he sergeant, chief of the Terminal Service Office, pulled open a large metal drawer of the huge freezer that covered the entire back wall of the building. Stiff and frozen, Truc lay inside.
“He is paler,” Van thought, “taller and heavier than he was when I saw him last.” On the back of Truc’s right hand, there were two or three dark brown wounds, and each of them had the size of a soy bean.
“Perhaps,” Van thought, “there are many more similar wounds hidden from sight under his green uniform; the torrent of little projectiles from the explosion of a claymore mine that thrust upon Truc in a gust of red dust and green leaves could cause multiples wounds.”
Feeling a burning sensation in his chest, Van thought of sitting in his quiet room beside the window that looked to the green trees around the yard.
“Truc was there sometimes,” Van thought. “He liked to talk about the conditions of peasants who lived in the far countryside under the control of the republic governments during the day and the control of the communist guerrillas at night. Only once he talked about battles and a fierce fight that caused no injury to his company to break through the enemy’s encirclement after three days without food and water supply. ”
“He died in an ambush,” Van returned to his previous thought, sighing. “He is different now, taller and broader.”
When he opened the door, Van recalled, he was greeted by a lieutenant in a green uniform.
“Tu-Yen,” she said, giving him a military salute, “lieutenant, social assistant in Truc’s artillery battalion.”
They shook hands.
“Truc is coming?” Van asked.
“He wants to surprise you,” she smiled and pointed to the street where a Jeep was parking in front of a military truck filled with cardboard boxes.
Laughing, Truc left his jeep and rushed to Van. He was very tanned, healthy, and somewhat short in stature. Van extended his hand.
“I’ll stay with you for half an hour,” Truc said, shaking Van’s hand. “I just picked up the supplies from the Department of Civil Affairs to distribute them to the soldiers’ families in my inspection tour; it is just a periodic tour of the artillery posts in my territory.”
“You are always a soldier of kind heart,” Van said, still shaking Truc’s hand.
“That’s why she preferred to call me ‘my combatant’ instead of addressing me by rank,” Truc said as he looked over at Tu-Yen, and they all laughed cheerfully.
Van turned to his wife. She was staring at the body. “Her face is as pale as Truc’s hands,” Van thought.
“After you sign the paper,” the sergeant said, “we start the final services.”
He gave Van a clipboard and a pen; Van placed his signature at the bottom of the form and gave them back.
“It takes about two hours,” the sergeant said, “and the wake officers will be here soon.”
Van did not know what he had to do next; again, he thought about sitting alone in his quiet room.
“Your wife looks very pale,” the sergeant said. “It‘s not good for a pregnant woman to stay here; you can come back later,” the sergeant suggested.
“You are right,” Van said, looking at his wife’s blouse.
“I’ll see you in my office,” the sergeant said, closing the drawer.
“Thank you,” Van said, reaching out his hand for his wife’s arm.
They walked on the tiled floor towards the door. The clatters of their shoes echoed in all the four corners of the large hollow room. They passed through the bath compartment. There were a row of long manger-like sinks along the wall. The compartment was full of the smell of damp withering grass and the noises of water running into the disposal pipes under the sinks; its light was bleak.
“They wash the bodies there before putting them into the drawers,” Van thought and wondered about that strange combination of smell, noises, and light; “only the images of dead bodies can bring them together.”
Carrying a large bag of tea on his shoulder, a soldier crossed the compartment with heavy and quick steps.
“I’m here all alone; I need your help,” Van heard the soldier talk to the sergeant when he reached the door.
“Don’t worry,” said the sergeant. “Let me help you; put it down... beside the coffin... here.”
They had a light dinner in a small town near the cemetery. During the meal, Van did not know how to start the conversation with his wife. He could not guess his wife‘s thoughts about his brother’s death and did not know why she had been willing to go with him to the military mortuary.
It was dark and windy when they returned. The sergeant showed them to the place where the coffin was kept prior to the burial. It was a simple open construction of a large cemented platform, a roof, and a vertical concrete wall at the back. Supported by the two tall front pillars, the roof slanted down, covered the entire platform, and rested its rear edge on the wall. The stairs of four steps surrounded the platform at the open sides of the construction. There were three coffins at the center of the platform, which was brightly lit and windy. Van stopped his car at the left side of the construction.
“The major is there,” the sergeant said, pointing to the middle casket.
They left the car, stepped up the platform, and approached the coffin, which was placed on a wooden stand and covered with the national flag.
“I believe that the wake detail will be here very soon,” the sergeant said. “I have to go, and we close the cemetery at ten.”
“Let me give you a lift back to your office,” Van said.
