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The Blue sky

Saturday, 31/08/2019 00:16
 Nhà văn Lê Minh Khuê

 

LÊ MINH KHUÊ

Born in 1949. From 1969 to 1975: Regular reporter in war zones. From 1975 to 1978: Reporter of Vietnam Television. From 1979: Editor of Publishing House of Vietnam Writers Association. She was awarded the Prize of Viet Nam Writers’Association for novels and short stories and some Awards in Sweden and South Korea for her Anthology of short stories.

 

 

 

One extremely hot day, a battalion liaison officer ran toward a bunker where several reporters were waiting.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “it’s almost time for the press conference.”

There was a shuffling of pens and papers and cameras. The journalists had been waiting since morning. The heroes of the last few battles were being brought about to report their achievements and even though the reporters had covered most of the fighting themselves, they didn’t want to miss this press conference.

The reporters turned down a footpath leading to a makeshift shed by a stream. All of them were middle-aged, except for one young woman. She was wearing the same fatigues and floppy hat as any other female soldier in the region. The only difference was her complexion, which, at this moment, was so pale with emotion that it made people think she was only a visitor to the front. She scribbled notes, then looked outside, then scribbled notes again, her lips trembling and her pen trembling as well. The photographer, who sported a pencil-thin mustache, pulled at the shirtsleeves of a short colleague.

“Check out that girl over there,” he said. “She’s about to do something crazy. She’s going to fall in love with one of the heroes. I guarantee it.”

The short guy seemed annoyed. “Stop it. You have a way of assuming that everything will turn out bad. Anyway, why not?

She’s young. When she gets married, that’s the end of it anyway, as far as love is concerned.”

The photographer snickered. The young woman, who was full of anticipation, heard the laughter behind her, turned around, and her eyes immediately flashed with anger. But the soldiers had come: six young heroes. The face of the young woman went even paler with agitation and she forgot the laughter of the photographer. After the short press conference, she approached one of the soldiers, a scout. The two of them went outside and sat down on a rock by the stream.

The scout swung his gaze onto the young woman. He seemed intelligent and refined. “The journalist should introduce herself first,” he said.

“You can call me Ninh—in my articles I go by the name Nguyen Thi Ninh.”

He shook his head. “I very rarely read the paper; I don’t recognize any reporter’s name.”

His honesty unsettled her. She opened her notepad but couldn’t take any notes. Just like any other young person during the American War, especially among those close to the front, she felt such a deep affection for soldiers that she could have opened up to him about anything in her life.

She felt awkward, ugly, and shy under his gaze. Oh Lord, those eyes, that face. It seemed at that moment that she had lived her whole life waiting for a person like him.

The photographer sat watching from inside the shed. The reporters were busy getting their material, so he could sit back and relax. His pencil-thin mustache jerked spitefully. He gazed at the pair of young people talking next to the stream, gazed at their innocence and, once again, felt an urge to ridicule it.

“Tell me,” Ninh said to the soldier, “Tell me about your most memorable experience.”

The scout smiled. He was also young and so his heart fluttered easily. He fixed his gaze on a tiny flower growing up between a crack in the stone.

“My name is Dong,” he said. “I’m twenty years old. From Hanoi.”

He spoke slowly, pausing between his sentences. Ninh knew that he had become an extremely famous soldier over the past few days.

One week earlier, Dong’s reconnaissance team had gone on a mission. The trail they had to cross was in the midst of fierce fighting. About a kilometer away, soldiers were fighting enemy armored and infantry divisions, while a squadron of enemy helicopters and jets occupied different positions within the airspace. Suddenly, an M113 tank appeared out of nowhere, raced toward where they were hiding, and came to a halt right in front of them. The driver of the tank jumped to the ground and, leaving it behind, made for the trail.

“Halt!” Dong shouted. The Southern soldier looked back but kept running. His face went pale from fear. Maybe he had been planning to abandon the tank and desert his post. At that time, Thang, who was standing next to Dong, became impatient. He quickly fired a burst of machine-gun fire, but the driver disappeared into the thick jungle.

