Thao paused to check out sales specials in the bargain basement of the department store. The Christmas rush was well behind, and departments were desperately trying to offload stock left over from the Christmas season so they could free up cash flow for their orders of coming season clothing. Thao loved bargains and always waited for change of seasons sales so she could stock up at home for the family storing her purchases away until the appropriate season change when she’d bring her stored treasures out triumphantly. She’d learned from mistakes she’d made in the past. Keeping clothes for children until the appropriate season returned could be a hazard as children grew substantially in a year, and year-old clothes would not fit. She now saw to it when buying clothes, it was next size up for children, so their clothes fitted at the time of hand over. She examined each item carefully for price and place of manufacture and always looked for the made in Vietnam label murmuring in happy surprise when she found one.
Vietnam, there was a nostalgia inside her whenever she saw that name in print. Not that her memories were necessarily positive. In part of her memory, she remembered the tranquil village Binh Quoi located 10.7 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City along the banks of Saigon River now a forty-minute drive from the popular Ben Thanh Market. In those days there was a war on, but it was far to the north and being quite young able to freely roam around the village safely with other children as she recalled, and she enjoyed a happy home environment. Her mother looked after their home needs and helped her father sell at his marketplace shop when required.
But the other part of her memory contained scenes of when the war suddenly arrived at their village. Some of the youth she’d grown up with were suddenly absent later to surface in uniform and carrying guns and her parents and most villagers were torn between loyalty to traditional rulers and supporters of this invading force from the north. Lifetime friendships were torn apart at that time and children avoided their usual haunts as rumors did the rounds about armies from both sides capturing children and enlisting them in their respective armies. Then one day her parents hastily sold their interests in the village converting money into gold and headed for what was then called Saigon now renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Thao was familiar with the white skinned foreigners who’d passed up and down through her village in uniform but treated them as a curiosity. Foreigners had been present in Vietnam long before the war but in those days, they’d been there to look and move on not to fight.
On reaching Saigon Thao marveled at the sight of so many of these foreigners. They came in an assortment of colors but with common uniforms. Her father got work at one of the Embassies. Then bombs began to fall, and Thao felt more unsafe than she’d been in her village Binh Quoi. She and her siblings begged her father to take them back to the village not knowing things had taken a rapid change for the worst after their departure. Then a latent memory she tried her best to suppress surfaced as she held a garment in that bargain basement of the department store.
It was night-time there was a sudden burst of an automatic weapon. One by one she saw her father mother and siblings murdered before her eyes in dim light of their home and the gun turned to point at her, but another gun rattled and the one pointing his gun at her fell while the bullet meant for her went through the roof instead. A torch shone on the face of the insurgent who’d murdered her family and Thao gasped in horror. It was the son of one of their neighbors in the village she’d played with as a child. He’d disappeared from their village months before the war affected her. How could her childhood playmate do such a thing? She wept bitterly at loss and the betrayal in equal parts.
The torch had moved toward her and focused on her face while she shrank back in horror wondering if she’d be the next to die. She shook uncontrollably. A pair of strong arms lifted her up and transported her into the night. She heard loud arguments in a language she didn’t understand which she later learned was anger the soldier had taken her with them. But she sensed the one holding her was safe and protecting her. She held on tight and when they reached the barracks she refused to let go when he tried to put her down. She was terrified but knew somehow this man would protect her. Again, there were loud arguments but eventually the arguments died down and were replaced with derisive laughter and ugly comments. She clung to him as he slept that night and in the early morning her protector took her to the camp kitchen and entrusted her to one of the women working there.
She learned later he paid the Vietnamese woman to look after Thao, but she was not allowed into the barracks again. Then one day as the bombardment of Saigon continued there was rapid movement. The soldier came to retrieve her from the cook she’d been entrusted to, and she found herself attached to the family of a Vietnamese officer who was being shipped out with the foreigners along with his family. She began life in this new country with the Vietnamese family as they began to settle into a new culture. The first couple of years in this unfamiliar country were a blur, and she couldn’t remember how or what the circumstances were when she began to understand English. She spoke it well now with only a trace of an accent. She had to think hard when people spoke to her in Vietnamese but could still follow the language if they spoke slowly.
It was much later in this new country the soldier who’d rescued her claimed his little Vietnamese girl who’d now grown to her early teens. She’d recognized him immediately even though several years had elapsed and was surprised to know he’d adopted her soon after returning home and was released from the army. He had a wife and children of his own and they were waiting until she had a grasp of English before taking her into their home. She discovered her adopted name was Thao Madill. Her adopting father was Justin Madill. On seeing Justin again, she remembered that night when he’d saved her and let her cling to him as protector, she had a feeling of overwhelming love for this man on seeing him again and was happy to accompany him to her new home to meet his family now to be her family. She accepted them all instantly because of this protector she loved, and they warmed to her as soon as she arrived with him. The children were slightly older or younger to her and she delighted in their attention. They shepherded her to and from school and protected her from the occasional malcontent who wanted to make trouble for her as foreign born.
