by Chau La Viet
We were the sappers stationed on Ngam Pass. We had to bear the rain of enemy bombs throughout the night. When the raids were over, we started to mend the road until day broke. Then we withdrew to take shelter in the cave. We all sat down to have bowls of thin rice gruel and lay down for a sound sleep. But during the long, rainy days, we all gathered to smoke bamboo bubble-bubble pipe and talk about various subjects. One member of our team, Toan, said he had a 100 per cent true story to tell about a woman called Ms. Hanh, who was an important woman in Bao Hung Commune where we had stayed just after we were recruited. She was about 40, with a good shape and smiling eyes. We were all so eager to hear the story just to kill time.
We gathered around Toan and listened:
…. At that time, our unit had a drill in Ninh Binh. One night, there was an alert and the whole unit got ready to move on. I was ordered to stay back and guard the rice storage. Out of the blue, I saw a person coming towards me, so I aimed my CKC rifle and shouted:
"It's me. Mr Toan, please, don't…."
I heaved a sigh of relief. It was Ms Hanh, the owner of the house.
"Oh, Sister Hanh. I thought someone was…. Where are you going?"
"I've just had a meeting with the Communal Committee…."
"Our unit is having a drill. I stayed to guard the storage…."
"Is it? Have you had lunch? I have gone without anything since the morning, you know!" - As soon as she said it, she was in the kitchen preparing something to eat. A moment later, the smell of roasted sweet potatoes drifted over. Then she called me:
"Toan, come here to have some broiled sweet potatoes to quench our hunger…"
"Sorry, I'm still on duty."
"Don't worry! My militiawomen are patrolling the area."
The smell of broiled sweet potatoes was so tempting that I went quickly into the kitchen. Outside the cold wind was hissing.
"Do sit down. Here's a roasted potato for you."
I took it and ate it while trying to cool it down. As soon as I finished it, she gave me a second one.
"Do eat it!"
"What about you? You should eat too."
"All right. There are a lot over there in the basket, you see."
Right at that moment, footsteps were heard outside. Ms Hanh called aloud:
"Nhung and Lua, come over here."
Two girls entered, each with a rifle slung over the shoulders.
"It's our turn to patrol tonight, you know!" - One girl said.
"Give me one, sister Hanh. It's quite warm here," - The other said.
Ms Hanh introduced me to the girls:
"This is Mr Toan, who is guarding the rice storage area while his unit is having a field drill."
"Oh, God! How many days are you having the drill and where?"
"That is a military secret," - Ms Hanh said.
"Don't you know that she is caring for the squad commander Thang, who has billeted in her house, sister Hanh."
Having heard this, I could tell the girl was Thang's sweetheart. What a beautiful girl!
"What about you, girl? Mr Toan, this girl is the best singer in our militiamen's team. I will act as matchmaker if you like her."
"You, I hate you," - The girl said, hitting Ms Hanh's back, blushing - "What if he has a girlfriend in his home village?"
"If so, I would agree with you, but you know, we are going to the battle front in a few days' time."
"No problem. Look, what about the case of Mr Thang and Lua? They know they will be far away from each other, but they still love each other. Do become more optimistic, my dear!"
"It's time for our patrol," - Lua said, shaking my hands - "You and I will have a chance to see each other again. I live in the Catholic parish in the hamlet over there."
Then the two girls walked out of the kitchen. I also stood up:
"I've got to go and examine the storage. See you."
"Yes, see you. But after that, do come and have some warm green tea."
I said "yes" and took the rifle to go. Ms Hanh went to see if her son could sleep well. When I went in again, I saw her sitting by the fire in a thin, wool sweater.
"It's quite warm sitting in the kitchen with you. It's very cold outside," - I said to her.
"Oh, yes, it's very cold out there. What about your unit members? Where are they now? Will they have to swim across the river now in this cold weather?" - She said worriedly.
"It's a soldier's life, sister! We'll be living a harsher life on the battlefield, you know!"
"It's the same for my husband. The first day he was recruited to the army, he had to go through military drills for six months and then he went to fight in the South after crossing the Truong Son mountain range. One day before he went, he was allowed to visit his family for one night - a cold night like this. I also roasted some sweet potatoes for him. My two sons Long and Linh were sitting here together with us…."
"Where is he now? On which battlefield?"
"It's in the Central Highlands, but I am not sure. I haven't heard anything from him for a long time…." - She said, and her eyes were wet with tears. I felt my heart was wrung. (Later I was told that her husband had already laid down his life on the battlefield, but she tried to hide it from me so that we could feel calm before we went to the front).
"It's difficult to have a letter from the battle front, you know, in such a rain of bombs and shells," - I said, consoling her - "But don't worry. He'll be back home one day."
"Thank you," - She said gently and gave me a bowl of hot green tea - "Do drink it to warm yourself up."
I sipped the tea, feeling more relaxed.
"You look tired. You can go to sleep. Let me guard your rice store for you," - She said to me - "Don't worry. We the militiawomen are keeping wide awake tonight."
I was really tired that night, so I followed her words and went to sleep. By the way, I wanted to say something to make my story more clear: We had billeted in her house for two months, so we knew everyone in her house. Her eldest son Quan usually slept with his paternal grandfather in another hamlet and the youngest lived with her.
I went to sleep with all my clothes on because the cold was so biting. I was still asleep when she went in and asked:
"Have you slept, Toan? It's very cold, isn't it?" - She gave me a woolen blanket - "Cover yourself with this to fend off the cold, please."
