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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes stories

To the Milk Bar
• Susan Dale
After exiting the plane, David stood quietly to observe the busy scenes bursting around him. Like a bee hive, this hoi polloi of villagers rushing around to repair their fractured streets. Hurrying down the hardscrabble roads with wheelbarrows bumping along in front of them, they stop to gather up the stony remains of a broken cathedral.


Not a moment’s pause before they are onwards again. Villagers rushing, and wheelbarrows swaying until they came to a pile of stacked rubble where they dump the contents of their wheelbarrows. Then back again to the streets they scurry.

“But why are they stopping, and bowing their heads at that stone table under the tree?” he asked a man with a portable tea pot, and a waxy face.

He replied while pouring out cups of green tea for the children stuffing the holes in the road with stones and sand. “The table you point out, Mr. Westener, is known as Thach Ban. At Thach Ban, the fairies from higher realms come down to play chess. The villagers stop to pay their respects.”

“As they should,” David said, tongue-in-cheek.

Streams of black smoke poured from a kettle of tar that simmered and smoked over a curbside fire. David followed the smoke to come to a scolding woman in a black dress with a conical hat on her head. She sat on an old tree stump, and in between her scolds, she dipped metal containers of hot tar out of a smoking kettle.

Figuring that she was in charge of road repair, David was anxious to make contact with her. But though he repeatedly tried to begin a conversation, she wouldn’t greet him: nor would she answer his questions. She wouldn‘t even lift her head to acknowledge him.

Shrugging his shoulders, David stood around with hands in his pockets, observing while rocking back and forth on his feet. She dips in rhythmical motions before handing container after container over to another woman who is standing beside her. Only their arms and hands move as they pass the containers along a line of fishermen’s wives. Passing to and fro until the containers reach the nodding fishermen, who are hunkering in front of the holes left by bombs’ explosions. Slowly, the fishermen pour the hot tar until it covers the loose stones and the sand that comes from the nearby waters, and was previously jammed into the holes by the village children.

His brow furrowed in contemplation. How simple it is for them to know what they are to do. Fish by the stars. And when the sun comes up, pass along buckets of healing to mend their village.

While the villagers were patching up and filling in, street urchins were scurrying along with wagons to pick up the remaining scraps and salvage being left behind. David thought, I’m betting they will pedal it to the pirating guerrillas who row in from the seas at night, after the fishermen row out.

And in the background of fairies playing chess and the hustle bustle of road repairs, sand-castle mountains, of sun kissed peaks, rose towards the skies.

David reflected, the mountains seem to cradle the broken village, as it basks, to heal itself in an afternoon sun. And in the hot skies, float parachutes dropped from war planes flying overhead. Tied to the parachutes are bundles of military supplies that lazily drift to the ground.

David ambled over to a peasant woman, he saw walking, while shouldering a pole with baskets on either end: both baskets laden with crabs nestling in seaweed.

Could she tell him about the latest bombing, David wondered? Obligingly, she told her story with conical hat bobbing up and down with her words. It bobbed rapidly when she was telling David about the leveling of the cathedral. Gesturing arms enunciated her frustrations. And when her baskets began to tip, she stopped talking to readjust them.

“About the bombings,” David prodded. When, how long, how many? Casualties, injuries, damages?

On and on she prattled: hers, a singsong litany of war and destruction. He scribbled her fast-ongoing words in a small notebook that he pulled from his shirt pocket.

After thanking her, “Cam on rat nhieu," he set foot along a path to follow Seth’s map; he crossed a bridge that arched across a dark river.

However, Seth didn’t write about the river being bloated with monsoon rains: so much rain that the river is gurgling up on shore. On the river’s waters bounce small white sampans. Like ghosts they seem: dipping up and down before they disappear around a narrow bend, only to reappear after they pass a peninsula of tall grasses.

One end of the lagoon closed off to a shore of rice paddies shining emerald in the sun. And beyond the paddies lie the train tracks that cut a path into a background landscape. He headed in the direction of the tracks. Around a bend chuffed a train of pale green carriages that dated back from the French Colonial Period. Like a gentle dragon, it puffed soft sighs while chugging along the tracks with wheels spinning in waltz rhythms.

