On that rubber plantation, Mr. Doig, the headmaster, had done it to boy laborers.
In the years after the Indochina War broke out in 1946, my country’s economy was a dying beast. Like the economy, the French control of the Vietnamese countryside was on the wane, slipping to the Viet Minh. Secured in French hands were the major cities and the rubber plantations, which peaked in the glorious years before the war and now showed a sharp drop in productivity when able Vietnamese laborers fled their villages and joined the Viet Minh, leaving behind only the sick and the old. Desperate for laborers, the French army raided villages and seized people regardless of sex. The captives were brought to the plantations along with prison labor and those branded Viet Minh simply because they lacked identity papers.
While I was growing up we saw or heard of people leaving their villages and heading for the “New World” where they became plantation workers. Most signed a three-year contract and half never made it home after three years from the New World slaughterhouses. Death from exhaustion was as common as the rubber trees of which workers were expected to tap a thousand daily, an inhuman quota for overworked, underfed laborers who called on their children as young as six to help them meet the mark. Ten-year-olds had their own quotas.
The boys in that rubber forest became Mr. Doig’s fountain of youth. He took each boy into his bungalow and when he was through the boy could be seen crawling out to the veranda.
I carried a knife with me to school. Years of living in rags, constantly on alert, had sharpened my sixth sense since my family’s downfall. The 12-centimeter blade was wrapped in a strip of cloth, stuck down between my belt and the waist of my shorts. At school I heard that another boy was called into Mr. Doig’s office. I smelled menace.
One afternoon I stayed after school to sweep the classrooms. It was my turn. In the afternoon quiet I could hear the sound of a tram on the street and then, after it was gone, just the dry sweeping sound of my broom. A figure went past the door, then stopped. I looked up toward the door, saw Mr. Doig looking in. He filled the doorway. I could see his profuse kinky chest hair framed by his open-necked white shirt. He was popping raisins into his mouth.
I could smell the foul air in the room. It came from my brain.
He crooked a finger, wiggled it at me. “Viens ici!” Then he pointed toward the teachers’ meeting room a door up. All the classrooms were doorless except that room.
Suddenly everything came to a dead still. My motion to lean the broom against the wall felt disconnected from my body. I walked past him, smelled his oppressive sweat, heard the smacking of his lips as he chewed, and kept walking until I went through the door of the meeting room. I could feel numbness in my neck. Then I heard his footsteps from behind. Then the door clicked shut. The shuttered window glimmered, the air still, tainted with cigarette odors. In the center of the room sat a long table flanked with low-backed chairs.
Suddenly I felt his hand on my back as I was pushed. My belly hit the table’s edge.
“Enlève tes pantalons!”
I put my hand on the belt buckle of my shorts. I could hear him unsnapping his. I could hear myself stop breathing. I held the wad of cloth that sheathed my knife in my left hand, the clothed knife blade pressed against my belly. It felt cold as my shorts dropped to the floor. Then I smelled his strong sweat just as his overpowering frame was on top of me. His hand now grabbed the back of my head, pushed it down. His other hand parted my buttocks. His manhood was an intruding eel on them. My arm swung backward. I felt the knife go into his groin. It went in like piercing a slab of meat. The impact brought a sudden grunt. The hand that grabbed my head slipped away, came to rest on my shoulder, then I felt it gone. I sidled, tripped over my shorts heaping around my ankles. I looked at him, my hand gripping the back of a chair. He stood, half naked, grabbing the knife’s handle sticking out from his groin. Blood was dripping down his groin in rivulets, matting the kinky hair on his thighs. Quickly I pulled up my shorts. Tottering, he began to slump. I could hear a squish as he hit the floor. I looked down at him, my soul gone gray with a feeling neither evil nor sad. I watched him. His head dropped, he sat holding the knife’s handle and blood now pooled darkly inside the seat of his trousers.