This story was published in an online travel magazine that is no longer alive. I moved my story here:
Juice spurts out as I peel back the Sumatra leather dress and reveal flesh beneath. I hold each curved peel to my nose in hopes the vitamin C will jump into my cold like dragons leaping from the fantasy of folklore into reality. I place them in a pile on my meal tray. The last bit of peel from the navel I place gently between my lips and bite into bitterness. A slight sour bursts through my teeth, invading my tastebuds, leaving them wanting of sweet.
White veins cover the orange and I daydream of Vietnam, another 5 hour plane ride away, while peeling the pith away.
I wonder if oranges grow in Hanoi. If not, I will have to find a replacement for my early morning ritual. Papaya, mango or passion fruit would suffice. Or coconut, which would ease my hunger but not quench my thirst. And it would be as difficult to peel with my own fingers as it is to continue wishing for peace in the world. Why even start when you know the effort is fruitless?
If I find oranges in the south, perhaps along the muddy shores of the Mekong Delta, I hope they won't be poisoned by Agent Orange. What will I say if I go to buy a basket of ripe oranges and the boy selling them turns around with a permanently bent arm, a deformed jaw, or a growth on his empty stomach the size of a hand grenade? Or only three toes, like the eastern dragons that live in rain clouds and bring floods for the rice fields? Will I buy two oranges out of pity, or politely decline, silently waiting for papaya while tears wash away my compassion? If I eat two baskets of his fruit will I dream of giving birth to tiny droplets of dragons, my own body a victim of chemical warfare, a casualty in the food chain? As the dragons nestle against my breasts will I regret the memories of each slice going down? Or will I return to the land of Nine Dragons to get more fuel to warm my nipples, the creatures happily burning them black with the heat of their breath?
I imagine marauding dragons cowering in caves in Ha Long Bay, waiting for time to disperse. Their ancient wings held down by too many non-believers. Bats curl around their burnished gold talons, snuggle against copper-red scales. Why is it so hard for us to believe that which we do not see? I want to see Bai Chay - scorched beach - where Mongol ships were set ablaze. I know the nose-holes who protected those waters. I want to see the jade seas and the towering monoliths where fishing junks are disappearing. Will the future classify them as myths too?
Perhaps I will find a three-toed wanderer meditating in the Perfume Pagoda, manifested into a monk, sitting on a mat, shrouded in incense and silence. Or ill tempered and impatient, hobbling up the stone stairs, changing colour to match emotions and moods. Talons rip sugarcane out of the soil and suckle on them with long, rotting fangs. Sugar sap slips through it’s grip and drips off the gold now silver now mother-of-pearl scales. What emotion is orange?
I want to see Sapa. See for myself the hill tribes that have not slipped into my developed world - yet. I want to see where Montagnard villages were destroyed with fewer people left to rebuild. Shacks of bamboo wall and ceilings, no windows and a dark earth floor, where sun beams never entered and still no longer reach, leaving life dark and damp. Where I will wake up in the morning and replace my ritual with sugarcane that I know I will not be able to open.
The orange, now slippery with nakedness, has grown to meet the temperature of the room and I roll it in my hand like a relaxation ball, feeling the weight slide and shift from finger to finger. With only one hand I try to crack it open like an egg, but the orange resists. I saw purple balls with gold flecks yesterday in Chinatown and bought them to throw into the rivers of Vietnam to feed the dragons. Perhaps then they will sleep. I imagine my fingers as purple talons with golden claws.
I open my orange as I do every morning, slowly pulling each slice apart like plucking daisy petals. He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. He will miss me while I am gone, still buying flowers only now fanning them in his own vase. If one of my oranges cracks open to reveal black seeds floating within the translucent womb will I still eat it?
The first slice I peel with my teeth, slowly chewing on the outer membrane before nibbling, one by one, each tiny sack of juice that forms the slice in its entirety. The second slice I slide in my mouth and roll it around with my tongue before chewing and swallowing. Each successive piece is devoured faster and faster, like a disease overwhelming a country, until finally the last piece is placed on my tongue, now rid of the bitterness from the peel.
I leave my hand by my mouth and stroke each lip, arm bent, knees nestled against my chest. The morning sun is coming into my seat. What would he say if, instead of postcards and pictures, I brought back a belly full of three-toed dragons? I press the last slice to the roof of my mouth and squeeze as hard as I can with my tongue, imagined purple with gold flecks. Juice squirts out. I swallow.