Author of Red Blood, Yellow Skin

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The following chapter and accompanying color photographs are presented with permission from the author.

RED BLOOD, YELLOW SKIN — LINDA L. T. BAER

Chapter One: MOUNTAIN OF BROKEN GLASS

Holding a broken clay pot full of wiggling leeches, I sat on the branch of a fig tree, overhanging the fishpond. I dangled my feet in the water, moving them back and forth, waiting for more leeches to attach themselves to me. Counting each as I pulled them off my feet, “six, seven, eight,” I heard, “Loan Oi!” Mother was calling me.

It was 1951, the year of the cat, and I was almost four years old. We lived in the small rural village of Tao Xa near Thai Binh, some sixty miles southeast of Hanoi City in North Vietnam. There were no more than a few hundred homes in the area, all made from clay, bamboo sticks, and rice straw, and all without running water or electricity. Rice fields and swamps surrounded the village. Small dirt roads and walking paths bound our village together.

In the center stood a magnificent red brick and grey stucco Catholic Church, with a steeple that seemed to climb straight to heaven. It was beautiful!

Surrounding the church was a red tile courtyard. Two small buildings stood nearby; one used for storing church equipment, and the other the priest’s quarters. Several rundown and deserted brick buildings were scattered throughout the village, left there by the French occupation several years earlier.

Our house sat at the edge of the village, near several small fishponds, hidden from view by beautiful fruit trees and wild flowers. It had a small dirt courtyard in front, with a tea and vegetable garden in back.

The house had two rooms. The larger served as a living room and was where my father slept. It was furnished with a small bed, a table, and two benches, all made of bamboo. My mother and I shared a bed in a smaller adjoining room at the right side of the house. A large bamboo bin, in which we stored rice, stood in the corner. It took up almost half of our room. We had no closets or cabinets; we used a long rope stretched between two walls, on which we hung most of our clothes. The rest were hung on a few bamboo sticks protruding from the wall. The sticks were inserted when the house was built, for hanging clothes and other items. Our bed was larger than father’s and was set over a huge deep hole. We used the hole as a shelter from bombs and severe weather, such as typhoons and storms that often struck our village.

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My home in Tao Xa, as it appeared in 1996 when we visited. Although the surrounding area has changed, my home is very much the same as it was. The main house is on the right; the separate kitchen on the left.

A small clay hut, not connected to the main house, was our kitchen. Inside the hut was a pile of rice stalks stacked high in a corner, used as cooking fuel. Our food and leftovers were stored on a homemade bamboo rack in the other corner. In the middle of the room were two clay cooking stoves and behind it, a tall pile of ashes, left over from cooking. We used the ashes as fertilizer for our garden, and for outhouse purposes. All of the villagers used the same method for cooking their food, in just about the same way, in the same kind of kitchen. We hung our cooking pots on the protruding bamboo sticks. Mother hand-made all of her cooking stoves, pots, lanterns, and water barrels from clay. They broke easy, so Mother continually remade them. I used the broken ones for toys.

I had no brothers or sisters and I had no friends. My clothes were two pairs of pajamas. They consisted of loose, brown cotton tops that hung down to my thigh, with large sleeves, over long black, baggy pants. One pair was old and torn, which I wore every day. When it was soiled, my mother washed it in the pond, to get rid of dirt or mud. While my clothes dried, I often went naked. The other newer pair was reserved for church or special occasions. My clothes were similar to those worn by my mother.

My parents worked either in the rice fields or for others, and we had just enough to keep us alive from day to day. Although I was quite young, my parents had to leave me home alone. They went to work before sunrise and came home after sunset every day. In the mornings, they ate breakfast and took food with them for lunch. They always left some behind for me. When I woke, I ate and then played by myself.

My toys were birds, frogs, insects, worms, and leeches. I caught leeches by sticking my feet in the pond and letting them attach themselves to me. It didn’t take long to fill up an empty broken clay pot with them. When I grew bored, I turned the leeches inside out with a bamboo stick, threw them back into the water, and watched them sink to the bottom.

