The soul of the piêu* scarf

Vietnam NewsBy Kiều Duy Khánh

Every night, rain or shine, Sừa went out to a gigantic block of stone under the coffee plum tree next to the Sủ Sung stream to fish and sleep. Yet for two days straight, he hadn’t shown up. Did Sừa leave for another stream with more fish? Or was he bored with fishing? Sừa’s fishing buddies had been asking each other such questions on their night shifts.

14751_MH-Hon Pieu

Illustration: Đỗ Dũng

Sừa hadn’t left for another stream. Nor had he gotten bored with fishing. Instead, Sừa was seriously ill. Sừa was ill, which sounded strange! Even though he was over 40, Sừa looked stronger than twentysomethings. His arms were firm and rugged like an old tree on the Sắng mountain. His chest was square and red, bursting like a stone slab. Sừa wasn’t ill because of an internal problem; he fell ill because of a breeze. Though the breeze was blowing through the silvery reeds just as softly as lovers whispering, it struck Sừa right at the foot of the stairs while he was carrying a heavy string of fish. Before he collapsed, Sừa managed to stammer for help. Tươn, who was awake waiting for her husband, rushed out and called for help.

Now Sừa was bed-ridden like tender greens withering under the sun. His mouth went out of shape; his limbs turned flabby, completely immobile. He kept lying there, desperately grasping at every bamboo beam and thatch leaf on the roof with his eyes. Once in a while he dozed off into lengthy dreams flowing like small currents through tottering sinuous cliffs on the Pó Bua mountain slope. Sừa dreamed about the young him many years before while he was fishing by the Sủ Sung stream.

*

Sừa couldn’t remember when he started fishing at the Sủ Sung stream. He only knew that whenever he and his friends went fishing at night, that was where they went. His friends would sit for a short while then leave to fish elsewhere if there was no immediate sign of success. For his part, Sừa would stick to this place stubbornly. He always ended up with the most fish.

Next to the rough block by the stream where Sừa often sat, there was a coffee plum tree that reached as high as his head. Every time he caught a fish, Sừa threaded it with a bamboo string and hung the string on a tree. On rainy nights, he didn’t run home but plucked a few arum stems to cover the tree top then crept toward the foot of the tree to continue fishing. Fish often went searching for food when it rained, so he could catch a lot in a short time.

In the blink of an eye his childhood passed. The coffee plum tree had shot up to the height of the stilt house. Sừa had also shot up into a big, husky man.

Now he started to follow pretty girls with his eyes, and stayed awake dreaming about them at night. He also stopped taking his fishing rod to the Sủ Sung stream. Instead, every evening, Sừa and his pals went to neighbouring villages, paying a visit to any family that had a daughter in it. The boys and girls would sit by the fire chatting merrily until the night wore out.

Sừa met Tươn at the Hạn Khuống festival in the Cò Chịa mountain village. Just one song and a cup of cassava wine with her were enough to make him infatuated with her beauty, with her skin that looked rosy like a prematurely hatched chicken egg put before the night lamp. But what Sừa remembered most was a birthmark that was as bright red as a cogon grass flower in a sunny afternoon perched on her slender light-skinned neck. The charming red spot was in front of his dazed eyes briefly when Tươn unintentionally pushed back her loose, long and shining black hair that smelled like rice soaking in water. The black hair would quickly fall down again, delicately hiding the mark.

Tươn was pretty, hardworking and good at embroidery and weaving. Her mother Mrs. Khau often told her, “In our Thái community, men must fish and hunt well, and women must be good at embroidery and weaving.” Her mother taught Tươn to practise embroidering piêu scarves when she was as short as a sticky rice pot on the stove. Her mother made sure she made her first piêu scarf carefully, beautifully. “People judge your dexterity based on your very first piêu scarf,” her mother said. “It is the holiest piêu scarf, the lovers’ scarf, because it holds the soul of the girl who makes it. This scarf isn’t made for anybody in your in-law family but for the man you love. If you give this scarf to your husband, it will unite your two souls forever.” Tươn’s mother told her so every night during their embroidery lessons by the fire.

Tươn finished embroidering her lovers’ scarf to her mother’s satisfaction. In the attic, there were many beautifully embroidered pillows, rolled reed flower mattresses and piêu scarves that smelt of indigo still waiting for Tươn to present to her future in-laws. For many months, the young men in Cò Chịa and neighbouring villages stood outside her house in the cold dewy night, playing the most romantic pan flute songs to woo her. Many sticks had poked up at her floor in vain. Tươn had never once opened her maiden’s door, a square wooden piece on the floor, to let any of them touch her waist. Her lovers’ scarf was still in a red wooden trunk.

After the Hạn Khuống festival, Sừa felt like a startled fox addicted to the hunter’s light. He thought about Tươn all the time, when he worked in the field, hunted, or fished. He dreamt about her in his sleep. Every day he only wished for the night to fall sooner so that he could get to her house to get to know her better. Tươn lived in Cò Chịa, which took Sừa as much time to reach as it would take him to roast a wild boar. Yet every night he donned his best suit and carried his pan flute to play at the foot of her stairs. The pan flute sounded as if it breathed fire, burning Tươn’s already rosy cheeks. It made her fidgety, constantly standing up and sitting down as she was embroidering by the fire. Tươn, who was known throughout her village as the best Piêu scarf embroiderer, found it impossible to work. The quivering sound arrested her hands, preventing them from giving perfect shapes to her wild fruit patterns.

