THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 1 NUMBER 1
THANKS, HAPPY DEATH
. (This English translation version has been published in Songvan magazine [ISSN 1089-8123, discontinued in 2000], issue 14, Sept 1999, which is under the same ownership and editorship of The Writers Post’s publisher and editor N. Saomai / Nguyen Sao Mai. The original version has been published in Songvan magazine issue 4, 1996).
Night began to thin out, flabby and wet in the obscure shadows in the east, sliding and falling. On the gloomy road like a stroke of the water-soaked brush trailing across a clammy wash painting more than ten military trucks stood slumped in queue; lights were dim, engines heaving, rushing the darkness. The road appeared buckled up with heaps of earth, blocks of stone. And the field, like a hole card slowly revealing its value, disclosed the old forlorn face¾ black, cracked, and empty. The thicket beyond it was tossing, about to expose the nightly gruesome and enigmatic threat¾ dense and concealed wilderness riddled with hints of mines and ditches stretching far as the foot of the low mountain transfixed in heavy fog.
The 'cyclo' (1) jolted along, hurriedly threaded its way through potholes in the broken road, then stopped. An old woman, encumbered by a basket in one hand, gripped the mudguard with the other, unsteadily stepping down. She fished out a bill from her blouse pocket, and gave it to the driver, very young, sitting on the saddle.
"Here, here the money. Keep the change. I must go looking for my son. They're about to leave!"
The driver grimaced, but could not utter a word before the woman waddling towards the column.
"Hey, wait a minute! Is this all?"
He called after her, with his eyes following. But as the eyes met the young men huddled in the trucks he at once realised the all-important thing, that he had not been chased, caught, herded into those trucks, delivered to an unknown battlefield. He turned his cyclo (1), saying to himself:
"That's all right! Even if you need me for this next time, I surely won't take your money."
The woman, having reached the last truck, gripped the firmly closed tailboard, stretching up on tiptoe:
"Quang! Hear me Quang? Are you in there?"
Silence. The boy sitting by the tailboard, looking lost in his thick, rumble, outsize army shirt, eyed uneasily at the tangled white hair pulled back in a bun hang loose. He slightly shrunk away from touching the soft bony fingers grasping sharply on the grey, steel-plated bar.
"Quang! Can you hear me?"
"Anybody named Quang here? Anybody?"
Trilled someone among the squatting. Nobody. The woman left her hold, hurried to the next truck. Again, she gripped the tailboard, rising on tiptoe, repeating the same question more and more frantic with hurry, with horror, mingled with the rumbling of the engines. The murky eyes, like the thin, water-bruised blades of grass, were much more filled up with tears. Still few paces from the leading truck the woman, out of breath, fell sitting flat on the ground. But within a second, holding her basket, she climbed slowly to her feet. "Quang. You hear me, Quang?" She fell again, before reaching the tailboard of the truck. The young men squatting in the truck already heard, already saw it. But all was silent. Suddenly, one jumped out, running towards the woman. Instantly, exploded a great burst of shouting. The military polices and escorting soldiers flung forwards from nowhere. Click-clack, guns went loaded.
"Halt! Or you will be shot!"
The young man stopped, sighed deeply:
"I did not mean anything, sir. Just see the old lady collapse twice, pity her and try to help."
The old officer, a captain, in his anti-bullet jacket unzipped and outstretched like two peeping wings of a young cricket, closed in. After a short silence, with his bony hand he tapped the young man on his shoulder:
"Get into the truck! Don't be a fool, understand? You run home, but afterwards, where could it be? What has to be done, do it once for all!¾and he turned towards the old woman¾Are you all right, old lady? Who are you looking for? What is his name? Let me help you!"
"His name is Quang. I am looking for Quang. I am Mrs. Tu, Tu Hanh." The woman, with difficulty, got to her feet. "Is the convoy going to depart?"
"About!" the officer smiled softly. "Let me find him for you." He turned then towards the man standing beside him, "Give me the list!"
The young man, about climbing into the truck, held back his pace, stood with indecision looking at the soldiers crowding round the old woman. Her withered face, and her watery eyes suddenly threw him soaking wet into the familiar pictures in which doddered the crippled chickens, swooned the thirsty lettuce in the garden, and his mother¾ a silk of white hair getting tautly entangled in it was about to snap. No, that could not be! He turned sharply. Still, the crowd stood embarrassed about. The captain pored over the paper, rattling through the list. The young man shuddered, thought of his name appearing under the eyes of the old officer in a way that his flesh and bone crumpled on the thin paper. "He's not here. You should go home now. He will send you a letter when reaching a certain destination. Don't worry, he's surely all right," said the captain. "Quang, can you hear me Quang?" the woman hollered. The holler woke the day. The rumbling of engines was more to hurry. From the east, the light stretched its flabby arms, took hold the tops of the tall trees, about to climb down. In just a second, the light would diffuse, frame and shape everything, wrap everything in its separate or common fate. And that was it. It must be in a hurry. It must be in a rush. Something was pushing violently. The young man looked round. The marshes were drinking every gulp of darkness remained on the slope. The road was naked, flattening out, and empty. He felt the great haste, but did not know what all the haste for. His thoughts were in a tangle. His heart in thudding. Just at the moment when his hand touched the tailboard it seemed somebody lifted him uprooted, pushing him forwards. Run! A flash of lightning flickered into his inky consciousness. He flung forwards¾ like an arrow.
