Short story by author Trình Quang Phú from Vietnam

Επιμέλεια: Εύα Πετροπούλου Λιανού

His biography: Professor Dr. Trình Quang Phú, was born in 1940, in Phu Yen province (the South Central of VietNam). He is a member of the Vietnam Writers’ Association. He has the privilege to visit many countries around the world. A Journal of Faraway Lands records his journeys to 25 countries all over five continents. He is also the author and co-author of 50 Works since 1961.

His short story: N. 145 (*)

Author: Trình Quang Phú

Translated from Vietnamese into English by JyKhanh

“Ha, ha… ha…! Don’t you dare, don’t you dare to kill me? I’m not afraid… Ah! Ah! Kill me? Okay, but you will be avenged by my people. The ones who will die are… you guys… It’s Nguyen… Van… Thieu”.

“Mother, mother… oh, my mother, heroic mother…”

Such delirium continued in the patient. Since received at Thach Han station until now, it had been 20 hours and the patient was still constantly in such comas. The emergency medicine doses did not stop the attack, but the patient did not regain consciousness. Delirium persisted and worsened with each passing day. Indeed, this was a difficult patient to deal with for the first time. I was present for almost 20 hours with the patient. My heart sometimes tightened, I felt nervous when I saw the blood pressure spike, but the patient’s heart rate and breathing rate dropped and became weak. However, our efforts were also able to resuscitate the patient after each anesthesia. I hadn’t had time to eat dinner yet. We had to fight for his life at the door of death every minute. I also took advantage of the time when the patient recovered to make a medical record. The brothers and sisters also from the American prison – Thieu returned and helped me with the necessary medical records. My patient had many names, but whatever I called him by names, he always shook his head. He only identified himself as N. 145. It was the secret number, the same name the enemy had called him for the past 9 years. In his coma, he still called himself N. 145. In fact, N. 145 was just one of his secret numbers in intelligence operations. The enemy caught him and he only identified himself as N. 145. Later, they asked him until he declared his name Ho Chien Thang, but he always called himself N. 145.

  • You ask for my name? You know, it’s N. 145! That’s all. This is my name, you write it on the cover of the resume. Blind or what? Or you can’t read? Ha… ha… You all are a bunch of blind humans! Ha… ha… ha… 145, N. 145, do you copy? Do you copy that, blind Thieu?

I had completed the medical record of N. 145 but thought I had just gone through a sad and heroic life of a human being. I went to the hospital bed, he was still sleeping in a coma. His eyes were still closed, and his breathing was weak. But his high forehead spoke volumes about his indomitable days. I sat back and read the medical record and hoped to find something for the diagnosis and treatment indications.

“Ho Chien Thang, 37 years old, had been detained by the US since March, 1965, and was released at ten o’clock in the morning on April 10th, 1973 at Thach Han station (Quang Tri province). Patient’s condition at reception: awake, severely debilitated, thin, pale skin, bruised lips, bandage on left forehead. A medical officer asked about the wound, the patient said: “They beat me, it hasn’t healed for six months. But don’t worry, it will be fine when I’m here…”. After spoke, the patient screamed loudly and fell into a coma.

The local blood pressure could not be measured (because the patient was struggling too much).

Heart: beat one hundred and forty times a minute, beat fast, strong but irregular. Temperature: thirty-nine point five degree. Lungs: breathing sound quite rough, shallow breath. The liver was three centimeters large, palpable below the costal margin, felt pain when press down. There were many veins float along the neck, the chin was slightly flattened. Eyes wild, pupils dilated. Reflections: seemed to be absent. The patient lost sensation under the skin. Continuous coma. The patient struggled, stiff limbs…

…According to the brothers and sisters, the patient had previously joined the armed forces for liberation and was arrested while on duty. They tortured all kinds of torture such as: nailing to the tips of fingers and toes; put electricity in dangerous places; pour soapy water to stretch the abdomen and then let the slaves stepped on it to overflow the nose and mouth…; forced to sit in front of thousands of watt lights; or get hit on the shoulder, head…

…The patient began to have a delirium in 1970. When the enemy brought his mother and forced her to advise him to surrender… He and his mother both refused to give in to the enemy. Then they killed his mother in front of him.

