Last month, my 16-year-old cousin from America visited Viet Nam. She had been here many times before when she was a child. Yet in this visit, as a teenager with a fully grown female body, she was in for a surprise. The girl wore scanty tank tops and very short shorts as she walked around. People stared. Intrusively. Rudely. Which made her very uncomfortable. I was at a loss, not knowing how to respond to this sexually charged cultural crossroads. The girl enjoyed wearing what she wore, it was her taste, her choice, her freedom, her right. At the same time, people couldn’t help staring either.
In the West, choice, freedom and rights are often the catchwords. For about 150 years, spearheaded by Western feminism, women all over the world have been fighting for the right to be equal with men. We have gained access to education, politics and whatever sphere of life we desire. In terms of sexuality, we have made great strides. We can marry, divorce, have sex and give birth at will. We can wear whatever we want. At least in theory.
Yet, after the solid progress that has been made, today we still hear about blatant sexual misconduct committed mostly by men against women such as those revealed by the ongoing international #MeToo movement which reminds us of the lasting patriarchal psychology underwriting predatory acts. The social media movement, which borrowed the phrase “Me Too” from activist Tarana Burke who has helped underprivileged sexual abuse victims out of the limelight for years, started in the glitzy world of Hollywood, with Harvey Weinstein, a film mogul hailed for producing award-winning flicks such as Shakespeare in Love, before his downfall.
As a Vietnamese woman, I’m not surprised. This movement started in the West and captures the worst of Western culture which many feminists have long criticized as deeply patriarchal. Western culture is relentlessly mediated and visual and often treats women as sexual objects. Take, for example, Woody Allen, a quintessential male artist steeped in a cynical and arrogant culture that vaults the idea of individual male geniuses at the expense of ethical or communal values. In Match Point, Allen’s hero has to choose between his sexual passion for a girlfriend and his marriage with a wealthy wife. What does he do? He has sex with the former then kills her! (While fooling his wife of course).
Does this theme of sex and violence sound familiar, not just in the movies, but in the real rapes and murders against women and children that we hear in the news these days? In our Westernized cinematic age, when life is conflated with the stage, it isn’t surprising that women everywhere are being harassed in reality as they are in the movies. And actresses who work in showbiz and put themselves out there are inevitably more exposed to sexual misconduct than nuns who live a cloistered life. There is a difference in degree in everything, including women’s exposure, and men’s misconduct.
Philosophically speaking, when women fight for the right to be equal with men, to join the men’s stage and game, to be “represented”, they should be aware that equality is a double-edged sword. There is another value besides equality: difference. For instance, after being able to free myself from male-imposed ideas of sexuality based on beauty, visuality and quantity (rather than quality), the last thing I want to do is to come up with my own ideas of sexuality and get even. I’ll stay away from sexuality for a change.
From a non-Western and particularly Buddhist perspective, this doesn’t sound as strange as it may in hypersexual Western culture. For a Buddhist, everything starts with the mind and life is a logical loop of desire. Life is not a stage. It is rich and pure, without exaggeration. After her trip to a southern beach where people stared at her sexy swimsuit too much, my cousin adjusted. She said intelligently, “I’ll never wear this swimsuit here again.”
That said, many Vietnamese women are mistreated.
According to a recently released report on gender equality conducted by the non-profit Swedish Fojo Media Institute, over 27 per cent of 247 surveyed female journalists (and 2 male journalists) said they had been harassed, although the number may well be higher. Perpetrators include sources, colleagues and superiors.
Tran Thi Thuy Binh, a journalist at Ha Noi Television who has researched gender for years, says sexual misconduct is often covered up because victims feel they aren’t protected and society blames them for courting what happens. The Vietnamese legal system doesn’t sympathize with victims and tends to dole out light punishments for culprits. Many cases, even cases against children, are processed slowly.
Binh has interviewed executives of a major broadcasting organization and found that sexual harassment also happens there as it rampantly happens at every other office in Vietnam, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs and the International Labor Organization. Sensitive jokes related to female body parts and sex are perceived as normal and funny, and unwanted touching is acceptable.
I was once subjected to unwanted touching. I was reporting on a musical show with an older male colleague. We were sitting next to each other in a dark theatre. Suddenly the man put a hand on my thigh and squeezed it. I was stunned.
My mind raced: “Oh. What is this? Is it what I’m thinking it is? Where did it come from? Did I encourage him?” My body felt numb and dull. I didn’t make a move. The man didn’t advance. Moments passed… The show ended. I stood up. The man smiled patronizingly, seeing me as an innocent piece of wood. I breathed a sigh of relief and wished never to see him again. And I never did.
Hồ Anh Thái is one notable prolific and successful “postmodern” writer in Vietnam. He is satirical, skeptical and experimental. In this short story which is set in India, a country where he has studied for years, Hồ Anh Thái shows a profound Buddhist sensibility which startlingly pertains to our age. Dangling precariously between grand outdated superstition and an inadequate scientific worldwiew, we are left with nothing to hold on to, not even our relations to each other which are fragile and short. The question is: How are we to be born again?
That summer I visited Varanasi for the first time.
That city is considered a holy place because of its location on the sacred Ganges river. I had promised myself on this visit that I would visit the river.
I was not traveling for pleasure. I’d be working. As a postgraduate student researching Oriental culture, I had accepted an offer to do some translation for the Indian railway ministry. Before I went to India to study, I had worked as an interpreter for diplomatic delegations for several years, so that work wasn’t unfamiliar to me. The only unfamiliar thing was that it was my first time interpreting for the railway industry, which required me to know about locomotives and diesel engines. For example, until then I only knew “solution” meant a way of solving something. Only when I visited the petrochemical factory of the Varanasi railway company did I learn that it had another meaning: a homogeneous, molecular mixture of two or more substances. Sen was a Vietnamese intern who was studying under the guidance of Govinda. “Sen, please mix these two solutions into this tube to create a new solution,” Govinda instructed. Sen didn’t know English, but seeing Govinda raise one empty glass tube then point at two other tubes holding two separate solutions, she understood him right away, like a well-trained professional in the field. I didn’t have their technical knowledge, nor could I use solution’s most common meaning in my translation. So it was I who learned something new.
Sen worked for the Sai Gon railway company and visited India as part of an internship sponsored by the United Nations. In those years, to win a UN internship was like hitting the jackpot. An intern could save enough money in a month to buy an old Japanese Honda motorbike, which was considered a huge asset in Viet Nam then. Sen was offered a stint of two and a half months, which could change her life. Since she didn’t know English, the Indian railway ministry called me. Every month they would pay me three times as much as my scholarship. So if I worked for two months and a half, I could save the equivalent of one third of a secondhand Honda. I was on summer break and wanted to escape the scorching heat of New Delhi. I accepted the offer.
I helped Sen get on the right train to Varanasi. She was offered a bunk in an air-conditioned sleeping compartment. I sat in coach class with only a window open to receive hot winds. One was a UN intern, the other a mere contracted interpreter. Still, caste differences or not I walked in and out of Sen’s cool cabin as frequently as I pleased. I ran back to coach, then wobbled along the train toward Sen’s cool compartment. She prepared mangoes, which were considered the king of fruits in India. Whether they were king or not, we ate them all. After eating I ran back to my hot car, and a while later, wobbled up to the cool one again. Sen laid out her rice and toasted sesame and peanut salt for lunch. Rice felt like our mothers to us.
After that I didn’t have to shuttle back and forth between the hot and cool cars anymore. Sen told me to sit down with her and help her talk to three Indians, a man and two woment who were sharing the compartment with her. They kept asking her questions but she didn’t know how to respond. Throughout the journey the three continually commented about how Vietnamese people, both female and male, had such great light skin.
* * *
Five days later I had to shuttle again. This time I shuttled between women and men.
Sen started interning at the petrochemical factory immediately. Her expertise was equal to her guide’s, as she had mastered every component of the internship programme when she worked in Sai Gon. The only reason she had applied for the internship was the money. Perhaps almost all Vietnamese interns were similarly overqualified. No sooner did a guide stop instructing than an intern carried out a task instantly and accurately, even without any knowledge of English.
On her fifth day at the factory, Sen received an invitation to a party to be held to welcome the railway minister on a work trip to Varanasi that evening. Sen replied that she would take part but wouldn’t utter a word without me. They suddenly remembered to extend an invitation to me.
At dawn and dusk, the air in Varanasi cooled off, becoming somewhat like the weather in Sai Gon. The party was held in the yard of the company’s guesthouse. The yard was spacious and fully shaded by big ancient trees: mangoes, bodhis and ashokas. Ashoka trees share the same name with emperor Ashoka the Great, who brought Buddhism from India to neighbouring countries in the third century BC.
Splendid lights and flowers were hung all over the yard, on the ashoka, mango and bodhi trees. Round tables were arranged into two sides. Men sat on one side. Women on the other. We were still clearly in India. Discrimination didn’t just exist between castes, but also genders.
Sen wore a traditional Vietnamese dress to the party. I led her to the female side, introduced her to the women, and then translated their introduction for her. Afterwards I withdrew to the male side. I didn’t want to confuse the men with my presence amid the women.
The men inquired after me with curiosity. We sat around a round table reserved for ten people. One man was an engineer, another was a doctorate. One man was a factory director, another a deputy director. One man was a manager, another a deputy manager. They asked about Viet Nam then talked about their city. Varanasi, which is also called Benares, was formerly known as Kashi. The Buddha used to be called the benign messenger of Kashi, because he had delivered his first sermon at Sarnath deer park in this city.
What a valuable piece of information. I immediately ran to the women’s side to inform Sen. We decided to visit Sarnath on the weekend. It was there that the Buddha had met the first five believers of Buddhism.
On this side the women went into an uproar. One woman was a workshop director, another a deputy director. One woman was a manager’s wife, another a deputy manager’s wife. One woman was a master’s degree holder, another was a doctor. After getting their degrees, the master’s or PhD holders all got married and settled down. Their education was put aside to make room for housework. It was another reality in India that I learned: One had better watch out when visiting somebody’s home, because the housewife who was cooking and wiping her child’s nose might be a doctor!
The women discussed vivaciously. We must take Sen to the Ganges first of all, they said, adding, “All Indians dream about visiting the section of the Ganges passing through this holy Varanasi site. The Ganges flows from a cave of ice on the Himalayas for thousands of kilometres down where the waters are the holiest. Believers flock there to pray for talent and luck and peace. Sick people pray for health. Sinful ones pray that the Ganges will wash themselves pure again. Those who want to send a message to the gods scoop a handful of river water into their palms and look upward to deliver it. Dying ones tell their relatives to bring them here to lie in wait for death, dip their dead bodies into the Ganges before cremation, and then sprinkle their ashes into the river so that their souls can reach heaven.”
We must take Sen to sail along the Ganges, the women said. They decided to appoint a woman named Samita to guide Sen on Saturday morning. Samita was a housewife who had a doctorate in agriculture from the Pusa National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in New Delhi. True to a researcher’s style, she provided the following information: Varanasi was nearly 3,000 years old, one of the oldest cities of humankind. American writer Mark Twain had come here and passionately said, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
One chemistry doctorate chimed in with an assertion about the unpollutability of the Ganges. Every year, millions of people bathed in the Ganges, but nobody suffered from skin diseases. Millions of people drank from the Ganges, but nobody incurred digestive disorders or any other illness. No bacteria could survive in the river. Doctor Howard Northop, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1946, once said, “We know that the Ganges river is highly contaminated. Yet Indians drink out of it, swim in it, and are apparently not affected… Perhaps bacteriophage (the virus that destroys bacteria) renders the river sterile.”
After every woman agreed that Sen would sail on the Ganges, I again left the women’s table to shuttle to the men’s. It was inconvenient for me to sit among the women. Thus I left Sen alone there for the moment and had to gesture my hands to communicate with her side.
The minister who was the main guest was yet to arrive, which gave us men more time to chat. “Do you find India strange?” One man asked me. “In this biggest democracy in the world, men and women are still sitting separately. Gender segregation only occurs in parties and festivals though. In funerals and weddings, men and women still share space. As for caste discrimination, after India declared independence in August 15, 1947, it adopted a constitution which prohibits caste discrimination. But custom rules the law. Caste consciousness is in people’s blood. Let me tell you a story. Right in Varanasi, in 1973, Minister of Defence Jagjivan Ram was invited to inaugurate a statue of a freedom fighter on the campus of the prestigious Banaras Hindu University. Why did they invite him? Because he was a former student, an outstanding alumnus who would reflect well on his famous alma mater. Yet the ceremony turned into a chaotic brawl in which the audience threw shoes at him. Why shoes? The students from the upper class hurled shoes at him to remind him that he was the son of a shoemaker, a lower caste. The minister hurried away. As for the upper-caste students, they immediately washed the statue with the water from the Ganges because they thought it had been contaminated by the minister’s inferior background.”
At that moment the railway minister was still nowhere to be seen. I wondered what caste he belonged to, and whether shoes or brooms would be flung at him. And would the Hindu extremists here consider a foreigner like me a casteless heretic?
After the men and I conversed for a while, they discovered that I was studying Hindi. Oh great, what can you say in Hindi? They asked. “Me Viet Nam se hum,” I answered. It meant I came from Viet Nam.
The men nodded and asked what else. I was provoked. “Me Dili me char sal rohta hum.” I’ve been living in Delhi for four years. “Ha ha ha, what else? Do you know any obscene word?”
The deputy manager of the factory laughed and asked, “Do you know what ‘matachod bahinchod’ means?” Of course I knew. It meant motherfucker sisterfucker. My college friends in Delhi had taught me those words, saying they meant hello. Only later did I learn that they were obscenities.
Right then the minister walked into the yard. Our obscene language ended. Yet my duty as an interpretation shuttle didn’t. Throughout the party, I kept running back and forth between the two sides, the two genders.
* * *
On Saturday morning Samita took us to the Ganges at 4.30 am to see the sun rise above the river. In the dim twilight, we used a flashlight to light our steps as we walked into a small boat. The boat glided along the river, which was shrinking in the dry season.
