Review of Village Teacher by Adria Carmichael

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Following is a review of my first novel, Village Teacher. The review was written and published today on Goodreads and Amazon by Adria Carmichael.

Village Teacher is a feelgood story you don’t want to miss if you enjoy well-written historical fiction with plenty of intrigue and twists and turns on the way.

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from this book at first but was immediately swept away by the whirlwind love story that occupied the first hundred pages or so. I’m far from a fan of the romance genre, but the sweet love that sparked between the humble, but exceptional Teacher Tam and the privileged half French, half Vietnamese girl Giang made my heart melt. However, just when I had accepted that this was a love story – albeit set in a richly described historical context – it shifted into a game of political intrigue where poor Teacher Tam becomes a mere pawn in powerful men’s pursuit of their own selfish goals. Then halfway through, the story takes yet another unexpected turn, and the love story is put on a pause as Teacher Tam ventures into new dire challenges.

Village Teacher is a book of contrasts. Between the selflessness of the protagonists and uninhibited and ruthless ambitions of the antagonists. Between the traditional society based on century-old Confucian and Buddhist traditions, and the relentless modernization brought on by the French colonialization. Between the worship of ancestors and the worship of Jesus. Between the lavish affluence of the colonial capital (Hue) and the poor but tranquil life in the countryside. Between those who yearn for knowledge and development, and those who fight it tooth and nail. Between those accepting the French colonialists’ grip on their country, and the rebels who try to cast them out. And one of my personal favorites – between the old Vietnamese script using Chinese characters, and then new Vietnamese script, based on the Latin letters. The author balances these contrasts masterfully as the story is driven forward without a single dull moment to break your attention. And despite being so diverse, everything comes together at the end into a very satisfactory conclusion, which lets you close the book with a smile on your face.

I would also like to highlight the role that the transformation of the Vietnamese script played in the story, which spoke to me on a personal level since I used to live in Japan and know how the use of Chinese characters has been part of forming that country, as well as Korea. I was, however, not aware that the same was true for Vietnam, and I followed that subplot with great interest. To give a brief recap, many Asian countries lacked their own scripts when first introduced to Chinese culture, and therefore imported the Chinese writing system for their languages, which was not a very good solution since the languages were so different. Japan tried to get away from this by creating two phonetic scripts that competed to replace the Chinese characters, but in the end couldn’t rid themselves of them and are now stuck with a writing system using a mix of Chinese characters and both phonetical alphabets. Korea on the other hand created a different phonetic alphabet and eventually managed to phase out the Chinese characters completely. And now I’ve learned that Vietnam adopted the Latin script for their language, which was truly fascinating… at least for me, as a language nerd 🙂

Poses

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According to the dictionary, a pose is “a sustained posture, especially one assumed for artistic effect”. The second part of the definition does not apply to birds. Most birds fly, and they do so gracefully as their bodies have to conform to the demands of aerodynamics. At rest, they become more compact and assume natural poses to observe their surroundings, or to preserve heat when necessary.

Great Egret.
Laughing Gull.
Snowy Egret.
Grackle.
Tern after catching a fish.
Tern losing fish?

Late Summer Photos

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In one more week, summer will be ending. Some birds have already left the refuge but many remain as warm temperatures still prevail and food is abundant in the marshes. Here are some more shots of the Great Blue Heron shown in monochrome yesterday.

Great Blue Heron.
Great Blue Heron landing.

Great and Snowy Egrets, including juveniles born this year are everywhere around the refuge.

Two Great Egrets looking for fish.

A Snowy Egret bristled in warning as a juvenile landed close to it.

Two Snowy Egrets.
The intruder left.
Still not happy.

There was a new bird for me. It was quite far away, but I think it was a Tricolored Heron.

Tricolored Heron on the right, Great Egret on the left.

While scanning the marshes, I saw a brilliant, shiny red spot in the middle of the milkweed. Mating season should be over by now, but two Ladybugs did not get the memo.

Ladybugs mating.

Smartphone Photos

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Years ago AT&T forced everyone to go wireless and gave me a free Samsung smartphone. It worked but was awfully slow and I only carried it to use in an emergency. I rarely took pictures with it. One of those pictures is shown below.

Oculus, World Trade Center, New York City.

No matter what I did, I could not get Santiago Calatrava’s creation in one frame without cutting off some part of it.

Recently, I acquired a Samsung S21 Plus smartphone and took the following photos.

Arrangement on a dining table.
Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana).
Two bees on Obedient plant.
Bee on Obedient plant.
Bee on Obedient plant.

The above images were downloaded from the Samsung smartphone to my PC. I did some post processing with DxO software, mainly cropping, sharpening and enhancing color vibrancy.

Book Review from France

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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who lives in Paris sent me an email about “The Siege of An Lộc”, my second novel published a year ago. I have translated his email below and also included his original in French.

oOo

I read your book “The Siege of An Loc”. I finished reading it a long time ago, but I was too perturbed by the events related to Covid to give you my impressions.

I loved both of your books [“Village Teacher” and “The Siege of An Loc“] and I think that one of these days someone will put the two on the silver screen since you provided sufficient historical details as well as details on military operations to transform both novels into love, historical, and action movies.

“The Siege of An Loc” is particularly captivating from beginning to end. From the start, I rediscover the ambiance of Saigon with its sunny mornings and rainy afternoons, with people rushing to find temporary shelter when the monsoon rain occurs. Then the trip toward Xa Cam makes me relive my bus rides in Viet Nam.

“The Siege of An Loc” is a beautiful love story, but to me personally it is also a tribute to the brave soldiers of the armed forces of the Republic of Viet Nam, to the Regional Forces, to the people who fought against the deluge of fire from North Vietnamese artillery and tanks.

The description of the main characters under your pen is genial, with each having their own unique trait. I have a lot of sympathy for Lieutenant Trung, the charming, gentle but courageous and willful Ly, and the valiant Captain Nam, as if they were real life persons. I also like the young girl Ut who scrambles amid the ruins of the city to gather information for Trung and collect those provisions which fell into enemy zones.

