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An Early Morning Story

Update: October, 25/2015 - 03:18

Illustration by Doã Dung

by Hung Ly

I met that man in a Vietnamese restaurant in Berlin. The owner, a small girl for whom I had a deep affection for the past 10 years, came to introduce me to him:

"This is my uncle Thanh. He has just come from Viet Nam."

I shook hand with him and had a quick look. He was an elderly man with an ascetic face. He was a hard-going man, I thought. When the man smiled, the most prominent thing in that dead-pan look was those blue lips.

This was the second time I met him at this Disco club. I knew this man was a real estate entrepreneur in Ha Noi. I was told that after midnight, this club had a very sexy dance.

The Disco shop lay on Friedrich Street, an ancient, sumptuous and busy street in the east of Berlin. The shop was deep in the cellar of a five-star hotel. It took us quite a time to get to the dance floor. The deafening music and the coloured, twinkling lights made me so confused. I was still hesitating to find a place when the man was seen sitting leisurely on a large easy-chair near the stage. Having sat there for half an hour, drinking brandy and smoking cigarettes without having seen any sexy dance as advertised, he yawned and looked as though he felt like going home. We were all reluctant to do as he wished. I had a grudge against this man ever since. As a result, after that I refused any meeting in the presence of that man, even if the shop owner insisted on me coming.

One month later, the owner of the club called me again:

"My uncle will leave for home tomorrow. We will have a parting party at the club, please come."

I hesitated. She added:

"My uncle wants to see you. It's because I told him you used to be a soldier fighting on the battlefront…."

I accepted her invitation with some doubt. It was strange that he wanted to see me because I had fought on the Southern battlefront. The party began at midnight when there were no more customers left in the shop. I was sitting opposite him. I could not but feel surprised when he wanted to see me with such a cold face. He was a man of few words during the dinner party, but he drank and smoked a lot. When everybody was busy preparing for the karaoke singing, he stood up and led me to the yard.

It was very quiet at this time of the night. All the shops were closed. Only that moon up above was seen on the top of that ancient water tower, shining through the tree leaves.

He sat down and asked:

"Did you fight in the battlefield?"

I nodded my head. He continued:

"Where did you fight over there? In what year?"

Having heard this indifferent man asking such a question, I did not have a mood to converse with him. I answered for the sake of formality:

"I fought in the Quang Tri battle in 1972 and I was demobbed in 1976."

"And then you moved to settle down here?"

"No. I worked in some places. In 1979, the border war broke out and I was recalled in accordance with the order of the general mobilization."

He looked at me doubtfully and a moment later, he said frankly:

"I'm sorry, you don't look like a soldier who had fought in battle."

I was about to get angry with him, but I tried to contain myself. Actually I looked white and plump while he also fought in the battle field but looked black and bony with those deep blue lips as if he had gotten malaria. All of a sudden I felt compassion for him. We were comrades-in-arms sharing the same fighting line during the war. I said in a soft voice:

"Look!" - I said, pulling up the sleeve of the shirt for him to see a wound in the arm - "This is a memory from when I fought in Quang Tri, and here…. - I unbuttoned the shirt for him to see the wound in the left of the chest, near the heart…. - "This is the wound when I fought in the border war in the North…."

Actually I did not want to show off these wounds because the war had been over for a long time. But I wanted to tell him that I did not want to trifle with the past.

The man stood dumbfounded for a moment, looking at me in silence, at those wounds on my body. And he touched gently these wounds, expressing his regret. I felt a bit soothed and looked at him with a friendlier glint. He was silent for a minute and took my hand, speaking in a polite way:

"So I've found the right man because only the man who personally fought in the war can understand…." - He stopped and looked fixedly at me as if he wanted to vindicate himself - "I thought it over and over again last night to such an extent that I did not have a wink of it. I want to tell you a story…."

