THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 12 NUMBER 1
Darkness in the underground
A SHORT STORY BY
Lu Quynh, writer and poet, born in 1942 in Thua Thien, Hue, Vietnam. His works appeared, before 1975, in the literary magazines published in South Vietnam, including Bach Khoa, Mai, Pho Thong, Khoi Hanh, and Y Thuc. His publications include Cat Vang, a collection of short stories, published by Y Thuc in Saigon in 1971, the second edition was published by Van Moi in California (US) in 2006; Nhung Con Mua Mua Dong, a collection of short stories, published by Y Thuc in 1973; Vuon Trai Dang, a novella, published by Nam Giao in 1974; and a novel published periodically in Y Thuc magazine from 1971 to 1972. He settled in the US, and resumed his writing after 2001, contributing to Van Hoc, Khoi Hanh. His most recent collection of poems, “Sinh nhat cua mot nguoi khong con tre”, is published by Van Moi in 2009 (California: Van Moi, 2009). “Darkness in the underground”, the translation version of his short story “Bong toi duoi ham”, published in this issue is his first appearance in The Writers Post. Lu Quynh is now living in California.
The man sat on a low stool of scrap wood, lowered his head and rested his forehead onto his folded hands. The young man, squatting on his heels, listened out for the suspect sound from the trapdoor into the underground hideout it seemed. He looked, every now and then, at the teeny tiny light the air duct gave out. In the dim light his drawn face registered the nagging worry. In the dark corner close by the girl lay, motionless. She wore her black pyjamas; sweat plastered her mussed hair to her forehead. The three persons seemed pay no heed to the existence of their hideout mates. It was a little boxy hideout, approximately two metres long and one metre wide. Occasionally, water droplets that oozed from the earthen wall dripped audibly onto the floor. Silence seemed to unfold into a much deeper level. Dusk was falling– perhaps. The teeny light through the air duct was fading, seen almost no more. The girl stirred a little in the darkness; the man, at the same time, straightened up and peered into the gloom, but saw nothing. He swallowed his saliva, spoke in a dry voice as if he was dying of thirst.
To his question no one answered. Perhaps they weren’t prepared for. The silence which reigned for a long period, the whole of day it may have been, made them think they were dumb. Once the young man wanted to speak, in order to see if he was still able to, but he remained silent. He found it extremely difficult attempting such a try. Listening now to the man’s question he started to wonder whether he has been hungry. He felt nothing. The last drop of water had been gone in the morning. His throat was parched and stiff with an acrid flavour as he thought of the dry food the man mentioned.
“Hungry?” The man repeated his question in a more strained voice.
“Well, you eat then!” The girl replied shortly.
“Really thirsty, not hungry!” The young man put in.
“So am I!” The man said.
The three fell silent again. They remained in the same place. The girl lay facing the earthen wall, with her head tingling. In the pitch dark, her eyes were closed, her hands covered in icy cold sweat. Suddenly, she started upright, frightened, calling out to the man.
“Uncle Suu, Uncle Suu!”
The man leaned forwards, grasped her arm and yanked it, in an angry manner.
“Be quiet, will you? Do you know where you are? Must obey my order. Don’t make noise. Death is lingering above our head!”
He suddenly felt edgy, but soon recovered his self-possession.
“Don’t fret. In any case, lean on me.”
His voice was low, but as cold as iron. The girl felt the cold on her nape. She curled up her body, lifted her hands covered in sweat to claw at her face. Tears were coming, silently. But she didn’t think she was crying.
The young man squatted flat on the ground, with arms wrapped around his knees. He said to himself, “Mr. Suu and Mrs. Lien still have energy to talk, me- uh-uh, no more. He used his tongue to suck his teeth for saliva, and then swallowed it.
Again, the man’s voice came, “Have got a thirst?”
“I really do have. Got some water?” The young man leaned forwards, but stopped short and sat back.
“No,” the man said, “You’re thirsty, and you don’t want to nod off. It might rain, and we will catch water from the air duct…”
The young man sighed with disappointment, but felt filled with freshness afterwards. His voice directed to the man, “It sounds good. Say, how come the old woman seems to have disappeared?”
The man thought a moment.
“I’m worrying about the gun shots last night. Was it possible? Had that been the woman, getting a stray bullet? Or may be she was directly shot, for nobody would know that was an old woman…”
“No. Let’s hope not.” The young man said.
The girl had fallen asleep, perhaps. The man looked towards her, but he saw nothing. He craned his neck towards the young man.
“I hear you.”
A moment of silence.
“In your opinion, what are we going to do if Lien falls into a fit?”
The young man pondered, and found no solution.
“You really think she will?” He said.
“We spent hard days down here. Besides, Lien is a girl, with a heart problem, mental illness, and panic attacks sometimes. There is no water, lack of food. Worse yet, the cold and damp air from the ground.”
