* Exceptionally dedicated to my siblings Khoi; Hoi; Hong; my wife Hong Hanh, and our children Vinh, Tinh Nguyen, Tuong Nhan, Van Quy, Van Anh, and Tuong Van.
A period of terrible upheavals had gone by like a nightmare. On the Ben Ngu river bank, hidden behind a row of shady longan trees, stood a lovely villa inhabited by a small, happy family. At its head was Khanh, a young man some 30 years of age. His sturdy build was the result of a life fighting for causes that had brought him much hardship: he had faced down the immoral cruelty of a group of dictators on the other side of the bamboo curtain, who had thrown away the lives of countless people in their ‘human sea’ tactics just to protect themselves. Khanh’s pretty young wife usually stayed home to take care of their children, a boy and two girls. She felt pleasantly surprised at her ability to adapt to this busy new metropolitan life by her husband’s side: all so that they could build a happy family together, a goal she had thought impossible during the bitter years of her spouse’s imprisonment.
After peace had returned to the country, and his detention at the hands of a group,handful of dictators who had turned systematic lying into an art form had come to an end, Khanh moved his family back to Hue. He became a teacher in a big public school in the capital of Central Vietnam, but only after turning down an important position in the government that he had been offered by friends; he preferred his former job of a wartime ‘soul engineer,’ which gave him more freedom to physically and spiritually rebuild his family, who were victims of that foreign-led regime.
“There’s no rush,” he thought. “In infinite time and space, the only danger is a lack of goodwill or heart.” In addition to reading and grading his students’ works, he devoted all his remaining time to research and writing. His inspiration, once smothered by the suppressive totalitarian regime, had returned with powerful vigor. He was happy to still be alive, after those risky days facing his enemy, and glad to be able to enjoy again the familiar sights of Hue, from the leafy Quoc Hoc school to the virgin Truong Tien bridge. Even the dark red-bricked Dong Khanh girl school was still there, where dreamy beauties like Quy, Phuong, L. Du Anh, Hoa, T. Huong, B. Thuy, V. Vi, Cam Hong, Yen Tuyet, K. Van, T. Thanh … had haunted the minds of young men at the Khai Dinh Lyceum in his youth. So many memories!
The war years had caused tremendous damage to the physical and spiritual values of this thousand-year-old city. The ivory badges that once dangled from the chests of strutting young mandarins, and the young faces of past generations, were merely fading shadows. Barbed-wire fences hungry for human bodies now straddled a large intersection, and heaps of broken bricks from old blockhouses lay in heaps in uncultivated gardens. In the citadel, once-lush orchards were now overrun with wild weeds and bushes of all kinds, awaiting owners who were unlikely to return. But the aftermath of the war brought one welcome thing: the complete decay of an obsolete ideology that had had its day.
By teaching a great number of adults on a daily basis, Khanh felt unusual affection for them, and found in them a faraway image of his own youth. He developed a deep understanding of their burning hearts, wet eyes, their wavy shoulder-long hair, the flaps of white graceful dresses, and their crazy urges to become talented artists or respectable national leaders… After lessons, he often shared secrets with them, humbly unfolding his woeful and majestic life, and telling tales about fighters who had sacrificed their lives in the effort to transfer a passion for new human ideals. Their brutish opponents, he knew for certain, had never understood their gesture.
His daughter Nguyen was sitting with her mother in the garden. “Mom!” she begged, “Please get me that bunch of longan up there.”
“I’ll get our servant Man to get it for you. Don’t move!”
He looked at his wife and daughter as they stared at the fruit tree. How he loved them! If Hanh, his young and willowy wife, had withstood all the hardship and bitterness, it was only through love for him. That pure face had so often bent over the innocent foreheads of her young kids to cherish and console them, and suffered long empty nights in harsh weather and hopeless loneliness to take care of them. He had been sentenced to 20 years in exile, had one third of his properties confiscated by a so-called People’s court, and been kept in a prison in a malaria-infested forest in Tien Lap in the Hoa Son district in the mountains near Tien Phuoc.
