Once upon a war in Viet Nam, a little 8-year-old girl walking to school or picking berries might encounter drunken soldiers, or even death. With Amanda Griffith, Thai Le Nguyen remembers.
Within the span of hundred years of human existence, what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny! [Translation from Lê Xuân Thuy, Kim Vân Kiêˇu (page 19), Second Edition, 1968] Original poet Nguyê˜n-Du.
My friend Tie^n and I stood at the base of a coconut palm in my family’s orchard in an outlying Bôˇng Son suburb. My hand ran over its coarse, grainy bark. The thick shiny leaves above blocked the view of any coconuts that had matured. On the ground a few yards away, lay fruit left by my mother and her farm workers.
I was supposed to be at home, getting ready for school.
“Thái, you always get one, and I don’t,” Tie^n complained.
“They belong to my family.”
I felt a pang talking to her that way. My mother never told villagers the fruits and vegetables belonged to her when she offered them gifts.
Longing for coconut milk and meat, I worked with single-minded focus, cracking the shell.
After sharing the treat with animal delight, we walked to the bridge, half a mile away. Within moments we heard distant shouting. Four people, two men and two girls in what looked like our school uniform – long white dresses and white pants – drifted toward us. As they drew closer, I could hear the men repeating some phrases, and I could see they wore the uniform of the American soldiers stationed at the base on my grandparents’ property a few miles away. A neighbor who spoke some English told us later what they were saying.
“Come on. We want to meet you.”
“Đêcho chúng tôi yên.”. Leave us alone.
“We want to get to know you. Come on. Stop for a minute.”
“Chúng ta phai vê nhà.” We must go home.
I realized one of the girls was my oldest sister, Dung. The other was Thach, my second oldest sister. They broke into a run, and the Americans stumbled after them, shouting. I could tell there was something not quite right about them. Their words were slurred and they missed their steps, swaying in the gentle breeze.
My mother appeared on the porch.
“Dung, Thach, quick, inside!” She gestured with sweeping arms and clapped her hands as if willing them to escape.
Dung and Thach ran faster, and their books went flying. The soldiers were catching up when one of them, the one with a black spiky haircut, beer belly, shirt tails half out, staggered toward the pile of school books, tumbled and landed in a heap, grumbling irritably. The other, a thin man with longer, light brown hair, struggled to lift his companion by the arms. Spiky rose then crumbled, shouting what Dung later told me was “Let go!”
While Spiky attempted to stand, Tie^n hurried home, and I sneaked through the trees unnoticed. I made a dash like an angry bee to the front door.
“Hông Thái, go!” my mother ordered. “Hide in your room! Do not come out until I come for you.” Her voice created panic inside me, a whirl in my stomach.
Dung and Thach burst in.
“Mother, help!” Dung cried, flying across the living room. “Two soldiers are after us.”
“I know,” my mother said, breathless. “Hide in Thái’s room. Go in the wardrobe or under her bed and be silent. Keep your little sister quiet. Go!”
My sisters rushed in. I was standing behind the door. Thach tugged me toward the wardrobe and shoved me in, following behind me. Clothes smothered our faces, and then Dung crowded in, too. We were crammed body against body, and sweat broke out on my forehead. I heard my sisters gasping, and Dung’s heart pounded against my cheek.
“Yên lang.” Don’t say a word, Dung commanded in a whisper.
Minutes later, but it seemed like an hour, I heard the soldiers bang on our door. We jumped out of the wardrobe, and I gasped. My sisters’ eyes widened in fear. Dung’s flashed like lightning.
Mother was screaming in Vietnamese, “Go away! Leave my house!”
We heard the soldiers hollering through the door. Then they opened it. We had no lock.
My mother continued screaming, her tone more shrill by the minute. I had never heard her sound so desperate nor so furious. We heard the Americans’ boots stomping around our entry and living area, their voices booming and vulgar.
“Đi đi. Rói!” Go away. Leave! She kept repeating the words as if their meaning would sink through to the soldiers.
Then the front door opened again. We heard another male voice, Vietnamese.
“Leave,” the voice said in English. “Go!” Someone had come to help.
