A short story by Bảo Ninh
The sun had not yet risen, but above the grassy plain, the mist was already starting to drift away. The village of Diem – a cluster of shacks along the highway – was emerging from the night.
The war was almost over. On the other side of the plain, the enemy artillery base lay silent; no reconnaissance plane had yet appeared on the horizon. At the edge of the village, the last clandestine supply truck crossed the A Rang river, using the stone ford built to replace the iron bridge that had been lost in the bombing. Ripples fanned out from the truck in concentric circles and died away, leaving the water still.
A voice rose lightly from somewhere in the fog, floating away with the night's last murmur, moving further and further along the banks of the river, singing:
I wander through life, not knowing where I've come from.
I am the shore that awaits the touch of your feet.
Beyond the jagged foothills that bordered the plain to the east, a shimmering red sun rose. The mist gave way to translucence, and the sky turned blue. Across the plain, drops of dew sparkled in the light like diamonds on the grass. The singing grew louder, at once sombre and ethereal, vibrant and savage.
The voice belonged to Dieu Nuong. She had been killed months ago, years even; no one really knew. But now, as day was breaking, the people of Diem, half‑asleep, heard the singing and murmured, 'It's her.'
From the other side of the village, in the entrenched artillery camp, watchmen trained their binoculars on the village.
Oh moon, how wretched I am,
My beloved has gone, and will never return.
'Look! You see, there she is!' a soldier cried, pointing.
Behind the groves bordering the village, he thought he could see the shadowy figure of a woman advancing, singing, a slender figure with a graceful, swaying walk, long ebony hair cascading down her back. In the dawn, dream and reality mingled. Perhaps she was a mirage born of the song. A ghost. A lascivious, seductive, blithe phantom.
In the trenches, a captain and a political officer passed the binoculars back and forth. The legend of Dieu Nuong, a singer from Saigon who had been trapped in the liberated zone, was much discussed in the battalion, and embellished with every telling.
The political officer dropped the binoculars. 'If we can't shut that whore up, she'll destroy the soul of this company. They'll all follow her.'
'But how can you prevent a ghost from singing?' asked the captain.
'By forbidding it! It's yellow music, anti‑military. And why does she start yowling at exactly the same time every day? It might be a signal. Or maybe she's trying to seduce our men, lure them into her bed so she can infect them with diseases, sap their fighting strength. That's probably what she's after.'
'But she sings so beautifully.'
A group of infantrymen was crossing the plain. A straggler stopped and looked towards Diem. Mist rose in curls off the green water of the river. A breeze swept over it, carrying off the song. The soldiers felt the voice shiver through their bodies, its melody caressing their hearts. Clear, luminous, pure as the dawn air, the song swelled with the sadness of the vast, free forests lost beyond the horizon, ignoring the frontiers, the front lines, mocking the battlefields, the bombs, the killings.
When my own battalion arrived in Diem in I973, Dieu Nuong was still alive. We knew almost nothing about her: only that she had come here the previous summer, after the offensive of the Armed Forces of Liberation and the débâcle of the Saigon troops. Those who claimed to know more told conflicting stories.
'They say that she wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing when she wandered over here.'
But during that summer of flames, she would not have been the only one suffering. Thousands had been killed, and there were corpses everywhere, lining the roads, piled up in the fields, floating in the rivers. Those who had survived were often more dead than alive. The village had been almost completely destroyed; only prickly underbrush, heaps of shattered bricks, broken tiles and splintered beams remained. Here and there, makeshift houses, half‑shack, half‑trench, rose from the debris.
Dogs scavenged in the rubble, retrieving the remains of the vanished past: tattered pieces of clothing in garish colours, hats, leather and plastic objects, bits of wood and glass, household goods – and human bones, which the dogs fought over.
Before that summer, Diem had been a thriving community under the protection of the Americans. The men had lived off their army wages; the women had worked in small businesses. But then the village was attacked. Day after day, the planes came, raining bombs on the houses and the fields. The riches of the American days were over.
