THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 7 NUMBER 2
A SHORT STORY BY
KINH DUONG VUONG
translated by Pham Viem Phuong
Kinh Duong Vuong, pseudonym of Nguyen Tuan Khanh, artist, poet, and short story writer, born in Kampuchea in 1941, known as Rung for his painting, Dung Nham/Co Dong for poetry, and Kinh Duong Vuong for short story. He had contributed to numerous literary magazines in Saigon, including Bach Khoa, Van, Van Hoc, Y Thuc, Chinh Van, Tan Van. Dung Nham/Co Dong's poems and Kinh Duong Vuong's short stories recently appeared in a number of literary periodicals published in the US: Van Hoc, Hop Luu in California, Song Van in Florida. Kinh Duong Vuong's Chiec Mat Na Cuoi, the first collection of short stories, was published by Van Moi Publisher in 1997.
The following story took place in the Town of X., a big one in the coastal Central Vietnam. Like other towns during the wartime, the daily life at X. became busier in a record time after American soldiers had come here. The face of the town, as it were, had changed suddenly, like a country girl who changed her bun and brown cotton blouse for permed hair and gaudy clothes and heavy make-up. Services needed for the war interfered and affected the daily life and routines of most people. Rapid progress in certain fields made people experience some excess and sometimes breathlessness. All progress requires time and a solid foundation to reach a sustainable harmony. The progress here was made hastily giving a false impression of wealth, which caused everything to lose its balance. The situation was like a big balloon that was colorful and attractive but fragile and easy to burst at any time. Speaking of the progress, ones usually imply something good. On the other hand, the sudden prosperity in this town was only a phenomenon and many people considered it as an unusual symptom of a disease, a new abscess on the skin of a chronic patient. The abscess full of bacteria and toxic substances.
I arrived in X. in a summer noon by hitch-hiking in an American plane landing on a military airfield.
For the first time, under the blazing sun that filled the air with a smell of tar, I witnessed and saw how enormous and complicated the war machine was, and this vast airfield was only a small part of it. Under increasing demand from the war, this airfield was expanded and modernized. I saw rows of fighters of all kinds behind hills of sandbags that protected them from mortar attacks. There were bombs under their wings and they were ready to take off whenever orders came. Helicopters of all sizes lay side by side like a swarm of huge inanimate dragonflies. The atmosphere was always filled with deafening noise of jet planes taking off and landing. Tongues of flame behind planes in take-off and colorful parachutes opening out behind landing planes were all new to me. This newness sowed an undescribable feeling of anxiety and confusion in my mind.
The place was full of activity. I suddenly felt suffocated and an unpleasant feeling inside me made me sick and dazzled. I felt lost in a place strange to me and full of noise of machines working at full speed. Foreign soldiers in uniform were so busy that I thought they only cared about their jobs and had no time to look up or notice my being lost. When some of them glanced at me, their blue eyes caused me an uneasy and sickening feeling because of their lack of sensation. I had an impression that I was not in my own country. The uneasy feeling rose high, and when it was finally beyond my control, I doubled up and vomited up some bitter water mixed with saliva.
When I was wondering if anybody could help me get out of the airfield, a Jeep driven by a Vietnamese captain came along. I was about to thumb a lift with him when it turned and speeded towards rows of barracks, which made me disappointed. Some five minutes later, however, it came back with a woman on the passenger seat. I made a signal with my thumb and the captain responded pleasantly. He braked the car and let me get into the back seat.
The captain seemed to be an educated man with a slim body and a grim face. He constantly looked straight ahead with his sad eyes. His look hardly made him likeable because it made others feel not only scorned but also ridiculed. To my surprise, however, his voice was gentle and honest, like the one of confidants. He seemed open-minded in his way of starting a conversation and he could give his opinions pleasantly.
The woman with fair skin was rather corpulent. Her hair was short and curled, which revealed a round and downy nape of the neck that made me turn my eyes away in shame because some indecent thoughts raced through my mind. Her aùo daøi was made of an expensive fabric on which colorful figures were painted. Her perfume was heavy and tempting. She imitated the style of make-up of Western film actresses but not as skillfully as they did. Fine strokes on her eyebrows, around her eyes and on her lips were not done very well. So her fashionable make-up and clothes couldn’t hide her plainness. Her face was powdered too much. Black lines drawn around the eyes to give an innocent look turned out to be foolish and tasteless. She had short fingers with long and pointed nails painted in red. Simplicity is always a charming feature of Vietnamese women in rural areas – they who never go beyond their villages are hard working and dedicate themselves to the well- being of their families, and this simplicity is associated with brown blouses, black pants of plain brown aùo daøi. In this woman, the simplicity covered with bright colors looked out of place and unsophisticated. This contrast made me feel awkward, uneasy and a bit of pity. However, she proved chatty and considerate towards me. She was seven or eight months pregnant.
