|Illustration by Do Dung
by Hanh Van
The sky was as heavy as lead and as murky as rice water. The wind was so strong that it battered into the side of Nam's motorbike, nearly sending him hurling him into a roadside sugar-cane juice stall. Soon, it began to pour down.
The rain was so heavy that it obstructed the view of the row of brothels across the road. Nam took cover under the dripping canopy and became lost in thought. He had to find them. Suddenly a glass of sugar-cane juice was slammed to the table in front of Nam, overflowing onto the table and snapping him out of his reverie. The owner's glum expression annoyed him. She would get barely any business today, he thought. Her eyes turned towards her house. The doors stood open to reveal a little boy sleeping soundly on a hammock inside. The rain was seeping through the ceiling and dripping down onto the child. Nam stood up and told the owner he could help. He went inside and tied a piece of nylon over the hammock to catch the drops. The woman's frown eased slightly and the boy kept on sleeping. "What the hell is heaven doing to us?" she asked him. "What is it getting angry for?"
"What is heaven getting angry for?" They were familiar words to Nam and they haunted him whenever there was a storm. To him, it seemed like heaven was always angry.
Nam thought of his poor but honest mother. She was a good person but had been punished all her life. And now she lived in squalour. Why? Because she had squarely refused the proposal of Mr Manh Hung, a member of the ward's People's Committee three times. After the third time, when the rejected politician left the house without saying a word, Nam took his mother's hand, feeling happy. Her face brightened in the neon light and Nam recognised that his mother was pretty and gentle, even though she had to toil to make a living.
Mr Hung's pursuit of Nam's mother was not driven by lust, or even love. She was a middle-aged widow, while he did not run short of young, pretty girls these days. He came because she had turned him down when they were both younger. This weighed heavily on Hung. Who could possibly reject him? He became obsessed with winning her. When she turned him down and completed his humiliation, he plotted revenge.
Nam was still only 12 on the night that Mr Hung informed his mother about the project to build a community centre for the ward. Unfortunately it had been decided that the prime location was on their land. "We could select another piece of land for the project, I suppose. Or drop it altogether. We could say that the project isn't feasible here. I could make either of these things happen, provided that you agree to my terms."
Nam's mother shook her head in disagreement. It meant that the project was feasible and her house had to be relocated. She would have to leave behind all the customers she had built up with her grocery store at the house. The land payouts could help her buy a small house in a dark alley in a disreputable part of town. She would continue to make a living by selling goods in Cay Me market.
Five years later, Nam still thought about that fateful decision. Their lives had become very difficult in the intervening years. By now, Hung had climbed up to be the chairman of the city. He still would not stay away. He revelled in the torment he had caused. One icy cold night he visited once more.
"Why don't you come and live with me? You will have a happy life, away from this misery. I can make life better for your friends too!"
"You know the answer. I will never agree. We've got used to living a wretched life," Nam's mother replied in a light, but firm voice.
Two months later, Hung got married to a beautiful young actress named Minh, who was three years older than his daughter from a previous marriage. Soon after, the destruction of Cay Me Market was ordered. Undoubtedly it was the age of the market or its rather unsightly appearance that led to the decision. What other reason could there be?
Nam's mother and other market sellers had to look for ways to make their living. As they struggled on, close to starvation, Hung appeared on TV persuasively promoting the project. Slowly his stock began to rise even further.
Once Nam asked his mother why she always refused Mr Hung.
"Because I still loved your father."
"But why don't you marry him now? Father died years ago."
"A man who makes his wife cry is not a reliable man, you know!"
Nam knew that mother was referring to Mrs Minh, the wife of the chairman who often come to see his mother and cried, confiding a lot of sad stories. She could not disclose those bitter feelings to anyone else for fear that her husband's social ladder would crumble. She was a fine actress in life and work. Tragically, only months after her husband had been named chairman, Ms Minh was diagnosed with cancer. She fought bravely, but died before the year was out.