He breathed hard and continued:

"You and I are very strange to each other, without any relations. But…. After having known that you used to be a soldier, suddenly I want to tell you this story in this strange land. I've kept this story for so many years in my heart and now I feel like telling it at all costs.

Telling this story to you, I don't want to have any sympathy from you. I know I can't hide it anymore…."

The man stopped here. I sat in silence. My heart was suddenly thudding. I felt that the story I was going to hear was very mysterious. Naturally it had nothing to do with me, yet I broke out in goose bumps.

I waited for his story with patience. A few minutes later, he started. Everything seemed to appear before me through his trembling voice:

"I was born and grew up in Ha Noi. In 1972 when the Quang Tri Ancient Citadel and Road No.9-Southern Laos battlefields were raging fiercely, I was recruited into the army. I was 18 years old then and just graduated from Chu Van An High School. After three months of military drills in Tan Lac, Hoa Binh, I was sent to fight in the South. We crossed Truong Son Mountain Range to the Western part of South Viet Nam. We came to station in the mangrove forest where there were vast fields of sedge and swamps. We fought several battles and some of us laid down their lives there. I personally was slightly wounded and got treatment for two months.

In early 1975, the general offensive campaign was launched in the Central Highlands. Hue, Da Nang and other cities in South Viet Nam were liberated one by one. Victory was near. We were preparing for the coup de grace against the enemy. Our unit was ready for the onslaught on the enemy's Binh Minh military base. Our task was to eliminate the enemy there and destroy Cai Vot Bridge to cut off the enemy's communication with Sai Gon. There were only 18 days before the South was completely liberated, but our unit did not know it. So we decided to launch the attack. That night, we started our operation, fanning out in the mangrove forest under the starry sky. We crossed the swampy land and the rice field. It was pitch black. We were all ready for the final blow. When it was still early in the morning, we opened fire at the enemy troops. Out of the blue, the enemy were suddenly everywhere around us, on Highway 4, their armoured cars crawling through the wet fields and firing at us. Our platoon was driven into the fish pond. We were all lying flat by the edge of the pond. And then we retreated. I was the last to run through a banana garden. Suddenly I heard someone calling my name. I saw Mai crawling in fear. His legs were seriously wounded. But the enemy was firing ferociously at us. So I had no time to run to Mai. I turned and ran away, still hearing: "Thanh, help! Help!"

The man paused. The moon disappeared without our notice. I saw some tears in his eyes. After a long moment, he continued:

"Do you believe in the causality theory? I believe it. You know, in that battle, I tried to find all ways and means to run for my life, but in the end I was captured in the middle of the rice field. After that, I was jailed in a cell. Mai's cries for help haunted me day and night. You now, every day, when I was given a ration of food for the prisoners, I put the food in the corner of the cell and invited Mai eat first and after five minutes, I started eating it. Sometimes, I could not eat the food, because I caught the eyes of Mai and his smiles at me.

Then, I was set free from the prison after the great victory. My comrades-in-arms met me in great happiness because they thought I died during the fighting. I asked them about Mai and was told that Mai was killed with some other fighters. One month after peace. My friends and I were permitted to go back to university to carry on with our studies. On the way back to the North, we passed Binh Minh military base. We stopped and stood in silence by Cai Von Bridge, our former battlefield. We could not recognize it because wild grass had covered the place. I wondered where Mai and other comrades-in-arms of mine were buried.

If I had been courageous enough, I could have saved Mai and he would have had a good chance of surviving, and now he could go with me back to the North. He would be back to the house where many relatives of his were waiting for him. He would be able to take care of his ailing parents. And he would love a girl and marry her, have children like any other normal person after the war. But I did not save him…."

In the dim light, I could see tears falling down on the man's face. I turned toward the road stretching before me. Far in the horizon, there were stars twinkling. I stretched across the table and took the man's hands, pressing them hard.

Every word now was unnecessary. I believed and hoped that after this sleepless night, the old soldier would feel more comfortable after he had bared his soul.

Translated by Manh Chuong

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