The barge arrives late in the rain. The wind drives the rain in gray sheets across the ferry, the river brown and roiling, the liftgate wet and sleek-looking as it touches the quay.
I wipe my face with my hand; pull my raincoat tight around me. I cough. My throat hurts. People are coming onto the quay. Bicycles and motor scooters roll, revving in tandem in their lanes. You can smell the fumes in the rain. The wet dusk glows with the scooters’ headlights. I watch for the next wave of passengers, those on foot. Behind them, waiting, are big, blue trucks. Rain falls slanting and popping on the quay, on the gray-steel hatch. My gaze falls on blurred faces of those hurrying up the quay, nylon bags, pink, blue, in hands, jute bags slung across shoulders. They stream past me, rustling in their nylon raincoats. Around here people bring them when they have looked at the color of the sky, the shapes of clouds.
Then I see them. A girl and a white woman, both wearing wide-brimmed straw hats but no raincoats, lugging their suitcases down the hatch. They are coming toward me as I stand to one side, hunched, on the quay’s slope. I raise my hand, call to them, “Mrs. Rossi?”
The woman turns her head in my direction. “Hello!” she says, half smiling, half wincing from the pelting rain.
I reach out my hand to help her with the suitcase. Instead her hand comes up to shake mine.
“Please, let me help,” I say and this time reach for her suitcase.
“Are you from the inn?” she says.
“I’m terribly sorry about the delay. I thought you must’ve left. I’m awfully glad to see you still here.”
“Yes, ma’am. May I take you and your daughter to the car?”
“Yes, of course.” She smiles, wrinkling the corners of her blue eyes. She takes the girl’s hand and both of them follow me to the Peugeot parked on the ramp that winds down to the main street. I can hear her talk to the girl about getting themselves raincoats during their stay, for the monsoon season is here. Though wrinkled and gray, perhaps in her late sixties, Mrs. Rossi has a clear voice. It sounds cheerful.
I put their suitcases in the car trunk, then open the rear door. The girl says, “Thank you,” as she slides onto the seat. She must be Vietnamese, slender, rather tall. Her blue jeans are notched above the ankles, and her light skin blends perfectly with her scarlet blouse, collarless, fringed white. Mrs. Rossi takes off her wet straw hat, shaking it against her leg, and says, “No one here carries an umbrella like where I come from.”
“People here wear raincoats when it rains,” I say as she clears a wet lock of white hair from her brow.
“In Hồ Chí Minh City too,” Mrs. Rossi says.
The rain smears the windshield as I drive through the town. Shop lights flicker. Water is rising on the main street and motor scooters sloshing through standing water kick up fantails in light-colored spouts. Hồ Chí Minh City. The old name is Saigon. A long time ago before the war ended. My eyes straining, I hunch forward to look through the smeary windshield. I can hear rain drumming on the car roof, feel my hands gripping the wheel. Water is rising to the shops’ thresholds, their awnings’ tarpaulins in green, in blue, flapping like the wings of some wet fowl. From the ferry comes the sound of a horn. A barge is arriving.
“This looks like a badly crowded Chinese quarter,” Mrs. Rossi says from the backseat.
“Very crowded, ma’am. You never see the sun when you walk the streets here.”
A surge of running water against the tires sends a shudder through the steering wheel. I am sure they can see through the soaked landscape all the tarpaulins crowding the shop fronts, the merchandise―baskets and travel wear―tossing wildly in the wind from strung-out wires.
“Are you from here by any chance?” Mrs. Rossi says.
“From here? No. And most townspeople here come from somewhere else. Drifters, ma’am.”
“You too?” Mrs. Rossi says with a chuckle.
“Me too,” I say, coughing, my throat dry as sand. I stifle my cough with a fist against my mouth when she says, “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Can you spell it for me?” Then, hearing it spelled, she repeats it. “So it’s Zhang, like the Chinese name?”
“I’m Catherine Rossi. My daughter here is Chi Lan.”
As I put together her daughter’s pronounced name in my head, I hear a small “Hello,” from the girl. I nod.
Mrs. Rossi says, “My daughter understands Vietnamese. Only she can’t speak it very well.”
“She must not have lived here long?”
“No, she hadn’t. In fact, she became my daughter when she was five years old. She’s eighteen now.”
“You adopted her, ma’am?” I glance up again at the rearview mirror and meet the girl’s eyes. I feel odd asking her mother about her in her presence.
“Yes, I adopted her in nineteen seventy-four. Just one year before the collapse of South Vietnam. How fortunate for us!”
“You came here that year?”
“Yes.” Mrs. Rossi clears her throat. “And what were you doing in seventy-four?”
I give her question thought, then, “I was in the South Vietnam Army.”
“Were you an interpreter?” she asks with a light laugh.
“Then you must excuse my assumption. You speak English very well. And I’m glad you do. Otherwise we’re all making sign language now.”
She chuckles and the girl smiles as I look up at the rearview mirror. Her oval face, framed by raven, shoulder-length hair, is fresh. Her eyebrows curving gracefully are crayoned black. I remember a face like that from my past. Then Mrs. Rossi speaks again.
“Were you an army lifer?”
“What is that?” I ask and clear my throat.
“Like spending a lifetime career in the army.”
“No, ma’am. Only a few years.”
“Did you teach school before that?”
These curious Americans.
“I was on the other side. A soldier.”
“North Vietnamese side?”
“Yes. That’s where I was born.”
“And then you defected. Yes?”
“They have a name for those. I’m trying to remember.”
Then I hear the girl say it for her. A hồi chánh. Mrs. Rossi says, “That’s it.” She seems to be deep in her thoughts as we are leaving the town and following the one-lane road north of town toward U Minh district. The headlights pick up windblown rain in sprays and the blacktop blurs. There is no lane divider. Along the road drenched palms toss in the winds that blow wet leaves and white cajeput flowers onto the windshield, and the wipers sweep over them, pressing them to the glass.
