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The Submerged Hillside

Update: April, 17/2012 - 16:46

 

Illustration by Do Dung
by Pham Tu Van

It was still raining heavily. Binh looked out the window as he sat huddled on the bed. Behind him, his mother leant her back against the wall and heaved mournful, depressed sighs. Occasionally, he stared at her without uttering a word.

The loudspeaker at the entrance to the hamlet loudly announced the imminent arrival of a storm that was currently about three hundred kilometres offshore. "It will be here in about twenty hours," it said.

On tenterhooks, he stood up, opened the door and looked outside. Raindrops fell in torrents. The wind blew violently through the tops of the trees. The water drops on his face made him feel cold. He closed the door and returned to the bed. Binh sighed sorrowfully then complained bitterly. "How unfortunate we have to deal with such heavy rain and a violent hurricane," he said to himself. "All of my efforts from the past year will be lost," he added as he turned around. "After this storm, we'll probably have to go to Sai Gon to eke out our living," he told his mother. "We're already looked down on due to leprosy. Mum, we'll just have to try our best until we breathe our last," he went on.

Now twenty-three years old, he never gave up the idea of leaving his native village for good. However, she always turned down his suggestion.

"Things are the same everywhere, my dear son. Plus, the graves of our ancestors are here. How can we have the heart to abandon them?" she said. There was nothing he could do because it was only the two of them and he did not dare to leave her alone in the countryside.

Silently, he lay his head on her thigh to ease his tension as he always did whenever he felt troubled. She swept her two remaining fingers, the others already lost to leporacy, over his face. A few minutes later he fell asleep.

Binh remembered that during his first days at the village primary school, he had been harassed by the sharp-tongued comments of one of his classmates.

"Hey, son of a leper! Why are your hands normal, unlike your mother's?" he jeered.

"Her missing fingers will return, just as normal," Binh retorted angrily without using physical violence at first as he know he would be forced to leave school and his mother would be told about it. The bully burst into laughter because he knew that such things only happened in fairy tales. Flying into a rage, Binh bit his opponent so hard that he drew blood. Since then, Binh has been known by the nickname Binh the Leper. Time and again, he fought his ill-bred classmates only to face serious discipline. If his mother had not asked the headmaster for mercy, he would have been punished severely.

All the residents of Chieu Lieu Village tried to avoid this poor clan because they were worried about being too close to her leprosy. In the past, Binh's father, incited by his relatives, expelled his wife and their four-year-old son from the house. They had no choice but to live in shared solitude with Binh's maternal grandmother in a remote region. Sadly, when the old woman was still young, she also succumbed to leprosy and lost all her toes. She had managed to conceal her disease so cleverly that nobody knew anything about her deformity, so different from his mother's case. Their bad situation had driven the old leper into despair, leading to her death one year later.

For decades of being held in contempt by her neighbours, Binh's mother had braved all difficulties to bring up her son into adulthood. Although his limbs were still intact, the residents had not doubt that someday he would be contaminated by the nasty disease. As a result, Binh had led a solitary life throughout his childhood. He went to school alone where at break times he stood silently in the play-ground watching covetously as the others played together. At these times, he dreamt that the world would fall into darkness, where he might be equal to other children with no worries or fears.

After completing ninth grade, Binh was compelled to give up his schooling due to his family's dire poverty in defiance of his mother's advice. Besides, if he moved on in school, the senior secondary school was many kilometres from home. "What will happen to Mum when I'm away from home?" he asked himself. "I must stay here to earn money to buy her medicine. How can I let her lose her two remaining fingers?"

"Following is urgent news about an imminent storm, attention please…," announced the voice over the loudspeaker again. Like a spring, Binh shot up then put his feet down on the ground.

"Where are you going in this nasty weather?" his mother asked.

"I'll go to Thuy's to check on their house. Those poor women! If their roof is torn and swept away, where will they live?"

"Don't worry, they've got lots of relatives. They don't need your help. Besides, Thuy's mother would drive you out of their house," she said.

***

Thuy was the only person in Chieu Lieu Village who treated him properly, as a friend, because she knew that leprosy was not a contagious disease. Nevertheless, she had to defy her mother because in her opinion, Binh's mother might be a danger to the whole village. Binh did his best to leave Thuy alone for fear that her mother would give her a good thrashing. "I don't want such an innocent girl to be ill-treated," he said to himself.

During their childhood, she looked at him only as a good friend, neither more nor less. Then their friendship became stronger and stronger with every passing day. At the age of twenty, Binh fell passionately in love with her by virtue of her innocence and honesty. "You'd ease your suffering by looking at life with your mother as a source of happiness," she consoled him.

Still, he found his love affair rather uncertain. He was in love, but unable to leave for another locality to settle down or to help her family in difficulty. "Is it because of my mother's deformity that Thuy's sharp-tongued mum hates me, or is it because my love for Thuy was not strong enough to tide over bad comments?" he asked himself. He remembered his mother's words, "You can hardly get a wife in this village, no matter how passionately that girl might love you, simply because of the barrier of prejudice." Unless Binh moves far away to search for another young woman's hand in marriage who knows nothing about his family's situation, and they never return to his native village, he will never find happiness.

***

Although the storm had yet to reach them, the storm in his heart was brewing.

During the night, the wind howled wildly around the trees and rain fell heavily on the roof. Sitting against the wall, the elderly woman thought and thought. Meanwhile, Binh, still awake, lay hudddled up in a corner of the bed. He was very anxious about Thuy and her weak mother. The woman had many relatives, but they lived hundreds of metres away, so they could hardly help her out when their own dwellings were also in danger.

"If I had been bold enough to go to her this afternoon even though her mother was there…," he complained in confusion.

