by Pham Thanh Thuy
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
1. Vong tinh thao grass
It is said that there exists a kind of grass called vong tinh thao. When you boil this grass and drink the resulting tea, you can forget all.
It might be true that there is such a grass. It seems that time itself is like the miraculous plant. But it takes a long time to wait for time to fade, so some train themselves to forget. Thu's friend once said that she had a very good memory. But one day she discovered that having such a marvelous memory had made her extremely miserable. So she tried to learn how to forget. Sadly, when she had learnt the way to forget, she had forgotten all that needed to be remembered.
When her heart was wounded for the first time, like many other people, Thu was in a hurry to find ways to forget. When the heart is wounded, whether it is the heart of a woman or a man, it aches all the same. No difference.
Thu wanted desperately to find vong tinh thao whenever she was lonely. She roamed along the long street which was both familiar and strange to her. She consoled herself with thoughts of happiness. Oh, goodness! Happiness was such a grievous thing for her.
Ngoc's shop had a pleasant name: Co La (Exotic Grass).
Thu had believed she would not see Ngoc again for a long time. Ngoc had gone up to the North and down to the South to make a living and she had not sent any message to her dear ones in the family, let alone Thu. They had lived and studied in the same city. When she was still a little girl, Ngoc was a special girl, trying to get her to act like a boy. But strangely enough, she did not want to play with boys. Ngoc stayed away from the boys in her class. Her parents were very worried. They wondered if she would be able to find anyone to marry.
The Exotic Grass shop was almost invisible amid the fashion and jewellery shops, next to a small mini-mart. Thu went in the first time because she found the name pleasant. It turned out that the Exotic Grass shop sold souvenirs. But the shop was different from most souvenir shops, because the owner made souvenirs to order. The materials were not difficult to obtain, only dried leaves, grass and small branches. But all of these items had been dyed with eye-pleasing colours and with Ngoc's skilful hands, the dried things were turned into nice things for lovers and romantics. Whenever she went to Exotic Grass, Thu thought that these gifts looked lovely and they deserved equally noble owners.
When she said good-bye to Quoc in anger, hopelessness and anguish, she had given back all the gifts Quoc had given her when they still loved each other. Whenever she remembered that moment, Thu felt so repentant. If she could relive that conversation, she would not do it again. No use crying over spilt milk, she thought, and time did not allow you to sit there and lament. Whenever she met Quoc's mother, Thu felt a bit ashamed – not because of her break-up with Quoc, but because of the fact that she had given back Quoc's presents through his mother. Quoc had become a thing of the past, but when she saw something that looked like the gifts he'd given her, her heart felt uneasy. She knew that deep inside her heart, her feelings for Quoc remained as strong as ever. The more she hated Quoc, the more she loved him. How could anyone forget a love that had been thriving for over ten years?
Thu thought about these gifts. When they loved each other dearly, they came to each other with heaps of presents, but when their love had faded, these gifts became so ugly and hateful, they could be discarded without any regret from either party. You could say, she thought, that after a break-up the presents left behind were more worthy of pity than the lovers themselves.
Entering the Exotic Grass shop for the first time, Thu did not know that it was Ngoc's shop. On the shelves lay a tidy array of gifts marked with numbers to indicate which customers they belonged to.
"Why is this store called Exotic Grass?" – Thu asked. Ngoc did not bat an eyelash.
"Because the grass is not normal. Do you want a gift for you or for your sweetheart?"
Thu did not say anything, as she did not know whom she would give the gift to. She had loved one man for ten years, so now she thought it strange to give gifts to other people, except for those she had to present to maintain certain necessary relationships. She did not think about buying a gift for herself. What for?
Hearing no answer from the customer, Ngoc looked up. Her eyes took on a stony look that seemed to scream "Go away!" Even Thu herself was greatly surprised. Before her was her childhood friend, whom she had wanted to meet so badly in the last eight years. She wanted to say to Ngoc: "My dear friend, please pardon me!"
After a moment of surprise, Ngoc said: "Are you Thu? I haven't seen you for ages. Where have you been these days?"
This question should have been asked by Thu. Thu broke into a smile. They both looked at each other, laughing merrily. That night, Thu slept on the bed of Ngoc's husband and they both told each other so many stories it seemed the past eight years were like eight hundred years of separation.
