January 21, 2022
Excerpt - A Bend in the River - Winner of the 2021 Book of the Year Award for Indie Fiction
By Libby Fischer Hellman
Is there a warning the moment before life shatters into pieces? A minute shift in the light? The chirr of a monkey? A heaviness in the air that tastes like disaster? For Tâm Trang and her sister, Mai Linh, washing their family’s clothes in the river, the warning might have been a barely perceptible scent wafting toward them. Perfumed soap mixed with sweat. Unfamiliar. Foreign.
Or perhaps there was no warning at all. Absorbed in their task, the sisters squatted on a narrow strip of shore, scrubbing shirts with their brushes. They slapped heavier items against the rocks, then rinsed everything in the waters of the Mekong. The clothes would dry quickly. The hottest part of the year was approaching, and the combination of summer heat and the monsoons would produce an indolent lethargy that made even washing clothes a burden. Though it was only March, the sisters lifted their hair off their necks to catch the breeze.
Tâm, at seventeen, used her nón lá as a hamper for the clean clothes. At the moment it held only two pairs of tiny pants belonging to her little brother. Hung Sang, an unplanned surprise five years earlier, was now the prince of the family. According to their parents, no boy was as handsome, as talented, as lucky. With his arrival the girls’ status declined. They had become afterthoughts, to be married off quickly. Sang should not be burdened with his sisters’ care. When he grew up, he would have enough to do for his own family and his parents.
Tâm wiped sweat from her brow. Mai, three years younger, nattered on, but Tâm only half listened. She was about to graduate from the Catholic school two villages away, and she was wondering how she would continue her studies. Where would she find the money to pay for university? What would her parents say when she confessed that was her goal?
“I’m sure you know him. Lanh Phuc. He’s handsome. His is the wealthiest family in their village,” Mai said. “Their home has a real roof. And windows. His father makes sampans…” Mai giggled. “I think he likes me, Chị Tâm. I hope Mama and Papa will agree to a match. I can already picture our wedding. Of course, we will honor the Rose Silk Thread God, but it will be modern too. We will have music to dance, and—”
Tâm cut in. “Mai, you can be a silly girl. Dreaming about weddings and dancing? This is a man you may live with the rest of your life. Have you ever shared a conversation? Talked to him about his future, his dreams?” She twisted water out her father’s shirt and dropped it into the conical hat. “All I hear is that he is the son of a wealthy man, and he is handsome.”
Mai was the beauty of the family, delicate and tiny, with large black eyes, silky black hair, and soft skin that glowed white, even in shadow. Tâm had seen the longing on village boys’ faces when she passed. Her parents would have no problem arranging a match for her. Tâm was taller, leaner, and while her face had the same classic features as Mai’s, they were arranged differently. Her eyes did not appear to be as large; her nose more pronounced, her skin darker. She was attractive in her own way, but she wasn’t a beauty. Although older, she wasn’t waiting for an arranged marriage. She wasn’t interested. She wanted to study plants: their growth, foliage, colors, blossoms, how they added to their environment or not. Her Catholic science teacher explained to her that what she wanted to study was “botany.”
Mai, who usually deferred to her older sister, drew in a breath. “You’re a fine one to talk. Do you have a suitor? You reject all the men our parents suggest.”
Tâm sat back on her haunches. When had Mai developed such a sharp tongue? This churlish behavior was new. As Mai’s chị, the older sister, Tâm should be treated with respect. She was about to say so when a wisp of smoke passed over them.
Tâm sniffed. The scent of the smoke was farm-like. Clean. The end of the dry season was approaching. A farmer was probably burning leftover corn husks or rotted fruit from his fields. Except that most farmers usually fed leftovers to their cattle or pigs. She frowned. Perhaps the smoke came from the dying embers of a campfire around the bend of the river. A fisherman or two cooking breakfast before a long day on the Mekong.
A second puff of smoke wafted over them. Stronger. This time it carried with it an acidic scent. Gasoline. Tâm’s jaw tightened. She looked over at Mai, whose eyes grew round.
“Do you smell that?” Mai asked.
When the third gust of smoke reached them, even more intense, Tâm scrambled to her feet and beckoned to Mai. “Leave everything. We need to go home.”
When the Japanese occupied Vietnam during World War Two, a platoon of soldiers seized the village. Those who stayed wanted easier access from the river. So they supervised the construction of a dock and steps leading from the river’s edge up a hill. The steps ended at the dusty road leading into the village. Tâm and Mai’s father had been conscripted to build the dock and steps in his teens, and his back bore the scars of beatings, an indispensable tool of Japanese brutality. Despite their harsh treatment, though, most of the villagers were pleased when the steps were finished. Outsiders could now be spotted as they approached, and villagers could determine whether they were friend or foe.
