by Khanh Ha
The sun was above the bamboo grove when they reached a jetty. The day was humid. The old man paid the boat owner and, cradling one of his twin infant grand-daughters in his arms, climbed up the bank. Trailing him, his widowed daughter carried the other twin on her back. They walked toward a thatched hut with pots and pans hanging on its earthen wall. The owner was a middle-aged woman whose dimpled smile welcomed them at the entrance. The old man asked if they could catch a ferry later in the day to the next town, where they could board a bus to Huế. Then he asked how close they were to the town captured by the Viet Cong. Half a day ahead, the owner said, then pointed to the other hut, also a food stand, from where the sound of radio drifted. She told him the radio news just announced that the South Vietnamese troops had taken the town back before dawn. She added that they usually sent out a mop-up when they recaptured a town.
While the woman served them steamed rice and fresh coconut milk, the old man pointed to his feet and asked the woman if she had an extra pair of thongs. One of his own was torn. She came back with a pair of black rubber flip-flops, bigger than his feet. He paid her for those and the meal. She clutched the money against her chest, looked up to the lanky old man, and bowed. Embarrassed, the old man bowed back.
“I’m going to the river to wash myself,” the old man said to his daughter as he placed the infant in her arms. He picked up his bag and stood over her. “Can you handle both of them?”
She nodded. “Yes, Father.”
He finished his bowl, swigged down his coconut milk, and slipped his feet into the new thongs. At the bank, a boat docked and let off a long line of passengers. Some went into the other food stand and some walked into the hamlet in their indigo shirts and black pantaloons. Bare-headed, canvas bundles slung on shoulders. All men. They saw him, stopped, looked, then walked on.
The old man took off his thongs and stepped into the water, which was warm and brown. He splashed water on his face, his neck and thought of taking off his shirt when suddenly magpies flew out from the trees, their legs yellow in the sun. Then gongs sounded noisily deep in the hamlet and voices screamed, “Airplane! Airplane!”
He clambered up the bank, gongs beating, men shouting. Then he heard a steady drone. Two South Vietnamese Skyraiders came into view over the hamlet so low he could see the pilots. The planes swooped down and bombs fell on the hut where they had just eaten their meals. The first explosion knocked him to the ground. Gravel, dirt, and straw flew through the air, trees snapped noisily. The second explosion was nearer and the ground beneath him burst upward, mortar and stone and leaves blowing up in a thick cloud. He shook with the ground, felt dirt in his mouth. His ears hurt. The planes roared across the river and droned away.
He stood up. Both the huts had disappeared. He saw the long wooden table shattered, its legs blown off. He saw bodies in the second hut, men in indigo shirts plastered to the ground. He screamed his daughter’s name as he ran. “Phương! Phương!” His shouts were lost in the general uproar in the hamlet. Something on the ground whimpered. He saw a head above the ground, the owner was buried in the earth. Her face was caked with red dirt. Clods stuck in her hair. He dropped to his knees. Then he saw the tops of the infant girls’ heads barely above ground and he scraped and scratched with his fingers until they bled. He sprung up, looked around until he found a branch. He plunged the stick into the dirt. It snapped. He grunted, took out his pocket knife and stabbed at the dirt around the owner’s head until he loosened some and swept it off and stabbed the ground again and again. He scooped dirt by the handful and tossed it away until her face appeared. Her eyes opened. When her shoulders were free, he began to pull her up. She struggled for a time before she broke free. All the time she was holding both infants against her chest. The old man dusted their heads, relieved to see their eyes flutter and slowly open.
Just as the old man took one infant from her arms, he asked, “Where’s my daughter? Where is she?”
“Over there!” The owner pointed to the other hut, then told him she had looked after the infants while his daughter went to the other hut to buy food for her babies.
The old man ran to the other hut. He saw shreds of indigo cloth, the mutilated bodies. In the hot sun he stood over the wreckage and his knees shook. The owner’s cry resounded in his head.
The old man didn’t know what to call the baby girls. They were barely two months old and so perfectly alike his daughter had said to him that naming them differently seemed odd. He did not see why, but he didn’t object to them not having a name for themselves in those first two months.
Already they made him miss their mother. He tended them as lovingly as she had, spending all his time with them. A month went by, long and painful with memory. Then in the last two days of the month strange faces began appearing in the village. A drought had persisted since the start of summer that dried so much water in the pond in the back of his house he could see its mossy bottom. One morning the old man went to the cistern by the side of his house to fetch water for cooking gruel and noticed it empty. He paid Miss Lai, one of his neighbors, to carry public well water to his cistern.
