Viet Nam News
by Hoàng Thị Trúc Ly
The house gate was covered with entangled climbing plants. Thickets of red morning glory flowers climbed up the trellis fence. Sitting in a wheelchair, he smiled at her limping towards him. She injured her leg last month when she went to search for the remains of her comrades-in-arms. In the delegation there was a war veteran who went to look for the remains of his sister. The siblings had left their family and joined the revolutionary army. Unfortunately, his sister had laid down her life in a battle. The brother had wrapped his sister’s body in cloth and buried her near the foot of a tree. Then he tied his sister’s scarf onto the tree to mark her grave. Now that he had returned to the former battlefield, this old war veteran could not determine where his sister’s grave was. Fortunately, the owner of the patch of land told him that when he reclaimed the land, he had seen a small mound about 100 meters away from where they were standing. Everyone was very happy and rushed to the site. They started to dig at the site and indeed, they found the remains of the female combatant.
The yard was drenched in sunlight. Numerous kinds of orchids that hung on the veranda were blooming.
“These orchids have a vehement vitality, you know,” he said, looking at the orchids.
“We are going to look for Bắc Lan this time,” she said with certainty.
“But according to the description, I don’t think it’s her,” he said, edging his wheelchair closer to her.
“We might be able to find the remains of our comrades-in-arms, let alone if Bắc Lan is still alive…” Her voice was a bit angry. In her head appeared the image of Bắc Lan.
He was silent. She opened the gate and walked out. He followed her until she disappeared at a bend in the road. When she came to the foot of the mountain, it was dark. It was said that the Goddess Mountain was very holy. She stopped at a large rock and scanned the horizon to inspect the place. Over there it used to be a construction site where he, she and Bắc Lan had fought against the enemy together. She knew this area quite well. In the late 1960s, there was a construction site where weapons were manufactured for the battlefields. It was called Construction Site 27. This construction site had been the burial place of so many young girls. Whenever the name Bắc Lan was mentioned, her heart ached.
It was wintertime. The wind was biting cold in the forest. These girls had to stay there and produce weapons. The battlefront needed food and weapon supplies. Memories suddenly flooded back to her. She and Bắc Lan were close friends. She remembered that at that time, Lan used some yellow substance to cure her scabies, but Lan did not want her fellow female combatants to use it. Still, she could not understand why. She felt sad and heaved a deep sigh, looking up to that house on the mountaintop. And she walked uphill with the help of a stick.
It was a small house. The yard was overgrown with wild grass. Branches of orchids were swinging and rustling in the wind. This scene made people think of a recluse. It was rumoured that the owner of the house was a woman who now worked as a motorbike taxi driver. She was said to be a war veteran. She probably missed the forest so much that she had planted a lot of orchids. Furthermore, she loved children very much. When she was at home at night, she often played the mandolin. The music could be heard echoing throughout the forest and mountain.
She now remembered Bắc Lan’s long black hair and the time when the two girls bathed in the stream together. They often teased each other by comparing who had the fuller breasts, and then they both laughed out loud.
Standing here, she looked at the mountaintop. That woman had lived alone up there for so many years. She wondered if the owner of that house was Bắc Lan.
It was completely dark. Through the window frame of that small house with those branches of orchids, she saw a woman. The house owner was startled when she saw someone was watching her in the mirror. She was wearing a bà ba blouse with a bandana scarf around her neck. In the dim electric light, those bony arms were comparing bras to see which one was fit for her.
Standing outside, she was so moved by the sight. Yet, after taking a moment to collect herself, she quickly approached the house and knocked at the door. There were quick steps and the house owner appeared.
“Are you Bắc Lan?”
Yes, it was Bắc Lan!
Bắc Lan was a beautiful name that had something to do with a memory of her father. The Vietnamese name Lan means orchid in English. Bắc in Vietnamese was the North. Her father had been wounded in a battle. He had brought home an orchid branch from the Northern forest. So her father hoped that his daughter would be as beautiful and strong as the orchids in the North.
In the deep of the night, the moon was flooding the mountain with its bright light. Sơn and Lan were sitting side by side.
“Your hair is very fragrant. What are you washing your hair with?” Sơn said faintly.
“I washed it with mần trầu grass. I used it when I was still small. Mother boiled this grass for me to wash my hair. This kind of grass is found a lot in our homeland, you know. It is also found a lot in the forest, but now it has been destroyed by the enemy’s toxic chemicals.”
“When peace is restored, I will grow mần trầu grass in the garden for you to wash your hair, my dear!” Sơn said.
Lan sighed. She imagined the Hậu River of her homeland was flowing before her. The river witnessed she and Sơn living together when they were still small and when they grew up and exchanged their first kisses of love.
Lan became taciturn and introverted. She even talked less and less with her dearest girlfriend, Giang. Nobody knew why Lan and Sơn had separated. One day Sơn asked Giang’s favour to tell Lan that he wanted to meet her by the stream at night. But he waited and waited until daybreak, and Lan never appeared. Even when they saw each other, Lan’s eyes were so distant.
One night, in an art performance by the unit in the middle of the forest, Lan ended the night by playing the mandolin. The music was so melancholic. The audience was in a dead silence, listening to the music that seemed to lull the player.
The orchid branch that Lan had found in the forest was blooming beautifully. All of a sudden, Lan became overjoyed with the news. She ran to keep her fellow combatants informed of it. Everybody was so surprised at such a change in Lan’s mood.
Giang was wondering why it had been so long since she had seen Lan washing in the forest when her monthly time began.
“Lan, wake up! I want to ask something!”
“How crazy you are! It’s midnight, so what do you want to ask me?” Lan said, rubbing her eyes and following Giang to the stream.
“I wonder why you haven’t had your monthly time for several months. Why is it so late? What has happened to you?” Giang asked.
“I haven’t had it for seven months.”
“Who did you sleep with?”
“If I was pregnant, my belly would be bigger, you see!” Lan said, beginning to sob. Tears fell onto her cheeks and her shoulders were trembling violently. She had a bad attack of hiccups. Giang rushed to embrace Lan and they both burst out crying.
The two women were silent. They were thinking about one man.
“You tried to give Sơn the go-by that day. You wanted to yield him to me,” she said to Bắc Lan.
“No, it’s not true. I did not want to yield Sơn to you. You know, that yellow substance, that bomb powder we used to produce weapons on the battlefront turned me into another kind of person, not a woman at all anymore.” Bắc Lan stopped speaking and turned to inquire about her former fellow combatants – what about your life and Sơn now?”
“Everything is alright! Sơn is also expecting me from this visit. You and I will return there together tomorrow. OK?” Giang pressed Bắc Lan’s hands. They both peered out of the window.
Outside the branch of orchids was showing its beauty in the moonlight.
Translated by Mạnh Chương