PHONG VẬN KỲ OAN

NGÃ TỰ CƯ   (*)

 

Tâm bút

( Trích Những Mẩu Rời Dấu Ái - Tập VII )

Tác giả :   Trần Thị Bông Giấy

 

 

Một đoạn văn trong cuốn Narziss & Goldmund của Hermann Hesse được đọc đi đọc lại hoài trong những đêm mất ngủ:
“Narziss nghĩ đến bạn rất nhiều; anh lo ngại cho bạn, bạn bỏ đi làm cho anh thấy thiếu thốn. Người bạn mất trí đáng yêu của anh lại như con chim tung cánh, liệu hắn có trở về không? Chàng trai kỳ dị và thân yêu này lại đi theo con đường gập ghềnh, mặc cho giòng đời kéo tới, vẫn thèm khát lang thang, vẫn nghe theo tiếng gọi tối tăm và mãnh liệt, vẫn mê say và không bao giờ thỏa mãn. Chàng là một đứa trẻ to đầu! Chàng lại bay lượn khắp nơi như con bướm, lại đi vào con đường tội lỗi, quyến rũ đàn bà, nghe theo ngẫu hứng, có lẽ lại phải lâm vào tình trạng giết người, mắc vòng tù tội rồi đến chết trong nhà giam. Anh chàng tóc vàng hoe, hai mắt thơ trẻ, bây giờ than phiền rằng mình đã già. Anh chàng ấy đã làm anh phiền lòng biết bao! Người ta không thể không ái ngại cho chàng! Ấy thế mà Narziss lấy làm sung sướng khi nghĩ đến bạn. Thực ra anh rất ưng ý khi thấy đứa trẻ ngỗ ngược ấy thật khó trị, khi thấy tính khí chàng như vậy, khi thấy chàng lại sổ lồng mà phóng túng điên rồ.
(…) Không phải Godmund chỉ làm cho tâm hồn anh thêm phong phú thôi, chàng cũng làm cho anh thêm nghèo nàn và yếu ớt. Người nghệ sĩ này đã bắt anh phải tự đặt lại các vấn đề, làm rung chuyển những tin tưởng của anh, khiến dao động cái thế giới trong đó anh quen sống. (…). Nhưng đứng trên cao nhìn xuống với con mắt của Thượng Đế thì một cuộc đời kỷ luật trật tự, từ khước thế tục, xa lánh khoái lạc nhục dục, không bợn nhơ bẩn tội lỗi và chỉ dành cho triết lý suy tư như của anh liệu có hơn gì cuộc đời Goldmund?

(…) Phải rồi! Sống như Goldmund không phải là sống trẻ con và hợp với bản chất con trẻ thôi, mà phải nói rằng thật là can đảm và cao nhã khi người ta dám xông vào nơi điên đảo vô trật tự kinh khủng, dám phạm tội và nhận lấy hậu quả đau thương, chứ không giữ cho hai bàn tay sạch sẽ, sống cuộc đời trong trắng, vun trồng một vườn tư tưởng cao siêu rồi ung dung dạo gót giữa những luống hoa được rào giậu cẩn thận. Có lẽ người ta sẽ thấy khó khăn, can cường và cao đẹp hơn khi lê đôi giày thủng đế trên đường xa vạn dặm, gội nắng dầm mưa, nếm mùi tân khổ.
Dầu sao Goldmund cũng chứng tỏ cho anh biết rằng một người có sứ mạng cao trọng thì dẫu có lăn mình xuống rất thấp, có lặn ngụp trong vũng bùn vũng máu vẫn không trở nên thô lậu đê hèn. Hắn có thể sống trong chỗ tối tăm mờ mịt mà trên ngai vàng tâm hồn vẫn không tắt mất ngọn lửa thiêng và nguồn sinh lực sáng tạo. Narziss đã nhìn thấu đáy cuộc đời càn dở của bạn và thấy mình không kém phần yêu thương quý mến bạn. Rồi từ khi anh chứng kiến hai bàn tay tội lỗi của bạn tạo nên những hình ảnh tuyệt diệu, lặng lẽ sống trong viễn ảnh ý nghĩa và trật tự riêng của nó, có đời sống nội tâm, có linh hồn, những cây cỏ hoa màu hồn nhiên chân chất… từ khi anh thấy đôi tay ấy diễn tả lời cầu nguyện bằng những điệu bộ hùng dũng hay dịu dàng, kiêu kỳ hay tin tưởng qua những nét khắc trên pho tượng, thì anh biết rằng Thượng Đế đã đặt vào trái tim người nghệ sĩ lang thang có tài quyến rũ người đời ấy những kho tàng thiên ký và ân sủng phong phú nhất.
Trong lúc đàm luận, bề ngoài anh hơn hẳn bạn, anh chỉ việc đem lý luận của mình ra so sánh với sự mê say liều lĩnh của Goldmund. Nhưng xét ra, trên chỉ một pho tượng của chàng, một cử chỉ cỏn con, một đôi mắt, cái miệng, dây nho, nếp áo… những cái đó không phải thật sự sống động và cần thiết hơn tất cả những sáng kiến của một người trí thức hay sao? Người nghệ sĩ bị vò xé bởi xung đột và thất vọng này há không để lại qua tác phẩm những đau khổ và cố gắng của mình sao? Đó là những hình ảnh để người đời chiêm báí mà trầm tư mặc tưởng và tìm thấy an ủi, tin tưởng trong những lúc họ khắc khoải thèm khát.Narziss mỉm cười buồn bã khi nhớ lại lúc thiếu thời anh đã dạy bảo nâng đỡ bạn. Bạn anh đã nghe lời và biết ơn anh, đã công nhận anh là đàn anh cao minh, để anh dìu dắt, sau đó, chàng đã lẳng lặng thai nghén những tác phẩm nghệ thuật trong gió bão đau thương mà không cầm đậm lời, không cần thuyết giáo, bình luận. Chỉ có cuộc sống. Cuộc sống thuần túy, cuộc sống được thăng hoa từ niềm thống khổ. So sánh với bạn, anh thấy mình nghèo nàn với mớ kiến thức và biện chứng, với mớ kỷ luật khắc khổ của mình. (…)
Bạn anh cũng có tài như anh. Anh không cho bạn cái gì mà bạn không trả lại đáng giá gấp trăm lần. (…)”
Đoạn văn luôn làm tôi muốn ứa lệ theo thân phận những “đứa con được yêu thương và cũng bị Thượng Đế đọa đày”.