Catching chicken choker worms was also among my favorite pastimes. I pushed young bamboo leaves into the wormholes and waited for the leaf to move. When it did, I knew there was a worm on the other end. I pulled the leaf up, and the worm hung on to it. I played with them for a while, and then fed them to my pet birds.

When tired, I fell asleep wherever I felt comfortable, most often under a tree or along the pond where I had been playing. I seldom saw my parents during weekdays. When I woke up, they were already gone, and when they returned, I was asleep. If they didn’t see me inside or in bed, they looked for me outside and when they found me wherever I was sleeping, carried me inside.

I loved Sundays. That was the one day I could be with my parents all day long. We woke early, washed in the pond, put on our best clothes, and walked to church.

My parents used our walk to church to teach me valuable lessons that I remember well. One particular day, for example, Mother said, “When you grow up you should not lie, cheat, or steal, because God will not love you if you do.”

“Besides,” Father added, “for everything you steal, you must pay back tenfold.” Each walk brought new lessons and words of wisdom. In church Mother taught me how to pray, and together we prayed for peace, for love, and for enough food to survive.

After church, we went home, cooked, ate, and did chores around the house. Sometimes, we visited my aunt and uncle and their kids. Father worked in the garden on Sunday afternoons. Mother and I went to the pond to catch something to eat. Rolling her black pants above her knees, she waded into the water. Using a bamboo basket, she scooped under the grass overhanging the edge of the pond for fish, shrimp, little crabs, water bugs, and anything else that was edible. She placed whatever she caught into a covered basket, which she tied to her waist.

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The picture (Public Domain) shows how fish and shrimp are caught, using the same method my mother used.

I followed along on the bank, playing with the leeches that she threw to me. She knew I liked to play with them. I was happy being with her, and I laughed at every little thing she did. Knowing that, she would go to extra lengths to amuse me, such as putting mud above her upper lip to make it look like she had a mustache.

Once she caught enough to eat, she carried the covered basket to the dirt yard in front of our house, where she separated the catch. I liked to play with the critters, but now and then, the crabs or bugs pinched me, and I let out a scream. Mother and I both laughed. She discarded the leeches and anything else that we couldn’t eat. Then she took what was left over to the small bamboo bridge built above the pond, and washed everything. She took it into the kitchen, dumped everything into a clay cooking pot, and added a lot of salt. She cooked this over one fire, and a pot of white rice on the other. Within a few minutes, the fish, shrimp, crabs, and water bugs turned chalky white because of all the salt. We ate them with rice; there was never a meal without rice. The critters were not the only thing that turned white; after our salty meal, our lips also turned white, and felt numb from the salt. I liked everything, but the water bugs were my favorite treat.

One time, I complained to Mother, and asked her why she put so much salt in our food. She gave me a stern look and said, “We are lucky to have what we have. Our food is scarce and precious. Remember, we don’t live to eat; we eat to be alive. Be thankful that you have a few creatures to add some spice to your rice; it’s better than eating salt and rice alone.” I never mentioned the matter again.

The roof of our house, made from rice straw, often leaked, more so during the monsoon season when rain poured like waterfalls from heaven. Sometimes a whole portion of the roof caved in from the weight of the water-soaked straw. Then we had to move everything to a drier part of the house, until my father found time to repair it.

My parents spent six months of the year in the rice fields, performing the backbreaking labor of planting and caring for each stalk of rice. When it was ready, they cut the rice stalk and brought it home. They separated the grain from the straw by beating the stalk against logs or by rolling a heavy stone wheel over them. The grain dried in the sun and was stored in a rice bin. The straw was saved for cooking fuel, roofing material, and food for the water buffalo. My parents rented a water buffalo during the planting season, paying for it with their labor.

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Typical work in the rice fields (Public Domain)

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Water Buffalo and her calf having lunch on rice stalk, between our kitchen and the main house.