As the night thickened, Sừa’s music became more and more urgent with love. The heart in Tươn’s chest pounded more and more quickly and loudly, like the drums that cow herding children played after the rain. The quickened breathing seemed to blow up her firm round breasts which seemed ready to burst through the silver buttons of her close-fitting traditional blouse. Tươn tried to subdue her heaving and kept on embroidering in bewilderment.

Yet the pan flute kept on singing every night until the rooster crowed, throwing Tươn’s colorful threads into disarray. On the fifth night, Tươn lightly walked toward her bed, opened the wooden trunk, took out the lovers’ scarf, and walked out to open the main door hesitantly. She stood on the ninth step of the stairs and wrapped the scarf around her neck. She grasped at two ends of the scarf and spread out her arms as if she were about to fly. The pan flute sounded hurried then hushed. Sừa quickly walked upstairs.

Every night afterwards, there was no longer any yearning pan flute music. By the fire, there were only very soft loving whispers that felt warmer than the burning coal.

One night, after Tươn’s parents had fallen asleep, and the coal fire had almost died out, Sừa took Tươn’s hand and led her to the Sủ Sung stream. Amidst the merry burbling of the stream, and the glistening moonlight overflowing on the waters that looked like a gigantic fish inclining on its side showing off its sparkly scales, Sừa tremblingly uttered the words he had prepared for a long time but hadn’t had the courage to say. Tươn remained silent but inside felt like a flying cloth ball played with during Tết. Hesitantly she leaned her head toward Sừa’s shoulder. With embarrassment, Sừa took Tươn’s soft petal-like hand with his rough, callous one.

A night breeze fondled the rustling coffee plum leaves. For a few months, Sừa hadn’t gone to the stream so the coffee plum tree had blossomed and born fruits without his notice. The big dangling fruits bent down the branches with their weight. Sừa plucked a handful of the ripened fruits and gave them to Tươn.

Cold air blew over from the far forest and up from the nearby stream. Sừa and Tươn sat close to each other. They found each other with their burning lips. It was the first kiss of the first love that tasted of the sweet, acrid and buttery coffee plums.

Suddenly, Tươn took off the lovers’ scarf from her head, swiftly wrapped it around Sừa’s neck then ran away. Sừa stood still looking after her in a daze.

When the orchid trees bore seeds, Sừa urged his parents to ask the matchmaker to bring a pair of wine bottles and a pair of chicken to ask Tươn’s parents to allow him to carry out the Pay Khươi ceremony so he could move in with her. After three years of Sừa living in the bride’s family, and after a few more years when Tươn moved to her husband’s house, Tươn’s belly remained as virginally small and smooth as a peeled wild banana, showing no sign of growing.

Sừa’s parents invited the priest home to carry out a praying ceremony for days on end. Tươn also drank countless pots of wild plant medicine made by the best herbalists in the region. Yet her belly didn’t bulge. As a neighbour advised, Sừa sold his biggest buffalo to fetch enough money to take his wife to the biggest clinic in Hanoi for a check-up. He asked his father-in-law Mr. Túng to accompany them.

After several days of examination, Sừa and his father-in-law were informed of the results.

Sừa went back home feeling lost. He hardly ate, spoke, or smiled. Every morning he sat by the fire drinking cassava wine and smoking his pipe. “What did the doctor say? When are we going to have a baby?” Tươn asked many times but Sừa didn’t answer. Tươn cried for two nights, until her eyes swelled purple like two coffee plums. On the third day Sừa couldn’t stand her sobbing any longer. He held his wife in his iron arms and spoke in a choked, watery voice. “The doctor said I couldn’t bear a child, ever… Please don’t leave me, Tươn…” he said.

The news of Sừa’s infertility quickly spread from Chờ Lồng to Cò Chịa village. Tươn’s mother called her home and said:

“Sừa can’t give you a child. You have to think about this. When you age and can’t plant rice or corn anymore, who will take care of you? When you die, who will clothe your dead body? Think about that boy Ứng who often visits us and loves you.”

Ứng lived in the same village as Tươn. He had liked Tươn for years. After Tươn got married, Ứng remained single. Every time Tươn visited her mother, Ứng dropped by. Tươn would keep her distance and wouldn’t talk to Ứng. Ứng would ignore her coldness and quietly sit by the fire until midnight. Tươn’s parents liked Ứng and wanted to match-make him with Tươn’s younger sister Sưởi. But Ứng showed no interest, and Sưởi was too young anyway.

Tươn understood her mother but avoided the issue. Though Sừa was infertile, she still loved him and had no intention of leaving him. Yet, after that visit to her mother, on sleepless nights her thoughts often drifted back to the issue. Sometimes Ứng appeared in her head. Tươn tried to suppress her sighs so that Sừa couldn’t hear.

*

Sừa went out to fish at the Sủ Sung stream every night again. Before, he had gone fishing to find food for his family. Now, he went fishing to find solace.

Night after night as he sat by the stream, Sừa wished he could drop his sadness into the waters and throw it away to the hungry fish.

The stone where Sừa had often sat remained in place, and the coffee plum tree had grown old, mouldy, and coarse. Its branches had shrunk and withered. Sừa spent many nights staring at the tree, taking no notice of the fishing rod which was shaking under his hands because a fish had bitten the bait and was struggling to break free.

Nobody knew why after yielding fruit just that one time, the coffee plum tree never bore fruit again. Was it because on that night, Sừa had plucked its fruits for Tươn to eat, disturbing and frightening away its spirit which was then sleeping, violating a village taboo?

Yet under the fertile stream there was now a multitude of fish. No sooner did Sừa throw his line in than some fish tugged hard at it. Sừa would swing the rod up skillfully, and a catfish, a mudfish, or sometimes a carp would be thrown up from under the waters into the dew-soaked grass, wriggling violently.

