The Red Village
(Based off the My Lai Massacre)
I hear stories everyday of how Bó, my father,was a great man, a powerful man, a leader and a hero to his people. He inspired the very best in everyone. He was the village's pride and joy, someone we could all look up to, someone who is no longer here. He went off to fight another man's battle, and to protect a country that never did anything for him. I was a couple months old when he left to join the Việt Minh at the request of the great Võ Nguyên Giáp. It took another three years for us to find out what had happened to him. A hero’s death they claimed, while protecting a fellow soldier he was shot in the chest and left behind. The greatest general in Vietnamese history never came to help us or even tell us even though he was supposed to be my father's friend.
Fifteen years after his death I’m still in this small little village in the middle of nowhere. Son My is split up into four little hamlets Mỹ Lai, Cỏ Lũy, My Khe, and Tu Cung sorrounded by a large swath of jungle on every side. Life in My Lai is boring and slow. I go out to work the fields then come back and take care of Bà Ngoại (Grandma)and Mẹ (Mother). My goal is to get out one day and become a part of something bigger.The only thing keeping me here is Mai.
Mai has been with me for as long as I can remember. I don’t think I could have made it this far without her. Everyday I get back from my work she meets me halfway and we walk back together. Nothing makes me happier than to have someone to rely on, and Mai has been there for me through thick and through thin.
Mai runs towards me as I walk back from the fields with a smile on her face.
“Only seven more days and you're officially big boy Hien!” Mai shouted as she approached.
“Don’t say it like that Mai,” I respond, “It makes me seem like some moody child who needs attention.”
“ You are a moody child Hien! ”
“Thanks Mai your the best,” I responded sarcastically, “How was your day with Cô Cai and Chú Tu?”
“It was good they taught me more about cooking and sewing…… who am I kidding it was very boring,” she laughed, “How was your day?”
“Well let’s see I watered rice, I planted rice, and I collected rice; the usual really.” Mai chuckled at my little joke as we made our way back to the village together.
The next day I woke up with a smile on my face. Sunday’s are my day off and I was about to enjoy it to the fullest. The sun was out in force as I stepped out of the house. I walked down the narrow path that doubled as our main road and looked for Mai at our usual meeting place next to a small waterfall in the middle of the jungle. Every Sunday we meet up at the same spot and just talk about things that are on our minds. It was sort of a secret place that few people knew about. I walked along the rough rocky path until I found the unnoticed turn off that led to the waterfall. I walked over pushing all broad leaves and vines out of my way. Today though Mai isn’t at our spot. Puzzled I sat down on the rock at the base of the waterfall letting the water crash down over my shoulders. I like sitting here since it feels as if all my worries and doubts are being washed away by the gentle force of the water. With my mind clear I took a deep breath and thought about where Mai could have gone. As I pondered over where she could be I see Bác Hoan walking down the path towards me.
“Ong Hoan!” I yelled, “What are you doing out in the Jungle?”
“ I thought you might be here. I’m doing the same thing as you ít Hien, I’m looking for my daughter, she hasn’t been seen in a awhile now and I am tired of her little tricks,” he sighed.
“Awhile? What do you mean Ong Hoan?” I asked.
“Mai did not return from her day with your uncle and aunt yesterday. I assumed she was with you, but here you are and I have still not seen Mai.” he sighed, “I believe that she is just playing another one of her practical jokes, but if you see her please tell me. I’m starting to get worried.”
“I understand Ong Hoan, I will try my best to find her.”
“ Thank you very much ít Hien,” Hoan said as he walked back towards the village, “I’m counting on you too bring her home safe.” I smiled and nodded as I stood up to head back home.
The next day I packed a small bag of food and clothes and headed back out into the jungle to look for Mai. I made sure that Bá Ngoại and Mẹ knew where I was since I didn’t wnat them to get worried. Then I set forth on my journey to find Mai. I traveled farther and farther away from My Lai looking for Mai in the deepest recesses of the forest. Several days passed as I searched every inch of the jungle. I didn’t return home during the search. Each night I would find some broad canopy leaves and create a makeshift mat for me to sleep on. I began to think that I may never find her when from out of the dark canopy I heard sobs coming from my right. I quickly sprinted over to see Mai looking ragged and distraught with her knees tucked into her chest crying softly next to a stream.
“Mai!” I yelled, “Where have you been? What’s wrong? Everyone is looking for you!” I shouted as I handed her some of my food. Mai just looked at the ground and shook her head back and forth refusing to acknowledge my presence. I looked at Mai and saw how terrified she was. Her eyes were bloodshot and she was shaking all over. She had started to look thin and unhealthy due to eating almost nothing for over four days. Something she had seen had caused her a great amount of pain, so I sat down next to her and waited for her to recover. I waited patiently as the rain began to pour through the trees hiding her tears. As night crept onwards, and it began to cool, I tried to stay awake until I could no longer keep my eyes open.
I woke up the next morning to Mai gently shaking my shoulder.
“Mai are you alright?” I asked groggily.
“I’m okay” she responded, “How long have I been out here.”
“About a six days.”
“Six days! Your birthday though! I had everything planned out for it! I’m so sorry Hien I didn’t realize I had been gone so long.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said as I stood up and brushed off my pants, “But why were you out here for so long?” As soon as I said it she looked down and seemed to lose her composure again.