When they learned that I was a newly graduated teacher, they gave me a warmer welcome. The captain started talking to me like an old friend.
When he was talking, the woman listened and in the rear-view mirror I could see her smiling, glancing at the captain and at me from time to time.
He told me he was working in the headquarters of a Corps. He had been a teacher before being drafted into the army.
“It’s a very long time,” he said, “I sometimes forget I had been a teacher myself.”
He looked at his uniform. “And from the bottom of my heart, maybe I like it that way.” He sounded bitter and regretful. He said he had ambitions when deciding on the worthy career. He swore he would dedicate himself to teach the youth in moral principles of ancient saints and sages, as he put it. But circumstances led him to another way and career before long.
“Do you see the poisonous humor of being between those two extremes?” He glanced at me in the rear-view mirror and continued before I could say anything. “The difference is as big as the one between austerity and self-indulgence, or moral and immoral ways of life. The army is a big school. Have you ever heard that? In that school, I became a stupid pupil thinking that I had wasted my younger days training myself as one of virtuous men according to moral traditions from our ancestors.
“In this hodgepodge of young men, what they force you to obey and do causes you to see moral principles as a worthless and naive theory.” His tone made me feel he wanted to say ‘meaningless’ instead of ‘naive.’ “And experienced teachers in this big school,” his tone now changed from an emotionless to an ironic one as if implying something, “will make you discard it as disgusting.”
There was suddenly a note of desperation in his voice. “It’s me who gave up what are considered as virtues in the human world to learn and master skills in acting as a monster.”
“A monster?” He raised an unanswerable question along with his hand from the steering wheel to make a vague gesture and let it drop again. “A monster may be lovelier because all of its acts come from its natural instinct. But in this case, you can’t imagine, a man was trained to be a monster who never acts by instinct. It’s a monster of high intelligence and it is very dangerous.”
He looked at me questioningly and continued.
“The beasts, even the cruelest, only act by instinct. If they are not hungry or attacked, they cause you no harm. But the cruelty of human –monster is sometimes aimless. They kill their prey – that is, other human beings – without paying attention or caring about reasons for their act. You need an example? There it is, it’s only for entertainment: to see the bleeding, to enjoy the twisting movement of a dying human body.”
A forced smile appeared on his face, painfully: “Fortunately, I still have the human language to talk to you instead of roars.”
Saying so, he looked at me with his eyes screwed up. It seemed that he was mocking my dazed face and what he had just said as well. But it happened as quick as a flash, and his look resumed its sadness and he gazed into the road ahead.
A convoy of American trucks came along. The captain pulled the jeep to the curbside and stopped. The long convoy was carrying cannons to the airport. I watched them passing by, one after another, with open boxes of shells on them. Slender and lovely shells were painted in olive green – which reminded me of the olive stalk carried by a pigeon to Noah as a sign of the end of the Flood– with a line that read “Made in USA.” The captain looked at me smiling unintelligibly. I looked back irritably and defiantly.
“You are thinking of a magic book, aren’t you?” and he laughed harshly.
I forgot immediately my anger that came from my self-esteem and burst into laughter. I looked at him more calmly and admiringly.
“You’re right,” I said dreamily.” If I had a magic book, I would wish all of these shells to turn into loaves of bread.”
The captain continued. “The price of such a shell equals some twenty thousand loaves of bread that is some two thousand ñoàngs each.”
I said joyfully:
“So I can get hills of bread from those thousands of shells. I can give them generously to children who are bending over huge dumping grounds around cities to look for some food, and my compatriots who are starving in refugee camps because their rice fields and gardens have been destroyed by the war. Yes, I wish that each shell falling on poor villages in this country to send out thousands of loaves of bread instead of destroying everything.”
I described passionately my little dream, and when glancing at the captain, I saw his sardonic and condescending eyes giving me a curious and pitying look. My anger broke out. I looked at him resentfully making the look in his eye softened.