*

After he caught the cold, Sừa lay in bed for four nights unconscious. On the fifth night, he sat up slowly, feeling fresh and clear. He finished a full pot of porridge that Tươn had cooked for him with relish, as though he were the strong 18-year-old chap of old.

After eating, Sừa walked into the yard, dug up a worm, hooked it into his fishing rod, and asked his wife to take him to the stream.

It was a strange night. The fish seemed to be fast asleep, so none of them took Sừa’s bait even though it had stayed in the waters for long and his arm had started to feel weary. But Sừa remained patient and kept on waiting calmly besides Tươn, who was looking at her husband anxiously.

Near midnight, something tugged at the fishing rod, lightly and hesitantly. Sừa pulled up the rod gently, but it felt heavy. Mustering up his strength, Sừa swung the rod powerfully. The rod swung up high like a new moon. It took Sừa a while longer to drag the fish onto the bank. As they directed their lamp at the fish, Sừa and Tươn stared in surprise. It was a catfish that was bigger than a calf and yellow like a ripe wild banana leaf. It was the biggest catfish Sừa had caught in all his life.

It was a very old catfish with muddy white eyes and wrinkled flat mouldy head. It struggled for life faintly, wearily. Sừa released the catfish from the hook and stood thinking. Then in a frail but resolute gesture, he threw both the fishing rod and the catfish into the stream. The catfish waggled its tail lightly and vanished. The fishing rod also floated away slowly into the eerie darkness.

Sừa and Tươn sat back silently together on the stone, remembering the day when he proposed. Their aged dry thin lips touched each other tremulously. The kiss tonight didn’t have a sweet acrid coffee plum taste. It tasted salty. The bitter saltiness of the rare tears rolling from Tươn’s tired eyes. Tươn felt something was amiss.

After midnight, the couple led each other home. Sừa lay down, took Tươn’s dry gaunt hand, and said in a trembling voice, “When I die, please don’t marry again… You don’t need to burry your lovers’ scarf with me either… Keep it…”

Tươn grasped her husband’s hand and broke out crying.

“E…ec…e…ec…”

A barn-owl screeched three times sharply and coldly at the rooftop. It wasn’t a good omen. Tươn ran out and shouted it away. The barn-owl teased her and flew around the stilt house thrice and screeched a few more times before soaring away into the dark.

*

“Tươn, your husband has been dead for two years. You should move on. Your youth and beauty will pass away with every orchid tree season. Ứng is still waiting for you.”

Every time she visited her mother, this was what Tươn heard. Tươn’s father, who was drinking and eating a roasted piece of mouse meat, flung his cup of wine against the wattle wall and raised his voice in anger:

“Is your brain as small as a rat? When Sừa was alive, you told your daughter to leave him because he was infertile. Now that Sừa is dead, and the abstinence period is not ended and you’re breaking the customs and telling her to marry again. I was as blind as a dead fish when I chose you.”

Mrs. Khau trembled in fear and kept her mouth shut.

Tươn didn’t dare to say anything either. Yet afterwards, she visited her mother more often. Ứng also dropped by more often whenever Tươn showed up. There were nights when the two sat up late by the fire. Tươn’s father had to chase Ứng away. Night after night as she slept at her parents’ house and listened to Ứng’s warm pan flute music floating up from the cherry blossom tree behind her house, Tươn silently counted the days for the abstinence period to end.

Yet Tươn only dared to do so at her parents’ house. When she returned to her own, and looked at Sừa’s old blouse still hanging on the wattle wall and the lovers’ scarf she had wrapped around his neck that night whose indigo colour still looked fresh, Tươn didn’t dare to think about Ứng’s pan flute.

*

Sưởi, Tươn’s younger sister, showed no sign of pregnancy after three years of marriage. Sưởi’s husband was the only son in his family, which was also the richest family in the village. His parents gave the couple a big bag of money and told them to go to Hanoi to see a doctor. They wanted a grandchild at all costs.

As Sưởi and her husband had never visited Hanoi, they asked Tươn to take them to the old clinic where Tươn was once examined.

Tươn still recognised the doctor, who called her into his room after examining both Sưởi and her husband. “Your sister has polycystic ovary syndrome. With our advanced science today, this problem can be cured,” he said.

*

“Mom and dad, the abstinence period has passed. I don’t want to remain single and childless until the day I die. Ứng loves me, so if you two agree, please let him choose a good day to ask the matchmaker to bring a pair of chickens and a pair of wine bottles to ask for your permission to move in with me here.”

Tươn asked her parents softly one day, as she pushed wood into the burning fire.

Before Mrs. Khau could speak, Mr. Túng jumped up, pulled down a knife hanging on the wattle wall, struck violently at the big pillar near the stove, and roared:

“Are you a hungry rat that has to gnaw at bamboo roots yet makes little of bamboo shoots? Sừa forbade me to tell you, but I’ll tell you now. You won’t get pregnant because you’re hopelessly infertile. It won’t make any difference if you marry Ứng.”

While both Tươn and her mother were dumbstruck, Mr. Túng darted away and back with a piece of paper. He threw it at Tươn’s feet. Tươn read the medical results and collapsed on the floor.

*

“Love, why didn’t you tell me… I almost sinned against you… The abstinence period may be over, but it will always remain in my heart.”

Tươn hugged her husband’s grave for a long time. The lovers’ scarf in her hands was soaked in tears. It was a special scarf today. Tươn removed the patterns at the two ends and replaced them with three silver buttons from her blouse as well as three cloth buttons from her husband’s old one. They now symbolised the soul of the lovers’ scarf. From now on, Sừa would follow Tươn and Tươn would look back, forever.

