THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 6 NUMBER 2
THE HAMLET BY THE WOOD
(Translated by N. Saomai)
The hamlet in which I lived lay isolated by the wood, far away from any town. Beyond the sloping hill, hidden behind the stretch of trees in the distance were many villages populous and rich. The people living in the hamlet had to go there to sell or buy things. From generation to generation, in that place people lived off the land, working in the rice fields or planting crops in the high-lying areas. Despite the hardship, they had to cling to the land. At the foot of the hill, there was a shallow stream. Yet in the rainy season, the stream raced violently as the water from the wood poured forcefully downwards. In the years when the rain has been unusually excessive, the water could not drained quickly enough, came seeping into the high-lying fields and damaged the crop on it. There was then no harvest, which caused, however, nobody to starve. A this or that of vegetables, sweet potato, or cassava roots was substituted for rice, which maintained their days. For the worse, they could enter the wood to dig wild roots to eat. In the dry season, the stream dried up. There were depressions where the water stagnated into pools. Kids in the hamlet who had nothing to play with went there to drain the pools. But only some small fishes or little frogs they would have if they were lucky. My mother said the stream was useless, benefited nobody. Worse still, it could be a terrible danger for whoever attempted the other side of the hill in flooding season, trying to cross the stream fast-flowing at high water level.
It was told, when my mother came to that place to household duties and when she was not yet accustomed to the hamlet lying by the wood, she felt an endless sorrow. It was depressing hearing in the afternoon the cuckoos from the wood. The cuckoos wouldn’t trill like the sparrows, or whistle relentlessly like the jays. Now and then, they delivered a two-note call, quite short, but resounding throughout the hot, dry-weathered silence of the summer. The call, lonely and indifferent, made her homesick; but all she could see beyond the hill and in the direction of her motherland was the dim shape of a stretch of trees.
My father was usually not home. Born to the land of rice-sowing and crop-cultivating yet he refused to plough or harrow the earth, refused to follow the buffalo’s tail or to put his steps on the soil stunted and full of nut grass. My grandmother had been widowed at her young age; she had diligently raised her child, and sent him to the city for his education. Whatever his studying had all been, when he got to life he could not help my grandmother. He married as a way of having somebody taking care of his old mother. My grandmother passed on, left my mother few acres of land so that she could work with to raise her children. As for my father, he kept going here and there without the least attention in the world.
I grew up in my mother’s support and her protection. Our lives were isolated like that hamlet by the wood. My childhood was as sad as the call of the cuckoo. The green colour of trees and of leaves filled up my soul. I was used to a much slow lifestyle in which the carts drawn by an ox or a buffalo rolled its wheels rattling along the winding earthen country road. If I went away from the hamlet, I would miss the soft sound of the turtledove in the shady branches of trees, I would miss the noise of the cricket in the bank of the field, or in the tuft of grass. All those familiar sounds seemed to have long been in me. When I was close to them, I paid no attention; but away from them, vaguely I felt I missed something.
There were many fruit trees in my hamlet, and although along small paths wild plants grew, the ‘dau’ and the ‘trom’ tree standing at the very end of the hamlet were the tallest ones. The ‘dau’ tree was so big it would need a few people hand in hand to wrap all the way round its giant trunk. There was a rather large shade of its branches, under which we a bunch of kids used to gather to play. The ‘dau’ had seeds with two wings like those of the dragonfly. When dried, it fell flying with the wind, spinning in the air like tiny fans. Running to catch the seeds was also an interesting game. As we were getting bored with the game, we climbed up the ‘trom’ tree, got the sap from its trunk, brought it home, and had it and sugar dissolved in water to drink. My mother said the sap would do a refreshing drink, but as I drank it I did not feel refreshed in the least. Our games were those in all. In front of our hamlet there were the rice fields, which were occupied lands. Unable to advance that direction for planting, people in the hamlet had to move backwards. At the back of the hamlet was the wood. They encroached on the wood and cleared up land to plant crops, but not too deep into it. For fear of possible contingencies. My mother exclaimed. I did not know what was it the so-called ‘possible contingencies’. Clearing up land for planting crops had been for men. After the men in the hamlet took their turns to go away, women were to do the hard works of men.
The wood was very closed to the hamlet, but they kept encroaching on it, and there were now, between the wood and the hamlet, many fields that separated them apart. During the years when the noise of bombs exploding and guns firing in the distance echoed, the wood lost its deep green colour. It was said that the toxic defoliant or something sprayed over the wood made all the trees shed leaves. Also, the fruit plants in our gardens were deeply affected. On the evenings when I stood in the end of the hamlet and looked towards the wood it were the sadness and the loneliness that I could see. Birds having had no place to build their nests had long been gone.
We lived leaning on each other, mother and children. My father was hardly ever home. From time to time, he came back to the hamlet and paid us a visit on the sly. Since there has been the sound of gunfire, which approached nearer and nearer, my father came back no more. And, the men in the hamlet also made their departures, and haven’t been seen since. It was not all the men that went to the deep jungle like my father. A number of them joined the opposite side.
