by Van Xuong
|Illustration by Do Dung
It was only March yet hot as midsummer. The oppressive south-westerly wind, quite typical in the central part of the country, swept along the road, bending the trees on either side. Our car raced along with the wind down the legendary Ho Chi Minh Road, through the vast green rubber tree forests and toward the Truong Son Martyrs Cemetery.
Having burnt incense at the Memorial Monument, we spread out to different parts of the graveyard. With a bunch of joss sticks, I went with the cemetery guide to the graves of unsung heroes. Upon arriving at the last grave, I caught a strange feeling. Nervous and confused, I hung around.
The cemetery guide said to me:
"Five days ago, the Van Kieu ethnic minority people who were planting trees discovered this martyr's grave. We were so moved because it is not a grave at all! His skeleton was actually just lying there like a sleeping person with a rusty AK machine gun by his side. It seemed that he had been heavily wounded, so he had lain down there and died. Days passed and earth and sand covered his body. There was only one memento that did not fade with time."
"What's that?" I asked.
"It is a small comb made up of a fragment of a shot-down US war plane."
I stood silent while listening and then with a foreboding feeling, I drew a comb out of my shirt pocket.
"Is it like this?"
"Yes, it's like that" – the cemetery guide took the comb, looking at it for a moment and said – "It is also a plane comb, the same size, but the picture chiselled on the comb is not the soldier with a gun slung over his shoulder."
"So, what's the picture?" I asked impatiently "Did you bury the soldier with that comb?"
"No," the cemetery guide answered slowly, "I don't remember it clearly, but it seemed that it was a picture of a boy sitting by a large tree. I will show you now; I know the hall of the cemetery, where it is."
The traditional hall of the cemetery was 70sq.m large with pictures posted of people from all over the country. The hall contained the line "A tribute to the memory of the heroes and martyrs of Truong Son". The cemetery guide took a small box placed next to the statue called "The Mother sends her son to battle front", and gave it to me. I opened it with trembling hands, my eyes blurring, my heart beat increasing. I asked myself: "Is this the comb? Is it a dream?" Then the words escaped without my control:
"Oh, God! My dear brother Hai...! Mother, I have found my older brother Hai!"
I felt choked up and unable to control my sobbing. My childhood memories flooded through my head. In early 1967, when I was only in first grade, my home village near the 17th parallel was being blanketed with enemy bombs and shells. Old people and children were evacuated to Nghe An Province and children like me were moved further to the north. It took us two months to reach the place. Each of us was sent to live with a family and I lived with two people, an old woman of 50 who later I called Mum and a young guy, 10 years older than I, who was called Hai.
About one month later, a girl three years older than my brother Hai appeared in the house. Mum said to me:
"It is your older sister Thuy. She is studying medicine in the provincial city."
Sister Thuy embraced me and then said to Mum:
"This boy is lovely, Mum. Do you think he looks like me and Hai? Any stranger would think he is surely our blood brother."
"Yes, he is. I tried my best to be his caretaker because of that resemblance, you know."
I lived in the loving care of my Mum and brother Hai. Whenever we went, to the cinema or to an art performance, my Mum always asked Hai to carry me on his back. During the nights when it was so hot, my Mum sat there and fanned me until I slept. This made me forget my homesickness. Hai loved me very much, but he was also very strict with me. He checked up on my studies every night. I was a playful boy and he tried to keep me under his control.
Mum had always protected me, but she was very strict with me as well. One day she said to me:
"You must listen to your brother and study harder and play less to become a good man. Do you understand me?"
I obeyed only for a few days and then everything worsened. I started to play more than work and study. One day, Hai asked me to take the tea-pot to wash it in the village pond and put clean green tea leaves into it so he could prepare tea for mother. I took the tea pot to the pond and was about to clean it when I heard children screaming wildly while spinning a top nearby. I was so clumsy that I broke the spout of the pot by knocking it on a rock near the pond. It was my Mum 's extensive, china tea pot, but brother Hai was the man I feared most. "What was I to do now?" I asked myself.
I picked up the spout and tried to reconnect it to the pot. Then I got some soft clay to attach it. After that, I quickly put green tea leaves into it and gave it to brother Hai. Then I went off to play with the children. Hai quickly called me back: "Ha, do come home and study now!" I rushed home immediately.
"You study more today, Ha!" brother Hai said.
I said nothing, so brother Hai continued: "How strange it is! That tea pot has been used for a long time without problem. Yet, today when I poured hot water into it, its spout broke off. Ha, do you think it is so strange?"
I kept silent. I would be in great trouble now, I thought.
"Ha, why don't you answer me?"
"What? What did you say?" I pretended not to hear him.
"So what do you think it is?" brother Hai glared at me, pointing to the pot with a broken spout "Do you think you know?"
"No, I don't know anything about it!"
"You don't know it, do you? You're a true liar!" he kicked me in the bottom and it hurt. I ran out and cried.
In the late afternoon, Mum came home. She prepared the meal and did not see me around, so she asked:
Brother Hai told Mum everything. Mum said:
"It's no use crying over spilt milk. He had already broken it, so why did you beat him? Go and fetch him home now!"
I hid myself behind the house and heard everything Mum said. Then I ran to sit under the kapok tree by the river. Brother Hai and Mom had gone to look for me. Hai soon found me by the river.
