Chapter I: POINT OF VIEW
I have touched upon your world, just as I
move on. Please don’t be too quick to criticize me as being disrespectful and
ignorant. Some souls among you are known to be unable to transcend, or are still
groping your way to nowhere. Or are you all still there? I rise higher with
each breath. Blood flowing from the corners of my mouth streams down to mother
I grew up in a mélange of right and wrong, wakefulness
and confusion, seeking out a path and getting lost in modernity and subsistence
farming, stupidity and aspiration, generosity and pettiness, wholeness and
loneliness, nobleness and meanness, civilization and backwardness…Early one
morning I saw a fish swimming against the current, and a star refusing to close
its eyes while awaiting the dawn. I nervously went to class, sat next to my
classmates, most of who were dead at the time. We listened to our teacher’s impassioned
lecture. With a gesture of a finger, he told us to turn our notebook pages. He
stared for a while at each of us, then stood next to me and said something that
sounded like an order, that if I understood the lesson, I ought to know how to control
The teacher showed the class many models — wars,
phases of migration, purges, reforms… Bones were arranged into mountains, built
into roads and made into temporary shelters; some into castle walls to block
poisonous arrows from foreign invaders. Rivers of blood and tears were
simulated using candle wax. The teacher lighted a match, and the models quickly
caught on fire. For the first time, we were witness to souls and ideas having the
same burnt smell, both emitting copious dark
smoke. At that moment, I wished even more for my boundaries to be limitless, a
vast land with stability and peace. Holding a mouthful of thick black smoke, I slipped
away out of class.
I patiently peeled back the layer of black soot
that was blanketing pathways, and covering
strips of sidewalk grass, bridges, and kilometer markers. I scraped back the layer of black residue clotting
over water, brought back the black armbands, black signs, and black kites glued
to the sky. I came upon a child and whispered to him in a voice like in a
prayer: Let me peel off this blackening
outer layer covering your clothes. Let me peel off the black smudge on your
forehead! The child threw me an angry look as if he was looking at a wild
animal then silently walked away. I followed him discretely, pretending that we
had never met, then lovingly peeled off a layer of black soot on his body, with
tired eyes. I kept cleansing his body in my imagination until he was so pure, I
could see him no more.
Every morning I woke up in a net of
information, feeling like I was getting stuck in a mess, the nest of a giant
spider. Some days, I read news upon news and forgot my breakfast. I imagined the
land leaping up like a scared horse. When dust rises and engulfs the land, you
can no longer distinguish a pasture from a road. Was I awake or dreaming and
where was I? I did not believe my homeland consisted of only stones, hills,
gardens, fields, coasts and canals. Or of inanimate things — salt and sauces,
charcoal and ashes, or blades of straw. I even asked myself how many paws this
land might have. If the land was devoid of feet, then idiots could drag it
anywhere. Still, idiots were incompetent, they only screamed and dirtied the soil.
Three people in a café were silent, staring
for a while at a musty hole in the wall. A wasp emerged and flew away. The
first person had been a prisoner who tried to escape numerous times without
success. The second person had changed his fate after scamming an exam. The
third person had healed his wounds after realizing the entire truth. They
continued to sip their tea, each pursuing their own jumbled thoughts. Each imagining
the other trying to sneak through the wasp hole.
A piece of raw meat was scraped from its skin
and washed clean. The chef tried to cut it into neat squares, but most of it
turned out shapeless. Each piece was soaked in spices, marinated with dried
onions, garlic, pepper, sugar, hot chili, fish sauce, and caramel. The slimy pieces
sizzled together in the fire. Thrashing and shrinking, they shared the same
dream of reincarnating in different bodies, but before then, they had to twitch
in the heat and let their fat melt away, while waiting to go into stinky,
Souls were named after objects. These were
souls of soap, trash bins, tampons, office supplies, electric fans, pans and
pots, bath towels, dishes and bowls, food to go with alcoholic beverages. Souls
occupied landmarks… that was the soul of a maternity hospital. This was the Soul
of the Communal Administrative Office. Soul of a school. Soul of a museum. Soul
of a courthouse. Soul of a zoo. Soul of public offices. Soul of semi-public
offices. Soul of an inn. Soul of the Association of Bee Breeders. Soul of a stud
farm. Soul of a soldier camp… Everywhere I went, I was stopped by armed personnel
asking for papers. I searched my pockets, rifling through my bundle of expired
licenses. I was barred outside a locked door, a dead end. Banned from speaking
up. Pushed to the brink. I was freefalling with nobody there to catch me… Too
much of an impasse, so I woke up. It was raining outside, blowing cool mist
through the open window. I lay down to wait for another passing dream.
Chapter II: DEEP RED
A fading night lamp wakes up a river of
blood. Blood mixed with blood and the foul trickles down. A red obsession.
It’s like — someone has just tied a rope around
my neck and dragged me through a narrow corridor into the murky and dank. I
turn my head up and feel my throat block. From time to time my body impales upon
a nail or a shard of glass on the ground. I am scraped, bloody with such
burning pain. Blood makes my body slippery, and I slither like an eel on mucky
mud. I am heaved into a heap of fleeced and bled-out animals. The rope around
my neck is quickly removed to reuse in the dragging of other bodies behind me.
