Short story by Pham Van Anh from Vietnam

Επιμέλεια: Εύα Πετροπούλου Λιανού

Biodata: Pham Van Anh, Major, Vietnamese author. Born: 1980. Education: Master degree in Political Science. Member of Vietnam Writers’ Association. She published 12 books of prose and poetry. She won 15 national Literary and musical awards.

In layers of the sky

The wailing sound of pheretima asiatica is lamentable and dreary. Following the sound of the earth that putting into the illusion night, the strange winds flowed from nowhere, scratching loudly at the leaves of the forest as if inviting each other to play a game of chase, causing a ribbon of wild forest spreading mixed sounds, half cheers, half lamentations.

In the distance, Cao Ba Lanh peak is vague, proud with the mountain shape in the vast sky, a towering black mass nearly 1500m above sea level. Its shape of the tortoise, like the blade of a stone ax, is full of challenges. In the cold wilderness, six people are curled up in a field sleeping bag, no one closed their eyes. They snuggle deep into their sleeping bags, trying to avoid the shivering cold that are stinging their skins to the frostbite. Each person has a line of thought.

That thoughts came out of the stared eyes looking up at the dew-cover that was temporarily strung on the four trunks of the cunninghamia. Those twelve rays of light are so deep and thin that the light-crazed planktons flying in search of a moment of sublimation to explode in the heat suddenly flapped their wings in puzzlement and then flutter their wings and fly away.


Colonel Tuynh lay at the end of the shack, his knees on the roots of a forest chestnut tree, the roots of trees that are not used to living on barren rocks, raised their heads to look for the air and the steam of the dew drops. In the group, he is the oldest, the highest rank and the remarkable thing is that his lying posture has been used to this forest for a long time. Since he and his comrades struggled through the smoke and fire of the patriotic war to keep every inch of border land, many groups of bandits and cliques have hung his head for 50,000 yuan.

Last week, when he signed on the agreement on the location of the landmark, he felt something unsettled in his heart. Walking through Phieng Lao village, the people in the village still greeted him as usual, but he still felt like they were looking at him with suspicious eyes.

They were the people who have always been with him regardless of day or night. They presented at the border every time an incident occured. Setting up camps for weeks in a row to fight for duel and wits with the militia of friend’s country, determined not to let them change even the little bit of the existing border. He avoided their eyes.

A moment later, Colonel Tuynh sat up to look. That’s right, the shape of the tortoise mountain like an ax of San Chi’s man was a place containing a story from a long time ago when our ancestor kept the land. It is said that, following the dictum “The border guard must take care of the strategy – Keeping the country requires long-term planning” of Le Thai To, a gentle king issued a decree to place a stone engraved with the date on Cao Ba Lanh peak.

The edict stated that, the stone must be placed on the top of the highest mountain to mark the boundary of our country from there. The court order returned to Chau, then went down to Lo so that the military officers would follow them and send the soldiers to carry the stone to top of the mountain. There have been many people lying in the blue mountain miasma, but the sacred stone has been placed on the top for hundreds of years. People in the forest hunting animals, finding medicinal plants, based on the stone so as not to violate foreign lands.

That stone he had seen with his own eyes when he was a rookie who had just passed through a hasty training session, trembled to touch each handwriting squiggly, straight lines, called the word “Fatherland”. That stone was gone, lost with the death of Toai, his longtime friend from the childhood.

It and him, two boys were born and raised in the fields along the Kinh Thay river. With the order of general mobilization, the two told each other to write volunteer applications and then joined the army in here. Rarely they had face-to-face combat, but every day someone died or got hit by artillery. The graves quickly piled up on Sao me Po Hen hill. The incense sticks burned strongly like a beat in a child’s chest.

The night that Toai was gone, it was also the night in the forest twisted and groaned. Before that, the two sides had a ceasefire agreement for parish people to celebrate the Easter. Both guys were pagans, so they were just happy to have a leisurely day without firecrackers.

When the sound of church bells drifted into the space with each deep and respectful drop, it was also the time when the enemy artillery on the top released thick catastrophic columns of black smoke on the ground. The bell rang in the middle of the peaceful green floor. At that time, he and Toai were lying on the peg, where there was the stone bearing a hundred-year-old mysterious legend.

Hearing the shelling sound, the two guys rolled into the dust just as a battalion of commandos entered our land. The two men with their guns discharged their full volley of bullets at the people that were rushing towards the stone. The enemy troop were stopped, quickly formed a formation to hold fire, others leaned on each other’s shoulders to push the stone down the cliff.

Somehow, the two friends got up and rushed towards it. He only had time to hear an explosion grazing his ears and then all went into chaos, hidden in gunfire and suddenly, a sharp pain from his waist to his head. When he woke up in the ambulance shack, he realized that Toai had hugged the stone tightly so that the enemy troop would not be able to destroy it.

