|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Lai Van Long
When I was 15, having looked at the lake, I was frightened….
When I was 25, I did cry because "Van Kiep Lake" was no more….
When I was about 50, I had gone through the depth of the past lake and all of a sudden I could see the third part (beyond consciousness - material) of human being.
At 75 I wished I would find Van Kiep once again so as to ask the recycled lake about the dark shadows that had clung to human fate.
Van Kiep Road from Nguyen Hoang Crossroad ran along the lake of the same name, Van Kiep, and then turned sharply to embrace the hillside overgrown with wild yellow sunflowers.
My house was on the right side of the road; taking a look up, an old villa with a mossy roof stood alone in the dark pine forest.
My parents, from the central part of the country, moved to settle down in Da Lat. Father worked as a security guard of the convent and mother worked as a hired hand for garden owners in the Ha Dong area. Every day, I, 5 years old, stayed at home with my sister, 11 years old; my brother, 9 years and youngest brother, a little over 1 year old. The convent's owner allowed my father to live in half of that ancient French villa and the other half was occupied by Mr Ly, a sheriff. The two families lived on the ground floor and the upstairs floor was left empty. Father came home once a week and hurriedly rode a bicycle back to work in the convent. We learnt at Hoa Mai orphanage.
At night, father was absent from home and mother slept with us. It was cold and we made a fire to warm ourselves. When it was colder, mother burnt a coal fire and put it under the bed.
Along Van Kiep Road there were only French-style villas and many of them were abandoned. We often roamed to pick up dried pine branches scattered on the ground. At times we went into these abandoned villas and drew pictures with charcoal on the walls. We then went to fetch some snails climbing on the mossy foundations of the house. When we got dirty playing with these snails, my sister took us to Van Kiep Lake to wash our hands. After that, we tied the dried firewood we had fetched and took it home.
That day…. the big white-haired French priest in a white, loose robe was standing with my father in the yard. Father pointed to us and said to the French priest:
"These are my children."
We threw the bunch of firewood onto the ground and folded our arms to kow-tow before him. The French priest spoke in Vietnamese:
"Did you fetch the firewood from Van Kiep Lake? The lake is very sacred, you know! When young, while rowing a boat to enjoy twilight on the lake, out of the blue, I saw the image of Saint Mary appear in a halo. Several decades ago, this lake was very large and surrounded by forests."
My sister suddenly asked:
"I am told in the lake there were ghosts that drowned those who took a bath there. After each kill, the ghost turned into human being. At night, ghosts played on the surface of the lake. Is Saint Mary a ghost?"
Having heard this, father was thunderstruck, rolling his eyes at my sister. He said:
"Please forgive her, Priest!"
The priest looked dumbfounded, making the sign of the cross, mumbling something. He spoke again, to make us understand:
"Where there is God, there won't be any ghosts, you see! If you believe in God, ghosts do not dare come and trouble you. I did tell your father to have all of you baptised…."
Then the priest turned to walk toward Van Kiep Road and drove a convertible car as white as his robe to Van Kiep Lake. Mother carried my youngest sibling in her arms to welcome us home. Father pointed to the bag of rice, saying:
"The Priest gave this to us, yet our daughter made him angry…."
"You are not Christian, why do you accept a gift from the priest?"
"It's difficult for me to refuse, you see!"
One night the whole Van Kiep hamlet was in great turmoil, with gunfire heard all over the place. Father was at home that night. Mother said to him:
"Go and fetch some parachutes from the flares so that I can make a blanket sheet, won't you?"
Father opened the door and I followed him. I saw those parachute-suspended flares floating and lighting up the sky.
"All the parachutes have dropped onto the lake, my dear! I wish I had a boat!" - Father cheered, jumping for joy.
Father was smoking in the yard. The sheriff said:
"Can you spare me a cigarette?" - The sheriff puffed on the cigarette and said in the Quang Nam dialect:
"We laid an ambush at Tran Hung Dao School to try to capture one male and one female Viet Cong (Vietnamese communists), because they tried to distribute leaflets urging students to launch demonstrations against us. Having been driven into a corner, these Viet Congs jumped into Van Kiep Lake. We shot at them and went searching for them but to no avail. And some suspected Viet Congs in this hamlet had also disappeared. I wondered if they had a tunnel in the lake. I will send some divers to examine it."
That night, the sheriff did not go to his post. He stayed at home. In the morning, I heard a lot of noises from his house. Father and I got up and ran out. I saw a lot of local militiamen and policemen standing around a large white leaflet in front of his house. Father came into the house and said:
"Viet Cong threatened to kill the sheriff."
"I wonder why, because the sheriff had been hunting Viet Cong last night, you know!" Mother said vaguely. "So Viet Cong must have been around here, I think."
Having had a meager breakfast, father carried me on his bicycle to uncle Hai for a death anniversary. It was crowded there. Some relatives asked father where he lived and he replied that he lived near Van Kiep.
"Oh, that lake is very sacred. I heard that there is a supernatural fish. Don't let your children go near the lake!" an old lady said.
That night we slept at our uncle's and came home at noon. On the way, we went past Van Kiep Lake and saw a big crowd. We stopped. Someone said:
"A student drowned in the lake. He was a Highlander from Lac Duong. A sorcerer is praying for his soul…."
A lof of Tran Hung Dao School students in uniforms were standing there. I edged my way into the crowd and heard some teachers speaking:
"I read a French document saying that there is a treasure of the Cham ethnic minority people in the bottom of the lake buried with nine young virgins and curses. The spirits of these young virgins will guard the treasure and those who want to explore the treasure will be killed."
