The sun had notyet risen, but above the grassy plain, the mist was already starting to driftaway. The village of Diem –a cluster of shacks along the highway – wasemerging from the night.

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The war was almost over. On the other side of theplain, the enemy artillery base lay silent; no reconnaissance plane had yetappeared on the horizon. At the edge of the village, the last clandestinesupply truck crossed the A Rang river, using the stone ford built to replace theiron bridge that had been lost in the bombing. Ripples fanned out from thetruck in concentric circles and died away, leaving the water still.

A voice rose lightly from somewhere in the fog,floating away with the night"s last murmur, moving further and further alongthe banks of the river, singing:

I wanderthrough life, not knowing where I"ve come from.

I am the shorethat awaits the touch of your feet.

Beyond the jagged foothills that bordered the plain tothe east, a shimmering red sun rose. The mist gave way to translucence, and thesky turned blue. Across the plain, drops of dew sparkled in the light likediamonds on the grass. The singing grew louder, at once sombre and ethereal,vibrant and savage.

The voice belonged to Dieu Nuong. She had been killedmonths ago, years even; no one really knew. But now, as day was breaking, thepeople of Diem, half‑asleep, heard the singing and murmured, "It"s her."

From the other side of the village, in the entrenchedartillery camp, watchmen trained their binoculars on the village.

Oh moon, how wretched I am,

My beloved hasgone, and will never return.

"Look! You see, there she is!" a soldier cried,pointing.

Behind the groves bordering the village, he thought hecould see the shadowy figure of a woman advancing, singing, a slender figurewith a graceful, swaying walk, long ebony hair cascading down her back. In thedawn, dream and reality mingled. Perhaps she was a mirage born of the song. Aghost. A lascivious, seductive, blithe phantom.

In the trenches, a captain and a political officerpassed the binoculars back and forth. The legend of Dieu Nuong, a singer fromSaigon who had been trapped in the liberated zone, was much discussed in thebattalion, and embellished with every telling.

The political officer dropped the binoculars. "If wecan"t shut that whore up, she"ll destroy the soul of this company. They"ll allfollow her."

"But how can you prevent a ghost from singing?" askedthe captain.

"By forbidding it! It"s yellow music, anti‑military.And why does she start yowling at exactly the same time every day? It might bea signal. Or maybe she"s trying to seduce our men, lure them into her bed soshe can infect them with diseases, sap their fighting strength. That"s probablywhat she"s after."

"But she sings so beautifully."

A group of infantrymen was crossing the plain. Astraggler stopped and looked towards Diem. Mist rose in curls off the greenwater of the river. A breeze swept over it, carrying off the song. The soldiersfelt the voice shiver through their bodies, its melody caressing their hearts.Clear, luminous, pure as the dawn air, the song swelled with the sadness of thevast, forests lost beyond the horizon, ignoring the frontiers, the frontlines, mocking the battlefields, the bombs, the killings.

When my ownbattalion arrived in Diem in I973, Dieu Nuong was still alive. We knew almostnothing about her: only that she had come here the previous summer, after theoffensive of the Armed Forces of Liberation and the débâcle of theSaigon troops. Those who claimed to know more told conflicting stories.

"They say that she wasn"t wearing a stitch of clothingwhen she wandered over here."

But during that summer of flames, she would not havebeen the only one suffering. Thousands had been killed, and there were corpseseverywhere, lining the roads, piled up in the fields, floating in the rivers.Those who had survived were often more dead than alive. The village had beenalmost completely destroyed; only prickly underbrush, heaps of shatteredbricks, broken tiles and splintered beams remained. Here and there, makeshifthouses, half‑shack, half‑trench, rose from the debris.

Dogs scavengedin the rubble, retrieving the remains of the vanished past: tattered pieces ofclothing in garish colours, hats, leather and plastic objects, bits of wood andglass, household goods – and human bones, which the dogs fought over.

Before that summer, Diem had been a thriving communityunder the protection of the Americans. The men had lived off their army wages;the women had worked in small businesses. But then the village was attacked.Day after day, the planes came, raining bombs on the houses and the fields. Theriches of the American days were over.

