Archival films come to life, beckoning for more engagement

It was an enriching experience to watch the four films screened recently in Hanoi as part of the Film as a Cultural Heritage event organized by the British Council and the Vietnam Film Institute. The films are all excellent works: Virginia Heath’s 2014 documentary From Scotland with Love; Franz Osten’s 1928 silent feature Shiraz: A Romance of India starring Himansu Rai, a pioneer of Indian cinema; two Vietnamese films: Trần Vũ’s 1974 black-and-white classic Đến hẹn lại lên (We’ll Be Seeing Us Again), and Đặng Nhật Minh’s 2000 movie Mùa ổi (The Season of Guavas).

The films were screened for free on four evenings to packed theatres at the National Cinema Centre alongside a workshop and a conference that discussed the archiving of moving images in Britain and Vietnam. These activities were part of an ongoing two-year cultural project conducted by the British Council to help Vietnam preserve its filmic and musical heritage. Vietnam is one among a few emerging economies such as China, India, Egypt and South Africa that have been identified as those that may benefit from British expertise.

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A conference about film archives was held recently in Hanoi as part of an ongoing two-year cultural project conducted by the British Council to help Vietnam preserve its filmic and musical heritage. Source: Thùy Linh

The screenings covered the documentary and fictional film genres and offered a vivid viewing experience of Shiraz in which a Vietnamese narrator translated the film’s written English narration orally. This experience effectively evoked the screening of films alongside live musical performances in the silent film era, reminding that cinema was a young visual  art that partook of various arts that came before to create a total sensual experience. The films themselves provided enlightening snapshots into the different cultures where they were made, and along the way, raised ultimate questions about what it meant to be human.

Cinema reclaimed 

Culled from thousands of hours of archival footage, the 75-minute From Scotland with Love is an epic portrait of Scotland in the 20th century. This film is set to a critically acclaimed original soundtrack which singer-songwriter King Creosote composed based on the footage he saw. Virginia Heath’s documentary sketches the working Scottish men and women who with their sweat and blood have forged a country out of a breathtakingly beautiful land. From Scotland with Love can be considered a counterpoint to German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki’s insightful critique of cinema, Workers Leaving the Factory.

In this documentary, Farocki argues that throughout its 100-year history, cinema has simply reshot, with a childish fixation to immortalize an original pleasure, the first shot ever made by the Lumière brothers that features workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon. Cinema is a self-deceiving capitalistic tool that looks at things from the outside to control and make believe, always shoots workers after work, and whenever possible, hastily moves away from factories, never shows the hell that is inside, and the implications that may arise.

Against this context, From Scotland with Love offers a plethora of scenes about real labor. Scottish men and women are seen working hard everywhere: on the fields, inside the factories, at the docks, under the mines. Cinema, which originally cast working people as its object, seems to be reclaimed here. Workers’ strikes make up an essential part of this film. A dramatic sequence set to King Creosote’s powerful “Pauper’s Dough” song includes footage from the carters’ strike in Dundee in 1911, one of the first strikes in Scotland, and the 1919 Battle of George Square in Glasgow in which the British troops were mobilized to crack down on thousands of workers who fought for 40-hour workdays. Virginia Health’s work is thus a well-sung tribute to the documentary, cinema’s very first genre with its integral working class subject.

A gendered masterpiece 

Though Franz Osten’s silent feature Shiraz: A Romance of India, which was restored by the British Film Institute, is also a captivating movie, it can best be read not as a tribute to cinema itself, but to another form of artistic excellence with less Western influence and more Indian authenticity: architecture, as exemplified by the Taj Mahal in Agra. With a dramatic narrative, Shiraz captures the gender dynamic that might have empowered the human genius that created the Taj Mahal in the 17th century. The movie opens with Queen Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the white marble mausoleum, being a little princess caught up in a bloody ambush. Her mother and followers are all killed.

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A still from Franz Osten’s 1928 silent feature Shiraz: A Romance of India fully restored by the British Film Institute. 

A potter walks by and rescues her. He takes her home, names her Selima and brings her up. His son Shiraz, played by Himansu Rai, who founded the Bombay Talkies studio in 1934, grows up falling in love with her. One day, Selima, now a lovely young woman, is kidnapped by slave raiders and sold to Prince Khurram. Shiraz tries but fails to rescue her. He follows her to the royal palace in Agra. Unfortunately for Shiraz, Selima falls in love and marries the prince. Nevertheless, Shiraz keeps an eye on his heartthrob for years until she dies. Her emperor husband later calls for artists throughout the kingdom to submit designs for a palace to house his beloved queen’s tomb. Shiraz, who has turned blind, creates a superb model and wins the contest. Together, the two men build a masterpiece to honor their love.

Shiraz draws its gender dynamic with a fine brush. In this story, a woman exists in an inextricable relationship with men. Without an independent identity, power or overt talent, she nevertheless plays a vital role. She connects different kinds of men and drives them to heroic endeavors. Selima serves as the wife to a king and the source of inspiration to an extraordinary artist. The ending sequences in which the two men work to build the Taj Mahal with the queen now being dead and passing out of sight sum up this dynamic. The final shot shows the ultimate players in this great human stage: the aging king and the blind artist looking at their joint venture, a crowning human achievement that Tagore hailed as a “tear drop on the face of eternity”.

Giving voice to woman

Moving from India to Vietnam, through Shiraz to We’ll Be Seeing Us Again, one encounters a more feminine cinema. In Trần Vũ’s movie, the woman occupies a more powerful role: she herself is the artistic genius of Vietnamese culture. We’ll Be Seeing Us Again tells the story of a talented quan họ (northern folk music) singer named Nết (meaning “virtue”) living during the French colonization of Vietnam. This film features substantial quan họ performances in which groups of female and male singers deliver musical challenges and responses about love. Nết is forced into marriage with a rich French-educated man though she loves a poorer one with a revolutionary touch. On her wedding night, Nết takes to her heels in a highly symbolic sequence.

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A still from Trần Vũ’s 1974 black-and-white classic We’ll Be Seeing Us Again

She runs away from the rich man’s house and throws herself on her dead mother’s tomb asking tearfully, “Where can I go now, mother?” This is as if, to borrow from the feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak, Vietnamese culture is on the run, fleeing persecution by the French colonizers and the local upper-class. Right after, Nết seeks shelter in a Buddhist temple, again begging a mute, stately Buddha statute in vain, “You understand human misery deeply, please have pity on me, please rescue me!” This profound religious tradition can’t protect her of course, because the husband’s men and dogs are following closely. Nết runs out and away again, toward the river. The film then cuts to a thunderous sky with the year “1945” written on the screen, heralding a stormy but brighter future symbolized by Nết’s lover.

Touching ode to memories 

Fast forward in time and we move from this revolutionary optimism of Vietnam in the 1970s to the pervasive postwar skepticism that imbues Đặng Nhật Minh’s The Season of Guavas. If culture is rescued in We’ll Be Seeing Us Again, it is destroyed again in Đặng Nhật Minh’s film. Culture here is a man named Hòa, a kind simple man whose mind is arrested at the age of 13 after he falls off the guava tree in his family’s garden. This accident omens unbearable change that follows: his mother passes away, and his father, a lawyer under French rule, is forced to hand over his house to the new revolutionary government. Hòa grows up under the care of his younger sister into a changing materialistic world, works for a meager wage as a model for fine arts students, and often stealthily visits his old tree and house.

The Season of Guavas’ s slow pacing and understated characterization in which the characters for the most part speak softly and interact politely belie Đặng Nhật Minh’s stringent criticism of the erasure of culture and memories. Even a childlike man’s harmless memories aren’t allowed to exist. After being falsely reported to the hospital for his supposed mental illness and being injected with a high dose of sedative medication, Hòa completely loses his mind, unable to recognize even his beloved guava fruits. The guava tree in the old garden is also cut down eventually, to make way for more parking space. Everything and everyone must give room to change. One can reasonably guess that when Hòa dies, all memories will perish with him.

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A packed theatre reception of Đặng Nhật Minh’s The Season of Guavas. Soure: Nguyễn Đình Anh Tú/The British Council Vietnam.

Here we come to face with the fundamental inescapable transience of life. As the staff of a Japanese film archive told filmmaker Phan Đăng Di, even though celluloid films can last for 500 years, and digital formats can live infinitely longer, there may still be extraordinary circumstances in which everything on earth, our digital footprints included, are destroyed. By its very nature, film is a time-based art, characterized by a time duration. It is thus futile to cling on to some impossible immortality through an inherently temporal medium. So the answer to last week’s conference’s rhetorical question, “What way ahead for Vietnam’s film archives?” isn’t so much how to preserve films through time for future generations but rather how to create public space to screen archival films to interested audiences at our present moment in time.

The screenings of the four above-mentioned films in Hanoi are a good start. Virginia Heath’s precious footage of hard-working Scotland, Franz Osten’s captivating vision of the Taj Mahal, Trần Vũ’s feminine portrait of Vietnamese culture, and Đặng Nhật Minh’s touching ode to human memories show such skills and insight that one should not treat them as belonging to the past, but as a present being stored away somewhere waiting to come out. Indeed, according to Lê Tuấn Anh, the vice head of the technical department at the Vietnam Film Institute, archival films at his place for instance are still being shown, but mostly within the institute’s compounds during relevant anniversaries. Thus, there seems to be much room to improve our screening of time-based art.

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Ký tên lên tranh, khẩu chiến trên mạng và trách nhiệm của người nổi tiếng

Zing/VoicesĐỗ Thùy Linh 

Duy trì môi trường tranh luận lành mạnh, văn minh là trách nhiệm của mỗi người. Khi đã là người của công chúng, trách nhiệm đó càng nặng nề và cần được ý thức nhiều hơn.

