From RSR Featured Photography © by Tammy Ruggles
THE BLUE-GHOST FIREFLIES
It’s late in the afternoon when the funeral procession shows up on the road that goes past Old Lung’s dwelling. Standing outside his abode and watching the cortege move along slowly, the coffin bearers shaded by the setting sun, I remember years before watching men carrying new caskets to the front, time and again, shouldering the palls as they climbed the hill, the long line of soldiers bearing the coffins silhouetted against sunset, moving slowly up the hill slope that grew wild with passion flowers like yellow daubs of fresh paint.
“Must be the hour,” I say, “this late.”
“Must be,” Old Lung says, brushing off the cigarette ash that fell on the front of his shirt.
“These folks surely believe in the right hour to bury someone.”
It’s one of those new coffins that Old Lung made for families of the deceased in the buffer zone. He made this coffin on a day he stayed home because Mrs. Rossi, having been sick, was still recuperating. She came to this U Minh region in the Mekong Delta to search for the remains of her son, a lieutenant who served in the U.S. Army in 1967, exactly 20 years to date. I have recommended Old Lung, whom Mrs. Rossi eventually hired to help her search for the bones of her son. Back then, within a year after the war, people in the region were familiar with the sight of the poor citizens who traveled to this land looking for their lost husbands, sons, relatives. Sometimes you would see soldiers, but they didn’t stay at the inn. They would camp in the woodland with their trucks and it would be a week or even longer before they left. There were many soldiers coming to this region. Came in organized groups called remains-gathering crews. During the war thousands of them were stationed in this region, always deep in the swamp forest. Many died. Most of them died from bombing and shelling and ground assaults. In that forbidden swamp forest you had flesh and bones of the soldiers on both sides. All lay under the peat soil.
Old Lung asked me when she’d need him again and, knowing Mrs. Rossi, I told him I wouldn’t be surprised that she would be back into the forest before she was fully well. Old Lung said nothing. But moments later he said, shaking his head, “Poor old lady.” He stroked his gray tuft of goatee. “You know that I done whatever she asked me to? But it just makes no damn sense at all. This whole business. Few times I wanted to tell her that. Like . . .”
I looked at him quickly. “Like she’s gone out of her mind?”
Old Lung snorted.
The procession passes by. Silent. Solemn. The coffin bearers step slowly, keeping the poles level so as not to jolt the miniature altar, the candles, the flower vases, sitting atop the pall.
“Let’s give ’em a shoulder,” Old Lung says, tossing away his cigarette stub.
Reluctantly I follow him. He always lends them a shoulder when they pass by his house, because all of them are his clients. We each put our shoulder to a pole, walking parallel. The rock-heavy weight sinks through the pole into my shoulder. I wonder who the dead might be to weigh this much. Old Lung says, low-voiced, “Relax, don’t strain yourself.” He walks easily in step with the bearers and we move slowly in the dying sunlight, and the air is full of chirps the bush crickets make in the undergrowth and roadside weeds. A canal appears in sight, and if you follow its course due east for a fair distance, you will reach the cemetery below a commune.
Halfway down the road Old Lung detaches himself from the pole. “We get off here,” he says to me.
I stand back, watching the line move on in the trilled kr-r-r-ek the tree frogs chorus from the water. Old Lung heads for a dwelling that sits back from the road behind a banana grove and hummingbird trees. He disappears in the twilight, and I wonder what he’s up to. I light a cigarette, closing my eyes in its aroma, dark, endearing. Frogs are calling from the water and mosquitos whine in my ears. It’s their feeding time.
Old Lung comes out of the darkening trees. He’s lugging a sampan that makes a dry scraping sound as he drags it to the water.
“You borrow it?” I ask him. “What’s the idea, old man?”
“Let’s go get drunk,” he says, pulling the sampan with me pushing it. It’s a flat-bottomed boat powered by a shrimp-tail motor.
“Where to?” I’m stopped by a sudden cough.
“To see a buddy of mine,” he says.
The boat hits the water and slides in with a splash. Old Lung starts the motor with one quick yank of the cord. The motor roars, echoing across the water, the stillness.
