The Woman on the Island

April 14, 2019 - 08:37
Excerpt from the novel by Hồ Anh Thái



Illustration by Đỗ Dũng


Excerpt from the novel by Hồ Anh Thái


In this particular state forest enterprise on an island off the Northeasterncoast of Vietnam where nearly ninety per cent of the workers are single women, there is not one who does not know the legend of Tan Dac.

It goes like this. Tan Dac was a courageous general under the command of Tan Thuat (*) who was famous for the lightening nature of his attacks against the French colonialists. When Tan Thuat's insurrection was finally defeated, Tan Dac led the tattered remnants of his guerilla group to Cat Bac island. They established a base camp near the passage to the northeastern coast, and from there destroyed many of the enemy's ships. The guerillas were young, healthy and strong and their hatred for the French invaders boiled in their hearts and strengthened their determination to seek revenge for Tan Thuat. They slipped through the jungles and over the mountains, set ambushes and booby traps on the*slopes and lured ships into the mouth of the river. They suffered hunger and cold with patience and they were more than willing to sacrifice themselves for their cause. Tan Dac was pleased with his men, and they regarded him as a father and almost as a god.

Then one day near the village of Viet Hoa, Tan Dac came upon an old woman and her daughter. The old woman was on her knees gnawing and tearing at the grass and trying to push her daughter's face into the earth. Seeing her supplicant’s posture, Tan Dac asked her to come closer and tell him what was wrong. He was surprised and then enraged to discover that the woman's daughter had been raped by three of his guerillas. In front of the two women and the whole band, the three disgraced men were beheaded. Their unlucky heads rolled on the ground, leaving three lines of blood, like red snakes. Tan Dac wanted to be sure his guerillas understood that they had only one right: to defeat the enemy. All personal desires, all other needs and hungers, had to be eliminated.

The remaining guerillas obeyed their leader without hesitation or reservation. They continued to suffer hunger and cold, and tried desperately to stifle the normal sexual desires of young men. And in reality, in the jungle and mountains of this island, it was rare to encounter anyone who could stir such desire.

It wasn't long after the beheadings when the guerillas came across an old man on his way to pick bamboo shoots. He was carrying a large, bulging jute-fabric bag, which he offered to Tan Dac's men. Ca Dinh, one of Tan Dac's lieutenants, opened the bag and looked inside. His face grew pale. He let the bag drop to the ground, then roared, "Betrayed! Betrayed!"

"What do you mean?" Tan Dac peered inside the bag, shocked at his friend's reaction.

"My dear sir." Ca Dinh trembled with anger as he leaned over to whisper into Tan Dac's ear. "My dear sir, don't you see what's in this bag?"

Without looking again, Tan Dac said, "All I saw were two jackfruits and a bamboo shoot."

"Exactly. Two jackfruits and a bamboo shoot. They signify the male organ, sir."

It is said that the roar that burst from Tan Dac's throat then echoed among the trees and shook their branches. He ordered his men to chase down the old man. They caught him by Red Fish Lake. Without a word, Tan Dac drew his sword and struck through the old man's neck as easily as if he were slashing at the wind. The old man's head flew in one direction, and his poor body fell down near the edge of the lake, dying the foam at the water's fringe a deep red. The two jackfruits and the bamboo shoot were thrown down on the bank next to the body. Boiling with anger and humiliation, pushed by their own stifled, thwarted desires, the men rushed upon the fruit and the bamboo and chopped and tore into them, smashing them, slicing open the jackfuit and tearing out its seeds, which were strewn all over the lakeshore like coins. In their hearts, the guerillas could only retain their hatred and their need for revenge. As Tan Dac had told them, all other hopes, sentiments and desires had to be killed.

The unfortunate old man's children and grandchildren soon heard the terrible news. They took up their spears and their guns and cut their way through the jungle to chase the guerillas. Ironically, destiny led the two groups to come face to face by Red Fish Lake. Again, there was bloody fighting between two unequal forces. Again bodies were slashed and mutilated. By the end of the battle, only two of the old man's grandchildren were left alive. One escaped, but the other was captured and led to Tan Dac. He smiled at the young man and said, "Don't you understand that we’re fulfilling our duty to the country by doing our best to kill the French?"

"Yes, I know."

"Aren't you ashamed of losing your country to the French? Join us, and you can wash away your shame."