Việc Đàm Vĩnh Hưng và Lệ Quyên trong đêm nhạc từ thiện “Tình nghệ sĩ”, theo yêu cầu của một mạnh thường quân, đã ký tên làm lem nhem bức tranh của họa sĩ Hứa Thanh Bình, gợi nhớ câu đối đáp kinh điển của Lizzy Bennet về sự kiêu căng của chàng Darcy trong cuốn tiểu thuyết Kiêu hãnh và định kiếncủa nữ văn sĩ người Anh, Jane Austen.

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Hình minh họa: Phượng Nguyễn

Tình người nghệ sĩ

Cô bạn thân của Lizzy cho rằng Darcy có quyền kiêu hãnh, vì chàng trẻ tuổi, đẹp trai, xuất thân quý tộc, lại giàu có nữa. “Điều này là hoàn toàn đúng” – Lizzy trả lời – “Và mình có thể dễ dàng tha thứ cho lòng kiêu hãnh của anh ta, nếu anh ta không sỉ nhục lòng kiêu hãnh của mình”.

Darcy tự cho mình quyền khinh thường người khác, chê Lizzy xấu, xúc phạm lòng kiêu hãnh của đối phương bởi chàng có địa vị xã hội cao hơn Lizzy, cô gái trẻ chống đối áp lực cưới chồng giàu từ mọi phía.

Cũng như câu chuyện tình yêu nam nữ, cuộc chiến của những cái tôi có lẽ xưa như trái đất, nan giải, khó có bồi thẩm đoàn nào xử lý được, chỉ hy vọng vào sự minh triết của các bên.

Nhìn từ quan điểm của họa sĩ Hứa Thanh Bình, người đã khiêm tốn giấu tên, gửi bức tranh ngựa tham gia từ thiện, thì bức tranh là thành quả lao động, là đứa con tinh thần, là lòng kiêu hãnh của ông.

Lý giải cho hành động ký tên lên tranh, ca sĩ Vũ Hà phản biện rằng vì người mua tranh vui vẻ yêu cầu, các ca sĩ mới ký tên lên tranh.

Nói vậy không hề sai, nhưng cũng không đúng. Nếu ca sĩ biết trân trọng tiếng hát của mình, họ sẽ biết tôn trọng thành quả lao động và lòng kiêu hãnh của nghệ sĩ khác. Xét cho cùng, cái tên “tình nghệ sĩ” của đêm nhạc không chỉ ám chỉ tình cảm dành cho hai nghệ sĩ vắng mặt là Lê Bình và Mai Phương đang bị bệnh ung thư.

Cuộc tranh luận xung quanh chữ ký của ca sĩ đè lên tranh của họa sĩ cũng ám chỉ bài học cần rút ra về cái “tình” mà những nghệ sĩ nên dành cho đứa con tinh thần của nhau. Như vậy, câu trả lời cho phản biện của Vũ Hà là: Không, đáng ra dù có được yêu cầu, các ca sĩ cũng không nên làm như vậy.

Bức tranh xô bồ của thời đại 

Sau khi quả bóng trách nhiệm được đá sang sân của mạnh thường quân, ta có thể tiếp tục đánh giá yêu cầu của người mua tranh như thế nào?

Người mua tranh cũng có lòng kiêu hãnh đáng trân trọng. Lòng kiêu hãnh ở đây được thể hiện bằng đồng tiền, một khoản đáng quý có thể giúp cứu sống người khác. Đồng thời, mạnh thường quân cũng biết yêu nghệ thuật: Yêu hội họa nên khán giả mới bỏ ra 200 triệu đồng để mua tranh; và yêu âm nhạc nên mới mời các ca sĩ ký tên lên tranh…

Chỉ có điều, sự hưng phấn với nhiều loại tình yêu khác nhau đã khiến khán giả quên mất rằng tốt nhất không nên để hai tình yêu của mình gặp nhau, rồi chồng chéo xung đột. Vì khi làm như vậy, kết quả mà ta nhận được là sản phẩm tranh không ra tranh, chữ ký không ra chữ ký – một sự nhập nhằng vô giá trị.

Thực ra, nếu nhìn từ quan điểm của nghệ thuật đương đại, ta có thể phản biện rằng bức tranh nhập nhằng này là sản phẩm văn hóa thú vị, phản ánh được sự chật chội, xô bồ của thời đại.

Nếu vậy, câu hỏi đặt ra ở đây là: Có phải đã đến lúc chúng ta nên coi nhau, coi những tương tác hàng ngày giữa người với người quan trọng hơn, là một hình thức nghệ thuật sống cao hơn, phức tạp hơn nghệ thuật theo cách hiểu từ trước đến nay không?

Nếu câu trả lời là có, việc kiểm soát lời ăn tiếng nói, giữ thể diện cho nhau, không để xung đột leo thang, sẽ là “bức tranh” cuối cùng, đẹp hơn cả. Và trách nhiệm, ý thức từ người của công chúng trong vấn đề này càng quan trọng hơn bao giờ hết.

Việc một họa sĩ đã dùng ngôn từ tục tĩu xúc phạm Đàm Vĩnh Hưng là sai. Thế nhưng, việc Đàm Vĩnh Hưng đưa ra lời xin lỗi thách thức kèm hình ảnh không đẹp trên Facebook là một cái sai khác. Hai cái sai không làm nên một cái đúng.

Hình ảnh “hòn bấc ném đi hòn chì ném lại” giữa những người của công chúng diễn ra trong bối cảnh mạng xã hội ở Việt Nam gần đây xuất hiện nhiều chủ đề tranh luận gay gắt, từ vấn đề dạy tiếng Việt như thế nào cho tốt, cho đến tình huống có tính tượng trưng cao là chữ ký của ca sĩ đè lên bức tranh của họa sĩ.

Vì phản ứng nhất thời thường làm nóng mặt các bên, nhiều người quan sát lo lắng rằng người Việt Nam không biết tôn trọng nhau, không có văn hóa tranh luận.

Mặc dù nhận xét này là chính đáng, đây không phải là vấn đề của riêng người Việt. Mạng xã hội đang làm đảo lộn nhiều giá trị, và tạo ra nhiều giá trị mới, lạ lẫm mà ngay cả ở Mỹ, quê hương của Facebook và nhiều mạng xã hội khác. Các công dân cũng bị cuốn vào những cuộc tranh luận rất bản năng, không bên nào chịu nghe bên nào.

Được coi là một trong những tên tuổi lớn của nền âm nhạc đương đại, sở hữu nhiều sản phẩm thành công và những tour diễn cháy vé, Taylor Swift là người có khả năng đối phó đám đông trên mạng xã hội.

“Nếu ai đó nói xấu bạn trên mạng, cách duy nhất để vượt qua nó là không quan tâm đến những gì họ nói”, Swift từng phát biểu.

Nữ ca sĩ nổi tiếng lựa chọn không đôi co, mà tập trung sáng tác. Trong album Reputation, cô khẳng định con người cũ của mình “đã chết” và thay vào đó là một Taylor Swift lạnh nhạt với những tin đồn, một thái độ nghệ thuật đáng học hỏi.

Tranh luận là tốt, nhờ tranh luận mà nhiều câu hỏi, vấn đề tri thức hóc búa được đưa ra ánh sáng. Tuy nhiên, cái cần trong mọi cuộc tranh luận là các bên phải thực sự lắng nghe luận điểm của nhau. Điều quan trọng của mọi cuộc tranh luận là cùng nhau tìm ra giải pháp, để không ai bị tổn thương. Vì xét cho cùng, chúng ta vừa khác lại vừa giống nhau: Ai cũng hướng thiện, yêu cái đẹp.

Duy trì một môi trường tranh luận lành mạnh, văn minh là trách nhiệm của mỗi người. Khi đã là người của công chúng, trách nhiệm đó càng nặng nề và càng cần được ý thức nhiều hơn.

 

 

In media, salaciousness no substitute for style

Việt Nam NewsBy Thùy Linh 

On a recent Sunday night, pedestrians flooded the area around Returned Sword Lake in downtown Hà Nội. The high-end Tràng Tiền Plaza was full of window shoppers. Nearby coffee shops were jam-packed with customers. Parking lots were filled with motorbikes. Anyone familiar with life in the city could have guessed why they had come, as if they all had something to celebrate and had known just where to do it.

“It’s because it’s been raining hard, locking people inside for the past few days,” a parking lot guard explained to a friend.

The sight of crowded streets, where too many people jostle for too little space in an endless circle of shopping, eating and drinking, brings to mind something French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said in one of his last interviews before he died in 2009.

“There is today a frightful disappearance of living species, be they plants or animals,” said Levi-Strauss. “And it’s clear that the density of human beings has become so great, if I can say so, that they have begun to poison themselves…”

How far we have begun to poison ourselves is a matter of debate. As far as visual culture is concerned, I think audiences must be feeling quite sick by now.

Turn on a TV channel these days and you are treated to one dish after another of loudness, vulgarity and mediocrity: endless singing and dancing reality shows, dragging sensational foreign soap operas and Vietnamese melodramas.

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Illustration: Trịnh Lập

Here is a scene from episode three of director Mai Hồng Phong’s 30-episode series Quỳnh búp bê (Quỳnh the Doll) about prostitution:

Two pimps wait outside a hotel room for any sign of trouble from Quỳnh, who has been kidnapped and sold to their brothel in disguise and is now being forced to serve a client for the first time. The pimps hear the client slap Quỳnh and rush inside. The client angrily shouts, “Did you two bring a pregnant hen here to fool me?!” It turns out that Quỳnh, who was expected to fetch a high price because she is supposed to be a virgin, had been raped before she was trafficked and is already four months pregnant.

Sympathy for real victims of human trafficking aside, I’m fed up with the sight of sex workers and gangsters in Vietnamese films these days.

Sensationalised and graphic depictions of prostitutes, gangsters and everyone in between have been a big part of Vietnamese movies and television films for the past two decades. The war classics such as Đặng Nhật Minh’s Bao giờ cho đến tháng 10 (When the 10th Month Comes), with their compact symbolism, have faded away.