Through Dung and Thu, it’s the success of the “Open Arms” program. One could imagine the two brothers [Trung and Dung] fighting in the same battlefields without knowing they are brothers, but you have skillfully spared us that painful situation.

It is very touching toward the end when their family is reunited in Saigon, and the families of the tailor and Ut are resettled and life begins a new. It is truly a happy ending, thank you Hien.

You deserve a big thank you for having articulated our deep gratitude toward the soldiers, the men and women who have defended our freedom.

oOo

“J’ai lu ton bouquin The siege of An Loc (le siège de An Loc). J’ai terminé la première lecture depuis longtemps mais j’étais trop perturbé par des événements liés au covid pour te donner mes impressions.

J’ai beaucoup aimé tes deux livres et je pense qu’un jour quelqu’un mettrait les 2 livres sur l’écran car tu donnes suffisamment de détails historiques, des détails des opérations militaires pour en faire des films d’amour, d’histoire et d’action.

The Siege of An Loc est particulièrement captivant du début jusqu’à la fin. Dès le début je retrouve l’ambiance de Saigon ‘sáng nắng chiều mưa’ avec des gens qui se précipitent vers un abri de fortune quand survient une pluie de mousson. Et le trajet en car vers Xa Cam me fait revivre des voyages en ‘xe đò’ au Vietnam.

The Siege of An Loc c’est une belle histoire d’amour mais pour moi personnellement c’est un hommage aux courageux soldats de l’armée VNCH, de la force régionale, à la population qui ont résisté au déluge de feu créé par l’artillerie, des tanks des nord-viêtnamiens.

La description des personnages principaux sous ta plume est géniale, chacun a un trait de caractère spécifique. J’ai beaucoup de sympathie pour le lieutenant Trung, la charmante, douce mais courageuse et volontaire Ly et le vaillant capitaine Nam comme s’il s’agissait de vrais gens. J’aime aussi la petite Ut, elle se débrouille bien dans les tas de ruines pour donner des informations à Trung et récupérer les approvisionnements mal tombés.

À travers Dung et Thu c’est le succès du programme ‘chieu hoi’. On peut imaginer les deux frère qui s’affrontent au champ de bataille sans savoir qu’ils sont frères mais tu nous as habillement épargné cette situation douloureuse.

C’est très touchant quand finalement la famille se retrouve à Saigon, les familles du tailleur, de be Ut…s’installent ailleurs et la vie reprend. C’est vraiment un happy end, merci Hien, merci pour les deux livres.

Tu mérites un grand remerciement car tu as exprimé notre profonde gratitude envers des soldats, des hommes et femmes qui ont défendu notre liberté.”

Summer Flowers, Dragonflies, Birds

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I took the following photos over the past two weeks at various places in Central Jersey.

Black-eyed Susans at the entrance to Sayen Gardens in Hamilton, NJ.
Blue Dasher at Colonial Lake in Lawrenceville, NJ.
Gray Catbird at Sayen Gardens.
Dam at Carnegie Lake in Princeton, NJ. On the left, two Cormorants.
Hydrangea at Sayen Gardens.
Graffiti at Sayen Gardens.
Another Blue Dasher at Sayen Gardens.

Four Butterflies and a Turtle

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Summer is the season for beautiful butterflies that flutter around plants and flowers, their colors and appearance letting us know that the outdoors are where we belong. I photographed the following butterflies at two different spots not far from home.

Cabbage White Butterfly at the Mapleton Preserve in Kingston, NJ.
Small Skipper at Sayen Gardens in Hamilton, NJ.
Silver Spotted Skipper at the Mapleton Preserve in Kingston, NJ .
Eastern Black Swallowtail at Edwin B. Forsythe NWR.

A small turtle (less than 5 in or 10 cm) was crossing the road as I drove by.

Eastern Mud Turtle at Edwin B Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.

Self-Published Saturday: August 14, 2021 Village Teacher

Bonnie Reads and Writes

It’s Saturday, and I’ll be reviewing only Self-Published/Indie books all day. Saturday is exclusively Self-Published/Indie. Self-Published Saturday is my effort to help Indie authors market their books. As I always say, Self-Published/Indie authors have to do it all, from editing to cover design to marketing. My hope is that this feature will give them a little help. Please remember that if you decide to review the book, leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and anywhere else you review the book. This is so important for Self-Published authors. My first SP Saturday feature today is Village Teacher by neihtn, or Hien T. Nguyen. Village Teacher is a wonderful historical love story set in Vietnam.

Village Teacher by Neihtn, who also writes as Nguyen Trong Hien, is a well-written novel set in Vietnam in the late 19th or early 20th century while Vietnam was under French colonization. Teacher Tâm has traveled to…

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Around the Lake

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Yesterday I walked around Colonial Lake, five miles from home, to see what I could photograph during one of the hottest days of the year. An excessive heat warning is in effect until tomorrow evening.

The dragonflies enjoyed the heat.

Blue Dasher dragonfly.

The primroses were thriving.

Primrose.

The hibiscuses were in full bloom.

Red Hibiscus.
Bee inside pink Hibiscus.

There were many ducks, mainly Mallards, with some oddly colored ones mixed in with them.

Female Mallard and other ducks.

Monarchs were flying around.

Monarch butterfly.

Painted Turtles were sunning on an old tire.

Painted Turtles on all-season tire.

Lotus Pond Demise

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Around this time of the year, I’ve been going to photograph lotus flowers at a small pond at the Carnegie Center in Princeton, NJ. In previous years the pond used to have beautiful lotus flowers blooming in July and August. This year all the lotus plants have wilted and turned brown as if struck by some disease. The pond looked terrible. Was it some fungal disease that attacked the lotus? Were the plants left to die intentionally? There was no one around to ask questions.

Here are some shots of the flowers I took on July 25, 2020.

White Lotus.
White Lotus.
White Lotus.
Lotus leaves.

