Như Chẳng Có Ai
| As If No One There
AS IF NO ONE THERE
The hollowed out van lay there in loneliness. Everyone who passed by gave it only a mere glance before going on. They had no interest in a van missing a large door in the middle. Who would want to take home a burden like this, stripped bare and decrepit as it was?
Only I took my time, examining it carefully. Maybe it was curiosity. I had a taste for things contrary to others’. I liked what few others did, and discovered beauty whe-re others at first glance did not see it. I often brought home items discarded as trash, and turned waste into wealth. No wonder it was the source of my tough life.
The van was very long and so old fashioned. By its age going on through wind and dew, who would want to mess with a van made in 1975? Furthermore, armed with a V-8 engine, it would consume gas and oil like a deadbeat drunk. I must be crazy to take it home and be killed by the bills!
The exterior paint was a thick dark yellow, a color special to American public vehicles. It had peeled off in patches to reveal black metal underneath, which oozed streaks of rust that ran downward on both sides of the body, like proof of endurance marked on someone whose life had gone through many ups and downs. I patted it comfortingly and said a few words of reassurance, as if the van were a dear old friend.
I struggled yanking open the driver's door. A thick layer of gray dust covered the seats. The vinyl was dried and cracked. Sitting on it was like sitting on the rough edges of life, or with more imagination, like sitting inside a missile that had crashed years ago in some strange and remote place.
The owner had left the key dangling in the ignition. I turned it on. The engine squealed, sputtered on, then off, on, then off. I pumped the gas pedal. Aha! The engine coughed weakly a few times like the expectorations of an old man. A moment later, the entire vehicle shook roughly, gave off loud exploding sounds f-rom the exhaust pipe and began emitting black smoke. The smoke surrounded me in all directions with a strong bitter smell. The van must have lain there for a long time, asleep and forgotten f-rom some unfinished project.
I patiently stayed and played with the van, trying out the gas and brake pedals, pushing all the buttons and knobs. The radio still worked, the heater still generated a warm flow of air through the vent, and the windshield wiper still moved f-rom one side to the other. One of the headlights still turned on, while the other had burnt out years ago.
After ten minutes, the engine suddenly shifted and began running smoothly. I looked at the odometer. Twenty thousand miles. The engine had only been used for twenty thousand miles; could this be true?
The van was brought onto the auction floor that afternoon. More than a thousand people were present at the site, but no one bothered to bid when the auctioneer yelled out his call. The price began at ten thousand dollars and then slid rapidly down to five hundred dollars. The loud call rang out:
Seizing the opportunity, I raised my hand above my head to signal that I accepted the price. Immediately, f-rom his elevated post, the auctioneer raised the bidding price fifty dollars. His voice was melodious, stretchable like taffy, now up now down, now deep now high, like he was singing, “Five hundred fifty … five hundred fifty … five hundred fifty …”
He repeated the three words continuously. All the while his head turned f-rom side to side, eyes darting toward every single person in the room. Below, the baiters ran here and there, calling for more customers to join in the bidding.
My face taut, I looked anxiously around me.
A few minutes passed. And there, another hand rose. Jumping on the chance, the auctioneer pointed right at me, his voice now repeating urgently. “Six hundred, six hundred, six hundred …”
I shook my head. His voice was insistent, not giving up. The baiters now surrounded me, cajoling. One of them said, “It’s so cheap, and the car has only twenty thousand miles! So cheap! So cheap!”
Swayed, I hesitated for a moment then nodded. The buzzing hive immediately swarmed toward my opponent and attacked. “Six fifty, six fifty, six fifty …”
All eyes were on him. Tougher than me, the man stayed quiet and did not budge. The auctioneer’s voice became shriller with every moment that passed. Meanwhile, the baiters scattered around the floor, inviting this person, pulling that person, to join the bid. Still, no one had any interest in competing with me.
At last, realizing that he could not draw in anyone else, the auctioneer softened his voice and slowed down to emphasize each word.
No one on the floor moved. The sound of the wooden gavel hitting the table rang out like a shot. Pointing at me, the auctioneer stood tall on his wooden post and yelled into the microphone, “SOLD! Six hundred dollars.”
I was dazed, half elated, half worried. Well, I had just bought an old buffalo. I wondered if this animal would let me ride it peacefully; me, singing along with a flute at sunset time,
“La la la, who's said
Herding a buffalo
Or would this old buffalo throw me to kingdom come?
My neighbor, a handyman, went to the wrecking yard whe-re thousands of discarded vehicles, damaged and twisted f-rom accidents or other causes, were towed. He excitedly boasted that he had found a door that might fit the gaping hole in my van that I had bought a week ago.
I followed the adept handyman to the automobile cemetery. After paying an admission fee of fifty dollars per person, we could hunt to our hearts’ content for any needed parts or accessories.
