by Nguyen Tran Be
|Illustration by Do Dung
Lu threw his ta pu (traditional shirt worn by Mong boys) onto the bed of his sister-in-law.
He was waiting anxiously.
He was waiting to see if his shirt was hanging on his brother's coat hanger. According to Mong custom, if Lu's sister-in-law hung his shirt on his brother Po's coat hanger, it meant she had accepted his hand in marriage. If she threw the shirt out of the room, the sister-in-law did not want to marry Lu.
Lu was looking intently through the crack of the earthen wall to the bed in the next room. His best ta pu was lying there behind his sister-in-law, who was holding her son Vu. At times, her back trembled slightly. She must be thinking it over. But why was she thinking for so long? His brother Po had been six feet under for one year, so why could she not forget him?
After her husband was dead, she had become ever more beautiful. How strange! Did someone else want to marry her, he wondered? If she married someone else, who would take his place in the house as Po's ghost, forcing her to keep thinking about him? He would lose a good sister-in-law. It would be a great regret for her – and for Vu! Vu belonged to his clan anyway. Lu began to worry about this. He was three years younger than his sister-in-law, plain-looking and not as strong and smart as his brother Po.
Why did his brother Po die? His death worried Lu so much. He also knew that he was no match for the sister-in-law, but he wanted her to stay, wanted to marry her.
For a few months now, Lu had felt something strange in his heart when he thought about his sister-in-law. In the past, he had seen her with the eyes of a brother, looking at her like any other woman in the hamlet. But it was different now. With those same eyes, Lu found his sister-in-law to be like the current of the Nho Que River, which ran through the hamlet. That current swallowed up all the things that floated around it. His sister-in-law had the same attractive force. He believed that any man who saw his sister-in-law wished to be swallowed into that mysterious current. He was no different.
When he saw his sister-in-law taking a bath by Bay Waterfall one day, he felt his temperature suddenly aroused. In the dazzling white foam his sister-in-law looked like a fairy. She wore only tiny underwear. Her pearly white skin sparkled in the sunlight. Lu suddenly felt so ashamed that he ran to a nearby cave.
Since then Lu had looked at the sister-in-law with the eyes of a male horse looking at a mare in the mating season. As his desire grew stronger, he had finally decided to throw his shirt into the room of his sister-in-law. Now he was still looking through the crack of the earthen wall at the shirt lying near her back. Lu's heart felt about to break when his sister-in-law turned and touched his ta pu. He pressed his chest as if keeping his heart from jumping out. He was trying to contain his breath but found it much more difficult than holding the reins of a horse. His sister-in-law raised the shirt high to look at it carefully and then smelt it. It was like a mare getting the scent of a male horse. Lu felt his heart fluttering.
He was taken aback when she threw the shirt onto the ground and covered her face with her hands. Her violent sobs woke Vu, but she lulled him back to sleep and covered him with a flax blanket. Then she picked up Lu's shirt and walked out of the room. She threw the shirt out into the yard.
Lu stood still as a ramrod. In the blink of an eye, his heart had turned to black stone: freezing cold, mossy and spiritless.
"What are you doing, Lu? What's the use of standing here for such a long time?"the sister-in-law said.
He was silent.
"Did you hear what I said? Put your shirt away! I can't hang your shirt on my husband's hanger!"
Dinh took a position teaching at Chu Phin Elementary School. Early in the morning, she walked alone from the district town to the school. At noon, she could see the building shrouded in mist amidst innumerable undulating rocks. Yet she had to walk on and on and the school seemed to be farther and farther away. As a country girl from the Delta area, she found the trip torturous. Her initial eagerness turned into fatigue, and she became lonely and worried. Her feet were swollen in her sneakers. Her arms, carrying her things, became so heavy that her shoulders started sagging, like a bird after its wings are hit by a poisonous arrow. Dinh sat down by the side of the road to catch her breath. She was taking a bottle of water from her knapsack when she heard rocks falling from the mountainside, landing with a crash near where she was sitting. Panic-stricken, she tried to jump to avoid these rocks and fell into a chasm….
