Who are you, man?
A prodigy from Strasbourg? A reptilian overlord? Loyal Glue-ite? The future of PRIME? Henri Lavigne’s vicarious success?
I don’t begrudge you. Hell, I’m like that, too. Many faces. Model Citizen. A-List bro. Revived legend. Second-generation off the boat. Future owner of a taxidermied corpse of Tony Gamble. GOAT.
It makes you…makes us unknowable, and people don’t want to know their hero or villain, don’t want to have a beer with us. They just want to watch us make magic.
But I need to know. Who are you? If I’m going to take that platinum beauty from around your waist—and your streak, FLAMBERGE? I’m not unreasonable; I would let you keep it but I suppose if I take one, then I take the other—I need to draw open the blinds and expose this question to sunlight. I hear they’re doing tremendous things with its disinfectant qualities these days.
Here’s my best shot at who you are. And I admit: we don’t have history. Not yet. But your home and mine? Centuries of it.
And since I am going to separate you from the Intense belt, since we’re going to start our history at ReV 34, let me tell you a little about who you are, by way of telling you a story of who I am.
My great-grandmother grew up in a small village in Lào Cai province. Today it’s Vietnam. The far northwest, up near the border with China. The land up there was bountiful, and green mountains marked the countryside. Thick forest covered most of the world she knew, except for the generations-old terraced rice fields carved right into the slopes. Their family, and most of Lào Cai, lived at altitude, just below the cloud forest. And beyond that —what they called “above the sky”—were the high peaks where nothing taller than bamboo could live.
Her name was Mây, named after the cloud forest, and she was six or seven in 1889. She didn’t know her birth year, but she would never forget this date. That was when the Pháp showed up.
Mây and her father walked a well-tread mountain path down to the trading post several times a week. In the gentle valley between slopes was an established marketplace; a few acres of flat ground and two dozen stalls for vendors to set up shop. In this remote strip of a vast land, people had long congregated for commerce and its sisters of information-sharing and cultural contact. Yunnan peoples from the north, Lao Sung from the west highlands, Hmong from all over, and once a very curious set of men with bamboo-colored skin from a desert land far away. Everyone brought stories. And in this year, only two stories circulated in the marketplace.
The first story was war and intrigue, a saga as old as the land itself. Mây’s father explained to her about the Nguyen kings, and their fabulous houses a world away. He described, though she found it hard to follow, that there were also kings of Siam, Lao kings, kings of places that she couldn’t conceive of and thought she would never go. War between Siam, and Lao, and Nguyen, and even these Pháp kings was nothing new.
“Kings claim power over others,” Mây’s father explained. “They make wars and drive trade. But they think they own the sun, the forest, the rivers. Little cloud, you see the sun and the forest and the rivers every day. Have you ever seen them follow the lead of a king?”
In the marketplace that day, Mây and her father attended their stall. He spoke fast, in a shifted dialect Mây could only half-understand. Two men from a village to the south haggled with him over swapping their ceramic bowls for the ginger that Mây’s family harvested.
“Papa, what are they saying?” she asked, tugging at his robe.
He laid a warm hand on her shoulder. He listened to the traders, and spoke to his daughter out of the side of his mouth. “The king of the forest.”
This was the second story.
Mây’s skin prickled cold. She waited until the traders had loaded her family’s ginger into their satchels and moved on to another trader until she spoke again.
“They saw him?” she asked. “The king?”
When her father laughed, out came a high-pitched whinny. His laughter often caused a chain reaction of Mây laughing at his laughter. Not this time. He laughed alone.
“Do you think they would be alive to tell the tale?” He teased her. “The king doesn’t make a habit of leaving men with their heads still attached.”
But the traders had heard a rumor, Mây’s father told her. A young boy had gone out to tend the family’s small corn field. On the plateaus in the lower hills, small-scale farming helped provide extra calories, or insurance in case the grueling work of rice cultivation failed. The boy, as the traders told it, had stayed out too close to sunset, and was forced to walk back through the forest to his village at dusk. There, in the palace of the king of the forest, the boy was taken. The village monks, the story went, had nothing to cremate but the boy’s walking stick.