In the twilight we go past a logging camp, then the district town flickering with gas lamps from the thatch-roofed dwellings on the northern bank of Cái Tàu River. I have been on this canal, among others, where the sunlit water during the day glitters with gourami, translucent blue and red-striped. We are on the river, wide and eddying and gurgling over deep-bottomed drops, where the river flows fast before entering the sea. The boat goes down a creek and in the dusky light you can see the land, bare and brown, and hear the sound of waves coming from the sea.
Mr. Rum is a fisherman. Old Lung introduces me to him in the twilight outside his place. By the door sit two pots of cycads, their woody trunks crowned with stiff leaves. As we enter his dwelling, we can hear the seaward wind humming under the aluminum roof. A dark smell of tobacco and burned wood hangs about the house, lit by a gas lamp that sits on a square table in the center of the room. The yellow light casts a fan-shaped glow on the rafters. Hung from a rafter is a bamboo cage. A bluish-gray, red-beaked parrot stirs at our sight, clucking its tongue. Tak-tak-tak.
“Guests coming! Guests coming!” it squawks.
“Don’t you know me by now?” Old Lung shakes the cage gently and the bird bobs its head nervously.
“He’s not a dog, mind you,” Mr. Rum says, his bass voice drawling in a southern accent.
He’s half a head taller than me. About Old Lung’s age, his closely cropped hair is cloud white. His skin is amber dark, like fish-sauce color, more red than brown. In his white undershirt his sinewy arms are tattooed with a tiger’s head on one upperarm and a whale on the other. He yanks off his undershirt and drapes it over the bird cage. We can hear the parrot purring and clucking in its cloaked world.
“Keeps him quiet for a while,” Mr. Rum says.
A shiny gash runs from the middle of his chest to his abdomen. You can’t help thinking that, at one time, someone tried to cleave him open with a butcher knife.
“Sit down,” he says, “sit down.”
Old Lung sits on a rush mat in the center of the room next to a tall hardwood, coal-black column. In one corner, atop an aging armoire, sits a small altar. A black-wood tray holds a teaset in white ceramic, the teapot decorated with a hand-painted bright red dragon. In a corner of the tray is a Bastos cigarette pack. I come close to look at the brass-framed black-and-white picture propped behind a candleholder, its white candle just a stub. A young-looking girl, her hair wrapped in a polka-dot headscarf, carries a boy astride her hip, smiling happily at the camera. A charming girl with beautiful white teeth. Hung on the wood-paneled wall behind the altar are three stingray tails, leathery looking and blackish. You can still see the barbed stings on them. I wonder if he ever dusted the altar, for cobwebs hang across the corner, filmy and gleaming in the gas light.
Mr. Rum goes out the back door to the veranda. On the top step stands a metal barrel. He lights a fire with his cigarette lighter and the barrel roars, the fire growing brighter and brighter, and though it burns on the windward side, the fire’s insect-repelling smoke of cajeput leaves and twigs drifts, warm and rank, into the room. In this season mosquitos swarm the land and feed on cattle and people until they are so swollen with blood they eventually land somewhere, anywhere, to rest.
Mr. Rum brings in an iron brazier and a clear plastic bag bulging with blood cockles. Old Lung begins building a fire in the brazier while Mr. Rum hovers over a horseshoe-shaped bench in a corner that frames a brick hearth. Steam puffs in gray wisps from a pot that sits on a wrought-iron tripod. He comes to the mat and puts down a tray―bowls and spoons and short glasses and salt-and-pepper shakers, three oyster knifes, a thin wooden rod that pierces through six fresh lemons. In the center of the tray stands a bottle of pale yellow liquid.
Old Lung uncorks the bottle, passing it back and forth under his nose. “Devil you,” he says, grinning. “Devil wine.”
“From friendly neighbors,” Mr. Rum says, sitting down to inspect the hissing cockles on the smoldering brazier.
“What neighbors?” I ask.
“The Khmers,” he says, sitting back, legs crossed over each other. “Over the border. They grow unbelievable crops of glutinous rice over there. Cook this rice and the fragrance is so rich it brings down sparrows from the sky. They let it ferment in copper stills and then steam it inside banana leaves.” He arranges the three short glasses and watches Old Lung pour the wine into each glass.
We toast one another. I sniff. A bursting bouquet of baby rice kernels, buttery smelling, baked-bread dark. The wine spreads in my mouth, numbing my tongue with a mellow sting. Momentarily I feels a small fire warming my stomach and I feel as if I had known Mr. Rum for a long time and I appreciate his company.
