January 31, 1968, Tết, Huế, Vietnam
I travel. In my sleep. It is something I have always been able to do since the first life. So when the Việt Cộng besieged our city and dragged us one by one into the streets, I was already envisioning the dense forests of the Central Highlands. All I had to do block out the chaos and fall asleep.
“The streets are soaked with blood,” said an elderly dung dealer, his long white beard braided and speckled with the manure that he collected and peddled to local farmers.
“Not blood,” I said, “Red confetti.” The fire crackers of Tết were still fresh from the day’s festivities.
Cadre Ky was a hard-faced man who claimed to be our liberator. Leading a squadron of adolescent soldiers, he ordered a scrawny faced boy named Binh to line us up and bind us. Binh squared me beside the dung dealer while another soldier bound our wrists behind our backs with a thin metal wire. Standing in front of me, Binh looked lost and confused, a rifle flung awkwardly over his shoulder, his thin body barely filling his hand-sewn black uniform.
We locked eyes for an instant and I knew without doubt that he was the reincarnate of my sister - Halei. An eternity of remorse filled me and the dense forests of my escape receded. I was duty-bound to her and I would only escape if I could take him with me.
Binh’s squadron marched us to the nearest house where we were separated into different rooms. The dung dealer and I were thrown into a closet. That first night, no one slept, anxiety ridden about friends and family, as Cadre Ky stormed through the house, singling out “traitors” from a creased list. Men were selected and dragged, pleading for their lives, out of the house. None ever returned. In the distance, artillery fire and screams filled the night sky.
I wanted to speak to Binh, to reconnect with my sister’s soul, but the first night offered little opportunity. My chance did not come until the second night when Cadre Ky and his list moved on to another sector of the city leaving Binh’s squadron behind to stand guard. The house fell into a state of quiet torment defined by neglected moans of hunger, fear, and pain.
I waited until after midnight, when the snores of hostages’ replaced their moans. Beside me the elderly dung dealer slept restlessly, his legs twitching in his sleep as if he were running. Binh was pacing the halls of the house, patrolling on the night watch.
I whispered to him as he passed the closet, “We knew each other brother Binh, in a past life.” But I knew he had no memory of this. Most people reincarnate with their memories wiped clean. Only travelers carried their memories from life to life with violent death being the only egress. Death at the end of a blade allotted no time for memories to dictate our next lives’ obsessions.
“What?” Binh said, his voice cracking, “Are you insane?” He pointed the blunt end of his rifle at me. For a split second he hovered over me, a sea of emotions flying across his face before he brought the rifle down hard into my shoulder. I winced, absorbing the pain until it passed, not willing to allow my fear to overshadow my joy at finding her at last.
“Shut up and go to sleep!” he said.
“I won’t sleep. Not until I speak to you. I’m a traveler.”
“Traveler? I don’t believe you.” But a wave of nostalgia misted over his eyes. He glanced at a young guard who was dozing at the front door before keeling by my side. Uncertainty lined his forehead.
“My mother told me stories of a traveler – a little girl. She called it a curse. But is it? To go whenever and wherever you want?”
A curse? I had always wondered the same. In each life, my parents had tried to squelch my ability afraid that I would travel too far for them to reach. Some even going so far as to tie ropes to my body before I fell asleep; but ropes cannot stop a body from traveling. I simply vanished, the outline of my body thinning, my journey beginning unencumbered.
“What are you anyway?” He eyed my darker skin and curly hair.
His face was thoughtful. “She also said we exterminated you all and now we’re paying for it – brothers killing brothers. Karmic retribution. ” His words set off an ice cold prick in my heart. How long had karma followed me from life to life pushing me to search for Halei, to search for atonement?
“How many lives can you remember?”
“And I was there?”
“Just for the one.”
February 1458, Vijaya, The Kingdom of Chămpa
In that life, I struggled with the constant tug of memories from past lives that rattled around in my young mind, tormenting me. I saw little joy in life until the day my sister was born. After nearly a day of waiting, my grandmothers led us to her. Gripping the fringed border of my father’s colorful sarong, I hobbled on a wooden crutch, my steps uneven in that life from a debilitating illness that had afflicted me in infancy.
