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Authors: Robert Olen Butler

The Deep Green Sea

BOOK: The Deep Green Sea
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Praise for
The Deep Green Sea

The Deep Green Sea
the weight of destiny has a nearly physical pull . . . Butler's effort to merge myth and history is a significant one, an attempt to frame a literature that has to do with more than telling stories, but speaks to the deepest core of who we are.”

—David L. Ulin,

“Slim, erotic and fable-like. . . . It's a book that picks up on many of Butler's abiding themes—the legacy of the Vietnam War, the clash of Vietnam's folklore and mysticism with American manners, the sexual currents that flow between Vietnamese women (often prostitutes) and American soldiers and veterans. . . . Butler is often, and deservedly, praised for his ability to climb inside the hearts and minds of his Vietnamese characters . . . Throughout the novel, Butler writes the kind of long, rhythmic, adjective-free sentences that are the sign of a writer working to cast a spell . . . His spare descriptions can be enormously evocative.”

—Dwight Garner,
New York Times Book Review

“Like the classical genre to which it aspires,
The Deep Green Sea
raises such fundamental moral questions as: What is the price of ­knowledge and of truth, and what is the difference between them? Do we commit a sin against others when we deceive ourselves? What happens when we try to protect those we love by lying to them? What is the price of memory, and what happens to those who attempt to extinguish it?” —Susie Linfield,
Los Angeles Times

“Butler deftly exploits the traits of a blossoming relationship to develop more sinister themes . . . [
The Deep Green Sea
is] beautifully put together and uses sex and love to poignant effect to show the consequences of war in ordinary lives.” —
Literary Review

“Butler has visited Vietnam many times in his fiction, eschewing blood and guts in favor of examining the hearts and minds of those affected by wartime . . . What is amazing, though, is how delicately the author treads on this sensitive material, which in the wrong hands could easily have turned preposterous or laughable. The two principals alternately recount their affair, only slowly becoming aware of the imminent tragedy, which adds to the quiet poignancy of the tale . . . [An] eloquent novel.”

Library Journal

“[Butler] explores further into the territory he knows best, with a poetic treatment of the love between a modern Vietnamese woman, orphaned in the fall of Saigon in 1975, and a blue-collar Vietnam vet delving into his traumatic past . . . A sincere treatment of the ancient theme of love mixed up with war.”

The Scotsman

The Deep Green Sea
is remarkable in many ways, not least for its daring. . . . [It] flirts with contradictions. It seems to be realistic but it turns out, it's not. It's a large adult fairy tale. It is also a short book, but not a quick read. The story moves at two speeds at once, much as ‘Oedipus Rex' does, giving the impression that time is speeding by and is standing almost still. The reader wants to push on to the end and also wants to delay it.”

—Kathleen George,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“An ambitious, lyrical exploration of the lingering wounds of the Vietnamese war . . . Butler's prose is precise, sensuous, and moving. . . . An honest and intermittently powerful attempt to find some redemptive possibilities in the lingering nightmare of that war.” —
Kirkus Reviews



The Alleys of Eden

Sun Dogs

Countrymen of Bones

On Distant Ground


The Deuce

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

They Whisper

Tabloid Dreams

Mr. Spaceman

Fair Warning

Had a Good Time

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction
(Janet Burroway, Editor)




Weegee Stories

A Small Hotel

The Hot Country


A Novel

Robert Olen Butler

Grove Press

New York

Copyright © 1997 by Robert Olen Butler

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced
in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means,
including information storage and retrieval systems,
without permission in writing from the publisher,
except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book
or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher
is prohibited. Please purchase only author­ized electronic editions,
and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy
of copy­righted materials. Your support of the author's rights
is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions
wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom
use, or anthology, should send inquiries to
Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 154 West 14th Street, New York, NY 10011
[email protected]

First published in the United States of America
by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1997


Grove Press

an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

154 West 14th Street

New York, NY 10011

Distributed by Publishers Group West



There is a moment now, come suddenly upon us, when the sound of the motorbikes from the street has faded al-most 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, 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 in-side 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 down at his hand on me 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, who 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 come back 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 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 care.

She tells me I'm the first man she's ever done it with and I stop right off. It wouldn't make a difference in my feelings for her, either way, but when she says she's never made love before, I do feel like I've been given some kind of a second chance. I almost tell her it's the same for me. For Christ's sake, to be able to start again from a place where there's nothing to remember, nothing to ask about, nothing but what's there for both of you right in that moment, without any history at all, that's almost too good to be true. And to my surprise, my face goes hot and I get a feeling in my eyes like when you step in front of a coke oven and you take that first blast of heat before you start shoveling the spill.

Like that maybe, like a feeling at the mill, but that's a little bit of bullshit on my part. In fact, it's like when you're about to cry. This woman lying here in a dim room saying she's a virgin and she wants me to be inside her body and she is who she is, she listens to me talk like she does with those sweet dark eyes never looking away even for a second and she takes me into a room like this and says so easily this is my good luck Buddha and this is my long life Buddha and this is my ancestor shrine and it's like she thinks I'm going to understand these things right off. She just makes me part of them, though a couple of the things should seem silly to me, little ceramic fat guys sitting on the floor, but I don't want to laugh at them, only maybe a quiet laugh in pleasure from her being like this. A Vietnam woman. In a room in goddamn Sai­gon, after all. Those people out there going around and around all night on their motorcycles, a bunch of them maybe guys who twenty years ago were in the business of killing Americans. And she tells me that there is no past at all and she wants me and I feel like I'm going to god­damn cry.

So I turn my face to the window. And I hope that it will be all right for her. I hope she shouldn't be waiting for the man she's going to marry, though it's not like I've ruled out that the man she could marry is me. If I figured otherwise, I think I'd be strong enough to get up and thank her as sweetly as I could so
it wouldn't hurt her and I'd get the hell out of here. But I realize—and this is a shock to me, as a matter of fact—that it could be me. It took me to come back to the fucking Nam to realize that I could be married to somebody again. And just at the moment I come to the little shock of that, Tien says, “It is all right,” and she takes my hand and puts it on her breast.

This is the first real touch. The first touch of sex. We're half naked at the moment and we've been kissing, but this is the first touch. I take my hand away but not very far. I can't say that something's warning me. I just want to be sure she isn't making a mistake about what she wants. They think about these things a little different over here. Even if the communists are in control, they still seem to think in some older ways. I don't want her to end up convinced she's spoiled for some other man, just in case. Though I'm wanting to go on with this very bad now. And it's been a long time since I've felt this way. I don't even try to think of the last time. I lift my hand just a little bit and my palm is burning with the tiny hard spot where the tip of her nipple was and what I do think of is a moment when I was pulling oil on the California coast, some years ago now, and I stepped out of my rig in a rest stop somewhere in the San Joaquin Valley and it was night and the air was full of the smell of oranges. A couple of Peterbilts had just huffed away and
they'd been full of oranges and the smell was everywhere, that and the smell of diesel fuel, and I suddenly wanted a woman bad. I wasn't sure why but it seemed to have something to do with this place. Saigon. These streets are always full of that kind of mix of smells, some sweet something, fruit or flowers or incense, but something else too in the same air, dry rot or old fish or the exhaust from the motorbikes. I got out of my truck, and what passed for a marriage in my life was dead already and I didn't care if my pecker ever saw the light of day again and it was a thing that smelled like Vietnam that made me want a woman once more.

BOOK: The Deep Green Sea
5.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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