This entry was awarded first place in the fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2019, judged by award-winning author Roanna Gonsalves.
It’s quiet. Tense. With none of the peace and respite promised by prayer. Heat simmers in the air. The forced upbeat singing of Tiếng Gọi Thanh Niên finally ends. The news, what the people were really waiting for, plays.
“Vietnam is independent. Vietnam is Free. Ho Chi Minh, through his bravery and sacrifice for the country, has driven off the French! We now stand as equals to the world.”
A small contemptuous snort. The man drifts off, knowing far better than the superficial cheer of red surrounding him. Face wrinkled and haggard, his eyes are empty. A spectator, not a narrator. His back is hunched with a permanent limp, weighed down by the years of wars.
He checks the clock on the garage wall and curses, hurriedly dragging an odd-looking trailer from a corner of the shelter and attaching it to the back of his beat-up motorcycle. Last but not least — his wrangled left leg straining — he hauls a sturdy, metal box onto the trailer and hops onto the bike. The engine sputters. He growls, gives it a few kicks — for a minute it trembles, one kick away from falling apart. Then it roars to life.
In the dim light of dawn, tropical heat clings to skin, the taste of metal on the tip of the tongue a reminder of yesterday. The motorcycle flies past old buildings slowly being rebuilt, scaffolding fresh and bricks a different colour, dozens of posters detailing Vietnam’s bright new future — an ‘Independent Nation’ — plastered like a bandaid over glaring wounds. He used to pause and admire them, tracing its shadows with his memory. Now he barely glances as he roars past.
The buildings become more sparse, eventually fading away as his lone, ant-like figure crawls along the lush fronds of the jungle. A horizon of mottled green, dotted with husks of tanks like trophies past. He slows to a stop at an empty expanse of land. Waits.
He revels in the silence, a respite from the reminders of… The cold prickling brushes against his skin, the caress of a familiar friend he embraces with both comfort and dread.
From the grass emerges a small group of people, each lugging a package, metal detectors whimpering softly on their backs. He stares at them expressionlessly. The leader of the group tentatively steps forward, wipes his hands before offering a greeting.
“About a hundred piastre today?” His smile strains under the lurking animosity of the group. The motorcyclist shrugs, loads the packages into his bulletproof box, ready to ride off.
“Look Uncle, we might as well make the most of our victory.” Their images waver in the heat. One of the members of group one wipes his brow with his sleeve. The small motion sets off a ripple of unease. Furtive glances are exchanged. Although there was no longer any need, they wore their various armbands as declarations of allegiance to change, though the sincerity of the gesture was questionable.
The motorcyclist sighs, knows not to tip the fragile balance.
“It’s not my place to decide. I’m just the messenger.”
The leader dodges just in time as he soars away with his cargo — nearly running him over.
His path is much different to when he first started. It’s significantly slower. In fact, he carefully slows and avoids each pothole as much as possible. Crawls over road bumps. He shudders as the rattle of the trailer becomes deafeningly loud, fighting the temptation to glance back, back at that precariously bouncing metal box latched onto his bike — onto him.
He finally ends his journey at an out-of-sight, old army base. Few officers are stationed there anymore. The bloodstains, however, have yet to be cleaned from its walls. A young soldier greets him with a warm, hopeful smile — it was obvious he didn’t question complexities. The old man returns his greeting with a cold stare. The poor boy fidgets, stripped bare before his aged scrutiny.
The motorcyclist lets him off, turns to the metal box and opens it. Bends down and lifts the packages out. Painfully slow. Careful. The soldier hurries to take the job, as the young should do for the elderly; the old man lets him, amused as the recruit happily jostles the packages to show off his youth. The old man smiles wryly — almost envious.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” The young soldier sends him a questioning glance.
The recruit hesitates, glances at his superiors — they’re dealing cards and exchanging cigarettes, one of them sends him a lazy wave. The recruit turns back to the old man. For a brief moment, a silence descends over them. The recruit’s fingers tremor slightly as he—
Colour drains from his face.
The old man watches the recruit as he scrambles away from the package.
“Don’t piss your pants. Take them to recycle.”
The youth doesn’t move. Frozen. The old man grunts, averting his eyes. The pain of rebirth still fresh.
“They’re faulty,” pauses, “I think.”
The recruit hurriedly nods, noticeably gentler with his handling of the package. Still white. He takes a while to return with the cash, his eyes darting back and forth nervously.
The motorcyclist counts it with expertise, takes his cut. His eyes pierce into the recruit’s soul, well-honed instinct detecting the scent of unease. The recruit fidgets, hiding a crumpled something in his pocket. It hisses into the old man’s ear, beckoning his suspicion. The motorcyclist pauses, scrutinises the recruit for any sign of a red arm band — none. He lets breathes a quiet sigh of relief, disappearing down the track.
The evening is cool, dark, with a complete absence of sound. Complete absence of light. The heavy presence of Its shadow still lingers in the tangled wilderness, where leaves rot and persons were burned into their next life. The people in Tonkin tread lightly, already used to the dark. In fact, light scares them. It flashes — like a burst of gunpowder.