What is left now is mostly forgettable stuff ranging from state-owned studios’ laughable attempts to combine social instruction and entertainment, to the private sector’s trash.

An example of the state-produced unintentional hilarity is Sống cùng lịch sử (Living with History), produced by Viet Nam Feature Film Studio, in which a group of youngsters travel with their backpacks to Điện Biên Province. They ostensibly dream about fighting in the Điện Biên Phủ battle then learn a precious lesson or two about national history.

An example of trash is Charlie Nguyễn’s action film Bụi đời Chợ Lớn (Chinatown) which dishes out violence from beginning to end with such relish that the film was banned. The censors found the violence unrealistic. Gangs fight continuously on the streets without police intervention.

The first six episodes of Quỳnh búp bê aren’t unrealistic trash, at least. Filled with brutal language, female objectification, rape, torture and terror, the series is a decent portrayal of the slave-like existence of prostitutes. The film is based on the true story of a former prostitute named Quỳnh herself.

In its dark moments of sheer brute force against women, the film calls to mind historian Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy, which says that it was through the control of women that men first learned how to control other men. Human slavery originated in the exchange of women in marriage among tribes. The first slaves were women of tribes conquered in warfare.

Nevertheless, all things considered, one wonders whether filmmakers’ sincere intention to reflect reality has resulted in a series of images that actually work to fossilise a woman’s identity, rendering us all perpetual victims.

Life is so transient and precious that we must immerse in it fully, while still striving to produce and appreciate those aspects of human existence that occur outside the realm of daily life and banalities—that is to say, art. Yet as a woman and an observer of films and culture, I feel robbed.

The ubiquitous camera and films force me to see countless paralysing images of what is supposed to be me: from Bao giờ cho đến tháng 10’s impeccable classical icon of a heroic, patriotic mother to Quỳnh búp bê’s vulgar pictures of girls raped and sold.

Explaining the sex and violence in his film, director Phong told local media that viewers might be shocked, but such was reality. “When we talk about corruption, we need specific numbers,” he said. “When we talk about prostitution rings and disgusting crimes that need to be eliminated, we want audiences to confront the images directly.”

Not necessarily. There are certain things that the eyes and mind can’t take. The show is what happens when we push the limits too far. After receiving negative backlash from viewers, Việt Nam Television channel 1 (VTV1) has recently stopped airing Quỳnh búp bê, even though it tried to warn viewers by labeling the series “18+” from episode five, making the film the first one to be so classified on VTV.

Unfortunately, the show has joined the list of trash entertainment that became a “martyr” in the public eye when it was censored for excessive shows of sex and violence.

A common response to VTV1’s decision is to argue that the series could be aired during a later time slot and on a channel more appropriate for adult films. This would create a sophisticated tiered viewing system similar to those in developed countries, where you can pay to watch whatever you want.

Like the cheeky MasterCard’s “Priceless” commercial, I say, in earnest, “There are some things money can’t buy.” And here we see two things that it can’t buy: justice and creativity.

First, prostitution and other social ills should be treated as realistically and seriously as possible. They had better be captured in investigative journalism and documentaries, not a fictional TV series with a sensational soundtrack that can be watched online under VTV’s “entertainment” section like Quỳnh búp bê.

Second, writers and artists of this century seem to be walking behind scientists in terms of deep originality. While scientists are searching for continuing surprises of the universe, many artists still think that the highest ideal of art is to reflect human reality as it is, rather than as what it could be.

Vietnamese filmmakers tend to play out the same old drama between men and women in familiar genres instead of trying something different and imaginative, like animation. After getting an eyeful of human beings around Sword Lake, one must go home and see the same human form again on television.

When one’s heart honestly cares about justice, and one’s mind tries to be really creative, then films will find their rightful places without fuss, without the need for conscientious but shallow classification: Adults watch documentaries about social issues and do something about society, and children have good animation to see.

Phạm Thu Hằng, an independent documentary filmmaker, supports artists’ free expression and experimentation with what is traditionally considered taboo such as sex, homosexuality or incest. But artists should justify why their characters cross the limit.

Hằng said in Phan Đăng Di’s Bi, đừng sợ! (Bi, Don’t Be Afraid!) for instance, the sexual attraction between a woman and her father-in-law looked like mere lust than anything of substance.

As for me, do I want VTV to resume airing the next episode of Quỳnh búp bê? No! With all due respect, let everything stop here. It’s time for a break, a blank, silence. Everybody, move over please.

 

A snake crept inside

Việt Nam NewsBy Du An

“Last night, a snake crept onto Lâm’s bed,” someone started. “Oh my god. She felt something slippery, threw off her blanket, then jumped up and down. She was very lucky. If that snake had bitten her, we would have been at her funeral today.” Another said, “Where is that snake now? Its meat will be great for a feast.” “There’s nothing left. It was smashed to powder.” “Who smashed it?” “Who else but Lâm? There isn’t anybody else under her blanket.” “Biên might have come back home at midnight, who knows.” “We know. Mường Song is as small as a palm of hand, we know everybody who comes and goes…”

snake

Illustration: Đỗ Dũng

The snake in this conversation at the three-way crossroads sounded even more real than the actual snake and Lâm. Some stood while others sat, and everybody gossiped enthusiastically. As the conversation was running out of steam, a man suddenly sighed, stood up then walked away. A woman wondered aloud, “Why haven’t I seen any corn vendors yet?” Nobody answered, the woman’s corn talk didn’t seem relevant. Right then, Lâm was coming downhill. Everybody rushed out and stared. Lâm greeted and said, “I’m going to the market to buy a few items for school.” Her voice and demeanour seemed calm, showing no trace of a fearful encounter with a snake. A woman asked, “Lâm, did a snake creep inside your blanket last night?” “Yes,” Lâm answered. “What’s the matter?” “Nothing,” the woman replied. “But I have goosebumps thinking about it.” “It was nothing actually,” Lâm recalled nonchalantly. “When I woke up in the middle of the night, I found something crawling and wiggling under the blanket. I grasped and pulled it out. It was a snake.” Everybody looked at Lâm in awe. “Was it a cobra or a krait?” another asked. “I flung it away too quickly to see,” Lâm said. “Ah, but this morning when I picked up the dead snake to throw into the trash bin, I noticed that it had mouldy skin and there were stripes on its back. Its head was completely crushed so I didn’t see anything.” “You were very lucky. When Biên returns, you must throw a big party to celebrate your escape. Remember to invite us.” “I don’t know when my husband will come home,” Lâm said, before wishing good day and leaving for the market.

As Lâm walked away, all eyes followed. Her hair was long and light.  “How beautiful and fertile she looks,” somebody said. “Why isn’t she with child yet?” Another answered, “Her husband has to work far away as a border guard, so they hardly have any time together.” Lâm was reaching the end of the street and couldn’t hear how the gossip had turned from the snake to herself.

The sun had risen early, the air still felt a little cold. The steam from the rain the night before and the dew melted away fast. In an instant, the town transformed into a hazy silvery jet. The forest seemed to grow out from the rooftops and the street looked higher.

*

Lâm worked as a teacher in Mường Hống mountain village. Her first tasks every day were to wake up, sweep the classroom, then strike all the drawers with the broom to scare snakes away. Afterwards, she would carefully beat all the bushes outside with a stick. She would wait for a while, until some snakes crawled out, before returning to the kitchen. She would boil corn or potatoes or roast cassavas or simply start a fire without cooking anything.

Lâm learned to take extra care after a terrifying incident. That day, tree branches were laden with frost and the winds whacked the walls, swirling and howling. It was freezing, so not until 9am did class start. The teacher and students shrunk up, their teeth chattering. After the students finished colouring their letters, Lâm gave them a break. The teacher and students flocked around a flaming fire at the end of the classroom. After a while, all their cheeks reddened and their bodies relaxed. Lâm recalled her childhood in her home village when she didn’t have warm clothes or firewood. “How could you cook rice without firewood?” one student exclaimed. “We used rice stubble and straw,” Lâm said. “There would be too much smoke, how could you see the pot?” “There wasn’t any smoke, your hands must stroke the fire the right way.” Lâm sat up to demonstrate with nimble hands. The students laughed with admiration and said, “You look nimble like a snake crawling on a tree.” Lâm said “I’ll teach you someday.”

Lâm was erasing the blackboard for a picture storytelling assignment when some student cried, “Snake!” The eraser cloth dropped out of the teacher’s hand. The snake had crawled onto a desk. The students trembled in fear. The snake didn’t fear anything, tiled its head and looked around, puffing and panting with its forked tongue. In a different situation Lâm would have fainted. Yet, right then, her motherly instinct surged. In an instant, Lâm flung her bag straight onto the snake. The bag hit the snake’s back. The snake startled and dropped onto the ground, then crept across the lecture platform. Lâm snatched her ruler and repeatedly beat the snake on the head.

It died. The teacher and students sweated in panic. Lâm regained her composure and ordered, “Let’s check all the drawers. Your jumping has startled the snakes.” The girls were still huddling in a corner. The boys had stopped feeling frightened and started to pound on the desks. Some checked around the drawers with their hands. “Teacher, I’m catching a snake,” one student exclaimed. The boy tried to pull out the snake which showed its long slippery body. “Drop it!” Lâm shouted.

Lâm quickly ran out, broke off a branch, then returned to strike all the drawers with the stick. Three more snakes crept out, showing their reddish backs and tails, and then disappeared.

The class resumed, but snakes remained in everybody’s mind. “Snakes must love studying indeed,” Lâm tried to joke. “No, they are the most cruel creatures in the forest,” some student objected. “They lie in the drawers waiting to bite us.” Another chimed in, “They’ve come just because of the warm atmosphere created by the fire and our presence.” The students stirred up, warming the classroom. Though she forced a cheerful tone, deep in her heart Lâm felt fearful for her students’ lives. She couldn’t bear it if someone got hurt. The parents worked all day in the paddies, entrusting their children to her care. Without saying it, they expected her not only to teach them but also to protect them.