We circled around for a while until the handyman pointed toward the bright red door of a truck whose front end had been smashed in, lying next to a large mountain of garbage. The red color looked disgustingly like blood!
I measured, and measured, and measured the door. It was a little smaller compared to the dimensions of the opening in the van, but my friend the handyman assured me that he could make it fit and usable.
F-rom early morning to late afternoon, we worked to remove f-rom here a whimsical car's emblem, f-rom there a length of wire, digging out f-rom under another pile four car tires in rather good condition …
We gathered everything together into a mound. When ready to leave, I suddenly saw two heavy metal beams with a thick cable dangling f-rom them, next to the entrance of the cemetery. The handyman explained that it was a hydro lift. I decided to take this additional item home.
After a few long months of cutting and mending and soldering, the van finally had a new door: a bright red one standing out in contrast to the deep turmeric yellow body. That really made me shudder! I hurriedly had it painted a dark mossy green. While the paint was still wet, I added dots of black and white here and there. In some areas, the three colors–moss, black and white–swirled together, creating the kinetic sense of four legs of an animal in a galloping position; at the rear end of the vehicle, one could make out its tail, swishing up high. Right above the two headlights, I soldered two metal wires, twisted sharply upward like two antlers. Truly, the van, with dashes of spices and imagination, looked remarkably like the water buffalo in my poor village of long ago. Looking at it, really, you could feel some sort of gypsy's life, of wandering here and there!
The thick metal plate, with two parts folding one on top of the other, was attached to the bottom of the door. When the electrical switch was on, the bottom plate automatically folded outward and the entire contraption slowly lowered itself to the ground. It could easily lift up or bring down any object, up to a thousand pounds.
Nothing to hide, truly, I had an ancient piano, also bought at an auction a few years after I came to reside in the U.S. Despite its ugly appearance, it had a very good core. The tone sounded deep, the wood had never been damaged by termites, and the wires and all the keys were in perfect condition. The piano was heavy, but due to its four wheels and my mobile lifting system, the job of lifting it into the van became as easy as waving our hands.
Hanging f-rom the ceiling of the van was a small TV with a remote control. Next to it was the communication system that would allow one to contact the regional police, or local people within a hundred mile radius. In case of an accident in which the driver became disabled, the alarm box– receiving an impact at a certain pressure– would send out a loud and non-stop siren until it was turned off.
The sound system was marvelous. One could hear the three-dimensional waves f-rom any corner. The anti-theft system was impeccably sensitive. If anyone attempted to steal the car, its engine would automatically turn itself off if the driver failed to enter the right password for the car to roll again.
The anti-fire system was also the best. The faintest smell of smoke anywhe-re in the van would cause the fire extinguisher to immediately release chemicals to eliminate the flames.
I happily had an inauguration party on a beautiful Sunday. Like a crowd of ants, excited children in the neighborhood gathered in my backyard. They jostled each other, oohing and aahing, as they curiously touched this and that, even messing around with the antlers. It’s cool, really cool, they said. My elderly next door neighbor kept asking, “Why did the van become such a strange animal?”
I passionately described the busy rice harvest time in the land of my ancestors, and the poetic image of herders riding with ease on their water buffalos’ backs on the embankments along the pleasantly green rice fields.
Bob, the elderly neighbor, nodded. “You must be really missing your home? “
My voice caught in my throat. “Yes, I do.” And I couldn’t continue.
At lunch time, I usually left work to be with my van. I loved it like someone newly in love. Yes, this van was my own corner of the world whe-re I could lean back, whe-re I was able to express my innermost feelings. And what feelings are there, that do not contain some melancholy?
Therefore, not very far f-rom work, in a vast and deserted parking lot, inside the van, I befriended my piano. The sound of music rang forlornly in this small space just for me to hear, while outside the van's windows was another world: a world filled with pettiness, mediocrity, and trouble.
The distance between real life and dreams was so close, only a few yards.
Once the cover of the piano was lifted up, I bent my head and gently touched the keyboard. Following the clap of thunder that exploded somewhe-re in the sky as if a signal, my fingers swept over the keys to pour out the sweet resonant notes of a well-known unfinished symphony by Schubert.
Ah, the music resounded like a magic spell, so vibrant that it drowned out the rain and wind of the real world. My soul soared to the skies …
It was not always like that.
It was not always that in the parking lot I would immerse myself in the music of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” nor would I drift in mid-air with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” nor drown deeply in sorrow with Chopin’s master piece “Tristesse.”
There were dreary moments when, as I sat still and watched the rain dripping outside, music suddenly welled up f-rom the depths of my heart. Inspiration came unexpectedly. It flowed into my right fingers to generate separate, isolated notes, which slowly blended into each other, and finally metamorphosed f-rom a continuous chain of sounds to a lively stream of music. Rhythmically, my left hand played the chords in C Major to accompany the melody of my right hand, and the harmony was sweet to the ear.
