THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 1 NUMBER 1
TRAN GIA NAM
ENTER THE CITY
Translated by N. SAOMAI
(This English translation version has been published in Songvan magazine [ISSN 1089-8123, discontinued in 2000], issue 14, Sept 1999, which is under the same ownership and editorship of The Writers Postís publisher and editor N. Saomai / Nguyen Sao Mai. The original version has been published in Songvan magazine issue 4, 1996).
As we arrived at Cai Lang Crossroads in Danang City it was just on one o'clock in the afternoon. The one-windowed watch (1) on my wrist boldly, and solemnly, confirmed it. That guilty, irresponsible hour lay immersing in sleep on the twenty-ninth of March 1975. The day in which, sunshine was quite soft, wind pretty thin, but there was floating in the air an odour of tears. The day was, and would be, bound to the local history of Quang Nam Province.†
††††††††††† I sat stiffly on the top of the tank T-54, my eyes wandering blankly about. A thin line of dust rose up then, with no way of escape collapsed broken, floating down about the foot of an electrical pole. A wisp of smoke warmed my nostrils. No, it was my own breath. But what was this? I was filled with anxiety, fear, speechlessness, and uneasiness. I was uncertain in different emotions. Some kind of delight. Some kind of sorrow. I was heads. I was tails. I was a toss-up. The metal belts of the heavy armoured vehicle rolled crushing the surface of the road; I felt it tear my skin and flesh apart, painful. As we moved along, from Cai-Lang Crossroads to Ly Thai To then Hung Vuong Street, I sat motionless with my forefinger lay docilely on the trigger. There seemed to be people calling one another. Whistle sounding. Car running. Drifting, moving about were the scarlet colours wrapped around the necks, tied on the wrists, looked exhilarated but in a pitiful manner. I thought of the enemies breaking into a run. Their government was collapsed. And before my eyes, their silly citizens stealthily shrouding their fear contrived a welcome. The war, however long it may be, must come to an end. But why ended so suddenly, so unexpectedly? I was a soldier in the troops of victory. In securing victory, in whatever which way, the winner should take pride, to embellish the cause which existed yet seemed unreal, seemed unreal yet really existed. Why the gloom? It was obvious that I myself was continuing to lose, to lose completely, to lose heavily.
The tank stopped in the middle of the intersection. Con Market was bare, welcoming us with a corpse lying on the pavement. Flies, bagasses, and trash were in terrible confusion. The vehicle started again, rolling over the railway, rumbling slowly past a bookstore, perhaps. For I saw books and newspapers cluttering up, exposing naked everywhere, from the kerbside to the far end of the store. A burning sensation stung my eyes, conveyed the shooting pain deeply through all the veins down below in my heart. Near stifled, I breathed in, held my breath, then let it out. Disorderly flit across my mind people walking, standing, talking, laughing, and lamenting. I heard the cries of thousands characters having been uprooted from the mysterious world of knowledge. All would soon be madly and savagely cremated. I succumbed to helplessness; my soul felt completely limp, like the yellow colours with three red stripes lying paralysed on the tiled threshold. I could not help, miserably, looking at it. The noble yellow colour beckoned. The stretch of homeland with three red arteries, simple yet full of misery, had stealthily enticed me for years. The opportunity of turning back, when life could possibly mould me into wits, was no more. Too late to be sorry. Again, it seemed I had just sighed, lightly.
††††††††††† The column of tanks T.54 rolled crushing the street running along a river. On the other side of the river straggled the roofs of houses. A mountain range stretched behind them, bright green, carrying on its back a tender white cloud. The cloud stirring, and changing. The horizon, protectively, surrounded them. A few birds were flying. I did not know if any of them sung, but was really filled with a pitiful stream of song. Again, a male corpse lay supine, its face turned skywards. This was the rice warehouse at Nguyen Du Street. Abruptly, the flabby, lentil-alike hat-brim shut off a glance. I raised my head. Still, the sky was blue. The trail of smoke from the B-52 flight-path was gone, away from life.
Benumbed in my thigh, I switched to change my position, felt the blood running down below in my buttock. In the spring of my nineteenth year I was fleshy, despite of the poor nutrition regime. I looked at my hand, at every finger, thinking, recalling. There was no possible doubt that I did not shoot some one. But was there any possibility that no one collapsed at the moments I pulled the trigger in terrible confusion in the battlefield?
I am a soldier, a real soldier with gun and knife, snake-mouthed yet Buddha-hearted. I like talking obscenely. I like saying swear words. Yet I am extremely benign. My mouth is used to smile rather than to talk. But in my mind, the sense of dejection keeps increasing to a great extent.† Never saw I laughing? Quite easy, if you wish. Just look at me, with your eyes of a little tender. You see? Not every cadre is black-lipped and buck-teethed. One per thousand the most. Of any region, the features of the Vietnamese are really the same, are they not? Political barrier won't last for long. Light them upĺ our hearts. Love this country. Love our people. I am the cadre who wears star on his hat, but human love in his heart. You advanced, I retreated. You retreated, I advanced. We have merely had orders from above. But, to kill one another to protect the sole homeland?
I thought casual thoughtsĺ a trick I played on myself to cope with unpleasant circumstances. Suddenly, the sound of a voice brought me back into the late afternoon of March 29.
