Memories of Leng
Disclaimer: I do not own anything. All (or most) of the material contained herein belongs to either Howard Philip Lovecraft or August Derleth. Delta Green (such as it is) belongs to Pagan Publishing. And for concepts that come later in the story... well, creatures of legend that can totally freeze a person's brain have always had their place in the public domain, but Peter S. Beagle deserves credit for his take on the kind that inspire beatific rapture instead of gibbering terror.
Summary: Joseph Clayton always suspected that Marie Trinh was hiding something about her family, but never knew what it was. When he finally finds out what... well, the first step on the road to enlightenment is often quite a doozy. Then, the question becomes what to do with that enlightened knowledge.
Authors Note: There will be Lovecraftian horror in this story, after a fashion. However, there will also be humour and wonder and quite some affection. There will also be aspects more apropos to a Howardian barbarian story or a Burroughs Englishman than to the academics that Lovecraft sometimes wrote about: bravery, sacrifice (in more ways than one) and familiarity even in the most unlikely of places.
Glaston, upper Worcester Co., Massachusetts (roughly analogous to Gardner)
October 27, 2007.
An autumnal chill descended upon the streets of Glaston as the young man walked upon the concrete sidewalk, passing redbrick storefronts and shop windows, every surface still wet with the morning rain. Leaves, red and orange and each vibrant in their hue, were shaken loose from the trees lining the street by the wind, landing wherever they fell. For an instant in time, the spectacle of the leaves drew the attention of the man, in fact little more than a teenage boy, as he made his way toward the corner. However, Joseph Clayton, clad in bluejeans and jacket with a backpack slung from his shoulders, had far more important things to focus on than a show of falling leaves. An important test for this semester was arriving in a week or so and he needed to study.
Also, he was getting quite hungry this close to lunch.
As Joseph rounded the corner and continued toward his favorite eatery, he wondered if he would get swamped in the usual lunch crowd. However, as he saw the front of the Leng Trinh Restaurant, his thoughts turned to quiet dejection.
"Damnit!" muttered Joseph as he approached the eatery. The reason for this turn in mood was the carpet of tempered glass fragments on the sidewalk below the picture window at the front of the establishment, which was now covered by plastic sheeting. Thuch Van Trinh, one half of the husband-and-wife ownership, was wearing a plaid jacket over his apron and usual cooking clothes and was shoveling the broken glass into a bucket. "Hey, Mr. Trinh, how's it going?". Joseph asked with a smile. This was more false cheer than anything, as Joseph could guess how Thuch must be feeling: anger was always a popular choice, followed closely by worry about the reason why.
Despite what he must have been feeling, Thuch Van Trinh grinned back, the black lines of his facial tattooing creasing as the muscles moved under his cheeks. "Not so good, Mr. Clayton. If this keeps up, I may have to put in Plexiglas so that the window won't break." The Trinhs accents, as his parents and the other adults of the town told it, had been rather strong (even unusually so) when they had immigrated to Glaston from their first home in Boston. This had usually been waved off by their purported origins in the remote hills on the Vietnam-Laos border, seemingly collaborated by how their teeth had been dyed black. On the other hand, given their rural roots, their speed in adapting local speech patterns so that they now sounded more like second generation Americans (and especially their daughter's complete lack of any accent except the local standard) did make for a puzzling situation. However, for their ease of assimilation and the food they served, they had become well-liked in the community.
So why were things like this happening to them recently? "How many times does this make this month; two, three?" Joseph had to ask this, wondering if things were worse than he thought.
"It's happened three times already, this time not more than an hour ago. Thanh wants to install security cameras to watch the place and with how small and cheap they are now, I think we just might." An hour ago? They'd smashed a picture window in broad daylight? Who in town could be that stupid or that angry? Josephs train of thought was broken then, when Thuch said something of much more interest to the younger man. "By the way, if you're looking for Marie, she's helping her mother in the kitchen. Even without a window we seem to be doing good business." Thuch went back to his work and Joseph, not wanting to delay any longer, entered the restaurant.