“Your victors, the North communists, didn’t like the hồi chánh very much. So I heard.”
“That’s true, ma’am.”
“Did they treat you any different than they did to those they fought against during the war?”
“Sometimes worse, ma’am. I was one of those.”
“They spent years in reform camps. Very far from here.”
“What happened to you?”
“Ten years, ma’am. Where nobody saw us.”
“Atrocious,” she says and smacks her lips. “So you were released just two years ago in eighty-five? Why so long?”
“Perhaps we were not reformed well enough.”
The road bends around a banana grove and on the other side golden bamboo grow thick, leaning in over the road, their trunks slender and tall, their buff palely glistening in the sweeping headlights.
“Are you here to visit the U Minh National Reserve, ma’am?” I say, half turning my head toward them.
“No.” She stops, then says, “It’s a long story.”
I keep my eyes on the dark road, a road I know very well. But on a rainy night like this, the soaked, windswept landscape loses its friendliness. We are halfway to the inn. Lit by the headlights, yellow flowers of the narrow-crowned riverhemp shrubs seem to float along the roadside.
“Mr. Giang?” Mrs. Rossi calls out.
“Yes, ma’am?” I tilt my head back.
“Is that your last name?”
“My last name is Lê.”
“Leh Zhang. I like the way it sounds.” She chuckles. “May I call you Giang?”
“As you wish, ma’am.”
“Giang, do you know this area well?”
“Not really. Any particular place that you want to visit?”
The wind whips. In its rushing sound I can hear her long exhalation.
“I come here,” Mrs. Rossi finally says, “to search for the remains of my son.”
“Okay,” I say with a sudden tightness in my throat.
“My son served in the U.S. Army. Nineteen sixty-six, sixty-seven. He was a lieutenant.”
“He died here, ma’am?”
“Yes. Somewhere here. It’s been twenty years.” Then she drops her voice. “His remains must still be here, I think.”
“What makes you say that?”
“This is where he died, and his body was never recovered.”
“How do you find him? It’s a vast area.”
“I have a map. Someone drew it for me. Crudely, but clear enough. It’s a fellow who once was in the platoon that my son commanded.”
“He saw your son die?”
“No.” She pauses. “No, he didn’t. But he was in the fire fight. When they came upon him near death the next day and did the body count, they said, Where is Lieutenant Nicola Rossi? Well, they counted all the bodies, and all were accounted for except my son’s.”
“Could he still be alive? Nobody saw him dead.”
“He was injured. That fellow saw it. Saw it before a mortar blew up and the next day they found him trapped beneath a fallen cajeput trunk. The Cong didn’t see him or he’d have been dead. They shot all the fallen men in the head.”
I draw a deep breath, suppressing an urge to cough.
“My son must’ve known this.”
I say nothing, keeping my eyes on the wet road, lined with thin-trunked hummingbird trees.
“Are there any local folks I can hire?” Mrs. Rossi asks. “To go out and dig for the remains?”
“The owner of the inn can help you.” I speak with my face half turned. “She’s from here.”
“I much appreciate it,” Mrs. Rossi says. “You don’t know how clueless I am.”
I want to tell her not to raise her hope, but I can’t bring myself to say it. How many unclaimed remains are there in the wilderness? Dug up, displaced by rodents and wild animals. Long scattered, blown away by bombs. Charred by forest fires. Time and nature are cruel.
I am not from here. But I know this region well. I lied to Mrs. Rossi about that.
Carrying in its womb the U Minh vast wetland forest, this region of the Mekong Delta used to be the IV Corps, the southernmost of the four military corps of South Vietnam. During the war it had seen many savage fights. Though the battle carnage might have long been forgotten, some places do not forget. They are haunted.
The roadside inn where I live and work is old. The owner and his wife are in their late sixties. The old woman runs the inn, mainly cooking meals for the guests, and I drive to Ông Đốc town twenty kilometers south to pick up customers when they arrive by land on buses or by waterways on boats and barges. Most of them come to visit the Lower U Minh National Reserve, a good twenty kilometers north of the inn. I seldom see the old man. He mostly holes up in their room. Sometimes when its door isn’t locked, you see him wander about like a specter. The man is amnesiac and cuckoo.
In 1975 when the war was over, there were people from all parts of the country journeying to the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta to search for the remains of their lost sons, lost husbands. I heard this from the innkeeper. She has lived here all her life.
On the night Mrs. Rossi and her daughter arrived, the woman cooked a fat catfish and a pot of white-rice porridge. Outside it was wet and blowy. I took our guests upstairs with their suitcases and, coming down the stairs, I could hear the sizzling of onions as she fried them. I helped set the table, then waited as she opened the lid, the steam rich-smelling, sprinkled black pepper on the plump catfish now burst open, and stirred the porridge until all the black flecks disappeared.
We ate with only one fluorescent lamp in the center of the oblong table, rain on the window slats. Mrs. Rossi, before commencing to eat, bowed and said a prayer. The girl, too, crossed herself. The old woman paid them no mind as she ladled the steaming porridge from the pot into each bowl, broke a chunk of the now ginger-colored catfish with the ladle, then dusted the bowl with pepper.
As we ate, the old woman slurping and sniffling from the porridge steam, Mrs. Rossi said a “Thank-You” to her, and the girl paused, glancing up at the old woman. Seeing no reaction from her, the girl’s eyes had a bemused look. The empty bowl in my hand, I spooned the broth and tasted its onion-rich flavor. My hand went to my shirt pocket for a cigarette, stopped. I was dying to light one up. I coughed into my fist. The dryness in the throat came back. The old woman went to the sideboard and carried back a china plate. She sat it down by the lamp. Mrs. Rossi exclaimed, “Look at that! Are they longans?”
The old woman, her face impassive, just looked at Mrs. Rossi.