*

The following morning, news of the incident reached the border post. No sooner did Lâm announce break time and go back to her room than a border guard arrived on horseback. It was Biên, a lieutenant who spoke beautifully and sang sweetly that Lâm knew after several visits to the post with her colleagues but had never talked to. As he stood at the door, Lâm greeted him and invited him in. He inquired about the snakes. Lâm drew back her shoulders, telling him how frightened she was. He told her to stay cautious, calm and resolute in this region frequented by venomous snakes. “I’m just afraid they will take revenge on us,” Lâm spurted out, wondering why she said it. “Snakes aren’t human,” Biên assured Lâm as her face was turning pale. “But I’ve read somewhere about snakes’ revenge,” Lâm protested.

…One day, the scribe asked his students to cut the grass in the garden to build a classroom. At night, he dreamed about a woman leading a band of children begging him to give them a few more days to move out. The scribe agreed. When his students beat some snakes to death as they were cutting grass the following day, the scribe suddenly understood the meaning of his dream. But it was too late. That night, when he was preparing his lecture, a snake crept on a ceiling beam, puffed with its tongue and dropped blood that sank through several pages in his book…

“Is it the story?” Biên stopped reciting and asked. “Yes!” Lâm said with childlike excitement. “So did the snakes come for revenge afterwards?” “Yes,” Biên said. “They came in droves. But the teacher and students were prepared. They used sticks to beat around all drawers and bushes. The snakes showed themselves and were scared away. Nobody was hurt.” “You’re talking about me!” Lâm exclaimed. “Not at all,” Biên insisted teasingly. “You must have excelled in literature in school,” Lâm observed. “Yes,” Biên said. “I’m a romantic so I chose to become a border guard to be able to live among the clouds and winds.” “You’re living your dream then,” Lâm said. “I don’t have big dreams like you. I came here and now I feel fearful, like in a horror movie.”

“What a girl,” Biên thought. Suddenly he flicked Lâm’s cheek. Lâm’s face grew rosy. She looked down, Biên was spellbound…

The snakes turned out to be the harbinger of marriage. After the wedding, the border guards and villagers built a love nest for Biên and Lâm next to the classroom. For two days straight, no snake appeared. Yet one morning, while Lâm was cooking in the kitchen, she heard Biên joke, “Hello comrade. This is my house. If you behave, you are welcome here. Oh, you are puffing with your tongue to threaten me. What meaningless cowardice. That’s enough. Go away…”

Lâm picked up a piece of firewood and emerged from the kitchen. The snake straightened its neck, waving its head. Its eyes stared straight at Lâm. “You can’t cast your spell on me,” Lâm said aloud. “I’ll beat you on the head, then fling you down the mountain. Your kind will be warned when they find your corpse.” As Lâm raised her hand, Biên grasped her wrist. “You’re too nice,” Lâm raised her voice. “You can’t be home all the time to protect me, can you?” “No,” Biên answered. “But what do you think will happen after you kill it? Tomorrow, or the day after, can we sleep in peace? If we kill one, there are still thousands of snakes out there to come to startle us.” “Stop,” Lâm said. “You’re backtracking. I thought you were a strong man, but you are just a coward.” “Coward! Say it again,” Biên pursed his lips and bit his teeth. For a minute, Lâm held her breath, anticipating a slap. Biên, whose body was growing tense, didn’t raise his hand. But through his mouth, he blew out a jet of cold air, like a snake. Lâm stepped back, instinctively.

The two were too angry to speak at dinner. At night, after they lay in bed with their backs against each other for an hour, Biên turned around and held his wife with his arm. “I’ll have to leave tomorrow, let’s make up teacher. I’ve been a bad boy” he pleaded. Lâm tried to shake Biên off, but his clasp only tightened. Lâm struggled, then gradually yielded. “It’s not too far from here to your border post,” she objected. “It’s near but far at the same time,” Biên said. “Don’t be sentimental,” Lâm continued. “I’m not. There isn’t any war, but our situation is dangerous,” Biên said. “Are you talking about your friend Miễn who was killed?” Lâm asked. “Why do you guys who have guns let others kill you with their knives! If I were you, I would aim my gun straight at their venomous heads.” “Calm down teacher, or else your students will run away for their dear lives leaving their shoes behind.” “My students don’t even have shoes to wear,” Lâm said, laughing. Biên stifled her laughter with kisses.

*

In the following month, Lâm felt indisposed. Whatever she ate seemed to stick in her throat. “You’re pregnant,” said the school’s vice-president who visited her class one day. “You’ll vomit at the smell of rice.” “God, I don’t want to die of hunger,” Lâm winced. “You won’t, but giving birth is difficult.”

It was the harvest season, so only five students showed up for class. The day after, only two showed up. And on the day after that, there was only one faithful soul.

Lâm walked up to the paddies to look for her students. She kept walking for seven hours until her feet swelled before she reached her destination. Two students and their parents were overjoyed at the sight of the teacher. The parents said their children loved to go to school very much, but the rice had ripened so every family member had to pitch in to harvest the field quickly. “Your students will return in five days, teacher. The knowledge still remains in your bag, it won’t run away like a dog, so why do you worry?” the father told Lâm. Lâm was used to this reasoning so she didn’t protest. Lâm knew she must proceed slowly, then everything would fall into place.

“Give me a sickle,” Lâm said. “You don’t know how to use it,” the father hesitated. “The rice is higher than you, so when you raise the sickle with your face up, it may cut your cheek.” “I know how to use it,” Lâm assured. “Back in my home village, I also had to work in the field.” The father gave the teacher a sickle, looking skeptical. Lâm immediately put it to use. The sickle moved about speedily while all eyes admired.

It took Lâm and the family only three days, instead of five, to harvest the field. On their last working day, the family ate in the field. There was bacon and vegetables roasted in a bamboo pipe. Lâm ate with gusto.

In the afternoon, the family carried their rice in baskets up to the top of Sam Mountain. From here, if they walked on, it would take them about three hours to reach the village. But it was a dangerous downward sloping path. With a heavy basket on her back, Lâm might slip and fall like a rolling rock.

So the family decided to take extra precaution and walk through the forest, which would take an extra two hours. They planned to rest by a big stream when they reached the cherry blossoms. “Are we there yet,” Lâm asked when the air suddenly fell dark and dense with reeds. Lâm closed then opened her eyes to get used to the dark. Yet no sooner did she open her eyes than she cried out, “Help. Help.”

From the other side of the stream, seven or eight people wearing black clothes and masks carrying sticks rushed toward Lâm and the family. The robbers snatched their baskets, beat them with sticks, and jumped and stamped on their bodies.

Lâm tried her utmost to snatch back her basket but suffered two kicks in the stomach. She fainted. “Are you okay teacher?” the father with a bloody face crawled near, raised her up and asked. “I’m okay. Oh it hurts,” Lâm held her belly writhing in pain for a while until she felt like a hand was pulling her guts out. “Teacher don’t die,” her two students held her, tearing raining down their cheeks.

Lâm tottered home and took a shower. The pain subsided, though clots of blood kept flowing out. Lâm fainted.

Biên came home three days after. “We’ve chased them to the other side of the border,” he informed her. As Lâm kept sobbing, Biên stroked her hair. “We’ll have another child,” he said. “It’s my fault,” Lâm said. “I should have stayed home.” “You did the right thing,” Biên said. “As a teacher, you should live with the villagers. It’s our fault.” “No, it isn’t your fault. I’ve heard your post had handled this gang already.” “Yes, but… Anyway, you should rest now.” What Biên almost told his wife was that the situation on Sam Mountain was complicated. There were many things the border guards didn’t tell the people but had to deal with in secret. Biên wanted to spare Lâm so that she could regain her calm to take care of her students and their future children.

*

Biên waited for Lâm for nearly a month to recover before he suggested that they should move to Mường Song Town. Lâm startled and objected. Biên said he had built a house there, with some money from his parents who were glad to help, plus friends’ support. As for his own savings, they could use them to buy a motorbike. Lâm could drive to class every day, since the distance was a mere 30 kilometres. Lâm insisted that she couldn’t abandon her students who might be bitten by snakes early in the morning before she arrived.

It took Biên a whole night to plead with Lâm. She yielded with the condition that he must give her two weeks to prepare.

On the following morning, Lâm woke up early. She walked to the classroom and stood outside looking in then went to the top of the hill to wait for her students.

It took a while before the first three students showed up. They greeted their teacher and rushed into class to be the earliest to arrive. “Teacher, why haven’t you opened the door yet?” they asked. “You three come here,” Lâm said. “In a few days I won’t be here early, so please take good care of yourselves. Sùng, since you’re hard-working, you can keep the key. Here, try to open the door now. Don’t insert it too deep, just insert over half of the key then turn it gently. Brilliant! Let’s go inside. What will we do now? Sweep the classroom, strike the drawers then beat the bushes. Brilliant again.” Lâm felt happy and excited as she watched her three students carry out their tasks. “There isn’t any snake here, teacher. Let’s go outside,” the students said. In an instant, the bushes outdoors suffered a bombardment as other students arrived, cheered and shouted, and rushed around to check for snakes. “Ah, there is one soil-coloured snake here,” some student exclaimed. “Another green one here,” shouted another. “Have you been here since last night? Go away, you nasty thing.” The students used sticks to beat then fling the snakes away. The snakes bundled into heaps, swirled up high, then dropped down and vanished.

At noon, Lâm instructed her students to clean up the classroom. All sorts of brooms, knives, hoes and spades from Lâm’s house were dragged out for use. Though the classroom was still clean, Lâm told the students to sweep it one more time, remove all cobwebs, then sweep again. All odd bushes outside were also chopped down and cleared away. The students cheered and sweated, forgetting that the sun had risen high, beaming straight down to every crook and corner, leaving no room for snakes to hide.

