Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureWinter 2016
The River Voice
By Madeleine Parish
“Executive Summary. Marketing Strategy. Financial Analysis. Management and Advisory Personnel.”
As she made her way from her West Campus dorm to her Advanced Marketing Seminar on the Quad, Tran Huong Giang ticked off the sections of the business plan she had written for her final class project.
The app she had designed—called “To You!”—would allow connection-starved millennials to send a drink to someone they’d spotted across a bar, someone they’d like to know, if they were too shy—or too cool—to introduce themselves the old-fashioned way.
“To You!” would take off. She was certain of that. Not just because her focus group data said so, but because she knew what it was like to feel shipwrecked, whether alone in her dorm or surrounded by a hundred MacU students at Zeke’s bar downtown.
When Giang arrived at MacMillan Bridge, she stopped at its center, eased her backpack from her slender shoulders to the ground, and peered over the waist-high stone wall to the ravine below.
MacU consistently ranked among the top ten on lists of America’s Most Beautiful College Campuses; and this spot, right here, where she stood, was one of the main reasons. Especially on a day like today, when the sun shimmered on the fast-moving water below, when the falls further upstream whooshed fiercely, when early spring moss dotted the ominous shale outcroppings, and when the pink-budding laurels danced in the breeze on the distant Ridge.
As Giang leaned forward, her luminous black hair draped around her face. She tucked it behind her ears and took in a deep breath. Relief! Thoughts of business plans and final grades quieted and the knotted fist in her chest unclenched as the lullaby-rush of the water below settled and calmed her.
But wait! She pulled herself back. Maybe it was the pills that soothed her? In the month since Dr. Hendrick had prescribed them, she felt less jagged. She slept better. But she also felt heavier, more dissociated. So was it calm she felt, or simply dullness?
The bridge had been the site of four suicides over the last three years—how many unsuccessful attempts, of course, could not be counted—and there was talk of constructing a fence of sorts atop the wall to prevent future jumps.
Debate over the fence had polarized those for and against. Op-ed pieces, university committee meetings, and town council gatherings perpetuated, but didn’t resolve, the quarrels:
Against: “Would a fence really prevent would-be jumpers from climbing the wall and diving to certain destruction? Wouldn’t an aspiring suicide simply find another way: Pills? A gunshot to the head? Binge drinking at a fraternity party?”
For: “No. Data show that jumpers—compared to others who decide to end it—are impetuous. They tend not to try other means if their jumping attempt is thwarted.”
Against: “What about aesthetics? Would MacMillan continue to land on all those Top Ten lists? What about recruitment? Alumni donations?”
For: “But if we save one life, just one….”
A terrible mistake. That’s what Giang thought a fence would be. With bars obscuring the ravine, would she still be able to hear the river speaking to her, teaching her?
The Bridge Teacher. That’s what Giang called the river voice. Over her one-and-a-half years at MacMillan, it had taught her many things. How to take a quick but comforting respite from school and family pressures. How to summon energy after an all-night study binge. And how to confide without fear of betrayal.
“All you need to do is listen to me,” the river voice told her.
“Just listen, and let me do the rest”.
Inevitably, after allowing herself to be taken in by the river voice, Giang hungered to tell someone what she had heard. But her mother had taught her the importance—no, the necessity—of silence.
“Never,” her mother had told her, “give up anything. Confiding gives people a way to grab onto you, to betray you.”
So Giang surrendered her thoughts, her fears, even her hopes, to the waterfall, which washed them down, down, down, with no way to release them to others, with no way to hurt her.
Inevitably, after allowing herself to be taken in by the river voice, Giang was inspired to write a poem. Not during school hours, of course, or study time. Not until early morning, when all her schoolwork was done.
“Work,” Giang’s mother had taught her, “would not betray.”
But recently, six, seven weeks ago, the Bridge Teacher had turned taciturn. The river voice barely whispered, and the ravine’s black outcroppings spoke instead. Their voices—the rock voices—sounded like her mother.
“What are your poems, your words, but lazy wanderings,” they taunted.
“And if you are so smart, why are you so alone? And if you are so alone, why are you not a leader, but a follower, swaying in the wind, not strong and solid like us?”
At first, she responded to the rock voices with river talk, gentle and flowing, certain the water voice would calm and transform. After all, her name, Giang, meant river. Water, moving, flowing. And water, over time, smoothes stone.
“Are you in pain?” she asked.
“Is that why you want to hurt me? Let me help you, calm you. All you have to do is listen to me.”
But the rock voices didn’t want to listen. They wanted to echo, to magnify, to betray. And they only grew more raucous and critical, becoming so boisterous that, when her river voice faded, Giang went to the University Clinic for a doctor’s opinion. Of course, she didn’t tell her mother about the voices. She had tried, dipping only her toes into a conversation she was afraid to have.
“Stop crazy talk! River voices, rock voices! You smart girl. Study hard. Be big success.”
And that was that. Except, when Giang’s mother turned from her daughter, she made the sign of the cross, then whispered to Father Francis-Xavier Truong Buu Diep,
“I pray, work miracle in this girl’s soul. Drown crazy talk in salt water and plant her like tree. Strong roots. Bountiful fruit.”
