Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)
Chapter 2. The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer
The Sounds of distressed crying gr adually subside, and all the candles go out. Thái arranges a place for my mother to lie rather comfortably. I and Thái think that the best place to lie down is on the benches. Everyone is afraid; they just lie shrinking among or under the empty benches. We choose two benches next to each other. We lie on them and talk to each other in a discreet whisper. But then, hearing the sound of an explosion from time to time, I start worrying and suggest:
“Let’s lie down on the floor.”
Thái prevents me:
“Stop it, elder sister - no need of it.”
Indeed, in the moment of panic when I lost my calm, words help me regain my composure. Hearing Thái say that there is no need to do anything greatly eases my fear. Moreover, I don’t dare to lie down on the floor because I just realize that down there, very close to us, under the benches, there is the sound of someone groaning in pain. Hearing an explosion, my mother springs up:
“Get down, everyone get down now.”
Seeing that her appeal is in vain and not hearing any of the younger members of her family respond, my mother grumbles a bit and then falls silent. I lie with my eyes open really wide, looking at the ceiling. From time to time, throughout the church, firelight flashes. Each explosion seems to project flashes on the roof. I become aware of brightness in the sky outside from the colors in the stained glass. I soon guess that this light comes from flares. The light continues to flicker, flicker, then dies out; now and then the glass shakes and shatters from the sounds of especially big explosions.
I lie in silence trying to review the first terrifying minutes in order to gradually get used to the frightening situation that has come up during just one day in the city. Truly, in my heart, I do not believe that this battle will last long. Before, when I was sitting at the stone platform, I heard a low voice speaking from the crowd: “Several people from the Liberation Army said they will celebrate Tết with compatriots for seven days and then they will leave.” They will stay for seven days - but I can barely manage to endure one day.
I am thinking in a fog how to diminish my bouts of worry and fear when suddenly someone’s hand grabs my foot. I pull my foot away, not daring to scream, and sit up filled with rising panic. Thái hears a noise and also sits up on the other side of the bench.
“What’s going on, elder sister? What’s going on?”
Thái asks softly but his voice is full of worry. I open my mouth but words don’t come out; my jawbones are locked. In front of me, Trúc, a young girl, one of my relatives, also sits up, softly moaning:
“Elder sister, look elder sister. Who’s there?”
She holds fast to my shoulders. My eyes are still open and stare without a blink. The glare of flares from outside makes the shadows in the church even blacker. Thái lightly pats my shoulder with his hand:
“Don’t be afraid, elder sister.”
A black silhouette scampers up close beside us. There is a sound of a foot stumbling against a bench. Then Thu Hồng’s feeble voice calls for me:
“Please let me sleep with you; I am so afraid, elder sister.”
Even when I realize that it’s Thu Hồng’s voice, I still do not regain my composure; on the contrary, my lower jaw locks up. I manage to say:
“Speak in a low voice. What are you afraid of?”
“I lay next to some woman who this afternoon clasped a small bundle to her breast; she’s so stinky!”
“Big deal! Run for a whole day, tomorrow you will also stink like this woman.”
“No, not at all, lying next to this woman gives me the creeps. She cries and mumbles like a mad woman, and it’s very scary.”
Thái has to bend his legs and lie very close to one side of the bench to give Thu Hồng a place to squeeze in.
The first night sleeping in a completely strange place aggravates worry. Only around two o’clock in the morning do I manage to catch a wink of sleep. It seems very short, because when I hear a wail at the end of the room I sit up like a spring, my brain is heavy, and I cannot keep my eyes open. I must dig my nails into my arm and make it really hurt to wake myself up. A lot of shouting and quiet discussions resound from everywhere, then abruptly all fall silent as though everybody had disappeared into the darkness. Then, when a matchstick flashes and a torch on the dais is lit, everyone reappears, one head after another. The priest has turned up standing on the dais, asking in a worried voice:
“How are things? Anyone hurt?”
We hear his voice coming from the far corner, then the timid voice of an old woman:
“Yes, Father, there is someone in labor here.”
A lot of sighs, sniffling; many people look crestfallen. In this atmosphere, no one has enough strength to worry about others. Some heads fall forward and go back to sleep. The priest asks with concern:
“Is there anyone who knows how to help with childbirth? Is there a medic here?”
Not a single person replies. The whispering also stops. The light of the torch flickers and throws a dim light on the priest’s face. The priest lights a candle, then goes down among the benches. Only with great difficulty does the priest make his way through several rows of benches. In the afternoon, people scrambled with each other to shift benches and make private spaces for each family. Those who came later were spread out around the exterior of the church; every place where people could lie or sit was fought over. While he moves toward the end of the room, the priest constantly appeals to people; only a few stand up and follow him. I don’t see whether they are men or women. People carry a woman who is about to give birth up to the gallery designated for the choir during mass or sermons. Up there, it’s very easy to be bombarded. I hear someone whispering; this person seems to be completely indifferent to other people and is preoccupied only with getting a good spot for himself.
Above, in the small gallery, there is crying and groaning. Thu Hồng, bolder than I, lifts up her head and listens intently, then offers her criticism:
“This woman gives birth but she shrieks too fiercely, too weird. Surely she is about to give birth. Oh heavens, she cries too terribly, elder sister.”
I’ve given birth, I know how the pain of labor ravages a woman’s body, but at this moment I don’t have any strength left to share the experience. I am too tired. I lie on the bench and hem and haw about explaining to Thu Hồng. Only when I hear an infant crying do I sigh with relief. This sigh of relief is not completely for this suffering woman; at least half of it is for myself because of my brain’s effort to alleviate the tension built up from everything happening around us during this time of suffering. Thu Hồng’s voice:
“That woman has delivered; is it a boy or a girl?”
A small, wretched child - I curse under my breath. The baby’s crying suddenly resounds boldly as though competing with the sounds rising up nearby and wanting to drown out the gunfire exploding like popcorn in the distance. I think about a phrase from Holy Scripture: “Rejoice that I gave birth to a person for the world …”1
This night, how many people are born in the city of Hue amid bombs and bullets? To be born in a house on fire, to be born at the moment of moaning by those who will soon draw their last breath because of their wounds, to be born when bullets are on their way toward them … No, in whatever situation, even when life is intermingled with death, we also must rejoice because a person was born. I remember my own children, now in Saigon. Is anything happening there? My heart is wrung. Oh, my children, if anything happens to you, then your mother’s heart will ache; if something happens to your mother, then your hearts will ache as well.
The torch on the stone dais was extinguished but in the small gallery there is still a bit of light sifting down. I imagine a woman, still sleeping, holding a sleeping baby, and after the exhaustion and panic caused by bombs and bullets, after labor pains, that pitiful mother also rejoices in her sleep at giving birth to a person.
The sound of explosions reverberates farther away, the sound of small guns is also farther away, and I collapse into a dead sleep, not aware of time. But sometime around morning I suddenly wake up. I forget that I am sleeping on a bench and sit up quickly like at home.
