David Joiner was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. He attended Earlham College and majored in Japanese Studies. During his junior year he made his first trip to Asia - a five-month study abroad program in Sapporo, Japan. Nine years and several trips to Asia later he earned his MFA from the University of Arizona where he studied fiction, nonfiction, and playwriting. He has been shuttling between the US, Vietnam, and Japan for all of his adult life. He currently lives in Kanazawa, Japan, where he is working on a second novel set on the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia.
BOOKS, PUBLICATIONS, PROJECTS
excerpt from a novel-in-progress. Originally featured as a short story entitled “LIKE SMOKE” in the Ontario Review.
One day before the Festival of River Dolphins, as dawn drew darkness from the sky, Casey sat in Totter’s motorized sampan watching the edge of town disappear into melaleuca forest. Fiddling with the camera strap around his neck, he glanced at Cerise and noticed her eyes were puffy and red. Her constant yawning made him yawn, too, and feel sleepier than he actually was.
She turned and caught him gazing at her.
“I’ve never seen anyone sweat like you so early in the morning,” she said. On her breath, a scent of rotting flowers recalled last night’s seduction.
“My pores are rebelling,” he said. “They’re not used to this kind of heat.”
“Sweating’s good for you,” Totter broke in from the stern. “But yes, the Delta heat’s relentless.” On the floor in front of him were two oars, a sealed jar of gasoline, a bucket, and an unlabeled bottle of black alcohol. The craft moved jarringly through the river, its nose purling the surface and plashing warm water over the prow. He nodded at Cerise. “You’ll sweat, too, once the sun gets higher.”
Ahead of them the bend opened onto greenness. Along the shoreline and in the flat rice fields behind it, water buffalo rested like boulders in the mud and canals shot straight toward the horizon. It was quiet but not silent: their motor sputtered and coughed; chatter drifted off the vessels they overtook; water hissed in both its natural running course and in the wake of the churning motor. Even louder to Casey was the clamor in his head as he relived the night before.
He watched Cerise, who now shielded her eyes and looked skyward. The climbing sun had not yet reached the clouds, nor had it attained an intensity that would force her to turn away.
“Did you forget you’re wearing sunglasses?” he said.
“On your head. You should push them down instead of shielding your eyes like that.”
She turned away, ignoring his advice.
“You both look like hell,” Totter said. “Like you got in some kind of fight.”
“Last night’s kind of a blur,” Cerise admitted, “but I don’t recall any fights.”
Totter steered around a wooden junk in the middle of the water. Longer and wider than his sampan, the boat had two eyes painted on it. Several children stood beneath a tarpaulin roof while a man and woman pulled bow-shaped traps from the river. When Casey waved the children shrieked with laughter and ran naked to the side of the boat. He turned to find Cerise staring at a black-green confusion of trees along the shore. He was thinking how beautiful she was with the morning sun on her face, how in the part of her hair it made the coppery red turn gold. He leaned toward her.
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s this damn throbbing behind my eyes. I never get hangovers this bad.” Stretching, groaning, making shaky fists above her head, she twisted her torso so that the joints in her back cracked.
The aim of his eyes drifted to the contour of her breasts against her shirt; her slim arms almost hairless; her collarbone dipping in the center, v-shaped, like a bird gliding beneath her flesh.
She sighed and reached to muss up his hair. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“Like what?” he laughed, surprised that he looked like anything at this hour, and again because she was finally paying him attention. It was the first time since last night that she’d touched him.
“Like my fiancé looks at me,” she stammered, turning to the river. She finally lowered her sunglasses. “With a kind of…disappointment in your eyes.”
“Why would I be disappointed?” It felt awkward hearing her mention him now. He didn’t like being reminded about him.
As she slowly faced him he could see his reflection, in startling miniature, in each of her dark round lenses. Behind her glasses she blinked, and her eyelids closed mouth-like over his twin images. He grew smaller as she leaned backward against the side of the boat, both arms laid out like wings and her feet stretched across the floorboards and pushing into his thigh.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s there – how you look at me – even if you think it’s not. It’s been there since last night.”
“You were drunk last night. Besides, how could last night have happened if I’d been disappointed?”