The tank stood with its engine still running, an enormous hulk in the middle of the trail. This was truly an unforeseen circumstance. The men looked at each other, both worried and delighted. They looked inside. There was no sign of any other crewmen.

Dong said, “I know how to drive. Not very well, but well enough. Let’s go!”

“I’m not scared,” one of the others said. “Let’s do it!”

Dong jumped into the tank. He had to fiddle for twenty minutes before the thing would budge. A scout had to be a jack-ofall-trades and, in the past, Dong had learned to drive a tank, but not an enemy tank. Who would have ever thought this would happen to him? The enemy were running away like ducks trying to save themselves. Perhaps the enemy soldier had driven it away in a panic when the attack started. Or perhaps he’d planned to take it and defect.

Finally, after spinning it like a beetle, Dong managed to race the tank toward the sound of the gunfire. On the way, he spotted two of their own infantrymen running down the hillside with a B40 rocket launcher. It became clear to him, then, who was losing, since the soldiers were no longer waiting in ambush but had begun to rush forward to confront the enemy. Dong stopped the tank, pushed open the hatch and began to wave his floppy hat frantically in the air. The guys with the B40 came to a halt, understanding instantly. They crossed to the edge of the trail to get a better look, then began to run toward the tank.

Their faces were bright with admiration. “Where’d you get this thing?” one of them shouted over all the noise of the explosives. “Why don’t you take it and attack the enemy on the hill over there? Those two positions still belong to them and our troops are exhausted.”

He tugged at Dong’s shirtsleeve, “Hey! Let me get on,” he said. “I still have four rockets left.

We can stop by our resupply point and pick up another B40 for my friend and ask for some more rockets, okay?”

“Done!” Dong nodded. The two soldiers quickly climbed up.

But one more time they nearly became the target of a B40 launched from their side. The guys on the tank had to stand on top, waving their hats and their hands. After that, no B40s flew toward them.

They picked up the extra rockets and B40, then continued. On several hills in front of them, soldiers were attacking the enemy stronghold. Clouds of smoke swelled and dispersed, making the scene seem to float in a thick mist. The parachute flares the enemy were shooting into the air fluttered aloft, held suspended in the air by the pressure from so many explosions. The soldiers could see the silhouettes of their own comrades running through the smoke.

A helicopter was lying belly-up in the middle of the enemy stronghold, next to sandbag-lined trenches. A truck blocked the way up the hill. Dong stepped on the gas and pushed the truck down into a bomb crater. The enemy hesitated, then began to shoot at the stolen tank. Dong drove forward into the enemy defenses.

His own soldiers were running on both sides of the tank, some of them so proud of this captured treasure that they were shouting with joy as they fired.

An enemy machine gun was crushed beneath the treads of the tank. One of the soldiers sitting on top of the tank shot at the enemy’s ammunition pile. The target burst into flames like a gasoline torch. An enemy soldier dropped his M.72 and scrambled up a mound of earth. Dong drove the M.113 across the artillerybracketed battlefield to the right of the fortified hillside. Then he began to ascend the hill itself, pulverizing everything in his path until he finally reached the central bunker and came to a halt. Here, he met comrades from his battalion.

The scouts already knew this area as clearly as the palms of their hands, which is why Dong was immediately able to thrust in the right direction. They had taken over the entire battlefield and the soldiers were already hoarse from cheering. A guy Dong knew handed him a cigarette.

“So you finished enough of your scouting duties to give you time for this sort of thing?”, he asked.

“Plenty of time. Tonight, we’ll fight even more.” Soldiers surrounded the tank, inspecting and discussing it.

The enemy commander was led out of the bunker. He was a bald-headed, fat colonel with small eyes. He paused for a moment, looking calmly into the eyes of the victors.

Dong stopped speaking. The young woman journalist grew tense.

“And then what happened?” she asked him.

“After that, I was dragged all over the place, answering questions about what had happened. I didn’t enjoy it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. For a soldier, fighting is easier than talking.”

The young woman looked at the soldier’s hands: two rough, sinewy hands whose apparent experience contrasted with the youthful face.

Ninh tried to restrain herself but, unable to do so, asked a question she had thought of earlier.

