by Nguyen Trung
It was a cool morning with a crystal-clear blue sky and a breeze. The gentle river snaked through the tranquil countryside. The light lorry, loaded with flowers and children, pulled up at the bridge. The driver was of middle age, medium height with grey hair; he had a determined square face etched with lines. From him exuded hidden strength: it was the solemn look of an experienced man. Yet, when he smiled, he looked a bit shy. It seemed that he made friends only with children, because, as he thought, children were never calculated. Through the ups and downs of his life, he had finally learned that, even if a bit late. Besides, he had no relatives to turn to. With children by his side, he felt relaxed. He had worn the mantle of a successful but lonely man for a decade now….
The afternoon mist was shrouding the last rays of sunlight. The small street seemed to shrink in her eyes when she came to a restaurant called Trinh Nguyen Doc Quan. The provincial highlands city looked fanciful in the mist of the year-end afternoon. She felt a bit cold in the cool air. All of a sudden, she heard a young voice:
"What will you drink, sister Nguyen?"
"Let me help myself, Trinh!"
Trinh had changed beyond recognition. She looked quite different from the days when she had taken her sister here from their home village. The shop was closed today, so she went to the bar and made a glass of hot milk for herself. Her husband and sister were exchanging something, but they stopped abruptly upon seeing her. Tuong looked at her with cold eyes, whereas Trinh avoided meeting her gaze. What a pity for her sister! Trinh looked so sad these days and often avoided meeting her. She must have an inferiority complex for the sin she had committed! She did not blame her sister Trinh. She felt sorry for her instead. Life was so harsh and women felt it so clearly.
After some sips of hot milk, she felt morbidly hungry.
She had suffered in silence for two years now. Was it time for her sister to bear it? No, it was enough. Remembering the pain she had endured, she trembled. He stood behind her without her noticing it.
"Is it true?" Nguyen asked vacantly.
"Of course. You know everything. It's up to you to settle the affair, in my opinion!" her husband Tuong said, opening the car door and helping her to get in with an unusual gallant manner. He started the machine and the car started running slowly downhill.
The lorry driver, together with the children, placed the flowers on the bridge. He looked at his watch. It was exactly eight o'clock. The children started to float the flowers onto the river. He told them to do it slowly. About 10 minutes later, he asked the children to go home and waded into the river filled with flowers. He swam along the current, slowly amid the flowers. Under the blue sky, he floated along the blue water, his mind soaring high. All the memories were returning.
She was swimming to the middle of the river, amid the purple hyacinth flowers. The sunlight was shining in her hair. The river was reflecting her face so brilliantly. A few pink lotus petals got entangled in her hair, on her naked shoulders. She was so delicate and gentle. He plunged into the water and swam with her. "When you become famous, I'll marry you!" Joy filled his heart, choking his voice. "We could swim two times in the same river, couldn't we?" "We could!" he blurted out.
Nguyen and Tuong met when they were still students. Nguyen took a press course while Tuong followed his dream of becoming a building engineer. When they both had a stable job, they got engaged. At seven o'clock on July 7, 1992, the wedding was organised. It was a sumptuous ceremony with the presence of all of their friends and guests. After the wedding, they enjoyed a honeymoon in Nha Trang. It was a hot and interesting summer.
He looked at her through the mirror. They both kept silent.
"I feel cold," she said.
He turned off the air conditioner and put on the brakes.
"You speak first!" he said when the car had stopped.
"I don't agree."
Tuong stepped on the gas. His face turned pale, but he remained close-mouthed and put on speed. What a hair-raising bend! The brakes squealed dreadfully.
"You…. You…" Her voice was hoarse with fright.
It was an extremely frightful scream she had made on their first nuptial night, leaving teeth marks on his left shoulder. After that, he had completely collapsed. Seeing the sweat on his heaving chest, she felt tormented. She had bitten him so strongly and deeply to contain her cry.
When the car put on its brakes at high speed, it slid on the road. A fearful sound was heard. She was flung out of the seat and her head bumped on the car body. Everything was turning round and round.
The young couple was so happy with his winning one building contract after another that they built a new house. It was a three-storey house with a large garden in the suburban area of the provincial city. He asked her to quit her job as the newsreader of the city's radio station and stayed home. She cried on the day she applied to leave the job. She was pretty and intelligent. When her colleagues tried to dissuade her from quitting, she turned a deaf ear, but later she found that they were right. It was only because he had something that made her heart go aflutter that she was unable to leave him.
