|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Chau Hoai Thanh
"B…oo…m!" A terrible explosion echoed from Boi Hill, startling my mother so much that she dropped her bundle of firewood onto the ground.
"What's the matter, dear Thin?" she asked me in a worried voice while trying to pick up the dry twigs. Minh, one of my friends, shouted loudly to little Thao, who was standing at the entrance to the village gate: "My God, a fatal accident has happened!"
"Who's the victim?" Mum asked Minh.
"It's Brother Ha, esteemed Auntie. Surely he's dead," said the little boy.
"It's true, Auntie," he confirmed.
"On Boi Hill, Auntie."
"Oh dear! Why the devil did he go there?"
Instead of replying, he ran away immediately.
Finding me in confusion, Mum told me, "Go home at once! What's the use of you wandering around here?" She ran after Minh to the foot of Boi Hill. Lingering on the porch, I stared at them in bewilderment. A group of panic-stricken grown-ups, including Uncles Dam and Luu and Auntie Chinh, hurried off in the direction of the accident. About one hour later, they all came back with a stretcher on which something bulged under a large piece of parachute. Minh followed them with a haggard face.
It turned out that Ha had touched the fuse of an explosive left underground after the war. Poor man, his body was torn to pieces, except for his missing right arm!
It was the end of summer, full of scorching sunshine with a hot draught of wind that raised a cloud of dark-red dust. Our poor village was now in mourning for Ha's appalling death. Mrs. Ngan, his mother, lay unconscious at the foot of her beloved son's grave. Most of the attendants to the funeral procession stared at the foot of the hill, encircled by tangled barbed wire. Usually, all of us kids were forbidden from visiting that latent death trap while tending our buffalo. However, sometimes a few were bold enough to sneak up the hill for the abundant sweet blackberries that grew there. One of them was Minh. Because he had repeated one year of school, he was just one grade below me even though he was older. After school, he often led his farming animals to graze in the area.
"How mischievous you are!" I remarked.
"Really?" he asked, showing his tongue, still black with berry juice.
"Tiep and little Mi once told me that you always went there alone," I added.
"Of course! Why not?"
"What a cunning guy!"
Then he whispered his secret to me. It turned out that he had just returned home after taking his buffalo to graze on Boi Hill.
"On the hill, blackberry bushes grew abundantly," he said to me. "You can eat sweet berries to your heart's content." He quickly walked into his house and brought me a small basket full of ripe fruit.
"Take them home to enjoy," he urged.
"But I might be in danger!"
"What are you afraid of?"
"If my mother thinks that I went to that horrifying place to pick them, she'll punish me."
"So you can eat them up here," he suggested.
We soon finished our special meal.
"Want to get some more?" he encouraged me after I had drunk a mug of boiled water.
"No!" I replied, shaking my head. "You're not afraid of the unexploded mines there?"
"No, never! I know how to stay away from them."
"I follow this dirt path. Quite safe and sound, you see," he answered, drawing a line on the ground with a stick.
Again, I shook my head and went away, ignoring him when he called after me.
In 1954, the Ben Hai River flowing across the maize fields of my native village became a demarcation line between the two regions of our country: the North and the South, each with its own political regime. American B-52 flying fortresses tried to raze our locality to the ground. Consequently, there were a lot of bomb craters, big and small, in hamlets, rice fields and mulberry groves on the northern bank. In 1966, my father and elder sister died during a US bombardment when I was only one year old. My mother cried her eyes out. Later, whenever that terrible event came up, she wept and wept. I was too naive to understand the tragedy of my family. After that, she stayed single to bring me up in our house at the end of the village, within a stone's throw of Boi Hill.
My paternal grandfather once told me that the hill had once been very dense. When the war raged over our locality, it was lamentably destroyed. After the liberation, many areas could not be cultivated again due to the unexploded bombs and mines that still lay underground, in spite of great efforts by military engineers and local militiamen. He also added that previously Miss Tinh's two knee-joints had been badly injured by mines while she was cutting grass, so her legs were amputated.