The following year, my company, Artillery Battalion No. 17, arrived in Diem to defend the A Rang river against the air force. We were stationed at the edge of the ghost village.
The inhabitants of Diem were destitute, almost wild. The few remaining men, the blind, crippled remnants of the puppet army, no longer received rations. Only the women dared venture outside, gaunt and dazed, dressed in rags, surrounded by swarms of hungry children.
Most of these people were refugees from the towns, villages and military camps of the region who, in trying to escape the previous summer, had run up against the tanks of the Liberation Army. One night that summer, at around midnight, there was a massacre. It was said that the refugees, hearing the rumble of an airplane far away, lit thousands of torches and formed a huge, flaming cross right in front of the church. In the darkness, they screamed, waving to the pilots. No one heard the first salvos, no one saw the first flashes from the horizon. For hours on end, people fell under a hail of shells. Wave after wave of American planes flew over until dawn, showering the mass grave with bombs. Dieu Nuong was among the few survivors.
Diem was plunged into misery and hunger. Everyone had to work the land, bending over the rows of manioc, toiling in the rice paddies. Everyone had to submit to the Revolution. Those who protested were persecuted, and many were shot.
Dieu Nuong herself was imprisoned. They locked her up in an underground dungeon for three days as punishment for singing her yellow songs, but this didn't cure her; she continued to live in her own world, free. Every day, at dawn and at dusk, she would sing. People whispered that at night, soldiers visited her dilapidated hut on the riverbank, knocking at her door, scratching at the bamboo walls. They brought their rations: rice, a packet of cigarettes, a bit of cloth, some thread, a needle, a mirror, a comb, matches, salt – anything that could be traded for sex. Her reputation as a madwoman and a prostitute spread among the villagers.
The story went that she had been a singer in a musical troupe in Saigon. Her troupe had agreed to perform for a unit of Special Forces stationed in Tan Tran. The performance started just as the tanks of the Liberation Army invaded the city. Dieu Nuong fled, following a stream of refugees through blazing fields to Diem, where she found herself trapped. On the night of the massacre, she was buried under a mountain of corpses in the churchyard. For an entire day she breathed in their stench. When she was pulled out from under the pile, her body, drenched in blood, looked like a block of red lacquer. It was said that the terror of that night had finally driven her mad.
Our battalion grew accustomed to her singing; day after day, like a savage wind, her bewitching, startling voice drifted across the plain. She sang odes of longing, of yearning for the homeland, of nostalgia for a life devoted to her art, to the audiences and the limelight. She sang of lost youth, lost beauty, of everything that was gone:
Oh, for the time when we knew love,
When we too had a homeland.
The people of Diem still hum this lament, the song Dieu Nuong first sang the night a convoy of prisoners crossed the village shortly after the massacre. Hundreds of wretched men in camouflage uniforms, bound together in pairs, dragged themselves along the road. Frightened villagers watched furtively from inside their shacks, searching for relatives among the prisoners. No one dared venture out to the roadside. But then, from behind the trees, at the end of the village, a figure appeared – Dieu Nuong. It was twilight, the hour of apparitions.
Muttering, a wild look in her eyes, she slashed at the undergrowth, following the prisoners. The men, hunched over, dragging their feet along the road, didn't notice her, until she began her unearthly singing. Her voice was feeble, and she kept stopping to catch her breath. One of the prisoners raised his voice along with hers. Another joined him. Then another. Dieu Nuong's voice seemed to touch each man's lips like a kiss. The prisoners became a choir, and their singing drowned out the noise of their marching. The guards tried to impose silence, but soon lowered their bayonets.
The villagers swarmed to the edge of the road, staring, silent and petrified, as the procession disappeared into the vastness of the forest. Amplified by the chorus of wretched men, Dieu Nuong's song echoed through the night.
... In this war where brother kills brother,
we are nothing but worms and ants.
Oh, for the time when we knew love,
When we too had a homeland.
Dieu Nuong has no tomb. She lies somewhere on the plain, a mound of earth among many mounds of earth.