“Yes,” I said. “They are in season now.”
The girl plucked one longan and felt its bark like, yellow-brown thin rind. She looked at me. “How do you say longan in Vietnamese?”
“Nhãn.” I enunciated the word. “You never ate it before?”
“I did. In a Vietnamese restaurant where we live.”
“Rockville.” She smiled, eyes narrowed as she met my steady gaze, then added, “State of Maryland.”
Charmed by her mellow voice, I smiled. “You liked it then?”
“I didn’t eat it fresh. They served it in a sweet dessert. It tasted juicy and sweet though.”
“That’s chè. The sweet-dessert soup.”
Mrs. Rossi peeled the rind and eased the fleshy white fruit into her mouth. Then, eyes closed, she shook her head in pleasure. After eating a few longans, their small, round seeds in shining black held in her palm, she said to me, “Would you mind telling the owner the purpose of our stay?”
Back then, the old woman said, you would see them at dawn heading into the woodland beyond the inn, across the grassland, the rice fields. A knapsack, a spade were all they carried. At dusk they would come back out. Some of them stayed here at the inn. Mostly civilians. Those poor citizens traveled to this land looking for their lost husbands, sons, relatives. Sometimes you would see soldiers, but they didn’t stay at the inn. They would camp in the woodland with their trucks and it would be a week or even longer before they left. There were many soldiers coming to this region. Came in organized groups called remains-gathering crews. Many crew members were war veterans who had fought in Military Zone 9 and knew the region well. They remembered where they buried their comrades in makeshift graves. Before they started searching, they would burn incense and pray so that the lost souls would guide them to where their remains could be found. During the war thousands were stationed in this region, always deep in the swamp forest. Many died. Most of them died from bombing and shelling and ground assaults. Deaths were common back then. In that forbidden swamp forest you had flesh and bones of the soldiers on both sides and the flesh and bones of Americans. All lay under the peat soil.
I told Mrs. Rossi what the old woman said. I asked the girl if she understood the woman. “Yes,” she said with a shrug, “I can follow her, though I don’t get everything.”
The old woman, pointing toward the unseen grassland and the paddy beyond, said, “The people here made a living in the buffer zone after the war. They cleared enough land for raising crops. They burned down cajeput trees and sold their wood. They had no love for them. They needed land to farm for rice and vegetables. But sometimes you would see government officials coming down here to assess the damage to the cajeput trees. I won’t be surprised if someday they order these self-proclaimed landowners to re-grow cajeput trees on their tracts of land.”
Mrs. Rossi asked me if the old woman, or any native, knew the region well enough.
The old woman said, “I have never been to the swamp forest myself. I have no business going in there. They say it is haunted.” She said that on rainy nights following a humid day when the swamp vapors were thick, people in the buffer zone said they could hear human sounds from deep in the forest. If you listen, they said, you could hear the human screams, like when you are burned by napalm bombs, hear them sob, the wind-born wails coming and going sometimes until first light. People here sometimes go deep into the forest to cut trees. They are no woodcutters. But the wood of cajeput trees are worth much money. Their wood does not rot even in humid climates and so they are wanted by people in the Mekong Delta who build stilt houses. People here know the forest, the grasslands and the open-water areas. Half of these folks come from somewhere else, the other half are war veterans. Eventually they settled down in the buffer zone, like they owe their lives to the spooky forest. They broke the land surrounding the forest. Most of it is now agricultural land. You can still see cajeput trees in small patches in the buffer zone. And you can see here and there waterfowl breeding colonies.
Mrs. Rossi asked me, “Do you think any of them are available for hire?”
“Yes,” I said. “They will do whatever you want them to do.”
“I have the map. I think that’ll help.”
“I think it will.”
But deep down I knew it wouldn’t.
During my time with the North Vietnamese Army, we buried corpses under giant trees to shelter the graves from bombing. Flies, wind, sand, and graves. Graves everywhere. Graves we had dug to bury the dead in and sometimes to rebury the dead in when bombs fell on them again. In time weeds and creepers overtook the graves. Then you could no longer tell if they were there at all. Sometimes, though, you could spot a grave from the familiarity of the surrounding, perhaps from a marker you had planted at the grave site, or a tree shorn by bombs still staning in its odd-looking shape. Then you unearthed the remains in the grave only to find nothing there but bones. Always bones because termites had eaten everything else. Whatever was left now gripped and twined with tree roots, and now, carefully you unknotted the roots one by one, so the bones wouldn’t snap, the skull wouldn’t crack.
But it was always only the bones. When you hold in your hands a fragment of bone, or a morose-looking skull marred with spiderweb cracks, you wouldn’t know if it was a Vietnamese or an American bone or skull.
I know a man whom Mrs. Rossi could use as a hired hand. A war veteran. He lives in a hut in the buffer zone. He once told me he had served in the Indochina War. He was with the 5th Battalion Vietnamese Paratroops who fought for the French at Đien Bien Phu against the Viet Minh in 1954. I was six at that time.
To get to his dwelling you follow a canal dug by the settlers to bring in water for irrigation. The canal, long and narrow, girds the forest and protects the buffer zone against forest fires in the dry season. The banks are thick with woolly frogsmouths, their reedlike, pointed leaves bent oddly, and little yellow flowers curl brightly against their rust-colored stems. The canal runs alongside a dirt path that winds through the communes, edging the rice fields, sometimes through low-lying bogs glistening with stagnant water, smelling of mud, where aquatic reeds and spiked sedge sprout freely, and passing by you could always hear the aarf of the dwarf tree frogs.
