|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Quang Lap
A cold misty night, but where is my dear one? What's the use of looking for the fading beauty?
(Tran Anh Thai)
At sixteen, my sister was the most beautiful girl in Dong Village. When she was 26, there was still not any more beautiful girl than she in the village. But at that age in my home village, she was regarded as being on the shelf. Yet, my sister was still a devil-may-care girl, despite my mother imploring her to marry someone.
I was 7 years old then, yet whenever I received a letter from a guy in the village and gave it to her, I was given one hao (ten cents) and in one month, I could earn three dong. If any guy came to see her, I stood there with my eyes wide open. If I was given one hao and a half, I would go; if I was given only one hao, I would come back in a short time and stand there with my eyes wide open again in an attempt to get another half of a hao. If any stingy guy gave me only two cents, I would come and go all the time. I could earn one dong and a half or two dong a month from this affair.
I was persistent enough to earn five more cents a day for helping my sister to button her brassiere. It was difficult for me to do it because the string of the bra was very tight, even once I nearly broke my tooth. Many times, I insisted on having the money raised to seven cents, but she did not agree. So to spare her feelings, I did not ask for it anymore.
One guy whispered in my ear: "Do tell your sister that I could button her bra and I will pay you two dong a month". I quickly came home and told my sister about it, and immediately I was slapped in the face. Another guy asked: "Have you tightened your sister's bra" - "Yes" - "Is it difficult?" - "Yes, it is" - "Why?" - "It takes a lot of strain" - "Why?" I stared at him. What a stupid question! If the bra string was not strained, who could hire you to do it, I thought.
Many other guys clapped me on the shoulder:
"This is the most honoured boy in Dong Village."
When I was eight, my sister was married and I lost all sources of income. In compensation, I got a very stately brother-in-law, a Dien Bien Phu soldier-victor, an officer with shotgun by his side. He was tall, white-faced, without a beard. My sister had loved him when she was sixteen and waited for him for nine years. Fortunately for her, he came home safe and sound.
I did coin a lot of victorious stories about my brother-in-law's battle in Dien Bien Phu to my village friends. Actually, he did not tell me any stories. My brother-in-law was a man of a few words and he only smiled sometimes. He was a modest man. One day I said to him:
"You've come back to the village for quite a long time, but you haven't told me any stories about the Dien Bien Phu Campaign."
After a moment, he smiled:
"But I did not fight in Dien Bien Phu."
"What?..." - I was surprised.
"I was in Ha Noi, I defended Ha Noi."
"You defended Ha Noi?"
"Yes, I was a soldier who defended the capital city."
I became silent and felt hopeless about him. He did not fight in Dien Bien Phu, he did not capture alive French General De Castre… He did nothing glorious during the resistance war. I felt bitter about it.
I did not know at that time that he was a secret agent in the army and he was sent to the South to work in the enemy's ranks. A lot of secrets had surrounded him and the cat was not out of the bag until twenty years later…
He went to the South for three years when his first daughter died of scarlet fever. My mother fainted time and again. My sister carried her daughter tight in her lap and sat crouched in the corner of the bed. She was determined not to give her daughter to anyone. My uncle kneeled down before my sister, begging:
"Na, do listen to me. Let her go in peace!"
My sister said nothing. I cried by her side.
"Na, listen to me, to your uncle!" - My uncle kneeled there. My sister was still holding tight her daughter in her arms. That tiny coffin was still there, in the middle of the room. A long moment later, my mother came to her senses. She walked straight into my sister's room:
"Give your daughter to me, Na."
As though mesmerized, she gave her daughter to my mother. When the little child was placed inside the coffin, my sister rushed towards it, crying:
"My daughter, your father hasn't come home yet…"
I was twelve when we all heard that my brother-in-law had changed sides and started working for the enemy. We were all panic-stricken and felt humiliated. One day, while I was grazing the buffalo in the field, out of the blue, I felt from the buffalo into a muddy rice field and fainted. My friends came to rescue me. They did not blame me. They did not speak foul language against me because I had a brother-in-law working for the enemy. When dusk came, I took the buffalo home. My sister was thrashing paddies in the yard.
"Where's mother, sister?"
"She was scolding those who are telling stories about your brother-in-law" - She said, breathing hard.
It turned out that the villagers had listened to the enemy radio, which said that the brother-in-law, To Xuan Quy, captain of the communist army, had changed sides and worked for the enemy. So how could mother scold them? - I thought. I rushed to look for mother. I ran and ran from the head to the end of the village to look for her, but in vain.
At the end of the day, mother came home after she had gone and scolded madly for hours. She fainted and was brought home by the villagers. It was the first time in her life she quarreled with her neighbors.
"Tomorrow, do sell all the rice so that I could buy a radio. Do you hear me, Na?"
My sister was rubbing balm on her mother's legs.
The word "Yes" was said with resignation, her eyes welling up with tears. She cried in silence. It was the last night I saw her crying. The next morning, her face became tight. From then on, she tried to avoid any unnecessary contact. She stayed the house and in the field day in and day out.
She toiled and moiled all day and night. She helped anybody if she was asked. Yet, she was still as strong as ever. She was like a mayfly throwing itself into the flame of time. But she did not die. She became more determined and it showed on her face.
