Holiday in Vietnam: Post-war porcine reflections

“They’re going to kill the pig,” Julie said, excitedly. She grabbed Jack’s arm and worked her way to the front of the crowd. Just a few feet in front of them, two men struggled to keep the large male pig still, one man at the head, one at the tail. It was the main event of a ceremony that no one could fully explain to Jack in English.

They were on a small island in a bay near the seaside town of Nha Trang. Julie, an Amerasian, had come back to her hometown for a visit after being in America for about ten years. She had met Jack, an American tourist, two days earlier and invited him to the ceremony.

The scene was illuminated by a large flood light, and the star of the show squealed and defecated in fear. Its owner patted the animal’s big head and calmed it down. Jack noticed how the pig’s mouth curled at the ends, looking like a defiant smile.

The butcher, long killing knife in hand, approached, and the owner, who had raised the animal since it was a piglet, lifted its chin, stretching out its pink neck. The butcher pierced the pig’s throat and slid his silver blade across it in one quick, seamless action. Blood gushed, splashing onto the dusty ground. It spread out in a thick, sticky puddle. When the pig could no longer stand, its two handlers gently laid him on his side. The show was over, and the crowd returned to their conversations, their eating and drinking and their laughter. In the background, pints of blood pumped from the pig’s wound with the slowing rhythm of his weakening heartbeat.

“Now, there’s a pig with a problem,” Julie said.

“Doesn’t this bother you?” Jack asked.

“It sure does. Why did they waste all that blood?”

Jack laughed.

“Here, try one,” she said, holding up a small paper plate of eggrolls.

Jack bit into one. “Pork!” he exclaimed.“How appropriate.”

“Why did they sacrifice the pig?” Jack asked.

“Just so things get better,” I guess.

“Well it didn’t get better for Porky over there.”

“Who knows, maybe he’ll be reincarnated as rock star.”

Jack looked over at the pig. “Maybe.”

“Don’t worry, Jack. Vietnam will always have plenty of pigs. Come on, let’s go set up the lanterns.”

Julie led him to the water where an old boat filled with small paper lanterns was beached. They pushed it into the water and, along with a Vietnamese soldier who would operate the small engine, boarded it. “Why’s he here?” Jack asked quietly. “To prevent people from leaving the country,” Julie replied. Two years ago, someone threw out their lanterns and just kept on going.”

The boat stopped and Julie handed Jack a plastic lighter. Getting the lanterns lit and on the bay wasn’t easy. A slight breeze coming up off the water was just strong enough to blow out the lighter’s flame. The lanterns were small, waxed paper boxes so it was hard for Jack to get his large fingers inside to light the candles. Once he managed to keep them lit, he had to gingerly place them on the bay without them capsizing. His efforts proved endlessly amusing to Julie, who applauded and praised him each time he got one successfully on the water. “You did it!” she would shout playfully. Thankfully, others were also placing lanterns on the water. And soon the bay was aglow with candlelight.

Silently, the two of them took it all in. The hundreds of glowing lanterns competed with the sparks of silver, white moonlight caught by the bay’s ripples. Jack remembered the pig, which reminded him of a hunting trip with his friend one summer when he was in high school. They had driven to the country, leaving the predictable sterile comfort of their suburban homes and neighborhoods behind. Walking through fields and orchards, they proudly held their well-oiled, new shotguns, which were loaded and ready. When something suddenly took flight, they fired. Smart quails would run into the thicket. But the dumb ones took to the air and were usually doomed. Excitedly, they would fire the big guns, blasting a lethal mist of bird shot into the air. Their game dropped like stones.

The trip a success, Bill and Jack drove home, recounting their day and chiding each other along the way, their greasy bag of death in the back seat. But when night fell and Jack was in bed, guilt over the day’s killing slowly drifted into his heart like a coastal fog.

“Earth to Jack.”

Jack snapped out of his memory and saw Julie looking at him and smiling. “Are you still fretting over that pig?” she asked. Jack shook his head. “No, just thinking.”

There was a pause.

“Do you like me, Jack?”

Jack looked at her. She was wearing an expression of anxious vulnerability.

“More than like,” he replied with a smile.

Julie giggled. She pointed at him with her chin, smiled and said. “Good. I more than like you, too.”

She switched benches and sat next to him, so close their hips touched. She placed her head on his shoulder, her long, black satin-soft hair fanned out across his back.

“Jack?”

“Yes.”

“Where do you think the pig is now?”

“Pig heaven. Where do you think the pig is?”

“I think it’s still over there in the dirt.”

Jack laughed, feeling foolish and overly sentimental.

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