~*~


Song song với niềm hạnh phúc nhận được từ tình thương và sự hiểu biết chia xẻ nhất mực Âu Cơ dành cho tôi chính là mối lo sợ vô cớ theo sự nhận biết rằng càng lớn, Âu Cơ càng tỏ ra “ngưỡng mộ” thật nhiều cuộc đời bi tráng của tôi. Nó hay hỏi về những mối tình tôi trải qua trong thời tuổi trẻ, xin được nghe từng chi tiết trên những khúc quanh tình ái tôi vướng mắc trong đời. Nó tỏ ra “thông cảm” với sự đau khổ của một người tình cũ nào theo cái tánh hững hờ lãng đãng mà người mẹ nó đã đối; hay ngẫm nghĩ suy tư về những cái gọi là “Định Mệnh bất công” đã giáng xuống trên cuộc đời tôi. Những nhân vật trong các câu chuyện tôi viết trở thành “bạn thân” của nó. Những “bác Vũ, bác Chàng, chú Nguyễn, bác Ngọc…” đều là những cái tên thân thương Âu Cơ hay nhắc đến trong những lần trò chuyện cùng tôi.Âu Cơ nói tiếng Việt rất sõi, trong đầu cưu mang những ý tưởng về cuộc đời, con người, gia đình và bạn hữu y hệt như tôi, nhưng đọc tiếng Việt lại không nhuyễn. Vậy mà lạ,  nó cứ hay lấy các bản văn tôi viết ra xem, (thoạt đầu) mò mẫm từng chữ với một cuốn tự điển Việt-Anh to tướng nằm bên cạnh. Hỏi, thì đáp: “Con muốn tìm hiểu tại sao các mẩu chuyện tình của mẹ lại được nhiều độc giả yêu mến đến vậy.” Sau khi đọc xong cuốn Nhật Nguyệt I (khi 18 tuổi), nó mới nhắc lại với tôi kỷ niệm đã nhìn thấy (khi 10 tuổi) trong mùa nghỉ hè 1997 ở Dalat, anh Phùng Kim Ngọc tự cúi xuống cột giây giày cho tôi bằng thái độ rất dịu dàng. Và nói: “Bây giờ con mới hiểu tại sao bác Ngọc làm điều ấy. Tại cái tính chất mỏng manh của mẹ!” Tôi ngạc nhiên, Âu Cơ đơn giản giải thích: “Mẹ sinh ra đời để cho các người đàn ông như bác Ngọc, chú Nguyễn… chiều đãi, yêu thương!”

Khi đọc Người Đàn Bà Trong Căn Phòng…, đến đoạn nhân vật Phạm Thái Chung bật câu than: “Cô thật hững hờ, chẳng bao giờ muốn biết gì về tôi cả!” thì Âu Cơ bỉu môi châm biếm: “Đến cả ‘tui’ cũng phải chịu sự hững hờ của mẹ ‘tui’, nói gì bác!”   
Hai mươi tuổi, học năm thứ ba Khoa Văn Chương ở San Jose University, Âu Cơ dù được nhiều bạn trai ưa thích, vẫn chưa có người yêu, lại rất ít bạn, dẫu là bạn gái. Nhiều lúc nó tỏ bày thành thật: “Sau này, con biết mình khó tìm được người xứng đáng để yêu.” Rồi tiếp liền câu nói ấy: “Anh chàng nào muốn yêu con sẽ phải vượt qua rất nhiều cửa ải, nào là cửa ải các nhân vật con từng đọc, cửa ải các nhân vật mẹ diễn tả, nhưng trên hết là cửa ải Mẹ!” Tôi ngạc nhiên, Âu Cơ giải thích: “Nghĩa là họ phải vói tới hay gần tới điểm giống với những người con vừa đề cập mới có thể làm rung động nổi trái tim con!”

Đó là nguyên nhân nỗi lo sợ của tôi. Đứa con gái nhỏ của tôi sẽ khó thích ứng với cuộc sống tình cảm đời thường và sẽ phải rơi vào nỗi cô đơn e còn nhiều hơn tôi nữa. Một mặt, tôi muốn dạy cho Âu Cơ hiểu rằng “Mọi sự trong đời đều tầm thường và con người ta sống nhờ vào cái tầm thường ấy”, nhưng một mặt vẫn tin “Cuộc đời có sự ngoại thường” và chỉ “Những kẻ được Thượng Đế chọn” mới có thể chấp hành nổi sự ngoại thường đó thôi. Một bữa, đọc bản văn Khóc Người Thiên Thu viết về anh Nguyễn Ngọc Thùy, đoạn cuối lúc hạ huyệt người xưa, Âu Cơ đột nhiên dụi mắt nhiều lần, sau đó thú nhận với tôi: “Đoạn này đau đớn quá làm cho con khóc cả tiếng đồng hồ rồi!” Và tiếp: “Trong số tất cả các người đàn ông từng yêu mẹ, có lẽ con thương Bác Thùy nhất.” Chưa kịp hỏi tại sao, nó đã giải thích: “Bởi Bác là người DUY NHẤT không hề nhận được chút nào tình cảm đáp trả của mẹ, ngay cả lời mời đi ăn kem buổi gặp gỡ cuối cùng trước khi trở ra tiền tuyến, bác cũng bị mẹ tàn nhẫn chối từ luôn!”
Quả tình tôi kinh ngạc theo sự nhận xét sâu sắc này của Âu Cơ. Nghe nó nói tiếp: “Sau này trở thành nhà văn, con chỉ cần có một độc giả đọc bản văn con viết mà khóc bù lu bà loa như nãy giờ con đã làm với bản văn mẹ viết về bác Thùy, cũng đủ mãn nguyện!”
Một bữa, Âu Cơ kể tôi nghe về bài viết phải nộp cho lớp học, chủ đề nó chọn lấy từ câu chuyện anh Thùy, và khoe: “Con gửi attachment bằng email bài này cho một bà giáo Văn chương năm lớp 12, bây giờ hiện ở bên Anh, nhờ bà đọc, trước khi con nộp ở lớp trong trường đại học, bà giáo gửi lại con lá thư này này” (Và nó đọc lên):

Hello, Sweetie!
                What a lovely story (…) This story touched me so deeply, I will never forget it. (…) I find it difficult to edit with tears in my eyes... your story made me cry like a baby. I must tell you, despite the few errors I found, this is the work of a highly talented, gifted writer. Your sensitivity is touching, your choice of words thoughtful, and you know what to say and what not to say to convey your story.
                Thanks to you, I KNOW these people, and I love you for that.
                Love, Allison.”


