James D. Redwood
Nguyen Van Manh crept along the border of the Lake of the Restored Sword, where the magic tortoise dwelt. Ever since he’d arrived in Hanoi the night before, a city swept up in rejoicing over the end of the war, Manh had run across thousands of people, his fellow veterans mostly, dressed in drab olive uniforms and sweat-stained pith helmets with a red star in the middle, like himself, and all of them happy, celebrating, ecstatic as newborn stars in the unfamiliar firmament of peace. In 1428, at the completion of another war, Emperor Le Loi had returned the symbolic sword with which he’d defeated the Chinese to the huge tortoise and walked away from the lake in triumph, a hero beloved of his people for all time. First Class Private Manh, barely noticeable in his shabby fatigues, halted in front of a soup vendor dispensing steaming bowls of pho under a sau tree outside the Hoa Phong Tower.
“Excuse me,” he said, his voice straining to make itself heard above the din of early morning trams and Moskwa automobiles carrying people to work. “Can you tell me where Comrade Photographer Ngo Khai Duong lives?”
Just as the words were out of his mouth, Manh noticed the customer into whose bowl the old merchant was ladling soup. The young woman, who was turned away from him, was also dressed in fatigues, and a floppy field hat clung to her forehead, under which her straight black hair drooped down her back. Manh felt a strange tightening in his chest, as though he’d been dragged under the surface of Restored Sword Lake by the renowned turtle itself and could no longer breathe. From behind, the woman might have been mistaken for Mei-linh.
“What did you ask, young man?” the soup seller said, his ladle suspended above the girl’s bowl. He glared suspiciously at the threadbare veteran in front of him. Vermicelli noodles wiggled like worms in the middle of the ladle.
Manh was terrified the young woman might turn around. The dead do not return to earth to eat soup, he told himself. But still he could not speak.
“Young man?” the vendor asked again, impatiently. He finished serving the girl, who wheeled at last.
“I was wondering where Ngo Khai Duong lives,” Manh said, easily now, relieved at the woman’s homeliness. Her face was squat and brown, like a potato, her nose as flat as a rice pancake, her eyes set so far apart they looked as though they were trying to escape from each other. Smallpox scars pitted her face like miniature B-52 craters.
“Duong, the famous photographer,” Manh repeated.
The vendor gazed at him through a wreath of mist which rose from the aluminum pot in which his pho brewed. The old man stirred the soup to keep it off the boil.
“What do you want with a man like him?” he asked. “Comrade Duong is being made a Councillor of State today, even while we speak. Our whole neighborhood is proud of it.”
He sniffed in reflected glory at these last words and cast another disparaging look at the tattered PAVN private. The heroes who had saved the country in April 1975 were now the outcasts of May.
“For his photographs, you know,” the old man went on. A customer called from the other side of the soup stand, and the seller pointedly turned his back on Manh and strode away.
“Indeed, they are marvelous, don’t you think, Comrade?” the young woman slurping her soup whispered. “The photographs, I mean,” she added nervously.
She spoke up too soon, too eagerly, and Manh ruthlessly turned his back on her the way the soup vendor had on him. What right did she have to talk about these photographs? He was suddenly resentful of her. What right did she have to be sitting there at all? He was about to tramp away when the old man turned back.
“Return after dark,” he said. “Number 17, Liberation Court. Right over there.”
He jerked his head toward a building across the street, then flitted once more to the far side of the soup cart. Manh spun on his heels and stalked off without a word to the young cadre who still sat patiently above her bowl, gazing at him. How dare she remind him of Mei-linh!
“Here, girl, let me show you.”
