A short story I wrote based on my experiences in, and researched knowledge about Viêt Nam, and the USA waged undeclared and illegal war, which included the use of chemical weapons.
 

Facing Southeast.

Her husband was seated on the front steps of their Manhattan apartment, engrossed with the New York Times when Meryl approached him from the street. She had just come from her doctor’s appointment, delirious with the news of her pregnancy. It was November 1952, and they decided on the name Dylon to honour Meryl’s father who died several years ago. During Dylon’s second year of college, she made a decision that would upset her parents and cause them to worry a great deal. You couldn’t blame them, after all, everyone else was coming home from there, and she hadn’t turned twenty.

**********

Dylon loved this apartment, its proximity to the lake and the two large windows facing southeast toward the city skyline. In the morning they allowed amber light to be cast across the wooden floor, like the apartment she rented years ago on Tan Thanh Street in Cholon, and it reassured her.

On the far side of the room, sat a small desk on which a candle flickered erratically and hissed before extinguishing itself. Hanging crookedly on the wall above it, was a framed black and white photograph of several people. Dylon poured some wine, then took a long, tapered candle and fixed it into the puddle of wax left in the candle holder. Lighting the new wick instantly brought the photograph into relief against the strong black shadow it cast onto the wall. Dylon took the photograph into her hands as she examined it, her eyes moving slowly across the three faces that never averted their gaze from her’s. The silver particles in the film’s emulsion had frozen a moment in time, but yielded no clue as to what would happen in the coming months or years. Although it caused her sadness, she’d always kept the photograph in a prominent place, as it was through the sadness that she remembered the joy during that turbulent time.

**********

The roosters were crowing all night as they usually do, even the torrential rain beating down upon the tin roof tops could not drown them out. The oppressive humidity had made it difficult to sleep, and Dylon drowsily gazed through the mosquito netting toward the balcony doors. The early morning light squeezed through the narrow opening between them and the ceiling fan wobbled slowly from side to side as it feebly attempted to cool the room.

Dylon fumbled with the netting as she searched for the opening through which to grasp the cigarettes on the night table. Unable to find the parting, she pulled the mesh over her head and lit a Marlborough with a battered lighter given as a gift to her, by a parting friend. She took several deep inhales of the sweet tobacco, then crossed the room slowly toward the narrow balcony doors, pushed them open and stepped outside. Leaning her folded arms against the railings, she peered out across the city into the gray, cloudy morning.

The daily activity had begun several hours ago with people bustling about their chores and work before the onset of the day's heat. The street was filled with bicycles and two stroke motor scooters buzzing about madly. A barber had erected a green tarpaulin from the building across the street, under which an elderly gentleman was receiving a hair cut. A young woman's bicycle was decorated with live chickens, as she transported them from market and the air was filled with the scent of wet wood burning in the soup vendor’s fire below her balcony.

The clock above the entrance to her cramped little kitchen read 8:15, plenty of time to get ready, eat and stop at the post office on her way to the hospital. Dylon grabbed a coke from the icebox and sat on the corner foot stool to finish her cigarette. The traffic outside beeped incessantly, an approaching vehicle blasted an unintelligible message through a loud speaker and a military transport droned overhead, as Dylon sat, calmly smoking amidst the audible chaos. The tension was increasing daily, you could feel it, an urgency, troubled days were coming to a close, and no one completely understood or knew what would transpire. Though the signs had been present for some time, no one could read them precisely, not for sure anyway, or they didn’t want to. Even the politicians and newsmen didn’t predict the final outcome.

Dylon showered and dressed quickly, grabbed her things and passed into the sticky outside air. The clouds were clearing and the streets began to dry as the sun painted colour onto the early morning. She turned north toward the hospital, passed a temple and walked intently through the clutter dodging cyclos, fruit stalls, and litter. Arriving at Nick’s Cafe, she walked to the end of the room, and sat under a fan mounted on the wall beside the kitchen.

“ Hi Dylon, how are you this morning. You want the usual? “

“ Fine thank you, Linh, I’m fine, how are you. “ Dylon nodded enthusiastically for her usual breakfast, as Linh glanced out from the kitchen area.

