THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 5 DOUBLE ISSUE WINTER 2003 SPRING 2004
KINH DUONG VUONG
TIME OF MARKET
(translated by N. Saomai)
DURING THE REPUBLIC I REGIME, THE TL’S hamlet council has erected a cement wall, used for slogans, facing the market X's yard. At that time, they embossed in cement the raised line: "Long live President Ngo". But it seemed that human hope was hardly satisfied, soon afterwards they hurriedly chiseled it away, and wrote over the rough cement surface another sentence: "Bravo the Revolution spirits I/II." Then another, and still another. Now, on top of many cracked layers of paint piling up, one read: "Y... the government of the poor", written in blue paint the colour faded out under the sun and the fog. On one morning, the people in the hamlet coming for the market saw the new line written bright white with lime: "Down with the false American!" The hamlet head sent his little son, racing to the place, to erase it with a rage without stopping to draw breath.
By its side, a small curvy iron board was nailed on a dry, small bamboo stick, which bore an arrow pointing downwards and few words in once red paint: "defecation prohibited". The paint has been changed to brick colour. But seemed a prohibition always led to the irony, and in a place there is a sentence with such contents people would come to defecate much more often than in anywhere else. This place here would not escape the common fate. Behind the wall was the place where men and women and mistress going to market stopped by to relieve themselves. As time went by, the defecation turned the soil into a sooty muddy pool; yellow stagnant water with spots white as salt exuded a pervasive stench mingling in the air. Grass, wild lettuce wouldn't grow, weeping, stunted, yellow dried.
The outside was not that bad. "Eating, watch the rice pot; sitting, watch the direction." The peasants were always mindful, and it were the shocking things they would do in the place where they could not be seen, and the more easily acceptable in the place which was under people's watching eyes. At the foot of the cement wall old women chewing betel squirt the juice all over. Day in day out, the juice grew thick, and the soil turned into dark brown colour. The wads, drained of juice, thin, showing the fibers from the husk of areca twisting together, were left scattered all over the place. On the surface of the cement dike, the juice slid down like traces of blood.
On that evening, when the time of market was almost over, a ground troops advanced. Two soldiers carried in a man the whole of his body covered with wounds; they put him lay down in the shade of the wall. He lay inert, breathed slightly; limbs flailed out. Some soldiers, bodies loaded with guns and bullets, face exhausted, uniforms caked with dry mud, stopped and stood bustling about. People who were going to market, curiously, rushed round to watch. Under their breath, they muttered questions, or gave their opinions. The miserable body was soon surrounded by people standing in a ring.
Seeing a large group of people gathering together, the little girl named B¾, aged 4, and her brother aged 3 hurried in and squeezed in to watch. They slipped in through the gap between the thighs, underneath the ass of the adults, to worm their ways through the crowd. As they have just seen the wounded man, they were all eyes and flung themselves forwards, shouting: ‘Father! Father! You’re coming home!’ The focusing eyes were then on the children. But someone has just stooped down, grasped their arms and pulled them out forcefully, snarling: ‘Keep still, will you?’ B¾ dared not raise her head to look at the one who has just jelled at her; she stood folding her arms across her stomach. And L¾, pot-bellied, stood with his hands clasped behind him, gawking at one then another person. A surprised expression could be read from their innocent eyes. The kids thought their father was sick, and he was sleeping. So how come people was gathering standing about him, and watching?
The man convulsed, moaning with pain, producing inarticulate sound in delirium. B¾ hurried forwards, about to stoop down to say something to him. But once again, the one who had yelled at her a moment ago, cried out ordering her to stand still.