With the water left in the tub the old man washed his hair. He washed it once a week. Afterward he sat on the doorstep in the sun and dozed off. Footsteps on gravel woke him. A man wearing a palm-leaf conical hat stood in front of him. He wore a short-sleeved brown shirt and black pantaloons. The old man blinked. Strange face. Someone looking for a handout?
“Yes, Sir?” he said to the stranger.
“Well, Sir,” the man said, “I’m from the local National Liberation Front committee. I’m here to ask for your support of our movement. The Front needs funds to fight the Americans.”
A Viet Cong. The old man frowned. “Are you a tax cadre?”
“I’m not here to collect taxes. We collect taxes only from farmers and landlords.”
For a moment the old man felt relieved. But he hated the Viet Cong on taxing the poor. After breaking their backs raising crops, the tenant farmers paid their landlords and the south government three-fourths of the harvest. Then came the Viet Cong tax cadres demanding their share for the Front.
“What are you here for?” the old man asked, scratching his head.
“That you and your neighbors go to the Front’s market whenever it’s convened.”
“I hear you, Sir.”
“We’ll make sure you go,” the man said, nodding. “There won’t be anything open at Well Market those days.”
The old man hid his antipathy. Until now the Viet Cong convened markets in other villages. He had heard about local informants who pointed out any who boycotted the Viet Cong market, and interrogation sometimes ended in execution.
The man touched the brim of his hat. “The market opens this Saturday and Sunday at the riverside. Be there, Sir.”
The old man watched the man go out and down the alley, his hat bobbing beyond the bear’s breech hedges. What’ll happen if these communists win? he thought. At least, the fighting between the Viet Cong and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam hadn’t affected his village. But he’d heard that it was bad for those hamlets where salt marshes and sand dunes stretched for miles along Route One, the north-south highway the American convoys used. The Viet Cong ambushed the convoys and retreated into the hamlets surrounded by swamps and quicksand bogs. The Americans went after them and bombarded the hamlets or burned them down.
The old man grunted as he rose to his feet. Miss Lai and her fifteen-year-old daughter were carrying in buckets of well water on shoulder poles. A banana frond floated on top of each bucket, and no drop of water spilled as they strode in. The old man paid her.
Miss Lai fanned herself with her hat. “Anything else you need, Mr. Lung,” she said.
“One of these days I might need you to read tea leaves for me.”
“You said you don’t believe in such things.”
“When your life is undisturbed, you don’t worry about your fortune.” The old man told her about the Viet Cong market. “How do you feel living a life of total submission?”
“I saw them this morning at the public well. They don’t look very friendly.”
The following day the old man had diarrhea. He suspected the well water was contaminated. He ran out of Ganidan medicine, so when Miss Lai refilled his tub he asked if she could go to town to get him the medicine. She told him not to worry about medicine. She went out to his back yard and got a handful of clay. “Go bake this real good, Mr. Lung,” she said. “Then break it into chunks and mix them in boiled water. Drink it straight.”
“In the name of Heaven!”
The old man drank the water and got well the next day. He considered that Miss Lai might know more than the future.
Saturday came. The old man went to the Viet Cong market.
At the market he saw one beggar after another, and then overheard one little girl ask her mother, “Why so many beggars, Mommy?” The mother quickly said, “They’re not beggars.” The little girl said, “Who are they?” Her mother hushed her when they left the market. The old man, scanning the market, knew. Those beggars worked for the local authorities. They came to the market to identify the Viet Cong agents.
On Sunday, the old man visited the Viet Cong market again. He saw the beggars’ corpses, each cut up into thirds, laid out in a row. Their bags, canes and palm-leaf fans were placed by their remains. On each bag, a piece of paper proclaimed in handwritten black ink: “Spy.”
Many people covered their eyes and turned away.
Two weeks passed. One afternoon Miss Lai passed a group of men and women in brown shirts and black pantaloons going from house to house. None of them was local.
“Coming back from your meeting, eh?” Miss Lai greeted them good-naturedly.
They stared at her and walked on.
Past midnight three men came to Miss Lai’s house and dragged her outside to a rice field where her grave had been dug. They asked how she knew they were returning from a meeting. Pleading that it was just her friendly way of greeting, Miss Lai cried until she lost her voice. The next day her family retrieved her body.
The morning after Miss Lai was buried, the old man returned from the burial when the morning dew was still wet on the grass. He thought of going to the market and decided to brew some tea before setting out. When he fetched water, he stood at the tub, head bent, looking down at his reflection, the still image in white hair. Then he imagined Miss Lai’s face. Here was the well water she filled his tub with, week in, week out. He imagined the clanging of her metal water buckets, made from salvaged American cooking oil cans, her wet footprints trailing from the tub to the door when she left. The thought of her senseless death sickened him. A wretched fate.
