I live in a coastal town in the deep south of the Mekong Delta. During the war this was the IV Corps that had seen many savage fights. Though the battle carnage might have long been forgotten, some places are not. They are haunted.
The roadside inn where I live and work is old. The owner and his wife of the second generation are in their late sixties. The old woman runs the inn, mainly cooking meals for the guests, and I would drive to Ông Doc town twenty kilometers south to pick up customers when they arrive by land on buses or by waterways on boats and barges. Most of them come to visit the Lower U Minh National Reserve, a good twenty kilometers north of the inn. I seldom see the old man. He is mostly holed up in their room. Sometimes when its door isn’t locked, you might see him wander about like a specter. The man is amnesiac and cuckoo.
I never knew during my early days here that they had a son who once served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Then one morning as I looked out from the window of my room, I saw the old man digging under a starfruit tree. A small figure clad in white pajamas and a black trilby on his head. The grassy ground was dotted with bluebells, their blue soft on the eyes, and hibiscus bled in mounds on the grass. The old man dug. A foot deep he stopped. From the pocket of his pajamas he pulled out a bone. It looked like a wrist bone. He sat down on his haunches and placed the bone in the hole and scooped dirt with his hands to cover it. I watched him shove dirt to fill the excavation, and before a thought struck my mind the old woman came out, grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back inside. The next morning he was out there digging again. The same spot. I could hear the sound of his spade hit the bone and saw him stop. He picked up the bone smeared with brown dirt and dragged his spade to the lemon tree whose shiny green leaves rubbed the starfruit’s branches. There were fallen lemons on the ground, deep yellow and wrinkled, and they fell with the fresh loam into the earth he just hollowed. He seemed fretting about the placement of the bone, turning it this and that way, and finally patting it like a pet he tapped the dirt down to bury the bone. I didn’t break my gaze while he was patiently shoveling dirt over the cavity. The last time I saw him digging up the same bone and reburying it in a fresh hole, I had to ask the old woman. That was when I knew that their son was killed in action somewhere in the IV Corps in 1967–exactly twenty years ago. They never found his body.
One early morning the old woman told me to drive into town to pick up new guests just arrived at the ferry. The moment I eased their old Peugeot into first gear, the old woman ran out and yelled, “Have you seen my husband?”
“No, ma’am.” I let the car idle as she ran up.
“Can you drive down the road and look for him?”
“He could be anywhere.”
“He went down that way before.” She pointed toward the unseen town beyond the vista of tree crows and a patch of pale blue sky.
“I’ll look for him.”
The road was empty and quiet at sunrise and I could hear the hoarse cries of storks flying overhead. I knew the road well, I knew the houses dotting the road, the dwellers’ faces as they stood in the dark doorway, like still lifes. Along the road hummingbird flowers burst in white, their fruits long, pendulous like green beans.
Then ahead I saw him walking down the road in his white pajamas. He wore the same trilby hat pulled down tight over his eyes, a brown bag clutched in his hand. He looked back nervously as though for the sight of a bus, stopped, then after adjusting his hat a few times, trod on down the road.
I pulled up and looked into the rear-view mirror. He glanced toward me, then looked the other way. I got out, walked up to him and taking him by the elbow nudged him toward the car. Meekly he followed, cradling the brown bag against his chest. The rustle of paper got me curious. “What d’you have in there, sir?” I said, peeking down into the top of the brown bag.
“Where is a safe place?” he said, words breathed like a whisper in southern accent.
“For what, sir?”
He dropped his gaze to his chest, his fingers prying open the top of the bag. Inside was the bone. It could be a beef bone. The one he had buried and reburied under the fruit trees.
I realized I shouldn’t have asked. Yet the man’s looniness suddenly lost its absurdity and he looked more like someone I had known a long time before.
I remember everything about him like a stock photograph—the incessant flick of his wrist to tell time, the darting eyes, the obsessive peep into his brown bag every few seconds. It wasn’t the last time I had to drive down the road to find him. Once I spotted him crossing the road to a roadside fruit stand. A car stopped for him. He made his way across the road, peeking toward the driver who was waiting for him. He reached the other side and, brown bag in hand, made his way back along the road whence he came.
In my lifetime I never meant to kill out of hatred or bigotry or ideology. As a North Vietnamese Army soldier before I defected, I had killed. The unseen dead never bothered me. Neither did the kills in hand-to-hand combat. But when I was asked to terminate someone who had betrayed the Party, my conscience bothered me. I don’t know why. It was just hard to take a life away when the decision to kill rests entirely in your own hand.
But my hands were bloodied years before I became an NVA soldier. At sixteen, innocent, vulnerable, I killed the headmaster of a boarding school in the city of Thanh Hóa.
