Forgive me, husband, that I do not look my best. It is a long journey by train from Há Nôi to Láo Cai 12 hours; that much remains the same.
Perhaps you no longer recognize me. I know my beauty has faded; the lines on my face are deepening. At the market young girls from the countryside call me aunt instead of older sister from behind their wares, their baskets of vegetables. No one calls me little sister anymore, except your parents. Soon I will be grandmother. Only you can understand this: you who loved me in my youth. The passage of years leaves slow, subtle marks that those around me fail to notice. To them I have always been middle-aged.
At the hospital the young mothers have always called me doctor, of course. But I don’t see the same relief in their eyes when I try to soothe their fears; my advice is no longer coming from a young woman like them. My womb has dried. A gap exists between us. Still, it is far less wide than the one that stretches between us, Truong. It’s been 20 years since you held me in your arms. Four years since I’ve visited. Does time pass in the same way for you? Do you even count the years, without seasons or sunsets?
Our daughter was married last week, husband. Yes, she married young Son, the engineer. All the young men are engineers or businessmen now. I think you would approve of him. The fortune-teller said you did. I wasn’t sure I believed him, though. Lately your mother has been seeking his expensive counsel almost weekly. The fortune-teller has a computer. I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen one. It’s a foreign device, like a typewriter that runs on electricity. I guess I’ve become old-fashioned, Truong. I still think the old ways are best. For so many years I never dared mention it. You allowed it as a worrisome indulgence. Little has changed; still we must be good Party comrades.
We had the wedding at the Cultural Center on Tran Hung Dao Street. Remember when we danced there, a week after we’d met? I was sure you felt me tremble. Do you remember your brother’s recital? Ha had just put bow to strings for his solo when the B-52s struck their first deafening drumbeat. I remember his face, an odd mix of fear and disappointment.
You squeezed my hand so tightly. At first I thought you were nervous for Hà. Then I realized you heard the hum of the air pirates, despite the music: you were already attuned to the sound of war. After you went to the front, I often thought of this. I worried you would find a girl in the jungle more brave than I, more fierce and valiant. For me, all there has ever been were the sick children and their mothers, Mai, and the space next to me where you should have been. Now that Mai is married, there is one less candle lighting my life.
The wedding was wonderful. Here, I’ve brought you some photographs. There aren’t any of your parents and Mai and me all together. I wouldn’t let the photographer take any pictures with four people in them. Everyone laughed and chided me, but I didn’t want anything unlucky to happen. Every morning since they decided to marry, I made sure there were no pregnant women on the street before I’d let Mai leave the house for work.
We had quite a feast, Truong. So many dishes the tables creaked, and more than 50 guests. So different from our wedding, even in that festive year of Reunification, when you finally returned from the south. Do you remember? There was not much, but we had our joy to savor. I had waited for so long. No one could tell us if you were alive or wounded or on your way back. After you arrived my fear still lingered; during our wedding I felt as if I were holding my breath. You were a different man and I, too, had changed. It was weeks before I awoke in the morning without a start, wondering who was this stranger next to me. But we carved out our world of three, made an oasis of love.
Four years later you were gone again. Next year will be our 25th anniversary. At Mai’s wedding, your mother said, “It seems like yesterday.”
It does not seem like yesterday to me.
Mai wore a Western bridal dress for the ceremony and the reception, then after lunch she changed into a red and gold áo dài, like the one I wore. She looked so beautiful, Truong. She has your lazy eyes, your wistful smirk. Could you see her? Oh, I hope you saw her. Before the ceremony, I took Mai aside and said: “I wish your father could be here.” And we cried. Truong, she said: “I can’t remember his face.”
And I saw that she was crying for me, not for herself, and not for you. I was angry with her. But how could she build a life around grief? She is young. You were not there when she fell off her bicycle and fractured her arm; you were not there when she took first marks in her class at university. To me, you were always there. But I saw that for Mai you were just another photo on the family altar: a black-and-white face, framed, silent, distant, and immaterial. What good are my venerations when your daughter cannot remember you?
