by Pham Xuan Da
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
The continuous roll of the drum could be heard all around. A group of over a dozen boys and girls were carrying a matchbox coffin that had been fastened to a stick. They were beating their drums and striking their gongs, carrying their dead cricket along a sand bank under the coastal bushes. A group of girls were walking far behind them, splitting their sides with laughter.
One boy, probably the organiser of the game, was walking separately, shouting: "Why do you laugh at a funeral? Just cry! Do you hear me? You girls are crazy!"
The girls became utterly silent, signalling each other to walk in line. They buried their red faces into each other's shoulders.
With a camera hung across his chest, a full kitbag on his hip and his trouser legs rolled up to the knee, Tung was walking towards the holiday resort, but had suddenly stopped in his tracks upon seeing the scene. It was so good for children to play in the countryside where there were a lot of spacious areas, he thought, while children in cities had no room to play outside and were so cooped up. Out of a sudden, he remembered that he was going to take some photos for his report in the next issue of the newspaper. So he turned to go on. At the bathing beach, he felt so thirsty that he dropped into a small nearby pub that was actually a tent set up on the beach. There were some bottles of soft drinks and bags of candies placed tidily on a table. The owner of the shop was a woman whose age eluded him.
She quickly smiled as soon as he entered the shop: "Do come in, please!"
Tung walked in and sat on a plastic chair. "Oh, yes" he replied. He arranged his luggage on the sand and asked for a Fanta with ice.
The woman was trying to serve him with her trembling hands. "Let me do it for you" he said, taking the bottle from her. He poured the drink into a glass and put some ice cubes into it. He gulped it down in one breath. How refreshing it is, he thought! He felt much fresher. Having sat with his back against the chair, Tung now had time to look at the woman who looked so obstinate. She had, however, still kept something in of her youth. She did not pay any notice to the customers. She looked towards the sea. Over there, waves upon waves were rushing onto the shore, splashing silvery white water in the sun. Tung started the conversation:
"Are you native to this area or from another province?"
The woman became startled upon hearing the question. She asked him: "What have you just asked me?"
"I've just asked you where you come from"
The woman smiled a neither happy nor a sad smile and gradually began to talk.
"I was born and grew up here. In the past I was a young volunteer in the fight against the aggressors… When peace was restored, I came back here… and now I am trying to live the last days and months of my life."
Tung did not notice what she had said about her living the last days and months of her life, so he continued to quiz her.
"So how old are you now? You still look so good and I am sure you were very beautiful when you were young. I am a reporter working in Ha Noi. Can you tell me something about your life, about your early years? It might end up being a really moving story,"he smiled.
The woman heaved a sigh. At first she seemed to not want to tell him. But having looked towards the sea, she seemed to be trying to remember her long bygone time.
"When I was still a girl," she began, "I was good-looking. But you know the war was raging on at that time, so none of us girls had ever thought about beauty or about love. Almost all young people had gone to the battlefield, and only old people and children were left behind. At 18, I had followed my sister to go and fight against the enemy. Our young volunteer team took charge of a section of the Truong Son mountain range road. It was a hard a life for us there. Now I want to tell you a story of my own – a love story, in the hope that it could help you write something about it."
"Yes, thank you very much."
"Where can I begin now?"
"Tell me in a natural way, anywhere will do for me, aunt."
"Oh, I forgot that you are a reporter. So, it's up to you what you write. Ok, it was a noon in Truong Son Mountain. It was so beautifully sunny. The stream near our place was strewn with rocks and sparse with trees. Sunlight reflected onto the stream, giving the impression of a leopard's skin. Me and a girl from Ninh Binh Province had left the tent and walked towards the stream with guns in our hands. We both took off our clothes and waded into the cool stream to bathe. It was so pleasant. We really enjoyed being in the water, and at times we would compare our breasts, and then we heard the cracking branch of a nearby tree. Some birds were flying out in fear. Oh, God! It was the commander of the enemy! The two of us quickly rushed back to the bank and put on our clothes. Then we took our AKs and hid ourselves behind some big rocks. Out of the blue sky, we discovered a commander in streaked military uniform, a knapsack on the shoulder, fleeing away. We appeared and shouted:
"Stop! Or we'll shoot you!"
The soldier was still running for his life. I shot into the air. He was still running. I kneeled down, aimed the gun and pressed the trigger. The soldier was seen reeling and collapsed. We ran towards him. The bullet had pierced his thigh and blood was oozing out. He spoke the language of the Northerners with a trembling beseeching voice:
"Please, don't shoot! I am a liberation fighter!"
"A liberation fighter?" I thought, and intended to beat him with the butt of my gun, but I halted because he looked very handsome and lovely, and wounded at that.
I asked my friend to keep an eye on him and ran back to where we had placed our clothes and took a piece of parachute to bandage his wound, and then we carried him back to our tent. All the girls in our units had rushed to see the soldier. The soldier of the Sai Gon puppet army had been tied to a tree in front of the tent.
"You look rather handsome, so why did you peep at the bathing girls? Are you dying for it?" the girls asked him.
The commando bent down in shame. I shouted at the girls to stop. You know, we had to feed the soldier, and even to take him to the latrine. The soldier seemed docile and asked us to allow him to see our senior leader of the unit so as to be able to report a very important thing. I reported it to the regiment command post. In the evening, the regiment commander came in person to our tent. Having witnessed our achievement, he lauded us and asked us to go out of the tent so that he could work with the soldier. Half an hour later, he came to talk on the phone and ordered us to untie the soldier without delay. Then he asked the medical officer from the regiment to come and take care of him. We did not understand. Finally he said:
"This is a very important liberation fighter. This comrade Hanh had a special task to do, so he had to disguise himself as the enemy commander so as to be able to infiltrate into the enemy rank. When he saw you two taking a bath in the stream and looking so inviting, he could not stop himself from peeping at you, and as a result, he got himself shot and captured."