He still remembered her visit to him as if it had happened yesterday. Despite her weak shoulders, she had carried heavy loads of foodstuffs and taken Vinh, their 7-year-old son, up the long and rugged trails that led to his place of detention. When she arrived, she had to lay down the burden in front of the prison guards for them to inspect: a bottle of sauce, some salted fish, a copybook, a short-sleeved shirt made of rough material, and a blue paper bag of cakes. With Vinh by her side, she had waited for hours outside the prison ward’s office for the permission to see him for just 10 minutes. After two years of separation, he was stunned to see his wife paler and thinner next to their son, taller and dressed in black, coarse, short clothes, standing shyly beside his wife. He seemed not to have recognized him as his father. Tears ran down her face continuously, and the boy followed suit. He looked at them in silence… a silence deeper than the ocean bottom and more hurtful than knife cuts on his body. A silent hatred rose in him for the brutal enemy who wanted to monopolize revolution, lead resistance, and eliminate true nationalist fighters just to be free to serve foreigners. His wife, from behind a pillar of the communal house used as the office of the hard labor jail, signaled to him.
“Brothers Hoi and De have left for the nationalist zone,” she whispered, ignoring the stares of the wicked ward supervisor Doan Ngoc Bich…
His mother had passed away five months after the birth of his first child. While enjoying his happiness, he kept thinking of his beloved mother, whose sudden death caused him so much heartbreak. He was as pained as a patriotic fighter mourning the loss of the country. He turned all his remaining filial love towards his father, taking him to live several months with his family in a newly rented large house. Lying on a reclining chair against an ancient tree in the garden with a black bamboo cane by his side, his hair snow white, and in poor health, he gazed through thick glasses at the dense, long rows of Chinese characters in the thin yellow paper book. He looked like an aged fakir lost in the materialistic environment of a capital city.
After taking the child upstairs, Hanh saw her meditating husband looking in silence at the rising cigarette smoke. She stepped close enough to read his half-finished page.
“What’s on your mind, my love?” she asked. “Haven’t you finished the textbook yet?”
“Ages ago, my sweet,” he answered with a smile, his eyes upon her. “Now I’m writing about my time in prison.”
“Just write: ‘Pain and rancor.’ That says it all,” she said. He took her hand.
“I know. But I’m trying to write a woeful and majestic epic. You’re the main character.”
“You overvalue me!” she joked. “Will you finish it ‘correctly as required’?”
She gave him a quiet look before turning away. How come she still remembered that trashy, roguish political term, once uttered in the women cadre’s conference so long ago?
A car pulled up in front of the house, and Thanh appeared in a well-ironed uniform. With bright eyes behind his anonymous eyeglasses, he marched inside and greeted his nephew Vinh. Turning his head up and giving his younger brother a loving look, Khanh discovered in him an energetic youth who would never refuse to risk his life in serving his ideal. He felt so proud of his brother. He remembered quite well while living in a prison devoid of all information, he received a secret note that, four months after his arrest, his younger brother Ke had been accused by the dictators of being a reactionary, and sentenced to “penitence” in exile in a provincial prison. At the age of 19, Thanh had been enraged by the way those hooligans had destroyed an entire family who had asked for nothing more than the right to live, and had planned to kill his respectable brother. So he had made up his mind to escape the bamboo curtain at all costs, to fight for his cause and build a future that suited his aspirations. He would be a freedom fighter.
In his present ample happiness, he felt a profound love for that brother, who had not been as lucky as him in the enjoyment of sacred motherly affection. Their mother had passed away when Thanh, her youngest and most cherished son, was only ten. Just before peace returned to Hue, he had once been misinformed by a friend of his in the jungle base that Khanh, his elder brother, had died in misery in prison. He wept for days and made Khanh’s death known among close relatives, and had himself solemnly mourned for him. When he learned later that the information about his brother’s death turned out to be wrong, he was so happy he cried even more. On the first day of Khanh’s medical treatment, when they were reunited once more, they hugged each other intimately as if they had been blessed for the reunion despite the bitter division of the country. It was an unspeakable thought, but Khanh silently valued his younger brother’s experiences – they had helped turn him into a brave, fully educated, and loyal citizen, and made him extremely good-natured.
