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A shoulder to rest on

Update: June, 05/2012 - 18:29
Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
 
by Nguyen Thi Van Anh

Hung's telephone rang and rang. He lifted up the receiver.

"Tomorrow morning, the Court of Appeal will announce May's verdict," Phuoc's voice sounded very worried. "It will no doubt be the same conclusion, we can't expect anything better. What we must try to do, however, is save her life at all costs. Or else, when she's pushed into that police car, her life will essentially be over; she cannot take being in jail. We will not have another chance to restore her good name after such measures are taken. She looks extremely ill!" Phuoc added.

"What can I do for her, Brother?" Hung asked his former leader while his heart pounded sharply. "The die is cast, for the sentence has been sent to higher levels to ratify," he went on.

"How can we just sit back and wait under these circumstances? Action must be taken before it's too late. My plan's as follows: You'll be present at the hearing instead of me, for everybody knows that I'm her brother. Try to stand away from her and from the opposing attendants too, like at the previous session. When the half-an-hour break is announced, you'll secretly take her out of the court room to the waiting boat at the river bank. While you both are crossing the river, I'll welcome you on the other side. Don't forget to hide her face with a gauze mask and safety helment before leaving. What I'm afraid of the most is that they'll detain her right after the verdict has been passed. Of course, it's a dangerous and reckless action, but you're the only dare-devil who could perform this brave and reckless task," Phuoc concluded.

Hung was quite aware that the mission entrusted to him was extremely risky. May's opponents were those in power and in control of legal matters. They might arrest him on the grounds that he was an intentional accomplice with the alleged culprit. However, he made up his mind to free her at any cost because of his love for her, on the one hand, and the request from Phuoc, his ex – chief of the special-task squad working underground in urban centres. So he carefully prepared everything as if he were back in wartime.

The next morning, with a soft hat and an anxious mood, he mixed in with the crowd attending the court session. He hid himself behind a big column, as instructed by Phuoc and waited for the break to take May to the back of the hall.

At last that moment he was waiting for came. Hung quickly told her the plan worked out by their ex-leader. To his surprise, she refused point-blank, her beautiful eyes staring at him.

"No, I can't do it because I'm a dignified young woman. I'd rather die in honesty than live in shame," her voice confident and forthright. A few seconds later, she added, "Don't you know this is a foolish thing to do? What's more, I don't want to jeapordise your family's safety."

Squeezing the hand of the girl he loved so dearly, he uttered the words, "Take our advice, my dear. A bitter injustice is going to fall down on your head. Yet, you remain unaware of it. If only I was able to shoulder it for you!"

Touching her bony shoulders, he pushed her down on the long bench at a corner of the corridor and began opening a bottle of ginseng for her to drink. Her pale face looked up at him warmly but sorrowfully. All of a sudden, she darted into the trial room.

He sat quietly outside for a few minutes then slowly made for the riverside.

***

Thirty years had passed quickly. In his memory, this pretty liaison girl of yore, intelligent and boisterous, in a purple blouse that always attracted lots of attention from her fellow-soldiers, was frequently sought after. By chance, he was lucky to have such a golden opportunity. On the way to their base, they fell into an enemy ambush. Upturning the boat, they rushed into a forest of cajeputs and hid themselves in one of its thick bushes. Luckily for them, they were safe from the fire of enemy's helicopters. It was the first time in his life that he had been so close to such a sweet girl.

"Dear May, I love you so much, much more than anything else in life. Do you know that?" he had said to her.

"Yes I know. And I love you too," she answered.

"Do you want to be my wife?"

"Yes, I do, certainly. Yet, only when the war is over can we get married," she replied sincerely. Again, the rumbles of the choppers and the explosions of bombs suddenly interrupted their amorous dialogue. Startled, May hugged him and he embraced her tightly in his arms to protect her. After a long time, the helicopters flew away. The tranquil sky turned peaceful again. But the forest had been unfortunately destroyed and the soil had been furrowed terribly. Looking around in bewilderment, he whispered to her, "Dear May, in case one of us dies, what would happen?" "God knows! How can we predict our destinies when we're still engaged in war," she replied calmly.