He swirls his glass and, holding it out in front of us, says, “Look at those streaks. Only devilish wine has ’em.”
Clinging to the side of his glass are silky- and oily-looking long legs. Old Lung slaps me on the thigh. “Told you,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “Brother Rum knows more than just fish.”
Mr. Rum simply nods. His eyes are red, the opaque red from sand and seawater that permanently stamps a mark on fishermen and seaside dwellers. He pulls two lemons out from the rod and, with his pocketknife, slices each of them into several thin wedges. I mix salt and pepper in each smaller bowl while Old Lung blows at the brazier. The coals glow red, the cockles sizzle and bubble along the shell margins. When the shells open, we pick them up by hand, feel the smoking heat cut through our fingertips, and drop them into our bowls. I squeeze a wedge of lemon into a shell, pry the meat loose with an oyster knife and touch the meat, pinched between my fingers, in the salt-pepper mix in the smaller bowl. The heat stings my tongue, then a seawater taste sets in. Chewing, I raise my glass. The chewy meat tastes sweet, tangy with a whiff of cucumber like when you just slice a knife into it. I down my glass. Instantly my eyes water. I exhale a buttery-dough scent through my nose and reach for the bottle.
“I’m gonna visit you more often, Ông Rum,” I say to him.
He lets me fill half his glass, asking me where I came from originally. I tell him between sips. In the clanking of shells, the smacking of lips sucking the cockle’s juice, he says, “Ahh!”, while grinning like a devil. “You’re like me,” he says, raising his glass to mine. “I was a Viet Minh fighter, say, before you were born. Have lived here in the Mekong Delta all my life. . . .” He spreads more cockles on the brazier, the red-hot coals hissing and smoking from the spilled juice of those cockles already eaten, and tells me there are many old Viet Minh fighters like him in the region, and I think about Ông Ba who took Mrs. Rossi to the forest every day until she fell ill. “Then the French left,” Mr. Rum says in his deep voice, “and the Americans came. I was married and we had a son. Had a piece of land up near Trẹm River and Ra Ghe Creek. One day their helicopters flew in and spirited away just about everyone in my village. I came back from the field and my-oh-my I was all alone, like an alien. They quarantined all of my people in a barbed-wire camp in the town district until every living man from our village showed up to claim his family―men they believed were either Viet Cong or deserters. They got me and set my family free. They ran a check on my background and though they found out I was a civilian, they knew I was a Viet Minh during the Indochina War. So they said to me, ‘You’ve been dodging our national obligations during wartime. Now serve the country or stay behind bars.’ What did I do? I became an ARVN soldier.” Mr. Rum pours the bag onto the brazier, the cockles rolling around like stones, and empties our bowls filled with shells into the bag. He lifts the bottle, almost gone now, and refills our glasses, except his. “You can say that I was a South Vietnamese soldier, but I had no desire or intention to kill for them. I missed my family. Months went by and still they granted me no leave. Then the day came when they said I could go on leave. I remember someone laughed in the room. I saw a smirk on their faces and it was then they told me that my village wasn’t there anymore. They played with me while I asked, Relocation? One man slapped me on the back, said, ‘New-Life Hamlet woulda been too good for ’em. Your whole village was a Viet Cong village. Tell ya this: they fired at our patrol from inside the village, and guess what? We relocated all of ’em to Hell.’ No one survived, they said. I felt my life exploded right in front of me. I told them I quit. They threw me into a cell and asked me three days later if I changed my mind. I told them I wanted to die and they laughed. ‘Let’s have some fun before that happens,’ they said. So they tied me to a river craft and sped it down a river and I was bouncing up and down on the water holding on to the rope for my dear life, and they changed the speeds so that one minute I sank, drinking a belly full of water, and the next minute my body was flung about like a rag. They turned into this swamp and the muddy water was so thick I took a mouthful and knew this was where they wanted me to die. They sped up the boat and something sharp in the mud cut me lengthwise, cut loose the rope, and I sank into the stinking mud, my mind was half gone, but my body still had enough strength left and I managed to move on foot in that shallow water, keeping my head under as I heard them doubling back, the engine noise, the men cursing, and I had in my mouth a long reed stalk and I breathed through it as long as I could till I heard ’em no more. Know what I did after they were gone?” Mr. Rum checks me, squinting. “Put mud on this wound here and lay in the reed till nightfall and then found my way out of that town.” Mr. Rum peers down at his naked torso, oxblood dark, at the gash that seems to bisect his trunk. An ugly looking cut. “Before long I joined the Viet Cong’s regional forces. I might not be as educated as those from the main force and not likely to become a Party member, but I never gave a hoot about that. I was a full-time soldier again.”
