|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Vu Hoang Lam
Coc Xa were the last two words in Antoine's diary, which Madame Jacqueline handed over to Ham, the elderly guide of the French tour group. They indicated a far-away locality in northern Viet Nam where a crucial fight between the Vietnamese and French forces took place over forty years ago.
"Mr Ham, Coc Xa was my husband's last home," she said to him in a choked voice as the evening breeze gently wafted over them.
He stared at the notebook whose pages had faded away with the passage of time as if a dusty gust of wind had blown into his eyes. Suddenly, he remembered that his younger brother Pham Phan Trung, in his last letter to him, also mentioned that locality with the following line, "This evening my unit marched toward Coc Xa." Sadly, his brother's life also came to an end there.
"Coc Xa! Coc Xa!" he whispered to himself, looking vacantly ahead.
"Tomorrow, when we reach the former Dong Khe Battlefield, please help me find Coc Xa. That was the last foreign land where my husband set foot when he was still in active service. You won't refuse my proposal, will you?" Jacqueline entreated Ham.
Ham kept on indifferently flipping through the diary, page by page. Actually, he was only thinking about the last page of his brother's letter. She respected his silence for a long while. At last, she resolutely broke it.
"In his diary, Antoine wrote a lot of poems dedicated to me," she said in a soft voice. "His style was very original indeed." Without waiting for his response, she recited a few lines of one piece:
You're a deep blue sky
While I'm an unfathomable sea.
If only the water surface one day might
Turn a mirror amid this immense sea
For us to meet under wonderful moonlight.
How I miss you desperately!
Even noon silence at the frontier
Can't lull me into sleeping soundly.
Looking at the high sky I wish, my dear,
Your lovely face in clouds would appear clearly,
Your sweet breaths came to me, now far, now near.
"Indeed, these lines have such a fantastic force that they succeeded in keeping you alone for good in that house full of memories," he observed.
"Over the past forty-three years I've slept alone on our bed," she disclosed. "We said goodbye to each other only one day after our wedding. Then I just waited and waited. At noon, when the postman passed by our home, my heart was excited. Each week I got a letter either from my sister or from a friend far away. I was in great despair. Frankly speaking, I rarely wrote to my family for fear that I would feel happy too soon. During that long period, Antoine remained a source of hope and joy for me… Well, we'd better go back to the hotel because my fellow-travellers must have waited for us too long." She concluded her lengthy story in a sorrowful voice.
When the tour group arrived in Dien Bien Phu city, they visited various former battlefields, including de Castrie's shelter. As for Jacqueline, she went to the war memorial first to find out the names of the dead inscribed on their tombstones.
"Oh dear! What makes her take so much trouble here?" Ham asked himself. In order to solve the mystery, he entrusted his tasks to one of the local guides and followed her. Strangely enough, Antoine's diary soon became a bridge for them to come together.
Finally, they returned to the coach without dealing with what had come up in their minds.
Back in his room, after collapsing on the sofa, Ham took a photo out of his pocket to examine it.
In the picture, Jacqueline and her lover were caressing a bird made of shiny black horn. A happy smile blossomed on her rosy lips like a newly-opened flower and her lustrous hair looked quite youthful. On the back of the photo, he found the following words, "Cet oiseau aura une place d'honneur dans ma demeure, comme vous avez deja une dans mon coeur. " (This bird will have a place of honour in my home, just as you already have one in my heart.) Ham had an impression that a strong gust of wind was blowing past him from Dien Bien Cemetery.
"What a wonderful afternoon!" he exclaimed while taking a stroll along August Revolution Road. Over sixty, he led the untroubled life of a pensioner. During the walk, he observed the bustling life in the heart of the remote mountainous region, with several courting couples walking around and the blinking multi-coloured lights inside shop windows.
