TRAN HOAI THU
(Translated by TRAN QUI PHIET)
She went back to look for that place. “Where is it now?” she wondered. All she saw were desolate tufts of grass and wanton vegetation although it was the same red soil, the same puddles of water and, far beyond, the same immense jungles eternally shrouded in heavy mists.
“It seems like yesterday,” she murmured, marveling at what happened more than twenty years ago. Pointing to the broken sandbags scattered all over the trenches and bunkers where the weeds grew thick, she said to her son:
“Papa’s remains might still be there.”
The young man, about twenty-one, whose face became red because of its exposure to the tropical sun, shaded his eyes with his hand as if to protect them from the summer heat, looking in the direction indicated by his mother.
“Mama, are you sure this was the battlefield you’ve told me about?”
“Yes, I’m sure, dear. In Vietnamese it is called bai chien truong.”
“No wonder there are tanks and trucks here. There is also a helmet.”
He pointed out a shattered object lying at the edge of the forest.
“Look! It’s over there, to my left. Did you see it, Mama?”
The young woman took off her sunglasses, trying to identify the object.
“A helmet!” she cried. “Probably it belonged to Papa.” Instantaneously she covered her face with her hands, her shoulders shaken.
“Let’s go over there to find out,” she told her son after recovering her composure. “Please, dear, bring along the incense bundle for me.”
“How do you know that helmet belonged to Papa?”
“I don’t really know. But don’t you see it is the only human trace among the wreckage and armored cars? Papa used to wear a helmet like this.”
“What did you say, Mama?” The young man asked, excitedly. “It …”
“I said that helmet is the only human trace here …”
“But didn’t you tell me that there were as many as one hundred casualties in that battle?”
The woman proceeded toward the edge of the forest, trudging through the thick, tall grasses. How can I, dearest darling, explain to our son this sorrow of mine? If you still care about us, please let us know where your remain are. I’ll go whenever your spirit leads me. I’ll seek, find and gather your bones, your hair. I’ll light candles, burn incense to warm up your spirit after more than twenty years of separation. Please accept my plea. She burst into tears. If you don’t, I’ll have to cling to this helmet. Please also forgive our son. He left the country when he was only six. As you know, he has been an orphan for the last fifteen years. Like me, he has no other relatives to turn to in the strange land. To get by, we’ve had to protect each other. Dearest darling, are you listening to me? Though still a Vietnamese, our son has been brought up at school as an American and, for that reason, would accept only logical truth. What shall I do to prove that this helmet was yours? Please, dear, show me how…”
There was a pleading note in the woman’s voice as she was addressing her absent husband that way. With the assistance of her son, she went on wading through the tall grasses, staggering and stumbling, yet determined to reach the edge of the forest where the old, rusty helmet now disappeared, now came into view before her. Darling, is it true that your spirit has revealed to our son this helmet of yours so that I can treasure the only keepsake of our short union? I remember seeing you wear it all the time when I visited you at the outpost. When asked about this helmet, you said:”It’s my talisman. A shrapnel came swishing by, leaving a long cut on my head. But it didn’t kill me.”
I think it’s quite all right for me to assume that this helmet was yours, the woman continued. Good-hearted as they are, the dead do not fight; nor do they kill or hate each other. Rather, they’ll bring you back to see me after such a long separation! To show them my gratitude, I’ll burn some incense on this battlefield to appease their lonely souls.
The woman did not slacken her pace. As she was approaching the forest, she could see the helmet more clearly. It had some straggly holes which had turned yellowish red. The young man was nagging at his mother.
“What makes you think that this helmet was Papa’s? I don’t remember ever seeing him mac it.”
“Say doi or mang, not mac,” corrected the young mother. “The English word wear has several meanings in Vietnamese: doi, mang, mac. But how could you see him mang this helmet when you had not been born then? Before you were born, I had come stay with him sometime for a whole week.”
“Wow! Weren’t you afraid?”
“It was pretty safe then. This former battlefield even had an airstrip of its own. When I got off the military helicopter, couldn’t see anything in front of me because the plane has churned up so much dust. Then he rushed over and embraced me…” She suddenly stopped.