I decide to stretch my shoulders several times to feel comfortable, but at the same time my mind is suddenly vigilant again. I immediately realize where I am. I open my eyes to look around at each place reserved for lying down to see whether my mother has already woken up or is still asleep. I see her lying curled up with her head resting on a bag of clothes. It’s still very early and the inside of the church remains dim; the sky outside still looks like it is lit with flares. Only at this moment I realize that the flares are launched somewhere very far away, outside of the city, because the light goes dim very quickly. In that case, the entire city must now be in peril. Guessing this to be true, I decide to put my feet down to go and wake up my mother. But as soon as I start to lower my feet, even before they touch the ground, my body is like a spring shooting back upward. A dead body lies stiff in the interstice between two benches. The dead body is rigid, wide-open eyes stare, and the mouth is open as though about to cry out. I don’t know whether or not I am exerting myself or if it’s the invisible spring that pushes me forward, but in a flash my body flies across to Thái’s bench where I fall in a heap on the heads of Thái and Thu Hồng. The two of them suddenly wake up and hug me tightly:
“What’s going on, elder sister? What’s going on?”
They look around in confusion. All the people are still asleep. Seeing me ashen-faced with my arms and legs shaking, Thái gapes his mouth wide:
“What’s going on, elder sister, what are you afraid of?”
I can’t talk but only point with my hand. Thu Hồng has also taken a look and jerks back her head:
“Oh, Heaven and Earth. So scary! What to do now? What to do now, elder sister?”
Thái gives us a sign to be silent. He is a Rural Development cadre and has become very accustomed to such sights. He goes to look for the priest. Several of my relatives keep hugging each other, not daring to open their eyes. A moment later the dead body is carried down to the annex, and only then do I regain my composure. The place from where the corpse had just been carried away still has a puddle of slimy yellow water with a piece of red string in it. It is surely the blood that ran from the person’s wound; Thái ties a kerchief to cover his nose and goes to clean it up. He switches places with me:
“It’s already over; elder sister, lie down and have a bit of rest. It’s not morning yet.”
Then he listens intently:
“How silent it is! Certainly it has quieted down by now. In the morning we will return home.”
I do not believe it:
“How do you know we will return? First, let’s wait and see what others do.”
Thu Hồng suddenly pulls on my hand:
“Look at the woman over there. It is the woman who lay next to me yesterday; do you see her?”
From down on the floor, a woman crawls on all fours and then stands up, clasping a bundle to her heart and singing softly. The bundle is covered with a cloth and looks like a baby. But why don’t I hear it crying or see it moving about at all? Sure, the baby is gravely ill. Two teardrops hang motionlessly on the woman’s eyelashes; she looks at us, then suddenly bends over choking with tears:
“Baby, baby, rock-a-bye; in a shallow place, push; in a deep place, row … Sleep child, sleep good child … child, oh child.”
The woman bursts into tears. I don’t understand why she is crying. It turns out that yesterday her house burned down, the entire family died, and she herself managed to escape carrying only this baby in her arms. Thái, lying down, turns his face toward the woman and asks:
“Is that your child?”
The woman nods in agreement. Thái continues to question:
“Are you crying because of him?”
The woman tightly holds on to the bundle; she looks very pale and says under her breath:
“No reason, no reason whatsoever.”
“Are you left all alone?”
The woman burst out crying:
“Everyone is dead, everyone is dead; no one is left.”
But she immediately stops her crying short, even though tears are still streaming down her face. Thái turns to go to another place. Thu Hồng softly whispers into my ear:
“This old hag is crazy. Obviously she is crazy.”
I want to scold Thu Hồng but then fall silent. A lot of people have woken up. The priest enters and says that if anyone is wounded they must be carried down to the annex. Nobody listens to him; the priest has to mobilize a group of youngsters to help him worm his way from place to place. A lot of people are carried away. Thái also enthusiastically dashes off to join the youth group. My mother has been sitting up awake for some time. I leave the place where I was lying on the bench and jostle to sit between an old woman and my mother:
I squeeze my mother’s hand. Her eyes are not calm yet. Then I ask her:
“Did you sleep, Mother?”
“Yes, I was so tired, I fell asleep, when, where, don’t know anything. Did they shoot at each other a lot?”
“A little, Mother.”
I don’t tell my mother what I witnessed during the night. My mother gets worried:
“Is it quiet, child? How to go back home? I don’t know whether your elder brother and the children have made it up to Từ Đàm; is it still possible to get up there?”
Then, overwhelmed by worry, my mother sits and cries. An old woman sitting next to us pats my mother on the shoulder:
“Everybody suffers, not just you; if you cry, you will only tire yourself. I am still missing several grandchildren. My eldest son was arrested and immediately taken away.”
The old woman lovingly admonishes us that we all share the same plight, but this evokes in herself distressing feelings of her own, and tears overwhelm her also. The woman points out an old man who tightly clasps a parcel to his chest:
“Elder sister - that man is from my family. He is so old but still has to endure these difficulties. Old, but is still alive to see young people die and to weep for them; this is a real tragedy, elder sister. Oh, what a life of such terrible anguish!”
Everybody has gotten up. The noise is suddenly comparable to a disturbed beehive. Several panels of the heavy ironwood door are slightly open, and the morning light slides in. Only then I know that it is already broad daylight. A moment later, Thái comes back and says that it looks very calm outside. A lot of people go out to the main road and, in expectation, look forward and backward, then come back and conduct fruitless discussions in low voices. Each group of several people stands in front of the church’s courtyard. The roads are still empty, not a single shadow of a person; Thái leads several of our relatives to the water well to wash their faces. The area around the well is jam-packed with people waiting and scrambling merely to draw a small bucket of water. The water well lies next to the kitchen-house that connects with a long row of houses; on one side there is an immense shaded garden with all kinds of fruit trees. After a day and a night, only now I see trees, grass, and earth - all finally peacefully at rest. It drizzles. I must pull on my overcoat to shield me from the wind. Last night in the church, partly from fright and partly from worry, I did not feel cold; on the contrary, I often felt red-hot. Now, standing next to the water well, seeing the spray-like drizzle, seeing the trees and grass, I suddenly look at this scene with utter absorption as though afraid that I will never be able to see it again.
A moment later, I leave the water well area and the luxuriantly green garden. Thu Hồng runs into the church first, carrying a can full of water; Thái calls for me to go to the road to see whether there is anything unusual. Some people also stand, dazed, outside the back door of the church, which opens to a small road covered with a thin layer of bitumen leading directly to the bank of the river. Thái inquires of some people who stand there on the lookout whether anything is going on, but they, like us, only look, transfixed, at the completely deserted road, intently listening to the completely deserted city.
There is not a sound; everything has been crippled or is dead. My mind wildly produces distorted images, which make me tremble with fear and cover my body with goose bumps. Thái calls for me to walk with him to a nearby small hamlet - there all the doors are closed very tightly. In some houses there are still people; several heads stick out from half-opened window shutters: “Do you see anything strange, young lady? Where are they? Have they left, young lady?”
We respond with “don’t know” or shake our heads. Thái does not dare to lead me any further, and the two of us return toward the back door of the church.
