by Hong-My Basrai
At my aunt’s place where we lived, the trick to avoid mosquitoes for bedfellows was to sleep netted. But despite the extra precautions we took to minimize our movement in and out of the net once it was hung and tucked, these bloodsuckers still kept us miserable company some nights.
Preferring exotic flesh, they hardly sampled our stale blood. No! It was a game they wanted with us, or a choreographed dance among themselves. Who knew? But once entrapped, their frenetic activities turned our cozy night quarter into an ear-drilling chamber of torture, their winged music tuned to zees, zooms, and zoots.
Poor Ma! She, who was accustomed to sleeping alone on a four-poster, queen-sized bed with cushioned mattress, suffered the most. Even in the isolated and luxurious privacy of her bedroom suite, she often called one of us in to knead and thump her back until drowsiness overtook both, beginning with the masseuse, whose eyes drooped first, then hand, then head then soul, one by one softly departed, and finally, perhaps, the insomniac. On her stressful days, massage therapies offered by our tiny fingers alone would be insufficient. She would pop a white, round pill tinier than my pinkie’s nail with “Valium” imprinted on it. In this makeshift bedroom with sleeping nets strung with strings crisscrossed from all walls, with six bodies lying side by side like floor planks, my mother was a prisoner of circumstance whose ribs endured sharp, straying elbows and whose belly felt, occasionally, the probes of wandering toes. Mere layers of thin nets could not serve the same purpose as brick walls to protect her from her creeping, crawling, giggling litter. Already the floor was too hard for her back, but turning right and she would meet the nose of my father and his loud snores. Turning left, she was face-to-feet with my little sister, who said, “Who wouldn’t prefer the direction of the open balcony?” but ruefully, she admitted she would rather forgo the fresh, cool air than having to stare into the scary white of Ma’s eyes when she tossed and turned, sleep-deprived.
On that particular night, slumber complication aside, I could tell my mother was having her mosquito moment. Her clapping, first soft, became louder, then furiously louder and faster.
Then, I heard my younger brother, Patrick, whisper, “Let me.”
The syncopated applause multiplied; the sound they produced distinctively emitted by two different sets of palms. The palms with larger and thicker pads gave out sonorous, fleshy claps. The other pair, being smaller, made snappier, jollier clacks, like the snapping of firecrackers or the clapping of a child overtaken by mirth.
In the moonlight, their shadowy figures jumped left and right in pursuit of the elusive winged creatures, my mother on her knees, and Patrick stooping lightly to avoid touching the top of the net, which merest movement would cause the stationary mosquito to flutter away. Then, my two younger sisters woke and started to giggle. My mother kept shushing them, her breathy undertone emphasizing each word, “Quiet! Mind the neighbors.”
I could tell her notoriously hot temper was fast rising, but in the quiet night, she could not raise her voice for fear of alerting the neighbors. You see, in a communist country like Vietnam, you are required to obtain a permit to stay overnight at someone’s place. But since we were just released from jail for trying to escape our country and were planning to escape again, we thought it would be wiser to avoid the government’s radar and remain in hiding like Anne Frank’s family.
We were pretty smart that way, as smart as these mosquitoes, who knew enough to make the best use of our net for their own protection. The devils danced close to the surface of the net wall so that our hands could never sneak up to them without giving the sheer fabric a slightest movement, as light as a breath, signaling them to flee. Even when they landed, the operation was proven too delicate. But Patrick, being the smarter of our bunch, proposed, “Let’s try this way.”
He lifted the net and tiptoed out. In a muffled tone–as if he was afraid that the mosquitoes would listen in, he instructed Ma: “Whenever it lands, on the count of three, I’ll hit it from this side and you from in there. You know, like a game of pat-a-cake, to squish them.”
How ingenious! My mother consented quickly. It showed how desperate she was for sleep.
“Okay, Ma. Get set,” my brother said, “One, two, three. Go!”
Again, one, two, three. Clap. Missed again.
Uniquely creative as it was, I could see his method for mosquito eradication didn’t work. However, my mother, normally so serious, was intense on my brother’s counts of three like a child in a game of coordination. Kneeling with her right palm facing outward, she focused to smack her boy’s palm instead of his face, as she normally would in such a temper. It was beyond me, and I rolled with a guffaw I could not suppress.
The whole room erupted into uncontrollable laughter.
The following night, the police came knocking. They led away my dad. Shocked, my aunt told Ma, “Thank goodness you all are here with me. How awful it would be for me otherwise.” Aunty dabbed her eyes, visibly shaken by the would-be consequence, although I guessed it wrong, I realized, as she went on. “Imagine what the neighbors are going to say, with me and him … a widow with a man under my bed in the dead of night.”
She shivered as Ma’s eyes brimmed over with tears, patiently waiting. Aunty added accusingly, “He was so clumsy. They spotted him right away with his butt sticking up. How could he, with that big belly of him. Oh I don’t know what’s going to become of me now that they found out. I’d lose the roof over my head for your sake. You shouldn’t have come here.”
Ma listened to her lamentation with a ghostly pale face, excusing effusively for the trouble we caused. She promised we would move out as soon as we could find another place to go to, or another boat. “God will reward you a thousand folds, my dear sister-in-law,” she said, desperately trying to appease my aunt.
“Just until my husband returns,” Ma continued. “We’ll leave as soon as we could have him back.”
Then she broke down completely, bending over sobbing, sobbing.
Damn the bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Because of them, a night of laughter had turned into a night of tears.