by Nguyen Thi Ngoc Ha
Though she is over 70 years old, the Buddhist nun of Ha Pagoda still walks with leisurely and light steps. Her explanations of dharma are still sagacious and it is her routine that every morning, after practicing Tai Chi Chuan, she drinks a bowl of hot herbal tea before she strikes the bell. After the bell echoes through the air and fades, she sits in deep meditation for 30 minutes in Tam Bao (Buddha Trinity) Temple, and then she begins to beat the wooden bell, while saying prayers. The novice monks and lay brothers wish to emulate the old nun, but they fail. That is, all except the novice nun Phuong, who in the eyes of the nun, has trained the hardest. Phuong is taciturn, but works hard in her daily chores, diligently learns Chinese characters, and fluently reads the Buddhist Prayer-Book. Twenty years have gone by since her tonsure, and the nun has never taken her amiss, even once.
The elderly nun has felt sympathy for Phuong right from the first day she came to ask the protection of the pagoda. The situation that Phuong had run away from home was similar to the nun's situation as a young girl. However, the nun's life debt was light, so she could renounce the world and become a Buddhist nun. On the contrary, even though Phuong had given herself up to lead a Buddhist life, the nun still felt that it was so difficult for her to become a nun because of her fate.
Having finished the Diamond Sutra, the nun called Phuong to her room.
"You wanted to see me?"
"Yes. Have you dried a lot of frangipani flowers and lotus leaves?"
"About one kilo of frangipani flowers and six kilos of lotus leaves."
"Have they been dried yet?"
"This afternoon, you and lay brother Xoan will divide the lotus leaves and frangipani flowers into many small bags and give them as alms to those who need our help. These are the herbal medicines to treat cholesterol. The addresses have been recorded in this list, so you and the lay brother should start going soon so as to be back in time for the night prayers."
The twilight had yet to fade completely when novice Phuong and lay brother Xoan had finished the job. Xoan carried the bicycle to the shed and Phuong came to ask permission from the nun to have the night off from contrition praying. The nun found the request strange enough to ask lay brother Xoan what happened.
"Do tell me if there is anyone complaining."
"So, why is novice nun Phuong so sad?
"Please forgive us. When we went by the railway street, we heard a minstrel singing, so novice nun Phuong returned and we craned our necks over the crowd. Out of the blue, her face turned pale, her two hands started trembling so much that she was unable to handle the bicycle. I had to carry her home in fear that something bad would happen. I believed she had caught a cold, so I prepared a bowl of ginger water for her."
"Alright, you may go do your job. Leave that bowl of ginger water there."
The nun remembered that one day Phuong had confessed her feelings: "I'm told that after my lover became blind, he left the village and became a wandering singer. I was tempted to go and look for him…. And then I stopped thinking about it for fear that he could have a wife. Moreover, I have led a religious life. If I had gone to find him, when would my sins have been washed away?"
The nun had eaten one portion of betel and areca after another, and was now feeling as if she had just drunk strong brandy and would not be able to stand up and go to Phuong's room. The nun knew very well that this would happen sooner or later. Having hesitated for some more moments, she went to open the door. She saw Phuong lying prostrate on the pillow. The nun was flooded with sadness, her eyes that had been freed from the dust of life for these fifty years now suddenly welled up in tears in front of the girl whose prime was gone. She was her incarnation.
"Phuong, I thoroughly understand your plight in the heart, so do sit up. I want to talk with you now."
Phuong sat up and arranged her crumpled clothes in front of the old nun who was helping her in her hour of need.
"Did you see that man today?"
"Do you want to go back to the world?"
"It's been so long since we have heard from each other, what if he is married already? Please, let what's done be done!"
"Amida Buddha! I was just asking. I've already known that you cannot be a true monk as far as your fate is concerned. I will ask someone to go and get information. If he is yet to be married, the pagoda will organise a ritual to help you give up your nun's robes."
