|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Dang An
She nestled close to him. After twenty-three years living a widow's lonely life and bringing up two daughters, she finally had a bit of time for herself.
He was in a similar situation. He had lived a widower's life for twenty-five years without remarrying. He had stayed single to raise his two sons. Her loving attitude towards him made him seem like a love-struck young man. He embraced her so tightly that she had to move a bit and turn to him:
"Please hold me more gently!"
He turned and she buried her face in his chest.
"Do you think I am still vigorous enough?"
She bent her arms to embrace him. The old general pressed his kisses onto her hair. To prove his health, he carried her in his arms and placed her on the plank bed where he used to lie and watch TV. She responded warmly to his affection like a young girl. They were madly in love.
She had been a close friend of his wife Huong when they were students at the Ha Noi University of Medicine. They met him at a cultural exchange with an army unit. He was a young, handsome officer, but it still surprised him when both girls fell in love with him. But Huong was braver and bared her heart to him first. He accepted her, leaving Mai in tears. But she still congratulated her friend Huong. Now that their spouses were both gone, they bonded once more. Suddenly he said in a serious voice:
"What is it, my dear?"
"Will you marry me?"
"You don't even have to ask!"
"Why don't you go home and discuss it with your daughters? I'll take it up with my two sons. After that, we can choose the wedding day!"
"We can have a small wedding ceremony with just our families and some of our close friends. What do you think?"
"It's up to you, my dear!"
When she got home, she asked her daughters to come into her room. As soon as she finished speaking, her elder daughter interrupted her:
"Mum, is your friend Uncle Tue?"
She nodded. Her second daughter jumped for joy:
"I will give my full support to you if you are to become the wife of that general!"
Thu looked at her mother, her face filled with emotion:
"It's an ideal marriage. Organise the wedding, Mum! We are 100 per cent behind you!"
Then both daughters rushed to embrace her. Thu was quicker. Hien said in a wheedling voice:
"In the coming months, you'll have plenty of chances to hug your husband. Now it's my turn!"
She was so moved that she pulled them onto her lap:
"I love you so much. Thank you, my lovely daughters!"
At the same time, he was sitting with his two sons. He spoke to them in detail:
"You know, when your mother was dying, she took my hands and said her last words: 'You are a man and have to bring up two small children, so I think you shouldn't stay single. After my first death anniversary, you can marry another woman. My only wish is that your new wife loves you and your two sons. Promise me that now!' Of course, I promised your mother. But later, I realized I could never find a woman who could love you the way your mother did. That is why I have stayed single and relied on the help of your paternal and maternal grandparents. As a result of their devotion, you have earned Ph. Ds and have gotten married, and Tuan even has a child! Before Toan's wedding, I sold the house left behind by your maternal grandparents and then bought each of you a four-storey house, 100 square metres with plenty of furniture. I also got you cars. I have done all that your mother told me to do before she died. Now I have one wish. I prayed to your mother and asked her permission to organize a wedding ceremony next month with Ms Mai. What do you think?"
He had not expected them to react this way. Upon hearing the news of his wedding, his two sons unanimously agreed to let him take home any woman he liked, but they did not want him to hold a wedding ceremony. The reason was simple: the house he was living in was located in a historic street and cost over one million US dollars. They did not want the house to fall into the hands of any other family. So the older brother said immediately after he finished talking:
"I support your marriage. But since you are quite old now, I don't think a wedding ceremony is necessary. You can take home any woman you like. When you don't like that woman, you can take another. I think that's a better way to play it, Dad!"
"Tuan is right, Dad," the younger son added. "At your age, it's not really about love. Just ask her to move in with you. That's not against the law!"
He blinked, his eyes hot with bitter tears. He felt hurt and he could not understand why. He knew his sons were very selfish and thought only of themselves, but he could not understand why they would not let him marry his love. He tried to contain his emotions and said:
"It's the house, isn't it?"
Tuan said, "Do you know how much this house costs?
Over one million US dollars!"