Totter broke into short laughter. “Don’t mind me,” he said when they turned to him. He pulled his conical hat beneath the line of his eyes so that his most visible feature was his teeth, yellowish-white behind thin sunburned lips. His laughter ended their conversation. “I need to stop at a market on the river and drop this off” – he raised the black bottle and tilted it in the still-dim light – “then haggle a friend for some fish.”
“Can I see that?” Cerise said.
Casey, nearer, passed the bottle to her. When she had it, he moved to her side and hesitantly rested his forearm on her shoulder. Dozens of stiff beetles wheeled through the murky alcohol, knocking into each other and bumping into the glass like pebbles. Tiny bubbles clung to their serrated legs and shells as they settled, finally, in a packed mound of black and blue bodies.
Cerise wrestled the cork from its throat and waved it under her nose. “God,” she gasped, sliding out from beneath Casey’s arm. “It’s not the hair of the dog that bit me, but I’ll bet it’s the same breed. Here’s to regret,” she said, hoisting the bottle to her lips. Her cheeks filled quickly, and the quickness seemed to surprise her. Her face twisted as though something sour had spouted in her mouth. She cried out.
Totter swiped the bottle from her and recorked it. “It’s medicinal wine. I thought you knew better.”
Cerise leaned over the side, vomiting into the river.
Casey sat rigidly and kept this posture while he threw himself into a remembrance of last night: pressing his face into her hair, tasting the skin along her neck and shoulders down to the backs of her legs; turning her over and finding the even stronger taste of her up to her throat, then a coolness of breath; moonlight slanting through a bamboo curtain and pushing through the mesh of their mosquito screen; fine squares of light settling over her body so that her skin was a pool of water with nets cast beneath its surface; raising the bamboo curtain, the sweat on her body reflecting the moonlight pouring in, each drop a shining circle that made her skin seem punctured and welling with inner light.
A wave struck the boat and broke overboard in a shattered umbrella of droplets. They fell on his skin and he flinched. Cerise had moved to the prow to sit with one arm gripping the nose of the boat and her other steeped in the river. The angle of her body as she leaned over made her appear to be reaching to pull something out. Casey stared at the back of her head, at a ridge of bone beneath her coral-colored hair, and he clenched both his fists until they were nothing more than stumps, the long fingers buried and locked by crossing thumbs. He’d just detected the lone asymmetry of her body, this soft glimmering wave at the back of her head. Before he could ask what she was doing with her arm plunged so long in the river, she straightened and shook her arm dry in the sunshine. She pushed her sunglasses onto her head. The blue of her eyes was abyssal, her eyes so open and wide he was almost afraid of getting lost in them.
“Why do you keep looking at me?”
“I’m not,” he said, alarmed by the irritation in her voice. He scooted closer, stretched an arm across her shoulder again, but she glared at him and he removed it and let it hang at his side like before. “Feel better now?” he asked.
“Maybe vomiting was all I needed.” She took a shaky breath. “Maybe I just needed to get it out of my system…”
Already she looked less blanched, the ruddiness in her cheeks starting to spread more evenly across her face. She closed her eyes as a cool spray leaped from the river.
“If there’s anything I can do–”
She shook her head. “No,” she said. “I’m better now.”
A quarter-mile ahead, boats passed between floating markets spread out along both banks. Homes built of corrugated tin and weather-worn wood extended downriver, shaded by banyan and cajuput trees and bushy figs and water palms. On porches marred by stripped-away planks, homemade signs advertised mullet and crab and shrimp, which were raised in the water beneath. Stilts jutting from the river supported these homes and many of the small businesses around them.
Totter guided them to a crowded dock. People walked from boat to boat, bartering their colorful goods. As Totter drew close, several faces lit up. They called to him by name (“Ta-ta! Ong Ta-Ta!”) and waved his sampan to their group. He killed the engine and jumped onto the dock with the bottle of alcohol he’d brought.
“I’ll have someone bring you breakfast,” he said before heading off. “They owe me as it is.”
“Breakfast,” Cerise moaned, looking into the river where a clump of sunburned reeds raced by.