“How come you got out of work so early?” Khanh asked his brother, who had changed his clothes and was reading the newspaper in silence. “I bet you haven’t had breakfast yet.”
“Let me send for more bread,” said Hanh. “You used to have big breakfasts. It’s not good to have your stomach empty. You’re a soldier, unlike your brother.”
“You really have such an understanding about my stomach,” Thanh said, laughingly. “I have taken a day off today, but I don’t have any idea where to go.”
“Go see Cuc,” said Hanh loudly, looking back at him from the middle of the house.
“We’ve been seeing each other regularly,” he calmly explained. ”By the way, Cuc has planned to come see you.”
He approached his brother’s desk and glanced at the stack of paper under his hand.
“Are you writing?” he asked.
“Yes, I am. Your sister-in-law has just asked me the same question. I’m writing about some recent events in which you are the main character, someone’s young soldier and my dear brother, the pride of our family. But I’m afraid I don’t have the talent to truthfully convey so much darkness and death.”
The brothers shared a moment of silence, recollecting the dark days of the past.
“I think,” said Thanh, sitting down slowly on the divan, “that only love is the motive for great works. Love for beauty, kindness, truth, human beings, our country, and the family steels us to fight evil, brutality, deception, treason, dictatorship, and all those immoral people who ruin our land, people and family. Only love counts!”
“That sounds like a moral code,” said Khanh, happily appreciating his brother’s noble, martial character. “You’ve summed up all the vices of those people who kept so many others in darkness for nearly a decade. We fought hard to survive. We fought and we’ve succeeded.”
“Come and see that Japanese movie ‘Rashomon’ this afternoon,” said Thanh, sipping some coffee. “They’re promising a perfect newsreel about the war in Korea.”
* * *
Khanh’s mind drifted back to the scene of a beautiful love story in Hue, where he used to take his wife and kids along the river bank to enjoy the cool breeze coming off the rippled water.
It was a wonderful morning.
He put aside his papers and got dressed, took out his motorcycle and met his wife and kids Vinh and Nguyen just as he was going out the gate.
“How come you’re so late?” she asked with a smile.
“Today’s my day off,” he answered. “I’m going out for a spin.”
Vinh asked if she could come. “My teacher’s sick, and I don’t have to go to school until tomorrow.”
“Stay home with mom. Be nice.”
He rode off through shady streets straight to An Cuu market. He’d been back for seven months now, but this was his first trip out here. He stopped in front of An Hai’s old house, with its black roof and gray walls. The bricks on one side were exposed to the air. He’d had a classroom here once; now it was a garage for a small vehicle. The front of the house looked equally forlorn.
A young servant came out at the sound of the motorcycle, but Khanh had pushed it toward a roadside inn on a nearby street corner. A hunched old lady with a wrinkled face welcomed him with a smile. He ordered something to drink and started to talk to her. She looked like she would know everything that had gone on in the area.
“That house,” she said, “is presently occupied by Phuong, who owns the largest import-export company in the district. The An Hai’s moved to Van Xa in the countryside a long time ago, Sir. Ms Thuy is living with her husband on Ngu Vien street on the other side, Sir. They’re quite rich. He owns a multistoried building downtown, Sir.”
Khanh smiled at her “Sir” at the ending of each sentence, and kept asking her more about the past.
“Ms. Thuy got married less than four years ago, Sir. After the battles between the Viet Minh and the French she kept falling ill. She used to be a lovely young girl; she turned into pale shadow of a woman who used to pass out for hours on end every other week, Sir. People said it was her heart, and her head… the An Hais tried hard to have her cured… When she was living here, she liked me a lot, especially when she had something sad to tell me… It seemed she made a tryst with a teacher in a faraway province, Sir. She never told anyone, but all her family knew about it and probably accepted it, Sir… Then the war broke out… She had to separate from the teacher… It’s only seven or eight kilometers from here to Tuan village, but people couldn’t keep in touch with each other, never mind those distances between the North and the South… After she was cured, many rich men came to ask for her hand but were refused as her ailment might return… But what she really wanted was to wait for her lover… Nevertheless, the war dragged on, and nobody was sure if he still loved her, right? I have of lot of sympathy for her, Sir… so pretty and so well-mannered… In the end she gave in to the constant pressure from her family, and agreed to marry this wealthy teacher, Sir… She comes to see her siblings every week, and each time she stops by to drink a cup of water, give me some clothes and money. I love her like I do my children…”
She talked at length, as her customer seemed so curious. A welter of warm memories flowed into his mind, melancholic and painful. Those beautiful dreams, destroyed by a broken promise. He surprised himself with his own sorrow. Wealth and wars changed so many hearts, caused so much separation; but none of that had affected her. He had no desire to hurt his lovely wife, nor damage the happy memories of his former lover. An immense feeling of pity came over him. He felt hurt in his heart, and could still feel the pangs of his distant youth despite the extraordinary upheavals he had been through since then. He gratefully offered the old woman some extra money and left.
