JANUS God of Beginnings and endings.
She turned her son’s eyes from the carnage in the village, away from the blood, the mutilation, the death of her parents-in-law. She put her hands over his ears so he would not hear the screams. She hunkered down over his tiny body and waited for the men in thick hard hats to go away, taking their guns with them. She waited in silence hidden in the thatch of her husband’s family home with her tiny son. She prayed. In her belly the movement of another child heralded … what? What would, could a new life bring now?
“I’ve got to do a project about the country I came from. Can you help me find the information?” the boy said.
The librarian smiled. “Of course. Tell me what you want to know. What do you want to find out?”
“Everything. I know nothing about…”
Teacher and boy located books that might help after searching the catalogue. They piled the books on a table and set to work.
The boy’s elder brother flipped through some of the books in the pile, eyes squinted, stopping occasionally to trace shapes of a barely remembered home with his fingers. One of the books fell open at a picture of soldiers, heavily armed, patrolling a village.
“They’re the enemy,” he said. He slammed the book shut, threw it on the floor and ran.
His younger boy was perplexed, needing to know what upset his brother, needing to follow to find out. He bowed slightly to the woman helping him.
“Thank you for helping me. Can I come again tomorrow?” the younger child said. “I must go now. I need to stay with my brother.”
Night fell. Silence deeper than the bloodied water well almost drowned her. The boy was asleep, safe in the thatch. She must attend to the dead. Proper burial was not possible. A woman alone could not do it. She moved each body into its sun position and propped its mouth open. In each mouth she placed a small grain offering, pushed to the back so it could not be seen. She sang as she worked, hoping the dead would understand the lack of band and custom. At the end she ate a small funeral feast. She prayed. She could not cover the faces. She could not build the mounds. Tomorrow the soldiers would return. The carnage must look untouched. She must not be there.
As the first morning-birds called to the coming light, the woman picked up her child and as much money as she dared to carry then moved toward the river. By day she hid in the reeds. By night she moved towards the sea. That is what her husband said to do if the unthinkable happened.
Often she saw soldiers but they did not see her. Her boy suckled the need for quiet into himself. She worried whether she was giving him enough to sustain him. He was a big boy now for her breast. For three weeks she slipped through the life of her country, invisible but aided. Her second son was born in the Delta in a fisherman’s hut. At his birth she thought of his father, a helicopter pilot for the army of the soldiers who had killed her parents-in-law, her village. She would get a letter to him somehow.
“What do you know about the Ngo family? Do you know their story?” The librarian asked the principal.
“Not much. Boat people. Father is very keen for the boys to succeed. He was a helicopter pilot for the American army. Mother has no English. Any particular reason you want to know?”
“Not really. Just interested.” The librarian did not want to generate gossip. Too many of her fellows distrusted the sudden acceptance of Asian refugees, boat people, after so many years of the ‘White Australia’ policy. A dark chuckle escaped her lips. Heavens only knows what they’d do if they knew her grandmother was a descendant of the original boat people who came to this land 60000 years ago. ‘White Australia’ had affected her family too. Why couldn’t everybody see that the country was filled with boat people. They just came at different times.
On New Year’s Eve 1975, the woman paid her money to ride in a leaky fishing boat to a new land where innocent people were not shot because they were suspected of hiding the enemy. The fire works of Tet lit the sky as the boat moved away from the shore. New Year, Tet, a time of forgiveness and peace—a new beginning. The woman thought of her husband. She hoped her letter would find him. The fisherman promised he would give it to an American friend.
Storms came, and pirates. She was glad she was not pretty for the pirates often took the pretty women. She hid her precious gold coins in her baby’s nappy. Poo was a good deterrent to searching.
In the new country, she and her son stayed in a camp, stark, unlovely, safe. There she had word from her husband. Her letter helped him trace her. She had given him the number of the leaky boat—KG4435. He found her and her children in Darwin. There were no guns. There were no soldiers. A big plane flew the little family to Brisbane. There was a clean house with a green door to a new life, bought with Mr Ngo’s savings from his old job.
The librarian saw Mr and Mrs Ngo come to pick up their children. She called, “Mr Ngo, may I speak with you?”
She knew she could not address the woman. She lowered her eyes as she approached the man. It was strange that this honouring custom existed in his culture and that of her grandmother who was an original Australian.
She told him of his eldest son’s reaction to the picture of the soldiers.
“My wife thought he was too young to understand what happened to my parents. We have never talked of it with the children so it must be in his memory. How can he carry this weight, this hate?”
He talked to his wife.
“My wife says to thank you for telling us. She says we must talk the truth to the boys about our country. They must know killing is wrong but suffering can be overcome. They must know how to overcome suffering. We must follow the teachings of Buddha.”
“These teachings are important here too,” the teacher said, “though Buddha is not our guide. These teachings are deep in my grandmother’s culture from the time of the Dreaming, part of my father’s culture since a man died cruelly so that people would treat others as they, themselves, would wish to be treated. A picture in a book, a memory, cannot control our lives.”
She looked out at two boys, one dark and one blond, racing down the path, filled with the joy of friendship.The blond child was her son. She smiled. A third boy tagged after, carefully carrying a project on his birth country, marked with an A+ and a giant gold star.
Fourteen years passed. Two families sat side by side in a huge university hall to watch their oldest sons graduate as doctors. They watched as their sons turned to a new friend, another who had come by boat, another who believed in truth and the evil of killing, another who knew suffering could be overcome. The three young men flung their arms around each others’ shoulders as mates do and walked with pride towards the waiting families.