When the sisters faced east

 
 
Hai Bà Trung, who led an army of women to victory against the interloping Han.
A tale my grandmother told her own army of seven daughters
(an extremely fortuitous number of girls to birth)
in the creaking tropical night, the eight of them together, huddled,
thunder rolling in the distance, the swept dirt floor almost trembling; it seemed
there were always one or two of the girls who needed the comfort of a good story.
Anyway, the tale started sadly, as these things tend to do.
Wood Sister and Second Sister, now defeated, their husbands murdered,
threw themselves into a river to avoid the humiliation of their capture.
But history is not held fast by one voice, my grandmother said.
In her version, the sisters swam across Day River
and found the remnants of their retinue on the other side:
various cooks, fortune tellers and the sisters’ two elephants,
which they had ridden during necessary formal ceremonies.
(“Two elephants?” asked Fifth Daughter.
“Life tends towards the impractical,” my grandmother told the girls.)
The sisters made good their escape, retreating with their followers
and their unlikely mounts to a network of mountain hideaways in the west.

 

 

This is where the tale turns strange.
As life in the hills became routine, Second Sister began to complain
that her toes were growing cold during the cool highland nights.
The wise men and geomancers inspected her bed and how it might be shrinking,
and it was only after many weeks that Wood Sister noticed the obvious:
that she and Second Sister were now both much taller than everyone else in the room.
Every day the sisters swelled, while their poor, distressed tailors struggled
to keep up with new hems and panels, and the sisters’ robes became patchwork,
as farmland seems to a bird, or as a peasant army appears on a military map.
The girls grew and grew, until they could no longer ride their mounts,
just sit astride the elephants with their feet dragging in the dirt
while they tried to ignore the animals’ embarrassed groans. Of course,
in growing, the sisters realised that it would become harder for them to hide,
so they released their retinue, freed the elephants and retreated further
into the forest. People saw them less frequently. Paradoxically,
the less they saw of the sisters, the more they spoke of them.
(“How tall were they now?” asked Third Daughter,
ignoring the shushing of the other girls.)
Soon, the sisters were almost never seen but sometimes heard: gargantuan crashing
as the pair chased isolated Han patrols north through the forest.

 

 

My grandmother had other stories about the sisters
(such as the brash, brilliant general who found a cache of
enormous bamboo hairpins stashed by the girls in a cave,
and how he used these to sink the Mongol fleet at Bach Ðang)
and she saved these for the worst nights, when the Arc Lights were closer
and the ground itself moaned. There were other things she sometimes wanted to tell her girls, too,
like the story of feeding seven hungry mouths. The importance in choosing a direction to travel.
That pride and daring, abstract and formless, often carry a more concrete price.
The insurmountable nature of filial piety in the face of addled fathers,
useless husbands and absent sons. That the sharp rock eventually finds itself
weathered and dull. Lessons perhaps parallel to the turn of mythic analogies,
but with particularities that the girls could only paint for themselves.
But that time of greys would come later. For now, in the morning,
when the girls emerged from their shelter and walked the long road
past where other bombs had once fallen near the village, the seven lucky sisters
all noticed that a strange thing had happened to the craters:
they had changed shape overnight, the edges smoothed, just like vast footprints,
women’s footprints, the heels dug deep, defiant, and the distinct marks of each toe,
all pointing east.
 
 
 
 
‘When the sisters faced east’ placed third in the Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association/ Victoria University Trung Sisters Creative Award.