by Nguyen Binh Duc
|Illustration by Do Dung
Phong rode his motorbike slowly. One of his hands was nestled in the left pocket of his jeans while the other tried to adjust the speed. No winter had ever been so cold as this one. The icy wind blew violently along the dim and deserted road. Everybody hurried home to enjoy the warm air in their cosy and bright homes. He sauntered here and there on the quasi-empty streets. "If only Duong were here beside me at the moment," he whispered.
Returning home late in the evening after a long business trip, he took his motorbike out of the garage and quickly rode straight to her place. Although away from each other for just a few days, when they met they felt as if they hadn't seen each other for ages. Hurrying upstairs to the top floor of the five-storey condo, he knocked at Duong's door with the hope that he might rid himself of his exhaustion with only one look and kiss from her.
She welcomed him with a caressing glance. However, he found her look a little strange and uneasy. It turned out that she had been entertaining her former classmates. There had been one time that Phong and this group nearly came to blows. He found them tedious and boastful. Duong always asked him to keep on good terms with them, yet her efforts were eventually in vain.
Phong greeted them with a look of annoyance. Dropping himself into the single armchair, he took a packet of cigarettes out of his bag and began smoking while Duong tried to ease the tension between the two sides. A few minutes later, Phong took out a small bottle of elixir given to him by his would-be father-in-law and drank alone. Suddenly, he remembered that on the birthday of one of her friends, this group had intended to defeat him in a drinking contest. Contrary to their plan, they turned out to be the losers.
A few minutes later, all of them left due to Phong's warlike attitude. As a result, a squabble took place between the courting couple instead of the warm feelings of an amiable rendez-vous after many days of absence. Duong had never been so annoyed with him. She burst into tears, then followed up with an icy look that proposed an end to their love affair. He eventually left with her sobbing bitterly at the gate.
All the street lamps were now on. Phong felt cold. Turning into a desolate alley, he stopped in front of a tea stall under a big Indian almond tree on the pavement. Putting his large bag on a dry place, he sat down to sip a few cups of tea. The hot drink enabled him to drive away the cold. He took off his gloves and put them into the pocket of his jacket. After that, he removed the woollen scarf from his neck. He was rather surprised when he touched the thin string of a wooden amulet which hung on his neck.
It was the charm offered to him by a mountainous girl named Ma Thi Hue.
As a young government official in the census department, Phong was dispatched to the district of Vo Nhai in Thai Nguyen Province on business. As an adventurer, he was always interested in these long journeys to remote regions with various minority peoples. His office was in charge of a legal development project and supported people in far-away localities where he, as well as his colleagues, would spread legal knowledge, talk about the State's demographic policies and answer questions.
On his most recent trip he had gone alone to Thuong Nung Commune of Vo Nhai District. It was a remote area, uneventful, with a small population. From the centre of the city of Thai Nguyen to that commune, it took a half-a-day travel on foot through the rugged and narrow paths meandering among high hills and mountains or very close to deep valleys. Its inhabitants were poor. They led simple lives as their ancestors had done a thousand years ago: without electricity or clean water. The single indicator of a civilized society was an old-type telephone placed inside the post office of the Cultural House on the commune. All of its locals belonged to the Tay or Mong ethnic groups.
Phong's journey during this time was on the whole the same as usual; making a report of cultural and educational activities and the capacity to develop a cottage industry. In order to carry out these tasks, he had to go on foot from house to house. In the commune there were no bicycles, let alone motorbikes. And even if there were any, he wouldn't dare use them on the trodden paths 20-centemetres wide running beside an abyss over steep passes. Here, it would take the chairman of the Commune People's Committee eighteen days to visits all its households on foot of course. Similarly, it took the hamlet chief at least two days to reach the cultural house for a public meeting.
