Wake up, Uncle!

Running all the way back home on the country lane through a green paddy-field covered by the evening fog, I couldn’t wait to tell my mother and father the great news from school. My little thatched house appeared under the areca trees. The strong aroma of grilled mud fish woke up my hungry stomach. Mmmm my favorite fish! I rushed into the kitchen where my mom was turning the brown fish on a fire of rice straw, a special way of grilling fish in my village.

“Ma, I got some good news.” I paused to make it seem more important.

“What news?” Mother looked at me eagerly while turning the fish on the fire.

“I’m qualified to take the high school graduation examinations.”

“Really?”

I knew she would ask me that question.  She always liked confirmation.

I smiled proudly: “Really, Ma.”

“Wow! Go and tell your father the great news. And this fish will be to celebrate the news.’

“But Ma, I need my birth certificate for the documentation for signing up for the exam.”

“We can get it after dinner. Now go tell your father the news and then set up the table.”

“Yes, Ma.”

After putting away the dishes, I found my mother in her bedroom looking for my birth certificate.

A photograph fell from the papers she was going through.

“Ma, am I the little girl in this picture?”

My mother glanced at the old faded black and white picture.  She nodded. “You were three years old then.”

“Why was I sitting there?  It looks like it was late at night.”

“Well, I remember it was about two a.m.  You had been sitting there for hours, and every time we asked you to go to bed, you cried.”

“I wasn’t scared by the casket?”

“Not at all! You told us you wanted to play with Uncle Lang and you got upset because he did not get up to play with you but slept in the ‘big box’”

“And what did I do there, in front of the casket?”

“You just sat quietly and played with your doll.  Sometimes you asked when Uncle Lang was going to get up.”

“And?”

“No one could answer but cried when you asked.”

“How did he die?”

“He was shot in a battle.”  Mother looked upward and sighed. “Too young to die.”

“How old was he?”

“Twenty-three.”

A tense feeling was creeping into my backbone. I was frozen, petrified that he had died so young.  A vague image of a smiling uncle dimly loomed in my mind.

“Ma, tell me more about him!”

“You were his favorite niece.  When he came back from school, he always looked for you and called your name in the way that no one could ever mimic, so soft and tenderly: ‘Here’s my treasure.’”

I strained to recall his voice, “Lang Shi!” but it was as if he were calling from the thin veil of the evening, just out of eyesight.

“Your uncle was drafted when he was 21.  He played the guitar very well and sang beautifully.”  Mom’s voice became soft. “His favorite song was ‘Colored Flares,’ which was about a soldier’s dreams of love and peace.”

“Does it go like this?” I cleared my throat and started singing. “‘Watching the colored flares, I whisper your name, and dream of a day in the future when the wedding firecrackers are heard in the street. When the war is over, we’ll find a way to a bright future’, right, Ma?”

“Yeah, beautiful, isn’t it? But…”

“What happened?”

“His dream never came true.  He was shot just one day before he was to return from his military service.”

“One day before he came back?”

“Yes, just one day!” Mom repeated to herself, looking into the distance; her eyes became blurry. “A friend of his told us they were sleeping when they were attacked.  His trench was next to Uncle’s. After a few minutes, he heard Uncle’s painful screams: ‘Minh, they got me!’ and then a dead silence.”

I looked at the three-year-old in the picture, unaware of the loss she would feel so many years later; the loss of her uncle’s smile, of his special way of calling her name. My heart sank.  The picture of a baby girl sitting patiently in front of the casket and hoping to hear someone call Lang Shi was blurring.