The woman said she was looking for her son.
This was after Mr. Lee, cigarette seller and realtor to the western valley, looked her up and down. Up and down again at his tiny notebook of listings, a pinching eye on her meanwhile. After he walked her down the dirt road and turned irritably at a narrow path, past a farmhouse where a man dangled from the open doorway, waving them over. He was Han and badly disfigured after farmers clubbed him with tools handy once they found out his handling of skinny girls. “He can’t move right,” said Mr. Lee, “but run the other way if he comes after,” and then pointed to another house, this one further back and nestled at the base of a mountain. Empty except for the dog that waited for his dead owner and he told her she could kill it or eat it or keep it. He asked if she needed help with anything else and she was gazing at the back-to-back mountains. “You should say yes and no when someone asks you a question,” he said and advised, lastly, that this was a place unused to interruptions. Her back turned to the many eyes on her, she walked the rest of the way to her new home, Han yelling out lonely things at her though she didn’t look over once.
Long after the school let out and the woman surfaced from the woods behind it, filthy and dragging that shovel everyone kept talking about, it was Grandma Song who asked the newcomer her deal. The valley was settling and the woman said she was looking for her son.
“How did you get here?” asked Grandma Song. “No one saw you getting off the bus.”
The woman unfolded a piece of paper, a worn map of penciled trails. “This way and that,” she said, “but mostly I walked.”
She was pretty enough to be the third prettiest in the valley but with restless, proud eyes that could mean different things to different people.
“What happened to your son?”
“I can’t have him thinking I’m not searching like I should,” the woman said, and, according to Grandma Song, who confused the loopy characters of her own name but drew easy sense of the world beyond the mountains, the woman began to weep. And with it Grandma Song was overcome with a gladness at the decency of the woman’s suffering. Likely she saw her own sorrow reflected, which is how things get hospitable too fast. From afar, Grandma Song’s brushing dirt from the woman’s hair appeared not at all unexceptional.
The women fussed a bad premonition and Grandma Song said a limping dog is a dog, isn’t it? “You shock an old woman,” she said, “all over again.” What could they do but fake submission, returning to their fields, scolding their children’s sloppy arithmetic, scissoring dried squid, fanning themselves under absolute skies while waiting for their husbands to return from the gambling room, all the while trying to ignore the newcomer, her out-of-place face and the shovel like a third leg.
The valley was likened to a waterbody because the land rose and fell. Tides of potatoes and cabbages wrinkled against the mountains that hugged the valley once around. Over the mountains, there were more mountains, each one covered with long-limbed pines like the fine hairs on a newborn’s head. Folks believed in the movability of mountains. They spoke of winter mornings when they woke up to find the mountains had switched places like they were bored with the selfsame view. Farmers the color of earth looked to them when they tired of looking down. The same farmers who years ago as young men admired their own land for a long time, straining to figure out what it wanted them to know.
Here was mostly a straightforward existence. What mattered was rain and everything else was trees and mountains and the soughs through the trees in the mountains signaling the day’s end. From a mountain peak, the fray of surrounding cities could be studied if the mist hung higher but no one bothered the distance up. Other than a few marked trails, there was no order in the woods. North of the mountain range was a ski resort. On this side were fields and a small town at the eastern end. The school was at the base of a steep mountain whose only access was through a trail behind the school.
Everyone called each other neighbor. Everyone knew how many spoons each household had. Because even in the farthest reach of the country, you were part of a society.
They got to calling her the childless mother because that’s what she was. First in reference, then in address, finally retiring to just Childless, which the woman responded to without unease as though it were a lost nickname from childhood.