The last time I went to his dwelling I was drunk when I made my way home in the dark. It was black as tar. You walked listening to your feet and you could hear not the footfalls but the rustle of reeds, the croaking of frogs, and there was a mud stench in the breeze. Strange noises suddenly rippled the stillness, swooshing and ruffling. I strained my ears, lost my bearing and fell into the bog. I sat huffing in the mud, rank and warm, smelling liquor in my breath and a tinge of sweetly decayed vegetation. I just sat there, feeling bone fatigued. I lit a cigarette. The strange noises stopped. I held up the flaming match, saw two herons, standing deep in the bog, their heads cocked, looking toward the little orb of light cupped in my hand. Then wings flapping, heads bobbing, yellow beaks clacking against each other’s, they sparred on. The match went out. I remained seated and fell asleep.
Old Lung, the war veteran, is like me. He was a prisoner of war, sent to a reform camp but only for three years. Unlike me, he fought for the Republic of Vietnam. Most people settling in the buffer zone are soldiers’ widows and war veterans. Former North Vietnamese Army soldiers, former Viet Cong fighters. Enemies of the former Republic. Old Lung fought both the Viet Minh in the Indochina War and the Viet Cong and their brothers, North Vietnamese Army in the Vietnam War. He is like a mongrel dog. He shoots from the hip, but he means no harm. He is simply a drunk. Other settlers cleared several hectares of land to grow rice, vegetables, fruit trees. Old Lung grows nothing on his only acre of land. “The more land you’ve got for yourself, son,” he said once, “the more misery you bring upon yourself.”
When somebody dies, the family always calls on Old Lung to build them a coffin and dress the corpse in its burial garment, a chore nobody wants to do when the body lies in rigor mortis. The arms bent, the legs cocked. Stiff as a board. Old Lung stands looking down at the corpse, his hand clutching a waisted jar of rice liquor, and mumbles a prayer. Then he takes a mouthful of liquor, blows spray on the corpse’s limbs, and starts rubbing them down. Soon the limbs lose their stiffness and after he straightens them, the corpse, arms and legs neatly in place, now looks like a sleeping person.
I heard that other caretakers could never do that and the corpse when casketed lay awkwardly. I asked Old Lung, “Which one did the trick? The prayer or the rubbing liquor?” Old Lung pulled a nose hair, snorting, then said, “Son, them dead people can hear me. The rubdown works ‘cause they trust me.”
Later he told me he had buried many corpses of his friends during both wars, a time when, for days, it would be impossible to evacuate the dead and the wounded from the battlefield. “Sometimes what you bury,” he said, “are hunks of meat and bone. That’s what’s left after a mortar or an artillery shell hits you. You wash them chunks of meat covered with grime, them leg bones with most of the flesh completely burned, gone. Wash them with water from your canteen and then put them together in a hole in the ground. You want to give them a decent burial, though sometimes you can’t. But they sure know you’ve mightily tried. Just smell your fingers after you’re done burying them. Son, have you ever smelled meat gone bad three days in the heat? Never mind the maggots. They can’t smell what they eat. You don’t have liquor with you then to wash that smell away. Scrape them fingers with sand, with leaves hard as you can. The smell stays.”
When they first dug the canal that encircled the forest, a stretch of the canal went through the buffer zone’s graveyard. They had to relocate a number of graves. Old Lung exhumed the corpses and reburied them in new coffins. “You know what, son?” he said to me. “Them fresh graves just a year or two gone by are the worst offenders. Them corpses are still rotting. You break a grave open and it smells worse than a basket of stinking fish.”
I had seen exhumers patiently wait for the dead’s family to take a first stab of the spade into the grave’s soil. They feared to be the first themselves who disturbed the dead from his slumber. But Old Lung feared nothing. He would mumble a prayer, then sink the spade into the yellow dirt. I asked him if he ever left a bone or two behind in the old graves, for stories were told that the dead would come every night after those who forgot their bones until the exhumers were at their wits’ end. Old Lung grunted, said, “Humans, son. Dead or alive. Wouldn’t you fret when a body part of yours is missing? But I always take care of them. Told them so. Said, You must forgive me if I make a mistake, but I don’t make careless mistakes, so don’t bear any grudge against me.” Then, grinning a toothy grin, he looked at me.
Old Lung had that unblinking stare that can catch you off-guard. He reminds me of myself. But I know when not to stare after I have read a person’s thoughts. Old Lung’s bat ears stick out from his inverted-triangle-shaped head. He has a protuberant forehead creased sharply in wavy lines. On his pointed chin grows a tuft of gray goatee. It sets a contrast to his thin black hair, still black, defying age and grayish only in the sideburns.
He said, “Know somethin’ else son? One time I was digging up this grave and it had just bones and a skull, ‘cause everything else done rotted. Here I saw a gold leaf in the skull’s mouth. Pure gold, son. Buried with the body as a farewell gift to be spent in the other world. I gave it back to the family, but no, they wanted it reburied with the bones in a new coffin. I guess as the old saying goes, Good as gold. The fella’s spirit musta never run out of money to spend in the netherworld.”
I thought Old Lung’s sincerity must have kept him in close rapport over the years with the dead. A good heart can ward off evils, they say. Behind his dwelling is a well dug just a stone’s throw away. One night I was too drunk to make it home so I slept sitting up against the side of the well. Sometime past midnight I woke and found Old Lung tapping me on the shoulder. He was holding a kerosene lamp in his hand and its smoke stung my eyes. I pushed it away.
“Why didn’t you sleep inside?” he said.
“I thought I’d just sit here to get my head cleared ‘fore I got on home.”
“Done that myself.”
“Hey, old man, here to your shack is no more than fifty meters. And you quit?”
“I ain’t that old yet. And even when I’m full of liquor I can always find my way back to my cot.”
“Why out here then?”
“To talk to the ghosts. They keep me company. You see ghosts when there ain’t no barrier between you and them. I took care of them when they were dead. They owe it to me. When I think of them, they’ll come.”
“Just like that?”
“Yeah. But it ain’t work for you though.”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
“But d’you know how to see them?”
“Show me, old man.”
