In Memory of my Mother
(1922 - 1987)
A husband and his wife were walking barefoot on the dirt road in the direction of An Lỗ village. They wore old black áo dài (long dresses) that were soon wet from the extreme heat of summer in Huế's regional area. They each carried 10-kilo bags of rice on their shoulders. The husband's thin body bent under the weight of his two bags. His wife, shoulders also bent, had blackened her face with charcoal in an effort to escape the notice of any soldiers they might encounter.
From time to time, they slowed down to wait for their five year-old son who struggled manfully to keep up with them, a small two-kilo bag of rice across his narrow back. Nguyên also wore an áo dài, but his only reached to his knees. His face reddened by heat and wet with sweat, he was exhausted but kept running nonetheless, keeping up with his parents' longer strides so that they could arrive at La Chữ village before sunset.
La Chữ village was located about 11 kilometers northwest of Huế City, on the edge of Trường Sơn Mountain, west of Highway 1 to Quảng TrịProvince.
His father looked back and stopped to see if Nguyên was alright, taking a sesame sugar candy from his pocket. Once the boy caught up, he kissed Nguyên's flushed cheek, gave him the candy and ruffled his hair. They continued on their way to the unknown village.
It was after midnight when Nguyên finally lay on a straw mattress that had been placed on the floor in kitchen of his friend's house. He lay awake, not because he was afraid of the dark--his parents were on either side of him--but because the monk, a relative of his father's friend , or rather, his voice, kept Nguyên from sleeping. When they'd arrived at the house of his father's friend earlier that night, the monk had asked his father about the movement of French troops in Huª City. His father said that he did not know anything because they left before the French soldiers came from Thuận An harbor, southeast of Huế City.
The Buddhist monk had seemed very curious and asked Nguyên's father many questions about news in Huế City, such as how people reacted to the French Legionnaires , etc. After dinner, when the moon could just be seen above the tops of the betel trees that graced the front yard, the monk left on an errand. Nguyên's father saw him hurry away, carrying something under his brown robe. The monk did not come back until late that night and started his Buddhist chanting once again, as usual.
Nguyên's parents seemed very tired from the journey and fell asleep before the candle began to burn the last of its wax. Nguyên heard the low, even breathing of his mom, whose arms tightened their hold on his body while she slept. It was almost as if she were afraid of losing him, who she called "the most valuable thing in her life", to the cruel war that had already lasted most of her lifetime. And then Nguyên also felt his eyes closing, shutting out the strange shadows dancing on the walls. He began to dream as the monk's steady "hmmm" faded from his awareness.
The family was in La Chữ village for about two weeks and every day Nguyên's mom brought their old clothes to sell in the market to buy food. There were his father's suits and shirts and his mother's silk áo dài, which her husband had bought for her when they were rich, that she'd had since the day she became his wife. That was before he lost his business due to an unfortunate investment plan and now they only had a little money left for daily living expenses. Nguyên's mother was sad that she had to sell their belongings but they needed money to buy food, so she made the sacrifice. Her husband was always at her side at the market until it closed. In the meantime, Nguyên was allowed to play with the neighbor's kids and their water buffalo.
The boys were very good at handling the water buffalo; despite the fact that it was that was so big compared to them, the huge animal readily followed their orders. She stopped on command and walked when the boys said "go." They used a small bamboo branch to threaten the water buffalo but Nguyên rarely saw them use it on her.
One older boy, who was about thirteen years old, allowed Nguyên to ride on the back of his buffalo. Nguyên was frozen with pleasure during the unusual ride. The big animal walked slowly but Nguyên was still afraid of falling off, so he leaned on the other boy's arm while holding the hair on the water buffalo's neck to keep his balance. These boys called him "City kid" because Nguyên had come from Huế City.
Their peaceful and uncertain evacuation lasted about three weeks, and everyday his father met business people who had been making trips up and down to Huế City to buy merchandise. He asked them about the activities of French troops and life in Huế. One night, Nguyên's father come home to tell them that the French Army occupied Ṭa Khâm Post and Fort Mang Cá.
Their Navy boats patrolled the Perfume River from Thuận An and they had built piers for their boats at Đập Đá by Trường Tiền Bridge. They had also begun to send troops for operations south to the Hương Thủy district, and north to An Ḥa village, only three kilometers to the east of La Chữ village on Highway 1.