The following year, my company, Artillery BattalionNo. 17, arrived in Diem to defend the A Rang river against the air force. Wewere stationed at the edge of the ghost village.

The inhabitants of Diem were destitute, almost wild.The few remaining men, the blind, crippled remnants of the puppet army, nolonger received rations. Only the women dared venture outside, gaunt and dazed,dressed in rags, surrounded by swarms of hungry children.

Most of these people were refugees from the towns,villages and military camps of the region who, in trying to escape the previoussummer, had run up against the tanks of the Liberation Army. One night thatsummer, at around midnight, there was a massacre. It was said that therefugees, hearing the rumble of an airplane far away, lit thousands of torchesand formed a huge, flaming cross right in front of the church. In the darkness,they screamed, waving to the pilots. No one heard the first salvos, no one sawthe first flashes from the horizon. For hours on end, people fell under a hailof shells. Wave after wave of American planes flew over until dawn, showeringthe mass grave with bombs. Dieu Nuong was among the few survivors.

Diem was plunged into misery and hunger. Everyone hadto work the land, bending over the rows of manioc, toiling in the rice paddies.Everyone had to submit to the Revolution. Those who protested were persecuted,and many were shot.

Dieu Nuong herself was imprisoned. They locked her upin an underground dungeon for three days as punishment for singing her yellowsongs, but this didn"t cure her; she continued to live in her own world, day, at dawn and at dusk, she would sing. People whispered that at night,soldiers visited her dilapidated hut on the riverbank, knocking at her door,scratching at the bamboo walls. They brought their rations: rice, a packet ofcigarettes, a bit of cloth, some thread, a needle, a mirror, a comb, matches,salt – anything that could be traded for sex. Her reputation as a madwoman anda prostitute spread among the villagers.

The story went that she had been a singer in a musicaltroupe in Saigon. Her troupe had agreed to perform for a unit of Special Forcesstationed in Tan Tran. The performance started just as the tanks of theLiberation Army invaded the city. Dieu Nuong fled, following a stream ofrefugees through blazing fields to Diem, where she found herself trapped. Onthe night of the massacre, she was buried under a mountain of corpses in thechurchyard. For an entire day she breathed in their stench. When she was pulledout from under the pile, her body, drenched in blood, looked like a block ofred lacquer. It was said that the terror of that night had finally driven hermad.

Our battalion grew accustomed to her singing; dayafter day, like a savage wind, her bewitching, startling voice drifted acrossthe plain. She sang odes of longing, of yearning for the homeland, of nostalgiafor a life devoted to her art, to the audiences and the limelight. She sang oflost youth, lost beauty, of everything that was gone:

Oh, for thetime when we knew love,

When we too hada homeland.

The people of Diem still hum this lament, the songDieu Nuong first sang the night a convoy of prisoners crossed the villageshortly after the massacre. Hundreds of wretched men in camouflage uniforms,bound together in pairs, dragged themselves along the road. Frightenedvillagers watched furtively from inside their shacks, searching for relativesamong the prisoners. No one dared venture out to the roadside. But then, frombehind the trees, at the end of the village, a figure appeared – Dieu Nuong. Itwas twilight, the hour of apparitions.

Muttering, a wild look in her eyes, she slashed at theundergrowth, following the prisoners. The men, hunched over, dragging theirfeet along the road, didn"t notice her, until she began her unearthly singing.Her voice was feeble, and she kept stopping to catch her breath. One of theprisoners raised his voice along with hers. Another joined him. Then another.Dieu Nuong"s voice seemed to touch each man"s lips like a kiss. The prisonersbecame a choir, and their singing drowned out the noise of their marching. Theguards tried to impose silence, but soon lowered their bayonets.

The villagers swarmed to the edge of the road,staring, silent and petrified, as the procession disappeared into the vastnessof the forest. Amplified by the chorus of wretched men, Dieu Nuong"s songechoed through the night.

... In thiswar where brother kills brother,

 we are nothing but worms and ants.

Oh, for thetime when we knew love,

When we too hada homeland.

Dieu Nuong hasno tomb. She lies somewhere on the plain, a mound of earth among many mounds ofearth.