2. Through the first love
When Thu fell in love for the first time, Ngoc made derogatory remarks:
"You're in love with a kid, you know?"
At sixteen, everyone is still a kid, but Quoc still seemed much younger than other sixteen-year-old boys. Ngoc did not like playing with boys when she was still small, but for Quoc, she made an exception, for a strange reason: Quoc had a "feminine" character.
However, Ngoc still did not agree to the love between Quoc and Thu, because she did not want to lose her friendship with either of them. And what was more? This was first love, which was always fragile, and it would be hard to make it last. Yet Thu still stood at the end of the bridge to wait for Quoc to come home from school every day. The small concrete bridge without a rail crossed the transparent brook strewn with stones and pebbles. The love of the teens was so pure and warm. A day that went by where they did not see each other would be a stormy day. Thu waited for Quoc to cross the bridge every day, since they did not go to school together. Thu stood there and waited for Quoc to go by and then she went to school with her next-door neighbour Tuyet.
Along the brook below the bridge, there was a kind of wild grass that bloomed with thin violet flowers. This grass was full of vital energy. When one grass stem was uprooted, many others would grow in its place. The grass leaf grew in a heart form with three hearts to each stem. The plant grew in thick clumps. They were always being rooted up by the locals to grow vegetables along the brook. But the more the locals tried to root the grass up, the thicker the grass would grow. The grass remained ever green there with millions of green hearts. That was why Thu named it vong tinh thao grass.
When Thu broke the news to Ngoc that she had had her first kiss, Ngoc remained indifferent, saying only "I know," in a nonchalant tone.
"How do you know?" – Thu asked, astonished.
"You've been smiling and touching your lips, that's how. Only someone who just had their first kiss would do that, you know."
"Why do you know so much about first kisses?" – Thu asked, blushing.
"Thu, are you sure you were the first to kiss Quoc?" – Ngoc asked.
Only a long time later did Thu finally understand the meaning of the question Ngoc asked. She felt extremely sad.
When Thu visited her home village in the mountains, she always dropped in to say hello to Quoc's mother and daughter. But the main purpose of her visit was to give Quoc's daughter some money. Deep inside, Quoc's mother – and Thu herself – regarded Thu as the mother of the little girl. Apart from the fact that the little girl was abandoned by her mother, there were some other sentimental bonds.
Thu had never forgotten that summer night when she was a third-year student. After some urgent knocks on the door, Tuyet appeared before Thu, looking pale, with tousled hair and a crying baby in her arms. Tuyet said as if she was giving an order to Thu:
"Please make your bed. My baby and I will sleep here tonight."
Thu did as Tuyet asked. That night, the baby cried and cried. Thu held it in her arms and lulled it to sleep, while Tuyet slept like a log. Probably she was dead tired. Tuyet did not explain the reason why she had brought the baby into the world. When Thu and the baby woke up the next morning after a long, sleepless night, Tuyet was no longer there. She had left a note:
"Thu, this baby is Quoc's daughter, so please give it back to Quoc. Actually, it's up to you to do whatever you want with it, I don't care."
Thu burst into convulsive sobbing. She did not know how this had happened to her. She cried her heart out, drawing the neighbours to come to her. At that time, Thu and Quoc were in love with each other in every sense of the word.
Although she was in great confusion, she came to a daring decision: She would take care of the baby herself, even though she did not know how to feed it and she was still a student. She held the baby in her arms for the whole night, thinking about that bridge over the brook and the wild grass along its bank. Thu decided to name the baby Di Thao (Exotic Grass).
When all the ups and downs with Quoc had gone by, Thu couldn't believe she had forgiven Quoc for that horrible mistake. Had she loved Quoc so much she forgot herself? Nothing uncountable could exist for ever. Boundless love could become miserable and lonely. Forgiving Quoc made Thu feel she no longer existed in this world. Thu was becoming a stranger to herself. When they were still very young, Ngoc was opposed to Thu's relationship with Quoc. She even said Thu should not be Tuyet's friend, because in everybody's eyes, Tuyet was an unacceptable friend. Tuyet had once stolen her friend's money in school and had told lies to the school about having a "fatal illness" to get charity money. Everybody distanced themselves from Tuyet, except for Thu. Thu could not bear seeing Tuyet always alone in class. Every year on Tuyet's birthday, Thu gave her a gift.
