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Birds in Formation

By Nguyen Ngoc Tu
Translated By Quan Manh Ha Joseph Babcock

Other Moons: Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and Its Aftermath, translated and edited by Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock, is out this week from Columbia University Press. In the story below, "Birds in Formation" by popular Vietnamese writer Nguyen Ngoc Tu, two cousins find their relationship upended by the discovery of their parents' roles in the Vietnam War.

It was a day in October, around noon, and we had both skipped our midday nap, like usual. Vinh was sitting on the branch of a tamarind tree in the front yard, chewing on an unripe mango and occasionally dropping the fruit’s skin on my head. His mouth was dripping with spit. This annoyed me, but I just smiled and didn’t say anything. If I retaliated, I would be falling directly into his trap. And besides, if we started fighting everybody would know that we had snuck outside instead of taking a nap, and we’d get yelled at.

Because I didn’t respond, Vinh eventually got bored and stopped trying to provoke me. We were both quiet. Sunlight pierced the leaves of the trees and created flecks of light around the yard. Every now and then, a breeze would blow some tamarind leaves to the ground, mixing them with the dog hair and the dirt and the flecks of light.

I was fourteen back then and had experienced countless boring early afternoons just like this one. We were at the age when we weren’t interested in taking a nap or running around and playing. If Grandma hadn’t begun to cry on that particular day in October, those lazy midday lulls would have slipped my mind and I wouldn’t be saddened, as I am still to this day, whenever I come across a similar scene in our languid front yard flecked by the midday sun.

At first, when I heard the soft sobbing, I thought it was coming from Vinh and looked up at the tree. But his eyes were wide and he was staring back down at me.

“It’s Grandma,” he said.

“She’s crying,” I said.

Then we started calling for the adults: “Grandma is crying! Dad, Grandma is crying!”

Soon everyone was awake and had surrounded Grandma. She was still in bed. She’d probably just woken up from her nap.

“Mom,” my father said. “Why are you crying? Are you in pain?”

Grandma shook her head and continued to cry. As soon as she wiped away her tears, more ran down her cheeks. We tried to comfort her, but it wasn’t working. We looked at one another wondering, Who made Grandma cry? Then suddenly she stopped crying for a moment and took my father’s hand.

“Why did you shoot my son Ut Hon?” she asked softly.

Much later in my life, after I had experienced various ups and downs, I would still swear that no words caused me more distress than my grandmother’s question that day. Everyone standing around the bed was still, except for my father, who stumbled backward as if an arrow had pierced his heart. “Mom!” “You shot and killed my son Ut Hon.” But Grandma kept repeating these words, which just made my father suffer even more, as if an arrow were being twisted deeper into his chest. Sometimes I cried to myself, because I felt like my father was slowly dying. Meanwhile, my mother knew nothing; she was too busy with her stall at the market. When she came home in the afternoons, she seemed surprised to find that Grandma refused to eat with us, turning her back to the table as she held her bowl and unhappily swallowed her food. She ate only what Vinh put in her bowl. Elderly people could act as stubborn and irrational as children sometimes.

Her behavior upset my father. A lot of times he would put his chopsticks down without finishing the meal. It was as if he were still bleeding from the wound caused by his mother’s harsh words. He stared at her back, trying to understand. Had she seen something in a dream? Or was this merely behavior caused by dementia? Once she’d watered the vegetables we had stored in the refrigerator and planted some weeds in a water pitcher. Another time she’d looked around the table at all of us and asked, “Who are you? Why do you call me ‘Grandma’?”

If Grandma had acted strange—if, for example, she’d climbed up a tree and started to sing or burned her clothes to heat a pot of water—I would not laugh, because what she did would not seem unusual. But her sobbing that day in October was unusual. She cried because of a war that had ended long ago. The war was over, and the wounds it had caused were now healed scars. At least that’s what we thought, because when Vinh and I shot each other with water guns Grandma laughed until tears ran down her face. It wasn’t until that day in October that I realized maybe she was actually crying out of sadness. Her tears were for the war in which my father and Uncle Ut Hon, Vinh’s father, had fought on opposite sides.

“Vinh and I were the next generation. We could continue that brotherhood and hopefully make it into something more positive.”

It was difficult to understand Grandma. Some mornings she would act normal, as if nothing had ever happened. She woke up early, walked to the dining table, and ate a bowl of instant noodles that my mother had prepared before she left for the market. Meanwhile, my father still looked haggard. Grandma would ask, “You couldn’t sleep? Why do you look so sad? Why are you staring at me like that?” But my father wouldn’t say anything. Had Grandma already forgotten what had happened, or was she just trying to suppress her sadness?