Giang had stopped going to church months earlier, despite her mother’s chastisement. The river was her church. But, she admitted, if she lived in the Diocese of Southern Can Tho, where her family came from before they left by boat decades earlier, she would make a pilgrimage to the Church of Tac Say. She would place white flowers near the tomb of the martyred saint. He was, after all, known to work miracles. Why wouldn’t he attend to the prayers of someone who could no longer hear the river voice, who was plagued by rock voices?
* * * * * *
“Tell the doctor enough to make him feel you need a little help,” Giang overheard Melissa telling the others in the dorm.
“But not so much he’ll think you’re going to hurt yourself or somebody else. Make sure he doesn’t think you’re not MacMillan material.”
Fall semester Melissa began to eat. And eat. Her dorm room looked like a mini-Seven Eleven, her bookshelves stocked with chips and Milanos and peanut butter. By Labor Day, five pounds insinuated themselves around her waist and thighs; by Columbus Day, it was ten, then fifteen. Binge eating disorder! That’s what the internet said she had.
When Melissa finally confided in Jessica, the resident advisor, that she would drop out of school if she couldn’t lose weight, Jessica suggested a visit to Dr. Hendrick at the clinic. Voila! Not three weeks, one mood stabilizer and two antidepressants later, Melissa began to smile again. By Thanksgiving she could zip up her skinny jeans. A month after that she met Sean, and they’d been a couple ever since.
Maybe pills will help me too, Giang thought. Of course, she couldn’t ask Melissa directly. She wasn’t part of Melissa’s prom queen posse. But she dallied in the bathroom when Melissa told other girls what to say and not say in order to get the drugs that would make them Thin! Happy! Elite Material!
At first Giang tucked away this information. Drugs might be alright for the the white girls, but not for her. She believed her mother:
“You focus more. Try harder. Rock voices go quiet like sleeping babies.”
So Giang continued to keep to herself. She studied every night; and when her schoolwork was done, sometimes into dawn, she settled into her poetry. Though her mother made life in Vietnam seem like nothing but shades of gray, without taste or fragrance, Giang imagined and wrote about the colors and flavors of the fruits in the south. She ached to see the land where the durian, or “sau rieng” grew. “One’s own sorrows,” the thorny-skinned fruit was named, after a couple so in love they chose to end their lives on earth so they could be together forever. And such a large fruit! Six times the size of a mango, its sun-yellow flesh bright enough to spark memories of its namesake lovers with every honey-sweet bite.
* * * * *
How long had she been standing on the bridge? Giang checked her phone. Eight forty-seven. She needed to step on it to make Engel’s class on time. He took delight in shaming people who walked in late, especially if they were carrying coffee. And she needed coffee. To dispel the fuzzy morning pill-mist. She needed to think clearly today. Not just for class, but for Dr. Hendrick too.
* * * * *
Before Giang announced herself, she scanned the waiting room. Only one other student. Slight and scruffy, his jeans worn thin in the knees, his eyes on his book. Still, she thought, what if he or one of the secretaries in the office knew her mother and told her they had seen Giang at the clinic?
“Tran Huong Giang,” she said softly to the receptionist.
“Tran Huong Giang,” she leaned forward, speaking only a little louder.
“For which doctor?”“
Hendrick. Dr. Hendrick.”
The receptionist scrolled down the appointment calendar on her computer screen.
“Yes,” she said. “Have a seat. The doctor is running about fifteen minutes late.”
Giang turned to the row of tweedy blue upholstered chairs, set her backpack on the floor and took the seat closest to the hallway leading to the doctors’ offices. She glanced sideways. The other student was reading Anne Sexton. A poet, he must be. And if he was a poet, he was probably safe. At least she hoped he was.
“The Artful Rowing Toward God” was his book’s title. Was Sexton rowing to the sound of rock voices when she killed herself, Giang wondered. And if what that priest told Sexton was true, that God was in her typewriter, why didn’t He summon her back from the rock voices?
Maybe this poet across from Giang heard rock voices too. Or the river voice. She wanted to ask; but the question, gasping for air in her throat, trying to unsmother itself from the fear of risk, couldn’t voice itself. If he said no, he would take away possibility, the hope of being understood by a person, not a doctor. He would affirm the need that had prompted Giang to create “To You!.”
So instead of speaking, she pulled her tablet from her backpack and opened her business plan to proof it. Again. But halfway through the executive summary, her project’s paltry insignificance reared up. Doable? Yes, of course. Did she have a reasonable shot at taking first in the class competition for best presentation? Yes, of course. But would “To You!” matter? Once people connected through the app, would they speak truth? Or simply weave diaphanous, short-lived spells over each other? Spells that would inevitably be broken by betrayal.
Then again, Giang had learned from her mother that deception and trickery—along with hard work, of course—were vital, not just to success, but to survival. Who could blame her? Giang’s mother had left Vietnam with her own mother in a fishing boat of dubious seaworthiness, with dozens of others, anxious to escape to America via the South China Sea and Thailand. The boat’s captain, a neighbor of Giang’s grandmother, assured them that, for a price, he could deliver them from post-war wreckage to freedom, possibility, prosperity. All their desolation and destitution would float away on the sea.
