The Lady of Dien Bien Phu and the Sengalese Giant
Wednesday, March 16, 1994
She sat by the window of her hillside stilt house with a puddle of afternoon sunlight in her lap, her hands resting on a spindle across her thighs. The wall clock chimed five times. Inanother hour the fog would move in, now that it was the month of March, and the warmth of the day and the last glimmer of sun would be gone. She would wake in the early morning and the fog would still hang in the valley and the cold would make a film of ice in the basin out back.
In the early years, she sold her tapestries on consignment at the market that convened at dawn on each Sunday along Provincial Road 41. The Thai women¾dressed in black satin skirts, coming from neighboring hamlets¾sold poultry and pigs and sun-dried fish, wild tobacco and cottonseed and sugarcane. Soon, due to demand, she made tapestries on order only.
She paused and wound the twisted yarn onto the spindle. A deep drumming sound had her look out the window. Down by the creek that flowed around the foot of the hill, a ruffed grouse was rapidly beating its wings. She listened to its maddening drumroll, realizing that it was breeding season.
The creek flowed through a ravine between two hills. The water was running low before the rainy season in April. In the creek’s shallow riffles, water willow grew in large colonies. The banks were rocky and slippery. Years before, she had broken her ankle when she came down to fetch water. In their rock-strewn crevices and weathered crust, limestone fern sprung out in masses, verdant fronds a somber green in the deep damp shade.
Beyond the rocky bank, the next hill dropped gently to an arc, the sun reddening it above the valley floor. She squinted into the glaring hillside as she heard children’s singing. A giant silhouette, followed by five small silhouettes, descended the hill in single file. The children’s singsong voices drifted across the air:
A healthy tree
Always lush with leaves
A child’s legacy
The giant stopped upstream at the foot of the hill, and the children broke off running back toward their hamlet. The seven-foot-tall man always attracted the hamlet children. Come look! Mr. Ibou is here! He would stop and speak to them, the Viet children, the Thai children, in their mother tongue. Yet he spoke French when he conversed with herbecause he did not trust his Vietnamese—pitiable, he said—to make intelligent conversation.
It was Wednesday. His son would arrive at this time, carrying water in two metal pails to fill her earthen vat, always fetching water upstream¾as told by his father¾where the creek’s water was clean, before it got soiled by the washing of clothes and the scrubbing of cooking utensils from the Thai families who lived on the other hill. Ibou had his son bring her fresh water every week. He must be sixty-five now, five years older than she. His son was slightly taller than an average Viet or Thai man, but he was ox-strong. Coal-black and strong. She had heard that when he was born, people screamed at the tiny creature, not red as a normal baby but soot black with dark frizzy hair. The medical cadre who had midwifed the childbirth said, “He takes on his father’s gene, and not a tiny trait from his Thai mother. This is normal, I assure you. Nothing evil.”
They called the baby “Dam.” Black, in Thai. A healthy baby and now an incredibly strong man in his thirties. Once, two buffalos locked horns, grinding and ramming each other. Hamlet people thronged around them, yelling and beating drums to break them up, and then they dumped straw on the beasts’ heads and burned the straw. But the buffalos stayed locked. Dam walked up to them, grabbed their horns, and pushed them apart.
Now, she climbed down the wooden ladder outside the house and stood under the shade of the Ylang-Ylang tree. She could see Ibou crossing the grassland toward her lone house. The tall red grass blazed in the setting sun, andhis silhouette bobbed as he moved along the creek’s bank through a grove of blood banana, the dark red splotches on their fronds bloodstained-looking in the brightness. It was so quiet she could hear the creek, and the air was suddenly tinged with a custard fragrance, heady and clawing. She shivered as she always did in the tree’s shade, inhaling its scent.
The old man finally emerged into her front yard after climbing a flight of rock steps. He carried the pails by the wooden handles like tin toys as he headed to the earthen vat that sat in the shadowed space under the stilt house’s floor. He paused as he passed her. “Comment allez vous, madame?”
“Ça va bien,” she said. “Et ta famille?”
He set the pails down side by side in the sun. “The family is fine. I’m glad you asked because the wife is a grandmother and the son is a father now.”
“I was thinking about Dam when I saw you coming.” She looked up at his dark face glistening with sweat, a childlike face, free of wrinkles. “When was the baby born?”
“Sometime after midnight last night. The wife and a woman neighbor delivered the baby.”
“I cooked something for him. I thought I’d give it to him when he came. Can you take it back to his family?”
Ibou and his wife lived with their son’s family.
“Sure, madam. The family will love it. The wife says, ‘That lady of Dien Bien Phu can cook Thai dishes so well, I forgot that she is Viet.’” He bent so he could see her better, without the sun in his eyes. “The wife always says ‘the lady of Dien Bien Phu’ when she speaks about you. I told the wife, ‘She has not aged.’” He scratched his white-stubbly chin. “True, madam, you have not.”
