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The inflamed days
Joy, sadness condensing in my heart
A person's most valuable possession is life. We only live once; we must live so as not to sorely regret the months and years lived wastefully, not to be ashamed of the months and years lived wastefully, so that when we die we can say, "All my life and all my strength have been dedicated to the most noble goal in life, the struggle to liberate the human race."
n. a. ostrovsky1
To live is to face the storms and not to cower before them.
8 April 1968
Operated on one case of appendicitis with inadequate anesthesia. I had only a few meager vials of Novocain to give the soldier, but he never groaned once during the entire procedure. He even smiled to encourage me. Seeing that forced smile on lips withered by exhaustion, I empathized with him immensely.
Even though his appendix had not ruptured, I was very sorry to find an infection in his abdomen. After a fruitless hour of searching for the cause, I could only treat him with antibiotics, insert a catheter, and close the wound. A whirl of emotions unsettled me: a physician's concerns and a comrade's compassion and admiration for this soldier.
Brushing the stray hair back from his forehead, I wanted to say, "If I cannot even heal people like you, this sorrow will not fade from my medical career."
10 April 1968
It is finished. You have all gone this afternoon, leaving us in an empty jungle with only our intense yearning, this loss of you.2 You have gone, but this place holds your shadows: the pathways, the pretty benches, the echoes of your impassioned poems.
"Everybody put on your pack. Let's go."
At Brother Tuan's3 order, you shouldered your crude rucksacks made from salvaged American bags. All was ready, but each of you still lingered, waiting your turn to shake my hand for the last time. Suddenly a strange longing for the North surged through me like a stormy river and . . . I cried so hard I could not face all your farewells.
No, be on your way brothers! I'll see you again one day in our beloved North.
For a night and a day, I worried about Sang's4 operation. I was so happy to see him sit up this afternoon. His face bore deep lines of pain and fatigue, but a smile slowly bloomed on his fragile lips when he saw me. His hands cupped over mine, a touch filled with warmth and trust.
Oh, you young, brave wounded soldier, my love for you is as vast as it is deep: it's a physician's compassion for her patient; it's a sister's love for her sick brother (we're the same age, you and I); and in admiration, it is a love special beyond others.
Did you see it in my anxious glance? Did you feel the tenderness in my hand on your wound, on your pale, thin arms? I wish you a quick recovery, San, so you can return to your comrades, return to your lonely old mother, who waits for you every hour, every minute.
12 April 1968
Afternoon in the forest, the rain has left the leaves wet and fragile, pale and lucid in the sunbeams, these emerald hands of a maiden imprisoned within a forbidden fortress. The air has gone somberly sad. In the patient ward, silence broods. Murmurs of Huong's5 conversation drift from the staff's room.
An immense longing envelops me.
Whom do I miss?
Dad, Mom, people who left . . . and a patient waiting for me to come to him.
Within this longing roosts a secret and profound sorrow, silent as this air, heavy as this earth. I feel the wound in my heart still bleeds, an excruciating pain that neither work nor memories can numb.
Oh, let's forget it, Thuy!6
Forget it for a new hope, something greener, healthier. Take your pride to forget despair. That person does not deserve your pure and faithful love.
Oh, my dearest ones in this land of Duc Pho, can anyone see my heart? The heart of a lonely girl filled with unanswered hopes and dreams.
13 April 1968
So many letters come from all over. Thank you all for showering me with such warm affection. I read your letters with both joy and sadness.
Why can everyone else love me so, but the man who has my faithful heart cannot?
Isn't that sad, M.?7
I want to fill the emptiness in my soul with the affection within these kind letters, but it is impossible. My heart beats stubbornly with the tempo of a twenty-year-old, full of love and affection. Oh, be calm my heart, seek the peaceful rhythm of the sea on a windless afternoon.
14 April 1968
A wounded soldier under my care wrote me a poem. He was sincere in his admiration for my dedication. The poem was filled with compassion for my broken heart, it spoke of the bitter grief of a girl betrayed by her lover.
