It happened on the off-shore island

Saturday, 2013-08-31 12:11:52
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Nhan Dan - Thao’s father left Co To Island for the mainland a fortnight ago. But for her and her mother, it was quite a long time. Their house now seemed larger and colder. His red lighter on the half-consumed yellow packet of cigarettes stayed on the same place. 

What’s more, his tea cup adorned with a rose remained untouched and the big armchair where he used to sit on and stare over the blue every afternoon was still unoccupied. All made both of them startled whenever they took a glance at that vacancy by chance. Sometimes, they thought that they could perceive him sitting on it; yet it was merely a hallucination due to their deep nostalgia for him.

Oddly enough, the sea breeze that used to waft to his place did not stay long as it had previously blown across while he was still at home. In fact, his oft-told tales that were attentively listened to by inhabitants of Co To Island scores of years ago about the crucial engagements between the two sides near the foot of the ancient citadel of Quang Tri during wartime in 1972 might have been fallen into oblivion. Those stories dealt with his comrades-in-arms in their late teens who were undauntedly embattled there seemed unfading. Units of army, big or small, one after another, fought bravely to defend it, but few fighters returned home safe and sound. For them, every meal marked a farewell party to some extent. The number of salty handfuls of well-done rice left uneaten had spoken volumes for those missing in action according to the veteran’s counting of his unreturned comrades-in-arms.

“Today, two redundant rations belong to Vinh and Tan; yesterday, the six left uneaten belong to Thang, Khanh, Hoa, An, Duy and Hong and the day before yesterday, the remaining eight rice handfuls stayed intact belong to Dung, Tung, Luan, Hai, Cuong, Phung, Cao and Dat, and so on and so forth,” Thao’s father of those critical days whispered to himself mournfully.

Not until he began picking up his cold bowl of rice and swallowing it up bitterly, while the young and lovable faces of his ex-combatants were conjuring up in his mind, did his enumeration came to an end. In the meantime, Thao’s mother, sitting silently opposite him, just stared at him and ate up her rice a bit drenched with her tears. On the whole, he greatly missed the precious moments of fleeting bliss that he had lived with them and shared their glorious exploits after each fighting.

“If only I had lain down my life for their existence so that many of them might have returned home, got married and had children like me,” he whispered to himself.

“Anyhow, you were very lucky to stay alive, weren’t you?” remarked his little daughter when she listened to the dramatic stories told by her father. All of a sudden, his train of thoughts abruptly came to an end. His face turned pale, his tousled lock of hair fell down on his shoulders. It was a very hot summer afternoon when the sun had gone down behind the blazing Hoang Hon woods. He stared at her angrily. Frighteningly, she cried and called her mother for help. Standing up, he burnt a few joss-sticks then planted them in the middle of the incense-burner on the altar.

“My dear comrades-in-arms’ souls, please forgive my naive little kid’s foolish remark,” he said his prayer in a low voice. “I promise that I’ll keep on staying in this north-eastern region of our homeland. When a youth, I fought valiantly to defend our country, by now at my old age I’ll be a staunch veteran to protect this sacred off-shore Co To Island,” he went on.

* * *

The trip to the mainland of Thao’s father was quite different from his previous ones: without any discussions with his wife, no pieces of advice given to her and their daughter, no belongings taken along, including his favourite cigarettes; except for a small sum of money offered by his better half while she was seated at the market place. When Thao came back home from school, she only found the place empty.

“I saw the postman arriving at your house and giving your Dad a letter. After reading it he hurried away at once with a worried countenance,” one of their neighbours told her. When Thao’s mother asked the postman about her husband’s problem, he told her that he knew nothing about her husband’s matter, except for one thing: the letter was transferred to him from the mainland the day before.

At first, she intended to go in search of him, but on second thoughts, she realized that she could hardly find his whereabouts in a strange immense region. She was also going to send a letter to Tuyen, her first daughter staying in Hanoi for study, but she finally gave up her goodwill.

* * *

Now that her spouse was away from home, Thao’s mother stopped going to market to sell her goods. Therefore, only two of them stayed at home. Waves splashed against the seashore for many days on end. What the old woman did was to take a stroll on the sandy beach in front of their dwelling-place. Her unkempt lock of hoary hair hanging down on the neck swept over her eyes and nose again and again. Her footsteps went deep into the icy wet sand. Over the past many days, the sun had not appeared above the Hoang Hon and Binh Minh woods any longer. The wind went stronger and stronger with every passing day and the sky looked almost overcast. The news that a brewing storm in the Northern Gulf of Vietnam was broadcast to warn the residents of Co To Island all day long. Then came the north-eastern monsoon and the regional temperature went down very low. Nevertheless, the light-house on the island had stayed brightening; as a result, the number of fishing boats returning to their shore shelters grew up remarkably. Passenger ships plying to and fro between Van Don Township and Co To Island came to a stop totally. In the sky there were only a few flocks of seagulls hovering here and there over the waves. Sometimes a few of them flew so low that they were deemed to be swallowed by billows.

Thao’s father stayed somewhere in the mainland. The sad sighs of Thao’s mother could be heard more and more clearly. They, together with the strong wind, resounded all over the island.

“Why’s that?” Thao asked her mother.

“Because on this off-shore island, there are a lot of persons staying in wait for one another,” she replied. “Young people wait for their sweethearts or lovers; man and woman expect each other and old human beings look forward to their children or relatives’ home-coming from the mainland, and so on,” she added. “The sighs we can be aware of here are transferred from generation to generation on this island. When they reach the sea, they meet the waves then become violent splashes at the shore,” she went on.