“Is that true?” Mây asked, lip quivering. “Why would our grandfather take a boy?”
“We must always respect him, even fear him,” her father said, without answering her question. “He is the forest, and the forest is him. Our gifts, our bounty, our livelihood, we keep those through respect for the god of the forest. Come and smile now. No customer wants to buy ginger from a man who makes his daughter cry.”
Mây made certain her father agreed that they could leave early, and be home long before evening. She did not want to be caught in the long grass as the sun fell, and come to meet the king of the forest.
Vietnamese is a funny language. It relies heavily on naming people, places, things. I barely understand the language, but I know that everything has like a dozen proper names, all used interchangeably. God of the forest, king of the forest, grandfather. Why all the names, FLAMBERGE?
Neck Collector. Le Protagoniste. French Phenom.
Model Citizen. Tsuperstar. Viet Viper.
We know. We don’t need to speak Vietnamese to understand it.
A name for each of the many faces.
The name you should know in the story: Pháp. It’s the oldest name my people have for your people. And I don’t want to keep you in suspense, so you may want to sit down: les bleus aren’t going to fare too well.
Over the next few days, Mây thought of nothing else. When she grabbed water at the well, she thought of being stalked from behind, unaware of who lay beyond the edge of the banyan trees. When she packed river minnows with salt to make next season’s fish sauce, she thought of grandfather traipsing along the water’s edge, bloodthirsty again. When she lay at night on her bamboo mat, she thought of the little boy’s walking stick, and what would happen to his uncremated soul.
On the next market day, though, something happened that made Mây forget about the king of the forest. She and her father went to their typical stall and did typical things: bartered with crotchety Mr. Minh, exchanged information over a strong brew of tea with Blind Hieu, rearranged their harvest.
My great-grandmother remembers first sight of the men. They dressed oddly, in thick clothes the color of dark running water. The traders from the desert had worn something similar, but where the desert men had worn fabric that billowed and breathed, these men’s navy outfits were heavy and identical, clearly a uniform of some kind. They covered their heads with hats the same color. The swords on their hips confirmed their status as foreign warriors.
There were three of them, all with skin lighter than ginger, and upper lips hidden behind mustaches. They entered the marketplace on the far edge, near where Hue’s family sold simple but practical jewelry. Mây couldn’t take her eyes off the strange fair-skinned men, striding around like the tax collectors who, four times a year, came and behaved as if they owned the village and all the people in it. Mây reviled the tax collectors, mostly the one who smiled at her through wormy yellow teeth like he had a nasty secret.
“Behind me now, little cloud,” her father said, his voice not loud but firm. She did as she was told.
“Good morning, fellows,” he said, greeting the three Pháp men in his native language. The tallest man, standing in the middle, showed some sign of understanding, but the other two stood there as if he’d asked them to count the exact amount of stones in the river.
“Parl tue fransay?” was what Mây heard come out of the tall man’s mouth. Foreign words all mushy, the man performing strange contortions of the tongue.
Her father shook his head. The tall man picked at the corner of his mustache. Mây thought she saw a kindness in his face, and realized that he was nothing like a tax collector.
She watched from behind as her father and the tall Pháp man tried out short phrases on one another, speaking slowly, in much the same way her father traded information with the deaf seller who came from Yunnan with fireworks before the summer festival. The two men used their hands, and simple words. Her father gave the tall man their word for ginger, pointing to their wares: gù’ng.
“Gù’ng,” the tall man said, trying it on for size. Mây’s father held up a ginger bulb he was particularly proud of, thrusting it into the man’s hand.
“Gù’ng,” her father repeated.
“Jenjamb,” he said in his own language, pointing at the ginger. The man repeated it; Mây would later come to know the word: “Gingembre.” The Pháp had a word for it, too. Mây felt full of possibility. These men had traveled from how far she didn’t know—a season’s travel? More?—and they too had a word for the stinky, spicy plant that made broth good, and chicken better.
“You want it for a good price?” her father added, with a sly smile. Always trying to go home having traded or sold his full harvest. She felt a tickle of pride. He was so good at this.
Before the tall man could respond, the other two Pháp men hissed in his direction. They spoke fast. The tall man handed the bulb back, and offered an apologetic smile. Then the three of them left, chattering amongst themselves.