She tightened her lavender paisley headscarf wrapped around her rolled-up hair. Let loose, it would fall to her waist in a luxuriant curtain of black. “Merci.” She looked toward the vat under the house and back at the pails. “You don’t need to make another trip. We had a good rain last night, and it filled the basin in the back.”
When the rainy season set in next month, she would not see his son again for some time, until the dry season in October, which lasted through March.
Ibou picked up the pails of water. “I’m going to fill the vat, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Please come up to the house. The pot is heavy for me.”
Going up the ladder, she could see him dip the wooden scoop into the vat and drink a healthy swig. He had to bend almost to the ground with his knees just to fill the vat. Barefooted, she entered the house, the bamboo slat floor cool from the air rising up from the open space, uncluttered and clean, beneath the house. She momentarily stood, feeling the coolness on her skin. She went around the floor loom to the kitchen hearth that sat in a corner near the second window. She liked a house airy and well-lit, so when she weaved during the day ample sunlight would come in through the two large awning windows, each propped open with a bamboo rod.
She lifted the lid on a tall earthenware cooking pot as Ibou appeared at the door. He ducked as he came through. The floor shuddered. His head brushed the traverse rod, clanking the metal loops from which dangled balls of colored wool.
“I have never come into your house,” he said, his white eyeballs darting left and right. “It must be thirty-four years now. Oui, madam?”
She believed it was. That year, 1960, she left Ha Noi and came back to the valley on the sixth anniversary of the victory of Dien Bien Phu. She did not come from here; but she had come here in 1954 to be a tiny, insignificant part of the military campaign against the French Empire during the siege of Dien Bien Phu. She had been twenty then, a singer and dancer in an ensemble.
“Had it not been for the excavation in 1960,” she said, smiling, “you and I would’ve never crossed paths. And I would bite my tongue in two if I said it meant nothing to me to know someone like you, who had shed blood on the soil of this valley.”
Ibou nodded solemnly, straightening his back. His head hit the rod, and the metal loops clinked. “I came back here in 1959 and it has been my home since. But I never thought I would find another soul here like me, who had come out of that hell alive.” He wiped sweat off his face with the sleeve of his old army shirt, its original olive color now a dull yellow. “When I saw you in that crowd at the excavation, I knew you weren’t Thai. But there were no Viets at that time living on the hills, just Thais. I had to ask around.”
“I believe I was the first Viet making my home here.” She pursed her lips, remembering. “Some years ago, I heard about a man who claimed that he was a Dien Bien Phu war veteran. He had married a Thai girl and lived in Pom Loi hamlet.”
Pom Loi sat in a cluster of hamlets along the creek that flowed east-west. Westward, it went as far as Provincial Road 41, dotted with hamlets, red-dusted on a windy day from the surrounding hills. Ibou lived somewhere in those hills.
“So, you met your compatriot, madam?”
“Yes. It turned out he’d seen French aircraft shot down repeatedly over the valley by our antiaircraft artillery. He was only a civilian, living in one of those hamlets on the east side of Dien Bien Phu valley, and there used to be a Viet Minh’s antiaircraft deployment ground nearby. He looked embarrassed when he told me the truth. When he was drunk, he’d tell hamlet children that he was an antiaircraft gunner, and show them a long aircraft wing that now sat on the roof of his house. He told them it came from a French airplane he shot down. The wing had been converted into a trough to collect rainwater. Sometimes, he’d take the children to a plain a kilometer from his home, where the children saw several wrist-sized cartridge cases among a handful of hoes. He told them the cases came from the 37mm antiaircraft projectiles, and the hoes were the tools with which the bo doi used to dig trenches and their deployment shelters.
She told Ibou that most of the battle remnants as weapons could still be found aboveground, but not the human remains.
“I know that, madam.”
Between 1959 and 1960, she remembered, local authorities had begun moving the remains of the dead in the valley to the newly built cemeteries, one of them A1 Cemetery at the foot of the old A1 Hill. Most of the graves had no names on the headstones. This all started a few months after she had begun her new life in the valley. It was a hot and muggy summer day at the digging site where a large crowd of locals gathered, watching the district reconstruction team digging an old trench thirty meters long, near the western side of A1 Hill. Sometime before noon, there came yells. A crewman had just shoveled a leg bone out of the dirt. Then, more bones. Skeletons in whole, in pieces. A human skull, then another. Within an hour, they had unearthed thirteen skeletons. One of them was still in sitting position, clothes tattered, clinging to bones; a PPSh-41 submachine gun held in its hands, now bare of flesh; four grenades strapped to a belt; a Tiger Balm little jar in one shirt pocket; a fountain pen clipped to the other shirt pocket; and a pouch made of parachute cloth. Inside the pouch was a lock of hair. For days, she thought about that lock of hair. She imagined its owner, a girl perhaps her age—for most of them who had joined the military campaign against the French in Dien Bien Phu were young. A girl still living with a fishhook in her memory, day after day, from waking moments to haunting dreams that had no scents, no colors, only a lingering melancholy of a love story half-real, half-remembered.