Ngo Khai Duong cocked his squat black Hasselblad up onto his shoulder like a soldier hoisting his rifle to attention and strutted over to Mei-linh. His stringy salt-and-pepper hair was combed straight back over his temples in a rakish manner that reminded Manh of the playboy Emperor Bao Dai, and a Cambodian cigarette from which a long trail of ash hung down drooped from his mouth. He smacked his lips together as he came up to her, and his yellow, nicotine-stained teeth looked like a dog’s preparing to bite. Manh winced with displeasure as he looked on. With his free hand the great photographer tugged Mei-linh by the shirt sleeve, first to the left, and then, when that was not satisfactory, he cupped his fingers around the ball of her shoulder and nudged her gently back to the right. Manh’s eyes narrowed as he noticed how long Duong’s hand lingered on Mei-linh’s shoulder. Until, in fact, the girl blushed.
“There, that is good,” the photographer said, his face melting into a smile as he stepped backward. He flicked the ash from his cigarette and then slipped it between his lips again. He gazed at Mei-linh appreciatively.
“You are a pretty bird, you know,” he said. “Now sit on that rock and pretend to play that guitar of yours. But don’t block the others,” he chided. “They’ll look good in the background. Out of focus, of course.”
He chuckled, and with a toss of his hand indicated two rather plain-looking female soldiers seated on another rock directly behind Mei-linh, swiftly shoveling rice into their mouths from a couple of earthenware bowls. The lunch time for Detonation Squad Number 2 had been reduced to ten minutes after the American bombing picked up. Having caught the eye of Ngo Khai Duong, however, Mei-linh could eat later, and take as long as she liked.
“No, no, you don’t actually have to do it,” Duong said impatiently, when Mei-linh suddenly began to play her guitar, delicately, beautifully. Manh watched her, enchanted. Mei-linh played on and on, strumming her heart out, ignoring the black looks of the photographer and the protesting whirr of his camera . . .
Manh wandered the streets with time to kill rather than an enemy. A force as irresistible as love impelled him in the direction of the Old Quarter, where he knew he would only be sad. He shuffled past laughing crowds of shoppers, eager to capitalize on the changes wrought by the Great Spring Victory, and who shoved and jostled one another in high good spirits to get at the wonderful wares displayed in the hundreds of trade shops which had replaced the guilds of Le Loi’s time. Watches, belts, hairpins, foreign cosmetics, lacquer boxes, silver and gold jewelry, reed mats, bamboo furniture. He stopped at a votive objects shop on Ma May and bought a sheaf of ghost paper, which he carried to a nondescript tube house on Hang Dao Street. His eyes welled up as he gazed at the tiny, glass-enclosed foyer where, before the war, Mei-linh and her mother had sold their red-dyed silk goods. The light glanced off the glass, and Manh saw a fleeting figure inside. His heart leaped so violently he felt it pounding in his throat, and he bounded forward and let out a muffled cry. A fat Indian moneylender glared back at him from the other side of the window, a mistrustful glint in his eye. Manh’s hands trembled with disappointment as he took the votive paper from his pocket. The moneylender scowled suspiciously at him as he lit it with a match, cupped his hands in a swift prayer, and then dropped the flaming fragments onto the sidewalk in front of the house. Nor do the dead come back to sell the things of this world, he thought mournfully, as he watched the paper burn.
“Get along with you, vagrant!” the Indian yelled, sticking his head through the door.
Manh turned away, his shoulders slumped as though he carried the entire sorrow of the war just ended all by himself. . . .
Late in the afternoon he became hungry and stopped for a plate of cha xuong song at an outdoor restaurant across from the central rail station. Three years earlier, he and Mei-linh had caught a troop train together from the same station, and his chest clamped up as he remembered it. The train was crowded with hundreds of ardent Youth Volunteers like themselves, their eyes glittering with revolutionary zeal, their hearts pounding a steady drumbeat to victory in the south.
Over the loudspeakers hanging from the station portico, Premier Pham Van Dong exhorted the country to forget the horrors of the war and move forward. Manh thought of Mei-linh again, and his jaw tightened. Were those who’d lost so much to be forgotten, too? His face muscles rippled with anger. Who had the right to sacrifice her again?
“My fellow citizens,” the premier droned, “the day has finally arrived when our great country has thrown off the shackles of colonialism. Peace has come at last, and now we must focus on reform.”
