Chapter 1: The longest night
Stay awake Cuong, you need to stay awake.
You cannot fall asleep, if you sleep you will not see tomorrow.
The 12-year-old boy fought the force of self-talk in his head as if he was pushing it away with his bare hands and all his might. In order to obstruct the snake’s venom from spreading to other parts of his body, he could not lie down and had to stay upright until the morning. Leaning against the clay walls, it was surprisingly cooling against his body counteracting the poison. In the home, the windows were sealed with straw, so ventilation was a natural breeze. It was June, so trying to stay awake much harder with the rain, since it fell pitter and pattering against the steel roof therapeutically. His arm was still throbbing though Cuong could not confidently tell whether his arm was now numb or with searing pain. With an effort to change his focus, Cuong gazed over to his younger brother Dao who shared the same sheet-made bed. Although somewhat dispirited since Dao had promised to stay up with him, Cuong held onto his only positive thought which was that his only remaining sibling was by his side.
“Brother, wake up, wake up, are you there? Wake up!” Dao frantically demanded. He was shaking Cuong’s other arm.
“Yes, I am awake alright, knock it off”. Cuong mumbled. He adjusted his eyes to the dawn rays. He was still alive. He looked over to his arm, it was still swollen, but no throbbing as before.
“You look much better brother, mother is coming home today thank goodness you are ok”. Dao said longingly.
“Don’t tell her I got bitten by a water snake while trying to save your head in the creek. Just say its a spider bite”. Cuong instructed.
“She is going to know its a snake brother, it’s so obvious. Everyone in Vietnam can tell its a snake bite”. Dao protested.
“Should I tell her then that against her wishes you went into the creek again and that the current pushed you to the deep end and you couldn’t swim back? There are only 2 of us now, father is gone, mother has to travel far to work. It’s only me and you. If anything happens, she will blame me for not looking out for you.” Cuong lectured.
“Ok, ok boss”. Dao mumbled.
We need to do well in school, we need to study, we need to be careful. If we study well, we will get good jobs and we can look after mother. Mother is working to raise money for us to leave here, to get on those boats, to get to another country, to be safe. Cuong gazed at his brother wishing to share the thoughts but what would a 9-year-old understand?