My sister laid in the curve of my mother’s arm, fragrant with the oil of peach blossom petals. My heart swelled at her dark eyes, her ruby red lips, and her head of dark curls.
“Hello Monster,” I giggled as I caressed the bottoms of her feet. We called her “Monster” instead of her given name, “Halei”, to confuse evil spirits who stole the light of children’s soul.
“She says hello to you, Troll,” my mother said. I, too, had to wait until my twelfth year to be called by my given name, “Tepa.”
“Is she a traveler?” I asked with trepidation.
“That seems to be your gift alone,” my mother said, but her eyes were not convincing.
He interrupted my story. “Of course I was your sister. What was I, a Chăm whore?”
“No,” I said, horrified.
The question tore me from my blissful reminiscing. The majestic Vijaya of my past life was replaced by the pungent smell of gasoline from AK 47s and the sour reek of hostages. My body felt frozen in place and my arms ached behind my back. The house was dark but for a single light bulb in the living room. The haunting sounds of shouts and gunfire that had filled the city hours before were replaced by the even more terrifying sound of complete silence. At least the sound of artillery fire provided a sense of what was going on. Here in the dark silence, we knew nothing.
“Then what terrible thing did I do to deserve this? My mother says that we spend each life paying for the last.” He thundered, grabbing at my chest shaking me. There was a quiet desperation in his eyes. Beside me the foul stench of feces rose from the elderly man. A damp warmth slid down the back of my legs. I jumped at the sensation, crying out, squirming against the dung dealer.
“Brother Bao, stop squirming,” the dung dealer said, half his words swallowed by the floor. “You are tearing at our wrists.”
I jumped to hear my name on the old man’s lips. Why was it that I had never learned his name?
Binh’s face scrunched up in disgust. “Fuck,” he said. A young guard stationed at the front door ran over.
“What is it?” the guard asked.
“Old man crapped on himself,” Binh said.
The guard laughed. “Is that all? Half my lot has already wretched all over each other.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” I whispered to the elder.
“What for?” he whispered back, “To give them another reason to beat us? They don’t care. No one’s given us food and everyone’s damn near pissed or shat on himself by now.”
“Fuck, I hate this. How is this liberation?” Binh kicked at the floor. The young guard looked sharply at Binh before grabbing him and pushing him against the wall.
“Don’t say that,” his eyes boring into Binh as the two boys glared at each other, “Shut your stupid mouth. The traitors did this to themselves.” The young guard glared at the old man before releasing Binh and stalking to his post. Binh slumped against the doorframe.
He seemed to age, right before me, his eyes taking on a dark weariness. It seemed as if unspoken horrors lingered in his shadow. What had this life given to my sister? Had what I done locked her into one horrific life after another chased by the tides of karma?
“Bao? That’s your name?” he asked, “Do you think it’s fair, brother Bao – to suffer in this life for some shit that happened in a past life that you can’t even remember? This war - I’ve lost…everything and you? What have you lost? Your mind? Your sister, my ass. Her life sounds too perfect to have put me in this mess.”
My sister was a new soul investigating life with bright eyes. She was adventurous, spirited like the wind, and the smell of incense from Shiva’s temples followed her wherever she went. We were a family of artisans whose hands had carved the story of our people onto our temples’ walls. Monster’s favorite carvings were the Apsara dancers, the spirits of the clouds and water whose voluptuous bodies undulated in elegant dances. Imitating them, she often danced for hours; her neck elongated and graceful under the arch of her arms.
The year I turned thirteen and Monster eight, Vijaya was attacked by the Vietnamese. Tens of thousands of our people were slaughtered. The King ordered our fathers to war. The evening our father marched out of the city, my mother and sister held a vigil at my side, wrestling me out of sleep the minute my body began to fade.
“No Tepa!” my mother pleaded, “You cannot save him, you will be killed!”