I had a paper suit made, and burned it for you when we honored our ancestors before the wedding. We put aside some red rice molded into a wedding sigil as well. I brought another plate of it; here it is. I remembered how much you like it.
Your uncle took home all the extra rice. After the guests left, he pushed it into plastic bags with the edge of his hand, all the remaining bits of food from the plates. They have fallen on hard times. Cousin Thâp died of encephalitis last year. I’m sure you know that already. The mosquitoes were terrible last summer; many children were taken by the sleeping sickness. I imagined them making their way to you, long lines of children singing in high voices.
Things are better now than they were before the reforms. I will never forget those years, when the doctors and nurses would stew placentas. We hoarded that small, rich pot; we did not even share with the new mothers from whose bodies it had come, I’m ashamed to say. Mai has no sense of those hardships; I did everything I could to shield and provide for her. She remembers only these fresh times, this flush age of hope.
I wonder if you would recognize Hà Nôi. So many lights! Fancy new cars, shiny motorbikes! Modern fashions spilling from stores, flashy cookers stacked on sidewalks. But it’s not better for everyone. The Party has stopped paying for our health since I last visited. The girls come to me swollen with new life, with tiny coughing infants. They cannot pay for examinations or medicine. They ask me what they can do. It breaks my heart. I don’t know what to tell them. We often don’t have enough drugs in the hospital. The babies and the diseases don’t care about new policy. They keep coming through war and peace. Perhaps that’s what drove me to pediatrics: the endless stream of new life, replacing those we lose.
The incense has burned out; can you still hear me? There, I’ve lit some more. It is not so different, talking this way. You were always so quiet. You’d gather little Mai in your arms so gently, as if she might break, and place her on the edge of the bed by the wall. That’s how I would know you wanted to make love. You never said anything, just lifted our sleeping daughter from between us. But your eyes when you turned back to me would be filled with such love, such light. I remember how you’d hold me after we’d made silent love. I’d tell you about my day and kept asking if you were still awake. You used to say, “No, I’ve fallen asleep” and we would laugh. And Mai would wake, started out of sleep by our laughter.
Husband, I am yet faithful. When I was younger, even your mother told me I should find another man. I could not have stood that wanting again, the heavy froth of desire. During those lean years I still did not try to remarry, even to better provide for Mai. But now I am of an age sorrow suits, a proper widow.
The house is empty without Mai, and it has only been a week. There is a terrible wrong to it. You and I are supposed to be together, congratulating ourselves on raising such a fine daughter, enjoying our new cozy quiet. But there is only me, rattling around the silent rooms like bone dice in a cup. I visited her and Son at his parents’, and the rooms were filled with laughter and joy. Son’s father made a speech at the wedding. He said: “Everything important in life is dual: male and female, solitude and family. Today, Son and Mai make one new nation of marriage, eternal and inviolable.” And I thought, how wrong that is. As if there were no country in between, such as the one in which I dwell.
I know you cannot join Son’s ancestors at their home, but I hope you can watch over her somehow. Are you a lost soul now, without a heritage to follow? Are you as alone as I? This new solitude is exile from the country of families. On the train today, I saw what you saw on your last day. I have seen it before, but this time I realized that your place in it was only in my memory. We are passing from the world, you and I. When I die, we will both be forgotten. For Mai, Son is now the earth and she the moon. We are but fading stars, burning our last and growing ever colder.
Truong, if I have one regret, it is our last night together. I still think about it. I was wrong, but I only wanted to treat you. I was too strong-willed. I have honored you and the Party faithfully ever since. I have never forgotten, and I have never forgiven myself. Every time I come here, these hurts bleed anew.
You were often so discouraged. I never understood why the taste of peacetime was not as sweet as you’d hoped. It frustrated me. Why couldn’t you be satisfied with a wife and daughter who loved you, and knowing that your pains had brought peace and freedom? Wasn’t that enough? North, South, you, I: all reunited. Perhaps that night I taunted you by accident.