The convoy had passed, a cloud of yellow dust still hung like a blanket of fog.
“I thought I would come home after several years of military service,” he suddenly resumed the conversation without paying attention to my anger, which made me confused for a moment before I could follow him, “but over ten years had passed. The most precious ten years of my life.”
“How old are you?” he asked and looked at me in the rear-view mirror. After I answered, he continued.
“I was about your age then. A young man with great ambitions, and now…”
He stopped at the middle of his sentence. His two last words sounded like an exclamation. He described a rough path on which he was forced to go against his will, and with bloodstained and hesitant steps he had passed the halfway point, and didn’t have the heart to come back – he wasn’t allowed to do it anyway – although he knew there was another red-carpeted road waiting for him.
“All roads only lead to a hole in the ground,” he said resignedly. “All we can do is to go to the bitter end. It’s just around the corner. Ones couldn’t decide on their coming to this world. They have no right to choose the path most suitable to their nature. Literally, they have no right to live their lives, in an environment they feel they are enjoying the life and they are like a seed sown in fertile soil. Unfortunately, everybody has only one life to lead. Making a wrong decision once means losing, forever. My life is like a seed sown in arid soil, trying its best to grow, it could only become a dwarf plant that will wither soon. Everything has gone wrong, completely!”
I listened to him in silence, wondering how the military life could make a man in his early forties develop such pessimistic thoughts.
“Oh, I forget,” he glanced at the woman, “this is my wife.” There was a touch of worry in his eyes. The woman turned to look at me and smiled, she looked slightly confused.
“She worked for the PX in the airport,” he added. “You know, everybody in our society has changed places. We the middle class became new slaves of the newly rich. They are making our lives intolerable. It takes a long time for the golden age to come back, nobody knows. We have to make ends meet first.”
He sounded both apologetic and sarcastic. It seemed to me that he was mocking his own helplessness. He continued after a moment’s stunned silence:
“I have to let my wife take the job so we can support our children… The whole ocean was turned into mud. I can’t make it clear again on my own. Do you agree?”
He stopped talking and seemed to wait for me to say something about this obsolete concept. I stayed silent. What can I say to please him without going against my thoughts.
I didn’t agree with him although I thought in fact what he said was very reasonable. But I’m not a practical man, and not a dreamer too. I’m a surreal one that was usually called person in cloud-cuckoo-land or idealist. What can I do about that? I’m a big boy who wants to make dreams come true. If the earth were turned into a dumping ground, I would dig hole after hole to bury all rubbish.
I will filter the ocean of mud cup by cup, I want to tell him so but I thought it is not the right time. And I felt ashamed of myself for giving a sigh as a sign of ambiguity.
“My usual timetable includes,” he said, “raising early, having breakfast, taking my wife and children to work and school, and going to my office... then taking them home at noon and repeating all at early afternoon...”
I felt terribly tired but couldn’t help listening to him. And suddenly I realized that in my pity for him there was some contempt. And just because of a childish ardor I thought, “Oh, this man…”
I was almost sick of his exhausting tone, “Don’t be surprised if one night you see me work as a Honda rider waiting for some passenger. And you may be my fare.”
And he gave a laugh. I and the woman laughed too but I found our laughs disgusting.
In my first days when I hadn’t got a rented apartment, they were kind enough to let me have a room in their house. It was a brick house comprising two connected parts on a piece of land for officers. The front part was the living room and the back one was divided into bedrooms. In the back there was a kitchen with a corrugated iron roof under the shade of a tree.
They put a cot in the living room for me to sleep on at night and fold it away during the day.
I wasn’t surprised at modern electrical appliances commonly found in well-to-do families’ houses – or the newly riches’ – whose members worked for American organizations or had close relations with American advisors which I had seen in other places. But the display of such things in the room, like the way his wife wore make-up and dressed, included something out of place and unsophisticated. It was like an old blouse patched with pieces of silk or with pearls sewn on, which made it more ridiculous instead of making it more valuable.