"My dear May, I'm not afraid of death. However, I'm worried that I might lose you for ever. Now, let's enjoy life when we're still alive. We'll love each other. Agreed?" Saying so, he unbuttoned her blouse. At once, she jumped out of his lap, shaking her head resolutely.

"Please, don't do that; we're still deeply in this fight. When our struggle ends, we'll keep our wedding vows solemnly and I'll belong to you for good," she implored.

If that day he had gone further, things would have been drastically different. Their lives would have progressed in a different direction and May would not have fallen into such a gross injustice of today.

The peace they had always expected finally came. Sadly though, the die was cast. May was sent to the north to resume her tertiary education in the hopes that she might become an agricultural engineer to make her poor area prosperous. In the meantime, Hung was shifted to the main force of the army of the National Front for Liberation. Afterwards he joined the Ho Chi Minh campaign to liberate Sai Gon. After that, the couple lost contact.

***

In his clan, Hung was the only son among his eight sisters, elder and younger. His father was the chief of the lineage. Therefore, it was his job to carry on the lineage. In fact, in the thick of the war, his parents chose a well-behaved, nice and hard-working girl for him to take as a wife. When peace was restored, he tried to put off his parents' decision to wait for May's return. Right on the day the family intended to hold a wedding ceremony for their beloved son, Hung received a message from May. Early the next morning, instead of returning home to prepare for the event of great importance, he rode his bicycle over forty kilometres to meet May.

They embraced each other tightly, smiling in tears.

"Darling, I was told that on the way to the city that you'd laid down your life.

Moreover, Brother Hai also said that it was he himself who had taken you to the field hospital to have an operation, but the result seemed unsuccessful," she told him.

"He was right to some extent; my name was already on the list of the dead. Nevertheless, after a night in a deep coma, I miraculously woke up. Perhaps, I was unable to die before seeing you again."

They laughed happily. All of a sudden, he said in a worried voice, "I must be going home now to prevent my so-called wedding already decided by my parents from taking place," he told her. "Anyhow, you'd better go with me at once so that I may express our love affair with Dad and Mum," he went on.

"Why in such a hurry, darling? Is next week OK? I have to complete my project on building the Binh Minh farm, where its workers would certainly enjoy a happy life and their children would be brought up properly from birth to adulthood," she proposed. Saying so, she looked ahead with her dreaming eyes as if a rosy future was awaiting her.

He stayed with her just one day then went home in despair.

Seeing him at the entrance to the hamlet, everybody in his clan rushed towards him in high spirits.

"God bless you for your home-coming," his mother said in a moved voice. "At home, we've thought that you had a road accident and our relatives went in search of you far and wide in vain. Your unit leader also told me that you'd gone home to make procedures for your wedding. Furthermore, some officers visited our home to congratulate you on your happiness. So, your wedding was held although you were not present for it, resulting in a less joyful atmosphere," she told him.

"Why did the ceremony take place without my presence?" he asked his kith and kin, eyes wide open.

"The best day for your would-be wedding was previously chosen. It was no joke! Anyhow, your notorious procrastination was already known by everybody in the family. On the other hand, the bride's side didn't agree to put it off because their daughter reached the age of consent," his mother explained.

Finding a floral arch made of palm leaves and multi-coloured flowers with big words "Double Happiness" at its centre, with his timid would-be bride standing between his parents, he felt greatly confused. At first he wanted to go back to his unit at once, but on second thought, he slowly walked in like a culprit because of the expecting eyes of his old mother and of the brightening face of his father.

Diu, his eligible wife, a well-behaved and kind-hearted girl, performed her marital procedures. That night he frankly confessed that his love affair with May had undergone lots of ups and downs in wartime and now it was high time they got married; he could not have the heart to let go.

"I expect that you understand my situation," he said to her.

Diu listened to him patiently without any reproaches. After that she cried and cried. Finally, she seized his hand and expressed her idea sincerely.

"Brother Hung, I've loved and adored you for a long time. I'm your wife; but I'm nobody to you. That's my fate. I don't dare to bind you in marriage. But, bear in mind that when you're in trouble out of love, return home because I'll be here, waiting for you," she told him.

