La la la, dun…dun…dun, loo, loo, loooooooo. That was all she remembered from the song; a song sung to sleepy girls with black hair, black eyes, and simple dreams- I want a doll baby, or I want a kitten friend- but never much more.
But the story went on, in both song and verse- there were ten thousand mute horses standing at the ready, waiting for someone above to whisper steady stallions. Steady, and then urge them off, force them forward. But the voice never came, and the stallions froze, hooves pranced, lips curled, tails braided and pinned. Eventually, time concealed them with ivy twists and maggot bites, and the stallions became no more than the la la la, dun…dun…dun, loo, loo, loooooooo that she heard on the wind; the same wind that blew through La Dun Loo, through the hair of sleeping girls, who, like the stallions centuries before them, were once ready for so much more.
In the field that day, a cat gave birth to kittens, and sparrows dropped down dead from the sky. The man with the moustache nodded, and they were quickly cleared.
From the outskirts, it lay like any small village should. It sat upon a hill, where houses held hammocks and strings of dried chilies. Lavatories stood at least ten feet from back doors, and stray pups and hens wandered ideally, lazily, on dirt paths. There were bicycles and bricks, packages of Tide laundry soap on windowsills, and small potted plants in backyards. In the sand were tiny footprints, scampering down to the river, where the girls bathed and brushed their hair. On the rocks lay forgotten tubes of toothpaste and Sunsilk shampoo. The place was lived in- sadly, it was real.
Yet around the village was a still and eerie hum, which sent a lure of comfort and caress out beyond the hills and into the cities, assuring all the nearby villages that this place was something special. In the air there lingered sounds so soft and joyful they remained motionless at the moment of their inception. It was here they stayed, hovering and soundless, resting in the air as an “oi” or an “oh” or a soothing grunt and exhalation. Despite appearances, there were secrets that kept silent in this place. If suspicion ever dotted on the hill, he told them to sing, and sing they would. La la la, dun…dun …dun…looooo and then the villagers would say listen, shhhh, the Sleepy Girls are singing, before they remarked on the kindness of the man who ran the village. He told them it was a training camp for the City Opera. With good looks and a voice they will marry well. What lucky girls they are.
The young girls of the village matured with the rice harvests- when the youngest green tips sprouted through murky winter waters, and the water buffalo hung his head in anticipation of the plow’s weight, they came. The wind blew them in with a song, and while they sang la la laaaaaa loooo loooo looooooooo they toddled to the river with the older girls, and by the time they returned, their black hair had grown long, their black eyes glistened, and their smiles had been taught and twisted into the appropriate allure. Naked, they pranced- even danced- up the gorge to the village, twirling silk scarves with one hand and eating bean cakes with the other.
The men came to La Dun Loo from near and far. Someone would pass on a word, mimic the song, and sure enough, a steady stream of customers came and went, day after day. Some men just lay to sleep, wanting nothing more than the weight of a woman on their ancient chests. There were moments in those tiny rooms, when the girls would beg them take me, please take me with you and the man with the moustache would hear their cries, and suddenly appear. He whispered things to them, then; things which made them softly whispered sin loi and make promises they hoped never to keep. In La Dun Loo there were no rules, there were no words; no guilt nor terms of agreement. The men came, did what they came for, and then walked away – the voices of the Sleepy Girls spiraling up into the air behind them, screaming for something- anything else- but then freezing there in time, hovering, motionless. La la la, dun…dun…dun, loo, loo, loooooooo, until everything seemed so pointless, and the chorus of voices dispersed into a bleak night sky. Down below, they settled with strange men in their beds. When the candles blew out, and the bottles clanked empty, the Sleepy Girls would sleep. Listen. Shhhh, the Sleepy Girls are sleeping. How peaceful.
They gave themselves names like “Helen” for the white men – simple, isn’t it? Kind? Gentle, even. Like the name a mother would have- a mother who whispers songs and cherishes baby breaths on her cheeks. It is the name of a woman who smells young buds in a garden, and who bathes with Ivory soap. She likes doing laundry by hand; it reminds her of how easy things can still be in this world. She appears- the conjured image of a woman who lived long ago, in some town with a pretty name like Ann Arbor. She ate ice cream on the pier, danced with her great love in the sand, painted the French countryside, and became a grandmother with silver braids and great, wise eyes. She lived, and what a lucky girl she must have been.
Several times a day, the girls would wander down the dirt path to the river, softly humming to occupy their thoughts and keep impending fears at bay. It was here they met their men- men from all walks of life, at all times of day – and they would interact with them in all kinds of ways.
Well, aren’t you a fine one he said, taking a step closer, pretending to do magic as he quickly pulled a small yellow flower out from behind her ear.
She knew he was talking, she could see his mouth shaping the “Os” and sporadically spitting out words in between, but she just had basic thoughts: if yellow and pink flowers were mixed, what color would that make?
Later that afternoon, she walked back down to the river.
Hola Chica, yo quiero tener el sexo con usted. This man wanted her right there in the river, on the banks where she often sat, imagining where it ended, and how far down it babbled. She wondered about something else, then: Birds snatch fish from the water and carry them to the trees before they eat. The last thing the fish do before they die is fly – how beautiful.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was the same.
She got a cekc? – she loved the ones that didn’t feel they had to speak.
A sie sind eine Prostituierte, sind Sie schmutzig – prostitute, yes, that word she recognized.
And a lei è delle donne più belle che mai ho visto – if she didn’t know any better, she would have said this man had fallen in love with her by the way his eyes moved and swallowed her whole before he even dared touch her.
This was the life of a Sleepy Girl. I am a Sleepy Girl, they were taught to whisper, as it became their brand, their identity, and all that they knew.