Four walls were stained with dirty fingerprints. The ceiling was made of cardboard with many dark spots caused by leaks in the roof, the paintwork on which started to peel, many bars of the frame came off. There were cobwebs in corners. These signs showed that they had long stopped caring about their home. But this room was full of expensive things – ones that came along with flows of American soldiers. In the most visible place was a big refrigerator – it would have been placed in the kitchen but most Vietnamese considered it as an expensive ornament for their living rooms – and two TV sets – this item had been unnecessarily popular with the poor. In the worst thatched huts you could find a TV set. And above low roofs of a slum was a forest of TV aerials. There were two tape recorders with four big speakers. And a lot of cameras and bottles of whisky were on display in a glass cabinet. All of these things along with a three-piece suite with two armchairs and a sofa in a room four by four meters made it look more like an untidy shop than a living room. I felt perplexed when first entering the room and kind of indescribably confused when I remembered pessimistic thoughts the captain told me in an honest manner.
Their children were lovely and smart. The first two were their daughters, nine and seven years of age, who were going to school. The next three were sons, born one year after the other. The eldest daughter was in the grade four. She had a bright and beautiful face and looked cheerful and lively. Her sister was in the grade three. She was modest and charming girl. The captain and his wife went to work all day and they seldom have meals at home – she worked overtime at noon and in the evening while he was frequently on night duty. When they came home late in the evening, they had dinner hurriedly and went to bed. They almost had no family life. The children lacked care and love from their parents. After school, the two daughters played something in their confined yard with no guide or instruction from anybody.
I stayed there for a week and I would have left soon if there were no laugh and voices of their children. They grew fond of me and considered me as a friend and a source of consolation they lacked. They liked talking and playing with me. So when I told them I had to go, I was moved deeply by their affection and tears. The eldest girl with eyes filled with tears and a sorrowful face held my hand as if preventing me from leaving. Their expression of feelings was lovely. She only let go of my hand after I made a lot of coaxing and promised to see her frequently.
“You must come to see us,” she said. “I’ll miss you a lot. If you won’t, I will…”
I wondered what she would say next.
“I will hate you.” She said and smiled when tears were still in her eyes, and she turned and ran away.
I was close to tears as I smiled and watched her running. I felt so because I was moved more by their lost childhood than by my departure. I gave each of them a kiss – they kept holding my legs – while the second daughter was nowhere to be seen. When I stepped out of the gate and looked back I saw her hiding behind the hedge to watch me.
The captain and his wife also showed some attachment to me. “Come to see us and our children when you have free time.” He said when he shook my hand and put his arm around my shoulders.
I also felt sad, but not because of the departure. It came from a vague worry and pity originating from a story he confided to me one night when he was slightly drunk.
I found a small room for rent. The landlady has formerly built it for her son and his wife but her son joined the army now and her daughter-in-law lived with her downstairs. She rented the room to me “to make the house livelier” as she put it.
The room was built of “materials of the time.” Its walls were made of planks from wooden boxes discarded by the U.S. Army and columns made of shell-cases welded together. The porch was made of yellow and shiny rocket cases set side by side that looked like pieces of bamboo without joints.
This neighborhood was called Xoùm Môùi (New Hamlet) because it had come into being recently when refugees from the surrounding countryside settled on a beach by a small bay.
From the small window of my room I could see warships in the distance, their lights made them look like small floating towns. On hills surrounding the bay were military bases and radar stations. Their lights in the dark behind a veil of mist looked like distant stars. Beams of light ringed the hills were like diamonds on an enormous black crown.
At the entrance of the hamlet, as my landlady told me, there used to be an open field overgrown with weeds and now filled with bars after American and South Korean soldiers came here. It became a red light district entertaining foreign soldiers and middlepersons. They went there to have some drinks and fun with local girls to forget their homesickness. In the evening, up to midnight, local residents couldn’t sleep because of loud music. After midnight when they left the bars I could hear drawling voices in foreign languages, indecent jokes, shameless promises by girls mixed with unrestrained laughter. Motor engines roared hurriedly, and sometimes there was dull and dreadful noise of armed fights.
Occasionally I could hear the sound of waves from the bay. These precious sounds were extremely rare. The military airfield was beyond the bay where planes took off and landed day and night making a lot of noise. The atmosphere almost never fell silent.
During the first days I lived there, I hardly had a good sleep. I was usually woken by the deafening and prolonged roar of jet planes. In the silence of the night, the noise of engines after the tongue of flame sounded like a roar from a terrible beast breaking the darkness. It beat at my eardrum and chest making my mind confused.
