A Marker on the Side of the Boat *

Bao Ninh

(Translated by Linh Dinh)

In my life, I've been here, there, but I've had few chances to visit Hanoi. Once, when I was little, once during the war, and a couple times years later. That's why, aside from Turtle Lake and Long Bien Bridge, I can only recall Hang Co train station and a street with trolley tracks on it. But, in spite of this, when I shut my eyes to peer into the crevices of my memory, I can always conjure up, if only dimly, a general image of its street scenes. This remote, alien city, with which I have had no intimacy, had, over the years, silently insinuated itself into my consciousness as a deeply beloved place. It is a love born out of nothing, less of an emotion than a light sensation; melancholic, plotless, a souvenir from my war-filled youth, a youth that, although long-gone, still reverberates with its echoes. As in the sounds of rain; of wind blowing through a room; or of leaves falling, never to be forgotten.
Twenty years had already passed. Hanoi back then and Hanoi today must be as different as sky and earth.
That day, I was driving my division commander from the battle of Quang Tri to a meeting at military headquarters, outside the capital. We arrived to find the city in a state of siege. That was truly a life-and-death battle, a blood struggle which, after twelve days and nights, changed the faces of both winner and loser. In such a dire situation, I did not dare to request a leave to visit my village; I only asked for permission to go into the city to deliver a handful of letters given to me by my buddies from Hanoi. I wanted to visit each family so I could receive a letter in turn, to bring a little joy back to our soldiers. On Christmas day, I was given permission to go into town, and was told to be back by midnight.
Without knowing the neighborhoods, and with nine letters to deliver, I still wasn't worried. I thought I would find the first address, then ask for directions to go to the next one. I didn't anticipate having to slip each one of those letters under the door. That day, all of Hanoi seemed to have been abandoned.
By the time I had delivered my last letter, the sky was pitch dark. The long, deserted street lay soaked in rain, punctuated by dim circles of street lights. I asked for direction to Vong. A militiaman, in a frond jacket, kindly escorted me for a stretch. At a three-way intersection, before we parted, he pointed to the trolley tracks hugging the sidewalk, and said to follow them to get to my destination.
With my helmet on and my collar up, I plunged into that fine gauze of drizzle. The night was chilly. The tracks were like a trail forging through the jungle of darkened houses. A city during wartime, on a precipice, abandoned. I walked on doggedly, my body numbed. There were endless dark stretches without a single pedestrian or a stall. The night exhaled its cold, wet air, soaking me right down to my empty stomach. My joints felt stiff, aching, as if ready to be jarred apart. A fever that had been simmering all evening crept up my spine. I couldn't stop shivering. My brain slowed down. My knees felt like buckling. I hadn't even walked that far and already I was counting my steps. Without seeing where I was going, I almost ran into the front of a trolley, a black mass parked in the middle of the street.
I staggered onto the sidewalk and wobbled beneath the eaves of a house. With my back leaning against the door, teeth chattering, I slowly slid down until I was sitting on the wet step, cold like a block of ice. My heart was pinched. I groaned until I could groan no more. My shivering became more violent. My body temperature was at a dangerous level, I thought numbingly. If I'm not careful this could be the end. Other people who die of fever die on a hammock in the middle of a jungle. I'll die sitting up, certainly, to be metamorphosized into a rock in front of someone's door.
Above my head, the corrugated tin roof shivered. The wind blew the rain right onto the stoop. Already wet, I got wetter. Dizzy, breathing in gulps, I knew I had to marshal all my energy to get up and continue, but I had no will power left. It was draining out of me like water from a broken vase. At that point, the door behind me inched open. I heard the noise but could make no sense of it. Unconsciousness, like a letting-go and a sigh of relief, seduced me from my own body.
Time stopped for I don't know how long. I opened my eyes slowly. My consciousness settled on a rim of light. Still wobbly, uncertain, I nevertheless knew I was indoors, and no longer delirious. The walls appeared to have been painted a pale green, although faded with time. The ceiling was dark. The warm air redolent of camphor. I shifted lightly. The bed creaked beneath my body. I was under a blanket, with my head on a pillow: tranquil, dried, warm, it was unreal. I turned my body. On a night table by the corner of the room, a small oil lamp gave off a dirty yellow light. A clock kept company with time by monotonously ticking off the seconds. The sudden thought of time startled me; I groaned.
"Oh, Brother... " Someone's hand caressed my cheek, and a soft, soothing voice whispered, "You've recovered. I was really worried... "
My heart froze, then beat wildly. I was embarassed. What is happening; who is this woman?
"I... " I finally opened my mouth, tongue-tied, stuttering, "Where am I... Where is this?"
"This is my house, Brother." Her soft hand touched my forehead, "You are my guest."
I tried to regain my composure, my strength. Breathing deeply, I turned heavily toward my hostess. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, with her face beyond the lamp's illumination. I could only make out her shoulders and her hair.
"You still have a touch of that fever, Brother, but you've gotten much better, luckily. You scared the hell out of me in the beginning. I was frightened to death."
"I'm in trouble... " I gasped, "It's past time for me to report back. I, I have to go... "
