As told through the lips of Nước Hoa.
I stood angry. I entered the waters of the Xepon in a wild and arrogant gait. Meiet, the tallest of all the village teenage girls, quieted my sloppy entry with a stare. It did not register with my tortured mind her appearance. She stood in the river up to her knees. Long braids on each side of her head remained tight, twirling around her hips as she scanned the river surface and the tree line. This behavior was not unusual, but the purple sarong cinched tight on her waist was inappropriate. She was promised to the son of a neighboring village chieftain. Her body no longer belonged to nature, but her future husband. Yet, her style of dress at the shoreline was inappropriate. Why was she covered in front of women and children?
The men of the village were guarding against the marauding spirits that were attacking several villages. The spirits covered with clothing, carrying weapons of great power, kidnapped many children from helpless villages located around Ai Lao Pass. This was not the case with our encampment. The lodges were strong. Our Chiefs sat in the middle surrounded by eight smaller, but still foreboding long houses. Other homes rimmed the central encampment. We were strong.
Bamboo columns held the sturdy grass paneled structure several feet off the ground. Wind, water, or even evil spirits from the dark realm of emptiness could not penetrate our defenses.
She should have been nude as the rest of us. But who was I to argue with her? I was happy she turned her gaze as my behavior improved. A betrothed teen handed me a toddler. With an annoyed expression, I began the loathsome task of washing another’s infant. I wanted my own.
My mother sent me to the shore to help with the bathing of the children. To me it was penance for too many tantrums and too much sobbing. The sun was setting. This seemed an unusual time to do this. But again, I lost the desire to ask or make a fuss. Only minutes before, my father and older brother left the two females of the family yelling and crying. Me crying, my mother yelling.
It was all due to my refusal to act my age. My friend Blata was promised to someone. She entered womanhood the moon before. Her dripping blood signaled a time of maturity and respect. I wanted that. Refusing to be treated as a child, I put my mother’s sarong around my waist, ripping the loincloth from my body. Men and boys, not a grown woman, wore this garment. Young immature girls would stroll with this cover. I am almost a woman, two months older than Blata. This garment is no longer for me. I should be treated as I deserved.
Why be so treated? This is a punishment, due to my body’s inability to bleed. No one could tell me different. My mother’s disgust at the gesture led to the tirade of emotions and my father and brother’s escape.
As the sun began to set, a beautiful array of white light danced on the surface of the Xepon. Mesmerized by the sight, I found myself alone as the mild waves lapped at my hips. At the shoreline stood beautiful Meiet, the majestic young woman whispered something to the crippled daughter of my father’s friend. Ngit was cute of face, but limped due to a shortened left leg. Meiet’s whisper brought a giggle to the oft-pained girl. I observed more after handing the infant to an older girl, and returning to the water. My workday was done.
The striking young woman talked to this lame girl as any friend would. I marveled at the beauty that stood a head above the others. Her authority did not come from height or age. This eldest at the shore possessed a spirit that was for all to see. Though wrapped tight with cloth, stunning braids showed the sparkle that such hair gives off when damp. Breasts pointed as if held up by string. I envied such beauty. I hated such beauty.
Moving toward the shore, I froze at the sight.
Meiet pushed the lame Ngit to the ground, while whipping her sarong into the air. As the garment fluttered its way to the sand, a glint from her hand caused my stumble backward. The blade was hidden in the waistband of her skirt. Now I knew why it was worn. The young guardian looked with intent never seen by my eyes. The other young women, including Blata, stopped any movement, their sarongs already circling their waists.
I fell to my knees due to the clumsy reaction. The water rose to my lips. Attempting to stand, I saw Meiet raise the hand with the blade. She slid the other arm around her stomach, an extended finger pointing to her rear. The path to the village her target. At no time did her gaze lose sight of the jungle.
My father lived as a hunter, or to be more specific, a tracker for the parties that roam the forest for our daily meals. Many times regaling stories of brilliant maneuvers to catch the wild boar and deer that roam our land, he would talk of the silence of the jungle. This seemed strange. The jungle being a cauldron of noise. Sounds of birds, screeching monkeys, and the occasional bellowing of a tiger all joined in the familiar chorus. How could the jungle be silent? The never-ending drone of bugs hummed through the air giving the other lyrical bursts a bass line to follow.
Now, I thought my ears blocked. Silence became so intense my head rang from the muted air. Around me little ripples of water increased as I trembled with fear. Something is going to happen. Something did.
Meiet screamed for the others to run. Her stance remained fixed. With the rising moon’s light I could see the evil spirits that wore clothes.
Another approached Meiet but stopped by the fierceness of her stare, she looked magnificent.