The surrounding boats were laden with produce and fruit, pale sweets wrapped in banana leaf, women selling bread, and raw meats laid upon smooth tops of bloody wood. Totter maneuvered from craft to craft, grasping the hands that reached toward him. A girl appeared at the open back of a thatch building. In a yellow sleeveless shirt, she came only up to Totter’s shoulder, her long hair fluttering beneath a ceiling fan. The clamor on the dock muted her. When Totter responded she raised a hand to hide her laughter. He disappeared with her into the rearward shadows.
Casey watched a boy in tattered clothing gather plates and glasses on a tray. “I guess we’re supposed to eat whatever he brings us.”
But Cerise wasn’t listening. She had her camera to her eye, shooting images around the dock. Her arms and wrists twisted gracefully behind the camera and a geography of lithe muscles flexed as she bent forward. The base of her neck shined, and her thin shirt showed through to her sinuous back. When she turned around grinning he couldn’t help but reach for her and pull her into himself.
“Stop it.” She pushed him back.
“Come on,” he laughed, but she was adamant. He yielded upon seeing pain or anger, he couldn’t tell which, flash across her face.
“Look, I feel bad about what’s happened. I betrayed someone with you, and for all I know—”
“But last night…” he interrupted, amazed by what she was saying.
She sucked on her teeth, watching him. “You’re just a tourist passing through Co Tan, you’ve got nothing to lose. But I’ve got a career. And I’m engaged, for god’s sake.”
Something caught in Casey’s throat and he couldn’t respond. After last night he thought things were sealed between them.
“I guess you’re too young to understand,” she added.
“I wasn’t too young last night.”
She paused, as if it was all she could do to keep calm. “I made a bad mistake with you.”
He felt his stomach turn, more deeply in his gut than hunger. “So, I’m a mistake?”
“I still love him.”
“It didn’t seem like that when you jumped on me.”
She paused again, remembering. “That’s not how it happened.” She started to go on, but the boy with the tray shouted at them and distracted her. Squatting before the boy, an old woman stirred a pair of long chopsticks in a bowl.
“Whatever happened last night is over. I don’t expect you to understand what my loneliness does to me here, what it’s like to live in isolation for so long without my fiancé, but I think you understand what I’m saying to you now.”
Casey swallowed hard. He was as taken aback by the hurt this caused him as by the sudden change in her behavior. He heard himself say, “I know what it’s like to be lonely…But if it makes you happy saying it’s over…” A terrible pain bloomed inside his chest and silenced him. He glared at her, a slight buzz in his ears, as she nodded. He saw the indentation her fingers made in his pants above his knee, but she didn’t press down hard enough for him to feel it. Or she might have and he simply felt nothing. “Too much booze was all, right?” he managed to say.
“That’s right,” she said, more gently now. “Booze. Close quarters. A foreign place.”
The boy with the tray shouted again.
“Stay here,” Casey said, breathing hard. Struggling for footing, he raised his arms to his sides to balance himself. He lurched forward and a man nearby caught him and helped him to his feet. Cerise was tossing her hair, lifting her face toward the now-oppressive sunshine, as if the hurt she’d inflicted on him was no more to bother over than a bee sting, or a nicking fall in front of strangers. He hurried over to the old woman.
Where heaviest traffic glided past, shouts punched the air. Several boats had stopped and people aboard were leaning over and waving their oars excitedly. A pair of dolphins broke the surface, followed by a smaller one that could barely be seen at all.
“Casey! Look over there!”
Again, the three dolphins shot from the murky water, ducked beneath its surface and disappeared. Cerise yelled for him to take pictures.
But just as quickly as the creatures had appeared they were gone, and the boats were steered to their former course. The pilots of the boats, while excited and clamorous before, had immediately re-involved themselves in the untangling and repair of their fishing nets. The dolphins had disappeared. The river had grown calm.
Casey returned to Cerise laden with a full tray. “I was caught back there,” he said, climbing back into the boat.
“At least now I’m more confident in Totter’s guidance,” she said, unaccountably happy. She scanned the tray. “What horrors have you brought?”