The beef noodle soup I’ve brought you is cold now. I hope you savored it while it was still hot. I never brought it before, out of shame of that night. But since the wedding, I feel the world growing colder. Let us enjoy together what we could not and forget your last night.
I sometimes wonder, even now, if you were taken from me as punishment. Could fate be aligned by a couple’s quarrel? Wars take husbands from wives, sons from mothers. But are politics and destiny the same hand at work? You died to preserve our motherland, and that is noble and true. But such a price. Such a great price.
What is it like, the chasm that separates us? A black void? A sea of milky light? Is it distant, or is there simply some invisible curtain? Are you standing behind your marker now with the other soldiers, gathered around this obelisk with which the Party has honored you? Or are you so far my words can only reach you on the wires of joss smoke, or by the New Year’s gossip the Kitchen God brings?
Sometimes I wonder if your world also has borders, or if you ever meet enemies. Are there Americans, French, Chinese, Cambodians, Japanese? Have you encountered any man you killed in battle? Do you open your shirts to each other, display wounds as witness?
I wonder if you’re healed. I cannot imagine what it would be like for you, if you have retained your earthly shape. Husband, when the shell hit, did you know it was coming? Did you have time to be afraid, to think of me and little Mai? Or was there just the flash—from nowhere one moment you were dashing toward the Chinese, and the next you were standing in that realm of shades, the rifle vanished from your hands?
I’ve seen bodies torn like that, like fresh pork shredded for bánh trung. Did I ever tell you about the boy named True? He lost his right leg to an American bomb. When they struck Bach Mai Hospital, he lost the left. He was 13. I will never forget those burst wards, where old and young and doctors and patients and soldiers and grandmothers were jumbled up with beds and bricks. As if a great spiteful child had picked up the building and shaken it.
And I remember the weight of Truc’s leg in my arms. It was heavy, awkwardly flopping at the knee. The feel of those fine hairs against the cold skin, the knobby toes, the awful, ragged end of the thigh. His mother came to see me, and I thought she wanted the leg for her family plot, so that when he died it would be reunited with the rest of him. But she had come for his shoes, for his older brother. I could not understand that, then. The shoes had already been stolen, and she went away without another word.
It seemed such an injustice for you to have been away for so many years fighting the Americans, only to lose you in the brief days of the Chinese invasion. Your battalion’s political officer told me it would have been much longer, much worse, had you all not fought so valiantly. I cannot judge these things, but my anger has leached dull like a dress after a thousand washings.
Your brother became such a fierce young man after your death, after he was conscripted. Ha never forgave the Chinese. He never forgave the Americans for stealing his violin solo. He never forgave his grandfather for resisting the land reform. Hà’s rage spiraled madly, like a bee trapped in a bedroom. I remember his fury when I put your pictures on our altar. “How can you be a doctor and believe in such things?” Hà asked me.
And it did make me think. Nothing in all my knowledge can explain it, nothing in the books or X-rays reveals what survives after death. The essence couched deep among the blood and bile and excrement inside us all. There is no smear of light on the ultrasound I can point to and say to the mothers: “There, can you see it? That’s your baby’s soul.” Where does it begin? When does it make its way into the womb? If it falls ill, how can I treat it? What is the value of my work if I cannot aid this element, that sacred and lasting part of us?
Ask your brother what he thinks now. If that Cambodian bullet changed his mind.
It is too much to bear that there might be nothing after this life, that I will never see you again. How could it be otherwise? How could our people have triumphed in our struggles, were it not for the aid of our ancestors’ spirits? What would be the justice for the children who perish in mere months, because I did not have the medicines to treat their dysentery?
No. I will see you again, someday. I used to contemplate all the years of my life to come before we might meet again: as uncountably many as grains of rice in a dinner bowl. Now it is being gulped away, and there are only a few mouthfuls left. I want to see our grandchildren, of course. I want to be at their weddings. But after that, I will cross that lonesome sea. And I hope that upon our reunion you will forgive that last night of ours.
