Repeatedly, she voiced the same argument. There was seemingly no solution for grandmother. She was insistent that she remain in her hut on her land; land passed down to her from long-ago generations.
If grandmother wouldn’t leave, her family contended that they must remain with her. Threats, useless: grandmother was fearless. Iron-willed she became in the years that followed her husband’s departure. The French had tricked him into signing up for work on a rubber tree plantation. They promised him fantastic wages that he was never to collect. Instead, he perished in the malaria epidemic that killed so many of the exhausted and malnourished Moi who had long toiled on France’s plantations. Having no recourse open to her, grandmother adjusted to life without him. Single-handedly, she raised their three sons. She went so far as to hand-train a gaur that her sons had dragged back from the jungles. The gaur, an enormous buffalo of legendary ferocity, was a fearful beast: beyond anything with which these round-eyed devils were threatening her with.
Mark was trying to persuade her otherwise. Hunkering down on his thighs, he flashed a feigned smile at grandmother. In return, she eyed him with loathing.
Turning in abashment, he said to the Moi daughter: “Tell grandmother that we will transfer her by truck; she will not have to take one step towards her new home in the hamlet.“
She did; grandmother made a face of bored impatience.
Silently, Mark rearranged a new strategy. He said- “After Arvin razes your village, they will spray the crops; gardens, too. Nothing will grow. Ask grandmother what will she eat?”
The girl turned from him to her grandmother. Fidgeting, she repeated Mark’s words in tribal intonations; more guttural than the sing-song métier of the common Vietnamese.
Grandmother’s expression grew far away with the distance coming between her and her granddaughter; both so distressed that they didn’t see Josh moving behind them.
Drenched in sweat and gasping in the ponderous air of an approaching monsoon, Josh was determined to prod his chief into an ASAP exodus. Black clouds, like mystical beasts, were filling the skies. Reflected back on dark mirrors of mountain streams, the clouds were pushed by stormy winds; the winds pushing the mountain streams to run rapidly down the mountain.
Swiping across his face with his lucky towel, Josh took long swallows of a soda pop that he held in a sweaty grip. Dancing back and forth between his feet, he struggled to comprehend the entreaties snapping around him. The stubborn voice of the mountain elderly, Mark’s desperation, and the pleading sound of the girl’s intonations.
Forging his own conclusions, Josh snarled- “Leave ‘em both here!”
“I can’t do that,” Mark replied, his voice stretched with his raw emotions.
Wiping his mouth on his shirtsleeve, Josh tossed the empty bottle to the ground with a hot vengeance. His ire being heightened by recalls of he and the Moi and their weeklong bickering. An aching back reminded him of his tedious sandbagging. In between his handing out gifts, arguing, and persuading, he had to shovel the hard ground of the mountain, stuffing it into bags. All this and more; morning, noon, and long into the nights. Finally came the time for him to crawl inside a truck, and simply drive.
He was thinking, ‘We’re on the edge of a monsoon, on the verge of departure, and I’d be parking my aching ass behind the wheel of a truck if this stubborn old granny would just relent.’
Aloud, he said to Mark, “What is the deal here? Grab up the old hag and lob her into the first truck that comes along. I‘ll be the son-of-a-bitch who throws granny in.”
Mark ignored him: he was focusing on a new tactic. He had a leap of faith; his voice reflecting his new hope. “Tell grandmother that the NVA are rumored to be in your village within the week.“
She did. She then turned back to Mark to say- “Grandmother says two of her sons left with the NVA. A message came from them yesterday. They will be coming back this way: they look forward to their homecoming.”
Groaning, Mark stood and walked over to fill the spaces between him and Josh. He under-toned grandmother’s words to Josh. Somehow, it seemed more respectful.
Josh sputtered to the brink of combustion. “Does granny think that Ho’s goons give a rat’s ass that she is pinko, and old as dust? Hell no, they do not! And her kiddies hiking off to Hanoi will cut no slack whatsoever with the guerrillas. They will crisp granny in a heartbeat and trim down her villa just as fast. As a farewell parting, they’ll be passing her land over to their pinko buddies. That’s what you oughta’ word the old crow, Chief.”
“Shh-hhh!” Mark hissed. “I can’t tell her that.”