The later comas became longer and closer. In his comas, he often laughed hard at his enemy and always praised his mother. The enemies often got angry and beat him even during the coma…

My N. 145 was still constantly in such comas. I kept hoping that after each sleep, he would wake up like every other neurological patient. But in N. 145 it was different, one after another, delirious and then sleeping, then waking up again and again. I was beginning to lack confidence in my medications and even my little knowledge. I was confused in the diagnosis. It seemed that a disease that combined all the coma patterns: of a Stokes-Adams of the heart, of a hypoglycaemic shock, also had a pattern of hyperuremia and had more and more symptoms of seizures due to brain injury… There was a time when I felt my stomach rumbling. I was afraid I couldn’t save him. Therefore, every time I consulted, I often made many assumptions so that the group of fellow doctors could help me gradually distinguish and I asked to increase the consultation. It could also be said that: For our job, the death of patients was not uncommon and the patients stood between the life and death were not uncommon. I had also stay awake many times, put my whole mind with the brothers and sisters to save their lives. There were cases where our efforts didn’t work. But… each of us was relieved that we had slapped the last bucket of water…

But in this case of N. 145, with the patient I had only seen for twenty hours, there was something too attached to me. I knew that I tried my best… but if he died I couldn’t rest assured. I wondered why that was and was able to answer immediately: He lived through a barbaric age of murderers. They didn’t kill him. He came here, as his alias, he was the winner. So maybe we crossed our arms… The ultimate anxiety and worry of me and my colleagues was that.

* The night was almost over. A strange bird at Ai Tu airport woke up and chirped, it must had been a bird that survived in the rain of bombs and bullets. I looked outside, the sky was already bright. The cool air of the early morning followed the wind from the Hieu River gently blowing in the face. I felt so fresh after an afternoon and a stressful night of stayed up. I stood by the window, inhaled the fresh morning air with much hope. Suddenly from the hospital bed, N. 145 stirred and asked for water. His voice was very soft. The habits of profession helped me to see that he had regained consciousness. As a great joy, I gladly went to him. His eyes were back to normal with pure gentleness.

  • Are you thirsty?
  • Yes!

I poured ready-made ginseng water for him to drink. He was as docile as a child, gulped spoon by spoon. I watched him drink well and looked at his face – Our medical profession often looked like that, not to commented on the beauty or ugliness of a person’s face but to found change and realized diseases.

He clearly showed the difficult years he lived in the imperial prison. His protruding cheekbones, slightly parted chin, and high forehead showed his inherent determination. His eyes still hid the fatigue of the sickness…

  • Do you feel hungry?
  • No.
  • Are you tired?
  • Yeah, a little bit… Doctor, what hospital is this?
  • Yes, this is our liberation area hospital.
  • Is that so? Wow, I’m so happy! I’m finally back…
  • Yes, that’s true.
  • So happy…

His lips formed a very open smile. A smile like the dot of a difficult equation solved. I wanted to ask him more about his illness, but I was afraid that something in my questions would bring back painful and angry memories in him? Maybe by an accident pulled the sickness back… I sat still and asked him to measure his pressure. His body returned to normal. His heart beat slowly, although tired but still very neat. I heard his heartbeat and felt my heart so light. That whole day, from the time I left the hospital to my place of rest, I couldn’t sleep. N. 145’s eyes were like a ray of light shining back into my eyes. I felt like there was something going on in my head. I tried to brush it off and thought it was because of my admiration for N. 145’s past of integrity, courage, and grit.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, as usual, I returned to N. 145’s bedside. When he saw me, he sat up and brightened up:

  • Hello, doctor. Well, the last few days the doctor has been hard on me?
  • No, everything is fine. How do you feel in yourself today?
  • I’m fine… Hey, doctor, I want to go outside for a bit. Is that okay?
  • Yes, sure. That’s very necessary for you too.

I understood his heart, the heart of a soldier for nine years sitting in an imperial prison… I took him to the corridor and introduced him to the surroundings. Where the flagpole was the old watchtower at the beginning of Road 9 in the middle of Dong Ha town, now was the “capital” of the Revolutionary Government of Quang Tri province. To the south, the whole area was sprawled with duralumin, iron and steel lied over there, which was Ai Tu airport the day before.