When he discovered that the French had begun to search for young Vietnamese in the An Ḥa areas, Nguyên's father was frightened. He went to the backyard, to the dry creek behind the vegetable garden which surrounded by a dense bamboo range. He made a hidden reserve with trenches and then he covered the top of this hiding place with dry bamboo leaves; even if there were anyone standing close to it, he or she still would not realize that there were people hiding under the leaves.
During the three weeks, the Buddhist monk continued to go out every day until nightfall. Nobody knew where he went or what was he doing, but Nguyên's father usually saw him hiding something under his brown robe. Nguyên became accustomed to the Buddhist's constant praying, his voice rising and falling. Every evening, Nguyên sat on his mother's lap and imitated the monk's voice and gestures to make his mother laugh and squeeze him in her arms.
Nguyên loved his mother so much. He liked to hold onto his mom's sweet-smelling neck and to kiss her pink and white cheeks. He also loved to see a smile on her pretty oval face. His mom spoke very softly and musically, like a bird singing in the tree branches. Her voice had a Huế accent, but her hometown was Phước Tường village, near Hải Vân Pass in Quảng Nam Province, where they were known for producing beautiful girls. The land was also beautiful--the warm climate was comfortable, with a good breeze from Đà nẳng Bay and the white clouds hanging on the top of Hải Vân Mountain.
That morning, when the sun had risen, everybody heard the sound of an airplane flying low over their houses. Nguyên's father was in a hurry because from his experience, he knew that this was a Cessna-type aircraft that was used in reconnaissance missions. The artillery units usually bombarded the area with shells before they sent troops to search out the enemy. He got a fresh water canteen, some rice cakes and yelled for his friend to go into his hidden spot in the house which he had built for him. Then he grabbed Nguyên in his arms and guided his wife to the hiding place in the dry creek, approximately 300 meters behind the house.
His father put him and his mother into the hiding place and then covered them with thick dry bamboo leaves and stood back and checked his work. Due to his handy building skills, nobody would know that there were people hiding under the dry creek.
After he took care of his family, he hurriedly built a hiding place for himself not far from his loved ones so he could observe the landscape from down there. As soon as he finished his job, he could hear the sound of artillery shells falling in the marketplaces and in the areas of the people pagoda. By the time the sun had risen above the top of the bamboo ranges, one could hear the shells coming closer. Nguyên felt his mother quivering and knew that she was very scared. He kissed her cheek and they held onto each other for comfort. His father kept an eye on the village's main gate through the hole in the hidden reserve.
Over two hours after they had rushed to their hiding places, dogs started barking loudly and continuously. Then they heard shooting from rifles and automatic weapons all around the village; it was a sunny morning in the village 13 kilometers northwest of Huế City.
Nguyên's father knew that the French Legionnaires had come and he pulled more leaves to cover his body. He waited quietly. Nguyên felt his heart beating rapidly when they heard the neighbor's barking dog running past their hiding places...then a "tach...tach...tach", the sound of an automatic rifle and the dog was crying painfully. The crying stopped.
Suddenly Nguyên recalled the prayer that the monk often chanted, one requesting the blessing and protection of Lady Buddha "Nam Mô Cứu Khổ Cứu Nạn Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát" and he heard his mother was whispering the same prayer.
Nguyên's father guessed that the French Legionnaires were searching the houses and he hoped that his friend was still hiding inside his secret hiding place. As for the monk, they had seen him running toward the dense jungle and did not know what had become of him.
From time to time they heard the sounds of shooting and people crying, running in all directions. Suddenly they heard French voices on a PRC communicator come closer and there were footsteps walking toward their hidden reserves.
Nguyên didn't hear his mother praying anymore and he started to ask why she had stopped, but she put her hand over his mouth and signaled for him to be quiet.
... Nguyên's mom began to breathe again and seemed to relax a bit. His father waited a moment and then pushed the bamboo leaves away to peer out. He whispered to his family to stay in put in case the French soldiers returned. The barking of dogs was now only heard from time to time and only from a distance. Everything was quiet. He crouched as he ran along the creek and climbed onto a mango tree behind the house to see if the French soldiers had left the village. He saw that two houses near the village temple were on fire, the black smoke billowing in the cloudless autumn sky.