 (Con yêu dấu,               
Thật đẹp làm sao! Câu chuyện của con đã làm cô xúc động rất nhiều và sẽ không bao giờ quên được (…) Cô khó thể điều chỉnh bản văn như con đã nhờ giúp khi mắt cô nhòa lệ. Nó khiến cô khóc như một đứa trẻ. Bỏ đi những cái lỗi nhỏ về chính tả, cô phải nhận đây đúng là tác phẩm của một nhà văn đầy tài năng thiên phú. Cái tính nhậy bén gây thật nhiều rung cảm
(cho người đọc), cách dùng chữ đầy ý nghĩa và con biết cái gì cần và cái gì không cần để đưa vào câu chuyện của con. Nhờ con mà CÔ HIỂU những nhân vật trong truyện và cô thật cảm ơn con. Thương mến, Allison.)

            Sau một tuần lễ nộp bài, Âu Cơ đem về nhà bài trả lại của lớp Văn chương ở trường Đại học, có những lời phê bên lề của vị giáo sư phụ trách như sau:

“Âu-Cơ, this story is about memory. It’s about life’s unfinished business. It’s about loss and healing. I find it fascinating that the daughter is attempting to heal the wounds of the (dead) mother. There is so much gorgeous writing in this piece and I’m truly moved. You are a writer. I hope you keep at it because you have great stories to tell. Professor Kate Evans.
(Âu Cơ, câu chuyện này là một bài hồi tưởng kỷ niệm. Một mảnh đoạn dang dở của cuộc đời, nói về sự Mất và sự Tái Tạo. Cô thấy thật là lạ lùng theo một đứa con gái cố gắng làm lành lại những vết thương tâm hồn của một người mẹ (đã chết). Có nhiều diễn tả thật đẹp trong bài viết làm cô vô cùng xúc động. Con là một nhà văn. Cô mong con cứ tiếp tục viết vì con có nhiều mẩu chuyện thật hay để có thể kể ra (với mọi người).
Giáo sư Kate Evans.” 

Một thứ xoay vần của Định Mệnh!
Hơn bốn mươi năm xưa, các vị thầy Văn chương của tôi cũng đã tiên đoán về một thứ nghiệp dĩ trên tôi như bây giờ các bà giáo Văn chương của Âu Cơ đã tiên đoán trên cuộc đời nó.
Trong óc nhớ lại ngay những lời thư của một cô độc giả ở Canada:

“Âu Cơ lúc này khỏe không chị? Nó còn hay bị đau chân như hồi mới lớn? Thấy cháu sâu sắc quá em vừa cảm phục vừa không an tâm. Những người như vậy ít khi thấy hạnh phúc, ít khi được thanh thản, trừ phi phải có một nội lực thượng thừa như chị mới vượt qua nổi, còn không sợ có ngày sẽ bị vỡ tan! Em hy vọng cháu có được một sức mạnh nội tại như mẹ….” 
Bản thân tôi thì không nghĩ như cô độc giả. Trái lại, tôi hoan hỉ nhìn “quả-xanh-Âu-Cơ” chín đỏ dần theo thời gian trên con đường đi vào Cái Đẹp bằng những đam mê không ngừng của nó. Tôi là mẹ, chẳng lẽ lại cầu mong cho cuộc đời con mình những điều không suông sẻ? Nhưng thật, nếu “được” đau khổ, thì đó chính là những chất liệu quý giá để dành xây căn nhà Chữ Nghĩa mai sau. Cá nhân tôi không thể làm gì hơn ngoài sự cố gắng giữ cho nó niềm tin rằng “Thượng Đế rất công bình, khi Ngài lấy của ta cái này thì Ngài sẽ bù đắp cho ta cái khác.”
Thêm một tư tưởng rút từ tư tưởng Dostoievski luôn được tôi áp dụng vào lối dạy bảo Âu Cơ:
“Con người không sinh ra để có hạnh phúc mà phải tự tìm hạnh phúc qua đau khổ. Không có bất công trên khía cạnh này, bởi vì sự hiểu biết và tri thức chỉ có thể đạt được từ chính kinh nghiệm phải vượt qua bằng sức riêng mỗi người.” Bài viết của Âu Cơ về “Bác Thùy” quả là cảm động! Hai trăm năm trước, đọc được mảng thừa cuốn nhật ký của nàng Tiểu Thanh sau khi bị đốt dở, Nguyễn Du đã than vãn giùm cho thân phận bất hạnh của nàng qua bài Độc Tiểu Thanh Ký. Bây giờ, đứa con gái nhỏ của tôi, sau khi đọc xong những trang thư viết tại chiến trường của một người lính (chết) trẻ, cũng đang làm lại cái hành động “khóc” giùm cho thân phận thiệt thòi của người xưa trên mối tình câm lặng dành cho mẹ nó đã bốn mươi năm qua.

 

FOR THE BOY IN THE PHOTOGRAPH

In Dalat, the only people still roaming the streets at one in the morning aren’t prostitutes waiting for potential clients or junkies looking for a fix.
No, in Dalat, one of the two people still awake at one in the morning is a tiny woman preparing for business on a curbed, uneven sidewalk on the corner of Duy Tân and Thành Thái. Despite her dark, woolen coat and her lumpy, gray scarf, she shivers as a sly sliver of brutally cold wind slips through her armor of clothing. Under the towering streetlamps, partially dimmed by the drifting fog, she crouches to straighten three plastic tables, the color of over-chewed bubblegum. She lines matching colored chairs along the edges of the row, four chairs to each table. All her plastic furniture neat and orderly, the woman sits by a large tin pot atop a small clay stove and begins to stir the brew with a ladle. The pot is filled to the brim with steaming soymilk, perfect for warming the stomach on this toe-freezing night. Apparently satisfied that everything is ready, she leans back in her uncomfortable chair and waits patiently for her first customer.
The other person still awake at this hour is me, the awaited customer.
The woman smiles at me, her crooked front teeth illumine- ting her weary face. I stroll towards her and pull out a chair, careful not to knock anything out of place.
“One glass, please.”