"Halt! Halt right there!"
Shouted the captain. The soldiers were in disturbance for a second, then rushed to chase after him in full cry, along the convoy, like a bunch of kids tried to catch an escaping mouse.
"Stop him! Catch him!"
But they could not be quicker than the young man. Within a flash, he disappeared from sight, behind the column. In front of him, the road was dimly lit, wide open, straight. Behind him, the running footsteps resounded, seemed not from man, but devil, as the death was violently rushing in, jostling against the light. As he leaned his back against the tailboard of the last truck a hand pushed his shoulder forcefully, and many cries burst out at the same instant.
At the push, he flung forwards, with all of his strength, ran swiftly along the uneven road, towards the city.
The soldiers were rushing the place after him. Shots resounded deafening. The young man felt as if the bullets, softly, went through his body. But the remaining consciousness assured him: "Run. They won't dare to shoot." Suddenly, he stumbled on a big stone and plunged into a hollow, lying stifled in the acrid odour of rotten grass. The light drew dead before it could rush in.
The explosions horrified the woman. "Why? Why must shoot him?" She ran waddling along the convoy, came to a halt where the soldiers were now ceasing the fire, stood breathing in short broken gaps. A moment later, she stretched her arms, grasped the soldier in front of her by his shoulders, shaking him with full force:
"Why shooting? You really want to kill him?"
"Not really!" answered the soldier, "He ran off!"
The captain just arrived, stood casting an empty look through the bare road.
"Who shot? Are you damned guys communists?"
"I didn't mean it, captain. Just shot into the air."
The old officer's look floated along the road so dull it called forth, in a sudden, the ghostly one in his old past to which he was thirsty for a return. His heart was sinking. But his voice booming out, cold and harsh:
"All back to post. Let's start off!"
The soldiers made haste towards the head of the convoy. The captain stood hesitated for a moment, wanted to say something to the woman, but remained silent. He turned then, strode away. Within seconds, all shadows were lost in sight. The convoy roared even more violently. The leading truck chugged forwards. Then the next, and the next. Like a huge worm, slowly, up and down, the convoy wormed its way along the curve dimly seen in dense fog, breathing rapidly through the canvas raising and falling. In a blink, the road was empty; all round it were bare all directions. The light reared up, stretching its claws, scratching, tearing open the blind sky. Day coming.
The day stripped bare the old woman standing bewildered on the earthen path between two low grass-grown embankments. White hair tumbled down her shabby wrinkle face. In her old brown blouse and faded black trousers she looked not much different from the rotten stumps of tree, the weathered stones here and there in the broken road. Birds were scattered about in the forest; a trail of mist lay far as the tall trees at the foot of the low mountain. The field appeared much more dry and cracked, naked as the road with a stunted tree rising now and then. The woman sighed. She gathered that it was a long way home and a car was needed, unlike when leaving town she had said to the cyclo driver: "It's all right if you don't want to wait for me. I will walk home. It doesn't matter."
It doesn't matter. Sooner or later I will get back home. But my son, how much longer it takes you to come home? Where are you now? In which truck that brings you to the battlefield for an immediate fighting, or to a camp for punishment? But taking a gun, do you know how to deal with it?
The woman's eyes welled up in tears, and she was seized by the fear of being abandoned in the desolated sky and barren earth, on the way that seemed having no way out, in a haunted world where everyone had died. She stood looking at the basket sitting lonely in the distance, hesitated for a moment then, turned away, walked hurriedly towards the city. The silver locks that had been in a bun were tumbling down, fluttering in the thin wind.
Her son was caught few weeks ago after a year long of evading register for military service. She had hidden her son of twenty, like a person hiding some money he had in the world, in her tattered shack. Her husband died not long after the wedding. Tran, the eldest son had departed more than ten years ago. What she had left were the bamboo bench, the old folding bed, some dusty books lay abandoned on the small broken-legged table, the crumpled map drifted loose from the rotting bamboo wall¾ vestiges of her two sons' schooldays.
