by Nguyen Ngoc Phu
Rumour had it that Ngu was the fruition of a romantic love affair between a young fisherman of the floating Van Chai Hamlet and fish-sauce dealer Duyen of our village, which was well-known for its fish-sauce making. Indeed, this special product, viscous and red brown, looking like honey, was usually made of pure salt and long-jawed anchovies. Our village girls had a secret to seduce youths of the floating Van Chai Hamlet by means of asking them, after a fair dealing of course, to get into one of their boats for enjoying sweet-smelling fermented sticky rice wine. After a tipsy drinking bout on the waves, they were served with delicious dishes of steamed rolled rice pancakes made of fragrant mushroom, lean and scampi with anchovy sauce mixed with a few drops of coleoptera essence. Those days, owing to a violent hurricane, most of the merchant boats, fully covered with their roofs, had to stay ashore. As a result, they were swayed by both the waves and the orgies of young fishermen and gracious sellers. Many girls of Thanh Hoa Province fell in love with young men of Nghe zone. One of them was Duyen, who later became Ngu's sweetheart. Several months later, when many merchant boats had returned to the floating Van Chai Hamlet, Duyen was stunned by the bad news that the father of the foetus in her womb had died during an off-shore fishing trip.
At once she sold all the products in the boat before sailing across a small strait to the Nam Gioi Range in a little sampan. She climbed to its Hao Hao canyon where flew a clear stream close to a bed-like flat stone commonly called the Fairy Chess-Board. It was there the couple had been engrossed in a passionate romance after swimming and enjoying grilled nice crabs to their heart's content. That night, she did not return home but just stared at the sea instead. A few days later, she gave birth to a baby boy whose placenta was tossed into the waves as if it had been a symbol to her lover that his son had come into existence. One afternoon, her father blew the horn to appeal rural young fishermen to go in search of his missed daughter. Wearily, she hurriedly hid the baby in a thick bush near the canyon then getting into her sampan at the mercy of the waves. Finding her on the surface of the sea, he brought her home to the Thanh Hoa Province. In the meantime her little infant was discovered and taken home by a kind-hearted fisherman. With the passage of time, the little boy grew up quickly thanks to the breast milk of numerous Van Chai young women with their sucklings.
In fact, this floating Van Chai Hamlet was previously formed by many Quang Binh residents who had been drifted to this land due to continual natural calamities. It was here that they had given birth to lots of babies, generation after generation. Parallel to the growth of its population, the number of boats also increased remarkably. These kids were fed with shark livers. It was said that thanks to this special kind of seafood they had good eyesight which helped them to spot schools of fish in the blue easily and had strong health to catch big ones quickly and effectively. Fortunately for the abandoned baby boy, he was accepted as a common child by Van Chai residents under the name of Ngu. At the age of fifteen he was regarded as a "sea wolf" who usually struggled with huge fishes for hours and was always the winner. At the age of twenty, Ngu became a dreamy youth who often looked at flocks of seagulls hovering over the waves and at schools of silver fishes swimming swiftly on the waves at twilight.
One afternoon, Ngu left his boat in order to go ashore to my village to see a piece of popular theatre usually called tuong. My village company was well-known in the region. These rural artistes also wore special costumes, beards and used make-up to perform. Of these figures there was Hoa, a thin and weak guy, who played different roles, especially that of a sovereign, very cleverly. When the performance was over Ngu asked Hoa to come to a minor bottle-shop nearby to have a drink. After many cups of rice wine, Hoa turned totally tipsy. Ngu went to the deserted watch-post near a grove of casuarine trees. Approaching near the place, he heard a lot of loud sobs. It turned out that the cries came from a young girl. She was an alcohol vendor in the district market.
In the market, she usually sold liqueur to Van Chai inhabitants. Every time she appeared in the market, young men of my village rushed out and surrounded her. One morning, when one of the drunken guys tried to flirt her, he was carried to the river-bank immediately, thrown into the swift-flowing current. Luckily for him, he was rescued by a strong swimmer at once. After that she was very interested in us and vice versa we also liked her very much. Time and again, we offered her a few little presents: now a beautiful sea-shell, now several dried cuttle-fishes. In return to our sympathy, she provided us with a few cups of rice wine at cheap price. What's more, she often glanced at us with her amorous eyes. Among us, Ngu was the youth she was fond of the best, owing to his dreamy eyes, I thought. Although usually being taciturn, he occasionally expressed a few meaningful words such as "Nobody can get rich thanks to the sea, if they do they will be guilty," or "The sea lies in your eyes, darling," which made the rice wine seller blushed all over.