Now she lifted her face to Ibou, her hand touching her brow as if to pinch the fleeting thought. “I didn’t tell you this. But I knew who you were when I saw you at the excavation site, way back then.”
Ibou drew up his shoulders. “How?”
She left the hearth and went to the wall between the two windows. She pointed at the graphite-on-paper drawing framed in black bamboo. It was just after dawn in that 27cm x 20cm drawing. Her entertainment team had performed in the heavy fog, before the enemy airplanes took flight. The ravine was the stage and the artillery men of the 45th Artillery Regiment, sitting on the hillside, watched. The 105mm battery units had toiled all night, building out their emplacements and shelters, and now sat rapt, hugging their knees, watching the team perform The Ballad of Cannon Pulling accompanied by a sole accordion. The accordion was a war booty the commissar of the 351st Heavy Division had donated to the performers. It had a red color, she remembered, carved with the words, “Victory of Him Lam Hills,”the first French stronghold at Dien Bien Phu to fall on March 13, 1954. When she stopped singing, she bowed to the men on the hillside. Most of them had nodded off; others were dragging on their cigarettes to keep their eyes open. The accordion player pulled her aside and said, “Let’s play something soft. Let’s not disturb their sleep.”
Now she watched Ibou studying the drawing. She could see his mouth move without sound. His gaze shifted to one side of the scene, where three French prisoners, escorted by two small bo doi, were also watching the performance. One prisoner was a black figure who stood among them like a tree—so tall and black against a pale, translucent fog.
She expected him to say something. Finally, half-turning his face to her, he said, “I see you and me in there, and I was thinking how forty years less one month have passed like the blink of an eye.”
“You surprised me,” she said. “Forty years less one month?”
“Mid-April, 1954. I don’t remember the exact day. What I remember is the rain. I still hear its sound—not like when you are inside a house—no, madam. Primitive sound. It made you shake like a leaf, hearing it in the forest.”
She looked at the drawing. Just fog. Then, yes, rain would come. Morning, afternoon, night. It came without warning, and fell for days on end. She remembered the black giant who drew everyone’s gaze as he was shepherded through the ravine at the end of the performance. “How did you become a prisoner?”
“Our emplacement was overrun,” he said, straightening up.
“You were an artillery man?”
“Yes, madam.” His eyes became still, like he had just recalled something but decided not to speak.
“You were captured on that day?”
“Two weeks before that, on the first day of the Viet Minh’s second offensive. March 30th. Our side called it ‘Battle of the Five Hills.’ Dominique 1 and Dominique 2, and Eliane 1, Eliane 2, Eliane 4. I know your side had different names for them.”
“Yes.” She nodded. “Eliane 2 is our A1 Hill. The terrible hill.”
“But on that day,” Ibou said, glancing at the drawing, “my fellow soldiers and I were taken to the rear, roughly fifteen kilometers away where we could no longer hear the sounds of artillery and fighter-bombers. Don’t ask me if I missed them, madam.”
She smiled. “The war might not have missed you either.”
He leaned on his arm with his fist resting on the wall above the drawing. He bent his head to a hand-span from the drawing. “Did he miss it? The artist who drew this. Are you a friend of his, madam?”
She put her hand over her lips. “We were lovers.”
“Oh-la-la.” Ibou turned his body and looked down into her eyes.
She laughed lightly. Her words seemed to echo in her ears. For forty years, they had been locked inside her.
Ibou trailed his long forefinger across the drawing’s bottom corner, where the artist had signed his name. Le Giang. “I recognize his name.”
“You knew him?”
“If that’s his name.”
“His alias. We didn’t use our real names during the military campaign, for different reasons. One of them is identity secrecy.”
“I knew him,” Ibou said softly. “He gave me a drawing he did—for me.”
“How interesting.” She inhaled deeply. “What did he draw for you?”
“A charcoal-on-paper sketch. Smaller than this. I believe fifteen centimeters by twenty centimeters. He gave it a title too.”
“In Vietnamese? Or French?”
“Vietnamese. But he told me what it meant.” Ibou frowned then smiled. “‘Portrait of Brother Tak-Mak.’”
She chuckled, hearing his Vietnamese. “So, he drew you. But ‘Brother Tak-Mak’?”
Ibou laughed. His laugh sounded like a rumble. “That was the name they called me after my capture. During the two weeks in the valley, they interrogated me and I cooperated. I gave them the positions of our artillery emplacements in the valley and the concentrated firepower of our headquarters. But they already knew all that. What they wanted to know was our mobile artillery. They had no knowledge of ituntil they launched their first offensive on March 13th. We hid those mobile units, and only revealed them when the Viet Minh came at us, and we inflicted heavy casualties on their infantry. During the interrogation, there was an interpreter. The interrogator asked a lot about the deploying schemes of our ghost artillery. Our transit plan for it—where and how. He kept saying ‘thac mac’, and the interpreter had a hard time interpreting the words. Once I knew what they meant. I spoke the correct words, and they laughed and started calling me ‘Brother Tak-Mak.’”