At the river's edge, all that remain of the anti‑aircraft fortifications today are pock‑marked walls shaped like horseshoes. Time has filled most of the gaping craters from the cluster and phosphorous bombs. The footpath that once linked our artillery unit with the village is now a faint white trace twisting in and out of the tall grasses along the river. But the soldiers, now scattered, can't have forgotten this path. Back then, twice a day, the army cooks used it to transport meals for the combatants. And at night, especially when there was no moon, the soldiers would secretly sneak off along the path to 'win the hearts of the people,' plunging into the silent grasses, moving towards the river, piling into junks the moment the shadow of the guerrilla patrols appeared.
In those days, contact with the population of the liberated zones was forbidden. Those who had no mission there were under orders to stay out of the village. People who disobeyed could expect punishment, expulsion from the Communist Party and every other imaginable misfortune. But a soldier near the people is like fire near straw.
Relations between the soldiers and the inhabitants of the village's dilapidated straw huts were not close, but a path through the grass had silently been etched. By day, no one but the cooks and their suppliers dared use it. But at night, it was the road to love.
In my battalion, a soldier's supreme ambition was to become a cook's helper under the orders of Cu – the only man who was permanently assigned to the village.
The kitchen had been built next to the church. Cu had chosen the plot because he thought it an unlikely target for the bombers, and because it was near a well that contained the clearest water in the village. Cu wasn't happy to be sharing the well with the priest, but the priest was accommodating, and more reasonable than the other villagers, whom Cu regarded as a bunch of good‑for-nothings. They lived among fields, but ever since they had been forced to become farmers they had lost all desire to work the land. They had probably become too accustomed to living off American aid and were nostalgic for the golden age when men enlisted and women prostituted themselves to the Americans and their collaborators. Cu believed they were all in league with the enemy, secretly waiting for an opportunity to rejoin them, hiding their true loyalties behind a façade of patient resignation.
Cu couldn't understand why his companions lost their heads over the village women. The fifty men in the company had been living peaceably in the depths of the forest for years, but as soon as they were stationed on the plain, under an open sky, near a river, a village and women, the quarrels started. Yet the women here were completely different from those in the North; they weren't obedient, faithful, courageous, ingenious and responsible; nor were they heroines of the resistance. The entire village, Cu thought, was teeming with female microbes.
'Female microbes spread gonorrhea and syphilis,' he would warn his helpers.
Cu wouldn't accept just anybody as a helper. He ruthlessly eliminated the playboys, the fast talkers, the crafty ones – any man whose talents might attract the village women. 'When you're a cook, when you work all day with food for the unit,' he said, " you've got to keep your hands clean. They must not touch anything dirty or rotten, and it's absolutely forbidden to plunge them into the bodies of women."
The villagers were terrified of Cu, and didn't dare come near his well or his kitchen. When they became friendly with the cook's helpers and wanted to beg or trade things, they waited for Cu to take supplies to the front.
Twice a day, at dawn and at dusk, Cu and one of his men would leave the house under the guard of another helper and take meals to the company. Nich, a tiny, pure‑breed Laotian dog who was particularly sensitive to smells, would lead the way. They went via a short section of the highway, turned towards the village and then zig‑zagged through the huts. They forged ahead, their bodies tilted slightly forward, their hands on their rumps to support the enormous baskets hoisted on their backs, which gave off warmth and the fragrance of cooked rice.
The village dogs fled at the sight of Nich. They watched, famished, from behind the rubble, but dared not bark. Only the children in rags, drawn by the warm smell of the rice, chased after Cu and his helper, grasping at their baskets.
'Uncle Cook, oh, Uncle Cook,' they pleaded.
'Dirty little beggars, get away from me!' shouted Cu.
Nevertheless, when a particularly brave kid followed the procession to the village limits, Cu would stop and beckon him. Then he would pull a bit of grilled manioc, or an ear of steamed corn, or sometimes even a dried fish out of his basket, and say: 'Here. That's all there is. There's nothing to eat for the bo doi. No more manioc and no more rice. All they get is salted bindweed and a bit of ginger. That's it. The Revolution frees you, but you'd better learn to deal with misery. Learn to dig and work hard to feed yourself. Tell that to your mother. It's going to take a long time, this Revolution. It's going to take our generation and yours as well.'
