A Thing Called Exodus

January 11, 2010

The war ended three weeks ago. You know because the hills have stopped quaking with cannon fire and you cannot remember the last time you saw a French soldier. Today, you are walking home from summer school when you hear the low moan of a plane overhead. You look up but see nothing, only an overcast sky, reddish-gray like the silt of the river that runs through your town. Down by church and the lake out front, small shadows begin to speckle the sky. At first it looks like a large flock of birds swooping down, but then you realize it Is paper, thousands of sheets, each the size of a hand, rustling in the air, fluttering lazily to the earth. The leaflets land everywhere, whitening the trees and floating atop the lake's light green water. Around the lake, townspeople scatter. Merchants close their shops. Fearful elders duck into doorways. Children pretend it is raining. You grab one from the air. You read it. It says, "God has moved south."

You rush home to your father, your white ao dai flapping behind you like the tail of a kite. On the way, you pass the cemetery where your mom was recently buried. It has only been six months but It feels so much longer. If she was alive, she would say, You are becoming a woman now. She would tease you, measure your new hips with her palms, and pinch your small breasts and say, The mangoes are not ripe yet. But she isn't, so you keep running.

When you arrive home, you find your father sitting beneath the soft shade of Old Man, the French white oak tree (chéne blanc, you learned in school) that spreads his massive arms in the center of the courtyard. Your father is working at a table, tying bamboo rods together and cutting papier-måché.

"I'm making you a lantern," he says. "For the Mid-Autumn Festival next month."

You hand your father a flyer and say, "These came from the sky."

He takes it from you.

"What does it mean?" you ask.

Since mom died, he has been a quiet father and you a quiet daughter.

You speak little to one another and never about her. Silence, in your home, is a language.

"Nothing," he says. "This news is for big people."

The soldiers come the next day. You are at the lake with your friend Thu, though both of you should head straight home to start dinner and do chores. She is tall and lanky like a palm tree and has a pretty, two-dimples-on-one-side smile that makes all the boys in school like her.

"Did you see the flyers?" she asks.

"I wish I knew what was going on," you say. "No one ever tells us kids anything."

"Yeah," Thu says. "It's always orders or questions. Never answers."

"It's a tradition," you say, and both of you laugh at that.

Thu turns to you and says, "Come here; let me braid your hair."

You go and sit in her lap, your elbows resting on her knees. She pulls a comb from her school bag and slowly combs your hair. She is gentle, but sometimes the teeth of the comb scrape along your back and tickle. You arch your back and giggle. It has been so long since your hair has been combed by someone and it feels wonderful, like a kind of love. Mom used to comb your hair every morning before school, family gatherings, church. She liked to try different styles, a ponytail with a white ribbon or one side pulled back with a butterfly clip, but always neat and sharp. God is in the details, she'd say.

When Thu is done combing out your hair, she says, "I hate you. Your hair is so thin and soft. Mine is as thick as weeds."

"I'd trade my hair for your height," you say. "I can barely fit into my desk at school."

"Good one," she says.

She separates your hair into strands and weaves them. The tug of her hands on your hair feels familiar, too much so, and you feel a pang of sadness well up within you. But you say nothing, just close your eyes and keep it inside, and Thu continues to braid. She tries different looks, styling your hair and then combing it out over and over.

You hear and feel the soldiers' arrival before you see it, the clang of metal on metal, the rumble of a diesel engine.

"They're here," Thu says in a low voice.

"Who?" you ask.

You open your eyes to the bright day, and as they adjust, the view looks like the inside of the kaleidoscope at school. Over the wash of colors, dark figures grow bigger. One by one, dozens of soldiers jump out of a flatbed truck as if it were giving birth to them. They are tired-looking and dirty, fresh sweat making rivulets in the dirt caked onto their faces.

"My ass is killing me," one says. "I thought we'd never get out of that thing."

"Better here than stuck at the front - babysitting those Frogs," another says.

"True, true," another says. "Plus, the festival is coming soon. We can enjoy it here." Noticing the lake outside the church, he takes off his shirt, rolls up his pant legs, and jumps in for an impromptu bath. Soon a group of them are in the water, splashing like boys, oblivious or indifferent to the stone statue of Jesus watching over them.