In the centre of the circle, stood near the wounded man the captain battalion commander, hand bandaged, face sullen, staring at the man, enraged. He then turned to the crowd, and said in a loud voice: ‘You people must leave now. Go back to your home for doing your work. Hurry along now! Now!’ He waved his wounded hand in white bandage stained with blood, but nobody seemed listen to him. They just went away for a short distance, and then stood looking back. Beside the captain was a young lieutenant, short and slim, close to hysteria. Despite the tanned skin, his face was so young it betrayed no experienced manner of a warrior. His eyes wistful yet innocent, and his skin still so soft it made one think he has just left his school and participated in the war not long ago. He stood facing different direction; now and then he gave a side-glance at the captain, and kept rubbing his right hand against the leg of his trousers smeared with mud. Every now and then he pulled out his handkerchief to wipe the beads of sweat from his forehead, put it back into his pocket, and pulled it out again, crumpled it up. He clenched the handkerchief in his fist, as if he wanted to crush it into dust. Hidden under the netted helmet with some small leaves getting tangled in, his eyes were bathed in the light shadow. He was biting his lips, and no one wished to see his eyes miserable so.
Time seemed stop. Everyone fell in an abnormally uncomfortable silence. As if they became the living statues. Except the lieutenant, he was more and more anxious. He could not stand still; his hands could not stay still either, making singly unnecessary movements. The fingers trembled as he forced himself to control his emotion. Something in him must be released, or he would explode. Also, his lips quivered; he wanted to talk; yet he kept silent.
‘Captain!’, unexpectedly he burst out. His voice even surprised him. ‘He…he…’ He stammering on, in a voice filled with emotion. ‘He was heavily bleeding, captain!’ Every now and then his voice got stuck in the passage of his throat, as if he was choking on it. Only for one short sentence he spoke with many pauses; dry-mouthed, he gave a swallow to pull himself together. His protruding Adam’s apple was moving up and down.
‘Captain, I doubt that he can make it if blood transfusion is not offered. Please, for pity’s sake, order helicopter to take him to the general hospital. Since last night, he…’ He hesitated, intended more entreaties, but the captain interrupted him irritably.
‘Since last night… Hmn! Since last night many of your comrades, dying, and have been lying waiting for air ambulance.’ Face relaxed, he looked straight ahead. ‘You forget that many of them had died simply because they were not able to wait? He continued, with mockery in his bitter tone of voice¾ cold and dry. ‘They are your friends, who can use their chests to shield you from those AK bullets, who can use their bodies covered the grenade landing beside you, and die for your survival.’
‘But this is the last air ambulance, Captain…’ His voice, in an anxious tone, weakened. As he was overcome with emotion and helplessness, his face turned grey as the surface of a stone, on which were merely the eyes. The eyes, in great effort to keep its courage, were glittering like two pieces of red burning coals. Looking straight into the Captain’s face, he spoke, rather yelling: ‘There is more than enough space in that last air ambulance!’ Having said this, as if he had used all of his energy he felt exhausted, standing there in a state of sorrow with his eyes clouded, his flat forehead cold blue and smeared with sweat, the corners of his lips sagged, his weak fingers stretched pointing downwards. He was the incarnation of the depths of despair.
After a few seconds of trying to recover from the astonishment, the captain smiled, scornful. The nostrils of his shiny lion nose dilated. But the scornful look in his smile disappeared as he raised his head to look at his subordinate. The lieutenant’s despair, in an exhausted and defeated way, was like an iceberg, which though hard-hearted the captain had not enough courage to melt it. The corners of his dry lips, however, sagged; the smile opened bitter in a way he felt pity for the young officier.
‘No need to make big deal a trifling matter!’ said the captain in a self-assured and gracious tone of voice. ‘Forget about that womanly emotion. You must remember, that you are now a warrior; your duty is TO KILL THE ENEMY. To kill the enemy, you hear?’ He raised his voice, cold and sharp. ‘The more the better. Anywhere, at any moment, in any case. Who is your enemy? It’s he who is wounded and lying there in front of you.’ he pointed at the man. ‘He is dying at your feet.’ His voice become shouting. ‘Kill!’ He stamped his foot on the dry ground. ‘Killing without thinking. It is your duty, though it is not your choice. Shameless and merciless. You must learn to be merciless without feeling remorse, like long ago you learned human love from humanity courses. You must remember this thing, that there is no benevolence in the battlefield; there is no time for you to think about such meaningless word. There are only reactions, fast or slow. For your survival or death.’