Every time, thinking of her children she stood listless fingering the dust-covered books, stared at the compact lines on the yellow and crackled dry paper, could not imagine where her son now has been in the old map. Every night, she went to bed not before three o'clock in the morning, strained to listen to the footsteps sounding, the dogs barking¾sort of sign of the raid, like a soldier waiting for the enemy appearing from nowhere in the darkness where the silence was so tense, the illusion floating. Whenever there was a hubbub in the neighbourhood she would bolt towards the folding bed, awake her son, and check the plank covering the hole (2) in the bamboo wall which opened out to the squeezing gap between two houses behind. Mother and son would look at each other. The son was like a just-grown-up child, sitting on the edge of the bed, dropping-headed and hunched. The fear crushed him into small shape. But he could not be smaller to be nestled in the once protecting arms that were already helpless of his mother. At last, like a poor coin slipping through her tattered blouse's pocket, the son was caught. The bored wall was mended, yet still the woman could not go to bed before three o'clock in the morning, still strained to listen to the dogs barking, to the footsteps sounding much more horrible this time, and she stiffened in fear thinking of the footsteps bringing her, in a hurry, the tragedy. She was restless at night, went scrounging around during the day, sought information for three weeks before she knew that the convoy loaded with young men was grouping at the town' s edge that morning for a departure.
The road seemed longer and longer. The woman was exhausted. Her steps were uncertain. At the bushes in front of her, on the grass verge, the slanting sliding sunlight seemed to be moving, thrashing strangely about, trying to rise up. The woman rubbed her eyes, stopped for a moment, then ran hurriedly towards it. She had just seen a hand grasping in vain the dried leaves of grass.
At the slope no wider than the outstretched arms' length a young man was lying prone, face buried in the coarse grass, sought to crawl up. Quickly, the woman squatted on her haunches, grasped his hand, and tried a hard pull.
"Hold on, my son! Hold on! What is happening here?"
With the help of the pull, the young man crawled hard up¾ two legs kicking, one hand feeling about¾ breasted past the slope, rolled over onto his back, and lay inert on the grass. On his chest, blood smeared the wrinkle, loose-fitting military shirt.
"Dear God", the woman cried out, "they shoot for real? Why, said just shoot into the air! What can I do now? My son, try to hold on. Just lie here. Let me run to the hamlet..."
The young man lay motionless, staring at the woman with his cloudy eyes. He wanted to say something. But the pale lips just twitched lightly. Suddenly, he tried raising himself, his neck stretched out, his dry mouth slightly opened, "water!"
"Water?" The woman was beside herself. "Yes, yes, water!" But where can I find water? The fissured field held not a straw. Mud sticky as black oil lay thick in the marshes. The young man moaned, "water!" The moan seemed very distant in the groping road. The woman was distraught with horror. It seemed that his breath would break at once if a drop of water didn't touch that coarse and dry throat on time. She sat flat on her bottom, pulled her blouse up, aimed to ram her nipple into his mouth. But it came to her awareness that how it was to have a drop of milk in the old shrivelled breast like a dry gourd. She pulled down her blouse.
"Try to hold on, dear son. You must try. Let me run..."
She stopped short, lowered her head to look at him aghast. The young man was jerking upwards, his hands hovered helplessly about, his head reared up a little then fell back down on the grass.
"You're all right, son? Say, wake up!"
Horrified, the woman shook his face. She tapped him on his cheek with one hand, held his head and realigned it with the other slipping through the grass. But no sooner had she released her hold than the young man's head dropped sideways again. The neck seemed boneless, its sinews already snapped. Coarse stems of grass prickled one half of his turned-aside face. The woman put her forefinger at the clammy nostrils. A sensation of emptiness. A loss of reality. The sun was sending its beams in. But the day was gone, into a great distance away from life.
"You died? Why died in here?"
The woman rose to her feet, muttering to herself. She stared at the direction of the city, judging the distance. "If I knew this happens I'd tell the boy to stay for a short while, and that would be good for now!" As the thoughts flit across her mind she shuddered. "But why? Why should he wait to carry the corpse of a still alive person?" She looked at the face that began to turn grey, "Whose child is this? Why died in here?" The question tossed about, then sunk dissolved in her dull mind.
Filled with dismay, and not knowing what she should do, the old woman eyed at the road and the corpse in turns. A shudder passed through her as she looked at the marshes and the dense trees at the foot of the low mountain.
"All right, let me take you to the hamlet."
