Oakland Night Question
(Đinh Từ Bích Thúy chuyển ngữ 30 tháng 4 năm 2007, tu sửa 10 tháng 12 năm 2015)
Night is about to end when Đức and I get inside his decrepit car. Thiện stands underneath the arch of his apartment complex, waving goodbye. Yesterday afternoon, Thiện and Đức came to see me at my hotel. Thiện’s hair, which goes past his shoulders, made me a bit wary. But this feeling did not stay with me for very long. Thiện is courteous, affable, easy to be with, even romantic—I realized this afterward. Lying on a sofa in Thiện’s apartment, during the predawn hours, I let my mind wander along with the singing and guitar music of my new friend. Suddenly, certain thoughts came to me, thoughts that at first seemed fragmented, irrelevant, but in fact were related to Đức’s question, posed to me earlier. The question was raised, as if it was a natural part of the conversation, exchanged above foaming beers and plates of blackish blood pudding at a restaurant in the town where we congregated last night.
Đức and I would get together in a city, toward the southern part of the state, where neither of us lives. I have the sense Đức never lives long enough in any city to be considered a resident. He lives alone, has no real responsibility to anyone, travels often and anytime he pleases. That fact alone makes me extremely envious. On the other hand, I am older than Đức, old enough to kill and be killed legally before Đức had the chance to participate in the grown-up game we call war. The fact I was born and grew up in a poor village in the countryside, filled with the omnipresent traces of bombs and bullets, has sufficiently unsettled him. Inside the walls of an elegant villa, separate from all the dangers of war, people could fall prey to the extravagant demands of their minds. Đức told me about his complex, precocious thoughts about war in a composition written during his last year in elementary school.
Regardless of all the differences in age and war experience, I think Đức and I belong to a group of those who stand precariously on two rafts floating in opposite directions. We try to keep our balance so we won’t fall into the black chasm of confusion gaping beneath us. Indeed, I may be more successful than Đức in steering my raft against the current, back into the past.
There are things in my past that will pursue me for the rest of my life. For several years now, I have gone backward rather than forward. Those who are Đức’s age or younger, like his friends, used to surprise me with their ability to speak about things besides phở, Huế beef noodle soup, and rice bits (cơm tấm) in Vietnamese. Long after my initial surprise subsided, I concluded that perhaps my reaction had originated from the fear of having my last “lifesaver” snatched from me, the lifesaver being my native knowledge of Vietnamese. When a person can no longer depend on certain things in life, the fluency in which he speaks his mother’s tongue in an environment that does not value this asset can prove many things, including the coy desire to express his adherence to his dreary past.
Lately, when encountering Đức’s young friends, I have come to expect from them the ability to express abstract thoughts not only fluently but also trenchantly. So I wasn’t surprised when, earlier, I heard Thiện and Đức argue passionately about fresh assertions in a historian’s newly published work that has attracted the younger generation’s attention. They argued in Vietnamese. Also, I wasn’t the least bit surprised later when Thiện, hugging his guitar, sang his latest song in English until the early morning hours, in his clean and orderly apartment.
When the war ended, Đức was old enough to carry with him the ashes of the past, at the same time he was too young to cherish them as the only assets upon which a person can stake his claim. It seems as if this bit of ashes occasionally gets stirred up by something or someone, creating a dust cloud that would choke Đức and make him cough. It wasn’t a coincidence that he selected for me Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World when we visited his favorite bookstore at a little corner near the heart of San Francisco. After laboriously mulling over, with my limited English, the ideas raised in this novel, I realized several issues have occupied and will occupy Đức in the years to come. I also realized that these issues have long ceased to trouble my conscience. If I were to make an analogy about my involvement in the war, I think of myself as a gambler who has lost everything in his last round, and is at first perplexed in trying to sort things out. Since the winner would not forgive my gambling losses and let me start over, my complaint or regret over my own folly would not change anything. So I decide to depart the gambling scene, consoling myself that in any event I have finished my round, albeit disastrously. After a while, this I-have-finished-my-round notion becomes a mantra for difficult situations. But not all of them. When Đức’s question[CCE1] came up, or rather, floated toward my direction above a table full of empty beer bottles and cigarette butts, I imagined catching something anxious and beseeching in his gaze. But I ignored the question. I did not want to answer such a question. Perhaps it has also been my question. But to whom would I ask this question? At any rate, I still think I owe him my answer.