Giang’s mother was eleven. Just the age the pirates at sea coveted. The age that would snag a fat black market price. But as the pirates approached in their own rickety craft, the fishing boat owner, the one who had taken hard-earned money from his passengers, steered right toward them. Betrayal! When his passengers cried out for him to evade the invaders, he smiled. Giang’s quick-thinking grandmother, realizing she had squandered her trust, turned the deceit into trickery of her own. She reached into her bag for her sharp fruit knife, sawed off her daughter’s hair. She dusted the girl’s face with tapioca flour and ordered Giang’s brother to sacrifice his cap and shirt, which Giang’s grandmother quickly used to disguise her daughter’s nascent breasts.
When the pirates left the boat, with three other screaming girls and all the cash and jewelry they could wrangle, Giang’s mother, disguised as a farm boy, remained silent, wizened, convinced that trusting led to betrayal, and that deception and trickery were as necessary as clean water, daily mass and fresh vegetables.
* * * * * *
When she heard her name, Giang lifted her eyes to Dr. Hendrick, stiff and lanky, with his white hair, white beard, white shirt and red plaid bow tie. He offered a smile, though to Giang it looked overtired and overused, like his cranky old limbs. When the doctor waved the folder with her name on it down the hall, she walked to the third door on the left and took her seat in the leather chair facing the doctor’s desk.
“I see you’re smiling today, Giang,” the doctor said.
Of course, Giang thought. Of course I’m smiling. If I show you the truth in me, how will I get what I need?
“Yes,” she said.
“And tell me how you’re feeling.”
This was only her fourth appointment with the doctor. She didn’t want to be “in” therapy, like some girls in the dorm. She only wanted to learn how to trick the rock voices, to turn them back into the river voice.
“I’m feeling....” How was she feeling? “Fine.”
“And the voices?”
Giang found the way the doctor tugged at his beard annoying, but he seemed genuinely interested in her and the voices.
“I still hear the rocks, but they’re farther away. In a tunnel.”
She didn’t elaborate and she certainly didn’t say, “I believe them. I trust them.”
She remembered what Melissa said. “Tell the doctor enough, but not so much that he recommends that you drop out.”
No, Giang didn’t want to be dismissed from MacU. She just wanted to get back to hearing the river voice.
“I see,” the doctor said.
* * * * * * *
When they landed in America, Giang’s mother and grandmother and uncle settled in Connecticut where, eventually, Mama Lan, as she later became known, opened a restaurant near Long Island Sound. They lived frugally, saved conscientiously, though they lost a good bit of their savings to the conniver who left Giang’s mother before his daughter was born.
But Giang’s mother learned quickly from her patrons—the ones who bragged about their sons and daughters at Harvard and Dartmouth and MacMillan— the importance of an elite school education for her daughter. So, in 2005, she moved with Giang to MacMillan, and took a job in the university’s food service department. A step down, to be sure, from running her own business. But she had a predictable salary, a 401(k) plan, and, when it was time for her daughter to go to school, free tuition. All Giang would need to do was work hard, avoid conniving men and, when necessary, employ a little deception and trickery.
The only problem, from Giang’s point of view, was that she didn’t want to use the deception and trickery in her blood to develop apps or run a company; she wanted to weave poems. After all, her mother had named her Huong Giang, pure, flowing river. Why couldn’t she see her destiny was in beauty, not in money-making?
* * * * *
Giang retraced the steps she had taken that morning.
“Please, river voices,” she whispered as hope pulled her along to the MacMillan Bridge, “be there.”
She walked quickly. She needed to get there, to be there. But as she approached, she slowed, then stopped. Someone was standing in her spot. No, not someone. It was the poet from the clinic waiting room. He stood without moving, his book of poetry in his left hand, his reddish hair tousled by the breeze. Surely, Giang thought, he heard the voices. But which ones? Rock? Or river?
She gathered herself, walked toward the poet, stopped near him. Not too close. She listened. Then waited. There was no app to summon the river voice. She glanced to the poet and opened her mouth to speak, but remained mute. Then the river voice spoke. Yes, the river voice.
“Just listen. Let me do the rest.”
Her heart beat faster, faster. Even the pills couldn’t contain her need to risk.
“Do you hear her?” She didn’t care that her voice trembled.
She felt free, as if floating down, down to the river, like a fallen leaf, tumbling mid-air.
The poet turned to her. For a moment he looked dazed, as if Giang had wakened him from a weighty, toddler’s sleep. Eventually, his green eyes focused on hers. He tilted his head, assessing both Giang and her question. Then his lips parted and he spoke.
“The river, you mean?”
His voice, Giang thought, was surprisingly clear and true. She waited for the river voice to speak again, to guide her, or even the rock voices, to warn her. When she heard nothing but the water’s rush below, she nodded and smiled.
“Yes,” she said. “The river.”
Madeleine Parish is an award-winning novelist, essayist and short story writer. Also a writing coach, her greatest joy comes from helping newer writers strip away the expected and discover their own unique ways with words.