Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)
Chapter 5. A Per son from TÙ´ Đàm Comes Back and Tells His Story
Four Days in a row I lay in a dark underground shelter, and out of the four days there were two days that I had to go without food. This morning a girl crawled up out of the shelter, foraged somewhere, and found a piece of bánh tét, thickly covered with mold. She crawled back down, peeled off banana leaves covering the cake, and began feeding people, offering one person after another a bite.
I had already been fed up with all that was going on and was in despair. Several hours earlier, I had a feeling that if I continue starving like this I would come to the point of exhaustion, drop off, and go into eternal sleep, and that it would be really fortunate for me. But it would be even more fortunate to stay in the world of the living, though we have yet to endure a lot of ordeals. However, when I notice the smell of sticky rice and of moldy banana leaves, and when a piece of the rice cake is passed close to me, suddenly my mouth opens wide, a happy sensation makes me merry, and joy overflows me when a piece of cake gets into my mouth. Saliva gushes and mixes with the fine taste and sweet fragrance of sticky rice to the point of causing me to faint dead away.
No, death is indeed heartless and does not make people happy, as I imagined. Despite loud sounds of explosions, despite sounds of digging and scraping in the earth above as if on top of my head, despite the haunting worry about young liberation soldiers standing guard in front of the house gate, constantly aiming the barrels of their rifles in one direction and another and ready to fire at any moment, the piece of cake in my mouth feels like the absolute happiness that only the luckiest person, in the rarest of cases, could experience but once in a lifetime. The piece of the cake is getting smaller, the saliva in my mouth runs stronger, and I can’t stop feeling joy; I am obsessed and chew insatiably. Then I come back to my senses for a couple of moments and say in a moaning voice:
“Is there another piece? Give me another piece.”
The young girl still has a piece of cake and intends to bring it up to her mouth. Hearing my words, she immediately stops:
“Eat, elder brother.”
I see that her eyes are extremely sad in the light of the candle in the corner of the shelter.
“Go ahead, eat.”
I haven’t been able to stretch my arm to take the piece yet but only open my mouth for another piece, and incredible delight fills me. I am really very fortunate; happiness visits me twice in the interval of only seconds or minutes.
At that moment, I come back to my senses. I stretch my shoulders and only then realize that my spine aches in a strange way. But at the same time, I suddenly hear the echoing sounds of music and singing: sounds of a monochord, of a Vietnamese sixteen-chord zither, of a Vietnamese two-chord guitar, and even sounds of reciting poems.
My younger sister Oanh whispers:
“That’s Mr. Võ Thành Minh.”1
Võ Thành Minh is a person from the old generation of Phan Bội Châu and Marquis of Foreign Territory Cường Để;2 he is still roving around at this present time, enduring our common fate with the city. What has he been doing? It seems that yesterday, when we were in the shelter, my younger sister in whispers told the entire family about this strange character, but I, prone with hunger, could not hear anything. The sounds of the instruments emerge clearly, despite sounds of artillery still booming everywhere and everybody tightly hugging each other in the shelter. My younger sister Oanh stiffly hangs on to my shoulder and shivers all over:
“Call Trúc to come down.”
My mother shakes her head:
“Leave her alone; no one can convince her.”
Sounds of singing, sounds of instruments, sounds of reciting poems stop, falling completely silent, then we hear several explosions nearby, so close that it seems they are right on the roof, on my head. Many loud voices call out:
“Come down to the shelter.”
People in the shelter inch closer to each other as more people crawl down from above. My mother asks softly:
“Is Trúc there?”
The voice of my other younger sister Trúc responds:
“I am over here.”
I hear Trúc’s voice whispering with Oanh:
“That guy who ran over to hide in our house, obviously he was looking for you, elder sister.”
Oanh keeps silent. I guess that Trúc refers obscurely to the Việt Cộng soldier on guard in front of the house. Whenever artillery lobs in this direction, he usually hides in the house and seldom jumps down into a foxhole as his comrades-in-arms do. Right in the area of this house there is a group of three guards, and it seems that he is the head of the group. Someone bursts out with angry words:
“Monkeys – stop gossiping.”
We all become silent and hold our breath; the seconds and minutes go by, the same as they have during many hours in the past.
Mr. Minh does not come down to our shelter. I surmise that he is hiding in some other shelter. I hear a woman crying. Trúc whispers:
“That is the wife of Professor Lê Văn Hảo.3 Elder brother, she told me that her husband knew there would be a battle, and before Tết he advised her to buy several hundred kilograms of rice to be prepared.”
“Damn that old hag; let her howl. Her husband went clamoring to agitate for the Liberation Army and left his wife and child to die of fear in a shelter like this. Listening to her only adds to my hatred.”
But I am not as cruel as Oanh; the woman’s crying makes me feel pity. For several days I haven’t dared to venture out from the shelter, afraid that liberation soldiers will learn that I hide in it. Damn it, if someone says I’m a coward, let it be; I am concerned about my life first.
Despite being solidly stuck in the shelter, I get all the information about whatever is happening outside from my two younger sisters, who relate everything in full. A house near Uncle Bảy has collapsed. The elementary school is abandoned. Soldiers of the Rural Development unit came back for duty during Tết but then threw away their guns and fled. On each crossroad hangs a liberation flag. An old tailor in the hamlet has been killed, and his body is buried in a shallow grave near the local elementary school.
Mrs. Hảo, the wife of the professor famous in the liberation of the ancient capital of Hue, is still weeping and moaning throughout the entire day. When she walks or stands, she is unsteady; she holds onto Mr. Võ Thành Minh’s coat. She doesn’t even have enough strength anymore to care for her children. So much for magnanimity, so much for bravery and courage in a woman who completely gave up on herself for the sake of her husband – isn’t that right? Despite thinking this, I am not angry with her.
When the sound of guns subsides, I suddenly hear the sound of a typewriter, clop-clop, over the shelter opening. Surely, several soldiers seized a typewriter to do important things, like type their briefs and reports; isn’t that the source? No, not at all – I hear the sound of an old man coughing slightly, then Mr. Minh’s voice calls:
“Where’s Oanh? Come up here; please give me some noodles.”
Oanh is climbing up to the shelter opening; my mother pulls her back:
“Don’t go up.”
But she is hardheaded:
“The shooting has stopped now; what are you afraid of, Mother?”
Having said this, she disappears. I stick my head out to follow her. My mother holds my head fast:
“I beg of you, please slide back down.”
But I still keep sticking my head out from the shelter opening. For four days I haven’t seen the sun. I linger for another moment of air outside; I long to see a leaf on a tree moving so that I will be able to reassure myself that I’ve not yet been separated from life, life with its grass and plants and with all its smells. Despite this longing of mine, I still see nothing; the ancestor-worshipping house, under which the shelter is located, is quite dark; a small candle is hidden behind a big column. Oanh has crawled into the corner of the house where the light of the candle flutters.
I have to rub my eyes several times before they adapt to see all the objects in the worshipping house. Mr. Võ Thành Minh sits on a padded chair; in front of him there is a low chair serving as a desk for a typewriter. He does not type but sits absorbed in his thoughts. Oanh moves her face closer to read what is on the paper. I try to look in the direction of the window but don’t see anything. The window’s shutters are closed tight. I desperately want to climb up, but my mother’s hand is still clenching the shoulder of my shirt, ready to pull me back in.
There is a scream outside and the very urgent sound of banging on the door. Now I wait no more for my mother to pull me; my body slides down into the shelter very fast and then slips into the corner intended for me. There is this small hiding place down here; even if they shine a flashlight down into the shelter, it will still be difficult to see me. My mother firmly forces me to hide me so that they won’t find me.
I hear the sound of the door opening up in the house and a lot of steps entering. Oanh slides down; she shuffles her feet toward me and whispers:
“They’ve filled the house.”
“They have their own foxholes; why do they come in?”
“The shooting is over; they came into the house to search.”
Oanh is still speaking when the steps move toward the shelter opening. The ray of a flashlight shines down. Oanh reaches out and pushes me into the wall, then pulls on the edge of a mat, spreads it on the shelter’s floor, and sits leaning with her back against me. The voice of someone up above resounds downward:
“All of you – come up here into the house so we can check on you.”
Mr. Võ Thành Minh’s voice is absolutely calm: “Everybody come up here. All are women and children whom you need not fear. Come up quickly.”