When his car turns into a road leading out to the freeway, Đức smokes his first cigarette of the journey. He will smoke nonstop throughout this trip, and at times will be seized with hacking coughs. San Francisco is thirty minutes away. If I want my story to end before morning, I’d better start now.
The whole village, including me—who was a child then—knew the story of how Mr. Thiệp hanged himself from his ceiling beam during one summer afternoon. But why he did it might have been known only to a few among the grown-ups. I was sure Little Kình did not know. Little Kình did not know a lot of things, including how to talk in full sentences. Little Kình was Mr. Thiệp’s son, older than me by seven, eight years. If I called anyone else of Kình’s age “little,” my mother would not have hesitated to whip my buttocks nice and good with her mulberry stick until I ceased to be insolent. But from childhood I had heard everyone in the village, including my mother, call him “Little Kình” or “crazy little Kình.” They said madness ran in his gene pool; Mr. Thiệp himself was far from being sane.
At the funeral, I stared at Little Kình. Wearing funeral clothes made of white gauze, on his head a white funeral band, his hands carrying a pot of incense, Little Kình walked behind the hearse, his face vacant. I was disgusted to see that his thick upper lip, like a hanging sheath, would roll and lick his lower lip, which was constantly dripping with saliva. My disgust was telling, since village children, including my ten-year old self, always looked shabby and filthy. A poor village funeral was a dreary, somnolent affair. Nothing to stir my interest. If it weren’t for Little Kình, Mr. Thiệp’s funeral would have been even more dreary.
Little Kình did not go to school. Is there any crazy person who could go to school? He worked as hired help in the village, same as his mother. She was a weaver for Mr. Cửu Nhì’s family. The soil in my village was alluvial soil, mostly sand and gravel, not ideal for growing rice. People grew melons, peanuts, green and red beans, corn, tobacco, and mulberry, from which the leaves were taken to feed silkworms. Alluvial soil was dry; to plant anything one had to water the soil constantly. Little Kình had the strength of a full-grown man, so he was hired to water the fertile patches. Both owner and hired laborer would collect water from a small pond in two giant bamboo-woven buckets caulked with tree sap, then, carrying these buckets from a wooden pole, would walk over to the field. The pole, dipping and rising rhythmically from the laborer’s bent shoulders as he walked, would cause droplets of water to slosh around the rims of the buckets before spilling over the earth. And so it went, from morning to noon, from noon to dusk.
About two years after Mr. Thiệp hanged himself, my village began to bustle. One day, the National Liberation Front showed up near dusk, rounding up the entire village committee—from representative, legal delegate, to village registrar and secretary — like a huddling mass beneath the village’s flagpole. The Front dragged habitants from five surrounding hamlets to my village’s headquarters for a meeting. Each member of the village committee was singled out to be criticized, then released at the end of the meeting after each had sworn to the Front not to be collaborators for Diệm or the Americans. It was a close call for these committee members. Three days later, South Vietnamese soldiers came up from the district, in a confused hubbub of dogs barking and Garand rifles going off in staccato refrains. Then the district soldiers retreated to Vĩnh Điện. The Front again rounded everyone up for a meeting. In spite of all these goings-on, from day to day the villagers continued to take up their hoes and carry their buckets to weed and water the field.