The blast of a train whistle drowned out the premier’s next words, and Manh looked up from the restaurant as another troopload of veterans arrived from the south. Now that the stern work of the war was over, the commanders had allowed the men and women to mingle freely, and several of the male cadres laughed heartily, their arms around the women, and waved bottles of Chinese and Russian beer. Manh saw a young man turn suddenly to the woman next to him and give her a long kiss. The girl burst into a giggle and slapped him playfully, but then stuck her cheek up to be kissed again. Manh sheered his eyes away and stared sullenly at the last bit of pork on his plate. How different it had been when he and Mei-linh were prodded like cattle into separate cars the day they left, only to be reunited in the jungle two weeks later. There was no time then for kisses, for laughter. . . .
“It is time to move on, Comrades,” Premier Dong intoned, his voice crackling with enthusiasm. “The war is over! Let us move forward with reform!”
Manh felt a lump rising in his stomach. He angrily thrust his plate away and scowled at the repeated mantra of reform. The picture of Mei-linh lay before him in his mind, as sharp and clear as on the day Ngo Khai Duong had photographed her. Without her he felt like a man from whom the vital organs had been removed, a victim of the same explosion. What good was it to talk of reform?
“March with me!” Premier Dong concluded, his voice nearly hysterical now. “I command you! Forward!”
Manh scraped his chair back so vehemently it tipped over and clattered to the ground. The restaurant owner and several patrons stared at him, but he left the chair where it lay and stormed off. No one, not even the premier, had the right to order him to move on.
After taking his pictures, Ngo Khai Duong reluctantly agreed to watch that day’s performance, a rehashing of Le Loi’s victory over the Chinese, meant to inspire the troops and give them the necessary will to go out and defuse the unexploded American bombs left behind after every air strike. The great photographer fidgeted in his field chair, however, muttering to Manh how anxious he was to develop his films and return to Hanoi.
“Recently the audience has been captivated more by the music than the acting,” Manh said, hoping to spark his interest. How proud he was to say it, too! His soul stirred with admiration for Mei-linh.
“Really?” Duong said, yawning. He sighed and glanced down at his Rolex, then stared off into space. Manh was miffed at the man’s indifference and pulled back from him. His temples were throbbing wildly now, as they did every time right before the musicians stepped onstage. Eagerly he craned his neck as they filed in at last, in strict order of precedence. Bung, the bamboo flautist, Vu with his violin, Huynh the dan tranh zither player, and finally Mei-linh with her guitar slung over her shoulder. Manh caught his breath when for some reason the others suddenly stepped aside, like abashed moons retreating at dawn, and allowed Mei-linh to seat herself at the very front of the stage. His heart pattered in gratitude at this unexpected acknowledgment of her superiority. He glanced joyfully at the man beside him. Ngo Khai Duong was yawning again. Manh’s fingers twitched with annoyance. How he longed to throttle him!
Just then Mei-linh set her jaw with determination and began to play, and the chords of a melody divine enough to enslave the Emperor of Jade himself floated out over the enraptured audience.
The great photographer snapped his head to the stage for the first time. Suddenly he sat bolt upright, and his eyes sparkled with interest.
“Beautiful,” he murmured fervently. “Simply beautiful!”
Manh peeked at him, pleased.
“Yes,” he said proudly. “Isn’t her playing magnificent?”
He lingered at the edge of the Lake of the Restored Sword and watched the sun set. The purple blossoms of the loc vung trees glittered gaily in the fading light, but their loveliness failed to cheer him. The soup vendor outside the Hoa Phong Tower had already closed up his shop and departed for the night. In the distance Manh heard the jubilant sounds of party bands at the Museum of the Revolution, loudly playing the carefree songs of liberation, most of them French or American. Their upbeat tones filled him with deep sadness.
It grew dark, and young couples started to converge on the lake, some of them boldly holding hands just like westerners, proudly showing off their eagerness to move on. The slow strumming of a guitar came from across the water, which was the color of black silk in the brief hour of the unrisen moon. Nguyen Van Manh flinched at the sound, then sighed.
