A Bend in the River
Tam Trang and Mai Linh
Is there a warning a moment before a life shatters into tiny pieces? A minute shift in the light? The cheep of a monkey that elicits an alarm? A heaviness in the air that carries the taste of disaster? For sisters Tam Trang and Mai Linh Nguyen, washing their family’s clothes in the river, the warning might have been a barely noticeable scent wafting toward them. The scent of men. But not Vietnamese. Musky. Dense. Even slightly arousing.
Or perhaps there was no warning at all. Absorbed in their task, the sisters squatted on a narrow strip of beach, scrubbing shirts with their brushes. They slapped heavier items against the rocks, then rinsed everything in the waters of the Mekong. The clothes would dry quickly. The hottest part of the year was approaching, and the combination of summer with the monsoons would trigger an indolent lethargy that made even washing clothes a burden. Even now in March, the sisters lifted their hair off their necks to catch the breeze.
Tam, at seventeen, used her nón lá as a hamper for the clean clothes. At the moment it held only two pairs of tiny pants belonging to her little brother. Hung Sang, an unplanned surprise five years earlier, had become the prince of the family. According to their parents, no boy was as handsome, as talented, as lucky. With his arrival the girls’ status in the family declined. They had become afterthoughts, to be married off as quickly as possible. Sang should not be burdened with his sisters’ care—when he was grown, he would have enough to do caring for his own family and his parents.
Tam wiped sweat from her brow. Her sister, three years younger, was nattering on, but Tam only half listened. She was about to graduate from the Catholic school two villages away, and she was wondering how to continue her studies. Where would she find the money to pay for university? What would her parents say when she confessed that was her goal?
“They’re the wealthiest family in their village,” Linh Mai said. “Their home has a real roof. And windows. His father makes sampans. He goes to the Catholic school. I’m sure you know him. Lanh Phuc. He’s handsome.” Linh Mai giggled. “I think he likes me, Tam. I hope Mama and Papa will agree to a match—”
Tam cut in. “Mai Linh, you can be a silly girl. Is that all you can say about him? That he is the son of a wealthy man, and he can read? This is a man you may live with the rest of your life. Have you ever shared a conversation? Talked to him about his future, his dreams?” She twisted water out her father’s shirt and dropped it into the conical hat. Mai was the beauty of the family, delicate and tiny, with large black eyes, silky black hair, and soft skin that glowed white, even in shadows. Tam had seen the longing on the village boys’ faces when she passed. Her parents would have no problem arranging a match for her.
Tam was taller, leaner, and while her face had the same classic features as Mai’s, they were arranged differently. Her eyes did not appear to be as large; her nose more pronounced, her skin darker. She was attractive in her own way, but she wasn’t a beauty. Although she was older, she wasn’t eager for an arranged marriage. She wasn’t interested in marriage at all. She loved to study plants: their structure, foliage, colors, where they grew, how they contributed to their environment, or not. Her Catholic science teacher told her she wanted to study “botany.”
Mai, who usually deferred to her older sister, now drew in a breath. “You’re a fine one to lecture me. Do you have a suitor? You reject all the men our parents suggest. Why should I listen to you?”
Tam sat back on her haunches. When had Mai developed such a sharp tongue? This churlish behavior was new. As the oldest sister, Tam should be treated with respect. She was about to say so when a wisp of smoke passed over them.
Tam sniffed. The scent of the smoke was farm-like. Clean. The end of the dry season was approaching. A farmer was probably burning leftover corn husks or rotted fruit from his fields. Except most farmers usually fed leftovers to their cattle or pigs. She frowned. Perhaps the smoke came from the dying embers of a campfire around the bend of the river. A fisherman or two cooking breakfast before a long day on the Mekong.
A second puff of smoke wafted over them. Stronger. This time it carried with it an acidic scent. Gasoline. Tam’s jaw tightened. She looked over at Mai, whose eyes grew round.
“Do you smell that?” Mai asked.
When the third gust of smoke reached them, more intense than the others, Tam scrambled to her feet and beckoned to Mai. “Leave everything. We need to go home.”
