THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 6 NUMBER 2
NGUYEN HUU TRI
WITHOUT A NATIVE LAND
(Translated by Tran Le Khanh)
The day when my only younger sister was gone forever was also the day I departed for my old native village. Actually, I had made that decision long before she passed away. She died of cancer before she reached the age of forty. Everybody thought that she indifferently left behind her husband and her two young children. I was the only one who understood that she was not that ‘cold’. I was two years older than she was. We both were raised under the same roof in that village for more than a decade surrounded by the fervent love of our parents. We were different in many ways in our characters as well as life style. But that was not the reason why we did not love and understand each other. I knew that she was very nervous when Heaven “called” her. She used to confide that “if He called me, I would shout “Yes” to deafen Him, then I would be ready to follow Him.” I understood that even though she said so, she had imagined how hard it would be for her husband to raise the children by himself, like a rooster raising the chicks, and how suffering her children would endure if he “took another step.” But when she obediently bowed her head with a “Yes” to Heaven not as loud as she wanted, that was the first and also the last time she accepted her real fate. Generally speaking, in all actions, a practical mind and a deep sense of purpose were the outstanding qualities in her that I did not have. It was because of a deficiency in the resolute ability that, along the length of my life through several decades, the best I could do was wandering about and getting lost. Probably due to my fancied imagination, all my life I had lived with illusions. My physical and mental journeys, all shattered or driven into dead ends, were mostly caused by my own faults.
That day, I bade farewell to everybody right after my younger sister rested peacefully underground. It was a chilly day in late fall and a very tranquil atmosphere embraced the gray cloudy cemetery. I felt my sister’s warmth still lingering beside me. Slowly, I looked around. There were many people that I did not know. They stood in groups, talking in low voices. They seemed not to talk about interesting subjects. They might not know what to do than just standing around, clad in dark color, a familiar funeral color. I suddenly had the impression that people were disguising themselves under a solemn face. I turned to my brother-in-law, gave him the last advice to take care of his health so he could raise his two little children. I embraced my sister’s two children, an eight-year-old boy and a six-year–old girl, both healthy and well behaved. I stared at the bewildered face of the girl, which resembled her mother’s face amazingly. The idea of their becoming orphans made my eyes burn, though I could not shed tears. The surrounding scene suddenly became blurry. I said good-bye to a few friends and relatives without knowing when I would see them again. All people looked sad, but indeed, I could not imagine what they were thinking about. In the situation of eternal separation, some people could not hold their tears.
The day I said good-bye to my deceased sister unexpectedly was also a chance for me to meet with some old friends -close or not- who attended the same high school with me in our native village. Just like me, throughout the years, they by chance were drifting gradually to this place. When one soul among us just left this world, our joy of reunion could not be perfect. Anyway, the limited time did not allow us to have a long conversation. A pretty close male friend told us about his life story, pitiful though not uncommon. More than once, I had had a chance to listen to stories of the political prisoners, after being released from the communist reeducation camp, only to learn, upon their return home, that their wife had remarried. And more, this friend escaped the country together with his older son. He had to painfully leave behind his wife and his daughter. Once stepping on the foreign soil, he managed to raise his son well. Now, the boy became a successful young man and had a good job. The man’s life had been stabilized but the sadness had grown deeper in his heart. His second child, dead or alive, he never knew of her whereabouts in this immense world. He wanted to find her, but he is too weak to do so, being so far away from her while time keeps flying by. I also met with one of my girl friends, my former classmate for several years. Her family luckily left the country on the last day of that month of April, on a Navy ship the captain of which was her brother. Upon arriving in the country of opportunities, before long, she and her family were known as successful refugees entering the mainstream. But her own family life became chaotic as soon as the husband’s family came to the states through the Orderly Departure Program. Her own family’s happiness became shattered beyond reconciliation, due to what she called “trivial conflicts”. At this time, she still was not able to find any solution to restore her lost happiness. Complaining that life became “meaningless”, she told me, “All I want is a divorce, but, how about my children?” When listening to those sad stories, I always wanted to study the encompassing emotions that occupied my mind. Strangely, not even once could I understand in depth those feelings. Then, I had to give up the findings and occupy myself with new cravings, albeit I was not a selfish person.
After saying the all too familiar farewell to some friends, I turned around to walk away, feeling the heavy pressure of their staring on my shoulders. I had refused some offers to take me to the airport. The reason was, I just wanted to terminate the relationship with everybody, right at the place where I bade farewell to my dear young sister. I did not understand why I acted that way. Only one thing I knew was my desire to immerse in the deep serenity, at least while I was driven by taxi to the departure point of my return. And on the cross-ocean flight, I would break the silence by communicating with people around me.