“Why are you not celebrating the victory, Comrade?”
In the darkness the young woman reminded him of Mei-linh from the front now, and he tensed as she approached. She had a thick book in her hand, the place marked with her forefinger, and Manh suspected she’d spent the day at the Temple of Literature. He itched to drag her into the lighted street where her ugliness would console him. The feeling troubled him.
“Have you been waiting for me . . . , Comrade?” he asked.
She laughed lightly, like a spoon clinking against a glass rim, and Manh found himself wishing the laugh had been coarser, more appropriate for a woman with a face like hers.
“Hardly. Like yourself, I am waiting for the return of Councillor Duong.” She nodded in the direction of the photographer’s apartment. At that moment an explosion shattered the relative stillness of the night, and a brilliant flash of color lit up the sky. Manh knew there’d be fireworks, but nevertheless he shrank into a defensive posture as though they might obliterate him. More explosions came, more flashes of light. Had Premier Dong gone back on his word? The girl laughed merrily again.
“Relax, Comrade. The festivities are ending. Photographer Duong will be coming back soon.”
Manh gathered heart from the increasing light. Fireworks erupted all around them now. Then the moon rose, and a pale orange disc smiled on the waters of the Lake of the Restored Sword. Suddenly he was hit with a sharp pang, however.
“I’m sorry I was so . . . rude to you this morning,” he said. In the light of a particularly large explosion he noticed an unoccupied bench on the edge of the lake. He indicated it with his hand. “Would you like to sit down?”
She nodded, and they moved slowly toward it. On the bench next to them nuzzled a couple of lovers, the girl’s head cocked against the man’s shoulder. They whispered to each other, their voices as sweet as the murmur of wind through grass. As he looked at them, Manh felt his loss more intensely than at any other time since he’d arrived in the capital, and it pained him like the probing of a knife which had found his heart at last. The young veteran girl sat down beside him, and he felt a sudden yearning for her, as though she might be able to remove the knife without hurting him, accompanied by a strange, sad tenderness.
She turned to watch the couple snuggling on their bench, and the sight of her floppy field hat and her long black hair glistening in the moonlight reminded him of how he’d first come to notice her that morning. He stiffened like a man caught on the brink of infidelity, and he drew in great gulps of air to cleanse himself of guilt. His resentment for her returned. What a temptress she was, coming on to him like that! And yet how slatternly she was! Just then she turned back to him, and the smile on her face faded instantly at the frown on Manh’s. She trembled, the lines etched into her potato face indicating her distress, and Manh’s annoyance at her instantly evaporated.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, making his tone as gentle as he could.
She laughed a third time, but the lightness was gone now.
“Oh, it’s all right,” she said, hesitantly. “I sensed you had an important reason for seeing Photographer Duong. You were very serious.”
Manh gazed toward the Lake of the Restored Sword while the happy couple continued to warble next to them. His eye caught the tall granite statue of Le Loi, meant to last the ages, astride his pedestal, the magic sword clutched triumphantly in his hand. Some cheerful young tourists, too young to be drafted, stared up at it and cooed in admiration. Manh clenched his jaws. Did any of them have any idea just how many bones it took to build a monument to a great war hero? Or whose they were? He shot his eyes away from the adoring little group, afraid of what he might do if he didn’t.
“Am I correct?” his companion asked timidly.
He bit his lip and swallowed hard, then looked away again, this time toward Writing Brush Tower and the Sunbeam Bridge on the other side of the lake. The old familiar lump knotted up his stomach again. Of course he had an important reason for seeing such a man! Yet how could he explain it to her?
He’d begged Mei-linh not to join the patrol sent out to defuse the remaining bombs after Ngo Khai Duong’s driver accidentally stepped on one lurking in the Lao grass like a krait. She was still shaking from her meeting with the great photographer, just after the performance, in the darkened tent where he did his developing work. Duong’s high-handedness must have offended her greatly, for she’d left the photograph behind her in the tent. But she didn’t want to talk about it and instead stalked off on the heels of the detonation squad. Manh followed her with his eyes, hoping she might relent, but then he turned sadly away when she did not. . . .