Hanh, the daughter of Hung was the next of that family who turned to nobody but Nam's mother. She had struggled to live with such a young stepmother and the cruelties of her father. Nam became obsessed by an image he once glimpsed of Hanh crying on the thin shoulders of his mother. He wanted so much to embrace Hanh and console her. But it was forbidden. One day, Hanh's father came to Nam's house, not to see his mother, but to take his daughter home. She had been there talking with Nam for many hours. Before leaving the house, Hung turned to speak to Nam's mother:
"How can you live like this?"
"At least we live an honest life!"
"An honest life? Selling goods on the pavement means living an honest life?" - The chairman looked straight into her eyes.
Nam interjected furiously. "You know very well the reason why my mother has to sell things on the pavement!"
"What are you driving at, boy? You should learn how to behave. And as if you could ever dream about having my daughter!" With that, the chairman marched out of the house.
After Cay Me Market closed, Nam's mother and some other retail sellers had to sell things in front of the huge gates of the ABC Company instead. When the workers finished their shift, they often stopped to buy things before going home. Sometimes, the police came to ask the sellers to move, but they always returned. During his summer days off school, day in and day out Nam drove his mother to the gates and collected his friend and neighbour Theu, who worked for the ABC Company. One week before Nam was about to return to school, a police truck came charging round the corner, sending all the street sellers running like hell. In the chaos, Theu's mother, who worked alongside Nam's mother, was run over by a car while running across the street….
Theu left her job soon after. She could not stand to work at the scene where her mother was taken from her. Soon she was out of money and struggling to find food. She confided in Nam that she was considering finding work at the brothel like so many of her neighbours.
"No, you can't!" Nam pleaded. "Keep trying Theu, you will find something soon, I promise. Just please don't consider working in one of those dirty bawdy-houses!"
Theu flew into a rage. "What? What's dirty? Why do some people sell what does not belong to them and live a luxury life and talk about righteousness, while if I sell what is mine, I am despised by the world? If I am not good enough for you any more, you can forget about this friendship!"
Nam was shell-shocked at hearing those words. He felt numb all over his body because of the pain in his heart. Theu calmed down when she saw his look of hurt.
"My house has been sold. My siblings should have a good education. I will be all right, Nam!" she said gently. "I didn't know you cared so much. But don't play tricks on me, Nam. I know you love that pitiful girl Hanh!"
Then Theu stood up and left, leaving Nam sit in silence until she was out of sight.
The chairman did not make trouble with Nam's mother any more. He was now in a prison cell with nobody to taunt.
Nam's mother first broke the news to him. "Mr Hung has been put into prison, you know, son! He is finally paying for his crimes. Heaven has eyes, you see!" Nam grieved for Hanh. No mother and now no father either. How would she cope?
He played the truant that afternoon and took a bus home to see her.
Her house was been sealed off and there was nobody to be found. Nam heard word that she was living in Theu's house. His mother had offered for her to stay with them, but she refused. Nam felt a storm looming large and playing havoc inside him….
It was pouring down and the wind was blowing in a howling gale, flinging the water into the sugar-cane stall. The owner asked Nam to move inside to where the boy was sleeping to avoid getting wet.
"Are you here to fetch your girlfriend?" - The sudden question threw Nam off guard - "She doesn't live here anymore."
"What? How did you…I mean, you know Theu and Hanh? How?" - Nam asked in great surprise.
"Oh, these girls come to my shop frequently. Everybody here knows each other. I've seen you with them before. I heard that the older one went back to the ABC Company….A good decision of you ask me. There are plenty of worse places for girls who are down on their luck around here…"
The rain drowned out her voice. After a moment regaining his composure, Nam rushed out into the rain…. The gale beat down onto his face, but he continued to drive his motor bike, unsure of where he was going but sure now in his purpose. Out there were some people who needed him, and he would help guard them against the storm./.
Translated by Manh Chuong