by Luc Manh Cuong
The first sounds of wild grouse on Mt Khau Luong echoed into Dau's place just as she was turning over in bed, feeling like death due to an icily cold gust of wind. Getting out of bed, she added firewood to the burning flame, causing it to flare. After a few minutes, she felt much better. All of a sudden, with another breeze through the kitchen, her eyes stung hot and tears blurred her eyes. In the flickering flame, she glimpsed the cunning smiles of her ex-lover Dong, which seemed to shamelessly tease her increasingly feverish body.
She met Dong, a young man of the same village, during a night party held at her close friend's place on the third lunar date after Tet. By the fire, her rice wine tasted more fragrant than usual. It seemed to her that Dong's eyes were sparkling with emotion, especially when the words of the Pao Dung tribal song resounded.
"Spotting a beautiful flower on the other bank of the stream, I wish to cross the turbulent current; however I'm unable to. There are no boats to be found at this place," said a male voice.
"Why not? It's quite easy. Use a large palm leaf as a dinghy," replied a female voice.
Oddly enough, Dau felt fairly happy. This was partly due to the melodious ditty resounding from a big radio cassette by the fire and partly to Dong's amorous smiles and glances at her, which haunted her throughout the event. During that spring night she was vaguely aware that she had fallen in love with him.
On the fifteenth lunar date, the full moon was covered with some wandering little clouds, yet its light remained strong enough to illuminate the face of the youth standing in front of her house as he had often done so far, singing a well-known piece of music. It was the handsome young man whom she usually saw in her dreams. That attractive face was the reason that she almost forgot the tired moments of stooping down to transplant the rice seedlings, or the whole day when she was busy cultivating maize with her hands scalding hot. One day, he hugged her tightly in his strong arms.
"My dear Dau, come stay with me, will you?" he implored her ardently.
"In the village of the Dao ethnic group, as our prevailing customs and manners, it's usual for a girl to come and stays with her lover before marriage. But I'm afraid that you've misunderstood me," she declared sincerely.
"Please, accept my proposal. I wish to be always beside you. What I've done so far is merely because of you. Yet, I'm too poor to ask for your hand in marriage," he insisted.
In his strong arms, she nodded her consent, smiling happily.
During the oncoming harvest season of the paddy fields, Dau became the newest member of Dong's family. She started the work of a quasi daughter-in-law in the clan. Getting up early, first she went out to take home several pails of artesian water and prepared breakfast, then she went to the fields to harvest the paddy plants. In the evening, she cooked feed for a litter of piglets. On the whole, her hands were full all day long. Therefore, Dong's family wholeheartedly welcomed her presence in their home.
"Will Dong's kith and kin feel satisfied with my permanent stay here?" she sometimes asked herself. "Clearly, nobody deals with this matter sincerely, except for Dong," Dau added. When the winter was over, she grew busy gathering firewood, picking tea leaves, then putting them to dry in the sunshine. Soon her hands turned rough and her rosy cheeks became rather tanned. Worse still, Dong was often away from home for a few nights at a time. She made great efforts to keep him at home, but they were in vain.
Afterwards, Dong's parents came to Dau's place with a view to finding out her real age before going to a fortune-teller. Dau felt half happy, half worried. If the fortune-teller said that the couple's ages were in accordance with each other, they might get married. Otherwise, they would be torn apart and her dream would never come true. Such were the customs and manners of the Dao minority people that had been handed down from generation to generation. As for Dau, she did not want to leave Dong's home with nothing. Yet on second thought, she realised that she might not have to worry. "The ages of Brother Hi and Sister Dim are by no means in harmony, yet they remain in love for each other and lead a happy life," Dau comforted herself.
In the evening, while she was cooking feed for the pigs in the kitchen, Dong's mother asked her to come to her to have a few words. Dau felt a sense of impending bad luck.
"Dear Dau, you've stayed here to work for us for some years. Finding that you're hard-working and well-behaved, we really wish that you would become our daughter-in-law soon, but…," the old woman told her in a sad and hesitating voice. Then she stopped abruptly and bent down her head. Dau was on tenterhooks. "The fortune-teller told us that your age is not well-matched with my son's. So you are unable to become husband and wife. Sadly, you'll have to leave," she said to Dau.
Dau was stupified. Never in her lifetime did she dream of finding herself in such a lamentable situation. Resting her face on the table she cried and cried. "If you are expelled from their home, it would be a shame to us," her own Mum had once told her. Dau's single hope lay in Dong's affection for her. For the time being, Dong had not yet returned home from gathering firewood in the forest. She looked forward to his early homecoming.
