THE FLOWERPOT OF DESTINY

We arrived in Venice,  on the northeast coast of Italy, on a sunny and dry afternoon. We stayed at a hotel looking out to the sea, in Lido de Jesolo, a small town in the vicinity, above a white sandy peninsula where the summer heat was cooled by the wind blowing in from the water. Local people did brisk trade in attractive little shops on a charming strip of land away from the noisy, busy hubs of nearby cities like Trieste, Mestre, and Verona.

An attractive, courteous and refined city built on water and unequaled in its special traits, Venice was a most spectacular sight. Between the open sea and houses and palaces, a forest of white sails of ships hustled among small boats on the wavy surface of the blue sea, dotted with gondolas that look like Vietnamese old dragon boats, thin in the middle with both bow and stern queerly raised. The gondoliers wore blue vests bordered with red, a livery reminiscent of the local Medieval kings. Venice had been a port that grew rich on maritime trade across the rich Mediterranean to the Middle East.

We alighted from a vaporetto into Saint Mark’s Square, which was filled with colorfully dressed summer visitors from all over the world, walking leisurely next to one another on a narrow tiled space. Around them were tall shrines built on multiple columns, with ceilings painted in vermilion, gilded, and minutely carved with extraordinarily pretty figures, including the famous Campanile built in the 10th century.

The Square was large with the dizzily tall cathedral belfry standing between rows of columns and ancient palaces. Compared with the Grand’place in Brussels, which many consider to one of the most beautiful squares in the world, it has a natural beauty in harmony with the greater marvelous balance between the sea and the sky, nature and men. Venice was really the most attractive city in the world with its art masterpieces, ancient museums, jeweled artifacts, and annual international film festivals attended by numerous foreign movie stars and artists.

We could hear a mixture of voices from people on the streets that converged on the square, sailors calling to one another, gondoliers shouting above the clicking sounds of their oars in the rowlocks, and distant musical melodies from windows that overlooked numerous narrow canals. The system of 5-to-6-meter wide interconnected canals, which run in all directions under some 400 tiny arch bridges, divides the city into thousands of small isles filled with old houses with the moss-covered roofs.

The gondolas take visitors anywhere in Venice from beside Saint Mark’s Square. On a wide terrace in front of a huge restaurant and bar in the square, innumerable smiling visitors were sitting on benches or walking back and forth among crowds of pigeons. Once in a while these birds would fly up in groups after picking clean all the tiny bread pieces the visitors had thrown on the gray tiled floor.

I was sitting among the tourists, taking in the sights and dreamily staring at the sea, and pouring soda into a glass when a vigorous hand tapped me from behind.

I looked round. “Lam! What a surprise! How did you end up here?”

“That’s a long story, my dear Ky. But I’ve never forgotten the times we watered the tobacco plants together and our confidential night-time talks in the concentration camp of Tien Lanh. It’s like a miracle, isn’t it? Separated for over a decade, and we meet again out of the blue in a foreign land, thousands of miles away from our country!”

“It sure is!” I replied, as the memories came flooding back. I quickly asked him, “The day you came home from the camp, did you see the flowerpot placed in front of the old house for you?”

He patted his forehead a few times as if he was thinking hard, then pointed to a row of chairs far away and motioned me to follow him over there. I was a little confused to glance past him at the small Italian girls dancing next to a woman dressed in a skirt and a flowery blouse, her hair hanging over her shoulders, who was sitting, eating, and looking straight in front of her.

Lam told me about his past which, as the cliché goes, could have been made into a film; but there was nothing clichéd about the events he had lived through.

An army officer of the Republic of Vietnam who fought in Lower Laos in 1971, he was captured at the border between Vietnam and Laos by the Vietcong (Vietnamese Communists) and kept in a jail in the North until 1976, when he was taken to Tien Lanh camp. That’s where we met: I had been sent there with other prisoners from Saigon, and was waiting to be moved back to the South. We slept side by side, and labored together in the watering team for the tobacco plants. In the evenings, after our dinner and the “criticism meeting”, he told me all about his army career. He’d started out as an architecture graduate before becoming an army officer, and to his mind the Lower Laos battle, based on conventional principles of war, was a disaster for the friendly side in terms of casualties.

During those long, dark nights three of us – himself, another inmate lying next to him, and me – often murmured to share stories about our families or the society out there. We had to keep our voices down in case we were overheard by the cadres: some of them were so mean that they would hide in the dormitories to catch people. One day, when everybody assembled in the yard ready for labor, Lam was exempted from work for unknown reason. I was worried. Had someone reported something bad about him? At breakfast (cassava roots), I tried to get close, hoping he would be released.

“Pray God for your release!” I said softly.

“I don’t really know what this is about,” he answered. “Maybe I’m going to be released after these 12 years. I wonder if Duy has gone to Yen, my lover, to tell her about my request. It sounds like a joke but it’s crucial to my future. You know, one of my serious problems is I have no relatives in Saigon. Where will I stay after my release? I don’t actually want to be freed because of that.”

