Grade: 9

The Battle Knot

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9th Grade
Grade Winner
Pranav M.

Death is knocking from the trapdoor above us.

My skin gags at the taste of sweat and grime. Twelve feeble bodies, pressed tightly in the darkness. Such silence hangs in the underground burrow, that even the hum of exhalation is nonexistent. Sleep has only arrived at Bá-Nôi’s weak, wrinkled eyes.

Though no one says it, our ears can pick up a sound. Confident, ravenous footsteps overhead.

The footsteps of American soldiers.

I clutch the Battle Knot to my chest.

Can they smell us? The reek of urine and claustrophobia and human sweat and inhuman beliefs?

Can they hear my heart, like a buffalo caged within my ribs?

Bá-Nôi has roused from her bewildered drowse. Gently, she slips her wrinkled palm into mine. She runs her stubby fingers through my hair. Again and again and again.

Something crashes loudly above us. Panic strangles my nerves.

In my head, I hear the lullaby that Papa used to sing:

“The sea shall cradle you in her tender arms
The sunshine shall warm all the light of the sky
The stars of the night shall guide you from all harm
And forever I love you, so close your eyes.”

“Did you find any, Sergeant?”

“Seven yonder, in the fields. Nine still in their homes.” He spits and lights a cigarette. “Those filthy communists just won’t give up.”

Breakfast – the first meal in the last… twenty hours? In the pitch darkness, someone places a ration of something sticky and cold in my fingers.

I wolf it down so quickly that it lodges in my throat. Banh Chung. Grease from the pork cascades down my lips. The rice and meat lodge in my throat.

One of us is hiccupping. I cringe as the sound echoes loudly across the room.

Will there be bombs? Will they tear apart the village, like hungry fingers through warm butter?

The gritty beach where Mama and I used to scavenge shells?

The marsh where Bá-Nôi gathered salt and herbs when she was younger?

The lush coconut groves where we played hide and seek for hours at end?

The shimmering paddies where, many years ago, Papa used to work?

Those days tasted of laughter and bruised knees.

Hiding in the market. Hiding in the tall cornstalks in the fields. Hiding in the contorted, hollow ash near the swamp.

What a pity that Mama couldn’t hide from the cholera.

“Have they gone?”

No more footfalls. No voices in those foreign cadences.


“The soldiers. They’ve gone, haven’t they?” No one answers. Perhaps they’re too fearful. Or perhaps we have all died.

We sit. We wait.

Then someone’s hands slowly pushes a panel of stone in the roof. Heavenly white radiance floods the hideout.

Fresh air. Fresh sea air.

Heavy footprints are left in the sand.

I strip and pull myself into the warm emerald waters. Each wave dissolves thirty hours’ worth of heavy apprehension from my shoulders.

I hold the Battle Knot out to the sea. The frayed fibers of the rope burn in the sunlight like a halo.

Where are you, Papa? I need you.

Two bodies float in the distance.

I daren’t look back. Lest I be haunted by the ethereal faces of people I once knew.

Bá-Nôi watches her granddaughter bathing in the ocean. A flashback glows cold in her head:

A boat is waiting at sea. Several families are bidding farewell. Four healthy farmers are loading the final supplies for the twelve day long journey to Ho Chi Minh City.

“Papa! PAPA! Wait!” A tan, nine year old girl is skidding breathlessly across the beach, to the youngest of the farmers.

“Kim.” Words die in his throat. He manages a weak smiles as he pulls the girl up into his arms. He stumbles. She is growing taller.

“When will you be back, Papa?” Sand and sweat streak Kim’s face.

His lips quiver. He hates lying. Especially to his daughter.

“Promise me that you’ll look after Mama. And Bá-Nôi till I get back.”

“You’ll come back Papa. You will, won’t you?” A hint of panic.

Papa’s heart melts to a puddle.

Finding a small coil of rope near his foot, he ties it into a tight, pretzel shaped knot and presents it to his daughter.

“Ta-da! I call it…the Battle Knot!” Kim turns it over in her palms, half amused. “It’s magic. As long as it stays tied, you’ll know that I’ll be thinking about you. Always.” His voice wobbles dangerously.

Twenty minutes later the girl’s mother is forced to drag her off the beach so that the boat can leave.

We’ll have to clear the bodies in the morning. Forty-five corpses.

We are lucky, Bá-Nôi says. The soldiers have checked our village off their list. They’ll have plenty other villages to scour before nightfall.

I’m looking forward to a good night’s rest.

And that’s when the sky splits and fat-bellied planes appear from the sky. One, two, three, four, five. They hum lazily. Pepper falls like snowflakes from the wings.


I don’t even have time to warn Bá-Nôi as the first explosion rocks the ground


Thick, suffocating dust.

I can’t see anything. I feel the silent paroxysm run in waves down my skin.

And then, I am on fire.

It clings to my clothes. A liquid conflagration.

The world swims in pain. Blood roars in my ears. It fills my mouth so quickly I need to spit out two crimson mouthfuls.

I run, directionless like a wounded antelope. My feet find seawater. I collapse.

“The sea shall cradle you in her tender arms
The sunshine shall warm all the light of the sky
The stars of the night shall guide you from all harm
And forever I love you, so close your eyes.”

With the last ounce of my strength, I close my fist around the Battle Knot.
I promise Papa, I will never, ever let go.

“And forever I love you, so close your eyes.”

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