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The stone's rolling peal

Tuesday, 15/10/2019 00:51


. Short story submitted to the contest by TRAN THI TU NGOC

Ha was suddenly startled awake by a distant sound blended into the wind.

At this time, the night had come for long, and trees across the bordering area were vastly asleep. In the middle of February days, there was spring rain drizzling plus with sweet smells from azalea flower, honey grass, and magnolia aroma. The mountain breeze carried that fragrance along with the sad but steady noises like the rolling peal of thunder.

Was this the rolling peal of thunder?

No. Thunder couldn't appear in the early spring. It was likely that there were thousands of people walking in the night, echoing the deep bass sound on the ground surface. However, how could this desolate place have so many people like that?

Outside, the moon was about to set. The white mist extruded the forest.

Ha suddenly recalled that Vinh once mentioned a story in a book he had read. In the book, it was written that there were so many places thousands of years ago used to be the battlefields. The sound of horses, swords, drums, and horns were all kept by the mountains. Every few hundred years, the sound re-echoed once from the cliff, causing the people who accidentally passing through to startled in fear.

Was this night sound echoing from any battlefield?

Ha decided to return this place in a suddenly sunny day. The city began to boil like a mixed hotpot heated by the human smell and the rotting asphalt. Waiting for a taxi at an end of a small alley, she can't understand why her finger which was wandering over the phone led her to Vinh's profile. His profile then was so quite like a wild garden full of weeds.

“Watching from afar, it looked like a round bottom pyramid covered by clouds and mountainous fog. We stopped halfway through the pass when it was already afternoon. In the brightness of the sunset, the cloud clusters suddenly melted down and the far away tower appeared out of the blue in the middle of the valley of the mountains. The moment happened extremely fast. The sunset and the tower disappeared in the night." Below the status was a picture that he took quickly together with the two years ago time mark.

Ha could feel a drop of freezing water dropping down her heart. Slightly raising the head and looking down the small street lying under the pale spring sky, she fluttered on the phone searching for the name of an old acquaintance.

Once again, she returned to Cam Son.


* *

Seng waved his hand in confusion when he saw Ha at the platform. A bright smile brightened his dark face which started to have acne. Only two years passed since they last met, Seng has grown like a cork sprouting after every windy season.

The two stopped in Cam Son as the rain dropped heavily. Rain in the mountainous regions was completely different compared with rain in the plain one. It was dripping, silent, patient, and much like thin fibers pouring down from the middle of the sky, forming a gray veil spreading from one day to another. The soaked soil slowly flowed out. The road squeezing though the mountain became slippery, wet, muddy, and was hidden in reeds.

They were forced to walk along the path until they saw the pass marked on the map. Looking from there, the only thing they could see was mountains to appear and disappear alternately in the rain.

Ha thought that it was this angle where Vinh stood and took the picture of a mountain protruding to the southeast with some magnifying houses on the slope. The valley far below was covered in rain, was empty and coldly wild.

"You still want to see that tower?" - Seng was hesitated to ask. The boy has led Ha up there many times. However, each time, the thing he could bring back home was a few years older face.

"Vinh, do you remember the wrong way?" The raindrops remained in the memory was still wet, could all the paths have been covered by dust?

The rain was getting fiercer and fiercer as if it wanted to drown Ha in bewildered confusion. Seng led Ha out of the pass and stopped to ask for shelter at his relative's house on the other side of the greenwood. There was only an about sixty-year-old woman in the house. She was gloating to rotate the heavy stone mortar. Ha was embarrassed to greet her. Noticing the two guests get wet, the woman collected some pieces of firewood to make the fire red and then added more carefully rubbed rice put on the beam to the pot.

- Seng, where are you going?

- Mrs. Lung, this is Vinh’s girlfriend. Vinh was an infantry soldier who used to station in our village. I am leading her to the stone tower, but maybe, the rain has removed all the traits so that we got lost.