I lift my gaze toward the altar. “That your wife and son?”
“Yeah.” Mr. Rum taps his fingers on the empty bottle, musing as he looks at it. “He was four in that picture.”
“And how old was he when they wiped out your village?”
“Seven.” Mr. Rum rises and goes to the hearth. He carries back the pot still bubbling with steam and places it on the brazier. As he lifts the lid a rich smell of onions wafts up. My mouth waters. Old Lung clucks his tongue and dips his head to sniff the aroma. Inside the pot is creamy rice porridge, flecked with fried onions in brown. Meaty looking fillets of fish float about.
“What you got in there, Brother?” Old Lung asks, lining up three bowls alongside the brazier.
“Sea bass.” Mr. Rum ladles the porridge into Old Lung’s bowl. “Caught it today at sunrise.”
“You got nothing else to do at that hour?” Old Lung grins at Mr. Rum.
“Just me and the bass at that hour.” Mr. Rum dips the ladle in the pot and fills my bowl.
I sprinkle black pepper on the porridge while Old Lung slurps it from his spoon. I hold the broth’s dark peppery taste in my mouth until my nose breathes out warm, wet air. I break a small chunk of fish and chew. Its firm texture flakes in my mouth and melts with a smoky flavor. I glance up at Mr. Rum, who is blowing steam off the bowl.
“You catch stingrays too?” I ask.
“Stingrays?” he says, gulping. “No. Have no use for ’em.”
“Saw their tails on the wall over there.”
“Ah.” He draws in a sharp breath, his gaze lingering on wall. “Reminders of something I’m not too proud of.” His hand holding the spoon stops in midair. “Used to discipline my son with those―the tails. You can say I was a bad-tempered man. Used to beat him till his mother threw herself on top of him to make me stop. She used to salve his cuts from the lashes and made him sleep facedown to ease the pain. You see, I’d lived my life with rules. Couldn’t tolerate anything that breaks them rules. Until one day I was out fishing and got whipped in the face by a stingray and it stung like hell. So bad I had to go ashore and find some liniment to take the pain away. From that day on I never touched a stingray tail again―as a whip. Ever. But memories. Ah. They never die, right?”
Old Lung nods, smacking his lips. I say a soft yeah, feeling his remorse. His voice, empty of emotion, and his face, devoid of expression, make me feel the pain for him. Mr. Rum says, “See the cycad pots when you walked in? Well, she used to have them around. She had some sort of affection for ’em palms. Strange species. Grow slowly and live very long. She said some live to a thousand years.” He gives a soft chuckle. “I guess I grew them to keep the memory of her around. Maybe something that outlasts all of us like those palms allows us the illusion to hang our memories onto it.” He shrugs. “To keep our memories alive. Wouldn’t you say?”
“Well,” I say, “if you really love someone and the person dies, will the love die in you after that?”
“No,” Mr. Rum says. “I think of them every day.”
I muse briefly. “So you don’t need the cycads of that sort.”
“I guess not.” Mr. Rum grins, a rare grin. “Maybe to spice up my life, that’s why, eh?”
Old Lung yawns, shaking his head. Mr. Rum reaches out and slaps him on the shoulder. “Don’t fall asleep on me now. Bring your glass with you outside.”
The fire in the metal barrel has died down, now smoldering, and the air smells bitter. We arrange three folding metal chairs along the wall on the rear veranda. Mr. Rum puts out the gas lamp and removes his undershirt from the birdcage. In the sudden dark the parrot croaks, Tak-tak-tak, chào Ông Rum! And Mr. Rum says, Chào con. Hello son. He has his white undershirt flung over his shoulder. In his hand is a fresh bottle of rice wine. It’s pitch dark and a steady breeze coming from the sea drives the faint leaf-burned smoke toward the land in the back of the house. Mr. Rum lights his pipe, a long curving one, and the darkness smells sweet.
