Tu was born sometime between 1940 and 1946. Exactly where in that time span is anybodies guess. Years don’t mean much in the Highlands. When to plant, when to harvest, when to expect a new calf, or baby, when to move the cattle to fresh pasture… that is important. Seasons? Oh, yeah! Years? Not so much.
Her father, uncles, grandfathers and neighbors all fought against the Japanese invaders to greater or lesser extents. Fortunately, their mountain valley enclave was well off of the beaten path and offered no strategic benefit or threat to the Japanese, so the village was, basically, unaware of the war, save for when the fighters returned to rest and replenish, bearing their wounded and fallen kin. The Vietnamese have spent a significant portion of their history repelling foreign invaders and mourning fallen kin… But they still speak Vietnamese, so you can do the math.
(Author’s cynical note: After the Japanese had been defeated, a young Ho Chi Minh entreated the West to allow his country to be self-governing because they had contributed significantly to the Japanese defeat by helping to tie up 9 Japanese Divisions in Indo-China. But Uncle Ho was to find out that he did not look like them and the French did, and after all the French had experience administering the resources of the region and they needed the wealth they might wrest from Viet Nam to repair their country after the war had so devastated France even though they had aligned themselves with the enemy; so… NO! Thus assuring a future carnage that would scar and stain generations of Vietnamese, French, Americans and others. But what do I know, I am just a dumb grunt.)
The village is small, nestled in what might be an extinct volcanic caldera. Mountains surround a lush, green valley dotted with 1 or 2 room wooden shacks or “hooches”. Natural aquifers feed streams of crystal clear, icy cold waters that run down the mountains. There are no paved roads. The nearest “town” is 23 KM over brutal trails suited only for cattle, ox carts, tracked vehicles and hardy walkers. There are no machines to turn the rice paddies or the farm plots. Hand forged, steel blades or plows of wood and black water buffalo or cows and hoes on bamboo shafts and back-breaking hours of repetitive motion inevitably, inexorably make the fields and paddies suitable for planting. Whole families, from grandparents to 7 and 8 year old children pitch in.
The people of the village are both Buddhist and Catholic. There is no discrimination. Every home has a shrine to their ancestors and icons of deities and rites that but for nomenclature, are almost identical. In fact, I have seen the same statues represent both the Virgin Mary and the Buddhist Goddess, Tara. Further, the villagers are of the Kor Tribe, one of 54 ethnic groups in tiny Viet Nam.
Tu is Buddhist. VERY Buddhist. Her reverence for LIFE is her life. She is a vegetarian and fish eater. She will not kill a chicken or even a snake that might come to visit. If her husband, Quy, wanted chicken, he had to dispatch the creature, himself.
The village is off the beaten path and has no discernible strategic value except to the inhabitants who for centuries have wrested a tenuous existence from the land with little more than a water buffalo, or a forlorn, very put upon cow, and a long sickle-like curved knife for hewing what needs hewing. Tu had never seen an electric light or an ice cube. Had never heard a telephone or a radio. Had never ridden in or on a motorized vehicle of any kind and could only gaze in awed ignorance at aircraft that chanced to overfly the village.
Years meant nothing. Seasons meant everything for they governed the planting and the harvesting, the birthing and the mating and the culling of the livestock, the coming of the rains and the start of the dry season. She could read the dates in the stars and walk across the mountains to her home guided by them. She was of the Earth and of The House of Buddha. Everything that she and her family and her tribe ate, other than rice, was on the twig, in the ground or walking around the village that morning. She would not see packaged food or footwear for over a decade and then, only because yet another war had come to her village.
Tu was ignorant of the world beyond her valley but not stupid. Her body of knowledge of the natural world around her, the hundreds, if not thousands, of medicinal plants, the weather, the animal life, ministering to the birthing, the sick, the injured and the dying was prodigious, easily equaling and quite probably surpassing, that of a Western engineer in sheer volume. Her body of intimate knowledge encompassed her entire known universe that she needed to survive on a daily basis.
As rice was a staple of her village, and most of Viet Nam, she was put to work in the rice fields at an early age. The back breaking labor of preparing the fields, flooding them, planting young shoots of rice in them, was exhausting. Then came the continuing chore of weeding out any plant that was not rice. Stoop labor. Bent over at the waist for hours on end, afraid to stand up lest the muscles protest and the pain shoots from spine to legs like hot lava flowing down a volcano. Dodging snakes. Day in and day out. Week in and week out. Year in and year out. Climb the mountain to tend cattle or work the coffee plants or tobacco or corn… etc etc ad nauseum. They don’t get used to it; they accept it. They did it. Every damned day until TET, the Lunar New Year when everything came to a screeching stop for a week or two.