“When you go out onto the battlefield like that, do you feel any fear?”

“No! At those moments, you’re only fighting. That’s all. The first hillside I drove up was so steep. You can’t imagine. Sitting inside the tank, I could only see the sky. When the front of the tank slammed down onto the hill again, that was how I knew I’d finally reached the top.”

Ninh scrawled a quick note on her pad, “Sitting in the tank and only able to see the sky.”

 

During the rest of his story, she hadn’t been able to write down a word. But it seemed as if she could remember every pause and expression on his face.

She didn’t want to think of saying good-bye. Her heart beat painfully in her chest. Ninh didn’t know when she’d started to be infatuated with soldiers and their victories, just like a thirteen-yearold boy. The quality of this emotion made it difficult for her to distinguish between love for an individual soldier and love for all of them. But she’d never felt like this before. Her delicate hand sat motionless in the hand of the scout.

Dong was surprised to see the tears welling up in the young woman’s eyes. He turned his back toward everyone else as if to protect her from their stares.

His voice seemed altered.

“Good-bye!” he said. “See you around.”

She shook her head, the tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Where will you be that I can meet you?”

Dong was the last to leave, to cross the wooden bridge that led back across the stream. The truck waited for the soldiers. Ninh had already dried her tears and her face looked normal, but when the engine started on the other side of the stream, she could no longer contain herself. She ran into the shed, threw herself onto a

chair, and burst into tears. Fortunately, there was no one in the shed.

That evening, the group of reporters stayed in the barracks of the youth volunteers, relatively far from the front. The photographer finished off a huge can of pork sausage in a few swallows. He looked over at Ninh’s untouched ration box and then at her listless face and snickered, “You miss him a lot, huh? He’s number how many hundred already?”

The young woman carried her ration box to a hammock and sat down to eat her food. In general, she didn’t like to talk to the photographer. She didn’t have the wit to compete with a man twenty years her senior, who had lived through the French occupation of Hanoi and had four children in addition to two mistresses who traipsed in and out of the office all day. In general, he was small-minded and mean. He’d even noticed the way the hem of Ninh’s black pants had barely touched her ankles when she first came to work at the office. He’d even made fun of her blue flip-flops. And when Ninh sat reviewing her French in the office, he laughed when she mispronounced a word. Within the rosy mist that always enveloped Ninh, he was the wooden stake piercing through to torment her. He had written a ditty, which he read aloud for everyone to hear, comparing her to a chicken who had dared to join the peacocks. Even now, among all these goodnatured people, he still hadn’t changed. His thin face only became alive when there was no sound of bombs or guns. He was not only mean but unusually afraid of dying and he always got in people’s way.

How could a man like that understand me? Ninh asked herself, nibbling at her canned meat and scowling at the cowardly face of the photographer. Now wonder he has a pot belly, she thought. He eats like a tiger.

That night, sitting in her hammock with her flashlight on, Ninh finished the article about the scouts and Dong’s captured tank. First thing the next morning, she handed the article to the army reporters and ventured off toward the front by herself. The photographer also headed off in that direction. Ninh knew that he must have had a compelling reason to go. She had never met anyone as afraid of death as he was. Anyway, she found it more pleasant to go alone. She was in the habit of taking a backpack, jumping onto trucks, and traveling for long days to get closer to the fighting.

This time, she had asked to go forward in hope of meeting the scout again.

At the moment they had parted, her love for Dong had been so fierce that she would have sacrificed everything simply to be allowed to go with him. Her article, full of fire for him, had been submitted. She had scrawled all her emotions, admiration, and the fluttering of her heart across the back of a discarded piece of mimeographed paper. Pretty soon, that article would fall into the scout’s hands. Would he read between the lines of words describing his achievements?

In the following days, she calmed down and was able to see him as one among the thousands of soldiers with whom she had met and spoken. Sometimes, she laughed at her own emotions. But if she wasn’t in love, then how could she write?

She stayed for two more weeks, visiting the artillery and infantry units. Many more faces and many more victories made her heart beat painfully when she had to say goodbye.

On the truck taking her back to the city, Ninh was impatient to read the article she’d written about Dong. In her rush, she’d forgotten to ask what street he lived on and his address. Where could she find him?

