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. In another 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 up in the early morning and the fog still hung in the valley and the cold made a film of ice in the basin out back.
Her left hand holding a pile of fiber white as cotton, and with her right hand she pulled the fibers whose end was tied to a hook on the tip of the spindle’s shaft, pulling and stopping to twirl the spindle, and the fiber spun gaining its length and the spindle slowly dropped. 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, dappled and gray, was beating its wings rapidly. She listened to its maddening drumroll as it stood on a log and realized that it was its breeding season. It got down from the log and started feeding on the coarsely-toothed leaves of the blue boneset. They grew on the moist edge of the creek, bursting violet and blue with their fluffy-looking flowers, mixing in with low-mounded bluebeard that was flowering in a profusion of blue mist.
The creek flowed through a ravine between two hills. The water was running low before the rainy season which came in April and in the creek’s shallow riffles, water willow grew in large colonies. The banks were rocky and slippery. Years ago, 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 where the next hill dropped gently to an arc, the sun reddened the dip of the hill 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 when they saw him. 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 her because he did not trust his Vietnamese—pitiable, he said—to make an intelligent talk.
It was Wednesday. His son would arrive at this time, carrying water in two metal pails to fill her earthen vat, always fetching water upstream, as told by his father, where 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 let his son bring her fresh water every week since he became older. 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 the baby 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 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 blazing in the setting sun, his silhouette bobbing 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 would every time she stood in the tree’s shade and its scent would come, light and momentary.
The old man finally emerged into her front yard after climbing a flight of rock steps. He carried the pails like tin toys by the wooden handles, 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?”
“Cava bien,” she said. “Et ta famille?”
He came toward her and 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?”
“Sometimes 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?”
She meant the family of first and second generations living under the same roof.
“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 in the shade because of 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 touched her paisley headscarf in lavender wrapped tight 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.” It rained heavily in the previous night for a change. 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 from it. He had to bend almost touching 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. Momentarily she stood, feeling the coolness on her skin and then 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 when Ibou appeared at the door. He ducked as he came through the door. The floor shuddered. His head brushed the traverse rod, clanking the metal loops from which dangled balls of colored wool. He stood, hunched, as if to make himself smaller.
“I have never come into your house before since I knew you,” 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 as a 20-year-old singer and dancer of an entertainment troupe.
“Had it not been for the excavation in 1960,” she said, smiling, “you and I would’ve never crossed paths. And I would’ve bitten 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. 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 crimped 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.”
It sat in a cluster of hamlets along Pom Loi 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 among 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 that 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—soldiers—used to dig trenches and their deployment shelters.”
She told Ibou 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 dead’s remains in the valley to the newly built cemeteries, one of them A1 Cemetery at the foot of the old A1 Hill. Most of the tombs had no names on the headstones. A few months after she had begun her new life in the valley, she heard news of the excavation. It was a hot and muggy summer day at the digging site where a large crowd of local people packed, watching the district reconstruction team digging an old trench, 30 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. In whole, in pieces. Then a human skull, then another. Past noon they had unearthed thirteen skeletons. One of them was still in sitting positions, clothes tattered clinging to bones, a PPSh-41 submachine gun held in his hands now bare of flesh, four grenades strapped to his belt, a Tiger Balm little jar in one shirt pocket, a fountain pen clipped to his other shirt pocket, and a pouch made of parachute cloth. Inside the pouch was a lock of hair. For days she kept thinking about the 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 girls. 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 a fleeting thought. “I didn’t tell you this. But I knew who you were when I saw you at the excavation site.”
Ibou drew up his shoulders. “How?” He grinned, his white teeth gleaming. “Before you met me?”
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 20 cm drawing, when her entertainment team was performing in the heavy fog before the enemy airplanes would take to air. 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 performers who sang The Ballad of Cannon Pulling, accompanied by a sole accordion. That only instrument 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. She could never forget the moment she stopped singing and 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 musician pulled her aside and said, “Let’s play something soft. Let’s not disturb their sleep.”
Now she waited until Ibou had studied the drawing up close. She could see his mouth move with wordless sound. The mouth stayed open because 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. The figure could have passed for a lone tree had it not been for the strong graphite lines that showed the contour of a man standing so tall and black like a giant in the land of the Lilliputians against a pale, translucent fog that, without him, the drawing would lose its charm.
She had expected him to say something as he fixed his gaze on the drawing, his legs bent, hands bracing his knees. Finally, half turning his face to her, he spoke, “I see you and me in there and I was thinking how forty years less one month have passed like a blink of an eye.”
“You surprised me,” she said, suddenly perked up. “Forty years less one month?”