I squeezed between my two taller sisters and halfway through the wardrobe door.
Dung grabbed my arm, whispering. “Hông Thái, what are you doing? Stop!”
I eased the door open a crack and slithered out. My sisters plucked up their courage and followed. My heart was thumping against my chest, like the mockingbird I had stroked once after pulling it from a trap. Our neighbor, Vinh, was circling the soldiers, flinging out his arms and yelling in English, “Leave! Leave!”
We all took the chant, and like angry bulls we jumped at them, repeating what we had heard Vinh say. “Leave, leave, leave!”
“We’ll blow your heads off,” the spiky-haired one thundered. “Get away from us. We just want to see them.” Vinh interpreted for us later. His family had had enough money to send him to school where he had learned some English. Families stood up for each other in our village.
He continued circling, waving and shouting at them, ignoring the threat to his life.
Realizing we weren’t weakening, the soldiers backed out the door, muttering. Mother ran to the window and looked out. Then she turned toward our neighbor.
“Vinh, thank you for coming to help us,” she said in a quavering voice. “Who knows what they would have done if you had not come.” She began to regain her calm.
Nodding as he withdrew from our house, Vinh left us to comfort each other, for by now we were all sobbing in a huddle.
Mother turned to me. “Hông Thái, what were you doing by the coconut trees? You were supposed to be getting ready for school.” Her voice cracked. “When I called, you did not come.” She spanked my bottom, but weakly, as though she had worked in the field all day planting vegetables.
“Girls, did you stop to talk to those men?”
“No, Mother,” Dung yelled. Her face scrunched up as though like she smelled a dead rat. “They were drunk.”
Dung said “drunk” with a clenched jaw. I wondered what she knew about men who were “drunk.” She had a whole life I didn’t know about because she was ten when I was born. I was determined to ask her, but I wouldn’t have a chance until that evening.
Mother walked me to school in case I encountered our American “friends” again.
“I told you to stay in your room,” she said. “Why did you come out?”
“I thought you needed help.”
She laughed. “Are you sure it was not because you wanted to see what was going on, you little monkey?”
Mother didn’t have as much faith in human nature as Father. She was kind, but she didn’t always expect kindness in return. She called it realism. Many villagers said of Father, “He is kind.” Of Mother they said, “She is generous and works hard for her family.”
I blushed when Mother entered the school and told the teacher of my disobedience.
“Please, remind Hông Thái not to stop and play with all the children on the way back to the village.” I thought she was worried because of the soldiers. But later Thach told me she was certain they were passed out somewhere. When I asked her what “passed out” meant, she explained, “They are sleeping drunks.” It sounded mysterious.
I forgot my shame as the teacher introduced a new lesson on character. We memorized most character lessons. They ranged from family values and behavior to correct actions in various situations and types of speech appropriate for different occasions.
Today’s lesson was from a folk tale.
“We study folk tales for several reasons,” the teacher said. “You must always realize that education and, in particular, literature should be your top priority to become the best Vietnamese citizen possible. Some people may not be able to afford education and others must work or we would have no food. But you are Vietnam’s hope for our future. Folk tales teach values and how to overcome conflict. You must never let Ho Chí Minh manipulate these words for you. He uses them to his own advantage, to deride the South Vietnamese. He says the stories are crude and ignorant, but fairy tales are lessons about how to act.”
I squirmed in the back of the room on my wooden bench.
“We will read ‘The Dã Trang Story.’”
I loved this story. A hunter received a magic pearl from a snake he protected in the forest. The pearl gave the hunter the power to speak with animals. Because he abused the gift and became greedy, he ended up losing the gift. The teacher reinforced how Ho Chí Minh became greedy and took more and more freedom from the people and became a dictator who couldn’t help anyone anymore as he did when he began politics.
Before we left school, we saluted the Vietnam flag and sang the national anthem. I looked around for my little brother, but Bân was not outside as usual. Because it was my job to bring him home, I waited. But he didn’t come out of the school. Every student had gone. I reentered the school and headed for Bân’s classroom. He was seated at his desk with his palms flat, and the male teacher was beating his fingertips with a ruler. Bân cried out each time the teacher struck him. As I came in, the teacher stopped.