While you watch the men, two soldiers approach you from the other side of the lake. They stop right in front of you and Thu and their bodies block the sun, making long shadows that cover your face. They look at you with hungry, animal expressions. You do not like it. It makes you feel Indecent, as if you've done something wrong when you have not.

One of them looks dead at Thu. A long whisker is growing out of a mole on his cheek. "Hello, ladies," he says. "Can I get my hair braided next?"

Thu looks at him and says, "You hair is too short."

"I know, I was just kidding," he says. "I just wanted to - "

"-be between your legs," the other soldier says as he laughs. He smokes a cigarette, and up close his teeth are yellow.

Mole Face turns to him and says, "Fuck your mother. This is not how we planned it."

"Quit the games," Yellow Teeth says. "You want some pussy - I say, be up front about it."

You have never heard men talk like this. You both stand quickly and begin to walk away.

"Where are you going?" Mole Face asks. "We're just playing, trying to make friends."

"We have to go home," you say.

"To do chores," Thu adds.

As you go, Yellow Teeth grabs your wrist. His grip is strong. You cannot break his hold and despise the feeling. "No harm in just talking to a fellow, is there?" he says, leaning in to smell you. You' can tell he hasn't bathed in days and his sour stench makes you want to vomit.

Just then, a white-haired soldier pulls up in a jeep. "Stop!" he shouts, and Mole Face releases you. The soldier steps out from his jeep. "Forgive my men," he says. "We've been away in battle and have lost some of our manners."

White Hair nods and stiffens like a statute. He yells an order and all the soldiers - even those in the water - stand at attention. He returns their salute with a casual flick of his wrist. "Now that the war is over," White Hair says. "We've been ordered to secure this town. We're here to protect you."

That Sunday, church is unusually crowded, as if it were Christmas or Easter and not a regular August Mass. Before the service begins, you kneel before the Virgin Mary and light a candle for your mom as you do every week.

When you are done praying, you return to your seat, a comfortable length from your father. Distance is your way of mourning. You did not tell him about the incident with the troops. It's been this way since Mom's funeral, which was your first one ever. Most of that day is a haze, perhaps because of the incense smoke that hung in the air like fog. You remember your family, all with white cloths tied around their foreheads as if returning wounded and bandaged from some far-off battle. You remember the hole in the ground, deeper and darker than you could have imagined. Most of all, you remember Mom being lowered into the hole. The squeak-squeak of the pulley and ropes. You cried so hard you bit your lip until it bled. You looked to your father, standing next to you as Mom steadily descended. He wore a stoic face. He did not cry. Not one tear. Instead, white-robed mourners, ghostly women he had hired, wailed like crows and threw their bodies atop the coffin, you have not forgiven him.

Now Mass begins. An organ plays, the choir sings, and the procession enters. The altar boys hold a gold cross and flickering candles; the deacon holds the Bible aloft; the priest, whom you don't recognize, carries only a solemn look on his face.

After the readings, the new priest takes the lectern. He wears dark-rimmed glasses and is almost handsome. You expect him to address the papers that fell from the sky. But he doesn't. As he speaks, his eyes scan the authence and it is obvious he is nervous because he repeatedly wipes his forehead with a cloth and it is not even a hot day. For three days, you have wondered about the bird-like flyers and their odd message. But the priest talks only about lambs and shepherds, valleys and summits, his voice bouncing off the stone ceiling and back down through the wood beams. Then he tells a story from the Bible. It is about a man named Moses and a thing called Exodus. The priest concludes by saying, "Our faith is all we have. It is our passage to freedom."

In unison, everyone in the church says, "Uh, uh." Your father nods and makes the sign of the cross. From the side of the altar, a small cackle arises and for the first time, you see what has made the priest edgy: a half-dozen soldiers, feet up on the wooden pews. One applauds, slow and off-beat. It is White Hair. Mass continues, quiet, uncomfortable. You receive communion. The soldiers do not.

A few days later at school, you turn to ask Thu what color ao dai she will wear for the festival and what kind of lantern she will have. She is not there. Not the day after or the next day after that. Because she is tall and pretty and popular, she is readily missed. Rumors about her absence spark and burn quickly through school. She was attacked by the soldiers. Walking home from her aunt's house on the edge of town. Raped. What is that? I don't know, I overheard my parents saying it.