The sun was yet to rise but the bank was already jam-packed with pilgrims. People hustled on the countless cement steps leading from the ground down to the river below. Men were half-naked, wearing dhotis on their lower halves which looked like sarongs tied up in a bundle between the two legs. Women waded into the river with all six metres of a sari wrapped around their bodies. They curved their hands into the shape of a bowl, scooped up a handful of Ganges water, and turned their eyes to the east where the sun would rise.
A loud shout boomed above the waters, “Ram Ram Ram. He Ram he Ram.”
Pilgrims shouted the name of god Ram, or Rama, who is Sita’s husband in Hindu epic Ramayana. In an instant, a fully round and transparently pink halo emerged brilliantly. A holy moment. A radiant sun above a radiant river. A sterile sun above a sterile river.
Samita said, “Indians believe that when they drink from the Ganges, their every wish will come true.” We saw men and women wading into the river, praying, then scooping up water with their hands. Samita said infertile women drank from the Ganges to pray for children.
Sen leaned a little over the side of the boat toward the waters. She dipped her two hands into the river, soaking them, sailing them along with the boat. After that she scooped up some water with which to wash her face. She too wanted to have a small share of holiness. I caught her secretly drink from her palms while washing her face. Holy water.
I remembered her story. For over a week following her, I had heard her talk about her family. She and her husband had been married for more than ten years but remained childless. They had adopted a child who was five years old now.
The boat glided along the bank toward the riverhead. Big and small temples elbowed each other on the bank. The holy city was filled with hundreds of holy temples. On the steps leading people down to the river to bathe were cremation sites. One site stretched into another. Corpses shrouded in white cloth were laid on wooden stretchers, carried down to the river, dipped into the waters, then put on a pyre of firewood. A wealthy family would use sandalwood. The heir of the deceased would then set fire to the pyre. One pyre after another blazed up, emitting thick smoke. Nearby, those who were bathing and drinking in the river would just keep on bathing and drinking.
Sen cleared her throat. She coughed dryly. Coughed and hemmed, as if she wanted to vomit. Samita reasserted the sterility of the Ganges. She added that in mountainous and remote regions, poor people who couldn’t afford cremation simply dropped their loved ones’ dead bodies into the river, believing the dead ones’ souls could also reach heaven that way.
At that moment the boat sailed past a floating object. At first glance, it looked blackish like the bottom of a capsized boat. In a while it revealed itself clearly. It was a bobbing bloated pitch-black dead Murrah buffalo with a curvy back and two pale white eyes.
Sen immediately doubled over and threw up hard. Samita and the boat’s owner panicked, sailed back to the bank and wanted to call an ambulance. They didn’t understand that kind of vomiting: Once Sen could throw up everything from her stomach, she should be fine.
* * *
About a year afterwards, when I was studying at the University of Maryland in the US, I received a letter from Sen. She and I had been exchanging letters, but this time there was special news. Sen said she had been pregnant for four months. After 16 years of marriage, now at the age of 41, she got pregnant for the first time. Great news. Incredible news. If it was a boy, she would name him Ngọc Mừng, which meant a gemlike joy. A girl would be called Kim Mừng, meaning a goldlike joy. These half-Vietnamese half-Chinese names sounded fine to me!
More than twenty years passed.
I moved from one country to another and lost contact with Sen. Only one day last year, when I was living in Sai Gon, I suddenly opened an old phone book and saw her address. She lived near Vĩnh Nghiêm pagoda on Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa road. There was no phone number. I decided to drop by her house, to give her a surprise.
According to my phonebook, Sen lived in the railway apartment building. It was a housing complex made up of numerous two-floor apartment rows running parallel to each other, creating a path in the centre that looked like a yard. I climbed up to the second floor of a row, walked along the corridor and stopped in front of the last apartment. I checked the room number, it was correct. But nobody was home.
I knocked on the door of the adjacent apartment. An old man who looked like he had been retired for a long time appeared. He said Sen had moved away ten years before. He didn’t know her new address either.
I was disappointed. That meant Sen and I had lost all contact now. I tried to stay longer to ask for a little more information about her. How had she and her husband been doing? How had their two children been?
“What two children?” the old man asked. They only had one adopted son who studied then stayed abroad to work, he said. I pressed on, explaining that Sen had written to tell me that she was about to give birth. Only then did the old man remember. “Right, she lost it,” he recalled. “She vomited violently then lost it.”
I recalled the day I received Sen’s letter in St. Mary’s City. That afternoon I was rowing on the Potomac. I stopped rowing and leaned over the side of the boat to look into the river. Stared deep into it. Nobody said the Potomac was holy, but people still leaned over and scooped up water to wash their faces with. Some of them even drank it.
Though sex and death aren’t the only things that can interest a serious mind, as William Butler Yeats claimed, they are seductive indeed. Here, Tử Dạ Vũ uses woman as a mirror to reflect the inherent violence, immorality and filth of sex. Death then offers a cleansing absolution.
His mother always urged him to get married, but he ignored her. Though he was over 30, his career remained a big fat zero. It was impossible to get married. He was too proud for that. If he got married, he should be able to take care of his wife and kids, not vice versa.
He was well-educated, with a degree like anybody else. But it was a degree in education, literary education, which was only good for decoration. After graduation, he was unemployed for several years, surviving on royalties from his fiction and poetry. Luckily, a friend introduced him to write for a few e-magazines, so he could make ends meet.
His mother was a peasant at heart: barely literate, prone to nagging, extremely devoted to her child. His father passed away when he was still in the cradle, and his mother had single-handedly raised him. He had never dared argue with her, but hummed and hawed to bide his time, especially with regard to the issue of marriage. His house was located near the Mã river, which explained why he was wild. Coupled with a lively imagination, he would travel whenever possible. He travelled tirelessly and only returned when he ran out of money. He travelled alone, and not simply to contemplate natural beauty or find inspiration for his literary creativity. He travelled for a release, to relax his soul. This life was filled with too many struggles, and he found himself living in the wrong times.
But for that meeting, he would have kept on travelling and ignoring life forever. Only then did he realise that money was just a minor reason preventing him from getting married. The fundamental reason was that there hadn’t been any girl who could entice him more than travelling could. That meeting woke him up and taught him that she was more important than his other passions, that this life was filled with countless people who were more miserable than him, that it was he who was pulling away from his own life.
He didn’t know where Tuyết Anh came from, or when she had opened her hairdresser’s shop. Only when he went to have his hair cut did he learn that she had been living nearby for a long time. He didn’t know her because he was often away. Yet she knew him. In the village, he was famous, since he had appeared on TV and newspapers and written literature. Everybody knew him, but he often forgot that. That was why when Tuyết Anh greeted him by his full name, he was startled.
Tuyết Anh was beautiful, very beautiful, in a traditional way, gentle but passionate, easily making men’s hearts skip. He was no exception, many times his heart felt like stopping. It was the first time in almost ten years that he thought about marriage again. Suddenly he found his mother’s words very wise.
For days afterward, he went to her shop, hoping to talk to her. She was always busy with customers. So he sat quietly to watch her work, and felt happy when she paused to relax and pour him a glass of water. He started to think about saving money to get married.
Tuyết Anh didn’t seem to have the same thoughts though. She cheerfully talked to him, but whenever he asked for her phone number, she would say she didn’t have one. When he asked her out for a drink, she would tactfully refuse. In the evening when she didn’t work, he always found her shop closed in darkness.
Tonight, the moon was round and bright, perhaps mid-month. After standing in front ofTuyết Anh’s closed shop for a while as usual, he started home, walking alone on the deserted dyke. The watery moon shone upon the sparkling silvery Mã river. The sky was clear and cloudless, the ground was dry and lit up with moonlight. Quietly, he sat down at the foot of an ancient tropical almond tree. It was a gigantic tree that had been reflecting itself in the Mã river since time immemorial.
Suddenly he heard what sounded like sobs. The sound was very quiet, but in the middle of such silence, it sent chills down his spine. He was about to take to his heels, but his little remaining sense stopped him. He inhaled deeply, mustered his courage then tiptoed past the tree toward the sobbing.
The sight of the sobber astonished him. Wasn’t that Tuyết Anh? But why was she hugging her knees crying alone here in the middle of the night? Tuyết Anh also startled upon seeing him. She stood up and wiped her tears. She forced a smile and stammered unintelligibly. Then to his utter amazement, Tuyết Anh threw herself into him, and held him tightly. She rubbed her face against his shoulder and cried like a baby.
He stood still like a statue, not knowing what to do or say. He didn’t know how much time passed, perhaps a few minutes, or hours, because every thought in his mind evaporated. Tuyết Anh stopped crying, and ashamedly released him. She looked down and said:
He brandished his forelimbs, feeling they were too long.
“No, not at all!”
Tuyết Anh dropped her head lower, told him goodbye then walked away. He stood dumbfounded watching her gradually disappear.
After that fateful night, his life took a different turn. Tuyết Anh started to talk to him more. She was more open and saved her number in his phone. He felt the road he was taking was strewn with flowers. Yet, that moonlit night left lingering questions in his mind. He didn’t dare ask her about it though. Tuyết Anh also seemed to forget it, since she never brought it up.
One pitch-dark night at the end of the month, he stood before Tuyết Anh’s house. Looking at the dim light inside, he felt profoundly sad. He didn’t dare to knock at her door and it had become a habit. But life is a strange thing. When he no longer imagined himself knocking and Tuyết Anh inviting him in, she did exactly that. Right after he shrugged and turned to go home, Tuyết Anh opened the door. She wasn’t surprised to find him standing there. She invited him in and acted like she had expected his every move, which confused him no end. He sat for more than an hour idiotically, answering her questions and drinking water until his belly bloated and begged him to say goodbye and go home.
With uncertainty, he told his mother about her. His mother went berserk with joy and made him promise to invite Tuyết Anh home. After trying to brush his mother off in vain, he acquiesced with much reluctance.
He didn’t know how to ask Tuyết Anh, because he wasn’t sure what exactly they meant to each other. He only knew that they had great conversations. During the day he loitered at her shop. At night they talked until after 10 pm. They had done this for a month. Could it be called love?
He pondered hard for several days before he dared ask. His hands sweat profusely as he nervously waited for her answer. Contrary to his nervousness, Tuyết Anh accepted the invitation gently and naturally, which dumbfounded him again.
Tuyết Anh closed her shop and went to his house early to chat with his mother. Then the two went out to the market and went home to cook while he watched TV. At that moment, his heart was filled with bliss. Such a life was enough, all struggles and ambitions seemed to be dead in him. While his mother talked to Tuyết Anh, he learned new things about her that he had forgotten to inquire about.
Tuyết Anh’s parents had passed away prematurely, leaving behind herself and her younger sister. Her younger sister was studying at a university in Hà Nội. As for her, she had quit school a long time before to work to support her sister. He felt a little tingling in his nose. Compared to her, he was countless times happier.
His mother didn’t just love Tuyết Anh for her beauty, but her friendliness and warmth. However, when his mother asked her questions about the past, she often evaded them. He also felt curious and asked her many times but she remained silent, or answered perfunctorily. Then, her phoenix eyes would be clouded and lifeless. Looking at those eyes he felt like falling into a bottomless hole. He recalled the moonlit night when he saw her by the river and felt chilly. He never asked her again, and stopped his mother from asking. Her past was important, but the present was decisive.
After that day, he thought that they were in love, though when he asked, Tuyết Anh only replied, “Whatever you like. If you think we’re in love, then we’re in love!” It was an inscrutable answer that he let pass.
A week after, he received a phone call from his best friend from Hà Nội. His friend said he wanted to visit him for a few days. It was thanks to Hùng that he had secured his employment. So he felt greatly indebted and gladly welcomed him.
Hùng was his college friend and came from Hà Nội. After college, Hùng got a stable job, and a few years later, got married. Hùng had a lovely daughter now. Though he was away from Hà Nội for ten years, he often contacted Hùng. Whenever he visited Hà Nội, the two would drink to death. Their friendship was rare, because old friends were difficult to keep.
Hùng got off the bus and instantly ran up to clasp him and pat his back passionately. He took Hùng home on his shabby bike. Hùng shook his head and sighed. He laughed it off. He was poor, wasn’t he?
Hùng had visited his house a few times, so his mother was very happy to see Hùng again. She bombarded Hùng with questions, then cheerfully boasted that her son had a girlfriend. The news transfixed Hùng for a few seconds. Then Hùng burst out laughing, which made him blush in shame. Was it so strange that he had a girlfriend?
Hùng tried to keep a straight face, patted his shoulder and urged him to introduce Tuyết Anh right away. Provoked, he pulled out his cell phone and called her. She accepted the invitation. He breathed a sigh of relief and told Hùng to take a shower. Hùng nodded and ran straight to the well, laughing.
At 11 am Tuyết Anh arrived. She looked a bit tired, though she smiled brightly at him. He felt like being squeezed in the chest and wanted to hug her tightly. Tuyết Anh seemed to understand his thoughts, but she lowered her head and walked toward the kitchen in the yard. Hùng was then walking up from the opposite direction so the two almost bumped into each other.
The two startled and stared at each other for a long time. Hùng frowned, and Tuyết Anh turned pale. He walked up and stood beside her and introduced her. Hùng eyed Tuyết Anh moodily. Tuyết Anh still looked very pale with her head down. She walked into the kitchen without a word. Hùng looked as she disappeared through the door and said with a sigh:
“Is she your girlfriend?”
He gleefully nodded, but was startled upon seeing Hùng’s moody face:
“Do you two know each other?”
Hùng remained silent for several minutes then shook his head:
“Not really, but we’ve met a few times.”
Hùng said thoughtfully:
“In Hà Nội.”
He frowned, then remembered Tuyết Anh telling him that she used to work in Hà Nội for several years. So he patted Hùng’s shoulder and said:
“That’s right. Did you have your hair cut at Tuyết Anh’s shop?”
Hùng was silent and didn’t confirm or refute the guess. After a while Hùng walked toward the table, sat down, and said:
“You should investigate thoroughly before going any further.”