But I saw myself a man and I was determined. I had known the constant chaos of war for dozens of lifetimes and I was sick of being orphaned. I waited until it was Monster’s turn to watch over me.
“I can save him,” I said. She gritted her teeth, a long thin branch ready to beat me awake should I start to travel.
“War is not for kids, Troll,” she said, mimicking my mother’s words. She had refused to call me “Tepa” even though I had long grown passed the age of interest to evil spirits.
“I can bring him home. If he doesn’t come back alive, it will be your fault.” She hesitated, my words making her pale. She laid down her stick and I filled my mind with the northern border of Chămpa.
I awoke not in the heat of battle but in its cold aftermath. I was already too late. Not even a yard within the borders of our country, my father’s body lay among the dead, slain on the first day of battle. Filled with rage, I dragged him back to Vijaya despite my unsteady gait where we cleaned his body and placed him on a dais for gentle decomposition. For days, Monster and I entertained him so that his soul would carry no weight into the next life.
I watched as she fumbled through a dance, her neck held inelegantly at a peculiar angle as she sobbed through a song weaving memories of our father into lyrics. Her words struck at me; she was retelling the tale of all the parents I had grown to love and had to watch die over and over again in our country’s never-ending morass of conflicts.
I had never been able to stop death before. Why would it be any different now? There was nothing I could have done. It was inevitable. Five years later, the Vietnamese sacked Vijaya for good, killing everyone.
“Is that how you died?” Binh asked.
I let his question sink into me. A bright line of morning sunlight slivered along the floor filtering in from a crack in the curtains. How many hours had I spent rattling off my story? He repeated his question and I told him I had escaped. Then I fell silent, overwhelmed by the stale scent of my own remorse. I lowered my eyes, staring at his slippers and the jagged edges of his toenails, afraid to say anymore.
“You didn’t die? With everyone else?” he asked, skepticism heavy in his eyes, “My mother says that if you’re a bad person or if you take your life – your next life will be a living hell. Well, from what you’ve told me, I was a good little girl. So this hell I’m living, watching bombs tear up my home, and my father – they skinned him alive, brother Bao, for refusing to join them. And then they threw my brothers into this war and sent them home one by one in pieces. So, it’s got to be the way I died. How did I die?”
The fact that he had referred to Halei and himself in one breath did not escape me. I searched for the right words, not wanting to lose the moment.
“Younger brother Binh!” Cadre Ky’s booming voice filled the closet. Binh startled but quickly greeted the Cadre.
“It’s time for their trials. Take them outside,” Cadre Ky said.
Binh glanced at me as he ushered us onto the street where hostages were being lined up under the blistering morning sun. Binh joined squadrons of soldiers positioned behind the hostages as Cadre Ky walked the line, belching out allegations of our traitorous acts. The wretched stench of the elderly dung dealer filled the humid morning air making me want to vomit. Through it all, the elder stood stock still, his face hard and his head held high.
“Who are you? What do you do? Are you a traitor?” Cadre Ky asked, moving down the column of hostages. No one dared to say they were anything more than a simple laborer.
When he reached me, he asked, “You’re one of those savages aren’t you?”
“I am Chăm,” I said, squaring my jaw.
“Chăm! We are alike, you and I, brothers in this campaign against colonialism! Join us!” The Cadre began a zealous rant that expounded on the patriotic attributes of the Liberation Movement. I stared at him, stunned. When I didn’t reply, he backslapped me. Then he cocked his gun and pressed it against my forehead.
“Do you want to be liberated or not?” he asked as I stared into the barrel of his gun.
I was torn - indignant at the kangaroo court, wracked with fear and yet driven by an irrational compulsion to protect my sister. It was I who had ripped her soul from our tribe and I who had to bring her back to our people. But my sister was not Halei, and I was not kneeling in the fallen kingdom of Chămpa. I was in Huế looking down the barrel of my own death and Halei’s soul was deep within the body of the enemy.
“We will never join you,” the elderly dung dealer said, interrupting the Cadre’s tirade.