Later when the sun was high over the bamboo hedges, he went to the market. From stall to stall people talked about the execution. “They’d rather kill by mistake,” a man said, “than to make mistake by not killing.”
“Hey, hey,” another man said, “Wasn’t that woman unlucky? Must’ve forgotten to read tea leaves for herself that day.”
The old man stared at him. Then he came over and put his large hand on the man’s shoulder. “Brother,” he said, looking down at the fellow, who peered up at him, wide-eyed.
For a moment the old man said nothing but read the man’s expression until the man mumbled, “Yes, Sir?”
The old man dropped his voice, “Has anyone in your family been killed or died a tragic death?”
The man shook his head. “I’m very fortunate, Sir. Everyone in my family is alive and well.”
“How would you like to hear someone crack a joke at your family’s misfortune? Say, after your wife just died from a stray bullet?”
“Are you a relative of that woman, Sir?”
“I’m no relative of her. Consider yourself lucky that I am not.”
“I . . . I . . . didn’t mean her no harm, Sir. Just the way I talk.”
The old man nodded, turned and left. He missed Miss Lai, but beyond that he grieved for the death of his daughter. In the hot sun he took off his hat to cool his head. A thought struck him. If Miss Lai had read the tea leaves for herself that day, would she have been still alive? His lips pursed, the old man shook his head. Miss Lai died because of her good nature. Knowing what the tea leaves said wouldn’t have stopped her from being nice to people. For that he was grateful as well as sad.
One morning at sunrise the old man waded through the pond. Folding each lotus leaf along its midrib, he carefully tilted the leaf toward its tip. The dewdrops shook like silvery beads, broke free, and rolled into the jar. When the sun felt warm on his back, he had a jarful. A drone hummed overhead. He looked up. Flying in orderly inverted Vs, a squadron of planes looked so tiny it could pass for a flock of geese. Inside the babies cried. He hurried back in, not bothering to dry his legs.
The water in the kettle was warm when he tested it with his fingers. The old man opened a can of powdered milk and shook the bottles vigorously until the yellow powder dissolved. He made two portions and sat between the baskets, watching the girls feed. They were identical, their curly hair had a sheen. They always finished their bottles at the same time. He had brought his daughter’s bamboo cot alongside his own and kept the two wicker baskets on it. At night, he made sure there were no mosquitoes inside the net before he went to bed.
Six months old now, both girls were healthy, save on one occasion a week before when one had diarrhea. The old man took his neighbor’s instructions, ground some Ganidan pills and mixed them with liquid extracted from brown rice. When the diarrhea slowed, he fed her rice gruel blended with crushed ginger. On the second day the diarrhea stopped. She smiled and he held her in the crook of his arm, red-eyed from lack of sleep.
Summer ended and the rainy season came. For days a cold, dry norther blew. People said a norther could parch mud, wither leaves, stunt the young and age the old. Rain came and went. The bruised sky became a murmur of rain. Gone were the chittering of birds at sunrise, the ah-oh of mourning doves. At night there were no sounds of peepers, frogs, nor the hooting of owls—only the sound of rain.
Upon waking one morning, the old man parted the mosquito net and groped for his sandals with his feet. The cold of water shocked him. He had slept while a foot of floodwater crept in. A toad glunked somewhere in the house and the water lapped at the legs of his cot. He couldn’t find the tin can of powdered milk he always left by the bed. He waded around the house, pantaloons rolled up to his thighs, looking for it. The floodwater must have swept it away. The girls woke, talking to themselves. He stacked up wooden containers and chairs on the divan and boiled rice to make gruel.
A quick motion at the altar had the old man looking up to see a black snake with green-yellow flecks around its neck. The old man wasn’t afraid; snakes often took shelter in his house during floods. He peered at the girls through the mosquito net. Their large eyes looked up at him and their arms flailed with excitement.
The old man made the gruel, chipped off a chunk of hard brown sugar and let it melt in the bowl. He sat on the cot, blew on the spoon and fed the girls. A dry scraping sound came from the altar. That’s his tail. He wants me to feed him.
A glunk sounded in the stillness. A toad leapt out of a shadow and plopped into the standing water. Upon the altar the snake uncoiled and slithered. The toad jumped against the door. The snake shot its head out, shaking it in a frenzy, as it lifted the toad into the air.
A neighbor’s voice called from outside, asking the old man what he wanted from the market. He waded to the door, where the snake lay still, as if drugged. Outside the wind howled and the sky was gray. Two women sat on a makeshift raft made of banana trunks tied together, floating along what used to be a dirt path.