His excitement made her feel lively. Forty years less one month. She smiled at the phrase. “I’d love to see that drawing he did for you.”
“I recognized his signed name. All these years I thought that was his real name.”
“His real name? Tran Khang.”
Ibou mused. “He told me he was an artist-reporter for the newspaper of the 351st Heavy Division. He looked so young. But what a gifted young man.”
“We were the same age. Both of us were twenty at that time.”
Ibou looked down to seek her eyes. “Where is he now?”
“He was sent to the South shortly after our victory at Dien Bien Phu. The North had prepared for the infiltration of the South as soon as Viet Nam was divided into North and South by the Geneva Convention in 1954. I have not heard from him since.”
Ibou dropped his voice. “You never married, madam?”
Her lips formed the word ‘no’ as she shook her head. She caught him gazing at her, and he blinked.
“You’re very beautiful,” he said. “You must have loved him very much. Did he ever draw you, madam?”
“I’d need to ask him that, wouldn’t I?”
Her fluty laugh had Ibou nodding, then he, too, laughed.
Ibou left with the food that Miss Dien Bien Phu had cooked for his son’s family. In one pail, he had a lidded bamboo basket that held glutinous rice wrapped inside a banana leaf, cooked with magenta-leaf extract, which turned the glutinous rice into a deep purple. He inhaled deeply the banana leaf’s scent, and pinched a morsel of glutinous rice the color of red-violet and put it into his mouth. He shook his head as the ever-faint sweetness travelled to his taste buds. The famed Dien-Bien rice, plain or glutinous, that he had for years eaten and loved from his Thai wife’s cooking. In the other pail was a tall crock, glazed in teal color. Inside was a whole duck, golden roasted, baked with sour wampee leaves packed in its gut, which was sewn tight. When he lifted the lid, he inhaled a warm lemon-tangy scent of the leaves seeping through, with a darkly-rich smell of cooked meat.
Her culinary flair had always impressed him, but her weaving artistry left him in awe. Once, his son rented a packhorse to carry a large tapestry, rolled up into a long heavy bundle laid across the horse’s back, and rode along the twisted, dusty provincial road to meet a bus, which delivered local merchandise to unknown places in the outside world. A few times, Ibou recalled, the addresses on the bundles read France, Japan, China. The locals called the famed weaver “The Lady of Dien Bien Phu”. Her mother, a weaver in Ha Noi, had taught her how to weave when she was a teen. She was one of the intellectual few who joined the Viet Minh’s military campaign in 1953-54; she was university educated, and had a sublime singing voice that she used to entertain the bo doi. Ibou had never asked her why she chose Dien Bien Phu as her new home. Perhaps she wanted to return to the valley, he thought, because treasured memories of camaraderie—and perhaps love—manifested themselves in hills and creeks and in the pristine white of mountain ebony.
The sun was setting low behind the Pe Luong mountain as he went through a wooded gully. Near a bamboo grove, he heard sharp whistled notes and tinkling, and he looked up to catch a bamboo warbler, white-throated and brown, singing ti-ti-teer, ti-ti-teer. Its ringing cadence followed himuntil he passed the bamboo thicket and picked up the creek again. Ibou felt thirsty.
The creek, after meandering through the wooded gullies, emerged into a grassland and scrub. Red grass, tiger grass, wild sugarcane. The trees and shrubbery were ancient and tough, fire-resistant and drought-tolerant. The turkey-berry, the yellow-wood, the Indian gooseberry. In the distance, he could see A1 Hill silhouetted against the red sun. He followed the creek, hearing it bubbling as it coursed between A1 Hill and another hill angling from it—Phony Hill. The Viet Minh called it F Hill. Every time he passed by, where Pom Loi Creek ran through the gap of A1 Hill and F Hill, he felt an inexplicable gloom. That gap was a pre-registered spot by his two batteries, when he was a gunner. Manned by West African gunners like himself, the two batteries sat on the hills of Dominique 3 and Dominique 4, looking southward to A1 Hill and F Hill. When the Viet Minh’s second offensive opened up on the evening of March 30, 1954, his batteries hadpounded the gap where the bo doi massed until the spent shells piled up waist high around them. The carnage left countless bodies of bo doi along that creek. He, too, narrowly escaped death when they were overrun, and he was taken prisoner and trekked back to the rear, fifteen kilometers away. They had moved along the notorious creek that flowed through the gorge between the hills, whose brows and flanks had been burned to a glaring red by napalm and constant shelling. On one pre-registered spot, they got shelled, and one bo doi was killed.
