The next day, everybody’s face has a numb, scared look. The radio stations are down in Sài Gòn and Mỹ Tho. Everything is hushed. Usually with so many people crowded on our small island there’s a lot of noise, but even the dogs have stopped barking. I sit on the porch. People in the street say, “I hardly heard gunfire and it was over.”
A man walks by in a homemade uniform calling out, “Turn in any weapons you have.” As soon as he leaves, people call him an April 30th Communist for converting to the winning side on the day we lost.
When I get home I tell Ba, “If you haven’t turned in our gun, I can take it.” Maybe I can do something more than just turn it in. Someone should.
“Wait until there aren’t any people around,” Ba says. “We don’t want anyone to report us for having a gun.”
When the people in the street thin out, I take our M-2 carbine and the two clips of ammunition down from the top of the glass-door cabinet. As soon as I get a few steps past the house, I slap a clip in. I haven’t fired it before, but I know how.
The April 30th Communist standing by the guns doesn’t notice me. He keeps looking over his shoulder into the alley. When he turns his head, I go behind a fence on the other side of the street into Mr. Three Belt’s shipyard. I’m not sure what I can do. If we have to turn our gun in, I want to do it without anyone seeing which house I came from.
It’s dark under the roof covering the shipyard. I brush aside a spider web and glance around to see if the meter-long lizard that lives in the wood pile is poking its head out. Then I get down on my stomach so I can look through a hole near the bottom of the fence and watch the soldier.
The April 30th Communist’s knees shake as a woman walks up to him, head down, and puts her family’s gun in the pile. He clenches his rifle to his shoulder. His face looks white, like it wouldn’t bleed if you cut it, and he keeps looking back at the houses in the alley as if someone is going to attack him. I’m sure he doesn’t know I’m here.
I lie with the gun at my side, looking through the hole. Are we all going to stand around and let the Communists take everything away from us? Everything my parents worked so hard for? There’s no one else out on the street. It’s late morning and hot. I stare at the soldier. Besides being so scared he’s probably thirsty. Sweat drips down my face. There’s no gunfire, no fighting anywhere. All I can hear is my heartbeat in my chest. What’s wrong with us? If one person does something, maybe it will give other people the courage to stand up.
I slide the gun barrel into the bottom of the V-shaped hole. If a shot came, no one would know where it came from. My heart pounds against my ribcage. It feels huge inside my chest. Where’s that April 30th Communist’s head? I move the gun around until his face is in the sights. He looks straight at me, but he can’t see me here in the dark. My hand feels damp against the wood stock of the gun. All I have to do is aim and squeeze the trigger.
My hands start shaking on the gun. What if I pull the trigger and it doesn’t fire? How many bullets will it take to kill him? I’ll empty the whole magazine. If he’s not down, I’ll put in the spare clip. If he fires back, he won’t make it. I’ll run straight to the river behind me, swim out to the deep part, and drop the gun. No one will find it.
Sweat runs down my eyebrows and drips down the side of my cheeks. What if I don’t make it to the river? I’d have to kill myself — say goodbye to everything, my family, the land in Cồn Tàu. Even if I made it, what if someone found out it was me? My family would be punished. Lying on the dirt, my body feels hot and cold at the same time. My face and tongue tingle. I take a few deep breaths. If I do this, all I’ll do is kill him. He’s from the South, not the North. He’s so scared, what’s the point? He probably got recruited yesterday. He’s just stupid and killing one stupid person won’t change anything . . . but it could destroy my family. My knees go weak. I can’t feel my tongue, or my eyes. If it was just my life to lose, it would be gone, but I don’t want to hurt my family.
The April 30th Communist guarding the pile of guns glances behind at the alley again. I step out into the sunlight, sweaty and dusty. I approach with the gun pointed down and loaded, safety off. If he looks at me like he’s conquering us, if he says anything, I’ll shoot him. He turns toward me. His knees shake like they’re going to shatter and his white knuckles clench his gun. I take the clip out and toss it and the spare into the pile.