Mrs. Lung suppressed a sigh that leaked from her thin chest. She was so sorry to look at the girl:

- Come in and have a rest. Even the rain is heavier and even it lasts longer, the traits will never be removed totally, so don’t worry.

The last sentence of Mrs. Lung was engulfed in the sound of the rain rushing down the roof. Ha looked out at the wild rain. She missed the passionate hug of her boyfriend, Vinh in the middle of the Hang Co platform in the farewell afternoon so much. He upturned his backpack onto the shoulders, gently brushing her strands of hair which felt down her forehead for a brief moment of silence between the two horns of the train. Ha had to hold back her heartbeats when his shadow disappeared behind the hustle of rusting people who were up the train towards the border. His unit stationed somewhere on the distant mountainside that for decades, forests were still as green as the color of soldiers' uniforms.

Seng stretched his legs by the fire. The dry branches of the anise burst were burnt and gave off a pleasant aroma. Mrs. Lung patiently bent her body to pull the mill lever. She leaned on one side and another in silence, hard work. Sweat poured out of her shirt. The sound of the two heavy stone chopping boards grinding and groaning blended into the sound of the rain. Gradually, the rotation became faster and faster. The thin arms of Mrs. Lung vibrated. Her two legs staggered as if to fall. Her whole body was like a twisted rope. It seemed like that her little remaining strength had been used up. Ha was so surprised and could not understand what kind of grain it was that made Mrs. Lung worked so hard. Thus, she stood up curiously and looked inside the mill.

The mill was full of stones.

Seng hastily pulled her to sit down with the eyes full of implication. Ha stunned to look at the old woman with deep mysterious wrinkles. The flames in the kitchen flared up and went out, leaving the smoke to be burst and vanished in the twilight.


* *

Vinh once told her about the women grinding stones in Cam Son.

They pulled the mill in the long and cold night to recall the crying sound of their children when they were near to death because of atmosphere shortage under the shelters and trenches. They pulled the mill during the death anniversary to remind their husband who fell after the last batch of bullets had been shut out on the pin. They pulled the mill on thinking that the rain was pouring down the remains of their loved ones who still lying somewhere between the minefields on the distant peak of mountains.

Ten years.

Twenty years.

Thirty years.

As long as they are still alive, they would never stop feeling great anguish.

Ha bit her lips not to burst into tears. Exhausted Lung let go of the mill lever and petrified to sat down by the fire. Outside, the rain was still falling and water was still dripping down the roof with holes somewhere. Seng opened his hand to catch the long drops of water while shaking his head with a messy tuft of hair like a wet sparrow:

- If tomorrow it stops raining, I will come back and help you repair the roof. How can you overcome the rainy season like this?

Mrs. Lung rubbed the wood in the kitchen, again and again, causing the smoke the spill out and irritated everyone's eyes.

If her son were still alive, he would be at the age of Seng’s father. And let imagine if she had had a good and strong paternal grandchild like Seng.

If only there were no wars.

Human life is too short but they have been suffered so many times of hostilities.

That year, Mrs. Lung was only twenty or more. Her first son had just weaned for a few days. In the middle of that spring, there were still occasional gunshots bringing along fear, but everyone hopes that the situation would be better. At Tet, her husband told her to come and visit her mother's home in Ha Lung some days. He asked her to let him look after the son because it was freezing rain. In the late afternoon of a day when the rain had abated, she used a blanket to keep the sleeping son warm then took the basket of clothes that the husband had prepared before and went out.

She only thought it as a trip, how could it became the last time she could see her husband and her son.

By the morning of the 17th of February, the enemy artillery began to pour into the town from across the border. The sound of explosions tearing up the tranquil dawn and the rising pillar of smoke made Mrs. Lung so anxious. She tried to come back with her husband and her son. However, her family was afraid of the unfortunate event occurring in the chaos, so they did not let her go. Villages hurried up like the mountains were erupting. At dusk, her brother decided to load all of the belongings into an evacuation cow cart. Mrs. Lung pulled all of her ten fingertips into the cart bar, causing blood to burst out. She did not dare to turn her head back to look at the burning border.