They spent the other six months at home, growing fresh vegetables in our garden or working for others. Mother collected tealeaves from the garden and walked many miles to sell them in the market. With what little money she made, she bought necessities and material, from which she cut and made our clothes. During this time, she also cut our hair. She cut my father’s hair like Saint Frances, and cut mine above the shoulder, with bangs straight across my forehead. I always ran to the pond to look at my reflection in the water after each hair cut; we didn’t have a mirror, or knew mirrors existed.

In the dry season when the water level was low, my parents and our neighbors gathered to empty their ponds and catch the fish. Using special buckets, designed for this process, two people stood on a small bank between two ponds, and gripped opposite ends of a strong rope. At the center of the rope was a bucket. Like graceful ballerinas, synchronized to perfection, they dropped the bucket into one pond, filled it with water, and flung it over the narrow banks into the next pond. They repeated this motion hundreds, if not thousands of times until there was no water left in that pond. Then they walked down into the slippery mud, and collected every living creature in it, except the leeches, which were thrown into a separate container and destroyed. They repeated this process with each pond, until they were done.

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Using drop bucket to scoop water. (Public Domain)

Then each empty pond was refilled. Days of strenuous labor were rewarded with bountiful food. The shrimp and fish were separated by size. Snails, water bugs, and the many other edible creatures were thrown together into one big bucket, and were called delicacies. Some large fish were thrown back into the pond for breeding. The rest were divided among the people, those who owned the pond, and those who worked so hard to harvest it.

My parents shared their fish with relatives and the elders who lived nearby. They gave the largest to the town’s Catholic priest. He was a man of God, and therefore treated with deep love and respect.

A few fish were kept alive for as long as possible in a large clay barrel. I loved to watch them swim around in it. When I thought no one was watching, I tried to catch them. I reached in, with my face and hair touching the water. The fish were hard to hold on to, and somehow, Mother always saw me and told me to quit playing with them. Disappointed, I walked away, drying my face with my shirttail. Most of the smaller fish were salted. Mother kept part of them in a clay barrel, and let them ferment. The fermented fish was then made into fish sauce, and used for cooking and spicing our rice. The rest were dried out under the sun, and we ate them later, during the rice-growing season. Even though I enjoyed eating the big fish, the water bugs and snails were still my favorites.

My parents were good people. They lived at peace among their friends and neighbors, and practiced their strong Catholic faith. The village was small, and people cared for each other. They gave special attention to the elders, who could no longer work or had no one to take care of them. I loved my peaceful little village.

That peace was shattered when the Viet Minh decided to take over our village. My life was about to change forever.

Led by Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh was a band of stubborn guerrillas, fighting to unify Vietnam and prevent the French from occupying the country again. After the Second World War, the French, supported by Britain and America, controlled Southern Vietnam, and many large coastal cities in the North.

The Viet Minh had few successes against the French until aid came to them from Communist China in 1949. In the early 1950’s, the Viet Minh intensified their efforts to control the countryside of North Vietnam, and the peaceful village of Tao Xa became one of their targets.

The townspeople learned of the Viet Minh plans to attack, and they prepared for the fight. My father and many other young men decided to put up a defense. We did not want the French or the Viet Minh to control us. There were few guns and little ammunition in our village, and not many knew how to use them.

The anticipated day arrived and the Viet Minh attacked our ill-prepared village with full force. Our men and boys fought long and hard until they grew weaker and had to retreat. Mother and I remained at home, hiding and praying. The noise of gunfire and the sounds of bullets flying overhead terrified us all night long.

Some of the men, including my father, ran to the Catholic Church where they filled empty bottles with water, climbed the church’s steeple, and threw the bottles to the courtyard below. The noise of breaking bottles sounded like gunshots, which they hoped would fool the Viet Minh into believing they still had ammunition. The ruse did not fool the Viet Minh for long, and proved to be the last futile attempt of our villagers to protect their homes. The enemy realized our village was helpless; they entered, and found their way to the church.