Flowing along with the music, poetry spilled forth, and my voice recited in song:
“What leaves are bathing now under the autumn rain …?
Formlessly, but again flowing f-rom the instincts of my heart, the chords then switched to A Minor. The lyrics became more fervent:
“I go back
”I hear my heart drip
Under the fading autumn sunlight, the dusty pile of leaves scattered in the whirlwinds.
“The leaves are flying this afternoon … like my soul in drunken state … dangling there a vision of a lonely moon … whe-re to find the way in me … the road to lead me home …
Oh my old school … who picked up those falling leaves … of a palm tree … in a pale afternoon … of my young age… whose lips were wavering … the image of a song…. whe-re pretty girls belonged.”
Thence, the sound of the piano lifted up the voice, and made the lyrics even more beautiful.
All the pedestrians who passed by the parking lot stopped for a moment. They would stare at the extraordinarily shaped van and frown when they heard the lively music emanating f-rom within the strange metal cage. Often, they would say, “Ah, who is this crazy artist?”
There were many people who stood in silence to enjoy the music. And when the time came for me to go back to work, I opened the small door to step out onto the gravel of real life. They surged toward me to shake my hand amicably. They took off their hats in greeting.
I would smile in return and walk away, my head bent down. The melody of the song still followed my footsteps:
“In the mist
”Life is intent
The water buffalo and the herder were always side by side, in each other’s company. However, when the herder was a wanderer like me, a real buffalo would surely tire quickly. I would bring my poor animal here and there because my rice paddy field extended to four corners of the world, with no frontier or shore. The water buffalo would go along with me, sharing all of my hardship.
Since the day I owned this van, my destiny changed. I no longer worked steadily at one designated place like before. I became multi-skilled. Whe-re ever there was a job, I landed there like a worker bee for a while to earn some income. Once my pocket filled up with a handful of money, I went back on my way for more adventures.
Fortunately, the van functioned smoothly; it never failed me on the road.
In the summer, there were times that the van was as hot as an oven on high heat. I drove it to the outskirts of the city and went past an airfield next to a big river.
The sky was cloudless and high and the wind blew incessantly. Once in a while, I could hear the deep drone of aircraft fans coming f-rom the runway–certainly an airplane was in the process of taking off.
In the air, several beautiful multicolored balloons floated and moved with the direction of the wind. Below, on the surface of the river, small boats with vibrant sails went up and down the current. Nearby there were a number of people surfing.
After driving along the riverbanks for a while to enjoy the fresh cool air, I finally stopped at a place whe-re a crowd of people gathered around a bus. Ah! I learned that they were preparing for an interesting and extraordinary game. Most of them were teenagers full of energy and enthusiasm. Equipped with either green or red outfits, rubber hats glued on their heads, and tight-fitting shoes on their feet, they were waiting for their turn to be transported to a Z location …
Z, like Zebra, like Zodiac.
Two helicopters with two big words–Z1 and Z2–painted on their bodies banked over the river. Standing on the riverside, everyone was excitedly gazing up at them. The aircrafts first made a few rounds back and forth, then flew side by side. Some minutes later, a rope ladder was d-ropped down. F-rom the inside of the helicopters, two people in sky-diving outfits stepped down, until they were clutching tightly to the ends of the ladder. The choppers, like two dragonflies, flew high and spat strings of smoke. They zigzagged back and forth until the smoke spelled out the letter Z in the blue sky. All the while, the two individuals dangled in the sunny sky. When the helicopters hovered next to each other, the daredevils swung, released their hands and threw themselves into the air. Amazingly, in a blink, they switched places: the person f-rom Z1 grasped the rope f-rom Z2. He then climbed up the rope and proudly waved his hand to the spectators standing on the ground. The person f-rom Z2 was now in possession of the Z1 rope. She lifted up her two fingers in a shape of a V, symbol for victory, in response to our cheering shouts.
The helicopters flew higher. The acrobats now hung upside-down, their feet hooked firmly to the rope. I held my breath as the dragonfly Z1 suddenly soared up high. Oh look, the green one had already released her feet, and quick as a wink, the red one reached out to catch his partner’s hands. My Lord, they made it! The four hands grasped each other tightly and the two bodies, one above another, dangled in the clouds.
Z1 skimmed along slowly next to Z2. Immediately, the girl in green outfit threw herself back to her initial post. Not wasting a minute, the boy in red flung himself to catch the girl’s feet. It was absolutely astonishing to see how fast they moved.
And so on, they kept playing the game in the air, until someone lost control and d-ropped himself into the water.
This lively summer scene exhilarated me. I parked in the shadow of a tree and excitedly looked for an easel.
I locked myself in the van, and slipped into the private world of painting. The subjects of today’s scene were laid out onto the canvas–
“I’m sailing on a sunny river
F-rom the sketching of the forms to the moment color transformed the canvas into a painting, Time flew. It was midnight. Outside, there was absolutely no one around. I could only hear the sound of waves clapping at the shores, louder and louder. The sky was pitch dark. Once in a while, there were blinking lights of an aircraft signaling that it was ready to land.