Just as Thuch had said, Leng Trinh still had it's usual busy lunchtime crowd, albeit one that was concentrated near the back wall. Picking his way around tables packed with diners, Joseph finally arrived at a table set for two, a 'reserved' sign upon it. Removing his backpack and laying it beside a chair, he sat down, shuffled off his coat and went to bury his nose in the menu.
It always felt a bit odd to Joseph, eating in an ethnic restaurant where none of the diners were the same ethnicity as the cooks, or even from the same part of the world. However, none of it mattered when the food was as good as it was here.
"Now then, what would a fine, upstanding New England boy like yourself want in a place like this?" The voice that asked this was soft, amused, female and had an almost mocking tone. It also had the accent of the New England uplands. To Joseph, it could only be one person.
"The same thing I always get here." He answered dryly before looking up from the menu. There, holding a pad of paper and a pen, was teenage girl with almond-shaped eyes, shoulder length black hair with green streaks, a cooking apron and an amused grin. "Hi Marie... you sure your mom's alright with you waitressing this crowd?"
"We've got enough help in the kitchen already and Dad's coming in after all the glass is cleaned up." She glanced up at the window, plastic sheet and all, after she wrote his order down. "I just wish we knew who was doing this. If we don't get someone else to cough up some money, our insurance company might go sour on us." Marie went back to the kitchen to get the food for both of them.
Ten minutes later, she was laying out two place settings of food that had been prepared ahead of time. "Alright, that's two plates of grilled pork on beds of Leng-style rice, your dish of steamed green beans with soy sauce for dipping, my bowl of soup and two cans of soda." They'd eat lunch before studying, with Joseph paying the tab for both of them.
If anyone asked, it wasn't a date. Not in the strictest sense, anyway.
"What, no bak bon dzhow?" Asked Joseph, decidedly disappointed at the apparent lack of the special ingredient.
To this, Marie moved a small earthen bowl from the serving tray onto the table and lifted the lid to reveal a thick gray sauce containing mushrooms and cracked black pepper. "Would I be one to deny you the gravy of the gods?" She asked (rhetorically) with a soft smile; Joseph couldn't help but smile back as he cracked the tab on his soda and began on his green beans.
A bit later, when his beans were gone and Marie had almost finished her soup, Joesph began formulating a question that related to a curious thought that had sprung up earlier. "Not to sound like a nag or anything, but I'm just curious but what was all that 'upstanding' stuff about?" The only time he had ever heard anyone talk like that was...
Marie swallowed the last bits of her soup. "Oh, I don't know. Maybe It's that I had no idea that the son of insurance brokers had such deep and aristocratic roots? Maybe it's that I was surprised to find out that the Clayton's had come not from hardy New England farming stock as I had assumed, but from the urbane, wealthy ranks of those grand Brahmins of Boston? I'm sure Granny Cora could tell some fascinating stories about the old days; she sure seemed interested in mine." If anything, Marie took the entire thing in stride, treating both the memory of the experience and the experience itself with a a great deal of interested amusement. Certainly, mocking the type of language she had encountered was almost cracking her up.
Joseph, on the other hand, had first felt bemusement at the scene in which the Clayton family reunion of the past summer had found itself, quickly turning into outright embarrassment. "Look, I'm sorry that I didn't tell you about her, but everybody thought that she wouldn't be able to come due to health concerns. It's not my fault that a half-senile, 97 year old woman worked up enough stubbornness to drag her nurse halfway across the state!".
"I never said anything about anyone being at fault. I just thought it was an interesting revelation about your family." She had meant her cajoling in good humour, but Josephs defensiveness and embarrassment were never good emotions to bring out. "Anyway, most people would be proud to have the Boston gentry in their family history: industrialists, merchants, art, culture, philanthropy, charity..." With every word, Marie spooned a bit of ban boc dzhow onto her grilled pork.