Maybe her crying had been some sort of delirious episode, like when a drunken husband comes home and says to his wife, “My darling Diem!” even though his wife’s name isn’t Diem, and Diem probably isn’t even a real person, just some fictional character in a film or a novel. But of course the wife becomes furious anyway.

Or like when Vinh used to point up at the sky and shout, “Look at those birds!” when really there wasn’t anything in the sky, and I’d realize that he was trying to trick me again.

What Grandma had said to my father was cruel. Besides, the accusation didn’t even make much sense. My father had been stationed in Saigon and Uncle Ut had been killed in a remote forest somewhere, far away from the city. My father didn’t believe that he had shot Uncle Ut. But he still had to dig deep into his memory to be sure; there was a small possibility that his younger brother in fact might have once faced him in combat.

This thought ate away at my father. He wasn’t able to live his life in the present. But we all tried to continue like everything was normal, even Grandma. Two months after the day she’d suddenly started crying, she was found sitting in the front yard stitching a pair of shirts. If somebody asked, “Who are you going to give those shirts to?” she would smile and respond, “To my grandchildren, Hien and Vinh.” But the shirts were only about as big as an open palm.

To Grandma, time was malleable. She couldn’t help mixing the present with the past. After a good sleep, she could wake up and suddenly be transported twenty years back in time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t old enough to do that. Otherwise, this ability would have allowed me to forget everything and live my life as it had been before that noonday lull in October. Before that was when my father had been a happy man, always smiling and being affectionate. He seemed always to remain calm, even when Vinh would start jumping up and down and teasing me like he wanted to box. Every morning, my father used to wake Vinh and me up and we’d run to a nearby park to kick a shuttlecock back and forth. That’s what our lives had been like. Then suddenly Grandma cried one day after a long nap . . .

Human emotions are too fragile.

Vinh also acted differently after what happened. His personality started to change. He became quiet and sullen and refused to look me straight in the eyes. When he slept, he turned away so his back was toward me, which made me feel uneasy. Although I was lying right next to him, I still felt like I missed him tremendously.

Vinh had originally joined my family when his mother remarried. My father had sat him down next to me and said, “This is your brother.” Vinh smiled, then rubbed his snot on my face as a greeting. Vinh was short and skinny, but he always won when we competed in snuggling up against Grandma’s breasts. When we were older and shared our own bed, he would jab me with his elbow every night before falling asleep. He’d always been a naughty kid. His bad behavior went beyond what my family could have anticipated. Some of his antics included throwing his piss-soaked pants into a pot of duck porridge that was cooking on the stove in the kitchen, forcing a cat to suck a rat’s nipple, and peeing into the fridge because he liked the feeling of the cold air on his penis.

Still, everyone in the family loved Vinh—they even pampered him, which made me sometimes want to cry with jealousy. To Grandma and Father, Vinh was just like Uncle Ut Hon, who had also been somewhat wild. When he was a kid, Uncle Ut used to scare the adults by chasing them with a piece of burning wood. And one time he poured hot water that had been used to boil a chicken into Grandma’s teapot. When he got older, he dropped out of school and got married. One night, he left his new wife out in the swamp all by herself just to prove a point that people can survive without basic necessities and still be cheerful.

Vinh was just like his father, unpredictable and impulsive. I knew that my mother didn’t love him, though. I had only seen her hug Vinh tightly one time, and I’d noticed that he had a kind of confused, lost look on his face, as if he could sense that the tight hug wasn’t really for him.

For my father, raising Vinh had been an interesting challenge, but of course he would never complain. He had always been Grandma’s obedient, passive son. He would sit wherever he was told to sit without asking why, and he’d always been very clean and neat, like a girl.

Whenever we played together, Vinh was always the leader, and he usually won all our games and competitions. I would be hurt but try to smile anyway. I knew that I still loved Vinh. I felt this most strongly when we honored the anniversary of Uncle Ut Hon’s death every year. Holding a bundle of incense, Vinh would turn around to ask my father, “Uncle Hai, what should I say in my prayer?”

“I’ve told you before,” my father would respond. “Say something like this: Today is the fifteenth of July of the lunar calendar. We respectfully invite you to come eat the food we’re offering you here.”

But Vinh stumbled over the words in his prayer. As he planted the incense in the cup of dry rice, his face looked sad and disappointed, and I knew exactly why. Every year he said his father’s name, but there was no reply.

”I wondered about how much she must have suffered, knowing that her two sons were fighting on opposite sides of the war.” 