No one spoke of the king of the forest that market day, nor any of the next market days when Mây and her father descended from their mountain village. They only spoke of the fast-multiplying presence of Pháp men in blue. People said that the Nguyen kings, through some obscure process by which men in power decide to give other men power, had invited the Pháp to become the new rulers of not just the mountains, not just the valley beyond, but all the way to the great ocean in the south.
The three soldiers had not yet returned to the marketplace. It was, after all, in the hard to reach mountains. Mây heard two words repeatedly. Another name for the Pháp: French. Another name for this kingdom: Tonkin.
“Papa, I don’t understand. Why are these new kings here?”
“I’m not sure, little cloud. I’ve heard the same as you. But you know that no king wants to spend his silver or gold to control a little mountain village far away from anywhere.”
“Will the Pháp replace the king of the forest, too?” Mây knew her father revered grandfather, and tried to conceal her excitement that the soldiers might eradicate the source of her nightmares.
“Never,” he said, his smile spreading across the high plains of his cheeks. “He is the one king who is irreplaceable. He is the forest, and the forest is him.”
Mây did not show her disappointment.
I know, FLAMBO. It’s a little unfair to reduce you to just your Frenchness. Very trite, very basic bitch. I fancy myself more evolved, more generous of heart.
But dude, you’re literally named after a flaming sword, in the language of the colonizers who unleashed a centuries-long typhoon of violence, pain, and suffering on mine. If it looks like un canard, swims like one, quacks like one…you get it.
I don’t think it was you, or your dad, or his dad, who came in waving the tricolore to the jungles of northwest Vietnam—dudes of your hue fared just as poorly as dudes of mine under the French yolk—but I know where they announce you from every time you walk out to the ring. Where we claim is what we are. We are our forest and our forest is us.
Something was wrong when next Mây and her father came down the path to the market. Half the stalls looked empty, and Mr. Minh stormed past them in the opposite direction.
“Sir, what’s wrong?” Mây’s father asked.
Mr. Minh spun on his heel, his ears bright red.
“What’s wrong is those Pháp leeches just took half my rice. They have some boy from a southern village translating for them, so they can share just enough information to make it clear that they’re here to rob us like common thieves!”
“Come now, Mr. Minh. Sit and let’s talk about this,” her father cajoled.
“Do what you like,” he snarled. “Don’t ask me for trade, or for charity, when these foreign bastards do the same to you!”
Mây, like everyone who came to market, knew Mr. Minh’s reputation. He was a crank, but not a liar. His words were a shock.
“Should we go back home?” Mây asked, once Mr. Minh left earshot. She looked up at her father.
“Mr. Minh must be mistaken,” he said. “Let’s do our business, little cloud.”
They had barely made a sale when the Pháp appeared at their stall. Five this time. The dark blue hats, coats, and pants identical, the faces different.
“Hello,” Mây’s father said. “Welcome to our stand. Buying or bartering?”
The soldiers looked at him impassively.
“Gingembre,” he said, repeating the word he had learned, while showing both palms in a universal sign of welcome. “This is some of the finest ginger in t—
A Pháp man matter-of-factly opened a cotton pouch and used his arm like a rake, funneling ginger into the pouch. Mây noticed a gashed scar under his right eye.
“Now excuse me!” Mây’s father interjected, taking a step towards the soldiers. Five hands traveled immediately to their respective hilts. “This is my business, and you’ll have to pay for that,” he said, gesturing towards the pouch, which the scarred man was now cinching up. May could hear her own short breaths.
The soldiers ushered a small man in Hmong dress to the front. Mây and her father knew this man: Jong from the southern villages. The scarred man spoke to Jong, who lowered his head, and refused to make eye contact with Mây’s father. The Pháp thief took a step towards Jong, who flinched and dropped.
“They say they need this to feed their army,” Jong said, staring at the ground.
“You should be ashamed! Helping these invader…bastards!” Imagine my great-grandmother’s surprise to hear this coming out of her own mouth.
The eyes of the market now fell upon them. Mây’s father stepped between the soldiers and his daughter. He put his hands up, in defense, not aggression. The soldiers’ hands did not leave their sword hilts.
