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

 

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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

 

 

The sun never sets

Việt Nam NewsBy Hồ Anh Thái  

It would be a waste to stay inside during a Northern European white night, the writers tell each other. They have come to attend the International Writers’ Conference being held in the old quarter of Stockholm. Alright. Gaggles of writers surge out of the hotel, cross Kungsgatan or King Street to Drottninggatan or Queen Street, then walk along the latter to get to the Royal Palace.

hoanhthai-troivannangsuotdem-kimduan

Illustration: Kim Duẩn

Ten in the evening and the sky is still as bright as midday, the sun shining radiantly. Midnight: the sky still blue, the clouds still white. As time moves towards morning, the air remains luminous, the leaves in the surrounding trees glowing incandescently as the sunlight shines through them. The writers sit on a bridge behind the Royal Palace, talking all night in reverent murmurs. Would the sun that has shone so brilliantly all night long ever stumble, relent even a little bit to allow a transition into a new dawn?

She remembers her first white nights in this Northern European land. She is an Asian writer from a country of deserts and arid mountains, a so-called republic where the clergy wielded unlimited power. They had banned her novel; the supreme leader had sentenced her to death by beheading. Any believer living in or out of the country could prove his faith by carrying out that sentence. Secular powers supported her. Democratic countries supported her. But each seemed to be waiting for the other to act first. Meanwhile, hostile mobs laid siege to her house. They threw stones, broke her windows, piled sand bags around her house like a fortification.  She had no doubt that someday somebody would pick up a knife or a gun and kill her.  But then this remote Northern European country had stretched out its hand. While still living in her homeland, she had been granted political asylum, and by that same evening had become a Swedish citizen. That fast. But just in time. She went to the airport in the morning as if she were going to work. That morning she had still been in a relationship with a man. The next day she was in a new country and on her own.

We stroll over a bridge behind the Royal Palace, and look across at the opera house which glows golden under the midnight sun as she tells me her story.  I already knew it; it had been all over the international media for decades. Even so, when I first saw her in person, I was a bit surprised. She calls herself Swedish, yet her hair is black and her skin brown. It was still a bit disconcerting, just as seeing a black-skinned or Asian person calling themselves Dutch or French may have seemed somewhat jarring a few years ago. But with the waves of immigrants pouring onto European shores over the past decades, Europe was being colonized in reverse, its demographics gradually taking on darker hue, its cultural life gradually assuming countless new habits and customs not native to the continent.

So she had become a European. She hadn’t suspected that when she had begun to write her first novel, she had effectively started to put herself into exile. What did she write? Her novels continued the same fight for women that she had always fought as a lawyer. For years, she had defended underprivileged women free of charge; as a novelist she told stories about rural girls who suffered genital mutilation due to religious customs. Women were second-class citizens. Women were filth, their orgasms were a shame that needed to be eradicated. Women were property, breeding machines for their husbands. They didn’t have the right to reach orgasm. Such was reality, but who in her country would allow a writer, a female writer especially, to expose it!  She was a writer. She was a lawyer.  But she was only a woman. A second-class citizen. And If a second-class citizen insulted God, that second-class citizen must be killed.

Coming from a hot climate, she had immediately been assaulted upon her arrival in Europe by her first freezing winter. In this northern land, for six months every year the sky is dark and dreary, the drab gray light of day only lasting from ten in the morning to three in the afternoon. October to April. Unless they had some special purpose, nobody bothered to venture out of their homes. Throughout that first winter, even though the weather was freezing, she boiled inside. In the following winters, as she gradually cooled down, the weather seemed to grow colder. Her work was to do public readings and discussions. Her novel had been translated into English and Swedish. Many libraries, clubs and schools invited her to come and speak about the social issues brought up in her novel. Emotional moments. Moving details. But her audiences seemed ignorant about both her subject matter and the art of literature itself. Their questions seemed irrelevant and strange. Did she write factual stories or did she make things up? Did somebody suggest ideas to her or did she come up with them on her own? Did she write better in daylight or in the evening?

For six chilly, gloomy months, she stayed at home and wrote. She wrote until she felt empty. Until her mind didn’t seem to contain anything anymore. She became inert. She visited nobody and nobody visited her. She was given a house in the countryside. If she wanted to see her nearest neighbor, she would have to drive ten kilometers. She raised a few cows. At the end of each harvest season she would drive out to buy grass. And hay. The hay was bound and rolled up and resembled big round rolls of paper in a printing house. In her home country she was a lawyer. Here she was a dairy farmer. She visited nobody and nobody visited her. She wrote and milked cows. She milked cows and ate. The colder the weather, the more she ate. She gained weight very fast. 62 kilos. 71. 79. 85. One day she was startled to realize her weight had almost reached 100 kilos. Separation from one’s native culture, cold weather and weight gain were all related to each other. Gradually her public readings thinned out. People let her resume a normal life. To be normal was good; one couldn’t live perpetually agitated. Some political refugees were forgotten right after they set foot in a new country. Completely forgotten. Once business was done, it was done.

The perpetual cacophony of gunfire and bomb blasts that marked her country dimmed from her memory. So did her former lover. At the time she left her country, he had been seized by panic. She had been sentenced to death and he was associated with her.  When someone fired a gun at somebody else, the bullet often ricocheted into some bystander. He couldn’t follow her to that cold land and leave behind his parents and family. He couldn’t abandon the law firm that he and she had built together. You go first, I’ll follow in a few years. So he said. Or perhaps in a few years, when the situation changes, you can return. So he said. It was impossible.  The death penalty was imposed for eternity.

One day, strangely enough, she had a visitor. One had to drive for a long time to get to her house. Nobody came to her nor did she call on anybody. Her visitor was a native of the country, with golden hair and blue eyes. He had attended two of her public readings and had read her novel so many times that he had memorized certain paragraphs. He arrived at the house during one of those white nights, in the middle of summer. She had drawn shut all curtains in her house and rolled down plastic blinds to create darkness. Yet throughout the night sunlight still pierced through the valances. She lay sleepless. Only sick people could lie in bed in broad daylight. She threw the window wide open, sat down and looked out across the river. It was three in the morning.  The sun was still flaming over the church steeple on the other side of the river.

Her visitor couldn’t sleep either. He sat with her and they stared out at the white night. Her house was so close to the artic that the white nights there lasted for a whole month. He invited her to go with him to the capital, further south: white nights there only lasted two weeks. She would be spared half a month of white nights.

Yes. The two of them jumped in his car and drove until they got to his apartment in the ancient quarter in Stockholm. She fled from the white nights by wearing a black band over her eyes while sleeping. You can’t flee the light forever like this, the young man said. You should return to your home country, where there is no white night, where you won’t have to flee the light. She said, I’m just an immigrant here. He said, it’s your country’s fault. She said, I’m so fat. He said, it’s my country’s fault.

He urged her to return to the land with no white nights. Did he want to push her away so soon after they made love? No, if she went home he would go with her. He would follow her wherever she went. She had accidentally chosen a soldier’s life. And a true soldier should fight on the front line, rather than stand behind it, broadcasting through a loudspeaker. So the two packed up and went to West Asia, where they were given residency in a country neighboring her own. She was not permitted to return home. The court there was still enforcing the ban on her novel and the death penalty was still in effect.

The neighboring country in which she found refuge supported democracy and religious diversity. She was permitted to speak. To read in public. But in one such exchange with readers, religious extremists in disguise infiltrated into the audience. They asked provocative questions, insulted and cursed her, and screamed protests.  Down! Down! Down! They flooded into the room waving banners marked with slogans. The copies of her book piled on table became weapons for the attacking mass. Hard-cover books flew like bullets toward her. More. More. More. Protesters rained their banners down on her head. Bam! Bam! Bam! The young Northern European man bent his tall frame over her body and branched his limbs out to protect her. When her fans jumped in to help her, he led her out of the ensuing chaos, suffering beating and serious injury. He decided to re-examine his theory of struggle. A true soldier didn’t have to always fight on the front line. At least not in this literary struggle.

