A Short Story

by Phuc Le

The sky is bathed in light strands of lavender clouds. Even the wind is steeped in this soft color. The buildings in the university stretch out lazily under the gentle sky. I stroll along the empty corridor toward my dorm, relieved that it is Saturday. After a long week of studying, Saturday afternoons always hold some special magic. It is as if an entirely different world opens up to you, allowing you to smell the forbidden fragrances and to feel the warm soft long strands of hair between your fingers. It is an afternoon like this that always reminds me of Tuyen and.of the lavender panels of her áo dài rustling in the warm breeze. It is an afternoon like this that always reminds me of a past as transient as the lavender clouds in the sky.

I met Tuyên for the first time when I was in eleventh grade at Lê Quy Dôn high school. I found out from my parents that during their time as students, this high school was well known in Saigon for its beautiful áo dài (synonymous for female students). Apparently, the reputation still held true because I found Tuyên there. Everyday she would ride her bicycle to school, holding the long panels of her áo dài on her left arm. After school, Saigon would glow with countless other áo dài, but I would only have Tuyên in my eyes. I would follow behind her bicycle, occasionally catching a whiff of her fragrant hair. I found out where she lived and pretended to borrow her notebooks as a way for her to notice me. Holding the notebook that had been caressed by her hands, I knew I was in love.

She was the girl in my dreams and she was also exactly the type of girl my parents had warned me about. The week before I left Nha Trang for high school in Saigon, my mom bustled around, packing clothes and food for me, as if there would be a famine in Saigon. She made thit chà bông, caramelized meat which had been dried and fluffed until its was soft like cotton balls. And of course, she packed one whole box of MaMa instant noodles in crab flavor. (My classmates and I had relished many steamy bowls of noodles during our late night study sessions). My dad just surveyed the commotion in the house quietly, but I knew there was something on his mind. The night before I left, my parents sat me down in front of the Buddha's altar and told me about the responsibilities as a son. First of all, I must study hard and get into Saigon medical school. Second of all, I should just forget my poet aspiration, because it would take me no where with no money. Third of all, friendships were acceptable but love was out of the question. Love would only bring me sufferings, thus would distract me from my studies. Besides, I should not worry about things like that because, as they added at the end of our conversation, their friends' daughter, Thao, was a very virtuous and hardworking girl. They left it at that but I knew their full implications. I silently rebelled against the idea of arranged marriage but thought it was best not to make a scene before I left the house. Fourth of all, a beautiful, spoiled and manipulative woman would cause an inexperienced boy like me inexplicable pain and sufferings, and bring shame to the family. In this day and age, all I needed was a hard working woman, my mom said gravely, someone who could work with her hands in the sun without worrying about darkening her skin and who would support me through my medical studies. They told me to be careful of Saigon girls, spoiled daughters of rich, arrogant families.

That was why my love for Tuyên remained a secret to all my family. Even amidst the devastation and desperation after her death, no one had fathomed the depth of my feelings or even suspected my anguish. They would never understand the beauty and strength in her because all their lives, they had to be strong. They had seen so much of life, more than any single human being's share. And that strength and endurance had blinded them to beauty. When overwhelmed by extreme pain and anger, some people strike back with vengeance; others calmly shut their eyes and redirect their energy to their family and loved ones; there are also people who let the pain seep into their bones, let their blood dilute the anguish and let their soul be pure and kind. Tuyên was one of these latter group of people. During the turbulent years before the fall of Saigon, when Tuyên was about ten years old, the Viêt Công guerrillas had come knocking on the door of her family's house in the dead of the night and demanded her uncle. Her uncle Tâm was taken away and had disappeared since. One of the witnesses of the midnight assassination survived to recount a gruesome experience. Uncle Tâm was stuffed into a burlap bag along with several rocks and was thrown into the river. Her family had been too scared at the time to make any public inquiries. They just quietly set an altar for him next to the ancestors' altar. Every night since then, even when I met Tuyen in eleventh grade, she and her grandmother would chant the sutra to calm his unjustified and violent death.