My eleven-year-old cousin, Tuan, was with the men in the church and hid behind the bell-tower wall. He watched in helpless horror as the Viet Minh entered the church and shot everyone in sight. Tuan saw them shoot my father in the neck and push him through an open window, high in the bell tower, to the glass-covered courtyard below.

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The broken Window from which my father was thrown; as of 1996, it had not been repaired, from lack of funds.

My father suffered a slow and agonizing death. He lay on top of a mound of broken glass, crying out in pain. A Viet Minh soldier noticed him lying there, unable to defend himself, and proceeded to finish the job. Using a machete, he chopped my father’s face into four pieces, making a symbolic sign of the cross. Father twisted and turned for a few moments, and then he grew silent.

The massacre ended, as did our peaceful existence. A handful of invaders stayed to control the village. The rest disappeared into the darkness before dawn, leaving behind a trail of dead and broken bodies.

When it was safe, Tuan left his hiding place and raced down from the steeple to my father’s body. Once he realized his uncle was dead, he ran like lightning to our house and banged on the door. Mother had been awake all night, worrying about Father. When she heard the banging on our door, she jumped up and answered it. I heard Tuan sputter through his tears, “He’s dead! He’s dead!”

In a trembling voice Mother asked, “What did you say?”

“Uncle Thap is dead!” Tuan said. “They killed him!”

A strange and mournful wail filled the air. Mother screamed and cried as she grabbed my arm and raced toward the church. I could see Tuan running ahead of us in the early morning haze.

“What is happening?” I asked, crying and confused by Mothers’ behavior.

“Your father is dead!” Mother wailed. “Your father is dead!”

I didn’t understand what was going on. Dead? What did she mean about my father being dead? I knew she was upset and frantic, but I didn’t know why. It was enough to scare me. We approached the church courtyard, and I saw my father lying on top of a mountain of broken glass with his face cut to pieces. Blood was everywhere.

Tuan reached him before we did and laid his head on my father’s chest. “Uncle, please don’t die and leave me like this!” he pleaded through his tears, “I love you Uncle! Oh Uncle, please don’t leave me!”

As soon as Mother saw my father, she left me behind and ran through the broken glass in her bare feet. She cradled my father’s bloodied and mutilated head to her chest, and cried, “Oh my God! What happened to you? Why are you like this? What did you do to deserve this? Oh God! Oh my loving God!”

They bent over my father, and their tears soaked his bloodstained shirt. In their anguish, my mother and cousin had forgotten about me standing in the distance watching them. It seemed like a long time before Mother collected herself enough to stand. She wiped her tears and asked Tuan to help carry my father to the smooth grass nearby. I ran over and looked at his face. At first, I didn’t recognize him. I stretched my arm and touched his face with my finger. His skin was cold, and when I touched his hand, his fingers were stiff. I could not understand what had happened to my father or why his face was that way. I cried because Mother and Tuan were crying.

Tears streaked down her cheek as Mother turned to Tuan and said, “Run to our relatives and let them know what happened to your uncle.”

Before long, about half a dozen people arrived. They brought fresh banana leaves and grass mats to cover my father’s body. They cried as they approached him. Some touched him, others held his hand, and some began picking the broken glass from his body. They wrapped him in the grass mats and carried him to my Aunt Ba’s house, which was near the church. His body lay there, while the coffin was made. Mother sat next to Father’s body, and cried all morning. She ate and drank nothing, and didn’t even get up to relieve herself.

As word spread about my father’s death, more relatives showed up. By afternoon Aunt Ba’s house was full of people. Their mournful cries mingled with the sound of hammering, as the coffin was prepared from rough pinewood. By late afternoon, when it was finished, they laid my father’s body inside, closed it, and secured it with rope. The next morning, they carried his coffin back to the church. Some coffins were already there, as were several bodies, wrapped only in grass mats. Those without coffins were from families who could not afford wood.