I see the change of the guards beginning, so I hold my breath, lie face down, stay
motionless, fake my own dead body.
At the changing of the guard, I do not see
the guard from the previous shift hand over anything to the one from this shift.
The new soldier simply stood in his position. Perhaps this is a loophole, an
opportunity, a slip, a lack of responsibility. Perhaps they executed the process
incorrectly. Or maybe it has become the guards’ routine or habit, because for a
long time there have been no big mistakes at this watchtower, no slip-ups to
cause a serious issue. I crawl up behind the unsuspecting guard and unleash a mighty
blow to the back of his head. I tie him to a watchtower window, don his
uniform, release the still-warm animals, hoping they will survive. I quickly
I suffer through a nightmare where vegetation
is turning yellow and withering, raining down bouts of anemia. Dried leaves bring
me to an era of blood loss, an era of blood undervaluation, an era of praise
for blood in its exploitation. A soul of unknown gender climbs a leaf stem and
admits it was once a drop of blood. A nearby tree and flowerpecker shake their
heads and withdraw from arguing with a sad soul. That drop of blood then has
the same shape as a dewdrop bearing lights from night stars, a raindrop fresh from
the morning, a streak of orange juice as it dribbles down a baby’s chin. It is
a teardrop settling in the corner of an eye full of hope and expectation.
Blood has been spilled in vast puddles on the
yard of the communal village house after sessions of public denouncement in the
land reform period. A woman who once falsely accused her father-in-law of
forcing her to be his sex slave, is now laid
to rest in the same cemetery where he has been buried. Her restless soul comes
over to knock on his casket, apologizing to him each evening at dusk. He came
back to the living in a dream, telling them to choose one of the brightest days
in late spring to retell his sad story, just once. Then never to talk about it again.
The dream of blood reeks of a strong odor
specific to solitary confinement cells, those used for patriotic soldiers,
loyal until death. They believe absolutely in the ideals that they have chosen,
and they dream of the best for the people and Motherland. They bear witness to those
who betray their own ideals and comrades by deliberately tarnishing their true
path of blood. In my dream, I see the locks on the doors of the solitary
confinement cells spring open. The strong odor is still there, but the patriot
soldiers have long gone.
Blood erupts. Blood builds up, blood upon
blood, in battles. Bled out forests are filled with decaying bodies. Bled out
rivers and streams know bodies, ponds and lakes see bloated bodies, sink or
float. Blood is spilled when many can witness it, and even when nobody can see
it. Fates end themselves and are forever finished. Blood erupted, and bodies
used to bleed internally. Blood clots fast and cannot clot. Blood is washed,
erased of all traces, blood seeps into the dark soil spaces, escapes through veins
of sewage. Blood waves and calls to each other, bloody without seeing.
Tonight everyone sleeps on into night, while a
dark red river flows by. People sleep with their mouth open, sleep with their
arms and feet extended, sleep like a flower closing its petals, sleep like
rotten fruit, sleep in an ibis-like pose, sleep like dead, sleep with their
heads bent, sleep standing, sleep sitting, sleep while working, sleep while
holding food in their mouths, sleep embracing their chests, sleep leaning their
heads on their arms, sleep with their limbs on somebody next to them, sleep
face-down, sleep on their right sides, sleep drooling, sleep moaning, sleep
with their eyes open, sleep while they walk to the door and open it, sleep
while peeing, sleep while having a nocturnal emission, sleep — gnashing,
suddenly passing wind, snoring like thunder.
Memories arrive, taking back the space of the
past. Sharp ends pointing up from spike-boards, a dry explosion from each
bullet, people using their own bodies as gun mounts or to plug crenelles, ink
stains dried on an interrogation table, piles of numbered meeting minutes, a sealed
ballot box, a celebration for a salary increase, a trip to the hospital to
visit the sick, giving flowers to a retiring person, looking at
the face of a relative for the last time, congratulating someone just promoted…
All are showing up coldly, as exact as the casting chart for a play. The play’s
director suddenly appears like a magician, smiles mysteriously then goes out for
a cigarette break. In an instant he becomes an organizer, a clairvoyant, a
Chapter III: THE STAGE
I dream of an empty stage. There are voices arising
backstage. Each spectator relies on his or her personal experience to determine
the meaning of the play. This play is a meeting, a course of intra-party reform,
a seminar to disseminate a resolution, and to assign tasks, a meeting to decide
who gets how much of a cut, a public denouncement, a day to proclaim a
committee decision, a talk about current events, a purge, a reckoning, a
greeting ceremony for representatives from higher-up, an emergency response
team’s shift, a secret ballot session…
Still in that dream. The stage remains empty.