At dinnertime, there were only the two young people home because Dong's parents had gone to attend a wedding party with his two little siblings. Throughout their meal, she intended to deal with the matter, but she failed to do so. After dinner, Dong hurriedly picked up his shirt from the hook, put it over his shoulder then walked to the door.
"Dear Dong, stay here with me for a few minutes; I need to say a few words to you," Dau said to her lover.
He turned round and stared at her without uttering a word. After that he put his shirt on the clothesline then sat down by the fire. Throughout the past month, he had almost never talked to her. Now, she tried to hope against hope.
"Dear Dong, this afternoon your Mum said to me that…," she told him after a long silence.
Dong remained silent.
"You don't want to hear me, do you?" she asked him.
Dong stayed silent. She felt rather choked.
"You mother said that our ages do not fit to each other. Therefore, we can't get married, which means our early separation."
Dong just sat motionless like a stone by the brook. She burst into tears. Gathering her belongings then putting them into her small bag, she rushed outside. Strangely enough, he remained sitting silently. In the flickering flame, his silhouette on the wall cast a mysterious reflection.
"I never thought that his love for me was that ephemeral. What mistakes have I made to him or to his clan?" she complained on her way home.
She grew obsessed with such questions. She nearly tripped many times from her hurried steps. However it wasn't pain that she felt, with her heart numb with grief. She wanted to shout, but could not. The forest at night was silent. All of a sudden, a bird took off. She felt herself to be as lonely as this bird, but more so as it was not conscious "Has Dong already forgotten me? What about his promise that we'd soon be engaged? Contrary to other Dao young men who do not forget anything, my handsome Dong has broken his promise. Woe is me! Tonight I am lost like never before," she whispered to herself. Finally, she sat down on a large rock by the roadside. In the pitch-dark night, she cried with her whole heart.
Dau had returned to her parents' place. For more than half a month, the poor woman just lay in bed, neither sleeping nor fully awake. She thought a lot about Dong and the days she was beside him. Her parents only sighed with pity. Since the first days she came home, the house felt heavier and heavier with every passing day. There were fewer and fewer peals of laughter than before and her two younger sisters turned more and more taciturn. Gheu, a few years younger than Dau and the bigger of the two, was in charge of the housework instead of her elder sister. Night after night, Gheu embraced her sister tightly as if she could give her more warmth with a little solace.
Another gust of cold wind blew through the crevices of the window. It caused the ash to rise and the flame of the candle to slate. She continued to see Dong's silhouette dancing with the flickering flame. She closed her eyes and tears trickled down her cheeks. She sat up throughout the night. Suddenly she heard birds chirping in the veranda of the adjacent house, announcing the advent of a new morning. She opened her eyes widely. Her parents and sisters were still soundly sleeping. Quietly, she stepped out of her house then took the path to Dong's place.
As she waded through the cold water of the stream, she became of aware of what she was doing. "No, I mustn't go to Dong's dwelling," she said to herself. Then she looked up at the overcast sky. Above her spanned a bridge across the stream. She had been taking a path quite familiar to her. At this place, the stream was wide but shallow. "I can cross the watercourse here easily," she thought. Further upstream, the water was deep, the reason why a new bridge had been built across the water. Suddenly, a strange idea came up to her. "What's the use of living further while Dong has given me up? Nothing is left for me, despite my profound love for him," she said to herself. Standing on the windy bridge, she said, "My dear Dong, I wish that you would always remember me." A moment later, she out onto the bridge on tenterhooks. When her feet touched the cold water, a thought ran up her body. She realized that she still had two sisters to bring up and old parents to support. "They will be greatly distraught if I drown myself in this cold current." The new idea struck her: "How foolish I am! Dong won't miss me at all," she exclaimed.
Dau slowly opened her eyes. Curiously, she found herself lying on a big rock. Beside her, there was a young soldier watching her attentively. Seeing her regain consciousness, he was very happy.
Closing her eyes, she tried to recollect what had happened to her. "Turns out I'm still alive," she said to herself. A strange feeling spread over her entire body. She did not know whether she would be glad or repentant. At once, she got up.
"You've saved my life, haven't you?" she asked him.
"Yes, of course!"
"Thank you very much. I know that. How stupid I was at that moment! Frankly speaking, I must be going now." She tried to stand up then clumsily made a few strides ahead.
"Let me take you home," he suggested.
