The Woman in the U Minh Forest

A chapter from The Woman in the U Minh Forest, a novel by Khanh Ha

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Rain. Falling on the inn’s red-tiled roof  that slants sharply over the veranda. Sluicing over the low-hanging edge of the roof, falling and glittering in a white-water curtain. The veranda, deep and always shadowy even on a sunny day, surrounds the inn and shields the first-floor rooms from the pelting rain. Bundled up in my raincoat, I quick-step onto the veranda and set down the two bags of groceries and household supplies on the cement floor, next to the entrance door.

     I live in a coastal town in the deep south of the Mekong Delta. During the war this was the territory of  IV Corps, which saw many savage fights.

     I work in a roadside inn. The owner and his wife are in their late sixties. The old woman runs the inn and cooks meals for the guests. I often drive to Ông Dôc town, twenty kilometers south, to pick up customers when they arrive on buses, boats or barges. Most of them come to visit the Lower U Minh National Reserve, twenty kilometers north.

     I seldom see the old man. He stays mostly holed up in his room. Sometimes when his door isn’t locked, I glimpse him wandering like a specter. He and his wife had a son who served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. One morning I looked out the window to see the old man digging near a starfruit tree, a small figure clad in white pajamas and a black trilby on his head. The grassy ground was dotted with bluebells, and hibiscus bled in mounds on the grass. After digging down a foot or so, he stopped. From the pocket of his pajamas he pulled out a bone. It looked like a wrist bone. He sat on his haunches and placed the bone in the hole and scooped dirt over it. After a while the old woman came out, grabbed him by the arm and dragged him inside. The next morning he was out there digging again. The same spot. I could hear the sound of his spade hitting the bone and saw him stop. He picked up the bone, smeared with brown dirt, and dragged his spade to the lemon tree. There were fallen lemons on the ground, deep yellow and wrinkled, and they sank with the fresh loam into the earth. He fretted about the placement of the bone, turning it this and that way.

     I had to ask the old woman, and she told me that their son was killed in action somewhere in IV Corps in 1967―exactly twenty years ago. They never found his body.

     It’s forenoon now. It rained when I went into town. Rain hasn’t let up. Water started rising on the roads on my way back from the town. On a rainy day like this, Mrs. Rossi stays home. She came to this region to search for the remains of her son, a lieutenant who went missing-in-action during the Vietnam War.

     I recommended a man, a war veteran, whom Mrs. Rossi eventually hired to help her search for the bones of her son. Back then, the woman innkeeper told us, shortly after the North and the South were reunited, people from all parts of the country journeyed to the Central Highlands and the Mekong Delta to search for the remains of lost sons, lost husbands. This region, with its vast wetland forest, was known to the North Vietnamese Army as Military Zone 9, the name borrowed from the French colonial days. You would see people at dawn heading into the woodland beyond the inn, across the grassland and rice fields, carrying knapsacks, spades. At dusk they would come back out. Some of them stayed here at the inn. Mostly civilians. Sometimes you would see soldiers but they didn’t stay at the inn. They came in organized groups―called remains-gathering crews―and they would camp in the woodland with their trucks for a week or longer. Many crew members were war veterans who had fought in Military Zone 9 and knew the region well. They remembered where they had once buried their comrades in makeshift graves. Before searching, they would burn incense and pray for the lost souls to guide them to where their remains could be found. During the war thousands of soldiers were stationed in this region, always deep in the swamp forest. Many died from bombing and shelling and ground assaults. In that forbidden swamp, the flesh and bones of soldiers on both sides lay under the peat soil.

     We also have new guests who arrived at the inn three days ago. A couple from Ireland. They drove down from Hô Chí Minh City. The husband is a journalist. Since their arrival he has gone around the U Minh region, always with a camera, backpack, and palm-sized voice recorder. The wife, in her late thirties, made friends easily with us. When she first heard of the purpose of Mrs. Rossi’s visit, she said to her, “Jasus, ye break my heart.”

