Viet Nam News
by Nguyễn Thị Minh Thám
My maternal grandson was learning singing in school. After he heard his female teacher singing the song ‘Siboney’, he tried mumbling the tune all the way home from school. At home he begged me:
“Please, teach me that song, grandma!”
“All right. Let me find the CD.”
I had first heard the song 45 years ago, in the winter of 1971 when I was 13 years old.
My house lay in a desolate street in a port city. On the other side of the road was a market where food was available early in the morning. The US had temporarily halted its bombing raids against the North, but the city was still fearful. The city had been a US bombing target for years. So, all market activities happened early in the morning. When the sun rose, all gatherings had to be dispersed. Mother often asked me to go and buy vegetables at the market.
To my surprise, a guitar could often be heard coming from a dark house amid the noisy market. The music was like magic that spellbound me each morning. Day in and day out, I sneaked near that house and looked through the dark window. A young man of 17 years of age was playing the ‘Song of Hope’. As I was about to leave, he started playing ‘Siboney’. I was enchanted by the music.
One morning, I approached close to the music with a bunch of vegetables in one hand. I looked through the window as usual, but this time I was caught red-handed. The young man walked to the window, smiling:
“You like music, don’t you? Do you want to learn how to play?”
“Yes!” – I replied quickly, a bit confused – “But I haven’t learnt the notes yet”
“It doesn’t matter. I haven’t learnt them either. I was taught manually. If you like, I could teach you manually.”
I was a bit shy. But from then on, every day after school, I went to learn the guitar in his house. The first piece of music I wanted to learn was ‘Siboney’. He said it was too difficult, but I insisted on learning it. At the end of the day, he had to please me, an obstinate girl.
He patiently taught me bit by bit. First I had to learn how to hold the guitar. Then he taught me to play bit by bit. The prelude of the music was very difficult to play. My small hand got swollen.
After finding out I was learning guitar, my father went to Hà Nội and borrowed an old guitar from his friend. I got obsessed with playing that guitar. But soon after that, a string broke. How could I find a new string during this time of war? My teacher proposed exchanged his guitar for mine. But I did not dare to do it because it was not my guitar. After a moment, he removed the string from his guitar to replace the broken string on my guitar. Yet, we were unlucky. The string broke again.
My guitar had hung on the wall for a few days. Day in and day out, I went to hear his playing the guitar with the remaining strings. To my great surprise, the melodies were still enchanting. I wondered how he did it. I could see sadness on his face. He sometimes snuck a glance at me. I still did not understand the concept of a relationship, but I could feel my heart skip a beat. I did not know why yet and he didn’t explain it to me. Sometimes, he told me to go home early and as I left he stood by the gate watching me.
One month later, he had found a guitar string and told me to come get it. As I approached his house, I found it was crowded with people. He received me on the veranda.
“Come in, please. I’m going tomorrow. I’ll fetch you the guitar string!”
He wanted me to come so that he could say good-bye to me. I thought he would go abroad, returning to his homeland of New Caledonia. But I was wrong. He volunteered to join the army. I felt sick to my stomach with butterflies. Summoning up all my courage, I had tea with his family and friends. He sat by my side, trying to console me.
“I’ll go away for a few years and return. Then I’ll get married and my children will be pretty with big eyes and dimples on their cheeks like you!”
What? I thought. Did I have such beauty? My father often said that I was dark and skinny as a twig. I took after my father. So my music teacher was probably the first man to call me beautiful. His words gave me confidence in my beauty for decades after.
I left his house and hoped I would learn to play ‘Siboney’ when he returned. He followed me in silence to the other side of the street. I turned and saw him standing still by the gate as if he had turned to stone.
Time passed. My family moved to live in Hà Nội. I almost forgot about ‘Siboney’ and my first music teacher until I entered music school. I rummaged in the school’s library for the song. And I started practicing it. Memories rushed back to me. Now I could play the prelude quite well. But to my surprise, I could not play the entire song. When I finished the prelude, his image appeared before me standing there by the gate, gazing at me. My hand went numb. Where was he now? The South had been liberated for over a year now. Had he returned home? I had heard no news from him. I remembered what he had said to me before he left to join the army.
Years later, I went to study abroad. I got married and gave birth to my children, but none had dimples like me. I still hadn’t heard anything from him until a day at the end of winter, ten years after the liberation of the South, a woman in rags came to knock at my door. It took a moment before I recognised her as his sister. I invited her in and felt a sense of foreboding. She sat down with a bunch of old envelopes in her hand.
“My brother sent these letters to your old address, they were transferred to me.”
I took the letters from her, tears rolling down my cheeks.
I read the letters breathlessly for half an hour. The letters whispered to me about his battles, about his struggles with his comrades-in-arms crossing Trường Sơn Mountain Range, and his great joy when peace was restored. The last letter had a string rolled around inside. He wrote: “I bought a guitar string for you when we took over Saigon.” My eyes welled up with tears.
His sister told me that he had died when his unit went through a mine field. The letters with the guitar string inside had yet to be sent home. His unit had come to his house and handed his knapsack with all his memorabilia inside to his family. Now the guitar string was mine. It had been in my memory for good together with the half-finished ‘Siboney’./.
Translated by Mạnh Chương