In the van, the two-foot battery neon bulb shed a soft light. I checked the lock on the door carefully, then prepared a dinner of bread and sardines. As I ate, I observed the artwork I’d just finished. Something did not go well with the person in the painting. Her hair did not fly as softly as the wind or the cloud. Her smile was very strained. I stood up to add a dash of sunlight at her eyes to make her look lit with joy. Another dash at her lips to make her smile more attractive, more inviting, and more lush.
When I finally d-ropped the brush and lay down on the rough camping chair, exhausted, morning had come without my knowing it.
Someone somewhe-re said that one would reap a basket of wisdom for every day he was on the road. That was very true.
Going here and there with my van, I became a gypsy on the way to the end of the world. Of course, I acquired some wisdom, and the most precious was the art of quiet suffering to overcome all challenges. In long suffering, there is bold endurance as well as modesty. The long suffering position is like practicing Zen, when the mind and heart are unmoved while facing a stranger’s meanness or dealing with adverse circumstances.
In the countryside, on the open beach, or at the high sky, I felt untied and free.
In spring, the weather was warmer and pleasant. There were many unemployed people in my hometown. Perhaps because it was the beginning of the year, and, like the wild goat or the bear in the jungle just awakened after a long sleep during winter, many business owners were still taking their time organizing their schedules. So when a company offered me a temporary job far away in the countryside, I did not mind taking it. I decided to hit the road; the sooner the better.
I left in the early morning. Heavy fogs hung low over the road and the van went at a snail’s pace because I could not see the road ahead of me.
The further I went, the scarcer the houses became, and the landscape became more rugged with tall evergreens lining the two sides of the road.
I pulled out my map and discovered that I had gone too far off the planned itinerary.
I managed to backtrack to the original route. The fuel light flashed on to inform me that the gasoline supply was low. Fortunately, I always carried an extra can of fuel for emergency purposes. The van could go at least ten more miles. As an extra precaution, I pushed on the communication button, requesting information about the closest gas station in the area, or the closest neighborhood.
No one replied. Did that mean that I had gone beyond the reach of police radars?
Somehow, in turning the van around, I had gotten lost in the heart of a rugged highland. The heavily wooded stretch was bisected by a winding, rough trail snaking to nowhe-re. Once in a while, here and there, piles of straight trees denuded of branches and leaves appeared on the side of the road. It looked like as they were logs that some one had cut down, waiting to be hauled away to town. I felt some relief, hoping that there were people around this remote area.
I had the impression that sometimes the van was climbing up a slope, because the buffalo moved its steps forward heavily. Thick smoke spewed f-rom its nostrils. The tires, under the pressure of constant brakes, released a burning rubber odor. At other times, I felt like I was hurtling downward a steep mountain, because the buffalo c-harged ahead at high speed, as if it was flying.
Going up and then down, the van kept running more than ten miles to nowhe-re.
Feeling my spirit and mind overwhelmed, I pulled the van over to rest and to cool the engine down for a while. Winding down the window, I heard the rumbling noise of running water. As it turned out, I was standing on a high bluff whe-re a waterfall was rushing and pouring down to the earth.
Like a divine aura, the clouds circled the mountain crest. The sun shone through the d-roplets of water spraying f-rom the waterfall, giving me as spectacular a show as firecrackers during festival time. It was very high here, and surely it was apart f-rom the world, because I could not see any sign of towns or cities, or anyone around. Earthly life seemed to regress into the past. Did the buffalo and I, beings in different physical forms, possess the same spirit as light, as the breeze wafting at the mountain peak?
A soft fragrance, coming f-rom a multitude of flora blooming everywhe-re in the rocks, filled the pure air. The white flowers with transparent and fragile petals, highlighted by a dusting of glittering yellow powder, were strikingly beautiful. I reached out to pick a few. As soon as I touched them, the petals fall apart and scattered in the wind. I named them the “Wandering-Wind-Flowers.”
I bent down to scoop up the clouds that swirled around my legs, around my body. As soon as I touched them, they melted away. I named them the “Dreamy-Bliss-Clouds.”
Today, lost in this place as if no one there, I kneeled down to carve my name, at the top of a mountain.
There, under the blue sky, the piano and I played triumphantly joyful music.
It was easier climbing the high mountain than going down.
To save some fuel, I turned off the engine, shifting the gear to neutral. The buffalo crawled slowly, step by step, down the steep slope. The herder kept the brakes on constantly, releasing it barely just enough for the buffalo to inch forward head first. Hell was somewhe-re in front. The road home was a perilous challenge with the lives of both van and myself dangling on the line. I kept telling the buffalo as well as myself, “Keep moving ahead like that.” Yeah, keep moving like that; very slowly, very stable, very confident.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we went past the most dangerous curve.
