Deep Green Sea (a preview)

Pin it



The Deep Green Sea by Robert Olen Butler

part 1: Tien

There is a moment now, come suddenly upon us, when the sound of the motorbikes from the street has

faded almost to silence, and I can smell, faintly, the incense I have burned, and I am naked at

last. He is naked, too, though I still have not let my eyes move beyond his face and his arms and

his hands. He is very gentle, very cautious, in this moment, and to my surprise, I say, “I have

never done this before.”


I am lying on my bed and he is beside me and we are lit by neon from the hotel across the

street and he has touched only my shoulders. His hands are moving there when I say these words, and

they hesitate. There is also a hesitation in me. I hear what I have said. Some place inside me

says these words are true, and some other place says that I am a liar.


I am twenty-six years old and I have been with two men in my life. But I was never with

them in this bed, I was never with them in this room where I was a child of my grandmother, this

room where I keep the altar to my dead father, and when I removed my clothes with these men, I did

not feel I was naked with them, though I wished to be. There was fear in my heart and

incomprehension in their eyes, and when we rose from the places where we touched, I felt nothing

except that I was alone.


Until this moment with Ben, I have known how to understand that. I am a girl of this new

Vietnam. I am not my mother, who is of a different Vietnam and who had her own fear and

incomprehension with men, and who is far away from me. I am alone in this world but it is all

right, I have always thought, because in a great socialist republic everyone is equal and each of us

can find a place in the state that holds us all. There is no aloneness.


But everything is different now. I am suddenly different. I am naked. This is what I wish

to tell him with my words. It is what I wish to tell myself.


There is a surge of sound in the room, the motorbikes again, the others going around and

around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City on a Saturday night, and I wish it was quiet again. I want

to hear the sound of his breathing. I want to hear the faint stretching of him inside his skin as

he lifts slightly away from me in thought and turns his head to the window.


His chest is naked and so is mine. I feel my nipples tighten at the thought of him and I

want it to be quiet and I want the light to be better too. I want to look at his body, this part at

least. No more for now. I want to start with this naked chest of his and also his hands, which I

have been able to see for these past days but that I have not yet really looked at. I take one of

these hands now in mine as he thinks about what I have said. I take it and in the cold red burning

of the neon light I can see his thick hand. He worked once in the steel mills. He told me of their

fire. He worked once driving a great truck many thousands of miles across his country, the United

States of America, gripping the steering wheel of this truck, and I love the corded veins here as I

hold his hand. “It is all right,” I say. I lift his hand and put it on my chest. I cover my

yearning nipple.


I look at his hand and it is very large and my own hands are small and my fingers are

slender and his are not, his are thick and his skin in the light from the moon and the hotel across

the street seems pale and mine seems darker. I am Vietnamese. Every Vietnamese child hears the

tale of how our country began. Once long ago a dragon who was the ruler of all the oceans lived in

his palace in the deep deep bottom of the South China Sea. He grew very lonely, so he rose up from

the sea and flew to the land, the rich jungles and mountains and plains that are now our Vietnam.

And there he met a fairy princess. A very beautiful princess. And they fell in love. This is the

thing that is told to us so easily and no one ever questions her mother or her grandmother or her

aunt or her friend hiding with her in the dark roots of a banyan tree, even here in Saigon, the

great banyan tree in the park on Dong Khoi that was there a hundred years before the revolution. I

heard the story there, on the street, and you never think to ask whoever is telling you, How did

this happen? How did this feeling happen between two such different creatures? My friend Diep, who

was also the daughter of a prostitute, but one who did not flee, did not give her daughter over to

what she saw was a better life, my friend whispered this story to me and a stripe of light lay on

her face through the cords of the roots in the banyan and she said that the fairy princess and the

dragon fell in love and they married and then she laid a hundred eggs in a beautiful silk bag. And

I said only, Yes, like I understood such a thing. I said, Did he love her very much? Yes, Diep

said. Very much.


And the princess had one hundred children. And there was no childhood for them. They grew

instantly upon birth into very beautiful adults. Diep told me that they were both princes and

princesses. Fifty boys and fifty girls. For a while they all lived together and the fairy princess

was happy and the children were happy. But the dragon was not. He missed the sea and one day the

fairy princess woke and he was gone. He had returned to his palace beneath the water. She

understood. She tried to live on without him. But it was very difficult because she was very much

in love with him. And so she called him back. I do not know how. I did not think to ask. Somehow

he knew to come back and yet he could not stay. He told her that their differences were too great.

He could not be happy in the land. He had to return to his palace, though he promised that if she

ever knew any danger or terrible hardship he would return to help. So he took fifty of their

children with him and he returned to the sea. And she took fifty of their children with her to the

mountains. And these children became the people of Vietnam.


It seemed a very beautiful and sad story to me. And I came home to the very room that I lie

in with this man. Years ago in this place I came home to my grandmother and I told her the story

and she said that it was true.


No. Not my grandmother. She and I lived in this room for most of the time I was a child.

But I heard about the dragon and the fairy princess before that. I came to my mother, and that was

near to this place but not in this room, and I was perhaps seven years old, and I told her the story

and she said it was true. But she corrected one thing. They were all sons. A hundred sons. And

the eldest of them became the first king of Vietnam. I did not ask anything more, questions I now

have that roll in me and break in me more strongly than the waves of the dragon’s precious sea. It

is this that I wonder as I hold this man’s hand in my bed: how did she look upon her dragon when she

first lay with him? Did the princess take the great scaled hand of this creature that she was

loving so strongly even then, ready as she was to open her body to him, did she put her tiny, silken

hands on his and did she pass her fingers softly over the layers of his hard flesh still smelling of

the sea, did she touch the tips of his claws, did she look into his great red eyes and see all the

gentleness that she had dreamed for? And surely the answer is yes. Surely that is what she did.


I cannot see Ben’s eyes. Not the color of them. Not what might be there of his heart. He

turns his face to me when I lead him to touch my breast and there is only shadow where his eyes are

and I cannot see. But I feel him through his hand. He is very gentle in this place of steel mills

and trucks and I know he likes the touch of me and I know this even though he lifts his hand now.

Just the tiniest bit so that he does not touch me with his flesh, but I can still feel the heat of

him. “Are you sure?” he says. He believes this thing I have said about myself. I believe it, too.

And I am sure of this: with this man, I am naked and I do not feel as if I am alone. “Yes,” I say,

and he puts his hand on me but not over my nipple. He puts his hand in the center of my chest,

between my breasts, and the tip of his middle finger is in the hollow of my throat. It feels as if

he touches my whole body with his palm and I do not know what is to come and I tell myself I do not


To read the next installment of The Deep Green Sea

click here

©1997 Robert Olen Butler