by Ma Van Khang
|Illustration by Do Dung
God must be a wicked old man, regarding His creation without any compassion at all! If that was not so, then why did rain pour from the sky? The rain rotted the land and gave people fits of giddiness. It rained day and night. The rain-soaked world felt like an unfamiliar wilderness.
"This is how it rained in the Bible! It's just like the rain of 40 days and 40 nights that descended on the world after it was created in the Old Testament," said Huan, Duyeøn's sweetheart.
At the end of the day, the man in the temple of heaven seemed to have run out of breath. It stopped raining.
"In the Bible, God gives Noah, descendant of Adam, a boat to flee away from the deluge!" Huan said.
He said this to console Duyen. The next month was the wedding season and they were to become a married couple. In their lives, the closest thing to Noah's ark was the car that had traversed hundreds of kilometres that morning on a muddy road carrying Duyen and the other 19 members of the art troupe.
They had all hopped into the car in great delight, just like the animals in that legendary boat, eager to escape the deluge. Except for Duyen, who felt upset because of the irony of her situation. A wave of Western music was flooding the country, driving traditional music off the capital city's stage. To continue to earn a living doing what she loved, Duyen had to perform in remote areas. This time, her art troupe was going to perform at the foot of Tam Dao Mountain. Yet, at the end of the day, the whole company could not escape from God's power. The performance was cancelled in the face of the rain.
"Duyen, do tell Huong to sympathise with us," Huan said. It was not his fault, not anybody's fault. It was the fault of life. During the war, she was still a young girl. She joined a team of volunteers to fight against the US bombs and shells. Together with her teammates, all females, she cleared the road after each of the enemy's bombing raids for the trucks carrying the liberation fighters to the battlefields. She and her teammates braved bombs and shells to help their country, so they had no spare time to play and enjoy their youth. When the war was over, they were already over thirty. They had left their green years behind in the battlefields. Coming home at that age, they had lost the chance for youth! The skin on their hands had become dry. Their gait had become stiff. Their eyes had developed crow's feet. Their cheeks had wrinkles when they smiled. Before they realised it, they were on the wrong side of forty. Some of them were pretty and talented like Duyen. They were lucky. Her friend Huong had been plunged into the ocean of misfortunes. She had loved three guys – but they all turned out to be pimps. The third time is supposed to be lucky. What about this time? What a poor life a woman must endure!
It was lucky that the rain had stopped! It was all the luckier that the car magically overcame that muddy road. Outside, Duyen was still on tenterhooks. She had not had a chance to say good-bye to Huan, the head of the art troupe. She quickly took a motorbike taxi to her house, handed the bag of her belongings to her brother Luyen and urged the driver to move on.
"To house number 450 Bis, DC Street."
As soon as she finished speaking, she asked the driver to change the address again. Huong had gotten married five days ago. The address she had given was for Huong's old house. Huong's new house was on NTC Road.
"Please hurry up!"
"I didn't think you'd want me to drive very fast!"
"But I need you to drive fast! Please hurry up!"
The driver started the engine and drove the motorbike rapidly. All of a sudden, he hit the brakes and said:
"Actually, this is the truth. I am not really a motorbike taxi driver. I'm a policeman following a robber. If I did not accept your service, I think the robber would have recognised me!"
"What the hell are you talking about? Please just carry me to Hung Vuong Road and I will run from there. Is that O.K.?"
It was lucky that the rain had stopped. Duyen walked for a few hundred metres before she reached the house. It was in a narrow lane spotted with muddy pools. The walls on either side of the lane were still wet with rain. A stench spread all over the lane. Duyen felt a bit hurt, thinking that her friend Huong had spent her green years on the battlefield with her and now she had to live in this poor lane. A feeling of injustice rose inside Duyen. She had never come here, even once, to visit her friend Huong. She had also never met Huong's husband. What a pity for Huong that she had to live in this miserable place! Today, Huong had insisted that she come at last: "Duyen, you've got to come and have a look at him. His name is Van Tri, a doctor, already retired. He is not good-looking, but he is good-natured – and as unhappy as I am. He's a talented man of letters, you know!"
The path was paved with long pieces of bamboo. In front of the house there was a small patch of mustard greens. A man in a blue cotton jacket and a cotton cap was working in the garden. When he raised his head, he revealed a sun-burnt and austere old face. He had all white eyebrows and a distorted mouth, revealing the teeth on one side as if he was dragging open his lips in a half-smile. Duyen approached him and he said:
"Yes, here you are! Huong, you've got a friend coming to see you!"
His words came out indistinctly because of his distorted mouth. The ugly man dropped the knife and tried to stand up in the manner of an old-aged man. Duyen felt a rush of fear mixed with pity for her friend. Fortunately, right at that moment, Huong rushed outside with a familiar gait, wearing simple clothes. They both ran towards each other and embraced. Suddenly they burst out crying.
"Huong, it rained a lot, it rained heavily without letting up for seven days. Huan told me that it was the rain from the Bible to pull my leg. I was so upset that I was on the verge of crying, you know!"
