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: Hari Chathrattil
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.