When the Japanese occupied Vietnam during World War Two, a platoon of soldiers overran the village. Some decided to stay, but wanted easier access from the river so they supervised the construction of a dock with steps leading from the river’s edge up a hill. The steps ended at the dusty road feeding into the village. Tam and Mai’s father had been conscripted to build the dock and steps in his teens, and his back bore the scars of countless beatings, a staple of Japanese brutality. But when it was finished, most of the villagers were pleased. Outsiders could now be spotted when they reached the top of the steps and villagers could determine whether they were friend or foe and act accordingly.
However, it was still possible to climb the hill a dozen yards north of the dock, and, under the cover of cashew bushes, papaya, and jackfruit trees, secretly enter the village at its mid-point. Tam and Mai followed that route. As they hiked up the hill, a cacophony of sounds washed over them. Somewhere far above was a distant thwup of helicopter blades. On the ground were frightened screams and sobbing. An occasional crack-spit of gunshots. The yelp of a dog that suddenly stopped. The same with the squeal of a pig. Mechanical voices, as if someone was talking on a radio. And above it all, the thick flat voices of men bellowing in what Tam knew was English.
She froze. Americans. How had they found their tiny village? Not by water; Tam and Mai would have seen them approach. And the land route was overgrown with dense forest and bush, impenetrable in some spots. She’d heard about the U.S. helicopters and airplanes carrying powerful bombs that erupted into fire, scorching everything on the ground. When the last flame was extinguished, they were left with barren fields and poisoned land unable to grow anything. The government said this was the only way to force the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong into the open, to halt their guerilla war from the bush. She’d heard, too, that Americans liked to execute the VC they found, set fire to their villages, then force the inhabitants to relocate into squalid camps near Saigon. Is that what was happening? Tam blinked fast, trying to suppress the rising panic roiling her gut.
Slowly and silently she led Mai through the papaya trees, stopping before they emerged from the bush. She carefully pulled aside the fronds of a jackfruit tree. In front of her was the village square, an expanse of dirt studded with rocks. Village events, including weddings, births and funerals, were celebrated here.
Now though, Tam stared at chaos. There had to be over twenty GIs in camouflage and helmets, rifles slung across their shoulders or in their hands. Some hoisted long thick weapons much larger than rifles, but she didn’t know what they were. Half a dozen soldiers moved from house to house, dragging the occupants outside, their hands held high in the air.
“Any VC in here? You VC?” they shouted in primitive Vietnamese. When the villagers frantically shook their heads, the GIs prodded them in the back with their rifles toward the village square and replied in English. “We heard there was a nest of enemy gooks in this hamlet. Gotta’ make sure.”
Other soldiers poured gasoline on the thatched roofs of the now empty huts. Still others flicked their lighters and laughed when homes went up in flames.
Most of the villagers appeared to be in full bore terror. The wife of a rice farmer planted herself at the entrance to her hut, shrieking and gesturing at the soldiers. She tried to explain that they had the wrong village. That they were but simple farmers and fisherman with no interest in war. Of course, the Americans didn’t understand, and barked at her in reply. When she refused to move, two soldiers dragged her to the square and shoved her to the ground.
About a dozen villagers, choking on the smoke, huddled on the square, heads between their knees, as if averting their faces would somehow mitigate the disaster. A soldier went back to the woman’s hut, flipped his lighter, and touched the flame to her thatched roof. When it caught, he gestured to the villagers on the square, shouting “Lookie here. Roasted gook for lunch!” The flames, as if they were indeed starving, devoured her home.
From their perch behind the trees, Tam looked both ways. Smoke curled up in rolls, soot darkening the sky. The air now tasted acrid and sour, and the heat from the fires intensified.
She counted five homes on fire, but their own home, thirty meters away, wasn’t visible, and she couldn’t tell if it had been set on fire.
The villagers on the square wailed as another house went up. Some choked on the smoke and the overpowering smell of gasoline. Others covered their faces with their hands. Tam searched the square for their family. Mai was doing the same because she whispered, “I don’t see Mama and Papa. Or Sang. Where are they?”