We spent the next couple hours going over what had happened to her. On Sunday when she had set off for our meeting place she saw a armed soldier in the forest. It didn’t look like any of the Viet Cong troops who often came to our village to recruit people. No, it looked more like one of the Americans who had come to bomb Vietnam. Not many people in the village had seen the Americans yet so it was a special thing to actually see one. Mai followed after him to see if they could lend the village any supplies what with us being poor and all. Smartly she followed at a distance just to be safe and followed the soldier back to his camp. There she saw a group of Vietnamese women and children huddled in a tight group with soldiers surrounding them. Mai hesitated before telling me the next part, but as soon as the lone soldier returned he said something to the guards around the Vietnamese. They nodded and before anyone could do anything mowed down around twenty innocent civilians in cold blood.
After Mai finished telling the story she immediately broke down into a wave of tears and it took all I could do to comfort her. I helped her up and we started to walk slowly through the wilderness as day turned into night. Officially it was now my birthday and I had turned 16, but there was little time to dwell on it. I had to get Mai back to the village so her parents could take care of her injuries. Thankfully to get back it didn’t take us the multiple days it had taken me to get here since we could walk straight back. After almost four hours I finally saw the village in the distance, but as we approached I saw flames shoot up into the sky and screams filled the air.
Mai and I immediately ran for the village as fast as we could. We were still a ways off but I could tell the situation was getting worse. As I ran over the hill on the villages south side I saw a terrifying sight. Everything was burned to the ground as soldiers carrying torches set fire to everything. Others were indiscriminately shooting everyone with smiles on their faces. It was inhumane that the soldiers seemed to do these horrid acts without hesitation. Why would they attack a simple farming village like us? Blood seepd into the ground creating puddles of dark red water as it mixed with the fallen rain. Mai fell to her knees next to me with her head in her hands.
“Not again,” she murmured. I knew I couldn’t just stand there so I broke off at a sprint making sure to avoid being spotted. I needed to find Bá Ngoại and Mẹ as soon as possible. They were my only remaining family and I couldn’t afford to lose them. As I circled around to the north side of My Lai I saw them on their knees lined up with the other women and children just as Mai had described before.
“No!” I screamed as the soldiers raised their guns, but I was too late. My cries were drowned out by the sound of gunfire as my family and friends were slaughtered like pigs. Shocked I stood there unmoving; it was as if everything around me just fell silent. Seconds turned into years and I could no longer breath as the tears fell down my face. How could this have happened? Mai yanked at my shirt begging me to move.
“We have to leave Hien!” she cried, “Please! Let’s go I won’t leave without you!”
I let Mai drag me by my collar since I was still too stunned to move. I knew that if I didn’t get up we would be caught, but I didn’t care. What was the point? They would kill us eventually anyways. As we made our way farther and farther away all I saw was the bright columns of flame as our village burned down. Screams hit the air as we abandoned our friends, neighbors, and families.
Mai stopped suddenly and as my head hit the ground hard. Suddenly, it occurred to me that Mai had also just lost HER parents, and HER friends. Yet she had the strength to drag me along out of harm's way. I clenched my fist in anger as I stood up. I wouldn’t let Mai suffer for me anymore I needed to be strong; I needed to be brave. As I turned around to help Mai get back up I saw the reason she had stopped. A lone soldier stood in front of us rifle in hand.
“Please! Let us go!” begged Mai to the soldier but he walked up to us as if we had said nothing. Before I could do a thing the soldier pulled out his pistol and struck Mai across the face knocking her to the ground.
Blood rushed into my face as my anger overtook my shock from before. I had lost my father to the war, my mother and grandmother to the soldiers, I wasn’t about to lose Mai, my only friend and companion left, to these monsters. I stood up and rushed at the soldier with all the force I could muster, but before I had taken more than a step a flash of pain erupted on my thigh. I tumbled to the ground as I lost all ability to move my leg. I looked down and saw a hole the size of a quarter in my leg. The searing pain flowed throughout my body sending me into a sense of immense pain. My vision blurred and the blood in my head pounded violently. I could sense the soldier coming closer and closer. As he stepped next to me I resigned myself to the unfortunate truth. I couldn’t save my family or my best friend how was I supposed to save myself? I closed my eyes and waited for it to all be over.
That moment never came. I opened my eyes and saw the soldier who had caused me so much pain lying down on the ground unconscious. I looked around me to see what had happened and saw another soldier standing next to Mai treating her wounds.
“Get away from her!” I yelled. The man looked around towards me and smiled.
“Don’t worry I’m here to help,” he said in fluent Vietnamese, “I don’t like what they’re doing to your people any more than you do!”
“That’s a lie!” I scoffed, “You’re one of them! You’re just another one of those murderers!”
“I know how you feel but you have to trust me on this one or else you’ll get caught and put down like the rest,” he said. I sat there panting heavily staring at the man who was like life and death for me. If I trusted him I could save Mai and myself, but it could just be a trick. The more I thought about it though I saw that rejecting his offer for help presented me with little to no benefit. Either way I would die whether it be alone in the forest or at the hands of this man.
“Có chí làm quan, có gan làm giàu (Fortune favors the brave),” he said with a sorrowful glance as he extended his hand out to me “I know you must hate me but you must be brave. I can get you out but we haven’t much time. We must go now.” Then as I looked into his eyes I saw the truth. This man was not even a man. He was a kid just a few years older than me, and I saw that in his eyes he was just as scared as me. Just as terrified at his actions as I was of him. He had clearly gone through so much to get to this very moment. How could someone so scared truly mean us any harm? I needed to hope that things would improve, and I needed to stay strong for Mai. So I relaxed my tense body, gathered all the bravery and determination I could muster, and I took his hand.
“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
Vietnamese Buddhist Monk