He ran up to pour water for Hùng, and chuckled:
“Don’t worry, Tuyết Anh is very good. I believe I’m not mistaken!”
Hùng lost in thought, leaned against the chair, and sighed. He was about to ask something but his mother brought a tray of food and urged them to eat. He stood up unwillingly and spread out a sedge mat. The meal felt suffocating. Tuyết Anh lowered her head and barely spoke. Hùng looked ill-humoured. As for him, he felt stormy inside.
After lunch he walked Tuyết Anh home, feeling distracted with hundreds of questions. When they stopped in front of her house, he couldn’t help asking:
“Do you know Hùng?”
Tuyết Anh looked down to avoid his eyes and answered:
“Not really, but we’ve met a few times. What did he tell you?”
He shook his head in extreme confusion:
“Exactly what you’ve just told me!”
Tuyết Anh forced a smile, then turned silent. He wished her a good sleep and went home. When he reached home, he threw off his bike and ran to find Hùng. Hùng was lying in bed smoking. Seeing his best friend’s panic-stricken face, Hùng stamped out the cigarette.
He walked over, sat down by Hùng, and asked:
“What exactly do you know about Tuyết Anh?”
Hùng shook his head lightly:
“Nothing more than what I’ve told you!”
“I don’t believe you. After all those years, what could there be that you can’t tell me?”
Hùng went outside to light another cigarette. He lay down and sighed. He couldn’t imagine things had taken such a course. He had thought he would have a great time with his best friend.
Hùng didn’t have any difficulty in finding Tuyết Anh’s house. The house dangled on the dyke, overlooking the rolling muddy majestic Mã river. It was old and very small, with the front being used as a shop. Tuyết Anh opened the door for Hùng. She looked much calmer now.
“I know you would come to see me!”
Hùng sat down and glanced at Tuyết Anh who stood leaning against the door. She looked fragile and lonely. He didn’t hurl all the sharp words he had intended at her, but simply exclaimed:
“You should break up with Hoàng!”
Tuyết Anh smiled bitterly. She had expected it but still felt morose. Before she could answer, Hùng added:
“He’s honest and nice. I don’t want him to suffer.”
“Why? Is it because I did what everybody despised?”
Tuyết Anh’s sharp tone took Hùng by surprise. He stood up, and said slowly:
“I’ve told you what I must. If you really love Hoàng, please do what’s best for him!”
Hùng left. Tuyết Anh covered her face and cried.
Night fell calmly, the scene looked dark and dull. The two best friends sat on an old narrow bamboo bed drinking. Hoàng filled Hùng’s cup, his face swelling red.
“Drink. I know you’ve seen Tuyết Anh today. I don’t know what has happened between you two but let me tell you again that I love Tuyết Anh very much. Nothing can change it!”
Hùng nodded, also looking drunk.
“What do you understand? If you do, why do you stand in the way?”
Hùng silently emptied his cup, nodded a few times then said with a smile:
“Forget everything. You do whatever you want. Lately I’ve seen you write regularly. Today I met an old man on the bus. He told me a story. Do you want to hear it? It may inspire you to write!”
Hoàng gulped down his cup, slowly re-filled both of their cups then told Hùng to proceed.
“About ten years ago, the old man lived next to a happy family. The father single-handedly brought up his two daughters after his wife died. He worked hard day and night to give his children a good life. The whole village admired him. Yet, one night at year’s end, he committed a terrible act. Do you know what he did?”
“How the hell do I know!”
“He got drunk, called his wife’s name repeatedly, then raped his oldest daughter who wasn’t even 16.”
“That’s what everybody said. So a few days after he killed himself.”
Hoàng put his cup down and thought for a very long time. Then he drilled his eyes into Hùng:
“Tell me, is that girl Tuyết Anh?”
Hùng didn’t answer directly, but stood up and said:
“She didn’t turn her father in. Nobody would have known if the naïve younger sister hadn’t told a neighbour about it. The old woman then told everybody, which led to the father’s suicide.”
After telling his story, Hùng walked inside to rest. Hoàng was left alone. He turned his face upward and gulped down two bottles of wine noisily. His throat felt like burning. Yet he didn’t stop until he drank the last dregs. Strangely though, he became more and more sober. Sober, but mindless and emotionless. He hastily went inside to search for more wine. He kept searching and drinking until he collapsed on the bamboo bed exhausted.
Outside, in deep darkness, a lone slender figure followed his every act and cried.
The day after, he woke up at noon. Feeling parched, he hurriedly looked for water. At the sight of him, his mother gave a scolding. He didn’t react. He looked around and didn’t see Hùng, who had left for Hà Nội early in the morning. His mind gradually cleared up, he started to remember everything. He must see Tuyết Anh. He must tell her that they should let her past rest. He would never bring it up. Then he would call Hùng and made him understand how important Tuyết Anh was to him. It wasn’t her fault. She deserved better.
Tuyết Anh didn’t open her shop that day. The small house was shut in silence. He knocked. Tuyết Anh showed up with dark puffy eyes. He felt touched and stretched out his arms to hug her tightly.
Tuyết Anh didn’t react. Her body felt like a log. He consoled:
“I know your story. I won’t leave you!”
Tuyết Anh burst out crying, then guffawed, in bitterness.
“Do you know my story? You don’t know all of it yet. Do you know why my father jumped off the bridge? Do you know the real reason behind it?”
Tuyết Anh pushed him away. She turned around and sat down on the chair. She looked strangely calm. She continued while he was reeling in astonishment:
“It turned out my mother had been pregnant with me before marrying him. He learned about it and deeply resented it. Though he didn’t say anything, he brooded about revenge. At last he took it out on me, who wasn’t his blood daughter. As for his suicide, he jumped off the bridge because he had HIV!”
Hoàng staggered and almost fell down. He leaned against the wall to steady himself. He looked at Tuyết Anh with his eyes and mouth open wide, speechless. Tuyết Anh laughed again, crisply, blandly.
“Why are you looking at me like that? Yeah, I’m HIV-positive. For years living in Hà Nội, in order to feed myself and my sister, I was a whore. My heart was filled with hatred, so I often asked my clients not to use condoms. Many of them were infected. Then they came to me for revenge. One time, I was almost beaten to death. Fortunately, Hùng rescued me. Do you see how good your friend is to you now? Do you still want to stand by me?”
This time Hoàng did fall down. His mind was frozen. He didn’t know how he could stand and walk out of that house. Yet at that moment, he simply didn’t want to stay there, to stand by Tuyết Anh. She seemed to expect it too. She didn’t react, or look at him again.
He stayed inside for a whole week, eating nothing, just drinking. He lost weight drastically, which scared the wits out of his mother. In response to his mother’s pestering, he remained silent. His mother went to find Tuyết Anh as a last resort. But her shop was closed.
Tonight the moon was bright and cold. Hoàng woke up in the depth of night. Outside, leaves were drenched in dew. Right after he gulped down a glass of water, his cell phone rang, with a text message. It came from Tuyết Anh. He hesitated for a few seconds but read it at last: “My dear, I’m going. My sister is graduating soon. I intended to wait for her to graduate before making any decision. But unexpectedly I met you, my true love. I don’t deserve you. Only the Mã river can wash away my sin, so that in the next life I can come to you in purity.”
He dropped his cell phone. Without thinking, he darted out into the freezing windy night.
He didn’t knock but struck the door open with his foot. The house was empty. He walked into her room only to find the window overlooking the river open. There was a forlorn pair of sandals on the ground. He plunged forward, looked outside, and saw the immense swirling muddy waters. The wind beat his face, slashing it like a knife.
Phan Triều Hải offers a skillful story that reminds one of Edgar Allan Poe’s idea of a perfect short story: short, dramatic and consistent in mood. Set in Saigon with its ubiquitous beer culture, Cold Beer delineates a man’s failed marriage and a boy’s successful love with what can be called the little formidable thrust of masculine pleasure.
Ever since her 32nd birthday last year, Vy had been afraid of gaining belly fat. So instead of eating cheese and drinking lots of beer before sleeping, the couple only drank two small glasses of beer at dinner. The weather in Sài Gòn encouraged beer consumption. Cao thought Sài Gòn was the best place to drink.
This city had all sorts of problems: crowdedness, noise, heat, suffocation, traffic, lack of hygiene, pollution and beer was the solution that could dissolve all these issues in the fastest way. A gulp of beer enabled people to endure and relax, and made them irritable but energetic enough to do unexpected things.
Beer lovers would never feel tired of Sài Gòn. Nor was there a better place for beer to show off its ability to excite, relieve stress, connect friends or accompany a solitary person.
Nevertheless, Cao rarely went out to drink. He wasn’t social. Cao always wanted to be alone. His world was minimalist, just enough. And that world had become smaller ever since he got married, so much so that his wife condensed into a space just enough for the two of them, without any room left for anybody else.
That crowded space, along with several habits that had become rituals such as drinking in small glasses or getting in touch with each other through an old-fashioned desk phone, had formed a small kingdom with two people who focused on living and working according to their own standards. There, the big differences in age or height were gone. There, Cao felt comfortable and safe.
Or at least that was what he used to think.
“Our city is getting more and more crowded,” Vy said while pouring beer into two glasses which were lying neatly in her grasp.
“Everybody flocks here to make a living, stays and procreates. I think it’s going to explode.”
Cao remembered the sight outside the window of the express train which 36 years before had taken him down along the country to Sài Gòn. A journey filled with leafy trees and bundles of thick wattle fruits threading through the train window. Was she talking about me? Cao thought silently.
“If there’s some better place to live, we should consider it,” Vy said.
The best place to live was the most familiar place. Cao thought again. But instead of saying it out loud, he took his first sip of beer at dinner.
“My friend has returned from America,” Vy said. “She went there to deliver her baby.”
Cao often heard such stories but didn’t care much. Because in order to deliver a baby, one would have to be able to fertilise first – an issue that had become increasingly difficult for many people. Only then could one afford to choose a place for delivery. There were so many things one couldn’t control.
“She was wearing her hanbok to cover her seven-month pregnant belly when going through customs.”
Cao wasn’t crazy about Korean soap operas, but could easily visualise a woman in a hanbok. Nevertheless, a seven-month pregnant belly underneath was something he couldn’t imagine.
“Have you ever thought about living somewhere else?”
“Where?” Cao said, “Is there any place more comfortable than this?”
“Do you really think this is for us?”
“Sài Gòn is filled with opportunities. You can still go wherever you want.”
Vy pursed her lips, and looked straight at him. Cao thought he should stand up to get a beer, but didn’t dare to. This conversation wasn’t like previous ones. Vy spoke slowly, word by word, as if she were explaining a simple thing to a child.
“Travelling is different from living. If there are better places for living, why shouldn’t we try?”
Cao felt his face burning.
“If you keep comparing one thing to another, you’ll be miserable.”
“I don’t compare. Those things are obvious. You see them but ignore them.”
“Only you think so.”
“Everybody has the same amount of lifetime, but their life stories are different. Why? Because of where they live, and what opportunities they have.”
Vy’s fingers clutched at the edge of the table, the palms of her hands hidden underneath, the tips of her fingers subtly turning pale like a mountain climber using all of her energy to cling to a cliff. Cao didn’t remember when she had last spoken at such length. Vy rarely spoke much. She often spoke succinctly, sometimes curtly.
“A good place for one person may not be good for another person,” Cao exhaled, stood up, and said “I’ll go get more beer.”
“What’s so good about a life without change?” Vy said, sighing.
In the summer, out of the blue a group of old friends organised a reunion. Cao saw several friends whom he thought had disappeared at sea many years before.
After telling their names, everyone needed a while to get used to the old men who had replaced the children who used to be close friends at 12. Everything remained the same in a different body.
Yet only Huy stayed the same even in appearance. Huy was still short and seemed unable to gain any inches in height throughout all the years. What Cao remembered most was the time after school, instead of going home the two of them would walk straight into Mạc Đĩnh Chi cemetery, sit with their feet dangling on the white cement tomb and together read and re-read a book they had bought from a scrap vendor, Chekhov’s Short Stories. Then one morning, Cao stood dumbstruck in front of the old wooden door of his friend’s house which was shut tight with a pitch black lock. Huy had disappeared with his family.
“I still have that book,” Cao said.
The book had followed Cao all those years, even though he didn’t take good care of it. Every few years, it popped up somewhere, in an old drawer, under the bed and most recently, Cao found it lying among a pile of paper soon to be thrown away. Cao thought he would give Huy that book as a gift. It existed, because it belonged to somebody else. It could wait.
Two small glasses were replaced by three sparkling beer bottles, which made the atmosphere much livelier. Throughout the dinner, Vy listened to the two old friends taking turns telling silly stories: their reading Chekhov’s love stories on a pile of deadly white human bones until dusk, having a crush on the same girl and more.
While the two men slowly turned into boys, Vy sat with her chin on her hands, smiling.
Cao realised Huy remembered many things from those years. All stories had Huy in it, but they mostly resided in Huy’s mind only. Perhaps space affected people’s memories, Cao thought. If he were a scientist, he could make money by researching how space affected emotion, how emotion nurtured memories. Not a bad idea for research. As the stories dragged on, they were solely told by Huy and thickened into a dense fog.
Cao wasn’t listening as attentively as earlier. He was letting himself bob in that misty sea, contemplating the woman sitting in front of him flickering ethereally. She was too charming, too light-footed. As always. Ten years before, when he first saw Vy, he was dazed. That beauty didn’t seem to change with time, yet he seemed to be re-discovering it now.
Cao realised his wife was more beautiful than most women he saw every day. When he didn’t look, who would look at her? Cao felt annoyed. Through all those years, when she was forgotten, did those pairs of eyes and lips become invisible or quietly offer themselves to the crowd?
That night, drowning in his wife’s brilliant beauty along with a little jealousy, Cao struggled to prevent the headboard of the bed from pounding into the wall while Vy bit deeply into a corner of the pillow to prevent any noise from disturbing the dining room where Huy was sleeping for the night on a long couch. If throughout all those years Cao had always been as powerfully aroused as he was now, perhaps they could have had a baby, Cao thought.