The sun just set behind A1 Hill, and the hillcrest glowed red. The bare red-dirt hill had taken years to come backand was now thick and green with teak trees. Gone from the hilltop was the tall bamboo cenotaph the Viet Minh had erected and draped with white parachutes—which had fallen into their hands, courtesy of the French parachuted misdrops—to commemorate their dead in multitudes. Many of the dead, pounded repeatedly by the artillery, were buried most of the time in cavities that were hurriedly dug, for the diggers might get killed at any moment by thundering artillery.
He passed the cemetery at the foot of the hill. In the misty dusk, he could see the yellow blossoms of the dwarf Ylang-Ylang shrub lining the solitary path that cut through the burial ground. He thought the flowers beautiful. Long-stalked, sea-star shaped, with each thin curly petal drooping. He thought of Miss Dien Bien Phu, standing under the Ylang-Ylang tree, waiting for him to arrive with the creek’s water. He couldn’t help thinking of that distant past, forty years to date. The drawing she showed had brought the time back to life, and that past had quietly superimposed itself on the landscape, making it seem suddenly unfamiliar around him now.
Cicadas were singing in the clumps of camphor trees beyond the hill. Soon they would ease their choruswhen the evening fog shrouded the valley. He had seen visitors coming each year to the cemetery during the summer months, searching for the names of deceased kin on each headstone, most bearing no names. They looked in vain on the single stele engraved with a handful of names identified, the rest unknown. Many of the visitors came from distant places, yet all came with the same wish: to find peace in an identified name. Most found none.
Ibou often avoided coming this way, for the cemetery made him think of his compatriots—the West African gunners—and his fellow legionnaires. All the fallen ones. Thousands of them had become dust under the soil of this valley. There was no cemetery for them. So many had died in the Viet Minh’s first offensive alonethat they were buried on the spot. They received no ceremonial burial in the central sector’s graveyard, where one day shellfire burst open all the graves, and the smell was so bad that the rotted remains had to be re-buried alongside the new deadin mass graves excavated by bulldozers. He heard the Viet Minh prisoners call the mass graves “Ma Tây”. The Tây Graveyard. Years later, after living with the Viet, he learned many slang words the Viet reserved for those they despised. “Tây” was the demeaning word they called the French. But the Viet were a peculiar people. They called him “Tây Den” when they captured him. Black Tây. That went not only for his Africans, but also for his fellow Algerians and Moroccans. Their swarthy complexion, their coal-black skin, scared the Viet, especially his own Senegalese whose faces were marked by tribal knife scars. “Tây rach mat.” “Scarface Tây.” When he had been accepted into their culture, the word “Tây” remained, but took on a friendly meaning. The hamlet natives called him “Brother Black Tây”, and when he got older, “Ong Tây Den.” Mr. Black Tây.
He went up the provincial road. In the twilight, cricket frogs were calling from the vegetation bordering the road. Pebble-like clicks filled the air. A flock of bar-backed partridges were feeding in the roadside grass. At his looming sight they bolted, scattering into the underbrush. He went on. Moments later, he heard the male partridge whistling, Ti-hu-ti-hu-ti-hu. The flock had run toward Nam Rom River in the distance. Parallel with the provincial road, the river ran north-south through the heart of Dien Bien Phu Valley. The Thai, who were the first settlers in the valley, named the river “Nam Yum.” His Thai wife explained to him that the Thai word “nam” meant river, and “yum” referred to the Spanish cedar. She said the river originated in the woods of Spanish cedar, and thus bore the name Nam Yum in Thai and Nam Rom in Vietnamese.
The river crested this morning because of the heavy rain the night before. During the siege of Dien Bien Phu, he had seen it overflowing many times. The swollen river would rush headlong and its cold water, the natives said, could wash clean the horses’ hooves and soak through the buffalos’ hide. One morning in late March during the siege, the river crested. From D1 Hill, he had watched through binoculars the cresting riverand saw along the muddy bank all the graves, which had been dug the day before to bury the dead legionnaires, swept away.
Then in February of this year, shortly after Tet, workers of the National State Farm¾whose task was to modernize the entire valley for farming and cultivation of edible plants¾unearthed seventeen skeletons on the bank of Nam Rom River. When he heard of the news, his gut told him those were legionnaires’ skeletons. There used to be barbed-wire fences along the east bank of the river, where the French High-Command headquarters sat. The legionnaires used to bathe and fetch water from the river before the siege began. After that, it was suicidal day or night to venture outside the barbed-wire fences. Sometimes patrols and sorties met their fate, and the dead were quickly buried where they fell.
For two days, Ibou visited the riverbank site where a pavilion was set up by the local authorities to hold the human remains in seventeen tieu sanh—stoneware coffins. They had washed the bones, kept the tattered personal belongings in nylon bags, and burned incense sticks in a rice-grain filled bowl for each coffin. One of his close friends, a Senegalese rifleman, was killed in a bloody encounter during a patrol and was buried, he believed, in a spot on the Nam Rom bank.
