|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Duc
Doan woke up suddenly. The moon was shrouded in mist. It was extremely cold. He had almost no more saliva. His throat was parched. He shook his head to wake up. He did not know where he was. He wondered why he was lying between two beds of sweet potatoes. All around him, children were lying scattered on the ground. In Vinh Linh, he had been told by the man in charge to take these children of pre-school age across the fire of bombs and shells of the enemy to a safe place in the North. So why were these children lying here in such a state? He tried to get up and felt a sharp pain in his left arm. He held it slightly and realised that it had been broken. There was blood, but it had dried. Looking around, he saw a big fire smoldering about one meter from him. He realised that the car that had carried 42 schoolchildren and three adults had been hit by bombs and gone up in flames.
"Is there anybody here? Help! Help!" Doan tried to call with all his might, but it was quiet all around. He could not hear anything because the bombs had exploded quite near him. Then suddenly, he remembered that his sister had been in the car too. Where was she now? He crawled with two legs and one arm to look for her. On the way, he saw the dead bodies of the female teacher and a male nurse. A lot of children were lying dead there too. So, the bombs had exploded near the car but not hit the car. He found nine children who were still alive, including his sister, and gathered all of them in one place. They all trembled with cold. He embraced his sister in his lap. They all seemed thirsty.
When they set off, the children's parents had prepared water in a bamboo cylinder for each, along with dry provisions made of roast rice ground into fine powder and mixed with some sugar and an even more indispensable thing: a piece of paper with their names, their parents names and the names of their villages just in case they got lost. His sister was also given a hairpin by their mother, which she kept in her blouse pocket. But now there was nothing there.
He crawled again along the bed of sweet potatoes to see if there was any bamboo cylinder left, even though he had only a glimmer of hope. Without water, those children would die. He tried to get up and look towards the highway, where the car was only a smoldering coal. Out of the blue sky, he saw a long dark line and guessed it was a village. There might be no people there, but there could be some water left. He decided to drag his feet there.
Having arrived at the highway, he saw some houses. But it was not easy for him to cross the road. The road was high, so he tried to drag himself along the road to the right to where he could crawl up. Then he tried to walk faster to the other side of the road before he fell down. He tried to crawl again to the village. Now he felt so thirsty, so he decided not to crawl on, but to stop there and look for water at the houses near the road. In front of him was a buffalo stable. One buffalo saw him, hitting its horn repeatedly onto the stable door. Doan was overjoyed to see life here. This made him remember his childhood when he was a buffalo boy. At that time, he and his friends tended buffaloes while carrying on their studies. He caressed the animal, holding onto a rail. It also tried to stand up, but it could not, because its front leg had been cut off. The buffalo roared in great pain. Possibly it could not go with its owners so they had left it behind.
Doan suddenly remembered that in his house there was also an animal with one leg cut off. It was a deer which he had caught while tending his buffalo. The night before, the area was bombed badly and the next morning, while tending his buffalo, he saw the deer reeling amid the smoke of bombs. One leg was cut off by the bomb. The deer was trembling before him. Doan quickly led him home and went to fetch some medicine from the medical station to cure the animal. When the deer was fully recovered, he set the animal free, but it did not want to go. It had stayed with him for three years now. Doan missed it so much.
"I've got to live so as to be back with the deer," Doan thought.
Now he felt better, so he walked unsteadily to the yard to look for a jar of water. He jumped for joy when he discovered a jar full of water. However, while his throat was parched, he told himself not to drink much, or he would be in great trouble. Then one difficult thing cropped up: how could he take water to the children? There was only one way: to take off his shirt and dip it in the water. The mist was getting thicker and he felt increasingly cold.
He tried to crawl as quickly as possible to get warmer. He had to crawl on his elbows to keep on advancing forwards to the place where the children were waiting for him.
When he crawled back to the sweet potato field, almost all the children had died. Only Kheo, the strongest boy, was still waiting for him. His sisters body had also become cold, but her heart was still throbbing weakly. He squeezed water for his sister to drink. She was moving her lips. Doan leaned down to try to catch something, but in vain. She trembled for a moment and died in his arms.
Now only Kheo was alive. The first-grader had gotten polio when he was still small, so now he walked with a limp. Having gulped down some water, Kheo said he was very cold. Doan embraced him and thought about looking for someone to save the boy. Then Kheo started crying for food. He quickly used his hands to dig up some sweet potatoes, but found only some small ones, as they were not in season. He gave the roots to the boy, who devoured them.
"It's so sweet, uncle!"
Having swallowed some sweet potato roots, the boy seemed to have recovered and stood up, saying: "Im going to fetch something for you to eat now, uncle!"
"There's nothing to eat! But can you find me a hand-size notebook? It must be somewhere here!"
The boy was limping along the beds of sweet potatoes, trying to search for the notebook among the leaves.
All of a sudden, Doan heard a sound from afar. Kheo ran back and embraced Doan:
"Uncle Doan, I heard the sound of a car!"
"Yes, we have to be on the road because cars often operate in the night," Doan said, urging Kheo.
Then they both went towards the road.
"Be quick, uncle! Be quick!" Kheo said.
But as they were coming near the road, Doan was exhausted:
"You go quickly to catch the cars. I can't go on now!"
Then Doan lay unconscious. He dreamt of his brother Ket, who was now in the North. In the dream, he saw his brother running to school. Then they were both near Hien Luong Bridge, which divided the country into two parts. On either side of the river, people were standing in crowds, waving their hands without speaking. Then they chanted slogans: "Down with US Imperialists!" "Long Live Uncle Ho". Then there was the sound of a shot. Startled, he woke up and saw Kheo and two other men standing there.
"Uncle Doan, these soldiers are coming to rescue us!" Kheo said.
"This boy is very intelligent. He took off his shirt to wave to us, you know!" one soldier said.
Then the soldier fired into the sky, signaling. A moment later, some men rushed to them from behind a sand dune. They all helped Doan and Kheo into the car. Doan heard the voice of the commander:
"Bury all the victims quickly before day breaks. Be quick, please! It'll be sunny tomorrow and more US bombers will come!"
As Doan fell into sleep, his lips kept moving: "I'm thirsty! I'm thirsty!"
Translated by Manh Chuong