Messenger of Bad News

In April 1975, with the fall of Saigon impending and the North Vietnamese closing in, the death toll among the defending South Vietnamese forces was shockingly high. For the most part, those of us in Saigon had no way of knowing who had survived. All we knew was that a South Vietnamese soldier or Marine was no longer accounted for.

In Last of the Annamese, I tell the story of the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, visiting Huong, the servant of Molly, an American nurse killed in the C5A crash, to bring her the bad news that her husband has disappeared. He finds Huong’s house, a shanty made of corrugated iron and cardboard in Phu Lam, a poor suburb of Saigon. They exchange pleasantries:

She gave him an apologetic smile. “You forgive me? I not ask about Miss Molly. She is well?”

He closed his throat. She doesn’t know.

“Miss Molly . . . Miss Molly is dead, Huong. The plane she took to the states crashed.” How could he say it like that, straight out, a routine statement of fact?

Huong’s polite face cracked. The smile remained as if forgotten. “Oh.”

“I’m sorry,” he said with crazy calmness. “I thought you knew.”

She didn’t answer.

“I came here to tell you,” he said, “that I have enquired about your husband.” She raised her head and looked at him, the smile in place, the eyes terrified. “We have no word on him. He was not with the men from his unit who made it to Vung Tau from Tuy Hoa.”

For a moment, she didn’t move. She shivered, wrapped her arms around herself, and turned from side to side. Then she folded her hands in her lap and sat very still. “You very good to come and see me. I thank you very much, Mister Griffin, sir.”

He understood that his visit was over. He rose. “God be with you, Huong.”

“Yes, sir, Mister Griffin, sir.” She was on her feet, looking down over her shoulder so that he couldn’t see her face.

He went outside. From inside, her voice rose, nasal, keening. The old woman hurried in. Others gathered around the door.

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