Every week, Ham taught French to many general practitioners in the municipality, not merely for money, but for pleasure. With that small sum of money plus his retirement benefits, he regarded his monthly income as adequate. One afternoon, on the way to his French class, he heard somebody calling his given name loudly. At his age, he was never addressed so curtly. However, he kept on going straight, without looking back. All of a sudden, a Honda motorbike stopped in front of him.
"Hi Ham, my dear Pham Van Ham!" the driver greeted him. Ham felt a bit confused although he found the metropolitan accent familiar. "I've been looking for you high and low this entire morning. I've been to your house, the school and the club, but nobody knows your whereabouts. How easy-going you are!"
"Oh my dear Colonel Le Thanh Van, head of our F351 unit!" Ham cried "I was told that you were the chief of a well-known travel agency in town, is that right? Luckily for us, we veterans are going to make a cross-country journey."
"Great! Let's co-ordinate our projects. I have a group of French tourists, mostly ex-fighters who want to revisit various Vietnamese battlefields where they fought. We're badly in need of an experienced guide like you," Van said to his old comrade-in-arms in a cheerful voice.
"Me! This old guy? You're kidding, aren't you? You've got lots of nice young female guides at your place, right?"
"Yet they only want an old soldier from the Viet-French war. Who knew then that the former enemies would become friends?" Van said jovially.
Ham gladly accepted his former chief's invitation on the grounds that he had gathered a lot of experience presenting facts about Viet Nam to his foreign students during his teaching period in the Congo. Besides, he had a profound knowledge about his homeland and was proficient in French literature. What's more, he was fluent in the French language.
Sitting in the coach on the way to that remote mountainous region, with an old guitar hung over his shoulder and a microphone in hand, he began talking about his country to the foreigners.
"We have a folk saying: If a small amount of affection is put on one pan of the scale and a tael of gold on the other, surely the former will be much heavier than the latter," he told them. "I hope that after this trip, when we say farewell to one another, we can assess what is more valuable of the two between us."
"Well done! Well done! Thank you very much, our dear guide." A chorus of praises was showered on him.
"Later, when you get tired and need to relax I'll sing a few folk songs about friendship for you," he promised.
"How can we expect more?" said one of them.
Suddenly, he caught sight of the lovable eyes and broad smile of a Frenchwoman with a fine set of teeth. Glancing over the name list of the travellers, Ham realized that her name was Jacqueline. To his surprise, she had joined the tour alone.
"Why's she a solitary tourist among the travellers?" Ham asked himself.
"Can anyone here help me hold this mike, please?" he said.
Immediately, that elderly woman stood up and stretched out her hand. "May I support you, sir?" she told him.
"Why not? Much obliged to you, Madame Jacqueline!" Ham said, nodding his thanks.
"Oh dear! How do you know my Christian name?"
"Thanks to the list, Madame. The following folk song entitled Well, My Co-Singer, Please, Stay with Us will be my humble present for you all, I hope."
Although his performance was not very good, the popular song deeply moved the small audience. "Bis! Bis!" Their requests resounded loudly when he finished singing. During his stay in the Congo, he sang Vietnamese ditties so successfully that he was referred to as a music teacher rather than a physicist.
"Mr Ham, would you mind singing it once again, please?" The earnest proposal was made immediately.
"With pleasure! And many thanks for your appraisal as well! Now, let me continue with another interesting story about quan ho* folk songs. When its singers parted from each other at the river bank, a wistful nostalgia cropped up in their hearts. At that moment, each of them drank a little gulp of river water to mark their lifelong friendship."
"How fantastic their feelings are!" "An unheard-of story!" they commented. "I don't believe that forty years ago you were merely a soldier," another chimed in.
"Not to mince matters, that was our whole nation's destiny, one of our great sufferings, Madame Jacqueline! Anyhow, let bygones be bygones! Yet, now performers of that type may be bold enough to enjoy a happy life together in pairs," he concluded in his excellent French.
Every time when their vehicle came to a stop, Ham got off first to help all descend, one after another. Jacqueline was always the last one to leave. She placed her soft and warm hand onto his palm. Surprisingly, the warmth of a tropical region seemed to have mingled with the cold of a snowy land.