So they returned to the land of white nights. It was the middle of summer. On the literary scene, the International Writers’ Conference was honoring another Asian female writer. Her hair was as white as snow; if she had carried a magic wand, she would have made a perfect fairy. She slowly walked into the center of the stage and sat down on the chair reserved for her. I’m 70 years-old now and have lived for half a century in exile from my home country, she said. Why was I expelled? They charged me with breaking taboos by writing about the oppression of women. But why is it taboo for a woman in particular to reveal the double standard with which our gender is treated?

The younger author stared at that aged lady and thought, when I’m 70, will I still have enough inspiration left to sit on that chair, on that stage?

At that moment a young woman in the audience stood up and a member of the organising board passed a microphone to her. She stood with her feet apart, planted firmly and aggressively, as she asked her question: Dear madam, did you actually fight for women’s equality there in your own country or did you only do it safely here for the last half a century, in the pages of your books? The writer raised her right hand over her eyes and peered into the darkness: Who is speaking? Let me see your face. The young woman turned away, embarrassed. She was standing in a dark corner of the auditorium away from the spot light. The old woman slowly stood up, toddled a few steps to the edge of the stage and said again: Let me see your face. I’m not used to talking to someone I can’t see.

Not used to talking to someone speaking from the dark. Like a ghost. Again the young writer thought: when I’m her age, will I sit home and rock myself, or will I still have enough will power to appear before a crowd, as she does?

For now, she is sitting here, talking to us, on the bridge leading to the stone gate of the Royal Palace. It is a white night. If she goes home now, even if she draws the curtains, she still wouldn’t be able to hide the sunlight that shone from midnight to morning.

*    *    *

She remembers her first white night sitting by the window with her Northern European boyfriend.

At two in the morning she asked him when the sun would set.

At three in the morning she asked if the sun was going to set. The sun had remained in the same place, above the steeple on the other side of the river.

At four in the morning she asked when the sun would fade away below the trees on the other side. It should go down a little at least, before rising again for a new day. She raised a hand before her face, using the vertical distance from the forefinger to the thumb to measure the distance of the sun from the river. The sun was one span away from the river. She dozed off, leaning on his shoulder.

At five in the morning she was startled awake and sat up straight. Oh. She exclaimed. Oh, she exclaimed once more. It took her a while to speak. Oh, why? The sun had never set. Its distance from the river was still one span between her fingers. Earlier it had been right above the steeple. By now it had slid to the right, hanging like a red balloon above a green grove.

The sun didn’t set. It had moved horizontally.

Translated by Thùy Linh

Adapted by Wayne Karlin

 

 

 

Walking the tightrope of female sexuality

female sexuality 1

Illustration: Trịnh Lập/Vietnam News

Last month, our 16-year-old cousin from America visited Viet Nam. She had been here many times before when she was a child. Yet in this visit, as a teenager with a fully grown female body, she was in for a surprise. The girl wore scanty tank tops and very short shorts as she walked around. People stared. Intrusively. Rudely. Which made her very uncomfortable. We were at a loss, not knowing how to respond to this sexually charged cultural crossroads. The girl enjoyed wearing what she wore, it was her taste, her choice, her freedom, her right. At the same time, people couldn’t help staring either.

In the West, choice, freedom and rights are often the catchwords. For about 150 years, spearheaded by Western feminism, women all over the world have been fighting for the right to be equal with men. We have gained access to education, politics and whatever sphere of life we desire. In terms of sexuality, we have made great strides. We can marry, divorce, have sex and give birth at will. We can wear whatever we want. At least in theory.

Yet, after the solid progress that has been made, today we still hear about blatant sexual misconduct committed mostly by men against women such as those revealed by the ongoing international #MeToo movement which reminds us of the lasting patriarchal psychology underwriting predatory acts. The social media movement, which borrowed the phrase “Me Too” from activist Tarana Burke who has helped underprivileged sexual abuse victims out of the limelight for years, started in the glitzy world of Hollywood, with Harvey Weinstein, a film mogul hailed for producing award-winning flicks such as Shakespeare in Love, before his downfall.

As a Vietnamese woman, I’m not surprised. This movement started in the West and captures the worst of Western culture which many feminists have long criticized as deeply patriarchal. Western culture is relentlessly mediated and visual and often treats women as sexual objects. Take, for example, Woody Allen, a quintessential male artist steeped in a cynical and arrogant culture that vaults the idea of individual male geniuses at the expense of ethical or communal values. In Match Point, Allen’s hero has to choose between his sexual passion for a girlfriend and his marriage with a wealthy wife. What does he do? He has sex with the former then kills her! (While fooling his wife of course).

Does this theme of sex and violence sound familiar, not just in the movies, but in the real rapes and murders against women and children that we hear in the news these days? In our Westernized cinematic age, when life is conflated with the stage, it isn’t surprising that women everywhere are being harassed in reality as they are in the movies. And actresses who work in showbiz and put themselves out there are inevitably more exposed to sexual misconduct than nuns who live a cloistered life. There is a difference in degree in everything, including women’s exposure, and men’s misconduct.

Philosophically speaking, when women fight for the right to be equal with men, to join the men’s stage and game, to be “represented”, they should be aware that equality is a double-edged sword. There is another value besides equality: difference. For instance, after being able to free myself from male-imposed ideas of sexuality based on beauty, visuality and quantity (rather than quality), the last thing I want to do is to come up with my own ideas of sexuality and get even. I’ll stay away from sexuality for a change.

From a non-Western and particularly Buddhist perspective, this doesn’t sound as strange as it may in hypersexual Western culture. For a Buddhist, everything starts with the mind and life is a logical loop of desire. Life is not a stage. It is rich and pure, without exaggeration. After her trip to a southern beach where people stared at her sexy swimsuit too much, our cousin adjusted. She said intelligently, “I’ll never wear this swimsuit here again.”

That said, many Vietnamese women are mistreated.

According to a recently released report on gender equality conducted by the non-profit Swedish Fojo Media Institute, over 27 per cent of 247 surveyed female journalists (and 2 male journalists) said they had been harassed, although the number may well be higher. Perpetrators include sources, colleagues and superiors.

Tran Thi Thuy Binh, a journalist at Ha Noi Television who has researched gender for years, says sexual misconduct is often covered up because victims feel they aren’t protected and society blames them for courting what happens. The Vietnamese legal system doesn’t sympathize with victims and tends to dole out light punishments for culprits. Many cases, even cases against children, are processed slowly.

Binh has interviewed 13 executives of the state-owned Voice of Vietnam (VOV), one of the two largest national broadcasting organizations, and found that sexual harassment also happens there as it rampantly happens at every other office in Vietnam, according to the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs and the International Labor Organization. Sensitive jokes related to female body parts and sex are perceived as normal and funny, and unwanted touching is acceptable.

I was once subjected to unwanted touching. I was reporting on a musical show with an older male colleague. We were sitting next to each other in a dark theatre. Suddenly the man put a hand on my thigh and squeezed it. I was stunned.

My mind raced: “Oh. What is this? Is it what I’m thinking it is? Where did it come from? Did I encourage him?” My body felt numb and dull. I didn’t make a move. The man didn’t advance. Moments passed… The show ended. I stood up. The man smiled patronizingly, seeing me as an innocent piece of wood. I breathed a sigh of relief and wished never to see him again. And I never did.

 

 

A scoop of holy water

Hồ Anh Thái is one notable prolific and successful “postmodern” writer in Vietnam. He is satirical, skeptical and experimental. In this short story which is set in India, a country where he has studied for years, Hồ Anh Thái shows a profound Buddhist sensibility which startlingly pertains to our age. Dangling precariously between grand outdated superstition and an inadequate scientific worldwiew, we are left with nothing to hold on to, not even our relations to each other which are fragile and short. The question is: How are we to be born again? 

 

HoAnhThai-Vocnuoctronglongbantay-DangHongQuan

 Vietnam News

That summer I visited Varanasi for the first time.

That city is considered a holy place because of its location on the sacred Ganges river. I had promised myself on this visit that I would visit the river.

