ngày 1.12.21

His three brothers work for a big dealer in the area. He, the eldest, is the driver who takes care of incoming and outgoing cars to the adjacent dealers; and his younger ones wash cars to-be-delivered or help two elderly Mexican women to clean up the place. All three work eight hours a day at $2.00 an hour. Despite the low pay, they seem to be happy with it because the work is fairly easy. After all, they have no other choices.

A quick thought took their minds with some thrills: the summer had just passed; its torrential waves of heat struck them mercilessly. Their faces are badly blackened as if someone had tanned their hide!

Afternoons in the autumn are so tranquil. The sun leisurely casts its late rays over the non-populous areas; traffic on the roads is moderate as some cars are moving along on well-paved lanes. Every now and then, a couple of riders on horseback trot along the roads; their easy manner can be seen as they let go of the reins. The dealer is not far from their home, but they drive to work. It’s an 8-engine Chrysler the dealer owner sold to them for $600. They live in a small cottage: one bed, one bath, and a living room. It’s right behind the main residence and has an access through a wide flower garden full of lawn, vegetables, where the landlord and landlady are assiduously working on. The colorful flower beds that enhance the beauty of the lot on which the cottage they rent soothe their melancholic feeling about their life situation.

Their life drags on quietly and drastically mixed with unforgettable reminiscences. Three of them frequently ask a question that has no answer, “How do we get in touch with our family?” Time passes by; especially the nighttime, it’s full of heartache and sorrow. It seems so dull when they think of their future! It will be against all senses that their lives will be as dull as ditchwater at this remote place!?! They have no idea when three of them indulge themselves in a drinking spree and cigarette addiction! Many a time, he wants to tell his younger ones to abstain from beer and cigarettes, but he can’t because all are in the same boat. One good thing is that the three of them love one another truly; they are ready to share whatever they have and always find a way to comfort others’ will whereas each of them still feels desperate and uncertain! Upon arriving home in the afternoon, he has the privilege to take a shower first.

According to Vietnamese tradition, the eldest brother is responsible for the sake of his younger siblings when their parents are no longer in life. His youngers know that, but he never tries to suppress them using his power. So, at the idea of advising his brothers to abstain from beer and cigarettes, he simply laughs it off! He still keeps in mind what his Dad had taught him: being fair and respectful in dealing with the subordinates. Any decision must be agreed upon by the majority. In daily routine, three go to the market when needed, three do the cooking, but his youngers never let him wash the dishes or sweep the floor.

Yesterday afternoon, one of his youngers read an English book while the other did the cooking. He went to the garden to water the mums right in front of their cottage. Last week, he accompanied the landlord to the market and bought these mums. Last night a Mexican friend of his working at the Employment Development Department brought him a guitar because the guy knows he loves singing. While watering the mums, he remembers a line of Nguyên Sa’s poem as her dress is yellow, he inspiringly loves the yellow chrysanthemums. He thanks the poet who had made that line for him (he means the girl whom he fell in love in Saigon used to wear that yellow áo dài when going out with him).

An autumn afternoon at Pearsall was pretty cool. Looking at the yellow petals rustling in the wind amid the tranquil space and the yellow leaves silently falling from the nearly bare branches, he felt perplexed by the memories of the old days! He missed his parents and other siblings who are still on the other continent. His thought suddenly turned toward the song entitled Mother’s Heart, as part of it goes. He played tremolo and started singing:

Mother’s love for her children is so immense as the Pacific Ocean… Rain or shine, Mother never cares for her own interests but is ready to endure all ups and down till her hair turns gray. For her children’s well-being in spite of night or day; Mother’s love for her children is so resourceful, timeless, and endless… Work through thick and thin for her children’s goodness’s sake.”

Humming the song to that line, he abruptly felt as if something stuck in the throat; his voice was out of tune. Yes, Mom! (He thought) You had worked through thick and thin for us to grow up and join the services with the hope we can bring home peace. But you never expect it! Your eldest son terribly lost the war and nearly his life; and now, his three brothers are leading neither fish nor fowl life of sans famille ‘alone in the world’ overseas!

The memory popped up in his mind like a movie rolling out in front of his eyes.