Yet, Death was always lurking right around the corner. After we had gained a few more yards, the sun suddenly shot its horrible glaring rays straight through the windshield, blinding my eyes in an instant. I lifted my right hand to shield the sunlight while my feet pushed hard on the brakes. The van lurched forward, and within a blink, spun around 360 degrees. Panicked, I grabbed the wheel tightly and tried to use the emergency hand brakes. But it was too late. My buffalo slammed into a tree, and, losing its traction, slid down to the deep abyss.
The whole thing happened too fast. I only knew that, like a dart, I was shot into space.
…The dart landed into a branch; or to be more specific, a branch somewhe-re had stretched out its lengthy arms to pierce the sweater on my back, holding me in the air.
I did not know how long I had been in this position. My arms and legs were in frantic motion, just like a spider that had d-ropped f-rom its web. God gave the spider threads to weave, an ability to rescue itself. As for me, how could I save myself f-rom this horrendous situation? Well, I suspected I could wait for hunger and thirst to kill me slowly …
My spirit flip-flopped between consciousness and reality. In the midst of desolation, I vaguely heard the dramatic cry of a wounded animal. Or was it a cry of suffering wrenched f-rom the depth of my own heart?
Right at the moment when desperation grabbed hold of me, the branch which bore me afloat rattled. Under my weight, it kept bending down.
The cracking noises of a branch ready to break became more and more urgent. It was like the sound of bells signaling the end of life. It was like the victorious clapping hands of Mr. Death.
I suddenly opened my eyes and looked around frantically. Not very far away, I could see some trees with branches reaching towards me, and numerous green and brown roots hanging down.
What kind of force was it that made my body bounce into action, that made me kick my legs and fling myself to grasp those roots firmly? Was it truly a miracle, or just the prospect of Death that can cause human beings to overcome any obstacles to survive?
It was absolutely not possible to climb down the tree, especially when I found that my chest was wounded, something that I had not noticed before. Possibly the damage to my chest happened when the van slammed the tree before it went down the mountain. I guessed that the sternum linking my ribs was broken.
Securing myself was the first priority. My body ached terribly each time I stretched my arms to pull the lengthy roots upward in order to coil them tightly around my waist. Despite the pain, I gingerly kept tying more roots around my ankles and around my wrists. This way, if I happened to fall asleep, I would not d-rop to my death. At least, I could live through the night.
Darkness blanketed the whole area. The persistent whistling wind through the trees terrified me. Like an ape, I was now dangling under a canopy of leaves, wondering what fate would bring me in the next minute or the next hour. Time slowed, each hour like centuries …
Drained and exhausted, I slumped down and rested my head on top of a bundle of leaves, my arms and legs still clutching a branch tightly.
How was I to make it through the night?
To escape the feeling of fear and to know that I was still alive, I kept my mind busy by going back to my past.
Many years had passed, but the images of the night in Rung La had not been swept away in my mind:
My father, forced to bare a naked torso, wore only short underpants. His hands were crossed on top of his head. Under the moon light shining through the leaves, his hair–now looking grayer than the day before–hung on his forehead. He was kneeling down, facing the pointed rifles of two Viet Cong soldiers who were about seventeen or eighteen years of age. These two soldiers kicked my father’s chest, asking him about the location of the gold he had hidden, the location of the boat which he had planned to use to escape, and the names of people who had organized the trip. The old man remained silent. Furious, they hit my father’s head with the rifle butts. The victim collapsed on the ground, still. I hid myself in a bush and felt tears stream down my face.
I checked that all the roots around my body were secure, then closed my eyes and silently mumbled a prayer to my father. The darkness was so thick it frightened me. Fear came as strong as it did one night long ago:
When the rapid sounds of scattered gunfire and the rustling noises of running people came close to me, I threw myself into a nearby murky swamp. A big frog jumped in front of me and landed on my shoulder. I swept it aside. Under the moon light, I saw indistinctly the shadow of a Viet Cong soldier running back and forth on the embankment of a trench, screaming “Catch him! Catch him!” It was the sharp, acidic accent of a female soldier f-rom the North. Frantic with fear, I immersed myself beneath the water lilies … In the distance, the sounds of gunfire bursting came more frequently, and it sounded like there were more soldiers around because I heard the shouts and swearing of male voices. They were reporting that they had caught two persons alive.
Once in a while, I pushed away the water lilies and pulled myself above the water to breathe, then quickly re-immersed myself deeper in the water. I stayed there the whole night.
When all the Viet Cong soldiers were gone, I got out of the swamp, thanking God for my safety.
In the quietness of the night hours, once in a while I could hear dogs howling, and frogs croaking. I felt so cold. I crawled on the ground while covering myself with dry banana leaves and sought refuge in a pile of hay.
At sunrise, I hurried to the road to find my way home. A small Lambretta brought me to Ba Ria market.
