It is summertime and the children have just finished with school for one more year. Usually during this time the streets are crowded with happy toddlers and young men and women. However, on this particular day, fathers and mothers are hurrying their young ones home and are closing their doors quickly behind them. The highways are being abandoned by their everyday travelers—no unexpected wind disturbs the little creatures that are making their way across the streets.
My mother is already at the gate waiting for us when my brother and I leave our classrooms. Quickly, our mother leads us to the four-by-four white truck and drives us home. We go by the playground. No one is there. The swing sets aren’t being fought over and neither is the green wooden see-saw.
Our grandmother has prepared lunch for us when we enter the house. After eating my lunch, I run toward the front door, which is made out of carved cherry wood and glass. I quietly open the door, so I will not wake my mother from her nap, when my grandmother asks, “Bićh-Daò. Where are you going, hả cháu?”
“I’m going outside to play house, my grandmother.”
“Come over here and sit next to me. Don’t go outside today. Wait until grandmother says it’s alright to go.”
“But why isn’t it alright for me to go, Ngoai? I always play outside before I take my nap.”
“Not today my child, maybe tomorrow.”
We live in the air force base, on the other side of my father’s office. All the houses are connected together in groups of four, and are lined up straight and are rigid like my father’s men lined up in front of him. Our father’s base sits to the left of our complex and the ocean lies to the right of us.
In our house we have everything—cherrywood sofas, sliding door, television set and a gigantic stereo system. There are several different kinds of beds in our one big bedroom. We have box springs and mattresses, cherrywood beds and two ordinary wooden beds with panels going across from one side to the next. We have to put fine woven bamboo mats on them to sleep. But recently, we are not sleeping on any of these beds, we are sleeping under them. Each afternoon our grandmother pushes us beneath these beds to take our afternoon naps. Then, when evening come around, our grandmother as well as our mother squeeze in with us to sleep. My father is hardly ever home. Whenever the sirens go off, he will put on his gun and disappear down the soulless highway.
One morning we are all awakened by an explosion not too far from us. Then another explosion comes, then another and another. The noise it makes sounds like the noise I hear on war movies. However, this noise makes me crawl closer to my brothers and hold very tight to the wooden leg of the bed. I hold on so tight that water is dripping down my elbows. I usually sweat an awful lot when I’m scared.
The noise seems to be coming from the beach. My grandmother and mother pile all the mattresses upon the wooden beds and cover all the openings with blankets. So we are lying in total darkness beneath this overloaded camel. Each time we hear the missiles sail past, we can hear a sigh of relief from our grandmother. Once in awhile, there is total silence. The silence is even more deafening than the sound of the explosion itself. Then the explosion continues, along with two different sounds of machine guns. We lie where we are waiting, then wait, and wait. The explosions and the firings stop, and again we are in silence. Suddenly the telephone rings, making my mother jerk forward, freeing herself from her frozen pose. As my mother makes her way to the familiar sound, the babies cry and cry. She answers and hangs up quickly.
“Mấy đủa con, come out quickly and put your shoes on.” Slowly we come and get out our shoes from the black cabinet. My grandmother ties our shoe strings for us, while my mother gathers up some of our clothing and puts it in our father’s dark blue military valise, with his initials engraved on the plastic handle. Then our grandmother goes to the kitchen and gets milk for the babies. There are two of them—my one-and-a-half-year-old brother, and my one-year-old sister. My mother puts warm clothing on them now. Then our elders lead us out to the cement porch. Looking out to the deserted and the barren streets, we see no souls, except for the dust and the nauseating smell of gas from the exploded missiles. There is a familiar pickup truck coming down the potholed blacktop at a very fast speed. It is my father. He stops and quickly jumps out. My father helps my grandmother, mother, and the babies into the truck first. Then he comes back carrying us two at a time and places us in the back. He makes his final trip to get the valise and to close the two light blue, heavy wooden doors of the house.Those doors are only closed when we are going to be away for a long time. Usually I know where we are going whenever my father closes those doors, but this time I don’t. I turn to my grandmother who is sitting next to me and ask, “Bà Ngoai, why did my father close those doors? Where are we going, my grandmother?”
“Hush, my child.”
“My father did not tell me that we are going anywhere. Why did he close those doors?”
“Be quiet, little one, and don’t ask any more questions,” she says gently. My father takes us into his base and we are traveling on the runway and are heading toward a helicopter. The helicopter is waiting for us. We stop and the men from within jump out and carry us quickly into this machine. When we are all secure my father touches my mother’s hand and he closes the heavy helicopter doors.