Then Tươn cut the lovers’ scarf vertically with a knife into halves. She left one half on her husband’s grave and the other on her shining black married woman’s hair. The symbolic hair was combed up high into a bundle with a silver brooch that Sừa had given Tươn on their wedding day. The brooch looked anew, glistening like a half-moon.

*Piêu scarf: the traditional brocade head scarf worn by women of the Thai ethnicity, many of whom live in the mountainous northwestern region of Vietnam. The scarf is a cultural and religious symbol marked by its colourful patterns that evoke natural beauty.    

 

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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

Curtain Fig Wharf

Việt Nam NewsBy Trần Dũng 

Nguyên hesitantly stopped his bike at the three-way crossroads. Long Thạnh Village looked so different now. Nguyên looked around for the haggardness of more than 20 years before, but couldn’t find any trace of it.

curtain fig wharf

Illustration: Đỗ Dũng

The hot and dry north-easterly wind lent a fresh rosiness and eagerness to the coastal village. Nguyên felt glad, wondering whether he had contributed even just a little to the prosperity of Long Thạnh today. It was strange though. As a wandering journalist, rarely had he set foot in a region twice. Yet this remote land, which seemed as tiny as a little cup, kept drawing him back. The first time he was here, he exposed a ruse in which a bunch of communal cadres falsified papers to prove a man had died fighting in the American War to help his wife claim war martyr benefits. Today he returned to report on a flourishing business model which was gaining nationwide fame. Suddenly, Nguyên felt dazed. It was perhaps because of the scorching sunshine at midday by the sea. As a woman wearing a grass-green traditional southern Vietnamese garment walked toward him, Nguyên asked quickly:

– Madam! Can you tell me the way to the Curtain Fig Wharf eco-tourism zone?

– Curtain Fig Wharf? -The woman looked up, startling Nguyên. The green garment had deceived him. Under the ragged conical hat was a pale wrinkled face whose age was difficult to guess but must have been old. The strangest thing was her gleam, which was both deep and distant, which both looked at him and seemed not to look at anything in particular.

– Curtain Fig Wharf? – The woman mumbled again. – Yeah…down there at Curtain Fig Wharf!

And the woman walked straight away, leaving Nguyên standing alone puzzled in the middle of the crossroads.

*

Nguyên slept at Curtain Fig Wharf. He learned everything he needed to know for the article in one afternoon sitting with director Tâm aboard a canoe traversing up and down canals running through a row of primal mangrove forests. For a long time, he had been so busy breathlessly chasing stories as a journalist that he had rarely allowed himself moments to relax and listen to birds sing, or watch rivers run. Moreover, there seemed to be something buried deep inside the mind of the director who had pepper-and-salt hair and who hadsingle-handedly protected scores of acres of green mangrove forests against the violent giant tiger prawns.

The night at Curtain Fig Wharf felt sharply cold. The bottle of wine slowly emptied. Director Tâm said in a low voice:

– At that time, I felt like a mad man after being kicked out of career and success. But how could I have helped feeling mad. I was like a high-flying kite whose flying line suddenly broke, making it flop to the ground. Then everybody in Long ThạnhVillage vied with each other to destroy the forests to farm prawns. I didn’t have any other option but jumped in, borrowed money, hired scrapers and excavators, and hoped for a change of fate. Until one day, or to be more accurate, one night, which was also a full-moon one at the beginning of the season of north-easterly winds like tonight.

Raising the cup of wine Tâm gave him, Nguyên looked up at the sky. The full moon hung obliquely, shining through the green mangrove foliage, then floating far away into a sheer mist. Once in a while, the smoke from a mosquito burner flared up. It touched the sparkling silvery blueness of the moonlight, chased the latter around, captured it and returned it to the high sky. The night at Curtain Fig Wharf was so quiet. Nguyên could hear the buzzing of a few mosquitoes trying to fly past the smoke in pursuit of their prey. Insects chirped to each other incessantly. Big-clawed red crabs purred under the water waiting for mates. Something lighter than a leave seemed to have fallen. Tâm put his cup down, jumped up, and darted toward the river bank:

– Madam!

Nguyên was startled and followed him. He searched but didn’t see anybody. Under the ethereal moonlight, Tâm stood by the curtain fig tree, and stared into the depths, searching for something in the thin mist.

– Who are you calling? – Nguyên put a hand on director Tâm’s shoulder and asked, wondering what was happening.

– Did you hear a sigh that had dropped on the empty riverbank? – Director Tâm asked instead.

– No but perhaps…yes! – Nguyên answered, feeling unsure about what he had heard.

– That was it, the sigh that was as light as mist and smoke in the middle of a surreal moonlit night decades ago that made me stop digging and destroying and start preserving all the greenmangrove forests around Curtain Fig Wharf.

Only then did Nguyên realise that, besides the mangrove trees which lay close to each other like a bundle of chopsticks shooting up into the sky, there was also an ancient curtain fig tree reflecting itself on the roaring torrents flowing out into the sea. It was this curtain fig tree that seemed to be the centre of the whole eco-tourism zone that Tâm had toiled for decades to build. Ignoring her neighbouring plants which jostled with each other for a tiny share of cramped space to head toward the sun, the curtain fig tree quietly and calmly stood her ground. As months and years passed, from her trunk, her buds, her branches, bundles of roots grew and stuck down straight into the ground. Steadfast in the face of time. Steadfast in the face of winds and storms.

