The Snakehead Fish
In the deserted foyer of the Grande Rivière Hotel on the western bank of the Hau River was a well-thumbed copy of a French magazine, Geographique, devoted to the life-forms that inhabited the region of the Mekong Delta. AntonFaraday, having just returned from an excursion on the river and wondering what to do next with his day, found himself reading about an enigmatic creature known as the freshwater snakehead fish. The story immediately grabbed his attention, for something he had seen just that morning drove him to find out more.
Describing the land-walking snakehead fish as ‘something from a bad horror movie’, Interior Secretary Jean Yealands said this week that she wants the US to ban it. Growing to three feet or more in length, it can slither across land, staying out of water for up to three days, eating any small animal in its path, including humans. A native of Asia, its only predators are crocodiles, alligators, and larger versions of itself.
The description was enough to stop him in his tracks. It fit perfectly with depictions of the first creatures on earth to emerge from the water, yet according to the theory of evolution, the freshwater snakehead fish should have spent the last four hundred million years evolving into something else. It hadn’t; it was still just a fish.
Faraday was a painter of wildlife. Evolutionary biology was very much his thing, so it wasn’t surprising that chance encounters with creatures like this could lead his thoughts down byways seldom travelled by the average person.
He took the magazine and wandered out onto the hotel veranda terrace, thinking, among other things, that there were little chinks in the armour of evolutionary theory, like this example, which suggested that the next few million years might be difficult ones for supporters of Charles Darwin, unless they believed that the evolutionary tide had turned and life was heading back under water. There were many intelligent people who believed that the beginning of the end was already underway, that the Earth had already started the process of turning into a burned-out cinder, and that eventually the oceans would vaporize and the planet would be engulfed by the sun. Higher life would be extinguished in much the same way it had come into being: little by little, and eventually, all land-based creatures would be driven into the sea by the scorching heat, until even the oceans became too hot for complex life. In the end, the last life-form would look very much like the first one: a single-celled bacterium that farted.
For reasons that were not then clear, the image of the snakehead fish was destined to imprint itself like a watermark on his feelings about life from that day forward, even though his journey in Vietnam had barely begun and he hadn’t even caught a glimpse of the iniquity that lay in wait for him, let alone danced with it and felt its warm breath on his cheek. All that was yet to come. Perhaps some places held an ineradicable scent of pain, a history that forewarned of the future, and the fish was just a harbinger of what was yet to befall him.
It was mid-June, a steam bath devoid of oxygen, and he’d been out on a barge on the Mekong River since six thirty that morning, the only passenger on a vessel built for two hundred.
The Mekong River had begun its life as a slow drip high in the mountains of Tibet, where the sun was barely warm enough to thaw the permafrost even in the summer months, and eventually it formed a trickle that ran south through China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, gathering up other trickles as it went, until—forty-five hundred kilometres later—it was discharging thirty-eight thousand cubic metres per second into the South China Sea. Most of that water came from the monsoon rains that fell from May to October, and by Faraday’s calculation, a large proportion of those cubic metres must have fallen that day—mostly on him. Which was why no one went to the Mekong Delta in the wet season. Which was, presumably, why he’d had the boat to himself.
He’d ridden down from Ho Chi Minh City the day before in a taxi whose accelerator and horn seemed to be stuck and whose brakes didn’t work. The people were rather proud of the new road they’d built out of old Saigon into the Mekong Delta, but when he arrived at the Grande Rivière Hotel, Cantho, his gratitude that he was still alive was palpable, because for millions of Vietnamese, a new road was a conveniently dry, flat place for setting up shop and lighting the brazier, rather than a place for cars.
Cantho was the transportation centre of the Mekong Delta, a spaghetti noodle junction of waterways that had no signposts or speed limits and teemed with traffic twenty-four hours a day. Because the delta regularly flooded, the houses along the riverbanks were built on high bamboo stilts, and the biggest structure in town was a giant illuminated billboard mounted on a multistorey bamboo scaffolding advertising Tiger beer.
From what he could see, most people lived on boats. They ate, slept, fornicated, and gave birth on them, emerging out of the labyrinths of canals and muddy creeks at the crack of dawn to trade produce with each other in the floating markets. The river was their highway, their lavatory bowl, and their food basket. When the sun was shining—which it had for only the briefest moment that morning—the water was the colour of mushroom soup; the rest of the time, it looked like grey porridge. Into this porridge, the people cast nets, pulling aboard a dubious harvest of empty bottles and plastic bags, which they sifted through lazily and without anticipation before throwing them back in the water again. Occasionally, they landed a small, startled fish that flopped about in the bottom of the boat, gasping for air.
He’d been told by the hotel concierge in Saigon that one went to Cantho to see these things: the floating markets, the men casting nets. That’s why he was there, taking a break from the quest that had brought him so urgently to Vietnam, pretending to be a tourist. He hadn’t planned the excursion on the boat. It was offered to him free of charge by the hotel, where he was paying eighty dollars a night as the only guest in a state of unexpected luxury.