"Do come home now. I beat you not because you broke the pot, but because you were dishonest. You should tell me the truth. You are still small, so you must be honest to become a good man in the future. Now, go home and be good. I will make a top for you tomorrow so that you can play with your friends."
Having heard it, I walked home in silence with Hai. In July that year, Hai passed the entrance examination in the Finance-Accounting University in Ha Noi. He went to study there and the house grew empty and deserted; I felt sad and missed him. That same year, sister Thuy finished her studies at the medical school. She worked in the provincial city and got married. When Tet came, Mum and I were waiting for brother Hai to come home and enjoy it with us. We waited and waited, but in vain. He did not come home. When he finally showed up, he was wearing a knapsack on his back. He had joined the army and was stationed in Thanh Hoa Province.
It was in late March, red kapok flowers were seen all over the ground by the river side. Birds were coming to enjoy the warmth after long winter days. Children were swimming in the Sat River. Mum and I were overjoyed at having brother Hai home. In a military uniform, he looked smart and proper. He embraced me and said:
"How are your studies? Good?" I nodded, so he continued, "All right"
Mum was joyful:
"Why didn't you tell me when you joined the army? Now you are home, do tell me which girl in the village you like so that I can arrange a wedding for you."
Brother Hai only smiled:
"Let's delay it until we drive the US aggressors out of the country, Mum!"
Brother Hai had a 10-day R&R. When he was about to leave, Mum decided to not see him off for fear that she would cry. I went with him to the river, and when we came to the kapok tree, he asked me to stop. He reminded me of the day when I had gone to sit under it. I felt shameful, so I buried my head in his chest.
Brother Hai then told me that he had come home this time because he was about to go to fight in the South. He tried to hide it from Mum for fear that she would be too worried about him. Then he pulled out of his shirt pocket a shining plane-like comb and showed something on the comb.
"You see, this is you and this is the kapok tree. Take it for a keep-sake and when you comb your hair, you will remember me and maybe study harder."
I took it in great surprise and still hesitated, wondering what he would use as a surprise. As if reading my mind, he took out of his knapsacks another comb very similar to the one I was holding, but with one difference. His comb was chiselled with a soldier with a gun slung over his shoulder.
"These two combs were made from a fragment of a US war plane that was shot down, you know."
I exchanged the combs and said:
"You keep the comb with the boy and I keep the one with a soldier, do you agree?"
"Okay. When I come home after defeating the US aggressors, we will exchange it. Deal?"
I picked up a red kapok flower and gave it to him, and then I stood motionless a while, watching him on the boat that was gradually moving out of sight.
A short time after Hai left, young people in the village started joining the army as well, leaving all the old people, women and children behind. As time passed, more and more white mourning turbans were seen on women's heads. The scene was heart-breaking and distressing. One day in late autumn, black clouds spread across the sky causing a bleak feeling throughout the city. At that time, the head of the communal militia detachment came to see us with a notice of death. That afternoon, they organised a memorial service in honour of brother Hai.
Sister Thuy upon hearing the sad news rushed home, screaming. Mother sat there in dead silence. She did not cry, but from that day on, every time she embraced me, her eyes welled with tears. Her warm tears would fall right on my face; I felt a great sorrow for Mum and cried with her. Mum consoled me:
"Don't cry, my son! Your crying makes me much sadder."
Mother's health worsened after Hai's death. Her hair turned grey and she grew thinner. A turn in my life also came that had made mother's life much emptier. In August 1973, all the children were returned to their homes. On the parting day, Mum kept her hands on the vehicle that carried me away until it was moving.
After a few months, Mum came to see me because she missed me so much that she could not bear it. I entered the university and studied there for one year before I was recruited into the army. I was stationed for four years in the Northern border area before I was demobilised. I returned to the university to continue with my studies for a few more years and after that I worked for 30 years in an office. During this time, whenever I had a chance, I came to see my Mum. I invited Mum to come and live with me, but she refused.
"Don't worry about me, son. I'm here with all the villagers, with sister Thuy and her children, and I am so happy when you come to see me. I am old, so my only wish is to be able to bring your brother's remains home and bury him in his home village. Then I could rest in peace in the other world."
I felt a great pain in my heart. Brother Hai laid down his life in my homeland. I had gone all these years looking for his remains, but in vain. It was pure coincidence and fortune for me that I found him at last.
Two days later, I went to see Mum. When I got to the yard, sister Thuy rushed to see me, saying:
"Mother is very weak now. She seems not to be able to live any more."
Upon hearing that, I ran quickly into the house and took Mum's hands:
" Mum, I… I am Ha, your Ha, coming to see you!"
I took out the comb with a boy chiselled on it and placed it in her hands:
" Mum, I have found Hai's grave."
Mum opened her eyes and stared at the comb. Her face seemed to glow. She tried to hold it tightly as if she was afraid that someone would take it away. Two tears slowly ran down her bony cheeks.
My heart constricted and emotion overflowed inside me. I took the comb with a soldier chiselled on it and placed it on the altar:
"My dear brother Hai! I have materialised your wish."
Mum signalled me to come closer to her, then she took my hands and moved her lips as if she wanted to say something. Her lips slowly closed. Mum went as if she was sleeping… so peacefully. Sister Thuy and all the people sitting around burst into tears.
A few days after Mum's funeral, I left on the road that ran alongside the river. When I spotted an age-old kapok tree, and those red kapok flowers strewn on the ground by the riverside, I was amazed, remembering those distant days filled with rueful memories…
Translated by Manh Chuong