PROLOGUE: Hate and Struggle, 1954
We're peasants, we're shoulder by shoulder
Rush forward fighting for our lives
A dishonest and greedy band have exploited us freely
They have oppressed us
We hate and struggle with the exploitative landlord band.
The children's shrill voices drifted across the waterlogged rice paddy to where Que sat bowed in his narrow boat. Monsoon rains had filled the canal, the ponds and the fields. The whole area merged into a patchwork of dull mirrors that reflected a threatening sky. Mai Dong village was now an island. The water of Tonkin's Red River delta lapped to within a few meters of Que's home.
With the harvest over, fishing occupied the peasants' time as they watched the flood creep higher and higher. Behind Que lay the rotted brown stumps of a thick bamboo fence that used to encircle the hamlet. Once a symbol of its pride and resilience in the changing landscape, Mai Dong's streets were now open to both the elements and intruders.
Across the impassive water, church spires and scattered tombs of the village ancestors rose above the brown expanse. It would be spring before the heavy air cleared and Que could see all the way to the foothills on the edge of the delta, from where they marched up into the country's inhospitable interior.
When the songs finished a deep breath shuddered from him and Que returned to his bait. As his nimble fingers gathered the line, a pensive crease returned to his brow. The smell of cigarettes textured the clean air. Someone was coming. Shortly the rhythmic splash of oars brought two young men into view, Bo and Vi. They had been friends of Que’s eldest son, Tung. Their pants were clean and dry from a day spent teaching revolutionary songs to the school children.
“There is a committee meeting,” Bo hailed, a little too loudly. His voice rang out across the empty landscape, without carrying the message he'd intended. The expectant silence unsettled him. Que had never attended, nor ever been invited to, a meeting of the People's Committee. So after a moment’s awkwardness Vi completed the directive. “You must come with us now, Ong Que.”
The respectful address was jarring in contrast to their manner. A few years ago it would have been inconceivable for teenagers to demand an older man's presence anywhere. As they paddled ahead dark thoughts saturated Que’s mind. There was no reasoning with these slogan-fed teenagers. He knew what his father would have said, “The roots are stuck in the air while the leaves are buried.”
This was the manner in which land reform came to Mai Dong.
Que always strove to deal equitably with the Communists. He had protected and donated to their squads in the past. They described landowners as absentee autocrats who owned hundreds of acres and employed servants in opulent homes; a Frenchman or corrupt Mandarin with no connection to the land. No one in Mai Dong owned more than a few acres of scattered plots. It had been that way for centuries.
He drew his boat up to the bank and followed the young men to the center of the village. A low-roofed building with one open side faced the broad clay courtyard of the market. Behind a table inside sat four unfamiliar cadres – professional revolutionaries and the Communist Party's intellectual core.
Bo and Vi looked expectantly at the men, but were ignored.
“May I go home and change my pants?” Que asked.
“Stand against the wall and be quiet,” one of the cadres said.
Que felt like he had been slapped.
The room soon filled with other peasants from the village. Bo and Vi sat among them on the dusty floor. Only the poorest members of the village, those from the Communist run Peasants Association, had been invited. The lead cadre began the meeting with a political lecture about exploitation by evil landlords. Spittle flew and heads nodded. At the climax of his speech he turned to Que, wielding a finger, rigid in accusation.
“Where did your land and your tiled home come from?”
In his hand was a list of assets that Que, along with the other villagers, had been told to submit.
“My home and some land were given to me by my Father. The rest I bought after working hard with my wife and children,” Que replied.
“Liar! Working hard cannot make you rich. All your properties come from exploiting other people!”
“I do not exploit anybody.”
“Your stubbornness shows disrespect for the people. You have used your exploited money to send your sons to attend the enemy's school in Hanoi where they learn the enemy culture. Your children will grow up to follow the enemy against the people and against the Communist Party!”
During this exchange Que glanced up and saw his youngest sons, Co and Sa. Their teacher had gone to his house and brought them in to witness his shame. Eleven year-old Co was staggered to hear his father being spoken to so aggressively. Que was relieved that his eldest son Tung, now twenty-six, was not there among his accusers.
The cadre handed a piece of paper to one of the peasants. He can't read, Que thought to himself. The note was passed along. Everyone watched the paper travel from hand to hand across the room. Que grew hopeful as he saw the shame and fear weighing on the assembled peasants. Eventually the teacher snatched the paper up and called Co forward to read it aloud.
The boy gulped before the trembling sheet. It was a list of crimes.
“Owning more land than other villagers,” he read.
Before he could continue the cadres at the table cried out in unison, “Down with the landlord! Down with the landlord!”
Following Bo and Vi, sat amongst them, the crowd responded, “Down! Down!”
Co shook. Tears sprung into his eyes as he was told to continue.
“Owning a house with a brick tiled roof.”
“Down with the landlord! Down with the landlord!” The cadres shouted again.
The crowd responded together, “Down! Down!”
“Sending his children to school in Hanoi.”
“Down with the landlord! Down with the landlord!”
With every accusation the intensity of the shouts grew. The crowd fed on its own anger. Co watched his father’s head sink to his chest and broke down in tears.
Que scrutinized the damp floor beneath his feet. Water dripping from his pants had stained the pale clay dust. A dark circle surrounded him. The rules of hierarchy and status that had codified every relationship in the villages of Vietnam for a millennia were being upturned; the order of heaven usurped. Que's rank as a notable and descendent of the village gods meant nothing. While his thoughts floundered in confusion he remained impassive, hoping to save face for himself and his accusers. Looking up would indicate contemptible defiance, breaking down would show contemptible weakness. So he concentrated on remaining calm and respectful. Soon the cadres began to bring the room to order. Sensing the worst was now over he bent down to scratch his foot.
“Who allowed you to bend down?” a cadre barked.
“A mosquito bit me,” Que replied.
“A mosquito could not kill you. You disrespect the trial! You disrespect the people! Down with the landlord! Down with the landlord!”
And again the crowd responded, “Down! Down!”
Through the seething animosity, neighbors were brought forward with fabricated stories of oppression and abuse. Que was spat on. One of his own nieces accused him of molesting her. Guilt was assumed, and with every story the crowd swelled and surged.
Lamps were lit and the rehearsal continued until midnight.
“In three days there will be a public trial,” the cadre said in conclusion. The peasants' lines had been practiced and their reactions trained. They would lead the whole village in complicity towards the intended verdict. In the meantime Que was put under house arrest.
Co fought to stifle his sobs as he followed Que and the guard home. He had never seen his father suffer such humiliation. Men who had come to his father for advice now spat on him. Women who'd told their sons to follow his example invoked curses against him. Why would family friends he had known all his life say such terrible things? Co wished his brother Tung was there to defend his family. The accusers would surely listen to him.
In fact, it did not matter that no big landlords, oppressive or honorable, lived in Mai Dong. The cadres had a quota to fill. The village would take part in a piece of theater designed to make everyone in Mai Dong equally guilty, fearful and loyal. Que's sentence and execution were already a formality.
Copyright © 2015 David Lucas. All rights reserved.