“I don’t want to have a baby now,” Vy whispered.
Vy’s chest heaved. She looked like an exhausted salmon after a jump against the current. Yet not every salmon laid eggs. There were always exceptions.
“If we had a baby, our meals would be more fun,” Cao said as he slowly pulled a long thread of Vy’s hair from his mouth.
“Babies aren’t for fun,” Vy said quietly, unclasping her hands from Cao’s back, dropping them on her sides. “First we have to make sure our baby will have a good life.”
Cao breathed lightly, and covered her body with his shirt. Vy lay silently, closing her eyes, not to sleep but to think. There was a perfect stillness all around, outside and even in here. Cao found himself so cruel because he fell asleep at the usual time on the day he was reunited with his best friend after so many years of separation.
While Cao struggled to worm his way through the traffic in rush hour, Huy tried to get used to sitting in the back without holding on to the grab rail in the rear. Huy didn’t want to betray the fact that he came from another place. The closer they approached their destination, the more nervous Huy became.
“In the old days, when I first saw Lai sit by her piano, I understood that she was beyond our grasp.”
Yes. In those days, that was what Cao thought too. Cao remembered how the lustrous dark brown wooden piano overwhelmed them all. He remembered the piano and the chair as a secret treasure, because the piano was filled with musical books inside.
“I used to think that it was the only piano in Sài Gòn.”
“Or the most beautiful.”
“Surely it was,” Huy said.
Lai was still living in a house just across the street from school. She was sitting in front of the house, resting on a fabric-covered chair whose corners were worn-out and torn. Lai recognised her two former fans, but only smiled gently as if today were Thursday, the only day of the week when the whole class finished school early at 3pm and dropped by to have a chat. She silently brought out two small plastic chairs and placed them by the door.
Huy and Cao looked at each other, then sat down.
Lai still looked petite and light-skinned even though she had a few marks of melasma on her cheeks – the sign of post-delivery in some women. Cao suddenly wondered since when he had started to pay attention to such details. Behind her were packs of coke and beer piled on top of each other reaching up to the ceiling. On the shop window Cao saw a wrapped gift bag containing a red box of Cosy biscuits, a bright yellow pack of Lipton teabags, a box of instant Nestlé coffee, a bag of Bibica sweets and a dark brown bottle of Đà Lạt wine. The cellophane wrapping paper looked dated and soft, dull and dusty.
Cao glanced at a few threads of hair on Lai’s head and a few crow’s feet around her eyes, which wasn’t too bad for a single mom. He could still see clearly the spirit of the 12-year-old girl of old.
In those bygone years, nobody ever saw Lai sad. She cheerfully and easily glided past annoyances exactly like the way she was welcoming her two friends now, not too ardently but warmly. No wonder everybody liked her. No wonder on an afternoon at the cemetery, Huy and Cao tore away their pledge of brotherhood written on the cover of Chekhov’s Short Stories when they argued which one of them had the right to pursue her.
The three friends sat in silence for a while. Lai turned a small electric fan to face her friends. The blades swirled crazily but didn’t provide much relief.
“I used to follow whatever my parents planned for me,” Lai said, “from career to relationships. Then I met a man, gave birth, broke up and did what I’d never done before. Nothing in life happens as planned.”
Everybody who was alive was writing his or her own book. Lai was telling her story. Cao didn’t know if the book of his life was interesting.
“Even without planning everything keeps flowing,” Lai said. “Life turned out to be simpler than what my parents feared.”
“I’m different though. I always plan how to pay the bills. Rent, insurance, food, gasoline. Everything has to be accurate. Every month is the same. Always the same,” Huy said.
I lived by habit, Cao thought. But perhaps habit was also a type of repetitive planning. It was fortunate that in those days neither one of them won their battle for Lai. Or else, whoever had her would have found himself in either a tragedy or comedy. Cao tried to focus on his friends’ stories.
“Unable to read or deal with traps, I’ve chosen to close my eyes and walk through them. I don’t care about the ugly or beautiful scars they’ve left, as long as I can walk through them,” Lai said.
On his last evening in Sài Gòn, Huy drank a lot. When the short hand pointed to ten, he said he would leave in five minutes. Huy often spoke thus about his intentions, which Cao found to be quite a good habit. It was always pleasant to find oneself with a plan, however small.
There was only a plate of cheese left on the table. This piece of cheese had been bought at the beginning of the year at a discount price. It had lost its freshness and turned a little dry, but still felt buttery. Cao brought three bottles of beer and put them down in front of each one of them.
The bottles clanked up against each other on the neck like a bundle of mangrove roots, then separated. The three sipped their beer gently. They had drunk a lot already.
Vy rested her chin on her arms for a while, then spoke without looking at Cao.
“I think there’s only one way for us.”
Cao needed a few seconds to figure out who was speaking, and a few seconds more to understand whom Vy was speaking to. At last he realised Vy was addressing him.
Cao looked at Vy, but she was only staring at her bottle.
“We can have a fake divorce,” Vy said. “After that, I’ll marry a man who lives there.”
Cao needed a long while to understand. Then his body, from the head to the neck to the shoulders, suddenly turned hard and numb.
“It’ll only take a few years,” Vy took a sip of her beer and continued, “then everything will return to normal.”
Everybody fell into a long silence. Cao felt his neck relaxing a bit, and seemed able to turn his head gently, but he didn’t try. Only his two eyes seemed to be moving now. Cao saw Huy drinking silently. As for Vy, her face looked calm again, as if she were still indifferently listening to trivial stories.
“What were you thinking when you said that?”
“It’s just a plan. We’ll discuss it in detail.”
“How could you say that?”
Cao repeated his question, chokingly. He felt he couldn’t take in anything, even air.
“If we can choose a better place to live, why don’t we try?” Vy said. “You only have one life to live. Whether you’re willing to change or not, your life will end anyway.”
“We’re enjoying a better life than many people, so why should we change?”
Huy gulped down his bottle in one go, then looked at his watch.
“I have to leave.”
Cao looked at Huy as if the latter were some stranger who had suddenly appeared in his house from out of nowhere. It took him a second to recognise his friend. Huy walked toward the desk phone to dial. Huy spoke to the switchboard operator, confirmed Cao’s address and phone number, than hung up. Since when did he remember Cao’s home phone? Huy said nothing, patted Cao’s shoulders gently and walked to the door. Vy followed.
Cao sat alone, listening to the clanking sound of Vy locking the gate from the yard.
Cao wasn’t a mean person. He’d never complained about a dish, whether it was served on a china plate in an expensive restaurant or on a plastic plate on the sidewalk. He could adapt to annoying circumstances, like when he could still focus in a movie theatre despite others’ noisy conversations. Everything was something to experience, Cao thought. It was life. Whether it was ugly or beautiful, everything was worth enjoying.
Yet Cao had a bad instinct. Instead of simply looking at the surface, he often searched for the truth. Instant noodles for dinner would be normal if both he and his wife went home late. But it would be a different matter if it was the result of laziness and carelessness. He would consider a bunch of noisy customers disturbing his time in a restaurant on the weekend a mere entertaining show offered to him free of charge. But if they intentionally wanted to destroy his meal, it would be a different story.
That was why what Vy said that evening was as good as putting an end to their marriage.
For two weeks Vy didn’t go home. Nor did she answer her phone.
Cao started to get used to living without her, and didn’t need to fill his emptiness by trying to meet one friend or another like in the first few days after she left. Cao phoned her parents. In a calm and somewhat distant tone, they told him that she was alright, and that he had nothing to worry about.
Cao felt himself quite cruel because he felt fine. Ever since Vy proposed her crazy plan, she had become half a person in his mind. She appeared in his memory with only her left half or right half, half of her hair, one eye, one ear, one nostril and half of her mouth.
Of course half a person wasn’t beautiful and didn’t evoke any emotion. Cao found himself able to forget her very quickly. Yet he resisted, because if she was gone from his memory, which meant that she was right, then all those years were indeed worth nothing.
Downstairs, the desk phone rang loudly like a fire alarm or an ambulance siren, startling Cao.
It could only be Vy. Only Vy called the desk phone. It wasn’t just the secret signal between the two of them amidst a topsy-turvy world dominated by social media, but also one of the foundations of their small family.
Yet at that moment, Cao felt weary to his soul.
He stood still, letting the phone ring until it stopped.
She would call back for sure, Cao thought. Women were emotional and impatient. Especially Vy. She couldn’t wait for change to come to her, but must change herself right away.
Cao quietly opened the fridge, and took out the last bottle of beer. Holding the green bottle, he remembered he hadn’t drunk beer in a glass for a long time. Did every collapse start with the breaking of a small principle? Suppose he was drunk in the old way now, would normalcy return?
Cao looked at the desk phone which was lying there in silence.
Ten minutes passed, but Cao felt like going through an eternity. She would call back for sure, Cao thought. She would call back. He still understood her better than anybody else.
Right then the phone rang.
Cao slowly put the beer bottle on the table, took a deep breath, suppressed the throbbing in his chest and picked up the phone.
“It’s me, Huy.”
Cao tried to suppress a sigh.
“Are you two drinking beer?” Huy asked.
The signal buzzed a bit, then became clear again.
“I just wanted to tell you I’m getting married.”
“What? To whom?”
“Lai,” Huy said. “She’s decided to follow me at last, for her child’s sake.”
Cao said nothing.
“But it’s true love to me, we’ll be a real couple,” Huy said.
For a child’s sake. Cao didn’t know that feeling. A real couple. Cao doubted it. After many years believing he had everything, Cao found himself empty-handed.
“Hope you aren’t jealous.”
“No, not at all,” Cao said quickly.
Huy hung up.
Cao remained dazed for a while, then slowly walked toward the table to pick up the beer bottle, and took a sip. The afternoon sunshine had been heating up the beer. Never before had he tasted such hot, bland, spiritless beer.
He needed to put the beer in the fridge. But instead of doing so, he sat down on the chair, and clasped his hands around the hot bottle on the table.
I need cold beer.
Cao tried to speak aloud, but his body didn’t budge. He seemed to be cast to the wooden chair and turn into wood, unable to stand up anymore.
InLan Quy‘s tribute to a visceral , dangerous yet thrilling life in the midst of nature, there is a subtle and prejudiced contrast between coastal and urban life. Both are dangerous. Yet the former, which is symbolized by a growing boy who may face death at sea, definitely holds more attraction than the later, whose symbol is a girl who has to stay at home and entertain herself with her Ipad because of a broken leg.
The beach was strewn with rocks that looked like a herd of elephants jostling each other to wade into the sea. Old Đội and Sóng were sitting on the highest peak, looking into the distance. Angry waves surged, threatening to sweep the rocks away. The rocks wavered as if they might sink, but it was just an illusion. “Here’s you tobacco, master!” Sóng said.
Sóng had rolled up a cigarette in no time. With the ocean winds battering his face, old Đội pointed down the peak, signaling to Sóng. Sóng jumped down, hid behind a slit, and flicked a lighter. The tobacco flared up in front of the old man’s nose. But no sooner was the milky smoke discharged than the tobacco was pulled out and thrown away toward the sandy beach.
Four eyes squinted and looked over the sea. Sunset was tinting the horizon pink. Waves were still jumping onto the rocks.
“There’s a ship returning, master,” said Sóng.
“I can see her painted eyes blinking.”
The old man rubbed his eyes and looked in the direction of the boy’s finger. There was indeed a ship returning. The waves were violent, the prow of the ship bobbing up and down. The two painted eyes up front, one red, the other white, were looking down at the sea.
“Please God, let my father be onboard,” said Sóng. Old Đội morosely glanced at the 15-year-old boy’s anxious face. The boy looked exactly like his father, a 47-year-old fisherman. Sóng stepped onto the peak, crossing his arms across his chest. His legs had grown, gaining muscle. In just two years Sóng too would go out to sea.
The painted eyes on the ship’s prow showed up more clearly, revealing the red yellow paint surrounding their whites, their irises peering into the depth of the sea, searching. The little ship crashed into shore. It was Hiền – Thu’s No. 704. Women who had been lying in wait suddenly darted out of nowhere, babbling on and on. Sóng also left the old man standing on the peak and ran toward the ship. “I don’t see my father, master!”
Sóng returned, sighing heavily. The month before, Hậu’s fishing boat was rocked by a storm in the middle of the night near Hon Che Island. Sóng’s father and nine others were onboard. Though the ship had a pair of pale white water monster eyes beaming into the sea, the sea monsters weren’t afraid. They drove waves up to rooftop height then dumped them down onto the ship.
Biển – Sóng’s father – was swept into the sea while trying to protect the nets on the deck. Only in the morning did the fishermen discover he was missing. They hoped that as a superb swimmer, Biển would drift onto Hòn Che, waiting for lifeguards. Helmsmen were dispatched straight to Hòn Che, but they drove around the small island twice without finding Biển.
Old Đội and Sóng walked back to the village, reeling.
“My mother has been crying her eyes out for a whole month. Master, please don’t go to the city yet. Stay and build a wind tomb for my father,” beseeched Sóng.
“Won’t you wait for him anymore?”
“He must be dead! No swimmer could have stayed afloat for a whole month.”
“Go and discuss with your mother. If you’re determined to build a wind tomb then I’ll prepare for the ritual.”
“One more thing. Since you can ride, please go to the bus station and change my ticket for me. I’ll go to the city next Sunday instead.”
After making a clay corpse and building a wind tomb for Sóng’s father, old Đội would still go to the city with his daughter.
At the fishing village, people respectfully called him master for carrying on a family profession for more than forty years. His father was an excellent Confucian scholar and an expert in physiognomy. When he used clay to make figures to stand in for the missing bodies of those who had died at sea, he could capture their countenance, style and look, so that their wives and children could recognise them right away. Old Đội had been taught by his father, from how to make clay figures to worshipping formalities. He had made scores of wind tombs ever since and was so skilled at it that even with his eyes closed, he could imagine every detail.