The first days, when Childless went down on fours to look beneath trucks, a few farmers joined in. They were looking, they assumed, for something like a child. Some of the women handed her barley tea, a boiled potato on her way to one of the mountains. She said thank you and disappeared into the thick of sizeable trees. Before sundown, she appeared from a different point from the one she entered, beaten and dirty, always with wildflowers she delivered to Grandma Song. It was Farmer Song, Grandma Song’s dead husband, who used to pick the wildflowers for her even after he started up another family over the mountains on all those trips delivering cabbage. By the time Grandma Song found him drinking sugared water with his second wife and second child, her own son was three, sucking his thumb at her heaving chest. The commonness of these betrayals didn’t make the hurt any less unbearable and on her way back through the mountains, she set the child on the soil and lifted a rock over his head. Something in her brought the rock rushing down but some other thing knocked her down with it, so that the edge of the rock only grazed the child’s forehead. Farmer Song kept his second family around and Grandma Song had leaky eyes in the mornings, but the farm was kept and they had another son.
Childless leaned her shovel against the brick wall. She stringed the wildflowers and hung them next to a framed photo of Farmer Song. She scrubbed the stones that kept down the flimsy tarps from winds. Under diminishing light, the two salted cabbage in large basins, Grandma Song telling stories of her sons living in the city or singing a song about a place where a spotted cow hums and the world around him is every kind of blue.
It made sense, said Grandma Song, that a childless mother be distracted with children.
The school was an aging building barely filled. Marriageable girls fled for modern lives and who was left but grandmothers with what some called yellow-drop eyes and their sons, the farmers who inherited land and died alone unless they ordered wives by calling the number written on the banner that said Vietnamese Girls Who Never Run Away. They arrived in twos and threes, in glittered jeans, some of them with pretty smiles and all of them very small. The half-Vietnamese babies were tied to their mothers’ backs and toddlers were left under trees where they could play without rolling into the fields. At the school were few children and fewer teenagers. The oldest ones taught the youngest ones on account of not enough teachers. So two days a week in the library next door to Woodworks, Childless dusted books and scrubbed the floor and read to the occasional visitor. During playtimes, she accompanied the little ones around the schoolyard that swelled to join the mountain behind. Their fingers caught in her hair as she turned from child to child, memorizing their names. Once, a teacher found Childless up in a tree, staring down at all of them like it was her kingdom.
They went searching for bugs. The children wore plastic containers around their necks. They circled index fingers to attract dragonflies, catching their wings with two fingers like scissors. They crouched amidst shoulder-high weeds and looked for grasshoppers, beetles, fire ants, the occasional spider. When rain left behind watery holes, they took off their shoes and socks to catch tadpoles in between toes. The plastic containers showed the day’s catch. Childless was so proud of their collections. “Would you look at this?” she asked the teacher. “How talented?”
There was a man in the schoolyard pulling a cart full of frogs to sell. After school, the kids went to him and fingered the frogs. They tried to squeeze out the frogs’ eyes, pull off their legs. Childless watched from the library window. She watched as a boy grabbed two fistfuls of frogs and shoved them inside his pockets. He looked to his left, right, and began to march off when a shoe caught his ankle and he was tripped, the frogs leaping parabolas into hidden corners.
The frog seller picked up the boy by the neck of his shirt. “What’s this?” he asked. “What scoundrel is this?”
Boys pointed and laughed. Girls giggled into their palms. The escaped frogs hopped back as if to join in on the scorn. A smirk spread across the man’s face and the boy was hoisted onto the cart, his bottom wedged between its handle and body. The frogs and the boy were pushed along the easterly path that turned into a gaping road down the center of town. Childless followed behind, pausing here and there in case she was too fast.
The rest of the children guided the frog seller to the boy’s home, one of the brick ones. When the mother opened the door, she reddened as if sensing humiliation. The frog seller shoved the boy forward. He said, “This boy of yours stole my frogs, he’s a thief.”
Heads poked out from opened windows. Boys whistled for others to look down on the street. The mother’s face changed from red to white in a matter of a half-blink. She thrust out a handful of bills to the frog seller, who replaced the boy back on his stoop.
Long after the frog seller covered his frogs and disappeared into the gambling room, the boy remained fallen with a face too big to hide behind his hands. From behind the crowd where she remained half-hidden, Childless knelt and prayed. Some passing mothers damned the mother’s instincts and yelled for her to let the boy in. Some others said a needle thief becomes a cow thief and let the boy learn his lesson. All the while, more neighbors closed in on the boy-scoundrel with rushed steps. As if there had been a great fire. As if all that mattered was to catch glimpses before everything was gutted and peace was restored.