     The door opens with the familiar scratching noise the bottom-edge wire mesh makes against the cement floor. Since I came, I have sealed each door’s bottom edge with a wire mesh to keep out bugs and rodents and even snakes, especially during floods. Chi Lan stands in the doorway, holding a mug in her hand.

     “Chú,” she says, “give me a grocery bag.” Her voice is soft with a lilt in ‘chú.’ Uncle.

     She came to the inn with her American mother, Mrs. Rossi, who adopted her in 1974 when she was five years old. She’s nineteen now.

     “My Mom’s in the back with Maggie,” she says. “Washing clothes. Alan went off somewhere in their car.”

     I notice steam rising from her mug. “What’re you drinking?”

     “Café phin. I made it myself.”

     “Black?”

     “No. With condensed milk. I can’t drink it black like you.”

     “I’ve got you into drinking café phin now, huh?”

     “We’ll be even when I get you to quit smoking,” Chi Lan says. She steps back for me to come in. Barefooted, her toenails look rosy, freshly polished.

     I smile at her gentle tone. I have indeed thought of cutting back on smoking. It is cool inside the house. She wears a black T-shirt and white shorts. My sandals squeak, leaving a wet trail behind me on the gray cement floor. Clean as the old woman of the inn demands it. At the end of the big room is a pantry that has a refrigerator. Chi Lan sets her mug on a shelf and puts the groceries into the refrigerator. She stops and holds up a paper-wrapped baguette.

     “Bánh mì!” she says, sounding as if she’s just found gold.

     “I bought plenty of them for lunch. Hope you and everyone’d like it.”

     “I love it. What do we have in them?” She takes off the rubber band, opens the wrapper and peeks inside the baguette. The fillings―pork bellies and liver pâté garnished with cilantro, chili peppers, cucumber slices, and pickled carrots―seem to please her. “I’ve tried to make these at home,” she says, wrapping up the baguette and tying it with the rubber band, “and they never came out like this―the smell, the taste.”

     “Because most of the fillings are homemade. The pork bellies in particular. They made the bread themselves too. Didn’t you know that?”

     “And because I’m an amateur cook.” She picks up her mug and sips. “Are you a good cook, chú?”

     “I can manage on my own. Alan asked me about a snake dish the other day. I told him before he and his wife leave, I’d cook a snake dish for everyone.”

     “Oh my.” She closes the refrigerator. “Did you tell him you used to catch snakes with your father? And about the snake gallbladder?”

     “No. I’ve never told anyone that. Except you.” I set down the supplies bag, squatting on my heels, and inspect the four legs of the cupboard, each leg shod with  a tin cup half filled with vinegar. In one cup floats a mass of dead black ants.

     The air stirs faintly as she kneels beside me. “Must be the sugar jar in the cupboard that attracted them. Look at them.” She bends closer, sweeping back her hair over her ear. “That looks like a moat around a fortress―the water and the cups. Is this your idea, chú?”

     “Yeah.”

     “You’re a good custodian.”

     “It’s not water in those tin cups. It’s vinegar.”

     She looks again. “What’s the difference?”

     “Ants might survive in water and they’ll crawl up into the cupboard.”

     “I didn’t know vinegar kills them.” She turns to face me, her eyes gently holding my gaze. “My Mom appreciated having that clothing trunk in our room to store our clothes. I didn’t know why it’s lined with tin till you told us. Otherwise our old suitcases would’ve crawled with moths and cockroaches.”

     “I’m going to replace the vinegar in those cups.” I take out a bottle of vinegar in the bag. “When I lift a leg up, can you remove the cup under the leg for me?”

     “Go ahead, chú.”

     She remains on her knees, head bent, as I plant my feet and slowly raise a corner of the cupboard. I glance down as she slides the cup out, and through the open top of her T-shirt I can see that she’s braless. I hold my breath, set the cupboard back down. She tilts her face up at me.

     “What now? Should I empty the cup―and the ants?”

     “Yeah.”