People started crawling from their hiding places, whispering to one another while pointing to the village's main gate. From experience, Nguyên's father knew that the Legionnaires had gone to search for young Vietnamese men in the neighboring hamlets. Somebody might be shot and killed before soldiers left.
He climbed down from the mango tree and came to the hiding place to help his wife and Nguyên out. It was noon. He carried Nguyên so he could reach the house more quickly and as he strode across the yard, he felt his arms getting wet. He stopped and looked at his wife and smiled sadly. His beloved son had wet his pants in fear of being found by that French soldier. Until now, Nguyên did not realize that he had had an accident.
They met his friend in the living room, who had been lucky to escape. He had only heard the soldiers searching the house for a short time, but they had destroyed tables, chairs and plates, smashing them on the floor. Nguyên's father said that this time they were lucky to escape capture but he was not sure that they would be so lucky next time...
The next morning it started raining very hard and lasted all day. The backyard was flooded up above Nguyên's ankle. Nguyên's father told his old friend that they planned to leave early the next day to return to Huế City.
Nguyên requested his parents' permission to go and say good-bye to his friend from next door neighbor who had allowed him to ride his water buffalo. He gave the boy a wooden sailboat that his father had made by hand in his spare time. Nguyên stayed with his friend until evening, after he had seen the water buffalo in the stable behind the yard. When he got back, he showed his parents a bamboo flute that his friend had given him as a souvenir.
Nguyên's father was packing his clothes in two bags and his mother was building a fire to cook sweet rice for the journey home. The smoke that come from the fire built with wet tree branches made tears drip down her red face, and dust covered their heads when Nguyên tried to help his mother keeping the fire burning. They hugged each other and laughed merrily, their shadows danced on the dirt walls. Outside it was still raining cats and dogs. From time to time a cold gusty wind blew open the thatch door to remind everyone that the autumn was fast approaching.
That night when the Buddhist monk came home, he said good-bye to Nguyên's parents and wished them good luck before he began his nightly praying. He then touched Nguyên's head, ruffled his hair and told his parents that Nguyên was a good boy. The monk also told them that he believed that Nguyên would be very skilled and would become a very special person when he grew up.
Everybody went to sleep early tonight because Nguyên's father wanted to leave when dawn broke so that they might be able to arrive in Huế City before dark. Nguyên fell asleep to the voice of the Buddhist monk that before had always kept him awake. He wondered about the monk's secrets, he who always hid something under his brown robe. Nguyên would remember this evacuation with his parents to the remote La Chữ village, in the summer of the year nineteen hundred and forty-four, for the rest of his life. Outside the rain stopped and only the wind was heard from time to time, blowing over the betel trees behind the garden. Nguyên sank into his dream as the monk finished his last hymn.
That morning, when the roosters started crowing joyfully and the first light of the day began to break through the pink clouds in the horizon, Nguyên and his parents left the friend's house and headed for Highway 1, about 3 kilometers east of La Chữ village. They had already said good-bye and Nguyên's mom had very kindly left behind all of the food, rice and cooking utensils that she had bought while they stayed in the house, along with a thank you note for his hospitality.
Nguyên's father had discovered a shortcut along the dry creek, a dirt road that might cut their travel time by one third. They also wore rubber shoes made from old tires that he had bought in the market, so unlike their last journey, Nguyên and his mother did not suffer any pain.
The raindrops were still hanging on the leaves and dripping on the tall green grass. Far away to the east, the sun began shining with its multicolored beams and over the horizon, pink clouds were drifting in the blue sky and a pair of long-necked cranes were flying over the ripe rice paddies that had not yet been harvested. Nguyên loved feeling one with nature and inhaled the clean unspoiled air. It was a beautiful morning. He chased the colorful cardinals along the edge of a rice paddy until his father called him back. He then ran in front of his parents and felt fine because he did not have to carry a bag of rice like last time.
When they reached Highway 1, there were people all over the road heading toward Huế City, which made them feel a more at ease. All along the road, wagons full of household goods were pulled by skinny cows or old horses--they were loaded with whole families returning from their short evacuation...
Thong Ba Le
To All Great Mothers in the world