He rode fast downtown, using the liveliness of the crowds to rid his mind of sadness. The sky was blue and high above the Truong Tien bridge reflected its silver paint in the soft sunrays of an early summer morning. The Huong Giang river flowed blue and lazy, like a huge piece of blue silk spread over the ground. How beautiful Hue was! And how majestic. It was like a queen, the older she became, the prettier her makeup, in a desperate attempt to cling to her fading glory.
He turned into Gia Hoi, then on into Ngu Vien street, still and narrow. I’ve got to see for myself, he told himself. He stopped in front of a beautiful house behind a dense garden. He looked hesitatingly inside the iron gate, stepped away, then changed his mind again. He turned his motorcycle around and pushed the gate in determined fashion.
“My master and mistress are gone, Sir,” a boy servant politely told him after hearing the gate.
“That’s OK,” he said, searching for a natural tone. “I’m a friend of your master. I just want to take a look at the house.”
He felt completely at ease. How lucky he was. He was silently happy. Sitting in that large and luxurious living room, he sipped his tea and gazed around. A glittering framed picture above a desk in the corner caught his eye: Thuy and her husband, smiling with love. He resisted the urge to take a closer a look, thinking the gesture would be inappropriate. Seeing that happiness in his former lover’s eyes, he felt great relief.
A young girl about three years of age with rosy cheeks and soft black hair (their first daughter, he guessed) was playing on the cement in front of the door. He waved, but she did not respond and continued to play with her little doll.
“Look!” called the servant. “Come to him, will you, or I’ll report your negligence to your parents.”
Once she was within reach, Khanh held her in his arms, kissed her on the cheeks, hair, and innocent face with such fondness and love as if she had been one of his own daughters.
“What’s your name?”
She kept silent, busy with her doll.
“Answer him, will you?” The servant stared at her and suggested her to repeat after him. “Say ‘Sir, my name is Khanh Kieu.’ ”
Khanh was astounded. That pretty name, a reminder of their bitter love, was now the property of an innocent, fragile girl. He had suggested that name, so long ago now, for their first born child. She clearly hadn’t forgotten.
“Do you love your parents?”
She nodded her head.
“What about me?”
He continued his questions. The girl, looking at him through her black innocent eyes, shook her head lightly. That unintentional reaction was a revenge for her mother against his disloyalty. He was gripped by a twinge of sadness.
He kissed her once more, stood up, and said something to the servant before leaving.
“Excuse me, Sir,” said the servant, “May I have your name?”
“It’s not necessary,” he answered. “I’ll come back next Sunday.”
A complicated kind of feeling rose up inside him. What should have been the result of his first love was now the name of someone else’s child. He took some comfort from the fact that at least he hadn’t had to face Thuy or her husband. A glance at the happiness of his former lover sufficed. Just one.
* * *
Khanh was with his colleagues in the Quoc Hoc high school examination room, grading the students’ graduation exam papers.
School had just finished, and the long rows of buildings were silent at last. Royal poinciana flowers were in blossom, spreading their coral petals all over the shadowy lanes of the deserted school yard. Outside the gate, impatient students walked back and forth, peering back at the examiners’ rooms in silence.
“The oral exams have started,” said one of Khanh’s colleagues, breaking the silence. “We can’t rest until Sunday, at least.”
“Are you definitely leaving for Saigon when it’s over, Khanh?” asked another.