When the hour is near, I will ask Mai to prepare a wedding dress for me, a new suit for you. I will have her gather betel and a pig’s head and joss and pack them in wedding boxes. When we meet again, we will have a wedding in heaven, rejoined in that mysterious place. No war shall separate us this time; no poverty will still our happiness. I will have her burn a paper horse for us, and I will ride behind with my arms around you at last, as you show me our strange new homeland.
The 18th of February was gloriously fine.
The train huffed northward. On either side of the rails, the paddies glistened like wet fatigues laid out to dry in the sun.
We were headed to the border, where the Chinese had come over the day before. My company joked nervously or sat silent, all of us smelling of fear’s rank sweat. Some fumbled with their rifles. The bathrooms could not hold the stench of vomit and diarrhea—young, untested soldiers reverted to infancy at the brink of manhood—but a brisk breeze blew through the anti-grenade mesh of the windows. The wind ran fingers through the rice stalks, as a father might gently ruffle his child’s hair.
The new conscripts stammered questions to us, veterans of the American war. There was a petty argument: whether the Chinese would be fiercer adversaries than the Americans. No one gave any credence to the defeated Cambodians. A bold youngster confidently recited the ancient heroes who had driven out the Chinese those countless times before; names I vaguely remembered from my schooldays, names shouted through the haze of desperate sleep stolen during our political officer’s speeches.
“We’ve fought them for two thousand years,” the young conscript proclaimed. “We’ll trounce them again!”
We older soldiers looked away. There were some uncertain mumbles.
“Well, where’s Comrade Due? He’d know,” said the brash recruit. He reminded me of the red-lipped, beaming valiants on the painted Party billboards we had erected only weeks before, the nails cold and painful in our hands.
“Indeed,” I leaned in. “Where is our political officer? Not on the train. Nowhere near the fighting. He’s in the rear, where he belongs.”
Another veteran offered me a cigarette with cautioning eyes. I accepted it and sat back. The dispute continued in earnest among the young ones.
I sat next to my old friend Dung, who slept. He was legendary for it, when we fought together in the south. The dreaded Elephant Feet, the napalm strikes, could be falling a mere half-kilometre from our position, and he would still snore away. But in the utter dark of the jungle’s night, a twig snapping under the paw of a civet would wake him.
I wanted to talk to Dung about my old, returning fears. Was there, perhaps, a glint of expectation? After all, combat was what I knew best. I must admit a sense of exhilarating anticipation. Yet the familiar dread was heavy and prickling.
The rifle felt comfortable in my hands. When I first held my daughter, she was pink, hot, and new. My arms would not unbend from their soldier’s crook, to gently cup the bobbing head and soft body—I felt the itch in my armpit for a rifle’s wooden stock. When my finger curled around her yielding ear, the sensation was startling for not finding a trigger’s black steel.
Thuy said to me once; “We are joined as fish and water.” I thought: yes, I am cold and faceless, yet envelop you.
At a curve in the track, I saw smoke rising above the hills, from Lao Cai. We were not close enough yet to hear the artillery, nor glimpse the rooftops. But already I could see those trails of blood-damped smoke binding earth to heaven, hauling the souls of the newly dead.
I looked around at my comrades and watched thin white coils spool from their cigarettes. Soldiers’ incense, carrying soldiers’ prayers. Lords of heaven, carry me toward morning. The cocksure recruit tried to raise us in the anthem:
Soldiers of Viet Nam,
we go forward with the will to save our Fatherland.
Our hurried steps are sounding
on the long and arduous road.
The distant rumbling of the guns
mingles with our marching song. . . .
No one joined in. The recruit’s quavering voice trailed off.
Dung and I used to weigh which fear was heaviest: death or disfigurement? Wounds burn terribly; you watch your own blood spill, try to catch it. But you might see your family again. This was always my hope. And death? If its mercy is with you, it is over in an instant. Dung preferred death. But he had no one to return to.