Phong stayed with the family of Mr Ha Van Ung, deputy-head of the Office of the People's Committee, a powerfully-built man with an austere face. His pretty wife, looking much younger than her real age of forty-one, was a clever, capable and polite woman. Phong was arranged to sleep in a corner of their wooden stilt house where the stench of poultry and domestic cattle made him nauseous. The residents here were both honest and kind-hearted. According to the housekeepers, except for the assistant doctor who had been working in the health station for many years, Phong was the only one to stay at this locality for as many as five days.
Phong set off when the dew still covered the hillsides. Lung, the 18-year-old son of Mr Ha Van Ung, served the role of guide and interpreter. Because of his business in the field work, he could help Phong just one day. As for crossing the stream by means of a raft, Phong had to do it by himself.
It was not easy to follow Lung's strides, yet Phong did not miss this golden chance to contemplate the scenery of the woodlands for he was always interested in the Northern mountains with their green canopies, cliffs and babbling streams. At the first stream, he could see its bottom with white pebbles and small fish swimming in the clear water. After the first day, Phong learnt how to cross the waterway by raft. On the whole he visited five families, whose properties were a few head of cattle and several of poultry, that's all. Every week, its residents went to market to barter their produce and cash was rare. The educational and public health conditions were rather backward due to the far-away school and dispensary. What struck him the most was the beauty of the young women in this remote village.
"Why do they look so pretty?" Phong asked his fellow-traveller.
"I don't know, Brother Phong. I've never been away to realize how beautiful the girls of other localities are," he replied sincerely. "If you aren't tired, right now we will arrive at the dwelling of Miss Ma Thi Hue, the most beautiful lady in the commune. She's finished her secondary education recently and her house's within a stone's throw. Tomorrow, I'll be very busy and I'm afraid that nobody else can be your interpreter other than her," he added.
Hue's house stood on a hillside, leaning against a stone cliff. It was a large but old stilt house. Maybe its previous owner was fairly well off. Phong climbed up the outside staircase.
"Good afternoon, Lady," he greeted the old woman with rough hair cutting vegetables among several kids. "She's Hue's Grannie," Lung introduced her to him. She greeted the visitors in reply. "We'll wait for Hue for a few minutes, she is working in her field," he said to Phong. Through the old woman's narrative, he learned some details of her clan. The house owner was clever. Although his wife died young, he stayed unmarried and brought up their seven children, including Hue. He had dreamt that some day his eldest daughter might go to a university in town, but when she graduated from her senior secondary school, he died of a snake bite. After this, the heavy burden of raising the family fell on her shoulders because her siblings were still very young.
Suddenly, the kids downstairs made a great noise amid the soft voice of a girl. Returning home from the field, she was amazed at the appearance of a stranger. Meanwhile Phong was stupefied by the beauty of this mountainous girl; he had never seen anyone so pretty.
Hue agreed to help him in the upcoming days. Her Grannie did not object to her decision. Usually, women of this village rarely crossed over the commune border. But for Hue, things were different. She had been accustomed to living away from home since she entered junior secondary school. After packing her belongings, she went to the dwelling of the deputy chief of the commune committee together with Lung and Phong. That evening, Mr Ung fed a feast to Phong, Hue and two others – the assistant doctor and the teacher of the commune.
Enjoying the grilled meat of a wild goat and drinking home-brewed rice wine in the highlands made Phong extremely in high spirits. Although he was a good drinker, he could not compete with the local official in this respect. "Our townee's drinking capacity is very poor. As for me, I can have eighteen cupfuls on end without seeing double," he bragged to Phong.
The primary teacher was a local, thirty years old with one wife and three children. Graduating from the teachers' college in the lowlands, he had settled down here to practise his profession many years ago. "Pupils of senior secondary education are very rare here because after leaving school, they don't know what to do after that. We're in short of publications, even newspapers or magazines, so we have got almost nothing to read," he said to Phong.
Unlike the teacher, the assistant doctor Tuong came from the mountainous city of Thai Nguyen. He came to Thuong Nung to work because of his youthful enthusiasm. Having worked here for several years, Tuong felt deeply moved by the inhabitants' love and care. Nevertheless, from his heart of hearts he knew that he could hardly reside here for his whole lifetime.