I was not traveling for pleasure. I’d be working. As a postgraduate student researching Oriental culture, I had accepted an offer to do some translation for the Indian railway ministry. Before I went to India to study, I had worked as an interpreter for diplomatic delegations for several years, so that work wasn’t unfamiliar to me. The only unfamiliar thing was that it was my first time interpreting for the railway industry, which required me to know about locomotives and diesel engines. For example, until then I only knew “solution” meant a way of solving something. Only when I visited the petrochemical factory of the Varanasi railway company did I learn that it had another meaning: a homogeneous, molecular mixture of two or more substances. Sen was a Vietnamese intern who was studying under the guidance of Govinda. “Sen, please mix these two solutions into this tube to create a new solution,” Govinda instructed. Sen didn’t know English, but seeing Govinda raise one empty glass tube then point at two other tubes holding two separate solutions, she understood him right away, like a well-trained professional in the field. I didn’t have their technical knowledge, nor could I use solution’s most common meaning in my translation.  So it was I who learned something new.

Sen worked for the Sai Gon railway company and visited India as part of an internship sponsored by the United Nations. In those years, to win a UN internship was like hitting the jackpot. An intern could save enough money in a month to buy an old Japanese Honda motorbike, which was considered a huge asset in Viet Nam then. Sen was offered a stint of two and a half months, which could change her life. Since she didn’t know English, the Indian railway ministry called me. Every month they would pay me three times as much as my scholarship. So if I worked for two months and a half, I could save the equivalent of one third of a secondhand Honda. I was on summer break and wanted to escape the scorching heat of New Delhi. I accepted the offer.

I helped Sen get on the right train to Varanasi. She was offered a bunk in an air-conditioned sleeping compartment. I sat in coach class with only a window open to receive hot winds. One was a UN intern, the other a mere contracted interpreter. Still, caste differences or not I walked in and out of Sen’s cool cabin as frequently as I pleased. I ran back to coach, then wobbled along the train toward Sen’s cool compartment. She prepared mangoes, which were considered the king of fruits in India. Whether they were king or not, we ate them all. After eating I ran back to my hot car, and a while later, wobbled up to the cool one again. Sen laid out her rice and toasted sesame and peanut salt for lunch. Rice felt like our mothers to us.

After that I didn’t have to shuttle back and forth between the hot and cool cars anymore. Sen told me to sit down with her and help her talk to three Indians, a man and two woment who were sharing the compartment with her. They kept asking her questions but she didn’t know how to respond. Throughout the journey the three continually commented about how Vietnamese people, both female and male, had such great light skin.

* * *

Five days later I had to shuttle again. This time I shuttled between women and men.

Sen started interning at the petrochemical factory immediately. Her expertise was equal to her guide’s, as she had mastered every component of the internship programme when she worked in Sai Gon. The only reason she had applied for the internship was the money. Perhaps almost all Vietnamese interns were similarly overqualified. No sooner did a guide stop instructing than an intern carried out a task instantly and accurately, even without any knowledge of English.

On her fifth day at the factory, Sen received an invitation to a party to be held to welcome the railway minister on a work trip to Varanasi that evening. Sen replied that she would take part but wouldn’t utter a word without me. They suddenly remembered to extend an invitation to me.

At dawn and dusk, the air in Varanasi cooled off, becoming somewhat like the weather in Sai Gon. The party was held in the yard of the company’s guesthouse. The yard was spacious and fully shaded by big ancient trees: mangoes, bodhis and ashokas. Ashoka trees share the same name with emperor Ashoka the Great, who brought Buddhism from India to neighbouring countries in the third century BC.

Splendid lights and flowers were hung all over the yard, on the ashoka, mango and bodhi trees. Round tables were arranged into two sides. Men sat on one side. Women on the other. We were still clearly in India. Discrimination didn’t just exist between castes, but also genders.

Sen wore a traditional Vietnamese dress to the party. I led her to the female side, introduced her to the women,  and then translated their introduction for her. Afterwards I withdrew to the male side. I didn’t want to confuse the men with my presence amid the women.

The men inquired after me with curiosity. We sat around a round table reserved for ten people. One man was an engineer, another was a doctorate. One man was a factory director, another a deputy director. One man was a manager, another a deputy manager. They asked about Viet Nam then talked about their city. Varanasi, which is also called Benares, was formerly known as Kashi. The Buddha used to be called the benign messenger of Kashi, because he had delivered his first sermon at Sarnath deer park in this city.

What a valuable piece of information. I immediately ran to the women’s side to inform Sen. We decided to visit Sarnath on the weekend. It was there that the Buddha had met the first five believers of Buddhism.

On this side the women went into an uproar. One woman was a workshop director, another a deputy director. One woman was a manager’s wife, another a deputy manager’s wife. One woman was a master’s degree holder, another was a doctor. After getting their degrees, the master’s or PhD holders all got married and settled down. Their education was put aside to make room for housework. It was another reality in India that I learned: One had better watch out when visiting somebody’s home, because the housewife who was cooking and wiping her child’s nose might be a doctor!

The women discussed vivaciously. We must take Sen to the Ganges first of all, they said, adding, “All Indians dream about visiting the section of the Ganges passing through this holy Varanasi site. The Ganges flows from a cave of ice on the Himalayas for thousands of kilometres down where the waters are the holiest. Believers flock there to pray for talent and luck and peace. Sick people pray for health. Sinful ones pray that the Ganges will wash themselves pure again. Those who want to send a message to the gods scoop a handful of river water into their palms and look upward to deliver it. Dying ones tell their relatives to bring them here to lie in wait for death, dip their dead bodies into the Ganges before cremation, and then sprinkle their ashes into the river so that their souls can reach heaven.”

We must take Sen to sail along the Ganges, the women said. They decided to appoint a woman named Samita to guide Sen on Saturday morning. Samita was a housewife who had a doctorate in agriculture from the Pusa National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in New Delhi. True to a researcher’s style, she provided the following information: Varanasi was nearly 3,000 years old, one of the oldest cities of humankind. American writer Mark Twain had come here and passionately said, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

One chemistry doctorate chimed in with an assertion about the unpollutability of the Ganges. Every year, millions of people bathed in the Ganges, but nobody suffered from skin diseases. Millions of people drank from the Ganges, but nobody incurred digestive disorders or any other illness. No bacteria could survive in the river. Doctor Howard Northop, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1946, once said, “We know that the Ganges river is highly contaminated. Yet Indians drink out of it, swim in it, and are apparently not affected… Perhaps bacteriophage (the virus that destroys bacteria) renders the river sterile.”

After every woman agreed that Sen would sail on the Ganges, I again left the women’s table to shuttle to the men’s. It was inconvenient for me to sit among the women. Thus I left Sen alone there for the moment and had to gesture my hands to communicate with her side.

The minister who was the main guest was yet to arrive, which gave us men more time to chat. “Do you find India strange?” One man asked me. “In this biggest democracy in the world, men and women are still sitting separately. Gender segregation only occurs in parties and festivals though. In funerals and weddings, men and women still share space. As for caste discrimination, after India declared independence in August 15, 1947, it adopted a constitution which prohibits caste discrimination. But custom rules the law. Caste consciousness is in people’s blood. Let me tell you a story. Right in Varanasi, in 1973, Minister of Defence Jagjivan Ram was invited to inaugurate a statue of a freedom fighter on the campus of the prestigious Banaras Hindu University. Why did they invite him? Because he was a former student, an outstanding alumnus who would reflect well on his famous alma mater. Yet the ceremony turned into a chaotic brawl in which the audience threw shoes at him. Why shoes? The students from the upper class hurled shoes at him to remind him that he was the son of a shoemaker, a lower caste. The minister hurried away. As for the upper-caste students, they immediately washed the statue with the water from the Ganges because they thought it had been contaminated by the minister’s inferior background.”

At that moment the railway minister was still nowhere to be seen. I wondered what caste he belonged to, and whether shoes or brooms would be flung at him. And would the Hindu extremists here consider a foreigner like me a casteless heretic?

