Difficulty drawing the sword

(No.10, Vol.1, Dec 2011 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

I looked at my watch under the flickering light of a match I had lit and held with an unsteady hand. Ten thirty meant that I had already been walking for two long hours through the dimly lit streets of Hanoi in 1990, trying to find my way from a guest house on West Lake, to the house of a new friend I had made that day who lived near Hoan Kiem Lake. She was a journalist who was covering the literature conference I was attending with other poets and writers who had fought as soldiers on both sides of the war. It had been the most amazing week of my life. Having the opportunity to sit down and share stories with men I had fought against, sometimes directly, was a healing and restorative process for my soul. It was almost over now. The rest of my group had already left Hanoi for Saigon, but I had decided to stay on a few days longer. I felt that I was just on the verge of learning something important about the culture and the people of Vietnam. That’s why when my journalist friend invited me to her home to meet her family, I accepted her invitation with joy.
There were no taxis to be found that night, and though a few strangers offered me rides on the backs of their motorbikes, I passed on those invitations because I wasn’t quite sure of myself yet out on the streets of Hanoi at night, alone, and without any language skill. I had sweat through my shirt and my hair was soaked as well. I kept using my handkerchief to wipe the sweat from my forehead and eyes as I made my way along an old rail or trolley line that I hoped would eventually take me to the centre of the city where the lake was and the house of my friend who waited with her family to meet the American who had been a soldier who participated in a war against their country.
I knew I had to do something soon, because the night was getting rather late. Although many people seemed to be up and about the streets and in the small shops lit only with an oil lantern or two, it would be too impolite to visit my friend’s home at this hour. It was also pathetic to think that I’d have to turn around and walk the two hours back to West Lake and my room at the grim guest house among the lost blossoms. Something seemed to pull me along like a rope around my body; something seemed to pull me towards some centre of knowing, but every time I got near, I was lost again in some dark alley where a small dog barked sharply at me and showed me her sharp teeth. A young boy ran out to shoo the dog away and said in practised English ‘Hello, how are you?’ I told him I was fine and asked how he was and he said ‘Very well sir. I’m happy to meet you.’ I said that I was happy to meet him too but that I was very tired and very hot and not used to the Vietnamese summer climate. He tried to say that it was hot even for the Vietnamese, but he had reached the limits of his English vocabulary.
By now I had forgotten how to pronounce the name of the lake I was looking for, or the name of the street with my friend’s house near the corner with the watch shop out front, but I knew the myth of the lake. I pulled out a pen and notebook and drew a picture of a turtle with a sword in its mouth followed by a question mark. When I showed it to the young boy he studied it intently, his forehead wrinkled, perplexed. When I looked at the drawing again, I realized what the problem was. It looked nothing like a turtle, and nothing like a sword, and the lake I had drawn from which the turtle could emerge looked more like a crater on the moon than a lake. The boy laughed when he looked at the drawing again and then called a friend over. In the meantime I drew another sketch, and although I had done a better job with the turtle, the sword still wasn’t right and when I showed it to the slightly older boy he laughed as well and shook his head and said he didn’t know in Vietnamese again and again, laughing harder every time he said it. I was laughing too, at how bad my drawing ability was, and how lost I was in a culture I was practically completely ignorant about, among people who spoke a language I didn’t speak or understand.
By then a few more people had gathered around. They were passing around my notebook with the drawings inside and they were debating as if much more was at stake – just what my drawing meant and where it was I wanted to go. An older man finally made his way to what was by now a small crowd of people. He snatched the notebook from someone’s hand and looked at it carefully, holding it up to the light and turning it over in his hands like a map. After a few moments he demanded a pipe full of thuốc lào, which someone handed through the crowd. The old man demonstrated to me by taking a long breath and then handed the pipe to me. Someone refilled the bowl and someone else readily lit the pipe and I took my own deep inhale of the black, rich tobacco and almost fainted when I stood up. The old man took a few more hits on the pipe, stood up, and then spread his arms, quieting the people and their children who had gathered now as if at some kind of carnival. When everyone had stopped talking and laughing, he said something that sounded very important, and then he pointed in a direction, beyond an intersection nearby where three streets came together. I pointed to my drawing, and then to the direction where he had pointed and he moved his head yes, and smiled with his eyes. Some comfort came over me then like a cool breeze and I felt myself relax a little. I thought that even though I’d only been to the lake once, if I could find it, I could find my friend’s house nearby. I thanked the old man, who offered me another hit on his pipe which I declined, and I walked towards the intersection he had pointed me to. Several children from the group that had gathered followed me, some holding my hands. I felt happy they were going along and assumed they would show me the way, but after a few blocks they began to drift away until finally there was only one small boy left who had been holding my hand and pulling me in the direction we were walking. Then he stopped too, said goodbye in English and pushed me in the direction he wanted me to go and then pointed to my notebook, still in my hand.