I give him a cold stare as I gently lean the gun against the stack of weapons. “Don’t you worry that someone’s going to blow your head off?”
He looks over his shoulder and back at me. He doesn’t answer. He could be dead already. I start walking toward my house. After half a block, I turn back. The April 30th Communist is running toward the town hall, clasping his gun. I killed him without shooting.
A former Army soldier leans against a wall smoking near my house. “Did you see that guard collecting guns?” I say. “He ran away pretty fast.”
The ex-soldier ignores me and takes another draw from his cigarette. I walk away. I should have had the guts to pull the trigger.
An hour later, I return to the pile of weapons. It’s still there, unguarded. I hunt through it, looking for the big rounds used by single-shot sniper guns. At least I’ll collect some bullets I can use for building forts. I think about taking a gun, but too many neighbors are watching. I find a small clip of sniper bullets and head home.
There must be mountains of ammunition over in Mỹ Tho. I get on a ferry going to the Mỹ Tho market. The ferry heads into the smaller river that divides Mỹ Tho in two. Near the base of a bridge, a standing face boat sits with the flat ramp on its face for loading troops tilted above the shore. The South Vietnamese flag is painted on each side. The captain probably tried to destroy it by ramming it into the bank.
Communist soldiers stand on the bridge looking over the railing. They disappear behind us as the ferry passes underneath. I get off at the market and walk back toward the standing face boat. Locked iron gates cover the storefronts lining the street. Smoke drifts out of the wide open doors of two administrative offices. Inside mounds of ashes smolder. Scattered papers cover the floor. Only a few large metal desks and file cabinets remain. Kids wander in and out of the buildings looking for anything left.
At the entrance to the bridge, a tank and a personnel carrier stand guard. Two men stick their heads out of the tank and another sits at the gun turret. Nearby is an enormous pile of weapons. Below the bridge, a group of kids and grown-ups scavenge metal chairs, pipes, antennas, and lights from the standing face boat. I go down and climb on the boat. The metal deck lists backward under my feet. Twin machine guns sit on each side of the cabin. I could still do something. The cabin door doesn’t have a handle, so I try the door on the other side. It’s stuck. I pick up a piece of metal and pry it open. A man follows me inside. I go up to the control panel and push one button, then another. The man glances around for something to take. The radio hisses. I could do something.
“You better get out before you get killed or arrested.” The man steps back out.
I lock the doors. On the bridge above, five soldiers stand against the railing. There’s a hatch in back I could crawl out in case they come after me. This time I could get away. I look through the scope—it’s black. I push a couple more buttons. The scope lights up and I point it down. Below, the tide moves out around the large boats of fruit wholesalers. After I shoot, I could jump out of the hatch and swim around by the boats like nothing happened. No one knows me here—it’s not like the April 30th collecting guns next to our house where the first people they would blame would be the families living nearby. If I do something, then other people might, too.
I drag a chain of bullets from the holding area, push it into a reservoir, and press the load button. The chain snaps in and the guns click. I put my face back into the scope and hold onto the handles. The twin barrels move with me up to the bridge. The soldiers up there look as if they’re standing next to me. They wear regular uniforms and hold their guns like seasoned soldiers — not like the April 30th collecting weapons in our neighbourhood. If I pull the trigger, they’d be gone. They’re looking everywhere but at the guns pointing up at them.
This could make a difference, start something. Sweat spills down my face.
How do I aim a gun with two barrels so far apart? I practice sweeping the crosshairs over the soldiers. I just need the guts to pull the trigger. If one person stands up against the Communists, maybe others will. A soldier on the bridge looks down as if he’s staring into the scope at me. He moves to talk to the soldier next to him. They all slowly back away from the railing.