  • Wow, they deserve to be like that. Here before we are all good fighters, right doctor?
  • Yes…

He gazed passionately at the Revolutionary flags fluttering in the wind and filled his eyes with the free sky. That blue sky, fluffy clouds, and larks flying and chirping were all new and familiar to him. During the days in the cell like other communist soldiers, he just wanted a ray of sunshine, a cool breeze. Now it was all around him. Maybe it reminded him of his hometown. He turned to me and asked:

  • Hey, can I ask you something. Which province do you come from? Is there anyone in your family?

His question revived in me the memories of home and family. Nineteen years later, I had received nothing but the cruel news: My brother died in Con Dao and my mother was captured by the enemy. My father and I went to gather. I was only 7 years old that day. My brother also took me down to the harbor to say goodbye. Although nearly 20 years passed, I couldn’t forget the image of that afternoon at Quy Nhon harbor. My brother was standing outside the barricade of the port area, raised his hand to wave to my father and me. I turned to look at him and then got off the train to follow my father and I was felt so sad. That was it, seven thousand days! I grew up in the North, graduated from medical university. Responding to the call of the National Liberation Front, both father and me volunteered to return to the South to fight. My father returned to Area Five and fought in his hometown. I myself was allowed to enter the army medical, participated in the campaign to liberate Quang Tri and now took on the task of welcoming political prisoners returned by the enemy. Many times, I hoped in the groups of people return from across the Thach Han River, among the patients I examined here, there would have my dear mother.

Suddenly, I felt smaller and before N. 145, I was not a doctor but just a sister in his hometown. I told him briefly about my situation. He sat silently as if he sympathized with my thoughts. Suddenly he turned to me and asked me urgently:

  • How old are you this year?
  • I’m 26 years old.
  • Is that so? So I honestly ask you, what commune are you from?
  • Sure, I live in An Chan.
  • Wow – His voice sounded happy – So did you have another name when you at home?
  • Yes! My parents called me…
  • Is it Bon?
  • Oh! Ten years of living in the North, only few people know my name. As if an electric current ran through my body, my whole body trembled, my heart pounded, I turned my eyes to look at him straight in the face:
  • Yes…
  • God! Bon… It’s me… Your brother is here.
  • Brother! – I cried out in emotion and could not hold back the tears.
  • Bon, my God! – He hugged my shoulder and shook – This kid, look how big you are… He was filled with joy then suddenly his eyes closed, his face changed color and he put his hand on his head… The happily feeling inside me interrupted, he fainted in my arms.
  • Brother Hai, brother Hai! – I called him, the call of a sister, not a doctor anymore.

People came to help me put him to bed. He smiled. He laughed loudly and happily, but my heart was like been cut by a knife. He laughed as much as I cried.

My colleagues and patients in the room were amazed. They hadn’t shared with me and my brother the joy of reunion, but they shared with me the pain… He laid quietly for a while and then laughed again, he laughed so hard just like before.

  • Thieu, you lost, you lost! You can’t kill me, I’ve returned to my Homeland, my family… Ha… ha… ha…

I stood by him, took care of him and did the actions of a doctor, but I felt like I was not a doctor. I felt so confused. Suddenly, the station chief doctor and some of my other colleagues came to me. The station chief doctor came to my brother and asked:

  • Is this your brother-in-law?
  • Yes, it is.
  • Congratulations comrade, now it is “both a comrade and a brother”. One side is patriotic, one side is home. Usually, we have to sacrifice our love for our country, but comrade has both. Right?
  • Yes! – I softly replied.
  • Is there anything new in the patient’s progress?
  • Yes! His blood pressure and heart rate in the allowable range, pupils dilated a little…

The station chief doctor heard the news, reviewed the file and said:

  • Comrade must be very calm. N. 145 is in a coma, but this is a trance caused by joy… This coma wouldn’t last, is it, comrade? Now put the patient to sleep and the long-term treatment can be determined. N. 145 is a resilient soldier, today’s reunion will strengthen him so he can recover quickly. I felt light and comfortable. I held his hand tightly and hoped that after his sleep, he would wake up and gentle smile of the liberation soldier, my brother’s, would bloom on his lips.

Dong Ha, Spring 1974.

(*) The Best Short Story Award 2012 of Writers Magazine (Vietnam Writers Association)