After these incidents, Little Kình worked only for Uncle Tám Thơm’s family. No one knew what had befallen Uncle Tám, but his body was pale as a leaf, all curled up on his wooden bed twenty-eight days a month. Every morning Auntie Tám would carry two hoes in front, followed by Sister Hạnh carrying two buckets containing a large areca sheath filled with rice mixed with reddish corn and a pot of steamed greens. Sister Hạnh was eighteen years old that year. She had finished only elementary school, and now stayed home to help her mother plant mulberry bushes and feed silkworms.
Arriving in front of Mrs. Thiệp’s house, Auntie Tám would slow down a bit, call out “Little Kình, let’s go,” then continue on. Kình would quietly emerge, on his shoulders a pole with two old buckets and a large hoe. He would make some unintelligible sounds of greeting to Sister Hạnh, his face bright and happy.
Three months after the Front rounded up the village committee, the district sent up some people to take care of administrative matters. They came from either Phú Bông or Phú Bài. During the day they worked at the village headquarters, with guards standing at the gate outside. At night they retreated to their homes near the district for security reasons. From time to time the Front would show up for meetings, chiding the villagers, “Why do you let those good-for-nothings come by and boss you around?” Then the Front would vanish, sometimes for an entire month. Meanwhile the village registrar, Mr. Hồ Luyện, would make frequent visits to Auntie Tám Thơm’s house “to be in touch with the people.” No one knew the real reason for his visits, whether it had to do with Uncle Tám or Auntie Tám. When Uncle Tám fell dead after having a coughing fit that lasted for three days, the people weren’t sure if the registrar’s visits had to do with Auntie Tám or Sister Hạnh.
One morning, Auntie Tám carried the bamboo buckets containing her areca-sheathed lunch filled with thin slices of yam and a pot of steamed yam leaves. Stopping in front of Mrs. Thiệp’s house, she called out, “Little Kình, let’s go,” and walked on. Emerging from the yard, his shoulders burdened with buckets and hoes, Little Kình bit his lips in silence. Sister Hạnh was not there for him to open his mouth and greet her with his happy, mangled sounds. Sister Hạnh was sick with no one knew what. Except maybe Auntie Tám. Or Mr. Hồ Luyện. He had been visiting Auntie Tám’s house for six, seven months at that point.
The next day, Auntie Tám repeated her routine, calling to Little Kình then continuing on her way. After a while, she stopped. Little Kình wasn’t behind her. Little Kình wasn’t in the yard. Little Kình wasn’t in the house. She went back and forth. Then sitting on the sidewalk, dusty and covered with dry bamboo leaves, she sobbed.
Little Kình had gone away. Sister Hạnh’s illness did not abate. She hid inside the house, seeing no one. Every morning Auntie Tám carried her buckets and her hoe toward the field, all alone. In the summer I did not have to go to school, so during the day I would wander in the field, catching coal and fire crickets from under damp patches of grass and putting them in an empty milk can that I hid in a corner of the garden. If my mother found out, she would have whipped me. She often worried about me stepping on landmines or falling into some bamboo spike trap. One day I followed a friend and walked all the way across the river to Thanh Châu to catch fire crickets. I did not return home until dusk. I was worried about being whipped nice and good, but to my relief I found out the Front had returned that evening. My mother would have to attend the village meeting and wouldn’t be around to whip me. The echoing loudspeakers were rallying the people to attend the trial of Hồ Luyện, evil collaborator of Diệm and the Americans. I nearly jumped with joy. I hated him. My mother hated him, too. She often complained to my grandmother, wondering why there were men of his ilk who often preyed on orphaned, defenseless women.
I pushed and shoved my way close the row of chairs where men of the Front were sitting. A guerrilla soldier, rifle in hand, was walking back and forth and yelling at a group of children fighting for seats. The trial began. The group of children, following the adults’ lead, stood and saluted the red and blue flag next to a picture of the chairman of the Front, placed right in the middle of the altar called the nation’s altar. We were familiar with the ritual of saluting the flags. And those big wigs in their portraits, compared with the dark-skinned village peasants, always looked so handsome and dignified, not unlike Vietnam’s ancient emperors.