On the day of Uncle Ut Hon’s death anniversary, Vinh’s mother would usually come for a visit. Sometimes Vinh made the mistake of calling her Auntie Ut, which is what I called her. Vinh would run around playing, and then when it was time for his mother to leave he’d just stand there with his hands on his hips watching her walk away. I could tell that he was standing like that to stop himself from collapsing with sadness.

I loved Vinh, and this pleased my father. My father and Uncle Ut Hon had lived together for twenty-three years, but their brotherhood had been characterized by emptiness and regret. Vinh and I were the next generation. We could continue that brotherhood and hopefully make it into something more positive. We could fill in the old painting with new colors. I was the slow, gullible one, while Vinh was smart and wild. As my father watched us playing, though, I noticed that his eyes usually looked sad.

My father was strict; I had to behave to keep him happy. I wasn’t allowed to make mistakes, even small ones. I had the sense that my father was trying to teach me something—something beyond school lessons, or how to act at home. But what was it exactly? I thought about this question a lot, even at a young age. When he started taking me with him to the weekly community meetings, I wasn’t sure why he wanted me to go. He rushed me through breakfast as if we were going to get there late, even though we were always the first ones to arrive and would end up just sitting there waiting patiently for everyone else. Father seemed serious during the meeting; he listened attentively while other people yelled and cursed and complained. We were always the last people to leave the meeting room, after we’d helped put away the chairs. On Independence Day and other national holidays, my father heeded the call from the community to hang the flag in front of our house. Again, I was sure he was trying to teach me something by doing this, but I didn’t know exactly what. There was also our strange next-door neighbor, an old man who every morning would brush his teeth and spit onto our porch. My father never said anything to the man, and I felt disappointed in him at first, though I realized that it was probably better to avoid confrontation. I know now that he was actually protecting me. It wasn’t until my school started the process of selecting outstanding students to be recognized by the city that I learned there was a stain in my father’s background: the fact that he’d fought for the South during the war. Somehow knowing this made me more comfortable. A collection of official certificates of recognition was nothing compared to the peace of mind I now felt knowing about this. But my father still seemed sad. . . .

He knew that sometimes we had to pay a huge price for a small mistake. Because of his experience, he’d always had a fear of separation. And I think he suffered from a crushing feeling of self-loathing, which one day might have consumed him, even if it hadn’t been for that lazy early afternoon in October.

People also can be punished for making no mistake at all. For example, Vinh turned his back on me because of a war in which neither of us had been involved. I caressed his hair because I wanted to look him straight in the eyes and hoped he’d turn around and say something like, “Stop it, Grandpa, or I’ll punch you in the face.”

But Vinh said nothing. Instead he pinned me to the ground, suffocating my chest with his knees. I struggled to free myself as I stared up into his dark eyes, which were spotted with small broken blood vessels.

“Vinh,” I said, trying to smile, my mouth all twisted and contorted. “Don’t play like that. We’re brothers.”

“Brothers . . .” Vinh repeated sarcastically. He laughed, then finally let me go. He walked away, still obviously agitated, as I lay there trying to catch my breath. My heart sank. I went down to the first floor and quietly watched Grandma as she slept. I wondered about how much she must have suffered, knowing that her two sons were fighting on opposite sides of the war. Was it any wonder that, with her unreliable memory, she had cried on that October day and still brought it up now, seemingly at random?

“My son Ut Hon waved at you cheerfully and jumped up and down saying, ‘Brother Hai! It’s me, Ut Hon!’ But you shot him anyway. I can see it very clearly. . . .”

Lazy early afternoons in October returned to our neighborhood. Nobody paid attention to the intricate flecks of light that danced on the ground of the front yard. At the market, which was never really crowded with customers, Mother was busy rearranging the racks of cigarettes she sold. Father wasn’t interested in flecks of sunlight. He sat quietly as he typed up a customer’s request for a land purchase. His face looked withered and his hands resembled pieces of dry bone. I knew he was tormented by the question, Did I really shoot my own brother? When Grandma took her nap now, her face usually wore a frown, and sometimes she’d moan quietly in her sleep. It seemed like her dreams were eating away at her life. Vinh and I still secretly skipped our noontime nap. In the yard, I climbed a tree and dropped dry branches on his head, hoping that he would take the bait and react, retaliate, and maybe rub his snot on my face or punch me and call me Grandpa. Then eventually we would smile at each other and everything would be back to normal.

Excerpted from Other Moons: Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and Its Aftermath, translated and edited by Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock. Copyright © 2020 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Published Aug 6, 2020   Copyright 2020 Nguyen Ngoc Tu

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