They talked for a while and then pushed each other dig up to the base of the stone pillar, set explosives for both man and the column to fall into the cliff. After a day and a night of occupation, next to the place of the stone, a closed concrete military post was formed. Two weeks later, old Pac and a bunch of young men knitting rattan into a rope ladder went down to seek for Toai, only can find a clutter of broken stone splattered with human blood. After slipping for twenty years, after the enemy withdrew, the whole fertile land we kept that swallowed tons of explosives and mines, re-creating a prosperous region.

For nearly six months, he has struggled with every argument, searched through every mountain and forest to seek more traces and every basis to be able to prove that this landmark is correct, determined to win the dominance in demarcation, identification of old landmarks to reach a favorable agreement on the negotiation table.

He and his teammates have retained the land where every inch of land is an inch of blood. The landmark location agreed by both sides is the place where the sacred stone has set for hundreds of years. But the undulating abyss that reincarnated his best friend and the sacred rock belonged to them.

That night, after a bilateral survey to determine the location of the landmark, he sat in the mist like a sinner confessing in front of the motherland. Even this afternoon, after going up to check the preparations for tomorrow’s landmark planting, he had the feeling that someone was looking through the heavy and stinging back of his neck.

It seems that each leaf behind him is an eye bearing the look of Toai, like a knife in his chest “Oh dear friend Toai, forgive me!” He looked up at the forest canopy, his throat painfully raised a sob into the night dew into a question mark.


The dew is getting thicker and thicker, each layer overflows into the shack. The dew got in his mouth made Dinh feel uncomfortable like swallowing a reed flower, the feeling of being stuck in his throat, he wanted to spit hard, but he was afraid of waking everyone around, so he stopped. This afternoon, he and the leader of the group looked deeply into each other’s eyes, both red eyes streaked with gloomy rays.

He knew that the leader was being hurt, an invisible wound that even he himself could not have imagined that it would be so painful and frustrating. In the cold light from the fluorescent lamp, he saw the figure lying like a wooden stump that had begun to be deteriorated by his age.

As a border guard soldier, who was used to giving rice and clothes, sharing sweets with his compatriots, Dinh knew that he was not afraid of difficulties, not afraid of suffering, but only afraid that he would no longer be trusted and loved by his compatriots. During the chaotic times, the villagers were scattered everywhere, the nomadic lifestyle, dragging people’s lives into more and more difficult situations.

That difficult time, he and his teammates overcame. But as for the red brocade war he was facing, it wasn’t as simple as he thought. It made him feel like he was carrying a heavy invisible object. The opposite side has more potential and experience than our side, they have the conditions to protect their interests, so he determined at all costs to persist in persuasion and find all kinds of reasons to maintain every inch of land.

That’s the determination, but when it comes to each specific position, everything is not so simple. With a fairly solid Chinese, for six past months, he has used all his vocabulary as well as all his softness and ingenuity to point out the basics related to the location of the landmark on the peak of Cao Ba Lanh. With a cold head, over the years, following Mr. Tuynh, the respected leader of the field survey, he realized that the leader had his own personal interest in this area, but it was not convenient to ask, just quietly paying attention and finding himself own answers.

He also understands that it is because of that particularity that he is determined to the extreme, determined not to back down even 50cm. The redefining of the border will cause some of our land to belong to our friend and some of friend’s land to belong to us, which has a direct impact on the interests and activities of each citizen and each individual as well as each hamlet.

Asking his conscience, he found that he had done nothing wrong to the Fatherland and relatives because the group had used all their last efforts. The policy of rushing to complete the demarcation and planting of landmarks on the whole route pushed them into a situation that could not last much longer. The first three months of negotiations did not come to an agreement, both groups we and friend had to temporarily leave this landmark.

Until all the kilometers of the border line in charge of the team were basically completed, they continued to return. His team surveyed the border line, the running direction of the border line based on the terrain and specific landmarks and then measured with several global positioning devices, electronic mapping meters, etc. After many measurements, has identified the match point where Mr. Tuynh pointed out, but friend’s side still doesn’t accept it. Their evidence is that the military post is still existed, so the border direction cannot cut that military post towards Vietnam.

The next day, they accepted to remove the peg to place a landmark at that very point, but because the direction of the border line deviated to the northeast by nearly 10 degrees, the eucalyptus range was on their land. One meter of land running along is not much, but it is the land of our ancestors, it involves nearly two dozen households living right on the new border. In the past, it was he who mobilized them to come here and installed the marks.

They have worked on barren land to grow tea fields, and galangal fields are in the stage of harvest. A cluster of fields was green and lush. Yet in less than 8 years, the new row of planting eucalyptus trees had just blossomed, peeling off the rough outer bark to show off the straight, slender trunk like a row of proud soldiers. He had to face with negotiating those people to give up part of their fields and back behind the border line. What’s a difficult!

Before the captains of the two teams demarcated the two countries and signed the printed minutes with photos of the status quo in Vietnamese and Chinese, Dinh sat for a long time with his team leader, staring at the map and then back to the field.