“Maybe they escaped,” Tam whispered back.
Suddenly Mai grabbed Tam’s arm. “Look!” She said in a panicky whisper. She pointed past the square. Tam followed her gaze.
Not far away was a mound of dead dogs, pigs, and even the calf born just two weeks ago. Their corpses, fresh and still bloody, dispensed a coppery, rancid smell that mixed with the gasoline. That’s why they’d heard gunshots. The Americans were killing their animals. Flies were already swarming and settling on their hides. Tam gagged, nausea climbing up her throat. She swallowed to push it down.
Mai started to tremble uncontrollably. Tam put an arm around her sister and let her lean against her for a moment, then pushed her away. “We must be strong. We need to find Mama and Papa.”
“How? We can’t go home. They’ll see us.”
“Let me think.”
Mai shook her head and pointed. “Let’s go around the path.” A dirt path a few meters away ran along the back of a dozen huts, among which was theirs. But Mai wasn’t as careful as Tam. Chances were high she would make noise or stumble on the path, alerting the soldiers to her presence.
Tam shook her head. “No. You stay here. I’ll go.”
Mai clutched her sister. “You can’t leave me!”
Tam bit her lip. “Go back into the bush. You’ll be safer there. Stay there until I come back.”
“But I—I’m scared. Stay with me, Tam.”
“Be brave. I’ll be back. I swear it.”
Tears filled Mai’s eyes. “I don’t… I can’t..”
Tam raised a finger to her lips. She pointed to a cashew bush. “Hide behind that. And don’t cry. They may hear you.”
Tam slipped into the bush and was hidden from sight. Mai retreated to the cashew bush and squatted behind it. She wrapped her arms around her knees. She could no longer see the square, but she didn’t want to. The sounds and smells, plus what she had already seen, were nightmare enough.
Rocking back and forth, she tried to think about something else. The family had bought a transistor radio, and they quarreled over it, each demanding to listen something different. Finally, their father had parceled out times. News for him, classical music for Mama. Mai liked the station from the Army base, though it was broadcast in English. American pop was unfamiliar at first, but the songs were simple, and the throbbing beat was sensual.
At fourteen, new feelings and sensations were just dawning. Mai thought differently about boys. No longer were they bothersome. They had become mysterious creatures, and she discovered she wanted their attention. She care more for her hair, making sure it was always oiled and scented with jasmine. She wore her black pajamas for work, but at the end of the day, she would change into one of the two skirts she and Mama had sewn. She begged Mama to let her borrow her lipstick and mascara, particularly when she thought she might run into the sampan-maker’s son. Was this how girls became women?
Tam wasn’t like that, Mai thought. Her nose was always buried in a science book from the small library at the Catholic school. When she wasn’t reading, she talked with Papa about history, politics, and the war. Mai and Mama hated those discussions. Papa was angry about the American war and their so-called “pacification,” which, he said, was just another word for death and destruction. He wanted the infidels gone. Vietnam could solve its problems by itself.
“But, Papa, we did not reach an agreement with the Communists,” Tam said, trying to maintain a respectful tone.
Papa shot her a stern look. “If the French and then the Americans hadn’t come, we could have worked it out,” he said. “Ho is a reasonable man. More than Diem. Communists love their children, too.”
Mama just wanted the conflict to end. She didn’t care who won. Their life wouldn’t change either way, she said. Then, less than two months ago during Tet, North Vietnam had launched an aggressive campaign, attacking dozens of South Vietnamese cities and American forces. The attacks ultimately failed, and the North was forced to retreat. But Tet triggered harsh retaliation from the Americans. Mama worried that war would come to their village. Tam and Papa assured her it wouldn’t. Their village was small. There was nothing here worth fighting over.
They were wrong.
Now, Mai rose and went back to the spot where they had pushed aside the jackfruit fronds. More people now occupied the square, most crying or silent with shock. The heat from the fires baked their faces, and several of the women had fans. Mai spotted her friend, Dung, among them. They’d listened to the radio together when it was Mai’s turn, and spent long hours spinning dreams of the rich young men who would court them.
