by Kieu Huy Thuc
|Illustration by Do Dung
The woman with cold ashy eyes pushed the door open and walked in. A fierce wind blew from the river, roaring fiercely and hurling the woman's hair. The air was so quiet that the boat, alone at the landing, could be heard bobbing in the water.
My husband and children must be sleeping soundly at home, she thought. The thick darkness scared her. The cold air seemed to sneak through her clothes, chilling her entire body. The feeling was both familiar and strange to her. The damp air mingled with the scent of an expensive perfume, which suddenly rushed into her nose, stinging her nostrils. She walked in, her legs as heavy as if a thousand weights were tied under her feet, which were cracked from fieldwork. However, she remained as beautiful as the moon hanging on the bamboo treetops at the head of the village. Yet her eyes were hollow with profound sadness.
The wind was blowing and caressing her. The cold dew drops were falling onto her thin shoulders. The moonlight shone through the cracks in the narrow wall of the old abandoned house. In front of her, the moon rose up on the river. Her whole body was burning hot.
That man had returned. Her heart felt disturbed. Three years had flown by like the wind. Three years were enough for her to have two children with a gentle husband. When she still lived with her mother, her mother often said to her: "Be careful, a man with small eyes is usually not honest. You'll be unhappy if you love him! I am old enough to know these things when I see them. These men are faithless!"
But she did not listen to her mother. She loved that man despite his eyes. Old people are often senile and don't think straight, she had snapped at her mother. Thinking back, she still felt that the man she loved was that man, rather than the father of her two children. But that man had betrayed her. She had thought for many nights that he would return, but in vain. At the end of the day she cried her heart out, until her throat was dry and bitter. Her mother glanced at her and said:
"Good heavens! I tried to tell you, but you turned a cold shoulder to me. Now are you happy? You've realised the truth – now don't cry over spilt milk!"
But her mother's words made her feel even worse. What's the use of being sad? What's the use of remembering it? You'll only ask for more trouble, she told herself.
Dinner did not warm up her heart. Fatigue occupied her soul. The sound made by the bucket scooping water from the well told her that her husband was bathing her two children. She sat there alone, thinking and now and then heaving a deep sigh.
"Where do you feel pain? I will take you to the hospital!"
"No need. I've just got a touch of the flu. It does not matter, dear!"
She spoke in a huff, even though she did not understand why she was angry. She wished he would not be so good to her. Perhaps it was herself she was angry with.
That man had returned, looking handsome, his whole body exuding the smell of wealth.
"Can we meet in the old place tonight?"
The old place? – It was the abandoned house at the edge of the village, where they had last met three years ago. Now it appeared again in her mind. When she closed her eyes, she could still feel the warm smell of the man's sun-tanned body. Each time she thought about that smell, her body turned hot and she got sweaty. She had once hoped to dedicate her whole life to that body.
The wind blew hot through the cracks of the wall. Her body trembled. The wind seemed to be carrying her back in time.
"So you've come after all! This proves that I still live in your heart."
She was startled by the man's voice, which broke the silence of the quiet night. His voice was so familiar. As soon as she could compose herself, he rushed to embrace her.
"I was afraid that you would not come. I missed you so much. Did you miss me?"
She stood silent, her heart pounding. It was three years since they had seen each other, but it felt like it had been three days. Time had helped her absorb gradually the feeling of being betrayed. Was that strange? On the day she got into the wedding limousine to go to her husband's house, she'd cried in pain. She had to brush everything aside, bury all the pain, listen to her mother and accept the unwanted marriage. Now 36 seasons of the rising moon had gone by, but she still got so hot when that man made a date with her. She tried to contain her deep breathing, but her heart was too heavy.
"Why didn't you answer me?" the man said, gently pulling her down onto a patch of dried grass.
The air was hanging low. The light snuck through the cracked wall. The moon started to rise. The moon seemed to sense how she felt, even though it sometimes looked so cold.
She smelt the dampness of the earth, the acridity of grass mixed with the mustiness of the abandoned house. The man's hands were groping for her big breasts under the thin blouse. Her body suddenly became rigid. She was looking for the pungent body she had once wished to dedicate her whole life to it. It was the salty acridity of his body… Hovering in the air was still an exotic fragrance, the scent of that expensive perfume, which made her feel extremely uneasy. Up there in the sky, the moon was shining brightly, helping her see the man's face more clearly. She wanted to have a close look at that face, but strangely enough, it was gradually fading as if teasing her.
Surprisingly, the man had become strange to her. She did not have any feeling for him. The acridity of the grass made her remember the grass her husband had cut in the afternoon. Her forehead became burning hot and sweat dampened her blouse. The wind was blowing hard at her face to take her back to the real world. Hadn't she dreamt of having this happiness? Happiness was already in her hands, so why was she going to crumble it into smithereens? Would she be able to repair the damage? Even if she could, a scar would certainly remain, a pain that would never go away.
She cupped her face in her hands, crying. Then she tried to pull herself away from his sinful embrace. Her mother's words echoed in her ears: "Now are you happy?" The man's hands suddenly stopped wandering. Her soul was freezing; the tears were bitter in her eyes. Trying to re-button her blouse, she quickly pushed the door wide open and ran away, leaving the man behind in wild surprise.
The wind blowing from the field was so cool. The moon was shining gold, waving in the river. The moon was observing the woman's running feet. The cold, lonely moon penetrated her soul. The fragrant scent of grass was spreading under her feet. She ran aimlessly forward…
She got home when the moon had risen beyond the bamboo treetops at the head of the village. She had watched many seasons of the rising moon go by, but she had never seen such a full and beautiful moon. The moonlight fell on the verandah of the house, scattering across the surface, playing through the window of her room. Her husband and children were sleeping soundly in the vibrant, magical moonlight. She felt strangely tranquil. In the silence, she could hear a human voice calling earnestly. It was probably her husband's voice and it was followed by the giggling of her children. She forgot to drink the bowl of traditional medicine her husband had prepared for her in the afternoon. Her throat choked up. She wanted to burst out crying, but she had to keep silent. Her eyes welled up with tears.
Translated by Manh Chuong