Desperation merged with Mark’s tenacity. He could not threaten the Moi; he could not move them. He could not stop the monsoon, nor could he delay it. But they must leave before it begins.
“I wouldn’t word ‘em zip,” Josh said high-handedly. “Give me the nod, Sir, and within the minute, granny and the grandkid will be lobbed inside the nearest truck bed. You betcha!“
“But … “
“But what, Chief? You have gone above and beyond; handing out bags of rice, plus bows and arrows to these savages. You dispensed pipes to the dusty old men. And you went the max too.”
“I suppose you are referring to my banquets with the Moi?”
“Sir, it beats me how you could have choked down raw fish and those grungy old roots.”
Josh’s words cut short by whistling winds in the treetops. Mark stopped his pacing long enough to look up and into the foreboding skies. He saw them forked with lightening, and buried in heavy clouds. The clouds were laying close to the mountain and black with torrential downpours
“Yea, well you do what you have to do,” he said in an abstract way.
“And what about that gibbon soup dished up especially for you, Sir? Dingy little paws swimming around the bowl? Or that chicken that the Moi chefs laid out for you in such kingly fashion? For gawds sake, Chief, its eyes were still attached. C-rations are gourmet stacked up against those barbarous eats.”
The gales of wind that were swirling around them___ scooped up Josh’s words to carry them off.
“Dining with the Moi*, monkey feet and chicken eyeballs, notwithstanding, it is time to go. We gotta’ wrap this thing up,” Mark said tightly.
When he walked back to the Moi grandchild, he saw her eyes filled with tears. He took her hand and by that gesture he again linked the two of them. “You must go with or without grandmother.”
Nodding assent, she bent to wipe the tears falling from her face. She was poised in graceful symmetry against a background of majestic skies; now glowing with sunset and etched with the dark clouds of monsoon.
Catching his breath, he moved his focus away from the lovely girl, and onto the immediate. “Tell grandmother that she will be by herself. Never again will she see her sons, her sons’ wives, or her grandchildren.”
“But we must stay if grandmother stays.”
“Yes, I know that. But this is what you must tell grandmother; tell her that
you will leave her to be by herself.”
Discernment settled in the girl’s eyes even as she slumped with a shame of
Deception. Her eyes lead her head down.
Mark waited until the girl agreed with a slow nod of her head; heavy in assent. And at that very moment, he felt the first drops of rain hitting his face. Though his insides were churning with urgency, he playfully nudged the Moi daughter. So deep was the girl’s melancholy that she looked up at Mark in confusion. It seemed to her, as though she were seeing him for the first time. And thus with a heavy heart, she walked the steps back to her grandmother to relate Mark’s message which resulted in a face-off: the girl courteous, her grandmother, acrimonious.
Mark saw the old woman fall into silence, pierced with the force of her sage eyes, like an arrow that went straight to her grandchild’s heart. The rain beating down on them intermingled with the tears that flowed down the girl’s face.
At last, the old woman nodded grim acceptance. Standing up, she looked pointedly at Mark. Crossing her thin arms across her chest, grandmother pierced him with eyes that saw the truth with aching clarity. She saw too the truths behind his weak words. On her way back to the hut, she hobbled with peculiar detachment. For the last time then, she gathered up her belongings; but a few. She knotted them in a sack that she shouldered. Most important to grandmother was her ten-pound bag of rice: she held it against her sinking chest. Pausing at the door of her hut, she then turned to see generations of her
family. Some had been on this earth too long ago for her to know, but she recognized them from their body rhythms that were her rhythms. Rhythms passed from mothers to daughters, from fathers to sons as they worked the earth, planted the rice, weeded and gathered, thrashed and stored. Their land, her land. Her children’s children, their father’s fathers; this was their earth … and they were leaving it.
It was with anguished eyes that the granddaughter watched grandmother relent. Mark took one of her hands in his.
Wiggling her toes in the soil, the girl said, “Grandmother has consented to go.”
*Moi – mountain tribe
Susan Dale’s poems and fiction are on Eastown Fiction, Tryst 3, Word Salad, Pens On Fire, Ken *Again, Hackwriters, and Penwood Review. In 2007, she won the grand prize for poetry from Oneswan.