One week then two weeks passed. The students had learned to execute their tasks as carefully as their teacher. For the moment, Lâm felt assured and could start to think about her own family.

*

Mường Song was empty and quiet. There were only a few kids playing hide-and-seek around a shady dracontomelon tree. Where were all the market vendors? Lâm wondered. It was the harvest season with plenty of grains to sell. Why didn’t they snatch the opportunity to make some money?

Big store owners didn’t seem to care about business either. A customer had to call noisily for a while before an old man who had been resting in bed appeared and said, “My children have all gone. I don’t know how to sell things.” “Where are your children?” the customer asked. “They have gone to Mường Hống Village,” the old man answered. “What on earth for? Do they plan to trade leaves now?” “I don’t know, but the whole town is going there.”

According to a few war veterans in town, it turned out that the whole town was flocking up to the mountain to find snakes to sell.

It had all started with the snake that “crept onto Lâm’s bed”. As Lâm and others were talking about it, a man called Luận happened to walk by and overheard them. He was overjoyed and immediately went up to the garbage dump to search for the dead snake. He intended to dig it up, chop it into pieces and eat it with a whole bottle of wine. However, as Luận was carrying the dead snake away, a passer-by saw him and perked up at the sight of the snake. The stranger offered to buy it. One million dong, Luận joked. He didn’t expect the stranger to pull out two 500,000 bills to pay him on the spot. Luận thought he was dreaming and quickly took the money. Then he asked his customer, “What are you going to do with it?” “This is a horned snake,” the stranger said. “Steeped in wine, its meat will give robust rhino-like health.”

The whole town later sat down to dissect Luận’s luck. Up until now, the town had never seen this type of snake. It wasn’t a coincidence that it had crept into Lâm’s blanket. Possibly, no, undoubtedly, it had followed Lâm from Mường Hống back to town. It had climbed into Lâm’s motorbike and got stuck under the saddle. When the teacher went home, the snake, which was hungry, crawled out to search for food, and snuggled into the blanket mistaking it for a cave. The snake must have come from the deep forest near the border which was its natural habitat.

So a group of people flocked to Mường Hống to find snakes. Snakes were carried away in bags and iron cages.

Back at the school, the students felt liberated and at break times, they frolicked around.

Peace rained down on the mountain village. In the paddies and the forest, boys and girls started to sing, something they hadn’t done since the robbery.

On the last day, one person in the group asked teacher Lâm, “Are you happy now?” “I’m still worried,” Lâm said. “Why? Every snake has been caught,” the person said. Lâm said, “I don’t know. Everything feels a little slippery.”

When the snakes arrived in town, the snake trader was asked to meet the local government.

The government passed down an order that forbade people from hunting and trading wild species. The government then searched and confiscated all the snakes that had been caught.

The snakes with their small eyes and waving tails were whisked away in government trucks.

*

Lâm was pregnant again. She waited for two months to be sure before informing Biên. Biên was thrilled. He took no chances and asked the school president to give his wife a one-week break. He also took his annual leave to take care of his wife.

Having three people in the house felt joyous and strange. Every night Biên held his wife and talked. Only late into the night after Lâm yawned then fell asleep did Biên quietly leave to sleep on a single bed close to the door. In the morning Lâm woke up and asked why he had to sleep separately. Biên laughed and said he didn’t want to trample on his child.

With her husband home, Lâm could sleep soundly until the morning. She slept without dreaming or startling. For three nights straight. Then on the fourth night, she felt something crawling inside. Lâm shouted, Biên jumped up and swooped down. Too late. A snake which was as big as his biceps speedily crawled up onto a ceiling beam and vanished through the roof.

Biên moved to sleep on Lâm’s bed, but neither could go back to sleep. Biên told his wife again and again that she must not tell anyone. “It would be too cruel to keep silent. That snake will creep into another house to make trouble again,” Lâm said. Biên said, “I don’t want to scare people.” Lâm said, “There isn’t anything to be scared of. I’m not scared.”

On the following day, despite Biên’s earnest and even angry entreaties, Lâm headed back to Mường Hống.

“I’m worried about my students, there are still many snakes out there,” she told her husband. Biên stood still for a while then got on his bike to race after her. After just a few days of break, Lâm had startled him. Snakes seemed to be crawling everywhere.

Translated by Thùy Linh                                                 

 

 

Dust

Việt Nam NewsBy Phùng Kim Trọng 

The stormy season came late this year. Not until the 7th lunar month did the news incessantly broadcast forecasts about the first storm of the year heading in from the East Sea. Since the night before, the air had been deadly still and sweltering. Everybody prepared for the wind and rain that was about to lash down any moment. Fortunately, professor Hà ĐạiThịnh’s children had all returned in time for his funeral.

dust

Illustration: Đỗ Dũng

Hoàng Thu Thảo leaned back on an armchair with her arms spread and resting on the arm pads. Her two hands knitted against each other across a belly which was as big as a pregnant woman’s. Her head bent down on her fat neck, her eyes closed slightly, as if she was dozing. For several days straight, she had been sitting in this posture, making no movements even if somebody came to inquire after her. She was waiting for the moment when her beloved husband would leave her forever.

It was about 10pm on the 10th of lunar July when the storm was approaching with zigzag lightening, roaring thunder and pouring rain. The rain fell down in torrents, as if to separate and isolate human beings on their own lonely islands. Doctor Hà, who had warned Thảo a few days before that Thịnh’s life was slipping away, shook his head at her.

“For decades working in this profession, I’ve never seen anyone so resilient. Are all of his children here? Is he still waiting for somebody else?” the doctor asked.

Thảo opened her eyes. It took her a while to understand what the doctor had said. She shook her head and answered:

“Look. His daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren are all here. There isn’t anybody else.”

“What about his adopted son? Thịnh seems to like him very muchWhy haven’t I seen him since Thịnh fell ill?”

Thảo looked at her husband then the doctor. Was it true that her husband was waiting for his adopted son? Nonsense. When she was still wondering how to answer the doctor’s question, the gate bell suddenly rang, repeatedly. The person who kept pressing the bell seemed to be afraid that the people inside were sleeping or the sounds of rain and winds were drowning out the ringing. The bell ringing made Thảo’s children and grandchildren rush out into the yard. Who was coming in this stormy weather? Thảo was racking her brain when one of her sons-in-law walked out with an umbrella to open the gate. In a few instants he returned with the adopted son. The woman stood transfixed.

“How did you know?”Thảo spoke at last.

“Last night I had a nightmare,” Bùi, the adopted son, answered. “I’d never experienced such a dream before. So this morning when I woke up I drew some lots for you two and found that my father would leave this world at the Hour of Pig today.”

Everybody looked at Bùi with wide eyes, wondering what he was talking about. Thịnh suddenly stirred and opened his eyes slightly to look at his adopted son. He craned his neck in one last move then heaved his final breath. The family howled in pain. The crying of his wife, children and grandchildren mingled with the loud raging storm which was gathering force outside.

*

Over 60 years in marriage, Thảo had always taken good care of her husband and children. Residents in the neighbourhood considered her an ideal model of a wife and mother. As a rural girl who went to Ha Noi to study, she met and married Thịnh who was a generation older than her. He had a prestigious teaching job and a 24-sqm apartment on the third floor of the Thanh Xuân Bắc collective quarter. After her graduation, he helped her get a job working for the university lab. Thảo had hoped that marrying a college professor would give her a comfortable life. However, after they had kids, life got tough. Both of their salaries weren’t enough to accommodate their expenses. Thảo decided to quit her job to engage in trade to make a better life for her husband and children. While she ran around selling one thing or another, her husband, besides carefreely going to his lecture everyday, could only sit and reminisce about his old days of comfort when he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth into a well-known land owner family in a mountainous region.

Like many people lucky enough to get an education in those years when the whole country had to invest all of its resources to fight wars, bothThảo and her husband cynically believed human beings were only advanced animals. When people die, “dust will return to dust,” as the saying goes. So the ancestor worshipping altar in Thảo’s house was only used on death anniversaries and lunar New Year holidays as a point of duty. Yet, desperation drove Thảo to seek spiritual salvation. Without telling her husband, she listened to a friend’s advice and conducted a ceremony to conjure up her father-in-law’s ghost. The old man’s ghost showed up and told her that for many years, he had been wandering without a home and subsisting on sips of porridge that people cooked for the dead in the month of wandering ghosts. The old man told his children to go to Trịnh Khúc village, find the house where he used to live and ask the house owner for further help. Skeptical, Thảo asked her husband. Professor Hà Đại Thịnh recalled that in 1947, after his mother died, his father secretly sent his children to join the French resistance then escaped to a “safe zone” under the Viet Minh’s control. Yet on his way there, he was killed by a bomb. Ever since then, Thịnh and his siblings hadn’t found out the exact location where their father died. They planned to search for his grave some day when their life improved. Though she remained in doubt, Thảo sold her wedding ring, the only valuable property the couple still had, to take a trip to her husband’s home village. Though she hadn’t visited it for a long time, she still remembered the way back to the place where her husband was born without asking him. While waiting on the porch, Thịnh told Thảo that the house had been rebuilt, but the old rainwater tank remained. Thịnh walked to the tank, scooped up some rainwater and gulped it down at one go. Right then the house owner returned. The man looked benign, earthy, and unbelievably honest. “Are you Hà Đại Thịnh, the oldest son of Mr. Hà Đại Vũ?” the man asked straightforwardly. The coupled stood dumstruck eyeing him. “Yes! I am. But how do you know?” Thịnh said. The man looked at the couple with both trust and caution. “My name is Công,” he said. “Do you have your ID card with you?” After another moment of astonishment, Thịnh took out his ID card and gave it to Công. “Please excuse me,” Công said. “Because of an important issue, I had to first verify that you are really Hà Đại Thịnh.” Công then opened the door to invite the couple in. After offering them water to drink, he walked into the room in the left. After a while, he returned with a bamboo pipe with a top closed tightly with a cork made of dry banana leaves. Công said that before passing away, his own father had asked him to personally hand the bamboo pipe to Thịnh one day. Then he hastily ran out to fetch his wife and kids to cook a chicken feast to welcome their guests. While Công was out, the couple opened the bamboo pipe. Inside, there was a will written by Hà Đại Vũ informing his oldest son of a glazed terra-cotta jar buried in the orchard which contained all the gold and silver that he had saved in his lifetime. The will showed where the jar was buried, and instructed his son to divide the money into five parts. One part was reserved for the house owner, the remaining amount belonged to his four children. Completely surprised, Thịnh and his wife didn’t know what to do. They immediately excused themselves and returned to Ha Noi to discuss the issue in private. At first, Hà Đại Thịnh was determined to execute his father’s will but Hoàng Thu Thảo protested. She said the money might not be much, so if it was divided into five parts, they would have little left. The couple quarreled and Thảo threatened divorce so Thịnh had to back down. After forcing her husband to her side, Thảo was at loss about how to dig up the gold jar in Công’s orchard. Though she didn’t want to, Hoàng Thu Thảo at last had to acquiesce to her husband’s request to return to Trịnh Khúc Village to announce the will to Công so that they could unearth the jar. They offered Công one fifth of the money as dictated by Hà Đại Vũ’s will. Yet, Công turned it down, explaining, “This is the result of your parents’ sweat so I can’t accept it. I only want to hold a small ceremony to tell my father that I’ve executed his death wish faithfully.”

