Build Your House Around My Body
June 2010, Saigon, nine months before Winnie’s disappearance
Something was moving in the shrubs in front of Tan Son Nhat Airport. It was one in the morning, and Winnie had stepped off a plane twenty minutes ago. Her connecting flight had been held up by a summer thunderstorm in Hong Kong and now her plans were all awry from the start.
Leaving the air-conditioning of the baggage claim, she had felt her edges soften immediately in the humidity. The yellow-uniformed taxi drivers, like half-spilled yolks in their cracked-open car doors, stretched out their necks in unison as they followed the movements of the new passengers exiting the airport. Winnie had seen one of them stare at her, and when she accidentally returned his eye contact he opened his mouth to call out before abruptly closing it again, and Winnie knew he was debating whether to use Vietnamese or English on her. She’d turned and started walking away from the taxi queue before she could hear his final verdict.
And now she was standing in the dark, on the shorn grass of the small, half-neglected greenery by the motorbike parking lot, watching the leaves on this low bush quivering strangely. Just one bush—the rest of the shrubbery was still, and there was no discernible wind that could be responsible for the shaking. She contemplated finding something to prod it with, wondering what would come out if she did, wondering what she should do now.
Winnie leaned on the handle of her suitcase. She was supposed to be staying at the house of a great-aunt she’d never met before but doubted that the old woman was up at this hour or would appreciate Winnie arriving at her home in the middle of the night. All Winnie had been told about the great-aunt was that she was a former nun, was still deeply devout and, if she missed her five a.m. mass, deeply irritable.
Her curiosity had gotten the better of her: Winnie took a step toward the rustling shrub and bent over to pull back a branch and peer inside. But before her hand could make contact with it, she heard a sudden, low hiss from somewhere within the leafy shadows, a sound like an angry radiator. Winnie jerked away. It could have just been a jet-lagged auditory hallucination, but if it was not, it would be better if she and whatever was inside the bush remained strangers to each other. Winnie quickly turned and began dragging her suitcase toward the smeary yellow streetlights of Tan Binh.
The farther she got from the airport the cheaper the hotels would be, so she planned to walk for at least ten blocks. Whenever she passed a hotel that still had lights on, she would look into its lobby and see how big its couches were in order to determine whether or not it was too expensive. The pay-by-the-hour sex motel was fully illuminated and conspicuously couchless, but it had a yawning motorbike guard sitting on a stool and a woman with her hair set in pink rollers behind a desk and a large, glass-paned refrigerator full of beer. Winnie didn’t see the sign advertising an hourly rate or the condoms for sale next to bags of beef jerky on top of the fridge until she was already halfway through the door and the woman in curlers raised an eyebrow at her. But when she hastily calculated that it would cost her less than five dollars to have a room until six in the morning, she decided to stay. She would have plenty of cash left over for the taxi to her great-aunt’s house, and she would arrive right as the old woman was returning from church.
The receptionist took Winnie’s passport, gave her a room key, and sold her an overpriced can of 333 from the beer fridge and a bag of jerky. The motorbike guard took the handle of her suitcase, about to offer to carry it up the stairs for her, but when he realized how little it actually weighed, he returned it unchivalrously to Winnie.
The polycarbonate clamshell thumped hollowly against the stairs as Winnie dragged it behind her one-handed. Buying a suitcase so large now seemed like an overconfident gamble she had made back in America. She had assumed that one day she would fill all of this space. That her life here would provide things worth keeping. That she herself would become someone worthy of being kept. But now she feared that she had jinxed herself. Her arrogance had earned her the ire of a fickle god, and her life would continue to be as empty as her luggage, wherever she went. Winnie was twenty-two. She had brought with her a passport, two sets of clean clothes, and her own flesh. All the rest she would acquire.
