by Vu Thi Huyen Trang
Ngan was sitting motionless in the worshipping apartment set aside for her mother's shrine. Grief lay heavy on her heart as tears trickled down her cheeks which were sunken after many sleepless nights. Her mother had died four years ago of a heart attack while she was on business in the highlands. At that time, she was eighteen years old, stunned to be without her mother at a time when she was still cherishing her beautiful dreams of youth.
She felt lost without her mother. Her home seemed immense and drafty throughout the four seasons. Before her mother's unexpected death, her father had been engulfed in business and international projects with his partners. After the death of his wife, he had done his best to make up for her loss by treating Ngan as a close friend as well as a daughter. From the bottom of her heart, she also knew that he was suffering from the loss because he began to lead a lonely life. Ngan took part in a few feasts with her classmates to pass the time, but always returned home to find him alone and in low spirits. Sadly, he always returned straight home after work, contrary to his previous habits. Then one day he brought home his girlfriend, whom Ngan later called Auntie Hanh.
Hanh was ten years older than Ngan and worked for an interior design firm. The previous spring, in order to improve the domestic gloom, Ngan's father hired her to redecorate the house. Her clever touches included adding a few small windows to his deceased wife's shrine and taming the orchard which had fallen into a state of neglect. After the two weeks of redecorating, she started to call on him time and again. At first, Ngan looked at Hanh's calls as friendly visits that helped the home feel less deserted and solitary but she soon realized that things were more complicated than she originally thought because her father's moods were noticeably different.
For the first time since her mother's death, Ngan had heard him humming softly to himself in the bathroom and he had started speaking to her in a lower voice. "What's making him so happy?" she asked herself. As she thought about it, she realised that he seemed to be looking forward to Hanh's phone calls and text messages. As he smiled quietly in his study, Ngan came to the vague realisation that there was a real change in her father, especially when his girlfriend began to visit more frequently. Ngan became worried that Hanh would some day replace her ill-fated mother, a situation which pained and offended her. Sometimes, she wanted to scream that she would not let Hanh or any other woman stay in her house, where her mother's memory still lived even four years after her death, so long as she was in the house. Simply put, no woman could be a substitute for her unlucky mother.
Over the past few days, Ngan had been quiet when she returned home, especially when she knew that Hanh was there. She did her best to avoid inviting Hanh to stay for dinner an keeping her from stepping inside her mother's shrine, although Hanh only wanted to add more adornments to the most sacred place in Ngan's house.
"Dad, you wish to remarry, don't you?" Ngan asked her father while they were having dinner one evening. "To be honest, I'm against the idea. I can't bear the thought of some other woman trying to replace Mum," she added.
Her father was very surprised. Until that moment, had he never heard such a resolute statement from his daughter. In his mind, Ngan was still young, with childlike feelings and thoughts. Maybe she had seen the bewilderment and despair in his eyes.
"What would happen to us if I remarried, my beloved daughter?" he asked.
"I'll leave, Dad."
"OK, if you don't like the idea, I'll stay single. I was actually thinking that another woman around the house would create a more cheerful atmosphere. Anyhow, we're quite joyful enough, just the two of us aren't we? Eat more, my dear daughter. You're too thin these days."
At first, Ngan thought she would feel completely at ease after being so direct with her father, but when she sense his sorrow and confusion she felt terribly heavy at heart. She took pity on both her father and her mother. "If Mum had known that, after four years of separation, he would fall in love with another woman, she would have been very sad," Ngan said to herself. The thin border between life and death as well as between love and oblivion haunted her mind.
Ngan met Nam at a tea stall near the entrance to her alley. Nam was a construction engineer. He frequently brought his blue prints to the stall to look over and discuss with his colleagues while he enjoyed a hot cup of tea. After a few encounters, they became friends. Sometimes, they chatted with each other on the internet and sometimes they went to the zoo or spent an afternoon canoeing on West Lake or drinking a few glasses of draught beer at a beer stall.
"If you were a man like me, things would be the same with us: some hot cups of tea, a few mugs of beer and a long chat," Nam said to her.
"You're kidding me, aren't you?" she told him.
They burst out laughing. Once, while they were drinking tea in the open air stall, Ngan's mood turned sorrowful when she saw a girl about her age happily going to the market with her mother. All of a sudden, she the beer seemed extremely bitter and her head started spinning. "Was it the bitter beer or the cold wind?" she asked herself after a few seconds' dizziness.
After her time with Nam she returned home with mixed feelings, both sorrowful and joyful. Sometimes, she found her father sitting motionless on the balcony looking miserable. Hanh did not visit often and the roses in the vase tended to wither. Instead of flowers, her father brought home some goldfinches to make their home more cheerful. Even when Nam fell in love with her, she did not dare to hum spring songs in her father's presence.
Many nights, the fragrance of joss-sticks woke her up and led her to the altar in her mother's shrine. One night she was surprised to find her father sitting there and talking to her mother's picture in the dim light. In the tranquil atmosphere, the grandfather clock struck mournfully as the hours passed. Meanwhile, a cold draught infiltrated the room through the window by the staircases. The rustle of ylang-ylang leaves made her feel all the more solitary. Standing close to the wall, she heard her father's low whisper: "My darling, why have you left me alone in this world?" he said. "I feel very sad. Ngan has grown up she's just like you. Naturally, she will fall in love some day and have her own family. By then I'll be quite alone in this house," he added.
She leant against the wall, eyes in tears. In their cage, the goldfinches jumped up and down in the cold. Standing up wearily, her father covered the cage with a piece of red cloth. Ngan returned to her bedroom and sat motionless. "Am I so selfish that I can ignore his misery?" she asked herself. In the still air she heard his weary footsteps going downstairs.
Spring usually brought forth an array of bluish-green buds on the trees. So, when she told her father that he should get married again, she felt quite at ease and it was she who invited Hanh to prepare dinner together. She decoreated the house with rose bushes and washed all the window curtains to welcome a new puffs of wind. That day, her father seemed very happy when he returned home from work. The melodious tunes of his singing echoed from his bathroom, matching the chirrups of the goldfinches. Ngan tried her best to accept another woman in her house. "Mum!" she suddenly cried out. As for her father, she only hoped that he would no longer be lonely.
Deep into the night, Ngan was sitting alone in her mother's shrine. She was worried that she would be left high and dry. From now on, she would have to call Hanh "Auntie" and would enjoy the boring meals for three people in which the memories of her mother would be often enlivened. "Mum, you might feel utterly sad but I can't let Dad gradually die in despair. Later, when I get married, Dad will really need a woman to look after him," Ngan whispered. When she looked up at the altar, she the impression that her mother was staring at her with a nice and happy smile.
Upon completing his job at a construction site in the capital, Nam went to Tuyen Quang town to start on a new infrastructure project. There would be no more discussions about the housing designs with his colleagues and no more strolls with his sweetheart near the shore of the West Lake!
"Was there a lot of rain in Ha Noi recently?" Nam asked her while they were talking on the phone one afternoon. "Are you bored with the early Spring drizzle?"
"How can you wait for him for him to finish all those projects across the country. It could go on forever!" exclaimed one of her dear friends.
Still, in her heart of hearts, Ngan believed they would find a solution soon because Nam also came from a spring with countless bluish-green buds.
Translated by Van Minh