Anh remembered the day when the boots of Viet Cong soldiers pounded through her village, San Dok. The day when the sound of fire crackled in her ears and the short distant screams and cut off wails violently danced around her, floating through the sickly smell of smoke. She was curled under her bed, layers of dust clung to her dress and her hands clutched her ears. She had her face tucked underneath the sullied cloth in an attempt to filter out the thickening scent of cloying smoke, but nothing loosened the tight knot in her stomach. Anh knew Ma was hiding in the next room; she had been doing laundry, because Ma had wanted clean clothes and a steaming dinner ready for Bah when he came home. A surprise. She watched the gap underneath her door as a shadow eclipsed the small crack of sunlight. Anh squeezed her eyes tight; her fingernails dug deep and harvested glistening cherries of blood. There was a low creak and soft footsteps, cautious to the point where she hardly knew where they came from. Then they stopped right next to the bed; Anh’s breath swirled in her lungs. Trapped. Her fingers were slick against the sting of small cuts. Her breath whooshed out in a raspy gasp as she felt someone’s hand grip her arm and drag her out. Her eyes snapped open, dust wildly agitated. She sucked in the speckled air in a frantic attempt to scream, for what she didn’t know. The soldier would revel in her screams, not be startled or shocked into letting her go. A hand closed over her mouth and she felt a warm whisper in her ear. “Shhhh, Nhi. Don’t make a noise,” Ma’s voice was thin and brittle, threatening to crack. Anh went limp against her and they backed into a shadowed corner, the wall bracing Ma’s back and Anh leaning on her right shoulder. “Nhi, I was so worried. What if they had seen me through the window? I didn’t want to move. What if they had come in and found…” Ma’s frantic voice halted suddenly and she looked down, staring at her raw knobby hands. They took small quiet breaths, trying to ignore the mingling scent of smoke, sweat, and wet laundry. “They’re angry,” she whispered, “We pushed them too far.” Her dark eyebrows came together her fingers pressed into her eyelids. “What?” Anh asked, confused. “You remember the boy we helped move in next door a couple weeks ago? I told you it was a secret.” Ma asked. Anh nodded, her short brown bob moving with her. “He needed our help, Nhi. But the Viet Cong knows we have him. And others.” The last two words hung in the air. “They’re angry, and now they want to hurt us.” Ma’s mouth drooped downwards, a sour regret stuck in the back of her throat. She touched Anh’s head. Caressed her cocoa hair and said, “Run, Nhi. Into the jungle. Run away from San Dok as fast as you can. Find another village to take you in.” Anh grasped at Ma’s hand as she pulled away. “You’ll come with me right? We’ll run from San Dok.” “No Anh. You have to do this without me. It’s the only way. They’d notice me, but…” Ma’s eyes flickered. “You can do it, Nhi.” She smoothed a wrinkle on Anh’s dress, and then retreated, “You have to.” Anh shook her head. “I can’t. I’ve never done anything without you.” Ma’s face started to crumple and sag with defeat. She turned away from Anh. Her wrinkles ran deep, like paths worn in a forest by the feet of strangers. She took a deep breath, her nostrils flaring and back straightening with determination and faced her daughter. Her posture was crisp and sharp, filled with purpose. “You can Anh and you will.” Her words came out as steel, edges freshly sharpened. “Ma I can’t-“ A crack rang out; Anh’s face red, hand on her cheek. “Leave. Now.” Ma’s voice was no longer hushed. It rose and trembled. Anh backed away, hand trying to rub away the sharp stinging. “GO!” Ma yelled, her harshness blending in with the background noise, which was steadily increasing. Anh flinched and stumbled out of the room, flinging open the door and bursting into the kitchen, the smell of warm, wet, and dirty laundry filling the room. She squinted against the sunlight and ran outside. Smoke made it nearly impossible to see. Bright orange flames devoured the house next to her and licked at the dead grass. The bamboo stilts cracked and the house toppled into the river, sizzling and steaming even more. What was usually the coldest time of the year now scorched her skin. Rivulets of sweat trickled down her body. She ran, leaving her house behind. She ran past the charred body of her neighbor, the stench twisting her stomach. She ran past a man getting his brain blown out, past the screams of women and children inside the house, past the soldiers yelling- raising their guns- firing- missing. Her feet were slices on broken sticks and glass and burnt by bullet casings. She left a trail of bloody footprints. Farther along she saw wary eyes peering out of foxholes, stifled coughs. Breathing heavy. Her once white dress hung in ragged strips. Even farther along, she joined a boy. Pause. The boy. He ran with her, his eyes shadowed with guilt when he recognized the tattered girl running next to him. The once flat landscape morphed into a roiling jungle, the smell of smoke fading. The screams were almost undetectable, but still there. A faint reminder. She stopped. So did the boy. The two children looked like grey creatures, covered in ashes. Their glinting eyes still processing what they just ran from. Anh stared straight ahead and grabbed his hand. United. They plunged forward.
May 21, 2014