After the men and I conversed for a while, they discovered that I was studying Hindi. Oh great, what can you say in Hindi? They asked. “Me Viet Nam se hum,” I answered. It meant I came from Viet Nam.

The men nodded and asked what else. I was provoked. “Me Dili me char sal rohta hum.” I’ve been living in Delhi for four years. “Ha ha ha, what else? Do you know any obscene word?”

The deputy manager of the factory laughed and asked, “Do you know what ‘matachod bahinchod’ means?” Of course I knew. It meant motherfucker sisterfucker. My college friends in Delhi had taught me those words, saying they meant hello. Only later did I learn that they were obscenities.

Right then the minister walked into the yard. Our obscene language ended. Yet my duty as an interpretation shuttle didn’t. Throughout the party, I kept running back and forth between the two sides, the two genders.

* * *

On Saturday morning Samita took us to the Ganges at 4.30 am to see the sun rise above the river. In the dim twilight, we used a flashlight to light our steps as we walked into a small boat. The boat glided along the river, which was shrinking in the dry season.

The sun was yet to rise but the bank was already jam-packed with pilgrims. People hustled on the countless cement steps leading from the ground down to the river below. Men were half-naked, wearing dhotis on their lower halves which looked like sarongs tied up in a bundle between the two legs. Women waded into the river with all six metres of a sari wrapped around their bodies. They curved their hands into the shape of a bowl, scooped up a handful of Ganges water, and turned their eyes to the east where the sun would rise.

A loud shout boomed above the waters, “Ram Ram Ram. He Ram he Ram.”

Pilgrims shouted the name of god Ram, or Rama, who is Sita’s husband in Hindu epic Ramayana. In an instant, a fully round and transparently pink halo emerged brilliantly. A holy moment. A radiant sun above a radiant river. A sterile sun above a sterile river.

Samita said, “Indians believe that when they drink from the Ganges, their every wish will come true.” We saw men and women wading into the river, praying, then scooping up water with their hands. Samita said infertile women drank from the Ganges to pray for children.

Sen leaned a little over the side of the boat toward the waters. She dipped her two hands into the river, soaking them, sailing them along with the boat. After that she scooped up some water with which to wash her face. She too wanted to have a small share of holiness. I caught her secretly drink from her palms while washing her face. Holy water.

I remembered her story. For over a week following her, I had heard her talk about her family. She and her husband had been married for more than ten years but remained childless. They had adopted a child who was five years old now.

The boat glided along the bank toward the riverhead. Big and small temples elbowed each other on the bank. The holy city was filled with hundreds of holy temples. On the steps leading people down to the river to bathe were cremation sites. One site stretched into another. Corpses shrouded in white cloth were laid on wooden stretchers, carried down to the river, dipped into the waters, then put on a pyre of firewood. A wealthy family would use sandalwood. The heir of the deceased would then set fire to the pyre. One pyre after another blazed up, emitting thick smoke. Nearby, those who were bathing and drinking in the river would just keep on bathing and drinking.

Sen cleared her throat. She coughed dryly. Coughed and hemmed, as if she wanted to vomit. Samita reasserted the sterility of the Ganges. She added that in mountainous and remote regions, poor people who couldn’t afford cremation simply dropped their loved ones’ dead bodies into the river, believing the dead ones’ souls could also reach heaven that way.

At that moment the boat sailed past a floating object. At first glance, it looked blackish like the bottom of a capsized boat. In a while it revealed itself clearly. It was a bobbing bloated pitch-black dead Murrah buffalo with a curvy back and two pale white eyes.

Sen immediately doubled over and threw up hard. Samita and the boat’s owner panicked, sailed back to the bank and wanted to call an ambulance. They didn’t understand that kind of vomiting: Once Sen could throw up everything from her stomach, she should be fine.

* * *

About a year afterwards, when I was studying at the University of Maryland in the US, I received a letter from Sen. She and I had been exchanging letters, but this time there was special news. Sen said she had been pregnant for four months. After 16 years of marriage, now at the age of 41, she got pregnant for the first time. Great news. Incredible news. If it was a boy, she would name him Ngọc Mừng, which meant a gemlike joy. A girl would be called Kim Mừng, meaning a goldlike joy. These half-Vietnamese half-Chinese names sounded fine to me!

More than twenty years passed.

I moved from one country to another and lost contact with Sen. Only one day last year, when I was living in Sai Gon, I suddenly opened an old phone book and saw her address. She lived near Vĩnh Nghiêm pagoda on Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa road. There was no phone number. I decided to drop by her house, to give her a surprise.

According to my phonebook, Sen lived in the railway apartment building. It was a housing complex made up of numerous two-floor apartment rows running parallel to each other, creating a path in the centre that looked like a yard. I climbed up to the second floor of a row, walked along the corridor and stopped in front of the last apartment. I checked the room number, it was correct. But nobody was home.

I knocked on the door of the adjacent apartment. An old man who looked like he had been retired for a long time appeared. He said Sen had moved away ten years before. He didn’t know her new address either.

I was disappointed. That meant Sen and I had lost all contact now. I tried to stay longer to ask for a little more information about her. How had she and her husband been doing? How had their two children been?

“What two children?” the old man asked. They only had one adopted son who studied then stayed abroad to work, he said. I pressed on, explaining that Sen had written to tell me that she was about to give birth. Only then did the old man remember. “Right, she lost it,” he recalled. “She vomited violently then lost it.”

I recalled the day I received Sen’s letter in St. Mary’s City. That afternoon I was rowing on the Potomac. I stopped rowing and leaned over the side of the boat to look into the river. Stared deep into it. Nobody said the Potomac was holy, but people still leaned over and scooped up water to wash their faces with. Some of them even drank it.

 

There was only a river running

Though sex and death aren’t the only things that can interest a serious mind, as William Butler Yeats claimed, they are seductive indeed. Here, Tử Dạ Vũ uses woman as a mirror to reflect the inherent violence, immorality and filth of sex. Death then offers a cleansing absolution.

There was only a river running Vietnam News

His mother always urged him to get married, but he ignored her. Though he was over 30, his career remained a big fat zero. It was impossible to get married. He was too proud for that. If he got married, he should be able to take care of his wife and kids, not vice versa.

He was well-educated, with a degree like anybody else. But it was a degree in education, literary education, which was only good for decoration. After graduation, he was unemployed for several years, surviving on royalties from his fiction and poetry. Luckily, a friend introduced him to write for a few e-magazines, so he could make ends meet.

His mother was a peasant at heart: barely literate, prone to nagging, extremely devoted to her child. His father passed away when he was still in the cradle, and his mother had single-handedly raised him. He had never dared argue with her, but hummed and hawed to bide his time, especially with regard to the issue of marriage. His house was located near the Mã river, which explained why he was wild. Coupled with a lively imagination, he would travel whenever possible. He travelled tirelessly and only returned when he ran out of money. He travelled alone, and not simply to contemplate natural beauty or find inspiration for his literary creativity. He travelled for a release, to relax his soul. This life was filled with too many struggles, and he found himself living in the wrong times.

But for that meeting, he would have kept on travelling and ignoring life forever. Only then did he realise that money was just a minor reason preventing him from getting married. The fundamental reason was that there hadn’t been any girl who could entice him more than travelling could. That meeting woke him up and taught him that she was more important than his other passions, that this life was filled with countless people who were more miserable than him, that it was he who was pulling away from his own life.

He didn’t know where Tuyết Anh came from, or when she had opened her hairdresser’s shop. Only when he went to have his hair cut did he learn that she had been living nearby for a long time. He didn’t know her because he was often away. Yet she knew him. In the village, he was famous, since he had appeared on TV and newspapers and written literature. Everybody knew him, but he often forgot that. That was why when Tuyết Anh greeted him by his full name, he was startled.

Tuyết Anh was beautiful, very beautiful, in a traditional way, gentle but passionate, easily making men’s hearts skip. He was no exception, many times his heart felt like stopping. It was the first time in almost ten years that he thought about marriage again. Suddenly he found his mother’s words very wise.

