With a faint sadness, I came back to the earthenware jar of rice wine in the afternoon, only half of it left. The highlands night wind was howling outside. H'Noanh, my sworn sister during the anti-US war, was curled up by the jar of wine. Hearing me come in, she raised her head: "Are you back, brother?" "You haven't slept, have you?" I asked.
"Not yet. I'm waiting for you. I've been expecting you for a decade. One night is nothing!"
I pulled the cane tube down slightly to drink more wine, just wishing to get drunk. I felt the bitterness of the alcohol spreading all over my body. I dipped the tube deeper. She smiled at me as if encouraging me to drink to the bottom of the jar. More then ten years had gone by, and I could finally see her. This span of time was equal to the time we had been together deep in the jungle. At that time, she was on duty in one liaison station and I was in another. Separated by Kon Töøng Hill, we had lunch together on the top of the mountain every day. I carried ammunition in a dossier for her and she carried documents for me. When the 1968 offensive happened, we were brought together as liaisons to the battlefront. She was tall and as agile as a deer. In those days, I did not think that she could become old. Yet now my sister had become an old woman. Time is quite cruel to humans.
"Let's drink until dawn! I thought you forgot me, brother!" she said to me.
I pulled another cane tuber for her. She started drinking avidly. I could tell that she was still strong. I came to see her at noon time. She was overjoyed, running to invite all the people in the hamlet to come and enjoy the alcohol with us. The villagers came with several more jars of wine. My sister's joy spread to other families around and to the roâng house [the Highlanders' communal house]. I was carried into this joyful reunion.
"You're very happy, aren't you?" She spoke the language of her tribe, the JRai, in an affectionate voice. "Yes, you're happy, but I know you're ten times sadder."
I dropped the tube, beginning to feel giddy. I hung my head on the jar just to try to keep my balance.
"Keep on drinking because the alcohol will help alleviate your dizziness."
I took the tube from her. My sister poured some more water into the jar. I gulped the liquid down. The wine became gradually watery.
"When you drink this kind of alcohol, you should not leave it half done," she said. "You'll get drunk by doing it that way. When you drink to the dregs" - she smiled, embracing my shoulders tightly - "the alcohol will save you from getting drunk. The more you drink, the less drunk you will get, you see!"
She had taught me how to drink it when we were liaisons at the Kon Töøng Liaison Station.
"If you could not come back to see me, I would never take you to task, brother!"
*** She took up her bamboo ñing-yông flute and leaned on the wall, inclining her head sideways to stoke the fire. I could see her more clearly in the glow of the fire. I embraced the jar of alcohol and listened. It was the deep of the night with wind hissing outside. I heard the sound of the ñing-yông vaguely in my slumber. She changed her sitting position. In my mind, the sound seemed to convey that she was on a terraced field and dusk was coming. Then she was plunging in the river to look for snails; then the whole hamlet was carrying rice plants home in the har-
vest-time. Then she was sitting on a fallen tree by the Bool stream with the dossier, carrying dried gourds full of water on her back, and then I heard a sound made by a deer at the edge of the forest. I saw a bird flying amid trees, a python crawling among the rocks. The stream was murmuring. My sister was gradually drifting back to the age of twenty. I saw her carrying a dossier of ammunition on her back and the ñingyông on her chest, those young soldiers joking around with her and the whole forest ringing with laughter. Her singing voice reverberated in the forest. Then her sobbing came from a bush. There was a soldier lying dead there. She was sitting by the dead body and then she got up and dug the grave to bury the soldier. The rain was pouring down. There was a gibbon howling, a falling tree nearby. The sounds of war were raging over the whole area and hurting human hearts. She was walking alone amid heavy rain.
Behind her were other soldiers marching in silence. One year. Two years. For three years and more, she persistently carried these dossiers of ammunition for the front. Thousands of soldiers had known her, loved her and parted with her. For over ten years she had been living and working on the forest trail. The forest was as old as anybody can remember, but my sister showed the signs of age more visibly.
All of a sudden, my sister dropped the bunch of bamboo pipes and lifted me onto the hammock. I let her do it with docility. "Yes, you are really drunk, aren't you, brother?"
"No, I only feel a bit sick, sister," I said. "Why are you so bad at drinking now?"
Then she turned to stoke the fire into a big flame. Her face, surrounded by silver hair, was gradually blurred. She took a dried tobacco leaf from the pannier and rolled it into a cigar and gave it to me. I took it and she lit it with a tinder for me.
I heard her slow steps on the floor. It was a quiet night. The wind had subsided. I inhaled the cigar. The sound of the ñing-yông could be heard in the yard. She was having a heart-to-heart talk with me. In addition to carrying ammunition, she had also carried hundreds of kilos of rice and salt, heaps of office paper, commendation certificates, medals and orders back to the village after the liberation day. Nobody could recognise her but old woman Roâchamñin. She took my sister to live in her house because my sister's mother had died together with her three brothers in a B-52 carpet bombing raid in late 1965. She had joined the liberation army after that. Now that peace was restored, her unit suggested she go to Haø Noäi to study, but she wanted to go back to her village. However, when she returned to her village, the villagers seemed to turn a cold shoulder to her because she had forgotten a lot of practices and customs. As a local official, she asked them to change their way of farming and to settle down in the plain to do farm work which she promised would improve their lives. Old Roâchamñin died while leaving the village. The vil- lagers beat the gong to punish her. She could not explain anything to them. It was the second time that she had lived alone by the edge of the forest.
Yet time was the best healer. My sister had lived alone for ten years. She did not live in the district. She did not work as a local official. She did not say anything. My sister was like a shadow living next to the villagers. One year. Two years. Ten years. When her hair had turned grey and her teeth had disappeared, the villagers showed pity for her and came to ask her to live with them. Only the liberation fighters knew the legends of liaison girl H'Noanh. My sister had to begin from the beginning. She again took up the ñing-yông. The sound became gradually warmer and sweeter. I got off the hammock and walked unsteadily. The district administration had built a house for her next to the other villagers' houses. "Couldn't you sleep, brother?" My sister stopped blowing the flute. I leaned on her shoulder, watching the whole village subside into sleep.
"I did not want to sleep," I said. She started to play the ñing-yông again. When she could not speak her feelings in words, she used the flute to express her joy and sadness. It was like a miraculous spirit that helped her vent all of her sadness and suffering. She seemed to have gotten younger once again.
"You've got an indulgence these days, my dear!"
I embraced her waist, gazing at the early morning mist shrouding the Polang trees. I could hear the sound of rice pounded in mortars and cocks crowing. My sister stopped blowing the flute. She started singing softly, a song praising the prairie that she had learnt when she was still very small, when she raced with the wind, played with her friends in the hamlet and ran after the peewit birds in the meadow. The song recalled the day when the US bombing raid had destroyed her hamlet and burnt the whole meadow in 1968. I looked onto the large garden covered in green coffee plants with sweet-smelling flowers. I felt moved, but I did not know if I was sad or happy. More than ten years ago, this area was still a prairie.