"No, no, Sir! Leave me alone, please." she smoothed her dress a bit then walked away unsteadily.
Three days later, Dau recovered completely. By now, she realised that she had to live for the sake of her parents and sisters because she was their source of joy. She felt angry with herself. During the past few days she had been engrossed in work to make up for her shortcoming. She still thought about Dong, not out of love but out of her hatred for him. Occasionally, she also thought of the soldier who saved her life. Curiously enough, he knew her, whereas she knew nothing about him. "Why do the villagers know nothing about my intention to commit suicide?" she asked herself.
Another spring came around. Plum and apricot blossoms were in full bloom in the valley. Youths living at the foot of Mt Khau Luong invited one another to drink rice wine and sing the Pao Dung ditty. On one such day, Dau caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her cheeks had returned to their normal rosiness and her eyes were limpidly black. She was still young at nineteen. Gheu was in the next room, getting dressed in her Sunday best with some makeup as well. Finally, she made up her mind to put on her costume of red brocade with two rows of silvery buttons.
"Sister Dau, change your clothes quickly," she urged her elder sister. "This morning, there will be a lot of fun at May Keo Green," she went on.
"You can go first. I must prepare the feed for the pigs and their little ones at home. Dad and Mum have all gone to the Tet fair," Dau answered.
"No need to worry!" Gheu encouraged her elder sister. "We can go out then come back home to do our housework late in the afternoon. We'll have a good time there. Boys and girls in the village of Khuoi Luong will also be there," she concluded her lengthy persuasive speech.
"No, no. Leave me alone. I won't go," Dau replied.
Standing up, Dau stepped into the small kitchen. She added some pieces of firewood to the flame on which the kettle full of rain water was boiling. From afar the festive drumbeats echoed to her place. Obviously, inhabitants were enjoying the holidays. Young men took part in an archery competition while young ladies did their needlework. The words from the Pao Dung song rang clear enough that Dau burst out into tears.
Dau had been waiting for her sister's homecoming for hours. Yet, Gheu was still at the festival. The evening dew settled on the stretch of grass near the duck-coop and the large stone beside the water-buffalo shed. She opened the kitchen door then stepped out to the courtyard. Outside it was pitch-dark. However, young people of the Dao ethnicity were never afraid of darkness. In the wake of the previous spring, most of Dau's close friends had married. This spring was the time for Gheu and the other girls in their mid-teens. Dau sat down, resting her back against the door. "Am I old?" she asked herself. If this spring she had remained at Dong's home, she would have waited for him like all the other women who had become wives. Consequently, they became the something like housekeeping dogs, listening to the homebound footsteps of their masters.
All of a sudden, she heard footsteps on the narrow pebble path near her gate. Then she saw two figures chatting and giggling merrily. A sweet-smelling gust of wind came from a certain kind of nocturnal flowers wafted to her place. Dau stood up and silently paced into the main compartment of her house.
"My dear Sister Dau, I'd like to introduce you to my lover," Gheu told her. Turning round, Dau seized her younger sister's hands.
"Really! Who is it?"
"Than, he is coming from the adjacent village of Khuoi Luong."
"My beloved sister! Think carefully. You shouldn't easily believe in young men's honey words," Dau told her.
"Why not? Than's not one of those bad ones. He's very kind-hearted."
"I'm just saying. You know his face, but how can you know his real nature? Handsome youths are by no means good people, my innocent sister."
"Yes, I know, I know! But Than isn't a bad guy like your Dong."
She felt something tinkling in her ears; the reminder of her lover's betrayal stung.
Under the crescent moon of the first lunar month, Dau heard the sounds of a flute. At first, she did not pay much attention, for in this village, flute music was a young man's way of showing love for the fairer sex. Maybe, a certain Dao youth was declaring his love for Gheu? During the second night, that music resounded again in front of her dwelling, yet Gheu had gone out on a date with her lover. While mocking the feelings of a certain love-bird, Dau also admired his great talent through his beautiful playing. It made her reminisce about the moon-lit nights when she had fun with her friends on the large rocks behind the May Keo ricefields or on the high peaks of Mt Khau Luong they would climb to enjoy the magnificent scenery. Such music spurred the memory of picking fragrant and sweet wild fruits amid the forest.
When all the chickens had entered their cages for a rest and when the moon itself had risen over the top of Mt Khau Luong, Dau suddenly missed that kind of music very much. That night, when the moon had gone up high in the sky, no flute music could be heard. She paced around her home. When the feed for pigs had boiled then cooled for a long while, Dau had not yet gone to bed.