The priest sprinkled the bodies with holy water and prayed for their souls. They then began to carry the dead to the cemetery. Mother and I followed behind my father’s coffin, which my cousin Tuan helped carry, accompanied by all of my relatives.

Mother held onto a corner of the coffin as we walked. “Why are you leaving us?” she cried. “We will never see you again. How can we live without you?”

Those following the dead were crying or praying. I still did not understand what had happened or what was going on. Mother talked to my father as if he was sleeping in the coffin. I imitated her sorrow and talked to him as she had. “Please take me with you!” I cried, “How can I live without you!”

We walked from the church, through town, and to the cemetery at the edge of town, not far from our house. Some graves were ready, while others were still being dug. They placed my father’s coffin next to one of the holes and waited for the priest to give the last blessings. The holy man went from coffin to coffin, and from grave to grave, saying his prayers and sprinkling holy water on each of them. As soon as he sprinkled holy water on my father’s coffin, he walked to the next one. A few men stood around, waiting for the priest to leave; then they lowered my father’s coffin into the ground and shoveled dirt on top of it.

It was then I realized what was happening. They were burying my father! I ran to them, and tried to stop them, but someone kept holding me back. I kicked and pushed those who were holding me, but I couldn’t get loose. I screamed and cried at the top of my lungs. I begged those who were burying my father to stop throwing dirt on him. But in the end, I was forced to stand like a cross, with two people holding my arms outstretched at my side. I cried as I watched people shovel dirt on top of him. I yelled at my mother to help him, but she was too busy trying to throw herself into my father’s grave. Several people had to restrain her as well.

The grave was filled, but they kept shoveling dirt on it, until it became a big mound. People began leaving; I was turned loose, and left alone with my mother. I ran to the mound of dirt, began digging with my hands, while Mother threw herself across the grave, and wailed. As I removed the dirt, I pleaded for my father to get out of there and go home with us.

Mother saw me and said through her tears, “You can’t dig him out, he is dead. Your father is dead. He has gone to heaven to be with God. He has left us forever. From now on, we will be all by ourselves.” At first, she tried to fill the hole I dug, but I moved, and dug another one. I kept digging, and she tried to fill the holes. She grew tired, and gave up. She rested her head back down on the dirt mound and continued to cry.

I screamed at her, “He is not dead and he is not leaving us! He was just buried, and that is why I have to dig him out. I can’t leave him in there.”

Again Mother tried to explain his death, and how he could never live or be with us again. I wouldn’t listen to her and kept shoveling dirt with my hands. The hole I had been digging was getting bigger, when Mother turned to me and said, “Let’s go home.” My feet hurt and they are still bleeding from stepping on the glass. I think some of the glass slivers are still in my feet; I need to go home and pull them out.”

I was concerned because I didn’t want to see Mother in pain, but I tried to ignore her and kept digging. My hands were red and began to bleed. Even though I had made a big hole in my father’s grave, I was far from his coffin. “I don’t want to go without Father,” I cried. “You go ahead and I’ll stay here with him.”

Mother knew I wouldn’t leave on my own. She struggled with me and tried to push me away, and fill the holes I dug. I pushed her away and continued, but in the end, she was stronger than I was. She managed to get hold of my wrist, and dragged me all the way home, with my bottom bouncing on the ground.

She held me while she changed her clothes, and tried to make me understand. I listened to her, was quiet for a moment, and she left me there to clean her wounds. I took advantage of her brief absence and bolted out of the yard, trying to get back to my father’s grave. I couldn’t believe what had happened! Everyone was so mean, including my mother, for burying my father and then leaving him there alone. Mother heard me running and ran after me. She caught up with me and grabbed me with her arm around my waist. She dragged me back to the house; I was kicking and screaming all the way. Mother kept a close eye on me, and each time I attempted to escape, she grabbed me and brought me back. I got tired of struggling with her, went to a corner of the house, and cried myself to sleep.