“Well, I’ve asked them to send my records sent over,” he explained, “and if necessary, I’ll ask for a leave of absence… I don’t know about you, but for me, living in one place is boring. Since I came back from the war, I keep wishing I was far away, in or out of the country.” He paused for a moment. “I could empty a river with all the baths I’ve taken. I’ve worn holes in the paths, and staring at all these perfectly made up women is dulling my senses. I’m not ludicrously romantic, it’s just that hearing a lovely melody once is enough for me. My life will involve more trips, far and near, uneventful and adventurous. Going away is having a chance to know more about people, or at least about oneself. Just as life includes ups and downs, calm and stormy days, going away means challenges and experiments. You find out what you’re made of, what you can do, and what you can not do. I really believe that.”
“Go on… embroider the theme, and we’ll have a debate.”
“I don’t mean that useless restlessness cheap artists are renowned for,” he added. “Going away doesn’t just mean decadent bodily pleasures with foreign prostitute, weird feelings about strange scenes, and money wasted on abnormal adventures empty of thought…”
“Excellent!” said Chi. “You’re creating a literary piece while we’re grading a pile of tasteless essays.”
“Never mind the images,” said Hien, a practical-minded sort of person, “I just think life is easier elsewhere. Anyone can get on in life in Saigon. You can be a writer, a journalist, a businessman, a politician… there’s no end of possibilities, unless you lack ability and determination. Going away is simply looking for a vital space.”
“If I had to go, I’d just end up unemployed,” Mai added. “All the more reason to go,” Khanh continued. “Deadlock creates opportunities which lead to success. I think we should all be pushed out of the nest to see if the future holds something more exciting. All or nothing. If you win, you win everything, the perfect career; if you lose, you come back here, back to the bla-bla-bla.”
Everyone laughed. The young teachers suspended their grading momentarily to participate in the debate that was animating the lazy afternoon.
“André Gide said, ‘Families, I hate you!’ added Chien.
“It’s really a long poem in praise of going away…”
“…to make a constructive trip with a clear direction for a career,” Khanh added. “Chi has just made a right compliment.”
The four of them wound up in agreement. There were many reasons for going away.
“If I had to leave Hue,” said Hien, the youngest in the group, “I’d feel very sad.”
“There’s no place for sadness and homesickness. Imagine you were going to France or America to be resettled there.”
“It’s normal to be sad when you leave Hue,” said Khanh, “even if you’re only going a thousand kilometers. Hue is a treasury of historical moments and memories, the cherished home of loved ones…”
“…and unmarried lovers and unmarriageable ones, beautiful students in school and pretty girls on the street or Truong Tien bridge with the wind in their hair.”
“Good! Very good!” everyone laughed joyfully again.
“Absolutely right,” said Khanh. “That covers all the moods, at least as far as we five are concerned. Chi is an expert on psychology.”
The school janitor brought in a heavy tray with five bubbling glasses of beer.
“If we keep up this pace, we’ll be grading the second exam without a break… the head examiner won’t let us off meeting the deadline we promised the students.”
“What does he know? He’s not grading. He can’t judge how fast we go,” said Chi.
The silence returned. Chi’s words had stirred up his emotions. Would he really leave the warmth of the school, his dear friends, the sights of the Huong Giang river, and Ngu Binh hill, the scene of that fruitless love affair, for the South? Is that what it would take for him to regain the physical and spiritual strength essential to his future career? He could not help feeling somewhat melancholy.
A little girl hesitated in front of the door before stepping inside. She handed him a letter. He opened it quietly.
Ngu Vien, 30 June, 1955
From what the servant told me, I guessed it was you who come to see us last week. Why didn’t you leave your card? We’ve been waiting for you at home to learn about your present situation after ten years of upheavals.
On behalf of my husband X, I would like to invite you to our home this Sunday afternoon. Please do not refuse.
We look forward to it.
He looked closely at the card. The name N.D.X, embossed in blue, had been crossed out and replaced by “Kieu Thi T.T.” in a hasty, timid scribble. He felt moved. She had learned of his presence in Hue. The style of the letter was that of a little sister, yet he could still feel the sweetness of a former lover.