The land lies bare, stretching until your eyes can see a grove of trees, dark and dense, screening off the horizon. I ask Mr. Rum if the trees are cajeput and he says yes, for reforestation. After a brief silence, he says “Bad land. Bad soil. Just black or brown acidic soil. Can’t grow any vegetables. Any time I crave vegetables I have to go off into the cajeput grove and look for climbing fern―those that thrive only in cajeput forest. Here people eat the fern’s sprouts as salads.”
He refills our glasses and we sit sipping our rice wine and slowly the cockles’ seawater taste is gone from my tongue. I pop a cigarette into my mouth, drawing deeply on it without lighting it. I think of Chi Lan, Mrs. Rossi’s eighteen-year-old Vietnamese adopted daughter, hearing her soft chiding words each time she sees me reach for my cigarette pack. I feel a sudden urge to cough and fight it. Eyes closed, I let my mind go blank. I can hear the stillness. Then a bellow sounds across the air. Deep, spiraling, mournful. Like the sound of bugle on the battlefield. A chorus of it fills the sky. It breaks the peaceful quiet and I hear Old Lung curse. Mr. Rum raises his voice, “I know, people hate that sound. It’ll be gone soon.”
“It sure plays with my nerves,” Old Lung says.
“Sounds like a whole lot of bugles blowing, eh?” Mr. Rum says. “From those fluted clam shells they blow on. Have that queer sound, quite irritating. But it drives off ’em bats from feeding on their fish let out to dry.”
Old Lung chortles. “You got me there, brother. Them bats can hear those sounds?”
“Certainly. Go down to the fishing hamlet and take a look. What you see is dead bats all over the shore. Like they were shot down when the horns get going with all those terrible sounds.”
“Aya,” Old Lung says, smacking his lips.
“Those bats came one day,” Mr. Rum says, “when they saw fish laid out to dry. They just dropped down and feasted on ’em fish and before folks could react, everything was gone before their eyes. Bat plague, they called it. Went on and on, the worst nightmare to fishermen’s families. For years, mind you. After they’d tried this and that and nothing worked, they tried the fluted clam shells. Them shells are big, biggest one I saw is forty centimeters long.”
Old Lung flicks off his cigarette butt and scratches his cheek. “Who coulda thought of that?”
Mr. Rum pours some more wine for Old Lung. I close my eyes, steadying my nerves. The irritation in my throat begins to recede. “When they blew on the shells,” Mr. Rum says, “them bats went berserk. Many flew off, many dropped like rocks, many died. They’d come back, though. And the sounds of fluted shells would drop ’em again and again. Then one day the bats stopped coming.”
“Aya,” Old Lung says again. “True story, brother?”
Mr. Rum laughs, then drops his voice, “Told to me though.”
They say nothing for a while and both must have thought that I dozed off, for I can hear Old Lung say in a low voice, “Who was the genius who came up with the fluted clam shells?”
“This young fisherman,” Mr. Rum replies. “They said when they were still chasing those bats away with sticks and oars, they caught one of ’em big bats. Wingspread’s a meter wide. This fellow was playing with his fluted clam shell nearby and every time he blew on it, the bat seemed to struggle in confusion. Or pain. He stopped blowing and the bat seemed to be its own self again. He blew and blew and the bat went berserk and then lay dead. It was then folks found out that the bat could hear the sound the fluted clam shell made. Lethal sound.”
“All this happened before you came?”
“Way before. Our hero would be one hundred years old now.”
Old Lung snorts. I hear him click open his lighter and soon the cigarette odor seeps through the air. Then Mr. Rum’s voice. “Know what happened to that fellow?”
“No.” His bass voice drops even lower. “He was working for this man who owned a big fishing boat and one night the man caught him screwing his wife on the boat.”
“Musta been a night with a full moon, eh?” Old Lung laughs in spurts.
“You got that right,” Mr. Rum says, clearing his throat. “They said his boss saw fish jumping and thwacking their lives out on the deck. Said a whole container of live fish musta been knocked over when those two lovers wrestled each other on the deck. And that’s how our hero met his end.”
“Boss killed him?”
“With an oar.”
“From hero to villain over a woman, eh?”
