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THEY WHISPER /Robert Olen Butler IN VIETNAMESE LANGUAGE school, we sat in a lab for two hours every day. We wore headsets and hunkered into cubicles and we talked to Vietnamese speakers on tape, responding to their questions, teUing them it is a beautiful morning, thank you very much, I am weary and wish to sleep, can you turn out the Ught? And we took tests from these tapes, as weU, and it was always the same woman's voice. We had native teachers in our language school and finaUy I got up the nerve to ask someone, but the woman whose voice was on the tape was not one of ours. Nobody knew who she was. We were in school in Arlington, Virginia, and everybody thought she was probably out in California, in the bigger Army language school in Monterey. Somebody else said that the tapes were made in Saigon, she's over there. I don't know. It finaUy just made me restless trying to figure out her other life, so I stopped thinking about where she might be and I concentrated on what I had of her. The test was very formal. She kept her voice steady and uninflected beyond the natural rise and faU of the Vietnamese tones. It was a sUghtly nasal voice, pitched only a Uttle above what might register on your ear as a child's voice. But every now and then, in between a section on the test, moving from vocabulary questions to the dialogues, say, you could hear a faint tinkUng sound on the tape, Uke a Uttle beU, and it took me a couple of times to figure it out, but she must have had on a piece of jewelry, a bracelet probably, that's how I finally heard it and it seemed exactly right—a bracelet—and it thrilled me. She'd finish one set of questions and before the next she'd shift the microphone from one hand to the other and the bracelet would make a faint ringing sound. I felt weak with tenderness for her, for this bracelet that she loved, that she clasped around her thin wrist every morning to come and sit before her tape machine and speak these questions—directly to me, I imagined, knowing that she could never hear my answers. Could you post this letter for me, please, she would ask, and I would answer in Vietnamese, Yes, yes, I wUl post it for you but I wiU also write to you, I wiU send you letters and teU you how much I love you. And at this my teacher, a sinew-and-bone, been-through-too-much-already The Missouri Review · 237 matron of a Vietnamese woman who was Ustening to my answers, would interrupt and teU me to stick to the text of the lesson. But the sound of that bracelet would loosen my Vietnamese words, let me speak with ardor in this musical tongue, and it made me Usten even more closely and sometimes I could hear my lady of the bracelet breathe. I could hear a soft sUp of air just before she'd speak a sentence and I could feel her chest fiU, her breasts lift just a Uttle bit, and I loved her. And she would ask, Where are you going? And you could hear the murmuring in EngUsh from the other cubicles: The fucking Nam. I would answer her in Vietnamese, but I would say, I don't know, I don't exactly know where Tm going, but I know it wiU lead eventuaUy to you. And I can hear her right now, hear her question: Where are you going? I wish—devoutly—as I try to put aU of this together, that I could already see a direction, that things were taking shape Uke in a proper Ufe story and I could make it clear where I was going, but it's in the very nature of what I seek that I seem to wander, to digress. There's no other way. If the sex you trembled after was something clear and whole, and you knew what it was, and you went to...


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