For days afterward, he went to her shop, hoping to talk to her. She was always busy with customers. So he sat quietly to watch her work, and felt happy when she paused to relax and pour him a glass of water. He started to think about saving money to get married.

Tuyết Anh didn’t seem to have the same thoughts though. She cheerfully talked to him, but whenever he asked for her phone number, she would say she didn’t have one. When he asked her out for a drink, she would tactfully refuse. In the evening when she didn’t work, he always found her shop closed in darkness.

Tonight, the moon was round and bright, perhaps mid-month. After standing in front ofTuyết Anh’s closed shop for a while as usual, he started home, walking alone on the deserted dyke. The watery moon shone upon the sparkling silvery Mã river. The sky was clear and cloudless, the ground was dry and lit up with moonlight. Quietly, he sat down at the foot of an ancient tropical almond tree. It was a gigantic tree that had been reflecting itself in the Mã river since time immemorial.

Suddenly he heard what sounded like sobs. The sound was very quiet, but in the middle of such silence, it sent chills down his spine. He was about to take to his heels, but his little remaining sense stopped him. He inhaled deeply, mustered his courage then tiptoed past the tree toward the sobbing.

The sight of the sobber astonished him. Wasn’t that Tuyết Anh? But why was she hugging her knees crying alone here in the middle of the night? Tuyết Anh also startled upon seeing him. She stood up and wiped her tears. She forced a smile and stammered unintelligibly. Then to his utter amazement, Tuyết Anh threw herself into him, and held him tightly. She rubbed her face against his shoulder and cried like a baby.

He stood still like a statue, not knowing what to do or say. He didn’t know how much time passed, perhaps a few minutes, or hours, because every thought in his mind evaporated. Tuyết Anh stopped crying, and ashamedly released him. She looked down and said:

“I’m sorry!”

He brandished his forelimbs, feeling they were too long.

“No, not at all!”

Tuyết Anh dropped her head lower, told him goodbye then walked away. He stood dumbfounded watching her gradually disappear.

After that fateful night, his life took a different turn. Tuyết Anh started to talk to him more. She was more open and saved her number in his phone. He felt the road he was taking was strewn with flowers. Yet, that moonlit night left lingering questions in his mind. He didn’t dare ask her about it though. Tuyết Anh also seemed to forget it, since she never brought it up.

One pitch-dark night at the end of the month, he stood before Tuyết Anh’s house. Looking at the dim light inside, he felt profoundly sad. He didn’t dare to knock at her door and it had become a habit. But life is a strange thing. When he no longer imagined himself knocking and Tuyết Anh inviting him in, she did exactly that. Right after he shrugged and turned to go home, Tuyết Anh opened the door. She wasn’t surprised to find him standing there. She invited him in and acted like she had expected his every move, which confused him no end. He sat for more than an hour idiotically, answering her questions and drinking water until his belly bloated and begged him to say goodbye and go home.

With uncertainty, he told his mother about her. His mother went berserk with joy and made him promise to invite Tuyết Anh home. After trying to brush his mother off in vain, he acquiesced with much reluctance.

He didn’t know how to ask Tuyết Anh, because he wasn’t sure what exactly they meant to each other. He only knew that they had great conversations. During the day he loitered at her shop. At night they talked until after 10 pm. They had done this for a month. Could it be called love?

He pondered hard for several days before he dared ask. His hands sweat profusely as he nervously waited for her answer. Contrary to his nervousness, Tuyết Anh accepted the invitation gently and naturally, which dumbfounded him again.

Tuyết Anh closed her shop and went to his house early to chat with his mother. Then the two went out to the market and went home to cook while he watched TV. At that moment, his heart was filled with bliss. Such a life was enough, all struggles and ambitions seemed to be dead in him. While his mother talked to Tuyết Anh, he learned new things about her that he had forgotten to inquire about.

Tuyết Anh’s parents had passed away prematurely, leaving behind herself and her younger sister. Her younger sister was studying at a university in Hà Nội. As for her, she had quit school a long time before to work to support her sister. He felt a little tingling in his nose. Compared to her, he was countless times happier.

His mother didn’t just love Tuyết Anh for her beauty, but her friendliness and warmth. However, when his mother asked her questions about the past, she often evaded them. He also felt curious and asked her many times but she remained silent, or answered perfunctorily. Then, her phoenix eyes would be clouded and lifeless. Looking at those eyes he felt like falling into a bottomless hole. He recalled the moonlit night when he saw her by the river and felt chilly. He never asked her again, and stopped his mother from asking. Her past was important, but the present was decisive.

After that day, he thought that they were in love, though when he asked, Tuyết Anh only replied, “Whatever you like. If you think we’re in love, then we’re in love!” It was an inscrutable answer that he let pass.

A week after, he received a phone call from his best friend from Hà Nội. His friend said he wanted to visit him for a few days. It was thanks to Hùng that he had secured his employment. So he felt greatly indebted and gladly welcomed him.

Hùng was his college friend and came from Hà Nội. After college, Hùng got a stable job, and a few years later, got married. Hùng had a lovely daughter now. Though he was away from Hà Nội for ten years, he often contacted Hùng. Whenever he visited Hà Nội, the two would drink to death. Their friendship was rare, because old friends were difficult to keep.

Hùng got off the bus and instantly ran up to clasp him and pat his back passionately. He took Hùng home on his shabby bike. Hùng shook his head and sighed. He laughed it off. He was poor, wasn’t he?

Hùng had visited his house a few times, so his mother was very happy to see Hùng again. She bombarded Hùng with questions, then cheerfully boasted that her son had a girlfriend. The news transfixed Hùng for a few seconds. Then Hùng burst out laughing, which made him blush in shame. Was it so strange that he had a girlfriend?

Hùng tried to keep a straight face, patted his shoulder and urged him to introduce Tuyết Anh right away. Provoked, he pulled out his cell phone and called her. She accepted the invitation. He breathed a sigh of relief and told Hùng to take a shower. Hùng nodded and ran straight to the well, laughing.

At 11 am Tuyết Anh arrived. She looked a bit tired, though she smiled brightly at him. He felt like being squeezed in the chest and wanted to hug her tightly. Tuyết Anh seemed to understand his thoughts, but she lowered her head and walked toward the kitchen in the yard. Hùng was then walking up from the opposite direction so the two almost bumped into each other.

The two startled and stared at each other for a long time. Hùng frowned, and Tuyết Anh turned pale. He walked up and stood beside her and introduced her. Hùng eyed Tuyết Anh moodily. Tuyết Anh still looked very pale with her head down. She walked into the kitchen without a word. Hùng looked as she disappeared through the door and said with a sigh:

“Is she your girlfriend?”

He gleefully nodded, but was startled upon seeing Hùng’s moody face:

“Do you two know each other?”

Hùng remained silent for several minutes then shook his head:

“Not really, but we’ve met a few times.”

“Where?”

Hùng said thoughtfully:

“In Hà Nội.”

He frowned, then remembered Tuyết Anh telling him that she used to work in Hà Nội for several years. So he patted Hùng’s shoulder and said:

“That’s right. Did you have your hair cut at Tuyết Anh’s shop?”

Hùng was silent and didn’t confirm or refute the guess. After a while Hùng walked toward the table, sat down, and said:

“You should investigate thoroughly before going any further.”

He ran up to pour water for Hùng, and chuckled:

“Don’t worry, Tuyết Anh is very good. I believe I’m not mistaken!”

Hùng lost in thought, leaned against the chair, and sighed. He was about to ask something but his mother brought a tray of food and urged them to eat. He stood up unwillingly and spread out a sedge mat. The meal felt suffocating. Tuyết Anh lowered her head and barely spoke. Hùng looked ill-humoured. As for him, he felt stormy inside.

After lunch he walked Tuyết Anh home, feeling distracted with hundreds of questions. When they stopped in front of her house, he couldn’t help asking:

“Do you know Hùng?”

Tuyết Anh looked down to avoid his eyes and answered:

“Not really, but we’ve met a few times. What did he tell you?”