"Young fellow, are you thirsty? Drink this can of iced water to refresh yourself, will you?"
Again, a war mother. I looked at the womanĺ in forty, perhaps. Military orders were to prohibit any involvement with "false" citizens. I kept my mouth shut, felt a lot of anxiety about the embarrassment, even feigned, of a citizen in the just-liberated area.
The first peaceful night in the enemy zone, also my homeland, I could not sleep a wink. The victory of "Three Revolutionary Streams", or "ten revolutionary oceans"(2), was meaningless to me. I suddenly, however, felt free. I would soon rush home to see my eldest sister, the only relative remained. Then marrying. Then rearing children. Then raising chickens, raising ducks. The picture of a nice future stirred my mind. With my head on my arm, I lay open-eyed thinking pitifully of a friend who had just breathed his last. He was literally unlucky, died a meaningless death at the between-time of March 29. Had he not felt the urge to empty himself he would not stumble to the field at midnight to step on the mine abandoned by a friend unit. At this moment, his aides had already cleaned up what was left of his remains. Having no parent, no brother, and no house, Quach Lucky had long before changed his name to Quach Unlucky. His features were a little under average. His little learning was just enough for reading the notice and order of the day. Bustling with fighting for years, he did not know about woman in the least. The luck came to him once, somewhere in his early eighteen, when his operating unit stopped for refreshment and a rutting local female guerrilla offered him herself. After that never-to-be-forgotten experience Phuc met me, unhappy and exhausted.
"Well, what was it you did last night that made you so tired out, baby?" I teased him.
"Damn, nothing at all!" he said pursing his lip, disgruntled.
"Why? She changed her mind?" I was surprised, asked curiously.
"Curses on my fault." Phuc shook his head, irritated. "She lay naked in the dark," he recalled, "Pubes a handful. Gee, much of hair. I just aimed at ninety degree, you know. Got scratched by hair, and shot. She pushed me away. Had no time to see any entrance, entry, or else. What a sod!"
Doubtless he had been hasty, lack of experience, but flush of energy. After the event, to-die-with-it yet still that's-not-it-at-all, Phuc seemed wised up. Whenever there was a moving, a witch-hunt he always roved hungrily about looking for casual sex. Regretfully, till his sacrifice Phuc did not meet another girl of good will. The sex-supporting female cadres in his unit were old, and odd-looking for him. I knew he masturbated every once in a while, since he had once clumsily scratched his foreskin, and had turned to me for advice.
In general, my friend's sentiment and sex life were so. Mine, was it better? A faint stirring of emotion would soon be gone with the increase of the war. Luckily, I loved and had been beloved. My love was both rosy-faced and long-legged (3), had also a soul of popular song. Sitting next to her, I thought I was Xuan-Dieu of the pre-war. Sometimes I had took a dislike to him for already writing what I thought of, what I wanted to write for her. Yet still I had, at other times, felt regret for his abandoning the road he had followed. Silly was I. It was merely circumstances. My lover knew a number of poems. She recited much of it, and I remembered most of all few lines of Nguyen Binh's:
into the sky
By the grace of poetry, forest and mountain crossings seemed to feel less fatigue. Tonight, as I lay resting, pillowed my head on my arm, on the scar on my flesh, I suddenly felt floating in recollections. Of the villages I had gone by. Of the hillsides I had stopped. The eyes. The hands. The smiles. The cries. Every figure brought back from the cave of my mind the vivid memories of sorrow, and happiness as well. Soldier's life was rich. Didn't you believe? Had you ever slept the night in a cowshed, a buffalo-house, touched the warm cow dung as feeling for the gun, and then, accidentally realising one more odour in life? Had you ever cupped your hands in the stream full of rotten leaves, drank the quivering water which tried to escape, shimmering like phosphorus? There had never been once you plucked the leaves of grass, plugged the wound and staunched the flow of blood, discovered then a new colour? There still were so many things of precious value. It would be an endless story if embellished.
Night had fallen. Night, severe black, enshrouded all. Suddenly, raindrops were strewn falling. In the veranda of the barrack abandoned by the "false" troops I fumbled with releasing the knot at one end of the hammock to swift it inside. A gust of wind sent the rain spattering wet my skin. I quivered, felt hit by a bullet and collapsed floating in the peaceful sadness.
††††††††††† So a time was done.
††††††††††† And a life-span would soon be gone.
††††††††††† Did I sigh? No.
††††††††††† Did the night sigh? I did not know.
Rain. Short threads, long threads, tangled threads were swaying, hanging.
††††††††††††† Translated by N. Saomai
(This English translation version has been published in SongVan Magazine [ISSN 1089-8123, discontinued in 2000], issue 14, Sept 1999, which is under the same ownership and editorship of The Writers Postís publisher and editor N. Saomai / Nguyen Sao Mai. The original version has been published in SongVan magazine issue 5, 1996).
(1) So called by the North Vietnamese Communists entering Saigon after its fall in 1975, means the watch which has on its face one small area showing the day digitally. (2)The author's amuse, holding the "Three Revolutionary† Streams" of little account. (3) From an old, humorous judgement on physiognomy: "The rosy-faced is lustful, the long-legged tireless in sex."
(*)Translated from the original version published in SongVan magazine† [USA: SongVan (ISSN 1089-8123), issue 5, 1996, pp 17-22]
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