The old man called out to them. “Mrs. Hy, can you get me some powdered baby milk?”
“I’ll get it for you, Mr. Lung,” came the answer on the wind, as another woman joined them, hoisting herself onto the raft.
The women had rattan baskets on their forearms and sat with their legs drawn up to their chins. All wore conical hats the color of pale wheat and the raft carried them away into the morning grayness of sky and water.
Though the flood had begun to recede, water still ran high in the creeks and along the dirt roads. The old man fed the girls, this time putting the can of powdered milk high on the altar. As the girls ate, he sat on the cot between their baskets, letting each hold his fingers. The fire crackled low. A cold draft came across the cement floor from an opening along the base of the wall near his bed. It wasn’t sealed, a brick plugged the opening. Every house in the village had such an opening to let floodwater drain out. He dreaded spending days afterward scrubbing the walls and floor.
The old man lifted the teapot. He heard shouts. A man and his wife came running in, drenched from head to toe.
“Mr. Lung!” the man cried out. “Leave, now!”
Cold air blew through the open door. “What is it, Brother Hy?”
“The Americans are coming,” Hy said, wiping rainwater from his eyes.
“You must leave now,” Mrs. Hy said. “The girls too. Can you carry both of them?”
“I think so. Where’re we supposed to go?”
“Everyone’s going to Lower Gia Linh.” They turned and hurried out the door. “Quick, Sir. We’ll meet you at the bridge.”
“The Americans are going to blow it up,” Mrs. Hy cried. “We need to cross soon.”
The old man looked around anxiously. The floodwater had drained, leaving red mud everywhere. He didn’t know what to take. He scooped floodwater from a small dugout under his cot and shoved the clothing trunk and his antique tea set, secured inside a wooden box, in. He grabbed the milk bottles, two cans of powdered milk, some baby clothes and his own and stuffed them into a jute bag.
When the girls woke and began to cry, the old man strode over and patted them until they calmed down. He tried to think, his palms tingling with nervousness. People’s shouts erupted outside.
On the dirt road people scrambled through muddy water, rain blowing in gray sheets. Then car horns blared. Through the partly opened door the old man saw two armored trucks roll in on the dirt path with American foot soldiers following behind.
Heavy footfalls at the door startled him. An American black soldier stood in the doorway. He shouted at old man, “Đi, Đi!”
“I’m leaving. I’m leaving,” the old man repeated.
“Mau!” the black soldier shouted. “Mau!”
The old man said, “Yes, Sir.” The black soldier stared at him and then walked off abruptly. The old man slung the jute bag around his shoulder, then remembered rice. It pained him that he had nothing to store rice in. He picked up the two wicker baskets and headed out. At the altar he stopped to pray and collect the pictures of his ancestors. He looked them over and slipped them under one of the basket quilts.
He donned his palm-leaf raincoat, draped the wicker baskets with blankets and sloshed through the floodwater to the main road. People streamed out from every dirt path, babbling and screaming, household goods strapped to their backs, slung across their shoulders. Children clung to their parents. Armored trucks blocked some paths and American soldiers ran into every house, rousing people. Shots cracked like thunderclaps, then died out on the wind. The Americans were spraying the houses with gasoline and setting them on fire. Soon the hamlet roared like a giant torch. The mass of people and animals arrived at the bridge over the river that divided the upper and lower village.
American soldiers stood around their armored trucks along the bank, pointing rifles at the crowd. Others rolled metal drums of explosives off the trucks and up the bridge. People packed the bridge trying to cross, while beneath it soldiers strung wire to wrap around its pillars. The old man’s head was above the crowd. He looked for the Hys but couldn’t find them.
He hooked the two baskets on his forearms, hoisted them chest high and got in front of an oxcart. The crowd pushed. He raised both of his arms above the human mass and the crazed mass moved him out and out toward the railing and he tried to get his footing forward, holding down his exasperation. The river was swollen with dark water and the wind hissed, blowing rain in clumps of wet pins. The human mass pushed on, cries scattering in the swirling winds. The oxcart moved up, the angry crowd surged to get ahead of it and the old man felt himself pressed against the railing, stopped and turned his body as the oxcart rammed into him from behind. The ox’s horns caught him in the back. His body pitched forward and the basket on his right arm flew off and dropped into the roiling water.
He screamed, but the sound was lost in the clamor. The basket bobbed on the current, spun several times and then became an olive-colored patch downstream.
When the explosion splintered the bridge and dropped it into the turbulent river, the old man sat by the roadside in the rain and wept.