“What are you planning?” The young man asked.
The man held himself quiet. The young man felt a bit of anxiety. He opened wide his eyes to look at the man, saw nothing but the pitch dark. He retraced in his mind the man’s face. A face of difference, scarcely being seen in public. He has undertaken somewhat of secret tasks. Among his acquaintances, some respected him; some treated him with great caution. They didn’t believe the theory that he had stuffed into his head could turn him into the perfect man of compassion, altruism and justice. Being silent or indifferent might have been the appropriate attitude needed to be taken by those who didn’t have a standpoint or stable theory. The young man wondered whether the man’s indifference was simply the case as it seemed.
The man recalled a song. Since that autumn of war. How moving the atmosphere had been. The night they bit farewell to My Loc. The musician stood by the flickering light of the bonfire, with one leg resting on a low stool, playing guitar. Since that autumn of war. His lover sang the lyric. His lover. Was she his lover? The girl wore a brown shirt and a pair of black shiny trousers. Her hair, pinned at her nape, flew down to her midback. Her lips were full and red shiny without lipstick. As she sang, her fingers embarrassingly clasped together. The music went on in a slow tempo. The musician looked up at the sky playing the piece. He played indifferently, without any concern. But somehow the music and the singing voice made all listeners who sat around, while looking at the flaming bonfire, feel their hearts sinking. Wet eyes. Shiny eyes. The girl finished the song with her eyes brimming with tears. She walked towards him. “What makes you cry?” No sooner had the question come out of his mouth than he saw himself silly. He should not have asked. The girl lifted her hand dabbing at her eyelashes, saying softly, “I’m thinking about we have to say our goodbyes tomorrow.” He felt the bitterness down in his heart. The thought of farewell, or the music and the lyric itself had indeed moved her? She surely wanted to disguise her weakness. Everyone must choose for themselves the best answer. Must choose. Choose from the Being the appropriate ego—the I, and then put up with it, trying to stay on guard against betrayal, wrongdoing, fracturing along ideological lines. Must watch over even a dream. He believed he had made the right choice. Must think of the collective, and the goal the collective has striven for. Pride was merely reserved for the living being. All that pride they had, and no one thought he would die. However, no one would refuse death as it came.
At 5:00 AM in the next morning all people who had partaken in the bonfire were en-route. The musician and a large group of them went to the ferry-landing, waiting for the ferry across the river. The man, travelling by land alone, walked with his food-basket and his backpack slung over his shoulders. The girl who sang the song “Since that autumn of war” stayed. When departing, he didn’t see her. He was haunted by a vague free-floating depression— about a love that could never be expressed. On his way, as the sun appeared with its first rays he heard the planes roaring, followed by heavy bombs exploding and machine guns strafing. He stopped, and turned to look towards the ferry-landing. Clumps of smoke were billowing skywards. Planes circled in the sky. He sat and waited. Waited for the planes in a line formation to head towards the horizon, then stood up and retraced the road he had passed. He ran to the ferry-landing, with the hope that the musician and that group of people were to have gone across the river while it was still dark. But he was disappointed.
There were still people, though not many, at the ferry-landing when he came. Most of the people, having dribbled away, worriedly expected that the planes would return and again made another bombing and strafing attack. Nurses hurried to help those who suffered injuries to be transferred to the camp for treatment. Corpses remained lying about. He saw the musician flat on his stomach; his two legs were in the water, the upper part of his body on the ground. Slipping his backpack off his shoulder, he stepped over the corpse to haul it abroad, onto higher ground. Only one of the musician’s eyes was shut. The other wide open, with the terrifying eyeball protruding out of the eye socket. A ripping hole on his brown shirt exposed his pale skin with a stain of blood, which has been dried. The musician’s body was relatively in good shape. A bullet went through his chest. Such a death in a heavy bomb attack was really soft. He looked at the corpse and recollected the bonfire. The vivid picture of the musician drifted through his head- looking at the sky while playing his guitar. His melodious guitar playing was still lingering about. And the singing voice. Since that autumn of war. It was now also autumn. He died in the autumn morning. He thought, but refused to believe it, that the melancholy atmosphere and tearful eyes last night meant goodbye forever.
He looked at the musician’s body, looked at the people around, and slung the backpack over his shoulder, silently. He retraced his road, and began to walk the rest of the way alone. It was then he knew that his eyes filled with tears.
In the underground dark, the man could scarcely see his hand. He recalled distant memories. He thought back to the musician lying dead by the ferry-landing. He had shed tears as often as not when undertaking his mission journey, travelling the remaining leg through which he must pass. The bleeding heart caused eyes to fill with tears. It was his Being that wept, not the chosen I─ the I that never experienced weakness, betrayal, and mistake.