I can hear Mr. Rum’s lighter click, him puffing and drawing on his pipe. The air on the veranda smells of a warm sweetness of tobacco and brittle bitterness of cajeput leaves still smoldering in the barrel. I hang my head back, stretching my neck. The fluted clam horns have stopped and in the stillness drifts the sound of waves. I breathe slowly, emptying my thoughts, and I can feel myself float in air. Old Lung’s whisper comes across. “Look, here it comes.”
“I see it,” Mr. Rum replies.
I open my eyes a slit and see the blue-ghost fireflies massing a short distance down the length of the land. A soft stationary blue orb hovering above the ground.
“You think he’ll come?” Old Lung says.
“Likely,” Mr. Rum says.
“Last time it took a while.”
I sit up, fixing my gaze on the blue sphere. It moves slowly, at times keeping still, at times whirling. “You talking about a ghost?”
Both of them turn their heads toward me.
“An old ghost,” Mr. Rum says.
“Yeah,” Old Lung says. “Just keep your eyes open.”
I raise my glass to my lips. “Hey old man. Can I see this ghost without putting lime on my toes and fingertips?”
“Don’t have to,” Old Lung says, lowering his voice. “Once you break the barrier between you and them―and you did at my place―you won’t need lime again.”
“I’ll keep quiet this time,” I say, resting the glass of wine in my lap. Mr. Rum’s voice drones on in the quiet, saying that when there are not many living souls on the land, the yin force overwhelms the yang, that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are too far away and demons and ghosts are at your door every night.
Across the land katydids call from the cajeput grove, a rattled ch-ch-ch chorus pulsating endlessly. The orb glows bluer and brighter, and as we watch in silence a human figure suddenly manifests in the center of the bluish sphere. An American soldier. He wears the army combat uniform and it looks wet. His hair too, the dirty blond hair matted wetly in strands on his brow. He stands in one place, his hand clutching his throat, his other hand holding the clutching hand’s wrist. He looks lost, turning his head left then right, as if to take his bearings in the night. Then he moves toward the cajeput grove, the blue orb following him, and somewhere before the woods the blue light disperses into the night and he too disappears.
I lean back, hard, in my chair. The chair’s legs scrape the cement floor. “Ông Rum,” I say to him, “how often do you see him?”
“Once in a while,” Mr. Rum says. “He’s harmless. Every now and then I put out food to pacify him.”
“This region’s full of them,” Old Lung says and lights another cigarette.
“He just shows up like that?” I say. “Out of nowhere?”
“Nah.” Mr. Rum puffs on his pipe, the red pinheads glow then dim. “He’s got a place over there on my land. I buried him.”
“How?” I lean forward. “How’d he get there?”
Mr. Rum exhales with a great effort. “You know, over the years I’ve buried a few people here on my land. Dead. Unclaimed. Drowned in the ocean and drifted ashore. I remember one time during the war the Americans dropped shallow-water mines along the seacoast and not a day went by without seeing a corpse come floating in. Most of the time you can’t make out the faces. No, sir. Not after birds and fish have made a meal for themselves. Personal effects, I kept. Got a marine wristwatch that you can read the dial at night. Got a pair of heavy-duty binoculars. Got a French beret. Hope they don’t mind me keeping ’em.” He stretches his legs, turns toward me. “This fellow who shows up occasionally on my land is one of ’em. Wasn’t drowned, though. Just drifted in from somewhere and got caught in my fish trap.”
Mr. Rum lifts the bottle and motions to me for a refill but I shake my head. He pours some wine for Old Lung and himself, and after a sip he draws deeply on his pipe before it goes out. “That morning about sunrise I went down the creek, where you came in earlier, to where I set my fish trap overnight just before the ocean. I usually got out there earlier but that morning I skipped one tide cycle and was sure there’d be plenty more of fish. Was plenty of ’em all right by the time I got there. Low tide and my fish trap just shook with giant sea perch and threadfins and sea bass and prawns. They jumped, they smacked and I reached in with my hand net and felt the waves push something against my fish trap under the water. Thought it must be a giant grouper so I lifted my hand net to let the fish go into the trap. I couldn’t see its shape. Huge, though. It went sideways, blocked the trap’s mouth. I dipped my hand into the water and felt something other than a fish. I grabbed a handful of hair. Felt like a handful of kelp. Felt around and seized a part of a shirt and pulled the thing up. Damn if I didn’t try. But I finally got it to float up with my oar as a lever. Quite a sight. A soldier. American soldier. He was wearing a rain poncho. His boots were so soaked through they felt soft. He didn’t smell. Musta died the night before by looking at his poncho and remembering the hard rain we got the previous night. By the time I got him onto the boat with fish jumping around him it was first light. Just misty all around. But I could make out his face. And what I saw was a hole in his throat. Another hole in the back of his neck. He musta been shot there and the bullet went through his neck. His hands. I couldn’t straighten their fingers. They were bent like crab’s claws. So I just let them be and rowed home.”