I sat down next to a mobile food vendor for a bowl of breakfast noodle soup. The chattering comments of people nearby startled me. I left immediately and went inside the covered market to buy a conical hat, a pair of plastic sandals; and new clothes. I changed f-rom my mud-soaked clothes in a public restroom.
The sounds of clapping metal made by the police collaborators wearing red bands on their upper arm came first. Then, voices of the local police officers blared f-rom loudspeakers, announcing jubilantly that they had captured two people. The announcement kept going on and on, claiming that the two had belonged to the old regime and were caught last night while rebelling against the government. I stood in the crowd to look at two dead bodies lying on top of dirty tables in the center of the market. Their heads were covered with a grey wrinkled piece of old fabric.
My face hidden under the large conical hat, I cried in silence to mourn them because they were not strangers to me. Here was N.T.Linh. There was T.N. Thuy. They were brave individuals in my group. They were Vietnamese nationalists full of enthusiasm and idealism, willing to fight for their cause in a very difficult situation. We had been gathering at a secret location to receive our duties in the ideological struggle against the Viet Cong regime. There, we were discovered, dispersed, and some of us were killed.
Under the blistering sun, a high-ranking police officer read the verdict against the two dead men.
Deep down in my heart, this wound would never heal. Dear old friends, please forgive me for not accomplishing my duty at the time, for not finishing things that I was supposed to finish.
The fierce pain f-rom my chest brought me back to reality. Sweat soaked my shirt. My teeth chattered. My hands and legs shook uncontrollably. My breath was like hot steam. I felt so very cold.
It was obviously that I was in the middle of a fever. Possibly the chest wound was infected, or possibly I had caught the flu. At times, I wanted to get rid of everything wrapped around my body, and fall to the ground to end my life. However, my body ached so much that I could not lift my arms or legs.
Morning finally came.
I stirred myself awake. Through my half-opened eyes, shafts of sunlight filtering through the leaves danced here and there. Never before had I hated this light so much. It was the sun that brought me into this desperate situation.
A stream of saliva ran down a corner of my mouth. I wiped it off. Green thick fluid soaked my hand, reminding me that I had been in high fever last night, and in the delirium, I had grabbed a bunch of leaves nearby to suck up the green fluid. Pain, hunger, and thirst were killing me at the time, but luckily, the leaves were not poisonous.
Holding my chest, I managed to sit up slowly and looked around. A flock of birds were flittering f-rom one branch to another, and their chirping irritated my ears.
Below was nothing more than an immense tapestry of countless trees and leaves. Right now, I hated so much this green color. It separated me f-rom the human world; it isolated me f-rom everything else.
Even though I wanted to do more, being wounded and sick, there was no way for me to climb down the tree. Each effort at movement made my chest feel like I was poked by a thousand needles. Fortunately, as I crept up the branches gingerly, I saw two bird nests. One was filled with five blue eggs. In the other was a group of baby chicks. Without hesitation, I grabbed everything and stuffed them in my pockets.
In my hands were the tiny chicks, whose bare bodies were nothing more than rosy skins. Their eyes were completely shut, but their beaks, widely opened, kept turning right and left for food. What a pity! They would soon become my bread of life to keep me going through this ordeal. Just a few hours ago, when my stomach was craved food, I was about to bite my own flesh to survive and did not care what would happen next. Well, in a desperate situation like this, how could a person think straight?
At noon, I heard the noise of an airplane flying over the area. Ignoring the physical pain, like a maniac I stood up sharply. It was true–there was a small airplane droning toward my direction.
Frantic with glee and with tears running down my face, I checked all the ropes tied around my waist. I grabbed the edge of a branch and hoisted my body out.
But what a disappointment! Despite all sorts of shouts, my efforts were futile. The airplane circled the area a few times then disappeared behind the mountains. They did not see me. They did not hear me.
As the sun went down, a blanket of darkness descended over the entire immense area. Shivering, I covered my head with the tattered sweater. Like the previous night, I sought refuge under the thick leaves.
By nightfall, the jungle became more and more unfathomable. When the moon rose, the howling of the wolves and other wild animals scared me to death. I clutched to the branches, and in order to escape fear I tried to keep my mind busy.
At that period of time, Saigon was in crisis. One by one, many of my relatives and friends were caught and placed in custody. Caring for my children alone, I looked for ways to flee the country. During one attempt, we got caught. Being too young, my children could not endure the tough life in jail, and they kept crying all day and night. For that reason, after two months in jail, we were released.
Once at home, I had to confront the local government. Placed on trial at an open-air people’s court, I was treated as a treasonous criminal.
History (the scenes of public denouncement of 1954) replayed itself. More than one hundred people were gathered at a school yard on Kỳ Đồng Street. A Viet Cong district police official banged on the table, and used degrading terms to describe the criminal. He asked the public to convict and severely punish me to set an example for others:
“You, that woman, confess your crimes to the public,” he shouted.