After dinner, Ung's wife and Hue sang a traditional song together. Phong felt more passionate with Hue's singing and with her lovable eyes than with the wine.
With Hue's accompaniment and support, Phong's report had much more data and better quality thanks to her effective explanation and presentation of the legal matters to her co-villagers.
Hue talked a lot to him about the vague memory of her dear mother, about her beloved father whom she met twice during her vacation, about her paternal grandmother and about the upbringing of her siblings after her father's death and finally about her dreams to go to the municipal college in order to become a teacher of literature. As for Phong, he also discussed his childhood in the capital of Ha Noi, his schooldays and time on campus and the time he became a public servant. He talked and talked until she fell into silence.
That afternoon, when they had nearly reached home, they braved an upstream spate. Although it was now not very large, its current was violent. Suddenly they saw a woman with her little child on the back standing at the bank of the waterway in order to wait until the flow became less turbulent and she could wade across. Spending a night in the forest, the woman would face a lot of danger: wild animals and venomous snakes. "If Lung or any strong local young man were here, I would have nothing to worry about,"Hue whispered. Phong seemed to know her wish. He proceeded toward the raft tied to a tree trunk and unfastened it.
Phong and the woman on the raft crossed the stream safely, although it stopped downstream about fifty metres away. After that he carried the raft upstream some hundred metres from Hue's place on the other bank. Again he put the raft on the swiftly-flowing water and let it go downstream to her place. Helping her get down to the raft, he carefully poled it downstream again to the other side. When they were going to reach the opposite bank, the pole slipped out of his hand, thus causing him to stagger a bit. The uncontrollable raft rocked violently then glided away. Hue snatched at his arm in despair. Fortunately for them, the raft was stranded ashore near Mr Ung's house.
Hue was all right, but Phong had a splitting headache. By the fire, Lung applied hot compresses. A few minutes later, he fell asleep. In the dream, he found Hue standing by the stream and calling to him loudly. He awoke amid her song echoing from the courtyard downstairs. At the moment Lung was carving something on a piece of wood.
"Much better now?" he asked Phong.
"Yes, no more pain, thanks. By the way, what was Hue singing about?"
"Hey, my courageous youth of the forest and mountains! I'm waiting for your return," he replied. That was the gist of her song. "In fact, she was singing to drive away your pains," he added.
Five days passed by quickly, beyond Phong's prediction. In the evening Mr Ha Van Ung's clan held a copious farewell party to say goodbye to Phong.
"You must come back here, Phong. Our home is also yours and Lung's your younger brother. Besides, we residents of Thuong Nung regard you as one of our co-villagers. If you have an occasion, come to us with as many friends as possible."
Phong nodded his thanks. After that he was offered a small bottle of tonic alcohol. "You shouldn't drink it at once. Back to the capital, time and again, you'll relish a few cupfuls in memory of us," he went on.
Lung suddenly stood up and went into his room. Taking something wrapped around by a piece of coarse material, he gave it to Phong with a few parting words, "I offer you this small gift as a keepsake." After saying "Thank you" to him, Phong opened the package. It turned out a jungle knife with a beautiful nicely-chiseled wooden handle. Lung had made it over the past few evenings. "Reaching Thuong Nung, crossing its stream, staying inside a Thuong Nung house, you really are a Thuong Nung youth," he said to Phong.
The sentiments of these mountainous people made him deeply moved. Putting them all into his bag, he said to himself that some day he would come back to this place. According to the plan of his office, the next year a party of researchers would come here once again. Phong hoped that he would be among them.
"But, where's Hue?" he asked himself. After the last fact-finding trip of yesterday, she seemed to evade him.
Tossing himself in bed for a long while, he finally fell asleep. In his dream he found her again with a sad song.