At first I felt absurd and uneasy about silent intervals during a conversation caused by planes taking off and landing. Ones had to stop at the middle of sentence and during that unwanted interval, they usually did something to bridge the gap: lighting an unnecessary cigarette, scratching their skin where it wasn’t itching, stroking their neatly combed hair, or gazing at the plane to wait for the noise to die down before they could resume their conversation. And I, in such a situation, usually tried to keep talking by raising my voice in a furious and defiant way although I knew that nobody could hear anything even if I was shouting at the top of my voice, and I only made a fool of myself. Otherwise, I would stand still and remain motionless during the interval as if showing an attitude that both challenged and compromised on the adversity.
My old landlady was a migrant from the North and in her early sixties. Her husband, a worker in rubber plantations under the French rule, had died early and left two sons who were grown-ups now.
“I didn’t mind remarrying and decided to raise my children alone. And nearly twenty years have passed.” She told me, and then sounded pitiful:
“I have two sons, the elder one, father of this boy,” she was holding a boy of seven or eight years of age in her arms, “was killed two years ago in a battle in the Central Vietnam. His wife got some death gratuity I didn’t know and ran away with her boyfriend. After several months the money ran out. I heard a rumor that she was pregnant when her boyfriend left her. She had her baby adopted and worked for a bar in Cam Ranh.” She sighed. “There is no difference between working for a bar and selling herself to American soldiers, isn’t it?”
I felt sorry for her but didn’t know what to say. Such stories were widespread now. I looked at the little boy who was listening calmly to his grandma.
“This boy has a little sister. She went playing somewhere.” She gave another sigh but she looked at her grandson affectionately. She stroked his hair and said, “I had raised my children, and now theirs. I’m not afraid of hardship. What worries me is who will take care of them after I go to heaven. All children today can become thugs or urchins if they get no proper education. How can I rest in peace? Even if I go to my grave I still worry about them.”
Some American people passed by on the street, the little boy stood up from her lap and ran out.
“You, you, OK Salem!” I heard him calling outside.
“Do you hear that?” she said sadly, “And he’s just a little boy…”
The boy ran in, his body was covered with dust, and happily showed his grandma a bar of chewing gum he and his fellows had snatched from American soldiers. My landlady snatched it angrily from him and threw out the window, causing him to lean against the wall sobbing.
“My second son,” she continued, “the youngest one called UÙt, is a Ranger in Western South. His wife lived here with me and she is going to give birth to a baby but she still runs a small shop at the marketplace.”
In the afternoon I had a chance to meet UÙt’s wife, a young woman under twenty. She had a slim fugure, an oval face and naturally fair skin. She still looked innocent in spite of her round belly. She spent all day in running her shop. At noon, my landlady would send her grandson to a neighbor and bring a bag lunch for her daughter-in-law who only came home at dusk. She greeted me with a bow on a manner common among people from the countryside. When my landlady said I was a new tenant, she bowed again, keeping me at her arm’s length and went to the back room. She was a Vietnamese woman who hadn’t been affected by the material civilization of city life and seemed content with herself.
I came here rather early when the school year was two weeks away so I’d got a lot of free time.
Living in this town, I gradually found under its busy surface something tragic like inhuman cruelty, and the life was full of difficulties. In the busy and complicated life, human beings were like dead leaves whirled in the storm. They let themselves to be carried around without resistance. Their lives were always under pressure, their bodies and minds were bound to endless calculations. Even recreations were also limited to certain time and place and their mind never enjoyed a full rest. The time was measured by movement of the second hand of their watches instead of the sun.
In such an environment, I led an almost secluded life and tried to keep away, with some difficulty, from the whirlwind. After giving lessons at the school, I seldom went out or met people. I paid visits to the captain’s family from time to time and his house was almost the only place I frequented.
About a week before my landlady’s daughter-in-law went into labor, she asked me to telegraph her son. She said it’s necessary to inform him early so he could manage a leave because he was so away from home and would certainly meet with difficulties in securing a leave.
After a two-week holiday, I returned to X. One day after, UÙt, my landlady’s son, came back to his post. I was told, although the telegraph came early he couldn’t receive it because of his long operation away from the battalion base. He didn’t come home before his wife gave birth to his baby. When he arrived home, his young wife had died and buried. He could only visit her newly built grave and looked at her photograph enlarged from her ID card on the altar covered with a piece of red cloth with an incense bowl.
When I was away, a tragedy had struck my landlady’s family.