She stooped, fumbled with stretching the young man's arms, grasped its wrists and crouched, walking backwards, hauling the corpse along the grass embankment. About ten paces she stopped for a break, and then, ploughed on. The body was small, but deadly heavy. The woman breathed more rapidly. Somewhere along the road fog was still lingering in bushes, yet she began to feel the heat. Sweat smeared her face, soaked the furrows in its skin. Again, she stopped, looking over her shoulder towards the city. There were still the same distant dots of tiled roofs behind the grey-blue horizontal line of the low range of trees. In fact, she had not yet covered a twenty-paced length. "Let's continue, and this time we must try a little farther. Make yourself less heavy, my son." But the corpse seemed heavier, strongly pulling back till a moment, though trying with difficulty, the old woman could hardly inch up one more inch, released it, and stood panting. The sun was now high up over the tops of the tall trees, floating at the horizon which grew less damp, clearer with light blue patches. The road was displaying its poor condition, bumpy with stones and depressions. The obsolete road leading northwards towards a military zone some fifty miles away never had a lorry passing by. The woman knew it. The corpse even left here for a number of days would be discovered by nobody, field-rats would creep out and poke its eyes, tear its lips, nibble at every flesh at the feast of human head. And that was all of it; the death's body would be recognisable to no one. ¾No. Absolutely, I would not let you die that way.
"What are you doing?"
The woman started, looked steadily at the corpse.
The voice was from behind. She clumsily turned round. The young man in black pyjamas stood arm-folded, sullen-faced, like a ghost materialising out of nowhere in broad daylight.
"Who are you, boy? You scare the wits out of me!"
The man stooped looking at the corpse, shaking his head:
"How can he survive those bullets went through him from his back?"
"Now you can see who killed this kid. And so far who is killing who?"
The woman looked at the stranger from head to toe. His trousers were soaking wet up to his knees. Obviously he had just come out from those marshes.
"No one shoots anyone! They shoot into the air; he was just unluckily hit by a stray bullet."
"How could it be, that the bullet shot into the air can go through a human heart? This sort of gang, they don't even know where is the heaven where is the earth. If they knew, then why the bullet went through him instead of going up?"
"What are you babbling about? Help me to haul this child to the city. How pitiful to leave him here!"
"Are you crazy? Get near there I will surely be killed like this kid. But the like of him, he will serve a tool for the enemy if alive."
"Look, nobody here is the enemy, and nobody here is not. But I have no time for squabbling. Will you help him?"
"No, I can't."
The man shrugged his shoulders. Seeing the watch on the corpse's wrist he jerked his chin upwards:
"I can take that, can't I?"
The woman lowered her eyes.
She recalled feeling something lumpy that hurt her hand when hauling the corpse. The man bent over; she shoved him off.
"No, you can't."
He flung his arms into the air.
"Living in the wood I need a watch! He was dead, needed his watch no more!"
"Well, you live in the wood, but are you still human being? Belongings of the dead are the sacred, you know that or not?"
"I don't know. I need not know. I want that watch, much more than anything else in all my life. Don't stop me!"
"That's not right," the woman pushed the man away, "definitely not! He was dead."
"Say, old woman! Do you know how many people already died? If you are still healthy to go with us, trust me, you will see your children die in their dozens everyday when "they" drop bombs."
Suddenly, the buzz of an approaching plane was heard. The man looked all round in panic. He took from his pocket an envelope, slipped it into the woman's hand.
"All right then, I listen to you. But this one, please give it to this person in town."
"What?" the woman wrenched away, "Give it to whom? How am I to find somebody in such a big city?"
She intended to say more but the man in black shirt had run off, sprung to the other side of the road, burrowed vanished into the marshes. The plane, having come near, circled for a moment, then flew away towards the mountain range in the North.
"What a trouble! All right, I will deliver it if I can, I won't, if simply cannot. But how strange! Is it true that men always like watch so?"
The woman pondered for a moment, put the envelope in her blouse pocket, bent down to take hold the wrists of the body, crouched, paced backwards, resumed hauling. Feeling them stiffen in the slippery sweating palms of her hands she shuddered, knew the young man was now literally a corpse. It was there to be rotten, warm and fresh no more. There was rush no more, she realised. Taking the corpse to the city now or latter before sunset would make no difference. Behind her a stump lay across the grass embankment. Behind the stump were bushes and wines. The stretch of withered grass at that point was entangled with a variety of plants and twigs. She could not, of course, drag the body along the earthen road cluttered with rocks. "Hmm, such a mean! What if I let him get the watch? Would he then help me to take this body to the hamlet?" She released her hold of the corpse, sat atop the stump, raised her hand about to rub her face, but stopped short, looking at the hand in disgust at its involvement in the disaster. She lifted then her blouse to wipe the sweat.
"Well, let me run to the hamlet to find somebody to take you home. By myself I can help you no more. Just lie here. Without you I will go faster. I will take you to the hamlet before sundown."
