Prairie

Outlook - - SHORT STORY - By Trung Trung Ñænh

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.

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