A group of people from the direction of the riverbank are running and signaling for us to come back. Thái pulls me into the courtyard. A crowd has gathered. Inquiring of them, we learn only that on the other side of the bridge there are several Việt Cộng standing guard, and when they see people appear they point their guns and threaten to shoot, driving people back. Some people, having heard this, cannot bear to return to the church; they stand, in expectation, at the gate, not taking their eyes off the road leading to the riverbank. They hope that someone will come and they will be able to inquire about the situation, but the road remains completely empty as though one of the city’s hands is stretched out, paralyzed, without any strength to grasp anything.
Now in the church’s courtyard suddenly appear a lot of male strangers. These people perhaps came during the night. I see them, scattered among the crowd listening for news and discussion; I decide to run over by them, but Thái pulls me back:
“Don’t, elder sister; we don’t know who they are, and I am very suspicious of them.”
We enter the church. My mother turns her face, looking up in anticipation. “Is there anything? Did you hear anything?” The old woman sitting next to my mother also moves closer. I shake my head: “There is nothing yet, Mother; the calm is as if the city is already completely dead.” My mother implores Heaven and Earth: “It’s absurd to die on the road in the dust - you know this, so don’t go anywhere at all.” I sit down on the bench in silence. Thu Hồng comes over and sits next to me.
“I know a road to go back home.”
“I heard that several bridges are completely under their [the Communists’] control; it’s impossible to cross over them.”
“No, I know a shortcut. Go to the riverbank; there is a boat there, for sure. Now the river is not crowded; there is no one on the river, elder sister.”
“Don’t rush into this. Let’s see if other people go, then we will follow.”
At nine o’clock sharp, we still hear no sound of gunfire and see no commotion. Several people in a panic dash in:
“The way is open now; people are rushing to cross over to the other side of the river.”
I run out, jostling, in a hurry. In the courtyard is assembled a group of people who had run from the fighting, including men, old women, and children. Some are gesticulating to tell their stories to the crowd, some are weeping, and children are tightly clutching to the clothing of adults. I keep pushing my way to get close to a woman:
“Where did you come here from?”
“From below the stadium. My house was completely reduced to ashes.”
“How did it get burned?”
“Got burned yesterday, burned down to ashes; I am left with just my bare hands. Oh heavens … oh heavens.”
The woman covers her face with her hands and weeps; I try to keep asking:
“What did you see on the road, elder sister? How come you have arrived here just now?”
“Yesterday the house burned down, then they [the Communist forces] flooded into the place and did not let us go. This morning we saw people fleeing and then followed them here.”
“They did not detain you anymore?”
“They forced young boys and girls to carry the wounded and bury the dead. So many dead! Then they [the Communist forces] all withdrew somewhere, and I don’t know anything else. I saw people from the hamlet running, and I ran too. On the road, I saw so many dead people!”
While talking, the woman suddenly realizes that an acquaintance is pushing her way inside and she follows; she hugs a middle-aged woman and bursts into tears.
“Everything is destroyed, auntie, oh auntie.”
The eyes of the older woman well up with tears, but still she tries to speak with authority:
“It’s useless; what’s the good in crying? A lot of people had to flee and endure hardships; you are not the only one. Now where are the little ones?”
Only at that moment does the younger woman look around and call to several children watching dumbfounded as adults engage in fruitless debate; she immediately grabs the hands of two or three of them:
“Here they are, auntie. To lead a bunch of kids while fleeing is terribly difficult, oh heavens … Alas, what Heaven and Earth have begotten, it’s such a sin; it’s the Tết holiday and the ancestral altars have all collapsed, all burned up …”
“Where is the boy?”
“He has been arrested and taken away.”
The woman continues to weep. I elbow my way outside to get some air. It is still drizzling; my hair gets drenched, and my face is absolutely wet. I see Thái talking with an older man; beside the man is a shoulder pole with two large baskets filled to the brim.
“Certainly in a day or two, uncle, things will calm down?”
“They [the Communist forces] have already taken over everything. I came here from Phú Cam. In the hamlet there, no one dares to escape; they guard everyone very closely.”
“Did you hear anything, uncle?”
“Sure I did; I heard that the Liberation Army has completely taken over Hue, and in three days Venerable Hồ [Chí Minh] will come in an airplane to visit; I heard that Venerable Hồ will also distribute rice for us to eat.”
“Enough, sir. Since we came here, my family, all eleven of us, have been starving.”
The man who just spoke up wears a white shirt and eyeglasses. He is surrounded by several children: one is clinging to his shirt, one to his pants, and one is sitting on the bundle of their possessions. Thái asks:
“From where did you come here, uncle?”
“From the other side of the river.”
“What’s going on there?”
“It has been very difficult, fellow countrymen; early yesterday morning they [the Communist forces] filled the house and yard. There are wounded; there are dead. They carried them in and tossed them into my courtyard. Then, they forced young boys and girls to transport the wounded and to bury the dead. When finished, they entered the house and asked for a meal, and after they finished eating they ‘borrowed’ rice. They carried away all two hundred kilograms that I had; they said that someday soon, when the liberation is complete, rice will be sold for five hundred dongs2 per hundred kilograms. Then they immediately took off, and from yesterday afternoon until this morning, the children have been hungry; I said that at home we would also die of hunger and brought my entire family running over here to ask the priest for rice.”
“Uncle, on your side of the river, is anyone dead?”
“Yes, on the morning of the second day of Tết, six were dead.”
A man wearing a black overcoat comes over:
“Where are you coming from, uncle?”
The man’s voice is slightly accented, northern perhaps - but not really from the North, perhaps from Hà Tĩnh, but not exactly from Hà Tĩnh either.3 The man wearing eyeglasses looks at the face of the man in the black overcoat; then, as though unable to endure the pair of sharp-witted eyes staring fixedly at him, he stoops down, stammering. Thái touches my arm and the two of us shuffle off to another corner. Thái whispers into my ear:
“Don’t say much, elder sister; a lot of people look very suspicious to me.”
Several other groups of people enter the courtyard; many of them are wounded and are carried in. Thái says:
“Elder sister, go inside and tell Bé’s wife to fix some food. I will stand here to watch the situation.”
I go in and sit on a bench. Quite a lot of people have spilled outside into the courtyard, so the inside of the church is less stuffy. My mother still sits with arms clasping her knees. The old woman is making a quid of betel; several betel leaves have already started to wither and the lime has dried up.4 My younger cousin-by-marriage, Bé’s wife, brings her small child for me to hold so that she can fix the food. But noon comes and she has not yet been able to get water to cook the rice. The well went dry after only one morning, and people crowd around the well with no place to elbow in. Thái went out to the hamlet and bought several loaves of stale bread and a bit of canned food. Only when I see the cans of chicken and beef do I understand that such supplemental things are now really precious. Usually, I don’t take a bite of this kind of food.