The lieutenant made a gesture. He wanted to say something, but as he saw the cold eyes and the scornful look on the face of the commanding officier he bit back the words. The captain fell silent. For a minute or so of the silence, seemingly he was listening to his own voice that kept arising within him, but words now bore different meanings, which was completely opposite to what he had said. He felt really embarrassed, tried to break the irritating silence, seemed to fear that he would again listen to his voice in the silence¾ a strongly protesting voice against him.
‘You have to kill all of your enemies’ His voice became less ardent. ‘In this war which has no end in time, no off limits in space, a war¾ blind, tangled, beyond all measure, endless, prolonged till you die or extended to your next generations, you must be always alert, determined, take the initiative. This is a war of enormity in the human war history you are participating in. You may think of a miraculous end, but you yourself are incapable of such an end. It is the job of someone else. You are only obeying orders to fight, without question, till you breathe your last. Now, your orders are to kill them all, to kill them, the likes of this here man lies dying, down to the last. They are Communists; they are VC, the saboteurs. Orders are orders; you must, passionately and violently do what you are told to do, until… Being a warrior, you should not think, you have no right to think of the day the war will end, of that day is still far away or coming near. Only fighting and fighting. What’s more…’
He stopped short. The silence prolonged. The captain, again, heard the protest in his inner voice¾ it seemed. The lieutenant noticed the pensive expression on the captain’s face as he lowered his head. Actually, the captain was hearing the voice in protest against him he did last. But this time he had no fear of hearing it, for he understood. Less emotional, the captain went on, trying an indifferent tone of voice:
‘You had brought him here’ he looked at the wounded man, hesitating. ‘Perhaps it’s a good thing you do to have a clear conscience. But to me…’ the captain made a sign with his thumb and his index, ‘zero! I hope you, my young friend, don’t find it distasteful as I say so. It’s the truth.’ He went on as he chuckled a short and quite laugh. ‘You have just participated in the killing, are new in this career, that is why you can still have the kind heart, and can use it to salve your conscience. It is, indeed, the high ideal that the human being deserved. But time and cruel circumstances had turned them into quite different persons from what they used to be, which terrified and pained them every time they think back. But there was no other way on earth for them, when their hands had dipped in indigo, they must dip the whole of their bodies in it, as if they were born indigo-blue, lest they got a complex about their hand dipping in blood. If not doing so, how could they survive the so-called conscience? I am a soldier by profession¾not drafted into the army--you must remember this. I joined the armed forces as a wage earner to feed my wife and children, instead of working as a farmer, a cyclo driver, or whatever else for money. My heart, which experienced the saltiness and bitterness of blood and tears during my twenty-years job, became an inanimate meatball. It’s painful and .. But… ’
He stopped short, lowered his head, waving his hand in the air in a careless and despair way, like the weak flaps of a tired bird. He slapped his pistol hang loose at his side. ‘Now’ he said with hesitation in his voice, but he soon overcame it, ‘I’m not sparing with these meaningless bullets. I think it’s a humanity I still can try. They call it the grace shot.’ He nodded his head slightly, ‘Yes, the grace shot.’ He said the last words as if to himself. ‘Well, up to you!’ His voice lowered to muttering. ‘You’ve the right to act as a human being. To me, don’t pay attention. Just see me as an incompetent, a left over object without human nature behind a masquerade of man.’
After his saying, the captain turned round and hurried away, as if he wanted to hide an expression of emotion which has just appeared on his face, lest the lieutenant saw it. The captain’s guard and the one carrying the communicator followed. At a distance, the captain turned to look back, but quickly and silently he walked on.
The lieutenant stood still as if frozen, felt left abandoned. The captain’s words were still lingering over his ears. Blind anger, and conscience being cursed rose in him like a storm of outrage, burring him¾ a small boat in a heartless ocean.