They were the Vietnamese, the people from the east. They came for slaves. Failure after failure to capture our men, costing many the life of a Viet caused enterprising traders to concentrate on children. The girls were to be given to the Court of their Emperor as concubines. Those that did not please the royal selection committee would be sold at auction. The boys would be castrated and given to the Royal House. Eunuchs were prized as potential gifts for the Chinese Emperor.
Screams continued as the evils spirits grabbed the children. Blata stumbled in her attempt at a quick movement. She fell to the ground, only to be pulled up by her hair and thrust into a circle of vine. In a flash, three of the girls were also connected as prisoners held submissively by this long leash.
None of the group at the shore escaped. But the deed would not come without a price. In my preoccupation with the speed of the capture, I did not see Meiet and her blade.
A Viet lay at her feet. Standing with no loss of pride, the nude girl spit at the body of the Viet she had slain. Another approached Meiet but stopped by the fierceness of her stare, she looked magnificent. From the water I saw the leer aimed at her beauty. Would he be willing to pay the price for such pleasure?
All through this standoff, muffled screams from Ngit serenaded the attack. The men realized she could never make the trip to Huế, the Imperial City. They decided to enjoy her fruits on the beach. I saw one man on top of her, then replaced by another. It looked as if a line was forming behind her bobbing head. Her screams muted by a monstrous hand.
The other teenager fumbled with her weapon, also hid in a sarong. It spun from her trembling hand, wilting on the sand. They motioned to Meiet to put down the crimson blade still dripping from its taste of Viet flesh. Her friend whose name I did not know found her knees thrust to the ground as the Viets kept her in a kneeling position. The Viets showed fear of Meiet. Not one would approach her. They wanted this female warrior; as to me she will always be remembered as such, to surrender. She would fetch a good price. Though I could see the other men, as now I knew these were no spirits, possessed the look of a predator eyeing their next meal.
The other teen resigned to her fate remained silent. A kick to her breasts crumpled her further. A Viet with a long blade held it over the semi-conscious young woman. It was obvious; Meiet’s continued fight would lead to her beheading.
It is here where I understood a statement made by my mother.
My father told her, as he looked at the results of another tantrum. “This devil would drive the evil spirits crazy, should they have the misfortune to capture her.”
My mother’s quick response, “Do not joke of such things.” She looked at me with eyes ready to water. “I will slit her throat and then mine before such a thing occurs.”
Meiet held the same opinion. Or so her actions would show. In a move worthy of our noblest warrior she put the knife to her neck, calling to the heavens as the blade sliced through her skin. From my watery seat, I saw her once coconut milk-like skin covered in a tide of blood. Her breasts, that I envied, drenched in seconds.
In disgust, the Viet brought the gleaming blade down on the other teenager. A smack greeted the cheek of the executioner, this being a poor business decision. His leader reacted with another slap. The teenage friend of Meiet squirmed as her head rolled a few inches.
Finally, the cries of Ngit ended. My body felt as if a shrinking of my skin began to take place. I feared the trembling would cause the Viets to notice the stirring at the surface. It was a needless worry. The water became alive with those too young to walk the distance to their Emperor’s Palace. Two infants were flung into the surf as I once saw boys of our village fling rocks into the Xepon, their splashes too far from me to aid. I felt gratitude for this fact. I knew due to my cowardice, my legs would not budge. Amid this scene, I spat at my own soul, for should an infant land by my side, my reaction would be the same.
Hideous laughter circled the beach as the eldest of the young boys, a soft faced eight-year old violated by the fat Viet with long hair, cried out in a wail of pain. Future eunuchs, unlike concubines, fetched the same price, pure or spoiled. An aroma of horror coupled with the sobbing of the captured hung about my head. The only smell worse was my shame at a girl’s cowardice.
I hoped for my father and the other men to save the children. To save me. Though, I knew that would not be. My mother sent me to the river, not for punishment, but for protection. The elders expected an attack from the direction of Ai Lao Pass. They were tricked into believing that. The Viets appeared smarter than the Bru.
There I stayed, a lone survivor of this horrific attack. As the last of the Viets walked, following the neck-bound captives into the jungle, I cursed myself. My shame was of such a magnitude, I thought of wading to the shore and using the knife of Meiet to rip my neck open. Then, as a catfish brushed my leg, I remembered my mother’s expression as she told my father of her zeal.
I would follow the children till I could get close enough to free them, or as my mother would prefer, cut all their throats. It was the only thing that could wash away my shame.
