THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 12 NUMBER 2
As If No One There
A SHORT STORY BY
HONG KHAC KIM MAI, born a descendant of Hong Tu Toan --Thai Binh Thien Quoc on 10-15-1945, educated at College Français de Tourane (Da-Nang), Lycee Marie Curie (Saigon), and Faculty of Letters – University of Saigon (where she joined the student association of which she was later one of the acknowledge leaders), and SU (US), and afterwards became a professor of Vietnamese literature, and a teacher of piano-playing, at various French Colleges in South Vietnam. Hong Khac Kim Mai escaped Vietnam with her children, and resettled in 1977 in the US, where she became a System Analyst (Oregon, Health Department) and a Data Processing Consultant (DASD). After 1999, she abandoned her job to live her secluded life, and devoted most of her time to her literary pursuits. At the age of 15 Hong Khac Kim Mai started composing poetry, in French and Vietnamese, under her real name Hong Khac Kim Mai. Her poems first appeared in the literary magazine Pho Thong which was then under the editorship of the late poet Nguyen Vy. Her poetry collection Mat Mau Nau published in 1965 interested many intellectual readers in Saigon, and brought her into public notice, before came under attacks for being a work of decadent culture, and was banned by the after-1975 government. Mat Mau Nau, the work for which she was best known, was followed by Nhu Phu Van (poetry), Vo Thap (science fiction). Hong Khac Kim Mai writes in Vietnamese language, and recently in English. Hong Khac Kim Mai is a woman of broad cultural interests. She composes music and spends time on painting. Tim Noi Suoi Thuong is her collection of songs. In the US, her poems and short stories appeared in the established literary magazines: The Ky 21, Van Hoc, Van, Song Van, Wordbridge, Tap Chi Tho, and recently the new monthly Nguon published in California.
The hollowed out van lay there in loneliness. Everyone who passed by gave it only a mere glance before going on. They had no interest in a van missing a large door in the middle. Who would want to take home a burden like this, stripped bare and decrepit as it was?
took my time, examining fore going on. They had no interest in a van missing
a large door in the middle. Who would want to take home a burden like this,
stripped bare and decrepit as it was? it carefully.
Maybe it was curiosity. I had a taste for things contrary to others’. I liked
what few others did, and discovered beauty where others at first glance did
not see it. I often brought home items discarded as trash, and turned waste
into wealth. No wonder it was the source of my tough life.
The exterior paint was a thick dark yellow, a color special to American public vehicles. It had peeled off in patches to reveal black metal underneath, which oozed streaks of rust that ran downward on both sides of the body, like proof of endurance marked on someone whose life had gone through many ups and downs. I patted it comfortingly and said a few words of reassurance, as if the van were a dear old friend.
I struggled yanking open the driver's door. A thick layer of gray dust covered the seats. The vinyl was dried and cracked. Sitting on it was like sitting on the rough edges of life, or with more imagination, like sitting inside a missile that had crashed years ago in some strange and remote place.
The owner had left the key dangling in the ignition. I turned it on. The engine squealed, sputtered on, then off, on, then off. I pumped the gas pedal. Aha! The engine coughed weakly a few times like the expectorations of an old man. A moment later, the entire vehicle shook roughly, gave off loud exploding sounds from the exhaust pipe and began emitting black smoke. The smoke surrounded me in all directions with a strong bitter smell. The van must have lain there for a long time, asleep and forgotten from some unfinished project.
I patiently stayed and played with the van, trying out the gas and brake pedals, pushing all the buttons and knobs. The radio still worked, the heater still generated a warm flow of air through the vent, and the windshield wiper still moved from one side to the other. One of the headlights still turned on, while the other had burnt out years ago.
ten minutes, the engine suddenly shifted and began running smoothly. I looked
at the odometer. Twenty thousand miles. The engine had only been used for
twenty thousand miles; could this be true?