“No, thanks. You stay here with your wife. I can walk; it’s just a short distance.”
“Thank you for everything,” Van said to the sergeant, and they shook hands.
The sergeant left and walked on the graveled path towards his office.
“I fall like a feather. I know, twenty years later, I’ll be a brave young soldier, and the war and my lover are here, waiting…”
Van heard the sergeant’s singing and the clatters of gravels under his steps. Van thought of a group of revolutionaries who were sentenced to death in a Chinese novel he had read; they sung the Sergeant’s song when they were marched to the guillotine in a hazy cold morning. The sergeant’s voice died out when he disappeared into the white fog that covered the hill, and Van heard only his steps on wet grass. Van believed that the heavy smell of alcohol in the sergeant’s breath when they said goodbye was closely related to the strange impression of the bath compartment that the sergeant had to experience everyday.
It was cold; the wind blew the dress of Van’s wife relentlessly. She pulled Van’s hand, and they walked to the wall to shelter from the wind. They stood still, looking at the three coffins on the large platform. Suddenly, Van was relieved to know that all of the three coffins were simple, and their corners were square without any of the typical ornate carvings that always upset his stomach.
Truc was lying in the middle coffin, Van thought.
“He was missing this morning,” Van remembered the bad news he heard from Tu-Yen. “He was ambushed with a Claymore mine, not very far from the last artillery post of his inspection tour. He was severely injured; the sergeant driver had only some minor wounds in his arm.”
“He was captured?” asked Van.
“We do not know yet,” she answered. “He ordered the sergeant to leave the site to get help from the post before the enemy came to collect the booty. He was afraid that both would be captured by the enemy if their withdrawal was slowed down because of him.”
“Where was the radio?”
“It was damaged by the mine.”
“The post started the rescue?”
“Yes, they did a half hour ago; but the search is very slow because the forest is thick and they could not find any signs or marks Truc left as he moved away from the ambush site…”
“I am sorry,” she continued after a short pause. “I fly to the operation site now.”
“Thank you, I wait for your call.”
Van waited until the late afternoon.
“We did not find him yet,” Tu-Yen said, and Van heard her sobbing at the end of the line. “The platoon has to withdraw to the post before dark; we are very close to the enemy’s stronghold. We will continue the search tomorrow morning.”
“Is there any hope?” Van asked.
“The rescue was very difficult because of the rain, but I believe that we can find him. We will find him.”
In the evening Van tried but failed to contact Truc’s wife; she frequently moved her restaurant business to a better site in the central part of the country.
“She came to see me a month ago,” Van’s friend said. “She told me that she sold her restaurant and would move south very soon. Tomorrow I’ll ask the police to look for her new address. I’ll phone you as soon as they have any news.”
That night Van could not have a steady sleep. His wife and their son went to her mother’s house for dinner and stayed there. Van left his bed and made a cup of coffee. Sitting in the living room alone, he listened to the trees moving relentlessly in the front yard and the wind blowing through the open windows. He drank his coffee and felt lonely.
“It seems that feelings and thoughts on a misfortune are difficult to share,” Van thought and understood why they did not have dinner together.
One night, Van recalled, he stayed late in his reading room to finish off his research for a case on which he had to give his decision the next morning. Van heard some knocks at the windowpane beside his desk; he put down his pen and stood up. Van saw Truc in a combat uniform in the porch. Sitting on the low brick rail in the bright light, with his hands crossing on his lap and his Colt hanging to his large belt and resting on the top of the rail, Truc looked like the statue of a soldier who was meditating after a keen battle. Van went to the living room and opened the door for Truc.
“Hello, my brother. I passed by and saw your room still having light.”
“Come in,” Van said and extended his hand to his brother.
They shook hands and went inside.
“You are on leave and stay with me?”
“No; we move closer to the new front and have a short stop in your town; I give my American adviser a little rest and come to see you.”
“How could you get in?”
“I did not want to wake up the whole house; I climbed the fence,” Truc answered, and laughed.
Truc put his steel helmet on the coffee table and sat in an armchair.
“Would you like something to drink?” Van asked.
“How about coffee?”
“I like it; made in America? It reminds me our Arabica coffee from the plantations of North Vietnam. Some day we go back and drink the same coffee in the same shop at the corner of our beautiful street in Hanoi.”
“Some day,” Van said, looking at the steel helmet.
Van left the room and went back with a tray. He put it on the table and sat in another armchair. He put a set of cup and saucer in front of Truc and the other set for him.
“Do you know,” Van asked, making coffee, “what I thought when I saw you sitting in the porch?”
Van stirred the spoon in coffee in his brother’s cup and looked into his brother’s eyes.