“You must want to be a doctor when you grow up, Bân. That is all you could be with handwriting that bad. You can go now.”
Tears streamed down our faces as we walked home, saddened by the sarcasm and pain inflicted on Bân. He was only 6. “When at school,” my parents always told us, “the teacher becomes your parent. You owe him or her the same respect you would give to us.”
The world seemed too much for me right now. The Americans, whom we thought were our friends, had attacked us. A teacher, whom we must respect no matter what, struck my brother’s fingers. My world wasn’t as safe as I’d thought. A sudden realization came over me. There was much for me to learn.
We walked without our usual play, and when we arrived home, I caught a glimpse of Dung reading a textbook on the living room floor. Strict and sometimes unfriendly, Dung’s natural inclination was to criticize me, not to talk about anything I cared about. I loved her with a passion because I looked up to her, but I didn’t know her as well as I wanted. Being the oldest, she was more an adult than everyone except Khoa, my older brother.
When she left, I entered the living room.
My curiosity overcame my usual reluctance to bother her things. I opened her textbook and saw the words: “Kim Vân Kiêu, a story about a young girl symbolic of problems in the 18th century dynasty government, written in beautiful poetry.” I read, but I didn’t understand much. The young girl’s parents didn’t have any money, so they “concubined” her. I didn’t know what that meant. Kiêu, was “ravaged” and a man “revenged” her. I wandered out into the garden full of questions.
“Dung, what is a concubine?”
“Why are you asking me that?”
“I saw the story of Kiêu. You left your book open,” I lied.
“Kiêu worked as a slave for her family. We study that story every year.” Her eyes sparkled. If Dung liked the story, then I’d like it, I decided. I wanted to talk more, but she turned back to pick spinach for dinner. If I helped her, maybe she would keep talking.
I picked leaves and placed them in her bamboo basket. “It said a Buddhist nun saved her. I thought nuns stayed in their monastery.”
“During war, nuns have to leave if it is dangerous for them. You know, I lived in a Catholic convent before you were born.”
“Were you a nun?”
“No, it was Le Van An’s idea for me to go there.” Le Van An was my father’s uncle, a bishop. “I wanted to go there to study. Father said I was so smart I should attend college. Le Van An said the best education I could get was at the convent.”
“What was it like?” My heart pounded. Dung never talked to me about her life or her feelings. I kept my voice low and steady so my excitement wouldn’t sidetrack her.
“Well, the nuns were serious. Maybe that is why I am like that now. They focused on religion and learning, and that was about all I did for two years. I also worked to clean and cook for them. Everyone helps with work in a convent. Even the mother superior is responsible for a chore. I scrubbed the nuns’ clothes with the brush, made my own clothes, and embroidered handkerchiefs and towels.”
“Did the nuns teach you the story of Kiêu?” I said to keep her talking.
“No, we just study it in high school.”
“Did your teacher say good or bad things about Kiêu?” I didn’t know what I was really asking. I just hoped I would find a clue to one of the unknown words.
“The story is about free will. It is about how we suffer from past sins. If we are good, we will be rewarded like Kiêu was when she married well at the end.”
“She was not ‘consummated’?” I asked, remembering another strange word in the text.
“No, she was not. The man she eventually married was a good man. She deserved that because she was virtuous.”
I felt I understood even less now about Kiêu, but at least I could find out more about Dung.
“Did you like it in the convent?”
“Yes, I only wanted to learn to be a good daughter.”
“So, why did you leave?”
She put her basket down to rest a moment and knelt in the mocha-colored dirt. The sun struck her cone hat, and the light glowed around her face.
“I would not have left if I did not have to. After the French left our country, different groups, including those following Ho Chí Minh, were trying to take control of the government. The nuns sent us home for safety.” Her lips curled in a sneer when she said Ho Chí Minh’s name. I didn’t like to see her angry. It scared me even more than seeing American soldiers threatening us.
“I am sorry if I risked your safety today.” I felt my eyes tight in their sockets and my forehead wrinkled. Would she scold me again?