Once, while chatting with one traveller, Ham was told that she was on the wrong side of sixty. What's more, her husband died in action at the Dong Khe Battle over forty years before, when she was still very young, about twenty, perhaps. Oddly enough, she had been alone since then. No wonder, she was the only single tourist of the party. That was why when they reached Hue city she was always in his company.
Soon they broke away from the group to walk around market stalls and through luxuriant flowery fields. They told each other stories about such famous works as A. Daudet's Lettres de mon moulin, H. de Balzac's Le Pere Goriot, and finally about L.van Beethoven's 6th Symphony Pastoral. Consequently, the party often had to wait for them for a long while.
"Mr Ham, tell us something else, will you?"
"OK," he responded enthusiastically. "The food you've just enjoyed in the Dong Ba Market is called 'bean curd' and is extracted from soy beans. Let me tell you a story about that dish: One day a little novice reported to his master in a polite and solemn voice, 'Respectful Venerable, a local bean-curd has just picked a quarrel with one of ours.'" All the passengers burst into laughter.
"My dear friends, Mr Ham has considerable knowledge of French literature," remarked Jacqueline. Turning to the old guide, she added, "Surely, you still remember the tale about Petit Gervais's small coin in V.Hugo's Les Miserables? Now let me quote an excerpt from it, Sir: Jean Valjean unintentionally stamped his foot on the poor little boy's lost coin. A moment later, knowing the truth about the piece now in his hand, he just sobbed and sobbed lamentably. 'Oh dear! Please, forgive me for my grave mistake, my poor Gervais!'"
Ham stared ahead, eyes wide open, then suddenly cried in a choked voice: "Gervais! Gervais!" Everybody became extremely embarrassed. All of a sudden, Jacqueline took a small metal piece out of her purse and put it on his palm. "Dear Mr Ham," she said, "the French coin that I've just offered you was made during that period of time."
"Much obliged to you, Madame Jacqueline. Frankly speaking, I don't know how to thank you enough," he expressed his profound gratitude.
When the coach stopped at the Dong Ha Hotel everybody but Ham began sitting down at their tables for lunch. A few minutes later, he turned up with a small shiny black bird made of ox horn.
"Ladies and Gentlemen!" he said in a solemn voice, "Today is Madame Jacqueline's birthday. Allow me, on behalf of the whole party, to offer her a little gift as the smallest token of our affections. It's a symbol of our hope as human beings that a blue sky and our burning ambitions for bravery and freedom may reign in our hearts for ever."
"Dear me!" she said, deeply moved.
"What a meaningful present!" said another one.
A photo was taken right at the moment when he handed it over to her. With a bright face, she led him to all the tables of her fellow travellers, one by one, and invited each of them to a cup of wine. The elderly couple walked side by side proudly.
"I wish you all a joyful day," a waitress congratulated them.
The memory of Jacqueline's photo with the moving words in French on the back kept on stirring his heart for hours.
"How white the dusk in this borderland is!" Ham whispered to himself. The last sunbeams went down gradually behind the whitish mountain range on the horizon. Clouds of smoke came up from lonely roofs and blazing masses of hay.
"Can we reach Coc Xa before nightfall?" she asked him.
"Don't worry, Madame. I've prepared everything for our sleep in the open field: a wide tent with two blankets and pillows, several pieces of canvas, an electric torch, a hunting gun and a lot of bread, liver pate, butter, salt, pepper and soft drinks. We'll pitch our tent at Coc Xa. Well, my dear lady. Do you dare to stay in the high mountains with this old shepherd as the young couple did in the story Les Etoiles by Alphonse Daudet?" Ham asked.
"Why not? By the side of such a valiant ex-soldier, what could I be afraid of?"
Immediately, he went to a nearby hamlet. Half an hour later, he came back with a local old man whose forehead was furrowed with deep wrinkles above the dark eyes of a mountain-dweller, calm and introverted.