He set the tray on the floor, steadying it until the boat stopped rocking. The tray was loaded with two glasses of coffee, wisps of steam rising off them and condensed milk a full inch along their bottoms; plates of fried eggs, heavily peppered, and French rolls, stale, which tore like old fabric; strips of dried fish, black with burnt skin – all of it garnished with wilted sprigs of cilantro. They ate slowly, quietly attentive to the commotion in the river and to the transformation from dawn to daybreak. When the food was gone Casey set down his chopsticks and eyed Cerise over the rim of his coffee glass.
A familiar laugh rose over the din around them. Totter had reappeared in the open back of the building, with the girl who’d led him away standing beside him. She’d changed clothes and now wore traditional dress: an áo dài – white, flowing, patterned across the breast with a single budding tree branch, and slit up the sides to expose two bands of flesh. Totter called to someone inside as he lowered himself onto the dock. He returned to the boat burdened with a heavy bucket.
Inside the bucket a pile of fish lay on their sides with eyes astonished, their narrow faces marveling upward into the sky.
“We saw three dolphins while you were gone,” Cerise told him, grinning broadly.
He seemed furious he hadn’t seen them. “Orcaella brevirostris?”
“I don’t know,” Cerise said. “They were too far away for me to identify. But they looked like it to me.”
“What direction did they go?”
“That way,” she said, pointing downriver.
Totter was silent a long time. The sky above him was finally bluing, and the sun, rising behind his conical hat, had become a burning egg. “How was breakfast?” he finally asked.
“Just what the doctor ordered,” Cerise said. “I feel brand new.”
It occurred to Casey that after this trip, he’d no longer be welcome to stay with her. But what had he done? Hadn’t he only surrendered to her need?
Totter started the motor. Through a cloud of exhaust the Vietnamese girl, in her long white dress, appeared ghostlike above the dock. Her arm, rigid as she waved, looked like the pendulum of a clock that had been flipped upside down. Casey raised his camera and aimed at her, waiting for the breeze to blow her hair back off of her face. Before he could take the photo, though, Cerise kicked him.
“What was that for?”
But she only smirked and stared at him in a flickering, fiery sort of way, then dropped her eyes and rubbed her sandals in the boat’s clay-colored dust. She started to say something but seemed to think better of it. Shifting in her seat, she left him to contemplate the ridge of bone at the back of her head.
Totter steered across the river. The current had been pummeling them, but their diagonal movement sliced through it. Churning foam merged from each side of the wake and trailed them, whispering along the water’s surface.
As they converged on the shoreline, the river hushed and grew calm. Tall reeds, colorless as weathered wood, walled a narrow tributary. As Totter cut back the motor, a hissing rose around them. He went around one bend and the next. Mosquitoes, gnats and flies hovered in the air like a haze. As the sampan passed through, the insects stuck to their skin and clothes. And when quickly wiped away they dropped dead to the bottom of the boat.
Rotting stilts and caved-in homes strewed the shore. An occasional fishing boat, or threshing basket, and the empty husks of fallen coconuts, floated among the reeds. The wind rose and fell, bringing on its back the aroma of sunbaked citrus. In the distance, the waterway opened into a primordial cove, its surface wavering beneath the heat and wide sky.
“Here we are,” Totter said, killing the motor. “You can see the visibility here’s surprisingly good.”
“Less sediment,” Cerise observed, “which could mean the water’s deep here.”
Totter hooked his oars onto two fixed poles at the stern, then casually tossed several fish into the water. They drifted down like feathers before darkness swallowed them whole. He rowed forward, letting go an oar to toss over more fish.
“There’s one!” He grabbed another handful of fish and heaved it overboard.
Speeding toward them, a gray fin cleaved the water. A pair of elliptical shapes shot beneath the boat, from one side to the other, and swallowed the falling fish. Several more followed.
Cerise shrieked and shot Totter a thrilled, confused look. “How many are there? This doesn’t make sense.” Distracted by the flurry around them she fumbled with her camera lens and laughed.
“I can’t tell what kind of dolphins they are,” Totter said, peering into the muddying water.
Cerise caught Casey staring at her. “Don’t just sit there, you idiot! We got what we came for.”