Surprised and confused by what was happening, Thảo asked her husband who Công’s father was and was told that the old man had been a Confucian scholar and fortune-teller. When her father-in-law Hà Đại Vũ was still the chief of the village, one day a fortune-teller passed by his house. The village chief invited the fortune-teller in to draw a lot for him. The fortune-teller predicted that despite his wealth and large family, the village chief would see his family torn apart and he would suffer death on the streets. The village chief instantly lost his temper and ordered his men to arrest the fortune-teller for a beating. However, he later calmed down and forgave the man. He even asked the man to stay in his house and work as a teacher for his children. That fortune-teller was Công’s father.

So Thảo had a significant amount of money for her investment. The first thing she did was buy nearly 500sqm of land to build a grocery store. Just as people say, “in business, capital is more important than talent” indeed. Her store quickly yielded profits, and the more money she made, the freer she was to charge high prices. After money, she aimed for prestige because the two go together. She decided to send both her husband and two daughters abroad for further study. Everything went well except that the richer her family became, the colder their relationship with her husband’s siblings grew. Aunts Phú and Sang and uncle Vượng used to visit them every day. Her husband’s sisters and brother, who had received a classical education, had supported each other through all those difficult years. They had shared everything from a loaf of bread to a TrườngSơn medicated oil bottle. Yet, everything changed now, each family held their own death anniversaries for their parents. Then one day out of the blue, uncle Vượng called for a family gathering in which he and his two sisters interrogated Thịnh and his wife about the money that their father had left behind. Thảo denied everything, her husband kept his mouth shut and his head down, not daring to look into his siblings’ eyes. After that Thịnh became a different person. Every time he saw his sisters and brother, he walked the other way. His siblings didn’t want to see him either. Once when his older sister Phú fell ill, Thịnh brought a bag of gifts to visit her but her son walked out, looked at him as if he were a stranger and refused to invite him in. After that, Thịnh became depressed. Whenever he went home from work, he sat in silence staring at his ancestors’ altar, which hurt Thảo deeply. Hoàng Thu Thảo knew that besides the cold relations with his siblings, Thịnh also felt sad about not having a son to pass down his lineage. That was why she yielded to his wish and took the trouble to return to Trịnh Khúc village to offer to adopt Công’s younger son Bùi as their own. If only Bùi were a vulgar country pumpkin. Thảo would give him some money, build a house for him in his home village and that would be the end of it. However, like his paternal grandfather, Bùi loved studying and ignored material things. So just like with her precious daughters, Thảo had to fund his doctorate education. Bùi acquired a PhD in philosophy and became a college lecturer. The problem was that while Thảo and her daughters threw themselves into making and worshipping money, Bùi was indifferent and always declared, “money is irrelevant.” Thus Thảo disliked this adopted son, while the professor loved and took pride in him. Thịnh asked his wife to invest more in Bùi but she refused. Even his flesh and blood turned out to be nothing, let alone water, she thought inside. Though Thảo didn’t say so to her husband’s face, she tightened the budget and left him no chance to take care of Bùi. Yet when he fell ill, Thịnh wrote a will which left a large amount to his adopted son. He even divided the 500sqm lot into four equal parts for his wife and all of his three children. What choked Thảo up in anger was that for years living with Thịnh, she was the one who had single-handedly taken care of the family, yet he had secretly saved a considerable amount for Bùi. In his will, Thịnh asked Bùi to use the money to build a house to live in and tend to his adopted parents’ altar when they died.

The will gave Thảo many sleepless nights. She would be driven insane if such a huge property fell into the adopted son’s hands. That was why despite her husband’s entreaties, she didn’t tell Bùi about his serious illness. Yet, the adopted son managed to find his way through the rain and storm to return home right at his father’s dying moment. Luckily for Thảo, no sooner did Thịnh see Bùi than he passed away, without having the time to tell his son anything about the will.

When her children and grandchildren were preparing for the funeral, the widow again walked up to her bedroom on the second floor. She scoured her documents and notebooks, drawer and bed in search of her husband’s will. She remembered hiding it away carefully in some place that only she knew. Just like a lonely man hiding his money away in his shoes or a woman, in her cupboard. However smart, thieves often don’t suspect those places. But Thảo searched her bedroom in vain. As the mourning ceremony was about to start and she was nowhere in sight, her daughters and adopted son went up to her room. Seeing her dazed face, the adopted son asked:

“Are you looking for dad’s will, mum?”

“No!” she shrieked while shaking her head insistently. “There isn’t any will. He didn’t leave any will.”

“He did,”Bùi affirmed, “It’s where you left it. But you won’t find it today. You’ll have to wait until dad’s 49-day death anniversary to see it.”

Thảo and her two daughters looked at Bùi aghast. Nobody believed a word he said but it was true; Thảo couldn’t find her husband’s will.

“Please go down now mum. It’s time to start the mourning ceremony,” Bùi said.

Without any other option, Thảo had to forget her husband’s will for the moment in order to get through the funeral.

After the funeral, the adopted son carefully arranged wreaths and tidied up professor Hà ĐạiThịnh’s tomb, respectfully burned three incense sticks and stood for a while before leaving. He didn’t ask anything about the dead man’s will or wishes.

*

49 days passed since professor Hà Đại Thịnh died. Though she had tried her utmost, the widow Thảo still couldn’t find her husband’s will. She worried herself sick. Every night she saw Thịnh in her dream talking about his adopted son just like when he was alive. He wanted his wife to help Bùi with him. And just like in the old days, in her dreams Thảo still controlled the budget resolutely and didn’t give her husband a chance to do what he wanted.

Exactly on the 49th day after his father died, Bùi phoned his mother. He apologised for being too busy to return home to burn incense for his father’s death anniversary. Bùi asked if his mother had found the will. Again, Thảo insisted that her husband didn’t leave any will. Bùi said, “Dad did leave a will and I know what he wrote. But I was an undutiful son to him because I didn’t take care of him even for one day when he fell ill, so I don’t deserve what he left me. I turn down his offer.” At that moment, Thảo felt like choking. With much effort she asked, “Okay. So where is the will now?” Bùi sounded surprised at her question. “How would I know?” he asked. “But wherever you left it, it’s still there. You’ll find it shortly.” Thảo shouted at the phone, “You’re nuts!” Then angrily she flung away the phone as well as several phonebooks on the table. They dropped on the floor. And look, right there from an old phone book, Thịnh’s will fell out. In disbelief Thảo pounced upon her husband’s dammed will. She took it downstairs where her children and grandchildren were burning incense on his altar.

Taking in a deep breath, the widow bowed down three times before her husband’s altar with the will in her hands. Then she raised the will near the candle fire. Her hands shook. As the will started to catch fire, with consternation she saw Thịnh’s eyes on the altar photo look as if they were burning too. The incense bowl burst into flames. Thảo’s mind swirled. She dropped the will and banged her head against the edge of the altar. She fainted.

*

Thảo’s grocery store at PhátĐạt market closed down. After she banged her head against her husband’s altar on his 49thdeath anniversary, Thảo suffered a stroke and had to be hospitalised. The doctors said that she would live in a vegetative stage for the rest of her life. Her daughters ran around pagodas praying for her without success before they thought about Bùi. Hearing the news, Bùi visited his adopted mother. Bùi told his sisters, “Mum’s blood pressure has always been unstable. Perhaps after dad died, she grieved so much that she suffered a stroke. Her illness isn’t related to the dead, so don’t waste your time praying anymore.” Then Bùi sighed and said, “I’ve drawn a lot for mom and it said that she would live to more than 100 years of age. Is this how she will live the rest of her life?”

Translated by Thùy Linh

 

 

 

A note for someone who has passed away

Việt Nam NewsBy Kiều Bích Hương

“New customers are coming, dad!” Demi called excitedly. Noel frowned, put a pile of bills into the drawer, rearranged his shirt collar, straightened its hems, and walked out.

a note

Illustration: Đào Quốc Huy

The sunshine outdoors dazzled him, preventing him from seeing the customers clearly. Yet he caught Demi’s excitement. Later, after the customers left, he must scold her, Noel thought. Of course customers meant business, which was good. But they mustn’t wear their gladness on their faces like that when another person had passed away.