Gái – Sóng’s mother – stood up upon her two shaking legs. Her pretty oval face had turned black and gaunt. She hastily took off her necklace, the most valuable remembrance that her husband had bought for her during a sea trip, and offered it up to old Đội in two hands. “Master, do us a favour, please…” Old Đội waved his hand, saying, “Please put the gold away! Let me handle this!”
The sadness in old Đội’s heart suddenly disappeared. He felt an airy intoxication similar to an ecstasy pill, which was often felt by human beings who had a clear purpose. Old Đội started feeling this way when he first built a wind tomb 49 years ago. That year his father passed away at the age of 80 and in the village six young men lost their lives to a storm at sea.
Unable to refuse the villagers’ entreaties, the 23-year-old man had to make six clay figures and six wind tombs within a week all by himself. At first he was anxious and fearful. After touching the soft clay though, an airy, ecstatic sensation arose in him and young Đội was bewitched.
The names of all the villagers who were killed at sea and offered wind tombs by old Đội were written down in an old yellow notebook. Full names, ages, missing dates, tomb construction dates were all noted down carefully. The villagers often commemorated the days their loved ones left for sea as their death anniversaries. In 42 years, 69 people in total had died at sea, including 67 old and young men in the village and two visitors who went on a sea research trip. The families of the two visitors also came to the fishing village and asked the old man to make clay figures, lay them down in coffins and take them back to their home province on the northern coast for burial. Northerners didn’t make wind tombs.
For six years and seven months, no one died at sea. The villagers didn’t seem to take note, but the master felt glad. He wanted every hardy lad who went to sea to return home. Many upheavals also befell the fishing village, threatening its survival. For instance, one ship was destroyed by a pirate ship, all the crew members were captured and everything valuable was taken.
Nevertheless, after some time life returned to normal, the crew members returned, a new ship was built, more nets were bought and luckily nobody died. Fishermen in the village faced big storms twice, twelve people fell into the sea and drifted about for several days. Yet they were blessed, being rescued by a foreign ship eventually.
Old Đội thought he could quit his profession for good now. He was about to escape the haunting reality of making male figures made of clay and listening to women and children crying. Old Đội and his wife didn’t have a son. Their four daughters were married to men from other regions, the youngest was married to one in the city.
They might have had sons-in-law with dark brown skin, vigorous health and various talents in the fishing village. Yet the old man was afraid one day he would have to make clay figures for his sons-in-law. His sons-in-law weren’t involved in fishing at all.
For the past two years, after his wife passed away, he had been living by himself in a house at the end of the village, near the coast. His youngest daughter begged him to live in the city with her, but he hesitated. At the beginning of the month when he heard his granddaughter had fallen off a motorbike and broken her leg, the old man decided to visit his daughter. He wanted to see whether the noisy, vibrant city could make him forget the wind tombs. The ticket had been booked, he would set off in two days, but Sóng and his mother pleaded with him to wait for news from Biển.
His wrinkled hands tremulously took down the notebook. The old man had wrapped it up carefully and hidden it in a tin box on an old altar, intending to bid farewell to his profession, and yet… He started a new line with a wild, veering handwriting. Full name: Lê Văn Biển, age: 47, went to sea: 21st of July in the Year of the Dragon.
Sóng drove his rickety motorbike to pick up the old man. “My mother has finished cooking the chicken, master.”
“Yeah! Wait a minute, I’ll change into my tunic.”
As they passed Bền’s store, the old man told Sóng to stop to buy votive paper, betel and liquor. If Sóng’s family hadn’t been poor, they might have cooked a pot of sweetened porridge and a pig’s head as well.
A faded nylon mattress with curled corners was spread out on the sand. The master was wearing a tunic. It was an old orange piece of garment with a few tiny holes. The worshipping ritual started. The master turned his head toward the mountain, holding up three incense sticks with two hands. Two candles flickered in the wind.
“Please Gods of the sky, the land and the seas, let me make a figure to stand in for the fisherman Lê Văn Biển,” the old man prayed. “Please guide his soul back to his body.”
Sóng stood in wait with a hoe and an empty paint bucket, his eyes turning red. The master flicked his hand to signal to the boy to follow him, straight toward the foot of the mountain. The clay hole was as wide as the mouth of a coracle, and was knee-deep. The hole hadn’t been dug up for a long time, and its brim had been corroded into a perfect smoothness by rainwater. “Fill up two-thirds of the bucket!” the master ordered. Sóng hung the bucket on the hoe’s handle, put the hoe on his shoulder, and carried it home. “While I’m praying to the Holy Midwives, you go and ask a friend to come here to help!”
The rickety bike stuttered to a noisy start, gushing smoke, bringing tears to the eyes. Arranging sticky rice, sweetened porridge and plain water on a banana leaf in front of the clay, the master prayed to the twelve Holy Midwives to come and witness the figure-making ritual for the dead. Old Đội prayed, “Holy Midwives, please let all the three souls and seven spirits* of Lê Văn Biển enter his new body, so he can return to his grave and bless his wife and kid.”
A wooden mortar and pestle were washed clean. “Sprinkle some water to soften the clay, then put it into the mortar,” old Đội requested. A pounding sound ensued, mingling with the breathing of two people. Nobody said a word. The master scooped up every handful of cotton and put it into the mortar. The pestle battered down, gradually turning the white mixture into brown, flexible and soft like flesh. The old man had prepared a bundle of mulberry stalks. They were used to make seven ribs, eight hand and foot bones, as well as all finger and toe bones. A chicken egg was used to stand for the heart, and green and red threads represented the blood vessels. Old Đội said, “Remove all the clay carefully for me. Don’t leave out even just one bit! Take a bite of the sweetened porridge, then go home. In the afternoon, Sóng and your mother come here to pick up the figure!”
Making clay figures was the most tedious part of the profession, because no one was allowed to come near him. The master focused on the powdered clay and the different expressions of the dead. Now he was intently sitting by himself under a canvas top, trying to imagine the face of Sóng’s father. He was able to capture the spirit of the dead. Sunshine beamed, illuminating the red tunic. He sweated profusely, swaying like he was possessed.
Biển had a hot temper, bushy dark eyebrows, squinting eyes and a contemptuous sneer. He had a bad tongue but a heart of gold, easily lost his temper yet generously pampered his wife and kid and helped any friend in need. Thus his eyebrows looked fierce but his square face gentle. Biển showed up in the old man’s mind, helping carry a coracle to shore, his muscles curling up powerfully under the lever.
Then there were a pair of slanting eyes, a disdainful smile that appeared on Biển’s face when he talked with the fish wholesaler who always drove a hard bargain with the fishermen, and two big hands that closed tightly into fists but opened up on second thought. The look of the dead gradually emerged under the hands of the master. The head and face came to life, followed by the wide, well-developed chest, and a pair of brawny arms and big rough feet with toes spreading and clinging hard to the side of the boat.
The sun set, tinging the horizon above the sea a pinkish purple. Coracles drifted to shore. Some fishermen stood onboard, rowing nimbly, turning their eyes toward the high top of the coconut trees, reading clouds to predict the weather the following day. Sóng and his mother took four people along. The two daughters came home from school, their bags still hanging on the handle-bars of their bicycle. They all lined up in dead silence. Đội lifted up the white cloth covering the clay figure, and the mother and the three children cried out loud: “Oh dear! Oh father!”
The figure looked exactly like Biển. Gái looked desolate, yet a gleam of hope flickered in her eyes. “We’ll start the worshipping ritual at 3am tomorrow!” The master declared, then asked Gái to prepare a baked fish, a crab, a plate of raw shark meat and vegetables, a bowl of rice and a bowl of salt. Gái had sold the gold necklace and bought a good coffin for her husband. With little money left, she would prepare some food and drink to invite the villagers to come and pay their respects.
With a three-beat drumming and resounding gong, the funeral woke up the little fishing village. There were no tears, only the suppressed hiccups of Gái and her children. Sóng walked behind the master and held his father’s picture in two hands with dry eyes. A fisherman was taking shape in him, following his ancestors’ footsteps.
The light coffin carried on the shoulders of ten men sometimes felt overloaded as if the soul of the dead had entered the body. The village hadn’t witnessed a wind tomb funeral for a long time. The villagers woke up, remembering the debt of the sea. The procession with the flags slowly walked on the path between two budding corn fields, the lipstick red coffin floating along. The grave was very deep, revealing spotted yellow-and-brown sandy soil. It was the 70th wind tomb in the graveyard.
The city was more bustling and noisier than old Đội imagined. His granddaughter rested at home and was cared for by a housekeeper. His daughter and son-in-law worked past noon, and only came home at dusk. He was bored to tears watching TV all day, and could only speak a few sentences to his granddaughter because she kept looking down at her iPad which looked foreign to him. He went out for coffee twice and was terrified. The sounds of vehicles and people, the smoke, the dizzy speed all made him feel like he was about to be pulled into a hurricane. He wanted to phone home but didn’t have anyone’s number. “How stupid I was! When I left I gave Sóng my daughter’s number but forgot to ask for his.”
Twenty days dragged by heavily. Rice and soup, meat and fish all tasted bitter to him. Old Đội only drank cold water. One morning he woke up and found his body burning with a fever, completely worn out, ready to drop dead. The housekeeper had gone to market, and his children had gone to work. He staggered into his granddaughter’s room. She was resting her dazzling white leg which was cast in plaster on a side rail of the bed, still clutching her iPad. The phone rang shrilly. “The phone is ringing, grandchild!”
The girl didn’t look up but spoke loudly, “Grandpa please pick it up for me!” Hearing what sounded like sea waves, old Đội lit up. “Hello! Who’s that? My children have both gone to work.” A man replied, “Oh master! It’s me, Sóng! Foreign ships are making trouble again. A ship from our village has sunk at sea. Two people are missing, and we’ve been searching for them in vain. Please return master!”
No matter how hard his daughter and son-in-law insisted, old Đội refused to stay. “I must return. I must return quickly! I can’t abandon the fishing village.”
Sitting aboard a night bus, the old man anxiously looked ahead with searching eyes, even though he was still more than 200 kilometres from home. In his head he heard the sea roaring, and human beings calling out to each other in the dark. God! Wind tombs seemed to rustle in the wind, haunting him, calling him back.
*In Vietnamese folk beliefs, a man has three souls and seven spirits, and a woman, three souls and nine spirits.
Phan Mai Hương takes another snapshot of the harsh landscape of central Vietnam which has inspired some great works of art here. Human life in her short story unfolds with its mundane care and aching passion, leaving an aftertaste that is not without charm.
The hot and dry westerly wind howled and swirled, whipping up the dull red soil into the sky then dumping it down. Two uneven rows of houses with dusty brown-and-grey palm thatch roofs lining the road choked in the pinky brown dust. In all directions mountains shot up, bristling and tottering as if they would collapse after a slight collision. At the T-junction, there was a banyan tree with ancient roots and a canopy spread wide like a huge umbrella, shading the ground. Around the foot of the tree, children and a few adults were selling peeled and separated pomelo pulps which were withering under the sun, and sugarcane fruits and pineapples which were cut and packaged in nylon bags. Cucumbers, boiled corncobs and sweet potatoes were in baskets, and green tea stored in aluminum pots were offered to passers-by and passengers on buses that stopped for a break. The plastic cups dangling upside down over the spouts of the pots seemed ready to fly off every time the kids took to their heels to entice customers.
Receiving a cup of tea from a skinny girl with hard dark skin, a face full of freckles and a nimble and sly look, Thi dispiritedly looked at the sickening sunlight forming colourful circles in the air when she was told that to reach her new school, she would have to travel another two kilometres. A bicycle screeched to a halt right in front of her. The chain was broken, linked to one pedal on one side and a very sharp-pointed crank arm on the other. “You seem to be going to the high school, teacher?” Thi looked up at the person who asked the question and saw a pair of warm brown eyes under a head of hair which was ruffled like a sparrow’s nest in a storm scanning her from head to toe. Before she had time to answer, a hand lifted up her suitcase and put it on the backseat. “I’m on my way back to school too so I’ll carry it for you, teacher!” No sooner did Thi say yes and was about to ask who he was than the bicycle shot away, leaving behind a streak of red dust. His slim, curvy back floated forwards in the dazzling sunlight.
In the middle of a vast pasture covered with lumpy rocks of all sizes, a few rows of thatch-roofed houses stood alone, making the school where Thi was to teach. Another separate line of houses with arch roofs lying flat on the ground like turtles with broken legs was the school’s board room and teacher’s dormitory. Outside the bamboo picket fence lay an uncultivated field. Later, after staying here for a long time, Thi would come to know that the school was destroyed and had to be rebuilt several times every year because of tornadoes. Her new colleagues gathered to question her vivaciously. Only when they asked where her luggage was did Thi remember it. Right then, the ruffled head of hair appeared out of the blue from behind the bamboo fence gate with a bright smile and an explanation: “I had to drop by a student’s house to persuade her parents to let her continue to go to school, was pressed to stay and eat with them, could only leave after much protest.” It was Hoàng Hữu, a geography teacher who was two years older than Thi. Upon hearing his story, the others rolled around with laughter. The school’s president named Luân told Thi: “You were too gullible. You were lucky to have met a good person.” Only after Thi had left this place which had too much hot and dry wind, frost and rocky mountains but too little water did she feel the truth of his words.
Thủy’s house, a wooden one with a brownish roof, would be a dream compared to the room Thi was living in. Thủy was thirty-two years old. Though she taught history, there was no sight of any history book in her house. All knowledge was swept away under a mess of her concerns. Day and night she took care of three daughters and two parents-in-law who were almost eighty, did gardening work, went to the market, worried herself about birth control, about her driver husband who might try to “secure a son” on the road, which made her face and figure – which might have been pretty in the past – shrivel like a salted apricot dried under the sun. All three of her daughters looked dirty after crawling about in the yard or creeping into bushes all day. Only their eyes remained clean, glistening and crystal clear. Children had countless pleasures which adults could hardly understand. Was this Thi’s future? Was Thi happy or sad? She should feel happy because she had volunteered to come here to teach. Thi’s father hadn’t helped her find employment in her home city. His friend, a senior education official, suggested that since she was still young she should teach first in the countryside for a few years to gain experience.