You never see her again. The following week at school, you notice that a classmate or two is missing every few days. Where is everyone? I hear the soldiers are putting them in secret prisons. I hear they are running away in the middle of the night. To where? Saigon. That's so far. I've never even been down there.

The stories unsettle you and you tell your father about the things you have heard at school: Thu, the soldiers, families running away. Remembering the flyers, you ask, "How can God move? Isn't he everywhere?"

"You ask too many questions," he says.

Two weeks later, when you walk home from the market and it is obvious that people are missing, you ask your father, "Are we going to go, too?

"No," he says. In your family, lying is a way you protect one another.

The night before the Mid-Autumn Festival, your father comes to your bedroom.

"After the evening parade," he says," there is going to be a big party here at the house. A lot of people will be here and it will be very busy. But listen to me, child, make sure you sleep in your bed tomorrow night. No one else's. I will need to find you. It is very important. Do you understand?"

You nod.

"Say it," he commands.

"Yes, Father. I will sleep in my bed."

He tells you that your lantern is hanging on Old Man out in the courtyard. "Do not forget it," he says. "Now get some rest. Tomorrow, we'll need it."

That night, you sleep but do not dream.

The next evening, everyone in town gathers in front of church for the parade. You are alone. Your father is at home getting ready for the party afterward. It is dusk, the sun asleep for the night, and the sky glows a faint orange from the full moon just above the tree line. Packs of children mill about, holding lanterns in all sorts of shapes: birds and fish and butterflies. Your father never finished making your lantern. Instead he bought you a common star-shaped one, red papier-måché with gold trim. Mom used to make your lanterns. Your first was a unicorn. Last year, a phoenix. She made the prettiest ones in town, from special paper she had brought from Hanoi, and then told everyone you made them yourself. At times, your lanterns were so much nicer than everyone else's, you felt ridiculous, but you held them high anyway, just to make her happy. When the parade begins, a man comes by and lights the candle tucked inside the lantern. Within minutes, the street glows in blues and reds and yellows.

The parade ends down by the big river, where fireworks turn night into day. As much as everyone cheers for the explosions, nothing is more impressive than the full moon that creeps halfway into the sky afterward. The night is so clear that you swear you can see the little boy trapped up there, the one in the story Mom read to you before you even started school.

When the festivities end, you walk to the river. It is alive and the moon reflects off It like shards of glass. You take your lantern and lay it on the water. It floats. The Mid-Autumn Festival, mom once told you, is a children's festival. Slowly, your lantern drifts out with the currents. A few meters out, the måché catches fire, a small crackling burst. Standing at the river's edge, you wonder, What is a children's festival without your parents? As the flames reach the water, they are extinguished and the lantern sinks into the black.

When you arrive home, the party is in full swing. Lanterns hang from the walls and turn the courtyard a soft pink. White streamers hang from Old Man's arms. There is a horde of people, so many that it seems the whole town is there. Some surround a banquet table, picking at catered dishes and a roasted pig. Others stand by the bar and toast drinks. A group to the side plays cards and throws dice. In the center, a record player plays and young people dance the cha-cha around Old Man.

"Glad you could make it," your father says. "Greetings and well wishes."

He smells of alcohol.

"Hello, Father," you say.

"Enjoy yourself, but don't stray too far. It looks like a hectic night."

"Yes, Father."

At that moment, a jeep pulls up with a dozen soldiers hanging off it. They are wearing their dress uniforms and it looks like the whole brigade is there. The first to approach are: White Hair, Mole Face and Yellow Teeth.

"Welcome, welcome," your father says. "Our protectors are here!"

He shakes each one's hands and leads them to the bar. You wonder why your father would invite these men into your house.

"Drinks for our troops," he tells the bartender. "Their duty keeps them away from home, so let us be their new home."

When they all hold drinks in their hands, your father offers up a toast. "For our country," he says.

"For our country!" they reply.

After the drink, White Hair walks up to your father and says, "You're not so bad - for a Catholic!"

Your father looks at him and smiles. Soon, the whole brigade is laughing.