“My father, my father! Aren’t you coming with us?”
It is too late. My father cannot hear me. The doors are already shut. He is running toward his truck. I cry and cry, making the babies cry too. As my grandmother soothes me, I fall asleep.
Suddenly I hear sirens, and people are talking and yelling. The sirens have awakened me from my sleep, but where am I? There are strange faces hovering over me. One of them is wearing the same kind of outfit that my father had on this afternoon. Or was it yesterday? He bends down and carries me to the greyish truck. The truck takes us along the dirt roads, then makes its way through the overcrowded and confused streets. It is extremely dark when we finally stop outside the wooden gate of an oblong brick house with a red-tiled rooftop and stone-layered pathways. This is our other grandmother’s house, in Saigon. I see a round figure approach from the house as my mother calls, “My mother, my mother, open the gate. It is I.” We go into the house and in the confusion I fall asleep again.
We stay at our grandmother’s house for two weeks. Then one afternoon my father comes home and says to my mother, “We have to go. They have taken Nha-Trang.” That evening our grandmothers get us ready and we wait for my father to come take us somewhere. When my father arrives, the luggage is placed into the taxi and I am supposed to carry the bright yellow bag that has black Chinese characters written on it.
“Carry this for your mother,” my grandmother tells me. “It is heavy and your mother can’t carry too many things. Remember to help your mother with the babies so she won’t get too tired, alright little one?”
I nod my eight-year-old head slowly and say, “Yes my grandmother.” She then hurries me toward the taxi and says goodbye. The taxi takes us to another airport. No, it isn’t an airport, but another air force base. When we arrive, my father takes us into one of his offices. This office only has one door to enter and to exit by. It has no windows and it is filled with chairs and desks that are missing legs and armrests. In a corner there is a greenish bunk, which my mother has set the babies upon. My father disappears into the darkness as soon as we are inside. There is no room to move about, so we just sit there waiting.
“My mother, I am hot,” I complain. With the folded-up newspaper, she turns and fans me a little, then continues to fan the restless little beings beside her. No one says a word and no one makes a sound. Small drops of water bead on our foreheads and then slowly drip down our worn out faces. Throughout the evening, no one can sleep. We sit there trying to peel our clothes off from our skins, and trying to clock out the shrieking sound of the sirens from our ears.
Early the next morning, my father comes to take us away again. We come to a place that is filled with hundreds and thousands of people. People are standing outside the barbed-wire fence trying to get in, while the people within huddle closely together. The guards let us enter through a small gate and we, too, huddle close together at one corner. I carry the yellow bag with white cotton thread braided together to form handles, on my shoulder. It is so heavy at times that I have to use both hands to transfer it from one shoulder to another.
“Take care of yourself and the children for me. I can’t come with you now, but soon we’ll be together,” my father says to his wife.
Suddenly my fourth-youngest brother Huy bursts into tears. There is no sounds coming from his mouth, but tears constantly flow down his cheeks. The summer heat comes down upon his straight black hair, creating a glare upon his big round head. His brownish face is no longer brown, but red. The sweat that comes from his face is mixed with the teardrops that fall from his deep-set almond eyes. As my father begins to walk towards the gate, my brother runs toward him. With his chubby brownish hands, he holds fast onto my father’s dark blue uniform.
“Huy doesn’t want to go. Huy wants to go with my father!” he screams from his lungs.
My father gently picks up his determined son and carries him over to where my mother and the rest of us are. He kisses my brother’s wet cheek and continues toward the gate once more. He turns and looks at us for one last time, while my brother continues to sob and sob. My father is separated from my mother and the rest of us by that greyish fence. My mother runs toward the fence and they touch hands through the triangular holes, then he turns and disappears once again in the crowd. My mother then absent-mindedly, slowly, gathers up her six babies together in one place so we will not get lost or get trampled upon when the airplanes come.
“Bićh-Daò. Come over here by mother and put the yellow bag next to mother.”
I slowly come over and say, “Má ỏi, con have lost the yellow bag.”
I say those words with tears in my eyes and a trembling in my voice, not knowing how my mother would react to the situation. However, my mother only says in a small tone, “It is only milk for my children. It’s only milk.”
As my tears begin to travel down their paths, my mother smooths my hot black head with her white hand and says, “We will have to find milk for your brother and sister soon, little one.”
Bićh-Daò Khuu was an undergraduate student at George Mason at the time of publication.