One man from the Front came up and said something that went on endlessly. I started to feel sleepy and nodded off into someone’s dark, sunburned back in front of me. I didn’t come to until Mr. Hồ Luyện’s name was called. The man who talked for a long time was the prosecutor of the people’s court. He was citing all Hồ Luyện’s sins. Many, many sins, any one of which could have easily finished Hồ Luyện. Finally the prosecutor concluded that even killing Hồ Luyện three times over would not offset the blood debt he had incurred against the people.
But it was strange. The evil Hồ Luyện was nowhere to be seen. Usually you would see the defendant, hands tied behind his back, sitting in a corner with a resigned, passive face waiting for his sentence to be read aloud. The younger kids started to whisper about Hồ Luyện’s absence, as did the grown-ups. The prosecutor, also a member of the Front, stood up and explained why Hồ Luyện was not at the trial. It turned out the traitor was too cowardly to face the people. He had been shot to death by a member of the Front at dusk while trying to flee. The prosecutor said the warrior who punished Hồ Luyện was a blood relative of the local people. He turned around and called, “Comrade Kình, please come and meet the people.” Comrade Kình?
Little Kình appeared, wearing black pajamas like the members of the Front, over which he draped a brown oilcloth, worn like a poncho, and a hat made of woven bamboo covered with a tan oilcloth. He also carried on his shoulders a long Indochinese rifle with an attached bayonet. He walked awkwardly like a zombie. With eyes staring straight ahead, Little Kình stopped on the third step of the committee’s meeting area. The light from a “manchon” gas lamp shone on his thick upper lip closing tightly over his lower lip, as if he was trying to contain in his mouth a hyper, mischievous frog. Suddenly Little Kình raised his left fist, shouting, “Down with the evil collaborators and traitors who work for Diệm and the Americans.” Good heavens. Little Kình not only had joined the Front but knew how to shout slogans. Perhaps the grown-ups were as taken aback as I was, since no one shouted after Little Kình except for the members of the Front.
Then Little Kình shouted, “Hurrah for the National Liberation Front!” This time we all joined in enthusiastically. It was a rare occurrence to hear Little Kình shout slogans. He shouted several other slogans, with hurrahs or denunciations, before abruptly falling silent and rigid. The prosecutor from the people’s court then stood up and escorted Little Kình toward the back. Out in the village’s yard, we children were in a commotion. It was like market day. Everyone wanted to let everyone else know we were friends with Little Kình. As for me, I wanted to bow down before members of the Front. Crazy as Little Kình was, he had to join them for only a few months before learning how to shout slogans so rousingly.
That night, I slept deeply and soundly, until noon the next day. As soon as I appeared at the threshold of the kitchen, my head freshly drenched with water from the outdoor cistern, I saw my mother’s angry face. She was holding her mulberry stick in one hand, and with the other hand the milk can that contained my crickets. Surely these crickets had made so much noise they caused her to lose her temper. I turned and ran out into the backyard, ignoring her scolding.
After climbing through an opening in a fence, I was inside Auntie Tám’s garden. I was safe—for now. Walking along the side of Auntie Tám’s house, I thought about seeking refuge at my uncle’s house in the neighboring village of Định An until the evening. The sounds of people talking behind one of the bamboo walls of Auntie Tám’s house startled me. Auntie Tám was still in the field, and Hồ Luyện had been shot dead—was Sister Hạnh talking to ghosts?
I looked through an opening in the wall and saw Little Kình’s raft-like back. Little Kình was completely naked, his back and buttocks marked with lesions and pimples, going up and down on top of Sister Hạnh, his mouth chanting something nonstop as if in prayer. Sister Hạnh was lying face up, with eyes tightly shut, her slightly tumescent belly rose up, then descended, every time Little Kình’s heavy, awkward frame pushed and pulled above her. They were doing husband-and-wife business. It was disgusting, especially little Kình. His mouth was hanging open, saliva dripping down, his thick upper lip contorted. Little Kình’s voice was muffled by his panting, so I had to listen closely before I could make out the words. He kept repeating slogans that had nothing to do with what he was doing. Sister Hạnh kept her eyes shut and never said anything. I grew bored, now aware that my empty belly was protesting loudly. I quietly backed away to the front gate, then started running at full speed to my uncle’s house.