Childless stepped out before sunrise. Despite summer’s coming, the chill was alarming like a strange hand on your neck. The chained dog wagged his tail and she poured leftovers into his bowl and patted him on the head. She raised the shovel to her shoulder and headed down the narrow stretch that connected her house first to Han’s, then the main road.
Han was waiting, the working part of him reaching for her. He called her Pretty Childless and asked how come she didn’t pity him like she should because they were two ducks choking on the same ocean water. He asked to touch her face. Sometimes he waited for her sprawled on the path but with a blanket covering up the wrecked part of him. When she walked past, he said she was spitting at the only face smiling at her. His tongue was strange so the words rolled oddly in the space around him. People said he bit his tongue when a ghost kicked his head as he was cornering a little girl inside a shed.
The farmers, too, were making their way to their fields. One clicked her tongue and said, “Childless, the world is moving forward and so should you.” Childless waved and headed to the trail behind the school.
She took different routes, new turns. Sometimes she got lost and traced back, starting again from the beginning. She hiked up the spine of the mountain using the shovel as a crutch. When she reached a point indicated by her map, she commenced digging. She stopped only to take a swig of tea and a bite of potato when she felt weak. Otherwise, she worked all day long, leaving child-sized pockets all over the earth. Once in a while, a farmer glimpsed her drifting through the occasional relief in the cluster of trees. But it was momentary and you would never have known she was there, turning the land inside out.
On the hottest day of the year, one of the three dog days, a group of boys snuck out of school to watch Mr. Lee beat the dog. Heat twisted the air and farmers took off their shirts, squinting. The dog was hung by its feet and jerked until Mr. Lee switched shoulders. The women prepared the pot of boiling water. The children scored small bowlfuls after the farmers had their share and ate under the shade of a tilting tree. It was one of the hottest hottest days anyone could remember.
Their stamina restored, the men returned to the fields. The women washed dishes and exchanged excuses for when their husbands would come sweating for them that night. “No point,” said Grandma Song when the women listed things like bleeding and squeezing it shut. “A man’s youth never dies unless he kills himself,” she said.
The children played with the bones until being yelled back to school. They sauntered down the road, yelling out dirty words and picking up pebbles. In Han’s yard, they threw the pebbles hard at his door, a couple of them breaking the paper and landing inside. Once Han pulled himself out, cussing with his severed tongue, the boys ran away calling him pervert. They crept to Childless’ yard, the dog barking hysterically as if smelling their lunch on their breaths.
The place was bare. One room was completely empty, and the other had folded blankets, a small duffel, and clothes hanging on hooks. They only looked at first, and then a boy took off his shoes to survey inside. But before he could, Han came crawling on his elbows, hauling his mangled legs and carrying a rapier.
They ran back to the school, the one boy clutching his shoes. He recalled later of seeing the boy-scoundrel behind the school then, standing with his legs apart, bent forward. He was playing the game where you looked back between your legs and now everything you saw was standing on its head. The tree trunk reaching the sky, feet beating about the air. “Maybe somebody was making him laugh,” the boy answered when asked why the boy-scoundrel would be laughing so heartily.
Soon after the hottest day of the year, in the month of July, rain fell. Childless brought the dog inside, away from the rain. She set out for her searches in poncho and rain boots.
It was one of those things that made you think that whatever was going to happen had begun. Grandma Song said it was the collective sin of the valley.
After the boy-scoundrel went missing, his mother was kept in the flat hospital with a green cross on the window. She escaped one night and grabbed the few boys out playing and turned their faces in her hands. She pinned down neighbors, yelling, “Where did you take him?” She fell on her knees and again on her elbows, lodged in the mud. Her own neighbors closed in on her. Hair windswept, she looked like a bonfire burning at the heart of a mob.