“Mid-April, 1954. I don’t remember the day though. 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. He half-turned his body toward the framed drawing as though he did not want to be so nakedly tall facing her.
“You were an artillery man?”
“Yes, madam.” His eyes became still, like he had just recalled something but decided not to tell it. He blinked.
“You were captured on that day?” She motioned her head toward the drawing.
“Two weeks before that. It was on the first day of the Viet Minh’s second offensive. March 30. 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 every day we would 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.”
“I thought about that too. And about why we say that we never miss it.” 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 him, madam?”
She put her hand over her lips, thought, then said, “We were lovers.”
“Oh-la-la.” Ibou turned his body and looked down into her eyes.
She laughed lightly when she saw his excitement. She still heard her spoken words trailing in her head. For forty years they had been locked inside her.
Ibou trailed his long forefinger across the drawing’s bottom corner where the artist 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 here. I believe 15cm by 20cm. 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 him in Vietnamese. “So he drew you. But ‘Brother Tak-Mak?’”
Ibou kept nodding then he 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 cross-examined 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 that. What they wanted to know was our mobile artillery. They had no knowledge of it until they launched their first offensive on March 13. 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 words when I had things I was curious to know about. 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 just recalled. “I’d love to see that drawing he did for you.”
“I recognized his signed name. I thought that was his real name all of these years.”
“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 of the same age. Both of us were twenty at that time.”
Ibou tilted his head as he 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.” She looked back toward the drawing. “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 most beautiful,” he said, his face and his eyes gone soft. “You must have loved him very much. Had he ever drawn you, madam?”
“I’d need to ask him that, wouldn’t I?”
Her fluty laugh had Ibou nodding, then he, too, laughed.
Ibou left carrying back in his now empty pails 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, having cooked with magenta-leaf plant’s extract which had a purple color that turned the glutinous rice into a deep purple. When he took the basket from her he inhaled deeply the banana leaf’s scent and, after asking her “May I?”, pinched a morsel of glutinous rice the color of red-violet and put it in his mouth. He shook his head as the ever-faint sweetness from the rice slowly cut through 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, roasted golden, having been baked with sour wampee leaves packed in its gut which was sewn tight; and when he lifted the lid, a warm, lemon-tangy scent of the leaves seeping through with a darkly rich smell of cooked meat made him moan.
Her culinary flair always impressed him; but her weaving artistry was what left him in awe. In the early years she sold her tapestries on consignment at the market that convened at dawn on each Sunday along Provincial Road 41, where Thai women dressed in black satin skirts, coming from neighboring hamlets, sold poultry and pigs and sun-dried fish, wild tobacco and cottonseed and sugarcane. Then she made tapestries on order only. Once his son rented a packhorse to carry a large tapestry, rolled up into a long, heavy bundle and 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 was a weaver in Ha Noi, who taught her how to weave when she was a teen. One of the intellectual few who joined the Viet Minh’s military campaign in 1953-54, she was university educated and had a sublime voice that she used to entertain the bo doi as a singer and dancer. Ibou 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, tinkling, and looked up to catch a bamboo warbler, white-throated and brown, singing ti-ti-teer, ti-ti-teer, and its ringing cadence followed him until he went past the bamboo thicket and picked up the creek again. Ibou felt thirsty. The creek’s bank was crawling with birthwort, twining on the ground with their woody stems, and walking past he could smell a foul scent from their pale, trumpet-shaped flowers.
The creek, after meandering through the wooded gullies, came out into a grassland and scrub. Red grass, tiger grass, wild sugarcane. The trees and shrubbery ancient and tough. They were 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 here, seeing where Pom Loi Creek ran through the gap of A1 Hill and F Hill, he felt an inexplicable gloom that made him often shake his head. 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 pounded the gap where the bo doi massed. They pounded until the spent shells piled up waist high around them. The carnage left countless bodies of bo doi along that infamous creek. He, too, narrowly escaped death when he was taken prisoner and trekked back to the rear, 15 kilometers away, to get food provision. They moved along the notorious creek that flowed through the gorge between the hills whose brows and flanks had been burned by napalm and constant shelling to a glaring red. On one pre-registered spot they got shelled. 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 back and was now thick and green with teak trees. Gone from the hilltop were the bamboo crosses the Viet Minh had erected and draped them with white parachutes—those fell into their hands, courtesy of the French parachuted misdrops—to commemorate their dead in multitudes. Many of the dead, pounded repeatedly by the artillery to eternal damnation, were buried most of the time not in whole, in cavities that were hurriedly dug, for the diggers might get killed at any moment by thundering artillery.