Mr. Tuynh looked towards the ax-shaped mountain peak, threw the half-burned cigarette on the ground, moved it with his toes, and said: “It must decide, Dinh, there is no more time. Human life is nothing more than to pray for peace, so is the country. Keeping the land, keeping the peace is our strategic determination.”

Dinh crossed his legs along the rows of eucalyptus, turned back and replied slowly to the leader “I’m sorry too, brother, this land is blood, not just ordinary soil, an inch is worth a thousand gold, it’s not easy can let it go. We made them get down the military post which was a great success. This morning, old Pac came up to me and told me that “the soldiers should rest assured to do it, the villagers understood the soldiers’ hearts. Those eucalyptus trees were also planted by the soldiers, without soldiers, the villagers would not have this day. Well, what is it that is not mine, we have to give up. As long as this commune of Phieng Lao remains, this old Pac will still be Vietnamese”. Hearing the old man said that made me feel better.

That night, he saw Mr. Tuynh walking in the direction of the border. When he returned, in his hand was a bundle of soil that was carefully wrapped in a white handkerchief.

Wandering with those thoughts, Dinh fell asleep. In his dream, he saw a landmark bearing the idea of a bamboo tree and Vietnam’s banner standing on the peak of Cao Ba Lanh, next to the landmark, a very young soldier, a blood-stained shirt stood watching silently. Hesitating for a moment, the soldier raised his hand to salute the landmark and turned into a pink cloud.


In the shack there was a heavy sound of turning. Although it was spring, the cold always seemed to reign on every rock and tree branch. This morning, on the way to the landmark, the peach branches reaching up to the sky, the proud thin branches have not yet been able to sprout for bloom. The night was as cold as the howling sound of the mountains and forests, Vu shivered slightly and moved closer to Khua Chu.

The two of them were rookies with the training platoon, and were assigned here together, so they were very close. In the past two years, many times, Vu and Chu followed their uncles and brothers on duty in the cold, shivering ice, frozen water and white snow. Vu knows that Uncle Tuyen has no family, so he compassionates him very much. His austere figure pushing like he was rushing forward, but he looked like Vu’s father.

It is rare to find anyone as dedicated to his work as he is. Vu and Chu do logistics for the group, so they tell each other to take good care of him. Knowing that he was addicted to drinking green tea buds in the morning, Chu went into the forest, picked it up and stored it in a basket.

Vu boiled tea and then filtered through a thin cloth, then boiled again to make the tea better. That way, the new tea is not hot. Every morning, watching Mr. Tuynh take a sip of water, carefully lift the cup of tea and take a sip of it, Vu feels very proud.

Vu wrote a letter to his family, telling the story of Uncle Tuynh’s struggle to keep the land during each demarcation process. When conducting a bilateral survey at 1368 landmark, a leader of the demarcation group was a female, threw a sharp look at him, pointed his finger in the face and asked: “Comrade locating this position, that is, what do you mean? encroaching on our land, would you be embarrassed if wrong?”

He calmly waved his hand and drew an arc on the space in front of him: “Based on the landmarks, we determined this is the area for marking the landmarks. If wrong, I take full responsibility.” The next survey showed that his position was only correct, Dinh asked the leader of friend’s team “last time Comrade were just wrong, are you embarrassed”

They were ignorant, in this, it is normal to be wrong. At that time, Mr. Tuynh said without saying: “Losing land is a sinner with our people, a crime against the Fatherland, not just a matter of shame. We don’t need your land, we just want to keep our land, so in the process of working, we should try to understand each other better.” At that time, Vu stood and looked at his leader in the afternoon sunlight among the grass and trees of the border, feeling that leader’s body radiated reliable warm rays.

There is the fluttering sound of a Iole propinqua wings, and then a long, gut-wrenching sigh. Without looking, Vu knows it is Mr. Tuynh. Every time the situation on the field not unsatisfactory, at night he would sigh all night long. Vu knows, tonight too. No one loves the peak of Cao Ba Lanh more than him!


Mr. Tuynh stopped tossing and turning. Morning is coming. According to the plan, today they will carry out to plan landmarks on the peak of Cao Ba Lanh. He felt he needed to take a nap to regain his strength. Soon he will go up there again, where Toai is lying, will witness the moment a new milestone that be placed on the right point where the ancestors had placed the sacred stone.

“It’s just that I can’t keep the place where you stay, Toai, you’ve been crushed to pieces and you can’t let soul go back to inhabit, now that cliff is no longer your home. If you live wisely, keep resenting me a lot. I will summon your soul to this landmark. Then the new landmark will be your home. You will always be by the side to protect the landmarks that will last forever.” – he said quietly.

The night before was still cold as cutting, but this morning, the peach buds on Cao Ba Lanh peak suddenly bloomed. The color of fresh flowers and the outline of a Dao girl’s lips goes to work on the rice grass. On each petal, a young soldier’s face can be seen, half painful, half sympathetically shared. The peach petals seem to wave their teammates to step forward./.

by Pham Van Anh

(Translated into English by Khanh Phuong)