Thi was still daydreaming when Hữu showed up and asked her to go to the market with him. Thi shook her head saying she was busy. Instantly she remembered the day of the market fair when people flocked to town, when the two of them drew close to a boy carrying a bright green bamboo cage which was holding what looked exactly like a small python. Hữu merrily said, “With just one month’s salary, we can buy the python to raise for some time then kill to make glue. Python glue is incredible and may cure your mother’s backache.” The two labouriously carried the ‘python’ home. Putting the cage down, Thi gingerly opened the lid. The ‘python’ sprang up, puffed, bared a red patch around its neck, flicked its forked tongue. As swift as a deer, Hữu slammed the lid shut. The cage was immediately flung away into the bush outside the fence towards the vast field.
The afternoon darkened. The flaming sun rolled up and descended behind the purple-blue mountains. Dew sneaked round, spinning a blurring web over every crook and corner, freezing the air into a biting cold. Leaves had been shrunken by too much sunlight and frost. The sky looked opaque due to the light radiating from a half-moon. Walking past Thi’s door towards the well with a basket of vegetables in her hand, Nhã smiled at Thi then tilted her chin up towards her room, signaling that Vũ had arrived. Nhã was a Hanoian, who had arrived at the school a month after Thi, was pretty enough, considered teaching secondary to her “primary profession” of trading pharmaceutical products, and had a boyfriend named Vũ. Nhã said Vũ’s family had the biggest shop in the whole street, his mother was an experienced businesswoman and took charge in the house, and his younger sister inherited all of her mother’s good traits. Nhã laughed and said, “I’ll have two mothers-in-law by and by.” Vũ was extremely jealous. Whenever Nhã stayed at school, Vũ would travel 100km only to quarrel with her without talking to anybody else. The sound of them fighting mixed with the hoarfrost, alternating between loudness and quietness, echoing along the dorm. Being tall and handsome like an actor, Vũ nonetheless felt jealous, though nobody knew of whom. No man here dared to approach Nhã. Every man here was unfamiliar with Vũ’s type. Vũ made people feel exhausted. Was love good or bad? Nhã said Vũ’s family had spent lots of money to bribe some powerful official to transfer her back to Ha Noi, but she seemed unwilling.
The moon sprinkled its dusty golden light, giving the lifeless dried-up trees a fresher look. Sitting on a sedge mat in the yard, Thi and Nhã turned towards the room in which Đô, who came from Ba Vì, was living. Thi was a little amused by the contrast between the name which meant big and muscular and Đô’s stunted physique. Though he taught Russian, Đô habitually mispronounced the language. Wrestling the bicycle down the yard, Đô patched up a tube in a creative way: plaiting rags into a bun, coiling it up tightly, tying it to the rest of the tube and stuffing everything inside the tire. The two women giggled, pitying the rickety bike which would have to roll over 30km of road to a higher region where Đô’s tall, broad-shouldered, manly girlfriend was teaching at an elementary school. Đô would come home unscathed, carrying along dried bamboo shoots, honey, snakes, turtles and geckoes which his girlfriend had amassed in a week in order to sell for profits which could exceed several months’ salary. Thi found Đô’s love story kind of cool, tinted with familial care. Thi remembered when she was young her parents only discussed money and debts at night when their children had gone to bed, but Thi was still awake so she eavesdropped on them. Knowing her family’s difficulties, Thi always took great care of the garden so that it yielded many vegetables for her mother to sell at the market.
Mai swooped down on the sedge mat and told her stories. In her hometown where rocky mountains slept eternally amid white clouds, girls never went to college, shamans made love charms and couples would stick to each other like a pair of glutinous rice cakes made for the Lunar New Year, not even death could do them part. Mai recalled when she was small, she had witnessed a wife who didn’t eat or drink for seven days and fell dead upon her husband’s grave, all because of a love charm. Love charms only worked for three months, and afterwards had to be replaced by new ones. Making love charms was a difficult profession. The shamans only taught it to generous, virtuous people, at night, and for 100 consecutive nights.
A late sleep was broken by the mystery of the love charms in Mai’s story. Near dawn Thi was waken by the repetitive clacking sound of the opening of the door next to hers. While Thi was falling back to sleep, a thought kept hovering in her mind: Was money or love more important? Thi saw the light of the oil lamp from Hữu’s room floating away towards the rocky field, gliding after a wriggling snake tail. She saw her mother turning to walk away and herself screaming and running after her. Thi startled up out of sleep, realising it was just another dream. She thought about her father’s words: “Now that you are a government employee, you must take care of your career on your own.” Everything seemed to flicker in bewilderment in the biting cold frost.
Thi gathered a bundle of freshly split firewood and poured a little oil on top. No sooner did she drop a match than the fire flared up, exuding the acrid smell of burning oil. Dreaming about a cool breeze, Thi sang quietly, “The afternoon is serene, the wind rustles gently.” Suddenly she heard a thudding sound on the wall: “Thi, eat fast and go out with me.” “What a liar,” Thi retorted. “I’ll thrash you. Everybody knows you’re going down to your girlfriend’s house. Does she come home midweek too?” Thi heard no answer but the crispy crackling of the bike rolling in the yard. Tín, chemistry teacher and secretary of the teachers’ youth union, was meticulous by profession. His Chinese bicycle was always polished and fully pumped. If a tube was punctured, he would haul the bike to the yard and go over every old and new patch. Though the patches overlapped one another, the bike could still carry his sweetheart exceptionally well.
After eating dinner, Thi checked the jackfruits her students had brought as presents to see whether any of them had ripened. She spread a sedge mat on the yard and called Nhã. Thi and Nhã loved jackfruits, but in such scorching heat they had had to wait until midnight to satisfy their craving. As for Mai and Hữu, they were indifferent to jackfruits so didn’t participate. Looking at the yellow colour of the jackfruit pulps blending with the golden moonlight, Mai lamented, “It’ll be very hot tomorrow.” After eating the jackfruits Thi went back to her room. She felt very drowsy but couldn’t sleep because of the terrible heat. The diesel oil lamp emitting smoke on her desk only made the air hotter. As Thi was dozing off, she was startled by the crackling of the bike cassette rolling and the clacking of the door opening. Tín cheerfully teased: “Thi, let’s go to the youth union’s meeting.” If only she could get up and slap him on the mouth. Thi lay still, pretending to be sleeping. Yet Tín went on croaking: “Don’t pretend. I know your trick. You can’t sleep without breathing like a corpse like that.” The wall which was supposed to separate one room from another turned out to be useless. Thi heard Tín clack open the door again. “Sleep, where are you?” Thi moaned. “I have five classes tomorrow.” Sleep came fitfully amid the clacking of the door. Thi’s arm felt numb after incessantly fanning herself with a bamboo fan, yet the heat only seemed to thicken. Of all the dorm rooms, only Mai’s door remained open. Unable to coax her eyes closed, Thi went over and looked inside. She was surprised to find Mai assuming an odd posture, crawling with her butt up on a small plank bed writing something amid a disorderly bunch of old smeared yellow Women’s Newspaper issues. It turned out she was writing a letter of contrition about her pregnancy which had just been discovered by the labour union. She tried to smile at Thi but her eyes brimmed with tears. The Europeans who discovered America might not have been as stunned as Thi now. “Who is the baby’s father?” Thi asked. Mai suppressed a sigh and said she would never tell. She would give birth. She thought it would be a boy. “Will you help me, Thi?” Mai asked. “Please write the letter of contrition for me.”
It was a most difficult essay question… “So who is going to read your letter?” Thi asked. “The managing board, the labour union, the party cell, though not the youth union whose members were away,” Mai replied. Then she added, “I was just informed of the meeting this afternoon.” All of a sudden Thi remembered that Hữu had left to visit his hometown and thought this was a strange meeting for censuring a teacher, because only officials would attend. “So what do you feel contrite for?” Thi continued. “Are you going to say that love is wrong? The new law about marriage and family does recognize children born out of wedlock, doesn’t it,” she said. “Yes I know,” Mai said and pushed a Women’s Newspaper copy towards Thi. “Ah! Why don’t I write a report instead?” Mai said. Thi asked: “So what are you going to report? Are you going to report how many times you slept with that man, and in what manner you did so to get pregnant?” Thi’s question stupefied Mai. “Yeah isn’t that right?” Mai said. “I can’t write like that, can I?” Thi said: “You just go and ask the people who are going to censure you to write for you. As for me, I have no idea what those things mean.”
In the end no meeting was held because Mai didn’t write anything. Yet people were worried this kind of incident would happen again. So Mai’s affair was handled quickly, after the officials made Mai promise that she wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, because having one fatherless baby was much more than enough. Thi thought it was difficult to be an official, because they must have such far sight. Thi knew Mai would still teach as normal because she was the only maths teacher in the whole school. If she was suspended, the school would collapse. Yet if Thi stayed here for a long time, another five or ten years, who knew if she wouldn’t follow in Mai’s footsteps? Thi felt the road leading her back to the city was so long. Thi went over to Thủy’s well, dropped the rope of the bucket in its full length, but the bucket kept clattering as it touched the rocks at the bottom without scooping up any water. Thủy’s husband who was standing in front of the pigsty called out: “You have to wait a bit until the water comes out.” After washing her rice, Thi went down to the thatch tent which was enclosed into a tiny kitchen for the teachers, piled two wooden chairs upon each other, pulled both legs up and squatted on top. She had to take this posture to avoid ticks, those blackish sesame-sized arachnids jumped and crackled like black magic. Wherever they touched, the skin would swell and fester into a red and itchy lump which would have to be scratched until it bled. Thi was horrified by this blood-sucking species which covered the kitchen ground like black sesame sprinkled on dry pancakes.
Ticks and chicken poop loved each other though, and right behind the kitchen was Mai’s hen-coop. Back at home, around dusk, Thi was most afraid of being ordered by her mother to go close the hen-coop. No matter how quickly she bolted the door, a few ticks would manage to jump onto her. Yet this chore also made her pity her mother who out of worry would creep inside the coop to count the fowls to make sure they had all come home to roost, or to pull out those cold dead corpses infected with Newcastle disease.
It was two weeks before a new school year. The school yard was empty and quiet. Grass grew thickly, purple flowering bushes crawled freely everywhere. A cow and her calf chewed grass in front of the board room. A bag of withered green papayas which might have come from Mai’s lover was hung on the front of her door. Mai briefed Thi on the latest school news. The most surprising item was Tín’s transfer back to his hometown in Vân Đình. His foster father was the vice chairman of his home district and had managed to transfer him. All procedures were processed in just a week. This move was unexpected because Tín hadn’t said anything before the vacation. “So is he going to break up with his fiancé?” Mai didn’t answer Thi’s question and looked away. Yet Thi had caught her eyes reddening and tearing up.
Another earthshaking piece of news: Đô had been killed by the king cobra which he took to Ha Noi to sell. It bit his hand when he was trying to pull it out of the cage. Because of the long distance, only the members of the managing board went to his funeral. So Đô died for a profession which was not his calling. Thi felt both sad and hurt for his fate. Mai said Đô’s girlfriend had cried her eyes out and insisted on mourning like a wife. “She’s loyal,” Mai said. “But we never know, only time will tell. Three years in mourning are a long time, her youth may be wasted,” Mai added. Yet Thi thought everybody had the right to make their own choices. “By the way,” Mai continued hesitantly, “Hữu came back to school once, saying he would travel south.” Thi was silent. So she wouldn’t have another opportunity to drown herself in his warm brown eyes. Thi shuddered upon remembering the three-red-stripe neck of the ‘python’ swelling up and realised she might be the reason Hữu decided to leave.
Mai cheerfully continued: “And here is some good news for you, Thi. Your student Nghĩa has just passed the entrance exam to the University of Education. She said she was most indebted to you, because if you hadn’t urged her mother to let her finish high school, she wouldn’t be here today. You bring honour to our school Thi. This is the first time our school has had a student pass the university entrance exam. Well, Nghĩa still looks dark and scrawny though she’s already a college student. But she studies extremely hard and shows great determination, the determination of a poor fatherless child who has worked to feed herself since she was small.”
Mai went into labour. When Thi and the midwife arrived, the baby had already shown its head. Thi held the baby, and the midwife cut the umbilical cord and removed the placenta. Thi hadn’t expected Mai to risk giving birth at home. Yet Thi knew Mai refused to go to the hospital because she was insecure and afraid of having to hear people gossip. It wasn’t much of an exaggeration to say that in this little rural district, a sneeze would wake up all the inhabitants, let alone a teacher giving birth out of wedlock. Now Mai’s small room resumed its usual quietness, flooded with diapers, drowning in an iffy milky newborn smell and a stinky mother odour. Thi easily detected these scents, because she was getting used to serving mother and child.
The boy was healthy and seemed to foresee his destiny, so he didn’t fret or cry, but fell fast asleep after sucking his mother’s breasts. Because of her meagre diet, Mai didn’t have much milk and had to feed the boy with rice water mixed with sugar. Yet the boy was satisfied, showing no sign of complaint. The only problem was that there was no word from his father who had fled without a trace. The son looked exactly like his father, starting from the toes and fingers, or so his mother Mai said. Thi thought all the sneers and censures deserved to be thrown into the deep stream and flooded away. Mai said she didn’t want to force the issue, love must be voluntary, and she was willing to let the father return to his hometown, though in the future he would have no right to claim the child. Mai also smiled, half jokingly, and said, “If I put a love charm on him, there’s no way he can run away, really!” Thi’s mind was again filled with the clacking sound of the door opening and closing at night that echoed from Tín’s room. Mai bewildered Thi, making her wonder whether love charms really existed. Thi wondered how the father could reject such a cute boy. The afternoon felt disconsolate, turning dark purple at the foot of the mountains. Dew started to pour out. Thi could smell the coolness of the dew permeating the air. Thi thought how bold Mai was, but perhaps Mai had made the right decision.