Baby Puppet

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On April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese Communists succeeded in conquering South Việt Nam. As a result, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese military and police personnel as well as civilians were forced into re-education camps. Many would spend years in those camps or die there from malnutrition, disease, or mistreatment.

To this day the North Vietnamese often call South Vietnamese by the derogatory term “ Ngụy” or puppet.

Following is my translation of “Thằng Ngụy Cona story written by Ngô Viết Trọng. Born in 1944, he was a police officer from 1967 to 1974 before becoming an instructor at the Police Academy in Đà Lạt until the end of the war. He was forced to spend 7 years in a re-education camp followed by 11 years in a New Economic Zone. In 1993 he was allowed to resettle in the United States under the Orderly Departure Program for South Vietnamese refugees.

When they transferred me to the prison in Bà Rịa, I was thrown into a very small cell. There was already another man in it, Mr. Đoàn. The cell door was a rather thick and rusted piece of metal that had been there a long time. There were many holes in the door, finger sized holes. At the bottom was a larger hole that a hand could fit through. Because the door was seldom opened, those holes provided us with a little bit of light into our cell.

One day, while I was utterly despondent, I heard female voices resonating outside. I hurried to put an eye against one of the holes in the cell door. It turned out that the prisoners from the women section were allowed outside to shower and wash their clothes. It was a scene of lively activities. The sound of brass wash bowls were mixed in with voices of people hurrying one another or arguing loudly among themselves. They washed their clothes, showered and cleaned themselves, combed their hair, hanged their clothes to dry. Everyone appeared to be in a hurry. There were too many people and only two wells. Their time outside was limited and everyone was worried they would not be able to complete their chores.

I suddenly saw a small boy jump out into the open. He ran toward two Muscovy ducks that were grooming each other near our cell door. The alarmed ducks flew away. A woman yelled after him:

“Don’t fool around or I will spank you!”

The little boy stopped. After their initial shock, the two ducks came to a stand still and continued their grooming. The boy was pale looking and appeared to be three or four years old. He was cute and adorable. How did he end up in prison? How could he bear the lack of food, the absence of friends, the intense craving for everything in a small dark, crowded and stinking cell? What kind of person would he grow up to be?

He seemed to like the duck couple very much. He was looking at them in awe when his  mother told him to return to their cell. He walked in that direction but his neck kept craning toward the ducks, forcing his mother to yell at him several times.

I turned to Mr. Đoàn:

“In the female prisoner section, there is an adorable little boy. Do you know why he was put in there?”

“Rumors say that his father is a Major, but that he has escaped to the United States. His mother is a member of the Thiên Nga [a South Vietnamese police counter-intelligence team composed entirely of female agents]. I saw the little boy when I arrived here. He was barely walking at that time.”

I laughed out loud and said:

“Later on, his paper records will have to read: at one year of age he had to be sent to a concentration camp run by the barbaric Communists …”

Each day I received two small quantities of tapioca that I used to make soup mixed in with some  salted green cabbage. I wondered whether the little boy was allowed his own daily ration or whether he had to share his mother’s. I told my cellmate:

“That little boy must really crave for sugar and milk!”

Mr. Đoàn laughed:

“Don’t you worry. On visitation days, the cadres allow him to roam at will, and people give him a lot of stuff. Even in their own cell, there are quite a few women who have been mothers or sisters, and nobody would let such a charming boy go hungry. I have seen female dogs that let baby cats suckle. The instinct of women who have been mothers are much higher than that!”

I said sadly:

“Is that so? Then he is more fortunate than my own children. I have three boys, and the youngest must be his age. When I was sent to jail, he had just turned one and could not yet stand. I did not know to economize and save, and I had nothing to leave to my wife and our children. It kills me to think of my poor wife running around to make ends meet and feed our three boys. But regrets are now too late!”

A few days later the female section was again allowed to shower and wash their clothes. After he took his shower, the little boy came over to our cell. He did not see the pair of ducks and sat on a step in front of our door. I put my finger through a hole and poked him in the back. He jumped up and turned around:

“You startled me!”

I liked the fact that a young boy was using a grown-up expression. Knowing that I was only teasing him, he sat down again.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Baby Puppet!”

Surprised, I asked him again:

“I am asking what your name is.”

“Baby Puppet!”

“Who gave you that name?”

“The cadres did.”

“Didn’t your mother give you a name?”

“She did. She called me ‘Baby’, then the cadres called me ‘Baby Puppet’ and the aunties in our room now also call me ‘Baby Puppet’.”

Heavens! What kind of impression would such a name have on him when he grew up? I intended to ask him more questions but his mother called him back to their cell.

oOo

Then visitation day came around. In a prison, that day was like New Year’s day. Cells with many prisoners were left open so that gift packages could be brought in easily. Those prisoners permitted to see their visitors had to put on clean clothes in good conditions. If they didn’t have such clothes, they had to borrow them from someone else. Thus on visit days, prisoners wore bright and sharp clothes. The cadres also put on benign airs while enjoying the delightful smells of visitations.

Those prisoners who had no visitors could enjoy the fact that their cells were left open to let in a little bit of sunshine and fresh air. They could share some of the visitation food packages given to others, or inherit the daily rations of the more fortunate prisoners who received food packages. Prisoners who were confined to isolation cells were not allowed visitors, but they could at least count on the fact that they would not be subject to the cadres’ bullying for that day.

Thus on visitation days, all prisoners shared a little bit of joy, even if it was only temporary. The one that was truly happy was “Baby Puppet.”

While cadres and prisoners were busy carrying in packages or going out to see their visitors, the little boy ran from one cell to the next. He was very smart and every time he saw a cadre he would politely greet them. No one scolded him or prevented him from doing anything.

oOo

One month went by, and visitation day arrived once again. It rained that day and a cold breeze blew in. I pasted my eyes on our cell door to share in the common joy of everyone else. The little boy was roaming around collecting gifts. Seeing that it was getting cold and fearing that he might get rained on, his mother had him wear a spiffy raincoat over his clothes.