Yet it was still possible to climb the hill a dozen yards north of the dock. Under cover of cashew bushes, papaya, and jackfruit trees, one could secretly enter the village at its mid-point. Tâm and Mai took that route. As they hiked up the hill, a cacophony of sounds washed over them. Somewhere far above was a distant thwup of helicopter blades. On the ground screams of terror. The occasional crack-spit of gunshots. The yelp of a dog that suddenly stopped. The squeal of a pig. Mechanical voices, as if someone was talking on a radio. And above it all, the thick flat voices of men bellowing in what Tâm knew was English.
She froze. Americans. How had they found their tiny village? Not by water; Tâm and Mai would have seen them. But the land route was overgrown with dense forest and bush, impenetrable in some spots. They must have come that way.
She worried about the helicopters. She’d heard how the U.S. dropped powerful bombs that erupted into fire, scorching everything on the ground. When the last flame was extinguished, the Vietnamese were left with barren fields and poisoned land unable to grow anything. The government said this was the only way to force the North and Viet Cong into the open, to halt their guerrilla war. She’d heard, too, that Americans liked to execute the VC they found, set fire to their villages, then force the inhabitants to relocate into squalid camps near Saigon. Tâm blinked fast, trying to suppress her rising fear.
Slowly, silently she led Mai through the papaya trees. She stopped before they emerged from the bush and carefully pulled aside the fronds of a jackfruit tree. In front of her was the village square, an expanse of dirt studded with rocks where events, including weddings, births and funerals, were celebrated.
Now though, Tâm stared at chaos. There had to be over twenty GIs in camouflage uniforms and helmets, rifles slung across their shoulders or in their hands. Some hoisted long thick weapons much larger than rifles, but she didn’t know what they were. Half a dozen soldiers moved from house to house, dragging villagers, their hands high in the air.
“Any VC in here? You VC?” they shouted in primitive Vietnamese. When the villagers frantically shook their heads, the GIs prodded them with their rifles toward the village square. “We heard there’s a nest of enemy gooks in this hamlet,” they replied in English. “Gotta make sure.”
Other soldiers poured gasoline on the thatched roofs of the now empty huts. Still others flicked their lighters and laughed when homes went up in flames.
Most of the villagers appeared to be terrified. The wife of a rice farmer planted herself at the entrance to her hut, shrieking and gesturing at the soldiers. She tried to explain that they had the wrong village. That they were simple farmers and fisherman with no interest in war. Of course, the Americans didn’t understand, and barked orders in reply. When she refused to move, two soldiers dragged her to the square and shoved her to the ground.
About a dozen villagers, choking on the smoke, huddled in the square, heads between their knees, as if averting their faces would somehow mitigate the disaster. A soldier went back to the woman’s hut, flipped his lighter, and touched the flame to her thatched roof. When it caught, he gestured to the villagers on the square, shouting “Lookie here. Roasted gook for lunch!” The flames devoured her home as if they were indeed starving.
From their perch behind the trees, Tâm looked both ways. Smoke curled up in rolls. Soot darkened the sky. The air tasted acrid and sour, and the heat from the fires intensified.
She counted five homes on fire, but their own home, thirty meters away, wasn’t visible, and she couldn’t tell if it was on fire.
The villagers on the square wailed as another house went up. Some choked on the smoke and the overpowering smell of gasoline. Others covered their faces with their hands. Tâm searched for their family. Mai was doing the same because she whispered, “I don’t see Mama and Papa. Or Sang. Where are they?”
“Maybe they escaped,” Tâm whispered back.
Suddenly Mai grabbed Tâm’s arm. “Look!” She said in a panicky whisper. She pointed past the square. Tâm followed her gaze.
Not far away was a mound of dead dogs, pigs, and even the calf born just two weeks ago. Their corpses, fresh and still bloody, dispensed a coppery, rancid smell that mixed with the gasoline. That was the source of the gunshots. The Americans were killing their animals. Flies were already swarming and settled on their hides. Tâm gagged, nausea rising in her throat. She swallowed to push it down.
Mai started to tremble. Tâm put an arm around her sister and let her lean against her for a moment, then straightened up. “We must be strong. We need to find Mama and Papa.”
“How? We can’t go home. They’ll see us.”
“Let me think.”
Mai shook her head and pointed. “We can go around the path.” A dirt path a few meters away ran along the back of a dozen huts, including theirs. But Mai wasn’t as careful as Tâm. She would make noise or stumble, alerting the soldiers to her presence.
Tâm shook her head. “No. You stay here. I’ll go.”
Mai clutched her sister. “Don’t leave me alone. Please, Chị Tâm!”
Tâm bit her lip. “Go back into the bush. You’ll be safe there. Stay there until I come back.”
“But I—I’m frightened. Stay with me, Chị Tâm.”
“Be brave. I will be back. I swear it.”
Tears filled Mai’s eyes. “I don’t… I can’t.”
Tâm raised a finger to her lips. She pointed to a cashew bush. “Hide behind that. But don’t cry. They may hear you.”
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