She nods. Lifting a tall glass from her tray of empty glasses, she holds it close to the pot. She tips her ladle over the mouth, creating a waterfall of soymilk. The sound of the warm liquid crashing onto the surface is intensely loud in the middle of the empty night.
While it is natural for everyone to be asleep at 1 AM in the morning, I can’t sleep. It is 11 AM, yesterday, in California. California, home.
This is my first trip to Việt Nam without the protective presence of my mother. Everyone disapproved of my decision to go, feeling that I had not mourned long enough. They told me it is not right to move on with my life so quickly. It’s only been six months. I must work hard, stay at home, light incense every morning and every evening in honor of her spirit because that’s what she would have wanted. But the funny thing is, although they all think they know her, none of them really knew who she truly was. None of them understood her desires or her regrets. They knew nothing of her fears and her reasoning. Not even my brother.
But I know. I know because she always told me she and I were exactly alike. She called me her second chance; her second chance to make the right decisions. My mother, the tired plaything of Life, wouldn’t have wanted me to hold on to her death. She would have wanted me to retrace the steps of her life, adding my own detours and possibilities. The wistful look in her eyes when she told me her very last story, the one she’s been hiding for all these years, was almost like a silent command urging me to go to Việt Nam.
“Bé ơi, are you a Việt kiều?”

The crackly voice of the old woman cuts into my thoughts and pulls me back to the misty, cool streets of Dalat. A warm pleasure grows in the center of my stomach at the word “bé”.

Memories of aunts and uncles caressing my head because I was a little bé swirls in my mind and my face flushes at the thought of still being a child.
I grin at her and ignore the nagging memory of my brother telling me not to reveal that I am a foreigner in Việt Nam, lest they try to swindle the ignorant traveler.
“Yes, I am. I’m from San Jose, California.”
My tongue feels slightly tangled, warping around the familiar Vietnamese words that have been mostly absent in my life for the past few months.
“What are you doing out here at this hour? It is not safe if you’re not from here, especially for a pretty girl like yourself.” Her old, gray eyes immediately brighten with curiosity.
I am touched by her maternal instincts and vaguely flattered by the passing compliment.
“Oh no, bà à. I’m very familiar with Dalat. My mother used to take me here every summer when I was little. We would walk around Dalat with a few friends for hours after the city was asleep. I just wanted to…” My voice cracked. “I just wanted to relive some of those memories.”
“À, is that so? And where is your mother now? Why is she not here with you?”
I hesitate. “She’s very busy with work this summer, but she wanted me to go.” I stop, picking up the forgotten glass of soymilk to hold in my frozen hands and continue, “She says I’m old enough to take care of myself now.”
The woman nods understandingly, believing my lie.

I don’t want to deal with her blunt questions about my dead mother. The Vietnamese have an almost inconsiderate way of inserting themselves into a complete stranger’s life, forgetting that they are, in fact, talking to a person they’ve just met. At times, when I’m lonely, the familial freedom of Vietnamese strangers can be a welcomed intrusion. Other times, the American in me treasures the formality full of distant pleases and thank-yous.
Nevertheless, I feel slightly guilty for lying to this grand- motherly little woman, this bà.
Possibly sensing my unwillingness to talk, she turns away from me and, with her ladle, begins scooping out the thin, white film that has gathered at the top of her pot. I stare, mesmerized, at the hazy wisps of steam dancing on the surface of the brew.
Suddenly, the image of an old letter from forty years ago, the first letter in a bundle of papers, tied together with cheap string, bursts into my mind. The careful handwriting of a young lieutenant full of hopeful love seems to rewrite its delicate words on the wallpaper of my mind. “Happiness is all around us. It is in our hands, and in the present. Yet, why do we waste our lives searching for it in distant places, only to bring loneliness and disappointment to ourselves?”
“Bà ơi, how long have you lived in Dalat?”
The woman, obviously pleased at the renewal of the conversation, tilts her head to count the years.
“Forty-four years. I have lived in this neighborhood for forty-four years.”
“Then do you know someone named Nguyễn Ngọc Thùy, the son of Ông Lý? They used to live on Minh Mạng.”
“Nguyễn Ngọc Thùy… Ngọc Thùy… Ngọc Thùy...” Her face contorts in concentration as she struggles to recognize the name.
I continue, hoping to find the right combination of words to help trigger her memory. “He was drafted into the war… um, he was a lieutenant. He played the guitar and the drums. He, uh…he was a literature teacher…”

Her face widens into a grin, finally remembering. “The boy always carrying a book wherever he went?”
I nod eagerly, waiting for more.
“Oh, of course I knew him! I knew everyone around here back then. Thùy was eight years younger than me. I knew his mother. We used to—wait. How do you know him?” Her pale, old eyes peer at me curiously.
Again, I hesitate, reluctant to share the last story, the last treasure my mother had left me. “My mother knew him. She wanted me to look for his family.”
The woman sadly shakes her graying head. “No, no. You won’t find them now. His whole family died during the war.”
I almost choke on the lukewarm soymilk, shocked.
“Everyone? Didn’t he have two brothers?”
“Yes. One died of alcoholism, Long, the younger one. The other one, I forget his name, died of pneumonia in ‘75, right before we surrendered.”
I recall the bitterness I heard in my mother’s voice whenever she spoke of April 30th of 1975, the day when Southern Vietnamese forces finally surrendered to the Việt Cộng. My mother, and many of her generation, called that year the year “we lost our country.”
“What about his parents?” I’m looking for any last links, anything connected to him.
“His mother died soon after his funeral in ’68. Ông Lý hung on for a while after that, but I guess the realization that both Thùy and his wife were dead was just too much for him. He went to sleep one night and never woke up again. I attended all of their funerals.”

The old woman pauses, muffling her sniffles with her gloved hand. “It was tragic.” I remain quiet, letting this news sink in. The silence of Dalat is comfortably peaceful, a refreshing contrast to the deafening quiet- ness of back home. The stillness of the house after my mother’s death felt as if it might crush me; the weight of the loneliness was excruciating.
It is nearly 2 AM. I drink the last of my soymilk. Crunching on the grains of sugar that have sunken to the bottom of the glass, I pay the small woman and tell her to keep the change. She thanks me and reminds me to be careful.
As I rise to leave, she grasps my hand tightly, acknowledging our silent, temporary bond created by our common ties to the dead. I nod and turn away. A couple walk up to the tables, hand in hand, and sit down. They smile at the wispy, old woman as they order two glasses of soymilk.
A menacing cold burst of wind blows my hair across my face, into my eyes and my mouth. I pull my scarf tighter around my neck and bury my hands deep into the pockets of my coat and briskly walk down Thành Thái towards my modest hotel room. Perhaps sleep will calm these haunting stories.

