Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
by Lữ Thị Mai
My house was situated on the hillside, overlooking the Mã River.
My father usually told me that previously this little area was the graveyard of fighters who died in action. This lonely piece of land stayed the same while its population grew bigger and bigger with every passing year due to poor young married couples who like my parents, who had settled down there as permanent residents. Many tombs of unknown martyrs, thanks to the locals’ help together with my father’s efforts, after a solemn ceremony, were arranged into a special cemetery for those in this small mountainous community to pay homage to them during Tết or other major events.
Our little locality had seen plenty of ups and downs, with countless dramatic stories.
I grew up in the heart of this grove of purple myrtles going around the desolated burial ground. Since my childhood, I had had strange dreams: a little girl of my age, in a flowery blouse with her hair in pigtails, standing at the window, smiling broadly and waving her little hands in greeting. On another occasion, I found her, in tears, calling me out then wiping away teardrops trickling down her cheeks.
One evening, in my father’s lap, he told me some special stories.
“A few days prior to my younger sister Hà’s death, my mother carried a lot of ceramic products to our local market to sell and buy her a flowery blouse,” said my father. “On the morning of the first school day, she went barefoot to the village school in high spirits. At midday, while the children were ready for the celebration, US aircraft released bombs on the school building. Most of them together with their teachers lost their lives during the attack. Arriving home after a business trip, I went straight to the heavily damaged place and recognised the body of my little sister thanks to her torn flowery blouse among the debris of the building amid the ear-piercing screams of villagers,” he went on.
That day, our whole village was in deep mourning for the dead.
Soon a stone monument was erected at the entrance to our village in their memory with this inscription “Here lie the victims to the massive US bombing on September 27, 1969.” As a result, a new row of graves were made along the riverbank.
Many years later, in a dream my paternal grandmother saw Hà appearing on the river bank with a broad smile. Her hair tousled in the wind. “We’d better let Hà lie there so that her soul might enjoy the folksongs sung by boatmen plying on the Mã River,” she insisted while the other graves had been made on the high hills around the village for safety. Unfortunately for her, a few years later Hà’s tomb was swept away by a devastating flood, hence no trace of her tomb remained. My grandmother’s eyesight turned so poor, due to her anguish, that after a short time she went totally blind.
* * *
My new friend Nhâm told me that in his family, he and a cousin believed that their elder uncle suffered from a mental illness, as a clinical psychologist had concluded. Yet, in his matter of love, he was quite sensible. His affection to his wife who had abandoned him many times remained. The 80-year- old man’s children and grandchildren made a lot of calls to Nhâm to let him know that the old man remained faithful to his wife on the grounds that he had kept on washing his wife’s clothes, putting them to dry on the clothes line. When the afternoon sunshine changed direction, he took a walking stick in hand and followed suit.
“I’ve waited for my wife for scores of years. Now such conduct means nothing to me,” he said.
Nhâm’s uncle used to be a soldier. When the war was over he took a three-year course in the provincial College of Advanced Education. After graduation, he became a physics teacher in a senior secondary school of a mountainous district. Thanks to his successful long-lasting career, he was sent abroad to study further by the educational authorities. What happened to his family at home during his postgraduate studies abroad, nobody knew anything. What was certain was that when he returned home his health got worse and worse every passing day and his mental disorder was beyond treatment. He gave up his teaching job for good and just did housework.
“What a piece of psycho-war propaganda!” he denied all the entreaties of his colleagues to seek help.
In his childhood, Nhâm was very interested in leaving Hà Nội with his parents to pay a visit to his elder uncle’s family. Yet, for grown-ups, it was nothing but a chance to care for his uncle’s dangerous disease.
Oddly enough, this so-called half-mad man could make binoculars of different sizes and shapes from the waste bulbs. These instruments became a favourite game for local kids. A few years later his wife gave him up for gambling. Worse still, she sold his real estate while he saw her deeds as the dirty tricks of a gang. Come what may, his love for his ex-wife remained unchanged. “If she might come back to me again, I’d forgive all her wrong-doings,” he said in defiance of his relatives’ advice, especially those of his two daughters.
In fact, in this small mountainous community, the story about a town-dwelling family became a hot topic.
Rumour had it that his better half had been unable to waste her prime of life for the sake of a depressed husband any longer and that in her libertine existence as a tramp craving gambling she fell in love with another man. On the whole, these things were still uncertain although her selling two houses of the family sounded true.
