THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 8 NUMBER 1
PATHS OF ANTS
A SHORT STORY BY
The forest couldn’t hide its rudeness and brutality. It didn’t have an attractive and mysterious look of an undiscovered world. The secrecy surrounded everything hiding malicious plots.
Beasts and birds of prey had nothing to do with his feelings of fear and disgust, but human being did.
Behind a tree, in a mass of green foliage, under rotting leaves and grass. Everywhere.
A stroke of a scimitar.
A poisoned arrow.
A spiked hole.
A shot from a sniper.
All of them hid somewhere and appeared out of the blue to turn bodies full of life into inanimate objects, bringing young souls that were still in a daze to the old man holding a scythe who never got tired of his job regardless of his illness.
“But it’s unfair and stupid to blame the forest for, or consider it as, cruelty. Doing so means being ungrateful to the fresh stream water, sweet fruits, fragrant flowers and beautiful birdsongs. You must be fair to nature,” he said to himself. “Nature is always impartial but human beings are. It’s human beings who have exploited nature, committed crimes and spoiled it completely.”
But the darkness kept covering him and filled him continuously with the waiting death. It was the darkness that was queer, very hot and sharp, and sank into his flesh like icy and smelly fangs of a beast. It was the darkness that made human flesh rotten when it entered a body like venom of black snakes did. It’s his disgust with the silence and barbarous sounds, and his desire for light; peaceful existence, honesty and friendship that made him show prejudice against the forest.
Beside him, Hoang’s body was doubled up in a kneeling position but his knees didn’t touch the ground. His head and upper part of his body leaned forward as if he were trying to keep walking. His arms folded at right angles. Fingers grasped nearby branches desperately.
Hoang died hiding his face in tall grass.
Hiding his pale and thin face stricken by hunger.
He died on time so he was saved from a slow death from thirst and hunger. Thank God, thank a lot. Oh! It failed to sooth him and his love for his friend turned into resentment.
A resentment and grief at absurdities.
An obscure figure with bared claws and fangs like a powerful monster appeared and then vanished. It pressed down heavily on his heart hurting him badly. His anger was mixed with sorrows. Was it a result of a total impotence? Didn’t it weaken both mind and body of himself and all young men of his generation? Was it a miserable fate for the whole country?
He couldn’t fathom his feelings. He couldn’t grasp the concept of the division between life and death. There was no longer any distinct line between them. He felt confused. He asked himself: “Am I dead or alive?” But it didn’t matter to him. Having known he was alive, he didn’t feel happier because he knew he was in the world of the dead. He felt Hoang’s cold and stiff body. “Is this his corpse or mine? Is he dead or asleep?” But the poisoned spike that pierced his side brought him back to reality. “Hoang was really dead.” The poison penetrated his body and took his life quickly. In the twinkling of an eye. Life and death was determined within a twinkling of an eye. Nobody could foresee anything. People couldn’t foretell and he seemed to have a sweet dream. But there was no difference when he woke up from the dream. It’s the truth.
Hoang walked only a few steps before him. When he stretched his hands out to part a bush and slipped through the opening, something went snap, which sounded meaningless. Hoang doubled up as if being cut down, and pressed his hands against his belly. He rushed towards Hoang and called in an undertone, “Hoang, Hoang! What is it? Oh! Hoang, Hoang!” Hoang made no reply. And Hoang would never speak to him. Hoang’s body gave some slight twitches, he tried to raise his head but it seemed to be held down by an invisible hand. It flopped down, exhausted. “Hoang got caught in a booby trap,” he thought in terror. A spike pierced Hoang’s side like a pitchfork that went through the abdomen of a frog. He ran his fingers along the spike to touch the wound. Blood that was to clot stained his hand. It felt cold and viscous.
Hoang died on the spot before he could say anything.
He died without uttering a scream.
His crooked fingers groped hopelessly in the dark. And that’s all.
At the night of the graduation ceremony in Thu Duc Military School, Hoang was one of students assigned to keep the sacred fire at Trung Nghia Monument. A friend said playfully, “Eh, Hoang, why should you guard it? Nobody wants to take your place. You can go there first and feel free to write your name, as big as you want.” Hoang said, “OK! It’s very good. I could find room for my name and enjoy some scent of incense if I come back soon. If you come later, there is no place left and you become a homeless ghost.”
And now, his words came true. Hoang came back soon to take his place and had his name carved on the stone slab. He reunited with his fellow classmates who had come back before him, along with his familiar or strange seniors.