When the rain had momentarily lifted, he’d asked his guide, Canh, if they could get off and walk so he could take some photographs. Canh had boasted that he taught English at university, but he seemed to struggle with understanding any questions, so the conversation quickly ground to a halt.
Without speaking, they walked for an hour along the muddy tracks beside the canals, avoiding puddles and bowing their heads politely to anyone they encountered. The houses were small two-room affairs nestled beneath tangled canopies of breadfruit and durian trees. The doors were open, the rooms within dark and quiet. As if sensing their presence, people came to the doorways, smiling, and followed them with their eyes, the smiles fading slowly from their faces like memories as the two passed. There were no sounds; the air was too heavy. Water filled Faraday’s hair, clothes, and shoes, running down his forehead and the small of his back.
Yet the lens of his camera kept leading him on, to the open doors of the houses, or towards the women washing clothes and dishes in the canals. The canals were deep, with steep banks that the women were forced to clamber down with the help of bamboo poles in order to squat in the mud at the water’s edge. Flood levels were marked on the canal walls by scum lines of rubbish, and the water in which the women did their washing looked like it had been used for boiling old newspapers until it achieved the consistency of cellulose.
Faraday was used to photographing wildlife, not people, and he didn’t know the protocol here. Could he presume the right to peer so intimately at these Vietnamese women like this, zooming in on their bare knees and feet, capturing their slender fingers sluicing scraps of food from the bottoms of their cooking bowls?
Abruptly he found himself stopping beside a canal and focusing on one scene in particular. The water flowed slowly past a young woman’s feet, dampening the buttocks on which she squatted, soaking the bottom of her fuchsia dress, the skirt of which she had tossed over her shoulder to protect it. She seemed to wash to a rhythm that he was unable to hear. Her long-haired head followed the flow of the water until, like a twig caught in the eddies of a stream, it was released from the water’s flow and flicked back to begin again. In her case, the water was not for cleansing; it was an emollient, calming and softening her. There were no utensils in her hand, and although her eyes were not closed, for some reason he presumed she couldn’t see.
He pressed the shutter button and lowered his camera. The scene was so foreign to him in every respect that in that moment, he realized he knew nothing. He only knew that he would never know enough. His life’s journey had not begun when he was born; it would not begin until he consciously started it. And what if that moment never came? What then…?
The girl suddenly stood up and pointed at the water. Bubbles were rising there—not the tiny, isolated farts of single-cell amoebas that disturb the surface of all wetlands, but large, oxygen-charged bubbles of determined life. They fractured the surface, eager to escape, and the water erupted like overheated molten chocolate.
She was pointing in delight, for him and all to see.
The surface of the water stretched and gave way, revealing a human face. The eyes opened, then the mouth. The girl laughed, a high-pitched screaming from the throat, as if she had seen or sensed the spirit creature of the deep.
Canh shouted excitedly, ‘The snakehead fish! The snakehead fish!’ and danced on his toes as if stamping on cockroaches.
The face retreated beneath the water, and Faraday stepped back quickly from the edge of the bank, clutching his camera for support. In that moment, he truly believed that it was the creature Canh identified as a snakehead fish that he’d seen, and the glimpse of a human face rendered it demonic. He felt as though all the remaining air had disappeared from his lungs, and his ears were suddenly flooded with sound. What he heard may in truth have been rolling thunder, or it may have just been his imagination conjuring up the phantom that haunts the fields of death, yet somehow he was sure that what he heard and saw so clearly in that instant had happened there many times before. In fact, what was happening in that moment was that Faraday was sensing the haunted spirit of Vietnam for the first time. It was a feeling he would encounter again before his journey ended, and it was not just a product of his imagination, but a palpable presence.
Of course, the spot where he was standing was not singularly different than any other spot in Vietnam. In this place, bombers had once sprayed defoliants, mercilessly wiping out all plant life. Then in the autumn, the bombers returned with napalm, so that everything above ground, alive or dead, was burned. The heat would have been so intense that all the oxygen was consumed, and anything living below ground or seeking refuge in the water inhaled only fire when it resurfaced.
He’d seen the photos in the War Crimes Museum in Saigon (which the United States had insisted be renamed the War Remnants Museum, or else it would block the country’s aid program). In an attempt to avoid the cyclo driver who he knew was waiting outside the museum to bully him into an unwanted tour of the city, he had gone through the displays twice, taking his time, not realizing what was happening to him. Not realizing that he was being irradiated by those images. Not realizing anything … only asking himself, where the fucking hell had he been all his life, not knowing about this?
As he walked away along the canal bank to return to the boat, he looked back. The girl and the man who had finally emerged from the water were laughing for the heavens to see, tears as clear as crystal rain falling from their faces into the thick grey slime that engulfed their feet. No, not a snakehead fish at all; just the spirit of one.
Was it here that Faraday’s journey had begun?