There was so much pain in her life, and yet, she would never let it show. She was full of the gentleness and strength that I had yearned for all my life. She once told me a legend about the magpies swallowing people's tears. There was a girl with such sadness in her life that she went to cry under a tree. As her tears dropped, a flock of magpies swooped down from the sky and drank all of her tears. Then they spit out countless pearls of happiness at her feet and flew away. Tuyen told me that I was her flock of magpies. I told her that I would never fly away from her.

My eleventh grade year was a year of magic and love. I felt the intensity and the foolishness of my love for Tuyen. My favorite poet, Xuân Huong, had once said,

Ai dem phân chât môt múi huong
Hay ban câm ca! Tôi chi thuong,
Chi'láng chuôi theo dòng cam xúc
Nhu'thuyên ngu phu lac trong suong.

Lám sao cat nghia duoc tinh yêu!
Co'nghia gi dâu, môt buôi chiêù
Nó chiêm hôn ta bang nang nhat,
Bang mây nhè nine, gio hiu hiu

(Who can analyze a fragrance,
Who can analyze the inspirations of a song!
I just know to love, to let my soul float
endlessly along the river of love,
Just like a fishing boat lost among the mist.

How can one define love?
It does not have any meaning,
It just fills your soul with that gentle spring sun.
with the multitude of clouds and winds).

On Saturday afternoons, we would always walk towards the Saigon river, noisy with merchants, vendors and sailors. We would sit at our special place under a coconut tree, away from other people. Tuyen usually brought along her "lovesick candies" which were dried plums preserved with salt, sugar and licorice. She called them lovesick candies because once you had them, you would always yearn for them like lovers do for each other. I used to laugh at her innocence but eventually found myself lovesick for both the candies and their owner.

Tuyên used to tell me about her dreams of playing dàn tranh professionally (dàn tranh is a traditional Vietnamese instrument, quite similar to the Japanese koto). She wanted to go to the music university of Saigon but her parents wanted her to be a teacher. Her situation was similar to mine, and as I suspected, similar to countless other young Vietnamese living after the fall of Saigon. Through us, our parents began to patch up their lives ravaged by the war. Our lives had taken on this feeling of urgency, this need to be perfect and happy and whole. How should we have done it? We teetered dangerously on a tight rope, weighted down with filial piety on one arm and self-fulfillment on the other. For most of us, Tuyên and I included, the debt of childbirth and nurture by our parents was too great. There was no other way but to push our self-interest aside. Many of us had rebelled, had followed our own dreams, but what good would that do? When these unfilial people died, as the elders always told the youngsters, they would go to Buddha hell where they would be subjected to the worst of all punishments. Or worse yet, they would have to go through all the tortures available in hell. I was not afraid of Buddha hell. I just could not bear that faraway sadness in my mom's eyes as she went about her daily chores. The soul of my mother, like a famous Vietnamese song put it, "is as vast as the Paciflc Ocean, as loving as the golden rice fields..." So Saturday afternoons were the time for ourselves, while we plodded on during the week living someone else's lives. Tuyên would play her den tranh while I sang my poems. And we were happy.

Tuyên and I used to go to the Vinh Nghiêm Temple, just 3 kilometers south of our school. With her on the back seat of my bicycle, I pedaled uphill, taking care not to run over too many potholes. Occasionally, the wind blew her long hair against my back, and for just a few seconds I felt as if we were eternally one. We used to light dozens of incense sticks at a time and prayed to many Buddhas and lost souls. Before leaving, I ended up having the honor of climbing up the big tree in the Temple's courtyard and pick the youngest buds for good luck (hái lôc).

However, this happiness dld not last long. I have learned since then not to look back, not to mourn for something even more transient than a passing cloud. Everything has its own unraveling. A Vietnamese poet had once eloquently declared:

Tinh chi dep khi còn dang do
Doi mât vui khi dã ven câu thê
Thu viêt dung xong, thuyên trôi chó dô
Cho nghin sau lo lung voi nghin xua.

Love is only beautiful if it is unfinished
Life loses meaning when all your wishes come true
Thus do not flnish your letters, do not anchor your boat
Let everything float and flow for eternity.