“ I’m fine too Dylon. Don’t you worry. There’s one thing you can say about us, we’ll always look out for each other.” Linh paused, “ This is our home no matter what. “

The words were bittersweet, and spoken with the most sincere and earnest intent. Both women understood their profound implications, and silently agreed there was no point in further complicating what could not be changed. The decisions weren’t theirs to make. Dylon admired Linh’s calmness and grace amid the surrounding turmoil, and wondered how different the world might be if its leaders were women like her.

Often after breakfast, Linh’s son Minh would drive Dylon to work on his motor scooter, sometimes little Ta^m would go along for the ride. She loved being squashed between them, her sandals dangled from her dangling feet and she laughed sweetly whenever her brother braked hard, forcing Dylon to slide forward on the seat. Ta^m never knew her father at all, Nick was killed during Linh’s first trimester shooting photographs for the wire service. A claymore meant for someone else, ripped off his legs before he bled to death amid a green sea of gently swaying elephant grass. Several bone fragments from Nick’s shattered fibula became lethal projectiles, that opened the small intestines of a soldier fifteen feet away.

A photograph of Nicks handsome face was mounted high on the wall beside the refrigerator. A shelf in front of his image held a small bowl of rice, an apple and a pot of sand - into which several sticks of burning incense had been lovingly placed. The smoke rose calmly a few inches into the air before being violently dissipated by the oscillating fan above Dylon’s table.

**********

The war in Vietnam was drawing to a close, and the atmosphere in Saigon was mainly one of confusion. People began to talk about the plague of insects again, the ones that had infested several small buildings back in January - and what it had all meant. Flights out of Danang stopped in March and the C-130’s and civilian aircraft were now only evacuating people from Tan Son Nhut Airport in Saigon. When that was no longer possible, Embassy staff were instructed to go to Option Four, Frequent Wind - helicopter evacuation. America had quit, and roughly fifty years of war against foreign armies was close to an end for Vietnam.

**********

During her last few days in Saigon, Dylon immersed herself at work in the hospital’s pediatric ward and spent the rest of her time with Linh and her two children. She was delaying her departure as long as possible, it was too difficult. Throughout the mounting tension and uncertainty embracing the streets of Saigon, Dylon was agonizingly sad to be leaving, how could she possibly say good-bye to the friends she loved, and a country, whose magnificence was clear in the most tragic of times. The final few hours she spent in Nick’s Cafe, would be her last memories of Vietnam, ones that froze, unchanged in Dylon’s thoughts for twenty-five years.

She had already sent her books and personal papers by mail, and had asked Linh to make use of all that was left in her rented apartment on Tan Thanh Street. Initially she was concerned that she would not be able to bring all of her belongings with her, but as it turned out, her one and only suitcase was barely full. Her modest possessions would stay behind where they belong, and this made it easier in a way. Lighting a cigarette, she closed the suitcase and walked toward the open balcony doors as she had done many times before. The early evening sky was progressively becoming darker and thunder rolled in the distance. In a few hours she would take her seat on one of the last civilian flights out of Saigon, headed toward Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines.

A sickening feeling tore at her insides as the plane lifted off from the runway and gained altitude, the city lights fading quickly into the distance. Saigon disappeared from view, and Dylon - unable to swallow - pressed her face against the window as the cold outside air caused condensation to form between the panes of plexiglas.

Part Two

Dylon returned the photograph to its place on the wall, blew out the candle she had just lit and finished the wine in two swift gulps. She closed the window and drew the curtains, tomorrow would come quicker if she were able to sleep. She hadn’t really planned this trip at all, and would have to spend five days in Bangkok to secure a visa. She had heard from a friend a few weeks ago about a young couple who were adopting a Vietnamese baby, and it triggered many memories of her work in the pediatrics ward. In fact, everything had happened very quickly - similar in a way to how she had left Saigon twenty-five years ago. Dylon had booked the ticket only a few days ago and was leaving tomorrow morning.