That day, perhaps because he received too many gifts, he braved the cold, took off his raincoat and used it to carry his packages. As he ran happily back to his cell with his gift bundle, he met Sơn, the most loathsome disciplinarian in the prison. Smiling slyly, the cadre stopped him:

“Boy Puppet, you have so many packages. Give me one of them.”

The little boy became agitated, stepped on a slippery part of the path and fell, scattering his gifts in every direction. Cadre Sơn bent down to help him gather them. Then he pretended to take a package wrapped in paper.

“Give me this one!”

The little boy thought the cadre was serious and yelled:

“No! This package must not be shown to the cadres!”

Hearing what the boy said, Sơn became suspicious and opened the package to see what was inside. He glowered immediately and kicked the boy on his chest, sending him sprawling backward. It took a moment before the boy began to cry. No one knew what was going on, but then everyone heard the cadre’s loud and threatening voice.

“Fuck this puppet breed. He just started growing up but has already become a reactionary.”

Turning toward the disciplinary cadres, he shouted:

“Make him kneel under the basketball hoop.”

At once they dragged the boy up and pulled him away. Right after that, Sơn and another disciplinary cadre went to room B5. He stood in front of the door and began talking and asking questions. A little while later, a prisoner who had seen a visitor that morning stepped out of the room. Sơn made the prisoner stand still then began punching and kicking him. The prisoner fell down several times, but each time he was made to stand up again to continue receiving his brutal punishment.

In no time at all, the prisoner was crumbling and coming apart. Sơn had him handcuffed then told his men to take him to the discipline room.

The rain continued to fall, and the wind kept coming in gusts. The little boy was still kneeling under the basketball hoop. Sơn kept moving around to supervise visiting activities.

After some time, unable to wait any longer, the boy’s mother poked her head out and begged for mercy. Sơn made as if he did not hear her. Only after a long hour did he allow the poor boy to return to his cell. His body was cold as ice, he was shaking constantly and could not utter a word.

In the evening, when they brought food to our cell, Sơn bluntly warned us:

“You people better watch out. Don’t use that Boy Puppet to communicate with one another! Even if just to ask about someone’s health.”

I then understood that our fellow prisoner in room B5 had violated the rules. He had sent a gift package with a message to a friend in the female section. I kept thinking back to his punishment all night and I pitied the unfortunate little boy who had to kneel in the rain and cold for several hours.

Early next morning, I was awakened by appeals for help from the female section.

“Reporting to cadre: A5 has someone seriously ill.”

I was startled and thought maybe that person was the little boy. A voice from the guard office asked:

“How serious?”

The female voice pleaded with more urgency:

“Reporting to cadre: someone is dying in A5.”

“I heard you! Wait for resolution.”

Half an hour later, I heard some commotion in the courtyard. The medical cadres had probably arrived.

Then the entire prison became silent. Near sunrise, Mr. Đoàn woke me up.

“Do you hear something?”

I listened carefully. A female prisoner was lamenting.

“Baby, why did you have to leave me? My baby was not even three years old. What did he know that made him a reactionary? Oh heavens, that is so cruel!”

I shuddered. Baby Puppet!

Right after that, I heard a hostile voice:

“You let your child catch pneumonia and would not report his condition early enough. Now why don’t you let us bury him instead of wailing and blaming us?”

The unfortunate and pitiful woman went on crying and sobbing.

Saturday Monochrome

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Lately clouds from forest fires in the Western part of the United States have been drifting over the Eastern part, and beyond to Europe perhaps. They have made the sky very cloudy and the moon orange at night. I went to Sayen House and Gardens in Hamilton, NJ to see whether there were flowers to photograph. In one corner of the gardens I found the pond murky looking. The photos I took of the pond surface and some plants growing in the water looked like black and white photos. I converted them to monochrome images which do not appear too different from their color originals.

Pond reflections.
Pond reflections.

You Must Live

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Following is my translation of a short story published in 1934. It was written by a famous Vietnamese author, Trần Khánh Giư using the pen name of Khái Hưng. He and Nhất Linh (see Shadow in the Mist) were the two founders of the Self Reliance Literary Group (Tự Lực Văn Đoàn).

“You Must Live” (“Anh Phải Sống”) is the first of 13 short stories written by these two authors. It was published in 1934. At the end of World War II, Khái Hưng was arrested by the Vietnamese Communists and executed in 1947.

One summer afternoon on the dike at Yên Phụ.

The Red River was rising and flowing so strongly that it was threatening a small island in the middle of it. Tree trunks and desiccated branches collected from upstream forests were carried by its reddish current. They looked like a never-ending convoy of small boats traveling at top speed toward some unknown destination.

Standing on the dike, mason Thức eyed those pieces of wood, a wishful expression on his face. He turned to his wife and stared at her with an unspoken question. She gazed at the river, inspected the sky, then sighed:

“The wind is too strong, and those dark clouds on the horizon are growing fast. Dear, it will rain soon!”

He also let out a sigh, and began ambling away. Abruptly he stopped and asked her:

“Did you cook yet?”

She answered sadly:

“Yes, but there is only enough for the two older kids to eat this evening.”

The couple looked at each other in silence. Then something seemed to mesmerize them, forcing them to turn toward the river. In the middle of the river, pieces of firewood were drifting steadily downstream.

The husband smiled oddly and said:

“Bold!”

The wife shook her head but did not say a word. He asked:

“Did you go see Mrs. Ký yet?”

“I did.”

“How did that turn out?”

“Useless. She said she will only give us money when we collect that floating firewood and bring it to her. She will lend us nothing before that.”

“Is that so?”

Those words were as solid as the firm taps he made with a trowel on the bricks of a wall he was building. Willing himself to do some superhuman act, Thức turned to his wife:

“Go home and take care of our boy Bò.”

“He has big sister Nhớn and small sister Bé looking after him.”

“Dear, it’d better if you went home. Nhớn is barely five, how can she take care of the two younger ones?”