I thought of my wife, my little daughter. All of us at that moment were thinking of our families. I didn’t have to ask to know that. But who among them bore such deep, new regret as I? It tore my heart as surely as any bullet.
The day before, Thuy bought some beef from the black market. Meat was in short supply, but she wanted to make pho bo for me. I’d often mentioned how much I missed it in my letters from the south. My thoughts of Hà Nôi took root in its fragrance, its flavor: the dark meat and its heavy broth, the tang of chili and lime, the delicate rice noodles.
Since our triumphant return to Hà Nôi, our political officer had lectured daily on the hardships of peace: though the fighting was over, the war for socialism was not yet won. Duc admonished us to set strong examples. The black market was a pocket of retrograde thinking. If our economy was to succeed, we could not allow such profiteering to exist. He was right; Hà Nôi was not the paradise I’d imagined for our triumphant return. But I was shocked by his rhetoric. How could he compare combat to old women trading stringy turnips for cooking oil? We had fought long and hard for communism’s victory. Why were we being treated as untrustworthy stepchildren—harangued on theory, saddled with degrading duties, our crippled brothers shunted off to their families?
When my battalion demobilized to Hà Nôi after Reunification, I had been away for six years. I found the city drab, gloomy, worn, and stained. Even my parents and my beloved seemed ill-used. I’d forgotten my father’s endless sniping, my mother’s bad temper. Thuy was so thin and pale, no longer the plump-faced girl I’d left behind. Nothing matched the memories I’d polished all those nights in the south, in tunnels, in the jungle, on the trail. Something greater than the B-52s had cored holes in my home.
Word got back to Duc that I questioned the doctrine. I was denied a promotion. My parents were moved down the list for new homes. I was reassigned to fortification duty: every day, we strung metre after metre of barbed wire. The scorching summer heat charred our backs as we spooled the dark braided wire around bunkers and anti-aircraft emplacements, laid it across kilometres of paddy that bounded army bases. Why were we dividing the land, if it belonged to all? Why, in peacetime, were we wrapping it in the reverse of bandages? Every night I came home sore and weary. The barbs caught in our hands like regrets, stung like loss.
Duc reproached me for the state of my uniform, which despite Thuy’s painstaking mending turned to olive lace. I used our precious ration coupons to purchase a second set, which I kept for inspections. That winter, we shivered in threadbare coats and Thuy snipped apart her best áo dàis to make clothes for Mai. The pristine set of fatigues hung empty, waiting to be filled by some dream soldier like those on the billboards. While I huddled in a ragged blanket, humbled and ashamed before my family, Mai playing with my bony, exposed toes.
We had married a month after I returned. Mai was born a year after, and a shining hope nestled in that tiny form. I did not know much beyond warfare. The simplest thing, like buying morning bread, was foreign to me. Thuy bore me patiently through, but I often noticed a hint of frustration, of dismay.
I did not have Thuy’s aptitude for schooling, for healing, and while she advanced in the hospital ranks, I uncoiled lengths of flail across the earth without respite, or bore heavy billboards on my back like an ant struggling with a leaf. Thuy felt I should muster out. At times I felt she resented that I was not an officer with gleaming epaulettes, barking orders and charging about town in a jeep.
I labored to reignite my faith in the Party, the guiding tiller for which my comrades had given their blood. Otherwise, what future would we have? For what had I battled? But my application to join the Party was denied, and without it I could not hope for a decent job. It did not matter whether my doubts were well-founded; I had failed to increase our lot. How strange love is! Apart, our love was as strong as concrete, but the sand and water of daily life were crumbling it from within. We argued over who would wash up, who was spending too much money, who would stay awake when Mai took ill and hold the basin to catch her watery vomit. And I always held the weak, low ground.
When Thuy came home with the bit of beef, I was angry. The sight of that raw, red flesh sickened me.
“Surely,” she said, “the black market does little harm? No one can feed their families on their rations alone.”
“The Party says it must be eliminated.” My chest burned to shout, but I did not want the neighbors to hear, for they would report everything they heard.
