By J Gavin Allan (As told through the lips of Nước Hoa in First Person Narration)
The history of the Bru is oral. Passed down from generation to generation. There must have been certain aspects of a story exaggerated or diminished for what might be called…Montagnard License. But one story, no matter how it may have been fattened or slimmed still can fill the heart of any Bru girl with awe and wonder. Two hundred years before the revolution, our story takes place. To be precise, two hundred years before the American Revolution enters the history of the world.
I was angry. I entered the waters of the Xepon in a wild and arrogant gait. Taiti, the tallest of all the village teenage girls quieted my sloppy entry with a stare. It did not register with my tortured mind her appearance. She stood in the river up to her knees. Long Braids on each side of her head remained tight, twirling around her hips as she scanned the river surface and the tree line. This behavior was not unusual, but the purple sarong cinched tight on her waist was inappropriate. She was promised to the son of a neighboring village chieftain. Her body no longer belonged to nature, but her future husband. Why was she covered in front of women and children?
The men of the village were guarding against the marauding spirits that were attacking several villages. The spirits covered with clothing, carrying weapons of great power, kidnapped many children from helpless villages located around Ai Lao pass. This was not the case with our encampment. The lodges were strong. Our Chief’s sat in the middle surrounded by eight smaller, but still foreboding long houses. Bamboo columns held the sturdy grass paneled structure several feet off the ground. Wind, water or even evil spirits from the dark realm of emptiness could not penetrate our defenses.
She should have been nude as the rest of us. But who was I to argue with her? I was happy she turned her gaze as my behavior improved. Another teen handed me a toddler. With an annoyed expression, I began the loathsome task of washing another’s infant. I wanted my own.
My mother sent me to the shore to help with the bathing of the children. To me it was penance for too many tantrums and too much sobbing. The sun was setting. This seemed an unusual time to do this. But again, I lost the desire to ask or make a fuss. Only minutes before, my father and older brother left the two females of the family yelling and crying. I was doing the crying, my mother the yelling.
It was all due to my refusal to act my age. My friend Blata was promised to someone. She had entered womanhood the moon before. Her dripping blood signaled a time of maturity and respect. I wanted that. Refusing to be treated as a child, I put my mother’s sarong around my waist, ripping the loincloth from my body. Men and boys, not a grown woman, wore this garment. Young immature girls would stroll with this cover. I was twelve, two months older than Blata. This was no longer for me. I should be treated as a woman. Was I being punished due to my body’s inability to bleed? Her disgust at the gesture led to the tirade of emotions and my father and brother’s escape.
As the sun began to set, a beautiful array of white light danced on the surface of the Xepon. Mesmerized by the sight, I found my self alone as the mild waves lapped at my hips. At the shoreline stood Taiti. The majestic young woman whispered something to the crippled daughter of my father’s friend. Ngit was cute of face, but limped due to a shortened left leg. Taiti’s whisper brought a giggle to the oft-pained girl.
Taiti talked to her as any friend would. I marveled at the beauty that stood a head above the others. Her authority did not come from height or age. The eldest at the shore possessed a spirit that was for all to see. Though wrapped tight with cloth, beautiful braids showed the sparkle that such hair gives off when damp. Breasts pointed as if held up by string. I envied such beauty. I hated such beauty.
Moving toward the shore, I froze at the sight.
Taiti pushed the lame Ngit to the ground, while whipping her sarong into the air. As the garment fluttered its way to the sand, a glint from her hand caused my stumble backward. The blade was hidden in the waistband of her skirt. Now I knew why it was worn. The young guardian looked with intent never seen by my eyes. The other women, including Blata stopped any movement. Their sarongs already circling their waists.
I was on my knees due to the clumsy reaction. The water rose to my lips. Attempting to stand, I saw Taiti raise the hand with the blade. She sild the other arm around her stomach, an extended a finger pointing to her rear. At no time did her gaze lose sight of the jungle.
My father was a hunter, or to be more specific, a tracker for the parties that roam the forest for our daily meals. Many times regaling stories of brilliant maneuvers to catch the wild boar and deer that roamed our lands, he would talk of the silence of the jungle. This seemed strange. The jungle was a cauldron of noise. Sounds of birds, screeching monkeys and the occasional bellowing of a tiger all joined in the familiar chorus. How could the jungle be silent? The never-ending drone of bugs hummed through the air giving the other lyrical bursts a baseline to follow.
