|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Nguyen Ngoc Thuan
Ten days before she gave birth, she returned to the mountain to look for the father of her baby. He was supposed to sit at the head of the bed during the delivery and give a loving name to the baby. But he couldn't be found and was unaware that his seed was growing in the young woman. He was preoccupied with his wife and children, unaware of what was happening in this far flung region.
At first she intended to bring the child up by herself. She would raise her child to be a good person, and rub off all the bad traces of the father. If one day, he met his child, there would be nothing of his character left to see.
But things started to change. As the child grew inside her womb, her resentment towards him lessened. The rage she had previously felt died down as she remembered his loving gestures, but maybe she was simply becoming more emotional as the baby got bigger. Her tolerance lasted until just before she gave birth and could no longer contain her feelings. She made up her mind to inform him that he was going to be the father of her child. She was worried about if the child would be able to take its fathers name on the birth certificate, but eventually she realised that it was not important. Many children had been bought up without their fathers and gone on to be successful.
She remembered the way to his province. She would take a bus along Highway One, and from there, she would walk through the forest for a day and a half. She would have to walk slowly as she was so big. If she was lucky, she could hitch a lift of a passing ox cart and arrive by midnight. The next morning, she could be back to the highway again and take a bus home. In the far corner of her garden, she would lie on a hammock and wait to give birth.
It was a perfect plan. However, when she got on the bus, she immediately realised that her idea was not going according to the plan. The child in her belly was torturing her, and kicking violently. She lay on her side and vomited. The man sitting next to her had to concede his seat. Through a veil of tears, she could vaguely see his face which reminded her of the father. She had also met him on a bus trip like this.
Later that afternoon, she felt better. The man had left the bus without her noticing. She found an orange on the seat. Maybe he forgot it, or did he leave it for her? She took the orange, feeling pleased.
When she eventually arrived at her stop, the area was deserted. She felt embarrassed. She had known it would be a long road, but she had not imagined it would be so deserted! The child inside her was quiet now, but she was still in pain. She left the highway and took a shortcut along a dusty trail. She would sleep in the forest if she could not find anywhere else to stay that night, so she prepared some warm clothes.
It was a sunny and windy mountainous area, dotted with trees. People lived on the mountainside, and houses littered the landscape. They lived off the earth by planting trees and exchanging timber for rice, salt and other necessities. He was one of those people.
At about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, she arrived at the first house that belonged to a woman named Le. She was about the same age, but looked older and thinner.
"What a belly you have," said Le.
"I'm looking for a man named Hoang," she replied.
"Ok, tomorrow morning, my husband will give you a lift to the fields."
"I haven't seen him for a long time," said the husband as he came to the door. "He used to be seen around here regularly. Who is he to you?"
"Nobody," she replied, almost choking on her words.
"I think I can guess why you're looking for him," Le said.
That night, she stayed with Le and her husband. She tossed and turned but was unable to fall asleep. She intended to leave quietly the next morning, and leave a scarf for Le as a gift. They had three unkempt children who they seemed to have little time to care for. She lay thinking until the sun came up, and then set off with Le's husband. She dozed off along the road. When she woke up, they had arrived at Hoang's house. It was a lonely house with grass covering the floor. Did he live here, she thought?
What would happen when a pregnant woman met the husband of another woman? What would she say? Would she expose his adulterous ways to his wife and tell her the truth? Or would she play a role of a woman who lost her way in the forest and asked for shelter. He had not deceived her, and he had been honest about his wife and family here. Maybe that honesty was why she had fallen for him!
"I have to go now, it's getting dark. If you can't find anyone to give you a lift, walk for about half a day along this road, and then light a fire when you get to the crossroads. I will come and pick you up. Is that alright?" Le's husband said.
"Thank you very much," she replied, struggling to hold back her tears.
"You should hurry. You look like you're about to give birth at any point and you might not have enough time to make it home!"
A woman was standing inside the house looking, and all of a sudden she felt guilty. She waited until Le's husband had gone before approaching the woman.
"I want to see Mr Hoang," she blurted it out.
"You look like you've come a long way," the woman said in a concerned voice.
"Yes, I am a bit tired."
A child ran out and hid behind the mother.
"Say hello!" said the woman to the child, adding: "She's Mr Hoang's daughter."
"So she's not your child?"
"No. She was brought here one day. Her mother died."
"Does anyone know anything about her?"
"Did Mr Hoang tell you anything about the woman?"
"No. She probably lived somewhere along the road! The little girl takes after her father, but her eyes are her mother's. Look at those long, curly eye lids! Her mother must have been so beautiful!"
She looked around the dilapidated house, at the small grass-covered yard. It appeared the man had not been home for quite some time. Did he love this place? Did he love this withering woman? Had he told the woman the truth about her? Probably not!.
"I'm looking for Mr Hoang to buy some precious wood," she suddenly said.
The woman was hesitant, but invited her inside and set up a hammock for her in the corner of the house.
"You should lie on the hammock and take a rest. I have asked a neighbour to go and fetch him home now. He will probably be here tomorrow at noon."
"There's no need to be in such a hurry," she said.
She suddenly felt scared about meeting him with the woman with the gaunt face. She planned to act naturally, and pretend to be there on business to buy timber. They could put on a front and make believe for as long as possible.
But what would she say to him? She was unsure. The hammock was so comfortable, and she knew she would fall asleep as soon as she lay down. The little girl was sitting in the corner of the house, looking at her. Her eyes were so beautiful! If she was Hoang's wife, could she be courageous enough to look after this girl?
"For three years, Hoang hasn't been home, except for the days he passed by to transport wood, but he does have a maize field," - the woman said.
"So do you live here alone?"
"I live with this girl, but I visit him occasionally"
"You don't have any child?"
"Is that the reason he doesn't come here any more?"
"I don't know. Luckily enough, God sent me this girl!"
Another sleepless night in the house with the strange woman! She began to feel a pain in her belly, sometimes so bad that she found it hard to breathe. The woman got up and cooked a bowl of rice soup for her.
The two women were sitting together. She was wondering why this emaciated woman had committed her life to this deserted place without a man beside her.
The next morning, the pain was still there, but she decided to set off again. She was afraid of meeting Hoang. During the night, she thought about it over and over, and decided it was better not see him, even though it would be their last meeting. Before she left, she gave the scarf to the woman as a gift. It might give Hoang a clue that she had been there.
The woman walked her to the door, saying:
"I know, you didn't come here for precious wood, but you don't need to explain anything to me. I have got used to it!"
She did as Le's husband had told her. It took her half a day to make her way through the forest. At about 9 o'clock in the morning, a warm current starting running down her legs. It felt like the connection between the child in her belly had been cut, but she could not do anything else but continue on her way.
At mid-day, her waters stopped, and she went into labour. The crossroads were in front of her, not far away. She tried to collect dry leaves and lie down. She did not even have a match to start a fire to signal Le's husband. Eventually, local people found her and took her away. Nobody asked her about who the father was, or why she was in the middle of the forest in the first place on that cold night.
They only asked her one question: Do you want to bury the baby here? And she shook her head. She was finally able to see that far away corner of the garden and that hammock, but there was no baby there to nurture./.
Translated by Manh Chuong