This is my first short story composed in English. Initially, it was for a practice at a Creative Writing club. I wanted, at heart, to tell a Vietnamese narrative that is reader-friendly to all of my friends who have known and been close to me; a story that is at once quintessentially Vietnamese and universal (universal in that you leave out its historical context and characters’ ethnicity). Yet its genesis and progression have magnified thousands of questions in my head.
The story went to several Writing clubs and received such polarized reviews that I reconsidered posting it publicly.
Sharing my thoughts and ideas in public has opened me up to criticism, but I understand that our living experiences can affect how we understand and feel about a text. It does not hinder, but contribute greatly to the varieties of our reading experience.
I have revised the wording, added a few lines, but the structure and atmosphere created remain the same. I hope you will get more ideas from this story. Please do not hesitate to put forward your questions in our conversation.
As the sun sank beneath the horizon, everything was suddenly cloaked in a uniform robe of darkness. Hanoi in 1995, except in the city’s center, life in the outskirts after dusk was reduced to the households. There was repeated experience of power shortages. That September evening, in a neighborhood not far off the main streets, fell in the same pattern.
A ten-year-old boy was holding a burning candle, busying himself in the old attic. The candle-light within radiated forth upon the windowsill; seen from the rice field, it set his small house apart from its neighboring dwellings. The boy carefully placed his candle on the table, away from the breeze, but close enough so that he could read what was in front of him.
Lying on the bookshelf were the works of Balzac, Pushkin, and Sholokhov; the book spines broken, their flaps torn and moth-eaten, but these heavy tomes projected an imposing character. The boy surveyed the book spines, carefully placed them to one side, then from the vacuum behind he pulled out and laid his treasures on the table.
On the wooden table lay some color tubes, brushes, a palette, and a tin pen box, which contained some neatly sharpened pencils and an old fountain pen. The pen was a classic Cleo Skribent, a quintessential product of the former East Germany. Its cap and barrel were old and tarnished, but the nib was still shiny. Its sophisticated and classy look fascinated the little boy. He opened the cartridge and dribbled some drops of ocean-blue ink into a water jar. He reveled in the thought of painting the rain, or the ocean, the moonlit sky; his eyes fixed on the diluting of the ink into the water.
At the sound of someone ascending, the boy caught his breath, trying to thrust everything on the table into the drawer. He accidentally knocked over his pen box and color jars; the metallic things splashed with a clang upon the concrete floor, and before he could realize it, his mother was standing in the room, speechless.
“What are you doing in the dark?” she inquired.
“I – I couldn’t find my fountain pen…”, he murmured, almost petrified, glancing at his mother then quickly elsewhere.
“It’s right there, on the floor. And why are you messing with the color tubes? Have you done your homework?”, asked the mother suspiciously.
On the candle-lit floor, the streams of colored water fused in an abstract expression, almost like that of the little boy. He answered almost inaudibly, “I will be doing it in a minute…”
As the boy was gazing at his feet, the mother walked slowly to him and lifted the pen. She paused for a second, then reposed on the chair next to him, with a nostalgic expression, almost like talking to herself.
“This is a special pen” she began, unconsciously surveying the writing instrument, “It was my father’s gift for my one-year-old birthday, shortly before he enlisted in the army in 1968.”
“But you told me that it was a gift from a Wise Man, when I came to this world!” his eyebrows raised in wonder.
“Your grandfather was indeed a wise man.” The mother’s voice became resolute. “He was the only person in our hometown to enroll in college. He studied to be a mathematics teacher, but was also an artist, won a literary award, for which he got this fountain pen.”
“An American bomber took his life in one of the fiercest battles in Quang Tri, close to the Laotian borders. His squad was evacuating a village from the blitz.” Her voice was low upon reflection.
The boy turned his head away, not speaking at all. He scratched his head in bewilderment. His eyes went from the colors on the floor to his mother.
“But grandpa was a Christian. God told us to love everyone. How could he fight the American? Christians are good people, aren’t they?”
There was a long solemn pause, and the only sound was the chirping of crickets. The mother arose; her eyes looking out of the window. The crescent moon was hiding itself beneath a veil of cloud.
She continued, her voice a little uncertain, “I am sure he didn’t want to. It’s not as simple as a matter of good versus evil. It is about the ideologies that people die to defend.”
“What ideologies, mother?” asked the boy impatiently.
“You … you are too young to talk about this. But this is just an example, will you protect your friend if he is bullied at school? Will you defend yourself if you are threatened or attacked?”
“But I shall not fight. I don’t want anybody to get hurt. I will grow up without following any ideologies, can’t I?” the boy was gasping, almost trembling.
The mother looked at him empathetically, patting him on his back.
“You see, the war is over. Now people – everyone is trying to make a living. It doesn’t help to argue which side was right, which side was wrong, neither does the blaming”… “In everything under the heavens, there is a time for war and a time for peace, a time to weep and a time to laugh. It is now a time for peace and healing. ”
The little boy buried his head in his mother’s bosom, “But what if the Americans come back again?”
“Then you will use this pen,” she lifted the fountain pen before her son’s eyes, “Use this pen to tell the world that we are not an inferior people. It has magical power; it has your grandfather’s soul in it. You’re going to be fearless.”
“I love writing. I can do something with it!” the boy’s eyes were glowing with excitement.
“Since last month, our country and America have become friendly again. Soon there will be an embassy…” The mother looked at her child, her face beamed with a radiant smile. “Good news! If you work hard, one day you might become a diplomat.”
“Or an engineer…” she arose, talking in jest. “We need someone to bring more electricity to our village!”
The mother left the attic, calling back at him that it was time to prepare for dinner. But the boy was lost in his thoughts, looking out of the window, at a flickering blip moving across the sky; an airplane was somewhere at the horizon; one that doesn’t leave smoke trails. He wasn’t aware that his mother was pausing at the door, observing him dearly. As if nothing in the world mattered, not even his attic sanctuary, his eyes fixed upon the moving spark, unaware that he was squeezing the fountain pen.
After a moment, she turned and descended the stairs. She quietly entered her room, opening her closet.
In this secret corner, she pulled from the folded clothing a Bible, with a small picture of Virgin Mary holding her child Jesus. It almost became her ritual, whenever she needed strength, she would sit in this quiet corner and pray.
She only knew her father through the words of her mother, and through his letters, his poems and sketches on stained paper. On one letter were written “… Up on the high mountain tonight. Love you tenderly and wait for our good tidings.” She folded the letter, tucked them into the Bible, and pressed it to her chest. Her head tilted to one side, resting against the wall.
Did she feel a deep void, for the lack of a father’s love? Did she feel helpless because she couldn’t let go of that feeling? Was she optimistic or apprehensive about revealing the truth to her son? For, eventually, he would surely face infinite incongruities and dilemmas in his life, when things are rarely black and white. Should he find hope in a mystical Wise Man, or in his own grandfather, a mortal, imperfect man?
From downstairs, a rhythm was generating. It was from the TV set. The power was restored to the village. The woman carefully put away her things; she wiped a teardrop on her cheek and descended the stairs. It was time for supper.