Sister Sáu, my uncle’s daughter, took me home when it got dark. The Front was preparing to retreat. Little Kình was among the group, looking a bit lost, his confidence from the night before had disappeared. Tomorrow my village would change leadership again.
This time South Vietnamese soldiers came from the province. There was also Mrs. Hồ Luyện, coming with the soldiers to retrieve her husband’s body. When she arrived at Auntie Tám’s house, Mrs. Hồ Luyện charged right into the yard, crying, cursing the slut bitch who had killed her husband. Auntie Tám and Sister Hạnh were behind the bamboo walls, staying mum. We children congregated around the house, watching the spectacle as if it were a circus.
The soldiers stayed in our village and nearby locations for a whole month, long enough for me to know almost everyone by sight. The summer went by peacefully. As long as the soldiers stayed, the cannons from the district only aimed at the mountainous area on the other side of Cái River. In the afternoon I would often visit the soldiers at their viewing tower, listening to their rambling gossips. I was not to be outdone, so I told them about the shocking things that had happened in my village. Like how Mr. Thiệp had hanged himself from the ceiling beam. And his crazy son who followed the Front and was cured of his craziness. The soldiers laughed so hard, and asked why I didn’t join the Front as well. I got mad, saying, “So you think I am crazy, too?”
The last days of summer were long and sad. Gone were my coal, fire, and iron crickets. Even the koi with their bright, showy tails had vanished beneath the irrigation canals. In a few days I would go back to school in town, sharing meals with my devilish, obstreperous friends at a boarding house.
One night, a pale, new moon appeared on the horizon. Without telling my mother, I ran to the viewing tower at the edge of the village to sit dejectedly next to a soldier who didn’t look much happier. Maybe he missed his family. From the direction of the wooden bridge, I heard the wind rustling among the bamboo hedges. I lay back on the thin, filthy wall of the tower, and drifted into sleep. I slept until midnight, when shouts startled me into consciousness. I heard ear-shattering rifle shots. The soldier standing guard had hit something beyond the fence of the strategic hamlet. From the village, other sounds came forth: the urgent, rhythmic knock-knock of fish drums; the lower-pitch rattling from tin barrels; and the loud, echoing woof-woof of barking dogs. At first, these sounds seemed fragmented, but they gradually merged into a deep hum like the sound of locusts. By the district’s order, we had to alert the surrounding areas with bells and drums when we sense danger. I followed the soldier through the fence made of sharp bamboo spikes and came to a large, writhing form on the ground.
Under the pale moonlight, I recognized Little Kình. Blood glistened on his chest and belly. I screamed, “Oh, Kình!” then fell next to him. His thick upper lip was rolling back and forth, drool mixed with blood giving his mouth a sheen. With glazed eyes toward the crescent moon, Little Kình babbled words and phrases that had nothing to do with what was happening to him. This was the third time I heard him utter these phrases. The last time was when I’d seen him naked with Sister Hạnh. Little Kình had two more spasms, then became still. I looked up at the soldier. Little Kình was crazy, why did you shoot him? The soldier did not respond but turned away from me, the rifle on his shoulders hard and stiff like a dry log. That night, long, slow sobs could be heard from Mrs. Thiệp’s house, and a baby’s cries from Auntie Tám. Sister Hạnh had given birth to her firstborn. A son, with a large, flat nose like Mr. Hồ Luyện’s.
