly gasped. The little scraps ignited and turned to ash almost immediately, releasing little gray smoke plumes. Quickly, the man bent his head down and inhaled the smoke before it could dissipate completely. He closed his eyes and held his breath for four, five, six long seconds. Then he swallowed, coughed several times, and he yawned.
The children waited. Then they realized that the yawn was not stopping; the man’s mouth opened all the way, and then his lower jaw unhinged and kept opening. The skin on his face grew taut and his lips shrank to a thin line, exposing the entirety of his nicotine-yellowed teeth and mottled pink-and-white gums as the mandible dropped farther, farther, down past the neck to the collarbone. The children watched. Terror tightened the boys’ chests and dried sharp and sour in the backs of their own open mouths, but the girl did not move, and her face betrayed no sign of fear. She was clenching her teeth a bit hard though, perhaps in response to seeing the jaw in front of her being stretched like rubber. The hole in the man’s face finally stopped growing when it was the size of a large papaya and the base of his chin was resting at mid sternum. His stretched-out cheek flesh rippled slightly each time he inhaled. The man opened his eyes again, blinking as they readjusted to the sun, and this grotesque juxtaposition—long, delicate eyelashes fluttering, with a monster mouth gaping beneath them—was at last too much for the two boys to take.
They leapt backward off their gravestones, the larger, older boy slightly faster, his younger brother slipping down and running two steps behind. They tripped over themselves as they fled. The girl remained standing on her stone, unaffected by her friends’ cowardice. Only when he was a safe distance away did the smaller boy turn and risk a last, pleading look back. “Binh!” he called out to her, a feeble bleat that she could not hear. But when he caught another glimpse of that ruddy, yawning maw, he abandoned what little sense of loyalty remained and kept following his older brother.
The girl only smirked. She was the kind of child who had come to the realization very early on that in her world, fear was rarely useful, and so, being in possession of precociously strong willpower, had nearly completely exorcised the emotion from herself by age five. This man, this creature in front of her, was disturbing, yes, but also ridiculous and a little sad. Tendrils of dark, slightly stinky smoke were now trickling out from the mouth and wafting toward her. She waved one smoke frond away from her face with her little hand, and it dissolved harmlessly in the humid air.
The man heaved a gigantic sigh, lifted his chin with one hand, and started putting his face back together. It was a delicate process involving a lot of wiggling and waiting for the skin to shrink back into place.
“What are you really doing here, Thing?” demanded the girl. “I’m looking for my . . . hmm.” The man paused, massaged his jaw, and reconsidered his phrasing. “I’m trying to find somebody.” “Are you gonna eat them?” she asked coolly.
“Perhaps. Does that frighten you?”
She didn’t bother responding; the smirk just grew wider.
The man looked a little crestfallen. “I’m not sure who wins the bet. Your friends are going to have nightmares about me for years, but you’re impossible to scare. Shall we call it a draw?” He dug around in his jacket for his wallet, removed a note and held it out to the girl.
“No,” said the girl. “No, Thing. We do not have a draw.” She did not know what he was, but she hated him. She knew that she would never play in the graveyard with the boys again because of his mouth. They would always remember what they saw this afternoon, but they would never speak of it, because they had run away and she had not— and this, more than the monster itself, was the fact that the boys could not face. It was because shame had now entered their friendship, and it had put its first crack in their trio. The crack was permanent, and it would be the first of many. Years later, the girl would look back on this day as the end of her childhood—already, in this moment, she sensed a kind of curtain being drawn across it—and though it was a scabby and meager and delinquent childhood, its loss filled her with rage. Anger leached into all the parts of her where fear should have been but was missing. The anger was so hot, she imagined that it would burn her up into a heap of ash, and then the wind would blow her away with the cemetery dust and the old cinders of incense and dried flower petals and paper scraps that may have been missed by the strange man. “You can keep your money,” she hissed at him, “but remember that I won our bet today.”
With that, she threw herself backward off the tomb, away from the man, and landed on her feet running. The man watched her go. He almost smiled, but he respected the integrity of her fury too much to do so. He packed up his briefcase, dropped his hat back onto his head, and looked up to check the position of the sun but found instead that it had been swallowed by the clouds. The rain would begin any minute now. As the girl passed the great black statue, she kicked it impulsively even though she knew it would hurt, and it did, much worse than she had expected. But when she couldn’t stop herself from screaming afterward, a scream so loud that it echoed off the tombstones and made heads turn far away in the funeral party, it was not just because her foot hurt.
Excerpted from Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith. Copyright © 2021 by Violet Kupersmith. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.