Dung wanted to move to Saigon. Everyone was rich there, she declared. “Servants do the chores. The women shop, and their husbands buy them sweets every day.”
Mai’s dreams were more modest. A big house in the village would do for her. She didn’t mind housework. And she wanted children of her own. Lots of them.
All at once, Mai sucked in a breath. Her mother had appeared in the square. She was carrying Sang who was sobbing. He had to be confused and frightened by the fires, the noise, the invasion of white men. Her mother’s lips stretched tight, the way they did when she was angry and about to mete out a punishment for misbehaving. Behind her was a solder, his rifle prodding her in the back.
Mai hugged her arms across her chest. Craning her neck, she tried to spot Papa, but there was no sign of him. Maybe Tam was right. Maybe he was hiding in the bush, waiting for the Americans to leave.
Mama sat down with Sang in her lap and rocked him. That did nothing to soothe him, so she gathered him to her chest and rested his head against her shoulder. Mai could see her lips move. She was probably crooning a lullaby. A lump thickened Mai’s throat, and a deep longing rolled over her. She wanted to be with them, wanted Mama to sing her a lullaby. She belonged with her mother. But how could she? Who knew what the Americans were going to do? She knew she was better off hidden in the bush.
Still, when it happened, Mai couldn’t believe it was real. Three soldiers guarding the villagers in the square whipped around and trotted in the direction from which Mama had come. Someone yelled out in Vietnamese, and once she heard the voice, she knew to whom it belonged.
Papa. He was shouting in English. “Yankee war criminals go home! Uncle Ho warn us You evil!” The people in the square stirred, murmuring among themselves, some with fearful expressions, others in horror. Two women shook their heads. Where had Papa had learned English? The radio? Meanwhile three GI’s ran towards him. A spray of gunshots crackled and spit. Her father’s rant suddenly stopped.
A new chorus of wails went up from the villagers. More soldiers appeared, aiming their rifled at the crowd and screaming. “Hands up you bastard gooks,” one soldier said in English. “Get your fucking hands up! Any more VC here? Better tell us now!”
The soldiers who had left the square came back into view, dragging a body between them. Papa! His face was bent at an odd angle to his body. Which didn’t matter much, because most of it was blown away. His gut oozed blood, and his lower parts… Mai watched in a daze, as though she was in the clutches of an inexplicable but riveting play and couldn’t look away.
When Mama saw Papa’s body, a cry of disbelief, revulsion, and hysteria ripped from her throat. Her mother placed Sang on a neighbor’s lap, jumped up, and hurried toward her father. One of the soldiers aimed his rifle at her and told her to go back. But she either didn’t understand or didn’t care. The soldier yelled out one more warning. She was heading towards the soldiers, one arm waving, the other tucked in the folds of her pajamas. Mai saw her withdraw a knife. The GIs saw it too. There was another rat-tat-tat of bullets. Mama fell to the ground, blood seeping from her mouth and head. Horrified, Mai clapped a hand over her mouth.
“Where’s the kid?” A soldier yelled gruffly. The woman cuddling Sang kept her mouth shut. Mai didn’t know what to do. She should try to rescue her brother. But she was frozen, paralyzed by terror. Where was Tam? The soldier shouted again, more urgent this time. “Where’s the little VC bastard?”
One of the women in the square pointed Sang out. Chi, the village gossip. No one liked her. The Americans grabbed Sang who was momentarily terrified into silence. The soldier took him away from the crowd out of sight. Another shot rang out. Mai’s heart cracked.
But the shooting wasn’t over. Papa’s outburst had released something in the crowd. Suddenly they seemed to be fueled with courage because they got to their feet, raised their fists, and shouted at the GIs. Some repeated what Papa had said. Others protested their treatment of Mama, Papa, Sang, their presence in the village, the invasion of their country, their very existence. Joined together in one angry mass, the crowd swarmed toward the Americans. The soldiers were taken aback, and, for a moment, there was no reaction. But then one of them—their leader Mai wondered?—barked out a word even she could understand.