At the river"s edge, all that remain of the anti‑aircraftfortifications today are pock‑marked walls shaped like horseshoes. Time hasfilled most of the gaping craters from the cluster and phosphorous bombs. Thefootpath that once linked our artillery unit with the village is now a faintwhite trace twisting in and out of the tall grasses along the river. But thesoldiers, now scattered, can"t have forgotten this path. Back then, twice aday, the army cooks used it to transport meals for the combatants. And atnight, especially when there was no moon, the soldiers would secretly sneak offalong the path to "win the hearts of the people," plunging into the silentgrasses, moving towards the river, piling into junks the moment the shadow ofthe guerrilla patrols appeared.

In those days, contact with the population of theliberated zones was forbidden. Those who had no mission there were under ordersto stay out of the village. People who disobeyed could expect punishment,expulsion from the Communist Party and every other imaginable misfortune. But asoldier near the people is like fire near straw.

Relations between the soldiers and the inhabitants ofthe village"s dilapidated straw huts were not close, but a path through thegrass had silently been etched. By day, no one but the cooks and theirsuppliers dared use it. But at night, it was the road to love.

In mybattalion, a soldier"s supreme ambition was to become a cook"s helper under theorders of Cu – the only man who was permanently assigned to the village.

The kitchen had been built next to the church. Cu hadchosen the plot because he thought it an unlikely target for the bombers, andbecause it was near a well that contained the clearest water in the village. Cuwasn"t happy to be sharing the well with the priest, but the priest wasaccommodating, and more reasonable than the other villagers, whom Cu regardedas a bunch of good‑for­-nothings. They lived among fields, but ever since theyhad been forced to become farmers they had lost all desire to work the land.They had probably become too accustomed to living off American aid and werenostalgic for the golden age when men enlisted and women prostituted themselvesto the Americans and their collaborators. Cu believed they were all in leaguewith the enemy, secretly waiting for an opportunity to rejoin them, hidingtheir true loyalties behind a façade of patient resignation.

Cu couldn"t understand why his companions lost theirheads over the village women. The fifty men in the company had been livingpeaceably in the depths of the forest for years, but as soon as they werestationed on the plain, under an open sky, near a river, a village and women,the quarrels started. Yet the women here were completely different from thosein the North; they weren"t obedient, faithful, courageous, ingenious andresponsible; nor were they heroines of the resistance. The entire village, Cuthought, was teeming with female microbes.

"Female microbes spread gonorrhea and syphilis," hewould warn his helpers.

Cu wouldn"t accept just anybody as a helper. Heruthlessly eliminated the playboys, the fast talkers, the crafty ones – any manwhose talents might attract the village women. "When you"re a cook, when youwork all day with food for the unit," he said, " you"ve got to keep yourhands clean. They must not touch anything dirty or rotten, and it"s absolutelyforbidden to plunge them into the bodies of women."

The villagers were terrified of Cu, and didn"t darecome near his well or his kitchen. When they became friendly with the cook"shelpers and wanted to beg or trade things, they waited for Cu to take suppliesto the front.

Twice a day, at dawn and at dusk, Cu and one of hismen would leave the house under the guard of another helper and take meals tothe company. Nich, a tiny, pure‑breed Laotian dog who was particularlysensitive to smells, would lead the way. They went via a short section of thehighway, turned towards the village and then zig‑zagged through the huts. Theyforged ahead, their bodies tilted slightly forward, their hands on their rumpsto support the enormous baskets hoisted on their backs, which gave off warmthand the fragrance of cooked rice.

The village dogs fled at the sight of Nich. Theywatched, famished, from behind the rubble, but dared not bark. Only thechildren in rags, drawn by the warm smell of the rice, chased after Cu and hishelper, grasping at their baskets.

"Uncle Cook, oh, Uncle Cook," they pleaded.

"Dirty little beggars, get away from me!" shouted Cu.

Nevertheless, when a particularly brave kid followedthe procession to the village limits, Cu would stop and beckon him. Then hewould pull a bit of grilled manioc, or an ear of steamed corn, or sometimeseven a dried fish out of his basket, and say: "Here. That"s all there is.There"s nothing to eat for the bo doi. No more manioc and no more rice.All they get is salted bindweed and a bit of ginger. That"s it. The Revolutioncameraminhtan.vns you, but you"d better learn to deal with misery. Learn to dig and workhard to feed yourself. Tell that to your mother. It"s going to take a longtime, this Revolution. It"s going to take our generation and yours as well."