He stepped out of the room looking for the girl student with the intention of asking her a few questions, but she had already been gone. He stared outside, clutching the letter in his hand.
“Another offer of bribery, or illicit favors?” asked Hien with a smile.
“Not exactly… more the fading trace of a love story,” he answered with a half-serious air, before closing the paper. “Well, I’m exhausted. I’ll come back early tomorrow morning and finish up then.”
He pushed his motorcycle out toward the gate. As he was going home through a short cut near the river, he saw Lan, the wife of his best friend Vang, an employee at the Governor’s Office. She was standing with her child outside her house.
“Please come in,” she said. “Is it true you’re going to move to the South?”
“It is,” he replied. “I’ve been so busy I haven’t even popped by to say good bye. I’ll probably leave in a few days, to sell the copyright of some of my books. My wife and children will be off to the countryside to avoid the heat, and will join me later.”
“So soon? You look somber and thin. You’re obviously working too hard. What about the pneumonia? I’m sorry for your wife. She cares a lot about your health…”
“It’s nothing compared to the hardships we had to undergo on the other side. When I was in prison, the end was never in sight. I’m an intellectual, unfamiliar with manual labor, I had to work so hard thought I would leave my body buried there in the harsh jungle. My properties were confiscated, my father’s and parents-in-law’s crops were lost due to high taxes and drought… Members from my big family were jailed and killed. My wife had to do odd jobs to feed me in prison, and perform the duties of a father, a son, and a brother, while still being a wife and the mother of young children. I’ll never forget that. I love her very much.”
“She’s the personification of the ancient soldier’s wife in that famous poetic story, “Chinh Phu Ngam.”
“… only he goes to fight insurgents on the battlefield because of who he is. I had to fight for a just cause, and I knew I’d end up in prison. Pneumonia is part of the price I paid. I love my wife tremendously,” he concluded with a smile.
“You’ve flattered her. That’s precisely why she loves you so much she becomes jealous of other people.”
“That’s true. I love her so dearly. Besides love, there’s also obligation between us. It’s the bond that makes our love last, right?”
Lan looked at his face, suddenly silent and suspicious.
“At a critical moment,” Khanh continued, “I realized that those tearful eyes conveyed all her sincerity and grief, and that those weak arms sheltering my life were something indescribably invaluable and magnificent.”
“I didn’t think a soldier like you could harbor such deep emotion,” she said, smiling understandably. She also felt moved because Vang, her husband, was another victim of the dictatorship, and had been imprisoned and almost killed.
“Thanks for your compliments! I was never really a soldier – that term should be reserved for your husband. Although a true soldier, as well as legitimate feelings, needs a variety of deeper emotions. He needs to be sensitive to other people’s sentiments so he can console and comfort himself through hardship when fighting for the cause. After all, he’s a soldier before he’s a person.”
“I thought only the weaker sex were sensitive and emotional… How come my husband hasn’t come home yet?”
“Because office hours aren’t over yet. I left early today.”
“Would you like to come in for a glass of whisky?
“Thanks, but I’ve given up drink,” Khanh said as she hurried back into the house. “My doctor won’t let me, although I had some beer at school. Wine and meat! Don’t you remember life on the other side? We even ran out of potato and manioc. By the way, did my wife come by last week?”
“She was here the other afternoon. In fact, she shared a few secrets with me.”
“You’re always in cahoots, you two, making us men your victims. Anything you want to share with me?”
“No,” she said sullenly.
“It’s quite unreasonable for a husband to be denied a chance to learn about his wife’s intimacies, let alone through his friend’s wife. Please…”
“Last Sunday afternoon,” she thought for a while before resuming her conversation with a smile, “on her boat trip across the river to downtown, she sat next to one of those typically fragile Hue girls, all curly, shoulder-length hair, sweet nose and dreamy black eyes. What a beauty! Enchanting! Glancing at the gold plaque on the girl’s wrist, your wife was stunned to see the words ‘Thanh Thuy’ engraved on the glittering surface. She had just got up her courage to strike up a conversation, when the boat reached its destination. She told me she had felt hurt in her heart. She told me many things, helping me to better understand her. According to her, as soon as she set foot in Hue, she thought of Thuy and felt ill at ease. Because of those letters Thuy sent to you when you were a student… your marriage almost broke up after just one year, right? You both had to struggle to turn it into one of ‘reason’, didn’t you?”