Old Lung took the lamp with him back in his hut. I sat in the dark, my head heavy, my mouth dry. Fireflies flickered yellow and green and sometimes just glowed steadily in eerie blue dots. The blue-ghost fireflies. The earth, the grass smelled warm. Just as my eyes began to close, Old Lung’s lamplight glowed in the dark, wavering from side to side. He set the lamp on the rim of the well and, half bent, opened his other hand. In the hazy yellow sphere the lamp made against the night, I was looking at a small banana leaf in his palm. A glob of slaked lime sat wet and white in the center of the leaf.
“Dab this on your fingertips and toe tips,” Old Lung said.
“Huh? What’s all this about?”
“You asked me to show you how to see ghosts.”
“With this?” I glanced down at the glob of lime.
“Lime paste,” Old Lung said.
I looked at his wrinkled face, rust-brown and leathery, and as I met his unblinking stare, I nodded. He kept his hand in one place until I was done daubing lime on the extremities of my toes and fingers. He tossed away the banana leaf, blew out the lamp and sat down beside me, his arms wrapping his knees.
“Now what?” I said, keeping my hands open, palms upward. My legs were straightened out, sandaled feet pointed up.
“Just wait,” Old Lung said.
“They’ll be coming?”
I said no more. I could hear myself breathing and him wheezing. A whippoorwill called somewhere in the blackness. When it died out, the night purred with undulating shrills of toads. My head nodding, my eyelids grew heavy. As my eyes were closing I saw lights coming toward us. The blue-ghost fireflies came glowing from deep in the night, coming nearer, together, like myriad stars attracting one another, closer and closer, denser and denser until a blue light began to shine eerily within eyeshot. In the glow were two human figures standing face to face, for just one brief moment, then they lunged at each other. The shorter one was an NVA soldier. I recognized his green uniform immediately. The two button-down breast pockets, the pants with thigh pockets. I had for years worn that same uniform. His cordwood sun-helmet was tipped back, no chin strap. The hat fell as he tried to stab the other man with his AK-47 fitted with a spike bayonet. The other man was an American soldier who wore no helmet. His marine fatigues were coated with yellow dirt as though he had wallowed in it. He had in his hand an entrenching tool. He sidestepped the NVA soldier and gashed his arm with the entrenching tool’s blade. The NVA soldier stumbled. I saw one of his ankle-high green canvas boots come off. He turned, swung the rifle’s bayonet at the American, and his body pivoted wildly.
I turned to Old Lung. “You see that?” I asked him.
The moment he nodded, the scene disappeared. Hung in the night was the blue light only momentarily and it too went black. In the dark I could feel Old Lung shifting on his buttocks, then he struck a match and lit up the lamp.
“You see what I saw?” I asked him with my face turned toward the spot.
“I ain’t blind.”
“But you’ve got no lime on your toes and fingers.”
“I don’t need no lime to see them. I told you that, didn’t I?”
“You think they heard me and disappeared?”
“I shoulda told you to say nothing, not a word when you catch them ghosts with your eyes.”
“They must’ve died around here to show up here again. Right, old man?”
“If them dead people could stand together here for roll call, it oughta be the size of a regiment.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was here back then. Could’ve been dead myself and turned into one of them ghosts you saw time and again.”
Old Lung said nothing as he lit a cigarette. Twenty years had passed since then. Why do ghosts not grow older with time?
I went with Mrs. Rossi to the forest for the first time. We went in a sampan. There were four of us. Mrs. Rossi and me and Old Lung and Ông Ba―Mr. Number Three. Old Lung found Ông Ba, a settler who owns a fifteen-foot-long sampan fitted with a Kohler outboard motor.
We followed the Biện Nhi Canal going east. It is a long canal coming from the coast going inland through the buffer zone, the canal arrow-straight and clear with a paved road edging it on one side and dwellers’ homes on the other side mirroring themselves in the blue water. Ông Ba said it was an elephant road before he was born. It was trampled down by traveling herds of elephants to become a path and whenever there was a dirt path there were migrators. The water in the canal was calm, sky-blue turning gray at times, reflecting clouds, and then a sudden green from water lettuce grown into rails along the lips of the banks. Before long the canal cut through the forest and the water turned ochre, the channel now narrow and dark under the canopy of nypa palms arching twenty feet above the water. When the sun finally broke through on the water’s surface, the nose of the sampan knifed through a long floating mass of water hyacinth, parting the mat of oval leaves cupping blue and violet flowers.
Mid-morning we entered Cái Tàu River, turning south, the river wide and brown, and there were fish stakes pounded into the riverbed along the banks, their wattles wetly dark with watermarks, and the river became fast moving as we turned into another canal going east, moving through another forest of cajeput, and for a while I kept looking at the green of floating water hyacinth, the bright pink of Mrs. Rossi’s umbrella. Then only the drone of the motor and the calls of birds. We reached Trẹm River after an hour on the waterways and turning south we could see the forest on the far right, where we had just emerged, green with white flecks of cajeput flowers and the brownish land beyond the bank. We could see on the left the unclaimed tracts of peatland, the khaki yellow of the soil lambent behind the lush green of banana groves, the fan palms that grew wildly on the bank, the shimmering yellow of riverhemp flowers.
Past a sawmill there were lumber barges moored along the low-lying bank that went up in log steps and far behind the mill, the forest. Ông Ba said, “Yonder it is.” He turned right into a canal, the sampan bobbing on the choppy currents where the canal entered the river, the banks high and thick with bear’s breeches, glossy- and spiny-leaved, and over the bank you could see the sawmill’s brown roof. When we could no longer hear the noises from the sawmill, at least a kilometer behind, Ông Ba brought the sampan alongside the bank where it flared into a shaded cove. Ahead, a hundred yards out in the sun glare was the forest.
“This is the place,” Ông Ba said, cutting off the motor.