Reading his words . . . I am dismayed. I can't help but return the poem with a note beneath it: "Thanks for your loving sympathy, but it seems you don't understand Tram yet. I promise someday I will let you know this woman of SOCIALISM."
Oh! This is the saddest part of my relationship with M. Everyone blames M. and sympathizes with me. But it hurts to know they pity me! I don't care whether it is Thiet, Hao, Nghinh,8 or anyone else who wants to give me his sympathy, I don't want it.
I can overcome my sorrows alone. I have the will to bury nine years of hope-my soul is still fertile, still strong enough for a beautiful season of flowers yet.
Oh, friends, please don't water this soil with tears of pity. The blooms to come should be nurtured with only freshness and pureness.
M. has made my love for him fade with each passing day. A distance grows between us.
That person doesn't deserve me, does he?
15 April 1968
At noon, the jungle sleeps beneath a thick blanket of silence. I hear San is sick, so I come to his ward. All patients in the room are sleeping, including San. Not wanting to wake him, I tiptoe out, but San's moan pulls me back. He smiles uneasily. . . . He is not sick; perhaps he just wants to see me. I've been busy all day. We haven't talked about his wound.
San asks me, "This was the day you came to Duc Pho, wasn't it?"
A full year exactly, San.
I am surprised by his question. I want to sit down and tell San the whole story of the past year, a year of hardships in San's homeland, worthy of pride, but I find it hard to begin. My work means nothing compared to San's or to that of the people of Duc Pho who have fought courageously for twenty years. And it's even sillier to talk with San about how much I miss my family.
San's mother is old. San's father died when she was only twenty-two years old. A young widow, she did not remarry, sacrificing her youth to raise San until he joined the army at nineteen. Five years of flirting with death, and he is still alive.
A month ago, the enemy attacked his unit. San escaped their claws. Fifteen of his comrades sacrificed their lives. But for a twist of fate, he could easily have fallen like the rest at the foot of Portal Mountain9; and then, even if San's mother shed all her tears, her son would never come back.
Today they bring San to me. I can never let Death rob this precious son from his mother. She has pinned all her hopes on her precious only son. Never! I must do my best for San as well as for other patients!10 Isn't that a physician's proud duty?
Van sent me a letter and a gift. How I love Van! Her life is full of sorrows-sorrows that a kind person like Van should never have to bear. She lives with altruism and hopes, and carries the firm convictions of a true revolutionist. There must be compensations for that. Why does life always bring her misfortunes?
I must assume this responsibility; I must bring her hope and joy.
17 April 1968
I said good-bye to Ky and Phuong.11 After a whole year living together, I finally understood how much they love me today.
Late at night after the farewell party, Ky came to my room. Neither of us knew what to say. He sat with the notebook open, pen in hand, and scribbled meaningless lines.
There was little time. There were many important things you needed to say and write, but why did you keep your silence, my brother? Were you imparting your feelings to me through your red, sleepless eyes, or through your dark, sad smile, the lines on your thin, pale face? He took me in his wiry arms, a brotherly embrace that moved me so much.
When he left, I accompanied him to the stream. Melancholic, I walked back slowly and found the memo he had left for Lien.12 A few short lines: "You and Tram must love each other sincerely. Tram came here alone, far away from her family, she has only friends. . . ."
Oh, brother Ky, thank you. I will never forget your love.
And the last night, lying in sister Phuong's comforting arms, I listened to her advice and kept quiet, but I could not stop the hot tears rolling down my face and spilling onto hers.
Oh, sister, I'm still not a Party member today.
22 April 1968
Oh, Huong! Huong died? The news stuns me like a nightmare. One comrade falls down today, another tomorrow. Will these pains ever end? Heaps of flesh and bones keep piling up into a mountain of hatred rising ever taller in our hearts. When? When and when comrades? When can we chase the entire bloodthirsty mob from our motherland?