Illustrated by Nguyen Van Duc.

After encountering fierce resistance in all the fronts, the expansionist announced its withdrawal. Mrs. Lung hurriedly found the way back to the old house. The town was left with a pile of debris, some scorched house pillars rising in the air and the tragedy crows on the dead-end trees. Her husband, her son, together with hundreds of civilian refugees and soldiers in the border protection unit had permanently lied here, at Dong Dang fortress after five days of fighting to prevent the enemy’s invasion.

- He was still there with our two-year-old son. Every night, I can hear my son crying. Today, it rains so heavily and I can hear his crying all day. Maybe at his place, the water spills in and makes him cold.

Mrs. Lung quietly looked at the mountain range in the west which was dormant in the cold rain. She spoke softly like whispering:

- When I left, my son only wore an indigo set of clothes. I didn't know whether my husband remembered wearing him more clothes or not. And if he did, the clothes must have been decayed by now. Even my son's bones must have been rotted and mixed into the water.

Vinh once took Ha to visit Dong Dang fortress when she came to his unit. It is said that after the frenetic attacks without dominating any fortress, the enemy forces mobilized the sea of people, using explosives to bring the upper layer down, dropping grenades, using flamethrowers and thrusting poisonous gas into the niches of the tunnel to kill those who still hold below. That day, Vinh suddenly said: "You know, it existed some farewells that the living were even more painful than the dead."

Therefore, Ha asked to stay in Mrs. Lung's house. Maybe she would have to grieve the same sadness as the women who silently ground stones.


* *

Seng came home alone when it was afternoon. Behind him was a flickering fire reflecting the two women sitting silently by the mill full of stones.

He took a short cut through the entrance to the town where an old stele house lay dormant on a cliff, about twenty mossy steps far from the trail.

Thuy Mon Dinh Stele.

Protecting Thuy Mon temple. In front of the temple are roads and waterways. Locking the Southern air to limit the boundaries of the sky.

This is the gateway, the throat of Vietnam, the frontier to keep the North. There are cliffs between the sky and the earth, making this place to be a remote border and the sacred hamlet of Dong Dang.

A sign placed nearby said that this stone stele was made by the Admiral, Northern Army Admiral of Lang Son, Nguyen Dinh Loc in the 8th year of Canh Tri dynasty, equivalent to the year of 1670 when he was assigned to take care of the region. Three hundred years later, a diplomat accidentally discovered it hidden in the bushes. It took another 20 years for researchers to assure that this stele was a rare national treasure with the nation's name even before Gia Long's time. Now, the original version of the stele has been moved to the museum. The stele lying in this place is just a copy.

At an early age, Seng often followed his grandmother to come up here to clean around the stele house every afternoon. His grandmother told him that, during the war, the whole area was devastated by artillery shells, but the stone stele was still intact as a miracle.

- Grandma, is there anything more stable than stone? - Seng asked.

- Yes, it is our determination.

She replied while accompanying Seng to incense on his grandfather's grave. In February that year, Seng’s grandfather was shot right in front of his yard because he refused to lead the intelligence of the enemy to raid our army's communication stations in the town.

Seng asked his father: “Is there anything heavier than stone?”

- Yes, it is sadness, son.

Seng's father replied to him while silently carrying anise flowers to the fair. The eight-petal anise flowers gave off a sweet fragrance. His mother died when Seng was four, leaving his father alone to raise the boy.

- Vinh, is there anything more durable than stone?” –Seng asked.

Vinh rubbed the sunken hair of the fourteen-year-old boy. His nodding was another way to respond. Vinh's unit stationed in Cam Son to perform the task of clearing bombs and mines left after the war. During the days off, he and his teammates enlisted to repair the road, embank the ditch to bring water or tutor for children in the hamlet. Among those children, he compassionated Seng the most. The boy was orphaned when he was too young due to a mine that the enemy force set on the way to retreat. The battle had receded but blood still flowed in the fields.