Back then, of course, he hadn’t been all that old as he looked these days. His oldest child was then eight years of age. He has strived for many of his aspirations. At least, he thought, the most realistic thing he strived for, even if it cost him his own life, was that his children would live. He was prepared to sacrifice everything so his children would one day live in freedom, living as human beings, not being used as slaves. Yet in all those years the struggle in which his fellow-men were engaged was not fought through. His oldest son took up arms, and gave his life in this struggle. For the whole of his life he has always been a firm believer in achieving peace for his country. His belief, however, has been badly shaken. He felt he could retain his volition no more, and he felt his ill-health.
What if the old woman, the key of this underground hideout, had been killed? What was he supposed to do? The military operation was finished it seemed. They have been living in this hideout for two days. He began to lose his patience. A thought crossed his mind: he would try the trapdoor, and escaped. Out there only two possibilities presented themselves—life and death. It concerned him no more. Life or death was just one.
He groped in the dark for the grenades, but touched the young man’s leg. He quickly pulled his hand back. The young man, however, realised it. He felt uneasy as the man’s sensation of terror was still on his bare flesh.
“Is that you, Mr. Suu?”
“What are you looking for?” The young man kept asking.
“No. Nothing”. The man replied, embarrassed.
The young man felt something of a betrayal, and began to take precaution. He hurriedly moved the grenades into a different place. It was then that the girl awoke.
“Say, Uncle Suu.”
“You should try to sleep. Don’t speak too loud.” The man said.
As the voice rose in front of her, the girl found herself in an utter state of bewilderment in the dark. Voice. It has been merely voice. Ghostly voice. There were only voice and voice in the hideout. The girl thought she possibly wasn’t aware of herself. And her voice, she wasn’t sure if it was hers.
“Uncle Suu,” she said, willing to hear her own voice. But the man didn’t see.
“Please don’t keep calling me.”
“You tell me now. What am I supposed to do if another panic attack is coming?” The girl swallowed her saliva, panting.
“I’ve already answered.” The man said, “Look, you must get some more sleep.”
The girl leaned against the earthen wall. She had a sensation of comfort as the cold, which came from the wall made its way to her back.
“You don’t know how my father suffered from panic attacks. Going crazy, he drank alcohol and then, frantically ate the glass. He chewed the crushed glass till the blood split out, reddening the corners of his mouth.”
The man was alarmed to hear the girl recall the story. He was afraid that it might have triggered another attack.
“Miss Lien, I say you should try to sleep.” The man said, “Your father was drunk, but not that crazy in the least. I know it. Try to sleep. Must go on to sleep.”
The young man shifted his body close to the girl. He made himself ready to deal with her if she performed acts that could expose the hideout. A long silence ensued. Again, the girl spoke:
“Uncle Suu, and you, brother Tam. You’d better let me know what are we supposed to do if I suffered a panic attack.”
“There will be no panic attack no doubt.”
“You think so?” The girl said, “But you are ready to strangle me to death, or stab me through the heart with your dagger, aren’t you? Is there another way?”
Alarmed, the man tried to calm the girl, in an embarrassing voice:
“Please don’t say so. Try to sleep, will you?”
“ Sleep, sleep, sleep!” The girl said angrily.
The man leaned forwards. He wanted to express himself through his emotional reaction. However, no expression would be possible in the pitch dark but the voice. Groping for a long while, he took hold of the girl’s hand, in a gentle voice saying:
“Don’t be upset. You must know where we are now. Our lives depended upon each and every one of us. For one makes mistake, all die.”
“I know that.” The girl said indifferently, “But why not just be straight with me and tell me what you are thinking? I won’t be afraid. I will accept it. To die for the others to live that may be somewhat an obligation. I know you and brother Tam will kill me if I’m going crazy. Admit it. I won’t do any harm. Anyway, why is it that my mother failed to turn up? It seemed that you said she was killed.
The girl said in a low voice, and he was at all relieved.
“Well, you think too much. We’d better keep quiet now. Your mother… Oh, that was what we’re thinking during a moment of profound depression. The fact is, as you may know, that there is nothing we’re sure of while still down here. Just a guess. The soldiers have been stationed above our head since the last few days it seems.”
The young man, exhausted, lowered his head onto his knees, falling into a doze. The man, after answering the girl, leaned back against the wall. He thought about the old woman, Lien’s mother, and wondered if she were already dead.