I was very surprised.
"But how could you bear this cold?"
"I sit in the kitchen and it's very warm there."
"No, I can't. You should go to sleep, too. You have worked very hard the whole day… Please, use this blanket to keep yourself warm enough to have a good sleep," - I got up and gave the blanket back to her.
After some hesitation, she sat down on the bed next to me and said:
"I can sleep with my son. You take this blanket to sleep"
"Hasn't he slept yet?"
"No, he has already slept."
All of a sudden, I made a bold proposal:
"If you don't mind, we can sleep together with this blanket."
I said this because I thought it was alright, since I was only 18 and she was such a middle-aged woman - let alone she an important official in the commune. Having seen her hesitating, I pulled her down on the bed, saying:
"Lie down and sleep here, please."
She was still hesitating, I said again:
"Why do you mind? Do you think I am an ugly boy?"
"No, we are sister and brother," - She said, still reluctant. Then she lay down gently by my side. I did not know if it was the blanket or it was her warmth that made me less cold.
"It's very cold here. I can't sleep, sister," - I said.
There was someone walking outside in the garden. She got up, listening, and then she went out. I thought she had gone to her room. A moment later, she tiptoed into my room.
"I went out to shut the door," - she said and lay down by my side - "It's very cold outside," - she said, trembling and then she embraced me tightly - "I am very cold…."
"I am also very cold…. You're very warm…."
"Am I?.... Haven't you got a girlfriend in your home village?"
"Not yet, sister. I finished the 10th grade and joined the army right after that….and I came to quarter here…."
Her warmth had transmitted to me, a very strange warmth I had never felt before. I felt dazed, but I tried to keep quiet. After a moment, she turned and said vaguely:
"That year, on the same sort of moonlit night as this, he called me to lie with him and enjoy the moon…. And now…."
"And now what, sister?"
"And now he is no more. He died…." - she said, with a hiccup. Tears welled up in her eyes. I felt great pity for her and said in great confusion:
"Sister…. sister…." - I sat up and wiped the tears from her face.
"No, let me cry, dear!" - she brushed my hand aside.
It was possible that she missed her husband or she felt grieved with her fate or maybe after all those years, now lying with a man, in that moonlight, something was rising up inside her. I couldn't tell what was what.
"Please, don't cry any more, sister. I can't bear…."
"Let me cry, as I haven't any chance to cry like this," - she said, taking my hand.
I was also caressing her hands.
"I understand you've got to bear those suffering years…. I admire your energy…"
"Thank you…. You're the first person I've had a heart-to-heart talk like this with."
"Yes, thank you," - I whispered to her ear. "Now let's sleep, sister!"
"Yes, you also have to sleep, too."
It was the first time I had slept together with a woman, enjoying her warmth and breath. I felt a bit strange….
The moon outside was shining brightly and the wind was hissing vigorously. It was probably midnight. Suddenly I took her hand and pulled her close to me.
"Let's lie closer to each other to be warmer!"
I felt she got warmer and warmer and her voice suddenly became vague:
"Toan…. Toan…." - Then she took my hands tightly.
Then she put my hands on her breast. It seemed she had unbuttoned her blouse in advance. I felt those hot breasts in my hands. I was mesmerised, feeling unbelievably heated inside. It was the first time I had that feeling. She took my hands and pressed them on the breasts. I breathed hard and forgot who she was. She turned toward me and pulled me to lie on her. There was no distance, no words blurted out. Only certain sounds made from her mouth, showing she was in climax. I kissed her breasts. She made happy sounds again and as the night ended we made love madly.
A short time after that, during a night fighting the enemy's bombings to keep the road clear for the liberation fighters' trucks, a bomb fragment hit Toan in the chest and he died.
Three years later, the war came to an end and our unit marched back to the rear. We took turns getting some R&R. We were so happy to be home. I was back with my mother. A few days later, I was absorbed in cleaning the bicycle for my mother when I heard someone call my name in the alley. I jumped to my feet and ran to the door:
"Yes, brother Han…." - I jumped for joy. I was very happy see him here in my house. I invited him into the house.
"Are you parents well?" - he asked me, putting down his knapsacks.
"Thank you, they are well…. They are still working in the field."
"Please have some tea," - I said - "What about you?"
"You know, my parents are no more. To tell you the truth, I am yet to be home."
"So where are you going?"
He took a sip of tea and said:
"I came to Toan's home village first, visited his parents and burnt incense for him. Luckily, it was two years after his death, so his parents' sadness has cooled down somewhat…. But do you know where else I went?"
I shook my head and looked at him fixedly.
"I came to visit Gia Vien where you had billeted years ago. I went to look for Ms. Hanh…."
"What? What did you go see Ms. Hanh for?"
"Alright. I am going to tell you this. I came to see her with these knapsacks on my shoulder. She was very surprised and did not know who I was. But she received me warmly. I told her about Toan's death. She cried. Then I said that I wanted to live with her, if she agreed. She cried again and wondered if I said seriously. I told her that I loved her even before the night she slept with Toan. She cried again. Those tears were the tears of a woman who had borne the brunt of war and was left living alone in this world, and then a soldier like me came back to compensate her for those lonely years, you know!"
Then Han hit the road again to visit his home village and his relatives. A few days later I was told he went back to Ms. Hanh, who was waiting for him. That spring morning was flooded with sunlight, those swifts were hovering in the sky and late happiness had come to this new couple.
Translated by Manh Chuong