The story broke out in this town like a night rocket attack stirring a lot of tired bodies from their deep sleep and stunning everybody. Within a short period, the story woke up the human conscience that had long died down like a flickering light from a firefly in the dark. And from the whirlwind of struggles for a living they came out to listen to the piteous cry given wearily by the conscience. But most people had long got accustomed to such stories therefore their perplexity was simply a short-lived and purely emotional reaction. And again, they let themselves fall into the vicious whirlwind of the life conditioned by the war to make a living regardless of what happened around them as long as these happenings didn’t affect badly their lives. Were human lives in the wartime different from plants in a forest fire or offerings to the gods? The time in which the whole village went to a funeral as if it were an event and mourned for the deceased was past history now. At present, the death had become as familiar as their breath. All deaths were only the act of closing one’s eyes and stopping breathing and they no longer moved anybody. The death was present everywhere. People breathed, ate, slept, played, and made love with the death beside them. It became a close friend whether they liked it or not. How could people have sacred emotions for the dead when they had to search for some food from decayed corpses and eat it right away regardless of the bad smell? Moreover, the opinion that one more death meant a cut in the number of mouths to feed and one more share to divide among the living had become widespread; and to live meant trying to get forward and free from strong and cruel hands tightening around your neck or pressing down, intentionally or compulsorily, on the weak. All people found themselves miserable and they could only worry about and take care of themselves. How could they pay any attention to anybody else?
Several days after I left the town, UÙt’s wife went into labor in a big charity hospital in the town. Her mother-in-law accompanied her. But after twenty -four hours and a lot of pains, she couldn’t give birth to her baby. She worried about her niece and nephew and told her mother-in-law to go home to look after them.
“You had better go home and look after them,” she said. “The nurses here can take care of me now and it’s OK if you will be able to come here tomorrow.”
When my landlady left, a jeep carried a woman in labor to the hospital. She was over thirty and her clothes looked expensive. Her room was next to Mrs. UÙt’s one. When Mrs. UÙt’s body twisted in pain the woman tried to calm her down, she seemed to be an experienced woman.
During the night both women gave birth to their babies. The younger woman was exhausted because she suffered labor pain for days. She fell into a deep sleep and only woke up in the morning.
It was a beautiful morning. The warm sunshine coming through the window made her room brighter. Youth helped her recover quickly. She heard a baby cry from a nearby cradle, the cry of a baby she had given birth in pain. She felt a deep love for the baby whose face was still strange to her. Her heart was filled with a new joy. It seemed the spring had come to her body and soul. She wanted to sit up to take her child in her arms but she was too weak to do it alone. She looked around for a nurse. She thought of her husband with pride and love. He would come home soon. She wished he were here in this happiest minute to share the joy with her. She heard somebody talking outside but it wasn’t the nurse. She couldn’t see anybody but could hear their voices.
“Come and look! She’s just woken up.” A woman spoke in a low voice.
“Where?” asked another voice. “What kind of brazen woman she is when she…” The first voice gave a long shh and the second one was interrupted.
Two women poked their heads into her room and looked at her curiously.
“She looks so meek and mild that nobody dares think she is so bold.” One of them said before passing the door.
Hearing the baby cry, a nurse came in. “Oh, you’ve woken up,” she smiled. “Are you hungry?”
“Eh…” The young mother smiled back cheerfully. “Yes, I’m a bit. But… Could you bring me the baby?”
She wanted to say ‘my child’ but she felt rather embarrassed. The nurse looked at her with some hesitation but she walked briskly to the cradle and took the baby wrapped up in a white towel and put it beside the young mother. Mrs. UÙt moved along to make room for her baby and turned to embrace it with some difficulty. Her breasts swelled up with milk. She would feed her baby. This thought made her nipples tremble with excitement as if the little lips had put on and sucked at them. This new feeling made her blood run faster. Her pale fingers trembled when she unbuttoned her blouse.
Suddenly her face showed signs of utterly stupefaction. Her pale skin because of loss of blood became dull gray. A cold feeling ran through her body. She felt she was sinking into the icy water and her blood was frozen. Her eyes were wide open when she gazed at the baby. She fell back on the bed and gasped as if being choked while her whole body trembled.
“Oh, Oh! What…” She almost lost her voice. “Why… is it?” She held her chest, curled up, gasped for breath, and muttered. “My child… Oh no! Why is it? What happened to me?”