Seizing the opportunity, I raised my hand above my head to signal that I accepted the price. Immediately, from his elevated post, the auctioneer raised the bidding price fifty dollars. His voice was melodious, stretchable like taffy, now up now down, now deep now high, like he was singing, “Five hundred fifty … five hundred fifty … five hundred fifty …”
He repeated the three words continuously. All the while his head turned from side to side, eyes darting toward every single person in the room. Below, the baiters ran here and there, calling for more customers to join in the bidding. My face taut, I looked anxiously around me. A few minutes passed. And there, another hand rose. Jumping on the chance, the auctioneer pointed right at me, his voice now repeating urgently. “Six hundred, six hundred, six hundred …”
my head. His voice was insistent, not giving up. The baiters now surrounded
me, cajoling. One of them said, “It’s so cheap, and the car has only twenty
thousand miles! So cheap! So cheap!”
All eyes were on him. Tougher than me, the man stayed quiet and did not budge. The auctioneer’s voice became shriller with every moment that passed. Meanwhile, the baiters scattered around the floor, inviting this person, pulling that person, to join the bid. Still, no one had any interest in competing with me.
“Six hundred fifty, two times…
And, “Final time: SIX… HUNDRED… FIFTY.”
To herd a buffalo
Is a hard job
Herding a buffalo
An enjoyable show …”
Or would this old buffalo throw me to kingdom come?
Bob, the elderly neighbor, nodded. “You must be really missing your home?”
voice caught in my throat. “Yes, I do.” And I couldn’t continue.
Ah, the music resounded like a magic spell, so vibrant that it drowned out the rain and wind of the real world. My soul soared to the skies…
It was not always like that.
right hand, and the harmony was sweet to the ear.
recited in song:
the fading autumn sunlight, the dusty pile of leaves scattered in the
leaves are flying this afternoon … like my soul in drunken state … dangling
there a vision of a lonely moon … where to find the way in me ... the road to
lead me home …
pedestrians who passed by the parking lot stopped for a moment. They would
stare at the extraordinarily shaped van and frown when they heard the lively
music emanating from within the strange metal cage. Often, they would say,
“Ah, who is this crazy artist?”
The water buffalo and the herder were always side by side, in each other’s company. However, when the herder was a wanderer like me, a real buffalo would surely tire quickly. I would bring my poor animal here and there because my rice paddy field extended to four corners of the world, with no frontier or shore. The water buffalo would go along with me, sharing all of my hardship.
the day I owned this van, my destiny changed. I no longer worked steadily at
one designated place like before. I became multi-skilled. Where ever there
was a job, I landed there like a worker bee for a while to earn some income.
Once my pocket filled up with a handful of money, I went back on my way for
Z like Zebra, like Zodiac.
locked myself in the van, and slipped into the private world of painting. The
subjects of today’s scene were laid out onto the canvas–
silky pink cloud on my shoulder
From the sketching of the forms to the moment color transformed the canvas into a painting, Time flew. It was midnight. Outside, there was absolutely no one around. I could only hear the sound of waves clapping at the shores, louder and louder. The sky was pitch dark. Once in a while, there were blinking lights of an aircraft signaling that it was ready to land.
In the van, the two-foot battery neon bulb shed a soft light. I checked the lock on the door carefully, then prepared a dinner of bread and sardines. As I ate, I observed the artwork I’d just finished. Something did not go well with the person in the painting. Her hair did not fly as softly as the wind or the cloud. Her smile was very strained. I stood up to add a dash of sunlight at her eyes to make her look lit with joy. Another dash at her lips to make her smile more attractive, more inviting, and more lush.
finally dropped the brush and lay down on the rough camping chair, exhausted,
morning had come without my knowing it.
Going here and there with my van, I became a gypsy on the way to the end of the world. Of course, I acquired some wisdom, and the most precious was the art of quiet suffering to overcome all challenges. In long suffering, there is bold endurance as well as modesty. The long suffering position is like practicing Zen, when the mind and heart are unmoved while facing a stranger’s meanness or dealing with adverse circumstances.
In the countryside, on the open beach, or at the high sky, I felt untied and free.
In spring, the weather was warmer and pleasant. There were many unemployed people in my hometown. Perhaps because it was the beginning of the year, and, like the wild goat or the bear in the jungle just awakened after a long sleep during winter, many business owners were still taking their time organizing their schedules. So when a company offered me a temporary job far away in the countryside, I did not mind taking it. I decided to hit the road; the sooner the better.