I was living in the city with an ethnic Chinese family whose son at my age was my good friend. They used to live in my village until Land Reform in the North wiped out the landowner class between 1953 and 1956. As ethnic Chinese, they were safe. Also his father practiced eastern medicine–herbs, acupuncture–and was not a landowner like my father. By the time the land reform ended, my family was stripped of everything we had owned. The only thing left from my family’s possessions that my father would now look at to remind himself of his wealthy past was his moon-shaped lute. The lute’s two strings were made of woven silk and its body’s back covered with black-snake skin. We lived our banished lives like lepers, him catching snakes as his trade, his landowning kin shunned by every living human being. None could work. Many died, old and young even children, from starvation. When it was over, the Party admitted its mistake: it was a genocide to exterminate indiscriminately the landowning class from the old to the young.
After my family had fallen to rags, my father died from snakebite. The year he died was 1960. I was twelve. I left my village for Thanh Hóa and took refuge with my Chinese friend’s family. They had been there four years now after Land Reform ended. My friend, Huan, was my age. He had told me his name meant ‘happiness’–back when his family was still living in my village. Said many Vietnamese words were borrowed from Chinese, even the pronunciation. I had no quarrel with that. But some boys in our village school made him pay. The boys loathed him because he was ethnic Chinese. His kin and he were a privileged class in the North, and because their nationality was Han, they wouldn’t have to serve the army. One morning when he walked into the classroom with his chin tugged to his chest, everyone’s head turned. I took him in with my gaze. His face had swollen from the punches, one cheek bruised to a liver color. At recess I put my hand on his shoulder. “You do what I tell you from now on,” I said. “You won’t get hurt again.” He became my protégé.
In the city of Thanh Hóa his father continued practicing eastern medicine. His mother still read things the Chinese way, from right to left, so when she delivered an herbal prescription to a Vietnamese family in the city, she couldn’t find their house number–it was 23 but 32 to her. They put me in a Catholic school where their son had been boarding. I spent four years there until I was sixteen. The school’s headmaster was a middle-aged Frenchman who once managed a rubber plantation in the South. A tall, virile man. Most boys stood only to his shoulders. Though his prominent hooked nose drew your eyes to his face, it was his small eyes in ice-cold blue that sent chills when you met his gaze. He loved eating raisins, clutching them in his left fist and popping them into his mouth. Then he’d dust his palm with his other hand and run them over his cropped hair the color of blond wood. At that time I did think about the man’s complete change of career. Could a man who used to style himself master of a rough rubber plantation in the South and call the Vietnamese animals morph himself into an educator of a peaceful boarding school in the North?
At a midday recess, the school custodian found my friend and took him to the headmaster’s office. I didn’t see my friend back in the classroom. When school ended in mid-afternoon, I went looking for him in our dormitory. He wasn’t there. I asked the custodian.
“The infirmary,” he said.
“Was he sick?” I said.
“He wasn’t sick this morning.”
“Sick now.” The custodian shrugged.
In that deserted room I found my friend lying facedown on a cot. A thin olive-colored blanket was flung over his lower body, most of it sagging in folds on the floor. His eyes were closed. I thought he was asleep. His face in the shuttered sunlight was tear-stained. Something squeezed my throat.
“You’re not sleeping, are you?” I said, not wanting to touch him.
His eyes opened a slit. Long lashes like a western girl’s.
“They said you were sick.”
“I’m not sick.”
“Then why’re you here?”
He burst into tears.
I stood, my body stiff. “What happened?” I muttered.
He sobbed into the thin pillow, shrinking himself with his arms drawn up against his chest. The blanket fell to the floor. I stared at the seat of his white shorts. There were bloodstains on the Y-shaped seam. Something menacing I couldn’t verbalize. I just looked. “Why all this blood?” I said. “You hurt yourself?”
“Mr. Doig.” The words came out of his mouth bubbling with saliva.
“He hit you?”
I watched him shaking his head. “What then?” I snapped.
“He . . . he forced himself on me.”
Suddenly I had a notion. “Raped you?”
He nodded into the pillow.
His hand moved down and touched his buttocks. I began to visualize from innocence and naiveté what I never had a clue about.
“He did it . . . twice.” Sniffling now, then a hiccup.
“Can you stand up?”
He raised himself on his hands, then his feet touched the floor. He rose wobbling on his feet. He looked like a windblown scarecrow.
“Can you walk?” I said, seeing his grimace.
“It hurts . . . so much.” He wiped his eyes with the hem of his white shirt the way girls did.
I walked out of the infirmary, stopped, turned. Head down, he was mincing his steps like an octogenarian.