My mother crawls first, then, following her, children, adults, old women all go up. Oanh climbs up last, and the ray of the flashlight sweeps back and forth several times. My heart seems to stop beating. Voices of the people on the top of the shelter are loud and clear:
“Anyone else still here, come up.”
My mother’s voice trembles:
“Please sir, it’s everybody.”
Mr. Võ Thành Minh’s voice:
“If you don’t believe us, you might search down there. Or you might shoot first to be sure.”
My entire body freezes; I am trying to control my legs and arms, but they are still shivering all over. What to do if they really fire in? I want to scream, but my hand by itself tightly covers my mouth:
“Mother, oh Mother.”
A shout sneaks into my head and fills me with despair. But a sound of laughter above the shelter helps me calm down for a couple of moments:
“Enough. Stand in a line. Someone there open the window a little bit to get light.”
I take a breath, but my chest is heavy as though pressed down by a stone slab. I’ve not yet escaped. I crouch, hiding in the passage of the shelter. Vapor from the ground is cold and permeates my body with biting frost. Voices of many people up in the house burst into an uproar.
“All women and children are here. Why does that woman cry so bitterly?”
“Please sir, my husband has disappeared.”
“Did he go to a meeting?”
“Please sir, my husband is Professor Hảo.”
Võ Thành Minh’s voice:
“The husband of this woman went to establish the Front of National Union or Peace or some other harmony kind of organization4 and doesn’t care to come see his wife and child. If you meet him somewhere, tell him that he must come back to see his wife and his kid and to share with them honor and dishonor. He is obsessed with the revolution, and whether or not his wife and child are alive or dead, he doesn’t know.”
The voice of the head of the group sounds softer than before:
“Ah. So this family is part of the liberation. We are all comrades here. So, is there any way that you can help the Liberation Army?”
“How can we? We have been hungry for several days.”
“Is there any rice left?”
“You, sirs, have searched for it and have taken it.”
The voice of another person says:
“I report to you, comrade head of the group, in that corner there are two bags of rice intact.”
“Write it down: ‘borrowed in this house: two bags of rice.’ Write it down in the register so that we can return later to commend distinguished service for the front.”
Silence for several seconds, and then I hear the sound of the already familiar voice continuing:
“There are also those two young women that must go to meetings; today at two o’clock this afternoon there is a meeting at the pagoda. All the men from this hamlet must go to study and get training, and women also have to study and train according to the policy of the front.”
“They are too afraid to go, so what must we do?”
“Ah, there’s also this venerable gentleman. Venerable sir, please come to meet our commanders.”
“To meet commanders where?”
“To meet the commanders of this area. I am only the head of a group of three people; we are guarding the area around this house.”
“Is that so?”
“Venerable sir, come with us. Please carry with you fifteen measures5 of rice.”
“Why do I need to carry the rice?”
“Carry the rice to eat. You will study and train for three days and then will come back.”
“What is it that I must study or be trained in?”
“Take a sack or a bag of rice. Bring along more and it will be even better.”
“What is the meeting for?”
“To study and train, I’ve already told you – study and train. Please, sir, follow me.”
“I am not going.”
Mr. Minh’s unexpectedly firm voice strikes me with surprise. Certainly, since the day the Liberation Army arrived in Hue until now, no one has dared to utter such a phrase. I secretly worry about his fate. Seeing that no one is paying attention to this shelter anymore, I leave the small passage and sit, leaning against the wall. I don’t clearly see the face of the head of the group, but I hear his muffled laughs:
“What have you done for the enemy?”
“Americans and their puppets.”
Mr. Võ Thành Minh’s voice is scornful:
“Why do you speak so perversely? I have nothing to do with following Americans. When you go back, ask if that Mr. Hồ Chí Minh of yours dared to talk with me in this tone of voice. I’m not going, did you hear me or not? If you want to invite me to a meeting, you must have a message from Chairman Hồ, not from some Liberation Front of your brazen band – what good is that? Does this brazen band of yours know who I am?”
Perhaps the head of the group has real consideration for this stubborn old man; I don’t hear him saying anything else. Another voice talks instead:
“Uncle, please follow us to meet our commanders. Our headquarters is close by, uncle.”
“I am not going. If you have anything else to say, shout it to your commanders. I am here; this is a worshipping house of Venerable Phan, and I would not be surprised if this group of yours doesn’t even know him. I will go on a hunger strike; I will go down to sit under the Bến Ngự Bridge to oppose the liberation line of your brazen band. I am against both Americans and Communists.”
I wait for a moment and then hear Mr. Minh’s voice continuing:
“As for Mrs. Hảo, if there is a way to send word to her husband, do it. Listen, you have to send word to him to come back and bring the glorious rewards we hear about so much.”
I hear a woman sobbing, then the voices of several liberators saying their good-byes and the sounds of feet on their way out. Oanh and Trúc crawl down to the shelter first. They get close to my ear:
I don’t answer; naturally now they have guessed whether or not I was afraid. Even though I heard all the conversation above, I nevertheless make Oanh tell me what was said. Trúc giggles and says that there is one liberator who likes elder sister Oanh; he fastened his eyes upon her. It’s been several days, and he has deliberately neglected to make Oanh go to the study and training sessions – a Việt Cộng who also knows how to like girls.
Trúc laughs. My mother scolds:
“Little devil. What are you laughing at? Death is around the corner and you don’t care.”
As though suddenly remembering the situation, Trúc falls completely silent. Oanh tells me the story of Mr. Minh. She says:
“When I got up there, I saw him lighting the lamp and typing. He was writing a letter to Mr. Hồ Chí Minh and the American president demanding that they stop the war. He wrote: ‘Venerable Teacher Phan’s worshipping house, day … month … year … As I’m writing this letter to both of you, airplanes roar above my head, artillery booms and flashes in the sky, the earth crumbles, and the city of Hue drowns in the sound of bewailing and in very deep resentment … I write then tear it up, I read it out loud for others to hear, I speak, I appeal to the entire world, too …’”
“In normal times he did not appeal; now he does, but who hears …”
Oanh is confident:
“Shame on you! Don’t say such nonsense. He decided to appeal to young people and students to go down to sit under the bridge on a hunger strike to oppose.”
“Oppose the war, which is inhuman and atrocious; there is no justice in war whatsoever.”
The words of my younger sister are quite simple; they seem to tug at my heart. In just a few days, so many people have died in the city; so many have been wounded. Corpses distend in the houses or are exposed outside, and no one buries them. Then, people go to study and train for the first stage, but not one of them has been seen to come back. Are they alive or have they died? I think about it and feel pity for the old man, Mr. Minh, who used to play the flute on the shores of Lake Geneva every day during the Geneva Conference in 1954. He opposed the division of his native country, Vietnam. But finally he was the only one left, and the appeal became quiet. Now the sound of that appeal has risen again, but how much weaker it is.
A moment later I again hear the clop-clop sound of the typewriter. Throughout the day, despite the bombshells, despite hunger and thirst, this man still keeps sitting at the desk with the typewriter and a dim candle. In the afternoon, several young people run to him in search of shelter, and he together with them digs a shelter.
There are thumping sounds of digging up the earth and the sound of airplanes hovering in the sky. Just as the airplanes move farther away, suddenly artillery lobs in.
Each time I hear the sound of a plane flying close by, rifles, submachine guns, and heavy machine guns suddenly fire with bullets and shells streaming upward to the sky. Liberators hide in their foxholes, exchanging stories about how they have downed a lot of planes, but, in fact, I don’t hear any noise near the area where I am that would allow one to imagine that a single plane has been shot down.
In the evening, despite the constant gunfire, with large and small guns aiming to shoot down airplanes, despite the sky raining with icy drops, despite bombshells, despite flares, Mr. Minh calls all the young people over to his house to sit and play musical instruments and sing songs. I, notwithstanding my mother entreating and weeping for a long time, still crawl up out from the shelter to join them. Mr. Minh is really very skillful; I don’t know when he had time to cook a pot of rice. Eating sticky rice with the salty fish sauce – how delicious it is. I think that never in my life have I had a more delicious meal of rice. Mr. Minh’s voice is still confident:
“We will continue to call for peace, continue to appeal to the world. Tomorrow I will write more letters to send. I am organizing a hunger strike to oppose the Americans, oppose the Việt Cộng. Do any of you dare to follow me?”
Everyone sits looking at each other, half wanting to give support because they feel the enthusiasm in his voice, half wanting to burst out laughing because of the comic irony of what he is saying.