He waved to the passengers, and they waved back as they hung out the open windows to catch breaths of air. The train ambled along to come to a smoky stop at an old station of adobe walls. The whistle sounded shrill and loud to burst into an afternoon of heat waves trembling across the air. The whistle disturbed a rooster sitting atop a gate post. He crowed with aplomb to rouse the sutlers, drowsing inside the station.

David thought, now is the time for the sutlers to hop aboard with their soup, sandwiches, and drinks for the passengers’ lunches.

While rubbing sleepy eyes, the sutlers scurried through the station doors. Baskets of wares hung from their arms when they climbed up the train’s steps to disappear into its dark interior.

Around a corner of the station lies the path I am to follow: so said the ticket seller at the station when I showed him Seth’s map. The seller matched his map against mine to find the quickest way to the milk bar, but he warned me that the path was long.

David shuddered. I hope it is long enough for me to think of a plausible story as to why I was not at my post, Gia Hoi, where Seth had me stationed. Instead, I was roaming around Saigon for an entire month.

He walked along with his gaze stretched further ahead. He was hoping for a distraction to jolt him from his oncoming dreads of meeting with his Commander. Now I see the fishing village is leaning towards the sea. The bamboo huts are closer to the tides, by which the fishermen row out to cast their nets into star-lit waters.

Further ahead were the fishing boats, tipped up on rocks to dry their bottoms. Each hut has a rain barrel. And on the sides of the barrels hung the hairy shells of coconuts from which to dip water from the barrel. Around the huts are the lontar palms waving their raggedy fronds. And under the palms lie piles of shrimp drying in the sun.

The fisherman’s huts came to an end when David, like the path, began to move further away from the sea. Coming up on an alleyway, he looked down it to see a circle of old men sitting on wooden chairs. Playing cards on a tree stump, he deducted.

He saw too that the dirt road came to an abrupt end before it arrowed out in two directions. Neither of the maps, Seth’s or the ticket-sellers, show the two-way road. And so, which way to go?

He walked over to the card players to ask them directions. One of the men spoke a broken-English, and it was he who replied to David. His face of silver whiskers was lined deeply from the glaring light of the waters he once fished. He looked up at David with eyes the color of mist, and he shaded them when he spoke.

While explaining, he waved his hands in the direction of the nearby ricefields: bright green and bloated with rain. “That is the way to go,” he told David.

David thanked him before he walked to the end of the alleyway. He was heading towards the rice paddies when he felt crunching under his feet. He looked down to see his path turned to seashells. I feel them, these pale rainbows of shells under my feet.

Looking out in the blue-green waters sparkling in the sun, he saw a Burgas schooner, whose sails were raised to court impish breezes cavorting just out of reach of the schooner‘s sails.

Up his gaze, closer to shore. Horror upon horror, the breathing straws of sappers!

A panic began in his chest; it twisted his stomach into knots. He clenched his teeth. Why are ‘they’ in this fishing village? Will they be coming to shore? When? For what purpose?

He went from startled standstill into a quick pace forward. As far away from the breathing straws, as I can get, and as quickly as possible.

Head and throbbing chest forward. Legs hurrying to catch up. Heart thumping. Periodically, he turned to find the breathing straws.

In his fright, he imagined the straws expelling ghosts. Wraiths moving towards me on wings.

Zigzag down the path, as though to dodge the winged wraiths whose presence he felt flying above him. The wraiths’ wings darkened the rainbow shells of his journey. And as he ran, he kept looking back to see if the sappers were coming ashore.

Onwards, past the vision of breathing straws, and he kept running until he was left with only enough stamina to stumble along – out of breath, fearful and covered in sweat.

He momentarily paused to take deep breaths, wiped his forehead, then dared to look back. A million bows of gratefulness to the gods of fate: nothing do I see.

But as he traveled on in an immense silence, broken only by the thump-thump of his heart, he again became fearful. Seeing no one, strangely enough, frightens me more than if the sappers and their breathing straws were directly behind me. It was the looming unknowns that tightened his stomach.

Yet breathing hard, he looked ahead to the direction where he was headed. At the end of the seashell path sits a meek little pagoda: a story high. From its ceremonial braziers, incense smoke rises to curl in the winds. And in the smoke are the forms of the wraiths expelled by the breathing straws.