     Each time I heave the cupboard, despite my knowing what I will see when I drop my gaze at her, I still look down through the crescent opening below her clavicles, admiring the milky white of her skin, the fullness of her bosom. What comes back to my mind is a child’s innocent eyes and a man’s disturbed thoughts.

*

     On the rear veranda Mrs. Rossi and Maggie, the Irish woman, are scrubbing clothes in a round rubber tub. The woman inn owner normally does this chore. Though old, she can still scrub and wring garments with her small hands. At times she would tread on them the old-fashioned way, while hoisting the legs of her pantaloons.

     “Giang,” Mrs. Rossi calls to me, “you’re back already.”

     Maggie, her face wet, raises her voice with a toss of her head. “Made it back in one piece in this bloody weather, didn’t ye?”

     “Roads are flooded now,” I say to them. “Where’s your husband, Maggie?”

     “Went to meet his local guide and then off to the jungle.” She means the U Minh forest. “I said go aisy on a day like this. He’s beyant control. Wouldn’t you say, Catherine?”

     Mrs. Rossi shrugs. I step closer and look at her lower legs. Above her ankles are crowds of deep purple marks like she has been hit with a buckshot.

     “Leech bites?” I ask her, pointing at them.

     “How d’you know by just looking?” says Mrs. Rossi.

     “I’ve got scars on my legs from them.” I pull up my trousers legs. The women and Chi Lan stare at the pea-sized scars on my shins and calves.

     Her face scrunched up, Chi Lan shakes her head. “You’ve got them during the war, chú?”

     “From years in the jungle.”

     Mrs. Rossi drops a wrung-out sock into an empty basket next to the tub. “Every night when I take off my socks, they’re bloodstained from those suckers. The first few days in the forest I was near tears from putting up with them. Mr. Lung, he seemed unperturbed by leeches and bugs. You know how he got rid of those leeches for me?”

     “With his cigarettes?” I say. “Make them drop away?”

     “That or I just pulled them off my legs.”

     “That’s why you’ve got scars like these.” I sit down on my heels and put my fingertip on her calf. “Do like this. Slide your fingernail under the sucker’s mouth. It’ll break off. Won’t leave any scar mark on you, I guarantee.”

     “Is there any way to keep them from latching on to you?”

     “I’ll get you some chopped tobacco. Soak your socks in the tobacco water and then dry the socks before putting them on. Leeches won’t bother you again.”

     “Does it really work?”

     I nod. “Or you can cut the leech in half.”

     Looking at me, Mrs. Rossi leans back slowly and smiles. “But it’ll regenerate itself, won’t it?”

     “No, ma’am. Mother Nature is fair to us that way.”

     Mrs. Rossi pats my hand. “You’re a kind soul, Giang. I know today is your day off, and you volunteered to go with me into the forest to help Mr. Lung. Bless your heart. I’m thankful for this torrential rain that keeps us from going out.”

     Maggie laughs. “Zhang, people like you will do us all the good in the world, won’t it?”

     She rises with the tub in her arms and empties it over the edge of the veranda, then re-fills the tub with rainwater sluicing like waterfall from the edge of the roof. I have seen her and Chi Lan washing with rainwater, cleaning and scrubbing themselves until their faces glowed. Precious rainwater. When it rains I would fill jugs of rainwater for the old woman to wash and bathe the old man, and for cooking and drinking, too. Once, while filling the jugs, I told Chi Lan that in the jungles we soldiers used to wait for rain so we could shower, and sometimes it was just a passing shower which stopped before we could get all the suds off our bodies. She laughed.

     “Is she sleeping?” Chi Lan looks back into the house for the old lady.

     “She’s feeding him,” I say.

     “You want me to fill the water jugs for her?”

     “No.” My hand touches my shirt pocket where the cigarette pack is. “We have all we need for now.”

     I catch her gaze at my gesture for a smoke. I leave my hand on my chest and in my mind I see the creamy white skin of her bosom. She squats down and begins scrubbing a mud stain off her mother’s jeans in the tub.

