The Ghost Years by Nghi Vo
The year I turned ten, the war almost ended. The Chinese army fell back beyond the northern border of Cao Bằng, leaving behind thousands of widows, wide swathes of burned ground, and their great war bells in their haste.
These bells were of the ancient kind, tongueless but elegant and struck with enormous logs swung from their own frames. They filled the battlefield with sonorous thunder, and the crews that manned them were said to be fanatical, as devoted to their bells as they never were to their commanders. They were left sinking in the black mud along the border, and the Resplendent Phoenix Army brought back news of their silence. We don’t know what happened to their crews.
There was talk of melting them down, perhaps into a war memorial, but the bells, two hundred or more scattered along Vietnam’s long northern border, were still in disputed territory.
Besides, the war was not over yet. We all knew that. The bells stayed, silent and dreaming in the mire.
My name is Cho Doan, and I am the only daughter of Nguyen Mai and Cho Tuan. My father was an apothecary who came to Thăng Long with nothing more than a little bit of money and a pet lizard that he carried in his sleeve.
He stopped to rest in the shade of an apitong tree just outside of the city, where there was a gang of pretty girls clustered in the shade and reading each other poetry. There was one girl in a pale orange aoi dai that fluttered daintily around her knees. She laughed when she saw the lizard poking its green head out of my father’s sleeve, and he liked her laugh so much, he took her all the way to Thăng Long to be his wife.
I was born with a full head of black hair that fluffed up like a chick’s when it was dry. It was all black, black as tar, black as good earth, but then when I was six months old, a patch of it at my right temple fell out. Well, no matter, I still had plenty left, and my grandmother would play with me, kissing the bald spot and massaging it with her fingertips so it would grow back as black and strong as the rest, but it didn’t. It grew back white tinged with cream, like the lotus flowers that massed on the river after the typhoons.
“She was born in the year of the pig, and I ate pork the night before it happened,” my grandmother declared, and she became a vegetarian on the spot. My parents tried to tell her that her meal had nothing to do with my hair, but it was no use. She never ate another bit of meat after that day, and though my hair never turned black, I liked it well enough, and my friends thought it was pretty.
There’s another story about how my mother’s youngest sister disappeared. There was a man involved, and money taken from her family’s shop. Maybe she was living in Saigon, far away from the war and rich as only a smuggler’s bride can be, or maybe she was dead, killed for the promise of love and that money stolen from her sleeping parents. No one told me that story, and I had to piece it together over fifteen years of overheard whispers and sorrowful pauses.
My family exists in the stories we tell each other about each other, and in that, we are very much like our country. The Vietnamese were born from the marriage of a dragon from the sea and a goddess from the mountain. They lived together long enough to have one hundred children, but upon realizing that he craved the water, and she her mountains, they split their family in half and went their separate ways.
There are no stories about my brother.
He was not born, he did not go to temple with our family, but he did die, and when he did, he took the heart of my family out as neatly as a butcher removes a pig’s heart and throws it on the grill.
The year I turned thirteen, my parents enrolled me in the local high school. The war was going not well, but steadily, and we practiced our calligraphy by writing to soldiers at the front.
I ran home one day in the rain season, my white trousers rolled up to my knees and the long skirts of my aoi dai plucked up so that they would not become soaked in the puddles. I set my yellow umbrella in the front hall to dry, and I was putting down the school books just when I heard an anguished cry.
I was a daughter of a country at war, and I knew what it was, but I had never expected to hear it in my own home. I ran to the kitchen where my parents were on the ground. My mother knelt on the checkered black and white tile, clutching a letter in her hand, and my father rocked back and forth on his heels, a humming grunt of pain strained between his clenched teeth. The sound was terrible, and I froze in the doorway.
“Ma, Ma, what is it?”
She gestured me to the floor next to her and she showed me the letter.
My eyes flew to the name signed at the bottom. It was one that everyone in Vietnam knew, that of General Phuc, the commander of the Red Phoenix Army in the north. I read the letter, growing more and more confused.
General Phuc was grieved to have to tell us of the loss of Cho Vinh, son of Nguyen Mai and Cho Tuan. Cho Vinh had become separated from his platoon while on maneuvers, and captured by the Chinese. He was executed at dawn two days later, and his body dropped in a pit. His bones could not be returned home. The General was very sorry.
I stared at the paper, and I stared at my parents. I could feel their grief as if it were my own, because I was theirs. I was their daughter, their flesh, and I had known them every day of my life. I knew their faces and their hearts just as I knew their grief now, and I knew one other thing.
“But I don’t have a brother!” I said, my voice louder than it had ever been. I had never raised my voice to my parents before, but I wasn’t shouting at them. I was shouting at the letter, I was shouting at the strange conspiracy that we had fallen into, a world where I had a brother who had been executed by the Chinese.
