Nguyen Van Ty was a peaceful man. He’d arrived at the small village in Tonkin many years ago. Apparently from nowhere. Some of the villagers said he had a Saïgon accent, others assured he came from the Imperial city of Hué. He was dressed as a peasant, but his manners, his education, his delicate hands and long nails spoke of nobility. Or perhaps a Mandarin. His only possession when he arrived at the village was a framed photograph of an old Mandarin who could have been his father. The villagers never asked, out of respect. Nguyen Van Ty was a discrete man.
Wherever he came from, Nguyen had some money. He bought a few acres of canh dong, rice-paddy, on the outskirts of the village. A few buffaloes. And set up to work. After a few years, his hands had become as calloused as those of his neighbours. Nguyen was a hard-working man.
Being a Lettré, a man of letters, he soon gained the villagers’ trust and respect, helping them with the bureaucracy, writing letters, filing suits on behalf of so-and-so in the circuit courts. He never asked for anything in return. He simply said he was happy to share his knowledge of the meanders of the bureaucracy to help his neighbours. The villagers obliged by giving a hand at harvest time, or lending buffaloes to carry the crops when necessary.
After a few years, Nguyen asked the village chief for his daughter in marriage. Joséphine, the Chief’s daughter had been sent to school to Hanoï, raised by the nuns and converted to Catholicism, as many had, since the French had taken over Indochina. The Chief asked Joséphine whether she agreed to the marriage. Joséphine smiled, bowed her head and said yes. A year later, a son was born, Nguyen Dinh Tuan.
A possible portrait of Joséphine. Taken by Lieutenant D.
Life was good. The land, fertile. The French had arrived a few years back, claiming the land as theirs. “We will protect you,” they said. The peasants just nodded and smiled. The Chinese had said the same thing for centuries. So? The French? The Chinese? All the same. One just had to bow to a different master. What else could farmers do?
The French had set up a military fort near the village, just by the “Paper bridge”, where Rivière, one of the first French officers to start the conquest of the country had been killed. Nguyen took care of all dealings with the French. Another talent that impressed the farmers, he spoke fluent French. He became friends with Lieutenant D. who held the fort with a company of Tonkinese soldiers. Once a week or a fortnight, they would play chess until late at night, and talk of Paris, where Nguyen apparently had studied, or been exiled, in his youth. Lieutenant D. was a poor chess player, but he enjoyed the game so much that Nguyen sometimes lost on purpose for his friend’s sake. Nguyen Van Ty was a kind man.
Life flew slowly. The crops were harvested. Nguyen’s son was growing nicely. He thought that maybe, at last, he could be happy, at peace.
Until, one day, the village chief came running to Nguyen’s simple house.
“Father”, Nguyen said to the village chief, “what a pleasure and honour it is to see you. Please have a seat. What is happening? You look distressed.”
“Indeed I am, my son,” The village chief said. “The Black Flags have returned. They are coming up the river.”
“The Black flags?” Nguyen asked. “The pirates? That is impossible. They have been defeated years ago.”
“Yes, my son. Supposedly. But those, those…”
“Tell me, Father, don’t stop…”
“Those ‘Black Flags’ are a new band of pirates. They say that they are led by a woman… Merciless, cruel. They have massacred all the villagers downstream. They call her…”
“The Black Queen?” Nguyen tried to control his voice but could not hide his shivering.
“Yes, my son. The Black Queen is what she is called. Do you know her?”
“Er, yes. I mean no. I have heard of her. In my youth. But I thought she was still in the South.” (And I thought I was free of Her…)
“What shall we do?” The village chief asked. “We’re just humble peasants. We cannot fight.”
(Maybe I could turn myself in?) Nguyen thought. Then said: “I will speak to Lieutenant D. at the fort. He has soldiers. He should be able to protect us.” (God help us if he can’t.)
On his way to the French fort, Nguyen Van Ty stopped by a pagoda. He lit three incense sticks. Lifted them to his forehead, placed them on the altar, and prayed. For the villagers, for his father-in-law, his wife, his son. Not for himself. Nguyen Van Ty was a selfless man.
“Good morning, Lieutenant.”
“Mr Nguyen! What a pleasure to see you. Aren’t we early for our chess game?”
“We are, Lieutenant. I am afraid I have bad news.”
“Pray sit down.” The Lieutenant said. Lieutenant D. was a short man in his late thirties. He had a long, square beard with a waxed moustache A little paunch, a pleasant sense of humour. He’d been in the country for close to fifteen years. Even spoke some Vietnamese with an impossible French accent that made everyone smile. Not in his face. It would have been disrespect.
“I have bad news,” Nguyen said. “The Black Flags are back.”
“They are? That’s impossible! I, myself, fought against them almost fifteen years ago. We disbanded them.”
“Well, it seems they are back. Two villages downstream. And they are coming this way.” (For me) Nguyen thought, but did not say.
“So much for our Intelligence capacity,” Lieutenant D. said. “Have you any idea how many there are?”
“The rumour has it that they are close to a hundred.” (And they are led by the Black Queen.)