As for me, at that moment I want only to live in peace and quiet; at that moment, neither the Nationalist nor Communist side makes any difference whatsoever to me if I don’t survive.
The city of Hue is screaming and moaning in the throes of death. The entire city is covered in dust and smoke from bombshells. Meanwhile, the study and training sessions of the liberators, according to what my younger siblings tell me, are something with which no entertainment can be compared, so comic and skillful they are. Study and train to return to the party line and to return to peace at a time when courtyards and gardens are full of voices telling stories about crimes, full of shouts about killing, about being abandoned, about destruction, full of the plaintive screams of innocent residents. Is he a state official? Is he a lackey in an American office? That one disseminated leaflets for the [Nationalist] government. As for this woman, she lives as a domestic servant for a woman married to an American. Heavy crimes heap up to the clouds. They must be killed! A salvo of gunshots and corpses line up with so many sins that the dead themselves cannot understand and cannot close their eyes.6
Seeing us looking at each other, stunned and at a loss, Mr. Minh suddenly says:
“If you, young brats, are not going, I’m going alone. I go to fight all by myself.”
But then Mr. Minh realizes that he has not played music yet and gets in a hurry to do so. He sings and plays. Being afraid of approaching death is also death. He continues to play music, sing, and recite poems to alleviate fright.
Then he suggests:
“Do any of you have a flute? I will play an old piece that I played on the shore of Lake Léman7 at the Geneva Conference.”
There is no one who dares to grope his way to get a flute for Mr. Minh to play. The entire group is sitting close to the corner of the thickest wall next to the shelter opening so that if something happens, we all will be able to go down very quickly. The rain continues outside; we sit close to each other and still tremble from the cold.
Artillery continues to detonate monotonously. The voice of a young liberation soldier outside asks a question:
“Why don’t you crawl down into the shelter rather than play and sing so loudly? If the enemy knows, they will drop bombs here.”
Only Mr. Minh dares to respond:
“In the whole city there is no place that is not being bombed. I and these young people want to live our last several minutes joyfully; throw away your rifle, come on in here, and have fun singing.”
The liberator outside falls silent. When several students tell stories, this guy sneaks in and lets us know that for several days he has been absorbed in contemplation. Certainly, he has already seen the scenes of spilled blood and scattered body parts that move hearts, hasn’t he? Mr. Minh laughs:
“For what do Communists have feelings? They only have the goal to win, to kill, to advance. I’ve been around them for a long time by now, and I know.”
“I must admit they are excellent organizers, but when it comes to feelings, there is nothing there.”
“Then, you are a Nationalist.”
“I don’t support Americans. I can’t stand Communists. I am against any chaos.”
“You are alone in your opposition.”
In the light of the candle, the face of Mr. Minh is hard and a lot of wrinkles appear on it; he looks toward the dais of Venerable Phan’s altar. Gunfire outside suddenly explodes. Are they attacking? Fighting each other? Let them fiercely fight each other and leave us alone: to live or to die. It seems to me that if we continue to sit in the shelter, listening to each other, listening to my mother’s stories about dead people outside, it’s like we are sitting at a campfire. I also don’t need to know whether hiding like this is cowardly or not.
There is a noise at the shelter opening and Mrs. Hảo crawls out; when she sees Mr. Minh, she cries:
“Sir, this night seems to be very frightful.”
A voice whispers into my ear:
“Don’t you know what our professor [Lê Văn Hảo] is doing right now? I’m positive that he’s at a revolutionary meeting making revolution.”
Another voice responds: “If this professor arrests you, he obviously doesn’t remember what the relationship between a teacher and a student must be.”
Mr. Minh coaxes the woman to go down to the shelter. I grope my way to the door and look out at the darkness of the night. The night is heavy and full of secrets, threats of death, the bitter coldness of death. But I also picture myself going out to a corner with a water tank, or to another corner with Chinese tea stalls, or to still another corner with a cluster of sugarcane. Leaves on the trees are dark, and they quiver as though calling me to imagine many things. If only at this moment I could blend with the night sky, could stand in front of the courtyard with my face up to the sky enjoying the pleasant, fresh, sweet raindrops of the beginning of spring. If only I could go for a walk alone in this spacious garden as in the evenings just before this Tết, to walk in the garden with my face up to the black sky imagining the face of my beloved.
There is a noise outside in the garden. I hear people’s steps moving around. It’s certainly the liberators communicating with each other. The ground in the garden is bare; where have all the twigs and dry leaves gone that used to cover it? Everywhere the ground has long since been dug and hoed to make shelters and foxholes or has been plowed or crushed by shells. The trunk of some tree in front of my eyes is broken: some star-apple tree,8 or custard-apple tree, or a longan tree.9 I surmise that there is no garden that has remained intact, and I long for a morning to go out into the garden, to go out of the gate, to see the road and the familiar houses. Mr. Minh says:
“Tomorrow I can’t stay in the house anymore. A lot of people have died; I must go to transport wounded, to give first aid. You will go with me.”
I don’t hear a single response from the young people. There are several young males in this house, and thanks to Mr. Minh’s unbending stubbornness they’ve not yet been apprehended. I think this area is still under Communist control and the lives of residents are very firmly in their hands, but they have yet to show their true colors. My younger sisters says that they [the Communists] bring a lot of people from another hamlet, then pass a verdict and secretly dispose of them, executing them right here. Dead bodies are hastily buried, and there is not a single mat left for wrapping them.
There has come the hour of owls hooting. I am going back to the shelter. Mr. Minh stops speaking, dismisses everybody, and switches off the lamp. Other young students have already returned to their shelters to sleep. There is only Mr. Minh, who can’t stand sleeping in a shelter. I cautiously crawl into the shelter, past my mother, past my younger siblings, then past the feet of other people, and only when I get to the place in the shelter where I hide do I feel safe. I am both tired and disheartened, so when I lie down, I immediately fall asleep.
On the morning of the following day, I hear sounds of a conversation at the shelter opening. Everybody has gone outside. I decide to crawl up, but my mother shouts at me: “Hold it!” Trúc crawls in and tells me that artillery fire has not been heard since dawn. Also, the Liberation Army has withdrawn to the cemetery and only some guards from under the bridge up the slope remain.
Mr. Minh says in a very loud voice:
“For sure they went to a meeting or something like that.”
A moment later Trúc scoops out a bowl of rice for me and advises me not to come up. On the other side where the school is, they [the Communist forces] had arrested several young males and students. I ask her about a few other young males and students who are there in a shelter; so what about them? Trúc lets me know that they have been scattered around; Mr. Minh took care of everything, preparing for them places to hide. I think about the sounds of musical instruments and of singing in the middle of the day and night. Several liberators who guard outside know that inside of the ancestor-worshipping house hide young people and students. But I don’t worry any longer about this because I listen to the sounds of a pig grunting, then people’s voices exchanging remarks with each other. The pig is slaughtered. No doubt that for the meal at noon there will be delicious food. Amid all that is going on, to have a big piece of pork is indeed fortunate, such good fare, a delicacy, extremely luxurious and elegant.
I am standing anxiously at the shelter opening:
“Mother, who’s making pork like this?”
“Monkey – go inside.”
“How can I, Mother – it’s pork.”
“At Mrs. Tính’s house, Mr. Tôn is slaughtering that pig. In a moment, he will give us a tiny bit to cook for a meal.”
I shout for joy like a child:
“Mother, listen, don’t forget to take a small part with a little fat to cook in fish sauce, Mother.”
“Enough, monkey, go inside. Death is around the corner, and you don’t care; all you care about is eating and drinking.”
Though she is speaking like this, my mother still gropes her way to the neighboring house to get a portion of pork. At noon this day, I lie in the shelter enjoying the pleasant smell of meat being cooked, the subtle aroma of which is about to suppress all other smells. I completely forget all sufferings, all fears. At this pace, certainly soon everything will calm down. Since morning, from time to time, we hear sounds of artillery fire very far away, like in Trúc Lâm, Tây Thiên, or somewhere over there, very far away indeed.
A pot with meat seems to be stewing with salt for a very long time. Waiting makes my entire soul anxious but also makes a part of me happy. Trúc pokes me:
“Elder brother, enjoying this smell of meat? Does it make you dream? I think about the moment when a piece of meat … very tasty, isn’t it?”
