My family came from the Red River Delta, an alluvial plain of raven earth and limitless water. It was an exceptionally fertile country, though not a youthful land with treasures to be plundered. What riches it had, it yielded solely to sweat and toil. It had known centuries of peasant hands.
Generations beyond recall, my ancestors had tilled this soil where fortunes were made and reversed by countless successions of insurgencies, raids, and wars. The rise of our clan began with my great-great-greatgrandfather Hao Pham, a noted officer in King Nguyen Anh's army. For his battlefield victories against rebellious warlords, he was awarded a vast tract of land after the king's unification of Viet Nam in 1802. As was customary in the feudal order for the richest man in the area, he won the privilege of lord proctorship over all the villages within a day's ride by horseback of his home. He assumed the post, raised a big family with three wives, and lived out his days in comfort. When he retired, his eldest son succeeded him, acquiring the same commission. Later, in the French colonial period, when the clan's property had grown even larger, his grandson became domain magistrate. So it went from generation to generation, both land and titles passed as birthrights from fathers to the firstborn sons. By the time of my grandfather and father, ours grew to be one of the two richest clans in the province, our holdings spreading out to the horizon.
Still, it was a realm of rice paddies, mud houses, and shoeless peasants. It was a world before the arrival of electricity, banks, and refrigeration. In the whole province, there were only two cars. My uncle Thuan owned one, but kept it merely as a modern marvel. He was more comfortable astride a horse. In our village of a thousand souls, there was a single firearma double-barreled shotgun Uncle used to hunt birds. For weaponry, there were swords, spears, and martial arts. The only other technological intrusions into our village were two mechanical clocks; my father owned one, and my uncle owned the other. Prized collectibles, neither was used to tell the hour. For that, there were the crows of the cock, the height of the sun, and the length of one's shadow. The average peasant owned three sets of clothes, brown or black pajamas, the same exact outfit in varying degrees of wear, with the newest reserved for holidays and temple visits. He rose before dawn and labored till dusk, and might expect to have a small amount of meat with his dinner. In the material sense, it was a simpler world. There was little, and yet everything, to be desired. Though perhaps as flatlanders we lacked imagination. Folks prayed for good health, good weather, and good crops. And that strange year, the last of the good years, all things were granted. Heaven laid the seal of prosperity upon our land. We were blessed with the most bountiful harvest in memory.
That summer, Uncle Thuan, the head of our clan, confessed to his third wife that he believed the wind of fortune was shifting, and that, at thirty-nine years of age, he felt disaster looming. Omens had shown themselves. First, the string of good years crowned by a historic crop signaled a grave imbalance in nature; another cycle was approaching. Second, a crow, that provincial harbinger of death, had alighted in his courtyard and stared into his audience hall. The scarecrows he had erected hadn't prevented the cursed bird from paying him another visit. Last, he dreamt that the bamboo hedge encircling our ancestral estate was filled with voices speaking a foreign tongue; an evil had laid siege to our home. Within days of this nightmare, talk of war was rampant throughout the countryside. Disturbing reports came through his intelligence channels. The underground worlds were gathering their forces. A great storm approached, so warned his Nationalist informants; so concurred his Communist agents. Then, the colonial French suppressed and denied the rumor, which naturally made it a fact. The shadow of war had fallen upon the world. Dark days would sweep down from China. Within weeks, World War II would reach the Red River Delta on the heels of the Japanese army and mark the downfall of our clan.
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