I told Mrs. Rossi so. Old Lung simply watched her. She looked at the hand-drawn map and then across the grassy tract of land, brown in the sun. She said, gesturing with her hand toward the open space, “I imagine the American Army base used to be over there.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
She tilted her umbrella back, her face full of sun now, and gazed into the shadowy space farther downstream where the canal disappeared into the forest, where the water shone before it turned dark out of the sun.
Rain. Falling on the inn’s red-tiled roof that slants sharply over the veranda. Sluicing over the low-hanging edge of the roof, falling and glittering in a white-water curtain. The veranda, deep and always shadowy even on a sunny day, surrounds the inn and shields the first-floor rooms from the pelting rain. Bundled up in my raincoat, I walk quick-stepped onto the veranda and set down the two bags of groceries and household supplies on the cement floor, next to the entrance door.
It’s forenoon now. It rained when I went into town. Rain hasn’t let up. Water started rising on the roads on my way back from the town. On a rainy day like this, Mrs. Rossi stays home.
We have new guests who arrived at the inn three days ago. A couple from Ireland. They drove down from Hồ Chí Minh City. The husband is some sort of a journalist. Since their arrival he has gone around the U Minh region always with a camera, a backpack, and a palm-sized voice recorder. The wife, in her late thirties, made friends easily with us. When she first heard of the purpose of Mrs. Rossi’s visit, she said to her, “Jasus, ye break my heart.”
The door opens with the familiar scratching noise the bottom-edge wire mesh makes against the cement floor. Since I came, I have sealed each door’s bottom edge with a wire mesh to keep out bugs and rodents and even snakes, especially during floods. Chi Lan stands in the doorway, holding a mug in her hand.
“Chú,” she says, “give me a grocery bag.” Her voice is soft with a lilt in ‘chú.’ Uncle.
I put the bag in the crook of her arm. “Where’s everyone?”
“My mom’s in the back with Maggie,” she says. “Washing clothes. Alan went off somewhere in their car.”
I notice steam rising from her mug. “What’re you drinking?”
“Café phin. I made it myself.”
“No. With condensed milk. I can’t drink it black like you.”
“I’ve got you into drinking Vietnamese slow-drip café now, huh?” I get out of my raincoat and hang it on a wall hook, several of which I have put up on the veranda walls, front and back, for guests to hang their raincoats before they enter the inn.
She steps back for me to come in. Barefooted, her toenails look rosy, freshly polished.
“We’ll be even when I get you to quit smoking,” she says.
I smile at her gentle tone. I have indeed thought of cutting back on smoking. It is cool inside the house. Her black T-shirt and black hair blend with the dimness, and her white shorts are the only color bright as the whitewashed walls. My sandals squeak, leaving a wet trail behind me on the gray cement floor. Clean looking as the old woman of the inn demands it. At the end of the big room is a pantry that has a refrigerator. Chi Lan sets her mug on a shelf and puts groceries into the refrigerator. Suddenly she stops and holds up a paper-wrapped baguette.
“Bánh mì!” She sounds as if she’s just found gold.
“Yeah,” I say. “I bought plenty of them for lunch. Hope you and everyone’d like it.”
“I love it. What do we have in them?” She takes off the rubber band, opens the wrapper and peeks inside the baguette. The fillings seem to please her as she sniffs at the pork bellies and liver pâté garnished with cilantro, chili peppers, cucumber slices, and pickled carrots. “I’ve tried to make these at home,” she says, wrapping up the baguette and tying it with the rubber band, “and they never came out like this―the smell, the taste.”
“Because most of the fillings are homemade. The pork bellies in particular. They make the bread themselves too. Didn’t you know that?”
“And because I’m an amateur cook.” She taps her cheek with the wrapped baguette, picks up her mug and sips. “Are you a good cook, chú?”
“I can manage on my own.” I walk to the cupboard that stands by the door into the kitchen. “Alan asked me about a snake dish the other day. I told him before he and his wife leave, I’d cook a snake dish for everyone.”
“Oh my.” She closes the refrigerator. “Did you tell him you used to catch snakes with your father? Did you? And about the snake gallbladder?”
“No. I’ve never told anyone that. Except you.” I set down the supplies bag, squatting on my heels, and inspect the four legs of the cupboard, each leg shod with a tin cup half filled with vinegar. In one cup floats a mass of dead black ants.
The air stirs faintly as she kneels beside me. “Must be the sugar jar in the cupboard that attracted them. Look at them.” She bends closer, sweeping back her hair over her ear. “That looks like a moat around a fortress―the water and the cups. Is this your idea, chú?”
“You’re a good custodian.”
“It’s not water in those tin cups. It’s vinegar.”
She looks again. “What’s the difference?”
“Ants might survive in water and they’ll crawl up those legs into the cupboard.”
“I didn’t know vinegar kills them.” She turns to face me, her eyes gently holding my gaze. “My mom appreciated having that clothing trunk in our room to store our clothes. I didn’t know why it’s lined with tin till you told us. Otherwise our old suitcases if we’d used them would’ve crawled with moths and cockroaches.”
“I’m going to replace the vinegar in those cups.” I take out a bottle of vinegar in the bag. “When I lift a leg up, can you remove the cup under the leg for me?”
“Go ahead, chú.”
She remains on her knees, head bent, as I plant my feet and slowly raise a corner of the cupboard. I glance down as she slides the cup out, and through the open top of her T-shirt I can see that she’s braless. I hold my breath, set the cupboard back down. She tilts her face up at me.
“What now? Should I empty the cup―and the ants?”
Each time I heave the cupboard, despite my knowing what I will see when I drop my gaze at her, I still look down through the crescent opening below her clavicles, holding my gaze on the milky white of her skin, the fullness of her bosom, and what comes back to my mind is a child’s innocent eyes and a man’s disturbed thoughts.