Voices continue to come out of the wings of the stage, unintelligible for the
loudspeakers are devastating. From below, the spectators keep their silence to
Again echoes from backstage. A few emphatic
utterances. A pleading voice. Arguments. The table pounding sound of disquiet. Sincere apologies. Someone speaks in one long drawn
out sentence, a monologue that sounds like they will never stop talking. The
sound of a hard object thrown down onto the floor. A raised voice belonging to
the end of a sentence. The sound of a gun loading but no gunshot. The sobbing
of a woman, unheard before. A stern shout. A stuttering voice. A sound of
metal, one strike striking the other. The shaking voice of a man. The last
The news is spread outside the stage.
Everyone has reached consensus. A brilliant success. A happy ending.
Rows of benches are neatly arranged. Each
bench can seat three persons. The ceremonious stage has a backdrop pane, a
flower vase, and tablecloths. The chairman wears a serious expression on his
face, friendly and neatly attired. After a signal, everyone silently goes on
the stage, sits down in position, no one touching another, all assuming solemn
postures, sincere, staring straight ahead. Just minutes after the start,
someone falls asleep. One checks herself in a mirror and shapes her eyebrows.
One digs his earwax, tilting his head, mouth agape. Someone cracks his knuckles,
making snapping sounds. One elbows the ribs of another sitting next to him,
perhaps wanting to say something. The chairman asks everyone to pay attention, not
to talk to each other, not to text, and to silence their phones. Boos arise
from spectators. Some throw unidentified objects on the stage. Someone murmurs
that such a scene can be performed by anybody. Several go, blurting out
something terse as they leave.
The actors hold their feet to one side in a
traditional operetta melody then sway their whole bodies in a rowing rhythm.
The stylized boat floats on the stage. The actors feign paddling with an oar
then point towards the water and sing, ding-a-ding
the fish swims… Then they move their hands up across their eyes ding-a-dang the swallow flies… As simple
as that, makes many spectators burst into tears. They pity the fish that will
never grow up but already have bitten the hook, and the birds just fledged, that
will never grow old, already fallen into traps. Over loudspeakers, the
organizing committee reminds people to refrain from being over emotional, that
the play has a long way to go until its intense climax. The organizer warns
that if spectators get too excited, the performance will not go on!
The stage is divided into two, one side
representing the living world, the other the world of the dead. Actors playing
souls paint their faces white, and those playing the living paint theirs pink.
An actor plays a person who has just died. When his funeral begins, people
carry him from this side of the stage to the other. After his face is painted
white, he looks towards the world of the living and suddenly breaks a cold sweat:
There are some simple, natural truths, that after so many years residing in that
world, he has been impervious to.
Here was a
perfectly straight path. A meandering one. A zigzagging one… Footprints of the
lost overlapped and erased each other, they continued to get lost then erased
again. Revolutions overturned oppressive tyrannies. Successful revolutionaries
stepped up to govern the kingdom. After a time, they too turned into dictators.
People had to sacrifice many lives to earn freedom, but they forgot the lesson
from the tree — which was freedom to photosynthesize, freedom to flower,
freedom to bear fruit.
All of a sudden, several white-faced souls
gather together and begin to point their fingers at the world. Both the nether
stage and the living stage have their own prompters.
The scene is of a mobile court to hear the
case of a cold-blooded death row inmate. The court lets him speak his last
words. He recounts that he was born locally and went to school. Life has taught
him that reason belongs to the strong. He confesses that when committing the
crime, he has been the strongest. Suddenly an excited spectator jumps onto the
stage holding a sandal. The security staff stops him and tells him to keep
calm, because this is just a play after all. By that time, the actor playing
the role of the death row inmate has gone backstage. He wipes off all his
make-up then discretely leaves for home by starting off in the different
direction. The emotional spectator also goes home, but takes the same road he
has traveled before.
Throughout the play, there is no music, and
no one sings. All manner of stage lights are turned on. Artists walk out one by
one, all wearing a similar smile, and bow down before the audience. Only now do
people recognize every actor.
Applause roars up like thunder then slows
down in waves. Waves of handclaps as well paced as footsteps in a military
parade, marching on a concrete square.
The burgundy curtain slowly closes.
Chapter IV: THE CROSSROAD
That girl had been waiting for a boy who
departed and would never come back. Now,
a shaky old woman. Tonight a bright red river flows into her sleep. Water softly pulls her back and blows into her
mouth breath of dawn, and a breath of early dew, waves from a boat sailing in
her dream, tap her on the shoulder. The river carries her back to her youthful
days, and there she unexpectedly sees her lover. There is a color, bright red, that
highlights so many crossroads set before the couple’s eyes. And they sail towards
their appointed destination on the horizon.
Their voices resound desires in the simmering
river of blood:
- We are
getting further from the clutches of evil. Don’t you worry!
- Is anyone
- We are going
on the path chosen by blood.
- People have
committed so many wrongs.
- The crowd is
usually led by greedy, nefarious persons.
- They exploit
ideals, the nation, and even truth.
- They say truth
must fit in a frame.
must be reshaped, distorted inside a mold.
- We must find
a way to destroy it.
- Do you
believe that there is a truth?
- I do, but truth
exists inside our hearts, not out of the mouth of bad people.
- Can truth
- When people are
deprived of their freedom.
- They change
people into slaves and herds.
- Who are
- They are
dictators, opportunists, and arms dealers.