On the way to the airport, the quiet middle-aged driver felt necessary to start a conversation with me. He wanted to share my feelings if the dead was one of my relatives. I thanked him and said it was only a not- too-close friend. I just told a flat lie without knowing its driving force. I had a strange and secret habit to tell lies, thinking it was harmless. During long flights or long-distance bus rides, I used to tell the passenger sitting next to me, if he cared to listen, the imaginary life of mine. Was it because I wanted to kill the time? I could not believe I could vividly make up those make-believe details. I discovered with pleasure that those listeners believed in what I said, that they found me interesting, while I knew for sure I was lying. Not too long ago, on a flight from London back to the U.S., I told an Asian man sitting next to me the ‘story of my life’. He looked around sixty, big and tall, having the attitude and language of a teacher. I told him I came to England to assist in a medical experiment. Our research group had invented a technique of injecting hormones into human corpses to preserve the organs to be used later for patients. I told this ‘serious’ passenger that because of the research results, we were awarded with a noble ‘medical prize’. I even made up a title for that award. The man seemed to show a lot of respect for me. And he looked like my father.
Across the ocean, my father had believed that I was practicing medicine, because I informed him two years earlier that I was only one semester short of my graduation from medical school. He did not suspect at all, that, right at that moment, I was quitting school. Lately, Dad contracted Alzheimer’s disease; his memory was working on and off, and when it was back, he believed that his eldest daughter was a medical doctor. He must have been very proud of me. I felt sorry for him. I remembered when I quit school, some of my few acquaintances thought that the decision of quitting school was a crazy one. They, instead of me, remarkably regretted those years of hard schooling I had spent. What they regretted most was the big compensation I could enjoy easily had I not quit school when I was near graduation. As for me, at least I had once thought that I was indeed crazy. My sister, alive then, was not surprised at all, as she said: “I know that is your character. With you, everything is unfinished.”
She was right anyway. The “dead” love between Frank and me, wasn’t it strong evidence? Like all other love stories in this world, my own had magnificent moments before fading into complete oblivion. I met Frank when I was in the second year of medical school, and Frank was then a surgeon in the University hospital. One day, as soon as I finished cleaning up the medical tools in the biology lab, then, as if from nowhere, Frank showed up in front of me. He extended his hand to introduce himself to me in a very courteous and gracious gesture. He was an African American with a brown complexion. I paid immediate attention to his smile, with his lips not as thick as most of the blacks’. In all, his face had delicate and attractive traits. He invited me to the cafeteria. It was beyond my belief that, at least for me, such an initial encountering and a short period after could lead us to an unforgettable love. Besides the smile that captivated me, Frank had beautiful hands. A couple of times, he let me watch him doing surgeries. I realized that his hands were not just beautiful, but also very skillful. Frank had another special gift that made me dependent on him: his keen sense of direction. We traveled to many big cities, and he was a driver who never got lost. His hands and that sense of direction gave me a strong confidence in him, that he would rightfully guide me in life. I became attracted to him and I was drowned in his love. When Frank suggested living together, I did not hesitate to leave my apartment and my roommate to fly directly into our sensual love nest. For nearly two years, we deeply enjoyed our life together as a young couple. We both felt that marriage was not necessary. And then, one day after quitting the medical school, I walked out of our nest, amidst Frank’s misery and surprise. I asked my sister to let me stay at her house temporarily. I still remembered my nieces and nephews’ joyfulness when they knew of my moving in. My brother-in-law was really surprised because he had thought that our love was so beautiful, despite some of his dismal thoughts about Frank’s race.
The private conversation with my sister regarding “ dropping” Frank was memorable.
“So you have nothing left for Franks? Or you just want to have a rest just like people having a vacation?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s over.”
“You don’t know, why did you leave him like that? Do you still love him?”
“Maybe yes. Maybe no. Do you remember that once, I really trusted his guiding hands? I placed my confidence in his sense of direction, which I thought would guide me in life like a beacon. I had hope that he would explain to me the secret leading to a worthy life. But after a while living with him, I realized that those skillful hands in surgeries and that sense of direction were in fact not a guiding star for me. In this respect, he is no comparison to our Dad, don’t you think?”
“I only know him through what you’ve told me. But Dad is ill...he is forgetful, he is no different from a dying person.”
“But in the old days, Dad was a bright star, and you were the one that looked up and followed it with an extraordinary skill; as for me, I was always a vagabond with no direction. I don’t know why I was so ‘ foolish’ to the point that I did not see that light!”