The soldiers raised their rifles, aimed at the villagers, and shot them all. Bodies fell where they were, fists half raised, expressions of anguish. A minute later it was silent.
The horror. The flies. The heat. Mai vomited on the floor of the jungle.
Tam watched the massacre from the path behind her family’s hut. When they shot her parents and Sang, a violent rage swept through her. She understood what her mother had done and why. Anyone would have done the same thing. And Tam wanted revenge. She wanted to attack, maim, and kill every American soldier in the village. Slowly and painfully. Like a photograph from her father’s camera, the deaths and destruction of her village would be imprinted in her memory forever. Someone had to pay.
But Mai was still in the bush. She couldn’t abandon her little sister. Mai was the only family Tam had left. For now though, Tam couldn’t go back to get her. The wailing and screams of the villagers had stopped, and she was familiar with the route. Still, she couldn’t take the chance that a one clumsy step or move on her part might be overheard by the Americans.
So she squatted on the path. She couldn’t see, but she could hear. The soldiers’ leader was talking loudly; his tone harsh and defensive. Long silences followed his words. He must be on a two-way radio. Was he receiving orders?
At last he signed off and yelled out to his men. Tam felt more heat spill over her. She stood and peeked out. The Americans were burning the bodies. The flames and fire were so intense she should retreat further in the bush.
Instead she moved quickly, knowing her movements would be muffled by the crackle and hiss of the flames. She hid behind a grove of coconut palms until two helicopters approached and hovered overhead, their blades roaring and whipping the air into eddies and currents of wind. The men aboard the chopper must have given the all-clear because after they thundered off, the GIs packed up their gear and headed out on foot. There was nothing left of the village except the foundations of straw huts, still-burning bushes and trees, charred lumps that could hardly be identified as human, and blackened earth. The odor of burned flesh, thick and nauseating, permeated the air. A crow cawed. The vultures would be here soon. They wouldn’t find anything appealing.
As she cautiously made her way back to the jackfruit trees, a grief as deep as the Mekong River mingled with, then surpassed her rage. She slowed, debating whether to find her family’s bodies and cremate them. That was the Buddhist way. Then again, the US soldiers had already done that. She gazed at the scene in the clearing. Find Mai, she heard her father’s voice say. There will be time to mourn. Protect your sister.
She was exhausted. She had to rest. Just for a few minutes. Then she would find Mai. She backtracked to her spot behind the village, lay down between the palms, and covered herself with leafy fronds. She fell asleep to the memory of gunfire crackling in her ears.
* * *
When Tam woke, she was momentarily confused. Silence lay heavy. No birds chirped. No monkeys cawed, no dogs howled. Then she remembered. Both rage and despair gripped her again. This time, though, she was able to harness her emotions for the energy to find Mai.
She headed back to the jackfruit trees. The heat of the day had passed. She wondered what she could possibly say to her sister—she didn’t know how much Mai had witnessed. But when she reached the spot, her sister was gone. Had she run deeper into the forest? Had the soldiers found her and—Tam swallowed—killed her? She had no idea what to do next. She couldn’t stay here. Papa and she had shared many conversations, but how to survive in the bush wasn’t one.
Even though the Americans seemed to be gone, but she didn’t think it was safe to call out, so she trudged in ever widening circles around their original hiding spot. She hiked slowly, making as little sound as possible, on the alert for human footsteps, the snap of a broken twig, the swish of brush moved aside.
Tam ran her hands up and down her arms, feeling desperate. The sun would set soon. The nearest village was several miles away. Easy to reach in a cart with oxen, but there were no oxen. Maybe Mai had ducked deeper into the bush. No. Probably not. Mai was afraid of forest critters, especially ones that foraged at night.
Tam retraced her path to the river. To be safe, she climbed down the hill, rather than the steps. She didn’t want to risk being seen from the river by someone in a sampan or boat. As she neared the shore, she heard tuneless humming. A group of discordant notes. Tam shaded her eyes from the setting sun. Usually the sight of the sun playing tag with the horizon above the river was beautiful, a moment to be treasured. Not tonight.