I lift my face. “When was all of this?”
Mr. Rum rubs his nose a few times. “When? Hmm. Nineteen sixty seven.”
“Remember the month, don’t you?”
“August.” Mr. Rum shakes his head. “The ninth. Was my birthday, that day.”
I take a quick sip. “He got any personal effects on him?”
Mr. Rum nods. “Wallet, dog tag, a plain old wristwatch. I kept ’em.”
I lean forward to see him better. “Ông Rum,” I say, “can I see his personal effects?”
Mr. Rum tilts his head back. “His stuff? Yeah. Why?”
“Just let me see them. You mind?”
“Not at all. Lemme get ’em.”
Old Lung turns in his chair, pats me on my shoulder. “What’s the idea?”
Mr. Rum comes back out, holding up the gas lamp and carrying in the other arm a burlap sandbag in faded green. Without saying a word, he holds the lamp, sitting on the chair and watching me pull out the poncho, ripped in places. The poncho comes out of the sandbag, like it emerges back into the world, shaking off a horribly musty smell. The sandbag sags. Mr. Rum lowers the lamp as I empty its content onto my lap. A plastic-wrapped packet. Inside is a paper-wrapped packet and inside it are a wristwatch, a leather wallet, and a dog tag. The stainless steel dog tag shines in the light as I lift its long ball chain to read its stamped letters, numbers in five lines: ROSSI, NICOLA, followed by a line of numbers, then “O”, CATHOLIC.
I feel a rush of blood to my head. I could never forget the date. Everything from that night comes back. As if it moves around on the shiny dog tag. Time suddenly shrinks. Twenty years is merely a blink of an eye.
“He was a lieutenant, wasn’t he?” I ask Mr. Rum without looking at him.
“I think he was,” Mr. Rum says. “Heaven knows how many times I looked at his uniform before I buried him.”
I stare at the dog tag. Nicola Rossi.
“But what are you looking for?” Mr. Rum asks as I open the wallet.
The photographs’ colors in the plastic sleeves aren’t sharp any longer. I look at Nicola Rossi, youthful, sandy-blond haired, standing in a white shirt outside a house. I look at another photograph. Mrs. Rossi, I can tell. Reddish-blond hair, in her forties. A man, handsome, dark-eyed, wearing a white shirt with a red tie. Nicola Rossi looks more like his mother than his father. Solemn-looking, even smiling in the picture.
Holding the opened wallet in my hands, I tell Mr. Rum about Mrs. Rossi who came to look for the remains of her son, a lieutenant who went missing-in-action during the Vietnam War. Old Lung listens, says Aya repeatedly, thanking Heaven and the Buddhas who finally cast their merciful eyes earthward and put a stop to Mrs. Rossi’s ordeal. Mr. Rum sets the lamp on the floor and, stroking his stubbled chin, says, “Did she tell you the date her son went missing?”
“No.” I fold up the wallet. “I don’t think she was aware of it. It probably means nothing to her.”
“Then why’d you ask me about it?”
“Because that night,” I say, “August the ninth, we overran his base before daybreak and we killed every survivor and then we pursued those who got away and he was one of them. Me and my men got into the forest chasing him in the torrential rain until we spotted him near a creek. He was unarmed. We shot him. I did. Just as he turned around facing us. Got him in the throat. We kicked his body into the water and left.” My throat feels sand-dry. “We’ll bring her the news tomorrow. Can I take his stuff with me?”
Old Lung smacks his lips, scratching his head like he had lice. “You gonna bring her peace or you gonna bring her hell?”
Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (Black Heron Press, 2012) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (Underground Voices, 2014). He is a five-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, a two-time finalist of THE WILLIAM FAULKNER-WISDOM CREATIVE WRITING AWARD, and the recipient of Greensboro Review’s ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION (2014). His work, The Demon Who Peddled Longing, was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book. Ha graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.