“I’ll go home then … But you should too. What are you standing around here for?”

“It’s all right. You first, I’ll go later.”

Mason Thức’s wife went obediently back to the village of Yên Phụ.

Seeing their low house, dark and damp, mason Thức’s wife thought about their poverty and felt despondent.

All three of her children were on the bare wooden bed, crying and clamoring for their mother. The little boy, Bò, was wailing, wanting to be fed. Since noon he had not had anything in his stomach.

Big sister Nhớn had not succeeded in calming him and was constantly telling small sister Bé:

“Run out to find mother and tell her to come home and feed him.”

However, Bé refused to go and laid on the bed crying and cursing.

Mason Thức’s wife ran to her son and picked him up, soothing him with words:

“I am sorry! I was out for too long and I let my baby go hungry, I let my baby cry.”

She sat on the bed to feed him. The boy began suckling. But he soon gave up and let go of his mother’s nipple because she had no milk for him. He wailed louder than before.

Thức’s wife sighed, her large black eyes filling with tears. She stood up and walked around singing softly to lull him to sleep.

“I am sorry! I had nothing to eat, and I have no more milk for my baby.”

Eventually, exhausted by his efforts, he fell asleep. The mother told the two girls to go out of the house to let their brother sleep.

She sat down and thought about her life. Her simple peasant mind could not dream or arrange her memories in any order. The things she remembered appeared chaotically, like people and objects on a photograph. One thing she did  remember very clearly was that she had never had a moment of leisure, one moment during which she could enjoy happiness like rich people did.

When she was twelve or thirteen, Lạc began working as a mason helper. Her life went on, day after day, month after month, year after year.

At the age of seventeen, she and Thức worked together, he as a roofer and she his helper. They exchanged pleasantries now and then. They fell in love. They got married.

Five years later, in their dilapidated home at the foot of the Yên Phụ dike, there was nothing that could be considered easy in the life of these two miserable people, their poverty worsening with the birth of three children in three years.

On top of that the times were hard, jobs were few and wages low. The couple struggled from one day to the next, never earning enough to feed their growing family.

Then mason Thức came up with a new way to earn a living. He borrowed money to buy a small woven bamboo boat. Every day, they took the boat out to the middle of the river to collect firewood to sell. Two months later, with their debt paid off, they were making enough money to live comfortably.

That is why this year, amid widespread poverty and hunger, the couple was looking toward the day when the river would be high again.

Yesterday, they saw that heaven had granted their wishes.

Lạc smiled and softly laid her baby down on his diaper. Silently, she stepped outside and began climbing the dike resolutely.

At the top of the dike, she did not see her husband anywhere.

The wind was roaring and the current was strong, flowing fast and noisy like a waterfall. Lạc lifted her yes to look at the sky: it was dark, black.

She stood thinking, her shirt flapping like those strong waves assailing the river bank. Then a sudden thought hit her. She panicked and ran to the side of the dike leading down to the river.

She arrived at the place where they had moored their woven boat. Lạc saw her husband making efforts to tighten the knots holding the bamboo slats together. She observed him silently and waited until he finished before stepping onto the boat and asked:

“Dear, where are you planning to go?”

Thức glared at his wife, shouting angrily:

“Why aren’t you staying home with the children?”

Frightened, she answered:

“They … are sleeping.”

“But what are you doing out here?”

“Where are you taking the boat?”

“Why do you ask? Go home!”

Lạc started to cry. Thức was moved.

“Why are you crying?”

“Because you are planning to go get firewood by yourself, without me.”

Thức was thinking and looking at the sky, the river. He told her:

“Dear, you can’t come along … It’s too dangerous!”

Lạc laughed:

“Dangerous! Then it’s dangerous for both of us … I am not afraid, I know how to swim.”

“All right!”

Those words sounded cold, making Lạc shiver. The river continued flowing strongly while the sky was getting even darker. Thức asked:

“Afraid?”

“No.”

They started taking the boat toward the middle of the river. He steered, she paddled. To fight against the current, he pointed the boat upstream. Still the boat drifted downstream, bobbling up and down, hidden at times by alluvial waves, then emerging again like a dried bamboo leaf on a pool of blood, a tiny mosquito drowning in a tube of lipstick.

Yet half an hour later they had reached the middle of the river. He held the rudder firmly while she collected the driftwood.

Not too long after, the boat was almost full and they prepared to return to the river bank. Rain started falling, followed by lightning which seemed to tear the clouds apart, while thunder threatened to blow up both heaven and earth.

The small bamboo boat filled with water and became heavier. They both paddled, but the current kept taking the boat along with it.

They shouted at the same time:

“Heaven!”

The boat sank. Their collected driftwood rejoined their former ranks and moved coldly forward, taking the overturned boat with it.

He asked his wife:

“Will you be able to swim to the river bank?”

“I can,” she asserted.  

“Swim along with the current … Lean on the waves!”

“I can do it! Don’t worry!”

The heavy rain continued, accompanied by ferocious thunder and lightning. The two felt they were living on the border of some abyss. A moment later, seeing his wife weakening, Thức swam toward her and asked:

“How is it going?”

“I can do it! Don’t worry!”

As soon as she said that, her head sank in the water. She struggled tremendously to come up to the surface. He sped toward her. Then one arm holding her up, he swam with his other arm. She smiled and looked at him lovingly. He also smiled. Some time later, Thức shouted:

“I am tired, hang on to me and let me swim! I can’t hold on to you any longer.”

After a few more minutes, he was exhausted and his arms were beyond tiring. She asked him softly:

“Can you swim some more?”

“Don’t know. If it was just me, no problem.”

“I will detach myself so you can swim to the bank, all right?”

He laughed:

“No! We’ll die together.”

A short while later, although Lạc felt it was as long as a day, her husband asked:

“Lạc! Can you try to swim some more?”

“No, why?”

“Nothing. Then we’ll both die.”

Lạc shuddered and said softly:

“Baby Bò! Nhớn! Bé! … No! … You must live!”