I left in the early morning. Heavy fogs hung low over the road and the van went at a snail’s pace because I could not see the road ahead of me.
The further I went, the scarcer the houses became, and the landscape became more rugged with tall evergreens lining the two sides of the road.
I pulled out my map and discovered that I had gone too far off the planned itinerary.
managed to backtrack to the original route. The fuel light flashed on to
inform me that the gasoline supply was low. Fortunately, I always carried an
extra can of fuel for emergency purposes. The van could go at least ten more
miles. As an extra precaution, I pushed on the communication button,
requesting information about the closest gas station in the area, or the
in turning the van around, I had gotten lost in the heart of a rugged
highland. The heavily wooded stretch was bisected by a winding, rough trail
snaking to nowhere. Once in a while, here and there, piles of straight trees
denuded of branches and leaves appeared on the side of the road. It looked
like as they were logs that some one had cut down, waiting to be hauled away
to town. I felt some relief, hoping that there were people around this remote
Going up and then down, the van kept running more than ten miles to nowhere.
Mountains and hills blended into each other into a continuous blur. In front of me lay the vast, thick green of the pine forest, which sent out an acrid smell that permeated the inside of the van, stifling me and steaming up the windshield.
Feeling my spirit and mind overwhelmed, I pulled the van over to rest and to cool the engine down for a while. Winding down the window, I heard the rumbling noise of running water. As it turned out, I was standing on a high bluff where a waterfall was rushing and pouring down to the earth.
Like a divine aura, the clouds circled the mountain crest. The sun shone through the droplets of water spraying from the waterfall, giving me as spectacular a show as firecrackers during festival time. It was very high here, and surely it was apart from the world, because I could not see any sign of towns or cities, or anyone around. Earthly life seemed to regress into the past. Did the buffalo and I, beings in different physical forms, possess the same spirit as light, as the breeze wafting at the mountain peak?
fragrance, coming from a multitude of flora blooming everywhere in the rocks,
filled the pure air. The white flowers with transparent and fragile petals,
highlighted by a dusting of glittering yellow powder, were strikingly
beautiful. I reached out to pick a few. As soon as I touched them, the petals
fall apart and scattered in the wind. I named them the
I bent down to scoop up the clouds that swirled around my legs, around my body. As soon as I touched them, they melted away. I named them the “Dreamy-Bliss-Clouds.”
Today, lost in this place as if no one there, I kneeled down to carve my name, at the top of a mountain.
There, under the blue sky, the piano and I played triumphantly joyful music.
The whole thing happened too fast. I only knew that, like a dart, I was shot into space.
I did not know how long I had been in this position. My arms and legs were in frantic motion, just like a spider that had dropped from its web. God gave the spider threads to weave, an ability to rescue itself. As for me, how could I save myself from this horrendous situation? Well, I suspected I could wait for hunger and thirst to kill
My spirit flip-flopped between consciousness and reality. In the midst of desolation, I vaguely heard the dramatic cry of a wounded animal. Or was it a cry of suffering wrenched from the depth of my
I felt tears coming. Without any choice, I accepted death at this remote area, without anyone’s knowledge. I mumbled some prayers begging God for salvation, to let myself go to another world without pain and to rest in peace. I said goodbye to all the people I loved. I forgave anyone who’d hurt me badly during my life. And what else should I do? What else? What else? Oh yeah, good bye to all my writing, to my poetry and to my music. Goodbye to my artwork, to my dear time with photography. Everything in my life was in vain; thus nothing to feel sorry for, nothing to regret.
Right at the moment when desperation grabbed hold of me, the branch which bore me afloat rattled. Under my weight, it kept bending down.
The cracking noises of a branch ready to break became more and more urgent. It was like the sound of bells signaling the end of life. It was like the victorious clapping hands of Mr. Death.
suddenly opened my eyes and looked around frantically. Not very far away, I
could see some trees with branches reaching towards me, and numerous green
and brown roots hanging down.
kind of force was it that made my body bounce into action, that made me kick
my legs and fling myself to grasp those roots firmly? Was it truly a miracle,
or just the prospect of Death that can cause human beings to overcome any
obstacles to survive?