"My dear daughter, that kind of music is not for you," her mother called to Dau.
Dau felt dumbfounded. How could she dream of enjoying the flute melodies of a certain young man for her sake? It was like listening to compliments of a farmer for someone else's luxuriant ricefields!
"Yes, Mum! I'm well aware of that. I've only waited for the poor player's appearance to say that Gheu was not at home, that's all," she replied.
Suddenly, she could hear that music sounds again. She opened the door and stepped into the front yard. She vaguely saw a tall figure she recognised from sitting up on a big rock under the age-old plum tree with lily-white blossoms. He seemed familiar to her, but now facing him through the gate in the dim light, she felt rather nervous.
"Who's that? You should go home. Gheu has gone out on a date," Dau told him.
He approached her nearer and nearer. Although the moonlight was not very clear, she could make out a fairly square-shaped face with bushy eyebrows and bright eyes. She was startled because his eyes seemed familiar to her.
"Dear Dau. I'm here to play the flute not for Gheu, but for you alone, that's all," he told her sincerely.
She stepped back. He only wished to meet her but she couldn't understand why. Immediately, she rushed into her house and left him bewildered in front of the gate.
Not until midnight did Gheu return home. Dau kept on waiting for her, partly out of worry and partly because of the young man playing the flute in front of her gate. Dau pulled her sister to the centre of the yard.
"Dear Gheu! Do you really love Than?" she asked.
"Of course, he's a good youth. What's more, he loves me with all his heart. Am I not allowed to fall in love with him?"
"No, it isn't what I mean," Dau clarified. "Loving him is one thing, but taking care of yourself is another matter. You see, my life is unhappy due to my stupidity. If you follow him blindly without marriage, you'll soon waste away your youth," Dau added.
"Leave me alone, Sister! You needn't have worried for my fate. We love each other dearly and sincerely," Gheu replied. Saying so, she left her elder sister standing alone in the courtyard.
"Perhaps, she's too young to understand," Dau observed.
During the moonless nights, the melodious music of the flute kept echoing to Dau's ears.
One full moon night, when Dau's father returned home after roofing a house for a dear villager, he heard the beautiful music of the flute coming from his gate. He stopped to listen to its sounds then invited the player in. The old man put more pieces of firewood into the flame and turned up the paraffin lamp. He woke Dau up to fetch him a huge vase of rice wine mixed with honey. He poured out two cupfuls of the blended wine then invited the stranger to enjoy it.
"You're also a Dao youth, aren't you?" asked the old man.
The old man burst into laughing then he raised up his cup. "Now, let's empty our cups," he suggested.
"What's your name? And where do you live?"
"Sir, my name's Giang. I live in Khuoi Luong Village."
"Really? I've travelled all over Khuoi Luong. Yet, I haven't found anyone who can play the flute as beautifully as you in that locality."
"I lived in a boarding school throughout my childhood. Later, I joined the army. I was released a short time ago."
Dau was greatly surprised. "Is he the very young soldier who saved my life that day?" she asked herself then looked up at him. She found his set of teeth white and even, and his eyes bright.
"Right, he's the one who came to my rescue that day!" she remembered.
"You've said that you came here to play the flute simply for Dau. What have you known about her?"
"Yes I have, a lot, Sir! I came to know her two years ago, but she hasn't known anything about me."
"Do you know that she led an unhappy conjugal life out of wedlock?" the old man asked again in a sad voice.
"Sir, I knew that before. To err is human. Frankly speaking, in my childhood I also made a lot of mistakes. The point is not to let our wrongdoings torture us for ever," he answered resolutely.
"Sounds good. Let's drink up our cupfuls of rice wine, shall we?" Turning to his daughter he asked her, "Dau, do you want to have a drink with us?"
"Yes certainly, Dad!" Then she raised up her cup and tasted its contents.
"Sweet and bitter," she remarked, feeling warm a bit. Suddenly, she heard the Pao Dung song resounding ardently.
The moon was shedding bright light over the Khau Luong terraced fields. Dau sat, resting her back against a pillar in one corner of the house. Outside, the flute music echoed melodiously and brought her plenty of joy as the moonlight spread over the bubbling brook nearby on a wonderful autumn day. She smiled broadly. She did not know that tonight Gheu was also in high spirits: hand in hand, she and her lover were slowly walking towards Khuoi Luong.
"Will tomorrow's moonlight be as nice and bright as that of tonight?" Dau asked herself happily.
Translated by Van Minh