Seng sat silently by the stone stele. He was seventeen then. After times that Ha went to Cam Son to find Vinh, he realized that love is even more durable than stone.

Even harder than carrying stones was nothing but the fact that Seng was keeping a secret.


* *

- Seng, tell me about the last time you met Vinh.

The last time Seng saw Vinh was a very sunny day. His unit was preparing to march to the height of 803 to start a minefield-clearing campaign to unload the remains of the martyrs.

The height of 803, February 1979. The brief records about the violent battle were found in the fragmented notebook of an unknown soldier. All pages of this notebook were covered with blood. Seng still remembered an afternoon a few years ago when his class was taken to visit the military museum by his teacher. Everyone stood still for a long time in front of the glass window and had a lot of difficulties reading all the words rustly written on the pages had turned into a dark brown color.

"5 a.m: The enemy fired the gun for the first time."

“5:25 a.m: The enemy landed in.”

“9:30 a.m: The enemy fired the gun for the second time.”

“11:50 a.m: The enemy fired the gun for the third time. My teammate, Trung, died.”

“1:00 p.m: The communication line was disconnected. My teammates, Thang, Toan, and Dat died. The commanding position stood still.”

“2:00 p.m: The enemy added more soldiers to reinforce. My teammates on the left side, including Thing, Dung, Bao and Ha died.”

“4:00 p.m: We had three people left. The commanding position stood still.”

“4:45 p.m: The enemy surrounded the height. The commanding position stood still.”

“5:45 p.m: We were out of bullets. Goodbye to all!”

They have been lying there forever. Their bodies have merged into the mountains, the forests, the rocks, and the trees in the bordering region.

Vinh showed Seng the peak of a mountain where the forest has become green by now. It was surrounded by dense minefields.

- You guys are not afraid of mine, are you?” Seng asked in a fluster. His mind was stuck in a terrible moment when his mother was stretched back from the field by villagers. Blood spilled out from her leg which had been crushed due to stepping on the mine.

- Seng, everything will be fine. - Vinh gave the boy a calm look. Behind him was the army unit of Cam Son, who were awake day and night when relatives of martyrs heard the news and were finding ways to come here. There were white-headed mothers, the wives whose backs started to shackle, the children growing without knowing his father, etc. All of them are waiting silently.

In a small, peaceful corner in Hanoi, Ha was waiting for her boyfriend to come back so that she could wear a gentle white bridal dress.

Seng waved his hand to goodbye him. Vinh had promised that before coming home, he would take the boy to explore the stone tower he had just found. That promise could never be fulfilled because after successfully took and moved the remains of martyrs at the height of 803, the army unit has since lacked one person.


* *

Hạ turned herself and lay awake because of the distant sounds of the night. The sad memories were like the sound of the wind crossing the forest.

“We stopped halfway through the pass when it was already afternoon. In the brightness of the sunset, the cloud clusters suddenly melted down and the far away tower appeared out of the blue in the middle of the valley of the mountains. The moment happened extremely fast. The sunset and the tower disappeared in the night."

A week later, Ha suddenly received all the letters and memorabilia in years of love returned by Vinh, accompanied by an apology to break up. That was everything. Since then, Vinh kept silence, leaving Ha with the bitterness. He had promised her that after finishing that mission, he would ask for some days off to return Hanoi. The two-family would propose their marriage. There was no reason he quietly left her alone!

Ha tramped to go to Vinh's unit, which stationed in a remote and deserted area. The soldiers there kindly welcomed her with affection and pity. The commander, whose hair had turned foggy, looked at Ha with pity and said: "Just come home. Vinh has discharged. You shouldn't continue seeking him." Ha went to Vinh's hometown. In front of his small house was two magnolia trees. Vinh had brought her to his house once time. However, neighbors said that Vinh's parents had closed the door for almost a year and no one knew where were they. Ha lonely walked along the river bank. The red color of rice flowers was much like flames but the opposite wind numbs into her heart.