It's over, our nights of heart-to-heart will never happen again. I can still hear Huong's soothing voice encouraging me, praising me for the faithfulness of my love. It's over, the baths in the stream, the times we shared sweet desserts. Suddenly I remember the day we met by the stream at Nghia Hanh13: Huong embraced me, kissed my hair, kissed my cheek while tears of joy came to our eyes.
I feel a stinging stab in my belly when I see Uncle Cong,14 still calm and unaware of the tragic news that will strike him like a lightning bolt. Losing a daughter like Huong is more painful then losing an arm. Oh, Uncle! Please smother your pain when you hear the news.
Oh, poor Quang,15 so many years you have waited faithfully for Huong to be yours. You will never have your dream now. Your Huong lies forever within the bosom of your homeland.
23 April 1968
A day of utter exhaustion: three seriously injured soldiers are brought in at the same time. All day I stand at the operating table, the tension in my head building toward the point of bursting. The men's wounds. Uncle Cong's heartrending cries when he hears his daughter Huong has died.
Duong is captured while on duty.16 Can that joyful, eager boy endure the enemy's tortures? I feel so very sorry for him. My letter to Duong will never reach him; the messenger died and Duong is captured.
I hear a voice from far, far away singing a sad song: Mother's heart is as vast as the ocean, her sweet lullabies as tender as a serene stream. Was it Duong's voice the other night? Was it Duong crying out from his dark prison when he thought of his old mother, when he remembered her lifelong struggle to raise him, her sacrifices and joys invested in her beloved child?
Many mothers will cry until their well of tears runs dry.
Oh, if I fall, my mom will be just like Duong's. She will suffer forever because her child has fallen in a fiery battlefield. Oh, Mom! What can I say when I love you a hundred, a thousand, a million times over and still I had to leave your side.
The enemy is still here; many mothers will still lose their children, and many husbands will lose their wives. The immensity, the enormity of our sufferings!
25 April 1968
There is more sad news: a group of Duc Pho cadres has been ambushed on its way back from a seminar in the province seat. I hear a few have sacrificed their lives to save their comrades. Nghia17 is in the group. I wonder if anything has happened to my young brother. He is active, courageous, and capable of leading the group.
Oh, brother! What will I do if something happened to you? Will I cry through many quiet nights, will my tears run dry, or will a bright hostile flame flare within my heart against our enemy?
I have been waiting for your return, but now . . .
26 April 1968
My heart is heavy as I read brother Tam's letter sent from H818-not a letter from M. The past is gone, why did you remind me of it, Tam? You feel bad for me, but you unintentionally hurt me. You tell me that M. is sick; you say you understand me, empathize with me, but in fact you do not know me at all. Don't you understand that an educated woman has pride? If you did . . . it would have been better if you had talked with me about important things, my work, my awareness-and no more.
30 April 1968
Why are you still sad, Thuy? The critically wounded soldiers survive. Didn’t the wan smiles on their pale faces bring you happiness? Didn’t the recent praises for the clinic give you joy, Thuy? And yet you are still sad.
This sorrow has seeped far into my heart like the relentless monsoon rain willing itself deep into the earth. I have searched for carefree joy, but I have failed, my mind already furrowed with somber thoughts— there is no way to erase them. Perhaps I can banish them by dedicating myself entirely to curing the wounded and improving the clinic.
Oh, why was I born a dreamy girl, demanding so much of life?
By any measure, my life is a dream: I have a whole and good family.19 I still have opportunities to advance my career, and I have tasks commensurate with my capabilities. People treat me with kindness. . . .
I demand too much of life, don’t I?
Answer that, Thuy, Miss Stubborn, difficult to please.
1 May 1968
Once more, we celebrate Labor Day20 in the jungle—it is a long, silent day, submerged in longings. I miss Hanoi, Dad, Mom, and my siblings terribly.21 I doze off at noon and find myself coming back to see Mom and my sisters in the Supplementary School for Public Health Officers,22 down that narrow road, to that gate at Mr. Nghiep’s23 house; I slip through the broken lattices of the gate as easily, as happily as I did in those younger carefree days.