- It sounds
like an explosion behind us. Can we go a little faster?
- Don’t worry,
we are beyond rifle shot.
- Is someone
- No, blood
has clotted, and we have lost them.
- Let’s stop,
kneel down to thank blood!
- We can’t
repay what blood has done for us.
- Blood is
priceless and eternal.
- We will repay
by giving birth to children.
- When our
children grow up, will they know of this crossroad that we have taken?
- They may
not. And by then we will be no more or will have become forgetful.
- Then we should
write the word FREEDOM on our epitaphs.
- There are sounds
of waves and a cool mist.
- Let’s shed
our clothes and go down together to bathe.
High waves and strong winds have transformed
the couple into an upside down boat. The pitching mast reaches far and plants itself
into the sea to prop the boat up in the air. The hull is stretched, expanded
like it is almost broken. Wave after ferocious wave rise above the bottom of
the upside-down boat, a slick of moss, the boat bobbing in the sun. White foam gently
laps in waves onto the body of the boat. The lovers want to separate to make
the boat more stable than a ship and the sea broader than an ocean. They want
to become fish and shrimps, plankton, coral, to diversify into millions of
marine life, so that no one can catch them, or separate, or contaminate them. The
bow of the boat sinks and then the rudder disappears in high waves. The
inverted mast holding fast to the inside of the boat still stands, reverberating.
Chapter V: THE BUTCHERS
He still lives, but the fire from Hell
already rushes to his face. He bends his head asking for forgiveness, but it’s
too late. Lifeblood that has flowed through his hands now turns into a giant
beast that wraps him up tightly and sucks out his marrow. The beast suddenly
releases him. He stumbles and smashes his face on the ground, recreating the
last moment when an animal was killed by him: the animal’s eyes roll up and redden,
as its head is coldly beaten by the butcher’s sledgehammer. The animal’s four limbs
spread out, trembling before a bucket of boiling water is poured down, scalding
each part of its body. The butcher flings hard his sharp blade, until bleached
white pores are exposed. The animal’s head is cut apart, spilt up. Tissues from
shoulders, ribs, and trotters are arranged neatly. The butcher collapses. His
expressionless eyes bulge out, immobile, as he accepts his torment by the souls
of animals coming back from the dead. This is a butcher chopping block, a fair
game. This is a free forum, where fair judgments are given.
Butchers with straight faces are present
everywhere—in kitchens, gardens, markets, with peddler’s carts, in restaurants,
on pastures… They have disseminated, incubated a wrath of germs, since the beginning
of time when humans selected the first stocks to breed, and seeds to sow. Using
growth-promoting chemicals, they brew and inject toxins into fruits, drinks,
food… Death bears the shapes of dark red juicy pieces of beef, the shape of
plump, soft shrimps, and squid. Vegetables and fruits that retain freshness for
ages without rotting… These butchers have swung their blades where and when
nobody knows. Then suddenly one hears the sad sounds of funeral trumpets and drums
soaring in the middle of a town or village, sending off one who dies young, due
to some strange dangerous disease. Indifferent, ruthless scythes are swung,
somewhere in the dark, and under the sun. Here and there, people are writhing
in pain, vomiting, agonizing, and dying. Chemicals and experimental drugs stiffen
the corpses in their caskets so that they can never decay beyond mourning. Many months later, relatives take
up knives to scratch away and flay segments of bones before laying them to rest
in a ceramic urn. While the butchers sit down without a care, at dinner table. Their
turn will come, eating poison from the guilty hands of others.
A butcher repents before his death. He pledges
to donate both his hands to a museum, as witnesses to his wrongdoings. His
pledge is carried out right before his encoffining. The pair of butcher’s hands
soaked in a special solution inside a glass jar. The jar explodes within
minutes. It’s replaced, but again all jars break. In the end, museum staff immerse
the hands in a zinc barrel with the thickest casing, and a padlock. Each night,
museum security keep seeing the butcher’s hands sneak out of the narrow gap
under the barrel’s cover, with a shape-shifting talent of a mollusk. The hands try to find their way to the bust, in
the central display room of the museum.
The butcher sometimes appears in the form of
a flower. He bewitches you with fascinating colors and scents. He leads you
into an alley, a dark place, or somewhere remote. He tells you that you must
choose a way to die. Of course, you will react violently, but the end cannot be
different. He draws out several books for you to choose from. Here is a book
that teaches you how to have no empathy, how to be callous to all pain, how to
eliminate your feelings until your dying breath. In other words, if you inhale
the flower’s scents, you will be half-sighted throughout your entire life,
unable to recognize different values. And this last book teaches you techniques
to deceive your own feelings. Tomorrow, you will languish, harden in both body
and soul, but you will always trick yourself into believing that you are devoting
yourself to things sacred and good.
He arrives late at night, turning up the
lamp, storming to my place. He snatches the open book from my hands and grabs
my hair, pulling it down towards my back, until my face is turned upwards, so
that he can bend down and scrutinize me closely. Then he examines the book
cover and gradually releases me. Is there confusion? The butcher is clearly on
a manhunt for someone. He looks at me suspiciously for a while then quietly goes
away. When he rushes back with fierce eyes and
gleaming blade, I am no longer there. The night shields me, helping me
see clearly and observe the behavior and facial expressions of that sinister
butcher. But he cannot know where I am, although right at this moment I am very
close to him.