Then one evening, she let him know the tragedy of her pretty aunt who was forced to marry a rich pig slaughterer at the district market place. He usually said little with red eyes. Whenever he brandished his large knife before killing a poor pig, she was frightened to death. When its blood began gushing out profusely, her face turned quite pale.
At last, she could not stand his terrible trade, she committed suicide by plunging herself into the sea with a belief that for a drowned person when his or her body was picked up he would be honoured with a decent funeral and an ample party, especially when the corpse was a female.
Ngu tried to persuade her into seeing a tuong piece with him. When the performance was over, they sauntered to a watch-post, where in the dim moonlight he unbuttoned her blouse clumsily. When her well - developed breasts were exposed in front of him, he whispered in a low voice, "Oh dear, Mum." That exclaim was due to his hallucination about the Van Chai women who had previously kept him alive with their breast milk.
They embraced each other tightly until Van Chai fishermen came back home early with their fine catches of fish. When Ngu woke up, he found himself lying beside the chaste wine dealer at the market place. Consequently, they clung to each other tightly and passionately like a pair of king crabs in defiance of the heavy sea.
Thirty years later, at the tributary near my village, there appeared a young man taking charge of the lighthouse. Strangely enough, he rarely arrived at our village. When he needed some rice or firewood, he resorted to the boat of Hoa's old wife to bring them to him. She was the very wine vendor at the district market place of yore. After Ngu and this seller's blissful night at Hao Hao, they settled own at a salt-making village nearby. It was there she told him that she was with child. He hugged her tightly, feeling extremely happy. But some days later, finding him in great worry she guessed that he missed the sea very much. In reality, he only wished to return to the floating Van Chai Hamlet to purchase a sampan to take her and their would-be baby back to his native place on the waves for good. Before making an off-shore fishing trip with his former co-residents of the floating Van Chai Hamlet, he touched her bulging belly and tried to enjoy the heart-beats of the foetus. "Surely, we'll have a nice baby boy, darling," he said to her in a blissful voice. But when her day of childbirth was drawing near, his boat was drifted to and went aground on Hon Mat Islet for nearly one month. When she was in labour, she became so weak that she fainted amid the cries of her newborn baby. The next day, when she became conscious again, she felt cold beside her: the baby had been taken away on the grounds that the employment contract signed between Ngu and businessman Phat Dat had been violated by her husband. Like a mad young woman, she wearily returned to the floating Van Chai Hamlet and collapsed on Hoa's cabin.
Soon, they became husband and wife when Ngu was said to have been lost somewhere when his boat suffered shipwreck off-shore the waters of Thanh Hoa Province. After the completion of the lighthouse, river accidents at the estuary had been reduced remarkably. Ngu, being still alive, came back to become a voluntary lighthouse keeper in the hope of finding his mother who was, in his adoptive father's opinion, a native of a nearby village…
Later, after being stranded off a small island, Ngu survived. He returned to the floating Van Chai Hamlet with a sacred oath: neither getting married again, nor setting foot on his ex-sweetheart's village.
Many decades later, Old Ngu became the most skilful "sea wolf" of the floating Van Chai Hamlet. He could recognize a school of fishes on the move easily. Unfortunately for him, during a stormy night he lost his life in an accident on the blue. Although all of the youths of the floating Van Chai Hamlet had tried to look for his body for many days, however their efforts finally came to nothing.
Three days later when the hurricane was over, several village women went to the beach to catch oysters, crabs and shrimps. Suddenly, they found the body of an old man with hoary hair lying prone on the sand. When the corpse was turned over, they realized that it was old Ngu. Amazingly, his face still looked almost intact although his body had been submerged in deep water for many days
His body was buried by Van Chai inhabitants under the sand right at the foot of the lighthouse. At the bad news, the young man in charge of the lighthouse hurried to the burial place. Burning a few joss-sticks, he elbowed his way through the crowd then halted at the ill-fated old man. All of a sudden, blood was oozing out of Old Ngu's mouth and nose while the incense sticks in the youth's hand burst into flame to the onlookers' surprise.
"Oh, no, my beloved Dad!" cried the young man. He sobbed and sobbed. Some teardrops coming down on his dead father's eyes made them close tightly while his lips seemed open with a satisfactory smile.
The ripples kept on splashing gently over the bank. On the far side of the river, an old woman was staggering across several small moulds of sand then collapsed abruptly. Her fingers raked and raked on the wet sand while a swarm of little sand-crabs were running away at full speed to all directions.
Translated by Van Minh