“Nonsense! It’s the chance of a lifetime to get free. Don’t be such a hypocrite.”

“I’m not. What it’s really about is a flowerpot in front of my lover Diem Yen’s house…”

When we prisoners returned at noon, we learned that Lam was indeed on the verge of freedom thanks to the personal intervention of an uncle who was a general in the North Vietnamese army. The flowerpot story began with him telling me that he had asked Duy, a former army medical nurse who had been detained in the same cell as us and released four months earlier, to do him a favor by trying to find Diem Yen’s house and giving her the message about the flowerpot. She had been a teacher at the Le Van Duyet high school, and they had been lovers. After he joined the army in 1969, she moved out of Saigon, and after 1975 when he was imprisoned, she visited him every year in Quang Nam. She had to walk over huge natural obstacles to reach the district town of Tan Phuoc some 25 kilometers from National Highway 1, pay for a ride on a Honda motorcycle for 20 kilometers, and then walk six more kilometers to get to the dangerous mountainous area where the Vietcong kept the prisoners in secret labor camps. She had kept in touch for several years through the letters he was allowed every five or six months, until suddenly, two years ago, she had told him that she was working for the new City Electricity Service, and had some unsolvable problems. She kept reassuring him that she would wait for him whatever happened, but she couldn’t say any more in her letters due to the censorship imposed in the camp. Then the letters dried up and he began to wonder if she hadn’t moved away or married, or if something important had happened to her. He knew she had two siblings, a brother and a sister, and an old mother who, after April 1975, sold coffee under a tree next to the Turtle Lake Circle on Tran Cao Van Street.

Lam was worried as she hadn’t even told him what was going on. In the meantime, he learned that the Vietcong had devised an evil tactic, which eventually turned into a large campaign, in which cadres were encouraged to use any means possible to entice, buy, threaten, bully or corrupt the wives of former government military and civilian employees, especially those in prison, to forcibly disconnect them from their spouses, children, and parents, and take them as sexual partners. Sweet talk, money and power had broken up innumerable prisoners’ families, so that those who eventually got released found they had lost their support network, and had no family to return to. The victims had to live in humiliation, isolation, and desperation, and some of them even committed suicide. These terrible experiences put a huge strain on society. After the invasion of South Vietnam in 1975, the Vietcong plot to allow cadres to co-habit with South Vietnamese women was another effort to forcibly mingle the North and the South, a cheap attempt to erase the hatred and rancor Southerners felt for the people of the North. As far as Southerners were concerned, all those jungle people from the poor and backward North wanted was a straightforward robbery and confiscation of the prosperous and civilized South. They turned out to be right, in that people often said sarcastically that the 1975 event was simply for Southerners to welcome their relatives and for Northerners to rob their properties at will.

Lam quoted a Vietnamese proverb: “Wise girls keep their chastity for three years, but may lose it in one hour;” Diem Yen was still young, and youngsters, he thought, were often unpredictable. After all, it had really happened to a number of other prisoners already. Perhaps that was it: the communist invasion of South Vietnam meant the end of a glorious period of national history, and spelled the death-knell of his beautiful love story, which had been going on for thirteen years. He felt hopeless and couldn’t help sighing whenever another inmate received a letter. Then, unexpectedly, he learned about Duy’s coming release. He had already confided in him, and before he left he begged him, if he had time, to do his best to find Diem Yen and tell her that if it was true his uncle managed to intervene for his release, he would be out in a matter of months. If she still loved him, she should wait patiently, as they would soon be reunited and her bitterness and loneliness would be banished forever.

Lam, who had low self esteem and something of an inferiority complex, had a novel idea, and suggested through Duy that she put up a signal, however romantic and queer it might seem, and place a potted flower of some kind in front of her house so that he would know he was welcome, and that she hadn’t changed her mind. If there was no flower, he’d simply leave, and he promised there wouldn’t be any begging scenes or recriminations, even though, as the Chinese say, ‘a day in jail is a thousand years outside.’ He asked Duy to remind her that all she needed to do was use the signal, and that when he saw it he would know she understood the pain and desolation he had suffered during the last two years of silence. Despite the elaborate instructions, Lam still felt desperate and lonesome, and thought that the break-up of love was the inevitable consequence of society being turned upside down by political changes.

I was musing on all that and sipping a soft drink when Lam returned with the woman who, a moment before, had been watching the little Italian girls perform their folklore dances. He introduced her to me using language filled with love, with the sort of eagerness and gratitude that no husband would utter about his wife in front of a colleague.

“Ky, my friend, I’ve really been born twice. This is Diem Yen, my wife, the main character in my story.”

“Very happy to meet you, Mrs. Yen,” I greeted her. “Did you place the flowerpot like he asked?”