On the first day, Ibou saw a Vietnamese medical doctor overseeing a group of men washing dirt off the bones on a sieve, and Ibou believed that they were looking for teeth. The doctor told him that the dental remains would tell of the race, and, based on their worn-down state, determine the age. For half a day, he watched them sorting through bone fragments—shin bone, thigh bone, wrist bone, skull—and observed them measuring the bones. On the second day, Ibou came back as the team had just finished documenting each personal item found with the remains. Plastic sew-through buttons, brass buttons, diamond-shaped Legion insignias showing rank and chevrons, black hobnail boots. Then the medical doctor made his announcements. The skeletons belonged to deceased Caucasians, namely Europeans, based on the bone characteristics and dental records. The dead were not Vietnamese, evidenced by the combat boot size, the insignias, the French army’s driver licenses, the bronze wrist bangles carved with French names. The doctor estimated forty years since they had been buried, judging from the attrition of bones. Ibou thought of his dead friend and the thousands of dead legionnaires, and believed it was something of a miracle that these remains had turned up. They would now receive a proper burial back home, wherever it might be, and their souls would rest in peace.
The male partridge called again, whistling in seesaw rhythm that rippled through the air. It was too far down the riverbank for Ibou to see. Another call, loud and crackling, echoed from behind. It came up again among the coppice of teak on A1 Hill. Somewhere uphill, a laughing thrush was calling as it foraged in the grove canopy.
A misty black shape loomed on the hillcrest. The black carcass of a wrecked tank. The Bazeilles tank. He knew all the names of the tank squadron. His artillery crews covered for them with fire support. Each of the ten tanks in the squadron had its name painted white on the side. The black remains of tank Bazeilles had become a landmark.
Beyond A1 Hill stretched the bluish folds of Ta Lung Mountain on the eastern horizon. Mist was thickening. He tried to make out the thin line that, in daytime, showed through the green of the forested mountainside like a faded chalk line that dipped and rose, disappearing then reappearing. The old cannon-pulling trail. Had the authorities decided to restore it, that remnant of war? Otherwise, time and nature would eventually erase it. He had heard “The Ballad of Cannon Pulling” sung when an escorting bo doi proudly explained its meaning and inspiration to him and his fellow prisoners that morning in the ravine. The ballad and the epic achievement of such determination had become lore. How they had toiled for days and nights, manhandling the 2.5 ton cannons up that mountain range to install them on those mountain forward slopes, fooling the French intelligence. Neither he nor his superiors knew anything about this—how the enemy had pulled off such a feat.
The first time he had an insight into the scope of this grand scheme was the night they were done interrogating him. They had grilled him for two weeks. Sometimes, another man replaced his regular interpreter. Ibou thought the replacement was just a boy. Thin, pale-skinned, profuse black hair thatching his brow and his ears. Ibou never saw him laugh. On those rare occasions he smiled, his lips curled up, the eyes lost their steeliness, and the face melted into a pure youthful vulnerability. Perhaps he tried to guard his vulnerability. The steely look in his eyes wasn’t unfriendly. But Ibou would feel like his soul was being probed whenever he met the young man’s gaze.
The young man took part in the interrogation only three times. During the breaks, he would remain on the chair and draw pictures of the battles, of human beings toiling and suffering in the trenches, the underground shelters. A war artist, a frontline reporter, he told Ibou in his soft low voice. Ibou was drawn to him. The young man was reticent, yet an attentive listener. He spoke only when he had to, but Ibou found in him a kind soul who saw something beyond beauty and repugnance in mankind.
One night, they questioned Ibou on the French counter-battery fire, which they knew was superior to their own. After that, Ibou said he was “tak-mak” to know how they had lugged all the heavy artillery pieces up to the mountains, or how they managed to dodge the French counter-fire artillery. The youth opened a notebook and showed Ibou drawings and sketches in pencil and charcoal. He dated each work and signed his name, Le Giang. Ibou studied the drawings of the bo doi pulling or dropping ropes on the unwieldy guns—the 105mm field guns, the 37mm antiaircraft guns—on steep hill slopes, some at hair-raising 45 degree angles. He looked at one pencil drawing entitled “Mock Artillery”, which showed an open-field deployment of four crude-looking 105mm cannons. It dawned on him why they were not hidden in casemates like all of the Viet Minh’s heavy field artillery. The youth explained that each of the guns in the drawing was made out of a tree trunk, painted black, and set uptilted in an open field, visible to the enemy. He said in his precise French, enunciating each word, “Those who deserve praise in our artillery division are not the forward observers, the watch tower observers, or the gunners. They are the men who live and die on the mock deployment ground, because they draw fire from your artillery and your fighter-bombers.”