He looked at the dying man, his eyes darkly downcast.
A grenade exploded near him. ‘I was hit, lieutenant!’ the man carrying the communicator fell, howled in terror. The lieutenant slid over on his stomach. He lay convulsing with pain in the puddle of warm blood, moaning his last words. The lieutenant closed the dead man’s eyes, feeling his skin loosing the warm and turning cold.
After a burst of fire, a scream was heard. ‘I get you!’ the soldier in his group was firing and swearing through clenched teeth. ‘It’s him, lieutenant.’ The man who threw the grenade to kill his comrade was hit, by M16, seriously injured, lying unconscious among the rocks covered in bushes.
The lieutenant opened wide his eyes, red as if he has just cried, sadly looked on the old commander trudging off. His young face was crumpling as he had tried vainly in despair. His lips were pressed together, quivering in a way to stop the cry burst out. Beads of sweet stood out on his cold blue forehead.
In the lingering gunfire smoke, and over the injured soldiers’ groans the helicopter made a risky landing in the battlefield. Under the enemy’s fire, the injured were carried on board.
Carrying the man, through the mud he ploughed running towards the helicopter.
‘Captain! Captain!’ He cried to the top of his voice. ‘This man, please let him get on!’
The captain looked back, outraged, waved his hands, rolled his eyes, and shouted: ‘Are you crazy? Put him down. I am giving orders. To hell with that son of a bitch!’ He flung up his hands, ‘You’re acting crazy! Crazy!’
‘But he is seriously injured. Captain, you must save him!’ He shouted loudly, terrified.
The helicopter’s door slid shut. In the roaring of its engine the air ambulance took off vertically from the ground, leaving a strong wind caused by its rotating blades that made him reel. He stood still like a statue, in a state of bewilderment, eyes following the helicopter with a red cross disappeared in the distant cloud, holding in his arms the unconscious man.
He looked at people standing round, but they averted their glances after eyeing him warily, and suspiciously. Their attitude made him feel ashamed and lost, as if he was standing in a place not belonging to the world of man, and the creatures surrounding him were not his species, even though they had the same appearance. To ask for their help, he found the huge gap between them and him. To them, he was a stranger. It made he realise that he could not speak up his urgent demand, asking them to help the miserable man. The bitterness was squeezing his heart. At last, he approached the two kids, B¾ and L¾, to them he had paid attention when they burst in and called the man their father. He felt in all pockets of his army shirt, and pulled out a handful of crumpled bills, thrusting the money into the tiny hand of the girl named B¾. He held her trembling hand for a moment, tipped downwards to look at her, then again. It seemed he wanted to say something to her. But, in a sudden, gently he released her hand from his hold, made his way through the crowd, and hurriedly walked running off. B¾ held the money, standing bewildered with her eyes following him. The lieutenant walked towards his commander.
As soon as he left, the crowd turned to be noisy. Each and everyone had their own says, gave their ideas, and nobody was listening to anybody. L¾, in fear, clutched his sister’s arm, but he did a woman’s by mistake. The woman looked down, shook him off lightly, which made him more terrified; he shrivelled up, frightened-eyed. She looked at him, smiled, then raised her head and listened the talking crowd.
‘He has just recently sit with me to drink coffee in Tung’s two days ago.’ A man said indifferently. He was holding in his lips a big Cam-Le roll-up smeared with his salvia. ‘No one would expect it. Since when he had taken part in the Liberation Front?’ He raised his head, cast a glance at people standing round, and smacked his tongue: ‘Nowadays, there is a mix of cow and buffalo, and you cannot tell who’s who. Grey squirrels are rat-like, appearances are deceitful.’
‘Why don’t take him to the district hospital where they should bandage his wounds?’ the woman standing by his side asked, ‘He looks too weak already.’
‘Who dare?’ somebody answered, ‘You heard the captain said he wanted to shoot him dead, and don’t be thinking you can have his wounds bandaged.’