After dropping her backpack off at home, she ran straight to her office. The peacefulness of the place amazed her. The painter was slouched in her chair, discussing dress fashions with the treasurer. The photographer, already cleaned up, was standing in the courtyard with a friend, talking loudly and roaring with laughter. Seeing Ninh, the photographer yelled, “Ah! The busy lover has returned, huh?”

Ninh tried to contain her anger. “I just got back,” she said.

“Do you know what issue my article was published in?”

“It was cut,” he said indifferently.

“Why?”

“Go on in and ask your boss. It never even made it to the editorial board.”

Ninh rushed into the editorial office. Three heads. Three pairs of glasses perched on the tips of three noses. The sounds of chairs sliding back. Greetings.

“So you got back, Ninh. Was it a safe trip?”

“Yes, so to speak,” she answered. “Why wasn’t my article published, Khang?”

“Have something to drink and relax first. Have you had a chance to clean up yet?”

Ninh became impatient. “No, but I can wait until I get home later.”

Knowing Ninh’s character, the department head pulled out a chair and asked her to sit down. He fumbled through a drawer to find her article. She looked at his bald head and smiled sourly.

Before she’d come to work here, the sound of his name had made her heart flutter. Tuan Khang!

She’d imagined him to be youthful, healthy, a man who wore white sports clothes, whistled often, and took the stairs three steps at a time. The day she returned from her journalist’s training, she was assigned to the public housing building where he lived. People pointed out Mr. Tuan Khang.

Carrying a spittoon in his hands, he walked down the stairs one step at a time. He had let his hair grow long around his ears so that he could brush it over to cover the bald crown of his head.

Every morning, he coughed loudly and spit into the toilet. People also told her about his stinginess, many of the stories so bizarre that it was hard to know if they were true or not. But people knew for sure that he was the boss of everything in his house. He allotted the matchbox to a corner of the pantry and always set aside three matches for the day. Often, his wife had to go ask a neighbor for a light because she’d already used up all three without getting the fire started. In the privacy of their home, he would beat his wife for boiling five cents worth of water greens for only one meal.

Now, looking at the few hairs brushed across his bald head and remembering those stories, Ninh felt creepy.

“Let me explain, Ninh,” he began. “The article you wrote was full of zeal and was able to convey the atmosphere of the battlefield. But you went over the top. When I finished, I knew it stretched the truth.”

Hot-tempered to begin with, Ninh couldn’t bear to hear what the department head had to say. She was so angry that tears came to her eyes. It was a long time before she could speak.

“There’s no lack of unusual stories from soldiers. You might not believe it, but you have to publish it. The soldiers will know it’s true.”

The bald man calmly looked at the young woman. He believed that she was rather unbalanced and, although likely to explode over anything, she’d probably lose interest eventually anyway. He took his time. “There’s no lack of other role models either,” he said. “Coming back this time, you probably have plenty of material, so just go ahead and write about something more believable.”

Ninh jumped up, her face flushed, her lips trembling uncontrollably. But then she quietly walked out of the room. When she reached the stairs, she burst into tears. The photographer was standing there grinning.

It wasn’t the first time she’d seen him grin that way. Once, he and Ninh had gone to a timber forest in Central Vietnam.

During wartime, the timber forests were calmer than other places because all the work was carried out in the woods and the trees made people feel protected. That time, the man in question was eloquent and more intelligent than ever. An engineer who had just come back from studying abroad, he was full of enthusiasm and beautiful but impractical ideas.

He worked in a technical office. Seeing that the timber workers’ administrative section was too big and cumbersome, he came up with an innovation: Leaving only a third of the staff inside, all the rest of the office workers would participate in clearing a route to transport the wood from the newly harvested area to the main road. He volunteered to work as a team leader and his friends followed suit.

Ninh and the photographer went there during the days that the administrators began to work on the new route. During one crystal clear afternoon in the ancient forest, Ninh met the engineer and fell in love immediately. His health, energy, and clearmindedness completely suited Ninh’s ideas. Mostly, though, she was drawn by the fact that everyone else admired him. He could have remained comfortably back in the office. What had made him jump headlong into this difficult work? She was also moved by the fact that the corps flag marking the front line was always near where the engineer worked.