All of a sudden, Thức felt much lighter. She was no longer holding on to him. Lạc had thought about their children and had silently sunk to the bottom of the river, giving him enough strength to swim to the river bank.

Electric lights were shining brightly on the dike. The wind had died, the waves had calmed down. A man with a baby boy in his arms was sitting on the ground, crying. Two young girls stood on both sides of him. The family of mason Thức had come to the river to say farewell to the one who had sacrificed herself for her children. In the vast emptiness, the river kept flowing downstream, unconcerned.   

Summer Flowers 2021

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Deers don’t eat zinnias, one of the reasons I planted Forecast Zinnias around the yard this year. Actually, they did sample one plant but since then have given up eating zinnias.

Baby Zinnia.
Forecast Zinnia, pink.
Forecast Zinnias.
White Forecast Zinnia being visited by a wasp.
Forecast Zinnias.
Green Bee on coneflower.

Cicadas Gone – Zinnias in Bloom

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Yesterday, the silence was deafening! The 17-year cicadas were gone, and so was the noise they made. In our local paper, high school students were promoting cicadas as food, deep-fried or what not. Claims were made that these insects do not harm anything, but one look at our backyard convinced me otherwise. Many trees have clumps of dead leaves, as seen in the following shot of this year’s Paw-paw fruit.

Paw-paw with dead leaves left behind by cicadas.

Meanwhile Zinnias have started to bloom after the spring flowers like peonies were done with putting on their show.

Forecast Zinnia.
Forecast Zinnia.
Forecast Zinnia.

Shadow in the Mist

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The following is a translation of a short story written by a famous Vietnamese author, Nhất Linh (actual name Nguyễn Tường Tam). It was published in 1934.

My wife was gravely ill, but I had to continue working and I left her at home by herself, without anyone to care for her. One night, she became very weak, fainting several times. That was the night my supervisor ordered me to be the locomotive engineer for the train transporting the Governor General. It was a golden opportunity for me, but I knew I could not leave my wife at home. I went in to see my boss to tell him that I had a sick wife to take care of. He blew up, pounding on his table and chair.

“I don’t want to know about it. Be at the train station tonight at 10! Otherwise, you can leave and never come back here. Get out!”

His words and threatening tone kept me wondering all the way home. Once there, I sat next to the bed and looked at my wife. I saw right away that I could not go to work that night, even if I had to lose my job.

She noticed my worried expression and asked me what was bothering me. I told her what had happened with my boss. After hearing me, her face brightened up noticeably and she said:

“You must go to work! There is nothing to worry about! I am feeling much better already. Go, and tomorrow afternoon come home with some goodie for me.”

Seeing her talk and laugh so cheerfully, I felt more confident. I changed and went to the train station. I arrived there at 10 sharp. But once I got the train rolling, I suddenly began to worry. I knew then that I had been reckless. A strange sensation took hold of me, and I feared that I was not going to see the face of my wife again. However, that feeling only lasted a short time.

The train crept along the mountainous road, struggling up and down one pass after another. I poked my head out of the window, trying to look straight ahead, but all I could see was a thick wall of mist lit up by the train headlights. Suddenly something struck me.

Imprinted on the mist was the image of a woman in a billowing dress waving her arms. I rubbed my eyes, thinking I had seen wrong, but the woman was still there.

I knew I was not dreaming. I knew it was a real image, one that anyone else could see. I grabbed the arm of my helper, pulled him over and shouted:

“Look!”

His mouth opened wide, his eyes bulged, and he yelled in a sudden panic:

“That is really strange! A ghost, boss!”

Whenever the train crept forward, the image of the woman backed up ahead, fading away then becoming clear yet again, drifting in mid air.

Her arms kept waving steadily as if she meant to tell us to stop because there was some danger ahead.

“Something strange is going to happen,” I told my helper.  

“Yes, boss. That image is making signs for us to stop.”

The image had started waving slowly but her movements became frantic as if she became alarmed because I  did not seem to heed her warnings.

“Sir, let’s stop to see. It must be a ghost!”

“No, we can’t stop for no reason.”

At that point, I was like a senseless person who had lost his sanity. Yet, somehow I heard in the distance the voice of the woman telling me:

“Stop, stop!”

I tried to listen carefully. I grabbed the brake lever but could not bring myself to use it.

A moment later, the voice of the woman had become clearer than before.

“Stop, stop at once!”

Without thinking, I pulled on the lever with all my strength. The engine vibrated, the wheels squealed in the dead of the night. The train slowed down, continued on for a short distance before stopping completely. I did not have time to get out of the cab before the chief of the guard detail ran up and shone his flashlight on me.

“What’s the matter?”

I hesitated. Unwilling to tell him the incredible truth, I said:

“There is something strange ahead. Let’s go look.”

At that point, the high officials in the Governor General retinue had also arrived on foot and tagged along behind us. We had only gone a short distance when we heard the noise of a waterfall. I then remembered that we had arrived at the N.G. bridge.

Several days of heavy rain had swollen the river and it was now a thundering torrent. We proceeded to move forward and arrived at the river bank. We brought up our lights to peer into the darkness. Everyone was stunned. The violent waters had grabbed the N.G. bridge and sent it toward a whirlpool where it had broken in half.

If I had not stopped in time, the entire train carrying the Governor General would have fallen into the raging river. No one would have survived. No accident could have been more catastrophic. I was the one who prevented it from happening. I stood there, not understanding completely what had happened.

The leader of the government officials was overwhelmed with joy. He asked me:

“How did you know when to stop?”

“I don’t understand myself.”

The others were also extremely happy and pestered me with similar questions, but I had no answer for them. After a while, everyone stood back to let the Governor General approach. He did not mind that I was a simple laborer and in his joy at having escaped certain death, he grabbed and shook my hand, a hand blackened with coal dust. He praised me warmly.

I was sure that I would be rewarded handsomely later, but I did not care for any reward. I only thought of my wife and wondered how she was faring.