"As well as whaling, slave trading, opium smuggling, snobbery and having your entire life guided by the expectations of your peers; exactly the sorts of things my parents taught me to loathe. The thing is, my great-great-grandmother came from a very select, very privileged and lily-white background; I was worried that she'd... well, react oddly to you." Joseph retorted as he began spooning (or rather, pouring) the sauce onto his meat after Marie had finished with it and passed it to him. In the case of Cora Clayton (nee Coffin), Josephs fear hadn't primarily been that she would find Marie objectionable on account of her race since that prejudice had been more ingrained in her parents generation than hers. His fear had instead been that his great great grandmother, as self-proclaimed guardian of the old, aristocratic traditions, might object to their relationship because the Trinhs were restaurateurs with no history of pedigree, education or money behind them.
In Cora's world (the 1920s, where her mind was half the time), heirs had married heiresses, families had coordinated their fortunes and everyone had kept an eye on everyone else; these were rules of decorum that had lasted for her long after the Claytons had gone bust in the great Crash of '29. The fact that she had taken Joseph aside and explained her concerns to him had done nothing to soothe his embarrassment, although he had finally convinced her that, being naturalized citizens with a successful restaurant, the Trinhs were firmly in the middling classes. She had also estimated that said restaurant, with no other inheritors besides Marie, would most likely pass into Clayton hands in the fullness of time.
No one had dared explain to her the differences between modern teenage dating and the genteel courtships of her youth.
"I don't think she reacted that oddly. Sure, she was so out of date that you had to explain that I meant 'French Indochina' when I said that my parents came from Vietnam and she did seem a bit too fascinated with my families origins and, alright, it was weird hearing someone actually use the word 'courting' without trying to be funny. However, it was kind of nice to speak French with someone in this town after all the time my parents invested in me learning it." Marie knew that while it had been terrifying for Joseph, having to put up with his relatives dissection of his relationship and fearing disapproval, she herself had enjoyed a chance to see if the old stereotypes were true. When it had become clear to Marie that the elderly woman was not about to spew racial epitaphs at her but was, indeed, fascinated as to her families background, Marie had made it a point to 'ham it up' in telling their story.
To an entranced Cora Clayton, Marie had described her parents lives before emigration as a subsistence existence in a village high up in the fog-choked mountain passes. She had woven scenes of her people worshiping strange, heathen gods far from the civilized lands of the Buddha and partaking in ghastly rituals to ensure harvests of rice from narrow mountainside terraces. She told the old woman that her parents had tired of such a life and had dreamed of something more, something in the wider world glimpsed in third-hand magazines and radio broadcasts.
After receiving a dispensation from their village shaman to leave (but promising to sent back remittances), they had made their way to Hanoi and then to Boston and finally to Glaston where, having never truly given up the more religious and symbolic aspects of their heathenish past, they nevertheless had made good names for themselves in the community. Marie had made sure that her prose had been both lurid and exotic so as to fully entrance a child of the Age of Empire as well as making proper use of tone, whether enraptured, casual or deathly serious, to emphasize mood. The end result was to make it sound as if her culture wasn't just some rural outlet of modern Vietnam or Laos, but as if it was truly unlike any other in the world.
That was an opinion that Joseph was also rapidly adopting.
They ate in relative silence for a while, the bustle of the lunch crowd beginning to die down as people left, many of them stopping to talk to Mr. Trinh at the till, expressing their concern over what had happened with the window. They were just about half done when Joseph began another conversation. "So, did you know that there's a 'Heritage Day' coming up at school in a few weeks?"
"Yeah, and?" Deep down in her gut, Marie was beginning to get a slightly worried feeling from the direction this conversation was going. This pretty much happened whenever the subject of her parent's past came up but, like so many times before, she could probably bluff her way through it.