A thrill of euphoria was creeping upon her. It was the same familiar sensation she had felt some twenty years ago, aroused now by her insatiable craving to nuggle against her man, to be compensated for her long loss. Don’t dear. They’re looking at us, she murmured, panting. And so it continued, night after night… She shook her head, trying to forget. Oh, darling, I feel so embarrassed in front of our son, I must have betrayed the warm glow rising in my body now. But how can I forget that bunker, that deck bed? Your son seems to be knowing my secret story. He’s an adult now.
“Is it fair to say you still love Papa after these years and he’d be proud to have wife like you?” the young man suddenly asked.
“Good Heaven! How dare you talk to Mama about love like that?”
Mother and son lapsed into silence. Her remembrances of the past, the stirrings of her young love which had overpowered her a short while ago vanished quickly. The clear sky suddenly grew dark as a big cloud came sweeping across it. Behind the woman and her son their guide, who survived the debacle, stood motionlessly out of respect for the sorrow of the two travelers returning from the other side of the globe. Now more than ever he seemed to perceive the return of his dead buddies who needed the warmth of the incense, the candlelight and the rice gruel. The dark cloud which had passed by must have come from the netherworld, signaling the rally of countless dead soldiers on the battlefield. Going over to the helmet, the woman took three sticks out of the incense bundle and handed them to his son, saying:
“These people were friends to Papa all the same. Light the incense and pay your respects to them and to Papa, dear.”
“What will I say to him? Please teach me.”
“Tell him that you’re back here for the first time since his death more than twenty years ago. Tell him also that thanks to his protection and support you graduated with highest honors from high school and were accepted for medical school.”
“I don’t remember everything you said, Mama.”
“All right, then. Just say what you can remember.”
The young man bows his head. He was six years old then, too young to picture clearly now the man he called Papa. He remembers vaguely that several times when coming home from a far outpost his father would seat him astride his shoulders so his little son could pluck a pear dangling in front of their house. He also remembers riding on his father’s back but was unable to enjoy this game long, for his father left soon afterward. He cried because his father would not stay home with him. Each time the family saw his father off, he would wriggle out of his grandmother’s grasp, weeping his heart out when seeing his father, as he was walking away, gradually become a tiny dot and completely disappear in the end. He didn’t know where his father went, he only knew that he came home and left in a hurry, appeared then disappeared mysteriously.
When he asked his mother why his father had been away for so long, she comforted him with a sigh:”Don’t worry, dear. Papa will be home soon.” “But where is Papa now?” he asked again. “He is out in the front,” his mother would answer. “What’s a front?”. “It’s a place where men fight, shoot at one another.” His mother’s explanation rang a bell in his mind. He had often seen the front on television where soldiers were scurrying around shooting boom! boom!
One day, a soldier escaped to the city to tell his mother that his father and as many as one hundred men of his unit were killed. His mother gave a piercing shriek and fainted to the ground. Everybody tried to revive her. They lifted her up, messaged her, rubbed medical ointment on her. A moment later, she woke up and started to wail. She said that she wanted to go and look for her husband’s body, but everybody talked her out of it. Later on, he understood why the family didn’t let her go. The Communists had overrun the Highlands. He also knew that his mother was out of her mind because of grief. He cried only because everybody was crying. Actually, he didn’t understand whether his father’s death had any impact at all on his life. What is death? Why did his father die? Why did his mother grieve so? Those questions were beyond him at that time.
Being a young adult now, he understands better the past and is able to remember it in greater detail. To him, the past is like a portion of film shown many times over. His mother’s hair was shaggy, her body went limp, and the crowd of on-lookers was getting bigger and bigger. He even remembers his kindergarten teacher stroking his hair and some children in the neighborhood looking at him with sympathy.
Memories almost bring tears to his eyes as he is now standing at a place which was one a battlefield. For over fifteen years his mother in her exile had only one dream: return home to search for her husband’s remains and be able to stand with her son in front of a grave, be it an individual or a mass grave, and silently address her dead husband. She wants to share with him her greatest pride: their son has started medical school!
Tears are welling up in the young man’s eyes. For the first time, he understands what a battlefield means. Holding the helmet in his hands, he says to his mother:
“Mama, let me take it back to the States. At least Papa would be with us forever. Don’t you agree?”
Translated by TRAN QUI PHIET