Part of her mentioning of my dying Dad made me decide to return home. To understand it better, this was a reason to help me go back to the past, a past full of troubles but secretly hiding a truth of my life that even my dearest friends could not discover: I unfortunately lost my first baby when I was seventeen. She was the product of Tung, my first unrequited love. I kept entirely secret of my pregnancy and my miscarriage. Even Tung, he was not aware that his baby girl was dead in her mother’s womb before she had a chance to enter this world. My parents, of course, did not know anything. Even to my sister, the person whom I loved most, I never said a word. Seventeen years old, I was passionately in love, pregnant out of wedlock, having a stillborn baby; as a result, I was at that time extremely confused. I was too young then without any idea about motherhood, but I really cherished that part of my blood and flesh. I probably just wanted the baby to belong to myself only; therefore, I decided not to let Tung know anything. Even now, he was not aware that he had lost a baby girl, probably his first child. At that time, I was not angry with Tung, but the pain had torn my heart when my first love “had flown far away”. Tung was nineteen, handsome, great body, and pretty mature for his age. In addition, he was intelligent, serious, good in all school subjects, but never behaved haughtily. It was natural that girls like me were passionately in love with him. As his first love, I was much luckier than most of those “mayflies” fascinated by his halo. I had lost track of Tung for so long, but for an unknown reason, I always had the impression that he was still living in our old village. And this time, returning home, I might have a chance to see him again. Of course, he must be much different from the young man of the old days. The staggering steps of our first love in life, of course, had disappeared with time, just like the footprints on the sand, accidentally washed away by sea waves. However, the thought of meeting with Tung again did cause me some excitement.
I arrived at the Tan Son Nhat international airport almost at noon after a long flight. After the paperwork process with Immigration, I went straight into the waiting room for the afternoon direct flight to my village in Central Vietnam. I decided not to visit the city center, partly because I knew no one there. Moreover, I wanted to reserve the most excitement and emotions for the places where I had spent most of my childhood and my teenage years. In reality, when the plane landed in the rather deserted airport of that coastal city, I felt as if I had just unloaded a past laden with sadness and joy. I anticipated the minute when I would be able to meet my father, see Tung and some dear relatives. I also thought of the places that had embraced so many memories, thinking they were faded, but immediately freshly revived in my mind. As soon as I stepped out of the plane, a sea breeze caressed my hair I recently decided to grow long. Taking the first few steps on the native land, I felt emotionally overwhelmed. The sun’s rays at twilight and the growing stronger wind welcomed me with open arms. At that time, I did not wish a more festive welcome. Suddenly, I was pleased with the decision to return home.
I refused all transportation offers to take me home, because I did not plan to go directly to my village. I had only a suitcase as luggage to keep the bare necessities. I carried my suitcase toward the beach. After a short walk, I recognized the path leading to a fishing village nearby. And, I suddenly remembered I once had a close friend in this village in the old days. A cyclo came forward right at the moment I decided to visit this friend. Tram was one of my close friends during those school years. It was strange that we had never tried to contact each other for nearly twenty years. I realized then that, without my awareness, the busy life had transformed me into an indifferent person. As for Tram, had she ever asked herself the whereabouts or activities of her dear friend? Or drifting in the current of her own life, had she also became “cool” to her friends? On the way to her house, I was anxious whether I would be able to meet with her.
My friend’s village seemed to have undergone numerous changes with a whole lot more people and animated activities. As we entered the village, the way to her house suddenly appeared clearly in my head. I showed the cyclo driver the way. In front of her house, a girl, eight or nine years old, was sitting on the steps reading a book. She looked exactly like Tram in the old days. I let off a relieved breath, knowing for sure that Tram still lived here. I approached the girl to ask her if her mom was home, when Tram unexpectedly came out of the house. I almost did not recognize her, as Tram’s appearance had entirely changed, except for some cute and playful traits that still remained on her sun-tanned face. Tram herself was stunned for a second, without recognizing me, but afterwards, both of us were astonished and happy. She told me, once getting into the house:
“You are the only ‘thousand mile-away fellow-country person’ that I know, that’s why I recognized you!”
“What did you say, I don’t understand.”
“So, do you understand “the precious asset” of the country?”
“I don’t understand either.”
“Are you sure you are such a naive person? I have heard that over there, there are plenty of Vietnamese magazines and newspapers; so, you did not read them at all? Anyway, do the overseas newspapers know these expressions? These are the expressions to call the “Viet kieu” like you. Years ago the people who left the country were called with bad names. These expressions have just been created. Don’t you know that language transforms itself with the times? Anyway, forget it. Have you been back to see your father yet?”