Sorrowful thoughts have crossed her mind. She thought of her mother, and her eyes were welling with tears. Since her father’s death, her mother has been living a grim life, scratching around in that small plot of land and gathering just enough to feed her brother Ba and her. The mother, however, used to look worriedly at her children, fearful of the genetic mental disorder. The terrifying image of her husband just before his death had filled her with the horror that would never ease. In later years, facing the uncertainties of life in his unstable village brother Ba left home for the city where he joined the army. Her mother has ever complained, but actually she’s been very content just below the surface. He was now at least on the safe side, much better than living under all that pressure in the village. In time of war, humanity used to be absent. Only oppressions, threats and barbarous killings. After joining the army, Ba returned occasionally to visit. His skin was dark, his body lusty, that made his mother very happy. Lately, however, since the war became more and more bitter and the village was increasingly unstable, Ba came home only when there was an operation through the village. He urged his mother and sister to leave their village for the city. The mother kept pondering a long while on what she should do, and took no advice at last. She was not used to city life, in which there were problems that needed to be dealt with. Ba didn’t return ever since he did the last time during that operation. The village took bomb hits so often. The mother and daughter were living trapped between two warring powers. Terrified of them all. Suspected by all of them. And the only one way to survive is trying to put themselves in hiding. The woman accepted to be the key of this hideout since then. The man held the girl hostage. There was no better way. Any means was just a temporary solution to trying to escape death, to pass the dangerous portion of the road— everyday.
The girl recalled the conversation between the two men at the beginning of the night. The old woman may have been killed by a stray bullet. She also had a presentiment that her mother could be killed. If not, then why she didn’t return in two days. Could it be true that she was dead? The girl said to herself, and swallowed her tears. She bit her lip, lest she burst into sob.
In the corner, the man stirred. He felt the ground for a moment, then stopped, calling out, “Say, Tam.”
The young man has just awoken.
“It appears to be dawn.”
“My watch has died since last night.”
The man sighed. A moment later he asked, hesitated:
“Tell me, what are you thinking?”
“What do you want me to think about?” The young man said, indifferently.
“About the old woman, I mean. She could be killed.”
“About Lien, she may be going crazy.”
The young man felt the coldest sensation down below in his heart. He raised his hands, took his cheeks between them.
“You do plan everything, don’t you?”
“I do- Yes!” The man said.
“Ms. Lien knows well what you will do to her if she has a panic attack.”
“If we really ought to.”
The young man fell silent. The man was starring frankly at the darkness. The girl, at the moment, was very alert. She heard the conversation between the men, indifferently. In a sudden, she felt extraordinary clear-headed. There would be no way else- I’m wondering if they will stab me with the dagger, or strangle me to death?
Stabbing or strangling? She thought of her mother, her brother Ba, and then said to herself, “I’m going to go crazy, perhaps”.
Presently the young man opened his eyes. He saw the wavering light emitted from the air-duct, and sat still to look at the little light. He really missed that kind of morning sunlight as a new day began. He felt uneasy, had a thirst for a bit of sunlight—just a bit of sunlight. He looked at the man sleeping deeply in the dark corner. What did he think about in the last few days? About escaping from this hideout? The old woman could be somehow dead. He looked at the man, in anxiety and suspicion. That person is completely unknowable.
The young man fumbled for the grenades he had tucked in the sand last night. He was pondering on how he would escape from the hideout. Having no choice. One must take risks—life or death. In a sudden, he thought of his age of 20. The war had taken away the meaning of his youth, taken away the whole of his time in which he hoped to have lived his age. At twenty, he has had no choice. Being born and growing up in the war, passive and helpless under all pressures, he was like an animal in fear of its life before the hunter’s gun. Any body could gun him down. And during all that portion of life the only thing he could do was to run for cover. Thinking of his death that was like the death of an insect, he felt bitter, and was on the verge of tears- Just simply gone, lonely and casually.
The man stirred, and woke abruptly. The light had made him become now visible to the young man.
“A new day is light.” The man croaked.
The young man said nothing. He looked at the air duct. The man’s eyes began to sweep the trapdoor, craftily. Suddenly, his glance fell on the girl. She was lying prone, partly on the ground, motionless. He stared intently at her, turned as white as a sheet. Then, seeming to be terror-stricken, he called out, “Ms. Lien, Ms. Lien!”
The girl remained inert. The man leaned forwards, across the young man, and put his hand upon her leg. The leg was terrible cold. It was at that moment that the young man realised what was on. He mucked in and helped the girl up. But her body was now lifeless. There was a cut at her left wrist, a black puddle of blood on the wet ground.
The atmosphere in the hideout transformed now. In the light of dawn, the man picked up the broken glass in the corner. He sat, in silence, looking at the pieces of glass in his hand. The young man fingered the grenade he had taken out from the sand. The two men looked at the corpse. None of them had a word to say.
Deep in the caves of their minds, darkness was now the very light, the last awaited hope- perhaps.
Translated by N. Saomai
Original Vietnamese version by Lu Quynh,
From “Cat vang”, a collection of short story
published by Van Moi.
(California: Van Moi, 2006).
founded 1999, based in the US.
Translation copyright © N. Saomai & The Writers Post 2010
Copyright for the original © Lu Quynh.
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