Today, they say that you can still see Nich come and go along the footpath. He sniffs at the rusted, greenish casing of the 35mm cartridges, climbs over the weed‑covered trench where they once kept anti‑aircraft batteries and dolefully watches the river.
'Uncle Cook, Uncle Cook!' One of the children from back then, now grown up, still calls out when he sees the little dog wandering miserably along the footpath. Behind the dog, he thinks he can make out the shapes of two figures carrying large baskets on their backs.
The dog seems unable to leave the footpath. He always returns at dawn and at dusk. Nothing can distract him from his sleepwalker's trajectory. No one dares lay a hand on him.
'That's the dog that killed Dieu Nuong.'
At least that's what they say. Even those who know nothing about the tragedy are afraid of this dog. Perhaps they sense that in this painful, rhythmic promenade, there is a blindness, a madness that is almost human.
Cu's two helpers were changed every month, but one day, when a changeover was due, he announced that he did not want to lose Tuan, one of the previous month's assistants. 'He's well trained now. He's hardworking and meticulous. I'd like to keep him on,' Cu said.
Tuan had started as an infantryman, although no one knew exactly where he had fought before he joined our battalion. He had been seriously injured and, under normal circumstances, would have been invalided out of the army, but he yielded to the Party's exhortations and volunteered to remain on the battlefield. Instead of being sent back to his unit, he was assigned to my artillery battalion, taking up the post of third gunner. He was tall, thin and gaunt. His Adam's apple stuck out. A horrible scar from a rifle blow gashed his face from one temple to the corner of his lip, twisting his mouth. The other artillerymen liked to fool around, but Tuan never joined in. He remained silent, neither laughing nor becoming angry.
He ignored the planes that nosedived towards our positions, the bombs that exploded close by and the rockets that ripped into our defenses; he didn't care. This coldness, this indifference towards everything, meant that he made a perfect third gunner. His only duty was to turn the handle of his gun and regulate the shooting according to orders.
'Artillery combat is really monotonous,' he once said to me. 'It's like typing. There's nothing theatrical about it. It's nothing compared with hand‑to‑hand combat.'
'That's because you've only been third gunner,' I replied. 'If you want, I'll ask the chief to move me back to your position. You can be number two and pull the trigger.'
'Oh, I don't care. I'll go wherever I'm sent. It's all the same to me.'
'If you feel that way, why didn't you go back North when you had the chance? Why did you stay?'
'Was it your love life? Had your wife been sleeping with the militia? Was that it?'
Tuan grunted, but said nothing.
In fact, no one knew if he was married or had children. And no one had ever seen him read or write a letter. Even the political officer knew no more than the few lines written in his file. Tuan never confided in anyone.
Aside from this unusual discretion, Tuan was also known for his talent as a guitarist. He was the best in the company. But he didn't play like a soldier, thumping out the rhythm with his foot, swinging his shoulders; he didn't whistle or sing as he strummed. He played distractedly, neither for his own entertainment nor ours.
'What are you playing there, Tuan? What strange music.'
Tuan didn't reply. He took off his guitar – an old one, its body ready to fracture – and went into the kitchen. He had brought the guitar with him when he joined the army, and you wondered by what miracle he had kept it intact through all that had happened.
At first, Cu was irritated by Tuan's taciturn nature, but he got used to it. Discretion, after all, was not a fault. And the kitchen was always busy, and Cu and his helpers spent their day running around, rushing to complete some job; there wasn't really time to talk.
It wasn't until late at night, after the unit had been fed, that Cu and his helpers found a moment to exchange a few words before they slumped into their hammocks. Cu would get out a bowl of wine, and the helpers would drink while he assigned the next day's tasks. On quieter days, Cu and another helper, Binh, would play cards, and Tuan would take his guitar down from the wall, gently adjust the strings and play softly. Binh would whistle, accompanying the music. And Cu, letting his cards fall, would turn towards Tuan, listening. One night, he recognized the tune; he had heard it every day, at dawn and at dusk: I wander through life, not knowing where I've come from. Was this when Cu guessed Tuan's secret?