Cadre Ky’s jaw clenched and he shifted his attention to the elder. Cadre Ky grabbed the elder’s beard and yanked him so hard that he fell face first onto the ground causing me to fall to my knees. The elder’s back was immediately met by Cadre Ky’s foot.
“No!” I threw myself on the elder. The Cadre’s rifle came thundering down on me until my entire body burned with pain and darkness clouded my vision. Instinctively, I forced my mind to go blank, to prevent myself from traveling. I can’t. Halei… When I came to, I was lying in a small dark room. A hand nudged me as a sharp pain shot through my arm.
“Drink brother, for the pain.” Binh held a steaming teacup fragrant with toasted rice to my lips. The hot liquid descended deep into my belly, calming the ache in my soul.
“You nearly got yourself killed trying to save that old man.”
“What happened to him?”
Binh did not reply. Dull horror filled me and my mind spun.
“Face reality brother, you’re only alive because I told them you wanted to join us. Might as well give up on this fairy tale. If I were a ‘traveler’, I’d just go to sleep and dream of a place far away from here. Why are you wasting your time? Go to sleep.”
“But I’m supposed to be here,” I said, more to myself than to Binh, “To do something...”
“To do nothing. Nothing you’ve talked about is connected to anything.”
“No brother, it’s all connected. With every death, we pull ourselves back into this cycle. Come with me to the Central Highlands. Learn about all that was taken from you. Within the root of every Vietnamese is Chăm ancestry.”
“Are you crazy? We’re in the middle of a war!”
He was right. What was I thinking? I studied his face and realized for the first time how tortured his existence had been - deprived of a childhood, forced to fight a war he did not believe in. Maybe there was nothing to be done - maybe we were just supposed to live each life unconnected, the soul’s journey a series of inconsequential miserable diversions. But then it occurred to me – he did not know everything.
“They massacred the adults, but not the children.”
He stared at me, holding his breath.
The year that we lost Vijaya, Halei was thirteen and I had just turned eighteen. Everyone in the city took up arms, resisting for hours - but in the end, we were no match for their sheer numbers. They seized our city, wrenched our parents from us, and slaughtered them in front of us. For hours we huddled, the children of Chămpa, as the screams of our parents echoed like nightmares all around us. Afterwards they forced us to drag the bodies of our parents to pyres, beating us with canes if we stopped to sob.
At night we were pushed into sleeping masses of children, our stomachs empty but our grief too great to notice. I did not allow myself to sleep; I was afraid to travel. When the sun rose the next day, Vietnamese soldiers chained Halei to other girls and took them away. I lunged after them, clawing at their arms, but my bravery slacked when they raised their machetes to me. I was terrified of leaving Halei so I stopped struggling. At night, when I laid down to sleep, I filled my thoughts with her, hoping my dreams would bring me to her.
The first night I fell asleep, I travelled to the middle of an encampment of soldiers. She was nowhere in sight and I tried to crawl away, but I was detected and beaten before I was returned to the camp of boys. The second night, I awoke in the outskirts of the city among a group of women and children making their way south down the river.
I found her on my third attempt when my travels brought me to the steps of a temple next to the mukhalinga of Shiva that my parents had carved. Halei was tied to it, her face bloodied and bruised, her lower lip split. I woke her up and freed her from her ropes.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“A soldier came for me. Dragged me into the temple.” Anger and bile rose in me.
“I went crazy, Tepa.” I flinched hearing the sound of my formal name on her lips. She only used it when speaking of something unpleasant.
“I kicked him but he just laughed at me. And…my hairpin, the one mother carved for me, I stuck it in his eye,” her face contorted with fear, “Tepa, he went to get others – they are going to tear me apart.”
I grabbed her then and ran. We slipped out of the temple into our cities’ alleys. I was her strength, holding her up, and she was my speed, her stronger legs leading the way as we weaved through the city, dodging past soldiers slumped over in their drunken stupors, celebrating our massacre. When we found our way out of the city, I pushed her ahead. I knew that my cursed flimsy legs slowed her down but she refused to leave me.