My hamlet, which had been peaceful, suddenly one day became tumultuous. The strangers were coming. There were also the cannons, and the vehicles, as heavy as a block of iron, rolling on its moving metal belts. They erected tents at the edge of the wood. My hamlet became noisy, which caused by the presence of the strangers. When the big guns fired, the loud noise seemed to split the sky. We kids were exhilarated, clapping hands and happily shouting our joy. My mother was certainly different; the noise of the guns firing agitated her. Being on her guard she instructed us to answer, to anyone who asked where my father has been, that we did not know. To anyone asking anything, we must answer that we did not know. Coming with the strangers there were persons in charge of civil affairs. People in the hamlet called the persons who used to loiter about and made their acquaintances the ‘civil affairs’. But in that place, where most people have isolated themselves from strangers, it wouldn’t take them a short length of time to open their arms to anyone.
At the end of the hamlet, near the ‘dau’ tree, they built a corrugated tin-roofed school. They also offered books, composition books, and pens, and encouraged us kids to come to study. At the beginning, we did come to the classroom. But soon afterwards we were getting bored of sitting at one place for long. Besides, if we had to go to school, who were going to take care of our young brothers and sisters, and who were doing things about the house when our parents were working in the fields. But as it was, my mother said, we needn’t go to school now. I should wait, and it wouldn’t be too late when peace would return and my father would come back and teach me some alphabets. As a matter of fact, after a short length of time, there was no one going to school. We left, leaving behind empty tables and chairs swathed in dust.
Suddenly, one night, there were resounding gunshots of small guns, big guns firing endlessly. My mother hurriedly hustled us into the underground shelter. I was dreadfully frightened, burying my head into her body. My mother gathered my brother and sister in one arm, and my head protectively in the other. I heard her praying to the Goddess of Mercy. She was praying, and praying, over the gunshots echoed into the night. Near dawn, the sound of gunfire ceased. Only the sound of the helicopter was heard. My father called the helicopter ‘the plane taking off vertically’; I imitated the way my father called it. As dawn was breaking, I got out of the shelter, stood at the bottom of the hamlet, looking at the edge of the wood. The tents of the strangers have been ravaged, and they were clearing up the mess. I asked my mother why should they fight? ‘Wait for your father to return, and you will ask him then’, my mother said, looking at the wood, getting restless.
By that noon, they removed their tents, and advanced deep into the wood. We rushed towards the ground where the trenches have just been filled, and gathered the shells to play with. On the ground, which had been a battlefield last night, I saw the dried blood. Suddenly, I felt sad, not knowing the reason why.
The following night, somebody knocked at the front door, then was vaguely heard a muffled voice: “Please help me…”
My mother was first hesitating. But the voice kept begging for help, and she felt filled with pity and could not ignore it. She opened the door, went out, and helped to come in a man soft and wretch as a rag. My mother told my brother and sister to put the mat in the shelter for the man to rest.
“For God’s sake, what is happening to you?” my mother asked.
“Wounded. I could not retreat with my unit. I must hide in the brush, waiting for the night, then drag myself into here”, the man said, and exhausted with great fatigue he turned his head sideway.
My mother cleaned his wound, and she tore one of my shirts to bandage it. She sat covering the open of the shelter, lest we saw the stranger’s wound.
“Where do you live? Want me to break the news to your family?”
“My family assumed I was dead long time ago. Please get in touch with my unit so they can come and take me.”
My mother mentioned my father’s name, asked the man if he knew him. The man shook his head, “He’s in different unit, it’s hard to know.”
“The other units should be OK, d’you think?”
“Can’t tell. It’s a fierce battle now. Nobody can tell what will be happening.”
The next morning, as I woke up the man had stopped breathing. My mother felt her mind ache, and her eyes filled with tears, as if she was weeping for her relative. She was thinking of my father who was, perhaps, in the pitiful condition of the man she did not know. Having been notified, the hamlet elderly men came hurriedly, wrapped the corpse with a mat, put it on a bamboo stretcher, and carried it to the edge of the wood, not wanting any body to see. The corpse had not been lowered into the grave that the soldiers, who participated in the battle that night, came back from the jungle they had gone into. They stopped, and made inquiries. The elderly men and my mother were all terrified.
“It’s your husband who died, isn’t it?”
“No,” my mother shook her head.
“I don’t know. A man who was wounded, found his way into the hamlet at mid-night, and died here.”
“Was he wounded in the fighting the night before last?”
My mother said nothing, which was understood as her confirmation. Without inquiring further, the soldiers left, before the corpse was lowered into the grave.
On the following days, frequently my mother stood looking towards the jungle, at the direction my father had gone in that time with no return.
The war ended quite long ago. Every year, on the day that brought back memory of the unknown man who had died my mother always burnt incense before his grave by the wood. Weeds as time went by climbed sadly on his grave, which seemed to betray my mother’s silent sadness on a man who had been gone but nobody knew.
The men who went in that same direction my father did returned boastful but useless to the people in the hamlet. My hamlet had been poor, was now even worst. We kids were already grown-up, had through a lot of hardship tried the land for something to eat every day. There was no bunch of kids playing as we did in our own time¾ chasing after the ‘dau’ seeds that fell flying with the wind and spinning in the air. The corrugated tin-roofed school that stood by the ‘dau’ tree was now a place where people in the hamlet kept their cattle. The extraordinary change made the school remain only just a vestige of an event remembered from the distant past.
[Translated by N. Saomai from the Vietnamese version ‘Xom Ven Rung’,
in the collection of stories ‘Doan Duong Hot Tat Liet’ published by Van Moi in 1998. (CA: Van Moi, 1998, pp 69-75)].
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).
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