I can't remember how I met Co Xay--I remember a mob of Dao women in bright red headdresses, a cacophony of Hmong voices, clothes placed on my body to the chorus of "jolie!" (I later learned this was "beautiful" in French--perhaps a bit of market savvy to flatter the high numbers of French tourists that come through this mountainous area?) A Hmong woman quietly intervenes on my behalf, helping me to bargain. "Chau tu dau?" ("Where are you from?" she asks in Vietnamese.) Stilted but familiar tones enveloped me on that mountainside. This part I cannot remember--how I followed her home. The details are blurred among the "jolie's" and the handheld instruments the children played, which when plucked, vibrated against their lips. Like a dream, the scenes changed abruptly and I was in her home.
The dirt was cool--neighborhood children crowded round to teach me some Hmong phrases: Where are you going? I am going to the market, to home, to the field. There was no formal greeting of "How are you?" but rather, inquiries about where one was going, where one was from. And I suppose that is the essence of language, to explain the comings and goings and the in- betweens.
During my two visits to her home, the neighborhood children who could speak Vietnamese communicated with me and I was able to pick up some Hmong words: 'waterfall' on the walk home, 'fire' from the boiling kettle, 'beauty' from asking how to describe the mountains. The lessons stopped there and just as well perhaps, because it proved sufficient to describe elemental basics and to communicate where I wanted to go, and from where I came. "Where are you going?" I asked in broken Hmong. A hearty laugh as she drew from her water pipe. "To borrow batteries." That I hadn't learned; it wasn't the market, home or the field, and suddenly my Hmong reference points of fire, beauty and water weren't sufficient. Why? I asked, pacing myself behind her nimble steps. "So you can listen to my music," she called back. "I want you to know my music, my stories." So we hiked at dusk to her neighbor's home with a portable radio. I was in a tight traditional Hmong outfit she had tied to my body; I tried to imitate her grace which was difficult with wraps on my calves and a corset-like jacket. The dye, fresh from a batch that morning, bled onto my jeans.
Along the way, I took photos of her friends who offered us cabbage and lard. When she was paying for the lard, I offered to take a picture. The youngest girl then squealed and ran off to her room. Her peals of laughter alternately grew more faint as she ran into the house, the sounds of thunder indicated the storm's proximity and then the showers began. The family pulled all their belongings to the altar; the man buttoned his shiny blue shirt as he centered the radio next to ancestors' photos.
The search for batteries continued. After finding them, she played her acappella tape of Hmong music. They were in love, she translated to Vietnamese for me, but they weren't able to marry. They committed suicide so they wouldn't have to live apart, but chanced death to be reincarnated into another world where they could be together. Thinking back to Co Xay, it is impossible to think of her without that background music, a haunting acappella that is the score to all my memories of her. Similar to a movie take, the music sometimes fades to focus in on dialogue or cinematography. Then in silence, it fades in and softly frames her eyes, her smoke rings, her raucous laughter. "How do you know Vietnamese?" I asked. "I fought with the Communists for 16 years," she replies. (music fades at this point) "Recruited by the Americans, then by the Communists." We hike in silence in the dark (music crescendos). "This weekend I have to pull my house up," she laughs. "The rains have weakened the poles and my house leans. I will have to pull it up."
I pictured her, putting away her handbags, crocheted pillowcases and pullovers to sell at the market, waking her son in his opium-induced stupor, calling to her three younger children to come help. Looking for them in vain, she finally harnesses the house with her spirit and flies away. (music would end here)
I will come back, I had promised. You will see these photos. A promise I haven't been able to keep. Time juxtaposes scenes and music, dialogue and silence; in a family photo, I somehow see a Goddess of Compassion who sings Hmong acappella on dusk journeys. The background of castles and water, fire and beauty fades into indigo blue from my jacket. At times, that indigo blue still seeps into my clothes no matter how many washings it goes through. It is a color that continues to bleed Co Xay's hearty laugh, the chatter of women from different Hmong groups embroidering together on the church steps, card games played over rice wine and watercress, images of Hmong men going to the fields, children playing their lip instruments, girls rewrapping their leg wraps at a stream, acappella music at dusk, burning joss sticks during the full moon and Co Xay's tears as she sees me off on the bus.
I had asked if she would like to visit me in Hanoi. She laughed, "I could never make it down there. You see, my Phuong, it is too hot. They would laugh at me, to see this old Hmong woman. I have no clothes other than these. So, you--you come see me at the market."
Kind reader, should you see a Hmong woman seated outside an upright home, smoking her water pipe and embroidering a handbag, tell her I will be back. And that I still remember fire, water and beauty, and most importantly, that I will meet her in the market. Mon ca ca, Co Xay.
Author's note: Friends have been able to find Co Xay by going to the Sapa market and showing her picture in the marketplace. If she has come to the market that day, she can be found through her friends.
Published on 11/1/99