Butchers of thought force us to travel in a straight
path and never make a turn. But the natural world contains countless lakes,
mountains, and waterfalls. There cannot be a perfectly straight path that runs
infinitely on earth. Human evolution occurs many times at every turn, and
civilizations are born between the forks of humanity. The butchers know that
and wait in ambush for us there. They quickly terminate those they deem
secretive, aberrant. I have spotted topless butchers with their numbered bodies
on the straight path. Self-assured and motionless, they stand there as
He already belongs to the netherworld. The
only trace of his emergence in the living world is a torso portrait engraved on
his epitaph. In the portrait, he looks straight ahead, his gentle eyes behind
glasses, his hair combed to one side. His vest shows only the second row of buttons.
His bloody hands have long crawled deep into the earth. His youngest child
still keeps a secret page in his will, with instructions not to open it before
the third generation. That’s when the biography of the one lying in the tomb
will be freely fabled by future generations. That’s when civilized society no
longer has butchers. Generations from the third one on will pass on tales about
his good deeds. They say that during his lifetime, he has been a compassionate
and virtuous person who loves all living things.
Chapter VI: THE DIALOGS
- I was
eradicated at the end of 1941.
- Right under this grapefruit
- Who killed you?
- French secret agents and
a canton chief.
- At that moment, what did
you bring with you?
- A flag.
- Whom did you want to
give it to at the moment?
- The local poor and
- Would it be sacred while
flying in the wind?
- It guided farmers,
laborers, and literate people.
- To what ends?
Independence, freedom, happiness.
- Please say
it in more accessible terms!
- The people
would no longer suffer, no longer feel hunger or poverty, no longer be heavily
taxed, no longer be looked down upon or beaten, and see no more injustice. They
would be happy and free.
- Do you still believe in
- Always believing.
- Can I see that belief?
- Here is earth still dark
brown and grass still green.
- Let me pull a blade of
grass toward us.
- Its fire of chlorophyll
is always burning. Is there a way to pass on this fire to those who are
- They already know it, as
they have been educated since childhood.
- I, master corporal, from
25th Infantry Division “Tropical Lightning”, Army of the Republic of
Vietnam, died from wounds on April 28th, 1975 at Đồng Dù Base.
- I, petty officer, from
C5, 320A Division, Vietnamese People’s Army, was shot when driving a T54 tank
into the base.
- Come closer, as we leave
our weapons in the living world.
- Let’s look at the living
as they are having meals and working the farm together.
- They have survived when
crossing the path of blood with us.
- Nearly 5 million people
from both sides have died, so many are injured, so many people separated from
the beginning of the war.
- Half of the total rainforest area is
destroyed. Tens of thousands are contaminated with the Agent Orange.
- We have also lost priceless
- So was it necessary to
traverse this path of blood?
- So was it necessary to
- So was it necessary?
- So was.
- In February 1979, I was herded
across here. I collapsed right on this Bắc Luân
- We saw your commander
throwing your body into the Ka Long
River to clear the road for Chinese troops to advance into Vietnamese
- My soul at the time saw
my eyes looking up at the commander.
- Vietnamese militia picked
your body up at Chắn Coóng Pha
field and buried it.
- Do you still hate
- Before coming here, I
had been subjected to such propaganda.
- Via books, documents,
- No, political commissars
from the Chinese People Liberation Army had told us directly. We soldiers
seldom read books.
- In any era, it always took
our blood and bones to build trenches to stop your people.
- My mind only got clearer
- You had been wicked and
vicious enemies throughout our four thousand years of history.
- Our dynasties ate human
flesh that way.
- Once you became strong,
you usually went to sow disasters upon others.
- Were you a member of the
- No need to ask. You only
glorified narrow national interests.
- There cannot be a model
for all societies.
- Each era has its ideal.
- We are at a trough of a
- No, another cycle has
- Do we need a new definition
for independence, freedom, happiness?
- The flow of life is
explaining it all.
- Can you elaborate on
- Freedom is the human
survival instinct always rising up.
- Humans are always
conscious about fighting against enslavement by others.
- Is freedom the root of
the idea of human rights and democracy then?
- Yes. Does it seem to
depend on the openness of a regime?
- No. It’s the yearning
for freedom in everyone that gives birth to the need to build a government
based on the rule of law.
- What are independence
and happiness then?
- It’s what freedom opens
up. This is a causal relationship.
- Does independence cost
- We had to sacrifice
several generations to achieve this.
- Perhaps it is
compromised during globalization.
- That concept needs a renovation
- Do you see yourself as
- I don’t even have the
freedom to claim my pains.
- I am a drop of water.
- We mix with each other
to make up a significant drop of water.
- No. We are harmonious
next to each other and always separated.
- Do our minds and souls
have boundaries then?
- Civilized society is a
general mix of human beings with separate selves and different minds.