The gunfire has started to explode in the direction of the small northern bridges across the river. The facade of the church is turned toward the big road, and on the other side of the road there is a field. This field is rather large and stretches up to the road leading to the post office. The back side of the church is turned toward the river, a small river, a branch of the Perfume River flowing from Lòn Bridge to Ga, the train station, through Bến Ngư and Phú Cam, coming back to An Cựu, and then running the rest of its length to I-don’t-know-where. That afternoon there is still sporadic gunfire, but Bé’s wife was able to cook rice. With bowls lacking, children of our family must eat scooping with their hands. But when the pot of rice appears, ten other kids hold out their ten chipped bowls. My mother scoops rice for the kids and reserves one bowl with rice, which she gives to me. I mix in a little bit of the fish sauce and eat it voraciously. Never before had I felt that a bowl of rice had such value. Bé is handing me an extra small piece of burned rice from the bottom of the pot, but before I manage to get hold of it, a dirty hand snatches it. I manage to see only the back of a child making his way into a crowd of people lying on their backs or sitting bent forward. The dazed woman hugging the cloth-covered bundle is still sitting. She stares at a person, shifts her glance to another, then bends to look at the bundle and sings lullabies.
An old couple not eating rice bring out bánh tét and sugar-coated fruits and keep sharing them with others. The old woman offers me a piece of cake. While I still vacillate, Thái grabs it: “Elder sister, eat; don’t get too hungry.” I hold the piece of cake, intending to bring it to my mouth, when suddenly I am transfixed. It seems that someone in the crowd is listening to a radio. The volume is turned very low, but it’s enough to reach my ears: “The battle for Saigon is already over.” I hear someone say that they [Communist forces] flooded into the streets and are fighting. In a moment there is a soft cry: “It’s finished - the entire country has completely been taken over.” I realize that the person who just said this is a youngster. An old woman sitting nearby snatches the tiny radio and crams it into a bundle of old clothes, then, fearfully keeping her eyes down, she looks around. The woman softly scolds:
“Oh, you troublemaker! Here the walls have ears.”
I suddenly remember that I brought along a small radio. I decide to get it out to listen but am afraid that it will worry my mother; besides, I also don’t remember whether it’s in the bag or in some other bundle of clothes.
The second night at the church, the atmosphere is more familiar. Some oil lamps are turned really low. Torches and candles give only dim light, and by nine o’clock they are all extinguished.
This night there is more discreet whispering everywhere. We lie and talk, spending a restless night. Thái relates that down in the basement it is more secure but very dirty. People sitting and lying there make the place so crowded that there is no place to set foot. The space directly above, in the nave, is very large, but we can’t bear to stay there either. Children constantly pee, and the stench has started to rise. Also during the second night there are a few women in labor, and the only person to assist them in labor is still the priest. Lying down and hearing newborn babies cry, I madly miss my own children. Is the situation in Saigon the same as in Hue? Is the road to my house still safe? I imagine the smiles of my children to assure myself that nothing unfortunate could happen to them. Then, exhausted, I pass out. In the middle of the night, I am startled back into consciousness by a panic-stricken voice. It sounds like a yell: “Death to me.” When I sit up like a spring on the bench, there is a long continuous scream followed by sounds of wailing. There is a clatter of things falling, and everyone leaps up. Sounds of men and women hoarse with fright:
“Việt Cộng are here, Việt Cộng are here. Assassinating people, assassinating people. Save us, oh father priest. Oh Lord …”
Then people jump down on the ground, pushing and treading on each other. A lot of shouts appealing to Heaven and sounds of moaning …
“Silence; everybody stand still here.”
Thái is afraid that, in a panic, I will follow everyone else; he holds fast to my hand and calls for my mother to tell the rest of the family to stay put. The torch on the high dais is lit and the silhouette of the priest appears, large and imposing. Everybody falls completely silent. The priest is solemn:
“Who - who’s screaming here?”
“This man here.”
“Yes, he is lying here.”
Everybody looks in the direction from which the voices come. No one sees anything except for undulating heads, tall and short. The priest says loudly:
“Whoever screamed, stand up so I can see you.”
A shadow rises up; no one sees its face clearly, but one can guess that this is a man. His voice is hoarse:
“Yes sir, venerable Father, I was sleeping and in the dream I saw that my head was cut off, and then ghosts and devils threw it into a cauldron with boiling oil.”
“Oh, Heaven and Earth, deities and demons. He was having a nightmare.”
Everyone breaks out complaining to Heaven and Earth and cursing. Several people can’t contain their anger:
“Damn this fella. I got kicked and stomped right on my arms; it was excruciating.”
“Someone stomped on my stomach; it felt like my intestines were coming out.”
“I was kicked in the face. Goddammit, if I find out who that guy is, I will break his legs.”
A sound of loud moaning from an old woman:
“Venerable Father, expel this fellow outside.”
“Let him go outside under the roof of the veranda, Father.”
A lot of voices chime in. But the priest tells everybody to be silent, to lie down, and to go back to sleep. The torch completely dies out; a tiny candle looks like it is stuck in a black shadow, which disappears behind the back door. The priest is gone. Everyone keeps arguing for several more hours; then people lie down and fall asleep. The guy talks in his sleep, making everybody panic once again, thinking of death; then with no reason for funny thoughts, he suddenly bursts for a while into giggles. Cursing, initially stifled, then increases. The man falls silent. No doubt tomorrow night no one will remember anymore who he is.
As it gets close to daybreak, several more incidents occur. Sometime around three or four o’clock in the morning, when we are still dreaming, we hear loud shouts. This time, it’s the priest’s voice. At once sitting up, we see the priest pulling a young man and a young woman from the stone dais. These two young people are white-faced. The priest’s voice is angry:
“With bullets on one side and not knowing if we will live or die, at such a time you go and do this shameful thing. Oh Lord!”
Everybody stands on the benches to see the faces of the young man and woman. The two are terribly ashamed and don’t dare to raise their heads. When the priest finishes speaking, he leaves. The couple, holding on to each other, slip away down to the basement and disappear. Nevertheless, in the morning several other couples are caught behind stone grottoes and in the garden. This troublesome crowd drives the priest crazy.
In only a few days so much has happened at the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Day and night the priest loudly appeals for everyone to maintain hygiene and order. But with each day the crowd gets more and more out of control. Every few hours, several wounded people die, and the corpses are carried away and accumulate below the row of adjacent service buildings. Every several hours, a number of arguments erupt with people accusing each other. People fleeing the fighting have begun to run out of rice, and the priest has to take rice from the church storehouse to distribute. But the rice distribution makes the situation even more tragic with some receiving a lot while others, although elbowing their way in even to the point of having their skin scratched, do not get a grain of rice. The woman hugging a cloth bundle doesn’t ask for any rice at all, but then people give her a handful of cooked rice. She eats very slowly and reluctantly as though she doesn’t want to live anymore. Seeing that the church is packed, the priest orders the doors to be tightly closed. But outside no crowds of refugees are seen anymore. The city remains quiet with the kind of silence in which it seems that there is no breath of a living person.