In the evening, back in the guest house, a passion-filled Ninh sat writing an article about this man and his friends. She sent the article back immediately and spent another week in the timber forest. Her undeclared love for the engineer began to fade because there were so many other men around. But everything had been declared in her passionate article.

When they parted, Ninh said to the engineer, “After you read my article, if you have any response, please write to me.”

But Mr. Tuan Khang hadn’t published it. Why not? Her eyes had opened wide with consternation as she’d peered into the department head’s face, a face like a big red pumpkin. He had taken his time. “Calm down, calm down,” he’d said.

“No. How can I calm down?” she’d asked. “A story like that, and you won’t publish it? Look, at a time when everyone is complaining that the support sections are too big and hogging too many workers, a story like this is really important.”

The department head had pushed his few hairs from one temple to the other. He’d pulled open a flimsy wooden cigarette box, drew out a cigarette, broke it in two, then carefully placed one half back inside. Ninh had never seen him have the courage to smoke an entire cigarette. His method of smoking unnerved her.

There was something so extraordinarily greedy about it, maybe because he had struggled so long before finally giving in. She had impatiently asked him, “So why?”

“Where would it lead? That team that’s building the road, once they’ve finished what will they do?”

“They’ll do something else! There’s a lack of laborers in the timber forest. There’s so much to do!” Ninh was flustered. Clearly, she had never asked herself this question.

“Will they become permanent manual laborers, then?” he had wanted to know. “And in the article you say that most of them are technicians. Technicians are trained to deal with technology. Because of their fervency, they’ve dropped it all to become laborers. Now the timber forest will have to find some other technicians. How do you think that will turn out economically?”

While writing the article, Ninh had never actually considered this issue. But didn’t she have the right to commend their enthusiasm?

“That won’t do, Ninh,” he had told her. “You might commend them, but the readers will want answers. When you put forward a new concept, you have to consider all the possibilities.

You can’t rush into praising everything.”

Ninh had run toward the stairs in indignation and met the photographer, who had been grinning in the same way he was grinning today.

* * *

Now, the department head watched Ninh go to where her bike was parked, take it, and rush out of the compound.

The cold water he had thrown on her enthusiasm about Dong’s story was too much, too brutal, and it made her feel faint.

With his outlook on life, could he see any good in the world?

Ninh rushed home and threw herself on the bed, sobbing to release her anger. She looked through the window at a patch of blue sky and felt pity for the loss of the blue sky that the scout had seen while he was driving the tank. Suddenly, she felt so much love for him. He was far away now at the front. For so long, he had been without a good night’s sleep and even a hot meal while the people here didn’t even believe him.

That room over there was the photographer’s, right near the entrance to the apartment building. Whenever any young people came up to the young women’s common room, he would know it.

One day, he complained at a house meeting that the young women’s room wasn’t enforcing the rules strictly enough. A young woman had even been seen kissing her lover while her roommates were away. Such things couldn’t be permitted. The communal house had to be a true communal house. If outsiders had seen this kissing, they would have thought the communal house lacked culture. At that meeting, a man had asked him directly, “How do you know that people were kissing each other?” The photographer shamelessly replied that the window had been open and so he had looked.

The man asked another question. “If you were in love, wouldn’t you kiss?”

The photographer had exploded, saying that he would request to move, but they all knew that it was a hollow threat. With a wife and a bunch of children, where could he go? He was the peacock who believed that all the chickens were about to soil his feathers.

The room on the other side of the public fountain was the department head’s. As his belly grew fatter, his head grew full of dark suspicions. Recently, in a room next to Ninh’s, a woman had heard someone call through the gate at about eleven at night. She’d gone out and spoken to someone who had given her a piece of news that made her immediately begin to cry. She was from the countryside and expressed her emotions openly and noisily. As she trudged back up the stairs, sobbing, she caused a commotion throughout the whole building. Ninh had opened the door and the woman grabbed her. “Oh Ninh, Manh is dead. Oh, little brother!