On the rear veranda Mrs. Rossi and Maggie, the Irish woman, are scrubbing clothes in a round rubber tub. The old woman normally does this chore. Though old, she can still scrub and wring garments with her small hands. At times she would tread on them the old-fashioned way while her hands hoist the legs of her pantaloons.
“Giang,” Mrs. Rossi calls to me, “you’re back already.”
Maggie, her face wet, raises her voice with a toss of her head, “Made it back in one piece in this bloody weather, didn’t ye?”
“Roads are flooded now,” I say to them. “Where’s your husband, Maggie?”
“Went to meet his local guide and then off to the jungle.” She meant the U Minh forest. “I said go aisy on a day like this. He’s beyant control. Wouldn’t you say, Catherine?”
Mrs. Rossi shrugs. I step closer and look down at her lower legs. Above her ankles are crowds of deep purple marks like she has been hit with buckshot.
“Leech bites?” I ask her, pointing at them.
“How d’you know by just looking?” Mrs. Rossi looks at her ankles and up at me.
“I’ve got scars on my legs from them.” I pull up my trousers legs. The women and Chi Lan stare at the pea-sized scars on my shins, my calves.
Her face scrunched up, Chi Lan shakes her head. “You got them during the war, chú?”
“From years in the jungles.”
Mrs. Rossi drops a wrung-out sock into an empty basket next to the tub. “Every night when I take off my socks, they’re bloodstained from those suckers. The first few days in the forest I was near tears from putting up with them. Mr. Lung, he seemed unperturbed by leeches and bugs. You know how he got rid of those leeches for me?”
“With his cigarettes?” I say. “Make them drop away?”
“That or I just pulled them off my legs.”
“That’s why you’ve got scars like these.” I sit down on my heels, put my fingertip on her calf and slide a finger under the fingertip. “Do like this. Slide your fingernail under the sucker’s mouth. It’ll break off. Won’t leave any scar mark on you I guarantee.”
“What else is better than that?”
“I’ll get you chopped tobacco. All you have to do is soak it in water. Then soak your socks in the tobacco water and then dry the socks before you wear them. Leeches won’t bother you again.”
“What do you think of that? Does it really work?”
Grinning, I nod. “Or you can cut a leech in half.”
Mrs. Rossi leans back slowly looking at me and smiles. “I’ve heard if you do that, it’ll regenerate itself. True?”
“No, ma’am. And I’m glad Mother Nature is fair to us that way.”
Maggie laughs. “That’ll do us all the good in the world, won’t it?”
She rises with the tub in her arms and empties it over the edge of the veranda and fills the tub with rainwater sluicing like a waterfall from the edge of the roof. I have seen her and Chi Lan washing themselves with rainwater, cleaning and scrubbing themselves until their faces glow. Precious rainwater. When it rains I fill jugs of rainwater for the old woman to wash and bathe the old man, for cooking and drinking, too. Once, while filling the jugs, I told Chi Lan that in the jungles we soldiers used to wait for rain so we could shower, and sometimes it was just a passing shower which stopped before we could get all the suds off our bodies. She laughed.
“Is she sleeping around this time?” Chi Lan looks back into the house for the old lady.
“She’s feeding him,” I say.
“You want me to fill the water jugs for her?” Chi Lan says.
“No.” My hand touches my shirt pocket where the cigarette pack is. “We have all we need for now.”
I catch her gaze at my gesture for a smoke. I leave my hand on my chest and in my mind I see the creamy white skin of her bosom. She squats down and begins scrubbing a mud stain off her mother’s jeans in the tub.
Mrs. Rossi arches her back, drawing a deep breath. “I must say I admire the old lady for washing clothes like this. My back is already killing me.”
Maggie is wringing her denim shirt until veins bulge on the backs of her hands. “That’s why that oul’ lady walks bowlegged.” She shakes the shirt loudly. “Mother o’ God give us a washer and a dryer. That’s wan thing we need here.”
I have told them to air-dry their clothes in the sun once a week so the sun will kill any eggs that might have been deposited in their garments. Books they bring with them too. Shake them out once in a while. On the first day of their arrival I heard Maggie scream upstairs. I saw a trail of black ants that led into their room and heard her say to Alan, her husband, “I won’t touch that thing for the steam of their piss.” So I went in and there I saw a dead scorpion under the dresser. I picked up the scorpion and told them I would get rid of the ants. “Oh you’re a treasure,” she said to me. “Please make the bloody eejit go ‘way.”
Now she hangs up her shirt on the cord strung across the veranda and clips it with a wooden clothes-peg. In her late thirties, she is lean, small-bosomed, her sandy-blonde hair tied into a ponytail. Bony in the face, freckled heavily under her clear blue eyes, she smiles a lot, the ear-to-ear smile that brings a smile to your face. She comes back to the tub for her cotton slacks. “You ever got caught with this sorta rain in the jungle while ye go about yeer business?” she asks Mrs. Rossi.
“Oh I’ve been in those downpours and the misting after the monsoon rains. It’s miserable, Maggie.”
“Tell me, love, how on earth can ye find anything in such a place? In that wilderness God doesn’t plant a sign that says, Dig here! Ye know what I mean.”
Skimming the suds off Chi Lan’s forearm with her finger, Mrs. Rossi smiles softly. Her pale blue eyes blink a few times as they rove from my face to Maggie’s. “Mr. Lung has a method,” she said, her voice trembling a little. “He’s done this before. We divided up the area and we go from one section to the next. We spot a mound of earth and dig. Most of the time we find nothing. A few times we found bones, human bones, and God Almighty I’ve felt myself shaking. And you know something? You can’t tell one skull from another. They all look like they were cast from the same mold.”