I retraced my steps back to the locomotive and immediately saw some kind of insect stuck to one of the headlights. Looking carefully, I saw that it was an enormous butterfly caught on a headlight. It was flapping its wings to try to escape.

Looking at the butterfly, I at once realized what had happened. The image of the woman imprinted on the mist was that of the butterfly. Her head was the shadow of the butterfly’s head, and her waving arms were the insect’s wings flapping.

I caught the butterfly and was about to let it go, but in the end I decided to keep it. I looked at the clock in the cab. It showed exactly two in the morning.

The following day, when I opened the gate to our home, the little servant boy came running and informed me that my wife had passed away at one in the morning. I am not usually superstitious and thought it was just a coincidence. However, I am convinced that my wife’s soul had taken hold of the butterfly so she could protect me from the terrible accident that could have happened that night. But what use was it for me to have avoided the accident? Wealth and fortune meant nothing to me. I was just like that butterfly, its body was there but its soul was somewhere else.

Rookery at Ocean City Welcome Center Part 4

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Night heron babies are not among the cutest by any stretch! They do grow up to be very handsome adults, and require a lot of feeding for that. That’s why their parents come back every year to the rookery which is surrounded in all directions by an ocean brimming with crustaceans and fish.

Yellow-crowned Night Herons: mother preening and two always hungry juveniles.
Two juveniles Yellow-crowned Night Herons standing next to their mother: “What is she doing?! She ought to be out looking for food for us!”

In a nearby nest, a Black-crowned Night Heron juvenile was going through the same hunger pains.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron to mother: “Food, I want food! You did not give me enough!”
“You fed me but that was half an hour ago, and I am already starving!”
She suddenly lunged to put some food down his throat. Apologies for blurry photo, things happened fast all of a sudden.
“That’s not enough! I am still hungry!”
The mother flew away on a fishing expedition. Juvenile: “Make sure you bring back more than last time! I am STARVING!”

Rookery at Ocean City Welcome Center Part 3

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The Ocean City Welcome Center was built as part of the Route 52 bridge that connects Ocean City, NJ to Somers Point, NJ. The 2.74 mi (4.41 km) bridge was built between 2006 and 2012, at a cost of $400 million.

Ocean City Welcome Center.

A few days ago, I walked down to the bottom of the bridge. From the Welcome Center sidewalk, one would look down on the rookery with many trees where the herons, egrets, ibises and other birds nested. Few birds, if any, were nesting at the bottom. Most photographers stay on the pedestrian walk above the rookery.

Underside of Route 52 bridge leading into Ocean City, NJ.

There were ducks and night herons swimming and drinking from small depressions where rain water had accumulated.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron drinking at bottom of bridge, with mallards in the foreground.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron finishing drink.
Route 52 bridge ending in Ocean City, NJ.
View from Welcome Center looking toward Somers Point, NJ. Rookery is on the left of the picture.

When the weather is nice, the bridge is a very active place. Thousands of cars cross it every day, as do pedestrians (walkers and joggers) and cyclists. There is also an area in the middle of the above photo which is reserved for people who want to fish from the ocean.

Rookery at Ocean City Welcome Center Part 2

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With bright sunshine, white clouds on blue sky, bearable temperatures, and a cool breeze from time to time, it was a perfect day for photography. There were already about a dozen photographers with their massive long lenses pointed at various points of the rookery.

Except for the sleepy night herons, the birds were very active, flying in and out of the trees every minute or so. I ended up taking many more pictures of birds in flight than I had planned.

Great Egret.
Great Egret.
Little Blue Heron, the first time I have seen one. In the background is the smokestack of a now-decommissioned power plant, the B.L. England Generating Station, also called Beesley’s Point Generating Station.
Glossy Ibis.
White Ibis.
White Ibis.
Juvenile Little Blue Heron.
White Ibis.

Rookery at Ocean City Welcome Center Part 1

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Last year I missed going to the rookery right next to the Ocean City Welcome Center in Cape May County at the southern end of New Jersey. Three days ago, I went there in mid season. The rookery was filled with many birds, some I had never seen before.

The night herons have built nests, incubated their eggs and some were busy raising the young ones. There were probably some nests well hidden behind tree branches and leaves, with eggs that had not hatched yet.

Black-crowned Night heron with two chicks. The chicks have yellow eyes while the adult has red eyes.

The night herons, as their names imply, are most active after dusk when their eyes serve them well. During the day they appear somnolent, almost lethargic, which of course is good for photography as they can hold their poses for a long time.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron with its own tanning salon.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron with twig to be used for nest improvement.

These herons migrate long distances to their nesting grounds in New Jersey, and they do look impressive in flight.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron in flight.

Black-crowned Night Heron.

Double Knock Out

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The Knock Out rose was introduced in 1989 by William Radler. It rapidly became a favorite rose for many as it proved to be sturdy, disease resistant, and also beautiful. In 2004, Double Knockout came out and we have been growing it for the past decade. All our other roses died for one reason or another, but we have two bushes of Double Knockout which are thriving. Japanese Beetles love them as food , but one or two traps seem to take care of that every year. So, here is my entry to Cee’s CFCC: Flowers:

https://ceenphotography.com/2021/06/01/cffc-flowers/

Double Knock Out rose.

Sunny Saturday

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This spring has been marked by rain and cool temperatures, and has thus prolonged the Brood X cicada season. They will live on a few weeks longer so that they can finish their mating activities and make sure, before they die, to give the world another generation in 17 years. I started seeing them in mid May, and as of now they are still singing incessantly during the day, the noise managing to penetrate closed windows and doors. Hopefully, that will end in another two weeks or so.

Our streets are littered with cicada shells and messy carcasses after they’ve been run over by cars. Our walls are sometimes covered with long rows of full-fledged cicadas. Fortunately, they don’t seem to eat any plant as they only spend their time and energy mating. Here are two pictures of them taken yesterday.

Brood X Cicada.
Brood X Cicada with a slightly damaged wing.

Some flowers have thrived, such as the white Bleeding Hearts pictured below.