On that rubber plantation, Mr. Doig, the headmaster, had done it to boy laborers.
In the years after the Indochina War broke out in 1946, my country’s economy was a dying beast. Like the economy, the French control of the Vietnamese countryside was on the wane, slipping to the Viet Minh. Secured in French hands were the major cities and the rubber plantations, which peaked in the glorious years before the war and now showed a sharp drop in productivity when able Vietnamese laborers fled their villages and joined the Viet Minh, leaving behind only the sick and the old. Desperate for laborers, the French army raided villages and seized people regardless of sex. The captives were brought to the plantations along with prison labor and those branded Viet Minh simply because they lacked identity papers.
While I was growing up we saw or heard of people leaving their villages and heading for the “New World” where they became plantation workers. Most signed a three-year contract and half never made it home after three years from the New World slaughterhouses. Death from exhaustion was as common as the rubber trees of which workers were expected to tap a thousand daily, an inhuman quota for overworked, underfed laborers who called on their children as young as six to help them meet the mark. Ten-year-olds had their own quotas.
The boys in that rubber forest became Mr. Doig’s fountain of youth. He took each boy into his bungalow and when he was through the boy could be seen crawling out to the veranda. In his fits of bestial passion, he would move through the forest at twilight heading toward the work area for ten-year-old boys. The last boy he took into his bungalow was carried out by his servants, laid on the veranda for his parents to bury. The workers’ strike against Mr. Doig’s crime took the Michelin company by surprise. When it was settled, the company brought in a new manager. Mr. Doig was never seen again.
I carried a knife with me to school. Years of living in rags, constantly on alert, had sharpened my sixth sense since my family’s downfall. The 12-centimeter blade was wrapped in a strip of cloth, stuck down between my belt and the waist of my shorts. At school I heard that another boy was called into Mr. Doig’s office. I smelled menace.
One afternoon I stayed after school to sweep the classrooms. It was my turn. In the afternoon quiet I could hear the sound of a tram on the street and then, after it was gone, just the dry sweeping sound of my broom. A figure went past the door, then stopped. I looked up toward the door, saw Mr. Doig looking in. He filled the doorway. I could see his profuse kinky chest hair framed by his open-necked white shirt. He was popping raisins into his mouth.
I could smell the foul air in the room. It came from my brain.
He crooked a finger, wiggled it at me. “Viens ici!” Then he pointed toward the teachers’ meeting room a door up. All the classrooms were doorless except that room.
Suddenly everything came to a dead still. My motion to lean the broom against the wall felt disconnected from my body. I walked past him, smelled his oppressive sweat, heard the smacking of his lips as he chewed, and kept walking until I went through the door of the meeting room. I could feel numbness in my neck. Then I heard his footsteps from behind. Then the door clicked shut. The shuttered window glimmered, the air still, tainted with cigarette odors. In the center of the room sat a long table flanked with low-backed chairs.
Suddenly I felt his hand on my back as I was pushed. My belly hit the table’s edge.
“Enlève tes pantalons!”
I put my hand on the belt buckle of my shorts. I could hear him unsnapping his. I could hear myself stop breathing. I held the wad of cloth that sheathed my knife in my left hand, the clothed knife blade pressed against my belly. It felt cold as my shorts dropped to the floor. Then I smelled his strong sweat just as his overpowering frame was on top of me. His hand now grabbed the back of my head, pushed it down. His other hand parted my buttocks. His manhood was an intruding eel on them. My arm swung backward. I felt the knife go into his groin. It went in like piercing a slab of meat. The impact brought a sudden grunt. The hand that grabbed my head slipped away, came to rest on my shoulder, then I felt it gone. I sidled, tripped over my shorts heaping around my ankles. I looked at him, my hand gripping the back of a chair. He stood, half naked, grabbing the knife’s handle sticking out from his groin. Blood was dripping down his groin in rivulets, matting the kinky hair on his thighs. Quickly I pulled up my shorts. Tottering, he began to slump. I could hear a squish as he hit the floor. I looked down at him, my soul gone gray with a feeling neither evil nor sad. I watched him. His head dropped, he sat holding the knife’s handle and blood now pooled darkly inside the seat of his trousers.
I had killed scores of people and had seen many people killed not by my hands but others’. I had seen deaths during the land reform when human lives were worth less than a scrap of tobacco paper. Worthless lives reduced from noble ranks to baseness. It makes killing easier. My father, a denounced landlord, crawled on his hands and knees to the platform of the People’s Court, sitting in that doglike posture while peasants hurled accusations at him. A noble Catholic priest, after having his robe removed, looked shrunken like Satan had just sucked the soul out of him. On his hands and knees, he sat with a sudden dumb look on his face that made me hate him. Perhaps we all hate the cowardice in ourselves.