Yet ambition blinded him and as a result, his health declined sharply. However, his dream came true: he set up the Son Hai Building Company, the main business of which was to purchase land. On a patch of land by Lac An Hill he built a garden restaurant. Later he would call it Trinh Nguyen Doc Quan and Trinh would take over managing it.
The more money he made, the crazier he became. His ambition made her so scared that she tried to dissuade him from plunging himself so deeply into his work. But the crack between them began in the bedroom, where they did not have a satisfactory sex life.
One day, she received the bad news: her husband Tuong had been bitten by a viper. She rushed to the hospital by car.
"The hospital is not allowing anyone to see him…Please, calm down…He is still in critical condition," said Lam, a friend of theirs.
She was numb with grief. When she opened her eyes, it was quite late at night. Seeing Lam sitting with a doctor, she got up:
"What about my husband Tuong….?"
"He has not come to his senses yet," Lam said. "And the head of the department wants to speak with you."
She walked towards the doctor. Lam walked out of the room and closed the door.
"A viper bit your husband's neck, making his heart fail and seriously affecting his nervous system," the doctor said.
"Is he still alive?" she asked in a panic-stricken voice.
"To tell you the truth, this is the first case I have ever treated."
"Would you please do all you can…" She put a small bag of gold on the table. "Please, save my husband at any cost!"
"We'll try our best…"
After that she went to have a bowl of pho with Lam.
"Your husband is foolhardy. He drank the blood of the snake because he said it could cure the disease. I did not understand what disease he had," Lam said.
Hearing this, she choked up.
She was by his bedside day and night for two weeks, until everyone felt hopeless. But he finally came to his senses. Doctors and nurses were joyful and came to congratulate her: "It's a miracle!"
He returned to life, to her, completely healthy. He recovered very fast. The venom inside him turned into a medicine. It invigorated him, making his sex capabilities much better. He satisfied her beyond her wildest dreams. His desire was so strong that it ravaged her health. She became thin and pale. In her eyes lurked visions of death. However, she had to bear it in silence and let him go with prostitutes.
She was exhausted to such an extent that she welcomed the new day with great disappointment. She ended up going to the hospital because she was so debilitated. She was so frightened when she received the results of the test. She fled home because she knew she was dying and her days were numbered.
At home she refused his desire and he became mad at her. He continued to visit the brothel and set up many "restaurants" where many girls worked for him. At his restaurant, he could feel free to enjoy the company of the young staff. She became very weak and all the managerial work of the restaurant was handed over to Trinh. But finally Trinh became Tuong's target. Misfortune was about to befall her.
"If the rumor is true," she had shouted at him yesterday, "I will send her back to her home village!"
"Would you dare?" Tuong said. His face turned purple. "Look at yourself. Even though you're still alive, you're dead already!"
She threw the jar of tonic wine at him, breaking it into smithereens. A dead snake hit the floor near where she stood. Startled, she jumped aside, yelling.
Nguyen came gradually to her senses. The car was moving backwards. She turned her head and recognised immediately an old man soaked with blood by the roadside. It was an old beggar. The rice he had begged for was littered everywhere on the ground and his deformed hat was in the middle of the road. He was the beggar who had often come to beg her for something to eat.
At 7.45 on December 31, 2000, a woman came to confess at the city police station. It was Ms Pham Phuong Nguyen, deputy director of the Son Hai Company. She reported that she had caused an accident at the bend of the road from An Lac to the Provincial City. The victim was an old man who had died half an hour before at hospital.
It was too late for him. There had not been a woman by his side for all these years. Today it was her funeral.
He looked at his watch and went home in a hurry. He wore the suit he had worn when he had married her. He drove the car along the road and, five minutes later, turned onto a narrow road and drove east. He tried to carry out what he had said to her the other year. Half an hour later, he met the river again. Her family lived in a small house by the riverside. This was the river section where he had said those loving words to her. It was now 10 o'clock; the boat carrying her coffin was coming to shore. She was about to be buried on the other side of the river. He was really in a state of panic. He plunged into the river with the suit on. He could now swim in the river for the second time. Happiness and grief mixed together inside him. He felt that time had stopped; he saw her smile and his heart stopped beating. He felt his body dissolve in the river. The boat carrying her body was coming near the other bank of the river, but he saw that she was swimming amid flowers. He plunged into the water and saw her swept away into a whirlpool. Her hair bobbed on the surface. The deep water had suddenly become dazzling.
Translated by Manh Chuong