ONCE, IN A PLACE FAR AWAY FROM THIS PLACE, IN A TIME THAT WAS before this time, a woman named Ngoc lived in a village. Although she lived in a village, she wanted to live in a city. Cities, you see, offer riches and rich men and rich husbands and rich suitors, and villages, you see, offer none of these things.
Ngoc means “jade” or “treasure.” It’s a fitting name. Not only is she a treasure in and of herself — a real gem of a gal! — but she also desires treasure.
This is a story like all other magic stories. Don’t be fooled. Just because our characters have different names does not make them fundamentally any different from the archetypal characters you’ve come to know and love. These names are just markers, a way to signal to you that they are set in a place that is not this place. These names are just markers to explain that their values and culture may be slightly variant from yours, but you really don’t need to be scared. We understand: things that are different can be frightening, but this is not a ghost story. This is a magic story, and although it ends with sadness, those who are good will be rewarded and those who are bad will be punished. We are a just people, even though we look different and speak a different language and our people have different names. We, too, believe in justice.
Now, Ngoc lived in a village, a very poor village, and although she was very beautiful — as all female characters in magic stories are — she was stuck. How beautiful was Ngoc? Well, we probably shouldn’t indulge in encouraging her propensity for superficialities, but her hair was the deepest black, stained darker than shadow. This magnified her bright skin, which turned rosy in the sun. Her eyes were simple slits, more eyelash than eye. They were illusive smoke. And her body, well, let us suffice to say she was a dream. She was naturally what women today can achieve only through science and artificialities.
But all of this meant nothing because Ngoc and her family had no money, and so like all women — beautiful or not — who come to a certain age, her family married her to a man. Although she didn’t eat much, her family was so poor that providing anything at all was providing too much.
The night before the marriage ceremony, Ngoc dreamed her husband would be old and ugly, with a gut sagging past his testicles. But she dreamed he was rich. He could buy her anything she wanted, and she wanted everything. He moved her to the city, and although she would have to satisfy him, he would allow her to take lovers as well, because her old husband understood that young, beautiful women have needs, too, needs that old men with sagging guts could not necessarily — let us say — rise to meet.
So Ngoc, when she awoke from the most glorious of dreams, prayed it would become truth. As she dressed in her red ao dai and pulled her hair away from her face, she imagined the moment her new husband would take his wrinkly, arthritic hand to pull back her veil to reveal her face, how excited he would be, how he would shower her not with affection but with money. This was what she desired most.
Instead, of course, her husband was a young man — exceedingly handsome and without a penny to his name.
But having never met her, he loved her immediately. He was a faithful mule, and he wanted to give her whatever she wanted, if only because she looked all the more beautiful when she was happy. He was the kind of husband all women dream of, except, of course, for Ngoc. To her, he was a nightmare.
His name was Hien, which means gentle. She would have preferred a man with a name that predicted wealth. Hien was educated, smart, with a love for literature and the arts. He could speak English, having gone to university in Saigon, but he wanted a traditional wife, and so he returned to his village to find her. His parents, being old friends with Ngoc’s parents, knew they had a beautiful, eligible daughter. Of course, if his parents had known what a money-hungry woman she was, they never would have chosen her.
And it was not as though Ngoc did not get anything she wanted. Immediately after the marriage ceremony, she demanded they move to Saigon. Given he had a post at the university, he had planned that anyway, but he didn’t tell her this. Instead, Hien hesitated only momentarily before saying, “If that’s what you want.”
But life in the city was not what she imagined. Hien had a modest apartment. He worked incessantly but did not bring home much money. She didn’t have the jewels she wanted.
In truth, Hien wasn’t nearly as poor as people thought he was. He wanted to live simply. He didn’t believe in excess. He brought home only a small portion of his salary; the rest he gave to the poor, which were many in Saigon, or to his family. Hien understood that his wife wanted riches and jewels, and although he could have provided those to her, he didn’t think it was fair that his small family should have so much when so many more were without.
Ngoc, however, believed her husband was a fool: a man with education, who worked as an educator, who ate rice and fish sauce for every meal, only occasionally indulging in meat. And of course, she was a fool to stay with a foolish man.
Because her husband was at his office for most of the day, Ngoc began to wander. She met rich men, men who desired her, and even though she was married, there was nothing wrong with accepting gifts.
Then, one day, Ngoc fell ill. She fell ill, and there were not enough doctors to cure her. All the money Hien had stashed away was depleted, taking her to the best doctors and hospitals in Saigon. She coughed blood and lost flesh. Her face changed color. Her teeth became weak.