– Right on this wharf, under the cool shade of this ancient curtain fig tree, people from everywhere gathered in Long Thạnh to send their men off to the north after the Geneva Accords*! – Director Tâm said in a sad voice, taking Nguyên back in time – It was perhaps the farewell tears of mothers and wives that wetted the curtain fig tree to keep it growing green and rooted. On the last day, when the moon had risen above the top of the curtain fig tree, a soldier at last left for his ship. The last ship weighed anchor. A young woman wearing a grass-green traditional southern Vietnamese garment who came from the freshwater province of Hậu Giang ran up a little too late. The ship couldn’t turn back nor could the young woman cross the sea. The distance between them grew farther and farther. The honking of the ship, and the crashing of the waves couldn’t drown out the voices of their throbbing hearts. “Take care of my mother for me. In two years, I’ll return!” “I’ll wait for you, I’ll definitely wait for you!” In a thick mist of tears, the young woman saw the man and the ship blur away slowly then melt into the immense sea.

The moon gently rose. A north-easterly wind blew coldly. Relatives quietly dispersed, returning to wherever they came from. On the empty wharf under the ancient curtain fig tree there was only the young woman and her aged mother-in-law. They clasped each other, tears rolling down their cheeks. Some time after, the young woman went to live in the small hut of the old woman at Curtain Fig Wharf. They leaned on each other, took care of each other as they waited for months then years.

Two years. Three years. Then five years passed.

The hut slowly turned to rags but the women’s longing thickened with time. The old woman drooped closer to the ground every day. The young one hurriedly ran in and out carrying food or medicine. Though she hadn’t had her wedding, the young woman fulfilled her duty as a daughter-in-law. In fire and flames, she kept dreaming about peace.

One day her vulnerable girlhood fell into the devil’s hands. Taking anger out on herself for not being able to protect her most precious gift for her absent husband, the young woman went to the empty river bank intending to jump into the whirling waters. But she heard her mother-in-law cough dryly in the stormy night. Pitying the aging one, the young woman silently swallowed her tears and returned.

Five years. Ten years.

The old woman had passed away. The forlorn shadow of the young one living in the ragged hut seemed to melt into the shadow of the ancient curtain fig tree lying on the empty river bank. Night after night, she listened to the rustling north-easterly winds pining for the returning footsteps of the young man of old.

At last the war ended. The young men setting off from Long Thạnh Village in the old days one by one returned. Some were greeted with firecrackers and banners. Some came home with withering injured bodies. Some didn’t return in person but through certificates of honour that recognised their sacrifices. Only one person was lost without a trace, even though his wife anxiously waited day and night. There was only a tiny piece of news which was hazier than December mist: When the war reached its fiercest moments, he had volunteered to return to the southern front!

Before long, 25 years passed…

The woman at Curtain Fig Wharf became more emaciated and unsteady day after day. There was a small altar in the middle of the hut but the incense bowl was placed face down for lack of use. Every morning she went out to the empty riverbank and stared at the direction from which the north-easterly winds blew.

The communal People’s Committee discussed in vain what category to designate that pitiful lonely woman so she could receive government benefits as a small final token for having spent all of her youth waiting. The embattled young chairman decided to make fake papers to recognise the soldier as a war martyr dying in action so the woman at Curtain Fig Wharf could become a dead soldier’s wife. The affair was exposed. The chairman was sacked and turned to prawn farming. The woman was forced to return whatever benefits she had received. Destitute, she was kept at the district prison.

*

– Fake war martyr papers? -Nguyên asked anxiously – Do you mean that Long Thạnh case that spilled all over the press?

– Yes! – Tâm said, still in a low voice.

– Then…what is that woman doing now? Where is she? – Nguyên pressed, his heart felt like stopping. He didn’t want to imagine the story he had broken that year had destroyed somebody.

– For more than 20 years, nobody has again seen that woman whose heart must have turned to stone. It’s said that once in a while, on moonlit nights at the beginning of the season of north-easterly winds, people catch glimpse of a woman wearing a grass-green traditional southern Vietnamese garment standing by the ancient curtain fig tree looking out into the empty river, heaving a long sigh.

– What about that communal chairman?

– He’s standing right in front of you!

– Is it…you? – Nguyên asked, startled. The world was snmall indeed. Nguyên wondered whether he had met an old friend or enemy.

– Do you resent that journalist? – Nguyên asked.

– Yes. A lot! I was flying high like a kite, then suddenly I was brought to Earth! But I thought about it again. I realised I had to pay for my mistake. The law is the law!

Nguyên tried to look into Tâm’s eyes. The feeble trembling moonlight made everything unreal. It was likely that the director didn’t recognise the youthful face of the journalist of old hiding under the wrinkles, the pepper-and-salt hair and a thick pair of glasses. But maybe…he had known right away at noon when they first shook hands. For decades working as a journalist, Nguyên had told himself to use truth to measure everything in life. Yet not until today did he realise that there were truths that were best to be left in the mist. Suddenly director Tâm grasped Nguyên’s hand and said:

– Did you hear the sigh too or was I under a spell?

The image of the strange woman wearing a green-grass traditional southern Vietnamese garment standing at the crossroads at noon flitted through Nguyên’s mind. He squeezed Tâm’s hand and said:

– Yes, I did hear it!

A north-easterly wind blew by gently. Nguyên shuddered lightly. Somewhere a curtain fig leave had fallen, floating away in the thin mist.

*The Geneva Accords were signed in 1954 to dismantle French colonies in Southeast Asia. The agreement temporarily separated Vietnam into two zones: the north to be governed by the Việt Minh, and the south, then headed by former emperor Bảo Đại. After the agreement, a large migration took place. Many northern Vietnamese moved south, and Việt Minh soldiers from the south were re-grouped to the north. A general election was expected to be held in two years to create a unified Việt Nam. This election however didn’t happen, and the Vietnamese people were pulled into another two decades of war.

