Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
By Dương Giao Linh
John wheezed. With great difficulty, he sat up. As spring approached, his health seemed to improve, slowly. Whenever he managed to sit straight, John took the opportunity to look out of the window and feel the cool breeze blowing in from the great prairie outside.
John lived in a town by a valley quite far away from his birthplace in New York City, where he and his wife had spent a happy childhood in the loving arms of their families.
When he grew up, life took a drastic turn. Nobody believed or supported him anymore. People looked at him as if he was a serial killer. Which wasn’t very far from the truth.
When he was 20, John was drafted into the US Army and sent to Viet Nam, a country he didn’t know anything about. John left for the war with conviction, like any American man at the time. He delayed his engagement to Emily, his childhood sweetheart. He was told that it was a just war, fought for the sake of peace and those poor foreign people. He didn’t know what was waiting for him there.
John felt like choking. He pressed the alarm. His wife rushed in, put on his breather, and helped him lie down.
A voice that was both foreign and familiar started to resound in his head. For many years in his dreams he had heard that same voice. The voice came from a wooden trunk where he kept a treasured object.
Emily brought a cup of hot tea, and gestured to John to sit up. John raised a finger. Emily carefully lifted him up and removed the breather. John’s forehead sweated a little but his face brightened. Emily knew he had had a dream.
Emily gave her husband his tea. They sipped their tea and looked at the cat which was playing with the sunshine on the windowsill. John raised a hand to his forehead, then slowly recited a few lines from a Vietnamese poem.
It was a poem about youth jotted down by a young Vietnamese soldier. A young man with a square face, black eyes and yellow skin. He was very young, about 20, just like John.
Like John, the Vietnamese soldier also had a beautiful youth. A youth filled with love and aspiration. Then things changed.
“The war broke out when I was in college,” the young soldier had told John with his eyes. “My friends and I closed our books and went to the battlefield. We followed our hearts which burned with love for our country, hoping we could contribute to protect it from a foreign invader. We left for the front with a fervent belief that we would return to continue to study in peace. The children in our bereft country would be able to live in peace.”
In his heart, the young Vietnamese soldier had a powerful conviction. Unlike John, who only felt fear, disillusion, and disorientation. More importantly, John came to see that he was involved in a meaningless war. Totally different from what he had been told before he flew to Viet Nam. Why did he have to point his rifle at innocent people? Why did women and children look at him with hatred? John realised it all when it was too late.
After the war, John became haunted by heartbreaking deaths. His parents, sisters and friends treated him with contempt. They thought he wasn’t any better than a serial killer.
Emily stood by him. They married and moved to a town by the valley, away from the city and its glamour and noise, to spend the rest of their life in solitude.
John’s health deteriorated. After the war he found out that he had been affected by Agent Orange. For the most part, he was stuck in bed with a breather and an oxygen tank. He and Emily decided not to have children for fear of putting them at risk.
John finished his tea and smiled at Emily. Emily helped her husband sit up on a chair. John stared out of the window. The prairie looked very green. A few deer walked out from the forest. Further away were towering mountains and some small lakes. The sun dyed the whole landscape with fragrance and light. It was breathtaking. Beautiful and peaceful. Just like the old land that John had set foot on.
Simple low-roofed thatch houses lay close to each other. A family of four to five lived inside each. They cooked, worked and raised their kids. The kids didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear, but laughed and frolicked around in happiness. Then the war broke out. Their house was bombed. Fire and smoke blackened the sky. People screamed. John closed his eyes. He raised his hand to his chest and tried not to collapse before Emily found out and ran over. She grasped his shaking hand and stroked his chest. “Everything has passed. It is history,” she said.
Slowly John breathed, then opened his eyes.
Over the years, Emily had gotten used to her husband’s deliriums. Ever since the war ended, John had been haunted by the past. There were times when in his nightmares he held her so tight that she couldn’t breathe and had to scream.
