THE LOST VILLAGE
By Le Van Thao
Translated by Ly Lan
It was a sunny afternoon. I was sitting in a provincial bus station waiting for a ride to Saigon. The man sharing the narrow shade with me beneath a small tree was a lieutenant colonel -- at least, I thought that was what he was; I didn't know much about military ranks. He was in his middle fifties with gray hair, a thoughtful look, and a painfully constricted face. He was holding on tight to his briefcase, but his luggage was laid on the ground by his feet. His uniform was quite worn, seemed too large for him, and was buttoned at the neck as well as at the wrists. Both of us were wet with sweat.
Our bus was already there, but it could be a long time before it was ready to leave, so I was just waiting patiently. Other passengers were quietly reading newspapers and smoking. Children were running about playing or eating. Women were chatting noisily in groups. The colonel was neither eating nor reading. Every once in a while he looked at his watch and then glanced around around excitedly as if he were impatiently waiting for something. The sun shone more and more fiercely. The bus station was crowded with passengers coming and going, peddlers hawking their wares, conductors shouting and laughing, policemen whistling, a cacophony of noise mixed with unbreathable dirty air, heat, and sewer smells.
"Too noisy!" the colonel said.
"That's how a bus station is," I replied.
A group of new passengers arrived, carrying all kinds of farmer's tools and other things. They appeared to be villagers from the remote countryside and included men, women, and children, all led by an old man of seventy, with white hair, a wrinkled face, but sturdy limbs. The old man walked into the bus station ahead of the rest, looked at the row of buses parked there, then turned to his people to tell them something.
The colonel gave them an indifferent look, then checked his watch. All of a sudden he seemed to remember something. He turned and stared hard at the old man, his forehead furrowing, then stood up. Holding his briefcase close to his chest, he hurried toward the old man, leaving his luggage untended at my feet.
The group of farmers walked into the waiting room, arranged their possessions on the floor, and sat down around them. They wiped the sweat from their faces and began talking to one another quietly, with many pauses along the way. The old man came in too, after shouting something to somebody outside. I spotted the colonel mingling among the farmers then sitting by the old man's side. They were conversing earnestly, but it was so noisy that I could only hear a little of what they were saying when I approached with the colonel's luggage.
"Are you Mr. Tam Dau from village T.?" the colonel shouted.
"What?" the old man shouted back.
"I wanted to know... I once stayed in your village."
"What? Speak up. I'm half deaf."
"I said that a long time ago, twenty years ago, I stayed in your village."
"There is no more village. It's in the river now."
"What? In the river?"
"Drowned. Nothing amazing about it. The river bank collapsed."
"All of it? No house was spared?"
"All of it. Not a single house." Then the old man added in a strange voice, "We are the last of the villagers whose houses fell into the river.... What? How could houses just fall into the river like that? They just did, just as they were. With a lot of noise over several days and nights. That's how Nature is."
Just then a group of tourists arrived at the bus depot, well- dressed people with cameras hang from their necks, talking loudly in foreign languages. Their arrival made me lose track of the old man's and the colonel's conversation. When I looked back at the farmers again I now saw them in all their poverty: how thin, weak, and pale they were and their worn-out clothing. You couldn't even call what the children were wearing "clothes."
The old man and the colonel were still sitting side by side, their voices more subdued now.
"Strange!" the colonel said, clicking his tongue.
"What's strange?" the old man asked.
"The way the river bank collapsed. I knew when I was there that it was eroding, but I didn't realize it would happen so quickly. Please tell me the whole story, from the beginning."
"Which beginning?" The old man laughed. He was obviously someone who took delight in telling stories. "As I've already said, there was no beginning and no end. It was going on day and night. That's how it was. It was strange to watch it. Especially in the rainy season when the river flowed fiercely. One night we heard screams for help from every direction. When we came with torches we saw that Hai Non's kitchen had collapsed. The pig pen had fallen into the river with the pig still inside. Then Nam Mung's house started falling down. He couldn't get out. He was kneeling on the floor inside and shouting.
Another time, a group of young men were drinking together. The house they were in was halfway into the river already, but they didn't care. When we heard a big VROOM! we all ran to see the house floating in the middle of the river and the young men swimming away from it like rats.
The lieutenant colonel asked softly, "Everyone was all right?"
"I was just asking if anybody drowned."
"Yes, some did," the old man said. "Hai Suong, a widow whose husband and sons all died in the war. She lived with her twelve-year-old adopted granddaughter in a small hut on the river's edge. But she spent her time looking for food rather than taking care of her house. One night, hearing the VROOM!, we lit torches and ran over there. But we found no hut and no people. We couldn't find their bodies either. It was pitiful."
The old man turned to ask the man sitting next to him, "Chin Man, do you remember when Aunt Hai Suong's hut fell into the river? Wasn't it pitiful?"
Chin Man was repairing a basket. He said, "Yes. Pitiful."
"Wasn't there any plan?" the colonel asked.