The boy had been due in Woodworks where the third graders outfitted birdcages. When he didn’t show up by the next hour, the teacher sent the girls to look for him but they came back empty handed. By evening, stories came forward from and beyond the valley. He was seen drawing circles near Mr. Lee’s. He was seen swimming in the creek. He was seen balancing on a log with two plump fists in the air. He was seen trailing the frog seller in the next town over. He was seen sitting on the bench at the bus stop and then getting on the bus. He was seen knocking on his own door. He was seen counting coins to buy a bean bun at the marketplace. He was seen reading a book in the library. He was seen, chuckling like an old man, in the air-conditioned movie theatre in a city fifty kilometers away.
The valley was torn apart. The fields were walked row by row by farmers and volunteers and expert searchers called in from the city. Empty farmhouses were scoured and the lived-in ones were also searched. They found the rapier and a sickle for reaping at Han’s and left as soon as they could despite Han’s begging them to hear his story. Nothing unusual was found at Childless’ except for a few spare shovels.
Once the valley was exhausted, the searchers moved on to the mountains. Childless guided the team through unrecognizable trails, a few falling now and then into one of her rain-filled holes. They stepped on the white feces of wild dogs that had eaten the bones of other animals. Raccoons jumped on their faces. They combed the mountains left to right, up and down. The rain pounded over them like rocks. It slashed everything before their eyes.
Down in the valley, under dripping roofs, the women looked up at the dim peaks and waited for someone else to point a finger at Childless. They asked who in the valley would be tempted to steal a son? Who? They shook their heads and shrugged because even a fish wouldn’t get into trouble if it kept its mouth shut. Only in the security of their stone kitchens did they yell out Childless! Childless! Childless of course! and rued the day she appeared out of nowhere dragging that shovel of hers. It must’ve been the rain that muffled the curses of the women because by morning, each of them looked the part of distressed mother as she chanted good luck to Childless who led the troop back into the mountains.
For days after the boy-scoundrel went missing, there were good intentions piling at the front door of his brick home. Bouquets of flowers, handmade quilts, twin puppies, a large sack of rice. The mother, upon returning from the hospital, sliced open the heavy rice sack and poured out the grains. The puppies were let loose in the rain. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing unfamiliar. Everything in its place in case the boy returned in the middle of the night. “Don’t you see?” she said to herself. “The place needs to be recognizable even to the sleepiest of eyes.”
Perversely, the rain broke as soon as the search was called off. No one knew exactly how much of the mountains they had covered, but what remained was too discouraging for a likely dead child they didn’t know. Childless emerged last from the mountains and made her way to Grandma Song’s.
Swatting away flies, under torn awnings, burning trash, spreading grains on tarps, stretching their backs, planting green onions, mothers shielded their sons from Childless. The small ones they hid in between their legs. The larger ones they ushered behind stone pots. As Childless approached, they whistled a tune or shaded their foreheads like something else was catching their eyes. When finally she walked by, they cried, “Poor Childless, is there anything we can do?”
Farmers returned to their daily tasks, but not without a wary eye at the give and take of life. A few of the mothers got to picking up their sons after school or otherwise equipped them with sharp tools. They got the fathers to shake off their belts if the sons stayed out after sundown.
All anyone could talk about was the missing boy and then, all of a sudden, it passed. Days collapsed into an identical one. But if you looked closer, there was a shift to the ways of things. It was in the winds that arrived earlier and more pronounced. The valley was the valley but it was exposed. The mountains long believed to keep out dangers were trapping them in. It was the first time in the history of the valley that you didn’t know what was going on at your neighbors’. It was exceptional, how things got so quiet.
Grandma Song aged in the wake of the tragedy, unable to tend her land or listen without falling asleep. She blamed herself, as if the fleeting moment in the mountain so long ago had forever set the valley on a course of childless mothers and missing sons. She was lost when not telling her stories to others, so Childless listened. When she got to crying, Childless encouraged her to listen to the birds until she felt better.