One particular day something changed forever at La Dun Loo, as the girls gathered down at the river to bathe. The fourteen year old from the southern village of Nha Diem, sat down on a rock and began to cry. One moment she was lathering her hair, and the next she sat, fragrant white foam smeared across her face and hands and began to wail. The other girls stood, fixated on her trembling body; their hearts sympathized, but their heads refused to question. She was begging them, then, begging them to listen. Look at me- look at what they have done to me- look at what they are doing to us. See, see my wrists- it is here where they tied me, and look – look at my burns. They burned me, all of them. She held her hands up high in the air and started to laugh. Pleeeeeeeeaaaaassssseeee became the only word she could muster, but they did not know who she was asking. There was no one to calm her- no mother to sooth her, no great love to hold her. The river babbled along as it always did. The girls bowed their heads. I am a Sleepy Girl, they whispered – but they knew it was wrong.
As she stood writhing and glistening in the sunlight, a mass of black soapy hair pulled into her eyes, the Sleepy Girls knew that something was changing. As they all stood looking at her, they knew that they were just as crazy as she- just as desperate, just as vulnerable, just as needy in that moment. They had all tried to reason with themselves. It is not forever, things could be worse, who wants a child anyway? But they did want more. Look at what they are doing to us, she was trying to show them. There was a sudden blast and the girl crumpled, limp and lifeless, onto the banks. The man with the moustache strolled down to the water, so intimidating in his manner that even the river recoiled, and the girls instinctively let their clothing fall. He had found the army generals in Saigon, poking through tourist stalls with French coins and bound pages of the Communist Manifesto. Come, boys, I will show you something different, he had beckoned. He brought them to the village, putting all six into one of his “special rooms” with the girl from Nha Diem. He promised to give her more money for entertaining the old officers. The man pointed at her body on the banks, at the red hole blasted directly through her heart. Remember this, he said – remember what happens when a girl stops singing. That night the nearby villagers remarked on how the girl’s songs were lovelier than ever before.
They ate together quietly, they bathed silently, and they danced anonymously. There was nothing to say. The older girls knew why they were there, and what they were doing. But the younger girls- the girls who arrived with their hair in classic school-girl braids – they hadn’t a clue. The most painful times at La Dun Loo were when the little ones were visited for their very first time, and their cries echoed. The Sleepy Girls all listened.
It will be over soon, just breathe, one whispered.
Don’t cry… they like that, another mouthed.
Nothing lasts forever, a third reasoned.
We’re better off dead, she concluded.
On a Sunday afternoon, she arrived at La Dun Loo. Her mother and father woke her early to prepare the chilies that were being taken into town for the weekend market. She put on a red and blue felt jacket, and sat sipping tea on the one bed her family shared. Her eyes darted back and forth. Her father smiled, her mother smiled, and so she smiled, assuming this would be a good season for the chilies. This would be, instead, the season her parents sold her for US dollars to a man with a moustache who propositioned them when he saw their daughter’s happy eyes and open heart- she would be perfect. Sitting on the bed that morning was her most cherished and despised moment; she had known nothing, and her parents had dared to know everything. You will go to La Dun Loo, her mother had whispered with a smile, as though she were sending her daughter to the Promised Land.
She was called upon frequently by the man with the moustache, for she was the most sought after of all the Sleepy Girls. Many nights at exactly 1am, she could be seen leaving her house, and walking to his. She would stop abruptly before reaching his door, fall to her knees and sob. I am better off dead. But then, some unknown force would pull her to her feet, guide her hands furtively through her hair, smooth down her dress, and mold her face into stone, as focused and stern as the statue horses at the base of the hill. The girls prayed each and everyday for the companionship of this unknown force that seemed to push them, keeping them held together. The day it disappeared- the day they no longer felt or believed in something better- was the day they would surrender, lying down upon the banks.
In her tiny house she had a small pot with jasmine flowers and guppies in a jar on her window; they had magnificent tails. When she was an infant, her mother had laced jasmine around the basket her baby slept in, and the scent found its way- as all scents do- to her child’s head. My beautiful baby smells of jasmine flowers, her mother told their neighbors, urging them to smell this new, innocent young flesh. These were the small, pretty things she kept- flowers, colored fish, and distant memories. Late nights she sat and felt sorry for the guppies in their jar. I do not mean to keep you, but I feel so all alone.
Her night was spent thinking, over and over, of how wonderful it would be to no longer feel so alone. She picked up her jar of guppies (they had such magnificent tails) and walked them down to the river- down the familiar twists and turns of the dirt path where she went to meet her men. Her bare feet pounded prints into the dirt, battering the land that had done her wrong. She opened her mouth and began to sing, knowing this would be her very last song.
Around herself she suddenly found twenty-four other singing voices, belonging to all the Sleepy Girls at La Dun Loo. That night, none had any intention of sleeping. They had all been sitting quietly, thinking, over and over, of how wonderful it would be to no longer feel so all alone. They had taken with them their most beautiful things, and pounded their way down to the river. They met there, unexpectedly, singing a different type of song.
Ma Oi made me coconut cake when I was sick
I played on swings with cousins after school, in a courtyard with soccer games
My boyfriend would drive me on his bicycle into open fields and we would sleep there
I used to have a doll with blue eyes and black hair, she wore a red dress
I was poor, so I had nothing
I got lost, did you get lost?
We are lost- we are so lost
For years they had sat on the banks, wondering where the river went, and how far down it babbled. But sometimes you can wait forever on answers that will never come.
The water slowly drowned out their voices, and the Sleepy Girls finally slept.
River always calls.