On the third day, the situation again turns topsy-turvy. Sometime just before morning when everybody is asleep, we all at once wake up and roll down to the ground. Guns, both large and small, suddenly explode, and the sounds reverberate everywhere. Some pieces of glass at the top of the church that are directly hit by bullets break and fall down. Thái pulls on me to roll down under the row of benches. Several of us hug each other tightly. Heavy shooting continues like this until dawn. Only when the sound of gunfire pauses for a long time does everyone dare to sit up. Some daredevils venture outside to the courtyard to be on the lookout for news. I and Thái also make our way through the panels of the ironwood door to go outside. The road leading to the riverbank lies cold and deserted like the arms of a corpse waiting to rot in the wind and the rain. The sides of the road are littered, ashes float in the air, and in the distance an entire small hamlet is burned to the ground.
I and Thái boldly cross a small road and right away enter the hamlet. Tens of houses are reduced to ashes, and the houses still standing are devoid of people. We return to the church. It is filled with the evacuees from the hamlet who lost all their possessions in the fire; they lie and sit in the church now. With the nave tightly packed, people flock down to the kitchen and the storehouse. Those who fled from the hamlet had gathered and brought along with them blackened carcasses of chickens and ducks to fix for food. Near the hedge of the church, I see a pig with scratches all over its body; blood from a small wound on its back has coagulated and dried up; there are other places with scratches where blood and fluid still continue to ooze out. A number of people venture out to the hamlet and return to the church with the burned carcasses of chickens and ducks to fix for food.
Throughout the morning guns explode in series of salvoes, then they suddenly stop, then a moment later they fire again; it continues like this until midday. My cousin-by-marriage makes the effort to run back to the kitchen to fetch a pot of rice that she fixed, but no one dares to start eating. The pot of rice is too small and the number of the children surrounding it, both from our family and the starving children of other evacuees, is too large. Bé distributes a small handful of rice to everyone. The old woman sitting next to my mother trades half of a bánh tét to get a small handful of rice.
At midday, the gunfire stops for a moment, then bursts out again, this time even more fiercely. Several rounds of bullets from the direction of the field directly hit the side of the church, and panels of glass keep getting shattered. My mother is afraid that the broken glass will fall straight down on our heads, so she takes a blanket to protect her grandkids’ heads. Thái’s hand is cut by a piece of glass and is bleeding, but not very much. My mother has to apply a dressing made with the last of the tobacco5 we brought with us to the bleeding wound on his hand. Everybody lies very close to each other on the ground. The children have already gotten used to fear; when they hear gunfire, there is not a child who dares to let out a squeak.
Around two o’clock the sound of gunfire seems to subside in the field, but on the other side of the river, it is still very violent. Now and then I ask Thái: “Do you hear the sound of an AK? … What kind of gun was that? … So, that sound is from what kind of gun?” Thái ponders: “Too many of them, elder sister, I can’t tell the difference; but there is the sound of AKs, elder sister. If you strain your ears to listen, you will hear it - a vibrating sound.” We lie side by side. Thái says: “Elder sister, pull a coat over your head so pieces of glass won’t fall and kill you.” I hear his words, but I suddenly choke up. Fortunately, at this moment the sound of gunfire goes almost completely silent and moves farther away. Thái sits up to be on the lookout.
“It looks like it’s calmed down, elder sister. Let me run outside to see what’s going on.”
Thu Hồng bars him:
“Hey Thái, it’s no good. It sounds like …”
There is noise from outside the church gates and a cry for help: “Save us, Father! Father, please save us!” The priest is holding a child hit by a piece of glass; he is extracting it and dressing the wound. When he hears the call, he hurriedly hands the child to a young volunteer medic and fearlessly runs outside.
Everybody is sitting up now, anxiously waiting. A group of people, carrying children in their arms and supporting each other, burst into the nave. A number are wounded and many of their faces are absolutely drained of blood; entering the church, they collapse on the ground, panting as if they are about to choke.
Everyone crowds around to see what’s going on, but the priest shoos people back to their places. The next moment, he suddenly remembers that he has not locked the gate, and he quickly opens the door and goes out. But when he comes back, the father brings with him two white people. The crowd is stirred up: “Are they Americans or French?” They are French, for sure, and the French fellow is very short.
I look intently at the two strange guests: a middle-aged man and a woman clad in Western-type trousers and tight-fitting T-shirts. The man looks more peculiar; he wears a short overcoat made of red-checked flannel, and his beard and moustache are unkempt as though he just returned from living deep in the forest. In their hands, they hold two flags of white cloth with the word “press” written on them. When the two enter, they look for a place to sit to catch their breath. The priest talks with them in French. The woman continues to look dazed; her face is very pale, and from a glance it’s hard to guess her age. A lot of adults and children swarm around to take a look: “Hey guys, a Frenchman and a Frenchwoman.”
I recall my childhood, and from time to time I also join the horde of children staring at the Frenchman and the Frenchwoman as though they had come down from the moon. Everybody huddles around to see the two strange guests, the people entirely forgetting about their own situation of being on the edge between life and death. But when the Frenchwoman regains her senses, she lifts a camera and presses the shutter with a clicking sound, and only then people start to react. Scolding voices rise up in a clamor. The Frenchman with the blue eyes and aquiline nose raises his hand and laughs.
“What kind of a press is this? Whatever press, it’s still press.”
I hear the buzz of people talking among themselves.
The female correspondent, as I assume her to be, pulls a host of kids to line up and takes a picture of them. The camera is still turned toward the crowd. A wounded man lies silently like a corpse. The woman hugging the cloth bundle, with her gaunt face and eyes wide open, senselessly looks at the lens. Furthermore, infants continue to suck their mothers’ breasts and then let the nipples fall out of their mouths and cry stridently because there is not a drop of milk left. The lens turns toward the place where I am sitting. Thái scowls at the female correspondent, stands up, and turns his back toward the foreigners:
“What a monkey, to take a picture in this situation …”
The female correspondent smiles to ingratiate herself with the crowd, but her eyes are still fastened on the flock of filthy children standing separately. The foreigners go up to the belfry to visit the women who just gave birth and then come down to take more pictures …
A few scattered gunshots are enough to startle everyone. Some whispering voices arise: “The Việt Cộng are coming.” Hundreds of pairs of eyes look entreatingly to the priest.
People begin to whisper: “If the Việt Cộng burst in, they will think that these two people are Americans and for sure no one in the church will survive.” A number of voices rise:
“Get them out of here.”
“Break the camera.”
“Don’t let them be here with us.”
It’s unclear whether the priest has heard this or not, but he deduces the discontent of the crowd. He leads the two strangers out of the door, taking them to some different place, I assume to some room out in the back. Several sighs of relief: “They are gone.” The whispering in the church rises again, but all of a sudden the woman with the cloth bundle unexpectedly bursts into heartrending tears:
“Oh, my child, my child, people go through life in pairs or with friends, but I am utterly alone in the middle of the night …”
Every phrase from her mouth leaves her breathless. I am stunned and dare not look directly into the woman’s dull eyes …
In the afternoon, the situation seems more settled and everybody starts to hope. When the priest enters, a number of people stand up to inquire:
“Venerable Father, did you hear any news out there?”