“Hoang! You died before you could say any words to me, and to your friends who have to keep living after wandering with you for a time on the path without direction. We have tried many times to give it some direction but… this job is not more useful than a sleep and many of us had decided to have a sleep, a very long sleep.
“I remember nights spent with friends after sweating a long day of drill, we used to look at flares in the dark sky above trying to guess what direction it was and what was happening over there, or recall some terrifying battles we watched on the silver screen.
“I remember many a quiet and hot noon when fifty fellows of us were in barracks filled with the smell of sweat and startled from time to time by the thunder of American 105-millimeter cannons by the barbed wire fence of the fifth watchtower.
“Night and day, and then day and night, fleets of helicopters and jet-fighters dropped thousands of bombs down to the nipa forest only some four kilometers away from our school – the distance we worked out based on the time between the flash and the explosion. We could see column of smoke rising high. At nights, helicopters hovered around the school seeking for enemies with their searchlight and fired long rounds from their machine- guns. They flied so low that the searchlight seemed close to the barbed wire fence.
“We only heard tell of war then and practiced fighting a war and everything was only theoretical. All disasters were only echoes to our ears. We never witnessed or really took part in it until now…”
He moved Hoang’s body from the spike, laid it on dead leaves, and sat down. The effort made him exhausted. Then he hastily laid himself down stretching his arms and legs. He lay there in the dark in which many bright colors blurred and changed. They moved incessantly in both vertical and horizontal directions with invisible wings, appearing and then disappearing. They developed into flowers of all colors of the rainbow that stood out against a velvety black background. A strange feeling ran through his body. He sensed this feeling increasing and his body becoming lighter. His awareness of his body was losing, he thought his body had vaporized and slowly vanished into thin air. He tried in vain to identify where his limbs were. It seemed that his body had decayed and the awareness of it floated over a dark ocean. His body was then a vague concept falling from nothingness. In such a state of physical exhaustion, he tried to resist, but at the same time he seemed to expect this feeling to reach its peak. He wanted to do something to resist it but the action he considered as a great effort to escape from this state brought him to a sticky end. Like a bubble that burst in water, or a cloud disappeared in the sky, the delirium came, like a gentle wave, and carried him away. He saw himself turning into a night crawler that curled up in cold soil with two arms bent close to his head as if he were in a womb. He was plunged into total darkness. Winds blew everywhere. She came on a young camphor leaf growing in a spring morning. The leaf flew around and her light blue dress waved. Her dark hair flew backwards showing her forehead. Her eyes narrowed playfully and her full lips looked like pink segments of grape-fruit. The leaf landed on his forehead. She leaned and put two slender fingers on his cheeks. Her lips moved gently, “I’m here with you.” “Thanks,” he answered softly with eyes closed. “I bring you some food and water.” She took cakes and a bottle of water from a small bag. Kneeling, she gave him one spoonful of water after another. “My poor darling!” Her wavy hair around her neck turned into a snake whose skin was like a velvet scarf. “Our mum is fine.” She took out a mirror from her bosom. “It’s our mum.” The face of his mother with her lips reddened by betel nut appeared in the mirror. “Hello, mum.” He whispered. His mother looked lovingly at him in silence. “And here is our son.” There appeared in the mirror a white rabbit with a trembling pink nose and jade-like eyes. “O My darling,” she called, “O My love.” A flare shone in her eyes. He buried his face in his hands. His body was as heavy as a block of black stone that was growing bigger and decaying. His eyes were hollowed out, as deep as two black holes. His teeth lost. “Honey, I love you.” She bent and kissed the swollen lips and the neck of his dead body. She transformed into a big black ant with its two claws like a pair of pincers gripping his neck. He pushed her away in terror. He tries desperately to move the claws with his weary hands. He shouted, “Let me go! Let me go! O My love! My darling... Oh! I’m only a corpse... Oh... I...”