One of the soldiers peeks over the edge. Then, two men jump down the side of the bridge. They’ll be here in seconds. Army soldiers say that you need to destroy your equipment, so the enemy can’t get it. I grab a fire ax and smash it into the dashboard. I crack the gun scope and handles. Then I crawl out the hatch and jump onto the shore. I would have done something. There just wasn’t enough time.
The soldiers pass by me on the way to the boat. “Who was in there? What’s going on over there?”
I’m sweating like crazy. “I don’t know.”
The soldiers scold the kids playing next to the boat and they scatter. Out of the corner of my eye, I see them approach the cabin, the barrels of their AK-47s leading the way. Relief pours over me. I’m glad I didn’t have to make a decision.
There’s a pile of ammunition taller than my head near the bridge. This will be my only chance to get gunpowder to make rockets with. The soldiers in the tank and on the bridge, the ones I almost shot, look at me searching though the pile but don’t say anything. When I have as much ammunition as I can carry, I head toward the ferry dock in Lạc Hồng Garden.
The two teenage sisters of the Eight Talent family have their parent’s small boat lined up next to the other ferry boats, waiting to get enough passengers. “What are you doing with all that?” one of the Eight Talent girls says. She and her sister sit back by the motor with nón lá covering their heads from the sun. “You’re going to get in trouble.”
“It’s just bullets. If you don’t have a gun to fire them what does it matter?” I see an even larger mound of ammunition down toward the end of the park. “I’ll come back.”
I drag myself and the chains of bullets over to the other pile. Two men in a personnel carrier stand guard. They look at me and then at each other. I wrap a chain of M-60s around my chest in an X like machine gunners do. Then, I slump toward the ferry dock with a tank shell in each hand, cradling loose belts of ammunition. I try not to fall down the wide stone steps on the edge of the river leading to the ferry boats.
“Did the soldiers say anything?” one of the Eight Talent girls asks. “Aren’t you going to get in trouble carrying those shells?”
I make my way over the other boats to theirs, trying not to drop anything. “I took it in front of the soldiers. They didn’t care.”
I sit in back by the Eight Talent sisters and put down the tank shells and loose chains. I wipe the sweat off my forehead. Two older women sit up front with their baskets and shoulder poles. “That ammunition is dangerous, you’re going to hurt yourself,” one of the women says. “You should throw it all away.”
The motor is noisy so I can’t hear the rest. “I worked hard to get this,” I shout up to them.
People stare at me as I step onto the ferry dock near my house walking doubled-over with all of the ammunition. “What are you going to do with all of that?”
“Make rockets and build my fort.”
I put the shells and bullets away and get a bowl of rice. “Where’d you get all that?” Chị Tư asks.
“There’re piles of it in Mỹ Tho.” I scoop rice into my mouth. “After I finish eating, I’m going to go and get more.”
“No,” my sister says. “Stay home and play with what you have.”
I spend the rest of the day using a vise and pliers to pull the bullets out of the casings and empty the gunpowder into a tin cup. I save two bullets to use as gate posts when I build castles. “That’s a lot of brass,” Ba says. “When you’re done playing, we can flatten them to make hinges.”
By the time I finish, it’s night. I can’t sleep with the silence. Before, there was always gunfire somewhere if you listened. I still can’t believe it’s really over. I lie awake wondering what will happen to our family. I should have done something. It haunts me worse than any ghost.
In the morning, I take the casings to the alley next to our house. I line them up along the tops of the old sandbags I made into a fort. Neighbors come over and hand me empty 105 artillery shells given to them by relatives in the Army. They’re worried about having anything from the old government. I dig the 105s into the dirt at the corners of the sandbags, so it looks like the old Army fort. I want to remind everyone walking by that we shouldn’t give up. It’s all I have left to remember what we were. A Communist soldier passes by on the street. I aim my fingers and pretend to shoot. Then I crouch down behind the walls.
Michelle Robin La’s first book, ‘Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands’, is the true story of her husband growing up in the midst of the Vietnam War and his struggle for freedom after the communist takeover. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Literary Mama, and Mom Egg Review.