The scene makes everything seem upside down and you feel dizzy. Your father is, again, doing the wrong thing. To retaliate, you decide that you will not participate. You will not dance. You will not play. You will not eat any food. Instead, you slip through the crowd and over to Old Man. Amidst the commotion, no one notices you climbing up his trunk and into the nook where all his branches begin. You lay atop the blanket you keep there and watch the festivities below. You are above it, not of it. Beneath a canopy of leaves you watch couples dance, suits and ao dais swaying to the music.

Throughout the night, this is what you see: Your father leaves and returns with a truckload of beer, two soldiers toast two glasses apiece, drink with their heads tossed back, and pass out on the ground; your father leaves and returns with more alcohol; several soldiers throw up in the bushes.

The night grows older, dew chilling the air, and soon it is past your bedtime. Your head feels heavy and your eyes weary. Instead of climbing down and sleeping in your bed as your father instructed you, you will sleep where you want to. Above the party, amongst the branches, with music and laughter and voices drifting up to you like smoke, you fall asleep. And for whatever reason - Old Man's blessing, because you miss her so badly, your anger towards your father - you dream of Mom this night.

In this dream you are a child, 5 or 6 years old. In this dream you wake early one morning, the air still cold, a dim gray light in your bedroom. You wake because you feel a human gravity, as if someone is tugging you. When you sit up, you rub your eyes and then see her. She sits in a chair next to your bed. Her face is calm, peaceful, and you can tell she has been there for. some time. At that moment, you know, unequivocally, that anyone who sits and watches you sleep must surely adore you, and you have never felt more loved.

You wake to your father's voice and a cloak of cold night air.

"Tien," he says. "Tien, where are you?"

There is something strange in his voice.

"Daughter. Where is my daughter?"

You look down to see him walking through the courtyard, scanning for you, carefully stepping around passed-out partygoers and soldiers.

"Tien oi," he whispers. "Tien oi."

Why is his voice so strange?

"Come out, Tien. Daddy is not mad. Please just come out."

As he calls for you, you realize what Is odd about his voice: It contains fear. It warbles. It hesitates. You have never seen him like this. You like watching him worry and you let him call your name two, three, four more times before you climb down from the tree.

You walk to your father, head down and arms folded across your chest. "Yes, Father," you say, expecting to be reprimanded.

"Shhhhhhhhhh," he says, putting a finger to his lips. "Don't wake our guests."

He takes your hand, firmly, and pulls you to him. "Let's go," he says.

But instead of walking you into the house, he walks you through the courtyard to a side gate. Everything is a dark mess, the lanterns having burned out long ago, plates of leftovers scattered all over, empty beer cans and wine bottles littering the courtyard. The record player spins but plays no music, only the monotonous dead end of an album. Just before the gate, you see White Hair, Mole Face and Yellow Teeth slumped unconscious around a table.

Your father bends over, looks at you, and points his finger right between your eyes. "Do not make a sound," he says. He tiptoes past the soldiers and you follow him out, into a field behind your house. He says, "Good girl. Let's keep moving."

"Where are we going?" you ask.

"Keep moving."

The two of you walk through tall reeds, beneath a moon so full the whole field glows white. All around you crickets chirp loudly and it sounds as if they are alive in your ear. When your feet get stuck in the mud for the third time, your father picks you up and carries you.

"Almost there," he says.

By now, you know better than to ask where.

Soon, the ground slopes down and you are at the banks of the small river at the edge of the field.

"We made it," your father says.

At the water's edge, a small fishing boat, as long as a house with a thatched roof, is tethered to a pole. From inside, voices whisper out.

"It's about time."

"Hurry up! We were about to leave you."

"You want to be killed?

Your father sets you down on the bank and pulls you into the river. The water shocks you. It is colder than you expected, biting into your feet and calves. The two of you slosh through it toward the boat.

"I had to find my daughter," he says. "Without me, this doesn't happen. This was my plan, remember? So shut your mouth."

Your father picks you up and hands you to a man inside. When you get close, you see the man's dark-rimmed glasses and recognize him as the priest from Mass.

"Welcome, my child," he says.

When your eyes adjust to the darkness beneath the palm roof, you look around and see the shadows of a dozen people crammed into the boat.