~*~

 

Even in the midst of turmoil and war, the late morning of Sàigòn remained calm. The air was hot. The streets were full of life. Midnight vendors had packed their equipment at the break of dawn leaving their empty spots for vegetable and fruit stands to prepare for the busy, morning market.
The rusty bus full of sleeping soldiers trembled on the uneven road. Mere miles away from her, Thùy was wide awake, unable to sleep all night. He took in the familiar sights, while her name, the most beautiful word in all the languages of the world, echoed in his mind and heart: Mây.
His body felt light as he thought of the last time he saw her. The memory had happened six months ago on his last military leave, during the final days of his training. He often spent his two-day furloughs at Phong’s house in Sàigòn, instead of taking the four hour long ride home to Dalat. Phong was his best friend and Mây’s older brother.
Thùy remembered the house had been quiet that morning as if caught in a spell. The familiar guitar case by the window was opened. And Thùy had sat down noiselessly at the foot of his friend’s bed and begun to strum the guitar strings softly. Slowly, the lonely notes of Mr. Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” filled the half-darkened room. And then—

“Ah! Anh Thùy, is that you?” Mây’s delicate voice was full of surprise and, as he happily recalled, pleasure. She had just returned to Sàigòn from Nha Trang.

He remembered looking up at her face. The morning sunshine had sneaked into the room through the cracks of the curtains, grazing her cherry cheeks and resting on the tips of her long eyelashes.
At that moment, having thought it impossible, Thùy felt himself falling deeper into her dark, brown eyes, deeper into the imaginary embrace of her arms, deeper into the kiss he had been waiting for so long, the kiss that had yet to come.
The bus jolted gently as it crawled over potholes. Thùy’s heart pounded to the rhythm of the squeaky wheels of the bus, still hearing her voice saying his name over and over again. Ah! Anh Thùy.

He fingered a small hole at the bottom of his seat and imagined her small face. The corners of her pouting lips, always curved into a near smile, but never quite there; the bridge of her nose, so slender, he often felt the desire to rub it between his thumb and forefinger, then let his hand slide down the arch to rest on the tip of her nose; the thick strands of constantly tangled, black hair brushing against her intelligent, round forehead. Every wispy shadow of her eyelashes and every crinkle of laughter on her face were embedded into Thùy’s mind. But most of all, during the endless nights in the torturing humidity of Xứ Quảng, when sleep seemed reluctant to come to him, the only thing keeping him from putting a bullet through his brain was the soothing memory of her glistening eyes, so dark that they were almost black.

He was anxious to see her again; anxious and nervous. Since six months ago, after Phong had granted his permission for Thùy to start writing to her, Mây and he had, in his mind, grown closer. Never once in any of his letters did he outwardly reveal his feelings for her, but he was sure she knew. Mây was far more perceptive than any other twenty-year-old girl he had ever known. Although she never directly responded to the adoration he sought to hide (and, in part, reveal, between his carefully chosen words,) he knew she was aware of how he felt.
He didn’t know what he was going to do when he finally saw her. Almost frantic because the the rusty bus was driving him closer and closer to her, he recalled the American movies he had seen. Clark Gable had grabbed Vivien Leigh and kissed her in a moment of wild passion. Maybe he could… No, he couldn’t do that. One couldn’t do something like that in Việt Nam and get away with it. Only in America.
Thùy couldn’t even fathom treating her roughly. She was so frail. One touch, even a gentle one, by a hard hand would crumble her. No, the moment they saw each other should be tender and loving. He wanted it to be a memory that always made her happy.
The bus slowed to a stop in front of the small house on Yên Đổ. Thùy swung his army pack over his shoulder and made his way to the front of the bus.
“Remember to send my regards to Miss Sàigòn!” The sleepy voice of his friend, Tâm, sung out from behind the driver’s seat.

Lighthearted laughter spread through the bus from those who were awake.

Thùy grinned, lightly nudging Tâm’s head with his knuckle. “Go back to sleep, you dog! I’ll see you in two weeks!”



( tiếp theo ...)

 


 

 

( tiếp ... )

He nodded to the driver and hopped off the steps.
The bus roared away leaving a cloud of smoke. He stood there for a moment, taking in the sight of home, her home: a picturesque, brick red house where most of his adolescent memories took place when he and Phong were inseparable. It reminded him of the beautiful houses in the American movies he used to watch. Of course, her house was smaller, and less fancy, but he couldn’t imagine coming home to any other house, especially after many long, gruesome weeks of fatigue and gore.

The metal gates in front of the house stood opened and the sliding door was cracked just a bit. From inside the house, Thùy heard the faint, squealing giggles of children, probably Kiều and Châu, Mây’s younger sisters. The smell of fried rice and soy sauce wafted through the hot air of the Sàigòn morning. Thùy took a deep breath, filling himself with much needed confidence, then lifted his hand to slide the door wider and stepped into the small living room.
The familiar bookcase standing by the window displayed even more books since the last time he saw it. A chalky smell of incense burning on the altar to Mây’s father, Bác Mưu, gave the empty room an oddly comfortable, eerie feeling. The girls’ voices, mixed with Phong’s booming laughter, trailed in from the bedrooms.

Before he could walk towards the rooms, someone softly called his name, “Anh Thùy.” The voice he had waited to hear for more than five months filled his head with lightness.
He turned towards the square kitchen table, a smile standing ready on his lips. As his eyes met her enchanting face, his heart dropped to a sudden stop, the brightness in his face dissolving into the stuffy air, along with any hope for her requited love. His hands were suddenly clammy and hot. The weight of the pack on his shoulder suddenly felt unbearable. The strap slid down his arm and his pack slapped the floor with a deafening thud.
Sitting next to Mây was a tall man dressed in uniform; a major. He was perhaps a few years older than Thùy. Thùy felt like a dusty vagabond standing next to this clean-shaven stranger. His sharply defined jaw line evoked a sense of his masculinity and power. Rising from the table at which Thùy had spent the bulk of his school years doing his schoolwork, the man flashed a smile at Thùy, welcoming him into the house he was practically raised in.
Thùy steadied his right hand and stepped toward the man, his arm extended for a handshake.
“Anh Vũ, this is Anh Thùy, Anh Phong’s best friend. Anh Thùy is the boy I told you about. We’ve been writing to each other for the past few months.” Mây’s voice trembled slightly.
She turned to Thùy and held out her arms. “How are you, Anh Thùy? You’re a week early.”

