The Treasure

by Richard Shand

Tan Uyen, Vietnam. 1993

This story is entirely fictional but came to me as I wondered what legacy the Americans had left behind.


Silk Picture   "When the rice fields lie fallow,
I play the flute lying on the back of my buffalo.
Happy the people with a Thuan-Nghieu king.
Over the land the intelligent mind spreads like the wind.
The Lo waterfalls are clear, free and high.
We shake off the jacket of the dust of life."
     - Vietnamese folk poem

Evening settled like silt over the jungle, muting the vibrant greens and steeping the undergrowth in darkness. The air, dense and humid, had cooled now and was faintly laced with ozone, promising rain. Near the banks of the Saigon river sat a diminutive nine year old girl astride an enormous water buffalo named Bo. The girl's name was Mae. Her long straight jet-black hair hung down from under her dong la, a wide brimmed conical hat that is commonplace in Vietnam. She wore her favorite shirt with its colorful pattern of stars and moons, and a pair of faded cotton shorts.

The tree line in the distance and the river behind formed the natural boundaries to Mae's world. Aside from occasional trips to the marketplace at Phu Cuong and Saigon, she rarely traveled beyond her village. Her life was circumscribed by the annual ritual of sowing the rice, transplanting the seedlings after the first rains and harvesting the crop in fall. It was a slow rhythm driven by the monsoon winds, measured by the motion of the stars and celebrated in ancient ceremonies honoring the ancestors. There was no running water in the village, no electricity, and Mae and her people lived adrift from the technology that had transformed much of the rest of humanity. The state radio was heavily censored and, apart from a few tantalizing pieces of evidence such as Oakland Raiders tee shirts and Guns 'n' Roses cassette tapes glimpsed in Ben Thanh, the central market place of Saigon, Mae knew little of the outside world. Some of the older people talked of the Americans who had once been here and who had built large bases such as the one at Long Binh which had housed thirty thousand soldiers.
But the Americans were long departed and, except for acres of concrete slabs, peeling buildings and the odd piece of derelict equipment rusting in the fields, the passage of time had erased their presence. Tales of the second Indochina war had become the stuff of myth.

Mae watched the storm approaching in the distance. The clouds hung low in the evening sky, a dense mass of vapor that seemingly glowed from within, suffused with the light of the dying sun. Below, lay the rice paddies freshly flooded with spring rain. Partitioned by dikes, the still waters formed a shining counterpane reflecting the clouds above. Groves of coconut and banana were dimly visible alongside the irrigation ditches which led to the paddies.
Beyond lay the village. The houses were lost in the gloom but the kerosene lamps within gave off a cheerful glimmer. Tall stands of bamboo made a tangled tracery against the horizon. Mae was reminded of the delicate scissors-cut silhouettes of feathers and flowers in her grandmother's album.

Mae listened. All around it was quiet. The crickets had stopped chirping and even the dogs in the village had fallen silent. There was no sound of her mother's voice calling her back home, only the hush of the jungle and the distant rumble of thunder. Dusk was Mae's favorite time of day. It was cool and the landscape was steeped in darkness and mystery. Nearby, leaves rustled and Mae felt a breeze on the nape of her neck, as though an unseen spirit had just passed by. Bo shifted uneasily beneath her.
Pushing back her dong la, Mae looked up. Long wisps of rain hung over the tree tops like strands of a woman's hair. Slowly, gracefully, the streamers of water descended, sweeping across the foliage and sizzling on the fronds. Several cranes took flight from the paddies. Beating the air with powerful strokes of their wings they struggled ungainly aloft, dangling their legs beneath them. Then, with a languid ease they stretched skyward, their sleek images flashing in the waters below.

It was time to hurry home. Mae's mother was often angry when Mae dallied too long in the fields and would be doubly angry if she arrived home soaking wet. Mae flicked her sapling switch and hit Bo on his flank to prompt him into motion. Bo turned his head and, beneath the wide curve of his horns, cast a baleful eye her way. Not now! Why did Bo have to be so difficult? Mae hit him again, harder and harder but Bo still refused to budge. Giant drops of rain began to bombard down and explode in the red dust below. Deftly, Mae slid down Bo's side and onto the ground. She struck him again on the hind quarters with her switch. Bo's flank quivered and he flicked his tail.
"What's the matter with you?" Mae yelled in frustration. The sprinkle turned into a deluge. A thundering torrent of cold water cascaded down, pounding Mae and drenching her to the skin. Mae flailed Bo with ever increasing desperation but Bo had become as immobile as a block of stone.
"Bo, di di!" she shouted. "Get moving!" She picked up a clot of earth and threw at Bo as hard as she could, hitting him in the rear. Bo snorted contemptuously and bolted forward. He gamboled towards the dikes leading home, then turned suddenly and went into the undergrowth.
"No, not that way!" Bo was headed down towards the banks of the Saigon river, its brown flood-swollen waters only a stone's throw away. Quickly, Mae ran after him and grabbed his tail, pulling with all her might. Bo did not slow down and Mae was dragged, stumbling after him down the slope. The brush lacerated her arms and legs and fan-sized leaves slapped against her face, knocking off her dong la. Mae could hardly see. The rain ran down her face and into her eyes, blurring her vision. Finally, she tripped on a large root and pitched forward into the mud. Sprawled on her stomach, she watched helplessly as Bo disappeared into a gray wall of water.