Outside, the rain fell, relentlessly. A dank, humid atmosphere hung over the cabin. The lamp cast a yellowish glow. The sad life of soldiers. Like a long sigh.
The priest's house, next door to Cu's hut, was half‑buried, surrounded by four slopes of earth. It was sparsely furnished: a bamboo bed covered with straw, a wooden pillow, a table, a bookshelf and some holy pictures. A basket hung over the entrance. In the morning, the village faithful would leave food in it for the priest, who seldom left his room and never ventured further than the garden. He was a wise old man, aloof from the world. He disappeared the day Dieu Nuong was killed.
The year before, on the night the Americans showered the refugees with bombs, the priest and Dieu Nuong had found themselves lying side by side, and it was he who had pulled her from under the mountain of corpses. He had revived her, saved her life, and from that day on, had taken care of her. For a time, Dieu Nuong had lived in the church, by the priest's side, like a sister. It wasn't exactly a suitable arrangement, but in those chaotic times many taboos were broken; no rule survived without compromise.
Later, when Dieu Nuong went to live in her hut at the edge of the village, she often returned to the church to see the priest – perhaps to make her confession, or to pass on the gifts the soldiers gave her daily, things they had saved from their meagre rations, or pilfered from the stores, or looted from somewhere.
I don't think I am alone in saying this: I never thought Dieu Nuong wicked. She gave me happiness I had never known back North. Many years have passed, but I cannot forget her, nor do I want to. I see her walking alone, on a deserted road, graceful, lithe, swaying; I see her seated on the riverbank, wistful, silent.
'Come here, soldier, honey. Don't be afraid. I'm alone.'
My heart racing, I would sweep back the curtain that was her door and enter her room. Taking a step forward, I brushed against something wonderful and warm, something that trembled, something impossible to describe, then sank into an inferno of softness.
'What's your name, my love? Is this the first time you've come?'
Even the hard life of the liberated zones hadn't destroyed Dieu Nuong's body; there was something intensely feminine about it, making her seem more womanly than any other woman. It wasn't just her caresses, nor the moments when she suddenly let go, consumed by tenderness, moaning and thrashing about, nor the times she panted silently, collapsing, exhausted, exuding wave after wave of sinful female desire.
'Are you going so soon?' She would hold me back.' It's a long time until dawn. Stay a while. I have something to tell you. One thing, only one thing.'
But few men dared stay, and fewer still dared listen to what Dieu Nuong had to tell them. No one wanted to hear it, because no one could help her. It was too dangerous. No doubt Dieu Nuong believed that there were still men in this world crazy enough to risk their lives for love, to betray everything for love.
We were all anxious to see her again and so we lied to her, promising the impossible, even though we knew there was no way we could help her escape. But once, a year ago, there had been a man who promised to help her, and this man had kept his word.
I learned afterwards, when it was all over, that when Tuan was in the infantry he had passed through Diem many times.
During the summer of flames, after the massacre, the village had been struck by famine; the meagre stocks of food donated by the bo doi at the time of Liberation were gone. The authorities called for increased production, and even the priest had to fend for himself.
Dieu Nuong was living with the priest at this time, and since her guardian didn't tillthe earth, she tried todo the work of two people, felling trees and planting manioc. But she wasn't used to the hard labour, to the mud, and after each thrust of the hoe she would bury her face in her hands and weep. At the end of the day, her field would still be covered with trees and undergrowth.
Nearby, a group of soldiers lounged in their hammocks. They jeered at her, contemptuous of this little woman, lazy, frail as tissue paper, who had known only the good life and who was learning for the first time what human existence was all about. But little by little, they took pity on her suffering and offered to help. They spent the entire night felling trees, clearing her field. One man introduced himself. His name was Tuan. He promised to come back in a few days to help Dieu Nuong burn the land. And he kept his word.