Today, they say that you can still see Nich come andgo along the footpath. He sniffs at the rusted, greenish casing of the 35mmcartridges, climbs over the weed‑covered trench where they once kept anti‑aircraftbatteries and dolefully watches the river.

"Uncle Cook, Uncle Cook!" One of the children fromback then, now grown up, still calls out when he sees the little dog wanderingmiserably along the footpath. Behind the dog, he thinks he can make out theshapes of two figures carrying large baskets on their backs.

The dog seems unable to leave the footpath. He alwaysreturns at dawn and at dusk. Nothing can distract him from his sleepwalker"strajectory. No one dares lay a hand on him.

"That"s the dog that killed Dieu Nuong."

At least that"s what they say. Even those who knownothing about the tragedy are afraid of this dog. Perhaps they sense that inthis painful, rhythmic promenade, there is a blindness, a madness that isalmost human.

Cu"s twohelpers were changed every month, but one day, when a changeover was due, heannounced that he did not want to lose Tuan, one of the previous month"sassistants. "He"s well trained now. He"s hardworking and meticulous. I"d liketo keep him on," Cu said.

Tuan had started as an infantryman, although no oneknew exactly where he had fought before he joined our battalion. He had beenseriously injured and, under normal circumstances, would have been invalidedout of the army, but he yielded to the Party"s exhortations and volunteered toremain on the battlefield. Instead of being sent back to his unit, he wasassigned to my artillery battalion, taking up the post of third gunner. He wastall, thin and gaunt. His Adam"s apple stuck out. A horrible scar from a rifleblow gashed his face from one temple to the corner of his lip, twisting hismouth. The other artillerymen liked to fool around, but Tuan never joined in.He remained silent, neither laughing nor becoming angry.

He ignored the planes that nosedived towards ourpositions, the bombs that exploded close by and the rockets that ripped intoour defenses; he didn"t care. This coldness, this indifference towardseverything, meant that he made a perfect third gunner. His only duty was toturn the handle of his gun and regulate the shooting according to orders.

"Artillery combat is really monotonous," he once saidto me. "It"s like typing. There"s nothing theatrical about it. It"s nothingcompared with hand‑to‑hand combat."

"That"s because you"ve only been third gunner," Ireplied. "If you want, I"ll ask the chief to move me back to your position. Youcan be number two and pull the trigger."

"Oh, I don"t care. I"ll go wherever I"m sent. It"s allthe same to me."

"If you feel that way, why didn"t you go back Northwhen you had the chance? Why did you stay?"

Tuan shrugged.

"Was it your love life? Had your wife been sleepingwith the militia? Was that it?"

Tuan grunted, but said nothing.

In fact, no one knew if he was married or hadchildren. And no one had ever seen him read or write a letter. Even thepolitical officer knew no more than the few lines written in his file. Tuannever confided in anyone.

Aside from this unusual discretion, Tuan was alsoknown for his talent as a guitarist. He was the best in the company. But hedidn"t play like a soldier, thumping out the rhythm with his foot, swinging hisshoulders; he didn"t whistle or sing as he strummed. He played distractedly,neither for his own entertainment nor ours.

"What are you playing there, Tuan? What strangemusic."

Tuan didn"t reply. He took off his guitar – an oldone, its body ready to fracture – and went into the kitchen. He had brought theguitar with him when he joined the army, and you wondered by what miracle hehad kept it intact through all that had happened.

At first, Cu was irritated by Tuan"s taciturn nature,but he got used to it. Discretion, after all, was not a fault. And the kitchenwas always busy, and Cu and his helpers spent their day running around, rushingto complete some job; there wasn"t really time to talk.