Thùy wrapped his arms around her thin shoulders and quickly let go. “I was granted an early leave.”
“How are things in the central region?” Vũ’s voice was friendly.
Had they met under any other circumstances, Thùy was sure they would have been good friends. The tall stranger reminded Thùy of his men in the army: easy-going with an intense love for life.
Thùy, with a wistful smile on his face, replied quietly, “Everything’s fine. The men are holding up.”
A forced sense of hope filled the room. Vũ let out a small laugh of relief, his eyes shining with comradeship and sympathy. He began telling the progress of his own men at Củ Chi, where a lot of U.S. troops were stationed.
Thùy noticed Mây’s deep eyes watching his face as he felt the sadness seeping into his fading smile.

~*~

Sitting up on the thin mattress, I roll onto my knees to look outside the window above my bed. The calls of vendors selling fist-sized clumps of sweet rice wrapped in green banana leaves and warm, syrupy porridge slopping around in little baggies drift into my room as I slide open the window. The musty curtains with faded white and yellow magnolia prints envelope my body as I stick my head out into the morning light. The gray fog of last night had been replaced with the morning dew. I look down at the small figures zooming by on dusty motorcycles, most of whom are undoubtedly on the way to one of the many cafés in Dalat for their first cup of black coffee for the day. Across the street from my room, a bright sign reads in mixed Vietnamese, French and English, “Việt Hưng: Restraunt de Family.” I laugh to myself remembering my mother’s annoyance at the misspelling and inconsistency of the languages used.
I inhale the familiar smells of the childhood summers spent with my mother here. For every summer since I was eight, up until two years ago, I spent almost every morning of my Junes, Julys and Augusts waking up to this view. And now, for the first time, I wake up to it alone. I sigh and slump back down on the bed, restfully tired and sleeplessly sleepy.
Despite having been in Việt Nam for more than a week now, my nights and days are still jumbled between the time zones of San Jose and here. Since I first arrived in Dalat three days ago, sleep has been an unwilling acquaintance, often passing over my bed on its nightly journeys through the city, forcing me further into my thoughts of Bác Thùy and my mother.

I climb off the bed, dragging half of the thick, lumpy blanket onto the floor, and shuffle to the small table near the bathroom door. I pick up a spiral notebook. The green cover, once shiny and new, now barely hangs onto the metal wire listlessly. Flipping through the equally haggard pages filled with spurts of my thoughts and short Kodak moments of my days, captured by loopy handwriting legible only to me, I search for the small, black and white photograph. I find it towards the middle of the notebook, carefully taped onto the center of the page. I had glued a copy of an old letter below the photograph.
Not wanting to face the mess of the abandoned blanket and unmade bed, I slide down onto the floor next to the table and begin to read.

Quảng Ngãi, March 2nd, 1968
Mây,
It has been raining for almost an hour now. I am sitting in a café writing this. Ever since I sent that first letter to you, I have been living in a state of perpetual anticipation. I can’t understand why. But I want you to know that the ecstasy I felt in my heart when I finally heard someone say “Lieutenant! You have a letter from a Miss Mây from Sàigòn” was indescribable. And each time I reread your letter, I silently thank you for giving me this much.
I am starting to feel like a real soldier. I eat my meals under the stars and sleep on a ratty cot; the hands you have always loved and regarded as beautiful are constantly holding an M16, along with a chain of bullets. Fingers always, always ready for an attack from the enemy. And the metal helmet, hot and uncomfortable, has become a permanent part of my head. You would laugh if you saw me now because only you   would know I’m not as tough as I look.
When I first came here, I took over command for a fellow lieutenant who had “gallantly sacrificed himself for the betterment of his nation”. I heard that in all of the battles, he always led his troops unhesitatingly, with a willpower I can    only hope to achieve. Here, let me drink one glass of whiskey to Nhung, a fallen comrade.

It is almost 6 in the evening and the sky still refuses to stop raining. The owner of this café is from the South, so he holds a special fondness for my men and me. Just now he asked me, “Anything else, Lieutenant?” Grinning, I replied, “One more bottle, please, Pop!” He is an old and cheerful man, so everyone calls him “Pop”.

Lately, I’ve started to believe in good luck charms. If you can, can you give me any small thing of yours so I can carry with me for good luck? Remember, Mây!
I should stop, the sky is growing dark. Send my love and regards to Phong and the family.
Anxiously awaiting your reply,

Nguyển Ngọc Thùy.

I sigh, trying hard not to think about the dangerous height where his hopes were drifting before he realized he had nothing. Even though I’ve probably read his packet of letters as many times as he read her letters, I still feel a passing resentment towards Mây for breaking his heart and sending him back to the battlefields under a cloud of despair.
And then, with a jolt of mild surprise, I remember that the Mây of forty years ago is—was my mother. In my mind, Mây of forty years ago and my mother were two completely different people in two completely different worlds. The only thing they shared was the same passage of life, but at different places.
My attention drifts towards the photograph. Ever since my mother died, my eyes haven’t been able to look at this picture without filling with tears. Today, however, my gaze is pulled towards the faded faces.

In the picture, two people sit at a table full of food, a boy and a girl. The girl is looking down at her plate, avoiding eye contact with the camera. Her face is a replica of my own: the same thick, black hair flowing from under a dark-colored cap, the identical wide forehead, and similar pouty lips. The eyes, however, are far more radiant than mine. They are deep and round, so dark, I can almost see my reflection when I look into them. She is my nineteen-year-old mother on the cusp of adulthood.
The boy is sitting next to her. A small patch of his crew cut hair at the top of his head is sticking up defiantly, refusing orders to flatten. The corners of his closed mouth lifted into a quiet smile, and the crinkly creases at the tips of his kind, shining eyes reveal his internal pleasure. Bác Thùy must have been about twenty-five years old when this picture was taken. I shudder, thinking of his unexpected death a few short months later. I tear my eyes away from his serene face and resist the urge to stare at the long, slender fingers of his hands wrapped around a pair of chopsticks, the hands my mother had always loved.
The late morning sunlight cuts through the pale magnolias of the curtains and intrudes my room, the bright shadows of light dancing on the bed. I close the notebook gently, not to upset the remaining frail hinges of the thin, green cover. Inhaling deeply, I get up from the floor and carefully set the notebook back on the table.
It is time for a shower. Today is a big day.

~*~

Mây quietly stood at the door leading into the unlit living room. She watched the silhouette of his thin frame, so thin she was surprised he was able to lift his heavy army pack. He was sitting on the hard, wooden chair next to the bookshelf, listening to Phong talk about their old childhood friends. Her brother was careful not to mention the names of former classmates who had “sacrificed them- selves for the betterment of their nation”. Mây hated the language used to describe the deaths of the fallen soldiers. It was patronizing, and lessened their deaths by turning it into some civic duty. She shook her head and forced herself to erase the image of death from her mind. She recalled a passage from one of his letters, trying to imagine him fighting some unknown enemy on the battlefield. “Everything in life will come. And everything will pass. The other day, when my platoon was surrounded by the enemy and bullets were whizzing by like a hail of rain, the only thing running through my head was, ‘Is my life going to end right here? Right now?’ We had lost all communications with our unit, so we took a risk and punched a hole through the enemy fire in order to retreat. It was only when I saw our unit again that I really believed I was still alive.”

