By Khanh Ha
I live in a coastal town in the deep south of the Mekong Delta. During the war this was the IV Corps that had seen many savage fights. Though the battle carnage might have long been forgotten, some places are not. They are haunted.
The roadside inn where I live and work is old. The owner and his wife of the second generation are in their late sixties. The old woman runs the inn, mainly cooking meals for the guests, and I would drive to Ông Đoc town twenty kilometers south to pick up customers when they arrive by land on buses or by waterways on boats and barges. Most of them come to visit the Lower U Minh National Reserve, a good twenty kilometers north of the inn. I seldom see the old man. He is mostly holed up in their room. Sometimes when its door isn’t locked, you might see him wander about like a specter. The man is amnesiac and cuckoo.
I never knew during my early days here that they had a son who once served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Then one morning as I looked out from the window of my room, I saw the old man digging under a starfruit tree. A small figure clad in white pajamas and a black trilby on his head.
One early morning the old woman told me to drive into town to pick up new guests just arrived at the ferry. The moment I eased their old Peugeot into first gear, the old woman ran out and yelled, “Have you seen my husband?”
“No, ma’am.” I let the car idle as she ran up.
“Can you drive down the road and look for him?”
“He could be anywhere.”
“He went down that way before.” She pointed toward the unseen town beyond the vista of tree crows and a patch of pale blue sky.
“I’ll look for him.”
The road was empty and quiet at sunrise and I could hear the hoarse cries of storks flying overhead. I knew the road well, I knew the houses dotting the road, the dwellers’ faces as they stood in the dark doorway, like still lifes. Along the road hummingbird flowers burst in white, their fruits long, pendulous like green beans.
Then ahead I saw him walking down the road in his white pajamas. He wore the same trilby hat pulled down tight over his eyes, a brown bag clutched in his hand. He looked back nervously as though for the sight of a bus, stopped, then after adjusting his hat a few times, trod on down the road.
I pulled up and looked into the rear-view mirror. He glanced toward me, then looked the other way. I got out, walked up to him and taking him by the elbow nudged him toward the car. Meekly he followed, cradling the brown bag against his chest. The rustle of paper got me curious. “What d’you have in there, sir?” I said, peeking down into the top of the brown bag.
“Where is a safe place?” he said, words breathed like a whisper in southern accent.
“For what, sir?”
He dropped his gaze to his chest, his fingers prying open the top of the bag. Inside was the bone. It could be a beef bone. The one he had buried and reburied under the fruit trees.
I realized I shouldn’t have asked. Yet the man’s looniness suddenly lost its absurdity and he looked more like someone I had known a long time before.
I remember everything about him like a stock photograph—the incessant flick of his wrist to tell time, the darting eyes, the obsessive peep into his brown bag every few seconds. It wasn’t the last time I had to drive down the road to find him. Once I spotted him crossing the road to a roadside fruit stand. A car stopped for him. He made his way across the road, peeking toward the driver who was waiting for him. He reached the other side and, brown bag in hand, made his way back along the road whence he came.
In my lifetime I never meant to kill out of hatred or bigotry or ideology. As a North Vietnamese Army soldier before I defected, I had killed. The unseen dead never bothered me. Neither did the kills in hand-to-hand combat. But when I was asked to terminate someone who had betrayed the Party, my conscience bothered me. I don’t know why. It was just hard to take a life away when the decision to kill rests entirely in your own hand.