Her elder brother looked like his father. He was strong, confident, and even tempered and treated his elders with respect. However, he was not to be tampered with. On one occasion when he arrived to collect his adopted sister from class, he noticed a couple of boys teasing her about her foreign features. Her brother James warned them off and the two who matched James in height turned their ire on him. James flattened the two of them and gently escorted his sister home. She was never challenged again after word got around her brother would deal with anyone who disturbed her. From that time on the two were inseparable.
Justin Madill wanted his children to have the best education that could be provided in their career of interest so when James reached the age where a higher degree would be favored in James’ career area Justin was surprised when James opted for a couple of years working before moving on with higher education. But the reason for this became obvious as James and Thao’s close relationship as siblings seemed to be leading in a direction that could only be described as obsession with each other. They were together in the home when the other siblings were exploring relationships with others outside the family. They went out together and James seemed to have no desire to check out any of the girls showing an interest in him. Then when Justin and his wife Claire found them in embrace one day they decided to intervene and called them in for counselling. Out of that counselling session James informed his parents as Thao was not of their family blood line there was no harm in him considering her as a lifetime partner. Thao smiled happily when James told his parents how he felt about her.
So, James and Claire counselled together and found they could not find a good argument to keep them from making plans to spend their life together. They gave their blessing. Thao remembered it all and smiled as she remembered James asking if she’d be willing to be his life partner and she’d shyly nodded her assent. She was deliriously happy with her marriage. She loved her adopted father as the one who’d saved her, and she loved his son even more and because of that she loved her adoptive mother and siblings too. James had given her two beautiful children to brighten their home and he’d finished his higher studies and was rising in the industrial world as one of their future leaders.
Thao made a final decision and threw her latest clothing selection in the shopping cart very pleased with her purchases. She’d bought something special for her husband James in the shopping spree and could hardly wait to return home and present it to him. She’d also found a couple of items to give her children, but remaining purchases would be stored away for the appropriate next season as her habit was. James always commended her for her thrift and careful selection of things purchased and she looked forward to his congratulatory embrace. He was always attentive finding little gifts to give her and the children when he returned from his frequent trips on business.
After leaving the mall Thao headed for school. It was a bit early to pick the children up, but she could read a book while she waited in the school parking lot for her children to make an appearance. They looked Eurasian but unlike the days when she arrived in this country no one cared where you came from anymore. It was a melting pot of many ethnic groups and she felt comfortable here. She was so engrossed in her book it surprised her when the children burst into the car arguing as usual as to who would ride in front with mother. She hushed them and sorted out who sat where in the car as each together reported on their day at school. She loved this interaction with her children and their enthusiasm for learning.
Thao was bustling around in the kitchen when James arrived home and gave her a hug. He tasted her cooking and complemented her, and she swelled with pride. It was a daily ritual she loved and always looked forward to his arrival after the day’s work.
James waited until they’d finished their meal together before announcing his surprise. He addressed the children.
“Your vacation commences next week and I’m taking time off work for a special surprise for you all this year. I have air tickets booked and we are going to visit your mother’s birth country Vietnam. It’s quite safe now and it’s becoming one of the most sought-after tourist attractions. I bought some brochures for you to see some of the tourist spots we’ll all be visiting.”
Thao began to shake uncontrollably. “I don’t want to go back there James. I have terrifying dreams still about Vietnam and feel safe here.”
James looked at his wife with concern. “I’m so sorry Thao. I thought you’d be happy to see your birth country again and looked forward to surprising you.” He looked wretched when he saw his wife’s reaction.
“Maybe I could give the tickets to my parents, and we’ll stay home?” He looked very disappointed and the children who’d become excited at the trip all cried at the thought there’d be no vacation after all.
Thao looked at the disappointed faces of her husband and children. She’d failed them all and caused her husband to lose face. Her love for him was stronger than fear of a return of bad memories. She resolved to fight her fears because like his father he was her protector and had done so during her school days.
“OK, I’ll go but please don’t take us to Binh Quoi!”
The children clapped and James smiled again. “It’s a different country now Thao but we will not go to any place that holds bad memories for you though I don’t think those places you remember would even exist now. The country is a thriving powerhouse and much has been rebuilt.
Thao brightened. “Maybe it will be nice to go back again.”
© Copyright 2021 Ian Grice, “ianscyberspace.” All rights reserved
One thought on “Thao”
I enjoyed this story, Ian. Maybe Thao’s bad memories will be camouflaged with new positive experiences with her family. Or maybe they’ll even begin to fade.
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