Entrance into the jungle was not without fear. I was Bru, and though schooled in girlish necessities needed for my advance into womanhood, I knew a trail. This fact did not quell the uncertain feeling racing through my body. Holding one blade, I brushed the other hidden in the sarong of Meiet. Walking one foot over the other, I marveled at how well I cut the bottom of the skirt till it fit me as the woman I was. The moonlight pierced through the canopy of the jungle just long enough to show me the clustered tracks of the Vietnamese. Their sandals left scarred marks in the soft jungle bottom. How weak they must be? Being stalked by a woman of the Bru.
My older brother Renko could track a boar, mother, and her piglets before the ninth year of his life. My father took him on the hunt as soon as he could walk. Or so it was told to me. While the boy learned the skill of bow and knife throwing, my hands were used for washing babies and preparing dinner. My mother would take little strolls into the jungle, showing me the area where guavas, pineapple, and mango grow in abundance. As I would reach for my favorite, the slightly toothed leaves of peppermint herbs that would explode with coolness in my mouth, she would explain the importance of using the gifts of the land to liven up a boring meal. Mother would laugh at the thought of my father’s face, when his excitement would show due to the right amount of basil or dill added to a too tough meat.
I recalled words from my father as he tried to end another of my tantrums. I wanted to know how to read the sky, as he was teaching Renko. My father pulled me to his lap and pointed to the big star and told me where it would be as the night would become day. He whispered that I was his child. The blood of a tracker flowed through my veins. I needn’t worry about such things. My mother would just yell that I was lazy, and would never get a husband.
I never believed what he whispered to me, but now I did. Their trail became a mural that grew larger with each few step. I knew the blood in me. I knew I was my father’s child.
Thump! Thoughts of destiny and greatness shot from me into the darkness of the jungle. The quick tumble showed a lack of agility. The fright at the unexpected obstacle brought my eyes close to tears. Shamed again, as at the water’s edge. I was afraid.
Looking at what I thought was the moist bark of a rotted log my heart skipped a beat. It was the soft-faced boy violated by the fat Viet with long hair. Naked, the boy looked ready to float away on the river of blood that surrounded the bloated body. The tortured face of the boy did not bring the horror I expected. I knelt in the blood of the child. The poor boy must have been too injured to make the trip to slavery; his neck was sliced open. I swore the vengeance needed to wash away the shame of the fat Viet’s act; my muscles grew with the desire fostered by the hunt. My soft stomach hardened as my muscular brother’s, my vow complete. Hate grew in my eyes, as I felt them strain. The bitterness at my cowardice as the babies scrambled for breath a few feet from my safe watery seat turned to anger. My father and the men were nowhere in sight. I heard not a branch stir, hoping for the glimpse of one of my tribe. The decision became my pledge to the spirits of the jungle. I would free the children, or die trying. The sarong was soaked with the blood of the soft-faced boy. My bath of death brought me power. I would kill until all were free. Or all were dead. I advanced.
The Vietnamese were fearful of the jungle. They turned toward the beach, a safe route to the beaten path that would lead to freedom. The fools did not know of their folly. The Bru could easily overtake them. The beach offered no obstacle.
And we feared them as evil spirits?
The group stopped at the tree line. I almost walked into their camp, as they argued and looked everywhere. Their fear was consuming them.
Moving back into the heavy flora of the forest, I sat with full view of the cluster. I needed only to wait. Our men must have discovered the treachery at the water’s edge. I need only sit and wait.
Time passed and I felt my eyes grow heavy. No doubt the blunder of camping at the beach would lead to their undoing. The noise and wail of the children alerted me to the difference.
A boat was in the distance. I could see the cloth that caught the wind. The breezes would bring it close to shore, and my captured people to slavery. Grabbing the naked children, the Viets forced the captives into the river. I did not know what to do.
The wailing prisoners were standing in knee high water. The boat approached, the rushing tide tossing it in the air. That part of the Xepon grew sand bars and collected, rotted tree trunks of the pine that littered the shoreline. I still waited for a plan. Though I knew what must be done.
Standing, I knew I looked as majestic as Meiet when she halted the Viets with a stare. My steps began. I intended to attack, and then it happened.
I whipped the sarong from me and held the two blades as I have seen men do when they practice killing blows.
Deep breaths fortified my resolve. I would run to the water and kill as many of the children as possible. It was the only way to save them.
“No!” My scream tore at my mind. The shame is already too great for I will free all their bodies from the future the Viet’s planned. Then, as a woman, I will join them in paradise. My father and the rest of the Bru men will do the rest.
Standing, I knew I looked as majestic as Meiet when she halted the Viets with a stare. My steps began. I intended to attack, and then it happened.
The fat Viet, finishing an argument with the leader threw a pouch that jingled as it was caught. The man looked the opposite of the sweaty blob, slim with short hair; he waved the fat Viet toward the jungle. Blata followed him by her gripped hair. She did not need to stand as she bounced upon the sand, accompanied by hearty laughter from the other Viets.