Hien sat at her bedside, as in love as ever, and promised that if she would become well again, he would give her all the money and jewels she wanted. All she had to do was recover, but by then, it was too late.
Before Ngoc died, she had asked her husband to lift her body from the bed. Below, she had stashed her treasures: gold bracelets, jade pendants, excess, excess. Ngoc asked her husband to dress her in the finest silk ao dai and adorn her with all her jewelry, and although he was disgusted, he obliged his wife, because she was, after all, his wife, and he loved her.
She died within the hour, and Hien could not be consoled. He cried until his tears rose to the level of her deathbed. Then, he cried until his dead wife floated. Even then, his tears were not exhausted and he continued to cry.
After three days of crying, a fairy appeared. She said, “Hien, this isn’t right. She was a bad wife, one who neither loved nor appreciated you. What are you doing, crying like this?”
Hien said, “What you say may be true, but she was my wife. How could I not be devastated?”
The fairy said, “But she was unworthy.”
Hien said, “But I was unworthy.”
The fairy, frustrated, said, “There is something. If you loved her, truly loved her, remove three drops of blood from your body to nourish her back to health, but be careful. You are giving your life for hers. What will you do if she doesn’t love you in return?”
But he did not hear her warning. He put a knife to his wrist and made a small incision. He let three drops of his clean blood fall onto her lips, which were cracked and pale.
Ngoc opened her eyes. The fairy disappeared.
But she did not change her ways. Ngoc continued to wander, even though her husband gave her a healthy allowance. With the money Hien gave her, she could afford fine silks and the purest jewels, but it was not enough. She had nearly died. She had to live her life fully.
And Hien continued to work and love his wife. He sacrificed more and more, giving her money while denying himself any pleasure.
Until the day came when Ngoc found another man, an old man with a belly sagging down to his testicles, who wanted to marry her.
She said, “I’m leaving you.”
Hien was confused. He couldn’t understand, but she had packed all her possessions.
He said, “But I love you.”
She said, “If you loved me, how could you deny me anything? Love is extravagance. If you loved me, you would show me by giving me everything I want!”
He said, “But I’ve given you everything. You don’t lack food or shelter or even jewelry! And you have me. I’ve done nothing but adore you!”
She said, “But your adoration is empty. It means nothing.”
Hien thought about this. His love meant nothing.
His love meant her life.
He demanded his three drops of blood back.
She laughed. “Who needs your three pathetic drops of blood? That’s all you’ve ever given me, and what sacrifice was it to you?”
Just as quickly as she said it, she took a pin to her forefinger and spilled his three drops of blood. They fell from her finger and saturated the ground.
The mosquito was born that day, wandering here and there in search of those three drops of blood to bring her back to life.
As for Hien, after his wife vanished, which to him, she did simply vanish, the fairy knocked on his door. She appeared before him, a humble woman with kind eyes, and together, they lived happily ever after.
When I was growing up, my parents spoke minimal English, but of course, being in the States, they wanted to encourage me to learn English while not forgetting my “roots.” I had several books of fairy tales that were written in English on one side, Vietnamese on the other. I don’t have a very clear memory of the contents of these books, except that they weren’t traditional — by which I mean Western — fairy tales. The only story I remember with any certainty is “The Story of the Mosquito,” which I have retold here.
My memory of these books is tainted though: a fairy tale set inside another fairy tale, one which I don’t remember, but it’s a story my parents have told me until the story itself has frayed, worn thin. Their fairy tale features me — a voracious reader, quickwitted, wise, and smart, though not particularly pretty — and by the time I was three, I could read, not only in English but also in Vietnamese. At parties, my parents would display me as some mixture of sideshow and genius. I would read these books to their friends: first in English, then in Vietnamese, my accent in both perfect. And here, here is the magic: of course, I couldn’t read when I was three. I’d memorized these books, and though they weren’t long, maybe thirty to fifty pages each, I’d managed to learn when pages should turn, where words stop and pick up, and so on.
I have looked and looked, and none of my research has turned up either this Vietnamese mosquito fairy tale or the volume in which I read it. [Part of the inspiration for this anthology is the hoped-for revival of older fairy tales, often at risk of disappearing. Perhaps this tale will be discovered one day. Ed.]
I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. No one in my family has supported this decision. No, I was supposed to be a doctor, but in many ways, my pilfering of story began there, then, when I was three, with this very fairy tale.