He shook his head in extreme confusion:

“Exactly what you’ve just told me!”

Tuyết Anh forced a smile, then turned silent. He wished her a good sleep and went home. When he reached home, he threw off his bike and ran to find Hùng. Hùng was lying in bed smoking. Seeing his best friend’s panic-stricken face, Hùng stamped out the cigarette.

He walked over, sat down by Hùng, and asked:

“What exactly do you know about Tuyết Anh?”

Hùng shook his head lightly:

“Nothing more than what I’ve told you!”

“I don’t believe you. After all those years, what could there be that you can’t tell me?”

Hùng went outside to light another cigarette. He lay down and sighed. He couldn’t imagine things had taken such a course. He had thought he would have a great time with his best friend.

Hùng didn’t have any difficulty in finding Tuyết Anh’s house. The house dangled on the dyke, overlooking the rolling muddy majestic Mã river. It was old and very small, with the front being used as a shop. Tuyết Anh opened the door for Hùng. She looked much calmer now.

“I know you would come to see me!”

Hùng sat down and glanced at Tuyết Anh who stood leaning against the door. She looked fragile and lonely. He didn’t hurl all the sharp words he had intended at her, but simply exclaimed:

“You should break up with Hoàng!”

Tuyết Anh smiled bitterly. She had expected it but still felt morose. Before she could answer, Hùng added:

“He’s honest and nice. I don’t want him to suffer.”

“Why? Is it because I did what everybody despised?”

Tuyết Anh’s sharp tone took Hùng by surprise. He stood up, and said slowly:

“I’ve told you what I must. If you really love Hoàng, please do what’s best for him!”

Hùng left. Tuyết Anh covered her face and cried.

Night fell calmly, the scene looked dark and dull. The two best friends sat on an old narrow bamboo bed drinking. Hoàng filled Hùng’s cup, his face swelling red.

“Drink. I know you’ve seen Tuyết Anh today. I don’t know what has happened between you two but let me tell you again that I love Tuyết Anh very much. Nothing can change it!”

Hùng nodded, also looking drunk.

“I understand.”

“What do you understand? If you do, why do you stand in the way?”

Hùng silently emptied his cup, nodded a few times then said with a smile:

“Forget everything. You do whatever you want. Lately I’ve seen you write regularly. Today I met an old man on the bus. He told me a story. Do you want to hear it? It may inspire you to write!”

Hoàng gulped down his cup, slowly re-filled both of their cups then told Hùng to proceed.

“About ten years ago, the old man lived next to a happy family. The father single-handedly brought up his two daughters after his wife died. He worked hard day and night to give his children a good life. The whole village admired him. Yet, one night at year’s end, he committed a terrible act. Do you know what he did?”

“How the hell do I know!”

Hùng sniggered:

“He got drunk, called his wife’s name repeatedly, then raped his oldest daughter who wasn’t even 16.”

Hoàng exclaimed:

“Beast!”

“That’s what everybody said. So a few days after he killed himself.”

Hoàng put his cup down and thought for a very long time. Then he drilled his eyes into Hùng:

“Tell me, is that girl Tuyết Anh?”

Hùng didn’t answer directly, but stood up and said:

“She didn’t turn her father in. Nobody would have known if the naïve younger sister hadn’t told a neighbour about it. The old woman then told everybody, which led to the father’s suicide.”

After telling his story, Hùng walked inside to rest. Hoàng was left alone. He turned his face upward and gulped down two bottles of wine noisily. His throat felt like burning. Yet he didn’t stop until he drank the last dregs. Strangely though, he became more and more sober. Sober, but mindless and emotionless. He hastily went inside to search for more wine. He kept searching and drinking until he collapsed on the bamboo bed exhausted.

Outside, in deep darkness, a lone slender figure followed his every act and cried.

The day after, he woke up at noon. Feeling parched, he hurriedly looked for water. At the sight of him, his mother gave a scolding. He didn’t react. He looked around and didn’t see Hùng, who had left for Hà Nội early in the morning. His mind gradually cleared up, he started to remember everything. He must see Tuyết Anh. He must tell her that they should let her past rest. He would never bring it up. Then he would call Hùng and made him understand how important Tuyết Anh was to him. It wasn’t her fault. She deserved better.

Tuyết Anh didn’t open her shop that day. The small house was shut in silence. He knocked. Tuyết Anh showed up with dark puffy eyes. He felt touched and stretched out his arms to hug her tightly.

Tuyết Anh didn’t react. Her body felt like a log. He consoled:

“I know your story. I won’t leave you!”

Tuyết Anh burst out crying, then guffawed, in bitterness.

“Do you know my story? You don’t know all of it yet. Do you know why my father jumped off the bridge? Do you know the real reason behind it?”

Tuyết Anh pushed him away. She turned around and sat down on the chair. She looked strangely calm. She continued while he was reeling in astonishment:

“It turned out my mother had been pregnant with me before marrying him. He learned about it and deeply resented it. Though he didn’t say anything, he brooded about revenge. At last he took it out on me, who wasn’t his blood daughter. As for his suicide, he jumped off the bridge because he had HIV!”

Hoàng staggered and almost fell down. He leaned against the wall to steady himself. He looked at Tuyết Anh with his eyes and mouth open wide, speechless. Tuyết Anh laughed again, crisply, blandly.

“Why are you looking at me like that? Yeah, I’m HIV-positive. For years living in Hà Nội, in order to feed myself and my sister, I was a whore. My heart was filled with hatred, so I often asked my clients not to use condoms. Many of them were infected. Then they came to me for revenge. One time, I was almost beaten to death. Fortunately, Hùng rescued me. Do you see how good your friend is to you now? Do you still want to stand by me?”

This time Hoàng did fall down. His mind was frozen. He didn’t know how he could stand and walk out of that house. Yet at that moment, he simply didn’t want to stay there, to stand by Tuyết Anh. She seemed to expect it too. She didn’t react, or look at him again.

He stayed inside for a whole week, eating nothing, just drinking. He lost weight drastically, which scared the wits out of his mother. In response to his mother’s pestering, he remained silent. His mother went to find Tuyết Anh as a last resort. But her shop was closed.

Tonight the moon was bright and cold. Hoàng woke up in the depth of night. Outside, leaves were drenched in dew. Right after he gulped down a glass of water, his cell phone rang, with a text message. It came from Tuyết Anh. He hesitated for a few seconds but read it at last: “My dear, I’m going. My sister is graduating soon. I intended to wait for her to graduate before making any decision. But unexpectedly I met you, my true love. I don’t deserve you. Only the Mã river can wash away my sin, so that in the next life I can come to you in purity.”

He dropped his cell phone. Without thinking, he darted out into the freezing windy night.

He didn’t knock but struck the door open with his foot. The house was empty. He walked into her room only to find the window overlooking the river open. There was a forlorn pair of sandals on the ground. He plunged forward, looked outside, and saw the immense swirling muddy waters. The wind beat his face, slashing it like a knife.

 

 

 

 

    

Cold Beer

Phan Triều Hải offers a skillful story that reminds one of Edgar Allan Poe’s idea of a perfect short story: short, dramatic and consistent in mood. Set in Saigon with its ubiquitous beer culture, Cold Beer delineates a man’s failed marriage and a boy’s successful love with what can be called the little formidable thrust of masculine pleasure. 

Translator: Thùy Linh; Editor: Peter Cowan

Cold Beer

Illustration: Đỗ Dũng

VietnamNews

Ever since her 32nd birthday last year, Vy had been afraid of gaining belly fat. So instead of eating cheese and drinking lots of beer before sleeping, the couple only drank two small glasses of beer at dinner. The weather in Sài Gòn encouraged beer consumption. Cao thought Sài Gòn was the best place to drink.

This city had all sorts of problems: crowdedness, noise, heat, suffocation, traffic, lack of hygiene, pollution and beer was the solution that could dissolve all these issues in the fastest way. A gulp of beer enabled people to endure and relax, and made them irritable but energetic enough to do unexpected things.

