If Only

by Anna Jaquiery

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It was their sixth day in Vietnam and already they were weary, trudging from one stop to the next in their matching flip-flops from the Hanoi street vendor, cracking endless jokes to hide their irritation.

That night they left the guidebook in their hotel room, the one every tourist in Vietnam seemed to be traveling with, and wandered for a while through narrow alleyways until they found an empty restaurant. They sat and listened to the humming of insects in the night.

Because the lighting was poor, it took a very long time to notice the cage in the corner of the restaurant, to recognise the shape within it. It was a bear, of medium build, cowering in its own stink, staring their way with lifeless eyes.

“What the hell?” Jo said. Sweat trickled slowly down his face and he flicked at it like it was a fly. His skin was gray-looking and bruised. He looked like he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.

“Maybe later they’ll get the bear to perform,” Sally said, but neither of them laughed. When the old man brought their drinks, Jo gestured towards the cage. The man rattled out a series of harsh syllables which neither of them understood.

When he was gone they both looked at the dark spot where the bear stood. The cage wasn’t big enough for it to lie down. The warm, invasive odour coming from its corner left them feeling powerless.

“This is intolerable,” Jo told Sally when the old man came around with their food. He said it the way tourists will say things, standing on a dusty street with sweat stains flowering under their armpits, convinced they are forever being mocked and misunderstood.

The old man grinned. Suddenly he let out a cry, and raising both arms he hopped from one foot to the other, making a noise like the beating of cymbals. He stopped as suddenly as he’d started, then turned and headed back to the kitchen.

“Well I’ve seen it all now.” Sally said.

“What was that about?”

“How should I know?”

They sat and ate the food. From its own private hell the bear watched them in silence. All that time it hadn’t moved, but its eyes were open.

Outside, the darkness was complete. They walked through it, not touching. The regrets would come later, the things they might have done, but for now they kept going, hoping for a streetlamp or a sign that they were headed the right way.

Anna Jaquiery was born in France of French-Indian descent and currently live in Melbourne, Australia. Her poems and stories have recently appeared in FreeFall , Magma Poetry , and flashquake .

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