I haven’t had time to express my thoughts yet when Oanh sticks her head in:
“Hey, they’ve come back, and there are lots of them. They are digging more shelters and foxholes, and they’ve assigned guards to the crossroads and gardens.”
Trúc is absorbed in her thoughts:
“In the morning they withdrew.”
“They are carrying with them a lot of guns and shells. There are even vehicles transporting additional shells. They’ve anchored outside our pathway over there.”
Then Oanh’s trembling voice:
“So frightening, elder brother – when I was sneaking past Mr. Tôn’s house to see how they would divide the pork for Mother, I saw a dog carrying in its teeth a piece of leg or arm of a child; it gnawed on raw flesh. Having seen this, I am awfully afraid of pork.”
“It’s so frightful.”
Then she curls up:
“So, elder sister, you managed to get to Mr. Tôn’s house.”
“No, not at all. I was too afraid and dashed right back. Hearing a noise, the liberation soldier guarding outside ran in with a gun at the ready. I was afraid and screamed. He saw the dog lying and gnawing on the bone, gave it a scathing look, then laughed, baring his teeth, and asked whether or not I wanted to cross to the other side; he said ‘I can clean up the road for you.’ I was too afraid and fell silent. He said: ‘Don’t be afraid, young lady, surely this dog carried that in its teeth from somewhere else over to here.’ Then he took a stone and hurled it at the dog. The dog ran away with its tail between its legs, but that piece of flesh is still on the same dusty spot. It is extremely frightening!”
“Did he say anything else to you, elder sister?”
“He looked at me. I felt at once afraid and weird. Weird and sick, and so sad. Then he said: ‘Are you afraid of me?’ I had to say: ‘Please sir, I don’t know of what, but I’m afraid.’ Not knowing what to do, he was silent. Then he sneaked out of the door. I rushed into the house. Just a minute ago, Mother made me slice the pork for cooking it; I almost threw up several times.”
Saying this, Oanh lifts her hand to cover her mouth as if she is about to puke. The smell of the meat cooking is still floating around and entering my nose, enormously attractive. Oanh’s story does not make me feel disgusted or scare me for a second. For a long time I have gone without eating my fill; there have been days when I was plain starving.
Oanh holds my hand and says:
“Elder brother, listen, they are digging underground shelters there.”
I hear sounds of digging in the ground, sounds of people’s feet going back and forth. An old woman, Khái, who joined us in the shelter, says: “Close all doors and gates.” I think to myself, we can tightly close doors and can hide people, but what about the smell of the meat cooking? Won’t the liberators come in to visit because of the strong smell of the cooking meat? I also don’t hear Mr. Minh’s voice anymore. My younger sisters let me know that, carrying a sack of rice, he climbed on his bicycle and left in the morning. They say he went to distribute the rice. In a moment, a voice comes in from the outside:
“Liberation Mothers, please turn off your cooking; we are afraid that the smoke will let airplanes identify where to shoot at.”
My mother is also now called a Liberation Mother. Cooking is turned off immediately, but the smell of the cooking meat, where would it go? I imagine a lot of people whose mouths are watering now. I stick my head out:
“Mother, is the meat ready yet?”
“What a monkey you are. Go back in there. Let it soak a bit first. Where is Trúc? Go get the pot with cold rice and warm it so we can eat.”
Just when Trúc has intended to get up, someone is shouting loudly outside:
“Everyone go down to the shelter; airplanes are coming.”
Even as this shout is heard, I see that the sky is still absolutely calm, but then at once the sounds of airplanes stream in and in a moment the airplanes are over our heads making circles. Then a few moments later rockets shoot down, falling like rain. Everyone rushes into the shelter. An ink-black dog with glaringly aggressive green eyes wants to sneak into the shelter. Only when the old woman Khái takes up a knife and shouts as loud as a gong does the dog run off to some other place.
Rockets fall in torrents, and it seems that bullets are pouring over our heads. We tightly hug each other; one person squeezes against another as though in search of a bit of additional support. There are sounds of collapsing in front and behind; there are sounds of moaning and crying in the neighboring houses and shouts of liberators, all shrieking as though their throats are being slit. Just a short time before, a pig being slaughtered also shrieked pitifully like that, and I feel insensitive to this shrieking now.
Boom. A lot of tiles break into pieces, then comes the sound of debris falling with a cascading noise. Several liberators shout and call to each other outside in the garden. I am certain they have a lot of wounded. A moment later there is the sound of fierce responding gunfire from the ground. The pouring of shells down from the sky intensifies. I feel that I am fainting, my ears buzz, my chest feels like it’s hard to breathe, and I continue to lie, prostrated, absolutely flat in the corner of the shelter, not being able anymore to lift my arms or legs.
About two minutes later, the sound of shooting in the sky gradually subsides and the airplanes also disappear; only sounds of gunfire from the ground pop up sporadically and monotonously for another several minutes until an order is handed down: “Stop!” The word “stop” rolls from the corners of one garden to the corners of another garden, echoing on the surface of the ground, and gradually the sounds of gunfire die out, converging into several sparse sounds before stopping completely. My mother says that no one is allowed to peek out from the shelter opening. There is the sound of a punch on the door:
“Anyone who is inside, come out to help with the work.”
I am sure they will force the people to carry dead bodies and wounded. My mother gives a sign to everyone to be silent. But it doesn’t work; the panels of the door are knocked wide-open with the stock of a rifle; I hear a lot of stomping feet entering the house:
“Everybody get out of the shelter.”
My mother climbs up first, then go old women and women tightly hugging their children. Trúc remains with me; as for Oanh, she can’t help but to slide up. An old woman hands her a little toddler who just turned a year old; his mother had died on the day when the first sounds of guns exploded. Oanh tightly bundles the child into a cotton cloth and, trembling uncontrollably, climbs up through the entrance of the shelter. I hear a male voice asking:
“Who here doesn’t have small children?”
It seems that several women must go. The voice of the young liberator who is still standing guard outside in the lane:
“This young woman has just given birth; she’s still weak.”
So, it’s release. What a close shave for Oanh. A moment later I see her carrying the little toddler down; her arms and legs are still shaking like a leaf. I take the child from Oanh and secretly rejoice that the little toddler is well behaved and doesn’t cry. Unexpectedly for me, the toddler wants milk; it is hungry and exhausted but doesn’t have any strength to cry anymore. Because of that, night after night, I often hear the crying of a child, soft and feeble, like the mewing of a kitten.
I ask Oanh:
“Did they arrest anyone?”
My voice is very low, but Oanh raises her hand to give me a sign to keep quiet. The sounds of feet move outside of the house. Right at this moment, I hear the sounds of a bicycle stopping in the courtyard, then Mr. Minh’s voice gradually approaches:
“How are things? Is anyone hurt? I am very worried.”
I hear Professor Hảo’s wife sobbing. My mother’s voice relates what happened in the house. Mr. Minh’s voice is still animated:
“Look, everyone go down in the shelter; airplanes are coming. Everything has been completely destroyed by now. It’s sure that the army on this side of the river is lining up troops in battle array to enter the city.”
I strain my ears to listen. Mr. Minh’s voice drops down a little:
“Horrifying. When I was going from the road down there to come up here, I ran into so many dead bodies. They are all Việt Cộng. Dead in foxholes, dead next to the walls, dead lying prone on the roads. I came in here from the lane and saw everything covered in blood. I appealed to Heaven: ‘Help. Please, Heaven put an end to this. Is anything left of the house?’ When I entered the house, I saw them going on the road behind the garden. So, at least no one has been wounded here.”
I stick my head up and ask:
“Sir, what’s happening outside?”
“I ran into a group of their commanders.”
Mr. Minh laughs and pulls out a piece of paper:
“They called me to follow them: how disgusting is that? But I told them I am against any chaos. I am afraid of neither side. My goal at this time is to give first aid to the wounded, to distribute rice, to save anyone who can be saved. That commander of this area, he appeared to be very wise and kind. He issued me a pass to go through the areas they control at any time. Here …”
Mr. Minh stretches his hand with the paper toward me. But my mother has scolded me:
“Hey, you go down and sit there, will you? Oh Mr. Minh, enough already; nothing is so good in that devilish piece of paper to show it off like that. Having that will make more trouble.”
Mr. Minh laughs good-naturedly:
“I’ve already said I’m an international personality. Communism does not do anything to me – do you understand that?”