But it wasn’t self-hatred I felt when I saw the dumb look on the American pilot’s face as they took him through a crowd of agitated villagers. I was seventeen, a year after I killed the headmaster. I was a member of the Vanguard Youth with the required age from sixteen to thirty. We were to help repair roads and bridges after an air raid. That year, 1965, the Americans started bombing our city. They bombed the Hàm Rong Bridge but after two days of heavy bombing the Dragon’s Jaw still stood. Then highways and bridges came under constant aerial attacks. Schoolchildren like us were told to move out of the city to the surrounding villages that belonged to the commune. My friend Huan and I and another student roomed together in a peasant’s thatch-roofed house. We brought our own rice so the peasant’s wife could cook for us. Our families paid the peasant for our stay. At the end of each week, we rode our bicycles back into the city. During those rides, with the city twenty kilometers away, we pumped and pumped our legs to gobble up dirt space under our bikes, fearing the sound of sirens against air raids.
One early morning in August, the Americans bombed the rail yards and a truck park on the edge of the city. Some errant bombs hit a bordering village. For a whole day it burned. We were ordered to go there to clean up and help. I went through this village before on my way to the peasant’s village, and the dirt road was shady under the lacing crowns of ginkgo trees and flame trees and milkwood trees. You biked through the village without seeing the sun. When we got there at noon, most trees had burned to stumps. The dirt road glared red. The air singed. Everywhere we went the napalm-burned victims screamed in pain, and the dead shredded of clothes lay bare in charred flesh. A ripe, stomach-sick odor hung in high noon. Ashes grayed the hedges, and soot-blackened houses still simmered. Many had no roofs. I looked at those still roofed. The seared straw now glimmered with a hazed yellow and rice grains, scorched black, lay strewn across the dirt floors in tiny black dots like crickets’ droppings. If you have never seen a napalm victim, you’ll never know the horrid color of burned flesh. They told us not to touch the burned victims. They told us to wait for the soldiers to come and carry them away. In the sun glare I stood watching a mangy dog gnawing an old woman’s leg bone. I could still make out her face, the black turbaned head, but there was nothing left of her body except shriveled flesh and white bones. Then a little girl came and shooed the dog away. The dog growled at her and I kicked it in the rump and it trotted off. The girl stood, looking down at the old woman, and cried. Late in the day soldiers and city workers came. They brought no medicine but a few burn sprays. They sprayed the burned victims and then carried away all the bodies. The old woman’s body, too.
It was dusk when the local militia came through the village. I was carrying back bamboo trunks on my bicycle from another village to rebuild the houses now in ruins. I saw them on the dirt road, walking in tandem, flanking a buffalo cart. There was already a large crowd of people on both sides of the road, clothed in indigo and black and brown. I got off my bicycle, pushing it, and edged my way toward the cart to see better. The American sat slumped against the slatted wooden side of the cart. His cropped hair was sand-colored and, though sitting, he was filling the cart and you could see his whole upper body above the slats. They had stripped him of his boots, his jumpsuit. In his white boxer and white T-shirt, his torso was lean, muscular. They had shot down his plane when his squadron bombed Thanh Hóa City. Three kilometers outside the city they captured him, still tangled up in his own parachute. The crowd grew bigger now going through the village toward Thanh Hóa City. Staccato curses and shouts flew. Dirt clods, rubber thongs too. They called him murderer. Animal. Savage. Scathing words that sent him to the lowest realm of Hell. The militia tried to push back the crowd. I saw his face just as a wooden sabot hit his chest. His eyes froze as he looked across at a sea of faces, drawn with hate, the betel-chew red lips, the snaggled blackened teeth. He seemed to shrink. I couldn’t help thinking of the Catholic priest, knelt, disrobed, looking like a half-wit before the People’ Court. I hated that dumb look. An awe suddenly filled me. I no longer felt small. I was enshrouded in the energy of the mob.
Then I saw a peasant, his head wrapped in a black turban, bull his way through the crowd. He charged in between the two militia and came up to the side of the buffalo cart. It was then I saw him raise his scythe. The long curved blade shot a gleam in the dying sunlight. The blade scythed the American at the neck and the head fell rolling on the ground. Blood gushed up from his gaping neck, splattering his white T-shirt. Suddenly the ruckus stopped.
The crowd stood, eerily quiet, gawking at the headless body doused in blood, tottering like an effigy in the cart as it creaked along. On the red dirt the head rested facing the twilight sky. As I looked down at it, I saw the eyes suddenly blink. My whole being shivered.
Read Khanh’s interview about “Of Bones and Lust” and Once in a Lullaby, his novel in progress