Darkness blanketed the whole area. The persistent whistling wind through the trees terrified me. Like an ape, I was now dangling under a canopy of leaves, wondering what fate would bring me in the next minute or the next hour. Time slowed, each hour like centuries …
and exhausted, I slumped down and rested my head on top of a bundle of
leaves, my arms and legs still clutching a branch tightly.
I to make it through the night?
To escape the feeling of fear and to know that I was still alive, I kept my mind busy by going back to my past.
been swept away in my mind:
My father, forced to bare a naked torso, wore only short underpants. His hands were crossed on top of his head. Under the moon light shining through the leaves, his hair--now looking grayer than the day before--hung on his forehead. He was kneeling down, facing the pointed rifles of two Viet Cong soldiers who were about seventeen or eighteen years of age. These two soldiers kicked my father’s chest, asking him about the location of the gold he had hidden, the location of the boat which he had planned to use to escape, and the names of people who had organized the trip. The old man remained silent. Furious, they hit my father’s head with the rifle butts. The victim collapsed on the ground, still. I hid myself
in a bush and felt tears stream down my face.
I checked that all the roots around my body were secure, then closed my eyes and silently mumbled a prayer to my father. The darkness was so thick it frightened me. Fear came as strong as it did one night long ago:
When the rapid sounds of scattered gunfire and the rustling noises of running people came close to me, I threw myself into a nearby murky swamp. A big frog jumped in front of me and landed on my shoulder. I swept it aside. Under the moon light, I saw indistinctly the shadow of a Viet Cong soldier running back and forth on the embankment of a trench, screaming “Catch him! Catch him!” It was the sharp, acidic accent of a female soldier from the North. Frantic with fear, I immersed myself beneath the water lilies … In the distance, the sounds of gunfire bursting came more frequently, and it sounded like there were more soldiers around because I heard the shouts and swearing of male voices. They were reporting
that they had caught two persons alive.
Once in a while, I pushed away the water lilies and pulled myself above the water to breathe, then quickly re-immersed myself
deeper in the water. I stayed there the whole night.
When all the Viet Cong soldiers were gone, I got out of the swamp,
thanking God for my safety.
In the quietness of the night hours, once in a while I could hear dogs howling, and frogs croaking. I felt so cold. I crawled on the ground while covering myself with dry banana leaves and sought refuge in a pile of hay.
At sunrise, I hurried to the road to find my way home. A small Lambretta brought me to Ba Ria market.
I sat down next to a mobile food vendor for a bowl of breakfast noodle soup. The chattering comments of people nearby startled me. I left immediately and went inside the covered market to buy a conical hat, a pair of plastic sandals; and new clothes. I changed from my mud-soaked clothes in a public restroom.
The sounds of clapping metal made by the police collaborators wearing red bands on their upper arm came first. Then, voices of the local police officers blared from loudspeakers, announcing jubilantly that they had captured two people. The announcement kept going on and on, claiming that the two had belonged to the old regime and were caught last night while rebelling against the government. I stood in the crowd to look at two dead bodies lying on top of dirty tables in the center of the market. Their heads were covered with a grey wrinkled piece of old fabric
My face hidden under the large conical hat, I cried in silence to mourn them because they were not strangers to me. Here was N.T.Linh. There was T.N. Thuy. They were brave individuals in my group. They were Vietnamese nationalists full of enthusiasm and idealism, willing to fight for their cause in a very difficult situation. We had been gathering at a secret location to receive our duties in the ideological struggle against the Viet Cong regime. There, we were discovered, dispersed, and some of us were killed.
Under the blistering sun, a high-ranking police officer read the verdict against the two dead men.
Finally, as an additional warning for everyone watching, he held a gun against Linh’s temple as if he was going to pull the trigger. Everyone held their breaths and covered their ears. However, he was only pretending and ordered his men to haul the two dead bodies away.
down in my heart, this wound would never heal. Dear old friends, please
forgive me for not accomplishing my duty at the time, for not finishing
things that I was supposed to finish.