"I'll lend you some documents in Chinese characters, which tell that Van Kiep is one eye of a dragon whose back is Lang Biang Mountain. The other eye is Da Thien Lake."
I was still wondering why there was such a mystery when father took my arms and pulled me out of the crowd.
"Look, be careful or you'll fall into the lake. Let's go home now."
It was the Mau Than Tet holiday in 1968.
My family went to enjoy Tet at Uncle Hai's. On the morning of the first days of the Lunar New Year, we were preparing a tray of foods to worship ancestors when we heard gunfire and explosions everywhere. The bombers were roaring through the sky. Uncle Hai asked us to go to the stream to take shelter. Father carried me in his lap and mother carried my youngest brother while oldest sister Hai and brother Ba ran after us. A helicopter fired a rocket nearby, terrifying all of us. We ran for our lives amid dust and smoke. Some pagodas nearby were being destroyed by bombs and shells. When the bombing raid was over, we came back to Uncle Hai's house. Uncle Hai said to my father:
"Do take your family back home now. It's very dangerous here. You or I must live on to take care of these dear people of ours, you know!"
Father carried sister Hai, brother Ba and I together with a large bag of clothes on a bicycle. Mother carried the youngest brother in her arms and walked after us. My family was running amid the stream of people helter-skelter on the road to the evacuation areas. There were some houses on fire. By Van Kiep Lake, American GIs were gathering with their armored vehicles.
We returned home just as some helicopters landed near those American GIs. I saw them carrying wounded soldiers on stretchers or dead bodies in canvas bags onto the choppers.
My house was crowded with people. I saw the wife of the sheriff kneeling in the yard, screaming. Her husband, the sheriff, was lying dead on a stretcher. I stood dumbfounded by the dead body. My sister Hai pulled me away, saying:
"Let's go to the lake. There is also a funeral there."
I ran after her and brother Ba. Familiar faces from Van Kiep hamlet were standing around a dead body. It was Ms Tu, who used to be a junk dealer. She was crying her heart out over her son's dead body. He was killed by the sheriff's soldiers because he was thought to be a communist.
After the 1968 Mau Than Tet days, my family moved to live with Uncle Hai. I finished my elementary education at Da Nghia School. Da Lat Township was liberated and we all went to live in the R'Chai-Duc Trong new economic zone, about 40 kilometres from Da Lat. Then I finished junior and senior secondary school in the district school. After that I studied at Sai Gon University, returned to Da Lat in 1988 and worked in Chi Lang.
I did come back to Van Kiep Lake 20 years later. It was 6 kilometres to walk from Chi Lang to the lake. On the way, joy and sadness mixed inside me because the lake had closely been associated with my childhood years. I intended to get to the lake right at the time when I could enjoy looking out at twilight on the lake, shrouded in mist. I brought along a bottle of water, a loaf of bread, cigarettes and a box of matches.
Having arrived at Nguyen Hoang-Van Kiep Crossroad, I stopped to have a look at the bushes of wild sunflowers and at the old pine tree imbued with a lot of memories. Twenty years before, it was the biggest pine tree in the area and my siblings had often picked dried branches for firewood from it. A woman was walking with a boy out of my old house. I came to ask her about Van Kiep Lake and she pointed to a vegetable garden:
Then I asked her about Tran Hung Dao School and she pointed to some ruins. I tried to ask her one more question:
"Are you a human being?"
The boy opened wide his mouth and screamed:
"This man is really crazy, mother! Let's run away or else he will bite us!"
The mother in great fear embraced her son. They both look at me defensively. I suddenly burst out crying, sending them running for their lives.
I was left standing alone on Van Kiep Road, next to Van Kiep Lake from my past. This was where 20 years ago, Ms Tu's son, a communist, fought to his last breath and also where the sheriff was killed by the communists. They were Vietnamese whose blood had been shed into Van Kiep Lake. I stood there for quite a time, thinking hard about the situation. In the end, I took a motorbike taxi back to the collective residential quarter in Chi Lang.
I stayed in Da Lat for two more years, but I did not have the guts to return to Van Kiep Lake. After that I came to live in Sai Gon.
Twenty-two years later, it was in the summer of 2012 and I was going to be an old man, so I returned to Da Lat again. I and my two old friends took a taxi to Van Kiep Lake at noon. We all went into the bottom of the lake. It was now a residential area with houses built one next to the other. However, as I was told by the newspaper, the local authorities planned to restore the lake.
After that I visited the place where Tran Hung Dao High School used to be. Now it was replaced by Yersin University. A gardener came toward us. I wanted to ask him something, when I saw someone was walking behind him. I turned to the left to ask my friend if he saw something. But to my great surprise, my friend also had a shadow by his side. In great fear, I turned to the right to ask another friend and I saw a large shadow behind him, too. It was noon, so there should not be any ghosts at this time, nor any mirage. So what were those shadows in this lake? Was it the third element beyond materials and consciousness that formed human beings? I wanted to share this discovery with my friends, but didn't for fear that they would think I was a mad man like the woman and her son thought about me 24 years before…
When we all left the bottom of the lake, the shadows behind my friends and behind passers-by no longer existed. For seven hours sitting in the car back to Sai Gon, I was absorbed in thinking about this enigmatic phenomenon. I did go into the "grave of culture" of my own and could see the mysteries from "Van Kiep."
When "Van Kiep" was resurrected, my old age would whisper to ask the lake about the shadows that had still clung to human fate…
Translated by Manh Chuong