"I thought that, maybe, we could do something for it. I was thinking about dredging up something from Normandy because I didn't want to clog up the schedule with another variation of British regional culture." It sounded perfectly innocent, but Marie knew that this was a potentially tricky situation that might require misdirection, a convincing excuse and possible outright lying.
She hated lying to Joseph.
"Alright then. You can do that, I'll do the Vietnamese thing and we'll knock 'em all dead." She answered with an enthusiasm that she hoped had betrayed nothing of her growing unease with the conversation. This seemed to provoke nothing but a non-committal murmur of agreement and thus, thinking that that was over with, she began eating again.
However, that was not the end of it.
"By Vietnamese, do you mean the standard culture from around Hanoi... or the culture from your parent's home village?" Joseph asked, seemingly as if only for the purpose of clarification. There was much more behind it though, and whether it was just ingrained paranoia or any real danger of exposure, Marie knew that this was entering onto some very tenuous and potentially very dangerous ground. Still, the subject had to be breached.
"Aren't they pretty much the same? I mean, sure, it was pretty rural back there, but whether village or city, we were all Viet: same language, same culture, same blood, same... pretty much everything, when you think about it." As denials went, this one wasn't half bad: sincere enough to be taken seriously and with enough internal logic that it wouldn't fall apart immediately in the face of the mildly educated mind.
On this subject, however, Joseph had become rather more than merely mildly educated. He had observed things for a long time: a lot of little things and one or two big things for the most part. And he, after long deliberation and study, had discovered that some of those things just didn't match up.
"You know, there was a time when I could believe that. But... there are just too many deviations to discount." Joesph stopped eating all together, putting down his fork and looking his girlfriend straight in the eyes before closing and opening them again, as if to rally his thoughts. "The food, for one thing, isn't like any kind of Vietnamese food I've read about. Yes, you have the side dishes but that's about it for similarity. Second, your parent's tattoos. Again, unlike any other group in Southeast Asia; the closest matches I could find were incised lines on bronze figurines from over two thousand years ago."
He stopped again. "And then there's the language you guys speak. I'm fairly sure it's in the Mon-Khmer group, but I've been doing some research and... honestly, I've seen words on this menu that I've never been able to find in any other source. And I'm not the only one who's noticed these things." Joesph saw panic flash across Marie's eyes, though she tried to hide it. "Most people don't pay attention and honestly don't care, and the ones who do notice just assume that you guys are either Hmong or some little minority that no-one's ever heard of... but even that doesn't match very well either. It's like you said, you're Viet... but what about all this other stuff?"
It was then that Marie could have ended it all: the doubts, the questions, the lingering curiosity... as well as twenty one centuries of secrecy, tradition and very likely her relationship with this young man. In the end, she decided to dodge again. "What can I say? We were very rural." When Joesph just got this frustrated look on his face, Marie sighed, reached across the table and enveloped one of his hands with hers. "Look, I'll try and dredge something up if I can, but I can't promise anything, okay?"
Joseph mulled on this lack of answers, but as the moment dragged on, his resistance wore down. "Alright. If you don't want to talk about your culture, that's alright; lots of people come to America to get away from stuff. But I still am sorta curious." Then he changed the subject. "Anyway, after we eat, we should begin studying for our tests. Do you want to go over the English or the Algebra first?"
"We should do the Math first, then we can cool off with the Shakespeare. But we better not let the food get cold, what with how the sauce gets if allowed to sit for too long." Marie began eating again and, after a few beats, Joseph resumed as well.
They stayed at that table for many hours, going over and revising their knowledge of maths and literature. However, already Marie wondered if there was something she could reveal, something that she could show about her parent's culture that would not threaten expose them and, as the old saying went among her tribe, 'get them cut in half and buried in two graves'.
Later that night, The Trinh's upstairs apartment
To Marie's relief, her parents reaction to her plan wasn't anger. On the other hand, fear and worry could be almost as painful.