"I understand, I understand! I would have asked your brother Luyen about you, but my husband's malaria came back and he is still lying in bed. The man here is Mr Van Bao, his brother. Please stop crying, Duyen!"
"Let me cry a bit longer. I am so happy, Huong. I want to share your happiness. How is he feeling? How was your wedding? Did our friends Than, Hoi and Mui from Thai Binh come? Let's see how you live! It's O.K., I think. It's ideal that you've got a small garden in front of the house. Oh, a television set, a fridge, a set of sofas. And even a guitar! Does your husband play the guitar? Congratulations!"
The man from the garden was now in the kitchen. He walked slowly out with a tray bearing a teapot and cups. Putting it down, the old man invited Duyen to have some tea and then walked slowly to the door.
Huong poured tea into the cups and called after the old man:
"Brother Bao, leave it to me. This is Duyen, my friend from the traditional art troupe! Duyen, you know, my husband Van Tri was a doctor in B5, stationed really near our unit. His brother Van Bao was a soldier in B6. Now they live together here."
"How is Triù now?"
"His malaria has returned. He was so cold that he asked me to lie on him to warm him up."
"But when his fit of malaria was gone, he came to himself very quickly and was wide awake."
"We all had malaria in the jungle during the war, remember? But..."
"Duyen! How is Huan?"
"He's well! Oh, Huong, can I ask…"
All of her worries seemed to have disappeared. Duyen came closer to her friend and leaned into Huong's ear. Her friend embraced her and said:
"Yes, he is still as good at it as ever!"
"Yes, he is still very strong sexually. He troubles me all night. When I get tired, he says: ‘You belong to me!'"
They both laughed.
After that, Duyen found that her friend Huong still had an exuberant vitality. Huong was beaming with happiness. Her breasts were full and soft. When she was still a young volunteer in the battlefield, she was gentle and hard-working. She had the longest hair in the company. Now she had changed a lot. She was satisfied and happy. To have a happy life, a woman does not need a lot. But it is so hard for her to find it!
"Huong, I came here for another reason besides sharing your happiness. I wanted to tell your husband in person that he is so lucky to have you!"
"Oh, please don't, Duyen!"
"Let me finish. I will tell him: My sister took pity on you because you're so old, you know. You had better treat her kindly. If you don't, watch out…"
"Duyeøn, let me tell you something first!"
"All right, go ahead!"
"Do you know what he said? He said: Huong, marrying you, I feel like I've won first prize in a lottery. No, it's even greater than that. You have changed my life. You are a gift after the storm of the war, you know, Huong!"
"That sounds great!"
"Actually, at first I was still hesitant when he began to express his feelings to me. But I was so moved because they both live such a poor life. Also…"
Some chicken were trying to invade the vegetable garden. Raindrops fell on the tile roof. Outside in the garden, the old man stood up and made strange sounds to drive the chickens away. Huong heard a noise in the room. She quickly stood up. A one-legged man in crumpled clothes walked out on crutches. After hearing that Duyen had come, he hurried to welcome her.
"Let me help you, my dear!"
It was too late. The man stumbled over a piece of bamboo in the threshold and fell down. However, he stood up with the help of Huong.
Hearing the sound, the old man from the garden rushed into the house. Huong's husband looked like his brother. A few locks of curled hair fell on his forehead, making him look noble with two sentimental eyes. He looked at Duyeøn and smiled his greeting to her:
"I have heard Huong talk a lot about you. Finally now I can meet you in person. Thank you for coming, Duyeøn!"
"Has my friend Huong talked much ill of me? Will you sit down, Mr Van Tri?"
"Thank you! Huong said that you were a beautiful young volunteer in her unit. She also said you can play the role of Thi Mau very well, recite poems and tell funny stories. You cared about everyone in the unit. You were a joy for the whole company. My wife even said that when you were sad, you looked more beautiful. Is that correct?"
"Your wife Huong talked so well of me. Huong was the best in our unit!"
"You are now in an art troupe, aren't you? My brother Van Tri used to be a good singer too. The doctors were good singers and actors during the war." The old man walked into the house, speaking slowly. "In 1970, I was in B6 and transferred later to my brother's unit. We were told a lot about your unit, Miss Duyeøn."
"Almost all the members of my company died. Only Huong and I and three other girls from Thai Biõnh were left alive," she responded.
The atmosphere of the reunion became sad. The two men recognised it as well. Huong's husband, still weak, tried to bring back the happy feeling, saying:
"I heard you talking about the rain when I was lying in bed, Miss Duyeøn. Yes, it rained so hard that it was like the rain from the Bible. But the French have a saying which goes: ‘After the rain, the beautiful day'. And when we talked about the rain that stopped, I remembered a few words from the song by Nguyen Dinh Phuc: "After the rain, it is sunny. It becomes brilliantly bright. After the days of illness, our strength has come back stronger. We leave our love here forever…'"
Duyen's eyes welled up in tears. She cried for her unhappy lot, for happiness, for the extraordinary things she had seen in life. She cried for what Huong's husband had sung; she cried for what she had seen through the two disabled men. She cried.
Translated by Manh Chuong