You were so young and you’ve left me already! Only three days ago, we were eating together. Why did you rush off like that?”

Ninh had turned pale. Manh had been a soldier on the missile brigade. Three days before, when he had come to visit his sister, he and Ninh had joked around. His unit had gone down to the Fourth Zone and he’d died there.

Because Ninh’s boss often had trouble sleeping, he’d heard the loud noise and came upstair to find out what had happened.

When he heard the news, he pontificated, “Whatever happened, it’s late and you ladies need to keep quiet out of respect for the rules.

Tomorrow, people have to go to work and if they can’t sleep, they won’t be able to function.”

The women had gone to their rooms and shut the doors. Everybody was quiet. They were all afraid of him and whatever plots were in his head.

But that night, Ninh couldn’t sleep at all. Her nineteen-yearold heart was in excruciating pain. She had also loved Manh and now he was dead. How could death come so swiftly and unreasonably?

For a long time now, Ninh lay looking out the window and thinking. Her thoughts were scattered and her tears blurred everything. Through her sobs, Ninh sang the words of her favorite song: “Even though winter passed, the beautiful images have faded away and the leaves are already pouring from the branches. I will remember you all my life. You’ll return, you’ll return.”

Among the countless faces she had loved, the face of the tank-driving scout came back to her more than any other.

* * *

Two years passed. The small reporter continued to go back and forth in the dusty convoys. The war against the Americans was moving toward victory. As the days progressed, the department head grew fatter and became more and more confined within those four walls. He always acted aloof, although one day he had thrown a basin full of water at his wife because she lost the ration ticket for their remaining three kilos of meat. When she cried loudly, he dragged her into the house, thrust her head against the wall, and hissed, “Shut up right now!” He was afraid that his reputation would be affected. He had succeeded in passing some of his indifference and cynicism about everything onto Ninh. These days, after hearing a story, she would hesitate a bit. Writing her articles, she would stop to consider whether anyone would believe it and whether anyone would question her or not. She didn’t fall in love as easily, either. Now, almost every one of her articles passed the department head’s inspection. They were accurate, temperate, and no longer as full of fire as before. She understood this was necessary for a journalist.

One afternoon, while walking home, she heard someone call out loudly, “Ninh!”. An army jeep came to an abrupt halt by the side of the road. A soldier ran toward her: “Ninh! Ninh!”

“Is that you? Oh, my!”

Ninh looked at the soldier and her “Oh, my!” was so temperate that he stopped quickly and his expectations immediately diminished. They asked about each other like two people who had come from far away to meet, like two people who had known each other a long time. While Ninh spoke to him, she wondered why, back at the front, she had thought him so handsome and unreachable. It seemed as if, at that time, he had been taller and his gaze more intelligent. That day, in the forest destroyed by American bombs, he had had the beauty of a knight.

Standing next to him, all the calamities of war had seemed smaller and less disastrous. She had felt prepared to follow him to the ends of the earth. She had loved him fiercely and didn’t care to know anything else about his life beyond his achievements and his looks.

“It was such a shame,” she said. “The story I wrote about you was never published.”

He smiled. “I was so busy; I couldn’t have read it anyway.”

He was on the point of saying something else to this girl whom he had once protected, shielding her tears from other people’s curious eyes. He wanted to say, “I didn’t dare to write, but there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t think of you.” Now, he thought better of it. She had changed. He shouldn’t think that things were the same as before.

After saying good-bye to the scout, Ninh returned to the communal house. The photographer had mistakenly put something into the pot of porridge that his wife had prepared for the children and now she was berating him. He was terrified of his wife. The more chivalrously he acted outside the home, the more cowardly he became in contact with the two iron hands of his wife. He was wearing shorts and an undershirt and his arms and legs were deathly pale. He was so afraid of his wife that he didn’t even dare to glance up at Ninh as she walked by.

Ninh walked into her room, opened the window, and saw the sky. She thought how Dong had said that when he was driving the tank, he could only see the sky. Was that a lie or the truth? Maybe, she thought, it was a lie.

1986

Translated by Trần Bắc Hoài and Dana Sachs

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