I stirred myself awake. Through my half-opened eyes, shafts of sunlight filtering through the leaves danced here and there. Never before had I hated this light so much. It was the sun that brought me into this desperate situation.
stream of saliva ran down a corner of my mouth. I wiped it off. Green thick
fluid soaked my hand, reminding me that I had been in high fever last night,
and in the delirium, I had grabbed a bunch of leaves nearby to suck up the
green fluid. Pain, hunger, and thirst were killing me at the time, but
luckily, the leaves were not poisonous.
was nothing more than an immense tapestry of countless trees and leaves.
Right now, I hated so much this green color. It separated me from the human
world; it isolated me from everything else.
stuffed them in my pockets.
an egg in my mouth and chewed the whole thing. The protein of the egg infused
me with energy, and I felt much stronger.
this, how could a person think straight?
noon, I heard the noise of an airplane flying over the area. Ignoring the
physical pain, like a maniac I stood up sharply. It was true--there was a
small airplane droning toward my direction.
But what a disappointment! Despite all sorts of shouts, my efforts were futile. The airplane circled the area a few times then disappeared behind the mountains. They did not see me. They did not hear me.
sun went down, a blanket of darkness descended over the entire immense area.
Shivering, I covered my head with the tattered sweater. Like the previous
night, I sought refuge under the thick leaves.
to escape fear I tried to keep my mind busy.
period of time, Saigon was in crisis. One by one, many of my relatives and
friends were caught and placed in custody. Caring for my children alone, I
looked for ways to flee the country. During one attempt, we got caught. Being
too young, my children could not endure the tough life in jail, and they kept
crying all day and night. For that reason, after two months in jail, we were
that woman, confess your crimes to the public,” he shouted.
for everybody! “
He continued, “Based on the report that I received, in the past you have participated in the students’ rebellious activities against the Thiệu and Kỳ’s governments. For that, you have earned some credits with the Revolution. Why are you now turning your head to flee the country? Uncle Hồ and the Party have liberated the people of the south from the imperialist American domination. Lift up your
face with pride.”
He raised his hand and shouted aloud: “Nothing is worth more than independence and freedom. Long live Hồ Chí Minh! Long live Hồ Chí Minh!”
Below, in the audience, some hands were up to support him. But the echo “long live“ sounded weak.
lifted my head up and composed myself enough to tell my story. “Yes, like Lục Vân Tięn, I could not stand the corruption of the old regime.
When the Revolution took over, I chose to stay in order to help heal my
war-torn land. But I was very disappointed to discover that the Revolution is
nothing better than before. Corruption is everywhere. For that reason, I
decided to leave …”
public denouncement was not as successful as the district wanted. Perhaps at
that time, southern people were more stubborn than northern people some
decades ago. Also, the wealth of the South made newcomers covetous. The seeds
of discord started to germinate in the heart of many people, South and North.
I saw a snake. To see that reptile, with its two eyes shining as bright as two small electric lights and its tongue flicking in and out, crawling towards me, filled me with paralyzing fear. I pressed against the tree, unable to move, holding my breath. The snake eventually turned and slithered in another direction.
night, mighty night, why are you so endless?
days and four nights had passed.
I scoured my brain to think up ways of how to make a connection with the
rescue airplane. At one time I took off my shirt, tied it to a Iong stick, and lifted it high
in the air. The wind blowing through made it fly like a flag. However, that
did not last long, because soon the shirt broke loose and blew away with the
wind, even before the airplane showed up. What bad luck!
Carrying my three-year-old son on my back and holding the other one-year-old against my chest, I crouched down and crawled slowly toward the beach, always trying to dodge the sweeping beam of light from the lighthouse above my head. My two daughters, ages eight and six, were separated from me during the trip out to the beach.
This was the sixth escape, and we had to succeed at all cost. I talked to myself like that in order to push forward despite whatever
risk and danger awaited us.
Struggling to reach the place where a small boat was waiting for us was an extraordinary effort because the two boys were too heavy for me to carry.