Yet it was in joy that John often told his wife about the young Vietnamese soldier who was a stranger to him. The soldier was like an invisible bond making their life more meaningful. Emily knew John always wished to return to the past, even though it was filled with pain and fear. He needed to return to the very same place where he had shot countless bullets at innocent people to return the young man’s diary that he had kept all these years.
Emily strongly objected. She was worried about John’s health and wanted him to forget all about the past that only felt like a smarting wound. Yet, against her wishes, she was still re-living those bloody days with her husband through the young stranger. Memories about the Vietnamese soldier and his diary in the wooden trunk were medicine for John. Ironically, the painful memories eased the physical pain that he had to live with every day.
Emily meticulously folded John’s old clothes and put them into the wardrobe. Just the morning before, John had taken out his old clothes and forgotten to put them back.
Emily walked toward the television and turned down its volume. John was sinking into a heavy sleep.
He heard the young Vietnamese soldier’s voice again. It went up then down like a melody. A seemingly endless green paddy field appeared. A few buffaloes were grazing in leisure. Some men in brown shirts with their pants tucked up over their knees were turning up the soil. Some women were bending down to transplant rice seedlings. A couple of children were playing with water in a ditch covered with wild grass. They caught fish and played with the mud that stuck to their hair. Their faces reddened under the sun. The young man turned to John.
John squinted. It was a peaceful scene indeed.
The young man smiled and led John on along the green field. The gentle blades of grass were crushed under the spiked shoes. Even the white flowers were also squashed. John didn’t realise it. He pushed forward. Ahead was a dense forest with innumerable trees stretching toward the sun. A bird chirped from high above, hidden inside the green foliage. John searched for the birds with his eyes. The young man smiled.
Then the young man showed John the herbs that could cure bleeding, fever, coughing, and other illnesses. John was very curious. At home in America, people didn’t use herbs. They used carefully packaged and preserved pills and bottles of chemicals.
The young man smiled. A kind and tender smile. The way many of his countrymen smiled before the war. Then he pointed toward a thatched house with a small front yard nestling under an old tree.
- It’s my house!
- Does your mother live there?
- Yes. My mother and little siblings live there.
- What about your father?
- He was killed.
The spiked shoes ran on the green field, crushing the white flowers to pieces. The children stared in panic, then ran away, leaving behind their fish. The women screamed. The men ran after the spiked shoes with sticks. Then rifles fired and bombs exploded. Everything was set aflame. Black smoke rose up. The whole forest burned down.
“Mom and little ones! We’ve gone through a fierce battle. They took us by surprise. Many comrades have been killed.”
John held his head in his hands. The clock struck 12, waking him up. His room was quiet. He could hear the voice inside his head.
Slowly, John got up and walked toward the wooden trunk. In the warm light of a burning fireplace, he saw the young Vietnamese soldier writing his diary under the moonlight in the old forest. The night was fast falling and the dew was thickening. The air felt bitingly cold. Yet the young man kept on writing. He seemed to treasure every second before sunrise.
At dawn, the young soldier finished writing. He joined his comrades who walked on in silence through the freezing forest. They hurriedly gave each other some handfuls of cooked rice and cigarettes. Their shoes were worn out, their shirts were faded, and the camouflage branches they were wearing above their heads swayed with every step they took. Once in a while some shells burst in the sky then fell down, not far from the troops. They walked on in the cold air, under the silvery moonlight.
John couldn’t understand how those tiny hungry men could traverse dense forests and high mountains under constant bullet rain. Who were they? What gave them such strength?
The young man looked at John.
John slowly put the key into the hole and unlocked the trunk.
There was a notebook with a faded cover lying at the bottom of the trunk. John held out his hand to touch it. A freezing jet of air shot through his body. The room seemed to be covered in cold mist. John walked toward the fireplace. He would burn the diary. If only he could burn down this diary, the past would be put to rest. John stretched out his arm, which felt like burning.
Yet, suddenly, he saw the young man. His eyes looked like fire. “I want to return to my mother,” the soldier said. “My mother has been waiting for me for decades. She is ageing and falling ill.”