The priest tells everybody to be quiet, and then he says in a solemn voice:
“Brothers and sisters, do not get so excited. The situation is not at all as good as I thought. There is news that the American army is coming up the National Highway. There are big battles in many places. So, you must all be careful. Starting now, you will clean up the place. I will divide the place into many sections so we can help each other and maintain order.”
The priest immediately follows up his words with action. We, right in the front row of benches next to the stone dais, have to make a fence out of pews in area number one. Each area includes ten families. The priest will distribute rice tomorrow. The priest also organizes a first aid team and a fire-fighting team. The woman hugging the cloth bundle with the child is sitting next to my family; she is all by herself. For several nights now I’ve not seen her get even one wink of sleep; her appearance is changing, and her face becomes paler by the day. Thanks to the priest’s organizational skills, by dusk this day we can go back and forth in the house of prayer and do not have to climb over benches to keep away from other people’s heads. The accommodations have become neater. Several women find brooms and vigorously apply themselves to sweep the floor. Children also decrease their disorderliness. Although the stink of urine continues to grow, everyone has gotten used to it.
When I prepare a place to sleep, Thái calls me to go toward the annex to take a look through a half-opened panel of an iron door that allows one to see the road outside. But when we get there, I immediately retreat, for several corpses that have not yet been moved away are still lying there, sprawled out on the cement floor; by now this scene is not as arresting as it was during the first days, and no one pays attention to it anymore. Everyone is busy paying attention to a man squirming on the ground at the end of the last row of benches. I pull Thái to elbow in to see. Since when has this man been like this? Is he sick with something or wounded? Didn’t I see him just this afternoon sitting over there on a bench chewing on a piece of bread?
I look carefully and see his eyes bulging out, distorting his face. The man rolls back and forth, laughing and laughing, then suddenly crying and crying. Oh heavens, who has made him be in such pain? Where is he wounded? I tightly hold Thái’s arm; Thái bends down to see, then asks a person who stands nearby:
“What’s wrong with this gentleman, uncle?”
“He is crazy.”
“How come crazy? Only this afternoon I saw him eating bread here.”
“Well, his son has just died over there.”
The man points with his hand out to the annex and continues:
“His son is dead, and he also grieves for his possessions. He said that his mansion and his car are turned into ashes.”
“It’s a disaster, isn’t it?”
“Heaven and Earth, it’s not the lot of the dead person that troubles him; he pities his possessions. His craziness is well deserved; evidently, it is retributive karma.”
The crazy man suddenly sobs his heart out, then twists his body:
“I prostrate myself before you, comrades … Please sirs, no, please sirs, brothers-liberators [Communist soldiers]. Please sirs, liberators … please sirs, don’t burn the house, don’t burn the house … Oh heavens, fire, fire … brothers, comrades … oh, comrades.”
“Make this madman shut up. If he yells like this, when they [the Communist forces] come in, it will be the death of us all.”
Hearing the shouts, everybody gradually disperses. I return to my place. Thái says:
“Enough, elder sister, go to sleep. This night we are not lying on the bench; we are lying on the ground. I went outside and got a mat.”
He spreads out the mat; my mother says to spread it under several rows of benches and to lie down. We jostle together to each lie on a small piece of the mat. My mother doesn’t move from the wall on which she leans for the support of her back. It’s been three nights, and she continues to rest her back there and dozes, nodding.
After nightfall, the crazy man again makes a fuss several times, but no one has the strength to curse him anymore. People are also not as scared as they were last night when others cried out in their sleep. I catch a wink of a sleep too, being dead to the world until the wee hours of the morning when I wake up to numerous loud explosions. They seem to be from cannons. Thái shouts in amazement:
“Elder sister, they are clashing; a big fight is underway.”
We sit up in the darkness, intensely trying to hear what is going on. The artillery monotonously lobs, the sound reverberating from somewhere in the direction of the wall formed by mountains. The city is completely quiet; from time to time the silence is broken by scattered salvoes of gunfire. A short while later, I hear a lot of noise from moving vehicles. “Those are armored vehicles, elder sister,” Thái shouts. The ground where we lie shakes violently as a column of vehicles stretches unendingly. Then, suddenly, explosions erupt from all directions, then a moment of silence, and then more explosions. We tightly hug each other. The situation continues to be terrifying like that until morning when the sound of gunfire gradually moves off and continues crackling without letup.
The previous evening I ate only a small handful of rice, so this morning I feel hungry and am about to faint. Bé and Thái go to get rice. Bé’s wife and Thu Hồng are on duty to cook it. It must be cooked early, as it looks like the soldiers are really keen to fight each other, so we must mind our business - if there’s no rice, what will we eat? But cooking rice is also a hard problem to solve. We have rice and pots and pans, but there is no firewood. What firewood was stored in the church has been completely used up. People have even broken off all the dead tree branches. Also, in the garden, edible plants have been gathered as if shaven clean. Thái decides to go to find firewood, but then the sound of gunfire on the other side of the river becomes fierce. Everybody, in panic, runs back into the church. But a moment later Thái boldly goes out to the hamlet and finds firewood. Bé’s wife hugs the bundle of firewood and at once runs back to the kitchen to cook rice. Bullets from the field shoot toward all sides of the church. Around noon, Bé’s wife, carrying a pot of rice, runs in, panting:
“Auntie, I ran and bullets were chasing me. The Việt Cộng are close; they have already surrounded the church.”
She comes next to my mother and tells her discreetly:
“Auntie, I heard that the area around An Cựu is full of them; my house and your house are completely in their hands.”
My mother bursts into tears:
“Then, what to do? Oh heavens!”
I know my mother is thinking about my father’s altar, about several bead wreaths, several candles with no one to light them. Seeing my mother crying, Thái urges:
“It’s enough; eat, auntie. After the meal, I will look to find a way back to Bao Vinh to see how my mother is; I am worried to death about her.”
My mother has her mouth distorted by the desire to cry:
“You are going to abandon me, abandon your elder sister, too; how will we bear it?”
Tears stream down from Thái’s eyes:
“How do I know how bad the situation is there? I regret I don’t have a gun; I would’ve run outside …”
Bé very quietly calls:
“Hey! Bamboo shrubs have ears to hear you. You speak carelessly; you don’t know who can hear you.”
Bé’s wife scoops rice and gives a handful to everyone. There is only one bottle of fish sauce left. As soon as I bring a handful of rice to my mouth but without time yet to chew, an explosion occurs and an entire glass panel falls down. Someone thrusts me down under the benches. Sounds of gunfire are like rain. I open my eyes looking for my mother. Bé lies close to a corner of the church, tightly hugging my mother. But there is only one direct hit on the roof of the church, and then the shooting shifts to a different area. Then, again, sounds of gunfire seem to come from the hedge of the church. They [the Communist forces] have returned and are outside the church …
The sound of gunfire goes back and forth for a long time, around half an hour. This half an hour feels as long as a century … nobody dares to raise a head. I see the woman hugging the cloth bundle with the small child inside of it crouching beside me. A stinking smell makes me want to vomit. The stench of rotten pickled fish, the stench of decomposing flesh, the stench of sweat, it seems they are all mixed together. Thái also notices this stinking smell; he rubs his nose and then looks at the woman. Meeting Thái’s glance, the woman tightly hugs the bundle and moves it to her side as though she wants to hide it. But she is not quick enough, and before my eyes is dangled a child’s slimy, gashed foot dripping yellow liquid down on the brick floor. It’s as if the stink is glued to my nose. The foot, small and tender, black and blue, and cracked open appears to flutter about in front of my eyes. I scream, then fall into silence for several seconds.