Three middle-aged chaps with burly bodies and distraught faces were standing wearily before Noel. Demi eagerly fetched some drinking water. Noel stretched out his hand toward the stoutest man to invite him to sit down. The tallest one nodded to greet Noel then went out to answer his phone. The remaining one, the youngest, thrust his hands into his pockets, and anxiously walked around Noel’s office eyeing the flowers and china vases. Noel didn’t worry too much about his customers’ attitudes. As usual, he sat down before them, and presented a face which showed a willingness to listen and understand.

“Hello sir. My name is Jeffery, just call me Jeff. My mother passed away last night,” the stout said. His 10 fingers knitted together as if to seek support. A vulnerable heart in a big chest, Noel thought silently, seeing right through the loving but awkward type.

“Please let me extend my condolences to you and your family,” Noel said. “Let us hope that there is a truly beautiful world which may also be called paradise. Your mother is going there soon. I hope to help your family take her there.”

“My mother disliked crowds, and feared noises,” the man said calmly. “We want the funeral to be as simple as possible. It should be big enough for about 20 people, and must be cosy.”

“How much does this chestnut-coloured china vase cost?” the guy who was walking around in the room suddenly asked.

At that moment Demi walked in with the drinking water, and answered for Noel:

“160 Euros, sir. We have many other kinds of vases, cheaper or more expensive. If you want, I can take you to the exhibition room to have a look.”

“This is Daan, my younger brother. The one who is talking on the phone outside is my older brother Hans. We can only take a break from work today, and want to have a funeral for our mother as soon as possible. All information about her, her portraits and family photos are saved in this disk. You can use them as needed,” Jeffrey said.

“Of course, let us take care of everything. Everything will be as your family wishes. But I need you to stay a little longer. I want to know what you guys think about your mother, what you remember most about her. You can be brief. Death announcement cards shouldn’t be long, but they should describe a person precisely,” Noel answered.

“What a difficult question. How can we describe our mother succinctly? We haven’t thought about this before,” Jeff said, again looking perplexed and miserable. “I only remember that in both my maternal and paternal families, only my mother had a tiny figure like an Asian woman. My dad died prematurely, but my mother was very strong. She was strong even in her decision to die recently. She went on a hunger strike for several months in the nursing home. Mother said she felt tired with life, and it was time for her to go. Her old age couldn’t be cured. The doctor also agreed not to make my mother suffer any longer. So we helped her by proposing an injection to end her life. But the court didn’t allow it. It was terrible to see the nurses bring her food only to have to carry it away untouched. Every month the nursing home still sent us food bills. My mother didn’t eat or drink, shrinking into a skeleton lying flat in bed…”

Jeff sobbed. Noel stood up and gave him a glass of water and patted his youthful big wide back which was shaking. Then Noel turned around and called out, “Demi, I need you here, right now.”

***

Noel remembered when he was 20, an embarrassed youth wearing a black redingote tail-coat and white gloves, bowing his head wandering inside the church like an idiot. Noel didn’t like his family’s funeral service business at all. He found it nonsensical that he had to inherit the trade, just because it created a stable source of income which made his life easy. In his heart Noel couldn’t help despising his father sometimes. Why hadn’t his father dared to escape the vicious circle? Why couldn’t he come up with something fresher, more exciting than bustling around spiritless corpses? Noel’s father only said, “If you kids feel bored, you can find other careers. I won’t blame you. But if you work for me, even for just one day, remember that you must make friends with the dead as though they were still alive, you must understand that the dead can still speak.” Yet at that time Noel needed money. He needed it as soon as possible, to take Germaine to Hawaii. Germaine dreamed about having warm sunshine enwrapping her body. Noel loved the freckles on Germaine’s face, which were as thin as the tails of clouds scratching and tearing away after a strong wind. Gently burying her feet into the warm sand, Germaine smiled, the freckles crashing toward a deep hole near her soft mouth. “Noel,” she said. “I want your family to organise a funeral for me. Let us hope that there is a truly beautiful world which may perhaps be called paradise. Just like Hawaii now. You must prepare a beautiful road to take me there.”

When he put down two periwinkle trees on the path leading to the farewell room, Noel realised that he didn’t want to take up any other profession other than his family’s business. Noel’s father agreed to invest all of his money for Noel to renovate the funeral home. They replaced the complex’s grey paint with orange, expanded the corridor and set up a screen and a projector. On the roof of the farewell room they installed a window to support a grey cement pipe as wide as a lamp chimney. In daylight the sun shone down through it, and at night electric lights beamed upward creating a brilliantly lit path leading from earth to heaven.

Noel put Germaine’s body under this sky well. Germaine wore a shirt with a small flower pattern and a round collar. Her eyes shut tight, her hands knitted into each other and lay right under her chest. A two-layer burlap blanket covered her body from the belly to the feet. Above Germaine’s head, in the two corners of the room there were two pots of snake plants and under her feet stood a vase of white orchids. Germaine’s relatives walked around her body, touched her hands lightly, kissed her forehead gently and whispered goodbyes.

In the corridor, the projector started to run and Germaine’s photos flowed slowly across the screen. The two bonsai bamboo bushes under the white screen shook and rustled every time somebody opened the door and entered. Germaine’s mother sat on the bench in the corridor, and struggled to keep her head up to stop the tears from pouring onto her cheeks. Noel walked up, and showed her a handful of incense sticks. “Please allow me to burn incense for Germaine after her cremation,” he said. “Germaine once said she wanted to get to paradise with such fragrance and thin smoke.” Germaine’s mother nodded and said, “You understand her better than me. Please do as you like. Thank you for writing these wonderful words for Germaine.” Noel’s father was standing by the door, handing out cards to those who came to see Germaine for the last time. The back of the cards showed a photo of Germaine smiling, wearing a wide brim bamboo hat that covered half her face, with the other half glowing under the sun. Inside the cards, Noel had stayed up all night the day before to print these lines: Don’t remember me on sad rainy days/Pray think of me when sunlight fills your heart.

***

Demi sat in front of a blank sheet of paper and bit incessantly at the head of a ballpoint pen. It didn’t help. She still couldn’t figure out how to describe the dead mother. She’d better stand up, walk out to water the snake plants, and trim the ivy vines that had been overgrowing densely all over the fence. The periwinkles and bamboo bushes were also waiting to be taken out to the yard to drink some sunshine. Noel was about to advise his daughter to take such a break when Demi suddenly exclaimed:

“I know how to write about this old woman who was determined to die!”

“Gosh, what a way of speaking. You can’t be in this profession if you continue to speak like that.”

“Don’t worry, her family isn’t here. You listen and tell me what you think, dad.”

Demi picked up her sheet and read aloud: “Mother/Six letters connect/I call in my heart/Paradise is near/Only a cradle swing from here…”

“That’s a rip-off of Ugo Verbeke’s poetry,” Noel said, frowning.

Demi put down her pen, and looked embarrassed.

“I changed the rhythm, but you still noticed.”

“That poetry doesn’t suit the old lady. I love this profession precisely because it challenges me to describe a person. Listen, strangers’ dead bodies are taken straight to us from the hospital. They lie here, though we don’t know anything about their lives. Yet they belong to us completely. We can call their names, and write about them as if we had known them for a very long time.”

“But I think it’s more difficult to write about somebody we know than about a stranger,” Demi said. “Do you know when I started to want to follow this profession? Perhaps you didn’t know how curiously I watched you write the card to announce grandpa’s death. I remembered him for having extremely strong, and at the same time, dexterous hands. I used to see him lift up coffins as easily as if they had been flower vases. I almost cried when he scolded you for misarranging a flower a little. Every piece of silk he used for the bedding for the dead seemed as soft and pleasant as clouds. Once I was scared to death when he turned red and lost his temper and showed a customer the door when that customer threw money on the table, and demanded grandpa to ask the church to ring the bell longer than usual for his dead wife. When grandpa passed away, I wanted to be the first to know, to read what you had written for him, about him. Do you still remember those words?”

The wrinkles on Noel’s forehead started to move. He pushed his glasses up his nose. Of course he remembered those words. Yet he wanted to hear them from his daughter. Demi understood, flung back her hair, crossed her arms before her chest, looked straight into her father’s eyes, and read proudly: “Critical but faithful! Devoted to the last breath/Respectful of himself was how father worked.”

Noel caught a glimpse of light blazing up on his daughter’s face, the same kind of light that flooded Germaine’s body in Hawaii in the old days. Perhaps the girl really loved the profession. He had been skeptical when Demi first gave up teaching. One day, the girl walked into his office which was located by the corridor that led to the farewell room and said hesitantly, “Can I work with you?”

That afternoon, though the doorbell rang, Noel didn’t hear Demi call his name. When he finished his work and walked out, he saw Jeff and his two brothers weeping, their bulky bodies shrinking up on the bench. Having tied her hair neatly behind her back, Demi sat up straight before the three men and read slowly:

“Sons,

You were lucky

To understand that

My hands were tired,

My feet were slow

My ears didn’t hear

My eyes didn’t see.

Sons,

I was lucky

Because you had patiently

Listened to my old stories many times.

Sons,

I was lucky

Because you had assured me

Though tears filled your hearts.

Sons,

I was lucky

Because you stayed with me longer when darkness started to fall

And took my hands when death came near.

Oh sons,

I am lucky

And will thank you by lightening up the stars in the sky…”

Translated by Thùy Linh

 

Stuck in paradise

Việt Nam NewsBy Nguyễn Hữu Tài

Quân walked in, drew shut all window curtains, threw off his clothes, then strolled around the apartment. It was early and the kids were still at school. He had at least several hours to relax before the apartment was crowded and he would have to flee.

stuck in paradise

Illustration: Đỗ Dũng

The three-room apartment was too cramped. Sometimes he visited his friends and found them residing in huge houses that cost several hundred thousand to one million dollars, had nearly 10 bedrooms, five restrooms and orchards laden with fruits which made him so envious. If only he had such a house. In the morning he would sip a cup of coffee. In the afternoon he would go home from work and cut the grass and fertilise the trees. At night he would set up a hammock to lie in and look at the stars. He wouldn’t have to fret and pound on the restroom door to hurry whoever was inside.