‘This sort of gang disturbing our village, let him die. It serves him right!’ the man smoking Cam Le roll-up said, ‘no need to save him.’
‘Hmn!’ the woman argued, ‘You guys certainly ought to rescue him first, and might afterwards accuse him of whatever you like! To let him die like that is not right anyway!’ The woman went on, with a hint: ‘You never know who’s the destroyer and who’s not. Everyone is all blamed for destroying. One destroys this. The other destroys that.’
‘Take him home and feed him, if you want!’ the man snapped.
The woman flushed red with embarrassment, and could not bring herself to say a word. People standing round were keeping their ears to the conversation. She gave him a sidelong glance and walked angrily away.
‘How cruel they are! He is human all the same, not animal, why they treat him mean so.’ She grumbled, her face downcast. At a distance she turned to look back, gave him, again, a sidelong glance.
Not until then, somebody, paying attention to the kids, said to B¾: ‘About the money the lieutenant gave you, tuck them under the waist of your trousers to keep them safe. Be careful, or you will lose them all.’
In the evening, remained at the market only few people who were late in putting away their goods. A short moment later, the market was deserted¾ bare ground, and dunes of rubbish.
As soon as the two kids were freed from the crowd that frightened them, they ran towards the man. Gaining his consciousness a little, the man turned and moaned, tried to open his eye-lids swollen and bruised, whispering for water. B¾ took an empty milk can, ran to the river’s edge, rinsed it out, and then filled it with water. She put the can beside the man. ‘Here’s water, father. Drink it, father.’ She leaned on her elbows, lowered her head with dry and matted hair to her father’s face, and said in a loving tone of voice. ‘Here’s water. Drink it, father.’ She touched the wounds where the flies landed on, asking: ‘Why they beats you so hard?’
The man, tried to open his swollen mouth slowly, and tried to say something, but could not. With all of his strength he raised his cold blue hand smeared with dry blood, pointing to his slightly opened mouth about being closed. B¾ was confused for a moment, but then understood what her father meant, took the can and poured water from it into his mouth. Clumsily, she poured water all over his face, which made the man choke, gasp for air. B¾ was quite frightened, put down the can hurriedly, wiped out water on his forehead, on his cheeks where small wounds had dried together with blood. With her hand full of dirt B¾ drew on the cold blue skin of his face hideous strips of mud.
‘Do you want some more, father?’ B¾ lowered her head, asking worriedly. The father tried to open his eyes, and through the two dark slits he looked at his little daughter. He wanted to shake his head but had not the strength to move it. The head turned sideway, lay still. The slits of his eyes were closed.
B¾ took the can of water, drank it almost all without taking a break, and then wiped her mouth with her hand. She sat, knees bent and legs pointed to the rear, leaned on her hands the fingers stretching out, and cocked her head on one side looking at her father:
‘How come you go away for too long.’ she said, with reproof in her voice. ‘Did you borrow rice from Uncle Nam to cook. We’ve been so hungry since the last few days; Mrs. Tu gave us only the rice crust, you know.’
The man didn’t hear his little girl saying, lay unconscious.
L¾ ran to the empty floor of the market, searching the garbage for something edible. Coming back, he clasped in front of his drum belly with difficulty some mottled sweet potatoes, few empty cans of condensed milk, a piece of jackfruit skin, shells of snail and clamp, and put them all beside his sister.
‘Here’s potatoes, and here’s jackfruit. Eat, sister.’ He offered his food and fished out the fibers from the jackfruit’s skin, putting it into his mouth and chomping them. B¾ took one piece of wormy potatoes she thought it was the best in all, lowered her face close to her father’s, and said:
‘Want to eat potatoes, father? She waited for a moment; the father did not hear his daughter.
Having finished all the jackfruit fibers, L¾ gave his sister the leftover skin. He took one empty milk can; into it he put the whole of his little hand to scrape the bottom of the can, and sucked his fingers noisily. B¾ gnawed the fleshy wall of the jackfruit to its thorny outer wall. Sadly, she ate that piece of wormy potatoes having been offered to the man.