The end of happiness and innocence came in 1986. During this year, the government responded to the inexorable drop of the value of dong (Vietnamese money), by recalling all the circulating money and printing new dong of greater value. The government at that time also had a second objective: to eliminate all families with a lot of money and thus be consistent with their "everyone is equal; everything is communal" slogans. They only allowed a certain amount of money from each household to be exchanged; the extras that many had saved all their lives had suddenly become just paper, something that even the dead could not use. There was a frenzy of buying, from pots, pans and food to bicycle tires and gold, so to get rid of the excess money before the government declared it worthless. Tuyen's families and many others were among the hardest hit. Their families had been living quite comfortably on the money that her father earned before the shells from a bomb destroyed his two legs. Her mother set up a small table in front of their house, selling cigarettes, "lovesick candies," guavas and miscellaneous household goods such as needles, threads and embroidery kits. After the
"money changing" day, Tuyên's family began contemplating on escaping from the country.

How can you describe the feeling of having already lost someone even as you are holding that person in your arms? Under our coconut tree on Saigon beach, I cried for the first time since I was five. All my tears fell on her hair, creating little rivulets before becoming absorbed among the strands. I gave her a Buddha pendant that I had worn since childhood, hoping that Buddha would protect her on a journey without me. It was this Buddha around her neck that allowed me to identify that ravaged body that drifted ashore in Nha Trang as Tuyên.

Now, eight years after I lost Tuyên, I am in the medical school of Saigon University. Life goes on, like everyone else is bound to say. To keep my sanity, I don't look back, and most of all, I try not to let my imagination run loose. Buddhas in heaven and spirits in hell, why such injustice fell on Tuyên? What millions of tortures and anguish had she suffered? Nguyên Du once said in The Tale of Kieu.

Ngâm hay muôn su tai tròi,
tròi kia dã bat lám nguoi co thân
Bat phony trân phai phong trân,
cho thanh cao moi duoc phân thanh cao.
Dã mang lây nghiêp váo thân,
cung dung trách lan trói gân tròi xa.

This we have learned: with Heaven rest all things.
Heaven appoints each human to a place.
If doomed to roll in dirt, we'll roll in dust;
we'll sit on high when destined for high seats....
Our karma we must carry as our lot-
Let's stop decrying Heaven's whims and quirks.

Perhaps it is better to say that death was Tuyên's lot. Even if she had survived the journey, her sufferings would have killed her. I cannot be so selfish as to wish she were still alive. Let her rest in peace. And as for me, I will try to carry on. The past is long gone and you are powerless to turn back the wheel of time. Late last night, while studying by my desk and listening to the croaking of the frogs in the pond, I saw this firefly outside my window, forever trying to talk to me in a language I cannot understand. This was like Tuyen, forever trying to call to me even though death has stolen her
voice. I have now become a rock, eternally frozen in time, waiting
for my beloved. I have become blind, unable to see anything except
for the fluttering lavender panels of áo dài and the strands of hair on
my back. Life goes on. Life goes on. So everyone says.

Biên hôn ta
Máu tim ta tuôn ra làm biên ca,
Mà sóng lóng dôn dâp nhu' mây trôi
Sóng lóng ta tràn lan ngoai xú la,
Dâng cao lên, cao tôt toi chan troi....

Ta muôn niú hôn ai duong biêu hiên
Trong lòng và dang tam máu sông ta
Ta muôn vót ai ra ngoai sông diên
Dê nhin xem sac mat voi lán da.

Ôi ngông cuông! Ôi rô dai, rô dai
Ta di thuyên trên mat nuoc lóng ta!
Ôi ngông cuông! Ôi rô dai, rô dai
Ta cam thuyên chinh giua vung hôn tat

The blood in my heart has formed an ocean,
The tides coming and going, like the clouds
The tides of my soul spread far and near,
They rise up to the feet of Heaven...

I want to hold on to the spirit of the dead
that is swimming in the river of my blood.
I want that spirit to not swim any more
and let me see whose face it bears.

In a boat on the river of my soul
I sail out to rescue that spirit of the dead.
How crazy I have become!
I have anchored my boat in the center of my soul...