My eyes widened as the fat one moved past me deeper into the jungle. Blata looked resigned to her fate. Her movements were non-existent.
Scanning the area, he used a free hand to move the vines that blocked the path. A smile appeared as he saw the rotted tree trunk flat to the ground. Throwing Blata toward the clear area to its front, the fat Viet ripped his pants from his body. The laughter was as a roaring tiger. Though I feel this man possessed none of the spirit or character of the beast. The obnoxious and sinister chuckles covered my movements. I was to his back and delighted in what I saw. His vulnerability was increasing. Standing with legs spread, he picked up my friend. I then decided she was my friend, no matter how her body bled, or the size of her breasts. Throwing Blata over the trunk, he moved over the lifeless body. As so did I. I wanted to thank him for the laughter and belches of noise that allowed me to get even closer. I was behind him, he never knew. As a bloated hand grabbed the part of him that so humiliated the soft-faced boy, my arm moved backward. Bending over Blata, my friend, he gave off a deep moan. I could see the sides of his belly shake. I took a breath, inhaling a foul odor from his body. Before his entrance into her, my blade entered him.
The scream woke the sleeping animals of the jungle. A family of spotted monkeys awakened by the screeching cries flooded the area to our front. It was his last vision before death. Blata revived by the howling cry looked at the shimmering blubber of the half-naked man. His fall to the floor caused a rumble at our feet, Meiet’s blade sticking from his scrotum.
“Quickly girl!” I grabbed the stunned friend and took her by the shoulder as an adult woman might. The men on the beach would be upon us. We ran until the pine trees and thorny vines and rotted dead vegetation all looked the same.
It was impossible, but it was also true. My ignorance led us back to the beach.
The hands of men grabbed us. I am now a captive. The shame I hoped to purge from my soul, would be tripled. I lunged with the other blade, hoping to slice my throat on the blades return. A monstrous hand ripped it from me. I began to cry. I wanted to die.
I wanted my mommy.
Dragged to the sand, the grips of the men were not hurtful. Blata realized, and with no resistance, she would be let go. Hair in front of my face covered my vision. I could only look down; my shame too heavy to hold.
On the ground laid the leader of the Viets. His eyes wide open. But where was his body? Using both hands, I cleared the wild mop of hair from my eyes. The children were free, and crying. The joyful cry of innocence restored. Before me stood my father, holding the blood soaked sarong. Beside him stood my brother, a Viet’s head atop his spear.
The men used my trail to lead them to the Viets. The two that piloted the boat were taken at the shore. Their misfortune being taken alive, a condition that would last for two days.
Seeing my father brought my emotions to a swell. I ran the short distance to his arms and buried my head and body into his grasp. My crying matched or surpassed any that the captives endured. Hands pulled me upward as my father hoisted me to his chest, and then the air above his head. I looked down; frightened as the coward I am, not noticing the smile on my oft-serious father’s face. The men yelled in chants. The chants reserved for warriors. I did not want to hear anything. The sand shook as the men jumped and smacked the ground with their weapons. My hysteria did not ebb, as my father spun me in the air, beaming with pride. What pride could I be? A naked child acting the infant she was.
The screaming became united with one simple mantra. I saw my brother in a matching state of hysteria howling with the warriors of the tribe. My father’s voice was loudest of all. They repeated it over and over again.
YOU ARE A WOMAN! YOU ARE A WOMAN!
A month passed from that fateful night. Upon my return to my mother, not one second would be spent from her side. I often would cling to her bare breast as if a suckling child satisfied with nourishment. She relished my behavior and was with me at nature’s call. For a month to the day of my father’s proclamation, my body chose to act the part.
As I quaked with the preparation for motherhood, my clinging personality only continued. Stomachache and nausea spun about my head, along with the obvious colored discharge. Mother held me, and whispered in my ear. The tone of her words eased my body’s strain.
Her strokes continued as I rested at her chest. She whispered once more. You are a woman. My eyes closed knowing when I awoke, I would be so.
Joseph Allan’s tales profess one agenda. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Homebound as a child due to illness, loneliness liberated imagination. Poe’s influence runs through his work. Trained as a Counterintelligence Agent by the US Army, J Allan used his unusual mind’s eye developing strategies protecting Americans abroad. The only non-Vietnam Veteran in his airborne unit, he memorized accounts of special operations in Southeast Asia. Coupled with interviews of North Vietnamese veterans and Montagnards his expertise increased. He submitted a screenplay while in China, and a Vietnam War novel thought too controversial for publication.