But my hands were bloodied years before I became an NVA soldier. At sixteen, innocent, vulnerable, I killed the headmaster of a boarding school in the city of Thanh Hóa.
I was living in the city with an ethnic Chinese family whose son at my age was my good friend. They used to live in my village until Land Reform in the North wiped out the landowner class between 1953 and 1956. As ethnic Chinese, they were safe. Also his father practiced eastern medicine―herbs, acupuncture―and was not a landowner like my father. By the time the land reform ended, my family was stripped of everything we had owned. The only thing left from my family’s possessions that my father would now look at to remind himself of his wealthy past was his moon-shaped lute. The lute’s two strings were made of woven silk and its body’s back covered with black-snake skin. We lived our banished lives like lepers, him catching snakes as his trade, his landowning kin shunned by every living human being. None could work. Many died, old and young even children, from starvation. When it was over, the Party admitted its mistake: it was a genocide to exterminate indiscriminately the landowning class from the old to the young.
After my family had fallen to rags, my father died from snakebite. The year he died was 1960. I was twelve. I left my village for Thanh Hóa and took refuge with my Chinese friend’s family. They had been there four years now after Land Reform ended. My friend, Huan, was my age. He had told me his name meant ‘happiness’―back when his family was still living in my village. Said many Vietnamese words were borrowed from Chinese, even the pronunciation. I had no quarrel with that. But some boys in our village school made him pay. The boys loathed him because he was ethnic Chinese. His kin and he were a privileged class in the North, and because their nationality was Han, they wouldn’t have to serve the army. One morning when he walked into the classroom with his chin tugged to his chest, everyone’s head turned. I took him in with my gaze. His face had swollen from the punches, one cheek bruised to a liver color. At recess I put my hand on his shoulder. “You do what I tell you from now on,” I said. You won’t get hurt again. He became my protégé.
In the city of Thanh Hóa his father continued practicing eastern medicine. His mother still read things the Chinese way, from right to left, so when she delivered an herbal prescription to a Vietnamese family in the city, she couldn’t find their house number―it was 23 but 32 to her. They put me in a Catholic school where their son had been boarding. I spent four years there until I was sixteen. The school’s headmaster was a middle-aged Frenchman who once managed a rubber plantation in the South. A tall, virile man. Most boys stood only to his shoulders. Though his prominent hooked nose drew your eyes to his face, it was his small eyes in ice-cold blue that sent chills when you met his gaze. He loved eating raisins, clutching them in his left fist and popping them into his mouth. Then he’d dust his palm with his other hand and run them over his cropped hair the color of blond wood. At that time I did think about the man’s complete change of career. Could a man who used to style himself master of a rough rubber plantation in the South and call the Vietnamese animals morph himself into an educator of a peaceful boarding school in the North?
At a midday recess, the school custodian found my friend and took him to the headmaster’s office. I didn’t see my friend back in the classroom. When school ended in mid-afternoon, I went looking for him in our dormitory. He wasn’t there. I asked the custodian.
“The infirmary,” he said.
“Was he sick?” I said.
“He wasn’t sick this morning.”
“Sick now.” The custodian shrugged.
In that deserted room I found my friend lying facedown on a cot. A thin olive-colored blanket was flung over his lower body, most of it sagging in folds on the floor. His eyes were closed. I thought he was asleep. His face in the shuttered sunlight was tear-stained. Something squeezed my throat.
“You’re not sleeping, are you?” I said, not wanting to touch him.
His eyes opened a slit. Long lashes like a western girl’s.
“They said you were sick.”
“I’m not sick.”
“Then why’re you here?”
He burst into tears.
I stood, my body stiff. “What happened?” I muttered.
He sobbed into the thin pillow, shrinking himself with his arms drawn up against his chest. The blanket fell to the floor. I stared at the seat of his white shorts. There were bloodstains on the Y-shaped seam. Something menacing I couldn’t verbalize. I just looked. “Why all this blood?” I said. “You hurt yourself?”
“Mr. Doig.” The words came out of his mouth bubbling with saliva.
“He hit you?”
I watched him shaking his head. “What then?” I snapped.
“He . . . he forced himself on me.”
Suddenly I had a notion. “Raped you?”
He nodded into the pillow.
His hand moved down and touched his buttocks. I began to visualize from innocence and naiveté what I never had a clue about.
“He did it . . . twice.” Sniffling now, then a hiccup.
“Can you stand up?”
He raised himself on his hands, then his feet touched the floor. He rose wobbling on his feet. He looked like a windblown scarecrow.
“Can you walk?” I said, seeing his grimace.
“It hurts . . . so much.” He wiped his eyes with the hem of his white shirt the way girls did.
I walked out of the infirmary, stopped, turned. Head down, he was mincing his steps like an octogenarian.