The Moon Over Red Trees

Night over The Red Trees. Clarisse rises from the bed, casting a glance at the moonlight that slowly seeps into the room. Raoul, asleep in his bed with his arms outstretched towards her, groans and shifts, looking for her, but he does not wake up. He used to, when she first came here months ago; but he soon got used to her wandering through the house every night–and tonight of all nights, he knows she won’t be able to sleep.

A story set in historical Indochina (Cochinchina, to be precise) near the beginning of the 20th Century. With a magical tortoise, jade bracelets, and a woman who may not be who she thinks she remembers…

Author notes, with spoilers. Read at your peril!

This has gone through more incarnations than I can count: it started as a story of a lone swordsman coming to a rubber tree plantation in Indochina, then morphed into a story of conflicting family ties during the brief (and doomed) rebellion against French rule engineered in 1916 by Emperor Duy Tan (Duy Tân) and his advisor Tran Cao Van (Trần Cao Vân). In the end, this was too complex to get across in the space I had given myself to write (I wanted a “short” story of maybe 3000 words, and explaining the wider context of the rebellion wasn’t on the cards. Maybe one day…).

I settled for something else: the old, timeworn trope of colonial love–the man falling in love with a local woman and marrying her (or making her his mistress, depending!). It occurred to me that this was a situation that could easily become fraught, given the depredations of the colonists, who had a tendency to get everything that caught their eyes (seriously. Read a history of colonial Indochina sometimes, and try not to smash something. The sheer arrogance and entitlement is nauseating), and part of this story is an attempt to go against the rosy-eyed cliché of a woman lifted from poverty by the power of love– whereas in real life, this would have been a complex situation to navigate, especially with regards to the skewed power balance. (of course real life would have been more subtle, and there would have been a variety of situations and relationships! I just don’t have space in a short story to deal with all of that)

Another thing that changed between draft and published version was the gender balance: Vinh, Clarisse’s sister, was originally a man, but I thought that having a seductress as a woman and a fighter as a man was a bit too gender essentialist, so I made both of them women (I couldn’t, for obvious reasons, make both of them men!).

Rubber was a quick and easy way to become rich in that time period: the living conditions of workers could be absolutely abysmal, though I’ve had no time to delve into that. What is sure that is that going to the colonies was a quick and relatively easy way to make money for people–you could live in relative ease with servants, for a fraction of the cost at home. So colonists tended to be people who were short of money for one reason or another (you’ll notice Raoul is from Brest and not Paris–areas away from the centre of power of France tended to do more poorly). The hevea trees are the “Red Trees” of the title (I know hevea doesn’t quite have a reddish bark, but the ones in the plantation we visited in Vietnam were somewhat reddish, and the description stuck). The moon, of course, is a reference to poor Cuoi , who gets exiled to the Moon with his banyan tree, and who here is the symbol of an impossible return.

The names Raoul and Clarisse are an allusion to another pair of doomed lovers: Raoul d’Andrézy aka the gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin and Clarisse d’Etigues, his first love, who subsequently dies in childbirth. Clarisse dies with no knowledge of who her husband is or what kind of illegal activities he is up to; it seemed to me appropriate and ironic to make Raoul the one who had no clue what his mistress was up.

And the turtle/tortoise is of course an allusion to Rua than Kim Quy (Rùa thần Kim Quy, see pictures here), the Golden Turtle Genie who protects Vietnam–he gave one of his claws to King An Dương Vương to form the basis of a magical crossbow that would protect the city from invasion for as long as it was held ready; and the sword Heavenly Will to Emperor Le Loi/Le Thai To (Lê Lợi/ Lê Thái Tổ) to free Vietnam from the Chinese in the 15th Century.

Yup, the notes are almost longer than the story :p

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