This was the time that new clothes or tools or any small luxuries might be bought. This was the time when a gambling fever would grip many of the villagers and the around the clock card games would be held with men, women and children betting their years savings on the turn of a card.
Tu started working in the fields when she was 7. She was not as prized by her family as much as a son would be. Her family would invest in her then she would go to marry some man and go to work in his family’s fields while a son would marry and bring another pair of hands to the family and even children who, would in time, add more hands. Being a young girl in such an environment was hard. But Tu learned.
She learned when to plant and all manner of farming practices based on the conventional wisdom of generations of scraping out a living from the lush surroundings. Her mother, also, taught her native, natural medicine. Her mother was admired and just a little feared among the villagers because she possessed knowledge and knowledge is power. There is a feeling that it was not just the poultice or the salve that she prepared and applied that healed. In the back of their minds it was partly her inherent power or magic, if you will. What plant when pulverized and mixed with a bit of cow’s urine would relieve itchy rashes and which herbs, blended just so, would calm a pregnant woman’s stomach in the morning… so she could work the fields. She knew which of the innumerable herbs, fungi, leaves and berries would staunch a bleeding wound or calm a jumpy stomach or ease a labor pain or soothe a sore throat or stiffen the “resolve” of an old husband… or ease the passage of a dying neighbor. She could set a broken bone and stitch torn skin and apply a poultice to ease the sting. Yet, her words and her gentle touch were as much a balm as were her potions. Tu learned to treat cuts, which abounded during harvest as the long, curves knives that the farmers used flashed and slashed, not always exactly on target. These skills would later translate to dressing bullet and shrapnel wounds… and stumps of severed limbs.
She was a bright, young woman as far as the limited environment allowed and she dispensed advice and common sense as well as healing and was considered wise. She walked tall with a proud and firm step, barefoot over the hills and fields of her village.
Tu was a pretty, bright and loving girl and was trained, by her mother, as a mid-wife and an herbal, traditional healer and she quickly gained a reputation as a “Wise Woman”. Yet, her words and her gentle touch were as much a balm as were her potions.
The Japanese were defeated and left but the hated French sought to re-establish their dominion over their obscenely coined “French Indo-China” colonial empire. But there was a well armed combat experienced peasant force waiting and they administered an epic ass whipping on the French at Dien Bien Phu to the point that they threw up their hands in disgust and walked away. The politics of one Ho Chi Minh, as he chose to call himself, was an anathema to the United States of America who were embroiled in an ideological war with the Soviet Union, after whom Mr Minh modeled his political philosophy. Uncle Ho, like most Vietnamese, had no love and less use for the Chinese and Mao’s hard lined brand of pseudo-communism was at odds with Ho’s Stalinism. But all of this meant less than nothing to young Tu. She was tall and strong and comely for her tribe and she had attracted the eye of Quy, whose family had come to the mountains as fugitives from the French authorities in Da Nang, along with his 2 brothers a few years before. Their crimes are not spoken of to this day but the assumption is, they were political.
Quy was tall, almost 170 cm and strong, handsome and quick witted. He, quickly, fell into village life like he was born to it and he and Tu were joined in the traditional manner of the mountain folk by hosting a feast complete with fresh pig, chicken, many many vegetables and fruits and nuts, beer and the home-brew rice whiskey that doubled as paint remover and general anesthesia. A Buddhist monk was on hand to bless their union. They soon started a family. Then one day some men came to the village. They wore black pajamas. They carried AK-47 rifles and RPG-7 grenade launchers and bandoliers of ammunition and a few carried strange small black rifles called M-16’s. They explained that the villagers had a sacred duty to help Uncle Ho throw the new invaders, the Americans, back into the sea. They explained that these Americans were nothing but Mercenaries for the Hated French and should they prevail, the Hated French would return and, once again, have their boots on the throats of the Vietnamese people. The country had been divided with the French lackeys in the South, along with most of the rice fields and the Communists in the North. Arsenic or Cyanide…
The village was large in area but the few enclaves of local communes numbered around 200-300 souls, men, women and children, each. In the course of the Communists “indoctrination” talk, there was a thinly veiled threat that they take up arms or die. Thus, a severely undermanned regiment was formed and Quy was named an officer. Tu was assigned as a nurse, singer, courier/spy and on occasion, rifleman. They were armed with American M-16 rifles, stolen from a depot in Chu Lai, some said, with the help of a local black-marketeer who was married to an American Naval Commander… (Author’s Note: This is probably true. I met her. I still see her. I heard the story from her own lips. She is, probably, one of the toughest old bats that ever lived. I wouldn’t play Cribbage with her, much less Poker!)