* * *

He remembers the final days of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in the war. His elder brother was a Ranger stationed at Hố Bò, Trảng Bàng. On the last day of March 1975, the enemy overran his camp. He called on-air support. Coincidentally, he was flying over the area …and he was ordered to lift the pressure from the enemy. Now that harsh situation he found himself in a
dilemma: the attackers mingled with the defenders; he couldn’t help thinking the airstrike on the camp would spare his brother’s life. As you might know, the communist always applies the “human sea” tactic. He reluctantly pressed the button to let go of the bombs and ammunition, but his brother’s voice was so decisive, “The enemy has overrun the camp! You must send all your might over our heads. I rather die with them than face capture! Adieux!”

The dry hangup of the combiné on the line could be heard. From below, fire and smoke rose up and up. He cried his eyes out as to dump all of his sources from his fighter and left the scene. On the way back to the airport, his heart sank down to the bottom of misery. Never in his life has he had such a horrible feeling.

His life was disturbed and messed up several weeks afterward, he still had to carry out his mission almost every day. He volunteered to conduct any mission. His blood boiled up. He monitored closely the progresses on the battlefields in the west. He listened to all news. His brother’s unit was reported as “disconnected!” Now, he only prayed for his brother’s survival.

One day, on April 27, 1975, his elder brother appeared at his place in Saigon. Dressed in his tattered uniform, his elder brother looked so pale, shabby, and disheveled! He was stunned and bewildered as to see his elder brother. Unbelievable! He thought he met his elder brother at the Hades, but he rushed forward and wrapped his brother tightly with his arms. Tears ran down his cheeks. His brother uttered in a stammering manner. “Dear brother. That’s final. We lost everything: our country, our home.” Then he continued, “Only my radioman and I survived. My unit was gone. Regretfully I didn’t die with them. Now I am still alive with the hope we can recoup this shamefulness! I came back to Saigon a couple of days ago. Now I want to see you before returning to my family and our parents.”

Both sobbed for a while. He knew his elder brother was a gallant and fearless person. He had joined different military branches. Never in his life had he seen his brother sob. He pleaded with his elder brother to stay with him for a while but in vain. His brother said he had returned from the Hades; nothing could scare him anymore. Despite all dangers ahead, he wanted to return home with our parents as soon as possible. The two brothers had a tearful lunch before parting.

* * *

His course of thought was interrupted as two hands slightly touched his shoulders. His two youngers had been there some time ago. Their eyes were pink because of tears as well. He could not hold his, and all three closely cuddled together while their tears streamed down.

After a while, as their emotion abated, the youngest one took up the guitar and continued the lines of the song his older had started:

Mother’s heart fluctuates abundantly near and far. Mother’s love touches the moon making it stop to perceive; her voice of lullaby moves the hills, springs, forests, and bamboo hedges to grieve, and waves along the Pacific Ocean halt their motion to conceive.

Anyone on the roam; Anyone in the whirlwind of life; Anyone in lack of care. All need the Mother’s love and protection.

Yes, Mother! Not any moment before have we thought of you as it is right now. Not any moment before have we been filled with profound sentiments as of it is now!

Three of them stood up and walked inside for dinner, but they were stalled by an image of a blonde-hair lady waving to them behind the front door. Perhaps she recognized their bewilderment, so she approached them and said:

– Come on, you guys. Keep singing. I love listening to that kind of music. What kind is it? It sounds very sad. What’s the lyric?

No sooner could he reply to her than she continued:

– I am sure that’s Vietnamese music, isn’t it?

– What? You said you never heard about it. How come you know it’s Vietnamese music?

– I think you’re Vietnamese, so you sing Vietnamese songs! She talked screwing up one eye.

– How do you know that we’re Vietnamese, but not Chinese, Japanese, or Korean?

The girl smiled cunningly pointing her finger to him:

– I know you are singing the song Homesickness, and your name is Twan, the oldest among three of you refugees. You just arrived here and rent this home two weeks ago. You guys are working for a Ford dealer near here.

Being afraid of his youngers’ using too many gestures when talking with her, he made himself the speaker for the group. The girl introduced herself, Deana Tricks. Deana extended her hand to shake hands with his youngers. When she shook his hand, she held it a little tight and longer. She looked curiously into his eyes that caused him to turn away. Her cute outlook and friendly character evoked a wealthy warmth of sentiment within him.

– Where are you from, and how long will you stay?

– We’re from Houston, about four hours driving. Every summer my parents let me come here to visit my grandparents before the new school year begins. This place is quiet and melancholic; around are only farms. I never like to stay here long, but this time my parents said they would stay till Sunday.