"It wasn't the French who destroyed my family," the young man said stubbornly. He looked straight ahead, his gaze stubborn and unblinking. "Who will revenge them?"

He shared the same fate as his grandfather. His body was thrown also into Red Fish Lake. Soon the brackish water of that lake was said to be cursed with blood. When the weather turned cold, schools of red fish swarmed up and covered the surface of the water like a red sail. In the eyes of the locals, this was the innocent blood of the unjustly killed, blood which couldn't be separated from the water, no matter how many seasons it froze or melted.

The surviving grandson sought vengeance for his family by becoming a scout for the French. Day after day, month after month, he led the blue-eyed, big-nosed foreigners through the jungle, in their hunt for Tan Dac and his guerillas. Eventually, the last surviving members of the band were found hiding in a cave. They were trapped, but refused steadfastly to surrender. After several months, believing that finally all of the guerillas must be dead, the French sealed the entrance of the cave and withdrew.

From that day, no one heard any more about Tan Dac and his guerillas.

But around Red Fish Lake, a large number of jackfruit trees appeared--a forest of jackfruit trees. The fruit ripened and became food for the birds and fell and were scattered. In the season of jackfruit, whoever dared climb up the mountain through the jungle to gather fruit would become drunk from their thick, suffocating smell. And not far from the jackfruit trees had sprung up a thick forest of bamboo. The bamboo shoots grew everywhere, their life force a strength nothing could stop.


Some ninety years later, when the state forest enterprise was established, Production Brigade 5, which was responsible for growing huong nhu (*) for essence processing was settled in Viet Hoa. There were thirty-eight women in Brigade 5, ranging in age from twenty-one to forty-four. Many of them had been in the Young Volunteers brigades, working on the Ho Chi Minh Trails, but when peace came, there were too few men, and no place for these leftovers from the war, many of them now past the age of marriage, in the cities and villages they had left so long ago. Of the group, only Tham was lucky enough to find a husband. Cuong was one of the original inhabitants left in the village, and he worked now as a storekeeper for the collective. None of the women dared to make their way through the jungle and climb up to Red Fish Lake, with its notorious jackfruit trees and groves of bamboo. But the jackfruit trees kept bearing their fruit and the bamboo shoots grew thick and wild and without restraint, like a secret everybody knew and whispered about. Though they had never been there, the image of that forest of jackfruit trees, those bamboo shoots standing upright in their groves, appeared many times to these isolated women, often more clearly and concretely than any images of men they would try to conjure for themselves. Then unexpected good fortune struck one other woman in Brigade 5. Nha was only twenty-one years old, one of the team's youngest members., She'd been on her way to pick up some equipment at the headquarters of the collective, when she suddenly came upon a regiment of soldiers building a road across the island. She was spotted at the same time by Khanh, a regiment scout, and it was this way that the two young people met. Soon after, one Sunday morning, all of Brigade 5 was thrown into an uproar over the news that a young man was coming to visit them.

From Khanh's unit to the state forest enterprise headquarters was a half hour walk, and from headquarters it took another three hours through the jungle to Viet Hoa. The women were touched and thrilled by Khanh's dedication to Nha. When he arrived, they surrounded him, shooting so many questions at him he could hardly answer. When he sat down to eat, a frenzy of chopsticks danced around him, piling the food in his rice bowl into a Himalayan peak. Khanh tasted the exquisite suffering of one who is loved by everyone. And when Nha visited his regiment, she met the same fate.

Once the love between these two became known, the board of directors of the state forest enterprise decided to have a talk with the regimental commander. They confronted frankly the question of how to encourage more bonds between the women in the collective and the soldiers. Such a "love project," they reasoned, would lead to marriages, which meant that many soldiers would volunteer to stay and work on the island after their conscription. Finally, they agreed on a course of action. The regiment would often send several companies to cut timber and bamboo for the collective. In addition, the commander would encourage his soldiers to spend their Sundays off visiting the state forest enterprise.

The results of the "love project," however, were limited. Most of the soldiers were quite young, only in their late teens or early twenties, like Khanh. But the women veterans in the collective were older, and the soldiers would have to address them as "big sister" or "auntie," according to tradition. That method of greeting inevitably built up a wall between the two groups that no one was daring enough to break through.