When she woke up, Dinh found herself in the medical station of Chu Phin Commune. Po, head of the H'Mong communal police, had brought her here. On the way home from his office, Po saw Dinh lying unconscious in the chasm. She was badly injured. Her clothes were tattered. There was blood all over her body. Po quickly took off his military uniform to cover her and then carried her on his back to the communal medical station. Then he waited until Dinh came to her senses. When he heard that she was not seriously injured, he felt reassured and went home.
The love between the young female teacher from the Delta and the Mong youth was as beautiful as a dream. Wherever they went, they brought along joy to everyone and brightened up the whole remote mountain area. At the end of the day, they married each other, to the delight and happiness of friends and families. And their love bore fruit when they had a son who resembled his father as closely as if they were cast in the same mould.
However, their happiness was short-lived. One night Dinh was preparing her lessons for the next day when she found herself suddenly tense. Her son Vu had screamed in his sleep. Dinh felt worried, as if something terrible was about to happen.
That presentiment was correct. At daybreak, Dinh and her son were taken to the communal medical station. Her husband Po was lying there, blood oozing from his chest. He had been shot when the communal police were tracking down a heroin smuggler. On that day, Dinh and her son lost Po for good. Only 25, full of vitality, she was now a widow!
Dinh could not sleep the night before. She lay next to her son Vu and thought. When she became a daughter-in-law of the Mong people, she promised to stay faithful to her husband's family. Now her husband was no more, but she still had her son. Vu was the flesh and blood of her husband Po, so she found it reasonable to live on without Po. A lot of young guys had come to ask for her hand since Po's sacrifice, but she had refused frankly. Now Po's brother Lu had thrown his shirt to her. So what was to be done? Dinh knew that Lu had certain affections for her by the way he looked at her. But Lu's future should not be bound to a widow, she thought. And although Lu had stepped into his brother's shoes as the head of the communal police, nobody could substitute for her husband Po in her heart – even his brother. She made up her mind to tell her parents-in-law what had happened.
"Lu threw his shirt into my room last night!"
"It's the right thing to do," her father-in-law said slowly. "You both have to connect the line. It's the Mong people's custom, you see."
"But I don't want to connect it. I threw his shirt away!"
"When you are the daughter-in-law of the Mong people, you must follow their customs and practices!" her mother-in-law said in a sad voice.
Taking a draw from his bamboo pipe, Dinh's father-in-law fired words as surely as a gun:
"If Lu wants to marry his sister-in-law, you should marry him, that's all."
It happened night after night.
Dinh sat there, preparing her lessons for the next day. Out of the blue sky, she heard the sound of a flute in the distance. The sound was passionate, as if blown from the heart of a loving Mong guy. Dinh felt so moved and stirred, it was like an invisible hand was caressing her body. She sat still, listening. When the night was late, the music of the flute became ever softer, now fast, now slow, dancing in the air.
When the tenth night came, it was impossible for her to contain herself. The music of the flute was so seductive, it lured her from her desk.
Dinh walked out into the night in silence. The full moon hung on top of Nhu Sa Mountain, reflecting the flickering light in the mist. The Mong guy sitting on a cliff was blowing his flute with all his heart. The music was like a hand of a witch that was squeezing her heart. Why was the music of the flute like that of Po? The music was awakening what was lying deep in her heart, and she felt suddenly agitated. The guy blowing the flute looked like her husband Po. Was it Po's ghost, she wondered? No, it was not. Maybe I just miss him so much, she thought, that I'm seeing him everywhere. Dinh opened her eyes wide to look at the guy blowing the flute. Not so far from it, a Mong girl was standing by a fence, listening to the flute. Dinh felt hot in the face, realising that the music of the flute was not intended for her. But when Dinh was turning back to the house, the music stopped at once. The guy jumped from the cliff and ran after her, calling: "My sister-in-law! My sister-in-law!"