Translated by Thùy Linh

 

Crossing the street alone

Việt Nam NewsBy Lê Minh Khuê

“So your aunt and I will be gone for a few weeks. You’ll take care of the shop. In the evening Vân will be home and review the day’s trade. Don’t worry about business. You’re better off here anyway, because you don’t have anything else to do while waiting for a job offer other than wandering around inhaling traffic smoke or sitting at cafes ogling unemployed girls in short skirts and high heels. It wouldn’t be fun. You’d better look after the shop for us, or else we’ll have to close it and lose customers. Look, we can’t let customers walk away. Is there any house on the street in this whole city that isn’t used as a shop? We have to sell things. Everything. This big market which is our city is perhaps one of a kind in the world. In other cities people set aside a little land for gardens and lawns and green trees. They sell things in separate zones. But here we’re filled with shops. Which is very convenient. You can just run out to the entrance of your alley to buy a box of matches, or to the other side of the street for a motorbike. Okay, I’ll stop rambling now. But hey, your precocious face looks so pathetic. Why don’t you live carefreely like your forefathers who went to war with full belief which made everything as light as a feather? Let me explain more to you about the need to keep the shop open every day. If we were closed for even one day, people would find it strange and peek through the door to see if there is anything wrong. So you must help your aunt and me. Our water filters are mostly fake Chinese products. Customers in the know would just pout and walk away, so we can only catch naïve ones once in a while. They buy our filters and are glad if they work; otherwise, they reluctantly come back for maintenance. At any rate, every shop is fully prepared for warranty maintenance. We just need to offer them a new cartridge. If they want to test the water for toxic metals, they would have to wait for eternity for the test result. They wouldn’t want to waste their time that way. The only reason I’m still selling water filters is because I’m waiting for somebody to rent our shop. As for your aunt and me, we’re tired and our backs hurt from working. And when we lie down in our coffins, nobody will offer us real dollar bills to carry to our afterlife. Just lots of fake dollars. Full bags of them…”

“Okay you can stop now,” Nghĩa’s aunt intervened to cut off her husband’s rant. “The boy has already agreed to help. At your age, if you talk too much, you’ll go nuts.”

crossing the street alone

Illustration: Đào Quốc Huy

Nghĩa’s uncle was 1.55 m tall, and his aunt was 1.62 m tall. The couple had sailed through more than twenty years together without so much as a ripple in their peaceful pond of marriage. He had the habit of talking too much too loud like a ward loudspeaker while she spoke little but tended to describe things astutely and humourously like Hồ Xuân Hương herself*.

Yet Nghĩa didn’t laugh. The 23-year-old boy had a beard and the quiet eyes of a sailor who was thrashed about by waves and storms in remote uncharted seas. He looked at his aunt and her husband, waited for the latter to finish his speech then said “You two can go!”

Nghĩa’s uncle and aunt went away. They took the train to the central region to visit their oldest son whom they had disowned after he dared to marry a woman from so far away. The grandson, who was two now, was prompted by his mother to call his grandparents on the phone, “Grandpa, grandma, it’s little Tý saying hello!” The grandfather coughed and the grandmother teared up. How could they resist?

After Nghĩa’s aunt and uncle left, his cousin Vân hardly came home from work but went to her boyfriend’s house, a pottery shop in the Old Quarter. Vân called Nghĩa’s phone, “Is it you, cousin? However much money you make, you can use it to buy whatever you want. My parents won’t care!” Okay, Nghĩa sighed.

Nghĩa saw a newsstand on the opposite side of the street. He ran through the deadly traffic filled with reckless and seemingly blind drivers, climbed over the road barrier and crossed the oncoming traffic. The motorbikes were driven by guys who treated life like trash, who wouldn’t mind racing from here right to hell to have a beer with Satan, who must be bored of receiving so many dead drivers. Nghĩa fought just to find his way to buy a few sport newspapers. Arsenal were sliding downhill. His favourite football team had suffered defeat continuously, which only served to strengthen his determination to love the team that seemed not to care about fame or money or winning cups at any cost. Arsenal only cared about serving a dreamlike style which was as romantic as love. To play beautifully without violence seemed to be scorned in an age when players cheated and betrayed and stole on the field under billions of watchful but powerless eyes.

Nghĩa had been wasting his youth by thinking. He knew he couldn’t blend in with society. Everyday his parents preached to him and advised him.He sat idly in the shop all day and felt thankful that no customer dropped in. In such heat, even country bumpkins who raked in money by selling pigs and rice would hesitate to go out. As for urban citizens, they would only buy authentic brand-name filters. If they couldn’t, they would rather drink and die from dirty water than from doubt.

This crossroads was the busiest and most suffocating in the city. The worst time was rush hours on summer days. Motorbike gangs who would race to death got stuck into the melting asphalt road. As Nghĩa fumbled his way to the newsstand, the girl seller eyed him as though he were an alien. “Why are you so nervous?” she asked.

“I’m scared of crossing the street!” Nghĩa answered.

“What is so scary about crossing the street? I walk through the crossroads over there to get to school every day. Why did you keep looking around?”

“I didn’t want to get hit!”

“Don’t look. Don’t give way. Even if you look and give way, nobody cares and does the same for you.  Learn from me. I just walk ahead without looking at anybody. It works. Just try it.”“I’m not too scared actually,” Nghĩa replied. “I just hate trouble. I like to sit alone in my own corner. But I need to read sport newspapers everyday. Blue-printed and red-printed. I can read dozens of sport newspapers even if they cover the same content.  And you run the only newsstand in the whole street.”