It wasn"t until late at night, after the unit had beenfed, that Cu and his helpers found a moment to exchange a few words before theyslumped into their hammocks. Cu would get out a bowl of wine, and the helperswould drink while he assigned the next day"s tasks. On quieter days, Cu andanother helper, Binh, would play cards, and Tuan would take his guitar downfrom the wall, gently adjust the strings and play softly. Binh would whistle,accompanying the music. And Cu, letting his cards fall, would turn towardsTuan, listening. One night, he recognized the tune; he had heard it every day,at dawn and at dusk: I wander through life, not knowing where I"vecome from. Was this when Cu guessed Tuan"s secret?

Outside, the rain fell, relentlessly. A dank, humidatmosphere hung over the cabin. The lamp cast a yellowish glow. The sad life ofsoldiers. Like a long sigh.

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The priest"shouse, next door to Cu"s hut, was half‑buried, surrounded by four slopes ofearth. It was sparsely furnished: a bamboo bed covered with straw, a woodenpillow, a table, a bookshelf and some holy pictures. A basket hung over theentrance. In the morning, the village faithful would leave food in it for thepriest, who seldom left his room and never ventured further than the garden. Hewas a wise old man, aloof from the world. He disappeared the day Dieu Nuong waskilled.

The year before, on the night the Americans showeredthe refugees with bombs, the priest and Dieu Nuong had found themselves lyingside by side, and it was he who had pulled her from under the mountain ofcorpses. He had revived her, saved her life, and from that day on, had takencare of her. For a time, Dieu Nuong had lived in the church, by the priest"sside, like a sister. It wasn"t exactly a suitable arrangement, but in thosechaotic times many taboos were broken; no rule survived without compromise.

Later, when Dieu Nuong went to live in her hut at theedge of the village, she often returned to the church to see the priest­ –perhaps to make her confession, or to pass on the gifts the soldiers gave herdaily, things they had saved from their meagre rations, or pilfered from thestores, or looted from somewhere.

I don"t think I am alone in saying this: I neverthought Dieu Nuong wicked. She gave me happiness I had never known back North.Many years have passed, but I cannot forget her, nor do I want to. I see herwalking alone, on a deserted road, graceful, lithe, swaying; I see her seatedon the riverbank, wistful, silent.

"Come here, soldier, honey. Don"t be afraid. I"malone."

My heart racing, I would sweep back the curtain thatwas her door and enter her room. Taking a step forward, I brushed againstsomething wonderful and warm, something that trembled, something impossible todescribe, then sank into an inferno of softness.

"What"s your name, my love? Is this the first timeyou"ve come?"

Even the hard life of the liberated zones hadn"tdestroyed Dieu Nuong"s body; there was something intensely feminine about it,making her seem more womanly than any other woman. It wasn"t just her caresses,nor the moments when she suddenly let go, consumed by tenderness, moaning andthrashing about, nor the times she panted silently, collapsing, exhausted,exuding wave after wave of sinful female desire.

"Are you going so soon?" She would hold me back." It"sa long time until dawn. Stay a while. I have something to tell you. One thing,only one thing."

But few men dared stay, and fewer still dared listento what Dieu Nuong had to tell them. No one wanted to hear it, because no onecould help her. It was too dangerous. No doubt Dieu Nuong believed that therewere still men in this world crazy enough to risk their lives for love, tobetray everything for love.

We were all anxious to see her again and so we lied toher, promising the impossible, even though we knew there was no way we couldhelp her escape. But once, a year ago, there had been a man who promised to helpher, and this man had kept his word.

I learned afterwards, when it was all over, that whenTuan was in the infantry he had passed through Diem many times.

During the summer of flames, after the massacre, thevillage had been struck by famine; the meagre stocks of food donated by the bodoi at the time of Liberation were gone. The authorities called forincreased production, and even the priest had to fend for himself.

Dieu Nuong was living with the priest at this time,and since her guardian didn"t tillthe earth, she tried todo thework of two people, felling trees and planting manioc. But she wasn"t used tothe hard labour, to the mud, and after each thrust of the hoe she would buryher face in her hands and weep. At the end of the day, her field would still becovered with trees and undergrowth.

Nearby, a group of soldiers lounged in their hammocks.They jeered at her, contemptuous of this little woman, lazy, frail as tissuepaper, who had known only the good life and who was learning for the first timewhat human existence was all about. But little by little, they took pity on hersuffering and offered to help. They spent the entire night felling trees,clearing her field. One man introduced himself. His name was Tuan. He promisedto come back in a few days to help Dieu Nuong burn the land. And he kept hisword.