He woke up, still in panic. The forest became clearer. He felt comfortable. But it was the highest level of physical exhaustion that he hadn’t been aware of. He still lay with arms and legs stretching out like a bedridden patient. Some beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. He felt very tired as if his body had been thinner, like short-crust pastry spread on the ground. He opened his eyes and tried to look up at clusters of leaves but his eyes seemed to be covered with a blanket of fog. He thought he was lying on a revolving record and found it hard for him to tell where his body was. The skin of his abdomen, like a block of stone, pressed heavily on his stomach, which caused a shooting pain. He tried to take a deep breath to push up the skin of his abdomen. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his neck. It might be there for long but he could only notice when a black ant as big as his thumb curved its tail and gave him a sting that made his wound sore. The pain shot through his whole body. His blood rushed in his vein and he could suddenly lift his arm to touch his wound and killed the ant that was sinking its claws into his flesh. He rubbed the swollen wound and moved gently the other hand. Lying still, he searched all of his bags and pockets and found a vitamin pill at the bottom of a bag and put it into his mouth. Although the open sore woke his senses, the state of numbness was still there. After a little while, with an effort, he turned on his side in the hope of sitting up. And then he could sit up with a jerk as a strong man out of panic. His body jerked up as if it had been pushed by a spring when he realized he had pillowed on Hoang’s corpse. A shiver running down his spine made him tremble. He could felt the coldness that had penetrated his body the whole night long. He pulled his knees close up to his chest for warmth. Dried blood made his fingers stick together. He opened and stretched his fingers. The dried blood came off along lines of his hand and fell down like red crumbs of cochineal. It’s dawn now. In the dense forest, sunlight hardly penetrated the leaves and he couldn’t tell what the time was. A ray of sunlight appeared suddenly, which made him to look up. Through an opening high above, the ray came down right on Hoang’s face like an angry look. The bluish light reflected by the leaves made Hoang’s face paler. The pool of the light around him was as sweet as the color of young camphor leaves in early spring.
He looked at Hoang’s corpse. His abdomen rose high because his back was on a big root. His limbs stretched in an awkward position. On his clothes, there were marks of blood left by some scuffles. He sat by Hoang’s foot and looked at him. His nostrils were two holes of which some hairs stuck out. The big and round tip of his nose rose high and looked like a small slope. His eyes were half-closed and white, and his mouth open. His face was still wild with terror. His crooked tooth stained with nicotine that looked funny in a toothy smile on his face yesterday, now pushed his upper lip outward and looked like an undersized canine. In such a posture, it seemed that Hoang was having a strange sleep except for the fact that his open eyes were covered with black ants whom he didn’t bother to drive away.
He leaned forward and stroked Hoang’s eyes. The black ants dispersed in panic. His body trembled. The cold from Hoang’s corpse seemed to linger on his hand which made his skin crawl. This feeling caused him a sudden fear as if there were a hidden enemy who would jump out unexpectedly to kill him when he had no strength to resist. He had a nose round. Bushes seemed to have their own ears and eyes, they stared back as if wanting to bare their teeth. But surroundings were silent except for some breezes that stirred the leaves.
Most of the ants had left Hoang’s face aside from some that lingered about his ears. On the tip of his nose, a small ant felt its way down the slope. It seemed confused, turning left, then right, going forward and then moving back as if trying to find a suitable path. At last, it went down the slope with careful steps but its legs failed to stick and it fell onto Hoang’s sparsely bearded chin.
The vitamin pill helped him recover some strength. He wanted to take advantage of this moment – he knew it wouldn’t last long – to do something useful. He picked some edible leaves to reduce his hunger and thought of burying Hoang and looking for an escape route. But his newly recovered strength was not enough for him to dig a hole for Hoang, even a 30-centimeter deep one. His throat got extremely dry and saliva in his mouth became thick. He reached for his hip flask in the hope of getting its last drops of water. He turned his face upwards, carefully put its mouth on his lower lip and held it in his mouth. Doing so, he thought no drop would be wasted. The flask had been as dry as a bone but he kept turning his face upwards opening his mouth waiting for an invisible drop of water. He clinked the flask against his teeth hoping a drop would fall down but he could only hear the dry sound when the flask hit his teeth. He leaned against a tree feeling utterly exhausted. A dead leaf from a high branch plunged to the ground like a kite with its string broken. The leaf fell right on a path of ants, which disturbed them. It was a path crowded with millions of ants moving in line in the same direction. Ants with tiny waists and full abdomens held their head close to the ground, they looked like figures walking with their backs bent forward. They were nosing around, feeling their way and trying to keep to the desirable direction. At irregular intervals, leaders of the groups were like commanders standing out from their troops. Leisurely, the king ant walked as slowly and calmly as a middle-aged man who experienced too many ups and downs, and liked watching his step. They sometimes stopped, craned their necks and moved their feelers.