There were always people in each drawing, each sketch, Ibou recalled. And they stayed in Ibou’s mind. Their gestures or the look on their faces, Ibou could not forget them. Then as he took back the notebook, the youth said, “The people I drew are dead now.” Ibou said, “Vous dessinez les fantômes?” “Yes,” the youth said, “I drew ghosts.” Later that evening, the youth returned when Ibou was resting. He gave Ibou a sheet of paper. “For you,” he said. His mouth agape, Ibou stared at his own face in a charcoal sketch, at the faint lines across his cheeks, his tribal knife scars. “Portrait of Brother Tak-Mak.” He clasped his big hands around the youth’s. “Merci mon ami. Merci beaucoup.” At dawn, he was taken to the rear. He wanted to say goodbye to the youth, but was not allowed to. He asked for a piece of nylon and wrapped the drawing with it. He had felt something he rarely had before: he felt significant, a sense of self-worth, which had so often eluded him since childhood.
The red in the evening sky was gone and the hillcrests became thin lines in the fog. It cloaked the riverbank, and the air turned chilly. Ibou could barely make out the manioc plots at the foot of A1 Hill. He felt the weight of the pails in his hands. He must get on home. His wife and his son’s family would soon enjoy Miss Dien Bien Phu’s cooking.
Had the artist youth ever drawn her portrait? Ibou wondered as he hurried up the provincial road. Was he still alive?
An Artist’s Legacy
Friday, October 10, 2003
Father once said that a man’s karma could be passed on to his children. That came from his diary. I didn’t understand it then. But I do now, after six months of reading his diary twice, and studying his art. They are drawings mostly in ink, pencil, graphite, and a few dozen of them in watercolor. One thousand and forty-three. I don’t know how many he lost or how many he sold to make a living after he was released from the socialist-reform camp by the Vietnamese communist government.
In all his work, Father signed his name as Le Giang. He dated each work and, most of the time, he wrote about it in his journal. It took me a long time going through his work to accept him by that name. I hadn’t known him well, though, in my girlhood. But after months drifting around in his world, his works began appearing in my dreams as animated scenes, always in black-and-white, just as he had conceived them. Sometimes, I heard in my head the words he wrote in his journal, and instantly I understood the stories behind them.
When I was seven, Father told me that every Vietnamese name has a meaning. My name is Hai Yen. Tran Thi Hai Yen. My first name, Hai Yen, means the swallow, a sea bird known for its resilience and tireless wing. But he named me Hai Yen—a pretty name for a girl—because, a day before I was born, a swallow flew into our house and built a nest in a ceiling corner. Father said that was a good omen.
I was born mute. I’m sixteen today. It’s my birthday, a Friday. That means I have to stay in our family’s herbal store to help Mother inventory the herbal goods, which arrive every Friday. My grandparents own the store. Grandpa is an ethnic Chinese who married Grandma, a southern Vietnamese girl from Ca Mau. Grandpa is like a town doctor who practices the art of therapies to harmonize the yin and yang in the human body, so that the flow of qi¾life energy¾can be unblocked. Grandpa has a room in the back of the store where he receives his patients. Mother manages the daily chores in the store, and I help after school. Above Grandpa’s rear room is the attic converted to storage. It has a drop-down ladder. Up in that storage room, stuffy and herb-dry smelling, Father used to spend his days working on his art. He worked every day after he married Mother. He was fifty-oneyears old and Mother was only twenty-five. He had known her since she was ten. At that time, he was still on the other side, a communist propagandist, who occasionally slipped into Ông Doc town to buy herbal medicines at our family’s store, and sometimes he would receive acupuncture from Grandpa. They became friends. Grandpa was ten years older than Father. Then a few years before 1975, Father defected to our side, the Republic of Viet Nam. In 1975, when South Viet Nam fell to communism, Father disappeared. For ten years. Then one day, he came into our store, gaunt in threadbare clothes, his familiar long black hair now completely gray. Shortly after, he married Mother. In fact, she had a teen crush on him, a man old enough to be her father. Two years later, in 1987, I was born.
I grew up in our family home that sits within three kilometers outsideof the town limits. Grandma took care of the house and the cooking. She raised me, and became my surrogate mother.
I didn’t see much of Father. Occasionally, he’d take me to places I’d never seen, and the people he met usually didn’t pay me—a mute—much attention. But Father and I shared a bond, which brought us together: a spoken silence. We could feel each other’s thoughts, since Father rarely spoke.
When I turned seven, Father made a trip to North Viet Nam. He told Mother he wanted to re-visit his birthplace, which he hadn’t seen in forty years. The year was 1994.
Father never came back. The grownups at home would whisper among themselves when they talked about him. I asked them why Father didn’t come back. Grandpa, Grandma, and Mother all said, “He belongs to where he’s at.” I could never figure out what that meant, but the line soon became a mantra in our household. Eventually, I stopped asking.
Six months before I turned sixteen, a telegram came. Father was very ill and wished to see both Mother and me. Mother didn’t go. She was resolute. So I went alone. She entrusted me to a stewardess on the plane, who thought I was an adult because of my height and fully-developed body.