Mrs. Rossi coughs a small cough and her white-haired head keeps shaking like she can’t chase away something unpleasant in her head. “One time we found this Penicillin bottle among the bones. It’s closed tight with a rubber cap. Mr. Lung opens it and there’s nothing but a piece of paper inside. Well, he doesn’t speak English like you, Giang, but after a lot of gesticulating and with much pidgin English, he got me to understand that it had to do with a soldier’s identification. Things like name, combat unit, rank, birthplace and hometown. He said back when the remains-gathering crew would arrive searching for the remains of their comrades, the bones they found with no Penicillin bottles would be brought back with those identified and buried in the National Military Cemetery. Except that the unidentified bones would be interred in the section for the remains of unknown Vietnamese soldiers.”
Maggie frowns. “I thought the Americans bombed the bejesus outa the jungle. So what’s left in there to find?”
I cut in. “You rebury the remains. Sometimes all you rebury are a few bones.”
“And if ye find them,” Maggie says, “how d’ye take them oul’ bones back?”
“For mass recovery of bones?” I plug a cigarette in my mouth without lighting it. “They pack them in nylon bags and hang them on tree limbs. Keep them away from termites ‘cause the remains-gathering crew would stay in the forest for weeks. They’d bring all the bags of bones back to the cemetery when their stay was over.”
Her lips puckered, Maggie screws her eyes at me. “Just a funny thought: Say ye stumble on a skull of an orangutan. Can ye tell? Or ye bag it up and bury it in your National Military Cemetery among the oul’ souls of yeer soldiers?”
Mrs. Rossi tilts her head back and from that angle eyes Maggie with an inquisitive yet bemused look on her face. I take the cigarette from my lips. “The men of the remains-gathering crew have a way of knowing about bones. They know how to tell a monkey skull from a human skull. A woman’s skull from a man’s skull . . .”
“Seriously?” Maggie says.
“Yeah,” I say. “They can tell. A woman’s chin bone is smaller than a man’s chin bone. The eye sockets are deeper. That sort of thing.”
“Ah, now,” Maggie says, nodding. “Nurses, aren’t they?”
“Soldiers. Women fighters.”
“We did find a couple of skulls Mr. Lung said were women’s skulls.” Mrs. Rossi lets out a sigh. “He was respectful with the bones we found. You must see how careful he was with those bones when he came upon them. . . .”
“He’s a gravedigger and a undertaker around here,” I say.
“I remember you telling me that,” Mrs. Rossi says. “I admire him for his professionalism but more so for his personal feeling in the way he treats the dead people’s bones. Before he digs he lights a stick of incense. Then you just watch him stab and stab the ground with his shovel and sometimes it hits rocks and sparks fly and then he suddenly stops and looks down and there is a small bundle in the hole, just a nylon bunch tattered and gray and when he runs his hand over it the nylon falls apart. And inside, a skull cracked and chipped like broken china.”
“What does he do with them?” Maggie asks.
Mrs. Rossi’s eyes turn pensive and her voice drops. “He rewraps the bones in a clean piece of nylon he brought with him and shovels dirt over the pit and says a prayer.”
I feel as if she’s living her wish through Old Lung’s acts; to see her son’s remains cared for by a stranger in a time and place unknown. Then Mrs. Rossi speaks again.
“After he reburies the bones and sometimes bones with a skull, Mr. Lung flattens the dirt and removes the incense stick. I asked him why he did that and he explained, well, sort of mimed, that this would wipe out any sign of a grave. ‘God, why?’ I asked. ‘So the bad people wouldn’t come upon it,’ he replied.”
She looks at me. Her wrinkled face, crimped lips hold in them a dogged patience. I tap the cigarette on my thumbnail. “Mr. Lung did the right thing,” I say, resting myself on one knee. “There’re bone crooks who go around digging up bones and sell them.”
“Selling bones?” Mrs. Rossi’s mouth falls agape.
“They’re swindlers. Bone profiteers.”
“Selling bones to whom?” Mrs. Rossi asks.
“To contractors who build the National Military Cemetery.”
“I might be obtuse,” Mrs. Rossi says. “Would you please explain that?”
“These bone crooks go into the forests and dig for bones. The worst of them follow the poor folks after they’ve recovered the bones of their relatives and outright rob them of the bones. Then these crooks sell the bones to the contractors in the city. You see, ma’am, for each tomb the contractors build its cost is charged to the government, so the more tombs built the higher the profit. The contractors would divide up the bones they bought from the bone crooks, and instead of building one tomb for a dead soldier’s bones they build two, three tombs and charge the government for those. For the unknown remains, they’ll end up having several unknown markers for one dead soldier. So instead of being properly buried back home with a tomb and a headstone, a dead soldier will be buried in the National Military Cemetery as an unknown soldier with his bones in multiple tombs.”
Mrs. Rossi nods, her pale blue eyes completely vacant as she looks at me. Maggie taps her forehead. “Aw Gawd I shure never heard of this meself.”
“Me neither,” Mrs. Rossi says. “Who could’ve thought of doing such inhuman thing?”
I gaze at her wrinkled face as she tosses her head back, fanning her face with her hand. Why a Vietnamese adopted child? Did it let her hold on to the memory of her lost son? I like Mrs. Rossi. A retired high school principal. A sweet old lady. I admire her determination to find her son’s remains. More so, I admire her faith. Painful faith. Yet it never dies in her after twenty years.
Khanh Ha’s debut novel is FLESH (June 2012, Black Heron Press). His new novel has earned a 2013 Leapfrog Fiction Award Honorable Mention. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Outside in Literary & Travel Magazine, Red Savina Review (RSR), Cigale Literary Magazine, Mobius, DUCTS, Lunch Ticket, The Mascara Literary Review, Glint Literary Journal, WIPs Journal, Squawk Back, The Missing Slate, storySouth, Crack the Spine, Zymbol, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Sugar Mule, Yellow Medicine Review, The Underground Voices, Tethered by Letters, and The Long Story. His work has also been shortlisted for awards and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Sundress Publications Best of the Net Award.