Jacqueline, now in black with three thin red stripes at the hems of her skirt and sleeves and a bright red rose in her hair, stretched out her hand.
"It's my great pleasure to meet you," she said to the stranger.
"Lady, this is Mr A Lung, an ex-guerilla, who was present in a crucial fight in the Coc Xa Valley during that period of time. He'll lead the two of us to the former battlefield and tell us what happened there with his own eyes," Ham said.
Hardly had he finished the introduction when a cold gust of wind blew to them from the mountains, which made them tremble a little. Later, the three of them left the hotel before twilight. Their silhouettes soon faded away quickly amid the dim light.
At present, they were standing in the valley as dusk emerged amidst the magnificent mountain scenery. Smoke curled up from the roofs of several stray houses in the nearby village. The sunset over the vast expanse cast a dim silvery light on their faces.
"That fight took place here on the afternoon of September 7, 1950", A Lung started his story. "At that time, we set up an ambush in this valley. I saw a lot of officers and men from our main force on the march. In fact, this place was previously a woodland with many wild animals. They were bold enough to appear even in the daytime."
"Was it a hand-to-hand combat?" she asked.
"Yes, Madame. Blood trickled down from the wounds and dead bodies lay scattered here and there," he went on. At once, in order to prevent him from further unnecessary description, Ham intervened. He was fully aware of Jacqueline's aim during this trip. She only wanted to see the place where her beloved young husband had laid down his life.
Therefore, Ham went on speaking: "During the critical fight that late evening, both the winners and losers tumbled down en masse. They couldn't tell the abyss below from the footpath ahead. Unfortunately, they all shared a mass grave."
"Perhaps that's why Antoine's bones couldn't be found and taken home." She sighed in despair. "OK, please take me down to the bottom of the valley, if possible."
"What for, my dear lady?"
"Because I want to say goodbye to my husband's soul. Is that all right?"
"You've come here with a kind heart," Ham said to her. "Your sincere feelings have certainly been accepted by Antoine in paradise. I've taken with me a few candles and lots of joss-sticks. What we should do is burn them to pay homage to his soul right here. Is that all right?" he asked her.
They placed two small burning candles on a large stone and a blazing bundle of incense sticks on the ground in front of them. Their smoke curled up round and round as if Antoine's hand was waving farewell to his beloved spouse. In the meantime, Jacqueline walked to and fro behind the two men. A few minutes later, she came to the old guerilla.
"Thank you very much for giving me a special afternoon full of sweet memories," she said to him.
When the old soldier had left and disappeared in the twilight, she opened her heart to the old man.
"Dear Mr Ham, my husband died an unjust death. Later, I found that my husband's death allowance would provide for me throughout my lifetime, so I could live alone. Actually, two men came to me, but both of them died a violent death. After that, no one dared to marry me. Now, on my existing plot of land, I find myself quite at ease. Obviously, Antoine has forgiven me. Mr Ham, please sit down here so I can read his diary once again for the last time.
You're a deep blue sky!
While I'm an unfathomed sea
"These lines are very interesting indeed," Ham said.
"Exactly! Well, my dear Antoine, allow me to burn your diary at the very place where you wrote your last lines. From now on, you'll be with me to the moment I breathe my last. Try to help and protect me as well, my beloved sweetheart," she muttered a quick prayer.
After that, she made a fire with some dry twigs and placed the sacred notebook on it.
"Mr Ham, let's look at the flames flickering on Antoine's diary. I can see many souls dancing together around the fire," she told him.
When the French tour group stopped over in Hai Phong City to wait for the ship to Ha Long Bay, Ham took a taxi to Mr Lam's place with a radiant face.
"My dear friend, I've just finished a wonderful journey across the country. It resulted in this story, entitled The White Dusk," Ham told him in a merry mood.
*quan ho singing is a folk duet performed by a man and a woman.
Translated by Van Minh