It only took them a matter of hours to catch up to us. Four soldiers cornered us, giddy at the prospect of torturing us. They toyed with us, pushing us back and forth as I beat my fists on them and Halei threw dirt in their faces.
Then one of them tripped me. As I fell, I nabbed a fistful of his shirt making him falter and drop his machete. I grabbed the machete and swung it around me wildly, holding Halei close behind me with my free arm.
“Tepa,” she breathed into my ears, “Troll.”
I heard the meaning in her unspoken words.
“No! We just need to run.”
“We won’t make it.”
“Yes we will!” Panic and tears blurred my vision, but I knew she were right. My legs were too weak and she, small and light as she was, could not outrun them.
“Please, Troll. I don’t want this life.”
Blind with fury, I swung my machete wide, forcing them to jump back before turning to make a clean cut across Halei’s neck.
“In the next life, brother, I will repay you,” she said. And then she was gone.
“And you?” Binh asked, his voice flat, “What happened to you?”
“They beat me until I felt the light fading from me. I clung to a memory of our family on the shores of the beach that bordered Vijaya. When I awoke, I was on the beach. In front of me was an ocean, cool and unforgiving. Behind me the bones and ashes of our people spread like dust across the Chămpa that was no more.”
Without a word, Binh turned and stomped out of the room leaving me in the dark, feeling as if I had just lost my sister all over again. For hours, I fought sleep until shouting filled the house. Two soldiers flung the door open and lugged me outside where they threw me into a circle of cowering men, women, and children. Artillery fire rained from all directions.
Cadre Ky was yelling as he and soldiers tied us together and pulled us toward a field. Soldiers ran on either side of us, beating at us, pushing us to run faster. We clamored, bumping into one another. In the field, to my horror, I saw Binh and a squadron of soldiers standing next to a large pit. Binh caught my eye. He was immobilized, unable to participate any more than I was able to walk into my own death.
“Push the first one in and the rest will follow,” Cadre Ky ordered. Soldiers yanked the woman at the front of our line. She resisted as long as she could, begging for all of us, before tumbling into the pit, pulling all of us with her. I felt it all in slow motion, the sudden tug that pulled me in, falling against people writhing as we attempted to defy gravity, squirming bodies under me and the weight of bodies on top of me, crushing the air out of my lungs.
Soldiers shoveled dirt over our heads as Binh stood motionless, his face terror-stricken. Dirt fell over my eyes, obscuring my vision but he knelt down to brush the soil aside.
“Binh!” a voice called, “The Americans are here!”
“Go! I just want to finish this!” he said, returning his gaze to me. Shots flew overhead and he ducked but not soon enough. Doubling over, he fell into the mass grave beside me, our faces inches from one another. Blood trickled from his mouth.
“No!” I screamed, “I’m supposed to make this right.”
“Maybe it’s my turn, brother, to make things right,” he said, his words slow and forced. The muzzle of his rifle met my throat. I looked at him and in my mind I saw Halei –the same expression of torment from so long ago flashing in his eyes. In her eyes.
“It’s time brother - time for you to rest.”
Binh reached his hand out to grip my forearm. The distant scent of incense and peach blossoms billowed by, tinged with acrid gunpowder. A curious peace filled me. I smiled and cleared my mind.
Zora Mai Quỳnh is a gender queer Vietnamese writer whose short stories and essays can be found in The SEA is Ours, Genius Loci: The Spirit of Place, and POC Destroy Science Fiction, Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler. Her short story "The Chamber of Souls" was translated and featured in the Czech version of the "The SEA is Ours" anthology. Her short story, "The Seashell,” published in Masque & Spectacle was nominated in 2015 for a Sundress Best of the Net Award for fiction, given honorary mention by the literary magazine, Glimmer Train, and was featured in APAture 2016. Her creative non-fiction essay, "Meta Eulogy: Nguyễn Ngọc Loan By A Vietnamese American," published at DiaCRITICS, was nominated in 2015 for a Sundress Best of the Net Award for creative non-fiction. She was a finalist for the 2014 Barbara Deming Writing Grant.