Bufes

My house is decorated with odds and ends from Vietnam. I have half a dozen paintings, oils and water color, done by South Vietnamese artists that I bought over the years in Vietnam. On my desk is a coffee tile, now cracked, mounted in wood, showing the character for dao (道) in Chinese or Ðao with a low glottal stop in Vietnamese, meaning “way” or “path”—the source of Taoism. A fish basket table stands beside my piano, and rounded wooden stools are by the fireplace. Two white ceramic plant holders, two to three feet high, stand on my deck. One is perforated as if the holes in leaf pattern allowed empty random spaces. The other is three elephant heads formed into a single column—it’s reportedly from Laos, the land that once worshiped an elephant with one head surrounded by three faces, each with a trunk.

But the items that get the attention are my bufes, that is, “big ugly f**king elephants,” as the soldiers and Marines used to call them. These are three-feet tall ceramic figures of elephants with ornamental head dresses and decorated saddles. I have them in a variety of sizes and colors.

I bought the bufes in Vietnam and displayed them in the various villas I had with my family over the years in Saigon. I couldn’t resist talking about them in Last of the Annamese. Early in the story, Ike and Chuck, housemates, are entertaining a visiting U.S. Marine colonel. Also present is Molly, the nurse known for her irreverence and rangy language. The scene reads as follows:

After dinner, the guests adjourned to the living room for brandy. Molly sat next to the colonel, munched chocolates served by Oanh, and asked for an ice cube in her snifter. Chuck gave her one without comment, but [Colonel] Macintosh laughed.

“Sorry,” she said to the colonel, “but if it’s worth snorting, it’s worth snorting on the rocks.”

Macintosh eyed the ceramic elephants—one green, one purple—supporting the glass top of the cocktail table. “I see a lot of these. Are they a Saigon special?”

“We call them bufes—big ugly fucking elephants.” Molly ignored Ike’s wince. “Yeah, you can pick them up on Tu Do for a few thousand pee [GI slang for piaster].” She held her glass to Chuck. “Would you?”

End of quote.

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