The nurse lost her self-control. She ran to the bed with a blanched face.
“What’s wrong with you?”
She looked at the baby and then at the young woman confusedly.
“There is nothing wrong. It’s your child. A healthy one.”
The young mother was almost faint and couldn’t hear what the nurse said. She ran for some emergency medicine. When she came back the young mother was in a dead faint, her blood spilled all over the white bedclothes.
And it’s a long faint that lasted forever. She never regained consciousness to see her beloved husband coming back to her, to witness the shame she couldn’t live with instead of sharing the happiness brought about by their baby.
My landlady got the terrible news when preparing lunch for her daughter-in-law. Arriving at the room, seeing the body of her daughter-in-law and her grandchild who he had developed a deep love because it was a lineal descendant of her late husband – she fell faint.
Parents of the young woman also came to see their daughter for the last time and the mixed-blood grandchild brought them by destiny: it was as black as coal with short curly hair. It suddenly cried for milk in such an ironic situation. Its cry was as innocent and pitiful as one by any baby making everybody moved. In such a situation, however, its cry sounded tragic and untimely.
Mrs. Ut’s father, a white-haired and gentle old man, stood speechless before such a cruel reality. The terrible shock made his speckled face stony. He seemed spiritless looking at his daughter’s body and at the black baby with his eyes full of tears, and then, at people in the room as if looking for some communion with his feelings. But he didn’t get such a thing, from a human being. They only looked at him coldly and scornfully. He felt lonely among people of the same race. In fact, he was not so lonely, some people gave him a few words of consolation and all of them showed sympathy for his plight, but he was so obsessional about the crying shame that he couldn’t see signs of human sympathy. He only saw indifferent and apathetic looks and sincere words of comfort, to his ears, sounded false and scornful. He only wanted to sink into the ground and never surface. He felt a lump in his throat, but in his seventies, he couldn’t make a gesture or action to show his feeling other than swallowing his bitter pill. And he was too old to suffer such a shock. He felt a sharp pain, one originating from the desperation coming like a huge wave that brought him to an ocean of relief.
During the night, the woman in the next room couldn’t get a wink of sleep beside her baby. Things had gone against her expectations. Learning of the young woman’s death, she cried but tears couldn’t relieve he agony. Her sleep, finally, was engulfed in nightmares full of noise, tears and blood.
The story would have been consigned to oblivion if a suicide letter from the nurse working in the charity hospital hadn’t been found.
Mrs. Ut suffered an unjust accusation but she had gone forever before her innocence was proven.
The black baby was born of the wife of the Captain I had been just befriended.
In the letter, the nurse wrote that the Captain’s wife had bribed her, with a large sum of money, into swapping her black baby for Mrs. Ut’s one. She expressed her repentance for her sin and said “she can’t live with the mental torment” so she “used some poison” to take her own life. However, she didn’t die. The dose she used was not high enough and her life was saved.
The Captain, after reading the letter – it was a common knowledge then – in a drunken stupor, came to the hospital and shot wildly at his wife’s room. Returning home, he closed the doors and set it on fire. He was burned alive along with his five children.
As for Mrs. UÙt’s husband, he knew nothing about his wife’s agony and before the truth about his wife reached his action station, he got killed in battle believing that his beloved wife, while he was away, had had an affair with an American soldier and given birth to a black baby.
The story had seemed tragic enough so far but the fate made it more perfect.
Bullets fired by the Captain during his drunken stupor didn’t kill his wife but hit Mrs. UÙt’s baby bringing it to parents in another world.
I usually thought human bodies were made of substances while their souls came from energy of heaven and earth. The life was a miraculous combination of material and spiritual things. After death, the material body of human beings was returned to the earth while their souls melted into the vast cosmos.
In this heartbreaking story, my thoughts brought me to a tragic dead end, which made me unrest. I started to wish that human souls would be an invisible entity existing forever in another world. After the body became dust, the soul would keep living in that world. This way of thinking could relieve me of the grief over the fate of the poor young couple, the Captain and his innocent children. If this life didn’t allow them to find some happiness, their immortal souls would reunite and enjoy peace and happiness in the eternal world.
KINH DUONG VUONG
Translated by Pham Viem Phuong
The Writers Post
founded 1999, based in the US.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Pham Viem Phuong & Kinh Duong Vuong 2005. Nothing in this magazine 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.