"Please, don't. I have vowed to seek the shelter of Buddha; I can't break my religion vow."
"Tonsuring does not mean becoming a monk. Do take a rest. I know what I should do."
No one knew that the old nun had been kept informed of the single man's life in that rashly living hamlet.
The man had tanned skin, which made his staunch wrinkled face sadder. Upon seeing him for the first time, it was difficult to tell his age. One moment he looked to be a man of forty, the next an old man. Having a closer look under those dark eye glasses, it was possible to know that he was really blind, not pretending to be blind as everybody thought. A coarse bag was slung over his shoulder and his two scarred hands held the guitar. While he sang in front of the street audience, the old people enjoying bonsai trees would liken him to a clumsily dwarfed potted plant.
He sang as if he had studied in a professional vocal class. With his expressive voice and clear, wide, pitch, he charmed the listeners. "You sing like a true artist" someone remarked. The blind man smiled a bitter smile, "Thank you for your compliment, but I'm only a wandering singer, begging in the world, you see."
When the blind man put up a tent in a dumping ground in the early 90s, he was one of the first inhabitants. A few years later, people flocked to the area and were seen busy selling and buying all the odds and ends of spoiled goods. First thing in the morning, people in the neighbourhood would hear the clattering sound of the stick and in the late afternoon, the same sound was heard coming home.
It was late winter, wind was blowing hard outside, and the wandering singer heard the falling leaves from the terminalia tree in front of the house. Today the wind had again reminded Manh of the unforgettable days of his life. All the fragments of memories were somehow piecing themselves together into a range of images that would gradually appear one by one before him.
...After winning first prize in the provincial singing contest, Manh had become an idol of many girls in the province. But he only saw Phuong, a school mate of his with whom he was head over heels in love. Phuong was the youngest daughter of the head of the locally famous wood processing shop and a niece of the chairman of the communal people's committee. She was not as prominently beautiful as the girls in the provincial capital city, but she had a simple and pure beauty, so attractive to the young boys in the area.
It was such a brightly moon lit night when Manh met Phuong that he could see the tiny mole right below her lip. He said in the sweetheart's breath,
"Do you agree to let me come and speak about our story to your parents?
"But my uncle and the whole clan want a marriage alliance with the Party Secretary of the district."
"What about you?"
"There's no need for you to ask."
Black clouds suddenly were seen, completely covering the moon. The wind blew leaves from their trees which were seen strewn on the communal house's yard. The two lovers could not hear the steps advancing towards them. Phuong's oldest brother was calling her with a voice distorted in the hissing wind.
"Do you make a date with my sister to flirt with her?"
Phuong's second brother was closer, speaking in a shrill voice.
"You, bloody bastard! Who do you think you are to dream of having our Phuong?"
"Phuong and I love each other, and how can you pass yourselves as having the right to offend me?"
"What! You mean the right...the right to love each other…?"
Having said so, the two brothers came to beat Manh so mercilessly that Phuong was screaming for help. Manh vaguely saw them pulling her away as he dragged himself home. His mother tried to heal the wounds for him while crying:
"I was just warned that if you met Phuong, her brothers would beat you until you were crippled. I know they wanted to avenge you not because you love her, but because they thought you had prevented the business unit from levelling the floor space for a project and they could get benefits from that project. So please, stop loving her and go on your studies."
"But I love only her, mom."
"They are wealthy people, but they live a dishonest life. Her mother is a friend of mine, you know. She was forced by her father to be his concubine while his first wife treated her terribly until she died. Those two guys could not marry any girl in the village because..."
The blind man was feeling his way to the corner of the house and got a glass of water to dispel the unhappy past that was swirling in his head. But the past had returned to him anyway.
...A few days after he had been beaten by Phuong's brothers, Manh went to the People's Committee of the commune to get his file certified before he could send it to the music school.
The Chairman of the Committee seemed to give a cordial welcome to people.
"Good day, uncle!"