At twelve, I was too easily distracted to impart meaning to the things I had witnessed. Little Kình’s death slipped through the cracks of my memory after the first two weeks of the new school year. Even when I reached twenty, I was preoccupied with too many things to worry about incidents that had become part of the faraway past. Especially when I had to face miseries larger than those that had come before. Only much later, after the war had long passed and the wounds had become more bearable, did I begin to think, now and then, about Little Kình. Especially when I would hear, on this or the other side of the globe, the shouting slogans similar to those I’d heard from his lips long ago. When Đức asked me what had caused people to stand on this or the other side of the battle line, I would think of Little Kình. So I thought I should share with him this story, full of holes and speculations, to help him toward an answer that perhaps I’d also want to find. I am not an eloquent storyteller, and the story itself is an erratic one. Besides, the details, at best, could reveal only a very small part of the whole, like a tiny trace of paint blurred and hidden under other colors in an abstract painting.
One time, I thought I had found an explanation for Little Kình’s tragic fate when I heard about incidents that led to his father’s suicide. Several years before slipping his head through the noose made of coconut fiber, Mr. Thiệp had brought at least two other men to their deaths. Mr. Thiệp’s uncle and the uncle’s firstborn were taken from their hiding place by the Việt Minh, brought to a camp in Châu Mưu on the other side of Cái River, and executed along with their comrades in the Vietnamese Nationalist Party. Their deaths ensured Mr. Thiệp’s safety.
This discovery might have helped me guess the reason for Mr. Thiệp’s suicide, but it still has not, to this day, explained the strange relationship between Little Kình and Sister Hạnh or Little Kình’s compulsive slogans. I have reasons to believe Little Kình never understood the true meaning behind those hurrahs and denunciations uttered by his distorted lips.
In the car now filled with cigarette smoke, Đức continues to sit silent. I have no idea what he is thinking, but I know he has listened to the whole story. I begin to doubt myself. I have tried to answer Đức’s question by telling him a story whose true meaning I’m not even sure I have grasped, at the same time hoping he would fully understand.
I know I’m not at peace with myself. It wasn’t a coincidence that Đức suggested An Artist of the Floating World when we both visited a bookstore he seemed to know quite well. Perhaps the detail I added to explain Mr. Thiệp’s death—something I already figured didn’t add much to the story—has caused him to ponder. Is the finale Mr. Thiệp chose for himself—thirteen years after the execution at Châu Mưu—too brutal, too harsh, compared with the peace that Masuji Ono encounters at the end of Ishiguro’s novel? Peace found in the bright smiles of young people greeting each other in front of modern buildings, newly erected on top of the ashes and ruins of yesteryear’s quaint neighborhoods? Was Ono’s dream—a “floating” vision, sustained by “sincere” artistic passion to help the emperor create a New, Great Asia—less reprehensible than the burnished dreams of my compatriots?
What has kept Đức and his friends from disavowing the cheerless past that my generation, for lack of choice, has held on like an inseparable part of our remaining lives? Why have I never asked myself these questions when seeing young people holding hands, going to restaurants in bustling Vietnamese conclaves in Western cities, where they order phở or Huế beef noodle soup and speak to each other words and phrases from languages other than their and my mother’s tongue? Is it because the younger generation has already seen movies about the Vietnam War made by foreign directors, with actors speaking Chinese, and scenery shot in Burma or Malaysia? Is it because they have read history books written by famous historians ten thousand miles away from the battlefronts where my friends and I shed our blood and bones? Is it the fear—my own fear of having to face the younger generation’s notions of the war, collected from these reconstructed lens—that has made me avoid them?
I think about the loneliness Đức and his friends must be living with every day, the loneliness in their search for meaning—as if any meaning could be extracted from the war’s extravagant toll, imposed on my and Đức’s generation, for things or causes that happened long before us. Perhaps I owe him more than an answer for the question that hovered above the foaming beers and plates of blackish blood pudding in the restaurant in the city where we congregated last night.
Đức leans over to light his last cigarette of the journey. I open the passenger’s window halfway down. Threads of smoke fly past me and dissipate into the damp and cool San Francisco air. The car is heading toward Bay Bridge. Night and Oakland are behind us, now.
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