by Vu Hong
At twilight, Mr Bay Triet usually went to the plains of alang grass with a bag over one shoulders. The entire area was dimly lit under the starry sky.
There were only nine families in our little hamlet. We were the first clans to settle in this half-wild land heavily polluted with alum water and toxic waste after the liberation of South Viet Nam. I remember that our migration to this locality happened between mid-1978 and the end of that year. Every night, looking out of the small window of our shanty I felt happier than I did in the days we evacuated to and stayed at the township of Kien Hoa for I was able to contemplate swarms of fire flies hovering over the cork plants by the Ba Lai River to my heart’s content. But I soon found it rather boring. You see, we children are very fond of new things at first, then we tire of them in a matter of days!
In the daytime, we came under a blazing sun. As far as the eye could see, there stood only a few cork trees and several calophylluses.
"This place is full of toxins sprayed by the enemy," Mum told me.
"What for, Mum?" I asked her.
"To create a no man’s land around Binh Duc Base."
"What does no man’s land mean, Mum?"
"When you grow up, you’ll understand, my dear."
"How stupid you are!" added my elder sister Lien.
Adults always say that, "You’ll understand when you grow up" to explain something complicated or delicate to us kiddies.
That year I was only a 7th-grader at primary school. Kids at that time knew, in general, far less than those of the corresponding level of today. However, we were quite familiar with military planes and bombardment when the war was still raging in our region.
Usually, after dinner I dropped in on Mr Bay Triet. Feeling uneasy with such frequent visits, my sister once whispered into my ears.
"Beware of him. He’s mad. Don’t go to his place too often, my dear."
"Mad but kind-hearted!" Mum argued. "Have you ever seen him killing a chicken or a duck?"
Taking advantage of their negligence, I rushed over the fields to his hut by the river-side.
In my eyes, he was not mad at all, just a bit odd. In the dry season, when it was sunny, he usually loitered here and there on the rural path, mumbling something then bursting out laughing. That was all he did: neither harming nor bothering anyone. Even Mrs Sau Long’s pet dog wagged her tail to welcome him when he passed by and he merrily waved his hand in response. In the rainy season, he stayed indoors. In the evening, when the weather was fine, he went out, a bag over his shoulder. Nobody knew where he was going because they were too busy trying to eke out a living on this barren zone.
In fact, he had no official name. Bay Triet was only a nickname endearingly given by his neighbours. He lived in a hut by the riverside. In reality it was just a small dilapidated house with a roof made of coconut leaves, walls of mud-daubed slats of bamboo and straw. Some parts had been eroded by rain water, revealing pieces of trellis and straw. He usually wore a faded military uniform with a striped headband and a trunk revealing his yellow legs stained by alum water.
The water in these paddy fields was so clear that small fishes could be seen easily. Several of them looked deformed due to Agent Orange. Once I managed to catch some of these queer fish and offered them to him, he flew into a rage. He refused to see me for a long time. He did not smile as he used to.
"Our little Ty follows Uncle Bay Triet to catch fish all morning, so now he is neglecting his studies. Now, he is beginning to look as black as a water buffalo," nagged my sister.
"It’s his summer vacation," answered Mum. "Anyhow, we should make him accustomed to our rice fields and farming. Your Dad died at Tet in the Year of the Monkey when he was leading his unit into the town of Quang Tri and your two elder brothers laid down their lives in Ba Chuc during a fight against Pol Pot’s troops in Cambodia. In the future I shall need an assistant to care for my farm; what can I do on my own with only one arm," she pleaded.
Moved to tears, my sister embraced Mum. Sometimes we asked Uncle Bay Triet to help us plough the field so that we could grow manioc. In exchange, he accepted a little rice, just enough for a meal.
Once when I was following him to gather cork I asked him softly: "Where do you come from, Uncle?" Without answering my question, he just stared at me with his vacant eyes then silently climbed up the tree and tossed me several ripe cork fruit. "Beware of the bees, Uncle," I screamed loudly. Suddenly, he plunged into the water. A few seconds he emerged from the muddy water of the stream and smiled broadly. On the sight of his broad smile, I loved him even more.
Then came the rainy season, with heavy downpours on and off throughout the day. An opaque veil spread over the paddy fields, and raindrops began falling on his coconut palm-leafed roof. Behind me, Uncle Bay Triet hummed a ditty:
It drizzles continuously
Making cork trees bloom
Girls find husbands
Youths find wives
And women have children.
Finishing the song, he jumped up like a child. I burst into laughing. It was the first time I had enjoyed his singing. "Is it the rain that makes him so happy that he has forgotten himself?" I thought. Finding him in ecstasy I asked him again, "Have you got any children, Uncle?" He shook his head then he told me something about his native village. All of a sudden, he wept bitterly.