**********

She awoke to a thud as the whining hydraulics lowered the landing gear and locked them into place. The flight attendants were gathering blankets and empty glasses as they gave last minute instructions on landing procedures. The plane banked sharply to the right and Dylon glimpsed the lights of Ho Chi Minh City in the distance - and thought it only fitting that she arrive in the same cover of night under which she had left.

Upon clearing customs, she soon found herself outside in the recognizable blanket of humidity that onerously envelops Ho Chi Minh City. The taxi ride to her hotel was a blur of seemingly familiar streets, occasionally lit by the pale yellowish light of thinly dispersed street lamps. The din and bustle of Vietnamese traffic announcing themselves, resonated off the subtropical evening. Dylon ate a light meal in the hotel restaurant and took a short stroll around the darkened city block before retiring. It felt as if she were here just yesterday, that she had never left and she dwelled upon the warming sensation of recognition and familiarity. How even a small crack in the wall beside your bed has a continuity to it, and it becomes reassuring in a way.

When Dylon first arrived in Saigon many years ago, she felt torn from her home, lost in a strange land and way of life she could never know completely as a foreigner. She quickly discovered that travelling had stripped her of all that defined and muddled who she was, forcing her to directly confront the new experience. It was awkward to face herself and hard to be impartial when continually deprived of what she was used to, what identified her. After the evacuation, Dylon again felt lonely and lost. New York was so different from her life in Vietnam and she found herself whirling madly through various emotions summoned by her return home.

Dylon passed through the hotel lobby and out onto the street. Several cyclo drivers had gathered on the corner and were relaxing under the shade of a tree. Some of them slept in their carriages while the others enjoyed cigarettes as they squatted over a card game. Dylon approached the players and one of them rose quickly to prepare his cyclo. He was happy to have a fare, and smiled genuinely as he wiped the seat and opened the canopy to shield her from the blistering sun. His lean and muscular body bent slightly from the rigors of pedalling for many years.

Dylon enjoyed the ride immensely and remembered how the layers of Vietnam’s beauty had revealed themselves, eventually seducing her. There seemed to be no rules governing the flow of traffic and her thoughts rapidly flashed between then and now. Just as an accident seemed imminent, the bicycles, cyclos and scooters would miraculously miss each other as they changed direction on their way to another near collision, in perfectly orchestrated mayhem.

Though Tan Tanh Street was recognizable, it had changed substantially with much construction evident and a new business class hotel near completion. Where Nick’s Cafe had once been, was a tailor shop specializing in silk Vietnamese garments. The sign read simply, Ta^m.

As Dylon’s cyclo driver pedalled away, a scooter pulled up to the front of the shop and off stepped the most beautiful woman in Vietnam, her figure adorned by the elegance of traditional dress. The fitted tunic, with high collar and long sleeves opened on both sides to well above her waist, and draped in two panels to midway between her knees and feet. It flowed over top of loose, delicate pants whose length swept the floor - the silk so light that it shivered in the breeze created by her movement. Though all of her body was covered conservatively, through the opening of the sides of her tunic, you could glimpse her bare midriff, softly feminine and wholly sensual. She wore a beautifully crafted conical hat, out from which her long black hair hung to just below her waist, in a tightly pulled back silken braid. Across her face she had tied a folded, white handkerchief to protect her angelic skin and lungs from Ho Chi Minh’s dusty streets, above which peered her beautiful, lascivious eyes.

Although you could see the gentle, lovely curves of her body, nothing was revealed in its entirety, you were only given a glimpse, an indication of the underlying beauty. Though all desired her, it was she who would choose to whom she would surrender herself.

Vietnam was a bitter war for many, not a country. Dylon remembered it as a time and place, that captivated her with both it’s beauty and tragedy. But like the photograph above her desk, Dylon had recorded images in her mind that remained unchanged from the moment she left. As she stood there studying Ta^m - now a mature woman - she realized that Vietnam too had grown beyond her defining memory of it, and stepped forward to greet her.

2,523 words.

Facing Southeast

written

by

Adrian Brown

©

abrown@photo28.com

London, U.K. 44 75 2852 4136
Canada. 778.230.0350

Adrian Brown is a British documentary photographer whose work is represented by Sipa USA He has travelled extensively in numerous countries including Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Cambodia and Viêt Nam.