“Your narratives sound like fairy tales, nice but sad,” Thao observed. Suddenly, she recollected the groves of chòi plants, growing somewhere deep inside the island. They might be the witnesses for countless unlucky plights of those on the island.

* * *

When the hurricane was over, the veteran returned home to the surprise of his dears. Thao’s Mum welcomed him with broad smiles and without any complaints or reproaches; whereas Thao herself hugged him tightly.

By that time, the cold of winter began reigning over the entire island. Thao was taken to school by her Dad every day, trembling with the chilly draughts. Inside the classroom, the mischievous wind seemed trying to bully the schoolchildren. Although their hands were put in their pockets, they remained numb with cold. If they were pulled out, they might make their handwritings going wild. In the meantime, the voice of their teacher often sounded weird beyond recognition.

Small wonder, Thao’s Dad did not come back home alone. Accompanying him was a little boy as tall as Thao, with his sunburn hair and a running nose, with shabby clothes and a pair of faded sandals. The poor little child just stood behind Thao’s father with a frightened look. When the veteran had stepped inside, the kid kept on staying outside.

“Come in, my dear boy,” Thao’s mother urged him. “Don’t worry. This place is also your home,” she went on in a friendly voice.

Meanwhile, Thao stared at him with an inquisitive look. At once, Thao’s Dad led him in then told him to take a seat on a wooden stool. Giving him a hot cup of tea, he asked his better half to prepare some instant noodle or porridge for the little child. To their surprise, he could eat three packets of cooked noodle and a bowl of rice porridge.

“Stop it or else you’ll die of overeating,” the old soldier said to the newcomer.

After that he introduced the stranger to his family members.

“This is Khoi, the grandson of one of my ill-fated ex-comrades-in-arms,” he said to his wife and daughter. Then turning to the boy he said, “Khoi, this is my wife Lam and that’s our 9-year-old daughter Thao. She’s two years senior to you,” he explained their relationship to the kid. “In reality, we’ve got another daughter named Tuyen, now being at school in Hanoi. My dear Khoi, in June next year, I’ll let you go to the first class of our local primary school. Yet, for the time being, Thao’ll teach you the three R’s,” he added lengthily.

Since then, Thao had a younger brother. Luckily for her clan, Khoi proved very nice and smart. He could do the housework by himself quickly and successfully. Within one month, he could learn the Vietnamese alphabet by heart and do some simple operations in arithmatic. His only weird act was that he often went to the beach and looked vaguely over the blue with a rueful face like an elderly person. For such moments Thao usually came and silently sat by his side. He seemed lost in thought that there was another world under the sea for humans’ living conditions.

“Has your home town got littoral?” Thao asked him one day.

“Yes, there is. However, there are no billows there. Moreover, the wind seems less so strong.”

“Where do your parents live?”

“They were all dead and gone years ago, Sister Thao. It was the sea that had swallowed them up during one of their fishing trips. Consequently, I’ve been staying with my paternal grandfather during the past two years. Unfortunately for me, he also passed away last month,” the boy answered sorrowfully.

“Come what may, don’t be that sad any longer. In the nether world, if they knew that you were in bad mood, they’d be in great despair,” Thao consoled him. “Now wipe away your tears, there’s a dear. When Dad visits the headquarters of the seamen on the island and asks for some flower plants to grow in our garden, I’ll tell him that you want to go with him. Surely, you’ll have a good time there,” she assuaged him.

“Really? Keep your promise, my dear Sister Thao.”

“Yes, I’ll certainly do.”

* * *

Then during one deep night, Thao’s Dad told his wife some wartime stories, especially the accounts of his own. Outside, the sea breeze blew gently. “In one of my reconnaissance trips, I was wounded in the thigh by hostile bullets,” he began. “But thanks to the support of an injured brave and strong local militiaman, I was taken to his house safely and hidden in an underground shelter nearby. It was there I’d been raised wholeheartedly for over half a month until I was found healthy by my unit’s friends,” he added. “When peace had been restored, my saviours’ unique son, who got married very late, had a boy named Khoi, in their turn. By the end of last year, the young couple lost their lives in the heavy sea. As bad luck would have it, my benefactor’s wife died soon after that; as a result, he and the baby boy were left high and dry in the mainland. Poor him, he had to keep the little child by himself while he was very weary! Not until he fell seriously ill, did I come to know his critical situation through one of my chums in the mainland. Therefore, I went away at once, without telling you the matter in detail in advance. Reaching Quang Tri Province, I looked after him until his death. With the consent of his kith and kin and the permission of the local authorities I was able to take the child home to return my old favour to the deceased on the one hand and to grow him up out of pity on the other,” he concluded his long narrative.

“Yes, I know, I know,” replied his wife.

* * *

On that weekend, the sun rose up from the sea with brilliant rays like a huge ruby. Thao’s father took her and Khoi to the monument of Uncle Ho to burn some joss-sticks to pay homage to our great leader. Everybody was in high spirits. The old soldier dropped in on the regiment commandant then made a round tour to contemplate the splendid scenery. The two children were very happy when they met young sailors with their broad smiles. When they were invited to stay in their barracks for a few days, Thao promised that they would return to their place together with their parents in the next month. After visiting the light-house, they came to the border post on the Co To Island.

On the way home their father asked them whether they would be interested in becoming GP’s or civil engineers, both of them just shook their heads. “We want to be sailors so that we might keep the island safe and sound like the uncles in this off-shore border post here,” answered Thao resolutely.
The old soldier felt as if he had been in the seventh heaven amid his children’s peals of laughter.


By Dinh Phuong/ Translated by Van Minh