Dieu Nuong's field was perfect, the clearest in the village. Not a tree stump remained. When he left, Tuan promised to come back to help sow the manioc. And he kept his word.
The first rains came. In a few days, the manioc Tuan had planted covered the burnt patch with a thick carpet of green. All around, Tuan sowed a hedge of squash. On the strip of land behind the church, he helped Dieu Nuong plant vegetables. Every five days or so, Tuan crept away from the front line near the town and crossed the fields to come to Diem.
It was about this time that Dieu Nuong left the church and made her home in a hut that Tuan had built for her on the riverbank. Thanks to him, she lost her desperate expression; her eyes sparkled and she started to smile again.
Sometimes, Tuan brought his guitar with him to Dieu Nuong's hut. He would play softly, and Dieu Nuong would sing in a murmur. Back then, she sang only for him.
No doubt they made promises to each other. No doubt Dieu Nuong told Tuan that she dreamed of leaving her harsh life, scratching at the earth in this godforsaken village; that she was looking for a man worthy of her trust, who would help her cross the front line and return her to the calm, comfortable life she had known before Liberation.
Tuan was confident they could cross the line – those ten kilometers riddled with mines, patrolled by guards – for those were the days following the peace talks. Intoxicated with love, transported by the hope of peace, he promised to help her. And no doubt he meant it. But, suddenly, he disappeared. Days passed, then months, no one in Diem spoke of him.
Like the rest of us, Dieu Nuong never mentioned Tuan. The memory of him and his promise had probably dissolved along with her mind. But her yearning for freedom survived, surfacing from time to time in the songs she sang every day at dawn and at dusk. Night after night, she extracted promises from the soldiers who visited her, promises that grew emptier with each passing day as the war became more brutal, as bombs and shells pounded the village, crushing all hopes of peace.
One rainy night, as she walked along the footpath to the priest's house, through the vegetable garden near the cook's cabin, Dieu Nuong heard the strains of a guitar. She approached soundlessly, peering into the hut. An oil lamp flickered. She couldn't make out the guitarist's face, but she recognized the familiar melody of her nights with Tuan. Frantic, she approached the door. Nich, the dog, bounded out of a corner of the cabin, barking. 'Who is it?' Cu shouted, climbing out of his hammock, seizing his rifle.
Dieu Nuong jumped back. The guitar stopped, and she ran off.
Cu flung open the door.
'A spy!' he shouted. 'Stop!'
He caught sight of Dieu Nuong's silhouette.
'Ah it's you, you whore! Stop, or I'll shoot!' Cu shouted, running into the rain, slipping in the mud and falling flat on his face. Pulling himself up, furious, he fired a volley of shots in Dieu Nuong's direction.
Tuan rushed out after him and grabbed the machine‑gun. 'You idiot!' he shouted, his voice choked. Wildly, he punched Cu in the face, threw down his gun and ran off into the blackness in pursuit of Dieu Nuong. The village rang out with alarm sirens.
Binh helped Cu up and brought him back to the cabin. 'When people ask, you're going to tell them that it was nothing,' Cu murmured painfully, wiping the blood and rain off his face with his sleeve. 'Tell them that I had a nightmare, that I shot without thinking. Go and see what's happened.' He sighed. 'But why did she run off?'
Later, when Binh told me what had happened that night, he said mournfully: 'If Dieu Nuong hadn't been wounded, they might have made it.'
Thinking about it now, Cu's actions seem to me incomprehensible. He was the only one who knew something of what had happened between Tuan and Dieu Nuong. Why did he shoot her?
Binh told no one about Cu firing on Dieu Nuong, or about the fight between Cu and Tuan, nor even about the mysterious relationship between Tuan and Dieu Nuong. All anyone knew was that both of them had disappeared.
At the edge of the village, weeds began to grow around Dieu Nuong's deserted hut. Rumour had it that she had fled, or been killed – drowned in the river, blown up by a bomb.
The rains seemed interminable, but little by little I understood why I felt so sad. I missed Dieu Nuong's singing; I missed her. I wasn't the only one; the whole company seemed depressed. There no longer seemed any reason for our presence here.