Every night, at midnight she opened a trunk and took out a match-box-sized duralumin box with a small mirror inside. Nothing except for a piece of paper with his writings: "No matter what they say, you should be as unshakable as a tripod." This box was given to her one day by a one-legged war invalid.
"He knew that I was wounded and was going to be sent back to the North for treatment, so your husband asked me to transfer this box to you. I had returned to the North for one year and only today I could give it back to you because I had to change a lot of hospitals."
My sister took the box for quite a time before she said:
"Do you know any stories about my husband?"
"Yes, I do. Three days after he gave this box to me, your husband crossed the parallel to the other side."
From then on, my sister tried to decipher the folk verse. He changed the verse a bit from "you are still unshakable…" into "you should be as unshakable as…" The word "still" was changed into the word "should".
Only after the war did I understand that the word "Should" was so miraculous that it saved my sister's life. This word helped her stand firm on her own two feet, braving all the scandalous words against her. But it seemed that an invisible revolutionary administration had sometimes sent its people to come and console her in secret.
She listened to them and lived on with great patience for 17 years. My mother could not bear the gossip and she sometimes got sick. She held the radio for days and nights and listened to the enemy's news with disgust. She did not believe it when her son-in-law did not speak on the radio. Mother had lived for five years with the strong belief that there was a distortion, a total fabrication until one night, a fatal night when I was 17. It was midnight. Mother was listening to the radio and suddenly she yelled:
"It's over, Na!"
My sister ran fast into the house and held the radio. "This is the frank exchange between the American ambassador and Mr To Xuan Quy, assistant to the President." It was his voice; she stood up immediately and leaned against the wall, breathing hard.
Mother's face was as white as paper. She got a sudden fever and her whole body trembled tremendously. I heard vaguely what he said to the American ambassador that Ha Noi could be destroyed. My sister rushed to snatch the radio and she wanted to break it into pieces, but mother stopped her.
"No. Give it to me!" - Mother yelled again until she lost her voice.
Then she took the radio and went out. She plunged the radio into a basin of urine. I rushed to help her get into the house. My sister helped her lie on bed, but she did not give in.
"Where is your brother?"
"Yes, here I am, mother" - I sat down by her side. She embraced me tightly.
"You must go now. Even though you are seventeen, they will accept you. Do join the army so that I can feel peace in my heart."
At seventeen, I joined the army at the urgent call of my mother. I promised to kill as many enemy troops as possible just to wipe out the humiliation of my family. I was happy to know that I was carrying out the sacred duty of a man and the urgent call of my mother.
However, I was not sent to the battlefield for the whole war. I was sent to one security zone after another and it seemed that I was being protected by an invisible hand. I had to tell the stories of the victories of my comrades-in-arms to my mother and she was overjoyed to hear them. I was both ashamed of it and happy. When I enquired after my sister's health, she always replied that she was well. But mother once told me that my sister's hair had turned white and she had torn the folk verse he had sent to her.
I was extremely surprised. My sister was only forty then. So I wrote her at once. In her reply, she confirmed that her hair had turned white except for one strand which is still black. It remained as black as ever. She said she felt very strange about it.
She told me that she did lacerate the piece of paper with that folk verse, but a few days later, she pieced them together and decided not to tear it any more. "How could I tear it when my hair is still black, dear brother" - she once said to me. I understood that she was worshipping the word "Should", the magical word.
In the end of the day, I was sent to the battlefront - the last battle of the war. My comrades-in-arms and I were running after the tank and charged through the gate of the Independence Palace to plant the flag of the Fatherland on the top of it. At the same time the president of the Sai Gon puppet regime Duong Van Minh read his unconditional surrender over the radio system.
We were assigned the task of keeping an eye on several dozen parliamentarians of the Saigon regime. I was still trying to plant one more flag on the second floor of the Independence Palace when someone came and tapped on my shoulder:
"Please, someone wants to see you at the end of this floor."
An electric current ran through my spine. I suddenly remembered that my brother-in-law had lived in this building for eight years in the role of the Saigon President's assistant. Now he stood in front of me with his head slightly stooping, looking as if he was a loser. Around him there were so many parliamentarians of the old regime.
"Dear sir, I am To Xuan Quy, assistant to the president…"
I rounded my eyes, looking at him, saying nothing. He stood in front of me, his face looked calm:
"Our government surrendered... You are the winners… Congratulations to you!"
Having heard the word "Congratulations", I flew into rage, thumping onto the table:
I was thirty then and had fought for thirteen years, but I could not contain myself. I could not tell that my brother-in-law was acting cautiously and strategically because he was a spy. One week later, I would embrace him, crying in happiness.
He and I went back to the village just for fear that our mother would faint and the last strand of black hair on my sister's head would turn white. But it did not happen as I thought. My sister pressed her face onto his chest, crying, and miraculously, that white hair still had a strand of black running through it.
My mother was bedridden for seven years. Yet upon hearing our return, she suddenly stood up, raising her head high and walking leisurely to the door. Her face was bright with boundless pride. She was told that her son-in-law was one of the greatest revolutionary spies.
Three days later, my mother passed away. The whole village went to see her off. Nobody cried. All of them raised their heads high and walked leisurely behind her. All their faces were beaming with boundless pride.
Translated by Manh Chuong