I feel as though I have woken up running; I feel as though I was born running. But I don’t want to do it anymore; I want to stop, to turn around and to fight!
My father used to say, “Yen, your name means peace, so you must bring peace wherever you go. You must make people happy.”
He repeated it when I left for the war too; he had his hand on my shoulder as if I were a man, a son to be proud of, and not his daughter. Mother was sobbing, holding onto my younger brother. I could see father was fighting the tears, but he never cried. Only when my older brother died in the war did he cry, and even then, he hid himself in his room so no one could see. I heard him from the hallway. From then, I was Hung’s replacement.
Father spoke to me as if I were Hung, but Hung was dead and there was nothing we could do about it.
The Americans were coming, charging, just like they had charged into the country that had finally become ours, a place that wasn’t theirs. The Americans knew nothing of this labyrinth we called home; we knew this place like the veins of the back of our hands. We were in the jungle, and the men were coming. I could hear their boots punching the ground, muffled by the leaves that had fallen to the earthly floor. We were scattered amongst those leaves, because their guns were better and their numbers were greater than ours. But this was our jungle and they knew that.
The soldiers dispersed to chase us.
One man was behind me.
“Hey!” he shouted.
I ran faster, and I heard his boots smash into the ground in response. All I knew is that I didn’t want him to catch me, and I wasn’t going to be his prey; he was going to be mine.
I ran as fast as my small legs would take me, but my gun was weighing me down. He and I had the same gun, but he was a soldier, trained in resilience in wearing weighted luggage, and I was not. When he caught up to me, he grabbed my arm and I screamed. Flinging myself around, I hit him in the face, a face of a man from a country I had never touched before. I slipped and fell down a large slope, him following me, bringing leaves and twigs that wanted to join in with the fall.
We rolled to the bottom.
On all fours, we looked at each other. In the silence of that stare, I wondered if I could escape, and I knew I would have to kill him. It was him or me, and I knew that I wasn’t going to die, not like Hung. I fucking refused. And so, I examined my prey. He was a lot bigger than me, but he looked young, and his helmet spelt “war is hell.” We learnt English at school so that would be “chiến tranh là địa ngục.” It was agreeable.
In the single moment after, we lunged at each other like animals, like two tigers in a turf war, fighting for the soil not one of his ancestors had ever stepped foot on. But that all of mine had.
As our bodies hit, his strength pushed me to the floor. Even with all my force I could not tackle him; my body was now the battle ground, and my arms were struggling to push him away. I knew our strength didn’t match, but I was going to fight for my country, even if it meant I was going to die for it.
I managed to hold him away, far enough that I could pull my leg up to put my foot on his chest, and with that I threw him back. His weight surprised me; he was so light, nothing like my brothers He flew up in the air and plummeted to the floor like a plane that someone had shot down from the sky.
He looked at me amazed.
“Wow, Yen, you’re getting pretty strong!” Hung treated me more like a brother than a sister. I don’t think my father liked that very much.
“She is getting older now. You can’t be playing with her like that. It’s too rough; she’s not a boy!”
When I got older, father would say, “That’s not how a lady should act! She needs to focus on her studies! We must find her a husband soon!”
I resented those words, and so did Hung. He didn’t believe I should get married and stay at home with children; he didn’t want that for me. Father would shout at him, “She is not your brother!” And Hung would stand there looking at the floor avoiding father’s eye contact.
Later, when we were alone, Hung would tell me, “You can do and be whatever you want. You want to be strong, you be strong. Okay, Yen?” When Hung died, I had no one to tell me to be strong anymore. I had to do it all on my own, because Hung wasn’t there to defend me from father. Or from the soldiers.
We stared at each other apprehensively for a few moments. I pulled my AK-47 from around my back, and pointed it at him.
“Woah, woah, woah!” He put his hand up, almost as If he could stop the bullet with his simple, human, soft flesh. The bullet would rip right through, tear him open, and then it would hit his body, ripping his insides apart. Especially from this close range.
One of us was going to have to die. This was the equation of this war: one American + one Viet Cong guerrilla = one man standing. He almost seemed to accept his fate. He laid down, closed his eyes and I lowered my gun.
‘What would Hung do?’ I found myself asking that question a lot lately. Hung may have killed this man; he may have not. I knew my brother well, but not well enough to know how far he would go in times like these. And yet, I didn’t want to be Hung – I wanted to be Yen. So I’d do what Yen would do… even if I didn’t know what that was…
I lowered my gun; I could take him captive, kill him or let him go. These were my only options…
If I were to let him go… if someone were to find out, it would be dishonourable. I’d be a traitor.
“Ya know, you’re pretty strong.” I looked up at the stranger, a foreigner who had helped invade and corrupt my land. He smiled, “You can kill me if you want. I don’t want to live anymore … this war is hell…”
When I was back in the village, we had people telling us how great communism was, how it would change our country for the better. We would have public speeches about it. But we weren’t allowed to have our own thoughts…
I left my gun to hang on its strap. I took a step closer to him, and the leaves cracked under my feet. “Leave,” I said, almost not believing the words myself.
He stared for a moment, unsure whether to believe me.
As he tried to turn around to leave, I raised my stolen AK- 47 and shot him. When he shifted to look me in the eyes, he grabbed his chest, a look of pain and betrayal drowning his face. He fell, and all I saw was my Hung.
Without even knowing it, I found my tongue curling to utter: ‘War truly is hell.’