"I was asking if the government didn't have any plan to move the village."
"Move it where? You don't realize, we villagers are very poor. We work day and night just to earn enough to eat. The little that's left over we put into our houses. 'Move once, starve three years.' We didn't have any money to move, and nowhere to move to. Besides, our ancestors' graves were there. So, we had to let Nature do its work."
The colonel hung his head in silence. The old man turned toward me. "Isn't it so, young man? We can't interfere with Nature's work, can we? But do you understand this story of how a river can destroy an entire village?"
I said I did not understand. I had heard about it happening, but this was the first time I had heard it firsthand. I asked him, "What about your own house?"
"My house? Well, I had nothing to worry about. My sons and daughters had already moved out. The house was just a small hut waiting for its turn to fall into the river. That night I was smoking a cigarette. All of a sudden I heard the river strongly under the floorboards. It was midnight. I lit another cigarette and waited till the hut started to shake. Then it floated along the river like a blade of water hyacinth. I kept smoking, while the hut floated past the bank near where my friend lived. Then I climbed onto the sampan, untied it from the hut's side and paddled to the bank quite easily."
This was so comical, I decided the old man must have made some of it up. But the colonel's face had become dark. The old man turned toward him again. "You said you visited our village once. Whose house did you stay at?"
"I was just passing by. I was on a mission during the war. My boat was sunk when I was crossing the river. I swam to a house.... Do you know a Miss Hue?"
"Well, she would be a middle-aged woman now. This was twenty years ago. Please try to remember. Her house was at the end of the village. There was a big tree in front."
"I'm trying." The old man asked the man fixing the basket, "Do you remember a Miss Hue, Chin Man? A girl twenty years ago, but now a grown woman. No? Well, it was a long time ago. Houses were always being washed away. It's not easy to remember."
Then he asked the other villagers, "Anyone of you remember a Miss Hue? Try to remember. Someone here is looking for her."
A woman said, "Didn't Miss Hue run an inn? Soldiers stayed there."
The man fixing the basket said, "Soldiers stayed in every house in the village."
The colonel said, "She didn't run an inn. She wove mattresses."
"Then, I don't know. Soldiers used to stay in lots of houses in our village."
The old man tried to comfort the colonel. "Keep looking for her. You'll find her one day."
The colonel replied sadly, "I planned to come back, but I was very busy. Besides, I didn't expect the village to be washed away so soon."
"Nobody expected it. It's Nature's way." The old man stared at the buses lined up in front of him. "It's fate that our village was destroyed. There was nothing we could have done to prevent it. So, now we have to move, but it's okay. We're moving south, where the land is big and people are few. Still, we don't know how we'll survive there. We used to live by a river flowing rapidly day and night. Now we're moving to a dry land where heat burns the grass."
The man fixing the basket said, "It's all part of our homeland. The people there will not let us starve."
Children had gathered to listen to the story but found none of it very interesting. They asked the colonel, "You've been in the army for a long time? You look very old."
The colonel tried to smile, but the effort only made more wrinkles appear on his face. "Yes, I'm old. But once I was young. I once swam across the river to your village."
Someone announced that the buses were getting ready to move. Everyone became excited. Children called to one another. Grown-ups checked their belongings. Women hugged their babies. The old man began walking around and giving orders. "Look out for your things! See to your hoes and spades! You'll need them as soon as you arrive in the new land. Who left this net here? You don't want fish anymore?"
Then he said to the lieutenant colonel, "I'll say good-bye now. Since you once stayed in our village, you are considered one of us. Please come to see us again in our new home when you have the chance."
"But where is your new village? Which province? Which district?"
"Who knows? We haven't gotten there yet. We'll decide what to name it when we do. It's somewhere in Vietnam, anyway."
They went off with their heavy luggage. The colonel stood there bewilderedly for a moment, then ran after the old man. "There was no house left in village? Gone completely? Oh, God! I meant to come back so many times, but I just wasn't able. I was..."
"Don't blame yourself," the old man said. "We all have things we must attend to."
"But where can I find Miss Hue?"
"I stayed with her for only a few days. I left without saying anything. Twenty years have passed without any word from her."
"'Join us together, then separate us.' That's Nature's way."
"But what can I do?"
The buses started up. The old man got on the last one and waved to the colonel. The colonel raised his hand to wave back. By the time the dust cleared, the buses had already disappeared into the distance. The colonel stood watching for a moment, then came to where I was standing and picked up his luggage. After that he didn't say anything until we arrived in Saigon. He just sat quietly staring out at the road ahead.
(Le Van Thao is a writer and editor of the Arts and Letters Weekly Magazine in Ho Chi Minh City. He was born in 1939 in Long An, South Vietnam, and served as a guerilla in the War.)
(Ly Lan <firstname.lastname@example.org> was born in Binh Duong, grew up in Sai Gon, graduated from the University of Hochiminh City and now does teaching, writing and translating.)