When he reached A1 Hill, he stood looking up at the summit where a lone banyan etched its skeletal trunk against the sunset. Black on red. The skeleton of a dead tree. Beneath it used to be an underground bunker, large enough to hold an infantry company, built with bricks and ironwood from rubble of the old colonial governor’s house. During the siege, the French rifle companies who defended the hill, would retreat into the shellproof bunker each time the Viet Minh charged up the hill, and call for artillery. From D1 and D2 hills and from the central sector in the valley, Ibou remembered, the cannons roared and the bare banyan being used as pre-registered marker had stood miraculously untouched many times like a sinister witness of one slaughter after another. It had rotted over the years and became a columnar tree whose core was a hollow where birds and sometimes rodents sought shelter.
He went past 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 their flowers were 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 40 years to date. The drawing she showed had brought it back to life, and that past had quietly superimposed itself on the landscape that suddenly lost its familiarity around him.
Cicadas were singing in the clumps of camphor trees beyond the hill. Soon they would ease their chorus when the evening fog shrouded the valley. He had seen native visitors coming each year to the cemetery during the summer months, searching for the names of their deceased kin on each headstone, most bearing no names, looking them up 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 a same wish: to find peace in an identified name. They 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 just in the Viet Minh’s first offensive they were to be buried on the spot. No more ceremonial burial in the central sector’s graveyard, where one day shellfire burst open all the graves and the smells were so bad the rotted remains had to be re-buried alongside the new dead in 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 slangs and coined words the Viet reserved for those they despised. “Tây” was a demeaning word they call the French. But the Viet was a peculiar race. 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 it was, “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 filling the air. A flock of bar-backed partridge 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 of Spanish Cedar.
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 watched through binoculars the cresting river and saw that all the shallow graves that had been dug the day before along the muddy bank to bury the dead legionnaires had been swept away.
Then in February of this year, shortly after Tet, workers of the National State Farm, whose task was to modernize the entire valley for farming and cultivation of edible plants, unearthed 17 skeletons on the bank of Nam Rom River. When he heard of the news his gut feeling 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 though 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 17 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 human age. He watched them for half a day sorting through bone fragments—shine bone, thigh bone, wrist bone, skull—and observed them measuring the bones. On the second day Ibou came back when the examining team had just finished documenting each personal item which had been found with the human 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 skeleton remains belongs 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 for the burial, judging from the attrition of bones. Ibou thought of his dead friend and of thousands of dead legionnaires and believed it was 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. It was too far down the riverbank for him to see, just its whistling in seesaw rhythm rippling through the air. Another call, loud and crackling, echoed from behind him. It came up again among the coppice of teak on A1 Hill. Somewhere uphill a laughingthrush 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 Bazeille tank. He knew all the names of the tank squadron. His artillery crews covered for them with fire support. The 10-tank squadron each had its name painted white on the side of the tank. The black remains of tank Bazeille 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 a thin line that in daytime showed through the green of the forested mountainside like a faded chalk line that dipped and rose, disappearing then re-appearing. 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 a lore. How they had toiled for days and nights manhandling the 2.5-ton cannons up that mountain range and then install them on those mountain forward slopes, fooling the French intelligence and its mighty artillery brain trust. Neither he nor his superiors know anything about this—how the enemy had pulled off such a feat.
The first time he had insight into the scope of this grand scheme was the night they were done with interrogating him. They had grilled him for two weeks. Sometimes the regular interpreter was filled in by another man. Ibou thought he was a boy. Thin, pale skinned, profuse black hair thatching his brow and his ears. He rarely smiled. Ibou never saw him laugh but smile on rare occasions. Then only 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 by not laughing nor smiling. 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 sat 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 very little only when he must, but Ibou found in him a kind soul who saw something beyond beauty and repugnance in humans and nature sometimes brought together in beautiful unison, sometimes in horrific destruction for both. One night they questioned Ibou on the French counter-battery fire, which they admitted, was superior to their own. After that Ibou said he was “tak-mak” to know how they had succeeded in lugging all the heavy artillery pieces up to the mountains, how they managed to dodge the French counter-fire artillery. The youth opened a notebook and showed Ibou drawings and sketches done 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 degrees. 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 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 on Ibou’s mind. It must be 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 thought then 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 tersely. 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 never had before. He felt significant, a self-worth that had 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, his son’s family would soon enjoy Miss Dien Bien Phu’s cooking. Had the artist youth ever drawn her portrait? Ibou thought as he hurried up the provincial road. Was he still alive?
Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (2012, Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (2014, Underground Voices). He is a five-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, a finalist of the William Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Award, and the recipient of Greensboro Review’s 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction. His work, The Demon Who Peddled Longing, was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book. Ha graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.