     Mrs. Rossi arches her back, drawing a deep breath. “I must say I admire the old lady for washing clothes like this. My back is killing me already.”

     Maggie is wringing her denim shirt until veins bulge on the backs of her hands. “That’s why that oul’ lady walks bowlegged.” She shakes out the shirt loudly. “Mother o’ God give us a washer and a dryer. That’s one thing we need here.”

     I have told them to air-dry their clothes in the sun once a week, so the sun would kill any eggs that might have been deposited in their garments. The books they brought with them too. Shake them out once in a while. On the first day of their arrival I heard her scream upstairs. I saw a trail of black ants that led into their room and heard her say to Alan, her husband, “I won’t touch that thing for the steam of their piss.”  So I went in and there I saw a dead scorpion under the dresser. I picked up the scorpion and told them I would get rid of the ants for them. “Oh you’re a treasure,” she said. “Please make them bloody eejits go ’way.”

     Now Maggie hangs up her shirt on the cord strung across the veranda and clips it with a wooden clothes-peg. In her late thirties she is lean, small-bosomed, her sandy-blonde hair tied into a ponytail. Bony in the face that’s freckled heavily under the eyes, clear blue eyes, she smiles a lot, the ear-to-ear smile that brings a smile to your face, too. She comes back to the tub for her cotton slacks. “You ever got caught with this sorta rain in the jungle while ye go about yeer business?” she asks Mrs. Rossi.

     “Oh I’ve been in those downpours and the misting after the monsoon rains. It’s miserable, Maggie.”

     “Tell me, love, how on earth can ye find anything in such a place? In that wilderness God doesn’t plant a sign that says, Dig here! Ye know what I mean.”

     Mrs. Rossi skims the suds off Chi Lan’s forearm with her finger. “Mr. Lung has a method,” she said. “We kinda divided up the area and went from one section to the next. When we spot a mound of earth here and there, he’d dig and dig, bless his old heart. He never stops going until I beg him to take a breather. Then he’ll take a sip of water, have a smoke, and then be back at it. Most of the times we find nothing. A few times we found bones, human bones, and God Almighty I’d feel myself shaking. And you know something? You can’t tell one skull from another. They all look like they were cast from the same mold. Those unclaimed skulls belong to unknown soldiers and that’s why somebody like me is still searching for them.”

     Listening to Mrs. Rossi, I couldn’t help thinking the same thought. You can’t tell those skulls apart. You can’t tell a Vietnamese skull from an American skull.

     Mrs. Rossi shakes her head, as if trying to chase away something unpleasant. “One time we found a Penicillin bottle among the bones. It was closed tight with a rubber cap. Mr. Lung opened it and there’s nothing but a piece of paper inside. Well, he doesn’t speak English like you, Giang, but after a lot of gesticulating and with much pidgin English, he got me to understand that it had to do with a soldier’s identification. Things like name, combat unit, rank, birthplace and hometown. He said that back when the remains-gathering crews would arrive searching for the remains of their comrades, the bones they found without Penicillin bottles would be brought back and buried in the National Military Cemetery in Hô Chí Minh City. The unidentified bones would be interred in the section for the remains of unknown Vietnamese soldiers.”

     Maggie frowns. “The Americans must’ve bombed the bejesus outa the jungle. So what’s left in there to find?”

     I cut in. “Sometimes all you rebury are a few bones. The rest got blown away.”

     “And if ye find them,” Maggie says, “how d’ye take them oul’ bones back?”

     I plug a cigarette in my mouth without lighting it. “They pack them in nylon bags and hang them on tree limbs. Keep them away from termites because the remains-gathering crews would stay in the forest for weeks. They bring all the bags back to the cemetery when their stay is over.”

     Maggie screws her eyes at me. “Say ye stumble on a skull of an orangutan. Can ye tell? Or ye bag it up and bury it in your National Military Cemetery among the oul’ souls of yeer soldiers?”