Mây watched Thùy’s graceful fingers absentmindedly thumb through one of her books, Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. She remembered writing to him about her pleasure at finding a translated version at one of the old bookstores they had often frequented together. In the dark sunlight of the afternoon, his soft eyes stared down at the pages, nodding at Phong’s words, and responding at the appropriate pauses.

For a moment, Mây forgot about the grueling war and concentrated on the two men, one telling animated stories while the other listened. It was almost like the carefree days before the war, when Thùy was just her brother’s best friend and not the man whose heart she had just broken. A surge of guilt flooded through her body as she recalled the pained look in his eyes when he first saw Vũ. The heaviness came in most violently when she watched Thùy shake Vũ’s hand. But as she watched Thùy listening to her brother’s stories, the guilt was overwhelming because she knew that, although Phong was his best friend, he was not the person Thùy longed to talk to when he came to Sàigòn. The person he longed to be near was Mây.

She shifted her feet quietly and walked into the room. The two young men turned towards her. Phong stopped talking, while Thùy lowered his eyes. He had washed up and changed into one of Phong’s shirts, which hung loosely on his skeletal body. His tanned arms appeared even darker against the white of the shirt.
“Anh Thùy,” she paused, choosing her words carefully, “I was thinking of browsing the bookstores; would you like to come with me?”
Thùy got to his feet, his eyes glistened with some of their former joy.
Phong jumped in quickly. “Go on, Thùy, you can borrow my Vespa.”
Thùy nodded, still not saying a word, only smiling.
The mild scent of cheap soap drifted from his swaying, short hair as she sat behind him on the Vespa. The white shirt billowed in the swift wind like a parachute.

There was barely any traffic. The streets of Sàigòn were not congested with smoky motorcycle exhaust like they used to be; these days, most people either bicycled or walked.

Mây raised her right hand and clasped tightly onto his shoulder to steady herself.
He grinned and said, “When I was still training at Thủ Đức, Phong introduced me to a girl named Uyên. And when I drove her around town, my waist was warm because she used to wrap her arms around my stomach. Now, when I’m driving you, my shoulder is warm, but my waist feels empty.”
Not wanting to risk giving him any more empty hope, Mây remained quiet. She had done enough damage with her letters. Though in her mind, they seemed innocent and platonic, he had read them as a signs of encouraged love.
They spent the whole afternoon driving from bookstore to bookstore, looking for novels by foreign writers with good transla- tions. He patiently waited for her by the doors while she looked through page after page of musty books.

After visiting what seemed like the last bookstore in the city, Thùy turned his head sideways to watch Mây climb onto the bike and asked with a childish gleam in his eyes, “Mây, how about some ice cream at Âu Lạc?”
Mây felt her pounding heart sink to her stomach. She answered quietly, almost whispering, “No, thank you. I just want to go home.”
Thùy lowered his head. Without a word, he started the engine, then drove her home.
That evening, instead of eating dinner with the family, he and Phong went drinking with a few of their old friends.

Around midnight, Mây got up for a drink of water. On the way to the kitchen, she noticed Thùy sleeping on the small cot in the living room. She stood over his bent form, passed out from a night of heavy drinking. Her heart swelled with love for the lonely shape lying in front of her; a love reserved for family, not the kind he wanted from her. She looked at his thin body, curled into the shape of a fetus, appearing more vulnerable than ever. His head was resting on his clasped hands as if to shield them from harm. A soft ray of moonlight shone through the slightly opened window and spilled onto his sleeping face. Mây watched the shadows on his cheek and wondered why she couldn’t fall in love with him.
A line in one of his letters ran through her mind while she stood still by the cot, listening to his steady breathing. I’m not as tough as I look. To her, he would never be tough. He would never be anything other than the gentle boy who spent summers swimming with her family and making her laugh. He was part of the family. That and nothing more.
Thùy shifted his body slightly. He turned his face towards her and continued to sleep. His eyes moved restlessly underneath his lids. What was he dreaming of? she wondered, then stopped herself, guessing the answer.

Early next morning, Mây was surprised to see Thùy standing in front of the bookcase, fully dressed in uniform. “Anh Thùy, where are you going so early today?”
He smiled sadly. “I’m going back to Quảng Ngãi. But first I am going home to Dalat for a few days to visit my parents. I wanted to wait until you got up to say good bye.”
Painful shock overtook Mây. Her body felt numb, losing the ability to move. Thùy had written to her in a letter saying he would meet her family in Nha Trang to spend a few days swimming in the ocean together before he went back to his post. But he never mentioned Nha Trang as he fingered through the books on the shelves, never lifting his eyes to meet hers.
Trying her best to hide her dismay at the suddenness of his departure, Mây stood by him, quiet. Thùy pulled out the Hemming- way book he was looking at the day before and asked Mây softly, “Can I borrow this to read on the bus?”

She nodded. Thùy muttered a “thank-you,” then followed Phong out the door, his bulky pack riding his shoulder.
Mây watched his retreating back, already missing the moldy green fabric of his shirt, faded, but unwrinkled. She waited for him to turn around and look at her one last time. But he never did.

~*~

“Bé, where do you want to go?” The xe ôm driver is getting impatient. His dirty baseball cap covers most of his greasy, black hair. The few strands that had escaped captivity fall past his thick eyebrows and bar his beady eyes, making him look even more menacing, and somewhat untrustworthy.
I ignore his snappy tone and continue to flip through my beloved spiral notebook for the address Cậu Phong, my uncle, had given me. After another minute, I finally say, “Thánh Mẫu Cemetery, please.”

