Sketches from a Notebook – Memories of Vietnam (4)

Nha Trang – January 1968, Tết Mậu Thân, the Year of the Monkey

The woman and the boy lay on the cool tile floor of the kitchen, as they had done all through the night. Their ears still hurt from the staccato burps of automatic weapons. They shuddered when, outside, dirt and stones and shrapnel spurted about from the quick doom of grenades.

Lan pressed herself still closer to the chill security of the floor. She mused: In years past on this day, the first of all, her family had always eaten roast duck, fried spring rolls, and the traditional bean-and-rice cakes, squared and round. They had visited close friends and relatives, to wish them joy and prosperity. The younger children would each receive a pittance wrapped in red paper. Red was the color of happiness and good fortune. But this year, on this day, the first of all…

She moved her head to glimpse her nephew, Nên. His eyes were closed, his cheek flush against the white and green tiles. Was he dreaming of home, of his family? Could he see the fishing boats coming to shore, the sun just up, an orange promise hovering an inch or two above the sea? He had come to visit his aunt Lan and her husband, to bring, from his family to theirs, good wishes for the new year. But this day, the first of all—

Lan heard someone shouting above the din of the firefight. She began to weep. Of a sudden she felt her husband dead. He worked at the airbase, between the runway and the paddies, not far from the Special Forces compound. Later, she thought, she would have to clean every corner of the house. She would buy fruit and chickens, candles and joss sticks and ceremonial money. She would offer them for her husband’s spirit…

The gunfire ceased. She looked at her watch, the watch her husband had given her.   11 a.m.   From habit she began winding the timepiece. Nên raised his head from the floor. Then they both lay still as before.

Five minutes passed without a sound.

Lan traced the pattern on the tiles with her finger.

Ten minutes…silence still.

She sat up and toyed with the charm on her necklace.

Now fifteen minutes had passed…then footsteps, a pounding on the door!

Lan sprang to her feet.

“Who’s there?” she said in a soft, quavering voice.

No response but more pounding on the door.

“Who is it?” she screamed.

There was only silence, and the sounds of someone breathing hard – Lan’s breathing and Nên’s breathing and the breathing of whoever stood mute beyond the door.

Then there boomed another voice in the street: “No, no! The next house. The house on the left…”

Footsteps splattered on the concrete, then on the gravel and into the road.

Quiet.

Lan fell to her knees. She sobbed. Only then did she realize she had not screamed – she had uttered not a sound.

She had been as silent as death.

*    *   *

(c) Gregory V Driscoll 2013

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