by Tam Lee
She lifts the blade from its scabbard. Moonlight glances off the edge, illuminating each scar on the iron’s surface, recalling past victories and defeats.
The Chinese thought they could take everything. They took land and buildings, men and women, grains and textiles, all as tributes to the conquering monarchy. It was Heaven’s mandate, the Chinese told them, and all the Vietnamese could do was bow in obedience. They even took the ceremonial village drum, used to honor the ancestors on festival days. They needed the copper, they told Thi Sách, for the construction of a new mansion for the magistrate. His hand clenched hers so tightly there were bruises the next day, but he stopped her from drawing her sword. “It was a small defeat among many defeats,” he said to her when the Chinese were gone, and the drum with them. “We must take these small defeats if we want to win the big victory.”
And so they made their plans. Across the rivers and the mountains their whispers flowed like molten copper, burning a path of fury. Men and women of talent flocked to Mê Linh, bringing with them pots and pans, shovels, hoes, drums. Everything was melted together and remade into tools to aid them in the fight. Within a twelve-month, they had swords, shields, armor.
The cold night embraces her, and she can smell the bitterness of areca nut and betel leaf that always clung to Thi Sách, can hear the soft baritone of his voice, sounding exactly as it did the last time they stood here under the moon, swearing to never falter in their resolve.
Now we set ourselves aside. Now we fight for our people, for the mountains and the rivers, for the beating of the village drums. Let them beat defiantly, into eternity.
“You always had a way with words,” she whispers, almost smiling at the glinting sword in front of her. She runs a thumb over the engravings on the hilt, listening as the metal’s surface sings when her nail scrapes against each raised character—echoes of their vows carved into permanence. She gathers her strength. Tomorrow she will summon her generals to her side. Tomorrow she will give the orders and they will fight the Chinese to take back what was stolen from them.
The moonlight blurs; her cheeks are wet. She wipes her face with her free hand, careful not to let her grip on the sword weaken. Just a few tears. She’ll allow herself a few more when it is done.
Tomorrow, when the mists and the moonlight lift from the land, she will have the villagers put up an altar for Thi Sách. Tomorrow, she will kneel before her husband’s altar and light incense for him. Breathing in the choking smoke of the incense, she will bow to him thrice, just as she did on their wedding day: the first bow to convey the deep love she feels for him; the second to thank him for his ultimate sacrifice; the third to ask his forgiveness for not having the strength to save him.
Tomorrow, behind the enemy lines, tied and pinioned as he is, perhaps the fragrance and smoke of the incense will not be able to carry her prayers to him. Even so, she knows that when he sees the white mourning cloth draped over her hair he will understand. Tomorrow, as the Chinese torch the kindling surrounding their captive, he will smile and rejoice in her triumph—their triumph. He will be proud to know that she was able to do this.
Tomorrow, she will lead her people to freedom.
Now we set ourselves aside.
Thi Sách passed away in 39 AD. The following year, in 40 AD, his wife Trưng Trắc successfully rebelled against the Han Chinese with an army consisting primarily of woman-warriors. She and her sister set themselves up as queen-regents until their defeat in 43 AD.