"Let's go," your father says. He is still in the water, untying the boat and then shoving it deeper into the river. At first, the water is only up to his knees. When it is at his waist, he pushes the boat along the river, along mangroves that slither by like snakes. Eventually, only his head is above water and he swims alongside the boat. He shivers fiercely. When the boat is completely away from shore, the distant town lights sparkling like fireflies, he swings a leg over the boat and pulls himself in.

"Thanks be to God," he says.

"How was the party?" the priest asks him.

"Those boys will be drunk until New Year's," your father says.

"Morning is fine with me," the priest says.

Soon, the boat is caught by the current and picks up speed. Beneath the full moon, now low and a brooding orange, the jagged shadows of the shore pass quickly. Everyone is silent; the only sound is that of the boat cutting through the river's small waves. At one point, someone whispers "patrol boat" and everyone sinks deeper into the belly of the boat, covering themselves with blankets and straw mats. You hide too, though you are not sure what you are hiding for or whom you are hiding from. Out in the water, a dark shadow, maybe a boat, looms close. The tension on the boat is airless, everyone holding their breath, afraid to exhale.

A few seconds seem like a few hours. Finally, someone lets out a laugh. "Heaven and earth, it was only a log. Fuck your mother. Only a damn log," a voice says.

When all seems safe, everyone crawls out from hiding. The priest says, "Listen carefully. God Is with us tonight. The current is strong and we will be at the port by morning. French ships are taking people to Saigon, I assure you. This is my fourth trip. Stay low and no talking - voices carry a long way on the river. Remember, we're just some fishermen getting home from a party."

You turn to your father and ask, "When will we come back?"

"I don't know."

When he says it, you look at the people tucked between boxes and suitcases and know you will never return. You think of your friends and house and clothes and books and Old Man. You imagine Mom, buried in the ground, and fear that she'll be washed away in the next big storm. You begin to cry. At first, you shed quiet tears but when you think of Mom, dead in the ground with no one to hold her one-year memorial, you sob loudly.

"Me oi, me oi," you cry.

"Someone shut that kid up or we're going to get killed," someone says.

"Hurry up or she's going overboard."

Your father speaks. "She's my daughter. I'll take care of it."

You expect him to slap you. He has done it for lesser transgressions. Instead, he riffles through a sack and extracts something. He creeps toward you slowly, careful not to rock the boat, and hands you a small envelope.

"Your mother is here," he says.

The envelope is full of photographs. In a sliver of moonlight that penetrates the palm roof, you flip through them. There are only photos of Mom: the day she received her first communion, hands held out, palms side by side, ready to receive the Eucharist. Mom in her wedding ao dai, a white veil misting over her round cheeks, kneeling next to Dad in church. Mom holding a baby, you, bundled in blankets like a cocooned caterpillar.

You look to your father. He is at the back of the boat going over a map with the priest. You do not understand him and fear you never will. But when you settle in Saigon, you will learn to read his actions and inactions. He never remarries. At your asking ceremony, 1 5 years later, he will greet your fiancé at the door. By himself. In the United States, after you've fled another war, you will wake to use the bathroom and find him in the kitchen, head down, drinking cognac. Alone. He will be humming along to a static-filled song on the radio and flipping through these very photos. You will come to understand that for some pains, there are no words. In your family, denial is a habit of survival.

But for now, you are just a 12-year-old girl fleeing your home in the middle of the night. It is September 1954. The province and town of Ninh Binh. The river you are on too small to have a name. You clutch the photos to your chest as if they are the most precious thing in the world.

Writer Ky-Phong Tran Illustrator Kim Herbst

Ky-Phong Trah lives in his hometown of Lony Beach. CA. For more information, visit www.frequentwind.com.

KY-PHONG TRAN drew on both historical research and family lore for his short story about a young girl's escape from 1954 Vietnam, featured in this issue's Literature section. "My mother and father both fled North Vietnam in 1954 during Vietnam's partition. Nearly a million others were part of this exodus, but people tend to focus on the evacuation in 1975." This story was a finalist for the 2008 Hyphen/Asian American Writers' Workshop Short Story Contest. The Long Beach, CA-based writer's nonfiction has been published in Nha Magazine, the OC Weekly and the Nguoi Viet Daily News. His least favorite action: "Doing dishes could be the last ring of Dante's Inferno."