The eastern sky discolored with false dawn. Catherine Marchand stood in the two-and-a-half-ton truck’s bed, gripping the exposed ribs of the open bed for balance. A knee-high stack of wooden crates holding cans of fruit pressed against her leg. Nearby was a metal chest packed with medical supplies.
Jesper sat at the truck’s open tail. Exhaust streamed over them, invisible in the darkness, but nauseating to breathe. Erik drove with Cora beside him in the cab.
The skies choked with the promise of rain, so neither moon nor stars gave Erik much light. More than once they fell onto the shoulder. Erik yanked the wheel, and they hopped onto the cracked asphalt again. Catherine pounded the cab roof. She saw them, a thick black line in motion.
They reached the first refugees as shadows on shadows.
“Nous les avons trouvés,” Catherine told Jesper. “Get ready.”
Erik brought the truck to a stop, angled in the roadway. Catherine joined Jesper as he unscrewed the caps from a half-dozen five-liter jerrycans of water. He dropped a box of metal cups. They scattered on the bed and off onto the road, the sound jarring in the quiet with the engine still. Greening fields beyond the edges of the road hushed.
Erik and Cora left the cab. They joined Catherine and Jesper. Catherine handed them boxes of surplus American rations, cans of Spam, more canned fruit, and beans.
Many families. Most had children. Catherine greeted the first groups in Vietnamese, told them of food and water. Medicine, too, if they needed it. Jesper started a siphon and spilled water into the metal cups. As the refugee crowd gathered, the hubbub grew.
“Đừng đẩy,” Erik told the refugees as they pressed around the truck. A woman thrust a small child into Catherine’s arms. A girl only four and smelling of gunpowder. Sticky blood was on the girl’s arm, and the heat of fever.
“Cora? Medical. They’ve shot her.”
The people wanted food, and they wanted water, and they wanted to tell Catherine and the others of Xuân Loc. Everything came at once — stories, demands and desperate pleas — as crates and boxes emptied. Light now, the sky blistering, Catherine better able to see the refugees with their haphazard bundles and needful faces.
Women and old men and children. Every group of refugees the same. Đà Nẵng gone, and now Xuân Loc, only a hundred kilometers from Saigon.
Catherine urged the throng back, because the ones in front fell over the supplies and no one reached what they wanted. Two tried for the truck bed. Catherine seized them by the backs of their shirts.
“Mọi người trở lại!” Catherine ordered. “Revenir! Everyone back.”
Vietnamese. French. English. The languages of the cities and towns of South Vietnam. One had to reach them.
Catherine called for Jesper and Erik to help her against the growing wave. Jesper shouted at the refugees in the Chrau language of the country people. It sounded more Chinese than Vietnamese.
Catherine climbed the truck. The line of refugees stretched to the limit of her vision. It swirled inward as it approached their truck, wrapping around the vehicle, trapping it in a wretched whirlpool.
They’d given away most everything, and they hadn’t been there an hour. Cora laid a dozen injured on the grass by the roadside. Faces in the dawn, filthy with soot and blood and dirt. And visible to the north, a smudge of rising smoke. Xuân Loc.
Someone clambered through the passenger window of the cab. Catherine yelled for Erik to put a stop to it. She rapped on the jerrycans.
“Give them what we can. Cora! How long?”
“Ten minutes. Fifteen?”
“In fifteen minutes we won’t be able to move.”
Catherine pushed an old man away from the truck’s rear fender. He collapsed into a group of women, one who might have been his wife.
“Give me five minutes!” Cora asked her.
“Il y a plus de blessés,” Jesper said.
“Cora can’t get to them. Leave the rest by the road.”
The bodies came on, and the bank of human desperation pressed against the truck. Catherine sweated, and her clothes stuck to her, and her hair to her face and neck. The group perspired from heat and exertion and the sheer wish to help.
The sun ascended.