Yet real estate prices in California were skyrocketing. He heard the Chinese were flocking here with their piles of money to buy properties, pushing prices sky-high. Just the previous week, their landlord had emailed to notify them of an increase of 200 dollars in monthly rent. If they didn’t like it, they could just leave. There were plenty of people still waiting to rent their place since the area was so popular. Thus they bit their tongues. No wonder Quân seemed to see more and more homeless people lining the streets of Los Angeles every day on his commute.

No matter how much he wanted to, Quân could never afford to buy his dream house and pay all monthly installments, taxes, insurance, repair services and countless other fees. He only had a seasonal job. On unemployed months he worried himself sick. If he bought a house and couldn’t pay his mortgage, the bank might come to take it away and he would be on the streets. What about sharing the cost with Nhung? Between them they had a marriage certificate, a boy and not much else. So he thought carefully, and had to be content with living as a tenant.

When he was 23, he went home after hanging out with friends one night to find his mother waiting. She asked softly and sadly, “Do you want to go to America? Your aunt knows a woman who can marry you. She is a single mom, and a decent person so you won’t be deceived.”  Unconsciously, thoughtlessly, he nodded then jumped into bed. The following day when he woke up, his aunt from America was calling to settle everything, an air ticket for his wife-to-be  had also been bought. It was too late for him to back down.

It should be a good thing though. Not everybody in this village had the luck to go to America to make his fortune. His neighbours always looked with starry eyes every time somebody from America came home to visit, boasting that life over there was great, and that money would rain down on you from the trees. If you were out of work, the state would feed you. The state would also take care of your children until they were 21. It was exactly what he wanted. Instead of helping his parents take care of thousands of richly fragrant rambutan and durian trees, worrying about low yields, poor crops and wholesalers who drove hard bargains, he would live a carefree life without restraint. He could drink out all day and night without his parents nagging. He could freely buy a gun to stick inside his belt to confront belligerent teenagers. And the best thing would be to speed along the highway like in a Hollywood movie without being stopped by the police.

Thu hugged Quân and sobbed when she listened to him discuss their future. Though he was a true gangster, with his childhood sweetheart he was very gentle. “Don’t worry about anything honey,” he said. “It’s just a fake marriage and I don’t love her at all. Please wait for me for a few years. When I have a green card, I’ll divorce her immediately. When I have citizenship, I’ll go back to the village to wed you. Every year when I have free time, I’ll return to visit you.”

Quân said goodbye to all-day-and-night parties, drinking bouts he indulged in while guarding  the orchard, motorbike races, machete fights with other village boys and all the people he loved to depart for America, to find his dream. The gate to paradise was opening wide.

However, reality wasn’t as splendid as Quân thought. The money his parents gave him was used up to buy a pickup truck and pay for a few months of rent. His aunt had to worry about her own children so wasn’t much help. Less than seven months after he arrived, she followed her husband to Florida for a more affordable retirement. The only one who he could ask for help was his wife. Nhung treated him impeccably. Even though the money she got from their fake marriage was illegitimate, it made her life as a single mom easier.

Quân couldn’t live on Nhung’s goodwill forever. Nor could he shamelessly pester his parents back home for more money. It was time for him to find a job. Quân knew he didn’t have enough patience to work in a nail salon, even though being a nail artist could easily fetch a pretty penny. His couldn’t-care-less attitude and hot temper wouldn’t sit well with other nail artists. He couldn’t run around wearily serving food as a waiter in a restaurant for some meager tips either. Nor was he strong enough to work as a farm hand in orchards. And with zero English, he could never find an office job. Nhung said, “You can work with my cousin in house repair. The work is uncertain, the money is unstable, but you can still earn a little to care for yourself and help me pay rent. Whenever you’re ready, you can move out.”

One stormy night, the lights went out. After nursing her child to sleep, Nhung went into the kitchen to clean up. As the saying goes, first make friends, then make love. Quân’s effervescent virility couldn’t be suppressed any longer. Like a mayfly, he darted into the kitchen. Under the lightning that flashed from the faraway horizon, the two groped each other.

Once.

Twice.

Thrice.

And countless other times afterwards. Lust felt like drugs, even though Quân didn’t love Nhung and Thu’s exquisite face appeared every time he had sex.

One night, as usual, Quân fumbled his way into Nhung’s room. Nhung was also waiting for him. Yet this time she didn’t let him touch her. “I’m pregnant,” she said. “It’s two months old. I just went to the doctor’s this afternoon.”

Quân’s bloodshot face because of drinking instantly turned white. He tremblingly leaned against the deadly cold wall. No…no…it couldn’t be, he thought. I’ve come to America to have fun, make money then take my sweetheart here to build a happy family. I can’t destroy my bright future just because of a fetus being born out of a stupid moment with a woman I don’t love.

“Abort it!”

Nhung looked up at him in disgust with red glowing eyes. And it was the last time she and Quân spoke.

Nine years passed.

The dream about an immense paradise where one didn’t have to work to have money had gradually faded away. Quân’s hands had turned callous after years of handling hammers, nails and wood splinters. His body was covered with tattoos of mythical unicorns, phoenixes, turtles, dragons, leaves and flowers and whatnot like a mafia boss. In Orange County he was widely respected for being able to play poker and cockfights, make bets and drink exceptionally well. He changed cars four times, and every year visited Viet Nam for two whole months, all of which transformed him into a tireless robot. Every morning when he woke up, he only thought about how to make a lot of money in order to maintain his reputation.

When Nhung’s son Andy was almost seven, his daughter back home in Vietnam had also turned six. Having her hair tied up in two bunches, his princess listened to him every day on the phone.

“Please speed up the paperwork,” Thu said. “Our girl is growing up everyday. She needs you. I can’t bring her up on my own. Will we have to live like this forever?”

Nine years…

Every time he saw Thu’s sad eyes, and heard his daughter’s laughter and his parents’ deep and persistent coughs in bad weather, Quân just wanted to cast everything behind to return. His family’s orchard was neglected, since there was no one to take care of it. “Your father and I have put it out to lease, for some rent every season,” his mother said. But how could he return after so many years in a foreign land, where new daily habits had stuck like roots deep into every vein and spread to every cell, making it hard for him to tear himself away.

Quân was a mere petticoat gangster who hungered for home at the sound of boiling rice.

After more than 3,000 days of separation, the love between him and Thu had become as thin as smoke. He only needed to take a deep breath and blow, and every sentiment would evaporate. He didn’t have the courage to tell Thu to forget him and marry somebody else. When their daughter grew up, if Thu wanted, he would take her to America to study and live with him. As for living the rest of his life with the one Quân had stopped loving, it would be unbearable. As for Nhung, Quân had always felt indebted to her for having not listened to him but kept the baby so that he had a son to love. But he didn’t dare to look at her in the eyes. Nor could he cry over spilled milk. They only communicated through text messages and notes stuck all over the fridge. Between him and Nhung there was an abyss through which no bridge could cross to connect their two hearts that had dried up toward each other.

Quân couldn’t stuff his head with all the questions that could be asked in the citizenship exam so the navy blue American passport always remained out of reach. He wasn’t confident enough to divorce Nhung, for fear he might lose the ‘reputation’ he had built throughout his manhood living abroad. Many nights he tossed and turned in bed, feeling he could neither return nor stay, standing stuck at the narrow threshold he himself created.

Night. A light rain was beating against the windows. Quân heard Nhung’s gentle voice from the kids’ bedroom. Suddenly he felt his face burning. Desire started gnawing inside him like on that stormy night of old. Quân stood up, pressed an ear against the wall. Nhung’s lullaby reading voice gradually lowered, then stopped. He heard her close the door, and slowly walk toward her room.

Quân knocked gently.

There was not a sound in response.

He turned the knob. The door wasn’t locked. Quân boldly pushed it open and walked in.

In the dim light, Nhung leaned against the wall, barred a pillow across her chest, and eyed Quân in amazement, speechless. Unconsciously, he stepped forth. Nhung looked utterly terrified. She wanted to scream but felt a lump rising in her throat. Quân plunged onto bed, hastily clasped her weak body in his iron-like arms. Nhung struggled in panic, trying to fling him away but didn’t dare to scream aloud, lest the kids and the whole neighbourhood would wake up. In his thirst, Quân rubbed his head against Nhung’s breasts, insolently touching her body. Nhung flung his hands away, and kicked him off her. She glared at him then turned on the light, scowled and pointed at the door. Even though Nhung loved Quân silently, his face kept haunting her for many years, even though her heart melted for him, all anger and bitterness disappeared every time she saw him sitting morosely by a bottle of wine at midnight looking faraway with wistful eyes, whenever she logged onto Facebook, and saw photos of Quân and his wife and daughter back home frolicking happily around, and remembered his “abort it!”, she felt a sharp pain as if crawled upon by ten thousand poisonous centipedes, and only wanted to chop him into pieces.

Quân wildly grabbed some clothes, and stuffed his Vietnamese passport into a backpack. He hesitated for 30 seconds before picking up a copy of their marriage certificate. He got into his car. Turned on the engine. Pressed the pedal as hard as he could. Flew to the freeway. Darted out to the highway. Red and green lights seemed to stretch away endlessly, twinkling and dancing before his eyes like thousand stars lightening up in the rain. Quân wanted to drive straight to the airport, leave his car there, book a one-way ticket back to Viet Nam, and never return to America again. Yet Andy’s bright smiles and “daddy, daddy” calls woke him up to harsh reality.

Quân knew he couldn’t live in that apartment for a second longer. Tomorrow when the sun shone brightly, how could he face Nhung again? How could he eat her food without recalling her scared eyes?

America was so big, the city of angels was so big, but Quân didn’t know where he would head tonight and on the following days.

He knew it was too late, but he thought, I must have a final word with Nhung, no matter how hard. VNS

Maryland, early summer 2018

Translated by Thùy Linh