I am very curious to read that paper, but my mother has been throwing hostile glances at me. Afraid to make her sad, I hastily slip down into the shelter. Oanh raises her head:
“Sir, how do you transport the wounded?”
“I put them on the bicycle and push. The hospital has already been abandoned. I brought a lot of them into the various first-aid stations to get them bandaged. Ah, look Oanh, find for me several medical students, will you? There are some who are hiding around here. Will you serve as liaison for me?”
“Even an experienced person would not dare to do that – go outside to be shot dead?”
“You, child, are very chicken-hearted; forget it, I will take care of this myself.”
My mother suddenly shouts, and her voice is panic-stricken:
“It’s ruined …”
“It’s ruined, damn it …”
Panic in Oanh’s voice:
“The pot with the meat cooking …”
I can’t hold myself back, and, fighting with Oanh, I stick my head out from the shelter opening:
“What’s this, Mother?”
“It’s shattered; nothing’s left …”
I look at the oil stove – directly above it from the ceiling a piece of the tile had fallen down and broke the earthenware pot containing the meat; pieces of meat mixed with bricks and debris are scattered around in a dirty mess. Being tensed up for a while with all the whirlwind of events, I had completely forgotten about the pot of meat cooking. And now it’s all ruined. Seeing our sad dismay, Mr. Minh laughs:
“Oh, why feel sorry about this tiny bit of food? I have picked up and brought back several turnips here. I climbed up to the fields in the mountains, which was not much fun.”
“Sir, you climbed up there. Oh heavens, what’s up there?”
“Well, everybody must stay put in the houses. Listen, they [the Communist forces] confine people to their houses. There are several abandoned houses down the slope, and there I saw rows of turnips, very delicious. I picked up a lot of them; I have finished distributing them, and you can help yourself to what is left.”
“So beautiful. The turnips are so beautiful.”
I haven’t seen such beautiful turnips. The pot of meat is broken, but the aroma of the meat still wafts around. I swallow my saliva and sadly slip down. Oanh asks me:
“Elder brother, you are sad because of the pot of meat, aren’t you?”
“As for me, now I want only peace and quiet. For several days they said that they would stay for only one week to visit with the people; then why are they here for so long?”
“Who knows anything about that? You are such a gullible little child.”
“During the first few days several young female cadres practiced riding a motorbike; it was a lot of fun. But they didn’t know anything, elder brother; their comrades-in-arms from their detachment were dying violently, but they still romped so joyfully as though nothing was happening. During the first few days, the young women who talked with me said that they would organize cultural activities, festivals – and what have they organized in the end?”
“They [the Nationalists and Communists] shower bullets on each other like rain; what festivals can there be?”
“And they [the Communists] execute people, and it is so disgusting, elder brother. I saw them shooting two high school or college students or some people like that in the garden of Uncle Bốn over there. Let me tell you. It’s exactly the same group that is in our garden that shot them. I heard a tiny little fellow outside the gate, the one who looks at me; he said that only trials can issue verdicts and only people’s courts can condemn people but that they could not secretly dispose of people. Some of the others said that their comrades lacked fighting spirit. Then they fired. Oh heavens, I closed my eyes.”
Oanh talks and talks, and I still feel sorry about the pot of meat. After about a week of food deprivation – of meals insufficient to sustain life and intermittently meals that filled our stomachs – it seems that my stomach has shrunk. I am lying prostrate on a mat with foam at the corners of my mouth. A bout of hunger suddenly pulls up to torture me, putting me through a lot of suffering. Girls are really good at going hungry: Oanh and Trúc – have a meal, don’t have a meal – they still perk up like black-necked starlings. As for myself, soon I will be dead to the world.
In the afternoon, when I wake up, I see that the place around me is deserted. Has everybody abandoned me to evacuate to a different place? In panic, I lift my hand to feel around; only after what must be a very long time, I see a bit of light splashing in from the shelter opening, and gradually I clearly see my hand. But I don’t dare to raise my voice to call or to crawl out of the shelter opening and instead remain calm and listen intently. It seems that up in the house there are sounds of bowls and chopsticks striking against each other, but there is no sound of the people. There are no noises outside, either in the garden or in the courtyard. I try and try to focus my hearing, and only then I distinctly recognize clattering sounds of chopsticks and bowls; clearly the entire house is eating up there above the shelter. Why didn’t anyone wake me up? Why did everybody leave me in this grievous state with the pangs of hunger and exhaustion? No, I must crawl up to let everybody know that I also have a right to participate in the family meal. I am tired and exhausted but try to force myself to crawl up to the shelter opening. The clattering sounds of the chopsticks and bowls and the sounds of chewing and swallowing prove that there are people up there eating and drinking in an extremely rowdy manner. Obviously everything outside has calmed down by now and everyone is happy with a meal that will result in overindulgence. I try to hang on fast to the two edges of the earth-made wall and poke my head outside.
Am I dreaming? Am I still alive or dead of hunger? No, I am not a hungry ghost. I am still alive and well. How come there are faces of strangers around the food tray? I open wide my eyes to look around, and then I fall down, hitting the bottom of the shelter. The noise I make utterly terrifies me. They have already heard – they will come down and pull me out by my neck and a round of fire will explode. My hunger pangs have completely disappeared. On the tray with food stand cups and bowls belonging to my family, but my entire family and the other people who took shelter in the ancestor-worshipping house are sitting in the corner of the house, sad-looking, worried, and scared. Five or six liberators are sitting and eating delicious food without a single word being exchanged among them; they eat in a hurry like people who are about to die of starvation and are able to snatch a meal. I lie in silence for a moment, and when I see that nothing happens, my soul returns to me. But just at that moment the sounds of airplanes stream in, then artillery fire. I hear the liberators’ steps running from the house: “Thank you, Liberation Mother.” A man’s voice resounds inside, then drowns in the sounds of shells and rockets that begin to shoot down. Everybody rushes into the shelter. Some fall, rolling and turning; some pile up with faces, arms, and legs all in a jumble. I dive tightly into the corner of the shelter. Trúc pushes over by me:
“Where are you, elder brother?”
I respond in a weak voice. Oanh slips me a handful of rice:
“When I served rice to them, I scooped a handful and hid it in my shirt for you, elder brother, here.”
I no longer have the strength to stretch out my arm to hold anything. Trúc makes small balls of rice and puts them one by one into my mouth; I hastily chew and swallow as saliva fills my mouth. Why is it that at this moment, a small handful of rice is more precious to me than all the luxurious and exquisite meals of my life? My mother mumbles:
“We were in the process of arranging the food and were about to go down to wake you up to come to eat when they entered. It was luck that you had not yet come up. So, since they were already inside, we had to invite them, and they started to eat at once.”
Oanh says softly:
“When they finished eating, they thanked us profusely: Liberation Mother is ‘good’; Liberation Elder Sister is ‘good’; all those ‘goods’ over and over again – if it continues like this, we are certainly in real trouble.”
But Trúc intercedes for them:
“So, everywhere there are good people and bad people. Didn’t the young liberator give us ten measures of rice? But from where did he get them?”
No one contradicts Trúc. Rockets are hurled as if right at our heads. My mother assumes:
“They are shooting here, so surely shells also pour down on Bến Ngự.”
“I’m certain it’s down at the market.”
“Down at the railroad.”
“Hush, what’s the use of arguing; now they are coming to Từ Đàm.”
“The area under the bridge, they still keep it closed. At noon I saw several families fleeing, being chased by them; those families ran and cried. I hear that our hamlet has a lot of wounded.”
“Where did Mr. Minh go?”
“He went again to distribute rice and transport wounded.”
“That gentleman has really gone mad; in times like these, everyone takes care of themselves.”
I lie silently and hear how blood pulses in each of my small veins. My eyes no longer deceive me; my arms and legs no longer shake. My fear of rockets lessens, but at the same time I also understand that death by artillery or death by starvation or death by thirst are all equally horrific. But the liberators have borrowed and carried away all the rice in the house. If this situation lasts several more weeks, certainly we will all die of starvation. My mother complains in a whisper to her female friend:
“Mr. Minh, even in times like these, still brings back on his shoulders several wounded young men. To have him in the house is awfully troublesome.”
My mother is no doubt afraid and worried for me. I get extremely angry at my mother each time I hear her complaining like this, but now at this moment I see that she has a point. Oanh whispers:
“Mr. Minh brought several young men back to dress their wounds and provide first aid.”