Now! There was none of that. Silence became so intense my ears rang from the muted air. Around me little ripples of water increased as I trembled with fear. Something was going to happen. Something did.
Taiti screamed to for the others to run. Her stance remained fixed. With the rising moon’s light I could see the evil spirits that wore clothes.
They were the Vietnamese. The people from the east. They came for slaves. Failure after failure to capture our men, costing many the life of a Viet caused enterprising traders to concentrate on children. The girls were to be given to the Court of their Emperor as concubines. Those that did not please the royal selection committee would be sold at auction. The boys would be castrated and given to the Royal House. Eunuchs were prized as potential gifts for the Chinese Emperor.
Screams continued as the evils spirits grabbed the children. Balta was knocked to the ground, only to be pulled up by her hair and thrust into a circle of vine. In a flash, three of the girls were also so connected as prisoners held submissively by this long leash.
None of the group at the shore escaped. But the deed would not come without a price. In my preoccupation with the speed of the capture, I did not see Taiti and her blade.
A Viet lie at her feet. Standing with no lose of pride the nude girl spit at the body of the Viet she slain. Another approached her but stopped by her stare, she looked magnificent. From the water I saw the leer aimed at her beauty. Was he willing to pay the price for such pleasure?
All through this standoff, muffled screams from Ngit serenaded the attack. The men realized she could never make the trip to Huế, the Imperial City. They decided to enjoy her fruits on the beach. I saw one man on top of her, then replaced by another. It looked as if a line was forming behind her bobbing head.
The other teenager was unable to use her weapon, also hid in a sarong. They motioned to Taiti to put down the crimson blade still dripping from its taste of Viet flesh. Her friend whose name I did not know was pushed to her knees. They wanted Taiti to surrender. She would fetch a good price. Though I could see the other men, as now I knew these were no spirits, possessed the look of a predator eyeing their next meal.
The other girl was held fast. A kick to her beasts crumpled her further. A Viet with a long blade held it over the barely conscious teen. It was obvious Taiti’s continued fight would lead to her beheading.
It is here where I understood a statement made by my mother.
My father told her, as he looked at the results of another tantrum. “This devil would drive the evil spirits crazy, should they have the misfortune to capture her.”
My mother’s quick response, “do not joke of such things” She looked at me with eyes ready to water. “I will slit her throat and then mine before it occurs.”
Taiti was of the same opinion. In a move worthy of our noblest warrior she put the knife to her neck. Calling to the heavens as the blade sliced through her skin. From my watery seat, I saw her once coconut milk-like skin covered in a tide of blood. Her breasts, that I was so jealous of, colored in seconds.
In disgust, the Viet brought the gleaming blade down. A smack greeted the cheek of the executioner. This was a poor business decision. His leader reacted with another slap. The teenage friend of Taiti’s head rolled a few inches.
Finally, the cries of Ngit ended. My body felt as if a shrinking of my skin had taken place. I feared the trembling would cause the Viets to notice the stirring at the surface. It was a needless worry. The water became alive with those too young to walk the distance to their Emperor’s Palace. Two infants were flung as I saw boys of our village fling rocks into the Xepon. Their splashes too far from me to aid. I was grateful, for I was sure, my legs would not budge, should an infant land by my side.
Hideous laughter circled the beach as the eldest of the young boys, a soft faced eight-year old violated by the fat Viet with long hair, cried out in a wail of pain. Future eunuchs, unlike concubines, fetched the same price, pure or spoiled. An aroma of horror coupled with the sobbing of the captured hung about my head. The only smell worse was my shame at a girl’s cowardice.
I hoped for my father and the other men to save the children. To save me. But, I knew that would not be. My mother sent me to the river, not only for punishment, but also for protection. The elders expected an attack from the direction of Ai Lao Pass. They were tricked into believing that. The Viets appeared smarter than the Bru.
There I stayed, a lone survivor of this horrific attack. As the last of the Viets walked, following the neck bound captives into the jungle I cursed myself. My shame was of such a magnitude, I thought of wading to the shore and using the knife of Taiti to rip my neck open. Then, as a catfish brushed my leg, I remembered my mother’s expression as she told my father of her zeal.
I would follow the children till I could get close enough to free them, or as my mother would prefer, cut all their throats. It was the only thing that could wash away my shame.