When she is born, her mother weeps and her father turns his face away. Another child, another child when they're struggling to feed the four hungry mouths that gather around their hearth twice a day, dusty faces with large dark eyes that know the food they'll get will never be enough to quell the rumblings in their hungry stomachs.
The baby lies quietly, apologetically in her mother's arms, as if she knows she's not wanted. Outside, the cold, cloudy sky fills up with light.
(Perhaps she won't survive the winter. It would be better that way.)
But survive she does, and soon enough, her mother forgets the bitter tears that stung her eyes, forgets the pangs that wracked her stomach because her baby is the most beautiful child in the village, and everyone knows it, even grumpy old Lành on the corner who somehow manages to see the ugliness in everything.
By the time she is three, the war is starting to build up like thunderclouds growling close and heavy over the horizon. There's more and more reports of random acts of violence in villages near enough to make people nervous but far enough away to make them think they're safe. Baby Kim runs around on sturdy little legs, tumbling over in a pile of skirts sometimes, and carefully levering herself to her feet again, never crying or making a fuss about grazed palms or cut knees. The other village mothers coo over her blinding smile and whisper behind her family's back.
(Doesn't she look like that officer...that was stationed here for while to keep us safe...what's-his-name...
Didn't know she had it in her to be unfaithful.
Oh yes she did. Do you really think her husband could've sired such a pretty child?)
She is eight years old when the first American marines land in Vietnam. It's like a story from afar, listening to traders who talk of the white men with their smart uniforms and big guns, who stand around and guard things all day.
(She never sees one though, as much as she hopes that one day they'll come marching down the road to her village to say hello.)
The war doesn't really come to their doorsteps for another five years. There are tales of horror from other parts of the country, bombings and murders and massacres. Refugees sometimes make their way to this isolated part of the Mekong Delta, refugees with burns across their faces and missing limbs.
When one comes, Kim's mother always makes sure she's locked inside the house with her friends and the only sister who has stayed in the village. It's alright, because when she's in the house, she doesn't have to work in the rice fields and she doesn't have to see Thuy, the boy from next-door to whom her mother has arranged her betrothal. He's three years her senior, and raring to go off and fight the Americans, those-damned-Americans-who-couldn't-stay-on-their-own-side-of-the-world, who had to come and meddle where they're not wanted. At least, that's the impression Kim gets of him when he comes over to their house, eats their food in a pretence of courtship.
He never even looks at her. In the rice fields that rustle away into the distance under a warm, golden sun, he never talks to her, he doesn't work by her side the way her parents do, he doesn't even pretend that he likes her, that he's interested in sharing his life with her, in having children with her.
Even from where she is in the fields with her friend Mai, planting rice in the waterlogged soil, his voice carries, floating over the top of the rice plants, denouncing the foreigners and the poxy Vietnamese Government who let them starve every winter.
(she doesn't want to marry him, she decides. Not a selfish, violent little boy inside a man's body.)
When he goes away to fight with the Viet Cong, she is grateful. Perhaps he will die and she won't have to marry him after all.
The planes and helicopters roar over their heads like dragons breathing fire against the cloud-feathered blue of the sky. Often, Kim and Mai will put down their baskets to watch them scream past, off to bomb places further north, further away, rubbing their aching backs and thinking, How lucky we are that it is not us they're bombing.
The Americans come in the early hours of the morning. She's woken from where she sleeps, curled up between her mother and her father, by the bark of harsh voices and a sharp beam of light piercing the wooden shutters.
"Má," she says, sitting upright. "Má, listen, there is shouting."
Her parents make her stay in bed, but she doesn't listen, she tiptoes to the window and looks out. Some of her village are clustered together like frightened birds, whispering and holding each other. She can see her father among them. She doesn't know where her mother is. Feat trickles down the indent of her spine like ice.
The Americans are in a group, guns resting comfortably in arms, talking loudly in a brash, jarring language she doesn't understand. They're as white as the full moon, as white as the stars, pale hair and light eyes, so different, so beautiful. One of them is talking to the village elders in halting Vietnamese, moving his hands about, and she catches something about the Viet Cong and murders, and then her mother's arms are wrapping around her waist.
"What are they doing, Má?" she asks, not taking her eyes off the sheaths of moonlight that fall across the scene.
"Looking for Viet Cong insurgents," her mother says. "Thank the Gods all the boys who were going to leave left long before this."
Kim thinks of her two brothers. She hasn't seen them in years, and though their faces are indistinct, blurry in her mind, she's glad that they're not here to be caught by the Americans. The one talking gives a brief nod and a smile, and then Kim's mother bolts the shutters. "Back to sleep. It's all going to be fine."
It's only three years later that the Americans leave, scurrying back to the other side of an ocean with their heads supposedly held high and their tails between their legs.
And Thuy comes back.
This time she's older, sixteen and still the most beautiful girl in the village even though she's had sixteen years of starving winters and that the war has crushed any semblance of the country under the old kings that her father used to tell stories about under the unquiet moon.
This time, Thuy is far too interested in her, watching her work in the fields or over the dinner table with a hawk's smile. Sometimes he takes her calloused hand and says something about the girls in Hanoi having skin softer than a bird's feather, and she tries her hardest not to scowl at him. She's not a delicate city-girl, she has to work for her living - no wonder her hands aren't smooth and perfect when she's been in the fields every day for the past ten years.
"Why do I have to marry him?" she asks her mother as they sit and brush their hair together.
(She's the only one left now. The others have gone their separate ways, like fledglings falling from a nest, never to be seen again. Two brothers to the war. A sister to a city, and a sister to childbirth.)
"Because he will be great," her mother says gently. "And you will be looked after. He likes you, my darling."