The woman said so, and rose to her feet, looked at the corpse then, hurried away, bumped along the uneven road, towards the city.
The period during which she lived isolated in her empty shack made Mrs. Tu Hanh begin to feel her mind go so blank she could not remember even what had just happened one hour ago. Although the young man had been taken to the city and his family been called over to bring him in to bury, she was always haunted by the body lying exposed in the bare field, and rats and bugs were nibbling, tearing its marred face smothered in stinking, dark blood. The corpse got into her sleep in which her sons were hovering and floating about; the man in black came and went. In the following morning his lingering haunted shadow still reminded her something¾ at the moment when the aeroplane circled and he ran away. Yes, he had said something. But something she still did not understand. What did he want? Suddenly, she recalled the envelope. That was it! The envelope! The envelope entangled in her cloudy memory suddenly emerged. She rushed looking for the blouse which she had changed out few days ago and put about the house, somewhere. But, the pockets were empty. The envelope was not in there. Disappeared, like the man with his trousers soaked with water up to his knees darting towards the marshes of low trees in terror, leaving behind him the watch for which he had struggled with the corpse. "Quang! You hear me, Quang?" Again, the old woman was just confusing her son with the young man shot dead on the road in the town edge. But a moment later, she remembered that she had come to that place not for hauling a corpse, but looking for Quang among the young men crammed into the roaring trucks in the foggy morning. Ah, he was not dead. From then on, she was more to herself than she had been few days ago, but extremely simmering with anxiety to go looking for her son, sleeping and awaking with the haunting memory of two paths entangled in one another. One squeezed its way past a small, noisy open-air market that ended the straggle of houses with corrugated iron or thatched roofs, and the other, similar in clutter yet no wider than ten-short-paces' length in different awry hamlet, between two dirty low-roofed terraces. Tran and Quang were hovering in two confusing paths, two confusing hamlets, and Quang at last was the only one remained¾ his image had slipped through her memory yet still there was something left behind it she could imagine. Tran had departed ten years ago after being terribly beaten by his father that night. The child of sixteen, so scrawny his bone became brittle for lack of flesh, writhed in pain on the ground, peed in his pants under the heavy kicks of his father who used to be a football player. Eyes rolling. Saliva dribbling. He cried so hard that the veins on his neck were swollen up, his temples bulging out, the pulse strongly throbbing. More and more his shrieks became soundless, and breathless. Mrs. Tu quickly seized her husband's arm to hold him off¾ terrified.
"You want to kill him for real?"
"No place on earth for this sort of thing! This bastard teenaged gambler!"
Mr. Tu stopped kicking and beating, sunk into the nearby chair. Mrs. Tu flung forwards, squatted by her son, shaking, calling. Tran tossed about for a moment then lay inert. After a long time he reared up, swaying to his feet, looking angrily at his father, white-faced and red-eyed.
"Tonight, I did pay you back the debt I owe you raising me. The watch, I didn't mean to steal. I was only borrowing it to wear for fun. The gangs beat me and took it away. I didn't steal anything!"
That night, Tran had left the house and never came back. One year latter Mr. Tu Hanh died. And afterwards? Mrs. Tu Hanh mumbled, chasing her handicapped memory. But this time, because of trying, she could imagine nothing but an extremely strange, black, and bruised face. Still remained Quang, and the narrow path in that thatch-roofed hamlet named Hang Xanh, its catfish pond of more than one hundred square feet with tiny toilet station sitting shaky atop the tall poles. Just looking at the stirring water at the feet of the poles one knew there was somebody using the station. The hungry fishes hurriedly snapped, swallowed bits of soft or hard stool that dropped from above. Every evening Mrs. Tu Hanh walked along that path towards the street, looking all round, searching for a suspect augury for a raid that may be carried out late at night. A military truck parking somewhere could make her heart out of beat. In front of the house of the hamlet head she would stop if saw him in his sitting room.
"Will they raid tonight, brother?"
And always she got the same answer:
"A raid? They come unexpectedly, without notice. How should I know?"
The answer kept the old woman stay awake all night, sat looking at Quang who slept curled up in the folding-bed, then went to the wall, pushed aside the plank of wood, and peered through the hole (2), staring at the severe black gap behind.
In tangled memories, the skinny body last seen lying in the folding bed became the bloody corpse that lay inert on the grass-grown slope, her missing son became the man in black pyjamas who, emerged from the marshes of low plants, stood motionless in the mind of the old woman. Since she could not recall any of his features, the man became pitch-black, and headless.