And now came Ha's fatal day. All of us rural kids, except for Minh, felt greatly frightened whenever we had to approach that infamous hill. Therefore, I admired him very much.
That all happened nearly twenty years ago. After leaving school, I joined a group of road-builders for a municipal construction company far from home. My mother stayed with my paternal grandfather. Time and again, I came back home to visit my family. Strangely, whenever I passed by Boi Hill, I still felt nervous. Although all the bomb craters had been filled up, Ha's right arm and Tinh's two knee-joints were still missing, a fact that haunted me.
This time when I came home, I saw that Boi Hill had finally been cultivated with lots of rubber plants and rows of pepper. Overall, my hometown had been changed remarkably by economic development. After visiting the graves of my father and sister, Mum offered to lead me to Boi Hill so I could see its new condition.
"Mum, I can go myself," I replied, seeing her back bent a little.
"You might lose your way after so many years' absence from home," she said. We walked along the luxuriant rows of green rubber plants, stopping in front of Ha's grave.
"This is the place where Ha rests in peace," she told me, her eyes in tears. I kept silent, breathing hard. In order to make her less sorrowful, I changed the subject.
"Who do these plants belong to, Mum?" I asked.
"Your old friend Minh."
"But how could he clear away unexploded mines, Mum?"
"He resorted to the help of provincial sappers to solve the hard and dangerous problem. It took them two weeks to finish the task. How clever and brave the boy was!" All of a sudden, I remembered his whisper to me years ago. To my surprise, nearly all three ha of hillside was fully covered with rubber plants!
"Minh's income from rubber might amount to a few billion dong per year," Mum observed. "Strangely, he did badly at school, yet now he does business very well." He married Mi and they had three children, two boys and one girl.
Back at home, I examined myself in a small mirror. Oh dear, I looked rather old in comparison with my real age of thirty. I was still single. The fact was that as a construction worker, settling down temporarily here and there, it was by no means easy to get a husband. In retrospect, I felt bitter about my destiny.
"If Ha hadn't died, I would have been his wife," I whispered to myself. His mother Ngan had set great store by me. She and my mother were childhood friends and they wanted to strengthen their relationship deeper through our marriage. I still remembered how Mum's face turned pale when she heard of Ha's death.
On the way to market, I dropped in on Minh. His three-story brick house was under construction amid the masses of brick and mortar. He was in dusty casual clothes while his wife Mi was preparing feed for the pigs.
"Oh my God! My beloved Thin's come back home," she exclaimed happily when she saw me. "Who's accompanying you?"
"Nobody, I've returned home alone," I answered. "How are you?" I asked out of politeness. Looking at her, I was fully aware of her real health condition.
"Thin, do you still like blackberries?" Minh said as we sipped green tea prepared by Mi. "If you like, my daughter Met will help you get some."
"What! On my way across your rubber plantation I didn't see any bushes of that kind," I replied.
"How crazy you are! I left part of the hillside untouched so our favourite blackberries could grow there. But I'm afraid that you've forgotten their flavour."
His three little children seemed to all be the same age. Sitting beside Minh, they urged me to follow them. Nevertheless, I refused cleverly by giving them a pouch of chocolate sweets.
"Have you paid a floral tribute to Ha's soul?" he asked me.
"Regrettably, not yet."
Substituting his working clothes for a blue striped shirt, he hurried away ahead of me. Walking across several fields of cassava and sweet potato, we stopped in front of a burial enclosure of the Dinh clan, whose walls were in bad condition. Ha's grave lay beside that of his stepfather Quang. On Ha's small tomb was a withered blackberry twig. Immediately Minh replaced it with a new one. Reaching the shrine, we burnt a few joss-sticks and planted them in the middle of the incense-burner. "May God bless you," I prayed while kowtowing. In my mind's eye, our childhood, joyful and sorrowful, seemed to appear in front of me.