My father’s hand crashed into my face. I was lucky it wasn’t his fist. He stood over me, hands clenched, and eyes rimmed with tears.
The words were on my lips, I have no brother, and then he would have hit me again and harder, but then my grandmother, his mother, was there.
“She’s in shock, she’s crazy,” she said, kneeling down to put her arms around me. “See, that white in her hair, it makes her sensitive, it makes it so hard for her, she does not know what she is saying.”
For a moment, neither my father nor I were satisfied with that. I needed to go on shouting, and he needed to hit me for it, but then it was like the fight went out of us. He went back to my mother, still rocking and keening on the ground as if she would never stop, and my grandmother helped me up and mashed some rau răm leaves in a bowl. She had me apply the leaves to my face to reduce the redness and to prevent a bruise from forming, and she shook her head the entire time.
“Such a bad thing, a bad thing,” she kept saying. We loved her, and of course we honored her, but she was so old then, and her mind soft around the edges.
“Do I have a brother?” I whispered, and for a moment, she only kept up her tuneless hum.
“Your parents say you do,” she said. “So you must.”
That was how I got my brother.
It maddened me. There was no space for a brother in my life, none at all. We lived in a small house, the apothecary shop below, and our home above. My parents slept in a room alone, a luxury, and my grandmother and I slept in the tiny room at the back of the house. There was nowhere for my brother to sleep.
There were no pictures of him, no boys’ clothes bundled up in the attic and ready to send to the next relative who had a son of his size. There were little pencil marks on the doorway where my father measured my growth with every year on my birthday, and there are no other marks beside mine there.
I saw these things, and I saw that they were unimportant to my mother and father. They contacted the priest at the temple to have the prayers said, and we scrubbed the house from top to bottom, dumping pail after pail of dirty water into the street. Over the course of seven days, our relatives came to visit and pay their respects, and I began to realize something.
They paid their respects to my family, they mourned with my parents, and they brought food, oh they brought so much food, but there was something eerily familiar about it all.
It was a time of war. Funerary rituals happened often, and I had attended plenty of them myself with my parents. How many times had I mourned a male cousin I didn’t know? How many times had I said prayers for the safe delivery of a solider who had been executed, who had died with all hands on his submariner in the East Sea, who was shot trying to run telephone wire across disputed territory?
After someone dies, there are stories told. When my father’s father died, I was only a little child, but we traveled all the way to Thanh Hóa in cars drawn by the steam engines. I remember that the engine itself was sculpted to look like dragons, fierce cat heads and long crocodilian bodies. I thought that they ate up the distance between Thăng Long and Thanh Hóa so that we got there before the day was out.
My father and his siblings told stories about his father for three days straight over enormous plates of burnished duck and roasted pork. I ate the crunchy pork skin that my mother peeled off of her meat for me, and I ate up the stories as well. I learned that he was a privateer for the Vietnamese navy when he was a young man, and how he stripped Chinese ships of everything from their cargo to their bolts. He met my grandmother when he bumped into her, causing her to spill all of her shopping on the ground. She made him pick them up, she made them carry them home for her, and as he liked to put it, she made him marry her. It was a happy marriage, and they had six children living still to tell stories about them. His teeth were stained from the betel nuts he loved to chew, and when his wife, my grandmother died, he was drunk for six months straight.
I never met my grandfather, but I knew him, and when I have children of my own, they’ll know him too.
We mourned my brother, and my aunts, my uncles and my cousins came to mourn him, too. My father did not speak a word to me until the service was over, and for weeks, he viewed me with a kind of narrow-eyed suspicion.
“I’m sorry I was… I was rude and thoughtless,” I finally said to him. “I don’t mean to be, I’m sorry.”
To my surprise, he grabbed me by my shoulders and drew me in for an awkward embrace. We didn’t touch often, and it shocked me how bony he was, how hard his sternum was through his shirt.
“Yes, yes, he is dead,” he said, and though he was not crying, his shoulders heaved once, twice, before he let me go.
He is dead, my mind whispered. Not I miss him, or we loved him. Only he is dead.
I lived in the shadow of my brother’s death; we all did. We mourned him the way that any family would mourn their only son. My parents still worked in the apothecary, but their shoulders were bent, and they held their mouths in hard lines. Because I loved them, I had a brother. I mourned with them, and I could feel the tug of the conspiracy at my ankles, trying to lure me closer so that I would fall in. I could feel its pull like the sonorous ringing of an enormous bell, and more than once, when my mother wept or my father stared off into the distance, I looked north.
