A Breast Left Bare
Phan Nhat Nam
Vietcong broke off into small groups -- three combat platoons went after
them, leaving no stone unturned. Vietcong pulled out from swamps, digged
up from rice paddies, uncovered in haystacks. The mission, half-comical
half-exciting, is no different than a childhood game. Among the columns
of soldiers, I was solemn. The battle last night, the sleeplessness, wholesale
deaths of the Vietcong, corpses vulgarly exposed and unattended -- a torrent
of sensations violating what's left of innocence. I am dazed as if confronted
with the first bout of drunkeness. This time, it was a dark black haze.
Into a vast coconut range, a platoon on the left, another on the right, searching along the small ditch surrounding the estate, I walked into a smouldering house. Its columns, laying chaotically, still breathing out gasps of bluish gray smoke. On what's left of the porch, a woman in black pants and white blouse sat on its steps, hands holding on to a bamboo-weaved basket. Staring straight ahead, her eyes seemed void of life. Seeing soldiers, she stood up, straight like a statute, paralyzed like a tree hit by sudden lightning.
The kid soldier and my communication officer quickly snuck into the kitchen, looking for something to eat. I stopped in front of the woman ...
"What are you doing sitting here, sis? Donít you know thereís fighting out there?" Silence. The same pair of eyes, still lost and dazed, now shows a glance of fear out of the corner of her eyes. Abruptly, she handed me the basket, a gesture quick and agile found in an oft-repeated excercise routine. Startled, I held it. Two set of clothings, a bandanna, a small package held by rubber band. Inside, two small gold necklaces and a pair of earrings.
"Yours, sis?" Silence.
"The woman is mad, lieutenant. Fear-induced madness," the communications officer whispered from behind. His eyes lighted up upon seeing the glitter of gold on paper. "Gold! must be more than a tael! Take it, lieutenant. I saw the other platoons doing it, they takeím like crazy."
Turning to the woman, he made gestures, "Eh! Scoot .." The woman turned and walked in zombie steps. "Sis! Come back here, this is yours," my voice chased after her. She turned back. With the same steps, she returned in front of me. Only this time, her eyes is filled with trepidation; her face contorted with panic; and her lips shaken.
She is still quite young, no more than 27 or 28 years of age. Her skin natural and fair. A gentle lock of hair touching her forehead, only to enhance her look, a beauty pure and pleasing. I handed her the basket. She took it with arms shaking uncontrollably.
The basket fell. Her arms limp and straight by her side. Tears coming down uncontrobaly on her cheeks. With the gun muzzle, I pointed at the steps on the porch. "Sit here. When we leave, you can come with us .. Why are you crying? You oughta pick up the gold, donít you think?" Silence. Her body shuddered in waves, her face full of tears ... Slowly she moved her hands to the buttons of her blouse. Her shaking fingers slowly and surely undoing her blouse. I wanted to take hold of her hands and stop, but remained paralyzed with shame. My head screamed, "No! No!! This canít be!" In the sunlight, a pinkish white bare breast exposed. Thatís not it, sis ... the woman had misunderstood simply because I did not take the loot and had asked her to stop. No, she doesnít understand what I was saying. Not a single word was comprehended between two people, living on the same land, sharing the same language. She thought I wanted sex. The final assault against the naive sensibilities of an officer not yet 21 like me is now complete. I simply could not have fathomed the degree of destruction and suffering that led people to such desperation and shame/
I had joined the army with one desire. To see the country, ingest it whole, and end war with a contributing presence of making a stance against communist brutality against civilians. Only to now be confronted with this shameful misconception. What brutal condemnation it is for me and the soldiers around me to be thought of no better than mercenaries -- the sort of outsiders unaffected and uncaring about the disgusting destruction that this war has brought. What gall do we have for banal satiation at the expense of a Vietnamese woman, thoroughly obliterated by unfathomable terror? How is it that we can possibly be so misconstrued? And you sis, the pitiful woman of the countryside. How much brutality and what degree of suffering did it take to bring about such ripping and gripping fear? For your hands to grapple at the blouse, and for you to give yourself willingly to a soldier, not much older than a kid-brother? And, all this while, with tears running down your terror-filled face.
The soldiers are withdrawing from the village. The woman is following us, still with awkward and unnatural steps. Still the same pair of eyes, indifferent and dazed, looking into empty space. A Vietnamese woman walking in disbelief brought on a joy banal and disgusting. A happiness that arrives too late after all the sufferings and destruction that has brought on and the dismemberment of the spirit. It is a mere pointless consolation, and yet remains an unexpected unspeakable joy. An unfamiliar happiness that is found only in dreams--the sparing of the body.
Near the National Highway, the river on the left full of boats and ferries, chaotic with returning refugees. People of the region who escaped the fighting from the day before are now coming back, their voices calling out for one another, reverberrating everywhere. They asked about their homes, and relatives caught behind. Already, there were wailing cries. Oh my God! Mr. Five's familly is all killed, oh my God, oh my God .. The wailing as desperate as that of a drowning man. "Lai! Is that you, Lai?!" An old woman down by the river bank, yelling and waving at the young woman who has been with us. The young woman stopped as if to recall a distant past, a life that has been but is no more. "Lai! Lai! This is mom, my child". The young woman turned and walked toward the river bank. I can make out her shaken lips mumbling. "Mom! Mom! .. The house is all gone. It's burned." Walking slowly toward the river with the same zombie steps, her white blouse stood out among the vibrant green of the coconut range.
Head bowed, I walked by the guys still staring curiously after the woman, "Goddamnit! Hurry up or weíll miss the early ferry outa here." From within, a strange need for redemption rises... Kien-Hoa, Vietnam, August 1964