Lieutenant D. got up from his rattan chair. He paced, curling his moustache.
“Hmm. A hundred. How far did you say? Two villages downstream? They could be here tomorrow morning. No time to ask for reinforcement by telegraph. Très bien. We will fight. On va se battre.”
“How will you, Lieutenant?”
“I have a company. About a hundred soldiers. They are well trained. We have rifles. I also have a dozen horses, and good riders. A small cavalerie. That should do the trick. C’est décidé. In a couple of hours, we will go to the village. It is on a small hill overlooking the river. I will position my men and meagre cavalry between the village and the river. No fear, Mr Nguyen. We will defeat them. Your village will be safe. Just in case, ask your villagers to grab anything that can be used as a weapon: coupes-coupes, spears, even sticks. They can help as back-up.”
Lieutenant D. c. 1902.
The next morning at six, Lieutenant D. had positioned his troops and dozen horse cavalry between the village and the river. He was riding his small local horse, along with his other riders. The soldiers were lined up facing the river, waiting for the Black Queen to come by boat.
But the Black Queen had landed her black pyjama-clad pirates upstream. They attacked the soldiers from the left flank. They had rifles. More than half of Lieutenant D.’s company fell in the first round of shots. Then the Black Flags attacked with sabres, axes, scythes. Lieutenant D. was a brave man. He tried to charge the Black Flags through the chaos with his dozen horses and just got hacked to pieces.
The villagers were scared. They were no soldiers. But they were ready to fight. They turned to Nguyen Van Ty. He looked down on the ground at the body of Joséphine, killed by a stray bullet. Nguyen handed his son to the village Chief.
“Father. Run with my son, and the villagers. Run. Run!”
“But what about you?” The village Chief asked.
“It is up to me now. Go. Run, hide.”
Nguyen walked down the hill. The Black Flags were finishing off the wounded. A slim woman, dressed in black, was waiting, a sabre in her belt.
“Good morning my Lord Nguyen.” She said with the accent of Hué, the Imperial city.
“A sad morning, Milady.” Nguyen said. “Please spare the wounded. You can have me.”
“I will have you, my Lord Nguyen. I already do. Why should I spare those?”
“They fought bravely, Milady. I beg you to spare them.”
The Black Queen lifted her hand. The killing stopped.
“I have been looking for you, my Lord Nguyen. For many, many years. I never thought you would turn into a peasant.” She spat on the ground. “Where is your son?”
“Safe. You will never find him. And he will be no threat to you. Or to your sons. He knows nothing. But, as I said, you have me at last.”
“That I do.” The Black Queen smiled a black smile, her teeth darkened by years of chewing betel. She spat on the ground again. “You can still save your life, my Lord Nguyen, you know that? Just bow to me.”
“You know I won’t. I never bowed to anyone. Least of all you, Milady.”
“Then kneel and prepare to die!” the Black Queen said, drawing her sabre.
Nguyen shook his head, and said: “I will neither bow nor kneel.” The last noise he heard was the swish of the sabre. Nguyen Van Ty died a fearless man.
“Checkmate in three!” María said, a bit triumphantly. “Sorry B.”
I should have known better than to play chess with María. She’s only sixteen, but she plays like a Russian champion. Six years ago she was just a little girl from a small village on the Pacific coast. She spoke no English, until she met Kim, her soon to be adopted-mother (See Iguana, and Foglines). Her life changed overnight. She has an impossible IQ and a flawless memory. After cramming up high school in a handful of years, she’s now a Freshman at MIT or some other “small town” university. I figure she will start Grad school in a couple of semesters. Kim and María were visiting. María saw the chessboard and asked me to play.
I should have known better! My horses were the first to go. Then my bishops. She cleaned the board with a ferocity that does not befit her. She was a lovely little girl, inside and out, and is now turning into a kind and lovely young woman. Inside and out. But at chess? She is a killer.
I looked at the chessboard. My Queen was gone too. I’d tried castling. No dice. I was done. She was right. Checkmate in three. Despite my initial advantage of drawing the whites, which gave me one move ahead of her blacks. But no. Her Black Queen did have checkmate in three. I acknowledged my defeat by flipping my King on its side.
María said: “Sorry again B. Thank you for the game. That is a beautiful chessboard. Is it Chinese?”
“No, it’s not. It’s Vietnamese. My father bought it at an auction a long time ago. We used to play a lot.” (Not enough apparently!)
“Vietnamese, eh? What’s it made of?”
“It’s wood. The black squares are chinese lacquer, I think. The “white” squares are carved in mother-of-pearl. They probably represent scenes of everyday life in Vietnam. Like this one? The figure riding a buffalo?”
I went on: “You are right María. It is a beautiful chessboard.”
“And the pieces?” María asked. “What are they made of?”
“Buffalo horn, I think.”
We started gathering the pieces.
“Oh, what a shame B. Look at your King. The head is broken. Cut off. And what is that, oozing from its neck? Is that blood?”
This is a work of fiction: characters, names, places, you name it.
Text and illustrations © B.Martin-Onraet and Equinoxio, 2016.