The old man hesitates to turn off his headlight. Leaves it on dim, an indecisive neutral caught between hope and pessimism. It scatters the residents nearby, who relax upon seeing his face. A few disgruntled insults are hurled his way but he just breezes past it all. It’s to be expected. Ever since the rumours of the Viet Minh selling secrets to the French, everyone felt It breathing down their delicate necks, again.
A rough bump jostles his bag from his grip, he pauses. The motorcyclist eyes his bags — currently in the university student’s hands. The student tentatively offers it to him, although mild disgust swims beneath the surface of his expression.
“Brother, you dropped thi—”
“Uncle.” Venomous. The uncle stares down the university student, prickling with indignation at the impertinence of this brat.
Visibly affronted, the student almost looks to toss it at the uncle’s feet, but he stops himself. Smiles a smile that’s more like a snarl.
“Don’t. I’m not one of yous.” The uncle spits. The university student flinches, growls.
“… Sorry.” That you love your country so much you would betray what we fought for.
The uncle quells his outburst, pastes on a smile as he tentatively retrieves his bag from the student’s clenched fist.
The air is suffocating. The crowd’s silence an elastic stretched uncomfortably tight.
The youths red armbands, bright, burning blood.
Buzzing. It’s unclear if it’s the radio or the flies. A familiar leathery hand squashes a slow one. Wipes it on his shirt, its blood stains alongside grease streaks. He listens to the winds howl over the land, grateful for the rain amidst the cloistering heat.
“Vietnam is independent. Vietnam is Free. We must fight to make it stay that way. Ho Chi Minh is out in Paris, working for our country. We at home must protect Liberated Vietnam. We who truly love our country.”
Smashes his thigh, pain jolting the doubt from his mind. The revolution had succeeded, now it was just deciding who would deal with the rest.
Glances around him nervously, he can feel It watching. Waiting.
Shakes himself out of his reverie.
He focuses on the group approaching him. The invisible presence purrs, whispering dread into his mind, calling back unwanted memories of the prices paid.
In denial, he calls out ‘jokingly’, “hurry up if you want to avoid your wife’s wrath.”
A few chuckles. For a split second — they’re human. Then it’s back again, seeping into their bones, stiffening their muscles. They each lay down their share gingerly, almost treating the landmines with reverence.
A young man from group one’s hands tremble as he plops in his share. Every eye is pinned on him. The last guy. He darts back into the crowd – eager to be forgotten. A flash of red? The old man’s stare lingers on him. Something prickles at his neck, that familiar feeling that followed him home. He swats at it. Just a fly.
He races down the track without looking back.
Ignorant to the soft
Beep… Beep… Beep…
Snatched away by the wind.
He does his usual routine. Inching over the road bumps. Slowing over every pothole. Eyes squinted behind his goggles. Raindrops slash his skin. The dark dragon in the sky rumbles ominously. It stalks at his heels, revelling his ignorance to the soft sounds emitting from the metal box.
Suddenly the engine sputters out. He curses. Hops off his bike and pushes it, lame leg stumbling through thick mud. Coughs. Icy rain forced down his throat. Flickers of the army base against the looming storm. A cold phantom grip pulls him back, anchoring his ankles.
A soft, wicked chuckle, like a sniper leveling his crosshairs onto the target’s forehead, iciness creeping into the darkest recesses of the human mind that consumes the whole and shreds, disassembles the existing beaten into submission of a new form.
He shudders. Fear grips him. His legs falter — tires skid — a very rough bump jolts the whole machine. Every limb in his body freezes. Nothing but the whistling wind. Gingerly inches forward. Places his foot ahead of the bike, feeling out the terrain. He can sense Its jagged maws, looming.
Narrowly avoids a pothole…
Scrapes by a bump…
The young recruit clutches onto his hat, ushering him to the shelter as they both cough their lungs out. The recruit yells over the din.
“Did you bump anything?”
“Did you BUMP anything?”
The old man hesitates. Shakes his head no. They finally make it into the encampment, clothes askew, handkerchief dangling from the recruit’s pocket. It’s stiflingly hot. All officers are crammed into this tight space, sitting on crates, playing cards, smoking. Even so, the borders between each group are drawn very clearly. The same uniform, all Vietnamese faces, yet there’s the subtle suspicious glances cast at each other, the sneer of disdain as if proclaiming ‘I know what you are.’ Former brothers-in-arms now jackals vying over ‘freedom’.
They all look up as they enter, hands on their rifles.
The old man wipes off his sweat. Smiles tiredly at them. They smile back. He turns to the new recruit, “Can I borrow your handkerchief?”
The old man gratefully takes the fabric.
Beep… Beep… Beep…
The noise is terrifyingly clear. Piercing. One by one, heads turn.
The old man’s eyes widen. He turns — the recruit is gone. The commanding officer rises, eyes grim. Condemning. He stalks towards the metal box. Heaves it open.
The small flashing light from a DIY bomb hidden beneath a Viet Minh banner…
Whimpers crescendo into a desperate wail. Legs scramble. Hands claw. Squeals of terror. The old man’s frozen. Lame leg crumbles. It finally rears its terrible head, inescapable.
Outside, the storm howls. There is a dull THUD. Concrete crumbles. Debris and body parts fly. Blood stains the rain.
But nothing is heard over the wind.