He tossed about sleeplessly. He finally got up and stared vacantly out into the pitch-dark night as lightning sparkled brilliantly. The din of wind and rain patting on the roofs could be heard sorrowfully. A few minutes later, the banana trees in the orchard collapsed. The tie-beams under the roof creaked noisily.

"We're in dire poverty with barren soil. With such a heavy rain and strong wind, how can we keep on living after this horrible storm?" she complained. There were only a few solid brick houses in the village, when storms fell over this land, many thatched-roofs were ripped off by the violent current. All that remained was mud. Life was so tiring that many residents had to move to other regions to turn over a new leaf.

Binh got up early the next morning. Luckily their hut withstood the damaging storm. However, raindrops continued to fall heavily on the roof and the wind blew endlessly strong.

When the loudspeakers announced the arrival of the storm, Binh jumped out of bed. Wearing his raincoat and safety helmet, he made for Thuy's place, for he was unable to remain patient any longer. His mother knew where her son was going, but all she said was, "Take care of yourself, my dear son."

The wind blew so strong that it seemed as if it could lift him off the ground. He had to inch his way along very carefully. It took almost an hour, instead of a few seconds as usual, to reach Thuy's house. Lying under their bed, Thuy and her mother were trembling with fear. He dragged them out and led them to Thuy's uncle's house.

When they were halfway to the uncle's house, the village chief's voice rang out on the loudspeaker behind them, "Villagers, please get to high ground as quickly as possible. A flood is rushing towards us," he announced.

"Run faster, my darling," Binh told Thuy while supporting her mother. "What will happen to Mum, alone at home?" he asked himself. Several times he thought about dashing home and letting Thuy and her mother manage for themselves, but he was unable to do so. He tried his best to help them move faster.

The path uphill was crowded with people who were inching their way along against the strong wind. "This is such bad weather! The hurricane is still raging and a flood is on its way," exclaimed one villager.

When Binh had successfully led them to a safe spot on higher ground, he returned home. It seemed like the whirlpools were trying to stop him by making him tumble down again and again. Yet, he rose up and continued home.

"Brother Binh, help me, please," Ria called after him. "My grandpa is still in bed and he refuses to leave. Can you carry him on your back?" he implored earnestly. Binh directed his eyes towards his own house. It was still two kilometres away while Ria's house was only a few hundred metres ahead. If he ran quickly enough to save the life of Ria's grandpa, he might be able to turn back to his house in time to get his mother to the safe place on the hillside. The water was already nearly at his knees. Plus, he could still take a boat to his mother and row them to safety. After a few moments, he made up his mind to dash towards Ria's house. He told the old man to climb onto his back before it was too late. But the old man refused to leave.

"The die is cast, so leave me alone. I'd rather die here than end my life elsewhere," he said. But Binh managed to lift him onto his back, while Ria supported him from behind, as the rain continued to torture their thin bodies.

Ria was the most stubborn kid in the village and was very insolent to Binh. Although he was four years younger than Binh, he always called him "Binh the Leper" when the latter was not present. It was Ria who had often cursed Binh's mother and wanted her to die so that she might not spread her disease to others. Binh had once beat him severely for daring to defame her. But at that moment, he unexpectedly called Binh ‘elder brother'. A few of the other residents addressed him dearly as well. Binh felt warm to be treated this way. He remembered Thuy's advice, "Live honestly and work well, you'll be warmly welcomed by everybody."

At eleven in the morning, the storm reached the village as clusters of marsh-lentils spun round and round in the whirlwind before sinking to the ground. Binh struggled against the turbulent water on the way home. The two roofs had been swept away, and he rushed in and called out to his mother loudly. He was stunned at the sight of his mother sitting inside the boat clinging to a tie-beam.

"Mum, why didn't you paddle away?" he asked her loudly.

"I've been waiting for you."

He embraced her tightly and sobbed. She released the beam and hugged him too.

"No more crying, my dear son! You're here and now I'm quite at ease," she said.

He pushed the boat out of the house with tears in his eyes. His mother remained sitting in the boat while he walked in the water. Struggling to catch hold of the ground, he tried to push it ahead. In the immense sea of water and in the strong and adverse wind and heavy rain, only Binh and his mother remained to brave the horrible weather.

On the hillside, children cried lamentably. Everybody stood closer to one another trembling in fear. Thuy directed her eyes over the vast sea of water as she held onto a tree trunk with her mother.

"Why can't we see Binh and his mother anywhere?" Thuy's mother asked.

"I don't know, Mum."

"There they are," shouted the village chief.

Everyone looked down. Binh's boat was still approximately one hundred metres away. It was rocking violently among the successive waves, one after another. Although the water reached his neck, he continued to push the boat ahead. At once, Thuy rushed down to the muddy waters together with a few others, including the village chief, and called out to him loudly. He looked up, eyes brimming with tears. At that moment, he slipped into a deep hole and a whirlpool ran over the place where he fell as the wind continued to rage madly. Binh tried to keep balance in the deep water and push the boat out of danger, but it was too late. The boat overturned and both mother and son were plunged deep into the turbulent current. The rain continued to fall in torrents and the wind kept on blowing wildly.

The next morning, the sky rained itself out and the wind ceased. Most of the villagers on the high slope were weary and trembling. They all looked haggard. Little children cried from hunger and thirst.

At the slope of the hill, the flow was still rather strong. Houses and plants were submerged under water. Several tree tops and many torn roofs were floating in the water. In the end, the search for the missing was in vain.

Three days later, the bodies of Binh and his mother were found floating in the nearby estuary. The two-fingered hand of the woman still held Binh's arm tightly. Villagers cried for hours while Chieu Lieu Village remained submerged deep in muddy water.

Translated by Van Minh

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