“It was not your fault. I would have gone out there soon. I was afraid Mother would be hurt.” She hugged me and we toppled over. And then she laughed and laughed, something unusual, even though her basket of spinach had spilled.
“Hông Thái, you are brave,” she said. “That is what I like about you.”
Then she was back to her normal severe self. No smile, no more hugs, no more kind words. That was her way. I held this moment close to my heart, for it could be all I would have from her. I cherished the words she’d said about me, her openness about her life, and the love she had for her family. I longed to be good like her.
I remembered what my teacher had said: “The Vietnamese can shape their own destiny.” It lifted me and made me feel a little more grown up. But what was my destiny? We lived day to day, never knowing what might happen, even when we were walking home from school. Even if we went gathering berries on the mountain.
“Do not take the road,” Mother warned. “Viet Cong use that route to gain power on the plains. And if you see helicopters, stand still.” Her eyebrows met in a frown over the bridge of her nose, but she smiled and hugged us one at a time.
Years later, I still think she did this knowing each time she lost sight of us, she might never lay eyes on us again. She always let us go, but she sent us away with a sharp warning. She would call us her “little wandering tattlers, flying away for an adventure, only to return at night for nourishment.”
On each of our arms was a small bamboo basket for gathering sweet black mountain berries on the Thác Đá. When we returned, mother would expect our clothes to be stained with purple juice and red dirt. Mother and Tuyêt, our housekeeper, would use stiff brushes against a metal-ridged board by the well to scrub our shirts and pants sparkling white. My little hands were never needed for this work. Mother told me my main job was to stay out of trouble.
But trouble would come.
I would push it out of my mind, but it would creep into my sleep each night. The bodies lined up outside the police station each day, both villagers and Viet Cong guerillas, didn’t bother me. That was normal. But until this day, never had I seen fighting up close, the actual killing. It was happening all around my home every night but under cover of darkness.
Beads of sweat trickled down my neck and back as the sun beat down on the craggy green slope. Below us, the rice paddies at the foot of the mountain sparkled like polished wood. From here, I could see the distant China Sea and its surrounding beaches. Dotting the waters, ships released scarlet smoke clouds of gunfire.
We reached a plateau and stopped to sit and rest. The villagers’ thatched homes of bamboo looked like frayed cone hats. Along the road, which we had avoided for safety’s sake, a familiar old woman appeared, toting a large basket like ours. She saw us and turned off the road in our direction. With her was a boy, perhaps an orphaned grandson, mounted on a water buffalo. As she walked beside him, the grandmother swatted the animal with a switch.
Thick plants and trees cloaked the mountain. We’d picked our way through, prying branches apart. This moment in the clearing was welcome. The grandmother stopped on the opposite side, glad of our presence, but not making friends.
The boy dismounted. His grandma handed him the basket and patted his head. “Hurry up and fill the basket. Come back quickly. Do not forget your way.”
Seating herself on a large boulder, she wiped sweat from her face and pushed gray wisps of hair back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. Her shoulders slumped. Half asleep in moments, she would wait for his safe return. The boy made his way back to the road, swinging his basket, his white shirt half un-tucked, his shorts baggy. His long hair hung to his shoulders, not a popular style. Probably they had no scissors.
“Should we catch up with him?” I asked, curious who the boy was even though he was Bân’s age, not mine.
“No, you know we have to stay off the road,” Khoa said. His tone was just like Mother’s, but lately his voice had squeaked when he tried to lower it to sound authoritative. I giggled.
“Hông Thái,” he fussed, “you must take this seriously. Listen to me when Mother and Father are not here.”
I raced ahead, branches scratching my face and hands without my older siblings to clear them out of the way. The sun mocked my high spirits. I heard the mountain stream and wished we could play in it. When I was with the others, they wouldn’t allow me to fool around. I was glad to be with them, included for once. But I felt my free spirit was chained.
We climbed for several minutes. Down on the plateau we could still see the old woman. Then I heard the familiar rumbling bee buzz of a helicopter. I curled my hand over my eyes and squinted into the sun. About a half mile away, a helicopter swooped down close to the slope, and a man hung out, looking through a cylinder attached to his machine gun. He was dressed in camouflage with a matching cap, and he wore a pair of wire-rimmed sunglasses.