     Mrs. Rossi eyes Maggie with a bemused expression. I take the cigarette from my lips. “The men of the remains-gathering crews know about bones. They know how to tell a monkey skull from a human skull. A woman’s skull from a man’s skull . . .”

     “Seriously?” Maggie chirps up.

     “Yeah,” I say. “They can tell. A woman’s chin bone is smaller than a man’s chin bone. The eye sockets are deeper. That sort of thing.”

     “Ah, now,” Maggie says, nodding. “Nurses, weren’t they?”

     “Soldiers. Women fighters.”

     Mrs. Rossi wipes foam off Chi Lan’s cheek. “We did find a couple of skulls and Mr. Lung said they were women’s skulls. I had the faintest idea why he said that. But women soldiers?”

     I told them the women’s skulls must have belonged to a vanguard unit of  women fighters who took risks to spearhead into enemy territory. That was their mission. All of them were women.

     Maggie whistles. “All women, eh? Aw for Jaysus sake . . .”

     Mrs. Rossi sighs. “Mr. Lung was respectful with the bones we found. You must see how careful he was with those bones when he came upon them. . . .”

     “He’s a gravedigger and undertaker around here,” I say.

     “I admire him for his professionalism,” Mrs. Rossi says, “but more so for the personal feeling in the way he treated the bones. Before he dug, he’d light a stick of incense. Then you just watch him stab and stab the ground with his shovel and sometimes it’d hit rocks and sparks’d fly and then he suddenly stopped and looked down and there lay a small bundle in the hole, just a nylon bunch tattered and gray and when he ran his hand over it, the nylon fell apart. Like ashes. A skull cracked and chipped. Like broken china.”

     “What’d he do with them?” Maggie asks. “In the name of Jaysus, Mary and Holy St. Joseph!”

     Mrs. Rossi’s voice drops. “He rewraps the bones in a clean piece of nylon he brought with him and shovels dirt over the pit and says a prayer.”

     I feel as if she’s living her wish through Old Lung’s acts, to see her son’s remains ever cared for by a stranger in an unknown place.

     Mrs. Rossi continues, “After he reburies the bones, sometimes with a skull, Mr. Lung flattens the dirt and removes the incense stick. I asked him why he did that and he explained, while miming, that’d wipe out any sign of a grave. Why, I asked. So the bad people wouldn’t come upon it, he said. That’s as far as I could get to the truth.”

     Her wrinkled face holds a dogged patience. I tap the cigarette on my thumbnail. “Mr. Lung did the right thing,” I say. “There are bone crooks who go around digging up bones and selling them.”

     “Selling bones?” Mrs. Rossi’s mouth falls agape.

     “Swindlers. Bone profiteers.”

     “Selling bones to whom?” Mrs. Rossi asks.

     “To contractors who build the National Military Cemetery.”

     “I might be obtuse,” Mrs. Rossi says. “Would you please explain that?”

     “These bone crooks go into the forests. The worst of them follow the poor folks after they’ve recovered the bones of their relatives and outright rob them. Then they sell the bones to the contractors in the city. You see, ma’am, for each tomb the contractors build, they charge the government. The more tombs the more profit. The contractors divide up the bones they buy from the bone crooks, and instead of building one tomb for a dead soldier’s bones they build two, three tombs and charge the government. For the unknown remains, they’ll end up having several unknown markers for one dead soldier. But the worst, ma’am, are those who rob the relatives. Instead of being properly buried back home with a tomb and a headstone, a dead soldier will be buried in the National Military Cemetery as an unknown soldier with his bones in multiple tombs.”

     Maggie taps her forehead. “Aw Gawd, I sure never heard of this meself.”

     “Me neither,” Mrs. Rossi says. “Who could think of such an inhuman thing?”

     I gaze at her wrinkled face as she tosses her head back, fanning her face with her hand. Why a Vietnamese adopted child? Did it let her hold on to the memory of her lost son? I like Mrs. Rossi. A retired high school principal. A sweet old lady. I admire her determination to find her son’s remains. More so, I admire her faith. Painful faith. Yet it never dies in her after twenty years.

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