When the Communist contingent left after the most rudimentary of weapons training, they left behind a few “Political Officers” who were in essence the thought police. There could be no discussion as to the efficacy of aligning with the North or the South. There would be no discussion of the hardships they were told, not asked, to endure. There could be no discussion except to extol the glories of Communism in general and Uncle Ho, in particular. The Political Officer had, what amounted to, life and death authority over their charges. A wrong word or an overheard whisper could mean one’s life. For what it was worth, an inordinate number of casualties suffered by the village regiment in combat were Political Officers. The Political Officer cadre of 20, initially, was reduced to 2 by wars end. That is 90% casualties while the villagers lost 12.6% of their numbers, not accounting for natural deaths and births. Interesting…
Thus it was that the village evolved a new normal. Work in the fields would continue and, occasionally, word would come down for the village regiment travel to Da Nang or Chu Lai or other nearby enclaves of the American or Army of the Republic of Viet Nam forces and ambush, sabotage and otherwise disrupt their operations. They were not trying to win a major battle but, rather, were as ants attacking a dog, annoying and costing time, men and money. And they were expendable.
Eventually, the Americans and ARVN figured out where this particular annoyance was coming from and attacked with small probes. Small to them. The village was attacked by a company of American Marines; sweating young men, carrying heavy packs, struggling to traverse the ring of mountains, the heat, the humidity, the stinging insects, the razor sharp thorns and blades of the jungle, the smell and the general strangeness of this foreign place.
The villagers knew they were coming long before the Marines knew they were close. Eight and nine year old children flitted through the dense bush, often only yards from the attackers, never seen and never heard. When the final assault did come the village was ready. Now, to be clear, the villagers preferred to slip into the dense jungle of the mountain and wait it out without confrontation but their Political Officers warned them that if they fought the Americans they MIGHT die while inflicting some damage but if the ran, they WOULD die!
The Marines saw a green rice field dotted with small wooden hooches. The villagers saw a company of black-booted foreigners, stomping through the fields that they had just planted with their back breaking labor. This was not just dirt and water and some plants; this was their lives, their sustenance, their homes, their LAND and their very souls. Forty villagers died in the fields that they had so recently plowed and planted along with 15 young Marines, so far from home in this hot, wet, green hell. The blood of friend and foe, alike, oozed and seeped into the hungry Earth, indiscriminately. Only men care who was on what side. To the Earth, the dead are but food. It gives and it takes.
Two Marines fell in a dense thicket and their bodies were not recovered until 43 years later, but that is another story. After the battle, the Marines did not plant a flag or build a fort. After the battle ended, they left and life continued but for the wailing of the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers of the fallen… on both sides of an ocean. Tu’s uncle found the two fallen Marines and he organized a funeral service and buried them where they fell as a local Buddhist Priest intoned a chant for the dead. The Marine commander declared it a great victory. The Political Officers declared it a glorious victory. The villagers cleaned up the mess.
The village proper was no longer safe for habitation. The villagers moved to the mountains and Quy and Tu and four young children found a cave to make home and life, again, assumed a facade of normalcy… until her life changed in a most sudden, violent and horrible way.
Quy was away with his unit somewhere near Da Nang. Tu had to travel down the mountain from her cave refuge to work the fields, leaving the children in the relative safety of their cave. One day it happened.
Whether it was an errant bomb from a passing airplane or a miscalculated artillery shell is not clear. But as Tu was working to weed around the young rice plants, the ground shook and the air roared with a mighty explosion. Tu was transfixed as a sick, deep, burning feeling swelled in her gut. She dropped her tools and turned to see a plume of smoke on the mountainside. The sick feeling only stunned her for a moment then she was moving. She ran through the rice fields, the mud sucking at her feet as if to say, “Tu, don’t go! Don’t go!! DON’T GO!!!”
She arrived at the place where the entrance to her cave had been. There was a smoking hole. Her four children were gone. Not just gone but obliterated. Aged from 6 years to 4 months, two boys and two girls… GONE as if they had never been. Their only mark was the scar on Tu’s soul and the black, burning hatred that began to fester in her heart. She did not even get the solace of preparing them for burial; of hearing the monks chant their death song; of offering up funerary goods of paper money and bright paper clothing for their after life. Gone, gone, gone…
From that day forth, until a day in 2010, it festered and grew and darkened what had been such a bright and light spirit. Now it was personal. The demon named HATE clawed at her soul; sunk its fangs in so the pain of this moment would never be assuaged or forgotten. This should have been an easy conquest for Hate but Tu was mourning her children and had not time or energy to listen to Hate. But Hate waited… Hate is patient.