***

After ten years' marriage, Diu remained a nice daughter-in-law in the family without any complaints. Hung's sisters felt something unusual between the couple. They wanted to remind everybody of their brother's most important day, so they held a special party in honour of the event. Late at night, when all guests had gone back home, he went into his bedroom. Diu was alone by the window, sobbing.

After ten years of their conjugal life, for the first time he heard Diu entreating him for a mercy.

"I know that my destiny is too humble to ask for love from you. What I've craved is one child, just one, to make my life less solitary," she insisted.

He found his heart painfully stung with compassion. He put his hands on the round shoulders of the girl who had dedicated both her love and youth to him without any compensation. At once he remembered May. Stepping hurriedly to the corridor, he created a message to her: "Dear May, do you still love me?" Immediately, he heard her clear and exciting voice: "It's May speaking to you," she said. "How can't I help loving you, my dear? I'm calling you to inform you of a good piece of news. Our products have found a new market in Africa. Precisely speaking, I've just entered into a contract with my African partners for exporting high-quality rice. I'll set aside part of the profit coming from our deal to raise a scholarship fund to attrack talented graduates to our farm. We can build a socialist mode of production on this marshy ground. With a group of talented managers, we'll soon embark upon industrialization and modernization," she went on lengthily.

"But for our future, where shall we go?" he asked.

"To socialist society, of course my dear, an ideal breakthrough in South-East Asia," she replied unaffectedly.

That night he met Diu's requirement.

***

Twenty years later, May' managed to turn the marshy area into a green oasis just as it was in her dream. On the farm, she was a manage and worked deligently from dawn to dusk. While the Binh Minh farm grew more and more luxuriant, she herself became thinner and thinner. She led a simple life to save money for the kids in the kindergarten. As for Hung, she remained in love with him dearly, but she tried not to go beyond the limit of friendship. In the meantime, Hung kept on loving her passionately. Every time, when she was in trouble, he always came to her for support. Sometimes, he found her in the kindergarten or school with bright eyes playing with the kids who called her Mom May. What's more, she was dearly loved by the farmers by virtue of her dignity and self-denial.

***

All of a sudden, calamity befell her one day: in an official letter by the provincial authorities, they decided to retrieve her 40-ha farm to make a golf course. She felt as if she had been a loser in a boxing match. Together with the assistance of her employees, she objected to their decision.

"Miss May, take it easy, please. Previously, we were not afraid of the enemy fully equipped with modern weapons. Now that the authorities are on our side, what do we worrry about?" they asuaged her.

"Are they really on our side?" she asked herself. The more she contacted them, the more she came to know that they were quite different.

"If you take our ricefields to make a golf course, what can we live on?" asked a few farmers.

"Don't worry! When your land turns into a golf course, you don't have to lead a hard life. You can earn money easily," the representative of the authorities replied.

"Where does money come from?"

"From the income of you caddies."

"That means that from the masters of our land, we become the servants to the new bigwigs? Afterwards, our children and children's offspring would stay the same – as their employees forever? No, never, our sweat and tears have been dropped on this land for several decades of years and we may boast this achievement. Nobody's allowed to destroy our premises," they resolutely opposed the local authorities' scheme.

The clash lasted over one year owing to the fact that the manager in particular and her farmers in general refused to sign the decision.

While they were still in high spirits due to their success in protecting their labour fruition, a heavy blow came to them. On a fine day, a group of economic security men reached the farm. They summoned its director and chief accountant to an ad hoc meeting then read the decision to investigate the financial matters of the farm according to an anonymous accusing petition dealing with the director's unlawful secret fund. In reality, the fund was raised with the aim to encourage the pupils of the farm to do better at school. At the age of nearly fifty, without a house to live in or any property of her own, how could she be condemned as a defacator?

Nevertheless, on the basis of the documents with her signature, she had raised funds against the statute. Consequently, she was indicted on a charge of corruption and went to court.

***

In the court room, the judge allowed her to express her last words. She stood up and declared in a choked voice, "My mistake, if any, lies in the fact that I believed the farm could substitute for a family of mine and its children would be my own kids. Getting married then having children are what a young woman is badly in need of and I've failed to realise it…"

She glanced at Hung repentantly. In her heart of hearts she knew that she should have previously rested on his shoulder.

Translated by Van Minh

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