"Yes, come in, Manh."
The Chairman put down a cup of tea in front of Manh. In a usually friendly voice, he said,
"It is very valuable for the commune to have such a talent as you, but you haven't fulfilled your military obligation. Your talent is still inside you and nobody can take that away, so it is not too late when you finish your obligation and come home to go on your studies. And one more thing, my niece Phuong has been propositioned for marriage, so don't run after her any longer, you see?"
Whenever he remembered the old story, Manh felt greatly sorry for his mother. She had sent her two sons to the battle field during the war and one laid down his life there. Her husband had also sacrificed himself during the Tay Bac Campaign in 1953. She once told him that she had picked him up one stormy night in an abandoned temple in the middle of the rice field. She brought him up to be a good man, and he promised himself that he would never let Mother cry because of him.
On the day he joined the army, when he was about to leave the village, Phuong came to see him off and she quickly put a piece of paper into his hand: "I will never marry any one else, but you." These words lit inside him a great hope, warming him up on that cold winter night. Three months later, he received the news that Phuong had left her home without any trace. Having finished his military obligation, he returned to his home village and he knew that Phuong's uncle and some of the commune's officials had been dismissed from their posts. Sometimes Manh met her second brother who had always darted a knife-sharp look at him.
Manh had waited to hear from Phuong day in and day out, but in vain. So he joined the young people's singing movement in the village to prepare an inter-communal singing contest. One night after a rehearsal, he stayed back to continue practicing, Suddenly he saw smoke blowing in from the outside, and he felt a stinging in his eyes. He figured out that the House of Culture was being burnt and he rushed to save it. At the end of the day, he fell unconscious. When he came to hospital, he knew that his face was burnt and his eyes had become blind for good. Later he was told that Phuong's second brother had died of a snake bite on the same night the House of Culture had been burnt.
The spring that year was the saddest spring in Manh's life. An invisible sadness could be touched whenever the blind man thought about it. It was rumoured that his lover had been married in the provincial capital and gone to the South with her husband. His wish of going to the music school had been shattered. Every late afternoon, he groped his way with a stick to where he and Phuong used to meet by the pond of the communal house. He wanted to drown himself in the memories. His adoptive mother was told that he was by the pond's bank; the old, weak mother had rushed in a hurry to lead him home.
"You are still not accustomed to getting around with that stick, so be careful or you'll fall into the pond, my dear."
"I'll get used to it after a while."
It seemed that his mother was weeping silently. He stretched his hands to touch his mother's wrinkled, bony face and suddenly he felt a deep pain in his heart. One winter day when it was raining without let-up, a cold wind blowing hard, his mother said to her adopted son,
"I feel quite strange inside me, possibly the father and brothers of yours are calling me to go with him."
"Please, don't think about death, mother. I'm blind, but I am still strong and I will go wandering and singing to earn a living."
The weak mother whispered in his ear: "I don't want to be far away from you at all." But fate forced her to leave her son in this world and go to the other world alone.
Manh inhaled deeply then released it to lighten his heart. He heard the sound of someone walking on dead leaves. The sounds were getting nearer to the front of his house.
A few minutes later, the person standing beside him remained silent. He did not hear any more steps. Finding it strange, he groped his way to the door. It was still bolted. If it was a dishonest person, they could enter the house. The blind man had a feeling that the strange person was still there, quite near at hand.
"Who's that? What do you want, please speak it now."
"My dear Manh."
The voice calling his name was loud enough for him to recognise without mistake. That same voice, so gentle and warm to him, made his heart beat rapidly. It was really her. Feeling his way to touch the bolted door, he said as if he was losing his voice,
"Are you Phuong?"
"Yes, I am here with you."
Manh took her inside his house, or maybe she had been leading him through these past twenty years, he could not tell the difference. He could not see her figure, but her purity flooded his soul. Outside, the last gust of winter was dying out./.
Translated by Manh Chuong