Once Thu came to visit little Di Thao and found her playing alone in the yard. In front of the yard was a bus station where people from the village often came to wait for the bus to go to the delta area. Out of a sudden, she felt her heart burst. Thu stood there, crying, quite surprising the little girl. Quoc's mother told Thu that Tuyet had come to see Di Thao once or twice, then married an army officer in the district town.
Some dreams never came true. Thu had expected so much to find vong tinh thao whenever she was lonely, she had roamed the long streets which were both familiar and strange to her. In her heart, she had consoled herself: Oh, goodness! Happiness! Misery!
3. A peaceful exotic grass area
Lam – Ngoc's husband – made Thu stop in her tracks when he went past her, because his shirt had a detergent scent that reminded her of the way Quoc's shirts used to smell. The scent made Thu so giddy that she missed him, even though he had betrayed her. Probably Thu had thought about Quoc so much so that she gradually found Lam similar to Quoc, from his eyes to his smile. Thu even found that she missed Lam and that detergent scent in his shirt.
And on the day Quoc organised his wedding, Thu felt terrible. She finally understood that she had loved him so blindly, and had forgiven him equally blindly and selfishly.
Thu always entered the Exotic Grass shop with a feeling that she would find peace there. Once Ngoc said to Thu, smiling:
"Thu, I'll act as a go-between for you and my husband Lam, do you agree?"
"What did you say? What do you mean?" – Thu said in great fear.
"I said it with my true heart. You know, he and I have never been happy together" – Ngoc said.
Thu remembered the night they had partied together to celebrate passing the university entrance examinations. They had drunk a lot and that night Thu dreamt of embracing and kissing Quoc in that immense field. Quoc was unbuttoning Thu's shirt with trembling hands. Thu stopped him in great fear. Quoc's voice was still ringing in her ears: "Thu, I love you…. I love you…."
Thu suddenly woke up. The grass field had disappeared, leaving behind a dark night and the crickets chirping behind the house. Someone's hands were penetrating Thu's chest. Thu yelled in great fear and a moment later, the whole house was lit up. Her parents and siblings were by her side. Ngoc, completely drunk, was embracing Thu.
Ngoc's father was in a rage. He swore at Ngoc and beat her. Ngoc kept silent, trying to bear the pain. Thu rushed to Ngoc's rescue, begging Ngoc's father to stop beating her.
"You both go away! What monsters you are!" – Ngoc's father shouted.
"Dad, I love Thu. What's wrong with it? Girls and boys love each other, so why can't girls love girls, dad? It's only a human loving a human!" – Ngoc said fearlessly.
Thu could not imagine why Ngoc had said those queer words. They were like a knife that stabbed into her heart. Hearing those words, people neither cried nor smiled. They were just stunned. Later on the train home, Thu saw two young guys kiss each other. She burst out crying and missed Ngoc. After that beating from her father, Ngoc had left home, leaving no traces. Thu wanted to see Ngoc so much.
Now, having met Ngoc at the Exotic Grass shop, Thu was happy that at the end of the day, Ngoc was married while Thu was still single. Tired and weary, she did not want to have any matchmaking. Sometimes, she carried Di Thao on her motorbike to her home in the mountainous district. Along the way, lush green rice fields and orange farms stretched along the Da River as far as the eye could see. The tiny hands of Di Thao were embracing her waist. Thu felt so relieved and relaxed.
When Ngoc recognised Thu's unusual sentiments towards her husband, she said sincerely to Thu:
"We have been married for three years, but we haven't had a day of a nuptial life. I still want to be with girls, you see."
"Because I cannot endure men."
"So why did you marry Lam?"
"Simply because I need a man in the house. That's it."
It was the end of January, so Thu was coming home to the mountainous district town. Peach trees were growing in front of all the houses. They were in full bloom, so beautiful in the sunshine. She was contemplating the flowers in a daze. Out of the blue sky, she heard someone asking: "Are you Thu? There is somebody from Ha Noi here to see you!"
Thu's heart was thumping, making her feel younger, even though she was yet to know who was looking for her. That concrete bridge without a rail had now become so old with time. Thu recalled how often she had waited for Quoc there in the old days.
Thu was still standing in bewilderment by the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, Lam was leading little girl Di Thao by the hand. This season, below the bridge, along the brook, vong tinh thao grass grew everywhere, in lush green hearts that spread all the way to the horizon.
Translated by Manh Chuong