Beer lovers would never feel tired of Sài Gòn. Nor was there a better place for beer to show off its ability to excite, relieve stress, connect friends or accompany a solitary person.

Nevertheless, Cao rarely went out to drink. He wasn’t social. Cao always wanted to be alone. His world was minimalist, just enough. And that world had become smaller ever since he got married, so much so that his wife condensed into a space just enough for the two of them, without any room left for anybody else.

That crowded space, along with several habits that had become rituals such as drinking in small glasses or getting in touch with each other through an old-fashioned desk phone, had formed a small kingdom with two people who focused on living and working according to their own standards. There, the big differences in age or height were gone. There, Cao felt comfortable and safe.

Or at least that was what he used to think.

“Our city is getting more and more crowded,” Vy said while pouring beer into two glasses which were lying neatly in her grasp.

“Hmm.”

“Everybody flocks here to make a living, stays and procreates. I think it’s going to explode.”

Cao remembered the sight outside the window of the express train which 36 years before had taken him down along the country to Sài Gòn. A journey filled with leafy trees and bundles of thick wattle fruits threading through the train window. Was she talking about me? Cao thought silently.

“If there’s some better place to live, we should consider it,” Vy said.

The best place to live was the most familiar place. Cao thought again. But instead of saying it out loud, he took his first sip of beer at dinner.

“My friend has returned from America,” Vy said. “She went there to deliver her baby.”

Cao often heard such stories but didn’t care much. Because in order to deliver a baby, one would have to be able to fertilise first – an issue that had become increasingly difficult for many people. Only then could one afford to choose a place for delivery. There were so many things one couldn’t control.

“She was wearing her hanbok to cover her seven-month pregnant belly when going through customs.”

Cao wasn’t crazy about Korean soap operas, but could easily visualise a woman in a hanbok. Nevertheless, a seven-month pregnant belly underneath was something he couldn’t imagine.

“Have you ever thought about living somewhere else?”

“Where?” Cao said, “Is there any place more comfortable than this?”

“Do you really think this is for us?”

“Sài Gòn is filled with opportunities. You can still go wherever you want.”

Vy pursed her lips, and looked straight at him. Cao thought he should stand up to get a beer, but didn’t dare to. This conversation wasn’t like previous ones. Vy spoke slowly, word by word, as if she were explaining a simple thing to a child.

“Travelling is different from living. If there are better places for living, why shouldn’t we try?”

Cao felt his face burning.

“If you keep comparing one thing to another, you’ll be miserable.”

“I don’t compare. Those things are obvious. You see them but ignore them.”

“Only you think so.”

“Everybody has the same amount of lifetime, but their life stories are different. Why? Because of where they live, and what opportunities they have.”

Vy’s fingers clutched at the edge of the table, the palms of her hands hidden underneath, the tips of her fingers subtly turning pale like a mountain climber using all of her energy to cling to a cliff. Cao didn’t remember when she had last spoken at such length. Vy rarely spoke much. She often spoke succinctly, sometimes curtly.

“A good place for one person may not be good for another person,” Cao exhaled, stood up, and said “I’ll go get more beer.”

“What’s so good about a life without change?” Vy said, sighing.

***

In the summer, out of the blue a group of old friends organised a reunion. Cao saw several friends whom he thought had disappeared at sea many years before.

After telling their names, everyone needed a while to get used to the old men who had replaced the children who used to be close friends at 12. Everything remained the same in a different body.

Yet only Huy stayed the same even in appearance. Huy was still short and seemed unable to gain any inches in height throughout all the years. What Cao remembered most was the time after school, instead of going home the two of them would walk straight into Mạc Đĩnh Chi cemetery, sit with their feet dangling on the white cement tomb and together read and re-read a book they had bought from a scrap vendor, Chekhov’s Short Stories. Then one morning, Cao stood dumbstruck in front of the old wooden door of his friend’s house which was shut tight with a pitch black lock. Huy had disappeared with his family.

“I still have that book,” Cao said.

The book had followed Cao all those years, even though he didn’t take good care of it. Every few years, it popped up somewhere, in an old drawer, under the bed and most recently, Cao found it lying among a pile of paper soon to be thrown away. Cao thought he would give Huy that book as a gift. It existed, because it belonged to somebody else. It could wait.

Two small glasses were replaced by three sparkling beer bottles, which made the atmosphere much livelier. Throughout the dinner, Vy listened to the two old friends taking turns telling silly stories: their reading Chekhov’s love stories on a pile of deadly white human bones until dusk, having a crush on the same girl and more.

While the two men slowly turned into boys, Vy sat with her chin on her hands, smiling.

Cao realised Huy remembered many things from those years. All stories had Huy in it, but they mostly resided in Huy’s mind only. Perhaps space affected people’s memories, Cao thought. If he were a scientist, he could make money by researching how space affected emotion, how emotion nurtured memories. Not a bad idea for research. As the stories dragged on, they were solely told by Huy and thickened into a dense fog.

Cao wasn’t listening as attentively as earlier. He was letting himself bob in that misty sea, contemplating the woman sitting in front of him flickering ethereally.  She was too charming, too light-footed. As always. Ten years before, when he first saw Vy, he was dazed. That beauty didn’t seem to change with time, yet he seemed to be re-discovering it now.

Cao realised his wife was more beautiful than most women he saw every day. When he didn’t look, who would look at her? Cao felt annoyed. Through all those years, when she was forgotten, did those pairs of eyes and lips become invisible or quietly offer themselves to the crowd?

That night, drowning in his wife’s brilliant beauty along with a little jealousy, Cao struggled to prevent the headboard of the bed from pounding into the wall while Vy bit deeply into a corner of the pillow to prevent any noise from disturbing the dining room where Huy was sleeping for the night on a long couch. If throughout all those years Cao had always been as powerfully aroused as he was now, perhaps they could have had a baby, Cao thought.

“I don’t want to have a baby now,” Vy whispered.

Vy’s chest heaved. She looked like an exhausted salmon after a jump against the current. Yet not every salmon laid eggs. There were always exceptions.

“If we had a baby, our meals would be more fun,” Cao said as he slowly pulled a long thread of Vy’s hair from his mouth.

“Babies aren’t for fun,” Vy said quietly, unclasping her hands from Cao’s back, dropping them on her sides. “First we have to make sure our baby will have a good life.”

Cao breathed lightly, and covered her body with his shirt. Vy lay silently, closing her eyes, not to sleep but to think. There was a perfect stillness all around, outside and even in here. Cao found himself so cruel because he fell asleep at the usual time on the day he was reunited with his best friend after so many years of separation.

***

While Cao struggled to worm his way through the traffic in rush hour, Huy tried to get used to sitting in the back without holding on to the grab rail in the rear. Huy didn’t want to betray the fact that he came from another place. The closer they approached their destination, the more nervous Huy became.

“In the old days, when I first saw Lai sit by her piano, I understood that she was beyond our grasp.”

Yes. In those days, that was what Cao thought too. Cao remembered how the lustrous dark brown wooden piano overwhelmed them all. He remembered the piano and the chair as a secret treasure, because the piano was filled with musical books inside.

“I used to think that it was the only piano in Sài Gòn.”

“Or the most beautiful.”

“Surely it was,” Huy said.

Lai was still living in a house just across the street from school. She was sitting in front of the house, resting on a fabric-covered chair whose corners were worn-out and torn. Lai recognised her two former fans, but only smiled gently as if today were Thursday, the only day of the week when the whole class finished school early at 3pm and dropped by to have a chat. She silently brought out two small plastic chairs and placed them by the door.

Huy and Cao looked at each other, then sat down.

Lai still looked petite and light-skinned even though she had a few marks of melasma on her cheeks – the sign of post-delivery in some women. Cao suddenly wondered since when he had started to pay attention to such details. Behind her were packs of coke and beer piled on top of each other reaching up to the ceiling. On the shop window Cao saw a wrapped gift bag containing a red box of Cosy biscuits, a bright yellow pack of Lipton teabags, a box of instant Nestlé coffee, a bag of Bibica sweets and a dark brown bottle of Đà Lạt wine. The cellophane wrapping paper looked dated and soft, dull and dusty.