The woman, her clothes caked with dirt, her face smeared with stain, approached Mrs. Tu Hanh holding out her hand for an alms. She pulled up her blouse to show her belly. A piece of dark red flesh stood proud like an operating cut, infected and swollen. Mrs. Tu gave a fixed look at the woman. Long time ago, somebody had said of this deceiving tragic sight. It was merely a piece of intestine from pig, or cow, or whatever else might be, that the woman embedded in her belly to beg throughout Phu Nhuan Market. But why I still can't see it unreal? She sighed. Is there no different way? Must it be a piece of pig's intestine¾picked up somewhere in the pell-mell buying and selling of the rich¾ fixed to the human being's to make life filled with such a gloom and despair? Is it not enough with beseeching, with begging? The old woman gave out a bill, wet-eyed.
"Is there no way else, my child?"
"No way besides begging."
"No. Not that. I mean... But, forget it."
She turned, pushing, jostling, and walking out of the market.
Vo Di Nguy Street was crowded with people entangled in people travelling up and down the pavements, going into and out of the stores. At the entrance of a movie house a no-legged beggar dragged himself on a piece of broken tyre which was tied to his rump, with tangled strings around his waist. Mrs. Tu thought he was a veteran, not because of the military shirt and the hanging medal he wore, but something vaguely stirring in her mind: besides war mines and ditches there would be no accident that cut a man's legs up to his hips. The man was using his hands to row and punt himself on the clammy cement surface to the feet of the stunted old woman who, stood looking at him steadily.
"Please, give me something!"
As he lifted his face, Mrs. Tu shuddered. How he looks like Quang! Her memory, again, became a mix-up.
"Say, my son, where are your wife and your kids?"
"Give me something. What makes you ask too much then?"
She fumbled in her pocket, but shook her head.
"I have no more. From early morning till now I've met too many people like you, and I gave them all I have. What a pity! I am looking for my son. My son..."
The beggar paid no attention to what the woman was saying. He punted himself with his hands to the wall, sat leaning his back against it, and closed his eyes.
Again, Mrs. Tu shuddered. ¾Quang, is it true that you are now, at this moment, in the corner of a certain town, like this young man¾ dragging yourself about the market place begging for food? Feet are no more, arms are broken; how can you tramp thousand miles for home?¾ The thought horrified her. She ran towards the beggar, squatted down in front of him.
"Say, open your eyes; let me ask you, how did you get back from there?"
The young man opened his eyes:
"What's the matter?"
"I want to ask, wounded in the battlefield how did you get back to town?"
"About such a little thing must you ask? Well, they have to carry me back here, put me in the hospital, cut off my legs. And make me, afterwards, able to crawl to beg for food. But how do you know I am a veteran? What if not?"
"Why not?" Mrs. Tu frowned, "What about the state..."
"I don't care a damn about state or "steal". I am very hungry now."
The old woman soothed him:
"I will have money for you to-morrow. I will come here. I go out every day to look for my son."
The man sighed. Leaning his head against the wall he closed his eyes, sat still on the piece of tyre; the red stumps of his legs poked out of his tattered shorts. Mrs. Tu stood hesitating for a moment then walked away along the pavement where people were floating on legs that moved about, thinking of the veteran's legs, full of maggots, lying in a certain forest corner. There were now too many pictures that confused her fading memory. The young lad with his chest covered in blood, the headless guy in black pyjamas, the pot-bellied woman with the infected wound, the no-legged man with the medal, each and every one of them was blurred, mingled with Quang's face. Just for few weeks of being apart from her son Mrs. Tu experienced many long years had past, a period of time long enough for a man who had collapsed in the battlefield to be carried to the city hospital for treatment, having his limbs cut, and afterwards, struggling around begging for his life.
The bus stopped by the rotting wooden bench on the pavement, next to a tiny narrow public water-closet (3). Its door opened, like a plug drawn off, and passengers packed tight in the iron box spilled out. Mrs. Tu Hanh was pushed and shoved, and at last was propelled out, with the crowd. She stood bewildered on the pavement. Beneath the low branches of a tree, on the cement surface, was a large patch soaked with water which seemed to be urine and excrement trickling from the water-closet. A one-legged man hobbled approaching on a crutch. He stooped, propped the crutch against the bench, and sat down, looking towards the street, lifeless-faced. Mrs. Tu hurriedly undid the pin that closed her blouse pocket, pulled out a wad of paper money, fished out one bill, and strode towards him.
"Here, my son. I have some money for you. Take it!"
The man lifted up his eyes; his face flushed red:
"What is it about? I did not beg you for money, did I? Oh, I see, do I look like a beggar?"
"Are you not? I thought..."
The man laughed in his throat:
"Must it be the disabled a beggar?"
Mrs. Tu put the money back into her pocket:
"I thought... What a pity! Too many of them."
"What happened to many of them?"