The girl laughed slyly. “You’re right,” she said. “It’s foolish to run a newsstand here. Nobody reads anything. We’re running our shop only because my grandpa feels bored. He said in the old days, people had to wait in line with their permits just to buy newspapers and books. My grandpa misses the old days. Look at him.”

Inside, an old white-haired man wearing silk was watering a table plant. He looked like an antique. He didn’t care about all the grotesque noises crashing in from outside. Nghĩa nodded and thought the old man was exactly like his granddaughter. The old man could also cross the street nonchalantly. The girl felt Nghĩa’s sympathy for her grandfather. She tugged at Nghĩa’s arm as Nghĩa was looking like an old man, terrified by streets. She wanted to help. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I stay at school all day but in the afternoon when I go home, I’ll bring you newspapers.”

Nghĩa looked dazed. His face looked all the older with the growing beard that he hadn’t shaved for days. The girl burst out laughing. “Are you afraid of falling behind the news?” she asked. “You can read newspapers in the afternoon, right? Reading old news is even more interesting. There is a guy over there on the other side of the street who loves reading old news. He says up-to-date news scares him. He has to take time reading. Old news calms him down. Isn’t he funny?”

Nghĩa didn’t laugh. The girl extended her hand to him. “Let’s make a deal. I’m little Chíp. It’s my nickname at home. My full name is very complicated. Nguyễn Lê Vũ Thước Minh Hương. Sounds so scary and boring. Horror movies are more interesting.”

Nghĩa sat on a plastic chair looking at the crossroads which was congested in the afternoon. Seen from all four directions, the traffic looked super-jammed and pitch-black. The black lines stretched for several miles. The asphalt road absorbed and emitted heat like a gigantic gas stove. Heat steamed up in torrents from the air. Women hid themselves completely behind sunglasses and masks and arm-length gloves.

Nghĩa jested, “Where in the world can women display their beauty now?” Little Chíp used a hand to hide her mouth which was smiling and baring a wide tooth gap. “In the kitchen,” she answered. “In the air-conditioned office like my mom’s workplace. In the café in the afternoon. And in the bedroom. Aren’t there plenty of places for that?”

The 14-year-old girl struck Nghĩa as precocious as kids on TV these days. Those kids knew everything. They terrified Nghĩa. Yet somehow little Chíp sounded and looked okay. It seemed about time that she knew that women displayed their beauty in the bedroom.

Nghĩa lamented the death of the sight of dandies shyly and nervously following beauties these days. Little Chíp commented, “Aren’t people too busy for that? Look at my mom. Every day when she goes home, I’ve already gone to bed. My mom and dad have such a funny relationship. Every week dad visits mom, grandpa and me for two days. Sometimes at the beginning of the week, sometimes on weekends.”

“Why?” Nghĩa inquired. “I don’t know,” little Chíp said. “Dad is busy with business and so is mom. They say it saves time when they live separately in their own houses. They’re free to do whatever they want.”

“Scary. They can’t be in love with each other!”

“Just the opposite. At night they talk incessantly on the phone. Once in a while, dad picks mom up on Sunday evening to go dancing, or to have coffee. I find this arrangement alright. My aunt and uncle live together but fight each other everyday. Mom and dad don’t seem to get bored with each other. Grandpa said what a stupid crazy bunch!”

“I agree,” Nghĩa said. “How can a husband and wife live separately? Even Westerners don’t live like that.”

“What an old man you are,” little Chíp said, looking up and down at the quiet guy. “You’re as old as grandpa.”

Every afternoon without fail, little Chíp brought newspapers to Nghĩa. Nghĩa felt relieved whenever there was a traffic jam. In a traffic jam everything stood still. The girl only needed to worm her way through. It was smooth traffic that was terrifying. Nobody heeded anybody. Everybody tried to race forward. Anybody who could be a few inches ahead would be considered the great winner.

Bobbing faraway on the other side of the street was little Chíp’s short hair. Her hair was as thick as tree roots. She had to use a big headband to keep it in order. Her forehead looked square and protruded forward, and coupled with her square chin, gave her face a square look. She looked both cute and naïve like a baby who was sucking milk. Yet her head was full of seasoned thoughts.“Why do you read sport news?” she asked Nghĩa one day. “I don’t. Even football is dirty now. Scary. I’d rather watch scary movies!”

Nghĩa burst out laughing at little Chíp’s way of speaking. The two often talked to each other. On one congested suffocating afternoon, little Chíp pointed to a car and lectured, “Look here. It’s a Murano which costs almost 2 billion dong. As for the car over there, it’s a Lexus GX 470, with a stylised L as its logo. Toyota produces this line exclusively for the American market. It’s a powerful all-wheel drive with eight seats and a 4.6 l engine. It’s 2.5 billion dong.”

“God. Where do you learn all this?” Nghĩa exclaimed.

Little Chíp smiled broadly, squinting her eyes. “My dad sells cars,” she said. “Dad teaches me carefully. I remember everything.”

Nghĩa learned to observe cars by following little Chíp’s instruction. He could identify cars of almost 3 billion dong which got stuck amid rolling flows of motorbikes. Owners of Muranos and Hummers sat secure and hidden patiently waiting for the road to clear while the inferior bikes around them were staining their cars with smoke. As rich as they were, they had to wait too.

Rich people in this country suffered after all. There was a phở shop near Nghĩa’s house in the Old Quarter. Upper-class phở addicts drove their cars there. The luxurious elegance of the latest Mercedeses seemed to ignite the secret classism of the Old Quarter. Yet the ladies and gentlemen, the modern day upper class couldn’t find any place to park their cars. They might spend a whole morning looking for parking spots without being able to eat a bowl of phở. But they were patient. They could wait to park and set their precious million-dong shoes on the sidewalk and walked leisurely in their gowns and suits which exasperated everybody else but which was nothing to them because as the new aristocrats, they knew they must persevere amid the mud and dust.