I stayed in a stilt house on a hillside overlooking a creek that flowed through a ravine. Father lived in that house in the valley. There were many hills and creeks in that valley called Dien Bien Phu, which sits in a remote northwestern region of North Viet Nam. Father told me he had nothing valuable to give me, his only daughter, except his works. He gave me a suitcase in which he kept his new work, and a journal he’d kept since he’d returned to Dien Bien Phu. But the bulk of his work was kept in a trunk in the attic of our family herbal store. For years he had lived there, his second home among jars of medicinal and cartooned herbs, which breathed a redolence that made your skin tingle. Over his years as North Vietnamese propagandist, Father had sought ways to safeguard his works, and he’d found a haven for them in the attic of Grandpa’s store.
On the last day of his life, Father asked me if I remembered the story he had told me when I was seven—how my name came about. I signed to him that the swallow brought good omen when it flies into a home. Father smiled a rare smile. He spoke with his eyes closed, and I leaned close to his face to hear the words. He said I was the caretaker of his works and that was my inheritance. I made a sign that I understood. I was the good omen.
Holding his hands in mine, I sat watching his lips form words, and I watched them until they quivered and became still.
Sunday, October 26, 2003
I never knew that the bo doi would wash their feet at night before bed, during their expedition. Last night when I was soaking my feet, I thought about what I read in Father’s diary. Grandma used to make me soak my feet every night before bedtime. The chunks of alum that looked like ice cubes frothed when Grandma dropped them into the pan of warm water. Sometimes Grandma added a sliver of cinnamon, and it gave the water an acrid scent. I made hand signs that I felt clean, the soles of my feet tingling and the tingling going up to my calves, and Grandma wiped my feet dry with a towel and said, “Little one, you have the most beautiful feet.” I sensed that I must keep my body pure and clean, and I never forgot the scent of cinnamon.
Grandma told me that Grandpa’s grandmother, who was Chinese and living in China, had her feet bound. I asked what that was, pointing to my own feet. Grandma explained, and I asked her how a girl whose feet were arch-shaped and small from binding could walk. Grandma minced back and forth, and I laughed. She said it would be a horror to her if my feet were bound.
Last night, after soaking my feet, I lay in bed and sleep wasn’t coming. I felt warm in my feet, and the warmth brought my hand down there to touch them. I pulled up the legs of my pajamas pants and looked at my legs, their long shapes and the arched shapes of the full calves, white in the reflected streetlight. I looked down at my chest, and knew why Grandma made me wear a brassiere when I went outside. I had become more conscious of my full bosom the day I found out from my classmate how she got her tortoise-shell hair clasp. She wasn’t as tall as me and she was flat-chested. Yet, I envied her for her eyebrows. They arched over her eyes like ink brushstrokes. She said to me, “You like my hair clasp? It’s real tortoise shell.”
“It’s pretty,” I said.
“I got it free.”
There was this middle-aged man, she told me, who had a sundry boat, and would come into town once a week. He docked his boat in a cove, and the clinking chime he hung on his boat would tell you he was there with all kinds of trinkets, once you came inside the domed shelter to satisfy your curiosity. She went in there and, after looking around, saw a tortoise-shell clasp.
“Isn’t it pretty on ya?” the man said in his purring voice.
She turned it in her hand, biting her lower lip, and nodded.
“How much money ya got?”
“I don’t have money.”
He scratched under his chin. “Get some money. I can’t keep it for ya.”
Reluctantly, she handed the clasp back to the man. He raised his eyes from where he sat on the floor. “You really like it, eh?”
She nodded, feeling like a mouse under his stare.
“Keep it.” He shrugged as she peered at him, at a loss. “If you feel bad taking it, do somethin’ for me.” He pointed at her chest, coughed, spat, and made a sign of unbuttoning her blouse.
I have thought a lot of what she told me. When he had seen her breasts, he said, “Come back next time, and I’ll give you a nice bra. Lacy stuff. Pretty on your nice skin.” She said to me, “Do you want to come with me next time?” She eyed my chest. I could see a glint of envy in her eyes. I never considered her invitation. It was vulgar of her. I wanted to keep my body pure and clean, because I remembered how much care Grandma gave it. I thought about how pure it was of Father’s love, which befell him during the early days of his expedition to Dien Bien Phu.
Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (Underground Voices). He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, finalist to Mary McCarthy Prize (Sarabande Books), Many Voices Project (New Rivers Press), Prairie Schooner Book Prize (Prairie Schooner), a twice finalist of The William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Award, the recipient of SAND HILLS PRIZE FOR BEST FICTION, Greensboro Review’s ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION, and WILLIAM FAULKNER LITERARY COMPETITION. Ha studied Journalism at Ohio University. His new novel, Mrs. Rossi’s Dream (2019, The Permanent Press), was Best New Book by Booklist and a 2019 Foreword Reviews INDIES Silver Winner (Historical Adult Fiction) and Bronze Winner (War & Military Adult Fiction); Finalist in General Adult Fiction and Multicultural Adult Fiction.