- Is that the foundation
for human rights?
- Each drop of water has
the right to voice its opinions.
- They are equal and free.
- I exist by God’s grace.
- I am enlightened by the
- Others serve in
channeling the sacred Mother Goddess.
- I respect all choices!
Chapter VII: THE MODELS
During the sixties of the last century, many
Vietnamese families in the North received free Chinese cartoon magazines
regularly. Today, I can still recall the images inside the covers of propaganda
magazines — ruddy-faced workers, farmers holding sickles high, soldiers brandishing
weapons, a copy of Chairman Mao’s oeuvre in the other hand. My siblings, with
nothing left to do, cut out the farmers and the soldiers and glued them on
bamboo partitions inside our house. My brother made a collage of images on our
entrance door during the last days of the year.
Back then I used to follow my parents to the
field after the cooperative’s alarm bell sounded. We went to work and recorded
our daily work in the merit book. Sometimes there were contests such as plowing
contests, rice planting contests manure hauling contests, and harvesting
contests… Each contest came with flags, drums, and banners. A crowd stood on the
sidelines to watch and cheer loudly. The cooperative chairman back then looked exactly
the same as one of the characters I’d seen in the cartoon magazines.
During my last year in college, the subject
of politics failed me, because I failed an exam about the spirit of collective
ownership. Although I brought along with me many papers to copy — had written
the main ideas on my palms and soles, swapped answers with students in the rows
close by me — none of those tricky ploys prevented my failing. A year or so later,
I chanced to meet the teacher who taught
me politics in a local beer joint. He
admitted that as years went by, he had forgotten all the contents of his
lectures. He told me that before each lecture, he spent hours learning each
page of the lesson plan by heart. He forgot them all the day after the lecture.
When he could no longer remember lesson plans by heart, he accepted his retirement.
That day my teacher and I got so drunk, when we went outside, we both walked
straight into an electric pole on the street corner.
To ensure social order and safety, we were asked
to spy on one another. Of course, I never knew who was spying me. I was
assigned the task of spying on a neighbor. In the morning, he usually rode his
motorcycle to work. Then in the afternoon, he went home. I used to follow him
and jot down minutest details of his
regular routine. But I was most frustrated when he closed his door and went to
sleep at night. Who knew what he talked about with his relatives and what activities
he performed in the dark? During our city block people’s meeting, I volunteered
to stand up and conduct a sincere self-criticism. I self-admitted numerous wrong
doings, and confessed my lack of interest in volunteering for clandestine
duties. To keep the rule of secrecy for our long-term operation, I did not
mention the name of the subject I was asked to spy on or his specific
activities. I chose to use only general, vague and obtuse adjectives in my
I was invited to be on the city block
planning advisory team. Our only point of reference was a 6 x 12 cm black and
white photo. We took turns studying it then sketched ourselves a model. No
matter how I turned the photo, vertically or horizontally, I could never find the
detail. The advisory team met several times but never found an optimal plan.
Then one by one, like amnesia, we forgot about that project as if it never
existed. Some years later, I no longer heard anyone in my city block say a word
about the advisory team.
Last night I dreamed of living in a spacious,
airy house situated next to a body of water. The air was clear, unpolluted. The
drinking water and the food met stringent safety standards. I went with my
loved ones into the house. Oddly, the back of the house was connected to many alleyways.
We each picked an arbitrary one. The further I went, the darker it became.
Sometimes, in the maze of alleyways we ran across each other again, or stumbled
across furniture that someone had abandoned so randomly and disorderly encroaching
the very sidewalk. At the end of a dark alley, I recognized the same bed that
was carrying me in this dream. That
spacious house turned out to be a model house, situated right at the end of
The halo in my dream was far
away. To get to the halo, people had to go through a fire gate. Many had tried,
but nobody could go through. But I was determined to get there. Before going through
the gate, I hardened my mind and trained my willpower. Finally, I went through the fire gate. But my entire body was
burned, beard and hair disappeared. Behind that halo was just a barren field.
Mice, that almost died, but somehow managed to survive, rushed out to greet me.
Since then, I have been their king in the kingdom of mice.
A science fiction project. Scientists could graft
many different fruits in the same tree. Many fruit grew up together inside one big
fruit, separated from each other by a simple membrane. People arrived at this
science center bringing many of their favorite fruit, from citrus, longans,
blood lemons, apricots, oleasters, gold apples, wampis from the North, to
plums, mangoes, rambutans, jackfruit, grapefruit, berries, durians, and star
apples from the South. When the fruit ripened, the outer skin was bright red in
color. No one had thought how to make the fruit more than skin deep. The way to
change each part of the skin to reflect the individual fruit, just under the
The model house was designed and built around
a bird’s nest set in the fork of a tree branch. The outside of the house was entwined
with barbed wire, equipped with electronic reconnaissance devices, radars,
sound detectors, motion detectors... The house looked like a top-notch modern
military base as well as a lair of long-extinct dinosaurs. In theory, the house
was a paradise on earth, where no one could trespass, and it had no enemies,
forever. But according to its design, that giant bird’s nest had to stay in the
great tall fork of the tree branch. From then on, people actively planted trees
and zealously tended even the tiniest of sprouts.