Dinh was startled. She recognized Lu. After a few moments of confusion, she said in the serious voice of a sister-in-law:
"Lu? Someone was following your music, you know! Do go back to her now!" Dinh said, pointing to the girl who was standing listlessly by the fence.
"I've blown the music of my brother Po for you only!"
Dinh's heart had suddenly become arrhythmic. A strange emotion filled the chest of the young widow. She pressed her chest, saying: "Please don't play the flute anymore. Leave me alone!"
Dinh returned to her room. She sat there, looking at her son Vu, who was sound asleep.
Night after night, Lu sat on the cliff, playing the familiar music. The music became ever more agitated, like needles piercing through the skin and heart of the widow. Time and again she wanted to walk towards that music, but an invisible force held her back. She could not talk to anybody, so she went to the graveyard to burn incense and talk to Po. Lu followed her in silence. He hid behind a rock and pricked up his ears, trying to hear what the sister-in-law was saying to her husband in tears:
"My dear Po! I don't want to connect myself to your brother Lu, but his flute draws me to him like a witch. Why does the flute music of the Mong people have the power to awaken the human heart? Why did you teach your brother Lu to blow this music, which is now torturing me?"
Po appeared in the curling incense smoke. He spoke as though from a great distance: "Did Lu throw his shirt into your room? Does he love our son Vu?"
"Yes, he did, but I threw it away. You know, I have often seen him looking at me the way you looked at me. His music is like yours. He also loves our son Vu very much. When he threw his shirt into my room and I threw it out, he seemed to turn into a stone. I thought I loved him then, but if I married him, I would feel like I was insulting your memory."
Po's image started to fade.
"Oh, my dear Po! Speak to me! What should I do now?"
No answer from Po. The passionate music of the flute, resounding in the wind, was the only sound that could be heard in the graveyard strewn with grey stones.
It was the time for examinations, but Dinh was worried because her student May was absent. When the class was over, Dinh went to May's house in Can Chu hamlet, a border hamlet far from the school, to find out why her best student had not come to class. May was fatherless and poor, but she was eager to learn and very intelligent.
When she got to May's house, she found out that the girl had to stay home to take care of her brother so that her mother could work as a porter, carrying goods across the border so she could afford to buy maize for the family.
Dinh felt so bad for May. Instead of preparing for exams, her student was carrying her brother on her back while preparing food for the pigs. Dinh felt choked up. She said to May before going home:
"Do come to school right after your mother comes home. Examinations are coming near, you know!"
May stared after her teacher, her eyes welling up with tears.
Dinh was walking fast, but not fast enough. The sun was setting behind the mountain. On this rocky plateau, when the sun set behind Nhu Sa Mountain, the darkness of the night would come rushing in. Dinh was pulling a torch from her knapsack when she heard someone tramping down behind her. As soon as she turned, a bag covered her head. In a threatening voice a man said, "If you cry, I will throw you into the abyss!"
Carrying Dinh on his shoulders, he ran quickly. She heard footsteps behind them.
Dinh tried to wriggle away, but the man ran faster. All of a sudden, she heard someone shouting nearby: "Stop now! Stop now or I'll shoot….!" The man stopped short and threw Dinh down in a thud by the side of the road. She heard people yelling and footsteps running here and there. She tried to untie the bag to get her head free. In front of her were two men wrestling each other.
In the flickering torchlight, Dinh saw Po clutching his belly while his legs were locked around his adversary's neck. She rushed to him and saw that it was Lu. While wrestling, he had been stabbed in the belly and blood was soaking through his ta pu.
It was a peaceful morning. Dinh was getting ready to go with her son Vu and student May to the district hospital to take Lu home. Before leaving, she hung Lu's ta pu shirt on her coat hanger.
Translated by Manh Chuong