“Not yet. I’ve just got off the plane. I’m coming to see you first. To tell the truth, this visit is just by chance without any plan.”
Looking at Tram, I felt sorry for her. She was widely known as a pretty girl with a fair complexion in our school. Now she was thin, tanned with some gray hair.
Tram looked at me with compliments:
“You look so much prettier! Are you married or having any boyfriend? It’s been almost twenty years that we have not seen each other.”
“Nothing. I loved and intended to marry an Afro-American doctor, but then I felt he was not leading me anywhere in this world. Then I said goodbye to him. He is very nice and it seems I still love him. To tell you the truth, I lived with him for two years!”
“Where do you want to go in this life? Or you want to philosophize, honey?”
“No philosophy at all! I suddenly felt that way, and worse yet, I don’t even understand my feelings. How about you? How many children do you have? That little girl looks like you a lot. She is so cute!”
“Four kids totally. Without them, I would have died. With them, I am joyful but I have to work so hard!”
“How about your husband? Where is he? At work?”
“Do you remember Linh, who was several years ahead of us in school? He was my husband. But he is now very far from here. He is way out there.” She pointed at the open sea, her face unchanged.
“Where? He escaped by boat?”
“No, before nineteen seventy five, he attended the Faculty of Pedagogy and graduated with a degree in philosophy. Less than a year after he came back to teach in our school when the Liberation Army arrived. I was a student of his at that time. After the “Liberation”, his philosophy degree became useless. He had to say goodbye to Aristotle, Plato, Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Lao-Tzu, Meng Zi, Buddha, and Jesus Christ... to become a fisherman to survive here. He bade farewell to those philosophers and said hello to the fishermen in this hamlet. Then one day, there was a violent storm. His boat was sunk by big waves while it was getting near shore. According to some survivors, he had already got on land but then came back out to rescue Mr. Tu, who was the oldest man on the boat. And that’s why he was gone forever, along with some others.”
“I am sorry.”
I saw her eyes blinking. Then she immediately changed the subject.
“When are you planning to visit your village? I’ve heard your Dad has been very much confused. I feel terribly guilty. I’ve been so busy to make ends meet that I rarely come by to visit him.”
“Can I stay at you place for a few days? I did not notify anybody about my return, so there is no one expecting me. My Dad does not know anything, so I feel no need to come back early.”
“You can stay as long as you want. I am just afraid you will feel uncomfortable here.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve been used to wandering about.” I told her so to make her feel at ease.
While staying a couple of days at Trams’, I was told some details about Tung’s current situation when I nonchalantly asked her about him. Tung had been working these years at the very airport I just landed. Tram wasn’t sure what he was doing, probably a vice-director in an office there. It was said that a few years after the “Liberation”, he got married to the daughter of a man who had previously regrouped in the North. She was then a student in the Foreign Service Department at the National University in Hanoi. They had a boy but separated a couple of years later. No one knew the reason why. She apparently had taken the boy with her up to Hanoi and was now working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“ How about Tung?” I asked with no excitement.
“It seems he is still living by himself. Do you want to meet with him?”
“Yeah, if I have a chance. Old friend, anyway.”
I stayed at Tram’s overnight and most of the following day. In the afternoon, I got on a cyclo back to my father’s. My village had changed a great deal since I left; it had developed and now bustled with activity. My father’s house was dilapidated, probably due to lack of maintenance. I stepped into the chillingly quiet and dark house. The sun had set behind the mountain, but no one had returned home. My father was sitting, almost motionless, near a small table at a corner of the living room. He was gazing at an exercise book on the table. I came next to him. Hearing the noise, he lifted his face to look up at me. He flashed a dry smile. Obviously, he did not recognize me. I bent down and put on his forehead a greeting kiss. Tears welled up my eyes without dropping.
“I am here, Dad. Do you remember me?”
“Who are you?”
I decided not to say my name. A name, at this moment, was indeed meaningless and completely useless.
“What are you doing?”
“I am writing some poems.”
“Can I read them?”
He handed me the exercise book. A sense of pride flashed on his face. I glanced at the titles of the poems on dozens of pages. Those are the poems of all styles, from Tang prosody to new verses and modern poetry, which my father copied carefully without any order. I did not see any poems authored by him. I remembered Dad used to write poems. His friends admired them and advised him to have them published. He only smiled lightly and said: “Some day.” Now, was it true that the severe disease had killed the poet in him?