“It wasn’t quite like that. It’s a long story, and I don’t want to remember it. I love Hanh so dearly…”
“She said she would try to see that girl again,” Lan continued, “and make her an intimate friend in a lasting friendship. Will you let her?”
Khanh thought quietly about what he had just heard. The letters he had received when he was a law student in Hanoi appeared in his mind as fresh as if he had just read them. The image of Thuy as a Jeanne d’Arc school girl in purple dress returned, together with all the details of the romantic and cool surroundings at the Bach Ma mountain resort. They had had a lot of fun there with their families, contemplating the white water jets that shot up from fountains on hilltops, or ran down narrow pebble paths strewn with multicolored wild flowers. How beautiful the scenery was! Wild plants looked stunted down on the plains, but up there the mountain air made them blossom with bright hues that turned nature into a miraculous carpet. No wonder so many tourists from Hue had chosen this resort, which was not far from the old city. Khanh remembered one of her letters where she described the burning hot summer days in Hue. She rode to the Thuan An beach with her family, and he pedaled down to join her with his friends Le, Tuc, Hai and Tao. They spent days playing under the shady pine trees, swimming in the sea water, and chasing each other along the deserted white beach. Her description, vivid and filled with emotion, flowed smoothly over bluish papers as if it had been produced by an amateur writer, not a 9th grader. He was surprised to see the wonderful inspiration love had brought, and how it transformed her rich but unawakened potential. They had exchanged loving terms, tender, crazy memories, and the illusory dreams of romance, while floating on a sea of deep love in the beautiful and poetic city of Hue. The memories flooded back in every detail, and for a moment he felt he was inside the dream.
Lan returned from the kitchen with a glass of fresh orange juice and placed it in front of him. Seeing his far away look, she looked understanding.
“To tell you the truth,” she started again, “when your wife told me about your broken first love, I got the impression I was talking to a remarried widow, sentimentally speaking.”
“That’s an exaggeration. I love her dearly, as I said. You might have accidentally caused her chagrin, however. What you just told me contains some truth that reminds me of the following profound thoughts of a Western writer: “Many widowers have remarried, and though they sincerely loved their former wives, they can still find another overflowing source of happiness. It’s true happiness too, though this time with the second wife. The happy situations are not alike; yet, each is still a great source of consolation and support from Nature. Spring is not the only beautiful season in a year. Summer has its own freshness and fall is full of refined magnificence. As for winter, it conveys significant melancholies. When two souls respond to each other emotionally in front of painful inhibitions and still enjoy life, that’s what counts.” Besides, I’m not at all a widower in the sentimental sense of the term. I’m living here, as filled with passionate love for Hanh as I was when I first met her.”
Lan’s face clouded over. She regretted her extremely realistic and straightforward thoughts.
“The war has pushed many wandering souls around,” he said sadly. “Peace has returned, at least to the surface of the river. Thuy is rich now, and must be pleased with her family. I haven’t had the courage to think about her, let alone whether I miss or love her. I’m afraid to create an improper connection. My wife knows everything, and she has promised to forget. I have too. Nevertheless, she’s still being attracted to it as if by a ghostly magnetic force. Who has the cruelty to rekindle the painful ashes of the past? After so many ups and downs, a life-loving man like me needs to rebuild his family physically and spiritually. So much is unfinished – and there are so many things I want to finish in freedom. But I must confess it’s really hard to bury my memories deep in my heart. That’s an elementary psychological truth.”
Khanh looked away. Little haloes of light bounced off the reflections of the red Royal Poincianas, shimmering on the waters of the Huong Giang in the late afternoon sun.
- On the Gulf of Thailand, Winter 1955.
“In memory of my dear brother Ta Ky…” At the time when my family underwent lots of hardships, he took the initiatives to have my novels and biography published in the Van Nghe Tien Phong magazine in Saigon, issues no. 27 and 28 of December 1956.