“You’ll see, they [the Communist forces] will arrest and kill everybody who helps Mr. Minh.”
Oanh is confident:
“Mr. Minh has a pass to travel to and from the front. So, don’t worry about him.”
Right at this moment there is a knock on the door. We don’t know who knocks, but everyone’s heart seems to stop beating. I hear rockets outside, still loud like rain. The sound of firing from the ground also resounds with a cascading noise. This side: rattle, rattle; that side: pow, pow. Guns of all calibers point at the sky. The knocking on the door becomes more and more urgent, and then, on top of it, there is the sound of screaming, but we can’t recognize whose voice it is. Oanh is extremely anxious:
“Perhaps Mr. Minh’s back.”
“Hush. Don’t speak. Whoever this is, let him be. Be silent, for heaven’s sake.”
The knocking on the door continues, then the noise of something pounding on the door with a bang. Trúc is resolute:
“It’s Mr. Minh come back, for sure.”
Not adding another word, Trúc springs out from the shelter. My mother tries to stop Oanh but in vain. My mother can only appeal to Heaven and Earth. There is the sound of the door opening, then sounds of the feet of two or three people coming in, then the sound of Trúc screaming. I, panic-stricken, grab my mother’s shoulder:
“That’s the end.”
My mother breaks free and runs out of the shelter, having forgotten all dangers. But at the same time I hear Mr. Minh’s voice:
“Quickly, bring the medicine; bring bandages here.”
“There are no bandages. Shall we ask the medical students for help?”
More people get out of the shelter. I also timidly stick my head out of the opening to see. In the dim light splashing inside from the dreary sky, I see two men covered in blood. One person’s eyes are still open but listless; the other person’s eyes are shut as though he has passed away. A part of his head is of a pale white color as though his brain is exposed.
I ask Trúc:
Trúc shakes her head. Her face has turned pale. But then she helps everybody to bandage the two wounded. The blood flows and stagnates in a puddle in the middle of the house. Trúc, covering her face, shreds a white sleeve of her shirt to make bandages. Outside in the garden there are a lot of loud screaming sounds. I’m certain someone is wounded again.
Mr. Minh beckons to me:
“Come up here; they are busy fighting each other. They will not come in to arrest you; don’t be afraid.”
I climb up and stand next to the two wounded men. The sound of rockets gradually abates, and the sound of shells being shot from the ground also becomes more sporadic – but airplanes still circle in the sky. Then a group of neighbors rush into the house; they scream and cry:
“My house has burned down – oh my wife and children.”
“My child died, but I could not carry his body along with me.”
“Oh, Mr. Minh, go and bring back my little child with you. He’s stuck in a heap of bricks.”
The crowd shouts and cries like this. My mother inquires about the news from outside. Mr. Minh entrusts to us the two wounded people and dashes out the door. I have managed only to shout one word:
A salvo of gunshots resounds right at the gate. Enough – surely Mr. Minh has been wounded. Oanh pushes the door open: “Mr. Minh, oh sir!” She’s about to run out, but my mother manages to hold her back. We hear Mr. Minh’s voice haranguing someone at the end of the alley. Oanh at once turns and comes back, and there is the sound of the door being pushed open wide. The young liberation soldier who was guarding in front of the house’s gate comes in. He clasps his arm. My mother quickly pushes me down into the shelter before he can see me.
“What’s this, sir?”
“I’m wounded. Liberation Mother, please give me a bit of bandage to dress the wound.”
Oanh is prompt:
“No more bandages. These several days, clothes have been shredded to make bandages, and still there’s not enough.”
“Please help look for me; perhaps there is a bit of some medicine?”
Oanh is angry and resentful:
“So, where are the comrades to provide first aid? Where are female cadres to provide first aid to the wounded? These several days we’ve been waiting for them to come and to ask them for medicine, and I haven’t seen any of them.”
I don’t see the face of the liberator, but I know that he is moved or in much pain because his voice trembles:
“I am lightly wounded; there are some others who are wounded more seriously than I.”
Right at this moment I hear Mr. Minh’s voice. He enters and must be carrying a small child in his arms – I hear the child crying.
“Oanh, Trúc, take clothes and make bandages; hurry up.”
The sound of Oanh’s feet running away – Mr. Minh says:
“Wow, comrade, you’ve been wounded, too, eh? Why did you come here?”
“Please, Mr. Minh, give me some medicine; please give me a piece of cloth for a bandage.”
“Is your wound light or serious?”
“No, it’s just light.”
“You’ll get over it; take lime and apply it as an antiseptic. We don’t have medicine, but if only a tiny bit of medicine had remained, it would have been used to save people who are in critical condition. A lime pot is in the corner, over there.”
Mr. Minh’s voice again:
“There is a comrade of yours in the corner. I have bandaged him up; when you don’t hear shooting anymore, take him back for the headquarters to take care of him. He is in serious condition.”
Then, having sent off two people, Mr. Minh immediately brings on his shoulders another person – a Việt Cộng. Mr. Minh doesn’t distinguish at all who people are – he simply saves the wounded. I hear the voice of the young soldier trying to stay calm, but his voice hides a lot of emotion:
“Thank you, venerable sir. Uncle Hồ and the party will remember and thank you, venerable sir.”
“Me, eh? I don’t need the party. I don’t need the uncle [Hồ Chí Minh]. I only know this is a person, and he’s hurt, so I help. Damn it, they shoot at each other, kill each other, but only the people really suffer.”
The liberation soldier is timid:
“In this area there are many different kinds of [Communist] cadres, venerable sir; don’t go outside much – if they misunderstand you, it will be terrible.”
Mr. Minh gives several muffled laughs:
“Me, eh? I’m an international personality, yes! Mr. Hồ [Chí Minh] must also take me into consideration, and Mr. President of America must take me into consideration too, because I’m right.”
He continues to chuckle. I don’t hear what else the soldier tells Mr. Minh.
Trúc crawls down next to me:
“They’re done with shooting at each other, elder brother.”
“The dead are everywhere, even in our alley. Are you afraid, elder brother?”
“I don’t see anything to be afraid of.”
“It’s obvious: we have to evacuate. Here, no matter what, it’s death.”
I don’t say a word but intently listen to the noise above the shelter opening. Several wounded people are groaning. A man’s voice, unfamiliar and feeble:
“Comrade, what group are you in?”
“Bring me back to the headquarters, can you? I want to meet someone I know to send a message to the North.”
“Comrade, give it to me; I will send it for you.”
The man’s voice is weaker:
“No, I am not dead yet. I can’t die yet. Take me back … I want …”
His words are cut short. Outside the door there are sounds of many feet, then sounds of people bursting into an uproar: “Transport the wounded.” Then Mr. Minh’s voice:
“There are several wounded here; can I send them with you?”
“No, we only transport wounded from the Liberation Army.”
The sound of artillery rises again. But the work of transporting the wounded still continues. Young males and females are forced to go to work. Luckily, for whatever reason, Oanh and Trúc still manage to evade it. Mr. Minh decides not to go; the pass authorized by the Liberation Army certainly empowered him. In a moment they [the soldiers of the Liberation Army transporting the wounded] completely pull out, and Mr. Minh orders all the newly arrived refugees to find a place to build shelters. If there are no more places to dig underground, they will have to build surface shelters. The panels of the doors are dismantled for reinforcing shelters.
We also decide to repair and tidy up our shelter. Despite the sounds of airplanes, despite the artillery, children and adults go to the courtyard to dig up earth and carry it to dump on top of the shelter; the thicker the better. A few wounded people die of their wounds; their bodies are taken to the courtyard to be buried. But as soon as people go out to dig graves the airplanes come, and seeing shadows on the ground, they fire rockets and everybody flees helter-skelter. Several liberators in foxholes curse loudly and immediately fire several salvoes over the heads of the crowd running in confusion. No one thinks of burying the dead anymore and no one has enough strength to be afraid to live next to the smelly corpses, though perhaps we can die from the miasma.
The young liberation soldier has gotten his arm bandaged. He still stands guard in front of the gate. He seldom enters the house, and when he does his face looks grave. I have a feeling that it is only because of him that Oanh and Trúc are exempt from transporting the wounded and carrying ammunition.