“How did you know?” she smiled. “It was a funny story, wasn’t it? It was a marigold, and he came in when he saw it. I was glad he did.”

“I told him everything in prison, honey,” said Lam. ‘We’ve been quite romantic, haven’t we? The flowerpot meant our love was still intact. It sounds like a poetic fiction, but that’s how it really happened. I could see the pot of yellow marigold in front of the house from a way off, so I went in without hesitating. Yen was stunned. We hugged and wept. It was a rebirth for me, physically as well as sentimentally.”

“When I learned of his release,” said Yen, “I started to tend the little garden behind the house and think of some flowers. I wondered what to grow, and I finally decided on the marigold as they rarely fail. I’d grown four or five of them before he appeared, unbelievably emaciated. After Duy came by I was unable to sleep, I kept worrying that Lam would come at night and not see the flowerpot, and go off in despair, thinking I’d left him.”

“What about you, after I left the prison?” asked Lam. “When did they set you free?”

“One year later,” I answered. “Mine was an uneventful return, but it was my fifth one since reaching the age of 30. It was different every time, but  every one of them was special. Except for one I learned about on a hill where I planted corn. I was just about to head back to camp when I saw a yellow butterfly that kept flying close to me as if I were something very dear to it. I brushed it away, but it came back almost at once and settled on the tip of my hoe handle. I guessed it meant good news, and sure enough, I was informed that afternoon that I was to be freed the following day, thanks to the intervention of a foreign government.”

“We got married,” said Yen, “and escaped to Italy. We’ve been living here for five years now, working in the Casino, a beautiful palace on the other shore of Venice. Our jobs are OK. Lam brings soft drinks, and I bring finger food for the international gamblers.”

“How beautiful Venice is, Ky!” Lam said. “Foreign tourists love it  because the houses, built on tiny islands, look like they float on the water. And the gondolas add a unique charm. But we’re used to them now, and inured to their beauty…”

“Lam’s return was like something in a novel,” Yen interrupted. “And our love is like a special sort of fiction too, isn’t it, my dear? But it’s a true story and we’re the stars, from its beginnings in prison to its end in the society of our country, and now right here. Without that flowerpot of destiny, our love would’ve been over, and Lam would have had no return. His remains would be buried somewhere in a wild forest!”

“It’s not fictional at all,” I said. “I remember in 1963, when President Ngo Dinh Diem was in power, M. Do Khanh Hoan, an English teacher who lives in Canada, told me about his life in hiding in Vietnam for having been a dissident. His relatives used to warn him about any event or action by the government’s secret agents, if his home was to be searched or if an attempt was to be made to arrest him, by means of two empty condensed milk cans placed on the posts of the gate for him to check from a distance. He never went into the house unless he saw them. On a visit to America, I heard a story similar to yours with many secondary characters. But your love message was much more beautiful and romantic!”

The sun glittered yellow on the sea, and ever more people appeared. It seemed like it was going to set soon, but we had no desire to move on. I wanted to tell my friends one more story I’d heard from an American pastor, who had read it Selection, the international magazine. It was an old folk tale, but this version had been written by Peter Hamill and reprinted from the New York Post, published on 10-15-1971, under the title ‘The Return of a Hard Labor Prisoner.’ It told of how three girls and three boys had been on the way to their summer vacation in Florida, their baggage filled with food, wine and water. Sitting on the comfortable leather seats of the bus, they could already imagine the silver waves racing towards the golden beaches they were going to enjoy, as the grey, cool sky of New York disappeared behind them.

They became aware of the presence of a man dressed in cheap, worn and ill-fitting clothes sitting nearby. His face was pale and gave no clue of his age, but they could read loneliness and anxiety in his tightly-clamped lips.

Around midnight, the bus stopped in front of a roadside inn, and everyone entered except the stranger. Who was he? A clerk on the run? A soldier on release heading back to his family? A husband leaving his wife, maybe? They decided to find out, and back on the bus, one of them sat down next to him.

He told them his name was Vingo, and gratefully accepted a glass of wine, but they couldn’t get much more out of him, and eventually they fell asleep.

Next morning, however, they found out the truth. He was coming home, he said, after four years in a New York prison, and he didn’t know what he’d find. He loved his wife, but he’d told her to do whatever was best for their children. He’d heard nothing for three years, and last week he’d written again, informing her of his coming release, and asking her to tie a yellow handkerchief round the nearest oak tree if she still wanted him back.

Vingo got increasingly nervous as they neared his destination, and before long they were all hanging out the windows looking for that handkerchief. He’d buried his head in his hands, until suddenly they all started jumping round the bus: that oak tree was covered in hundreds of yellow handkerchiefs, flapping like a forest of banners in the afternoon breeze.

“A happy and loyal ending,” I said, “it can happen. When prisoners like Lam and Vingo come home and find their happiness displayed in front of the house, it’s their own heart that starts to flower…”