Early in the next morning while Phong was putting his bag on his back, Lung told him, "I intended to see you off as far as the stream, but Hue has already been entrusted with that delicate task."
When he went downstairs, he found Hue waiting for him at the foot of the stairs. Curiously, for the past days, every time he met her in the morning he found her more beautiful and sorrowful. At the moment, he did not dare to look into her eyes. Phong greeted everybody for the last time. After that he and Hue walked away. From Thuong Nung to the coach station of the district, it took them at least half a day. He felt a bit confused. "Will I see you again next year?" he asked her. "Next year, I'll get married to meet my grandmother's wish. We're badly in need of a man in the family," she told him. He wanted to talk a lot to her, but she only replied in fits and starts. A vague emotion was rising in his heart, for he felt that she had fallen in love with him.
Strangely enough, she kept mum nearly all the way down. Silently, she walked by his side across the pass and the stream, then suddenly she sang the sad song that he had heard during the previous night, whose words had been explained by Lung: "…I'm waiting for your return."
A few footsteps away from the stream, she stopped. "I'll see you off as far as this place only, my dear Phong," she said softly. He stared at her for a long while. She bent down her head, tears trickling down over her rosy cheeks. All of a sudden, she looked up and seized his right hand.
"You'll come back here, won't you?" she asked in an expecting voice.
"Yes, I'll return to you next year."
"I'll wait for you one year. Just one year! Is that all right?"
He grasped her hand silently.
She smiled happily. A few seconds later she took out of her pocket a thin string with a slender, round and red piece of wood then put it round his neck with her warm hands. "This little thing will help you chase away any love affairs from other girls," she added.
He turned round and hurriedly walked away. He also let a thin wisp of mist rise in his eyes.
"Well… Ma Thi Hue, the most beautiful girl of Thuong Nung Village that I've ever met!" he exclaimed. Returning to is home town, he hurriedly took Hue's amulet from his neck. He remembered that before going to Thuong Nung, an official of the People's Committee of Thai Nguyen City had said to him half seriously and half jokingly, "Beware of the amulet of a Thuong Nung girl!" At that moment he did not believe him. Yet for the time being, he felt utterly bewildered. He stood up, paid for his cups of tea, picked up his bag and placed it on the luggage carrier then rode straight ahead to Duong's place.
Again, Phong flew upstairs to the fifth floor and knocked at her door hurriedly. She opened it immediately. Looking at her, he knew that she had been looking forward to his coming back. "Forgive me, my honey," he said, hugging her tightly then kissing her on the eyes. He could not lose her. He loved her and needed her very much. Meanwhile, Hue's amulet was no longer on his neck. "No more anger from an hour ago! No more icy looks! No more reproachful words!" he whispered to himself.
Returning home from Duong's place, Phong felt puzzled. "Is Hue's amulet effective or a coincidence?" he asked himself. He stopped his motorbike on a deserted street, pulled down a twig of the tree then hung the amulet on it. "Dear Hue, forgive me…," he prayed. He stared at the amulet slightly swinging in the breeze for a while. It stayed there, alone and silent, like Hue in Thuong Nung Village with her sad song of separation and expectation.
Phong's report of his trip was highly valued. In addition to his joy he also received a small bonus, just enough for a beer party with several friends. However, a strange obsession kept on haunting him during his dreams at night. For the past few days he had been unable to sleep and tonight the same thing happened to him.
He got up, put on his jacket, then walked to the cupboard. He opened the door to take out the bottle of spirits and the jungle knife he got from the two residents of Thuong Nung Village. He looked at them for a long while. All of a sudden, he thought of the amulet given to him by Hue. At once, he went downstairs to take the motorbike out of the gate then hurriedly rode away. He felt very hot as if he had a fever. He shot to the tree where he had hung her charm. He wanted to take back her present and reach her place by the end of this week or if possible, right after tomorrow.
Unfortunately for him, the amulet was no longer there. What he could hear from the rustling leaves of the tree was: "I'm waiting for your return."
Translated by Van Minh