She looked up and down the shore. There! Protected from the sun, a slight figure squatted at the edge of the river, rinsing shirts in the water. Mai. Tam broke into a jog and hurried toward her sister.
“Mai,” she cried joyfully. “I’ve been searching for you! I’m so glad you’re here. But you’re so exposed here. Let’s move away from the beach.”
Mai turned around but made no sign of recognition. In fact, when Tam started talking, she scrambled to her feet and raced in the opposite direction.
“Mai, wait. It’s me!” Tam started to run after Mai Linh. They used to race when they were younger. Mai was small and nimble and often beat Tam when they ran. Now though, a haze of leftover soot and smoke lingered at the river’s edge, making it more difficult to breathe. Why was Mai running? This wasn’t the time. Mai peered over her shoulder as she ran. Tam waved. ”It’s me, Mai Linh. Stop!”
But Mai still showed no sign that she knew who Tam was and kept running. Tam sped up and started to close the distance between them. Mai glanced over her shoulder again, this time Tam saw panic on her face. She began to understand. Mai was fragile, her emotions close to the surface. Right now Mai’s mind was not her own. The trauma of the day’s events was too much for her. In her mind, Tam was the enemy, intent on capturing and killing her.
Tam stopped and coughed up phlegm from the dirty air. She squatted on the narrow strip of beach and worried her hands through her hair. Her mother, when she felt helpless or afraid, would offer a prayer to Buddha. After the nightmare of today, Tam’s faith was stretched thin. But if a prayer would bring Mai to her senses, she would give him ten.
The haze in the air created a perversely beautiful sunset. How could the Buddha or whatever deity controlled the sun have the nerve to paint such a brilliant combination of reds, oranges, and gold? Even the Mekong looked less muddy. Tam bowed her head and rocked. She tried to recall what prayer she was supposed to say.
In a corner of the earthenware floors and simple bamboo furniture of their home, her mother had built a small shrine to Buddha. She bought a marble table and a gold bowl, easily the most valuable objects they owned. It was there that her mother placed fresh-cut flowers, lit candles, and burned incense a few times a week. As Tam prayed, watching the sun slowly sink toward the horizon, she felt her spirit loosen. The day was ending, much like it had begun. Calm. At peace.
Tam wasn’t sure how long she prayed. Dusk settled, lengthening shadows and darkening the water of the Mekong. Eventually she felt a light tap on her shoulder. She turned around.
“Mai!” Tam got to her feet and they embraced.
“I’m hungry,” Mai’s voice cracked. Tam knew it was a hunger for more than food. A hunger that would never again be completely sated.
“Let’s find some fruit,” Tam said.
“No!” Mai said between her tears. “I—I can’t go back to the bush.”
Tam intended to explain that they’d have to. That she didn’t want to leave Mai by herself, and that they’d have to forage in the bush if they wanted to eat. Then she thought better of it and simply held out her hand.
Mai squeezed her eyes shut and let out a sob. Reluctantly she put her hand in Tam’s, and they trudged up the steps back to the bush, looking in all directions to make sure they weren’t followed. Thirty minutes later, their arms laden with ripe jackfruit, mangos, papaya, and lotus fruit, they returned to the beach and wolfed down their food.
By the time they finished eating it was dark, but the heat still hadn’t lifted. They were hot and exhausted and smelled of gasoline, char, and fear. The only light came from a waxing moon that spilled across the water. It was enough.
Mai searched Tam’s eyes. “We’re sleeping here?”
Tam nodded. “You finish the washing and spread our clothes out to dry. I’ll gather some palm fronds to cover us.”
Mai glanced around fearfully. “But—but, what if they come back?” She whispered. “Or what if someone saw the smoke across the river? They could be waiting for dark to loot whatever is left of the village.”
Tam tried to sound confident. “We’ll be hidden under the fronds. But that’s not going to happen.” At least tonight, she hoped. They had already lived through one hell. They wouldn’t survive another. “I’m going to take a bath in the river. You should too. Then we’ll wash the rest of our clothes.”