Just as Oanh predicts, for several days thereafter not a single day goes by without airplanes coming and rockets falling down like rain. Each day there is more and more artillery fire. At first, for several days in the mornings everybody still climbs up from the shelter to get something or to run out to bring water. But now no one dares to go out to the courtyard; crawling up to the shelter opening has become the most courageous thing one can do. If this situation continues for several more days, we will run out of water and food. Such a pity for my mother – usually when anything happens she is out of her wits and overwhelmed, but when there comes a moment of true despair she suddenly is more courageous than anyone else. Despite bombs, despite shells, my mother keeps climbing out of the shelter to search for rice and to fix meals. A lot of fragments of artillery shells strike the walls; a lot of fragments of bombs fall down on the roofs and slide quickly through the holes into the houses. My mother, trembling, shuffles her feet down into the shelter. But then she crawls out again. My mother is only able to live minute-by-minute in order to do her utmost for her children.
Throughout these days Mr. Minh comes and goes; from time to time he drops by with a little bit of dry food, dividing it among everybody in the shelter. Besides continuing to help everybody outside, he also does not neglect the people who settled in this house of worship for Venerable Phan.
Many nights, we discuss the topic of evacuation. My mother moves close to the family of a school principal.10 He, on the first day, dared to rashly transport two small children and a young woman, his younger sister, from An Cựu back to Từ Đàm. His wife was stranded here. During the day he also slips into the shelter and doesn’t dare go outside, afraid of being arrested. During the first several days some female cadres often entered the house, gradually making contacts and inquiries and talking with his wife. Half of this family is still stranded in An Cựu, and the younger sister dared to go with Mr. Minh to reconnoiter the road leading there but didn’t manage to slip through. My mother discusses with that family whether or not there is a way to evacuate from here. But they, like us, are also in despair. The wife hugs a small child and weeps softly for a long time. The husband has stopped worrying about his own fate and instead now worries for his mother and a number of relatives who are left stranded in An Cựu. When Mr. Minh comes back every day, each piece of news he brings is more pessimistic than before.
Many nights I have been lying and dreaming that I am among a group of evacuees. In our search for life we walk in long files and hold tightly to each other. We are crossing a bridge. Dead bodies are bloating and stinky. On the other side of the river is the Army of the Republic of Vietnam; on this side is the Liberation Army. No one at all hampers our progress. We walk amid the artillery, amid sounds of screaming and shrieking, and then the bridge collapses and the entire file of people, one after another, falls down into the current of the river. But we still cannot escape. At the bottom of the river there are many bloody-red mouths of water monsters, wide open, ready to swallow the entire file of people into their stomachs. I, panic-stricken, scream, then wake up. Despite the weather outside being bitingly cold, my whole body is dripping with sweat as though I had bathed. Like a child, I often put my finger into my mouth and suck on it. I suck nonstop in the darkness. I feel my bland finger gradually getting tasty. I know this taste, sweat mixed with dirty soil.
A day goes by and then another. Our ears start buzzing because of the gunfire, our eyes grow weak from hunger, and our minds are paralyzed because of the sounds of explosions reverberating deafeningly all around. But strangely, none of us has died yet. We run out of rice, and Mr. Minh manages to bring back from somewhere several baskets of dried-out cooked rice, and he divides it among all of us – each family a tiny bit. We chew dried rice but also must do our best to be parsimonious. Being so very thirsty, some people recklessly go out to the courtyard to get water at the water tank. They run but don’t make it to the water tank when shell fragments pin them down, but fortunately no one dies.
None of us return to the issue of evacuation any more. Getting out from the shelter opening by this time can mean death, even more so if one goes out to the courtyard or to the road.
But then there is a morning – I lost count of the days and I don’t know what day it is – when a voice calls my name from outside. My mother at once pushes down hard on my head, gagging me, and doesn’t let me answer. But then Oanh recognizes the voice of Bảo, my first cousin, a son of my uncle. Oanh goes out and pulls Bảo down into the shelter. Bảo says:
“Why aren’t you fleeing? They’ve already left.”
“Why are you brave like this? Artillery lobs like rain; how’s it possible to flee from here?”
“I will take the risk to keep moving. Now, are you escaping with me or not?”
“How to escape?”
“Here they will arrest you. Come with me.”
“To go where?”
“We will go to a garden they don’t know about. Then we’ll go toward the pagoda and then circumvent past Đua-Ra Mansion.11 We will go down there. Surely it’s possible to make it – how not?”
My mother trembles:
“Impossible. Don’t take risks.”
But suddenly an idea flashes up in my mind. To stay here means to die anyway. To take a risk like this, with some luck, there is still a chance to survive. I tell Bảo in a low voice:
“I’m going; wait for me.”
Only after I comfort my mother for about half an hour can she bear to let me go. But when I get up to the shelter opening with Bảo, I hear my mother crying heartbreakingly as though in a burial procession. My entire body shivers with fear. It’s light outside, but I have an impression that the shadow of death is also loitering around here, conniving with the sounds of explosions, with rounds of shells shot here, there, and everywhere. My mother’s crying makes my knees about to cave in. I want to rush back inside the shelter and collapse next to her so that if death comes we will die together and if we survive we will survive together. But Bảo has pulled me out by my hand. The door is wide open, and we worm our way outside. The daylight astonishes my eyes. I stand mesmerized near the water tank; almost all the branches of the peach trees have been broken. Certainly an artillery shell has fallen somewhere here, but golden petals are still intact and lie amid the broken branches and the bricks and tiles; the golden peach flowers are like specks of hope filling my heart with a feeling of strong passion and fondness for life.
Bang – an explosion really close. Bảo pulls me to lie down. Then suddenly Bảo pulls me up and I am running, either following him or being dragged by him, all the same. When we turn our heads, the T-junction near the pagoda and the ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan are already out of sight. Tears stream from my eyes. Several drops of the biting cold, drizzling rain stick fast to my face. Bảo, sighing, keeps dragging me:
I don’t have time but still I admire plants, houses, and roads. Artillery shelling here becomes denser and denser. The sounds of explosions roar in front, behind, on all sides. We keep running a bit further, then we both duck down, get up, and continue running. I don’t know what my face looks like, but I can’t recognize Bảo’s face anymore. Our clothes are covered with earth and sand; thorny bushes scratch us and tear our clothes into long strips. I am running and shouting:
“To keep going means death. Certain death.”
Đua-Ra Mansion has appeared. We recklessly run toward it; I stumble over many dead bodies and many times I almost plunge headlong. We still have to run several tens of meters to make it to the mansion when we are suddenly surrounded by sounds of artillery and small arms. The two sides open fire. We try time and again, and finally we manage to get into Đua-Ra Mansion. Our ankles and feet are thickly covered with blood. The house is full of corpses: fresh corpses, old corpses, corpses of the Nationalists, corpses of the Việt Cộng. Right in front of the house I see the corpses of two Americans so bloated that they look like cows. It is strange that the two American corpses are clad in black uniforms like cadres of the Rural Development. But I don’t have time to think more about it before Bảo has dragged me straight inside. Just at that moment, guns start firing in our direction. Bảo falls headlong into a corner; his entire body is covered with blood – fresh blood and dried blood. I also roll once and lie behind several bloated and smelly corpses. I tightly cover my eyes with my hand; bullets are flying over my head. The two sides engage in a really atrocious fight for a while, and then sudden silence comes. There is the sound of a lot of feet entering Đua-Ra Mansion. I hear a voice saying:
“I saw two guys running in here.”
“Comrade, did you see them clearly?”
“Absolutely positive. Two guys still very young. Messengers for Americans and their puppets, for sure. They entered right when the guns opened fire.”
My heart seems to stop beating. I lie pressing my face into a puddle of dried blood full of flies. Let it be; I need this mass of dead bodies to give me cover. Sounds of feet stepping over several corpses, then muffled laughter:
“Damn it, just greenhorns and they have already turned into traitors to their country.”
The sound of gunfire: I hear Bảo screaming.
My shoulders suddenly are also in stinging pain. I still hear a round of bullets sweeping past me before I pass out.
“Where are you going now, sir?”
“I myself don’t know anything beyond that. I ran with all my strength.”
As soon as the boy tells us the above story, he looks out to the railroad. I keep asking:
“Did you get any news from Từ Đàm, elder brother?”