Nhã went up to the school on her business trip to collect money from customers. Getting wind that Mai had given birth, she visited Mai, bringing chicken eggs, honey and some clothes for the boy. Seeing Thi, Nhã prattled away joyfully. Nhã boasted she had been confirmed of her transfer back to Hà Nội. “I’ll miss this dreary brushwood, especially you, Thi!” she said, “but I may not teach again! I’m getting married, but not to Vũ. Will you come to my wedding, Thi?” Thi heard buzzing in her ears, understanding nothing, burying a sigh in her chest, smiling and congratulating Nhã. Nhã would be happy for sure, because though she was also a literature teacher, Nhã was practical. She didn’t think as much as Thi. Thi remembered Hữu once telling her, you shouldn’t think too much or else even your body will melt into thoughts.
So what was happiness? Was it getting jealous, missing someone, being possessed? Thi didn’t know. Carrying a basin of dirty clothes from Mai and her son to wash, Thi walked past the opening of a cave by the stream and remembered the man who had warm brown eyes, whose ears and arms both trembled uncontrollably and reddened feverishly when he had dared to embrace and kiss her, during break at a work event of the youth union. The sweet kiss made Thi miss Hữu dreadfully, so much so that whenever she thought about him she felt like a stone was choking her chest. If Hữu was here, Thi would throw herself into his arms. Thi missed the brown eyes that sank deep into sadness, throughout the final week, before the summer vacation. Hữu went back to his hometown without saying goodbye to her.
Thi returned to school early in part because she wanted to see Hữu, hoping he would understand that her heart was torn in two. One half was for the warm brown eyes and the children running like the wind with their green tea pots. The other was reserved for her beloved city, where her family and childhood friends lived. When she was back home, Thi wanted to return to school, and when she was at school, Thi wanted to go home. So where was Thi’s love charm? To that she had no answer. Thi only knew she had lost the warm brown eyes, dropping them down the deep cold waters.
Besides Tống Ngọc Hân, Nguyên Hương and Lê Minh Hà, Cao Nguyệt Nguyên is another woman writer who grabbles with the injustice confronting women in marriage, love, sex, and motherhood in patriarchal society. Coming from different generations and writing with heart and skill, these writers nevertheless are yet to tease out a vital space for woman identity, showing how difficult it is to exit the all-encompassing masculine matrix.
Translator: Thùy Linh; Editor: Peter Cowan
Vietnam News – The night thickened, and turmeric petals sprinkled in cups of wine. The wine tasted teary. Women stood in line waiting for the exact moment when they could scoop up fresh water from the village well to wash their husbands’ faces with to bring them luck throughout the New Year. Only Vận went out alone, and drank one whole bottle of wine without getting drunk, as if he were drinking water. His head felt clear, and the blood in his chest flared up like fire. The men winked at each other, clinking their cups.
“Hey Vận, why isn’t your wife here to get well water for you to wash your face with?” the men jeered. Vận threw his cup into a pillar of the communal house and stood up. The cup broke into pieces, putting an end to the New Year’s Eve party. Other people flitted around with their lovers, but Vận flitted around with a shadow.
Vận went home and found the house in darkness, only lit up by the scent of incense recently burned to welcome spring. He sneered. They’re all sleeping like a log, he thought. Ever since Bìu left, there hadn’t been any spring. Spring couldn’t come home to an ugly wife. Spring couldn’t lie in the hands of a breeding hen. The breeding hen only knew how to breed, not how to laugh. Whether she looked up or down there were only tears in her eyes. He was so sick of it.
Vận lay down and listened to the dew falling on the roof. The wine warmed his chest, made his hands shake, and stirred up his masculinity. He spread a hand on the wall which left wet traces and quickened his breath. Vận was lying alone with his back against another bed placed further inside. He sighed and disquieted the air behind. I should lie flat on my face to cool myself down, he thought. Did wine only fire one up, or make one sit up? A man like you is rotten, Vận chided himself.
Vận heard the laughter of the men in the village and their contemptuous jokes. Thumping under the moon, in the middle of the night. There’s a woman over there, I must have the right. I’ve already bought her. Vận laughed tearfully. Then coughed gently. Dược understood. She stood up and took off her clothes. Her hair tumbled down into dizzy tangles. She walked towards the wall, took down a towel to give to Vận and knelt down. Soft, indistinct words from a song came out from Dược’s mouth. She was lying down, seeing no more moonlight, no husband’s face, feeling no kisses, only darkness.
The day Bìu left the village, Vận got drunk, staggered and bellowed. The wine distorted his voice and made him throw up blood. Vận said he wanted to die. He didn’t want to live any longer. What was the use of living when he couldn’t be with the one he loved? The shame. Dược prostrated herself on the ground and held her husband’s leg.
“Don’t die. You still have me. I love you as much as Bìu.”
Vận howled, glowered and bared his teeth. He flung her away.
“You lumpy face, you breeding hen. You breeder for hire. You can’t compare yourself to Bìu. Only Bìu is my wife. You can’t be my wife for eternity.”
They slept in the same house separated by only a wall. On moonlit nights when he couldn’t sleep, Vận saw the person lying on the inner bed leap out of bed and run onto the veranda to pour water on her body. The freezing water seeped into her flesh. Scooping up the water with her hands, Dược cursed her face. Why had she been born that way? Her face wasn’t like a tree trunk whose bark could be removed. A greyness under a cheek pushed up from underneath making lumps. With such an unseemly face she couldn’t hold her head high and walk beside her husband. She could only hurt.
“I’m a woman too. I’m miserable too. Why do you only love Bìu? If you don’t accept me just kill me.”
Vận saw a knife glisten in the night, reflecting the moonlight on his wife’s face. He said in a daze:
“Bìu is very beautiful.”
“I don’t want to live anymore. Look at my body and see if I’m still a human being? It’s both beauty and sex that you’ve chosen.”
Vận threw the knife to the ground and walked away. If he couldn’t find Bìu he couldn’t live in peace, couldn’t live as a human. He dropped his arms, the strength in him gone. Shame surged. Oh, why was life so miserable? The one he loved wasn’t by his side, but the one he hated, despised and feared was. Was he still a man? Always living by his mother’s rules. Ever since he was small Vận had never dared to argue with his mother.
His mother was lying in a corner on a bed close to the window. The moonlight lit up half her haggard and bony face.
“I’m about to die soon. If you love me you must love your wife. Only when you love your wife can she give birth. Are you going to kill the Trần family? Then I’ll die with my eyes open.”
Vận clasped his hands and bowed. Dược crouched in a corner of the kitchen weeping, smearing the tears all over her face with two hands tainted by soot.
“I only love Bìu. Mother please let me take Bìu home.”
“How can she come home now that our family has disowned her? Don’t you see the two male papaya trees planted at the gate? If she returns she’ll see them.”
The night felt disjointed, sounding like the endless crying that echoed in fits and starts from the end of the village. Dược sat in a corner of the house, waiting. He heard a cough from the other side. Footsteps shuffled. Dược shrank back, got on the bed and shrieked. Dược wrung the towel in her hands. Why did she have to cover her face with a towel? Why couldn’t she look at the moon, her husband’s chest, her own hands? Vận snatched the towel from her hands. In the flash of an eye Dược found herself lifted up and thrown down on the bed then in darkness again. Dược howled, gnashed and bit straight into Vận’s shoulders. Her mouth sucked on his salty flesh.
“If you don’t want to look at my face then don’t get on top of me.”
“Apart from your face you’re still a woman.”
What kind of love was that. Yet Dược had stopped asking questions. Ugly women shouldn’t ask, since asking would only cause pain in the heart, the bowels and make tears flow. Dược served food to her mother-in-law twice a day. The old woman was weak, barely able to eat anything. Dược cried. I’m only staying here because of you, she would say. When you pass away I won’t care anymore. Don’t say so, her mother-in-law begged in her eyes. Dược turned away.
“So will we have a son eventually or what?”
The patriarch spoke as members of the family flocked into the house. Some stood and some sat closely around the mother’s sickbed.
“Without an heir we’ll have to appoint another head. Another man will do. This house will be handed over too, and you can move to wherever you want, Vận.”
Vận looked down and clenched his lips and fists. The dying mother once in a while sighed. Soon some family members went out to smoke. Vận sat down at the door. The sunlight dimmed. The two male papaya trees swayed lightly.
“What a curse.”
I’ll burn them all, Vận screamed. The fire flared up in his hand. I’ll burn them all, give them all back to the Trần family. Dược darted out and tried to snatch the torch in her husband’s hand. The fire singed her hair, scorched her upper arms and burned half of the kitchen. Dược found her face buried and her body cloaked in ashes. The ashes covered her face and she could smell nothing but the greyness that hid the ivory whiteness of her flesh. Which was now only slimy painful broken lines.
“Are you satisfied now?”
Vận stood up leaving Dược lying hurt and exposed on the ground.
Dược’s pregnancy protected Vận’s property. Everyday Vận went out at early dawn and came home at midnight. Dược did housework, took care of her mother-in-law and caressed her belly which was gradually growing. A storm was forecast so the two male papaya trees had to be felled or else they might collapse on the house. Dược went out with a knife but her mother-in-law dragged herself to the door. She shook her head, so Dược quietly returned to the house.
“They’re an amulet to ward off that woman. It’s the only way for you to keep your husband, Dược.”
In the morning and evening, the couple ate together without looking at each other. Vận always found the tray arranged into two sides. On one side was a vial of wine and delicious food, and on the other, roasted and crushed sesame and salt and water spinach. Feeling uneasy, Vận would switch the dishes. Dược switched them back, saying, I’m used to it. Vận sighed, trying in vain to swallow his food.
The breeding hen waited for Vận, and Vận waited for the one he loved from afar. Thrice a month he took the bus to town to make inquiries. Still there was no news of her.
Bìu came back one week after her mother-in-law died when nobody expected her. She returned from some unknown place and looked completely changed. Did city food make one that beautiful? Her hair was smooth and straight and hung down her back in all of its aching blackness. Her short and closefitting shirt attracted the stares of young men in the village. Bìu returned in the morning and in the afternoon several guys came to help re-thatch her roof. Bìu laughed warmly.
Vận put down his bowl of rice and ran uphill, calling out her name. Sharp stones and thorns were no obstacle, Vận trampled on them all. Blood rushed up through his chest making breathing difficult. This time he wouldn’t let her leave again. Though Vận thought so, his feet suddenly stopped at the top of the hill. Through the top of the turmeric trees he saw the figure of the woman moving lithely among the young men. Vận ran towards Bìu and pulled on her hand.
“Let’s go. Go home with me.”
Bìu burst into laughter and pulled her hand back.
“I’m no longer a member of the Trần family.”
Vận looked disconcerted. The young men laughed. It was all over. There wasn’t anything more to expect. Vận was empty-handed, losing the girl of his dreams. The woman who had become familiar with his breathing, his embraces, his rubbing his sweaty head against her bosom was now a stranger. He retraced his steps and found Dược standing desolately at the top of the hill holding her belly. How annoying. Vận walked in front, Dược followed like a shadow.
“Go away. You curse!”
Vận pushed Dược to the ground. She rolled around and fell on top of a flowering bush growing on the road.
“It’s all your fault, breeding hen.”
Bìu looked down at the scene and chuckled softly, her satisfaction mingled with tears. The two women looked up and caught each other’s eyes. Bìu turned away and put her arms around another man.
Rumors spread. Men from town showed up. Cars parked at the foot of the hill as early as midnight, delivering all sorts of men who were willing to traverse the hill to visit Bìu. Laughter echoed down from the valley of dew every night.
After her customers left, Bìu tottered and staggered in the wind, looking down at the village, which was screened by a thick blinding dew and blocked by a rocky thorny road. Bìu laughed, wildly in the night. Down there at the foot of the turmeric hill, there was a man drinking uncontrollably until his heart bled. She must have tortured him, to let him know what it meant to be abandoned.
Women in the village were agitated. Ever since Bìu returned to the top of the hill, their husbands sneaked out of the house every night. They couldn’t do anything about it. The women flocked to Dược’s house. She had just put her baby boy into the cradle. There were dark circles around her eyes because of sleeplessness and crying.
“You must come up with some solution. You can’t let her lord over us.”
Dược looked down.
“I’m at loss too.”
The women spat on the ground.
“You deserve this, Dược. But we won’t stand for this. You just wait and see.”
They left, leaving Dược hanging around in the dim afternoon sunlight. She sat by the window sill fondling the square towel. She only wanted Vận to return. She would be trampled on, as long as he wouldn’t visit that hill anymore.
Dược would tell him so. Dược would make Vận understand that she would accept everything and demand nothing, as long as he stayed home.
The women lit torches and went up to the hill in droves. They dragged Bìu out of her house, pulled out her hair, tore her clothes and tied her to a tree. Bìu’s eyes darkened reflecting the colour of the fire. The house was blazing. The fire even spread to the turmeric trees. Bìu cried without a sound, tears falling down. Her hands wavered in the air. The women looked at each other smugly.
“We’ll see where you go next, whore.”
Time passed slowly, the sun had set below the western mountain range and the night was falling. The cold dew fell upon the scratches which were oozing blood. Bìu’s soft hair was tangled and marked by rough cuts. Her head hung down on one side. She dreamily saw herself floating in a pomegranate-coloured puddle.
The moon rose. Pale. Vận kept walking around and around treading on his own shadow. He was guzzling wine while walking. To Vận now wine tasted blander than water. How strange though. Why didn’t he see Bìu’s house? Was he dreaming? Vận rubbed his eyes several times. Where had Bìu gone? Vận dashed through the forest. He called Bìu’s name but heard only his own voice echoing back in drawn-out sounds from a deep abyss. Had she left again? Why was she so cruel.
“Bìu, is that you? I’m wrong. Let’s stop torturing each other. I won’t let you go away again.”
Bìu said nothing, ignoring the arms that were lifting her up and hugging her to the chest. His chest was warm, but Bìu’s heart was cold. The shadows of the two people carrying each other moved about at the top of the mountain. Vận’s feet stepped on the smarting ground which was still covered with burning ashes. The turmeric trees had been scorched grey and were scattered around in disarray.
* * *
It was faraway.
