Taking no prisoners. Including herself.

Hello, Hanoi
(Part 9 of Many)

I have not posted for a few days because sometimes this world cuts me like a stone, and I have to wander around half-dead until breathable air arrives.

How much pain must there be before it becomes unforgivable? What happens if we stop accepting and refuse to bear witness?

I used to think I was just an emotionally weak person; that I too acutely felt the sting of my emotional nerve.

“You feel life intensely, don’t you, Shannon?” Not sure if this was a compliment.

I don’t believe that anymore. I think instead it is not myself that exposes too weakly her roots, but others that must be anchoring themselves to something so loud and steely as to buffer themselves against the screaming quiet.

How much pain must there be before it all becomes unforgivable? And unforgivable to turn away?
I ask myself this because what I understand of suffering is that mine has been oceanic and formidable, but it is nothing compared to the breadth and mouth from which suffering can erupt. And it gathers. It puckers in the corners and accumulates like snow. What work it is to not transmit this on.

I have returned back to Ha Noi from Sa Pa, where I spent a weekend alone over Valentine’s Day. It was not simply a day alone in a foreign country away from my boyfriend (& family, & comforts), but the birthday of my brother. It has been just a little over a year since my brother suddenly died, and although in some ways life has finally lost its sharp tooth, in some ways the bite is deeper. I can no longer hide under shock or confusion, but must look this meanness dead in the eyes.

The eyes are black and vacant.

*     *     *

Today I saw a man beat a puppy.

I was baby-sitting for a friend her almost 4 mo. old son, baby J. We were singing “The Wheels on the Bus” and drooling. The air outside had turned muggy and brown. Inside, we were cool and giggling.

It was not even a dog, not even a matured creature like himself, but a new birth of light into this dusking world. A puppy. The sound was so shocking it made me get up from J.’s crib. The man tossed and slapped it like a rice sack. He carried it by the scruff of the neck, held away from his body like rotting garbage, then smacked the dangling baby dog — smacked it full force with his wide, clay palm. The barely 4 month old puppy vibrated under the force, swung and returned. Again. Again.

The sound was ungodly. It was high pitched and pleading, no longer a howl of pain, but beyond pain, an appeal, a begging to know, “Why?” It was the sound of all suffering anywhere.


The man turned the corner and threw that puppy underhanded down the alley, like a hated bowling ball. Then he disappeared, and I was only left with the sound.

Why? Why?

My body curdled at the witness of it — it was not just torture, but an absolute seething hatred for life. I could feel my own chest screaming. At the balcony, I exploded: “No! No! What are you doing?!”

I yelled, screeched, vomited up sounds from the depths of my gut. “No!” as loud as I could, an appeal to life itself, “Why? No!” Everything unraveled. There could be no purpose here. If there was an explanation, I didn’t want any, only to acid out the memory, my quivering nerves, to leave a blankness or something stronger than myself.

But there was no erasing. My yells evaporated like dry ice. The man hadn’t even flinched.

The American boys who had gathered at their own balcony or peered over the fence cowered as a response. They smiled nervously, chuckled in fear, or shook heads in disgust and confusion. I could see pain in their eyes, but they were 17, maybe 18 years old, and quickly hid behind detached eyes, behind the belief that this creature’s suffering was not theirs to own. They hid behind their shaking heads, “Those fucking Vietnamese…” letting the savage action be one of ethnicity rather than species.

They refused to share in the responsibility. They refused to share in the suffering.

My own wall was too thin to hold back the waves of nausea bashing this divisional line. My knees buckled as the last yelp faded into the sounds of traffic. My mind flew: A 50-year-old man just beat to death a puppy. It was my own massacre.

“No. No.” My hands shook.

All sound stopped. I went back inside. Closed and locked the balcony. The heavy steel lock clicked silently in its case. An echo of silent air swung around me. I looked down into the crib. His eyes were blue and wet.

5 Comments to “Bearing Witness”

  1. gigi says:

    Yikes, shan.

    I just saw the secret life of bees – a book I read a million years ago, but the movie just came out – there is a character that reminds me of the first part of this piece. Not you, but what you write about.

    Love you!

  2. kathi DeJong says:

    Of course I want to reach out and hug you and comfort you and protect you from the painful side of life. But I know I can’t. And from half way around the world all I can offer are my words. Remember that beauty and love also exist. We love and miss you, beautiful girl.

  3. Aunt Deedee says:

    Yeah, Shan….just what your mom said…..we do- love you and miss you.

  4. Aunt Penni says:

    Shanni, this latest trip on your blog bothers me, part as an animal lover because of the story you told, but more because I wonder why you are in your location at all. You do not sound happy, and you do not appear to be very comfortable. What to you intend to do while there? If it is to find situations where you can as a writer discuss difficult situations, you can do that in the good old USA. Try writing less globally.
    Aunt P

  5. Roya says:

    Jared asked this weekend “What’s Shannon doing these days?”
    I said “oh, she’s living in Vietnam.”
    He says “what the hell is she doing in Vietnam?”

    I ask myself the same question after reading this.
    Come home.

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