I was lost in late-night research for the tour I had to lead the next day. A group of tourists had requested a visit to several of the Nguyen Emperors’ mausoleums around the city of Hue. One in particular was an obscure site with which I wasn’t so familiar. As I hunched over the keyboard making notes, a giant brown cockroach slammed into the computer screen.
Amidst the whuffles and snores of a house full of sleeping family, I had been trying to ignore the roach whirring back and forth between my screen and the nightlight over the kitchen god’s altar. When the bumbling insect brushed my shoulder and then my head, I’d had enough.
After five years in Vietnam, I was used to them, but I could never completely shake my Canadian point of view; even one cockroach is too many. When it came at me again, I ducked my head, shut down the computer and headed through the doorway that connected my in-laws’ house to mine.
I stepped over Grandmother’s legs, sprawling past the edge of her straw sleeping-mat, and slipped into my room. My husband was snoring in the faint green glow of the nightlight. I loosened one corner of the mosquito net, crawled into bed, and carefully tucked the netting under the mattress again.
As I reached for my pillow, I noticed a dark splotch on my nightshirt. The cockroach had clung to my clothes and accompanied me to bed! Stifling a yelp, I swatted at it until it fell to the blanket between me and my husband.
“Move,” I said to his one-eyed glare, “so I can brush it out of the bed.” He yanked the netting up, grabbed a handful of blanket, and gave it an angry jerk. The roach tumbled to the floor and sat there.
I’d seen two or three cockroaches on the walls each night for almost a week. Springtime in Hue brings sunny days; welcome relief from the chill and rising damp of the rainy season. The waterlogged land slowly dries, and insects, absent during the heavy rains, crawl out. With shutters rather than windows, and rafters with open spaces between them, it’s impossible to keep bugs out.
The graceful dragonflies and multihued butterflies are lovely to look at, but cockroaches are clunky, ugly and creepy. They’re so large that they make clicking and scratching noises when they move. And they fly, which they do in the same clumsy way that they crawl. I can live with them, as long as they are over there while I am over here, but the flying ones make me nervous; I don’t want one getting caught in my long hair.
I was almost asleep when a vague change in the shadows made me open my eyes to find a few dozen roaches crawling up the outside of the mosquito net, their thorny legs catching in the mesh. Another one perched on the nightlight, causing a partial eclipse.
By this time, I needed to pee. The narrow corridor between my bed and closet led into my tiny kitchen, with the bathroom to the side. Though the toilet was just a few steps away, I sat in the shelter of my bouncing, swaying mosquito net, eyeing the bugs with growing dread. Finally, I worked up the nerve to make an opening just big enough to squeeze myself out. I had to shake an intruder out of one of my sandals before slipping them on.
The hand-sized Huntsman spider that lurks in the bathroom and feeds on cockroaches had not been doing its job. The bugs were crawling in where the plumbing pipes enter the house through a damp patch of cement in the floor tiles between the shower and the toilet.
The day before, I had protested when I found my father-in-law spraying insecticide in the house. I told him it was toxic and unnecessary; there were other ways to deal with insects. But now, I grabbed the can of bug-spray from the shelf where he’d left it, and sprayed the plumbing.
Despite the poisonous stench, I slept until almost dawn, when my husband began to thrash about. A roach was crawling across his chest. More were raining from above, and the net sagged over us with the weight of their bodies. The bug spray had caused a frenzy. They were nesting somewhere along the water supply system and they must have felt trapped when I sprayed the opening. Now they were pouring into the house to escape.
I wrapped a towel around my face, seized the insecticide and blasted the plumbing entrance. The result was instant. A battalion of bugs came marching forth, moving fast at first, then slowing as the poison took hold.
I grabbed a broom to sweep the dying creatures out the front door, but as they pattered down on the pavement, they turned and crawled back in again. I swept as hard as I could, so that they hit the cement wall opposite my house, fell, and lay stunned until they died. I glanced at my watch. I was supposed to meet my tour group at 7 a.m. Roaches were still dropping from the walls and lumbering across the room.
To make matters worse, my family was preparing a cúng đất, an offering feast, and we expected 45 people to crowd our two tiny interconnected houses that afternoon. Since I couldn’t be around to help with the cooking and other tasks, I had promised to wash the floors before I left for my tour. But I had to sweep out all the bodies first. I couldn’t sweep any faster.
My sister-in-law appeared in the doorway, rumpled with sleep. Her eyes grew wide at the mess of upside down roaches, their legs scrabbling in the air. I told her I was late for my tour, and asked her for help. Shaking her head, she backed away. My husband had disappeared too, and I was alone with the bugs.
The absurdity of the situation began to sink in; the never-ending stream of bugs the size of bottle caps, surreal in the harshness of the glaring morning sun; the thought of 45 people driving up the lane, their motorbike wheels crunching roaches; the people stepping into my cockroach-carpeted house. Suddenly, instead of revulsion, I found myself stifling laughter.
* * *
Sunlight slanted sideways into our lane and the frangipani blossoms were beginning to release their fragrance by the time I returned. Four round tables and thirty-two chairs crowded the front half of my three-room house. I squeezed past them, pushed aside an ice-filled cooler blocking the door to my bedroom, and entered.
All kinds of stuff had been crammed into my rooms to make space for the tables in the front; furniture blocked the narrow corridor; my bed was barely visible under Grandmother’s pillows, blankets, sleeping mat, and clothes. What little I could see of the floor was peppered with upside-down roaches. All dead, thank goodness, but I couldn’t just leave them there.
I swept them up quickly and rushed to shower away the grime and sweat from a sweltering day spent guiding tourists in blazing sunshine. The first guests arrived as I struggled to pull my clothes on over my damp skin, shaking out each item first. The shirt I wanted to wear was buried under a pile of Grandmother’s blankets. So were more corpses.
As I grimaced and struggled, my mother-in-law called my name, and yelled for me to hurry up. I was supposed to stand outside to greet people as they arrived, and show them to their seats: Older guests at the two long tables set end to end at my in-laws’ house, and everyone else in my front room.
Once they were seated, I helped my mother-in-law serve towering platters of spring rolls, crispy chicken, and bowls of soup. Heart pounding, I finally sat down for what seemed like the first time that day.
I picked up my chopsticks, then closed my eyes to rest for a moment before I dug into the food. As if in a nightmare, patterns of roaches appeared, skittering across the backdrop of my eyelids. Only then did it occur to me that in the midst of all the bugs, the horror I would have expected to feel hadn't been there.
It was a week later that the incident almost brought me to tears when, in the midst of trying to deal with the roof leaking onto my mattress, all I could think of was the marching roaches.
published 10 December 2011