I hear the woman screaming loudly, but it seems that something else has gotten into her scream; it’s not the voice of a human being but of an animal roaring at the moment of final desperation. This scream brings back my composure. The sound of gunfire outside still reverberates in my ears as though wanting to tear apart my eardrums. Thái leaps up in front of the woman’s face:
“Hand it here.”
“No, no sir, no, my child, my child is still alive, surely. Oh child, oh sleep, child …”
The woman is very tired, very hungry, and at the end of her wits. The bundle falls from her hands, but the fabric’s selvage remains in her hands. The corpse of a newborn falls down on the church floor. No, there is no body of a child there anymore, but only a heap of flesh, almost decomposed and crushed, leaking liquid.
A number of wails rise up. These are the voices of Thu Hồng, of my mother, of many other people. The woman collapses on the floor, her hand clawing toward the corpse of her child:
“My child, my child, and my husband, too, where are you? Come here, come here to be with me, oh my child.”
The woman’s voice dies on her lips. My eyes are wide open as though my eyeballs cannot move, as though I cannot close my eyes.
“My child, where are you, where did you go? Child, oh child …”
The woman’s withered hand grasps the foot of the child’s corpse and she pulls it back closer to her, gradually closer and closer. Her eyes roll around in their sockets and look as though they’ve lost the pupils; there is foam bubbling in the corners of her mouth. She talks but no sound comes out; her eyes are dry and she looks at the ceiling of the church, but it seems like she doesn’t see anything anymore. She laughs and cries intermittently. My lips move in synch with the lips of the woman. Thái makes me get up:
“Vân, don’t look, don’t look, elder sister.”
Two young people crawl over and snatch away the baby’s body. The woman, as though under a magic spell and with all her remaining strength, drags herself to follow them and stretches her hands forward:
“Don’t, sirs, don’t, he still breathes, still eats, still sucks on my breast. He still cries, still laughs, child, oh child, my husband, oh my husband.”
The woman drags herself toward the door and then goes outside. Amid the sound of gunfire I hear the woman’s voice shouting very loudly, but her voice gradually weakens, drowned out by gunfire, which becomes more chaotic by the minute …
My tears have been soaking the sleeves of my blouse for some time. Thái’s eyes are also reddish, as well as my mother’s. I don’t dare to look into anyone’s face; the scene of the newborn’s corpse still flutters before my eyes. I see only a foot, a black and blue foot, oozing liquid, so I imagine the face, the nose, the feet, and the hands of the baby.
Now not only small guns but also large guns explode in successive salvoes. And it seems that cannons have joined in. There is a great clanging sound, and a lot of broken pieces of glass fall down. From the front and from the back, it seems that gunfire comes from everywhere. I recognize the sound of B40s, the sound of AKs, the sound of all kinds of guns. From many other directions there are the clattering sounds of falling glass. There are many loud shouts. People call for each other, screaming: “Hey! Hey!” Another crashing sound and glass falls down followed by a loud explosion, and a fiery red mass flies into the middle of the church. Bricks and tiles, smoke, pitch dark. Run, run and don’t die.
A scream and then many screams - the sound of crying rises without end; people run back and forth, lie down on their backs in one corner, sit with their heads bent forward in another corner, but nobody has yet dared to run out of the church. Bang - a sound and a piece of wall breaks, a lot of screaming, shrieking, moaning: “Uncle is hurt! Uncle is hurt!” “Hey Mother! Hey Mother, I …” It feels like blood is soaking my inner and outer clothes. A cross made of persimmon tree wood falls down from the wall. Several shouts. My legs and even my face are covered with blood. I try to make my body move, or have I already died? No, I hear shouting, crying, calling. “Thái, I’ve been hurt.” A thudding noise as though someone fell down beside my feet. Blood spurts out from a man’s hip, leaving spots across my body. “Oh, child, oh child, where are you?” “Where is uncle?” “Where is Dad?” “Where is Bé?” “Run!” “Cling to Mother!” “Hold tight to uncle’s hand.” In single file, we follow a group of people and run out into the yard. The field is continuously being shelled. Boom, boom, and a lot of bricks and tiles break. The people crowd into the courtyard; the back gate is locked. A lot of bullets fly noisily past our heads. Thái yells:
But we cannot go back into the church; bricks and tiles have scattered everywhere. The panels of the ironwood door are wide open, and another group of people rushes out. Near my ear there are sounds of crying, voices calling to each other, howling as though someone is wounded and is in the throes of death.
I crouch, hiding, next to a corner of the wall, but in just a few minutes we are pushed inside with a lot of other people shoving behind us. Perhaps all the glass on the walls and roof has been broken and so there is nothing more to deter us from going back in. Despite the bullets, a crowd of people with no place to hide floods into the church, and some others rush toward the back of the yard in the direction of the kitchen. Thái says:
“Run, we must run; here is certain death.”
We wait for the gunfire to let up and then run, cutting across the yard. I kick what must be a wounded pig lying next to the hedge. Someone opens the back gate, and we burst out. My uncle had joined us in the church and now is fleeing with us. At this moment, I suddenly realize that my body is covered with blood; even Thái’s blue shirt is also bloody in the back. A sleeve of my uncle’s white shirt is soaked in blood. Panic-stricken, I yell:
“Mother, I’ve been wounded.”
And I feel as if I am about to faint. My mother stands still:
“Where, where are you hurt?”
I check my entire body: arms, legs, face, nose. Thái turns me around, from the front to the back, and lets out a long sigh of relief:
“Nowhere, elder sister; you are not hurt, but your sandals have disappeared.”
I look down at my feet. They are sticky from being covered in blood. It seems that I am indeed hurt there because I see a trace of blood at the edge of the big toenail where it feels like it is burning. The gunfire from the field becomes more sporadic. There is no one left with a pair of sandals on their feet. But I still hold a leather briefcase, and Thái still carries a small bag of rice and a bottle of fish sauce. My mother trails behind, carrying a bag of clothes. Thái cries:
“What about the bundle with my clothes?”
Thái turns around to go back, but he doesn’t go far, for his bundle of clothes was dropped only a few steps behind us. He picks it up, then catches up with the others on the run. Arriving at the riverbank, the crowd scatters, some going into the hamlet and some running either upstream or downstream. We stand for several minutes, hesitating, at a three-way junction. Suddenly, Thái yells: “Run.” We run, following him; in front of us, several people are also going in a hurry. All the people who ran upstream come back. My mother asks:
“What’s going on there?”