The year I turned eighteen, they closed the schools and sent the children home to study with their parents. They sent the teachers to the front, and there were many going-away parties that summer. I was part of the last class to graduate from my high school.
I was already a skilled typist, and I enlisted in the women’s corps, what many people then called the Elephant Army after the legendary Trung sisters. My mother reminded me of what had happened to my brother, but my father nodded solemnly and said that I had his permission to go. I packed the single bag that was allowed, and my mother made sure that a lucky talisman was stitched into the bag’s lining so that I would always find my way home.
The women’s dorm at Thăng Long was cramped, with eight women sleeping two to a bunk in each room, but it was the first time I’d met so many girls from so many different places. There were sturdy Ma girls, Hmong girls who kept themselves, and a single Lu girl who watched us all as if we breathed a lesser air than she did.
I shared my bed with Linh, a young widow from Saigon. She was as lively and light-hearted as the plays always painted southern girls as being, and she was always trying to teach us songs and dances from the south, keeping us up so late and so loud that the hall mother had to come and quiet us down.
“You’re good girls who work hard during the day,” the hall mother said in confusion. “Why won’t you just lie down and go to sleep?”
The dead haunt us, we could have said, the ones we remember and the ones we don’t.
I was not the only girl with a phantom dead brother or cousin. Through the long hot nights, we would swap stories, building an intricate web of relations, joys and tragedies. I knew to watch out for shifted eyes, the half-shrug, the almost absent-minded grief.
He died in of malaria in the swamps with all his regiment.
He was executed at the rout in Cao Bằng.
I could hear the difference now, and I learned to listen for it in dark or in the light.
Our small group of typists and switchboard operators moved with the front lines. The year I was twenty-two, we were as far north as any of us had ever been, and it felt as if the Chinese were watching us from just beyond the next rise in the mountains. We knew that we were somewhere close to Lạng Sơn, but beyond that, we could have been anywhere on the frontier.
You might think that fear of the fighting and our distance away from home would have kept us in the barracks, meek as little babbler chicks in their nests. The truth was that the danger made us wild. We were good girls, we never shirked at our work or appeared drunk in the morning, but after the day was done, the night was ours.
Up late in our barracks, we would push the beds against the walls, dancing and playing cards by the light of the pair of lanterns that rationing allowed us. Tuyet, the Lu girl, finally unbent enough to play her flute for us, and Tam and Suong danced together arm in arm, kissing whenever there was a pause in the music.
Linh and I sat back from the others, sharing a slender cigarette that she had gotten from who knows where.
“Do you want to go out?” she asked, as casually as if we were on the street in Saigon. I had heard that it was easy to pretend that there was no war in Saigon if you were heartless enough.
“Sure,” I said carelessly. “Where do you want to go? The shadow puppet theater is supposed to be good here, or maybe you want to get some noodles?”
She laughed, her dark eyes dancing, and she scooted a little closer to me.
“Better than that. Come on.”
She ducked out the back as if she was just walking to the latrines, and after a stunned moment, I followed her. We dodged a few of the guards on patrol easily enough, and soon we were walking one of the narrow mountain roads, clear and easy in the moonlight.
“No, seriously, where are we going? We’re going to die out here, Linh.”
She didn’t even turn around.
“Come on,” she said. “This is wonderful.”
It was both safer and more dangerous than you might have thought, being out there that late at night. The front was miles away, but there was always talk of saboteurs and spies. We were as likely to be shot by our own soldiers as any wakeful Chinese sniper.
Linh walked along, and after a moment, I trotted along beside her.
“Are you going to tell me where we’re going yet?”
“When we get there, I won’t need to tell you,” she said brightly.
I cursed a little under my breath, but I kept following her. If it wasn’t for our dull blue uniforms and the mountain night, we could have been on our way to a party in my own home town.
We came to a little valley that I wasn’t aware even existed, and just as we came to its mouth, a cloud scudded away from the moon to light the entire space up with silver. I stared.
At the center of the valley, amidst a nest of rotting timber and rolled on its side, was one of the Chinese war bells that I had seen in my school book pictures. It sat as imperturbable and eternal as the mountains themselves. As we walked towards it, I felt something echo inside me, as if it had been struck and everything except my ears could hear it.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid,” she said playfully. “Come here. I bet you’ll feel it too.”
I could have asked her what she meant, but she went and sat in the shadow of the bell, disappearing almost entirely into the darkness there. I hesitated for a moment, but I had come along and I wouldn’t be left behind now.
I crawled next to her, sitting on the stony ground by the bell. I was almost disappointed. When I touched it, there was simply brass under my fingers. It was ancient and beautiful, it belonged to the enemy that we had been fighting since before I was born, but it was just a bell.
