|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Hoang Cong Danh
The sunlight was gradually dying out and the sun hid behind a white cloud and then disappeared without leaving a trace. The village was plunged in twilight. The last buffalo was herded into a stable by a bamboo grove. Children in the neighbourhood called each other home for dinner. The peaceful rural village became animated at this time of day. During the day men worked as builders in the city, women worked in the field and children went to school or grazed the buffaloes, so dinner was the only time the whole clan could gather.
Old man Da was sitting on the verandah, his legs dangling into the yard. He was lazily smoking a bubble pipe. His eyes were riveted on two tall tufts of grass in the middle of a bed of mustard greens. He could not uproot these tufts because of his aching back. The grass would grow fast if there was rain, he thought.
As Sanh, his son, arranged a tray of food for dinner, the old man said:
"What a pity for us that there is no woman in the house!"
At sixty, the old man had become harsh-tempered. He always found fault with Sanh. If his wife were still alive, the situation might be different. The father and son were eating their dinner in silence. It seemed that both father and son tried not to make any sound while eating. The old man took a bite of pickled mustard greens and asked:
"Did you buy these in the market?"
"No, Dad. Aunt Nam gave me them at noon!"
"When your mother was still alive, our house always had food which was much better than this."
Listening to his father remember his mother, Sanh felt sad. If his mother had not died, he could have a wife right now. On the day when his mother was hospitalised, his girlfriend Duyen's family came and returned all the betel and areca he had given them – even the engagement ring. Sanh was very sad and wondered why they had done this to him right at the time when his mother was seriously ill. Maybe Duyen's family thought that if Duyen was Sanh's wife, she would be obligated to take care of his ill mother-in-law. The situation at that time was so bleak. When the engagement betel and areca and ring were given back to Sanh's family, Duyen did not come. Lying on the bed, Sanh's mother did not say anything. She turned to look at the wall to try to hide her tears. Three days later, she died.
Sanh opened the case. A pink box dropped on the floor and opened, disclosing a piece of white cotton. He had sold the ring to buy medicine for his mother. He picked up the box, feeling that his heart was empty. At thirty, he wanted to get married, but he found it difficult to find a girl. All the twenty-year-old girls did not want to marry a man of thirty, while the girls of his age had already married. However, the main reason he was still single was that he was haunted by feelings of inferiority.
Old man Da wished passionately to have a daughter-in-law in the house. Sanh was his only son. He was dying to hear the cries of a baby. There were only two men in the house. Cooking and going to the market were their responsibilities. So sometimes they had good food, sometimes they had bad food. Neither father nor son cared. People in the market were used to seeing Sanh go to buy things there. They only smacked their lips, feeling bad that he had to do the housework of a female.
Actually, some girls were introduced to him. Sanh tried to go and have a look at them. Some of them looked good with good character. But at the end of the day, these girls refused him. Some said that he was not to their liking. Others said that since his previous engagement had been broken off, they could not marry him. That was it. Even Sanh felt hesitant whenever he started to see a girl, because he was afraid that the girl would return all the engagement things as had happened previously. As a result, he lost confidence in women.
It was September, the season of ceaseless rain. The garden in front of the house was flooded and the mustard greens were submerged, but the grass was growing fast among them. Father and son were sitting there, looking at them with disappointment. Old man Da said:
"It's still fortunate that the grass is green. If not, the whole garden would look white with water."
Sanh was preparing dinner. It was cold, so they had dinner a bit earlier than usual. The cat was mewing in the corner of the house, crawling closer to the tray of food.
"Yes, it's poverty, not happiness, you see!" Old Da said nonchalantly.
Sanh picked up a piece of fish with chopsticks and mixed it with cooked rice for the cat.
"What a pity! You haven't given birth to kittens in four years!"
"It does not enjoy mating, so how could it have any kittens?" Old Da said, continuing to eat.
From then on, they ate in silence. Old Da had roasted and crushed sesame and salt with cooked rice for his dinner today. He used to eat with pleasure when his wife prepared this kind of food. Sanh knew it, but he could not mention it, less his father think about his wife. They both went on eating without saying a word.
For the last few days, old Da had been going to a family in the next village to while away his time. This family had a mother and a daughter. The old woman used to be his friend. They often grazed buffaloes together when they were still small. Her daughter was three years younger than old Da's son. She was still unmarried. People wondered whether the father would marry the old woman or his son would marry her daughter!
Whenever old Da went to see the old woman and her daughter, he often brought along a few betel nuts and areca. They had fresh green tea and finished the betel and areca before old Da went home. The old woman had no more teeth to chew betel and areca, so only old Da ate it. Sometimes, the daughter cooked a pot of sweet potatoes and they enjoyed them together.
"You see, life has gone by so fast! Do you remember when we were still small and grazing buffaloes together? That was several decades ago!"
"Yes, old people should rely on their offspring, you know! We only wish that our grown-up children marry someone, and then we will feel fully satisfied. Do you agree?"
"You know, when you and I were their age, our parents urged us to get married!"
"Children today are quite indifferent about marriage, you see! If you urge them, it'll be in vain. And to tell you the truth, we have only two in the family, so sometimes I am afraid that if my daughter marries someone, I will be left alone and I will be so sad!"
"If she marries someone, I'll be here with you, so how can you be sad any more?"
"What are you saying?"
They both laughed heartily. This joy could not be found in his house, so old Da found his life empty if he could not go and see the old woman once a day.
Sanh now worked as a builder in the city, so he got home late in the evening. He knew that his father went to the next village often. He heard the villagers gossiping that if he could not marry a girl, his father would bring the old woman home. OK, that would be good, Sanh thought! His father would be cared for by the old woman. He worked the whole day and could not cook lunch for his father; usually old Da had to take care of himself. However, Sanh dared not take this up with his father. He was afraid that he would reprimand him.
Old Da waited until Sanh finished his bath. Then he called Sanh:
"Sanh, I think that the girl in the next village is quite all right for you. What do you think?"
"Is it the old woman or the girl, Dad?? Sanh asked, laughing.
The next day, Sanh drove his father on his motorbike to his mother's home village to visit her grave. It was a long way and they had not visited the village for a long time, so they stayed there a bit longer than usual. When they got home, it was late at night. The waxing moon was shining all over the garden in front of the house. Mustard greens were growing in the moonlight. And it was so strange, but there was no more dense grass. It had been uprooted.
Who had helped them to do this? Father and son were in great surprise. They tried to hide their surprise and contain their cries of joy. But deep inside their hearts, they understood. Their hearts were now filled with happiness.
Translated by Manh Chuong