“The sound of the steel spoon hitting the cup was so fascinating that I almost forget everything,” his brother said. “Let me guess. You said, ‘He is crazy.’”
“No,” Van said.
Truc laughed, massaging his forehead with the tips of his fingers.
“I give up.”
Van put coffee and sugar into his cup.
“I thought that you could be the model for a sculpture of a warrior,” Van said, pouring water into his coffee.
“A warrior model?” Truc asked. “Did you ever think of me as a statue itself?”
“A moving statue,” Truc said and laughed.
“A puppet? I understood what you wanted to say, my brother.”
They laughed. Then, there was silence.
“I like your definition,” Truc said, “because puppet is immortal.”
Van looked into his brother’s eyes, waiting.
“To die is absurd when I am a creation of the American Empire with its full support?” Truc said and looked at Van, smiling. “Can you imagine,” Truc continued, looking down and pointing his finger to the chest of his combat shirt, “how many decorations I carry on my uniform, and how many times my post was besieged and attacked by communist soldiers; and I’m here, laughing and talking. I cannot die.”
Van waited for the call and it came the following afternoon.
“We found him,” Tu-Yen said, sobbing. “The search took too long because Truc had managed to move further east than we could expect. He sat, leaning his back against a solid mound of earth, and died because of blood loss.”
Van listened to her sobbing and did not find a word he could say either to her or to him.
Flapping in the wind, the flags on the coffins made rhythmic noises. From the platform, Van saw the white headstones spreading steadily on the vast sides of the hills and disappearing into the still veil of white vapor that covered the valley.
“Truc will be laid there,” Van thought.
Van turned his eyes back to the coffins. Thinking of the soldiers in the two other coffins, Van imagined different situations they had faced prior to their deaths. “They had been volunteers or drafted soldiers?” Van wondered; “And, the two coffins were kept there without wake. They had no relatives? They had only friends, who still were in the battlefield somewhere, fighting, or they did not have any friends and fought lonely as they had been born into this land of war that gave them no escape from fighting?”
Van could not guess. Van recalled that he never asked Truc if he ever felt tired of this war.
“Did Truc ever think of the day he would die and how his remains would be disposed?” Van wondered, closing his eyes. “Perhaps Truc never thought about these details; because he witnessed death frequently and his body had many scars from different battles at different fronts, death had become a certain ending part of his life; even he could not know how he would die, the thought of what would happen after his death was obviously irrelevant to his concern.”
The wind blew stronger. The flags ceased flapping and wrapped around the coffins. Van opened his eyes, staring at the coffins again. He recalled the first time he officially went to a wake—the wake of a district chief who died in a rural pacification operation. His black Citroën stopped at the gate of a small house in the quiet residential area near his court house. Van left his seat for the gate; Van’s clerk followed him. An officer received Van at the gate, and they walked on the short path to the front door, the clerk at Van’s left side, one step behind.
“Thank you for coming, Sir,” the officer said.
The room was filled with flowers and smoke of incense. Covered with the national flag, the coffin was placed in front of an altar, on which was displayed a portrait of a young officer of the Army. At the right side of the coffin, a dozen of Buddhist monks, holding strings of beads in their hands, were saying prayers in silence; at its left side, in their white mourning clothes, the young widow and her two children were standing, looking towards Van. They bent their heads little forwards to greet him and his clerk. Van saluted them with a deeper bow. Following his clerk, Van approached the table in front of the coffin. The widow stepped forwards; she took two incense sticks from a bag and burnt their tops on the flame of a candle. She blew off the flame from the sticks and gave one to each of them. Van received the stick and held it in front of his face. Van made three deep bows and three nodes of his head as his clerk was doing them; the widows and her children returned their salutes with the same gestures. Then, Van walked to the widow to say some words of condolence. The widow made a deep bow, and Van returned it. When Van raised his head, the widow was still bowing deeply, and her mourning hat had dropped on the floor. Van saw her back and her shoulders trembling. The widow fell on her knees and covered her face with her hands. She bent down until her forehead touched the floor; her hair covered her face; her white neck was exposed in the light veil of incense smoke; her whole body was shaking. Perplexed, Van moved back and stepped on his clerk’s feet when the young widow started sobbing.
The commotion on the path behind the wall of the structure startled Van. Two women in their sober mourning clothes and a man in a khaki uniform stepped up the platform. The two women rushed noisily to the first coffin; kneeling down, they rested their foreheads against the coffin and cried loudly, “You left us behind, utterly grief-stricken. Who will watch over our sleep in the cold nights during this fierce war…?”