They shake their heads and continue to run. My mother screams to us in a panic: “Come back.” But Thái still grasps my hand and runs at a stretch. My mother, my uncle, and Bé’s family, crying, run behind us. Several kids - such a disaster - have no more strength left to walk on their own feet and are dragged along the ground by adults.
My uncle points to an ancient communal house and calls to my mother:
“Elder sister, come in here. There are people inside.”
But Thái still pulls me and runs at a stretch:
“Run. If you go in, it’s sure death.”
We run, but not much farther. At a distance of several buildings from the communal house is An Định Palace,6 the dwelling of Lady Từ Cung.7 In front of the courtyard, there is a group of people who ran there searching for a place of shelter. We follow inside. My mother chooses a corner room, but later it becomes too crowded and we have to move out to a back room near a water tank. Thái gathers everyone, and we put our stuff down. The gunfire has moved very far away. Here is certainly much calmer. Everybody thinks so. While running, Bé’s wife was still carrying several scoops of rice that there was no time to eat, and now she distributes the food to several kids, a handful to each one. Only now I notice the absence of an elderly couple. Earlier, they ran together with us in the same group; I don’t know at which point they got lost. Thái is sure that they entered the communal house. My mother grumbles:
“Enough. Why worry about those people when all of us are running for our lives?”
But several minutes later, before we have managed to take a breath, the gunfire resumes from all directions. Thái shouts for everybody to duck down. We roll close to each other. Boom, boom, rattle, rattle. The rattling sound of AKs resounds as though it is coming right from the courtyard of An Định Palace. Then, all kinds of guns shoot into the palace like rain. The water tank breaks and overflows into the room; a large shell hits a corner of the wall. We press into each other, unable to see anything in the smoke and dust. The house behind us shakes as though about to collapse as water floods into the room.
“Run,” Thái screams.
Hugging bags and clothing, we run, following Thái. But the panels of the door leading from the downstairs room to the upper part of the house are tightly fastened. Thái strikes the door; he punches and shouts at the same time. But not one panel is about to open. Thái calls Bé and together they punch and kick until the panels of the door open wide. We rush up to the upper room; as soon as we sit down, and not yet being calmed down, the room shakes as if it wants to collapse; boom, boom in front, and boom, boom behind. A part of the roof collapses. Dust everywhere. Thái moves us down to an old-fashioned wooden couch. I am absolutely unable to keep my eyes open, but it seems like my mother still holds tightly to my hand: “Child, oh child,” I hear my mother calling in my ear. My mother’s voice is gradually drowned out. Gunfire rages outside as though it will never stop. This time I think there is no chance to survive. It seems everything around me is filled with shrieking, crying, screaming. It seems everybody around me has died. A dead-cold hand tightly clasps my foot:
“Oh, child, where is your foot, you still have your foot, don’t you?”
A hand feels my head:
“Elder sister Vân, your head is here, isn’t it?”
I don’t respond anymore. At first my heart leaps as though it wants to break loose from my chest, but then I cannot distinguish anything anymore. There is a flash of light and the sound of a flying bullet. It lights up the laughter of my first-born daughter and the face of my chubby son. I clearly remember the names of my children, and I clearly remember the laughter and sparkles in my husband’s eyes. I fondly remember those sparkles, from which I am far away and to which I say farewell forever.
Oh my children, your mother will not see you again. Oh my loving husband, I am not able to live any longer. But surprisingly I no longer feel afraid. It is as if having been utterly terrified I am finished with fear. I clearly hear the sound of bullets flying by, the sound of walls breaking, the sound of roofs collapsing. I close my eyes and turn on the light in my head with images of my beloved husband and children, and I wait for the blink of an eye that will carry these pictures with me forever.
At this moment, I forgive everything: I forgive myself, I forgive all my faults and those of everyone else. I wait only for another blink of an eye … Yet gunfire rages for a moment, then slackens, then again intensifies out to and back from the field. I have no time to open my eyes before I hear a loud explosion and the sounds of things breaking to pieces in the adjacent house. I again slide downward. Thái jumps up:
“Let me go see.”
“Thái … Thái …”
My cry is like a wake-up call for everyone to learn that they are still alive. They all get up with a lurch. Then, suddenly remembering that crying can be dangerous, they sharply rebuke me:
“Be quiet. Duck down.”
Yet Thái still runs across to the window. There is a shout for him to get back. His shadow shoots past us and disappears behind the door. At the same time I suddenly hear a cry:
“It’s not over; carry Her Majesty on your back, carry Her Majesty on your back and run …”
“Assist Her Majesty and run faster.”
I open my eyes; the gloom of dust is very dark. Yet I recognize shadows of people running, appearing and disappearing. An old woman wearing a brocade dress is being carried on the back of someone - I am unable to distinguish whether a man or a woman - and they are covered by another shadow.
“Carry Her Majesty. Run. Fast.”
“Her Majesty’s betel and areca nut …”
“Hold the blanket, the blanket …”
Someone speaks beside my ear:
“That’s Lady Từ Cung. Heaven and Earth, at such a time as this and yet ‘Her Majesty this’ and ‘Her Majesty that’ when there’s no time to observe etiquette.”
A few silhouettes run by here and there and then disappear. The sound of guns is booming again. I press my face into the ground. My mother hugs me tightly like she wants to protect me. This time, the sound of guns returns even more furiously. I have no hope at all, and, also as before, I tightly hold my mother’s hand, waiting. Inside my head flames flash following an explosion over my head, and with them the images of my husband and children also flare up. Death is too easy. Every person has endured the same fate here. Oh my children, so it’s the end.
I don’t fuss about Thái’s jumping out of the window anymore. Neither do I have any hope of running to break away once again, like we just recently escaped from the church. On the brink of passing out, I suddenly have a sensation of coolness on my cheek. It must be blood, isn’t it? This is very possible; from my chest a current of warmth is rising up. It is my hot blood. But no, I also have enough strength to recognize a dog licking my cheek, and his entire body is closely pressed against mine as an entreaty for protection.
1. Luke 1:14 reads “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” It’s an approximate reference; the author does not exactly remember what phrase she was thinking of back then.
2. Vietnamese money at that time and in the present.
3. Hà Tĩnh is a province that was on the southern border of North Vietnam in the 1960s.
4. The habit of chewing betel quid, containing fresh, dried, or cured areca nut, lime, and flavoring ingredients wrapped in betel leaf, is widespread in South and Southeast Asia. Tobacco is often added.
5. The tobacco was brought along to mix into the betel.
6. Originally constructed in 1917 for Emperor Khải Định (1916-25). From 1919 to 1925 the palace functioned as a residence for Crown Prince Bảo Đại and a summer palace for the emperor. Following the abdication of Emperor Bảo Đại in 1945 it became the residence of the queen mother, the queen, and Emperor Bảo Đại’s five children.
7. She was the last queen mother of the Nguyễn dynasty, wife of Emperor Khải Định and mother of the last emperor, Bảo Đại.