One Sunday morning, Nha woke up early, combed her hair, and carefully put on her make-up. Dissatisfied with her own things, she borrowed a red silk blouse from her friend Hien, and a necklace made of tiny seashells from Luyen. All of her co-workers gathered around her, helping her dress and make up her face, reassuring her of her beauty, and when she finally left, she was cheerful and pleased with herself. That was how the other women would remember her. None of them knew then that she had departed forever. By the next day at noon, she still hadn't returned. Everyone began to worry, but all the women could think of different reasons why Nha might be late. Then another day passed and they began to get angry and nervous. When she hadn't returned by the next Sunday, the women were frantic. They received word from the regiment that Khanh had waited all that last Sunday in vain. Had she gotten lost in the jungle? An emergency alert was issued. The regiment scouts and the women from the state forest enterprise scoured the whole western section of the island. One day, another, three days passed. Nothing. The search went on in force for another two weeks, and for another month after that smaller groups continued to look for Nha. Although there were no predators in that primitive jungle, the trees and underbrush were so tangled and thick that some places had never been imprinted with the press of human footprints. The jungle had swallowed any trace of the missing girl.

For some time after Nha's disappearance, no one, not even the bravest young women, dared to trek across the jungle from Viet Hoa to the collective's headquarters.

Time passed and fear faded. One afternoon, Hien gathered her courage and walked alone to the regiment base camp, to see her boyfriend. An hour later, crossing the road that led to Red Fish Lake, she felt a breeze blowing through the jungle canopy above her head and felt suddenly dizzy.

She sat down for a while to come back to herself, and then bravely continued her journey. Soon, however, she felt a strange sensation, as if someone were trying to lead her the wrong way. The field of wild grass that she knew marked the beginning of the trail she was following had disappeared. Panicking, Hien retraced her footsteps and realized she had just missed the trail. A chill seized her. Just a second more, and she would have repeated Nha's bad luck. Like Nha, she came from the lowlands and was not skilled at navigating the jungle. Nevertheless, she had found the right way again and was determined to continue. Suddenly a flock of birds swarmed up around her, and from their chaotic tumble she heard a low, sorrowful call: "Nha, oh Nha, Nha!"

Terrified, Hien rushed back in the direction of Viet Hoa. As she did, she prayed: "Oh, Nha, you were wise when you were alive, and you have become sacred in your death. Please don't cause me any harm. Please bless me. We had no quarrels between us nor hatred for each other. The day you left, you were wearing my red silk blouse..." Hien ran, the wind whistling by her ears, the trees swaying back and forth drunkenly. And the ghostly voices of the birds chased after her, crying clearly now: "Doom! Oh doom, doom!”


After that, no other woman walked alone through the jungle. Nha's disappearance and Hien's frightful experience hung like a gray shroud over the whole collective. Whenever they had to go to headquarters to work or to attend a meeting or even to see a film, the women only ventured in groups. Their fear reinforced the feeling that the jungle had closed around them, surrounding them, keeping away any chance at love or happiness. At night they woke from uneasy sleep with the choked feeling of being hemmed in, cut off from the rest of humanity. They would hear the ghostly, agonized sounds of the birds crying from the jungle and a chill would pass through them.

The state forest enterprise had been founded in 1976, a year after the American war. In 1982, a festive mood had swept the entire area when it was learned that the Cat Bac region was going to be designated as a national park. Once that occured, the collective was placed under the management of the Board of National Parks. During the inaugural celebrations that marked that event, the women of Brigade 5 had dressed in their best clothing and gone off gaily to headquarters so they could participate in the celebrations. On the last evening, they watched a film, then lit their torches and started back to Viet Hoa. But as they were making their way through the jungle, they were again struck suddenly by their solitude. They hugged each other and sobbed. With the establishment of the national park, their island was now officially a "forbidden place." A forbidden jungle. How coldly that phrase echoed in their blood. From this day on, it would be illegal for anyone to hunt or take timber from the Cat Bac jungle. While this decree was good for the environment, it served only to isolate them even more. Forbidden jungle! But now they would be separated and forbidden themselves. Even before, this place had felt cold and lonely already; now this seemingly innocuous change made them feel imprisoned, like nuns in a sealed monastery.

Translated by Phan Thanh Hảo, Celeste Bacchi and Wayne Karlin


(*) Nguyen Thien Thuat led an insurrection against the French in the North of Vietnam, 1885-1889.

(*) A type of peppermint oil used to relieve pain.