Chapter VIII: THE DREAM
People hurry into darkness to observe the bright
red river flowing slowly and gently. Hearts beat rapidly with anxiety as well
as in elation. Doubtful questions quickly spread out in the night like a secret
order given for a battle ahead. Is this
a revenge bloodbath? Will our lives be submerged in a red sea?
Blood moves serenely in forgiving ways, as peaceful
as a sleeping child’s breathing. Blood touches the air, blood touches historic
landmarks, like a giant python slithering across a stone slab, like a ball
rolling on a grass field. Like raindrops calling each other to gather and flow down
to a low land.
A piece of chalk put next to a blackboard.
Blood comes to open up the senses, to
waken areas of the brain for clearer thoughts, for each person to understand,
to pick up the piece of chalk and copy each letter for themselves. To learn how
to read a simple sentence articulately. How to write the name of their country.
How to write their own name.
Blood comes back to blooming season. Rice heavy
with grain. Sweet potatoes growing big. Corns with plump seeds. Cattle hide and
poultry feathers smooth. Fish stir in rivers and creeks, ponds and lakes. Blood
guides slim fingers to sow rice seedlings, to check each corn seeds on fertile
Blood tenderly flows by beds of moss, shaking
the bodies of wild grasses. Blood makes the earth tremble, like eels and
loaches rubbed with salt before slaughter. Blood spreads serene, carrying the power and sacredness of
dreams. Soldiers from platoons and squads a long time buried by mortars and
rockets, rise up from the underground like a spectral camouflaged branch of
service. They march, in lines still, back to their old villages, each one going
back to their old house. Miraculously, when they get there, not one of their
relatives or neighbors is missing. Dishes served to welcome them are not ritual
foods served on their days of death, but frugal country meals, with soup of
ground crab and jute, and a plate of pickled eggplant.
The stream of blood pours chlorophyll into
trees, jiggles and cleanses their canopies. Moods begin a reversal, as people
in trances slap their own faces to wake up, their habits of indifference change
for a moment, into a passion. Calls from a strange bird rise up, signaling extraordinary
movement inside the earth. Earthworms dig one more level deeper to make the
soil softer. A green frogling discovers the moonlight and calls its mother with
affection. A fairy tern invites its partner to cross the ocean.
Unripe fruit, which has been picked before its
time, now reappears in trees, waiting to ripen, to become sweet and fragrant
one day. Flowers and fruit that have been burrowed by worms or pecked by birds
tremble in their rebirth. Trees that have been cross-sawed, naturally reconnect
their timbre. Tree sap flows across rotten logs, emitting a peppery smell, the
familiar fragrance of new leaves and tree roots. Each tree is respected and
protected as a living organism. Each person enjoys freedom, human rights, and
dignity. Strong trees and healthy people live close to and for each other.
Surviving birds and wild animals flock back
to receive blood like receiving their relatives back after an upheaval that has
brought a time of separation. They bring back the severed tails, beaks, horns,
fangs, and claws of their own kin — once hunted down, then killed. They put these close
to the flow of rivers, then kneel and crouch down in waiting. Blood arrives and
gladly resurrects each layer of fur and feathers, heats up each cell, sweat
glands and layers of skin.
Blood releases the animals into the wild,
birds into the sky. Blood releases aquaculture marine lives, seaweed and
plankton into the oceans. Blood lets ducks and water birds frolic and swim in
Everyone, including me, begins to breathe
deeply, no longer breathing in fear. Suddenly we all have the same blood type. We
all lie down and let the warm, bright red river flow through all of us. I am
still myself but different tonight. Independent and free like the insect and the
animal — happy and free as fish in the sea and birds in the air.
Chapter IX: CONTINUATION
Water begins its flow into the mouths of the
people, water carrying their ancestors’ souls and the sacredness of the land. Individuals
join in a confluence of contrasting colors, colors that merge into a rising
tide choked with sediment and sentiments.
The new flow regenerates seasons for
breeding, laying eggs and transplanting. Red blood nourishes fetuses, nurtures
seeds for flowers to bloom and the myriads of animals to reproduce.
Spirituality and micro-circuitry. Pathways of
the Ch’i and spiritual software’s architecture. Structured and unstructured data
of the material and the immaterial. Faces of humans, fauna, and vegetation are interconnected
throughout chronological time and contemporary space.
The souls of data, waiting to be decompressed,
urge contemporary people not to hesitate or mess about in one place for too
Personalities appear in human interface
windows as they rise out of their rebirths, selecting other values this time. Other
paths. Other philosophies. Other turns. Other idols. Other models. Other
independence. Other freedom. Other happiness. Other feelings.
A Chrysopogon flower, silent for so long, now
appears on a left corner of the screen. It emits a long sound like the warning
signal of a computer infected by a virus: We
have been through an era of junk! Such a signal does not make people angry
or stunned, because by now everyone knows that they are not basic raw materials.