Taking pity on him, his kin in town did their best to bring up his two daughters and bought him a small house in a narrow alley. Later on, she returned to his place once again. Leaving no stone unturned, she managed to sell his dwelling once more. Finally, some of his close relatives had to give him part of the land belonging to them and had a small house built for him so he might have a shelter against rainy days. Then he was taken to a mental institution. Nevertheless, he escaped one day and came back home to be beside his mass of binoculars.
* * *
In my village, there was an elderly man named Thư with one hand cut off. As a banker of a gambling house, he could earn lots of money dishonestly. He set a bad example for village kids, even his children. “For old Thư, less-educated and one-handed, he has become rich in so short of time thanks to gambling,” remarked a few of them. “So, why do we have to go to school to eke out a living?” they said.
My father told me that Thư, one of his close comrades-in-arms, had been wounded in an awkward situation. Shortly after being enlisted into the army, during a training session for using grenades under his lieutenant’s slow movements, the new soldier Thư, with a real weapon in hand, did the slow performance like that of his instructor. Bang! went the grenade in his hand. As a result, his right hand was smashed into pieces and his arm was severed. “Poor him! That accident could not help him overcome his fear and failure,” said my father.
As a single youth in a well-off family, he was demobbed with bitter remarks of his villagers. “Thư’s line of descent has thus come to an end,” said one of them.
When a strange woman came to our village and encouraged gambling, Thư joined the game and won many bets. His children began indulging in playing instead of study. That was the first time ever we found a woman playing the role of a banker. Curiously, Thư made up his mind to marry her as a concubine, whereas his wife was forced to bitterly accept polygamy.
“Mind your own business, darling,” my father said to his wife one day. “What’s the use of taking care of that pert woman?” he reproached her.
When my whole family gathered together to search for Hà’s grave, my grandmother insisted that her tomb had remained somewhere around, and had not been swept away.
In a pilgrimage to our pagoda, I met a well-known telepathic who had promised to solve our problem. Finally, our granny’s proposal was met and a solemn ceremony was held right on the riverbank; thus an excavation was carried out on a large scale.
“That’s it!” shouted the crowd of prayers in excitement.
“My beloved Hà, I know that your death was quite a gross injustice!” she exclaimed.
* * *
I met Nhâm when he came to my village to look for his aunt-in-law who had left home a long time ago. That afternoon, while I was burning some joss-sticks at the head of the newly-made grave in memory of my ill-fated Auntie Hà, he appeared behind me. His former aunt-in-law had remarried and refused to return to her ex-husband with a mental disease.
“With the passing of time and a lot of tragedies, one after another, had made her changed a lot, beyond our expectation. She was no longer a faithful and patient wife as she had previously shown,” he murmured when both of us were sitting on a high hill, facing the swift-flowing Mã River. “Since she left, many relatives of ours visited my elder uncle in the country in turn, one after another,” he added. “One afternoon, while my father was staying with him, he was surprised when he saw his elder brother stepping out of the kitchen into the brilliant sunshine in a black pair of trousers of his wife. At once my father warned him. “Again, the gang of psycho war’s story. That’s why she’s gone away for good,” he sighed deeply then placed his wife’s piece of clothing under his pillow.
* * *
Many days later, one of Nhâm’s relatives told me a long story about his cousin.
While still in the armed forces, he sent home letters regularly at first. Then for a long period of time later, no letters came. Those days, certificates of death reached most houses, one after another. One late evening while we were having dinner, a letter was given to us. Unexpectedly, it was a special notice, not the one from our brother from the front line. “Your man has deserted,” it read briefly. All of us stared at one another, then at the altar where there were five photos of martyrs who had lost their lives in action.
My paternal grandfather passed away after that event with his last words, “Never has he been a betrayer.”
Surprisingly, when the war was over, our brother returned home one day with a faded uniform in a jeep with two armed escorts. “Let’s welcome him home in honour of our brave hero,” they announced loudly. “Obviously, the notice you received that day was only an anonymous letter of the psycho-war gang,” he said, then bowing down before the altar where stood the five photos, including his own, of course, with a bitter smile.