"My dear Thin, do you think that it's I who ruined Ha's life?" Minh asked me in a repentant voice.
"Actually, you don't know that at all. Precisely speaking, I'm to blame for his death."
I kept silent, staring at his tearful eyes. He moved his hands over the tombstone and told me what had happened that morning.
"It's rather late to deal with this matter, but better late than never. Do you remember that day when I suggested you go with me to Boi Hill, but you refused point-blank? Consequently, I went alone. When I was halfway there, I met Ha. 'Where are you going?' he asked me. 'To Boi Hill to pick blackberries.' 'Take me as well', he said. I agreed. We walked away together. A few minutes later, he told me that he knew a place full of blackberries and ran away very fast ahead of me. I followed. Reaching a bomb crater, he jumped down. There I saw lots of big bushes of blackberries. He picked them to his heart's content. 'Why don't you go home first? I want to find a place with green grass suitable for my buffalo to graze tomorrow.'
I went home alone. Some minutes later, I heard a horrifying explosion…."
Minh stopped to wipe away his tears. "That means that I'm the culprit, is that right, my dear Thin," he sadly concluded.
I bent down to avoid Minh's regretful look. In a minute, the dynamic and calm youth had turned weak and crest-fallen.
"Silence is the best way for the moment," I whispered to myself, lifting him up. It was early summer. Sunrays could be seen over several clusters of rubber plants on the hill. I felt utterly sad. Suddenly, I remembered the hillside pocked with huge bomb craters. Strangely enough, at the bottom, bushes were laden with blackberries. In deep summer, after tying the buffalo ropes firmly around a tree trunk, we lay under some blackberry bushes and enjoyed their ripe fruits to our heart's content, humming a few popular ditties.
Now, things were different. Rubber plantations occupied most of the Boi Hill area. Yet human suffering still clung to the hearts of the locals, including mine.
On Sunday, I returned to my small room in the headquarters of the construction site where our execution group was located. Many of my coworkers were chatting and drinking tea. Mai, our group leader, asked me in a cheerful voice, "Are you bringing us any presents?"
"A lot, of course. But I'm afraid that you won't think much of them," I answered hesitantly.
"What are they?"
I took a bulging bag out of my room.
"Oh dear, tasty manioc cakes from Vinh Linh! Anything else?" Mai asked impatiently.
Going back to my room again, I brought out another big bag for them and emptied its contents.
"How wonderful, ripe blackberries! They really are presents from her hometown," remarked another man.
"I haven't tasted them for a long time. Give me a handful, please," another chimed in.
Soon, all the sweet blackberries had been eaten and everyone retired to their rooms for a rest.
My roommate Thu came back and lay down beside me.
"How's your Mum, Thin?" she asked when she found me still awake.
"So-so, my dear sister," I answered in a sad voice. "What's more, she was so worried when she found me still single. If our jobs were more stable, both of us would have led a happy life beside spouses and children."
"It's no use crying over spilt milk, right?" Although she remained single at the age of thirty-two, she was remarkably optimistic. Always engrossed in work, she somehow ignored the male workers' teasing, which often made me blush all over.
A few minutes later, she fell asleep soundly. I stepped out to enjoy some fresh air. In my mind's eye, I saw a rugged dirt path meandering among rice fields to my native village. "If only it were asphalt, it would have helped our locals consume their latex much more easily!" I said to myself.
"If you have to, you can come back to our hometown to earn your living, Thin. My rubber plantation is waiting for you," Minh had told me before I left home. I still remembered Mum's advice: "No place like home, my beloved daughter. Come back to me. Your would-be young man has been waiting for you."
I purposelessly stepped on the half-finished asphalt inter-province road that our group had been building. From afar, a new urban centre was beginning to take shape, its lights steadily brightening. Behind me lay the rugged path to my native village, still fraught with the sweet memories of our childhood.
Like an inertia force, I retraced my steps to the green world of rubber plants lying in wait for me.
Translated by Van Minh