I mumbled, “Yes Sir, my name is —-, and I am married to a person who belonged to the old military regime. He is now in the re-education camp. My children and I were residing at 126 C Nguyễn Văn Trỗi. My family food ration (hộ khẩu) belonged to Ward five, District three of Ho Chi Minh City. I am here to admit that I have committed wrongdoings. I am guilty of being selfish. Desperate for survival and afraid of death, I was a coward who refused to stay here to share hunger and difficulties with everyone else going through the same thing. My crime is the crime of those intellectual capitalists who only care for their own welfare; always trying to escape the miseries of life to seek happiness for their own family.”
The police official interrupted, “How dare you! What are you trying to tell people? You deserve to be executed to set an example for everybody! “
He continued, “Based on the report that I received, in the past you have participated in the students’ rebellious activities against the Thiệu and Kỳ’s governments. For that, you have earned some credits with the Revolution. Why are you now turning your head to flee the country? Uncle Hồ and the Party have liberated the people of the south f-rom the imperialist American domination. Lift up your face with pride.”
Below, in the audience, some hands were up to support him. But the echo “long live“ sounded weak.
I lifted my head up and composed myself enough to tell my story. “Yes, like Lục Vân Tiên, I could not stand the corruption of the old regime. When the Revolution took over, I chose to stay in order to help heal my war-torn land. But I was very disappointed to discover that the Revolution is nothing better than before. Corruption is every whe-re. For that reason, I decided to leave …”
The audience was completely mute. No one had the courage to stand up to point a finger at me, because through me they could envision their own future.
The public denouncement was not as successful as the district wanted. Perhaps at that time, southern people were more stubborn than northern people some decades ago. Also, the wealth of the South made newcomers covetous. The seeds of discord started to germinate in the heart of many people, South and North.
I saw a snake. To see that reptile, with its two eyes shining as bright as two small electric lights and its tongue flicking in and out, crawling towards me, filled me with paralyzing fear. I pressed against the tree, unable to move, holding my breath. The snake eventually turned and slithered in another direction.
Oh, night, mighty night, why are you so endless?
Four days and four nights had passed.
Everyday I scoured my brain to think up ways of how to make a connection with the rescue airplane. At one time I took off my shirt, tied it to a Iong stick, and lifted it high in the air. The wind blowing through made it fly like a flag. However, that did not last long, because soon the shirt broke loose and blew away with the wind, even before the airplane showed up. What bad luck!
Without a shirt, dew covered my naked torso during the night, and I caught pneumonia. I coughed non-stop. My lungs filled with mucus. I prayed to the jungle god for survival: “Oh, please understand that I am no Tarzan, that I can not tolerate this harsh wilderness environment. Please do not torture me that much.”
I broke down in tears incessantly. Again, my head filled with memories of the past.
Carrying my three-year-old son on my back and holding the other one-year-old against my chest, I crouched down and crawled slowly toward the beach, always trying to dodge the sweeping beam of light f-rom the lighthouse above my head. My two daughters, ages eight and six, were separated f-rom me during the trip out to the beach.
This was the sixth escape, and we had to succeed at all cost. I talked to myself like that in order to push forward despite whatever risk and danger awaited us.
Struggling to reach the place whe-re a small boat was waiting for us was an extraordinary effort because the two boys were too heavy for me to carry.
When I heard my daughters’ calls of “mommy, mommy,” I felt overwhelmed with happiness. With the ocean winds whipping around us and the continuous crashing of waves at our legs, we embraced each other, ready to live and die together.
The small river fishing boat THR 8753, equipped with a three-horsepower engine, left the shores of Vung Tau on that pitch dark night in 1977. Seventy-five people were aboard, heading to the open waters.
We had no sail, no cover except for the tiny cabin over the engine room, and like a fragile leaf, the fishing boat survived frightening storms in the rough sea. At times, everyone thought they would die or become prey to the circling sharks, especially when the motor of the engine failed to run . The poor boat twisted so much in the high waves that the caulking broke its seams and water began to seep in f-rom the bottom.
Every few hours apart, each person received a bottle cap amount of drinking water. I did not get a d-rop because I gave away my portions to my children. After three days at sea, I collapsed. What was that holy liquid pouring into my lips to bring me back to life?
Oh dear you, the person who was in c-harge of that escape ordeal, please receive my heartfelt thanks. You had shared that rare and precious sip of coffee to rescue me at sea.
All escapes by sea were extremely dangerous, and the distance between life and death was only inches. Yet I walked through the storms, holding high the torch to illuminate the road of the future for my children. Why should I bury myself today in this remote highland and dense vegetation?
After five days of chewing only very bitter leaves and eating raw birds, I became crazed. Every morning, every mid-day, the airplane combed back and forth across the area then flew away.
