Thi clutches her book bag close to her chest as she anxiously paces her way home from school, eyes darting from side to side. Under her straw hat, the scorching red sun still manages to create a sheen of sweat on her back and beads of perspiration as salty as tears invade her eyes.
The year is 1975, and the Viet Cong have just invaded Saigon. Only a few months ago, her family was seated around the radio, listening to the live updates on the war and its progress. She remembers her mother holding onto her younger sisters, her older siblings scattered closely around the room, and she recalls looking up at her father’s serious eyes for directions on how she should react.
And then the words came – “The Viet Cong have reached Saigon…”. People broke out into loud sobs, mothers held onto their children desperately and the men rushed to lock up their houses. Thi distinctly heard screams and wails of despair and absolute horror from down the street, and the echoes still haunt her as she darts around the neighbourhood in the early hours of dawn to get to school.
She reaches the corner, hesitates to turn for a second and hastily makes the final sprint to her house. The door is left slightly open for whenever the children come home, and she slides between the frame like a mouse, then shuts it tightly, along with the sunlight that unwelcomingly wedges itself in.
The house has become eerily quiet in the past months, except for the occasional clink of the two youngest playing tea cups, followed by hushed giggles and her mother’s weary looks. The aging woman does not say anything, but Thi can tell by her complex expression that she fears for their future, and how she will have to potentially send them away to a safer country.
However, their survival is finite. She looks over at Nga, the youngest of eight siblings, with a sweaty patch of hair and skinny arms wearing a worn out dress too big for her scrawny body.
“Hello Nga. Hello Yen. Mother, I’m home”. The children wave and whisper to one another, and the mother simply nods and points to the meal of rice and dried fish on the table. This has become a routine, and she knows exactly where the others are – some have retreated into their rooms, and some are at work with their father. She always hopes she could see the day when she will wait for her own family to come home, but now, that dream wavers.
Thi makes her way upstairs to the room she shares with her sisters. As the only sibling to occupy the room that afternoon, she creaks the window slightly open for some air, enough for a soft breeze to enter, but not so that the neighbours can peer into the room. Now that the Viet Cong have arrived, she is taught not to trust anybody any more, not even the neighbours, for it is too dangerous.
The streets are unsafe, her mother tells her, and it is far worse if you are Catholic. Mad men persecute and murder in broad daylight, and nobody is outwardly Catholic. If you swear to your religion, then you swear to secrecy. Thi notices that her mother wears the rosary beads around her neck, but even on the streets they are tucked underneath her collar with her head tilted down, eyes never meeting anybody else’s unless absolutely necessary to not look suspicious.
“Why don’t you just take it off? If you never wear it then you will never be caught”, Thi says to her mother, but she is met with a saddened look.
“We are Catholic”, her mother replies, “We will never lose our faith”.
Suddenly, a shout from outside breaks her trail of thought. Thi peers over the window and squints at the silhouetted figures below. The glare of the sun makes it difficult for her to see, but shifting angles allows her to make out the face of an old man, surrounded by a group of other men.
She is unable to distinguish the words, but a shiny glint catches and guides her eyes towards his neck – a metallic cross openly exposed on his chest. The tense movement outside urges Thi to rush downstairs to warn her mother. Beneath, she spots the woman and her children huddled away from the door. The sisters are with their mother, tea cups abandoned and long forgotten.
“Thi! Stay close to me!” she whispers, and ushers the children to quieten their whimpers.
The shouting comes to an abrupt halt, an eerie silence filling the emptiness. Thi stares motionlessly at the wooden frame, then suddenly the sound of heavy feet pound across the concrete. A loud yell pierces her ears before a gunshot cracks into the air as loud as thunder, and the footsteps halt – the thud of a body coming after.
Thi clasps her hands over her mouth in absolute shock, the endless ringing still vibrating into her ear. Except for the beat of her heart, no muscle moving, her eyes never shift from the door frame. It is then that she can envision it – the bloodied bodies of thousands of innocent civilians, both children and adults, mauled by the heartlessness and violence of the Viet Cong that have come before this day. She remains unshaken until the cry of her mother breaks her out of the trance.
“This place is too dangerous for you”, her mother weeps. “Thi, I have been thinking about this, and you must leave!” Thi looks up to face her mother, warm tears staining her cheeks.
“Tomorrow when it is safer, I will send you away, and you will leave immediately. You must survive for this family, and take your sisters with you!” And Thi understands, that the very next day, she will have to risk a dangerous journey to a new home that will change her life, for better or for worse.