“No. This isn’t the wake we want,” the man said, approaching the two women.
The women stood up. They discussed, and the wind blew their voices away in another direction.
Van had been totally paralyzed until the professional mourners left the platform as noisily as they had arrived. Van thought that he just woke up from a deep sleep and put his feet into a chaotic space where he could not form any definite idea. The three coffins in the bright light, the rudimentary screams of the professional mourners, and the cold emptiness of the construction seemed to exist at random in the same space and time. Van had only the feeling that he missed Truc.
A week after the burial, Tu-Yen came to see Van.
“A street in our town is named after Truc,” she told Van. “It is a small quiet street that runs along the military families’ area. We all miss him.”
“They accepted my transfer request,” she added with a soft voice after a long silence. “I came to see you before I leave for my new post.”
On the last day of April four years later, the Communist Army seized Saigon, the capital of the South, and ended the war. As a so-called puppet civil servant of the old Republic regime, Van was kept in several concentration camps for five years. Van met Tu-Yen once again after he was released; she had a small coffee shop on a street corner in Saigon.
“I recognized you right away,” she said, giving him a cup of black coffee.
“You haven’t changed much,” Van said. “I am happy to see you again; where have you been during the past five years?”
“I moved around the country; stayed in some new economic zones during the first years of the new regime. It had not been easy until three month ago when my parents from France gave me a little money; I rent this place to open this coffee shop and to live in. I’m alright now.”
“Did you go back to see your old town?” asked Van.
“Yes, long ago,” Tu-Yen answered. “I came there to see a relative. The day I left there, they took down the sign of Truc Street and gave it a new name. They bulldozed the camp to build a new office for an agricultural cooperative.”
“Did you get married?” Van asked.
“Not yet. I still think of Truc and the old days.”
“It happened a long time ago,” Van thought and looked into her eyes, then, into his cup of coffee. “I understand,” he said without raising his head.
A sunny day, Van remembered, just a week after the North army seized Saigon, Van’s brother-in-law, Ma-I, came to see him.
“My little brother,” he said and laughed, “you do not look fearful like a scarecrow of the International Gendarmerie.”
“Really?” Van asked, gesturing as if he were furiously pounding his gavel in court.
“During the war, my underground base was very close to the city,” Ma-I said, leaning his back against the armchair. “I watched you and knew that you were rather progressive… I always liked you and the way you played chess with me long ago, righteous and aggressive. You always were my good little brother.”
When Ma-I could set aside two or three days, Van remembered, Ma-I would visit the house of Van’s parents in a small and quiet village to see his in-laws and to be with his wife—Van’s sister—who lived with them. In the afternoon, the three brothers--Ma-I, Truc, and Van--would play Chinese chess. Then, they went for a swim in the river in front of their house while Van’s sister prepared dinner for the family. Their brother-in-law talked to them but never mentioned the war against the French nor his achievement in battle which had earned the respect of his enemy. When the fighting moved closer to their village, half of Van’s family went back to Hanoi then under the control of French army. The other half stayed in the areas controlled by the resistance forces. Since then, Van only had heard about Ma-I through the news from his relatives in France. When the French lost the war, the members of Van’s family who had been in Hanoi resettled in the South.
They asked each other about the various members of their family with whom they had lost contact.
“And, how about Truc?” Ma-I asked. “Where is he now?”
“He was a Major of the Artillery and was killed four years ago,” answered Van.
Van saw beads of perspiration form on Ma-I’s forehead and eyebrows. He took off his military green topee and put it on the coffee table. It was the first time Van saw his all-gray hair and some deep wrinkles on his forehead.
“How?” asked Van’s brother; “In a battle?”
“No. He was killed by a Claymore mine in an ambush during an inspection tour of his artillery posts,” answered Van.
Ma-I sighed and said in a very soft voice, “Phuoc-Long was within the territory of the division under my command, but only the local guerillas used ambushes, and they acted independently.”
They looked at each other, and then, they turned their eyes away. Van believed that he found signs of both pain and relief on his brother’s face.
“I do not think that an excuse is necessary,” Van said.
“Ah, I have something for you,” Tu-Yen said, standing up.
She left the table and returned with a parcel. She opened it. The yellow street sign with Truc’s name painted in red was wrapped inside a blue bandanna. She handed them to Van.
“I kept these for you,” she said, looking into Van’s eyes.
Van stood up, held her hands, and pushed them back.
“No, I can’t. It’s yours,” Van said, looking into her eyes.
Van wanted to say some more words, but after a little hesitation, he kept silent.
© TÁC GIẢ VÀ NEWVIETART GIỮ BẢN QUYỀN.