The Dream of the Red Road
Years ago, Pender Hartwell deserted to the North Vietnamese. No longer of any use, he has been expelled to return to his antebellum home in Mississippi, where he quickly becomes a pariah.
Pender Hartwell, an infantryman sickened by the war, deserts to the North Vietnamese. In Hanoi he is put in the hands of a literary-inclined intelligence officer, who teaches him to speak Vietnamese. Together they read the chief work of Vietnamese literature, the epic love poem, The Tale of Kieu, while Pender helps Mr. Chau translate captured American documents, mostly ones of no significance because the North Vietnamese never trust Pender. Pender finds himself attracted to a girl who walks along the red dirt road before the house every day, but being kept under guard he never has the opportunity to speak to her.
Long after the war is over Mr. Chau falls out of favor and disappears, and the North Vietnamese kick Pender out, so he returns to Mississippi to claim his decaying ante-bellum family home. No one in the tiny community of Egypt Ridge is happy with Penderís presence, particularly the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, for he is the recipient of a dishonorable discharge and has been stripped of his medals. Still, he starts to court his old girl friend, Miranda, wanting to fall in love with her but unsure whether he can. Having memorized much of The Tale of Kieu he uses the poem to call up memories of the girl on the red road, and heís consequently caught between the love he wants for Miranda and his idealized love for a girl heís seen only from a distance. With the help of two Montagnard refugees he repairs the family home and struggles against attempts, both by persuasion and by violence, to drive him out of the house and out of Mississippi.
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Scott Ely was born in Atlanta, GA, and he moved to Jackson, MS when he was eight. He served in Vietnam (somewhere in the highlands near Pleiku). He graduated with an MFA from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He teaches fiction writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His previous book publications include STARLIGHT (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); PITBULL (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Penguin); OVERGROWN WITH LOVE (University of Arkansas Press); THE ANGEL OF THE GARDEN (University of Missouri Press). His work has been translated in Italy, Germany, Israel, Poland, and Japan. There were also UK editions of the novels published.
I came home after most people thought there were no more Americans in North Vietnam. I didn't want to come home; they kicked me out. One day they came to the villa north of Hanoi where I was living. My teacher, Mr. Chau, had disappeared. When I got to Mississippi, I wrote to him but have received no letter in reply. Ten hours later I was in Japan. Reporters were asking me questions and shoving cameras in my face. I had some trouble speaking English again.
Back in the States there was some talk of a court martial, but no one wanted to drag the memory of Vietnam through the courts. So they gave me a dishonorable discharge and took away my medals. I came to Egypt Ridge two weeks ago to this empty house.
My mother refused to have me declared legally dead. She always believed I'd come home. Then my father died and she died and my uncle inherited everything, with the provision that he was to keep the house and five hundred acres of good Delta land free and unencumbered for me. So when I came back there was the house and the land and a small trust fund. My uncle is in a hospital in Memphis hooked up to a machine. None of my cousins will have anything to do with me.
I go inside and get my grandfather Foley's telescope, which I found in the attic. There's a platform up on top of the house where he used to look at the stars. Then folks voted to put streetlights on Lee Street and the light got in his way. He shot out the lights with a rifle and ended up in the state mental hospital where he died. They wouldn't even let him take his telescope with him.
When I turn the telescope on the one who's looking at me, I see it's Miranda Pope's daughter Lila. Miranda and I were classmates in elementary school. Then for high school she went off to a private school in Memphis. The Daughters are teaching Lila about patriotism. I wonder what I look like to Lila, probably just the outline of a man with a stick in his hands. Some image out of a bad dream, standing on the gallery.
Lila kneels down by a stone again and takes up her brush. Now the stones, particularly the ones they've cleaned, make a pretty contrast against the green grass, but once winter comes and the Delta turns brown they'll become soft, rounded smudges of white. I love the Delta in the winter too. It's the softness I like, a brown landscape that's never harsh.
I'm sure Lila knows about me. I've been writing her mother Miranda letters, at least one a day, ever since I found out she was getting a divorce. She hasn't written back. She can't phone because I don't have one. I hate telephones. I like letters. If I had someone to carry a message, I'd sit down and write a note to Lila and have it taken to her.
While America went through the seventies and the eighties, I was living at the villa, reading Vietnamese literature. Mr. Chau, a captain in the North Vietnamese intelligence service, who always insisted that I treat him as a civilian, guided my reading through Vietnamese books and all that Marxist stuff. He loved poetry, especially The Tale of Kieu. Some of Mr. Chau's superiors would not have approved of his infatuation with the poem.
"It is about love," Mr. Chau liked to say. "How can they be against love."
But we both knew there were those who were against it.
Then the war was over and I was left as a person of no value. But they let us remain at the villa on the Red River where Mr. Chau and I continued to read literature together.
That was what we did every day. I'd get up early in the morning and go out on the gallery. The villa was once part of a French tea grower's estate. The house was mostly empty, only a few pieces of furniture left. Someone had stolen the beds. We slept on pallets on the gallery. Where it was cool.
The gallery reminded me of the one on the house at Egypt Ridge, except that there were mountains. The land pitched sharply down toward the river. And in the mornings of the dry season the mist always lay heavy among the palms and pepper trees so that the house appeared to be floating above the clouds. During the rains we were in the clouds. We'd sit in wicker chairs as pieces of wet cloud drifted across the gallery and talk about that poem. Or I might listen to him play a lute and chant a poem. He taught me to play, although I never became half as good as he was. It was like living in a dream. I never saw another prisoner.
I fell in love with the poem too. Mr. Chau was the perfect teacher. He'd been educated in Paris. He was a well educated and cultivated man. He had nothing in common with the two Vietnamese peasant boys about my age who were assigned as guards. They cared nothing for books. They listened to American radio out of Saigon as they sprawled on a bench at the far end of the gallery. I watched the guards grow toward middle age with me. Then the war was over and they were sent, Mr. Chau told me, to Cambodia. I never saw them again.