A terrible pain filled his lungs so he could hardly breathe. Tears stung his eyes, and he raised his camera to hide them. He let its surprising weight multiply in his hands until he could sustain its heaviness no longer. Swinging on its strap, the camera crashed numbly against his chest. He raised it to his eye once more and aimed – not at the dolphins, but at Cerise as she dipped into the bucket of fish. She seemed so wildly happy, entirely free, that to capture her on film like this was, in his mind, a necessary proof of something.
A powerful blow struck the boat and knocked them from their seats.
“I’ve never seen so many dolphins,” Totter said. “There must be twenty out there and they act like they’re famished. Better keep tight until they calm down.”
Casey aimed again at Cerise, who’d resumed her photography of the dolphins.
She turned to face him. “What the hell are you doing?” Beads of perspiration rolled down her face.
He finished his roll of film and reloaded.
Cerise stood up. “Shoot the dolphins! What’s wrong with you?”
He reached to pull her down beside him, but she kicked her leg from his sweaty hand.
“The dolphins, Casey. Shoot the damn…Oh! I never should have trusted you!” Turning back to the water, she kneeled and gripped the camera with both hands to steady her shot. “Geoffrey will be on the first flight back when he sees these photos.”
“They’re not Orcaella brevirostris,” Totter said. “They’re marine dolphins.”
“What are you talking about? Of course they are.”
“Watch out,” Totter said. “One’s coming fast on the left.”
Cerise turned at the instant a dolphin struck the boat. With both hands holding her camera, she had no means to stop herself from falling. She hit the side of the boat and toppled overboard. The bucket followed at an arm’s length to her side.
The back of her head hit water. She let out a cry, but water stifled it. Her shoulders went under. Her back disappeared, then her outstretched feet and hands. She twisted beneath the surface as a gray snout slammed against her back. She pushed her head above water but choked on wet hair that covered her mouth. “Oh God!” she yelled, flailing her arms. Another dolphin sent her pitching headfirst underwater again. All around her, the spilled fish started to sink.
“Grab this,” Totter shouted, holding out an oar. But the dolphins had pushed her away from the boat. No matter how far he leaned, her outstretched hand remained several feet away. He jumped to the motor and yanked the cord. “That should scare them off.” The motor sputtered to life, then burst into staccato roar. Behind him a curtain of water rose and fell.
A dolphin, small, no larger than a child, dove from the water and struck her. She yelled again and dipped below the surface. Clutching her shoulder, she struggled to stay afloat. The dolphins sped back and forth, churning the water.
Totter quickly cut the motor and turned to Casey. “We’ll have to wait until they stop feeding,” he said, a look of helplessness on his face.
Between Cerise and the boat, at a depth of around six feet, the dim outline of something massive and white floated past. It was twice the size of their craft, barely discernible, and rippled as it moved. Arcing back toward the boat, it disappeared beneath a new flurry of activity near the surface.
“What was that?” Casey said.
Totter peered into the water. “It’s a fishing net. A dolphin must be dragging it along.”
Casey glanced back at Cerise.
“Lie on your back!” Totter shouted.
She leaned back, moaning, coughing up water, and managed to float where she was. “Ahh!” she cried, and reached her arm to the opposite shoulder. The movement tilted her to the side and she went under once more.
“This is crazy,” Casey yelled. He raised his hands overhead and dove into the water. The river roared in his ears as gray missiles darted by, black eyes like onyx balls. All around him, fish from the bucket were being greedily caught and eaten. Treading water, he found himself kicking the dolphins below him. He stuck his head above the surface and took a breath.
“Swim around them,” Totter told him, pointing vaguely in the distance. “Get to her from the side.”
“But there is no side…they’re everywhere…she’s right in the middle of it all…”
For a moment there was no direction he could swim. Eventually, the frenzy lapsed and he paddled around the gray circle. Looking down a few feet, to where it disappeared into murky blackness, again he spotted the ghostlike mass. Ducking his head underwater, which was calmer here on the boundary of activity, he saw it more clearly. A white net, as mysterious and graceful as a cloud fallen out of the sky, was wrapped round the tail of a dolphin. The spaces in the net not torn were filled with branches and peat. Near its far edge, a rat floated on its back with its tail like a broken rudder. Hearing a scream Casey yanked his head from the water.