Dieu Nuong"s field was perfect, the clearest in thevillage. Not a tree stump remained. When he left, Tuan promised to come back tohelp sow the manioc. And he kept his word.

The first rains came. In a few days, the manioc Tuanhad planted covered the burnt patch with a thick carpet of green. All around,Tuan sowed a hedge of squash. On the strip of land behind the church, he helpedDieu Nuong plant vegetables. Every five days or so, Tuan crept away from thefront line near the town and crossed the fields to come to Diem.

It was about this time that Dieu Nuong left the churchand made her home in a hut that Tuan had built for her on the riverbank. Thanksto him, she lost her desperate expression; her eyes sparkled and she started tosmile again.

Sometimes, Tuan brought his guitar with him to DieuNuong"s hut. He would play softly, and Dieu Nuong would sing in a murmur. Backthen, she sang only for him.

No doubt they made promises to each other. No doubtDieu Nuong told Tuan that she dreamed of leaving her harsh life, scratching atthe earth in this godforsaken village; that she was looking for a man worthy ofher trust, who would help her cross the front line and return her to the calm,comfortable life she had known before Liberation.

Tuan was confident they could cross the line – thoseten kilometers riddled with mines, patrolled by guards – for those were thedays following the peace talks. Intoxicated with love, transported by the hopeof peace, he promised to help her. And no doubt he meant it. But, suddenly, hedisappeared. Days passed, then months, no one in Diem spoke of him.

Like the rest of us, Dieu Nuong never mentioned Tuan.The memory of him and his promise had probably dissolved along with her mind.But her yearning for cameraminhtan.vndom survived, surfacing from time to time in the songsshe sang every day at dawn and at dusk. Night after night, she extractedpromises from the soldiers who visited her, promises that grew emptier witheach passing day as the war became more brutal, as bombs and shells pounded thevillage, crushing all hopes of peace.

One rainynight, as she walked along the footpath to the priest"s house, through thevegetable garden near the cook"s cabin, Dieu Nuong heard the strains of aguitar. She approached soundlessly, peering into the hut. An oil lampflickered. She couldn"t make out the guitarist"s face, but she recognized thefamiliar melody of her nights with Tuan. Frantic, she approached the door.Nich, the dog, bounded out of a corner of the cabin, barking. "Who is it?" Cushouted, climbing out of his hammock, seizing his rifle.

Dieu Nuong jumped back. The guitar stopped, and sheran off.

Cu flung open the door.

"A spy!" he shouted. "Stop!"

He caught sight of Dieu Nuong"s silhouette.

"Ah it"s you, you whore! Stop, or I"ll shoot!" Cushouted, running into the rain, slipping in the mud and falling flat on hisface. Pulling himself up, furious, he fired a volley of shots in Dieu Nuong"sdirection.

Tuan rushed out after him and grabbed the machine‑gun."You idiot!" he shouted, his voice choked. Wildly, he punched Cu in the face,threw down his gun and ran off into the blackness in pursuit of Dieu Nuong. Thevillage rang out with alarm sirens.

Binh helped Cu up and brought him back to the cabin."When people ask, you"re going to tell them that it was nothing," Cu murmuredpainfully, wiping the blood and rain off his face with his sleeve. "Tell themthat I had a nightmare, that I shot without thinking. Go and see what"shappened." He sighed. "But why did she run off?"

Later, when Binh told me what had happened that night,he said mournfully: "If Dieu Nuong hadn"t been wounded, they might have madeit."

Thinking about it now, Cu"s actions seem to meincomprehensible. He was the only one who knew something of what had happenedbetween Tuan and Dieu Nuong. Why did he shoot her?

Binh told no one about Cu firing on Dieu Nuong, orabout the fight between Cu and Tuan, nor even about the mysterious relationshipbetween Tuan and Dieu Nuong. All anyone knew was that both of them haddisappeared.

At the edge ofthe village, weeds began to grow around Dieu Nuong"s deserted hut. Rumour hadit that she had fled, or been killed – drowned in the river, blown up by abomb.