“And you?” he asked. “Why do you wish to see Photographer Duong?”
The young woman squirmed in her seat.
“My mother sent me,” she said softly. “She wishes me to get a photograph from him, if I can.”
Manh leaned instinctively toward her, then suddenly backed off.
“That is what I want, too. How strange!”
Tears glistened in her eyes, and she glanced down at her feet.
“You see, Photographer Duong snuck into Quang Tri right before the puppet troops retook it during our great Easter offensive,” she said. “My brother and a squad of four other men were left behind to keep our flag flying over the citadel. Ngo Khai Duong snapped some pictures of them and got out barely in time. One of the photos later appeared in an issue of Viet-Nam Pictorial, and my mother saw it by chance. She cried over it for days. Now she has sent me to see if Comrade Duong has any others which she can keep for herself. She no longer wants to share him with the rest of the world.”
Manh listened carefully. His heart beat in sympathy at her loss, but then the image of Mei-linh playing her guitar crept into his mind and knocked the young woman’s brother off the ramparts of the Quang Tri Citadel. Slowly he drew away from her. He, too, was tired of sharing Mei-linh—with Ngo Khai Duong.
They climbed the one short flight of stairs together, but by then the girl, who introduced herself as Tran Thi Trinh, had recovered her composure. Manh was struck with the elegant wrought-iron banister, the beautiful chandelier which hung over the staircase like a huge ice crystal, the carved moldings and sculpted plasterwork. Their heels clicked smartly on the translucent marble tiles, which reflected in Manh’s face the new opulence which was the shape of things to come, at least for those lucky enough to be in the vanguard of reform. The house had once belonged to the Assistant Governor General of Tonkin and was now rented out to several stars of the revolution. Manh knocked loudly on the mahogany door several times, afraid the sound might not penetrate the rich, thick wood.
The door creaked open, and a man dressed in an ill-fitting black tuxedo and stocky as a seladang bull stood before them, weaving from side to side. His hair was all gray now, his nose as red as an overripe jambu, and broken capillaries stood out on both cheeks like purple spider webs. Manh leaned back as he caught a whiff of the man’s breath. Good living had aged the great photographer considerably in the last three years.
“Comrade Duong?” the veteran asked, irritated at the trepidation in his voice. “We’d like to speak with you, please.”
“It’s Councillor Duong,” the man said self-importantly, puffing his chest out so that his medals sparkled in the light of the chandelier which hung from the ceiling, the twin of the one outside. He staggered forward and squinted at the figure cringing behind Nguyen Van Manh.
“Well, hello, who’s this?” he said unctuously, steadying himself against Manh’s shoulder. His half-full champagne glass bobbed in his hand as he tried to stay upright, and some of the wine splashed across Manh’s chest, which was not decorated with medals. Manh made a face and shook the liquid off.
“Why, you’re a nice one!” Duong exclaimed to Trinh, running his eyes up and down her body. “Come in! Come in! You know, you two are my first official petitioners! Think of that! What do you want, anyway?”
He offered his arm to Trinh, but she shrank even farther behind her companion. Ngo Khai Duong’s eyes glittered fiercely at her, panther-like, but he merely shrugged and looped his arm through Manh’s instead.
“Let’s go into the parlor, OK?” he said, twisting round and dragging Manh after him. “Houseboy!” he cried, at the top of his lungs. “More champagne!”
Manh immediately spotted the photograph among a number of others on a table by the fireplace. But just as Mei-linh had taken precedence at the performance in the jungle, so too her picture did now. It stood in a large gilt frame at the front of the table. Manh caught his breath and stared at it, transfixed. His temples pulsed violently as he approached it, like a suppliant to an altar, and it was as though he was facing the living Mei-linh again.