Then, on a sunny day at the beginning of the dry season, we learned that she and Tuan had been hiding in the church, waiting for the rains to stop and for Dieu Nuong's wounds to heal. Now, they had gone for good.
It was the priest who told us. He came to the trenches at dawn, his cassock damp with mist. 'Last year, one of your men seduced the girl. The man with the scar and the sullen face. And then he came back. Not only has he betrayed you, but it was he who led the girl to betray God.' He told us he had alerted Cu the night before, as soon as he discovered that Tuan and Dieu Nuong had fled, but Cu hadn't told the rest of us.
'If you really want to catch them, it's not too late. She's wounded and can't walk very fast,' he said. 'You could take the dog.'
I had the honour of participating in the operation, joined by Cu and two scouts. We left immediately. Nich led the way, moving quickly, pulling at the leash which Cu held.
We followed himin silence, fanning out, rifles at the ready. We had orders not to let them get away with their secrets about the unit's next campaign.
The traces that Nich followed led us along the river, rising towards the densely forested plain.
We quickly lost our enthusiasm. We advanced reluctantly. Dust swirled under our feet. The hours passed. Relentless, Nich followed the fugitives' invisible, zig‑zagging trace. But just as we had decided to turn back, we came across a lone knia tree in the middle of a field of grass higher than our heads. Here, we could sec that Tuan and Dieu Nuong had lain down to rest. An army of ants was dragging away grains of rice. There was a cigarette butt, a bit of rough tobacco rolled in a piece of newspaper, on the ground. But the clearest sign was a shape, pressed upon the grass – a reclining, human form, a woman's silhouette.
We caught up with them just before dusk.
Exhausted, we stopped by a stream. Nich had lost the scent in the water, and we sat down to rest. Our silence hung in the intense red of the sunset.
Suddenly, over the murmuring of the stream, came a thin, unexpected sound.
'The guitar!' cried Cu.
We listened, holding our breath. A voice began to sing.
We forded the river, creeping towards the place from where the song seemed to rise. It was a pine forest. Sparse trees reached for the sky. A thin curl of smoke evaporated in the evening.
A twig snapped. The song stopped.
I hid myself behind a tree trunk, staring, wide‑eyed. A pot hung over a tiny fire. Nearby lay a guitar. A hammock had been strung between two pines. Our prey had hidden in the bushes.
Silence. For a long time. Mechanically, I cocked my rifle.
'Friends, brothers!' It was Tuan's voice. 'We haven't harmed anyone. Let us go!'
'Quiet!' shouted one of the scouts. 'Stand up! Hands up! Come out of there!'
One minute. Minutes. Still silence. Cu suddenly let go of Nich's leash. The dog ran off, and I heard him barking in the bushes. Frantic yelps of joy. The bush trembled.
'I am wandering,' sang the voice.
'Crazy woman!' someone shouted. 'Whore!'
Four rifles spat bullets in the same instant. Flashes merged, ripping through the night.
We emptied four cartridges. The guns stopped at the same moment. All four of us ran forward and then stopped, petrified.
Behind the shattered bush, two figures lay entwined. Our bullets seemed only to have locked them more tightly together. The man had tried to protect the woman with his body, but the bullets had pierced both of them. The firelight flickered on their naked backs.
We stood paralyzed for a long time. Night fell. It was as if we were chained to each other, captive to something invisible but overpowering. The smell of gunpowder, the only trace of our frenzy, had evaporated.
Cu started to sob.
I knelt next to Tuan and Dieu Nuong and parted them.
Two days later, we received orders to march south. We left Diem forever. I pulled myself together, as did Cu. There was a battle ahead of us, the only salvation left for our souls. We would fight and forget.
We didn't know it then, but we had reached the last dry season of the war. We had shot the messengers of peace, and yet, in spite of everything, peace returned.
On the plain, all through the dry season, winds howled. Peaceful winds; savage winds.
Adapted from a novella translated from the Vietnamese
by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson
First published by Granta