The anonymous Chrysopogon flower has created a
domino effect, bringing forth the collapse of a series of chess pieces. A
figure with an unknown face finally stands up and admits he is no more than a
blunt knife. Then a second, third and fourth figure stand up to be accountable.
Such self-acknowledgment from the growing headcount, an infinite army spreads
out. People admit they are either a cleaning cloth, a ragged broom, a dustpan, a
book with its binding undone, a broken
chair, or a fused iron. They confess to being a torn blanket, a split pair of
shoes, outmoded articles of clothes, or an old plastic container covered with
dust. Now all of them voluntarily come to the rallying point to be categorized,
destroyed or to await their rebirth.
Saved files show up one by one like tombs. They
are built like elaborately ornamented tombs, and even forsaken ones. The busy screen
forms a Grave Visiting Festival day, full of offerings and the smoke of incense.
The cooperative chairman of old reappears, astonished at being connected to the
prophet, the advisory team, and the white-faced actors... The politics teacher
meets soldiers from both fronts. The locks of solitary confinements are changed
to keep only death row inmates incarcerated.
Even a piece of raw meat knows about the bird
nest house, the kingdom of mice, and the narrow bed. The piece of meat happily looks
back to the musty hole at the foot of the wall. The wasp inside suddenly
appears on the screen and opens a door into a memory store, for it can read
rare and precious documents, many not yet decoded. The wasp is now a source, a
deadly point of weakness and holds the master key.
Stained souls struggle to emerge from
smokestacks of universal incarnation towers, slaughterhouses, and waste
processing plants. They bring along their unrealized ideas and wishes. An early
rain pours down just in time. The souls rustle to mix with each droplet of
clean water pouring on mother earth. The rain drops hope into people’s dreams, wipes
plants clean, and serves as a washing basin for the entire area.
Polygonums, Commelinales, and ferns next to
fences, together with Rasboras and mosquito larvae in stagnant water, suddenly
glow. They long for freedom and the preservation of their honor. They connect
with old trees and wild animals to achieve a far-reaching vision, a fierce
spirit, and bravery.
They learn the eagle’s proud and painful way to
renew its own body. When no longer able to fly high and far, the eagle strikes
its beak on a cliff until it breaks to regenerate its claws. It dares to look
straight into the sun without blinking and is not afraid of burning blindness.
The eagle flies up to the top of the mountain
waiting for the storm. Ferocious stormy winds lift it on top of the rain. Its sharp
claws grasp onto the storm’s shoulder creating a proud and sacred symbol.
Hải Phòng – Hà
Biography of Nhat-Lang Le
Nhat-Lang Le (Lê Đình
Nhất-Lang) was born in 1969 in Saigon, emigrated with his family to France in
1983, and moved to the U.S. in 1985. He has a B.A. in Linguistics and Computer
Science from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Nhat-Lang Le
worked for more than a decade as a software programmer, before switching
careers to work as a news translator and editor for a Vietnamese media
organization based in the Little Saigon area of Southern California. He is a
co-author of Poems of Nguyễn Thúy Hằng, Đỗ Lê Anhdao & Lê Đình
Nhất-Lang (Vagabond Press, 2017). He is the translator of two of Mai Văn
Phấn’s collections Seeds of Night and Day (Page Addie Press,
2013) and Grass Cutting in a Temple Garden (Page Addie Press,
2014). He is a co-translator of Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên (Vagabond
Press, 2014) and The Selected Poems of Mai Văn Phấn (Publishing
House of the Vietnam Writers’ Association, 2015). His Vietnamese poems and translations have appeared in the printed magazines Thế Kỷ 21, Văn Học and Văn,
and the literary e-zines Tiền Vệ (tienve.org) and Da Màu (damau.org). He has
been on Da Mau’s editorial staff since 2007.
Biography of Susan
Susan Blanshard was born in Hampshire, England. She
is an internationally acclaimed poet, essayist, and best-selling
author. Susan is English Translator-Poet for 9 award-winning bilingual
poetry books. She is a Committee member of PEN International Women's Writers
and a foundation member of Asian Pacific Writers and Translators. Susan has
written more than 40 books: poetry, short stories, nonfiction, fiction and
poetic prose. Her works include Honey in the Blood, Fragments of the Human
Heart and book-length poetic prose Sheetstone. Selected poetry and
essays are published in literary magazines including PEN International Women
Writers’ Magazine. The World’s Literary Magazine: Projected
Letters, Six Bricks Press, Arabesque Magazine, Lotus
International Women’s Magazine, Coldnoon International Journal of Travel and Literature, Amaravati Poetic Prism 2017, ICORN International Cities
of Refuge. Nuestra Voz/Our
Voice/Notre Voix - The Anthology of the
International PEN Women Writers’ Committee. Susan lived in Hanoi for eight years and has written four
travel books on Vietnam. She is married to an Executive Creative Director and
best-selling author. They have two adult children. Susan resides near Sydney,
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter I: Point of View
Chapter II: Deep Red
Chapter III: The Stage
Chapter IV: The Crossroad
Chapter V: The Butchers
Chapter VI: The Dialogs
Chapter VII: The Models
Chapter VIII: The Dream
Chapter IX: Continuation