Bleeding Hearts.
Bleeding Hearts.

In our vegetable garden most seeds have taken longer to sprout, but the tomato plants, bought from a big box store, are flowering and doing well.

Tomato flower.

Finally, a picture of East Point Lighthouse taken from a different perspective. This is how most people will see it as they arrive on site.

Horseshoe Crabs 2021

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Two days ago, the 2021 Horseshoe Crab season was at its peak with bright sunny skies during the day and a full moon at night. Horseshoe Crabs (which are not really crabs), came ashore and gathered along the geotubes in front of East Point Lighthouse. The females laid their eggs in the sand and the males attached to them tried their best to fertilize the eggs.

Geotubes and Horsehoe Crabs at East Point Lighthouse.

In late May of each year, similar mating scenes occur at many beaches in South Jersey, especially those fronting the Delaware Bay. Migratory birds swoop down to gorge themselves on the eggs. There seems to be enough eggs for such feasts. A female, which is usually 20-30% larger than a male, can produce as many as 120,000 eggs each season.

Horseshoe Crabs mating. The larger ones are females.
Birds landing on a shoreline where Horseshoe Crabs gather during their mating season.
Small island at the mouth of Oyster Creek near Fortescue, NJ where thousands of migratory birds gather to consume Horseshoe Crab eggs buried in the sand.

While I was photographing the above scene, a Bald Eagle flew overhead with a long fish, perhaps an eel, in its talons.

Bald Eagle with eel.

Not far from where I was, a Barn Swallow perched on an electric wire was looking at the scene and singing .

Barn Swallow.
Barn Swallow singing.

East Point Lighthouse Update

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Six years ago, in 2015, I went to the East Point Lighthouse in Heislerville on the Delaware Bay coastline at the southern end of New Jersey. It is a small but working lighthouse which somehow survived Hurricane Sandy but was in danger of the next major storm as the sea continually eroded a sandy beach less than 100 ft (30 m) away.

Here are a couple of pictures taken in 2015.

East Point Lighthouse
Beach at East Point Lighthouse in 2015.

Yesterday, I went back to see the lighthouse. Over the past several years, the Maurice River Historical Society which has managed the lighthouse since 1972, has done its best to restore the lighthouse. It definitely looks much improved from the outside.

East Point Lighthouse in 2021.

To try and deal with the real danger of beach erosion and flooding, in 2019 the state of New Jersey spent $460,000 installing giant sandbags called geotubes on the beach near the lighthouse.

Geotubes at East Point Lighthouse.
East Point Lighthouse view from South without geotubes.

Critics say that the geotubes are not high enough to prevent waves at high tide from spilling over and flooding the lighthouse. In a major storm, all bets are off, and anything could happen.

In the meantime, New Jersey authorities and the Maurice River Historical Society are in a contract dispute, and the inside of the lighthouse is closed to all. Visitors could still come and walk around the beach to look at horseshoe crabs in their annual mating rituals.

Brood X, 17-Year Cicada

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2021 is the year when brood X of the 17-year cicada emerges from the ground to mate and procreate. A few weeks ago, I saw many small holes in our backyard and one corner near the woods had been turned over by some animals, perhaps red foxes, hunting cicadas for food. Not to worry, for billions of cicadas will emerge this year in North America. There will be plenty of them and enough will survive to give us their next generation.

This morning I went out with my camera to look for them. They were on tree trunks and branches, and on the grass. I had never seen so many!

Cicadas and their shells on the ground surrounding an oak tree.
Cicada and dried shells.
Cicada emerging from shell.
Cicada and shell on a garden wire cage.
Empty cicada shell.
Cicadas in various stages.
Cicada emerging from shell.

Over the next few weeks, the cicadas will mate and the females will lay eggs on tree branches. Their mating calls is already starting to be a constant din that will annoy some people. Their eggs will hatch and cicada nymphs will fall to the ground and bury themselves there, eating sap from tree roots without damaging them.

Monday Monochrome

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On a recent visit to Sayen Gardens, I noticed several tall (30 ft or more) magnolia trees with white flowers shooting straight up to the sky. The tree is Magnolia Tripetala, also called Big Leaf Magnolia or Umbrella Magnolia, a native plant to the Appalachian mountains in the eastern United States , the Ozarks, and the Ouachita Mountains further West. Here is a monochrome shot of this magnolia.

Umbrella Magnolia Magnolia Tripetala.

Deciduous Azaleas

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On a sunny day, Sayen Gardens near our house displayed hundreds of deciduous Azalea bushes and small trees. Their colors were vibrant and sunlight was just about perfect in highlighting them.

Azalea.
Azalea.
Azalea.
Azalea.
Azalea.
Azalea.

This last one is a Columbine with colors rivaling those of the Azaleas.

Columbine.

Spring Scenes at the Refuge

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Last Saturday was a very breezy and cold day, with wind chill temperatures below freezing. It was also low tide when the refuge did not offer its best views.

Part of Edwin B Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge at low tide.

Most birds were sheltering from the wind and cold, although many Canada Geese were strolling around, showing off this year’s offspring. The Goslings were busy foraging and tasting food.

Gosling 2021.

The Osprey nests were empty at first sight and, for a moment, I thought they had flown to warmer places. However, when looking again, I could see part of a head peeking out from one nest. A female Osprey was chirping, her head clearly visible as she scanned the sky for her mate. I decided to stop and wait, but kept my window closed because of the strong wind.

Suddenly I saw the male Osprey flying in with a fish in his talons. By the time I got the window rolled down and my camera out he was already landing on the female bird.

Male Osprey landing on female Osprey.

The next photos show the Osprey mating rituals which lasted less than a minute.

Male Osprey jumping off female Osprey.
Male Osprey landing on female, again.
Male Osprey on top of female. Meanwhile she was probably beginning to eat the fish he had brought.
Male Osprey, business finished.

He landed a short distance away, watching her for a few minutes before flying off again, perhaps to find for more fish for her.