* * *
I told Nhâm that since my childhood, I had always dreamt about the flowery blouse on the clothes line being slowly moving away, step by step, according to the sunshine, and about the little girl standing by the window. After that, under the canopy, hand in hand, ran to the river bank to amuse ourselves in the cool water.
It was Nhâm, who upon listening to my lengthy narrative, advised me to have the so-called ashes of Hà checked to confirm whether the body in the grave was Hà or not. Of course, that way ran counter to my paternal granny’s wish.
“What’s the use of scientific measure? It only makes me feel more pained and ashamed,” she claimed.
I led Nhâm to my father. After my introduction, he agreed with Nhâm’s explanation. “My dear daughter, after listening to Nhâm’s logical description, now, I completely believe in him,” he whispered to me.
* * *
I promised Nhâm that after my study in the mountainous region, I would visit his parents.
Welcoming me to their place with broad smiles, Nhâm’s father boasted his big treasure of binoculars with some telescopes.
“Frankly speaking, I’m able to sleep for a few hours a night only for fear that my better half would leave me once again according to the allegations made by the psycho-war gang,” he said. “Among my children, nieces and nephews as well, Nhâm looks like me the most. Faith is also hereditary in our line of descent.”
At first, Nhâm’s aunt-in-law was timid while facing me. Then finding her husband walk along the sunshine with the clothesline every day, she was aware of his strange mood.
“I made my mind up to leave him, not because of his brutal actions against me nor his naughty kids, but because of something else; the thuds of footsteps echoing on the river bank, the cries and the rounds of laughter at night when I took a stroll on the sand bank,” she told me. “Sometimes I went to the shrine near the bank to say my prayers, where the debris from the US bombings had lain on the old pagoda. On other occasions, I saw a little girl in a flowery blouse crying mournfully for a homecoming. When I asked villagers about these things, they told me the sad story about Hà in the flowery blouse who died during one of those air raids. Furthermore, after that, nobody in this small community dared to put on flowery clothes to pay homage to that poor little thing,” she added.
“For such a poor little girl who always craves for a homecoming, how can I do otherwise as a grown-up?” she told me in a choked voice. She cried her heart out as she had done during the night she collapsed on the floor of the shrine.
* * *
The result of the test showed that the sample of so-called ashes of Hà had no blood relation at all with my family.
“Therefore, we have so far worshipped an anonymous soul, instead of Hà!” said one of my relatives. “Where’s the telepathic?”
“Clearly, Hà’s grave remains on the riverbank!” another said.
“It’s quite possible that a certain family has wrongly made an excavation,” concluded another one.
“However, since the day we buried the ashes of a different person on the hillside, I’ve never found Hà’s figure turning up. Why is that?” asked my granny. Up to now, her doubt had remained a sealed book to us all.
A few days later, an altar was set up on the riverbank for Hà.
“My beloved Hà, you still lie in our native land, don’t you? I think you are also pleased with the fact that your wandering soul has been worshipped properly. No need to change your resting place again, you see! God bless you!” stated my granny in a serious voice.
At that ceremony, the amputated Thư knelt down on the ground as if he was begging forgiveness for what he had previously done.
* * *
When I started up in business far from my hometown, my father kept on writing to me every week, although each of us had a mobile phone. He told me that after the event Thư had given up gambling to improve the cemetery of martyrs and the war monument together with my father and to welcome those who lived afar coming to pay homage to the souls of their dears.
One day, Nhâm gave me an old faded diary booklet he had kept during his time looking for his elder aunt-in-law. He said that he was not a writer able to describe love stories. In the meantime, his cousin, a painter, also disclosed that he could not portray the daydream of a romantic man who slowly chased the sunshine sliding on the clothes line with a black pair of trousers of a woman throughout that period of time looking forward to his wife’s coming back home after his long trips to a far-away locality.
Opening the diary of Nhâm’s uncle, page by page, my eyes were brimming with tears. One of its passages reads as follows:
I still believe in the great love of a woman who has been waiting for me so patiently in wartime. I often think that if I might return home alive, I would offer the remaining part of my life for her love and for her long-standing losses. Although I’ve done my best to conceal my war wounds, even a piece of shrapnel deep in my head from my family, time and again, in uncontrollable moments, I gave her a sound thrashing. Yet, curiously enough, thanks to my binoculars, my rapid heartbeats could go a bit slower and slower…
Translated by Văn Minh