It grew dark. The market place and the road leading to it were deserted. The market had taken place like a ghost market. People met to exchange foods for a moment then disappeared. No one was in the streets when the dark came back, for then they could not recognise each other, and any mistake would surely lead to tragedy.
The man was trapped in frightening nightmares. There were moments he woke opening wide his eyes in bewilderment, raised high his hand fishing about the dark, cried out: ‘Help me! Help me!’
As he was in the dark cave of his mind, his gesture was completely automatic. His eyes were now covered by the severe black blind of a chaotic world¾ the fixed, gazing lifeless eyes in convulsive spasms, which followed by the stiffness in muscles that made the mouth deformed and the sound the terrible wailings.
In the dark cave of his mind, emerged highlighted pictures of important parts in his past, blurred and tangled like one film shown on top of another.
(…) His parents, face drawn, blue like corpses; their clothes were soaking wet and smeared with mud from the bottom of their graves; their eye sockets and their nasal cavities were deep, inky black. Their heads were only two dry coconut shells with a few wisp of white hair. They approached him trembling and crying, pulling up their ragged clothes to show him their empty stomachs and their protruding ribs. ‘Please give us some rice or some soup to eat, give us a piece of clothing to wear for we are cold.’ Tears exude from his eyes, rolling down his cheeks. He remembered then, that it was over dozens of years now, since those years of bad harvest his parents having given their portion of food to him had died from hunger, he never once worshipped them and made offering to them a single bowl of rice or a single stick of incense. He howled painfully: “Oh father, oh mother, I am your son of filial impiety.”
He reared up to hug them, but his whole body ached and he fell onto the ground. His parents bent down to kiss his face. From their eye sockets and their nasal cavities worms were swarming out and crawling all over the place. In a sudden, they both were in distance, laughed themselves silly¾ their roaring laughter full of grudge became the black arrows piercing his heart, which hurled the stink worms onto his face. The figures of the ghosts were fading out. The terrible laughter trailed off, feebly echoing in the dense fog.
(…) A¾ , eight years old, wandered about the sandy fields with his uncle’s herd of buffaloes during the burning hot summer days or in the piercing cold evening winter rains… He would writhe and scream in agony under his uncle’s spankings throwing him near death when a buffalo was lost and found no more. In the evening, if not herding the buffaloes back on time he would not dare to ask for his rice. He would sleep in the stable, empty stomach, on the back of the animal, holding its hairy skin for little warmth. And¾ his uncle’s wife, a greedy and manipulative shrew, and the whole gang of her wicked children.
(…) U¾ the orphaned girl who lived in the same hamlet had brought him hope. And one night, in the torrential rain, the two young people fled their boss’ house. It was she who brought him their children B¾ and L¾ . But a grenade had taken her away from his life. On one morning in the rice field, U¾ pitched onto the soil, writhing in the puddle of her blood. She held to him with one hand, tightly held with the other a handful of young rice grass she was about to plant out. She despairingly called his name, B¾’s and L¾’s, and then, breathed no more. His tears, hot, were pouring onto her face…
(…) Nam, the man living in the hamlet came to comfort him, thoughtfully took care of his wife’s burial. Nam soothed him with coaxing words and promises. He did not understand what Nam was talking about, but a bright future flitted across his mind. It opened for him a paradise of happiness: his children and he would live a happy life, warm and well-fed, in which the dignity of all humans was recognised and respected… And then he accepted to do what Nam assigned to him. He was passionate, absolutely devoted to his assignments, with hope and self-deception…