Mae lay there for several seconds, partially sheltered by a protective canopy of leaves above. Hot tears of frustration welled in her eyes. That stupid Bo! Let him drown or get lost for all she cared. Reluctantly, she realized that she would have to go home without Bo and face her parent's wrath. Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself up into a kneeling position and put her dong la, which was secured by a strap around her neck, back on her head.
She began stand but stopped in mid motion. Something lay half buried in front of her. It was the size of a melon, round and sequestered within the serpentine roots of a giant banyon tree. Gingerly, Mae reached out. Her fingers touched the object and she scraped away a thin layer of grime with her nails. Beneath, the surface was smooth and hard, the color of old ivory stained brown. Maybe it was an old pot, she thought. Maybe not. She felt a tinge of fear and jerked her arm back.

Don't be silly. It's not going to hurt you, she told herself. Positioning herself on her knees, she reached forward with both hands. Gripping the object firmly, she gave a yank. It can free with a plop, trailing tendrils and vine leaves behind it. Mae could now observe it closely as she held it out in front of her. The object was hemispherical, hollow and caked inside with mud. Inserting one hand, she scooped out some of the mud then turned the object over. Hmm, some small holes and more mud. She pushed her finger into one of the holes before she was overcome with the sudden shock of recognition. A sharp intake of air rushed into her lungs. There, inches away, two sunken eye sockets stared at her. Below was a triangular hole where a nose once was and an upper row of teeth which leered back in a mocking half-grin.

Transfixed momentarily between horror and fascination, she stared at the skull, then let it drop from her fingers. Ma Tham Vong - the Whispering Death Ghost! Mae clambered quickly to her feet and backed away. If a deceased person was not buried properly with all body parts intact the soul could be destined to wander for eternity without finding any rest. Mae turned to flee but metallic gleam in a hollow between the gnarled roots caught her eye. Casting an anxious glance back at the skull, she kelt down and reached into the hollow. There, amidst a few bits of rotted fabric was a flat strip of metal, like a medallion, linked to a broken beaded chain. Mae snatched it out and rubbed the metal between her finger and thumb. Raised in relief was a name and a series of unfamiliar words:

        FALLOWS
        ROBERT T.
        US 54403562
        O POS
        PROTESTANT

Mae clutched her treasure tightly in her fist and, without looking back again, ran off into the rain.

Water molecules swirled around the remains, dissolving trace minerals leached into the soil, and ferrying strands of fiber and hair along the channels carved in the jungle floor. The trickles ran into rivulets and the rivulets into torrents, racing down into the Rach Tong Ban tributary and from there into the Quan Tan Uyen river. Shining like a sinuous band of burnished silver, the river wound past scrub jungle and rubber trees, past villages of huts scattered as if tossed by a careless hand, past flooded rice paddies towards the luminous horizon to the south. As it curved around the verdant mound of Nui Lo Gach, the river broadened and became the Song Dong Nai. The water surged under the steel bridges linking Saigon with Bien Hoa and Long Binh, and flowed another fifty kilometers, through the mangrove swamps, before reaching the mouths of the Mekong and the South China Sea. Mixing with salt water, the bits of flotsam and dissolved minerals were carried slowly north along the coast of Vietnam. Sweeping past Cam Ranh bay, Qui Nhon, and Marble Mountain, the currents crossed the Gulf of Tonkin and skirted the south of China. Picking up speed, the currents were caught by the Kuro Shio south of Japan and jettisoned into the North Pacific.

Months passed. Dispersed over hundreds of kilometers and intermixed with millions of liters of sea water, minute amounts of organic remnants were caught by the Californian current and propelled south along the coast of North America. On a moonless night in winter, waves crashed ashore on a deserted beach north of Monterey. Bob Fallows was returning home.