Photographer Duong had gotten the light just right. It shone full on the left side of her body, accentuating the beautiful lines of her face, the silken smoothness of her skin, the velvet luxuriance of her hair, which hung down over her shoulder to below the fret of the guitar. The right half, down to the hand which delicately strummed the strings and which glittered in the sunlight like the fingers of Calliope, lay in the shadow and gave an exquisite chiaroscuro effect to the entire photograph. Manh’s heart churned over and over as he studied it. He was in the presence of a masterpiece! He lowered his gaze, as if in prayer, and the sea-green tiles on the parlor floor began to glisten as his eyes filled. Then his sight cleared, and he glanced up again, his soul overflowing. Behind him he heard a series of short nervous laughs and suddenly remembered he was not alone. How could he have failed to appreciate the creator of such a divine work? He was ashamed of himself, and felt a sudden rush of affection for Ngo Khai Duong for having prized her so greatly. But he had to have the photograph.
“Councillor Duong,” he said respectfully, turning around. “I was wondering whether—”
He stopped in amazement when he saw the photographer’s hand move up and down Cadre Trinh’s thigh, stroking it gently. The girl sat frozen in horror. As the hand went higher, she fidgeted and let out a gasp. Manh felt extremely embarrassed. A white-frocked servant scurried up to the sofa with three champagne glasses tinkling on a salver. Tran Thi Trinh desperately shook her head, but Ngo Khai Duong quickly swept up both their glasses with his free hand and pulled them to him. He tossed one off, then started on the other. The houseboy came over to Manh, who angrily shook him off. He did not know why he was angry. He continued to stare open-mouthed at the couple on the sofa.
“You can have any one you like, my dear,” Duong was saying, tapping a photo album with his finger. “I am pleased to help out your dear old mother. But there is something you can also do for me.”
He winked insinuatingly at her, and she emitted a loud unnatural laugh like a sparrow screeching in a cactus hedge. She darted her eyes to the floor. Then she tried to pull back from him, but his hand was firmly cupped around her upper thigh, the way Manh had once seen it on Mei-linh’s shoulder, and she trembled in shame and continued to stare at the floor. Manh suddenly realized why he was so angry. He sprang forward.
“Comrade Duong!” he said sharply, and the old man flinched and spilled his champagne again. He set his glass down with a smack and scowled at Manh. Instinctively he kept his other hand glued to Cadre Trinh’s thigh, however.
“You still here!” he snapped. “What do you want?”
Manh lurched to a halt as though the great photographer’s question had broken his stride. He stared at the girl quivering at Ngo Khai Duong’s side, then at the monument to the one who’d been past saving for years. Looking troubled, his eyes went back and forth, several times, until all of a sudden his brow cleared and his anger fell from him like a suit of clothes tumbling to the floor.
“This,” he said firmly, picking up the photograph.
Duong gave it barely a glance. He burst into a short laugh and waved him away.
“Take it and go,” he said impatiently, his other hand groping the girl again. “I have no use for that thing anymore.”
He turned back to Trinh, baring his teeth like a jackal. The girl looked pleadingly at Manh, her hands clasped helplessly in front of her. She gulped like a terrified animal, several times, and her eyes shot wider apart each time she did so. Manh’s fury at Ngo Khai Duong rose inside him again. He felt a brief stab of pity for the girl, but then an immense revulsion swept over him when her nostrils quivered anxiously and the blotches on her face turned a muddy, unsightly brown, like the run-off from a foul winter rain. He turned his rage on her with the swiftness of an explosion. Her ugliness was as indestructible as granite, and suddenly it exasperated him beyond measure. In a flash he set the picture down, bunched his fists, and advanced on her, seized with the urge to grab her by the throat and pound her face until it was beautiful, unrecognizable, capable of dying. She cried out in alarm when she saw him, and the feeling passed, but this time the pity died out of him as well. He stared stonily at the two of them, his eyes filled with equal hatred for them both. He clasped the photograph of Mei-linh to his chest.
Ngo Khai Duong watched him steadily. His lips slowly parted in a thin, humorless smile.
“My houseboy will see you out.”
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