"Many of them died, many of them wounded. They were caught, loaded into several dozen trucks, but died, you know, before going to somewhere."
"Yes, many make sacrifices."
"Too many. They are all over in the market place."
"Why in the market place?" the man knitted his brows.
"Well, the soldiers begging in the streets."
"Nonsense! Who said to you such a nonsense thing? There is no soldier begging in the street. Only the beggar pretends to be soldier."
"Is it true?"
"It's quite true."
"That's good. I am afraid that my son..."
Intensely irritated, the man snatched his crutch, rose to go, swinging away, along the pavement.
Poor son! Mrs. Tu watched him go. ¾Well, so it was with everybody. But you have just said... Ah, about this thing I don't believe a word of it! If not the war, if not the gun and bullet, then what makes many people suffer their limbs cut off?
The man came to the intersection. He stood for a moment then limped across the street, embarrassed in the flood of bicycles. A car making a sudden sharp turn had nearly hit him. Tyres stretching. People cursing. Few bicycles stumbling. The man stopped, then trudged on. Within a short moment, he was on the other side of the street, melting away into the forest of people jostling at the foot of the tall building. At that instant, Mrs. Tu realised the most terrible thing: how fragile, the human being's fate laid between life and death. If the car did not break on time, if the man took one pace more, or if she had her say less, then he would be now lying blood-stained at full length on the asphalt. Yet now he was floating on the other side, and perhaps not realising he had just missed his death in a hair. And, he just went on living, because he was not dead. Quite simple. And quite clear there was no solemn sign for the living had to die. All happened within a second. The idea made Mrs. Tu much more gnawed by thinking Quang now appeared standing unstable at the cliff edge, to live or to die was a toss-up between two sides of heads and tails of a coin over which no professional player might control. At last, living and dying were one. Only one. At a moment, she felt that to die was softer than to live. There would be no more a place in which one had to used his body as the target for mines and ditches, for bullets and bombs; there would be no need to drag himself about like the young man who lost his feet had done, no need to embed the stink intestine of pig in the budging out belly, or to be a veteran wearing medal limping under treat of being run over by car, everyday. Thus it was really ended. Really peaceful and restful. There existed no more a life to grip on, then why not surrendering to the death and lying down to die? Had you never been born, or never been grown-up, you wouldn't need to hide yourself, every night lay curled up, quaking with fear in the folding-bed, ready to flee away into bolt-holes like the stink rats. Even when not being caught, how could you live in such a way for the rest of your life? And such a life could be called life? The rats. Mrs. Tu thought of the mice scampering here and there at night. There were many of them that Mr. Tu had to set traps all over in the house. Every morning at least one or two were trapped skull-cracked or bone-broken; the small piece of bait was still in its mouth smeared with blood. Every morning Mrs. Tu stood motionless, trembling. "What a pity! Why don't you find some place else to live? How sad that eating makes you die a terrible death." Looking at the teeny mice crushed by the hard iron device the old woman felt her skull, her spine crumble. "Is there a way making them died softer?" She pondered, and at last, poison was bought and scattered on bits of leftover food, which she laid next to the traps. She thought it was the way of keeping the mice from dying with flesh and bone broken to pieces, in the cruel traps. And every morning now, she would be very happy to see the mice lay died of poison, happy to see her husband's traps empty.
Well, why not that way? Everyday Quang took off into hiding, but how was he to escape so large a net of surrounding traps and ditches? Mr. Tu Hanh huge as a black cloud was carrying his giant traps, setting them in this mountain foot, in that paddy field, in the deep swamp, in the shallow stream, and wherever they were set there always was a Quang fleeing horrifyingly for life.
"Well, why not?" ¾The thought broke into voice. The old woman mumbled, "I must buy poison. I must act like the mother, with the last borrowing of some rice from her neighbour, made the evening soup but put poison into it to kill her whole family of eleven at ChiLang Piscine. Somebody told of the story. That's it. But where could I buy the poison?" At that instant, she realised that Quang was with her no more, had definitely departed.
When Mrs. Tu got back home she was completely wiped out, sat zombie in a chair set at the front door. All day long she wandered throughout the market places. The wounded grew more and more. At a moment she flung towards a one-armed beggar who looked just like Quang, burst to sob:
"My poor son, I am looking for you everywhere!"
The beggar sat crouching on the pavement, counted the coins spread on the cement surface. The cry of the old woman could not make him look up. She grabbed his shoulders, shaking, calling:
"Quang! Don't you realise your mother?"
"You are mistaken. I am not your son."
The man gathered up all the coins in his palm, poured them into his pocket, raised his head.
"I am not."
That scar slashed across his hard cheekbone. Those strange eyes she had never seen. No, it's not him. Mrs. Tu rose:
"But you look alike. Very much alike."