(…) The spirits of the unjust dead with their deformed bodies rushed to surround him, yelling and screaming out a demand for final payment for their lives. The head of the hamlet, headless, stood motionless holding a conical hat in which lay the head with its fixed eyeball staring at him. Of the stump of his neck his furious breathing was spit out, together with foamy blood roaring with laughter. L¾, whose husband joined the South Vietnam army, was killed. She carried in her arms her blood red, six-months unborn child. Despite her face pale and shadowed by a vast sorrow, her eyes intently looking at him flamed red with outrage… There were a number of spirits of the unjust dead, young and old, unknown to him, headless, armless, legless, half-missing-bodied, hanging loose in the space. There were also the spirits of roads, bridges, trains, buses, and tree-wheeled taxis. All surrounded him, yelling, screaming, and cursing, as if they wanted to eat him fresh and swallow him alive. He was terrified, reared up to run, and in a sudden, found himself as light as a trail of smoke. He cried out loud: “I don’t know. I don’t know. Not me! They egg me on! I’m innocent. Innocent. O Father! O Mother!” He fled from the evil sprits, sailing over treetops, house’s roofs, across gardens, paddy fields, villages, hills and mountains, and the river running through the village in which he was lying sleeping. He was sailing like a light, silent wind. The spirits followed him at his heels. In a sudden, over the screaming and the yelling demanding, the sad voice of his wife was heard: “ A¾ , my dear A¾, wait for me… my dear!” He turned round stunned, pushed the spirits fallen onto the ground, embraced his wife. The spirits, beyond number, rushed to surround him. Holding his wife in one arm, he swung the other to push them reeling for giving them the slip, and ran without stopping. In his arm his wife was moaning: “ My dear, where are B¾ and L¾ ? Where are our children, my dear?” But he could hear nothing, trying to find his escape route as the spirits were rushing after him. In front of him was a place of darkness, and coldness. He could see nothing, could think of nothing. Holding tightly his wife, he flung himself forwards, into the dark.
EARLY THAT MORING, AS B¾ WOKE UP SHE DIDN’T see her brother L¾ who had been lying by her side. She rubbed her eyes, looking round to see her brother L¾ meticulously touching his fingers to the man’s closed eyes. He curled his tiny thump and index to pick up every one of the red fire ants which, during the last night, smelt it out and swarmed tasting the pasty substance oozing out two gummed corners of his eyes.
“Let Father sleep, don’t you? Why disturb him?
B¾ chided her young brother. She blinked her eyes, scraped the dry gum off the eyelashes with her finger, thrusting her hand in front of her eyes to look at it.
The clear morning sunbeams of a new day pierced through the bamboo hedges like the yellow arrows, which dazzled her eyes. The bamboo branches cast light shadows on the man’s body. The shadows were moving with the wind, darker on his blouse smeared with mud, which was pulled up leaving his stomach uncovered. He lay curling up like a grilled shrimp; two long and cold blue legs were one on the other unevenly. The biceps contracts causing his forearms to be fully raised. His head dropped sideways; his long hair, covering his nape and smeared with blood, was plaited. His lips were dry and grey; his mouth was agape as if he was screaming; his teeth were covered with yellow cigarette tar.
A wagtail flew out from the bamboo hedges, uttered some notes, landed gently onto the ground, and hopped along on its two tiny feet, neared where it was close to L¾. The child was all eyes, abandoned the red fire ants and turned towards the bird, stooping down showing his fleshless rear end, and crawling forwards. The bird hopped, with shifting eyes, spreading and waving its black and white tail, like fluttering a half-opened paper fan. As it caught sight of Man, the bird cocked its head on one side to look and then, flied up the bamboo hedges. As landing on a thin twig it bent the twig down, shaking the green young leaves still wet and shine with dew formed during the last night.
L¾ followed the bird with his eyes, much of regret. Seeing B¾ already woke up, with his face contorted he asked for eating.
“I’m so hungry sister B¾ . Wake Father up and ask him to go home making rice for us. What a long sleep he’s sleeping!”
“You little grub!” She hit his head with her knuckles, scolded him, “You’re eating all the time, yet hungry all the time!”