A xôi (sticky rice) shop on
Nguyen Huu Huan street, downtown Hanoi. Photo: Vu Huyen

There were fewer people on the street now and it was nearly eleven. I had no experience being on the street at night in Hanoi. During my first trip to the city in 1985 my small group and I had been escorted every where we went, and when we finally were allowed to walk through certain parts of the city ‘by ourselves’ we had been followed. Since I had now lost my way and direction, a sense of ambiguous fear covered me. But at the same time I felt liberated from some old burdens too, and I felt for the first time that I was inside the culture and intimately close to the people. I picked up my step down a busy street of shops that were closing, with a few people still sitting out on the sidewalk drinking coffee or tea, the men smoking from pipes the strong Laotian tobacco. People smiled at me in the dark and I smiled back. At one point a man who seemed about my age stopped me and invited me to sit down with him and a woman I assumed was his wife and another, younger woman who looked to be their daughter. I sat down on a small plastic chair that looked like it had been made for a child. The man’s wife brought me a cup and then poured some tea for me. When I sipped the pungent tea they all smiled and I held my small cup up in a toast that they answered. I wanted so badly to speak to them. I wanted to thank them for their kindness to a stranger passing by their house in the dark. I wanted to tell them I was sorry that I had been part of an Army that came to Vietnam to destroy their beautiful country but I could only bow and smile to those beautiful people who smiled back and filled my cup again with hot tea.
I took my note book out to have them write their names for me and tried to figure out how to ask. I got the idea to try to draw the turtle and the sword again so I tore a page of notebook paper out and as carefully as I could I drew the outline of what looked like a turtle, its long neck straining out of what looked the water of a lake, and in its mouth was what was clearly a sword. I put a question mark next to the drawing again, pointed to myself and then the street and handed him the drawing. He looked at it for a few seconds with his daughter straining to see over his shoulder and then almost immediately stood up and said ‘Oh, Hoan Kiem,’ which I didn’t understand at the time but which sounded very familiar and means ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’. He grabbed me by my wrist and led me through a small alley. It was so dark there I could hardly see my way, but I wasn’t afraid since I thought that I was where I wanted to be. We turned a corner and I could hear the faint notes of some kind of stringed instrument and a drum and the voices of people rising up on a cool breeze coming from somewhere I could not see. We turned another corner. I was breathing hard now, trying to keep up with my guide, who disappeared around another corner, thirty feet ahead of me. When I made that same turn, the lake appeared to me like a great jewel lighting up the dark. There were some lights around the border of the lake, and a small light on the island of the pagoda, and some lights too that appeared to be floating on the water. On benches all around the lake lovers sat, cuddling and laughing quietly into each other’s ears. Some children played nearby with a feathered ball, kicking it back and forth in the light of a street light while their parents sat nearby, reading the newspaper. I knew it was too late to visit my friend and that made me sad. But I had made it to the lake. I had walked from one far end of Hanoi to another and had been touched by more than a few lives along the way and perhaps had touched a few myself. That was a great accomplishment in my mind, and even if I’d maybe never see my friend again, I understood something in a deep and abiding way about her country that I hadn’t known before that night.
I took a slow walk around the lake and ended up back where I started. I crossed the street to begin my long walk back to West Lake, moving in the opposite direction to that in which I had just come. I had a lot to think about so I thought the walk would not be so bad for clearing my mind. Just as I crossed the street between two cyclos, I caught someone’s eye on the opposite corner. I blinked then looked again and recognized her as the journalist friend I’d met that morning. She smiled when she saw me and she covered her smile shyly. I crossed the street to meet her and said hello and apologized for being so late. ‘I was lost’ I said, and without looking at me directly she said ‘Good,’ and smiled again. Then the great wave of loneliness that I’d felt earlier in the evening when I was hopelessly lost was gone, and in its place was quiet and calm, and in her smile was forgiveness of a kind I had never seen or known before. I wanted to stay lost. I wanted to keep walking through the dark city until I came to some centre that I felt drawn towards, some living pulse that I couldn’t name. I had drawn a drawing from an ancient myth about honour and bravery and showed it to strangers who pointed me the way. You could call that lost, or you could say it was a blessing.
Bruce Weigl (born January 27, 1949, Lorain, Ohio) is an American contemporary poet and writer and is a Distinguished Professor at Lorain County Community College. Weigl enlisted in the United States Army shortly after his 18th birthday and spent three years in the service. He served in the Vietnam War from December 1967 to December 1968. Many of Weigl’s poems are inspired by the time he spent in the U.S. Army and Vietnam. He also published the best-selling memoir ‘The Circle of Hanh’. In The Circle of Hanh, Weigl writes, ‘The war took away my life and gave me poetry in return . . . the fate the world has given me is to struggle to write powerfully enough to draw others into the horror.’
The article is from the book After The Rain Stopped Pounding, in Vietnamese and English, Bruce Weigl, Tre Publishing House, Ho Chi Minh City, 2010.n

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