The day he moved to this half-wild expanse to settle down, our neighbours only knew that he had been imprisoned on Phu Quoc Island for many years. This small 9-household hamlet welcomed him as a compatriot, that’s all.
The country path became muddy after just one rainy night. The meadow looked lonely. Suddenly from afar, echoed the sound of several turtle-doves. I reached out my arm to take down the fishing tackle.
"You want to go out to play, don’t you?" asked my sister.
"No, I’m going fishing."
I rushed out at once for fear that Mum might stop me as she was afraid that I might be bitten by snakes.
I came to Uncle Bay Triet’s to borrow his fish-basket lid. Suddenly, I heard a cough and a moan. Stepping inside I found him lying on his bed with a pale face. His fishing net was stained with mud. Perceiving a noise he woke up, breathing heavily as if he was having a violent fit of asthma. From the bottom of my heart, I knew that he was too weak to smile. Walking out to the court, I shouted loudly, "Help, help."
Immediately, our neighbours came to his rescue. Some of them rubbed his chest; another person massaged him on the back and neck; while another woman poured ginger liquid into his mouth. Fifteen minutes later he got up with a confused smile. Maybe he was asking himself why there were so many people in his poorly-rigged up house.
"Thank you all," he mumbled. Everybody felt very pleased and moved to tears.
Later on, I asked him a question that was on my mind: "Why do you go out every night to dig holes then fill them up again, my dear Uncle?" Without replying, he just stared at me with his vacant look. Feeling offended, I went out to the rice fields to investigate what he had done during the night. It turned out that the result of his nocturnal efforts were some big newly-made mounds of earth.
"What a madman!" I exclaimed. "There are eight of them in all. What tricks has he been up to during the night?"
Sensing my curiosity, Mum reproached me.
"Stay away from that place," she warned me.
"I’m told that that place was formerly a terrible battleground with lots of dead bodies."
"How can they affect us?"
"Mrs Sau tells me that for many nights, she has heard laments echoing to her house from that place. If you’re still interested in loitering there, you’ll be kidnapped and tortured one day," Mum threatened me.
After that, evening after evening, I just sat at home, glancing at the coconut palm trees full of bullet marks, which had seen many crucial engagements between Sai Gon soldiers and revolutionary forces. Then half a month had elapsed since I had been to visit Mr Bay Triet.
"Last week, Mr Hai Chi’s legs were blown off by mine near a cluster of bamboo trees at the entrance to our hamlet," sister Lien told me.
"Lien, have you visited Mr Bay Triet recently?" Mum asked her.
"Yes, I have, Mum. He’s quite healthy now."
The following year, paraffin was restricted for consumption by the State. As a result, few people in the country could afford to buy it because the price escalated day by day. On top of that, but the country was facing huge shortages of rice because a plague of insects had destroyed crops in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta. Meals were served with kaoliang instead of rice and calophyllus oil replaced paraffin for a long time. In general, food shops became almost empty. Rumour had it that another war had started somewhere near the national frontier.
Time flew very fast! My summer vacation came to an end quicker than I had expected. I moved up to the 8th class in a new district school far away from my hamlet. My meetings with Uncle Bay Triet became scarcer and scarcer with every passing month. Sometimes we met each other on the rural path as we travelled in opposite directions. He just glanced at me, smiling broadly. The same torn clothes and the same stained legs as before! Nevertheless, my sweet memories of him stayed fresh in my mind forever.
One evening by the end of October, when our calophyllus oil ran out, Mum told me to go to his dwelling to ask for a few pieces of fruit from this kind of tree to burn instead of paraffin, I said, "I’m afraid of ghosts, Mum."
"It’s broad daylight and his home’s just a stone’s throw away from here. What are you afraid of? What’s more, in our clan, you’re the only male. Who else in this home can do it?" she persuaded me in a soft voice.
"Is there anybody at home?" I said, knocking at his door.
"Yes, I’m here. Just a moment, please."
Immediately, I opened his door. By his side, there stood a few bulging sacks. Next to them several joss-sticks were flickering. I felt sick.
"What are you doing, Uncle?" I asked him.
"Oh dear… Kien! So, you’ve come back home."
"Which Kien? Actually, I’m Ty, the only son of my father Hai Sa."
"Sorry, my fault, my dear Ty." On saying these words, he sobbed bitterly. It seemed to me that he was on the point of collapsing.
"Yes, your Ty’s here."
I dashed towards him and held him.
"My comrades, try to sleep together in these sacks. At a convenient time, I will go in search of you all," he said to the contents of the sacks. I took great pity on him.
"Well, let me help you, my beloved Uncle."
With zeal, I picked up the calophyllus-oil lamp and opened the mouth of one the sacks. From inside, several bones and skulls stared at me from out of the darkness.
Oddly enough, I didn’t scream. I just looked at the bones and showed no fear.
(from Viet Nam News)