A hard surface he felt under his feet. He looked down to see the rainbow seashells replaced with trod-upon dirt. And does it mean anything that my rainbows have dissipated?

A sudden distraction - wheels creaking. He looked up to see a cart of children being pulled by two silky ponies: the ponies trotting in front of a roadside shrine dedicated to Thien Hao: goddess of the sea.

Next, from out of nowhere and rushing at him, a pack of smudge-faced urchins. They swarmed him, getting close, then closer, as if to trip him up. Badgering with singsong nags, their fierce begging seemed a call to arms that brought forth other urchins: all of them in thread-bare rags, and barefoot.

And as they were swarming him, a jolt! What first, or all together, unexpectedly and suddenly, flashes of fire in the air. Behind the fire, with the fire, fierce booms that throbbed across the afternoon. Deep, fearful echoes behind the blazes.

The villagers in the streets, at first paralyzed, were suddenly rushing about frantically: their faces contorted in disbelief and fear.

Automatically, he grabbed the child nearest him. He yelled “down.“

But neither the bui doi nor the villagers knew down. Down: A foreign word not familiar to a people that well knew the words death and destruction.

He and the child hit the ground face first: lying on their bellies when the second mortar hit. The frantic villagers thrown backwards with another deafening explosion. The first explosion, or was it the second, maybe the third that splintered the cart, and laid the children and the trotting ponies in pools of blood. Neither David nor the child beside him knew how many explosions there were; how could they know? They could scarce think, nor breathe, as they lie beneath the layers of fear that covered them in the walkway.

In time that could not be measured, so terrible were the moments that shivered by, David lifted his head but the slightest.

With astounded eyes he watched a village man and a small boy rising into the air. Like clouds: up effortlessly … before being dropped without a second’s delay, without a single dignity to their passing. Prostrate in un-earthly contortions, as if their bodies were taken to a fifth dimension.

Next, in another moment of an un-moment, the dead child was being picked up. Four hands and two arms coming from nowhere, and reaching down to lift so quickly, so aptly, that David thought he was imagining it … two men dividing the child’s weight between them before they lowered him into a wheelbarrow, also suddenly appeared.

Like the explosive; like the urchins, David thought. Was it breathing straws that brought the guerrillas to shore to heap destruction on the fishing village?

As the peasants pushed the wheelbarrow away, David saw a dead boy lying on the bed of palms nesting in the wheelbarrow.

Right behind the palm-laded wheelbarrow was another. Wheeled up from somewhere, nowhere, David thought.

Two villagers lifted the prostrate man, and laid him in the second wheelbarrow. But before he was taken off, one of the men retrieved a hat blown off the corpse’s head at the instant of the explosion. He replaced it on the dead man’s head, and then he too was wheeled off with legs and arms hanging out of the wheelbarrow. As though he is too large for such a humiliating death.

David watched the cart leaving, going beyond the village in the direction of the fork where two paths join. Two paths: seashells and dirt: bright waters and dark earth coming together in a village where two religions butt heads. A village of breathing straws: a village of a somewhere milk bar where I am to meet Seth, and a bombed-out cathedral. Cart, ponies, and peasants here then gone, like fevered nightmares into a sun-struck morning. Gone into an afternoon where now descends a vast quiet. Stilled, the frogs chorus. Quieted too, the gecko-lizards’ love songs. Even the peace bells of the Buddhists silenced.

In the ensuing melee, shocked waves of indignation, and exclamations were rising to ripple up and down the streets.

David, yet prostrate, waited for long moments in the dirt before he moved to stand. The throes of life crying out in outrage gives me the courage to rise from my groveling on the ground.

Sitting, to standing cautiously, he looked around for a long time before he pulled up the sobbing child. David tried comforting him, but the child would not stand still. He broke loose, and ran off screaming with his face contorted in fear. His cries echoed behind him.

© Susan Dale September 2014
Susan’s poems and fiction are on Hurricane Press, Ken *Again, Penman Review, Inner Art Journal, Feathered Flounder, Garbanzo, Hackwriters, and Linden Avenue. In 2007, she won the grand prize for poetry from Oneswan. She has two published chapbooks on the internet: Spaces Among Spaces by and Bending the Spaces of Time by Barometric Pressure.

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