“I don’t see any poem of yours.”
“What did you say? Those are all the poems that I wrote.”
One more time, I decided to keep quiet. My father stood up and went inside to rest on the small bed, without saying another word. In a complete daze, I was looking at his skinny figure.
A few moments later, my cousin and her children returned home in turn. They all were surprised and happy at my sudden appearance. My cousin’s husband was killed in a battle during the last hours of April 30th. His body was washed ashore a few days later. She had to go to Chu Lai to take his body home to bury. It was such a tragic and unjust death! Several years later, after my mother’s death and our leaving for another country, she moved in to care for my father. She was brought home and raised by my parents when she was very young; therefore, she wanted to pay her debt of gratitude to them for having brought her up. After exchanging information about friends and relatives for a little while, we seemed not to have anything more to talk about. Regarding my father’s illness, she stated, “Uncle forgets a lot of things.” He rarely asked where my mother was. He had been copying the poems in the exercise book before the illness struck him; and now, he cherished them as precious objects. He had nothing else to keep.
The first few days at my father’s home, the childhood past sneaked back to me a few times, then faded away. One quiet afternoon, Tung unexpectedly paid me a visit. I was surprised seeing him on crutches due to his lost leg.
“I am also one of the war victims!”
Tung calmly explained to me when I asked how he lost his leg. He said he had been working at this coastal airport for almost ten years in a so-so position. One day, while examining the surrounding area of the airport, he stepped on a mine. His leg had to be amputated. He flashed a resigned smile, saying losing a portion of the body was lucky enough. I was about to ask him if he had lost any part of his soul, but I restrained myself from doing so. The conversation with my former lover --I had the right to call him that, didn’t I--, turned boring after a while. Strangely, we never asked each other about our life during those past twenty years. Suddenly, Tung extended his hand and guided me to the left side of the house. His look gave me the signal. People were out to work, except my father, who was deep in his nap. The surrounding was very quiet and convenient. A moment later, our two bodies entwined as if they would never separate again. The sea breeze started blowing back to the woods. Snuggled in his embrace, I listened to the rustling sound of the palm tree leaves at the back porch of my childhood home.
“What do you plan for your future?”
“I plan to get a teaching position. I’ve heard that the village school is in need of English and science teachers.”
“I don’t know what for. To realize a dream, perhaps? One among other dreams in a long night...”
Time went by very rapidly. I had been back in my village for more than a month. During that time, Tung had been seeing me frequently. I put in the application for a teaching job, but then withdrew it due to the red tape. I decided to return to America, after realizing that I would not do anything good for my father had I stayed here. I hugged him to say goodbye, but he had no idea about my destination.
That afternoon, I bade farewell to everybody, took a flight for Ho Chi Minh City in order to get back to a place where my future was undetermined. Tung, of course, was among the friends coming to see me off. He wished me good luck. I wished him a life in security and good health. The plane took off right at the time the wind started blowing back to the mountains. The rustling of the palm tree leaves was leaving me and retreating into the past.
After flying over the ocean for about ten minutes, the passengers heard the pilot’s voice through the loudspeakers. He informed us that there was a minor problem with the plane engine and he had to turn back to the airport we had just left. He assured us there was no danger and requested that everybody keep calm. Some uproarious noise started among the passengers. As for me, I totally believed in the pilot, but inwardly, a thought flashed in my mind that if I had to die here, it would be lucky to die on my childhood soil. And who knows Tung would help bury me well.
Finally, the plane landed safely. Some passengers stayed to wait for the engine to be fixed. Others did the paperwork to travel the next day. I asked Tung to put my luggage in his office. It was almost the end of his workday, so he invited me to stay overnight at his place. I told him I wanted to watch the sea for a while before making a decision. He agreed and followed me. His silhouette with his crutch and my own silhouette formed the long shadows on the asphalt road.
“ Why do you want to watch the sea?” he asked.
“ Because I wanted to look at the place in which just a couple of minutes ago I could have stayed deep down forever,” I said.
“ When are you planning to go back to America?”
“ I don’t know if I will go back to America. I’ll think about it later.”
The sun was gradually sinking behind us. In front of us, the lonely waves of an eternal life were rushing in.
NGUYEN HUU TRI
Translated by Tran Le Khanh
From “Khong Mot Chon Que” in Nguyen Huu Tri’s collection of stories entitled “An trua, nghe ke chuyen tinh” (CA: Van Publisher, 1999)
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 © Nguyen Huu Tri & The Writers Post 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.