We froze. No warnings from Khoa were necessary. I had it drilled into me: Moving meant death. “If you run,” Mother would lecture at least once a week at dinner, “the helicopter will see you as enemies and will shoot you.”
I faced the clearing, after checking to make sure all my brothers and sisters were with me. The grandmother sprang from her seat. She scrambled across the rocky ground toward a thick bush to her right. A big mistake. Up the road, we could no longer see the grandson. The water buffalo had been grazing. Now it snorted in agitation. With no understanding of where to find safety, the animal started running.
The grandmother raced toward the brush.
The soldier who leaned out darted back into the helicopter as it swept in her direction. She screamed like a cornered mountain cat, and he opened fire.
The soil around the grandmother’s feet erupted in dusty haze, as the gunfire chewed and pitted the earth.
Her head flew to the side, a red ball trailing a ribbon of blood. An arm was hurled into the brush. The bullets gouged gaping flaps in her stomach. I felt vomit rise from my stomach. We could do nothing, and I knew if we moved a muscle, we would be the next targets.
The shooting lasted less than a minute, but for me it dragged on as if in slow motion. The helicopter came in close, searching for any other movement. We stood like statues as it snaked along the slope.
I moved my foot for better balance.
Thach hissed, “It is not safe yet. Do not move!”
I stood, breathing and blinking only, thinking only of home.
A few minutes later, the helicopter flew off and we were alone. We talked about what to do.
“Should we try to move her to town?” Dung asked Khoa.
“No one could expect us to carry the bloody pieces back to the village.” Khoa’s voice was edged with a low rasp, unlike the squeaking that had made me laugh earlier.
“Can we still pick berries?” Nga, my second youngest sister, asked. “I do not think they will come back.”
“Nga, a woman was just killed,” Dung said.
“I know, but we did not cause it, and we can not help her.”
“It would be disrespectful not to honor her and leave her in peace,” Khoa said.
We began our somber descent. No swinging baskets or light chatter lifted our hearts. Down we climbed, stepping over rough and rocky paths and sweeping brush aside with our hands as we went. We looked around for the boy as we headed down, hoping we would see him. But in our shaken state we were desperate to get home. There was no sign of him.
I drifted down the mountain in a trance, but when I saw our home, I woke up. Our house was the one high place in the flood of sadness. We raced into the kitchen, where Mother and Tuyêt stood together, preparing the midday meal of shrimp and noodles for themselves and the workers who picked squash in our garden. Mother saw us first and flinched as if hit in the face. She stopped stirring the pot of shrimp, the wooden spoon clutched in her hand.
“What happened? Where are your berries?” she said, her eyes wide and anxious.
“A helicopter shot down that grandmother! The one who has the water buffalo and the rice field near the bridge on the Thác Đá side.”
“Was anyone hurt?” We knew she meant us.
“The boy climbed up to pick berries. He was not hurt.” Khoa said. “The grandmother ran. She was blown to pieces.”
Mother’s wooden spoon clattered to the floor.
“We stood still, Mother. We all stood absolutely still.”
Mother looked at us. Then she moved toward us, her face twisted with emotion, and spread her arms wide. I sucked in my breath and she gathered us in a huge embrace.
That night Mother came into my room to make sure I was in bed as usual. Outside, grenades and gunfire provided the background for sleep. She came to my bed and knelt beside me for the first time since I was small. Tears fell from her huge dark eyes, but her expression was calm.
“Mother, I stood still. I did what you told me,” I said.
She folded me in her arms. “Little one, you were a good daughter.” She stroked my hair. “You are a good daughter.”
Outside, the guns banged and boomed, somehow comforting us because we were used to them.
We never saw or heard of the boy again and didn’t know what became of him, though we asked everywhere. We hoped and prayed he was with some aunt or uncle or adopted by a nice Vietnamese family. Family is of the highest importance and, as Christmas approached, my family drew closer and closer together to heal our painful memories with our love for each other.