The man wrinkles his stubby nose and puts his cigarette out with the toe of his boot. I tuck the notebook safely into my backpack, then carefully swing my right leg over the leather seat and center myself behind the moody little man. He starts the engine and we fly swiftly past unsuspecting pedestrians and other drivers. Not wanting to embarrass myself by rolling off the bike, but also reluctant to touch any part of this unpleasant man, I hold on to the space in the seat between him and me with both hands and lean in carefully.
Today is the first of August. Bác Thùy died exactly forty years ago. His friend, Bác Tâm, told the family what happened when he brought the news a week later. The men had reported that everything was safe and sound. It appears that the enemy had already left the area. So no one knew what Bác Thùy was doing out there in the fields. Checking for mines was not his job; he was an officer. But before anyone had noticed he was gone, an explosion shook their camp. He died instantly.The houses and shops grow sparse as we approach the deserted road leading to the cemetery. My mind cruises alongside the rushing wind, wandering through thoughts and questions. I think about my mother on the morning Bác Thùy was killed. To her, it was just another normal routine day. To her, he was still alive; still breathing and living life. How could she have known that he laid dead in some body bag among countless other corpses? She didn’t receive the news until a week later. During that week, she went through her everyday life thinking he was still alive. Death, though inevitable, is always a shock, even during times of war.
I try to imagine how my mother felt when she heard the news. But then I stop, knowing I will never come close to understanding the horror and guilt she must have experienced. As we speed past dusty children with matted hair playing by the dirt road, I close my eyes and try to remember how my mother told the story.

~*~

In a moment of disbelief, as the trumpets sounded in the cool midday air of Dalat, Mây silently reminded herself to write to Thùy about the mellifluous song, knowing that he loved the sound of trumpets. She began to write the sentence in her mind when a cold shiver ran through her chest. A hard realization suddenly hit her that it was the bloody remains of Thùy’s body lying inside that black coffin, young and strong, not some old stranger’s.
Thùy was dead.
It was difficult for her to believe. It was difficult for everyone to believe. Just last week Thùy sat right there eating an apple. Remember? He was laughing. Remember, Mây? He drove you around Sàigòn to buy books. It was only last week. He can’t be dead. No, this has to be some kind of mistake…

But when the body arrived, there was no use trying to deny it. It was really him. He was the person everyone was mourning: it was his body in the coffin, long legs permanently at rest, gentle eyes closed forever, his heart still. And his arm? The tanned arm he had wrapped around her as his heart was breaking just ten days before had been blown off in the explosion. And the elegant fingers that had never dared graze her hand were lost somewhere in the bloody field. Gone.
His tiny mother cried quietly to herself, unable to contain the violent sobs that overtook her body. Her hand held tightly on to Mây’s, never relaxing, never letting go. His portly father, usually jovial and happy, stood in front of his son’s coffin, broken and dejected.

Standing a little way from everyone else was a young woman Mây had never seen. She was holding her head in both her hands; long, smooth hair draped over her trembling shoulders like a black veil. Her heartbreaking moans drowned the soft crying of the others, echoing in the still air. The tears running down her face seemed like they would never stop flowing. Her small hands squeezed tightly onto Thùy’s dog tags, as if trying to imprint the ridges of his name into her palm. She had been in love with Thùy. Everyone knew it. Everyone also knew that the love was unrequited.

You would’ve been happier had you loved her instead of me, Huyển thought bitterly, watching an old man leading the young woman away, her long silky hair gently swirling behind her. The woman’s chilling moans, mixed with Mây’s remorse and guilt, hung in the air. It was almost suffocating.
Mây’s eyes were the only dry ones in the midst of all the incense smoke and dusty clouds from the trampling feet. The only thing running through her mind was the slow melody of “It’s Now or Never,” the song Thùy often sang to her and her sisters in his stammering English when he lived in Sàigòn. As she watched shovels of dry dirt hit the lid of his coffin, she realized that during the times he sang this song, he was trying to tell her how he felt in his quiet, gentle way.
“It’s now or never
Come hold me tight, kiss me, my darling
Be mine tonigh! Tomorrow will be too late
It’s now or never, my love wont’ wait.
When I first saw you with your smile so tender
My heart was captured; my soul surrendered
I’d spend a lifetime waiting for the right time
Now that you near; the time is here at last...
It’s now or never…

Tomorrow will be too late.
Had Mây known he was going to die, she would have been willing to cross the universe with him just to have a bowl of ice cream, just because he asked her to. If only she’d known. But that moment, right then, was tomorrow. And it was too late.
Please forgive me, Anh Thùy. Forgive me…

~*~

I look at the scrawny driver and ask again suspiciously, “$30.000 đòng?”
He nods slowly with a cunning smirk on his face. “That’s right, bé. It was a long ride.”
I know he thinks I’m an ignorant tourist, but I bite my tongue. I don’t want to make today ugly by taking part in a petty argument. I pay him the money and make my way down the dirt road, hoping never to see his mousy face again.
Bác Thùy’s grave is at the opposite end of the cemetery. His simple tombstone is clean and well kept. 
Nguyễn Ngọc Thùy
Born in Dalat on 10/9/1943

Died in Quảng Ngãi on 8/1/1968
I sit in front of it, careful not to touch any of the other graves. From my backpack, I pull out a thin, bent bundle of white and yellow daisies. I also take out a slightly dented box of melting strawberry ice cream, some napkins, two small, red bowls and two silver spoons. I set the items in front of the grave. A young caretaker cutting weeds growing on nearby dirt mounds looks up from his work to peer at me curiously.

I stare at the grave, uncertain of how to start. Taking a deep breath, I say, “Hello, Bác Thùy.”
A gentle breeze floats past the grave and brushes against my cheek softly, as if listening intently to my voice.
“You’ve never met me, but I feel like I know you really well because my mother’s told me so much about you.” I bite my lip, slightly self-conscious.
“Today is the fortieth anniversary of your death. I’m not sure if that’s something to celebrate, but I think it should be honored.”

I pick up the bundle of flowers and lean them against his tombstone, next to his name. Then I continue to talk. “I picked a whole bunch of daisies for you this morning from the garden in front of my hotel. They were my mother’s favorite flower, but you probably knew that.”
I pause, trying to think of something else to say.
“I’m sorry they’re so sad-looking. I had to put them in my backpack because I didn’t want the petals to fly off on the ride here. I guess that would’ve been better than having the stems all broken, huh?”
The chirping of flittering birds ripples through the empty air like a soft chuckle.

Remembering the sopping container of ice cream, I carefully set the box atop of a piece of napkin and pull off the lid. The ice cream, victim to the warm air, is melting rapidly. Using one of the spoons, I fill the two bowls with the runny slush, then place one bowl at the center of his grave. I lean back and look at the grave as if someone is sitting there.
“Before my mother died, she told me about your last furlough. I’m really sorry she didn’t accept your invitation. I don’t know how to show it except to have some ice cream with you.”
Thinking for a moment, I add, “In her place.”

[]

 

 

~*~

 

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