Even wealthy owners of billion-dong cars wasted their time getting stuck in afternoon congestion without being able to do anything about it. There wasn’t a separate lane for the rich. Their cars shared the same fate with bikes. For their parts, high-power scooters or ‘super’ scooters over 250 cc from Honda and Yamaha also had to stay put on the jammed road with Chinese bikes and Honda cubs of the 1970s.

Little Chíp pointed toward a ridiculously pompous and posh bike. “Look over there. It’s called the black rhino. My dad has bought one.”

“Scary,” Nghĩa said. “I can’t imagine myself riding such a big bike in this city.”

Little Chíp looked at Nghĩa strangely. She raised her hand to rub the boy’s beard like a naughty younger sister. “So what do you like best?” she asked.

“I like green pastures and big old trees and well-trodden paths,” Nghĩa replied. “In the distance we can see houses. I like a house nestling in a forest. I would cycle to the city to work then cycle back home and rest my bike by the fence. In the kitchen my mom is cooking and my dad is playing chess. I walk into the back garden to play basketball with little Chíp then inhale the crystal clear and fresh air…”

Little Chíp laughed ecstatically like a drunk boy. “You’re a dreamer,” she said. “Where in the world can we find big trees and green grass for you? But there’s plenty of vehicle smoke and road dust which is thickening day by day so you can’t escape even in your dream!”

The owner of the clothes shop next to the water filter shop sat idly smoking and listening to the boy and girl chatting with his hands in his shorts’ pockets in just another congested afternoon at the crossroads. He told little Chíp, “I know you’re the granddaughter of the old newsstand owner over there. Your grandfather is funny. His son-in-law makes billions selling cars and his daughter rakes in that much working in banking, but he still chooses to toil away at his newsstand.”

Little Chíp didn’t reply. She looked at the guy as if he were a strange object. The guy spoke just like everybody else. Everybody thought her grandfather was greedy. But she knew that her grandfather only worked because he didn’t want to be idle. He often gave away all of his money. He still had many destitute relatives in the countryside to care for.

Noticing little Chíp’s simmering anger, Nghĩa asked the guy to cool the situation, “How is business?” “As you’ve been sitting here for a few days, have you seen anybody come here to buy clothes?” the guy retorted. “It’s damned hot. And my whore at home only buys outdated styles. Young girls walk by, take a glance, then walk away. What a bore!”

“Your tank tops over there seem fashionable to me,” Nghĩa said. “Nah,” the guy said. “It’s fashionable today then runs out of fashion tomorrow. Fashion runs in a tiring circle. I’ve seen on Discovery a bunch of native men living somewhere in the Pacific. They’re the most fashionable to me. They hide their penises in ivory-like tubes and carry along a few other tubes for backup. Their whole bodies are naked except their penises. I dare any fashion designer to display such a style. I bet that unique style would take Paris by storm.”

Nghĩa turned around in an attempt to protect little Chíp from hearing such straight talk. But little Chíp remained unflinching. She was an experienced street crosser after all.

Little Chíp had a summer break. She told Nghĩa that she could bring new newspapers to him at any time in the day. At noon Nghĩa often sat quietly looking out at the street. The suffocating heat made the air before his eyes appear blurred and watery. He felt dizzy. The road at high noon. It seemed as if the devil were standing guard in the air. Upon reaching an ad sign, a motorbike suddenly fell to the ground. The rider crawled back to his feet, picked up his bike and looked around to see who the culprit was. As there was nobody in sight, the guy climbed back on his bike petulantly and rode away. Half an hour later, two youths riding a bike also fell down at the same spot. They also picked up their bike, cursed between their teeth, then rode away. In exactly half an hour later, a woman riding a bike with two baskets of eggs also fell down. From noon until afternoon, with surprise Nghĩa counted as many as seven bikes suddenly falling down on the spot. “There’s nothing strange,” the clothes shop owner said. “The road is like the river which can claim human sacrifices. The spot may lie on top of a graveyard. My eyes have grown tired seeing people falling down there for the past few years. The devil is playing a joke. He’s just teasing, nothing serious.”

In the summer little Chíp didn’t cross the street in the afternoon. She crossed it whenever she could, to have a chat with Nghĩa. One afternoon at three, when the road was empty and a few motorbikes were racing away insanely, little Chíp stood on the other side of the street waving a newspaper. Before Nghĩa had time to stop her, the girl plunged out. Her hair was dyed bright red. Her T-shirt was also red and the sport newspaper she was carrying was also printed in red.She walked across the dangerous spot. Nghĩa’s face darkened when he heard a loud crashing sound. A motorbike carrying two boys about little Chíp’s age crashed into the sidewalk as it tried to avoid the girl. The boys were flung against a tree.

A Honda Silver Wing shot toward little Chíp. More earthshaking sounds ensued. Residents nearby poured out.

Nghĩa didn’t dare to look at the ambulance carrying little Chíp away along with her red sandals and newspaper which she was clutching tightly in one hand. Her hair fell on the road. Nghĩa picked it up and carried it back to his shop.

God please don’t let her die. Please God. I’ve told you once but you didn’t listen. How can you cross the street alone.

*Hồ Xuân Hương (1772–1822) was a Vietnamese poet who lived in an era of political and social turmoil between the Lê and Nguyễn dynasties. Writing in the local Nôm script, she is considered one of Viet Nam’s greatest classical poets.

Translated by Thùy Linh