The couple felt as if they were lost in the endless turmeric forest whose dazzling white had dissolved into the porcelain whiteness of the skin. The cold dewy flowers scented the flesh. Vận loved the scent of turmeric flowers, soothing and deep, and the feeling of closing his eyes and running his nose down his lover’s body and caressing and devouring it.
Vận tightened his grasp, the turmeric flowers sinking into Bìu’s hair. Yet it did not last forever, nothing lasted forever. Bìu hugged a bundle of turmeric flowers in her arms shrinking behind the door. They couldn’t be her tears since tears alone couldn’t wet a whole bunch of flowers. Bìu cried out.
“Why is the quest for lovers such a tangled skein, so perplexing, so indifferent!”
Bìu swirled around in ecstasy. Her voice soared up and up then suddenly dove into freezing steam. She felt bitten and numbed, and entangled in thousands of turmeric flowers. Bìu couldn’t extricate herself. Trapped. Crumbled and distorted faces. Why were there so many people other than Vận and Bìu on the turmeric hill? Were they coming to hear her sing, or to watch the turmeric trees dance? Her mother-in-law, aunts and uncles, why so many? She was so scared. Could Vận take her away? Could they run away?
Vận’s mother threw the white flowers up in the air. The flowers fell to the ground and crumbled at her feet. She cried. So did Bìu.
“At least bitches can breed, but feeding this type is a waste of food. Having such a daughter-in-law is a curse on this family.”
“Can you wait for me?” Bìu asked Vận. “This isn’t what I want. The turmeric season is coming, so I’ll bath myself, soak myself in turmeric-scented water all night, then I won’t be a child anymore. I’ll have a baby. Vận. Please speak for me, don’t just sit like that. I’m scared. We’ve just made love!”
Vận remained completely silent, hanging his head in shame and pouring wine with his hand. Vận had never drunk this much before. Did wine kill people’s soul? Bìu was lying down with her face turned towards him. She didn’t dare to wipe tears or clean the mucus running from her nose. She couldn’t breathe. Let me die, she said. Vận hugged her bosom with his arms and quietly unfastened each button on her shirt. Bìu couldn’t see his face. Vận senselessly lay flat on his wife’s body.
“Why don’t we pretend to break up? Then you can return in a while when mother calms down.”
“Are you planning to abandon me?”
Vận was silent. The space around Bìu felt like an accomplice. Woe to her parents, woe to God. Her heart was dying. That night Bìu didn’t wake up to crush turmeric flowers to wash herself with.
“You forever remain a child still, don’t you? So strangely smooth and soothing,” Vận said.
Bìu jumped up and ran away, her bare feet stumbling and bleeding on sharp stones. Her hair blew madly in the wind. Vận wasn’t sure whether he could wait for another day. The first year, he went into the forest alone. The second year, he went out with a woman tagging along. The grey-cheeked woman with sun-burnt skin. That pair of calves wasn’t meant for climbing the mountains, only for breeding.
As he passed by the turmeric hill Vận no longer looked at Bìu, but walked on with his head down in shame. He wanted to cross the hill quick. He walked with his back turned against Bìu, but not for long. He should have just kept on walking. He shouldn’t have blamed himself. If so, everything would have been different.
“I beg you Bìu, please understand me. I still love you very much but mother forbids me to take you home.”
Bìu stood motionless with her back leaned against the wall in her house. Her tears were dry and her heart was cold.
“Just one more time. I beg you.”
Bìu walked on as if under a spell. Vận’s hands were hot, so was his breath but Bìu’s heart was cold. The turmeric flowers made the bed, and Bìu’s flesh lay in the moonlight, uncovered and dim. The moon was the witness, the turmeric trees were the witness. Vận put his hand on her. Then ducked his head in her bosom and cried.
“Bìu say something please,” he said. “Scold me. Kill me.” Bìu stared up at the sky. She gave out a mournful howl, then darted away in the night, into the snowy-white withering forest.
That night, all the turmeric trees on the hill were felled to make way for a new season. The turmeric trees were dead, the moon was dead and Bìu too was dead. Put me down, your hands are no longer for me, neither are your embraces and also your chest. In those burnt wild sweats Bìu could smell the stink of another woman. The grey-cheeked woman. “I’m disgusted,” Bìu said.
“No,” Vận replied. “That’s not what I want. You aren’t a man so you don’t understand. Why do you keep grumbling after playing cold and indifferent to me?”
“Then leave,” she said. “Never come up here again. Man?” Bìu screamed with laughter and struggled out of Vận’s embrace, running, her hair dissolving in the dewfall.
* * *
Standing desolately in the middle of the night, eyes blinding with tears. Going home. Sitting with his back against a pillar in the house for two nights and two days like a stone. Refusing to eat, beard growing, hair growing. Once in a while Dược looked at him through a door chink with her boy in her arms but didn’t dare to call him. She gently put a bowl of porridge down by his side then walked away. Family members asked, what’s wrong with him? Dược shook her head and bit her lips. You’re a bad wife, they said. Why don’t you know what ails your husband. Dược turned away. It was because of Bìu.
This wasn’t life, Dược couldn’t live like this. Even if she had to kneel down at Bìu’s feet to beg her to save Vận, Dược would do so. She scurried away, feet trampling upon each other, stumbling on stones and bleeding. Why are you running like hell? The patriarch called out after her. Dược pointed towards the mountains. I have to save my husband, I have to meet Bìu. The patriarch stamped his feet on the ground and pulled Dược back.
“Stupid women are miserable,” he said. “Go home now.” The patriarch slowly climbed the slope, his eyes riveting into the green space where the turmeric trees were beginning to bud. “Male papaya.” The patriarch emphasised each word with cold hatred. Bìu started and turned around.
“Go away, whore. How long are you going to torture my nephew?”
Bìu looked abashed for an instant then looked straight at the man before her with sharp cold eyes.
“If you need money I’ll give you money. Now move your business elsewhere.”
Bìu chuckled slowly and distinctly.
“You just wait and see.”
The day after, Bìu left the hill. The small alley leading to Vận’s house which she had been so familiar with now felt foreign. Bìu walked with a new mindset. Vận darted out and caught hold of Bìu’s hand and squeezed it.
“So you still love me?” he asked. Bìu didn’t answer but turned around to look at the Trần family and smiled provocatively.
“You won’t set your foot into the Trần family.”
Vận shrank back instinctively.
“Dược, say something. Do you allow let her to enter this house?”
Dược didn’t dare to look at her beautiful face. She lowered her eyes and spoke softly, “My husband can do as he pleases.”
Bìu entered the house of old. The scene hadn’t changed, except for the two male papaya trees which had shot up to a towering height and were now swaying lightly in the wind.
“Do you choose me or the Trần family?”
Bìu looked deep into Vận’s eyes. Perplexed, Vận squeezed her hand tighter. Bìu smiled contemptuously and turned around to walk away. Vận held her back. He didn’t have anything else in life but Bìu. He would give up everything, as long as Bìu stayed. Dược withered away like a turmeric flower in drought.
Every time she saw the woman in the big house Dược broke out crying. If only she had acted ferociously like a tigress protecting its den, things would have been different. Yet Dược was soft-hearted, and scared. What if Vận was angry with her she kept thinking endlessly. The boy ground his teeth against her nipple and made it bleed but she didn’t notice. Dược furtively eyed the woman whose hands looked as white as bamboo shoots who was sitting on the veranda. She suddenly found her own skin dirty and dry since she hadn’t washed for days. She told her husband softly:
“We need turmeric flowers. It’s already the dry season.”
Her husband told her to go slice them herself. She nodded. Carrying her boy on her back, Dược sat down to slice the flowers. The sharp knife struck deep into her hand, blood oozed out colouring the flowers then drying into yellow streaks. Dược carried water to the drinking water tank, her feet jangling on the ground.
Bìu looked out and saw the woman’s face hidden behind the boy. The boy was crying loudly and unceasingly. Bìu turned away and walked back inside.
Vận added a new bed and put up a new wall. Bìu laughed, saying, “I’m used to sleeping on our old wedding bed and can’t sleep on unfamiliar beds.”
The treasured embroidered pillow that Dược had brought with her on her wedding day now followed her out to the side house. At night, she hugged her pillow listening to the moaning coming from the main house. In the morning, the two women got up and walked back and forth in the yard without looking at each other, nor did they eat together. At night as Vận shut the door of the main house, the boy broke out crying in the side house. Whenever he wanted his son, Vận asked a nephew to go fetch the boy for him to hold for a while before returning him.
At night, Bìu was waken up by the boy’s cries. Accidentally putting her hand on her belly, Bìu thought about the countless times she had longed for and expected a day when she could hold her own baby, kiss its forehead, its lips, its body. The cries in the night tore Bìu’s heart. In the side house, a light bulb swung to and fro casting light outside. Dược was huddling against a male papaya tree, turning her face to the sky. It was heart-rending for both. The morning after, the two women’s eyes looked red and swollen.
Dược wanted to go fetch water to plant vegetables. She dilly dallied, hesitating to carry her son along since it was sunny. She handed the boy to her husband and stole a glance at the beautiful woman who was combing her hair. Vận told Bìu, my child is your child too, Dược is only a mother for hire, so you must love him. Bìu held the baby embarrassedly. She saw him blink and smile at her and rub his head into her breasts to look for a nipple. It was the first time Bìu had felt such a sweet pain in her bowels. Only children didn’t know hatred. Bìu kissed the baby’s cheek and pressed him against her bosom.
“We can’t live like this anymore Vận.”
The couple sat next to each other looking down at the turmeric valley. Vận gently squeezed Bìu’s hand and spoke.
“Am I too cruel?”
Vận quietly lit a cigarette. A thin waft of smoke rose up and melted away weightlessly unlike the heavy block of stone overburdening his heart. Vận owed both women, not knowing how to pay back their due. One body, one mind were painfully torn. Seeing Bìu lying sleepless every night, and Dược holding her baby crying secretly in the backyard, he felt stung like a wound treated with salt. Was he evil?
That night, Bìu gently woke up and packed her clothes. She walked into the yard, but Dược was already blocking the gate. Dược shook her head. She struck a sharp knife deeply and repeatedly into the feet of the papaya trees. Tears gushed out from Dược’s eyes. She looked up. The two papaya trees fell down in halves. Vận leaped out from the main house and stood aghast. Dược looked at Vận then ran away with her son.
The road seemed to stretch away endlessly. Yet Dược’s feet didn’t feel tired. Her heart had been mangled into pieces so she didn’t care about anything anymore. Oh Vận, oh God. Somebody was calling after her. Dược heard the buzzing sound of Vận’s thick hoarse voice that was being blown backward by the wind from the foot of the hill.
Dược wanted to escape the dream. Her footsteps felt real, so did her tears, but why did he keep pulling her back to the past. Can you release me? She asked. Why are you thinking too much, he answered. You’re ugly but still have the right to love. Stop talking, she said. Just think that I’m already dead. I don’t hate anybody, just pity myself and that woman. Dược’s head buzzed with thoughts about the past, the day she was married. The day she didn’t have the right to choose.
“Dược, you’re lucky to find a man to marry you. You should show your gratitude to him all your life.”
The room was dark. Dược didn’t see anybody’s face, or her wedding gown. She only heard people talking. Her father, older sister, younger brother and sister-in-law. Did everybody want what was good for her? Dược’s older sister took her hand.
“So you don’t have to go up to the valley of dew now. A man is willing to take you home without even asking for any dowry.”
Dược walked back and forth before the mirror, looking intensely at herself for long without finding anything that looked like a bride’s face. The make-up couldn’t cover the grey birthmark but only made it look blackish. In this village, nobody picked up a bride at night. Dược was the only exception. It was because the dark could cover the birthmark on her cheek and her ugly face. People led her by hand and that was enough. The wedding was rapid.
“Don’t offend him or you’ll be kicked out.”
Dược laughed awkwardly.
“Then I’ll go live up in the valley of dew.”
Her father punched his chest and cried out.
“No. If you come home I won’t be able to face our neighbours again.”
No sooner did her father finish his sentence than the groom’s family arrived. Dược didn’t see the groom but only saw the mother-in-law and several relatives. Dược took her conical hat and followed them hurriedly along a hill path. Nobody said anything, the party walked on intently. Dược turned back to look towards the direction of the valley of dew.
“You must think of your son,” a female official said. Từ was old enough to be in the fifth grade now.
Dược hummed and hawed and turned her head to the door to look at her son who was making a hoe handle in the yard. The local women’s association had been encouraging Dược and her son to go back to the village, claiming that they would help them build a house. Her son Từ resisted. Up here in the valley of dew we plant pineapples which villagers have to come up here to buy. Up in the valley of dew his mother didn’t have to walk with her head down.
“I have so much fun here, I don’t want to go,” the boy insisted. The officials tried in vain, clicked their tongue and eventually conceded. They left the mother and son to their own life. Từ remained carefree but his mother tried not to sigh at night.
A few days after, a woman with a beautiful face carrying a bamboo hand-basket climbed up the steep hill to reach the valley of dew. The boy didn’t wait for her to ask but flew away instantly through the bush at the back of the house towards the pineapple trees. In an instant, out of the same bush the mother and son appeared.
There was no response, but Dược’s hands fingered her shirt’s hem tremblingly. The hostess invited the guest to drink, not knowing how to start the conversation. Then Dược spurted out the one question out of thousands she could have asked.
“How is Từ’s father?”
Behind the wall the boy pricked up his ears. He leaned on the wall looking back and forth between his mother and the stranger. He saw the women take each other’s hands and his mother smile with tears in her eyes. His mother accepted all the gifts from the woman.
The morning after Dược got up early, packed her things up, and put on the newest clothes for her boy. The mother and son walked towards a flickering light at the top of the western mountains where the sun was about to rise, and where there was a road leading down to the village. Dược asked her son if he wanted to go to school. The boy nodded. Dược asked if he wanted to see his father. The boy stopped walking and looked up at his mother’s face. And the aunt who came to our house the other day too? He asked. Dược smiled and nodded. She walked on, finding the road under her feet widening and growing spacious and the trees brightening under the skipping steps of her boy.