Large dark green leaves hang over us giving some protection from the rain save for the occasional drops plopping onto our heads. At least, here is a good place to rest for now. I squat down and lean against the protective tree and close my eyes, cradling my sleeping little sister in my lap. A weight of tiredness fills me; I drift into a fitful sleep. It is so hard to keep hiding, but the soldier kill teams won’t be searching for us in the rain. It is wet and the jungle floor is slippery. The smell of rotting death from the dead and dying vegetation fills the air.
In the before time, before the Vietnam war, before the Americans, before the Red Pathet Lao, before the gunships and before the dying, we, the Hmong, lived high up in the mountains on a table top overlooking the lush green valleys of Laos. Life had been peaceful, warm and happy. Our village, BanPhu, had seven families living in wooden open aired huts built on short stilts. Each day, leaving the youngest children behind with the elders, we would walk down the winding trails to the valley floor to tend our rice fields and vegetable gardens and then return home at the end of the day. We shared what we had and celebrated events together in large feasts. There was sameness, a comfort in our place and each other. Then the war invaded.
The Americans, our friends, had promised to protect us if we fought beside them; we did, but they left. The image still stays behind my closed eyes. The fear fills me again as I forever hear the whoop, whoop, whoop sound of the Huey helicopters as they lifted off, filled with solders and glided in tandem off the mountain. They dipped into the Plain of Jars Valley below, never to be seen again. Our village was left alone.
We knew the Red Pathet Lao, communist soldiers, would be coming to kill us. To them, we were traitors. We had to leave our homeland. The only place we could go was Thailand. It was a two-week walk through the jungle, the lowlands and then across the wide Mekong River. The dark emptiness filled us all as we prepared to leave. We gathered up food, clothing, and some weapons, and strapped our bundles to our backs. Some of us carried two bundles with the others strapping on the babies and the small children.
After much discussion, the elders decided to trek in small family groups. We certainly would be discovered by the roving kill soldiers if we all traveled together. We were a proud family of eight people; my brave father, Chia, my gentle mother, Kia, and six of us children. We were a group too big to travel together, so it was decided that my father would take the three middle children. My mother, my older brother, Neng, and I would take my three-year-old youngest sister, Yee. Being the oldest daughter at 12 years of age, I will carry Yee on my back and we will meet father at the Mekong River. From there, we will cross over into Thailand.
Resting against the tree and even with my eyes closed, I strain to hear any noises that may tell me if my brother, Neng, has returned. He left many hours ago to search for food; my mother’s whispered instructions trailing after him, “Neng, see if you can find some mushrooms or chestnuts for us to eat. After a week’s travel, our food is almost gone and your sisters are hungry.” With a frown and a deepened voice she adds, “Hurry, Neng we can’t stay here very long. The soldiers will be around.” Earlier, we had collected some peaches and dragon fruit from trees near an abandoned village, but there had been too few.
I open my eyes at the sound of mother’s urgent whisper, “Houa, wake up we must leave.”
Her once gentle eyes are wide with terror. The sound of men talking can be heard from the trees a short distance away. The bitter taste of fear rises in my mouth as my sister stirs in my arms, her eyes flutter and she opens her mouth to speak. I press my hand over her mouth and hug her tightly to my chest.
Mother gathers up our two packs and blankets. We can’t leave anything behind. The soldiers can’t know that we are here. I stand lifting the weight of my sister, Yee. My weakened arms strain under the load. With a tilt of my mother’s head, I follow her, carefully picking my way over fallen branches and sodden earth away from the kill squad.
We silently travel for over an hour always in an easterly direction toward the river. Frequently, mother pauses and listens to hear if we are being followed. Satisfied, she leads on. From behind, I can see her once beautiful black hair is tangled and matted and slick from the rain. The weight of two packs has caused her to stoop forward and her foot falls are flat and heavy. My sister wraps her arms and legs around my back and neck holding on tightly. Her weight and grip are crushing my neck, but we must keep going.
As we walk, my brother, Neng’s image fills my mind. How is he going to find us? Did the soldiers take him? Will we see him again?
After the last pause to listen, mother finally decides to stop in a circle of small trees. It is fairly dry and we can’t be easily seen. We sit and stare at each other, mother’s sunken cheeks and down-turned mouth must reflect my own as she says, “Houa, don’t be scared. We will find Neng again. He knows where to go, and we will see your father at the river. We are only four days away.” A faint smile crosses her lips and in her reassuring voice and a nod of her head, she says, “We will make it.”
With a slight tug on my sleeve Yee says, “Houa, I’m hungry and I have to go pee.”
Mother says with a slight laugh, “Go ahead take her behind that tree, but not too far and I will get her something to eat.”
I stand and take Yee’s hand guiding her over the rotting leaves. Mother is rummaging through her pack as we step from view.
An explosive voice from behind mother’s small clearing roars, “Stay where you are!” I grab Yee and freeze, sucking in my breath. A small shriek escapes Yee’s lips and she trembles uncontrollably. Instantly, I realize they aren’t screaming at us. It is Mother. From behind our tree, I can’t see her, but the sound of angry male voices fill the air.
I can hear mother’s pleading voice responding to their questions, “No, I am alone.”
“Don’t lie to us. You have two packs and blankets for more.”
“I’m not lying. These are my things. I am just trying to get to my family’s house in the next village.”
“You stupid woman, we have been following you. You have been trying to get to the river. We know who you are and we will find the others who are with you.”
Suddenly, her shrill voice carries over every other noise, “Houa, run, run!” Grabbing up Yee, I run headlong into the dense trees and undergrowth. Yee is wet and keeps slipping from my arms. I hold on tighter with tears streaming down my cheeks and Yee sobbing against me. I have no plan and don’t know where I’m going. I just run.
A scream and then the crack of a gunshot come from the clearing behind us. I suck in my breath. Have they shot Mother, or are they shooting at us? I can’t stop. I must keep running. Holding Yee even tighter, we crash through the jungle with branches slapping our bodies. I am blindly searching for a way.
My mind is screaming, just keep running. The soggy ground pulls down on my feet and every step gets harder. Dodging around a large tree, my foot catches on a root holding fast to the ground and I fall face first into the putrid undergrowth. Yee falls beside me gasping for air and covered in mud. I can’t stop to see if she is hurt. We must run. I pick her up and juggle her to my back. Through clenched teeth I say, “Hold on tight, whatever happens don’t let go.”
A tiny voice chokes out a whisper, “I won’t Houa, I promise.”
We run again. After several minutes of scrambling over fallen limbs and jumping small rivulets of water running off the side of ravines, my mind starts to collect its thoughts. We have come a long way and no shots have been heard; maybe we have gotten away. I need to think. I slow to a walk and then stop, lowering Yee to the ground. I am straining to hear any voices or footfalls through the trees. All is quiet save for the droplets of rain dripping from the tree canopy overhead. I feel a kind of hysterical laughter welling in my chest as I look at my mud-covered, wide-eyed little sister standing beside me. Confusion and fear radiate from her face. She wants me to save her.
I kneel down beside her and gather my arms around her. We both sob, holding each other tight. I murmur softly, “It’ll be alright, I promise.” Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath, I know that whatever happened to Mother, it is my turn now to be strong.
I stand up, gently wiping the mud from Yee’s nose and around her eyes and say, “Come on Yee, we will make it, let’s go find Father.”