The summer of seventy six was hot. It was fearsome.
The road that ran past our farm – well, it wasn’t our farm then – had been surfaced inexpertly with tarmac just a few months earlier, a symbol of modernisation. Now it was melting in the heat of the afternoon, sticky beneath my feet as I pulled our cart from the house to the field, where my wife, Linh, was harvesting our meagre crop, and then back again.
It was hard and punishing work. Beads of sweat ran down my back. The top of my trousers, which were held tight by a length of rope where a soft leather belt might once have been, was wet. My hands were rough and blistered. I was hungry. My legs and shoulders ached. It was no job for a teacher, but there were no jobs for teachers just now. Not for my kind, anyway.
The animals were suffering too, so we had constructed a makeshift barn to protect them as best we could from the heat. Four large stakes had been driven into the ground, crudely marking out a square. Three sides of the structure were formed of abandoned metal gates that we had found in the undergrowth at the far edge of our land, near the small pond, now baked dry, that we normally used as a reservoir. The fourth side was open, for want of material, so the livestock were tethered to the posts. An old tarpaulin, stained with earth and blood, was draped over the top of the building for shade, but it was too small to cover the roof completely, so every hour or two throughout the day, we walked across to pull the heavy fabric around the frame, better to shield the animals from the sun.
The war had been hard on families like ours: bourgeois southerners. Christians. Collaborators. It was difficult to remember things as they used to be: the way that Lee would laugh sharply on an in-breath, for instance, the mock-confidence of his walk, and his eyes – deep brown and milky white – hopeful, determined, but silently fearful.
“Old man! Old man!”
The government inspector was shouting at me from the far side of the road. The insignia on the front of his military cap glinted in the sun as he raised his head to project his voice. He was, I supposed, about Lee’s age. Just a kid really – but they all were. This was the new Vietnam. Unified. Communist. Youthful. Harsh.
“What are you doing, old man? The country needs feeding. You aren’t here to enjoy the sunshine. Move it!”. His northern accent grated.
I pulled harder on the cart, which tugged itself free of the bitumen, and continued slowly along the road towards the ramshackle barn on the edge of our field. Every step was a fresh reminder of defeat. We were, I supposed, fortunate to have survived, but as enemies of the state we were subject now to re-education, working the land for the good of the people, though neither we nor our minders knew anything about it. So the crops were failing, despite the officials who shouted at us with increasing ferocity, as if things might improve through the force of will, and the multiplication of ignorance.
It was late in the afternoon by the time I reached the barn again. The sun was low in the sky, and the emaciated water buffalo was no longer able to find shelter. I decided to adjust the tarpaulin before I collected the last small bag of tapioca roots from Linh. Few of the plants had done well this year. We had planted them too early.
As I grabbed the corner of the sheet, the buffalo shuddered and snorted, with surprise or relief, I couldn’t tell which. He shuffled his feet and rocked his head to dislodge the flies around his ears, and then he looked at me – steadily, silently, with large and doleful eyes. Deep brown, milky white, resigned to his fate.
How long we stood together like this, transfixed in the blistering heat, I do not know – it felt like hours, but it was probably just a second or two before the spell was broken.
“Old man! Old man! What the hell are you up to? There’s work to be done. What’s your problem?”
“Nothing”, I said. “It’s… nothing.”
© Gerry Webber