The key opened a windowless room that smelled like dried sweat. Its walls and floor tiles were the color of the inside of a lip, and there was a large mirror mounted on the ceiling above the bed. The wheeled suitcase drifted on its own over to a far corner. The truth was, she had paused by the airport bush in the first place because she was considering folding herself up inside her hollow bag and hiding in the hedges until morning. Winnie lay back on the mattress and opened the beef jerky. She spent her first meal in Vietnam staring up at her own reflection.March 2011, Saigon, the day of the disappearance
The night before she went missing, Long dreamed that Winnie turned into a rubber tree. The dream would have felt portentous even if Winnie hadn’t vanished the following day, as Long hardly ever remembered his dreams, and the few times he did, they were prosaic to the point of embarrassment: banal nightmares about misplacing something at the office or trying to play soccer but being unable to move his feet.
In this dream, Long woke up in his own bed. He rolled over to his right side and saw an empty expanse of mattress beside him where Winnie should have been. He got up and descended the narrow staircase to the kitchen. There he found her growing out of the slight depression in the floor tiles where, six months ago, the landlord had dug a hole and never filled it in properly. Her trifoliate leaves brushed the ceiling. While the tree did not have a human face, the trunk boasted two curved, breast-like protrusions and tapered in an approximation of a waist. Its lower half was partially bifurcated to suggest legs, complete with a vaginal bark cleft. When he leaned in closer to examine the Winnie Tree, Long saw that, most disturbing of all, it even had a tiny knot where her belly button should have been.
He immediately recognized that she was a rubber tree. He would have been able to identify the breed anywhere after a childhood spent in close proximity to plantations full of their spindly silhouettes. There was a knife in his hand now—a tapping knife, short and curled at the end like an ice skate or an unusual punctuation mark—and Long knew this meant he must make a cut. What would run out of her, latex or blood? He would find out. And what should he collect it in? Long reached for a mostly empty beer can lying on its side on the counter—even in his dream, the kitchen was a mess—and shook the last of the fusty lager droplets out into the sink. But where should he cut her? This was the hardest question. Long didn’t know whether or not the Winnie Tree could feel pain, and even though she lacked a mouth, he couldn’t shake the feeling that she might still be able to scream. He let the crimped tip of the blade rest experimentally on the soft, mottled skin between her bark-breasts. Pressed it in tentatively. Panicked and then quickly retracted it. He decided that it would be safest to stay away from her heart, and so he moved the knife down to the soft swell of her lower abdomen instead, just south of that repulsive belly button. The stomach was a safe place to make a shallow incision, wasn’t it? Like a cesarean, only without the baby? Long angled the knife carefully. He had never witnessed the tapping of a tree before but was familiar with the curved lesions it left behind. The scar provided the blueprint for the new wound. He steadied his hand, inhaled, and sliced.
Long opened his eyes. It was the morning of March the 17th, and he was no longer dreaming. He was in bed, in his small room overlooking a nondescript District 6 alley, and when he automatically rolled over onto his right side he saw Winnie lying six inches away from him, asleep and—from what bits of her were poking out from the blanket— still human. Long now had to guiltily acknowledge that there was a part of him that wished the dream hadn’t ended before he could see what happened when he cut. To apologize for being disappointed, he tenderly drew up the blanket to Winnie’s chin and tucked it snugly around her sides. While doing so, he noticed that Winnie’s hair was damp.
Long always took pains not to disturb Winnie when he got ready in the mornings. He had become an expert at opening and closing the closet doors noiselessly. When he brushed his teeth, he leaned in close to the sink and dribbled the toothpaste into the drain instead of spitting. He tiptoed down the stairs. But this morning, catastrophe struck when he reached the kitchen: unwilling to cross the dip in the tiles where the dream tree had grown, Long decided to circumnavigate it instead, and, while creeping along the edges of the room, he accidentally elbowed one of the half dozen crinkled-up beer cans on the counter, sending them all raining down onto the floor. There was a sproingy quality to the sound of the aluminum striking tile, and Long hated it. It made his teeth clench. It felt like paper cuts to the eardrum. When it was finally over, he listened for Winnie stirring upstairs but heard nothing.