“Twist your body!” Totter shouted, nearly losing his footing. “Keep your chest up and tilt your head back out of the water!”
“I can’t anymore!” Wet hair plastered her cheeks and eyes. Blood ran from her nose and over her mouth and chin.
“Stay up until I reach you!” Casey called out. Treading at the pod’s outer limit, he couldn’t help wonder if by rescuing her she might want him again like before. He waited for a breach in the mass of bodies.
But there was no breach. He paddled toward Cerise, assuming the space left behind by every dolphin that shot past. Something broadsided him in the ribs and he groaned, struggling to keep above water until he could manage to start breathing again. From the corner of his eye he noticed the mouth of the cove was filling with boats. Fishermen slowly entered it, watching but not advancing, their motors sputtering loudly.
“They’re going to scare the dolphins,” Casey gasped. “Make them…cut their engines…”
Totter signaled them from the boat, pulling a finger across his throat. He shouted in Vietnamese, but they only laughed at his apparent antics.
Casey tightened his stomach muscles in anticipation of getting pummeled. Inch by inch he made his way toward Cerise, relieved to see that she, too, was trying desperately to reach him. But then she stopped swimming and began smacking her arms on the water, her head dipping below and reappearing above the surface. Her eyes were huge and he could hear her half-sobbing as he worked his way closer. He grabbed the tips of her fingers, then reeled her in until she clutched him around the neck.
“Hold tightly,” he said. “Don’t let go of me.”
“Caught,” she breathed. “I’m caught.”
“My foot.” She grabbed him tighter around his neck as her body lurched downward. “I can’t get it free.”
He felt along her leg, but with her holding onto him he couldn’t reach her foot. “I’m going to dive down.”
He took as much air into his lungs as possible and forced himself beneath the surface. Sediment drifted through the water, reducing his visibility. But the dolphins seemed to have grown calmer. When he got to Cerise’s ankle he found it wrapped with cord. He grabbed the cord a few inches below her foot and tried to rip it in two with his hands. On his fifth attempt to free her, the white fishing net wavered upward from the dark bottom.
Cerise’s foot struck his hand. Surprised as much by the reappearance of the net as by the sudden forcefulness of her movement, he let go.
There was no time to react. Her legs passed by his eyes, then her waist. Before he could move toward her, before anything could enter his mind but an overwhelming sense of horror, her stomach and chest plunged through the water. Her face flew past. An effervescence of bubbles pouring out of her mouth obscured her shocked eyes. She was yelling, flailing at him, but there was nothing he could do to stop her. Her red hair waved like a giant flame. Her camera, twisted around her neck and pointing to where the sky was fragmented like shards of mirror in light, flashed continuously. Casey’s hands reached her too late. Her fingers slid away and vanished into the depths.
Something bumped his head from behind and he heard the screech of a dolphin. He clambered to the surface and, sucking in air, was overcome by the bright sky. The fishermen stood as if in silent ovation, mesmerized by the mass moving toward them.
An intense agony shot through Casey. It dissipated, but endured – like smoke in a breeze, like smoke you can smell even after the breeze has passed. He could feel it leaving a black mark on his memory that he’d never be able to erase: the image of Cerise grabbing at him through the water, being pulled into darkness right before him. He’d merely watched, helpless, not knowing what to do. He hadn’t reached for her until she was already gone.
He turned to the boat as Totter dove into the water. Casey, too, took a deep breath and pushed himself underwater, but after half a minute his burning lungs forced him to the surface for more air.
Where the cove met the tributary, Casey saw Totter’s head emerge into the sunshine, gasping for air, with Cerise, limp and covered with mud, draped over one shoulder. He was calling to the fishermen, screaming in Vietnamese while struggling to keep above water. Several boats motored forward. The fishermen pulled Cerise and Totter aboard.
As Casey swam toward them something made him look up. Beyond the dark treeline, fireworks arced through the sky only to fizzle away below lingering wisps of smoke. Seconds later the explosions reached him, drumlike on the hot wind.