After some disorder, the ants gathered and resumed their journey. The leaf lay there, on their way, and they crossed it like a caravan traveling across a yellow river. In the swarm of ants, there were some who refused to follow others. They seemed confused and lost and tried to go in the opposite direction keeping something between their claws intact. The whitish thing they kept was enlarged by his imagination, which made all his senses livelier. His heart began to pound and his ears rang but his eyes sparkled. His mouth watered. He caught an ant, picked the white stuff it had carried and squashed it between his first finger and thumb. His head fell in a whirl. The stuff between his fingers was starchy and sticky. It was cooked rice. The word ‘rice’ rang in his head like a hammer blow. He had to close his eye to bring his emotion under control. He swallowed some saliva to clear his choked throat but it hurt as if being torn. He imagined inside membrane of his throat was taped together. He picked some sour leaves and chewed them to get some saliva and hastily covered Hoang’s body with dead leaves. “Take care of my life first. Pity must be at the right time. Hoang was dead, and I’m so weak that I couldn’t bury him properly. These dead leaves will cover you, Hoang. I hope no hungry tiger comes across you. Your flesh and bones will rot in the soil and from you some grass or flower will grow. Bees will come to get pollen for their honey that will feed a bear. That will be the last benefit you leave to the ground...”
He grasped a branch and managed to stand up. Slowly, he followed the path of ants. But saying so wasn’t correct. In fact, he had to crawl all the way through many thorny bushes. His face and arms scratched on all kinds of thorns and they bled as if he were clawed. Many hard thorns were stuck in his clothes and from time to time he had to stop to take them off. Such a simple task made him exhausted. He lay down holding his chest to catch his breath, and thought he would never be able to sit up again and would rot away in the thorny bushes. But the image of the white grain of rice danced before his eyes and he felt encouraged. He managed to turn over and continued to follow the ant path. It seemed to get longer and longer running through bush after bush and the ants went incessantly.
The surroundings suddenly became brighter. Under his unsteady steps there appeared small spots of sunlight. The path got clearer when it came to a grove. The ants led him to a small meadow spotted with sunlight. Clusters of flowers waved in the shade of trees. The path of ants divided when the ants took different routes to go through a thick bush, and then headed for the same place. His eyes followed them and he got surprised to see them gather on the corpse of a guerrilla. It’s really an exciting scene when they climbed over others in an effort to reach the stuff they smelled miles away.
He came closer. The guerrilla had fallen into a spiked hole prepared by his own comrades. One of his leg was in the deep hole, the other stretched out. His trunk lay facing upwards on a bush. His face turned purplish and contorted like a clown who dropped dead when performing a painful and terrible scene on the stage. By his leg lay a new-looking hat made of bamboo covered in dark brown oilcloth.
The ants flocked to his hip attacking something wrapped in banana leaves. He broke off a stem and used it to drive the ants away, and took the parcel. He carefully peeled off the banana leaves with his trembling hands. After the last layer, the white of a lump of cooked rice appeared before his eyes shining like jade. The lump of rice had smelled stale but it still made his mouth water wildly. Saliva produced so quickly that he couldn’t swallow, which made him choke. Holding the lump of rice in his hands, he opened his mouth and sank his teeth into the precious lump of soft jade. A streak of saliva that he couldn’t stop came from a corner of his mouth. He took mouthful after mouthful, chewed carelessly and swallowed hastily. The lump was rather large and he could only have half of it. He drank water the guerrilla kept in a dried bamboo tube. He wrapped the leftover rice and fastened it to his belt, and poured the leftover water into his flask.