"Oh, Brother, you're in no shape to go anywhere. Outside, in the cold, you'll only get sick again. Besides, your clothes are being hung to dry in the kitchen. You can't wear them yet. They're still damp."
What? I realized what had happened. I quickly touched my thigh and chest, shuddering, wishing I could contract my body. Beneath the quilted blanket, I was practically naked.
"I'll bring you some rice gruel from the kitchen, all right?" The woman spoke casually and got up from the bed, "There is a change of clothing by the pillow for you to wear. It's also an Army uniform."
Without taking the oil lamp, she turned and walked out the door into the darkness. I threw the blanket aside and sprung out of bed. The strong aroma of medicinal balm from beneath the blanket stung my eyes. I dressed quickly. The uniform, new, reeking of camphor, was a reasonable fit. Decked out like a soldier again, I seemed to have regained my strength, although my entire body ached, my head was numb, and a ringing lingered in my ears.
As tired as I was, I could detect, immediately, the smell of hot rice gruel as it was being brought into the room by my hostess. She walked softly, her clogs barely making a noise on the wooden floor. She placed the tray on the table and turned up the knob on the oil lamp.
"The rain has stopped," she said, then sighed, for no apparent reason.
In the dimness of that room, I stared silently. This wonderful stranger was like an illusion conjured up in front of my eyes. An unearthy illusion, kind and beautiful. Kind and beautiful, her face, eyes, and lips, although I never really had a chance to look at her. The moment had arrived for this city. Within a fraction of a second, there wouldn't be time for heaven and earth to react, no time to even shudder.
Something monstrous, violent, stabbed suddenly into the silence. Out of nowhere, a reconnaissance plane--just one-thunderously slashed its way across the sky, skimming the city's rooftops. Inside the room, even the oil lamp seemed to be holding its breath...
"I think it's gone," she whispered, trembling, a pale smile on her face, "They're just trying to scare us."
"Yes," I said, "only some spy trying to sneak up on us, don't..."
I was trying to reassure her, to tell her that there's nothing to be scared of, when the horrible air siren started wailing, interrupting my sentence. Although I've heard it many times in previous nights, and have learned to anticipate the sound, the air siren still made my heart froze. Never before had this messenger of death reverberated so terrifyingly. The way it howled and screamed--desperate, angry, hysterical--made people want to scream along with it. "B-52's, B-52's, B-52's are coming," the public speaker frantically blared. "B-52's. 90 kilometers from Hanoi. 80 kilometers."
"Those Americans!" I said, "They're coming. That last guy was a scout."
"Yes. It's the B-52's. One more night."
"We'll have to go to the shelter!" I couldn't hide my nervousness, "They're getting near. Quick!"
"But how are you feeling?" She sighed, filled with childish concern, "It's very cold outside."
My premonition of danger suddenly became more palpable. With my mouth dried, my throat contracted, the drum in my chest was banging away. Never before had my intuition deceived me.
"Eat some, Brother, while it's still hot... "
"No!" I said, my voice hoarse, "Hot cold nothing! The bombs will be falling soon. They're carpet-bombing us!"
"How do you know?" She blurted in terror.
"I can smell it! Quick! To the shelter!" I practically shouted.
After blowing out the lamp, she grabbed me by the wrist and led me out of the room. My tenseness had been transfered to her. Gasping, her clogs was beating a fierce rhythm on the floor. We went down the stairs, then had to pass through a long, narrow, wet corridor before making it to the street. The rain had stopped. The sky had clear up somewhat. The air was crisp, transparent, eerie. In the middle of the street, right outside the door, the same trolley sullenly sat, like a stranded ship.
On the sidewalk, the personal shelter, cast out of cement, gaped open its black mouth.
"We should go to the public shelter, Brother," the woman said between quick breaths, "I never want to go inside one of these round ones. There's stagnant water at the bottom. It's gross."
"Now this!" I said, irritated.
"It's only down the street, Brother. Plus, there will be lots of people. It won't be so scary."
We lunged forward into the wind. The entire city was in hiding. In the deadly silence, there was only the two of us, a couple alone in the midst of terror. The seconds ticked by but our escape route seemed endless. A three-way intersection. Then a four-way intersection. The public shelter was nowhere in sight. Wearing those clogs, she couldn't run. But then, oh God, it was already too late to run. Artilleries were opening up in the outlying areas. The loud roars of 100-millimeter guns going off in unison. Brilliant flashes. Flame arrows, in pairs, thunderously lunging upward, tearing into the cloud ceiling, leaving red trails behind them. Surrounded by the frantic sounds of our troops' firepower, I could sense what was about to happen in the sky above. I had seen much carnage on the battlefield as a foot soldier. I knew how much chance there is in life and death matters. For the two of us, I knew it was over. The bombs were about to fall, right on that street.
Fate had wickedly placed us in the middle of a long street with no houses on either side, only high walls running into the distance. By the flashes of the long-range artilleries, I could detect no personal shelters on either sidewalk. It was death's ideal coordinates. A few more hurried steps would not have made a difference.
"They're dropping them!" I said, and quickly grabbed her arm.
"Brother, only a little more!"
"We don't have time," I calmly said, with unearthy composure, "the bombs are coming right now. Lie down, quickly, and don't panic."