"That's over twenty billion Viet Nam dong, you know!" his younger son added. "That's a huge sum of money. I think you'd better hold onto it!"
He couldn't bear his sons' materialistic scheming.
"As you know, after Ms Mai and I die, this house will be returned to the State. So don't think about it any more!"
"Your chest is filled with State orders and medals. You hardly need any more!" Tuan said in a sharp voice. "What, do you think your name will go down in history or something? You're too old, Dad! You're no use to anyone anymore."
How could he listen to them anymore? "Shut up!" he cried. "Go home and think again about my wedding!" He slammed the door in their faces. After his sons had left, he went out to relax. He didn't have any destination in mind, but his feet carried him to her house. He pressed the doorbell and she rushed to open it. Seeing the sadness on his face, she took his hand to console him. Then she gave him a glass of cold orange juice. He told her all that had happened between him and his sons. She said in a gentle voice:
"It's a hard task, but we can convince them, my dear! We've got to explain to them day in and day out why we have to get married."
Hien overheard the story and phoned her sister. About ten minutes later, Thu came and they went to greet him in the living room.
"Uncle Tue, you and my mother have been working very hard to take care of us. Now you have time to think about yourselves. We were very happy to hear your good news. We have a proposal: After the wedding ceremony, we would like to invite you to stay in my mother's house. You can choose what to do about your house on your own. We support you no matter what!"
"My daughter Thu has her own house. This 140-square-metre house has two separate doors. My daughter Hien can live with us after her marriage if she wants. Don't worry about it! Just take care of your house and move in with me quickly, darling!"
How could he explain things now? They were in the same situation, but there were two conflicting ways of settling the matter. His two sons were highly educated, but it seemed that they had never learned a thing about morality.
Having come home, he broke the news to their sons. To his great surprise, his older son agreed to the idea without a second thought:
"What a good idea, Dad! We can sell this house for over twenty billion Viet Nam dong. You can put seven billion in the bank."
"If you deposit seven billion dong now, you can get nearly 70 million dong in interest. With that much money, you two could travel around the world!" his second son chimed in.
He understood his sons' thinking. With this huge sum of money ruling their minds, nothing else mattered. They supported him getting married, as long as he moved in with his new wife. It was unacceptable. He quickly put down the pot of tea and looked at his sons as if they had just landed from another planet. He said calmly:
"I want to say this to you for the last time. This house will not belong to me, to Ms Mai or to you. It will belong to the People's Committee of Hoan Kiem District. I only want you to say whether you agree to my wedding. If you support me, you will join me as family members should. If you don't support me, you're not allowed to do anything that could derail my wedding."
His sons turned pale. His first son said bitterly:
"Dad, nobody in their right mind would throw away such a huge sum of money. You should do what's right for your sons and your grandchildren."
"Dad, please let me say this frankly," his second son added.
He sat down on a chair and closed his eyes.
"But before I speak, I would like to beg your pardon a thousand times!"
The large room suddenly felt empty and he could barely breathe. His second son continued:
"What you are going to do is completely stupid and unacceptable. Are you sure that the house will belong to the State when you return it? Or will it fall into the hands of corrupted officials?"
Hearing this, he felt a pain in his heart, but his head remained as clear as ever. He had now enough evidence to conclude that his sons cared more about money than about him. He did not care what they said. He wanted to follow his heart. He stood up and quietly went to the altar, burnt incense and prayed before the photo of his wife:
"You have witnessed everything. Please pardon me because I did not give them a good education after all. We give birth to our sons, but God gives them their character! What can I do now, my dear? They are now adults and I have to let them stand on their own two feet. Today, I want to inform you that Ms Mai, your friend, and I will organise a wedding ceremony next month. If you agree, please send me a sign!"
All of a sudden, the incense burner burst into flame, sending the sons into great fear so that they had to step back. He kow-towed before the altar:
"Thank you, my dear." He turned to his sons. "Now you can go home."
Translated by Manh Chuong