“My husband wasn’t going to join up,” she said softly. “He was a university student, and his parents had already bought his dispensation. They weren’t rich, but they did it all the same. He was going to go study in Korea, but then at the last moment, he walked away and spoke to the recruitment office. They had him in a flying fortress less than three days later.”
As she spoke, I could see her husband in my head. She had a single snapshot of him, shy and skinny standing next to a budding tree, her smiling and brilliant under his arm. Now I could see him moving and breathing, living and signing up for the war all in spite of his poor parents’ wishes.
“He was so gentle, and so kind. He wrote me back whenever he could. He sent me such funny drawings of the other soldiers, of the ships’ cats and the mountains from the fortress.”
I pressed my face against the cool metal of the bell, because it seemed to me that I could see her husband more clearly that way.
“He sounds wonderful,” I murmured. “I wish I could have met him.”
She tilted her head back against the bronze, a slight smile on her face. Southern girls smiled even when they were sad.
“I can feel him the most clearly here,” she said. “Sometimes, if I think about him hard enough, it’s like I can almost touch him.”
Something about her words rang in my head, not like a bell, but like an alarm. I sat next to her, shoulder to shoulder, and I reached back to trace my calloused fingertips across the corrugated surface of the bell. It was so old, and it had rung for so many battles. The Chinese used it to instill fear in their enemies, but bells were always used to send message of one sort or another.
“Do you remember your brother?” Linh asked presently, and for a moment, it all wanted to come out. I had no brother, I never had, but strangely, now I could feel his presence more than I had ever felt it before.
I rested my cheek against the bronze surface of the bell, and I let my eyes drift closed. I reached inside, and I lied, but soon enough, it became something different.
“I do,” I said. “When I was very young, my mother sent Vinh and I to the market to buy water spinach for dinner. It was the rainy season, and the stream that runs close to our home was flooded. It lapped against the grass on the bank, and there was a little white kitten playing there. I stopped to watch, and when it slipped in, I screamed. Vinh didn’t hesitate for a moment, he leaped in after it, and he was carried nearly a quarter of a mile down the stream. He got out, soaked to the skin, but the kitten was inside his shirt, shivering and crying, but alive. My father caned him for being so reckless, but we kept the kitten. She’s quite an old cat now.”
With my ear pressed to the cool bronze, I thought I could hear a shivering tremolo, something musical but not music, and abruptly, I pulled away, wiping my hands needlessly on my trousers.
“Let’s go back,” I said roughly, but when Linh looked disappointed, I smiled a little.
“I want to come back,” I said. “I’ll come back with you soon okay?”
A week later, I went home to visit, and as I stepped inside the door, my white cat, little and bony in her old age, came to twine around my ankles. She chirped at me inquisitively, and smiling, I went to ask my mother if she remembered the time my brother had won the city-wide painting competition.
I went back to the bell. I went back over and over again, and I told Linh stories about my brother, about how brave he was. I tried to remember all of those cousins, so deeply, earnestly and falsely mourned. I spoke of what they were like as little boys. I spoke of the good they did and how proud we were of them.
I found others, too. I had been watching for them without knowing it for years. I found the ones who looked away when we mentioned brothers, cousins and fathers, the ones who hitched one shoulder, and mumbled something hurried. We went to the bell, and we talked down the moon.
When we left that posting, the girls who came after us were taken up there as well, in ones and twos. We found other bells. The front moved back and forth, we lost some, we gained others.
We never stopped telling stories.
The year I turned twenty-eight, the war ended. Today, some forty years after that, there is a Chinese school down the road from where I live. My parents are long dead, and so are many of my friends from the war. Linh married again and emigrated to Korea. I teach at the local university, and when they come to my house for dinner or when I go to theirs, my stories are full of my friends, our brothers and our cousins.
I do not know if our stories changed anything. I do not know what role the bells were meant to play, whether they were cunningly deployed weapons or simply monstrous devices that have their own strange aims.
What I do know is this:
Last week, Anh, a shy girl who was born long after armistice, came up to me with an old photograph, softened from two generations of handling and care.
“I told my father about your brother,” she said in her diffident way. “He said that his cousin was in the same regiment, and that this was a picture of him. Is your brother is this picture, Professor Doan?”
I took the picture reverently in my hands, because the past, phantom and faded, is fragile. I scanned the four rows of serious young men with their hair cut short, all alike in their dark uniforms. Some of the young men squinted, some smiled, and in the back row, faded even more than the rest, was a face I recognized.
His ears stuck away from his head like a monkey’s, like mine and my father’s. He looked straight at the camera, and there was no smile on his face. He was a serious boy who had grown up into a serious man, but I could still remember his hands clinging tight to a white kitten, both of them shivering from the frigid water of the stream.
“There he is,” I said at last.