But immediately after her scolding, her eyes became calm as she saw her brother’s sad face; she regretted giving the little kid an unfair scolding. Since yesterday evening they had nothing but some mottled sweet potatoes to eat, water to fill their stomach afterwards as they went to the river’s edge to drink.
Three days ago, their father, before leaving them, had cooked for them a pot of cassava. He told B¾ that they could eat them whenever they felt hungry. “I go to borrow some rice to cook for you.” He told the two kids, and went with no return. There were just a few of cassava in the pot, and they ate them all in the first day. The following days, when being hungry they came to their neigbour Mrs. Tu to watch her as she was eating. After finishing her meal, she would scrap the bottom of the pot and gave them some pieces of burn rice with cooked-fish sauce on it.
L¾ wept, raised his hand to scratch his head full of scabies. He was naked; his black shiny skin ingrained with dirt as for long never he had a bath, speckles were here and there like those in a smoky ceiling soaked with rain water from the leak. B¾ , much better, had a pair of shorts of coarse fabric, long-unwashed, colour unrecognizable.
“You just sit here, OK?” B¾ ordered her brother, “I go to Mrs. Tung’s to by sweet rice so we can eat.” She stretched her arms, rose on her feet, and opened her mouth wide for a long yawn. “Do not bother him,” she ordered, “Let him sleep. If you make him wake I will not let you eat your sweet rice. He is in pain, you know that.”
“How come father is in pain, sister B¾ ? L¾ cast a sidelong glance at his father, asking his sister, “Who beats father and makes him in pain?”
“I don’t know”. B¾ snarled, “You are just a little kid, don’t ask then.”
Before leaving, B¾ took the empty milk can, ran towards the river, and drew a can of water from it. As she came back, she put the can beside the man. She told her brother:
“When father awakes, you give it to him so he can wash his face.”
“Sister B¾ buy sweet rice and come back as soon as you can!”
While waiting for B¾ to come back with the sweet rice, L¾ noticed a dark red blob on the ground, by the back of the man. He took it with his fingers, squeezed it and felt it soft against his palm like condensed mud. He scooped it up, forcefully filled the empty shells with it, playing the catering. He die-cast the cakes, and arranged in a row the shell-shaped cakes the colour of dark blood. B¾ came back carrying in front of her belly three packs of sweet rice; two were small, one large. As soon as L¾ saw his sister, he rose hurriedly from his seat and ran towards her, crying with joy. He wiped his soiled hands against his buttocks, thrust both of them out to take the pack of sweet rice B¾ handed it to him.
“You take this small pack”, B¾ said, “Me, too, I eat the small one. The big one is saved for Father.”
The two kids sat flat on the ground, by the man. They ate the rice intently and made sure they didn’t miss or drop any grain. They held the packs of sweet rice carefully with both hands, lowered their heads, putting their mouths onto the rice, and ate it.
L¾ showed his sister his work of catering. While chewing noisily the rice B¾ took the earth-cakes and looked at them with delight. She arched her throat, gave a swallow of one large piece of rice, and said to her brother:
“Yes, you’re good at it. Soon after we finish eating, we will play selling and buying. You will go to find some leaves so we can use as money.”
The brother and sister had finished their meals. L¾ ran to pick the leaves. Carefully wrapping the big pack of sweet rice in one more piece of banana leaf, B¾ put it near the can of water by her father. Again, she told L¾ :
“This sweet rice is for Father. You won’t eat them on the sly, or I will hit you.”
The two kids began the game. L¾ played the buyer. B¾ sold to her brother the cakes made of dirt mixing with their father’s blood. In return, L¾ gave his sister the leaf money as his payment.
KINH DUONG VUONG
(translated by N. Saomai, from the original ‘Phien cho’
collected in the short story collection ‘Nhung chiec mat na cuoi’
published by Van Moi 1997. ‘Phien cho’ was first published
in Song Van magazine, issue 2, 1996)
Editorial note: All works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine double issue 3 &4 Winter 2003 & Spring 2004. (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Kinh Duong Vuong 1999, 2004. Nothing in this issue may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.