“Please, she is just a girl. Tell them,” he implored. “Jong, tell them. Make them understand!”
Jong mumbled something, but the scarred man was no longer listening. With a flick of the wrist, he now produced a sword from its sheath, a terrible gleam catching the sun’s light.
Mây’s father turned to her, but she was already running. She was small and slippery, having practiced her balance jumping from rock to rock in the river. And in the din of the market, the confusion of a Pháp soldier pulling out a weapon on market day, there was enough chaos for a little girl to make her escape back up the mountain path.
Don’t bail on me yet, FLAMBERGE. This is my favorite part.
Mây climbed as quickly as she could, but the late morning was hot, and her legs were short, and the mountain was tall. Her father usually left plenty of time for a slow amble up the steep incline. And the bolt of lightning in her chest from the market escape now left her feeling sluggish. She couldn’t take another step. A short rest, and she figured she could make the rest of the climb.
She was jolted awake with the scarred man’s hand around her wrist. Mây saw his bad intentions. Jong stood a step behind, a drooping, hangdog look about him. The scarred man shouted at Jong.
“He says you stole his ginger,” Jong translated.
“What?!,” Mây cried. “He took it all! Where is papa?”
“He doesn’t believe you. He says that’s why you ran, that you have a secret stash.”
“Where would I?” Mây held out her empty hands. “Tell me where my father is!”
It didn’t take a translation to understand the man shaking his head angrily non, non, non. He unleashed a stream of invective.
“What…what’s he saying?” Mây asked. The heat of oncoming tears flushed her face.
Jong looked up. Something else shone in his eyes: not self-pity. Sorrow.
“You should have run faster,” Jong said. “I’m sorry.”
The sword flashed out of its sheath again.
The Pháp man grinned. Vile like the tax collector.
Mây began to cry. She called for her father.
A peal of thunder broke everything. The sound stilled the scarred man’s hand. Jong turned to the forest edge. Not thunder, a roar.
On the shoulder of the path was a blaze of red and black bigger than two men. May couldn’t speak nor move. The awesome and abominable king of the forest stared back at her, eyes two fiery suns. He gave a tense flick of his tail, the only movement on the mountain path.
Jong let out a scream and fled. Mây thought she remembered that you were never to turn your back on the king of the forest. The great beast barely seemed to notice the translator running for his life.
The scarred man looked at Mây, and, speechless, at the tiger. Grandfather bared his teeth.
Mây didn’t think. She folded her hands in prayer, like her father had shown her. She clasped her palms tightly, and felt them go white with pressure. She closed her eyes.
“You are the forest. You are the forest. You are the forest.” She whispered this until she had lost the individual words. It became a sound, like a hum, like the monks’ chants echoing off the monastery walls. “You are the forest. You are the forest.”
A third story they came to tell in the market, and the surrounding villages: a ginger farmer’s daughter watched a Frenchman struck down by the king of the forest, mauled, and dragged off as food. A needle of justice in a haystack of injustice. The vengeance of the king of the forest, they called it. Nothing left of the Pháp burglar but a glistening sword on a mountain path, and the spared little girl.
The real story, our family secret, was that my great-grandmother saw nothing of the sort. Maybe a drag mark here, a pawprint the size of her head, but this was where the memory hazed over. By the time she told my mother the story, Mây was an old woman, with no time or patience for questions about accuracy or semantics.
Though she insisted as long as she lived, no one but us ever believed that when Mây opened her eyes on the mountain path, there was simply no Frenchmen and no tiger.
There you have it, FLAMBERGE. I think we got it all. The sword (callback to your name!), the conflict, the lore. Honestly, dude, a pretty tidy disquisition on Chandler Tsonda (that’s me).
But I did lie. Owning up to it. We’re going to operate in a culture of accountability. I said I needed to know who you are.
I don’t, Julien.
I’m willing to be polite about it. Open to knowing more. I’m happy to begin our history with the momentous occasion of me becoming the proud papa of a new Intense Title reign. Let’s stay in touch. Don’t be a stranger.
But I don’t need to know you.
I only need to fold my hands like this. I clasp my palms together. I close my eyes.
And when I open them?
Wait for it.