She obediently lay down next to me, at the foot of a brick wall. She was very confused, and only half-believed my deadly pronouncements. But I knew that, within ten seconds or less, the bombs would come. The B-52's, those monstrous dragons, sowers of terror, were no strangers no me. In the South, they would fly at a lower altitude during the day, in formation of three or six planes, arrogantly across the sky, sowing streaks of thick smoke behind them as they rained down their bombs. These rains could collapse a side of a mountain, bury a stretch of a river, or wipe out an entire forest. But this was no rain; the sky itself was falling. In the place of mountains and forests were houses and streets. The sky was one vast menace, and the city appeared as small as the palm of a hand. In the face of such destruction, I thought, how flimsy is human life. I tensed up and waited.
It was as if I didn't hear the explosions. Although I was anticipating it, it still took me by surprise. My vision abruptly darkened. The earth shuddered, writhed. Space itself became distorted. Something burning, sharp, slapped me in the face. Heat from the bombs filled my lungs.
She rolled toward me, seeking shelter--her cold body pressing against mine; her breath on my stunned, sweaty face; her hair dishevelled.
Another string of bombs came, this time appearing to be right on the other side of the wall. Earth, rocks, cement, roof tiles, houses, all blew up together. The heavens screamed, shattered. Waves of heat rolled across the earth's surface. Die now! Die now! Die..ie..ie. I clutched onto her, clenching my teeth, waiting for that split second when our bones and flesh will be torn asunder. The bombs came steadily, savagely, howling, exploding one after another. After every explosion, every wave of heat, our bodies coiled more tightly to each other. The crush from the shift in atmospheric pressure left us reeling, stupefied.
Suddenly, death relaxed its claws. The big door in the sky was slammed shut. Silence. The explosion of the last bomb stopped all the other explosions.
We continued to lie still, clutching each other. It was as if we had become paralyzed, incredulous of the fact that we were still alive. We kept in that position for a long time before she wiggled herself free from my grasp.
I slowly helped her to get up. With a shoulder of her shirt torn, her hair disheveled, fear in her eyes, she groped with her feet trying to find her clogs, those useless high-heeled clogs. Billows of thick smoke drifted lowly by. There was a burnt smell of bomb powder in the air. The sky was a bruised red.
As the humming subsided in my ears, I could hear, from somewhere nearby, voices crying for help. The whole neighborhood quickly went into clamor. A crowd emerged, frantically rushing forward with picks, shovels, crow bars, and stretchers.
"Don't just stand there like that!" Someone angrily yelled, his voice hoarse, thick with pain, "The shelter has collapsed. People are dying right in front of you. Oh God!"
"Oh my God! I think it's the public shelter. There are so many people in there... " The woman blurted out.
"I'll have to go give them a hand. You go home first. I'll follow!" I said.
I released her hand and ran hastily after the crowd. As I ran, I turned back, motioned with my hand, and shouted: "Go home! Wait there for me!" Near the site of the explosion, before I was to plow into the smoking remnants of the freshly destroyed houses, I turned back one more time. After a hellish night, it was the last glimpse I had of my beloved and illusory figure.
But it shouldn't have been the last time. I should have been able to return to that same house, to the same room where I was the previous night, to see my woman again. It was morning, a long time after the all-clear signals. I followed the trolley tracks, retracing my path from the night, to go back to her house.
I thought nothing at first when I had to step aside to dodge a trolley. It was cold and the street was empty. The old, rusty trolley lunged forward; the bell silent; its steel wheels shrieking, throwing off sparks; the engine making an ear-shattering racket. But as it passed me, I gave a little start, as if my heart had just been whipped.
The street was straight, endless, without intersections. On each side of the street, the same houses crowded into each other, all identical, monotonous: a gloomy, grouchy facade shaded by a rusty tin roof; three steps leading to a single door. In front of every house was a cement hole. Since the trolley, my only clue, was gone, all I knew for sure was which side of the street the house was on. Everything looked the same, the same uneven, broken sidewalk, with puddles of stagnant water; the same walls and leaky roofs; the same arjun trees and light poles.
Although I had no time, I stalked back and forth on that street, brooding over my disappointment. I stared into the houses and at the faces of people coming out. By the time another trolley came clanking by, I was ready to give up. With a face still covered in soot and ash, limbs all scratched up, and wearing tatters stained with blotches of blood from the night's victims, I trudged dejectedly along the trolley tracks toward my destination on the outskirt of the city.
After the war, on my rare visits to Hanoi, I would always return to that same street. I would simply walk down it, not to find anything or go anywhere. The last time I got off at Hang Co train station, I could no longer recognize my old street. Hanoi had abolished the trolleys. The streets were glamorous; the houses beautiful; life happy...
There may come a day when people will have a hard time imagining a period when this city went through what I saw 20 years ago, when I was a very young man.

* The title refers to a folk tale about a fisherman who, to mark the spot where he had dropped his sword into a lake, made a mark on the side of his boat.

Copyright CrossConnect, Inc. 1996