When I heard
my daughters’ calls of “mommy, mommy,” I felt overwhelmed with happiness.
With the ocean winds whipping around us and the continuous crashing of waves
at our legs, we embraced each other, ready to live and die together.
We had no sail, no cover except for the tiny cabin over the engine room, and like a fragile leaf, the fishing boat survived frightening storms in the rough sea. At times, everyone thought they would die or become prey to the circling sharks, especially when the motor of the engine failed to run . The poor boat twisted so much in the high waves that the caulking broke its seams and water began to seep in
from the bottom.
few hours apart, each person received a bottle cap amount of drinking water.
I did not get a drop because I gave away my portions to my children. After
three days at sea, I collapsed. What was that holy liquid pouring into my
lips to bring me back to life?
All escapes by sea were extremely dangerous, and the distance between life and death was only inches. Yet I walked through the storms, holding high the torch to illuminate the road of the future for my children. Why should I bury myself today in this remote highland and dense vegetation?
combed back and forth across the area then flew away.
down, sobbing. O, my father, O, my mother, O, all my gods …
the end of a stick, and held the whole thing high in the air.
The trousers flew freely in the wind, exactly like a dummy chasing the birds away in rice fields.
My lips swelled badly and turned blue. It was possible that my body could not tolerate that raw bird meat, causing a reaction of itching everywhere. OK, OK, I was now at the end of the rope, I had no way to run for my life. Here came the countdown as I seemingly knocked at the door of Hell.
Where were you, Mr. Death? Let’s show off your sickle and triumphantly end my life!
was it just a dream?
The trees and leaves around me shook tremendously as the helicopter’s rotors were in full swing. Someone tied a giant belt around my waist. Another belt was supporting my neck, and one more at my legs. A few minutes later, my whole body was lifted up
to the air, up and up.
It was still early when we finally arrived at the designated place. The wrecking yard was not yet open for business. We had to wait more than twenty minutes.
The taxi driver lit his cigarette. He hesitated a moment and started the conversation. He was concerned about my wounds because my
chest was still encased in a cast.
you been in a car collision?”
really. Two weeks ago, my car was thrown into an abyss.”
threw his cigarette to the ground, and exhaled. “Oh, were you the victim? I
remember now. At the time, all the news and radio and television kept
reporting about the missing of a—”
survival was truly a miracle.”
nodded my head, tears coming to my eyes.
Above, the sky was cloudless blue. In a deep and low voice, I told him the stories of my van. Oh, my dear van, with so many beautiful
and sad memories.
There were times when money was low and, being unemployed, I took my paintings to many fair events in the suburban cities to sell. After hanging my artwork around the van, I pushed the piano out. Like a Chinese vendor in the old stories, I sat playing music for the passing public. People curiously gathered around me to enjoy the paintings and to listen to my music. I got plenty of change in return. Later in the night, I would drive home.
It happened one time that, on the long trip home, I pulled the van over at a restaurant still open at that late hour. I discovered that a street utility pole was somehow towed at the rear of my vehicle, possibly from a gas station where I’d stopped to pump gas. Fortunately, the gas station did not explode, and I felt lucky that no
police had gone after me.
smiled. “Well, I worked hard that night. Once that utility post was rid of,
within a second I drove away, not worrying about my meals.”
so sad to look at. The head had slammed so hard into the trunk of a tree that
horns were gone. Headlights were broken, and so were the windshield. I had
been thrown out of that open hole.
The van was now stripped bare and decrepit. In some places, the dark mossy green paint had peeled off to show the turmeric color underneath, and the door exposed some red blotches.
and red! I bent my head down, tears in my eyes. These two colors, no matter
under what regime, were still the colors of the flag of Viet Nam, the country
where I was born and had grown up.
He said, “I am sure that the insurance company will pay you for a better vehicle.”
I shook my head. “Nothing can replace a sentimental object belonging to us. This is my buffalo, it reminded me of my past, do you understand?”
course, how could he understand what I was talking about?
HONG KHAC KIM MAI
founded 1999, based in the US.
Copyright © Hong Khac Kim Mai & The Writers Post 2010
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