The rains seemed interminable, but little by little Iunderstood why I felt so sad. I missed Dieu Nuong"s singing; I missed her. Iwasn"t the only one; the whole company seemed depressed. There no longer seemedany reason for our presence here.

Then, on a sunny day at the beginning of the dryseason, we learned that she and Tuan had been hiding in the church, waiting forthe rains to stop and for Dieu Nuong"s wounds to heal. Now, they had gone forgood.

It was the priest who told us. He came to the trenchesat dawn, his cassock damp with mist. "Last year, one of your men seduced thegirl. The man with the scar and the sullen face. And then he came back. Notonly has he betrayed you, but it was he who led the girl to betray God." Hetold us he had alerted Cu the night before, as soon as he discovered that Tuanand Dieu Nuong had fled, but Cu hadn"t told the rest of us.

"If you really want to catch them, it"s not too late.She"s wounded and can"t walk very fast," he said. "You could take the dog."

I had the honour of participating in the operation,joined by Cu and two scouts. We left immediately. Nich led the way, movingquickly, pulling at the leash which Cu held.

We followed himin silence, fanning out, riflesat the ready. We had orders not to let them get away with their secrets aboutthe unit"s next campaign.

The traces that Nich followed led us along the river,rising towards the densely forested plain.

We quickly lost our enthusiasm. We advancedreluctantly. Dust swirled under our feet. The hours passed. Relentless, Nichfollowed the fugitives" invisible, zig‑zagging trace. But just as we haddecided to turn back, we came across a lone knia tree in the middle of afield of grass higher than our heads. Here, we could sec that Tuan and DieuNuong had lain down to rest. An army of ants was dragging away grains of rice.There was a cigarette butt, a bit of rough tobacco rolled in a piece ofnewspaper, on the ground. But the clearest sign was a shape, pressed upon thegrass – a reclining, human form, a woman"s silhouette.

We caught up with them just before dusk.

Exhausted, we stopped by a stream. Nich had lost thescent in the water, and we sat down to rest. Our silence hung in the intensered of the sunset.

Suddenly, over the murmuring of the stream, came athin, unexpected sound.

"The guitar!" cried Cu.

We listened, holding our breath. A voice began tosing.

We forded the river, creeping towards the place fromwhere the song seemed to rise. It was a pine forest. Sparse trees reached forthe sky. A thin curl of smoke evaporated in the evening.

A twig snapped. The song stopped.

I hid myself behind a tree trunk, staring, wide‑eyed.A pot hung over a tiny fire. Nearby lay a guitar. A hammock had been strungbetween two pines. Our prey had hidden in the bushes.

Silence. For a long time. Mechanically, I cocked myrifle.

"Friends, brothers!" It was Tuan"s voice. "We haven"tharmed anyone. Let us go!"

"Quiet!" shouted one of the scouts. "Stand up! Handsup! Come out of there!"

One minute. Minutes. Still silence. Cu suddenly let goof Nich"s leash. The dog ran off, and I heard him barking in the bushes.Frantic yelps of joy. The bush trembled.

"I am wandering," sang the voice.

"Crazy woman!" someone shouted. "Whore!"

Four rifles spat bullets in the same instant. Flashesmerged, ripping through the night.

We emptied four cartridges. The guns stopped at thesame moment. All four of us ran forward and then stopped, petrified.

Behind the shattered bush, two figures lay entwined.Our bullets seemed only to have locked them more tightly together. The man hadtried to protect the woman with his body, but the bullets had pierced both ofthem. The firelight flickered on their naked backs.

We stood paralyzed for a long time. Night fell. It wasas if we were chained to each other, captive to something invisible butoverpowering. The smell of gunpowder, the only trace of our frenzy, hadevaporated.

Cu started to sob.

I knelt next to Tuan and Dieu Nuong and parted them.

Two days later,we received orders to march south. We left Diem forever. I pulled myselftogether, as did Cu. There was a battle ahead of us, the only salvation leftfor our souls. We would fight and forget.

We didn"t know it then, but we had reached the lastdry season of the war. We had shot the messengers of peace, and yet, in spiteof everything, peace returned.

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On the plain, all through the dry season, windshowled. Peaceful winds; savage winds.