“I was wounded at Đua-Ra Mansion and thought they would arrest me. Fortunately, I passed out and they thought I was dead. When I came back to my senses, they had arrested Bảo and taken him away. Dead bodies were lying everywhere in utter disorder, but over the door there hung a liberation flag. I had to try and try before I could move away from under the dead bodies. I looked out – silence everywhere; there was no one on the Nationalist side, but on the Communist side there was no one either. I scrabbled my way to Phú Cam. Houses are abandoned; all the residents have fled – I met only dead people. I followed the railway, and this is how I got here.”
I thought that meeting this boy who came from Từ Đàm would give us news about my elder brother’s family up there, but he’s completely unaware of them.
“Now you need to find a hamlet where there are still people left and stay with them. We will also flee soon.”
“I will certainly go over to the church. I heard rumors there are a lot of refugees there.”
“My opinion is: don’t go over there; they’ve searched there and arrested everybody.”
My mother asks Lê:
“What about Mr. Minh?”
“Please madam, I don’t know anything more.”
We follow the boy with our eyes as he goes back toward the railroad. That entire section of the road is completely deserted – there are no shadows, not even of any animals. He goes farther and farther and does not turn back. I am panic-stricken when I hear sounds of gunfire near that area. I shout, but the boy has already gone down a short slope and disappeared behind thick bushes.
My mother gives out a heavy sigh:
“Here is certain death. We must flee; everyone from the hamlet has already left.”
My uncle elbows his way in:
“They fled toward the area down by Phù Lương; there are rumors that it’s very quiet down there.”
“What direction is Phù Lương?”
No one has time to respond to him when sounds of gunfire approach. We hear vehicles moving with a lot of noise on the National Highway.
Thái shouts for joy:
“Our [Nationalist] army has advanced and entered the city and now is coming into this area.”
Bé provides clarification:
“By day only – at night they [the Nationalist forces] withdraw to Phú Bài.12 By night they [the Communist forces] come back and take over again, so it doesn’t mean anything.”
My mother beckons with her hand:
“So, go into the shelter first, then if there is something to plan, we can plan there.”
A moment later we see a person [Mr. Địch, the head of the neighbor family] run into the house carrying on his shoulder a pole with two baskets. Thú Hồng crawls up from the shelter and shouts to him:
“Uncle Địch, you could not get through, huh?”
Mr. Địch responds: “I tried to go to Kiểu Mẫu School,13 but there’s no way to get through on the roads. They are firing at each other with such ferocity.”
“Where did you plan to go, uncle?
“To Phù Lương.”
Soon we settle his family to sit in a corner of the house, and Mr. Địch also slips into the shelter to tell us what happened. He says that they [the Communists] have completely occupied the Citadel. Some people were able to escape and come back to this side by boat, but out of those who took the risk to flee the disaster, over two-thirds died; if ten people went, with luck only one or two survived. He lets us know that the two sides are still fighting each other in the area of the post office. My mother is panic-stricken:
“If they fight near the post office, then they will soon fight here. What to do now, huh? Oh heavens.”
So, we wait for the sound of gunfire to subside, then our entire family crawls up through the shelter opening and, supporting each other, we flee from the fighting. We had returned to my uncle’s house several days ago, and the distance from my uncle’s house to our house, which is in the same An Cựu area, is only several hundred meters, but we have not dared to cross this distance to get back to our house. After several days of constantly being in the dark shelter, Thái assigns everybody to take care of some task. We take a bit of rice and a bit of fish sauce from my uncle’s house; Thái organizes it all. My mother still clutches the bundle of clothes, half of which belonged to my father; when he died, these clothes were not used to prepare his body for the funeral. I keep a small bag with some things. Bé’s wife carries on her shoulder a pole with two hangers and baskets filled with pots and pans, bowls and dishes, and cooked and uncooked rice that we took from our uncle’s house. Everybody has their arms and legs busy, and the children are told to hold fast to the adults’ clothes and run.
We run down in the direction of Mù U. At first everyone runs very fast because we hear the sounds of shells behind us and of airplanes entering the city. But when we have managed to get some distance away from the noise and panic, my legs can no longer hold me up. My mother plops on the road.
A youngster from down below drives a Honda motorcycle up here quickly. Thái waves to him:
“Where are you going, elder brother?”
“There is a rumor that up here there are a lot of compatriot evacuees – I’ve come up to see whether there is anyone who needs help with anything.”
Thái is very jovial:
“We need help. Is it quiet down there?”
“Quiet indeed. Down there they [the Communist forces] only flood in by night. By day we just take care of our own business.”
Thái is pleased:
“So, friend, please give my aunt a ride. Let her off at Thủy Dương market; we are going down there now.”
My mother hastily climbs up onto the back seat of the motorbike.
“Hold fast to him, auntie.”
The youth starts off as though he’s flying; I only catch a fleeting sight of my mother, and then she has disappeared in the distance. I reluctantly get up and continue to follow Thái. Along the road I see countless groups of evacuees.
They move supporting each other with carrying poles on their shoulders, walking and running and turning their heads to look back. The city is filled with sounds of explosions, big and small.
A woman walks and cries: “Only I have managed to escape; I could flee over here, but my husband and children, are they alive or dead, what’s happened to them, oh heavens? What’s happened, Heavenly Father?” The woman looks back at the city, then looks up to Heaven. Heaven is still the color of lead, ready to flow with water but without the strength for that. An oxcart lags behind a throng of about ten or so people. Two women pull and push the oxcart; in the cart two people lie covered with an old mat.
I see four legs dangling down from under the mat; all four are completely smeared with blood. The cart cannot move faster because the two women are at the point of exhaustion. A man carries a small child on his shoulder. The child has been wounded and is bleeding, having lost almost all his blood, and his face, turned deathly pale, hangs down on the man’s shoulder; the light in his open eyes is torpid, and he follows with his eyes the groups of people running behind as though to keep a visual connection with life. Drops of blood fall and splatter on the surface of the road, and other feet rushing by blur them or wipe them out. I think about the group of people who with white flags in their hands walked through the city submerged in bullets and fire, a group of people from Phú Cam that came down with several Catholic priests and Buddhist monks: those who were unharmed helped those who were wounded, and those who were alive reluctantly took off their clothes to cover the dead. The image of that group is impressed into my head; have they managed to find a road to go down to Phù Lương and Phú Bài like we have?
All of a sudden, I turn back to look at the city.
I see pillars of smoke, tall and thick. The gunfire gradually moves farther away but remains utterly devastating. Artillery shells explode with a roar, and from time to time there is a shell that, due to a mistake in coordination, falls very near the groups of fleeing people. They all duck down, and I am pushed by Thái and fall down on the road:
“Run, elder sister, now!”
Run. I must run … to find a road of escape.
This chapter is the voice of a young man named Lê who hid in the underground shelter in Phan Bội Châu’s ancestor-worshipping house in Từ Đàm hamlet, on the edge of Hue, where the house of the narrator’s brother Lễ was located.
1. Võ Thành Minh (1906–68) – in some sources his name is spelled Võ Thanh Minh – was a writer and poet from Nghệ An province who spent most of the 1950s in Europe. He was opposed to the partition of Vietnam, became a resident of Hue in the 1960s, and tried to publicize his commitment to reconciling the two Vietnamese countries. During the Battle of Hue, he was killed while trying to help civilians and stop the fighting.
2. Prince Cường Để (1882–1951) was a prominent member of the royal family. He and Phan Bội Châu were early leaders against the French colonial occupation of Vietnam.
3. Prof. Lê Văn Hảo was a Hue University ethnologist who had earlier edited the Struggle Movement publication against the South Vietnamese government of Nguyễn Cao Ký and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. He became the chairman of the Revolutionary Committee in Hue and of the Alliance of Nationalist, Democratic, and Peace Forces in Hue, or, effectively, the mayor of Hue during the Tết Offensive.
4. A reference to the Alliance of Nationalist, Democratic, and Peace Forces, officially set up during the Tết Offensive. It was a precursor to the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam formed on June 8, 1969, as an underground government opposing the Saigon government of President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.
5. The Vietnamese term for this word denotes a measure of 11.7 ounces.
6. According to the author, it is commonly believed in Vietnam that people who die as innocent victims cannot close their eyes.
7. An alternative name for Lake Geneva.
8. A tropical evergreen tree with milky fruit.
9. An evergreen tree that produces a small juicy fruit with a yellowish-brown exterior.
10. Mr. Lễ, the elder brother of the author.
11. An ancient mansion in Hue.
12. The area where Hue airport is located.
13. A secondary school founded in 1964 and associated with the Pedagogical Institute.