Cao glanced at a few threads of hair on Lai’s head and a few crow’s feet around her eyes, which wasn’t too bad for a single mom. He could still see clearly the spirit of the 12-year-old girl of old.

In those bygone years, nobody ever saw Lai sad. She cheerfully and easily glided past annoyances exactly like the way she was welcoming her two friends now, not too ardently but warmly. No wonder everybody liked her. No wonder on an afternoon at the cemetery, Huy and Cao tore away their pledge of brotherhood written on the cover of Chekhov’s Short Stories when they argued which one of them had the right to pursue her.

The three friends sat in silence for a while. Lai turned a small electric fan to face her friends. The blades swirled crazily but didn’t provide much relief.

“I used to follow whatever my parents planned for me,” Lai said, “from career to relationships. Then I met a man, gave birth, broke up and did what I’d never done before. Nothing in life happens as planned.”

Everybody who was alive was writing his or her own book. Lai was telling her story. Cao didn’t know if the book of his life was interesting.

“Even without planning everything keeps flowing,” Lai said. “Life turned out to be simpler than what my parents feared.”

“I’m different though. I always plan how to pay the bills. Rent, insurance, food, gasoline. Everything has to be accurate. Every month is the same. Always the same,” Huy said.

I lived by habit, Cao thought. But perhaps habit was also a type of repetitive planning. It was fortunate that in those days neither one of them won their battle for Lai. Or else, whoever had her would have found himself in either a tragedy or comedy. Cao tried to focus on his friends’ stories.

“Unable to read or deal with traps, I’ve chosen to close my eyes and walk through them. I don’t care about the ugly or beautiful scars they’ve left, as long as I can walk through them,” Lai said.

***

On his last evening in Sài Gòn, Huy drank a lot. When the short hand pointed to ten, he said he would leave in five minutes. Huy often spoke thus about his intentions, which Cao found to be quite a good habit. It was always pleasant to find oneself with a plan, however small.

There was only a plate of cheese left on the table. This piece of cheese had been bought at the beginning of the year at a discount price. It had lost its freshness and turned a little dry, but still felt buttery. Cao brought three bottles of beer and put them down in front of each one of them.

The bottles clanked up against each other on the neck like a bundle of mangrove roots, then separated. The three sipped their beer gently. They had drunk a lot already.

Vy rested her chin on her arms for a while, then spoke without looking at Cao.

“I think there’s only one way for us.”

Cao needed a few seconds to figure out who was speaking, and a few seconds more to understand whom Vy was speaking to. At last he realised Vy was addressing him.

Cao looked at Vy, but she was only staring at her bottle.

“We can have a fake divorce,” Vy said. “After that, I’ll marry a man who lives there.”

Cao needed a long while to understand. Then his body, from the head to the neck to the shoulders, suddenly turned hard and numb.

“It’ll only take a few years,” Vy took a sip of her beer and continued, “then everything will return to normal.”

Everybody fell into a long silence. Cao felt his neck relaxing a bit, and seemed able to turn his head gently, but he didn’t try. Only his two eyes seemed to be moving now. Cao saw Huy drinking silently. As for Vy, her face looked calm again, as if she were still indifferently listening to trivial stories.

“What were you thinking when you said that?”

“It’s just a plan. We’ll discuss it in detail.”

“How could you say that?”

Cao repeated his question, chokingly. He felt he couldn’t take in anything, even air.

“If we can choose a better place to live, why don’t we try?” Vy said. “You only have one life to live. Whether you’re willing to change or not, your life will end anyway.”

“We’re enjoying a better life than many people, so why should we change?”

Huy gulped down his bottle in one go, then looked at his watch.

“I have to leave.”

Cao looked at Huy as if the latter were some stranger who had suddenly appeared in his house from out of nowhere. It took him a second to recognise his friend. Huy walked toward the desk phone to dial. Huy spoke to the switchboard operator, confirmed Cao’s address and phone number, than hung up. Since when did he remember Cao’s home phone? Huy said nothing, patted Cao’s shoulders gently and walked to the door. Vy followed.

Cao sat alone, listening to the clanking sound of Vy locking the gate from the yard.

***

Cao wasn’t a mean person. He’d never complained about a dish, whether it was served on a china plate in an expensive restaurant or on a plastic plate on the sidewalk. He could adapt to annoying circumstances, like when he could still focus in a movie theatre despite others’ noisy conversations. Everything was something to experience, Cao thought. It was life. Whether it was ugly or beautiful, everything was worth enjoying.

Yet Cao had a bad instinct. Instead of simply looking at the surface, he often searched for the truth. Instant noodles for dinner would be normal if both he and his wife went home late. But it would be a different matter if it was the result of laziness and carelessness. He would consider a bunch of noisy customers disturbing his time in a restaurant on the weekend a mere entertaining show offered to him free of charge. But if they intentionally wanted to destroy his meal, it would be a different story.

That was why what Vy said that evening was as good as putting an end to their marriage.

***

For two weeks Vy didn’t go home. Nor did she answer her phone.

Cao started to get used to living without her, and didn’t need to fill his emptiness by trying to meet one friend or another like in the first few days after she left. Cao phoned her parents. In a calm and somewhat distant tone, they told him that she was alright, and that he had nothing to worry about.

Cao felt himself quite cruel because he felt fine. Ever since Vy proposed her crazy plan, she had become half a person in his mind. She appeared in his memory with only her left half or right half, half of her hair, one eye, one ear, one nostril and half of her mouth.

Of course half a person wasn’t beautiful and didn’t evoke any emotion. Cao found himself able to forget her very quickly. Yet he resisted, because if she was gone from his memory, which meant that she was right, then all those years were indeed worth nothing.

Downstairs, the desk phone rang loudly like a fire alarm or an ambulance siren, startling Cao.

It could only be Vy. Only Vy called the desk phone. It wasn’t just the secret signal between the two of them amidst a topsy-turvy world dominated by social media, but also one of the foundations of their small family.

Yet at that moment, Cao felt weary to his soul.

He stood still, letting the phone ring until it stopped.

She would call back for sure, Cao thought. Women were emotional and impatient. Especially Vy. She couldn’t wait for change to come to her, but must change herself right away.

Cao quietly opened the fridge, and took out the last bottle of beer. Holding the green bottle, he remembered he hadn’t drunk beer in a glass for a long time. Did every collapse start with the breaking of a small principle? Suppose he was drunk in the old way now, would normalcy return?

Cao looked at the desk phone which was lying there in silence.

Ten minutes passed, but Cao felt like going through an eternity. She would call back for sure, Cao thought. She would call back. He still understood her better than anybody else.

Right then the phone rang.

Cao slowly put the beer bottle on the table, took a deep breath, suppressed the throbbing in his chest and picked up the phone.

“It’s me, Huy.”

Cao tried to suppress a sigh.

“Are you two drinking beer?” Huy asked.

The signal buzzed a bit, then became clear again.

“I just wanted to tell you I’m getting married.”

“What? To whom?”

“Lai,” Huy said. “She’s decided to follow me at last, for her child’s sake.”

Cao said nothing.

“But it’s true love to me, we’ll be a real couple,” Huy said.

For a child’s sake. Cao didn’t know that feeling. A real couple. Cao doubted it. After many years believing he had everything, Cao found himself empty-handed.

“Hope you aren’t jealous.”

“No, not at all,” Cao said quickly.

Huy hung up.

Cao remained dazed for a while, then slowly walked toward the table to pick up the beer bottle, and took a sip. The afternoon sunshine had been heating up the beer. Never before had he tasted such hot, bland, spiritless beer.

He needed to put the beer in the fridge. But instead of doing so, he sat down on the chair, and clasped his hands around the hot bottle on the table.

I need cold beer.

Cao tried to speak aloud, but his body didn’t budge. He seemed to be cast to the wooden chair and turn into wood, unable to stand up anymore.