– How many times have you been here?

– Almost every year since the time I could remember. I know this place like the palm of my hand.

– Are there any interesting places around here?

– Around here are only farms. There is a small brook where we can fish, swim. Oh, we can ride horses. There are some horse rental sites here.

We haven’t uttered a word, yet she continued:

– Do you guys like fishing, swimming, or horse riding?

– It’s fine to go fishing or swimming, but we never ride horses!

– I love all three because those are what we can find here.

– Are you going to do so this time?

This girl was so open-minded, friendly, and free in the way she acted and talked. He has read some books on American customs, habits, and characters. A long while ago, he was sent to the US for learning more than a year, but he felt overwhelmed with emotion when talking to her; particularly, for the first time. Had he met her when he was a student, it would have been much better.

– Thank you, Deana. Let’s wait until weekend then.

– Why wait, will see you this Saturday though.

He was puzzled by her decision. His younger brother reminded him of the dinner. He looked at the watch, but the girl was faster:

– Oh, you guys ain’t got dinner, huh? Okay, I gotta go too. See yall tomorrow and wanna hear you sing. Not that homesick song, just love music. She looked askance at him saying good night.

He shook her hand and slightly cuddled his fingers around the cute hand, saying goodbye! Just as she was out of sight, he joined his brothers to take dinner, one of the youngers talked scooping rice to the bowl:

– Brother Tư, I sense that you got a coup de foudre… already! You did all the talks! You never let us practice speaking English with her!

Finishing his utterance, the younger burst out laughing.

He raised his hand as if he was about to hit him, the younger pretended to dodge by retracting his head and protruding his tongue like a clown. He said:

– Because I’m afraid your hands would be very tired with your gestures to pantomime your conversation, though.

– Remember I am working for an American dealer.

– Okay, then, tomorrow afternoon I’ll let you “practice!” Don’t ever “request any aid”, hunky-dory? He said grinning.

At the end of his utterance, he slightly pushed his younger’s shoulder.

– OMG, my elder brother even tries to bully me. Ms. Ngọc Anh, you’re out of his sight for just a few months, and now he betrays you already. If I can, I will tell you all about this!

At hearing the name, he suddenly changed his attitude. He found it difficult to swallow the rice in his mouth. His two youngers knew they had gone too far. He finished the meal and went to the fridge for some beer.

– Am sorry, I made a blunder. Please forgive me.

– Not at all. I still have her image fondly on my mind. It’s just an out-of-blue sadness!

Outside, the night has covered all over; its darkness lends more silence to the quiet neighborhood. He thinks of Ngọc Anh to whom he has imagined that he would be her other half. Hadn’t the war escalated to its peak, she and he would have been a blissful couple; hadn’t he been as naïve as a lamb that Saigon would not fall into the enemy’s hand in just a short time; and had he been taken the risk to do things as his friends did when they moved their families into the camp, things would have been different. He felt angry with himself for being stupid enough and not doing the right thing when it was most needed. He pines for her. My dear Ngọc Anh, where are you now? What are you doing now? Are you fine?

He is submerged in reminiscences of her, then he bursts out singing: Not a soul; it’s a long way home and those nights without you. The glass of strong wine makes me drink earning for good news human being awaits.

Those are some lines in the song entitled Losing Its Bloom by Trịnh Công Sơn. These lines have taken roots in his mind and are ready to pop up when the situation is unfortunate. He never likes this musician for his political standpoint, who betrayed the freedom fighters, but he entirely assents to this talent of a prodigious musician! Had Trịnh Công Sơn exerted his talent to support the ideal of democracy, freedom, people would have been living in independence, liberty, and happiness. Yes! Had he been …, !!! He blames himself for being so innocent, so silly. He keeps pondering these meaningless words “had he been…”

His mind wanders and sinks deep in the swamp of sadness with a full tray of butts, and a basket of empty cans. He whispers with an image on his mind, “Go home; the worldly path is empty, many springs have come and gone. Many a time coming back to a night garden with light steps sound like those of the old spirits.

He dozed off on a decking chair in front of the cottage until his younger woke him up. By now, he sensed the cold air of the dew that damped his hair and clothes. He staggered inside with his brother humming the lines like the echoes coming from somewhere: “Not a soul; it’s a long way home and those nights without you. The glass of strong wine makes me drink earning for good news human being awaits.”

Translated by Mr. Tran Ngoc Dung