Inside the boy’s room were things untouched. The strewn shades of crayons, the stethoscope in miniature, socks flipped inside and out. The mother stood outside the room. She said his name over and over, as though to remind herself that it belonged to someone real.
“I have your son!” the boys yelled at her door. “Come get him!”
When a note was slipped underneath the doorway, she knew it was a lie. She could hear the boys scurry away. She could picture them hiding, waiting for her, some dumb furious woman. She told herself this. She knew it well. Still, she opened the note that marked the white bone pine – the oldest tree in the valley – on the trail behind the school. A spot, like all other spots, that had been checked countless times before.
She hurried out dragging a thick rope like her guts spilling. The boys ran after. The pale tree as she approached from the side was an upside down triangle like the ribs of a fan reaching up. She double-knotted the end of the rope and threw it up at the crowded pine needles, scaring away a host of birds. She did it over and over again until the needles were stripped and the sky opened up. She succumbed and moved on to nearby trees. For some time, all you could hear was the swoosh of the rope, the thud of its landing. Swoosh. Thud. Swoosh. Thud. The stunned birds alighted from tree to tree, waiting for her to finish.
Calls for sons reached the woods and one by one the boys hurried home. Except for the one they called Jin, a sweaty-faced boy often chased because he was too quick with his feelings. He was there when the mother yelled out from the pain, her shoulder nearly displaced from the continuous impact. He was there when she dropped her head, too tired to drop entirely to the ground. The day was blackening and he was there when finally she turned to leave.
“I knew your boy,” he said. He stared down at his shoe, jabbing dirt. “He was a good runner.”
It was as if he wanted to be held so tightly, her fingers digging into his skin. As if he wanted to be shaken, he didn’t even squirm. Just his eyes were something else.
“Do you know?” she asked.
His feet dangled in the air. “I don’t know,” he said.
When she dropped him, his skin remained dipped at each press of the finger.
After her husband refused to sell his land, Linh Truong stole his gambling money and took her son to Vietnam. The husband called the number on the banner to demand money back but the business was something else now. A few farmers with small enough boys sold their shares to a land developer and moved to flat lands at lower altitudes where people spoke on cellular phones and ate at restaurants with forks. The developer had been keen on building a resort with both water slides and ski slopes in the middle of the valley’s tremendous panorama. He bought off lands from farmers who didn’t have sons but a while back decided their lives too punishing. The resort was to be called White Bone Pine, even though the real white bone pine was promptly felled. It didn’t happen overnight, but at some point the school was shut down and the few remaining children bused to school in the next town over or joined the developer’s construction crew.
There were large pits and tall weeds and debris where cabbages and potatoes used to grow. Mr. Lee went out of business but boasted of going to live with his daughter in the city, though word was that his daughter kicked him out and he was selling gum at a subway station. Grandma Song sold her land on the condition that she be allowed to die in her farmhouse, in the same room, on the same blanket and pillow that Farmer Song had died. She was clearly dying, her body was. Her mind was lucid most of the time and she managed to sit outside, though only a few minutes each day because if anyone took to heart what was happening to the valley, it was Grandma Song.
The thing holding up the developer was a crucial piece of land owned by Han. Cars packed with men arrived at his yard weekly, but he refused with rapier ready. Once he flung his full latrine at their approaching. Who knew if it was real love, but morning after morning, Han dangled from his doorway yelling for Childless. He didn’t sprawl on the path or get foul anymore but was prone to wiping away tears when she walked past. He promised to keep the developers from shaving off the mountains until she found her son. All he wanted in return was her pity.
Childless entered a point in the mountains marked on her map. She appeared at the end of the day from a different point from the one she entered, carrying wildflowers she stringed and hung next to the photograph of Farmer Song. She spoon-fed Grandma Song and listened to her stories until the old woman fell asleep. Only to Childless did the days carry on as before, every one else left over either dying or drunk or plotting an escape. When one day she surfaced from the mountain followed by the boy-scoundrel’s mother dragging the rope like her guts spilling, no one bothered to take notice. Except Grandma Song who clapped her hands, glad that Childless had finally found a friend.