John stopped in the act. The diary felt cold in his hand. He carefully put it back into the trunk.
The sun shined glitteringly on the distant mountain tops. Early sunshine always soothed one’s soul. John felt much better now. Though he couldn’t walk around freely, he could still see sunshine. “Whenever you see sunshine, you are breathing, enjoying life and being loved. Whatever happens, life is still the greatest gift of all.” John quickly jotted down these lines on the cover of a book he was reading.
The sunshine was warming up John’s body. Once again, he saw those fierce scorching days. Under a 40-degree-Celsius heat, he and his comrades trod on with weapons and tried to reassure their fearful and weary selves before a critical battle against the Vietnamese.
In the terrifying silence shared by both sides, John couldn’t think of anything else but death. Many times he had thought that he would die here, in this foreign land. Death was fast closing in, hour by hour, day by day. He just didn’t know at exactly what time he would be killed. John put a hand on his chest, where he kept a photo of Emily. She was his home, his love, his motivation to live. A long series of gunshots were fired from the other side. A grenade was thrown across the fence and exploded, making John’s heart skip a beat. In an instant, the Americans fired back. The burnt smell of gun smoke rushed into the nostrils. The stinking scent of blood trailed near. Many of John’s comrades were injured. They fell on the grass screaming and shouting for help. John was terrified. He fired his rifle non-stop into the void like a mad man. Pieces of soil splashed black and shell fragments shot around.
The fight dragged on for half a day. John held his seriously injured right leg and tried to get back to safety. If he met a Vietnamese soldier now, he would surely die, he thought. John ground his teeth and mumbled some prayers. All of a sudden, he saw a young Vietnamese approaching. His body was drenched in blood. Blood soaked the left half of his shirt. This man was badly injured too. John startled in panic when he saw the man’s eyes. His eyes looked like burning flames. His hands clutched at a gun with confidence. John stuttered and raised his arms in surrender.
The young man pointed his gun at John. John locked eyes with the flames. John knew the young man had more than enough strength to shoot him. John held his leg in pain and desperation. Perhaps death would come and release him from this bloody war. Some words stuck in John’s throat as he looked at the young man’s blood-stained face.
In anger, the young man stared back. Blood from his hands dropped on the dry leaves under his feet, turning them into dark brown. He mustered his strength to fire the last bullet. John took out Emily’s photo from his shirt pocket to take a last look. Then he sobbed and closed his eyes.
The gun didn’t fire. John opened his eyes. The young man lowered his weapon. He seemed to want to say something. He looked at John, then looked down at his chest. Did he also keep something there? He collapsed before he could take it out. He lay quietly on the ground with a bloody hand resting on the chest. John tried to calm down. Why didn’t he shoot? What was inside his pocket? With a deep gratitude and respect, John opened the young man’s pocket and took out a diary.
John carried the small diary in his hand. I’ll take you home to your mother, he whispered, looking toward at the sun. A breeze shook the branches gently in the early sunshine. A new day had begun.
John returned to Viet Nam, perhaps for the last trip of his life. This time, as he set foot on the foreign land again, he felt at peace.
This land had totally changed. There was no longer burnt grass or withering leaves. Nor was there gun smoke and destruction. The sky was high and blue. People looked at John and smiled.
The old mother had snow white hair and deep wrinkles around her eyes. She sat in a corner and quietly kissed the words that had turned yellow in her son’s diary. John saw the young soldier again. He slowly closed his burning eyes and lay down, on a bamboo plank bed in the middle of the front yard. The yard was filled with sunshine and rustling leaves.
He had returned home, to his beloved mother and home country after many years of separation. His mother’s weary eyes could no longer make out what he wrote, but in her heart she understood. There wasn’t any separation or pain. The war had really ended.
John walked slowly on the green field stretching far before his eyes. The soft grass felt soothingly cool under his bared feet. White flowers swayed in the early winds. He sat down on the grass. Here, the grass had grown green again.
Translated by Linh Đỗ