She insisted she was only trying to please me. “Husband,” she said, “it’s only a half-kilo. It won’t bring about the collapse of the Party. Sit down, I know you’ll enjoy it.”
I was almost convinced when she began cutting the beef with scissors. She didn’t want the neighbors to hear the cleaver’s blow against the block. That’s when I realized she knew full well what she had done. “Wife,” I said, “you are disgracing the Party. You are dishonoring everything I fought for. Is it all for nothing now, all our years apart?”
Our voices rose, angrier and angrier. Little Mai squatted beneath the table, bawling. Finally, I grabbed the meat and strode to the courtyard where we kept our bicycles. The feel of freshly dead flesh in my hand made me shudder: cold, heavy, slick with blood.
Thuy followed, desperate now, crying. “What are you doing? What are you doing?” she cried. The dog jumped up from the base of our sickly tree. I tossed him the beef and watched him devour it in a few quick snaps of his muzzle. “Did you know,” Thuy said as she wept, “that meat cost me a week’s rice ration?”
I said nothing. I lit my last cigarette. The next ration was not due for five days. Thuy turned and went back into the house, and I could hear her trying to comfort little Mai. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” she cooed. “It’s nothing, nothing at all.”
She always put Mai first—before me, before herself, before her patients. I saw that she could raise Mai to be everything I was not: she was the new future, and I, the misbegotten past. Had Thuy really bought the beef for me, or to nourish Mai?
I left without a word. I should have said: it is my fault we subsist on rice and dried fish. You and Mai ought to have more than this sleepless form, scored with wire cuts. But at that moment it seemed Thuy was tormenting me with shame, and her tending to Mai’s childish tears was further scorn.
Why had I stolen food from my own family? How had my bravery in combat spoiled to such cowardice? How had I allowed us to be driven apart again? This could not be what the Party intended. I went to the barracks and watched the young recruits play cards, sought solace in that fraternity. I missed the simplicity of a soldier’s life. That’s where I was when the mobilization call came. There wasn’t time to return home.
There was a folk story I heard my wife tell Mai once. A mother, whose husband was off at war, would comfort her young daughter by standing before the lamp to throw her shadow on the wall, telling the child it was her father. When the husband at last returned, the girl refused to believe it was him, saying that her father—the shadow— had come home every evening. The jealous soldier would not believe his wife’s explanation, thinking her unfaithful. At last she threw herself into the Red River.
The shadow was the better father and husband. The living man demolished his family.
The train journey to Lao Cai seemed to take an age. When we finally arrived, all was chaos—dried grass and dun earth scuffed and scoured by boots—boots scurrying everywhere, soldiers everywhere, scattering like a thousand falling leaves. The veterans knew what the recruits could only imagine was waiting. For whom, then, was it more terrifying?
Our company assembled jerkily, as our bodies followed trained motions despite our souls’ confusion. The conscripts’ faces reflected fear, wholly open, eyes unblinking and mouths slack. The captain ordered us toward the Chinese positions; Dung gave me a sad smile. The sun traced bright runnels of sweat down his cheek.
Our boots splashed through a little stream. The water’s hue matched exactly that pair of marks on Thuy’s belly, the scars she bore from the swelling of Mai inside her. In our marriage bed, I adored laying my thumbs over them.
The cocksure recruit ran toward us; we almost shot him. His eyes bulged with astonishment, and he shrieked piercingly, as melting glass might shriek. Both arms were clenched across his stomach, where long loops of gut hung down, knocking against his knees with each step of his staggering jig. Dung and I ran past him.
I couldn’t hear myself panting over the clatter of machine guns, the clap of shells, the wails of the fallen. We sprinted uphill, clutching our rifles dearly. The grass came to up to our knees and we waded forward with desperate slowness. My eyes and throat smarted from the cloak of dust, the sting of gunpowder.
I heard the shells shred the sky like paper, The hillside vanished in a torrent of white thunder. The world cracked open, like some enormous, awful egg.