"I know how you feel about the Clayton boy. He's well-liked, intelligent and his parents are our insurance agents." Thanh Thi Trinh began, speaking in her families particular dialect of Viet as she, Marie and Thuch Van sat around their dining room table. "But I ask this of you: is Joesph and his interest in this celebration worth the risk of exposure and, may I add, possible death when this town realizes who we are, when they realize what we are?" Thanh Thi had always been the more reserved, more cautious and, frankly, more paranoid spouse in this family when it came to their safety. Where her husband was the face of the restaurant, she ran the kitchen with an eye on the back door and all of their cooks. While Thuch made friendly at social gatherings, Thanh kept track of all possible escape routes and who was and wasn't looking at them. She kept track of any news about gangs and hate-group activity in the area, and about any other strange things.
The sort of things that might lure out the kind of people who hunted their people.
But Marie had prepared for this. "Mother, I know the risks that revealing the secrets of our people would bring. However, I am counting on two circumstances to make sure that only the most benign and harmless information is portrayed." She rallied herself, knowing that the way she handled this could make the difference on how she presented herself to nearly everyone, especially Joseph . "First, I must inform both of you that there are some people in this town, including my boyfriend, that realize that we are not quite from the mainstream culture of modern Vietnam." At this, both Thanh and Thuch got even more worried but they weren't shocked, seeing as any bumpkin with an Internet connection could find that tribal tattooing wasn't really the rage in downtown Hanoi. "The good news is that while these people realize that we belong to a distinct subgroup, they often deduce that we are either rural Hmong or some other obscure ethnic group. In other words, they know nothing about who our people are and, like the rest of the town, they honestly do not care."
"What about the nature of our traditons, Marie? What would you do, what rite of our people would be performed on that stage that would not end up with half the town vomiting and the other half trying to hang us?" Her father had been relatively quiet in this conversation, but he knew that the rituals of his village had, during various times in history, left such a bad impression upon outsiders that they had responded in force to try to stamp them out.
Here, Marie began grasping the thick, heavy and old scrapbook that lay closed upon the table before her. It had been entrusted to them by their village and, by the blessings of the Gods and their Instrument, they had kept it safe and hidden for more than twenty years. "Father, it is not as if I wish to set up an alter on the stage, recite the incantations of the harvest rites and slice something open; frankly, I would have no idea how. However, I believe that there is a ritual that is benign, unusual and, even according to the author of this book, beautiful enough to make people forget it's oddity." She opened the book, filled with sepia photographs and notes written in French on yellowed paper, to the page she had bookmarked. "I want to do the Stork Dance."
Her parents were quiet for a minute. Admittedly, this was probably the least unusual rite of their people and it did seem to have a calming effect on its audiences. However, it took weeks of intensive training in order to do it right, the costuming and specific actions depended on whether the dancer was a man or woman and the phonograph with the instrumental music and vocals, only having been recorded once before, was on the other side of the planet. It was a tall order to pull off for anyone. "You do realize that practicing for the dance requires grueling routine, so much so that it might effect your school work?" Asked her mother, wondering if her daughter was truly sincere.
"I know that. I'll just have to sacrifice my time with Joesph, a sacrifice that I'm sure he'd understand." Marie responded in English this time, the plans for her act becoming clearer. "However, I'll need some help in creating the proper costuming and... I know that shipping items from the Old Country is like trying to smuggle Plutonium but if you could convince the shamans to release that phonograph for a month or two, I would be eternally grateful to all of them, and to you."
Her parents wondered, not for the first time, if Marie truly comprehended what could be asked of that gratitude in the years to come. She had the opportunity to live a life completely detached from the paranoia, the fear and the constant danger that followed her people. Would she give that chance away simply for the sake of a boy?
Whatever choice she made, however, was hers to make.
In the end, they acquiesced... but not without informing their daughter of what their home village could ask of her in exchange for the items she wished. It might be years until it was asked but one day, a representative of their village would approach her and request a repayment, be it in money, information or something else.
It was that "something else" that truly worried Thuch and Thanh.