It was so alike Mrs. Tu believed she had just actually seen a real him, now somewhere in town. And she must be hurried, must be hasty. Had she been one second late, one minute belated Quang would punt himself with the crutches, row himself with his hands, left her for an unknown city. She squeezed on and hurried off the city buses, wandering around the market places, the crowded streets, the parks the homeless made their home. At last, so worn-out she did not believe she could drag herself home.
The afternoon was in withering heat. Mrs. Tu felt much more isolated. The passers-by in the path in front of her shack were floating along, dead dumb. At a moment she hurriedly got up, intended to go, again. But the fatigue pushed her collapsed back in her chair. Felt helpless, she burst to cry:
"Quang, where are you, my son? You..."
Suddenly a shot resounded somewhere in the hamlet. She was struck by terror.
"Don’t shoot. Please don't."
And there it was again, the figure of the young man lying dead in the bone-dry grass emerged onto her mind. She tried to haul, inched up towards the city, the body with its chest bloodied. Then, the man in black, and the watch. And her son writhing on the ground, and afterwards, standing sullen with his white eyes exposing the swollen red blood vessels. "The watch, I didn't mean to steal. I was just borrowing it to wear for fun." His voice echoed like the beat of a hammer. The old woman was horrified, "Who is that?" In her cloudy memory, the man in black and her son mingled with each other. But still she could not picture their faces. Thus, like many times before, Tran became a black, headless creature.
Another shot resounded. Mrs. Tu was weary to the point she could not rise, wished somebody could help her up. She stared at the path in front of her, seeing in it the column of trucks crawling dimly towards the foot of the low mountain, and in it Quang burrowing along the bushes, melting into the darkness.
"Don't! Don't shoot, please!"
She cried out. The young soldier about stepping in started, stopped short. He was in well-ironed fatigues, held the cap in one hand. In the other was a roll of paper.
"May I ask, is it here brother Quang's residence?"
Quang! The name lifted her right up from the chair.
"Quang! Dear God. What happened to him?"
The soldier stepped forwards, embarrassed:
"I'm looking for Mrs. Tu Hanh. Is it you?"
"It's me. I'm Quang's mother. Where's he? Wounded ready? Where now?"
"I'm bringing you the bad news. Brother Quang was sacrificed."
Mrs. Tu was dumfounded for a second. But at that very instant, her soul, which was sinking, suddenly floated¾ empty. The sword, not yet thrusting forwards, had gone through the emptiness.
"You said," she breathed a sigh of relief, "Dead, was he? Is this true? He was not wounded, not loosing arms and legs, wasn't he? Well, I thought..."
Mrs. Tu felt a deliverance from a great weight. The city streets, the crowded market places, the dirty garbage heaps, in a sudden, became clear. And more clear than ever that there was Quang in them no more. The disabled emerged, well clean this time, then, disappeared.
"May I say..."
"I understand. He died. Thanks, thanks very much!"
The shot resounded violently. The soldier started, dropped the paper. A gust of wind sent it flying to the foot of the bamboo fence.
"Don't be afraid, my son. It's nothing. They just shoot into the air," simpered the woman.
The soldier flushed red. He went to the fence, bent down. Beside his papers an envelope was lying face-up, which read: "Please forward to Mrs. Tu Hanh, Tran's mother."
He meant to pick it up. But from behind him the woman called out:
"I need them no more! Such kind of papers..."
He picked his, stood up right, then turned round, paced forwards, solemnly gave the garrison's notice to the old woman.
Mrs. Tu waved her hand:
"I said I don't need that kind of papers. Very well, never mind. I will get there to haul him home."
"To haul him home? They already brought him here."
"Can this be true? Very kind of them, do you think?"
The soldier stared at the woman in front of him. He found no sign of madness on the old, shrivelled face. Just the eyes. The eyes were so remote in a hazy desolate distance, amid the colourless uncertainty he used to see in dreams.
Translated* by the author
(This English translation version has been published in Songvan magazine (ISSN 1089-8123, discontinued in 2000], issue 14, Sept 1999, which is under the same ownership and editorship of The Writers Post’s publisher and editor N. Saomai / Nguyen Sao Mai. The original version has been published in Songvan magazine issue 4, 1996).
(1) pedicab (a small, three-wheeled passenger vehicle, serving as a taxi, pedalled by a driver). (2) earlier version rent (old use for hole). (3) privy, restroom (Am).
(*)Translated from the original version "Xin cam on, cai chet hanh phuc", an excerpt from N. Saomai's novel "Bon no le trong den tho". The excerpt was published in SongVan magazine (ISSN 1089-8123), issue 4, 1996, pp 4-24.
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