"He wouldn't look twice at me if I were plain."
"He would do his duty."
"That's all it is, though. I don't want duty. I want love."
Her mother gives her a stern look. "Love isn't everything, Kim. In time, you'll understand that."
When Thuy looks at her, she closes her eyes and wonders how different it would be if she could bring herself to love him.
He goes away again in the springtime, and she breathes out summer, working in the fields with her friends and her parents, and refusing to think about when he'll come back and she'll be made a bride.
And that's when it happens.
It's a warm day, a hot day, a close, clinging day and they're taking a break under a tree at the end of the rice field, when suddenly, suddenly-suddenly-suddenly out of absolutely nowhere, there's a screech rising from the other end of the field, and fire blooms against the perfect sky, red and orange and smoke, and figure come running out of the mist.
Kim leaps to her feet, and then there are voices, a thousand voices begging for help and "Kim, KIM, RUN! RUN!" She can't, her feet are stuck to the ground, but Mai has grabbed her arm, is pulling her away and then the two of them are running, feet sloshing though the muddy soil and Kim is thinking blindly, my family-my-family, my parents where are they?
Mai suddenly stops dead and Kim trips over her, and there they stay, holding onto each other and sobbing as the screams ring out across the face of the air and fire roars greedily from where their village used to stand.
It's the early hours of the morning when they finally stagger to their feet, parched and dizzy with the taste of smoke burning on their tongues. Somehow, they make it back to the field they were working in, and Kim lurches to a stop. All that's left are charred stalks of plants, and bodies, bodies everywhere, bits of people, skulls and bones scattered and burned faces and she cannot breathe, she drops to her knees and retches until stinging bile splatters onto the ground.
And then, she forces herself to get up, to turn around, to not look back.
She was a fool to think that the war was over when the Americans left. And now there's nothing here for her, nothing left. There's no point in staying.
Mai goes to live with her betrothed several villages over, but Kim refuses the offer of hospitality. She can't live in the countryside anymore, not with the fear that tears deep into her insides at the thought of seeing anything like that ever again.
So she walks, walks and walks and walks, picking up a day's work here, a week or two there to earn enough money to keep living, although there's no point in being alive, not when her whole world has come crashing down about her head. At night, she closes her eyes tightly and imagines a handsome man, a kind, gentle man who'll take her away and look after her, who'll wipe the memories from her head.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes she just sees the charred field, the bodies and she wakes crying.
But then, somewhere along the line of nightmare, nightmare, mindless work, she reaches Saigon, the city that towers high across the landscape, the bright lights blinding her right to the backs of her eyes. And it's her first day there that she bumps into him, spilling the basket of things she'd been toting between villages.
"Hello," he says, eyeing her up and down. A pause. "Are you looking for a job?"
Unthinkingly, she says yes.
She sees him when he comes in with a group of Americans, all pale-skinned, light-haired, light-eyed like the ones in her village all that time ago. Her nerves are taut, pulled as tight as the telephone wires which swoop across the streets. But then they have to dance, and she's hiding as best she can behind the other girls, the ones in dressed in little bikinis and confidence.
"Kim!" The man she'd bumped into, The Engineer, calls her over. "You've been asked for. That one." He jerks his head at the one she'd caught the glance of, the one with a severe, almost sombre expression in the midst of the seedy lights and languid music and cloying laughter of the bar-girls. "Stay with him, okay?"
"Yes," she says. Fear tastes like ash in her mouth. She weaves her way through the inebriated, rolling, swaying crowd and then she's standing in front of him. She smiles, tries to act like the others are, mysterious and flirtatious and as insubstantial as sunlight, but when he snaps at her, she lets the façade drop, lets the pretences the evening brings fall away and smiles her proper smile, the one she always used to when Mai said something funny, the one she hasn't smiled since the day the world turned upside down.
He smiles back, then, a lovely smile that gets thrown into the soupy gloom of the club like grace and fate, a smile that softens the edges of his face, and in that moment, Kim feels as though she's tumbling into an ocean that has no end.
He's so earnest, as he holds her hand, kneeling by the bed. "Come to America with me."
It's like a fever, running rampant under her skin. Her head is spinning. "Yes. Yes, I will."
He kisses her, and it feels like the war has finished. It feels like absolution. The fear vanishes into dark, cobwebbed corners of her mind, and there is only light.
When it all goes to hell, she runs to the embassy, a few things stuffed into a bag, and suddenly, he's there, pulling her through the gathering crowd, into the gates and then they're up on the roof, a helicopter's blades slicing the clouds into pieces. There's only one more place. "Go," he says, holding her close for a second. "Go, I'll follow."
They're taken to ships waiting silently like giant animals half-submerged under the dark blue waves that roll and splash against their sides. More army people are waiting, with lists and numbers and the language she doesn't understand apart from how to say her name the way Chris taught her.
"I am Kim Scott," she manages, stumbling over the strange sounds. "My husband..."
She gives the man a blank look. He sighs, turns to the paper holding man to the side. "Yes, a soldier's girl. Go on through."
She sits and waits in the hall where they're giving out food, wrapped up in a blanket and staring at the nothing that boldly stares right back at her. "Kim?" a voice says, and Kim turns, jolted out of her reverie. Chris smiles at her, tired circles drawn deep under his eyes. She launches herself into his arms, and he pulls her down onto his lap, rocking her back and forth. "I'm sorry it took so long...we were trying to get as many out as we could..."
She doesn't say anything. He takes a ragged breath, and presses his face into her hair. The ship sways gently from side to side. "It's alright," she says. "It's alright. We're safe, now. No more fear."
"No more fear," he echoes, his voice muffled. "How right you are."
A/N Please review - I'd love to hear from you.