Ha had tried to find ways to forget him but she could not. She still saw him through the small picture put on the desk every day. It was the image of a young officer wearing the mossy green military uniform. He had a wide forehead and far-sighted eyes. In Vinh, we could feel something sincere and warm. The light in his soul made everything surrounding him become more beautiful. The days when the miss towards him waved up, Ha wandered all over the streets full of their memories. Once she stopped at a coffee shop in the old quarter. It was rainy and someone had accidentally played the song "The color of a red flower" with a deep earnest male voice: There was a soldier/ on that autumn he left his poor, thatch-roof home/ There was a soldier/ on that spring never came home from there/ His name is engraved into mountain rock/ jungle clouds turn into shadows of sheltering trees/ Afternoon at the border, sky whitened with mountain clouds/ an old mother tires out her eyes looking over there...

Ha burst into tears. She earnestly wanted to return Cam Son, together with the young boy Seng, looking for the stone tower that glowed in the sunlight in the afternoon and descended into the deep and dim valley.


* *

Seng was in the last days of the twelfth grade. The boy cherished his dream to enter the Vietnam Academy of Border Defense Force. On his way to school, he had to pass the stone stele engraved with words of the ancients, to pass the mountain ranges that still could not recover its wounds, and to pass the small house with the woman silently crushing her nostalgia every night in the stone mill.

Ha still stopped in Cam Son.

One afternoon when Mrs. Lung came back from the field, she was stunned to see Ha standing still beside the heavy mill. Her thin, dry hand was placed on the lever, tears streaming down her eyes. In the mortar, the stones were lying silently.

She held Ha's hand tightly and startled:

- My dear girl, you are still too young.

Ha leaned her head to Lung's shoulder, crying loudly:

- I can't forget him.

Mrs. Lung stayed awake all night listening to the rolling peal echoing from the mountains. The next morning, she went to Dong Dang fortress, where the weeds and thorns had grown around the gate of the tunnel that was once collapsed by the enemy, on her own. Farmers working nearby often told that in the late afternoons, they could hear the noise from underneath the bunker to echo on and then stop. There were hundreds of souls gathered in it and never disappeared.

Mrs. Lung brought back two packages of black soil which had been ragged by the wind and the rain. She buried them on the hill behind the house and made two small graves. The incense sticks flickered in the afternoon. Her tears have dried up after decades of waiting in weariness. Returning the small house with a draw of the sunset in the valley, Ha was so surprised to see that the mill had disappeared.

- You do not need this mill anymore?

- I let it go to make a room to store anise flowers.

Ha tumultuously realized that it was May then. The anise forests on the mountain slope started to radiate the fragrance. The more area the soldiers cleared mines, the greener the anise and cardamom forests became. Mrs. Lung dried anise flowers in the sunlit backyard. The gentle fragrance spreading all the small house, so Ha could sleep better.

Ha came back to the city on a June day, carrying a painting of a dazzling stone tower in the sunset in the mountainous valley. Vinh had seen this tower before the harsh fate of his life made him unwillingly take another turn.

Seng saw her off at Dong Dang station. The horn of the train howled in each long beat. Ha turned her head to look at Seng: Do you have anything to hide me?

Seng kept silence. He looked out into the distant mountain range and told himself to keep the promise he had.

That afternoon, the boy found a way to a small house hidden deep in the forest where a wounded soldier lived silently with his elderly parents and his wooden crutches. He was devastated nearly the whole body due to an explosion during a mine clearance on the height of 803.

- She’s gone, hasn’t she?

Seng nodded choked.

Vĩnh không nói gì, ngoài xa kia ngọn tháp đá sáng rực lên trong chiều biên giới.

Vinh said nothing while in a far distance, the stone tower glowed in the bordering afternoon.


Translated by LE HOA


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