I broke down, sobbing. O, my father, O, my mother, O, all my gods …
Entangling myself in the tree roots and leaves, I perched high on top of a tree, matted hair covering my face. Truth be told, I looked like a cheap medium who had failed to say a spell correctly or chanted a holy prayer improperly. As a result, my prayers did not work. I desperately gritted words through my teeth, crying and laughing at the same time. I tore all the leaves off my body.
Who was standing there with naked breast, monkey not monkey, human being not human being? I only had a pair of pants left, why not let it go? I took off my jeans, tied them very tight this time at the end of a stick, and held the whole thing high in the air.
The trousers flew freely in the wind, exactly like a dummy chasing the birds away in rice fields.
My lips swelled badly and turned blue. It was possible that my body could not tolerate that raw bird meat, causing a reaction of itching everywhe-re. OK, OK, I was now at the end of the rope, I had no way to run for my life. Here came the countdown as I seemingly knocked at the door of Hell.
Whe-re were you, Mr. Death? Let’s show off your sickle and triumphantly end my life!
Who tapped my cheeks to wake me up? Was I really back to life, or was it just a dream?
The trees and leaves around me shook tremendously as the helicopter’s rotors were in full swing. Someone tied a giant belt around my waist. Another belt was supporting my neck, and one more at my legs. A few minutes later, my whole body was lifted up to the air, up and up.
I rented a taxi cab f-rom Portland heading east. The car went through many small towns and narrow roads and finally came to the highlands of central Oregon. It kept moving forward to Bend, a region of endless evergreens. Following the map that the police had provided, we were searching for a wrecking yard located next to several recycling scrap iron businesses, about thirty miles away f-rom the city of Bend.
It was still early when we finally arrived at the designated place. The wrecking yard was not yet open for business. We had to wait more than twenty minutes.
The taxi driver lit his cigarette. He hesitated a moment and started the conversation. He was concerned about my wounds because my chest was still encased in a cast.
“Have you been in a car collision?”
“Not really. Two weeks ago, my car was thrown into an abyss.”
The man threw his cigarette to the ground, and exhaled. “Oh, were you the victim? I remember now. At the time, all the news and radio and television kept reporting about the missing of a—”
“Yes, about my disappearance. I did go over all the articles written in the local newspapers when I was recovering in the hospital. I was very touched to know that there were hundreds of volunteers willing to search for the victim in the forest.”
“Your survival was truly a miracle.”
I nodded my head, tears coming to my eyes.
Above, the sky was cloudless blue. In a deep and low voice, I told him the stories of my van. Oh, my dear van, with so many beautiful and sad memories.
There were times when money was low and, being unemployed, I took my paintings to many fair events in the suburban cities to sell. After hanging my artwork around the van, I pushed the piano out. Like a Chinese vendor in the old stories, I sat playing music for the passing public. People curiously gathered around me to enjoy the paintings and to listen to my music. I got plenty of change in return. Later in the night, I would drive home.
It happened one time that, on the long trip home, I pulled the van over at a restaurant still open at that late hour. I discovered that a street utility pole was somehow towed at the rear of my vehicle, possibly f-rom a gas station whe-re I’d stopped to pump gas. Fortunately, the gas station did not explode, and I felt lucky that no police had gone after me.
I smiled. “Well, I worked hard that night. Once that utility post was rid of, within a second I drove away, not worrying about my meals.”
Exhilarated, I passionately told him about the days I sat hours at snowy Mount Hood with my camera to capture images of the mountain at dusk. I waited and waited until the sun passed at a specific angle to the mountain. Lights streamed down the slope in an extraordinary yellow-orange shade. With an entire roll of film, I photographed all angles of that miraculous light. At home, I developed the film, and was still not happy with the result. I returned to that mountain again and again until the day I was satisfied with the outcome.
Despite clear instructions, we had to walk all over the place to finally find the van that once belonged to me. We found it tucked in a corner far away whe-re no one cared to look. That was because the van was totaled, with nothing left worthy to be recycled. It was completely useless.
It was so sad to look at. The head had slammed so hard into the trunk of a tree that horns were gone. Headlights were broken, and so were the windshield. I had been thrown out of that open hole.
The door had busted open upon impact then twisted backward to throw every thing out. Someone had found the body of the piano at the bank of a stream.
The van was now stripped bare and decrepit. In some places, the dark mossy green paint had peeled off to show the turmeric color underneath, and the door exposed some red blotches.
Yellow and red! I bent my head down, tears in my eyes. These two colors, no matter under what regime, were still the colors of the flag of Viet Nam, the country whe-re I was born and had grown up.
I kneeled down to be close to the van, and could not stop crying. The taxi driver also sat down next to me, surprised about the feelings of Oriental people.
He said, “I am sure that the insurance company will pay you for a better vehicle.”
I shook my head. “Nothing can replace a sentimental object belonging to us. This is my buffalo, it reminded me of my past, do you understand?”
Of course, how could he understand what I was talking about?