He leaned against a foot of a tree for some rest. A pleasant tiredness spread slowly across his body. And miraculously, he felt everything had changed. It’s a sea change, from a dying state he came to the threshold of life. The sun shone brightly about him. High above thick branches was a patch of blue sky. The clear blue implied a lot of hope. “My neck is saved.” He thought. He deduced that there might have been somebody living near here, a village of some minorities for example. The thought of a possible relation connecting him with human community made him moved. His tears came out easily and warmed his eyes. Although he tried to prevent his hope from bringing his imagination too far, he couldn’t help thinking about the joy of coming home and seeing his wife, children, old mother and friends again. He saw the face of Loan, his wife, covered with tears when learning that he had gone missing in the jungle, and how happy she might be when seeing him appear in the doorway. She would stand there speechlessly, overcome with emotion, and rush to embrace him in tears, “My love! My darling!” she would sob, “You are home again.” Yes, her husband will be home again, alone, as a hero from battle who is still standing upright in spite of wounds on his body. Dung, his three-year-old son, as usual, would rush out to hug his legs, which made his walk clumsy. He would meet with difficulties disengaging himself from his son’s hug, and he would lift him up and rub his beard on his cheek making him laugh wildly and pat his father’s cheeks with his round pink hands. Loan, after moving moments, would hurry to prepare water and urge him to take a bath. He would step across the threshold and come into the living room. His mother would be sitting on the bamboo bed looking at him. Her red eyes would look confused as if living in a dream in which she were reborn. He would call, “Mum!” She would say, “You poor bastard! You are still alive!” and she would turn away to wipe the tears with her scarf. During their meal, he would tell them how many dangers he had escaped from and his mother would certainly put her chopsticks down and cry as she used to do whenever he came home from an operation and say repeatedly, “My poor son, my poor son... Buddha bless you!”
Beating of his heart became regular, his breathing steady, and his body revived. The breath of life along with his blood ran through his body. He listened to a distant birdsong. Its clear sound echoed through the quiet forest. He suddenly heard this sound from branches over his head. The bird had come here from some distance away. It sang three times and fell silent for some time, as if it were a singer who, after singing a line or two, paused to listen to the echo of its own voice.
He stretched and took a deep breath, kept the air in his lungs for a moment before sending it out: the death of an enemy had brought him back to life!
The first thing he had to do was to bury the guerrilla, he thought. And then he could go back along the path of ants to find Hoang’s body and bury him properly before seeking for some route to the nearest village.
With some strength recovered, he started his job eagerly. His sweat poured off him over the new-dug soil. He had to stop digging at times and wiped his face with his shirttail. The bird on the top of the tree kept singing. Its high-pitched song with an unchanged pattern of modulation was a word of encouragement to him. It’s a friend who came on time to give voice to the joy in his heart. He turned his face upwards looking for the new and lovely friend. A bright blue bird on one of top branches was deep in its singing. Its song became quicker, more exciting and compelling. Its bright yellow chest swelled out heaving. Its blue wings shone like silk. Its black crest vibrated. Its fan-like tail with long red feathers waved in the breeze. He suddenly made sense of it and smiled. It was a lonely he- bird who was sending his feelings in his song to some prospective partner.
The sun was high now. He had finished digging a grave and had a rest on the pile of earth. He wiped his face again with his shirttail and took some sips of water from his flask.
The still and quiet surroundings made him think of a park. On that green and smooth grass there would have been flowered carpets where parents could play with their children and enjoy pleasant moments amid the beauties of nature. There would have been some deer grazing here and rabbits playing around lovers. But on the sunlit grass now there was only a bamboo hat beside a newly dug grave and a stiff corpse with a face full of terror and despair.
He stepped towards the corpse of the guerrilla with the intention of lifting him up, but out of curiosity he wanted to know the deceased’s name before burying him. At least he could engrave it on the trunk of a tree, as a sign of his gratitude to a stranger whose food had saved his life, he thought so when starting to search the corpse. In an inside breast pocket, he found a small paper packet. Running over papers in it he gathered enough details to engrave on a tree, “Nguyen Xuan Vui, born in 1951 in Quang Nam...” He wondered whether he died the day before yesterday or last night. It turned out that he was nearly seventeen, of the same age as Hung’s, his younger brother. As for Hoang, he was born in Ninh Binh, North Vietnam, and died at the age of 25. He re-wrapped the deceased’s belongings, including some papers, some change and a small picture of a girl with an innocent face. On its back there was a line of scrawling handwriting in pencil, “For you, as a souvenir.” He put back the packet in the breast pocket of the deceased, and bent forward.
Some days later, a newspaper published in Saigon carried the following piece of news: “Quang Nam, such day such month... In a local operation in search of a missing unit in a forest northeast of Quang Nam, an explosion that had killed at least two VCs was reported. Experts said they must have fallen into a spiked hole prepared by their accomplices. When trying to get rid of the spike they made hidden grenades go off.”
The reporter, however, failed to notice the fact that the grave had just been dug. If the reporter were not able to pay attention to such a big grave, he would never have ability to see on a nearby branch a hand with a silver plate that said, Le Van Lam. Service number... Blood type... It was his hand and his plate, thrown up and got caught there after the explosion.
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 2006. 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.