When we all knew the truth, we felt so bad and volunteered to tend his wound together with the medical officer. I was by his side every day and took care of his food and sleep. By the time his wound had healed about two weeks later, we had developed a romance.
That night, Hanh asked me to go to the stream. He would go back to his unit the next day. We spread a piece of nylon on the ground near a bush and lay down together, talking about the future, about love – Hanh had expressed his love for me. And you know, we had made love to each other that very night. The next day he returned to his unit, he took with him a picture of me. In great embarrassment, I could only write down his unit's letterbox number and remembered that his homeland was in Kien Xuong, Thai Binh Province without knowing in detail about his village's name. He also wrote down my unit's letterbox and said that he would pass by this road section a lot more and we would be able to meet each other again. We made a promise to meet and marry when the war was over. We hoped for a happy family then, and we were so sure fire about it.
Later I had received only three letters from him and I did write to him, but then, nothing. I wondered if he had changed his unit or had sacrificed himself. Two years later, the South was completely liberated and I returned to my home province of Quang Ninh and lived with my parents. When my parents passed away, I remained single, and I still am today. And you know, I am living my last days and months of my life. I don't want to hide from you that I have terminal cancer and I don't know how much longer I will live."
Having heard the woman's story, Tung found something bitter in his eyes and nose. And when she mentioned the name Hanh, he wondered if it was his father. Almost possible, he thought. But it could be a coincidence, because there were a lot of men having the name Hanh in Kien Xuong District, Thai Binh Province. On the other hand, he was sure that if it were his father, he would have told him his story because his father had not hidden anything from him. So Tung sat there, looking at the woman and wondering if there were any more women left like this female volunteer in the anti-US war, living a life of great losses until today. He promised that he would write a very emotional story in the hope that his readers would welcome it.
Tung was making tea for his father, when he started telling him about his meeting with the woman on the beach during his business trip, and informed his father about her life and love during the war. Mr Hanh was sitting against the sofa, listening to his son and sipping the tea. His face looked distorted at times. Tung did not notice it until he saw his father sitting there, looking so impassive. He said aloud:
"Dad, what's the matter with you?"
Mr Hanh became startled and awake. A little embarrassed, he stood up in a hurry and walked to the wardrobe, took the suitcase out and placed it on the table. Then he zipped the suitcase open and found a discoloured black and white photo, but the face of the woman in the photo was still clearly seen. He turned to his son:
"Tung, how do you find the woman you met and the woman in this photo? Do they look alike?"
Taking the photo from father, Tung looked at it and nodded his approval. "Her eyes and mouth are similar to each other, dad! But her face… It's difficult to judge…"
Mr Hanh pulled up the left leg of his pyjamas and showed him the left thigh. "This is the wound, you see? That woman is Hien, Do Thi Hien. Her story is true."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Why would I? But now you know it anyway. Can you take me to see her? But don't let the cat out of the bag, don't mention it to mother, ok?"
"Yes, I'll take you to see her. And about mother, we'll keep her in the dark."
Mr Hanh looked at his son, smiling with trust.
The car was pulling up at the beach where Tung had been just two weeks before. The tent was not present there any more, and no woman either. A little worry was reflected on Mr Hanh's face. Tung's face had a shade of sadness. The sea out there was roaring. It seemed that the sea was rough today, he thought. Waves were rushing against the shore, making white foam. Tung opened the door and got out of the car. He looked here and there and walked fast to where the children had played the funeral game the other day. They were playing the game again. He wondered what insect these children were bidding farewell to? He came to them in silence.
"Eh, kids, can I ask you? Do you know where Ms Hien is now? Where does she live?"
The head boy signalled his friends to stop the procession and walked towards Tung.
"Are you Ms Hien's relative?"
"Yes, I am"
"Why do you come so late? She…. She…. is being hospitalised now"
"Do you know which hospital she is in?"
"In Ha Noi," the boy said and then returned to his friends, "let's go on with our work. We are getting near the grave."
Tung returned to the car and gave his father the news. They both quickly got into the car and sped up towards Ha Noi. More than four hours later, they arrived at Hospital K. Father and son began looking for the woman but they could not find her. Tung quickly rushed to see the doctor on duty and asked for the list of patients. With no difficulty, they had found where Ms Hien was. She was lying there, looking haggard with two glazed eyes. A niece of hers was looking after her. Tung sat down by her side.
"Aunt, do you remember me? I am the reporter who had met you the other day on the beach…."
Ms Hien opened her eyes in difficulty, but she seemed so happy.
"Oh, the reporter! Do you want to read the story to me? Fortunately, I am still able to hear it."
"Aunt, I haven't had a chance to write it up yet, but today I want to give you a nice surprise. This is the man who was with you by the stream in Truong Son Mountain that year."
"Don't pull my leg, please. He was dead!"
"Hien, it's me! It's Hanh. I've never forgotten that day with you, Hien. After that day, I went to Cambodia and a few years later, I was demobilised. I looked for you for a long time, but nobody could tell me anything about you."
Ms Hien raised her eyes and tried to get up. Tung helped her sit against a pillow. She looked at Mr Hanh and words failed her. Tears were seen welling up in those two hollow eyes. Mr Hanh sat next to her and placed his hand on the shoulder of the former young volunteer. Ms Hien was looking for her old friend's hand. They pressed their hands together and looked so happy.
Tung got up in silence and walked out of the room, giving back the quiet and short-lived space to them. He walked briskly to the corridor and breathed deeply. Then he walked downstairs and out of the hospital's gate.
The city had just been lit up.
Translated by Manh Chuong