|Illustration by Do Dung
by Tran Thanh Canh
It was cold. The moon was clear and quiet, hanging at the end of the alley. The sky was cloudless. The stars were covered by a layer of milky opaque mist.
Hoi Lo hamlet lay at the edge of Ngoc village. When the renovation period came, the hamlet developed fast with companies, factories, urban areas and industrial parks cropping up. This helped the hamlet people go to the local market by motorbike easily, without having to take the zigzagging road like in the past.
Phuong's house was at the end of the hamlet. Thanks to the help of his uncle, the chairman of the commune's People's Committee, he had gotten that good patch of land. His friend Quyet lived in Cau Chieu hamlet in the middle of the village. Quyet had eight siblings who lived on a small patch of land left behind by their father. Quyet applied for a new piece of reclaimed land, but he was denied. When Phuong and Quyet were third graders, they were close friends.
In the morning, Quyet got up and rode his motorbike to work. He sold building materials for his cousin's shop. When passing Phuong's house, he was startled, remembering that Phuong had been dead for a year now and his first death anniversary was coming. Why did I see him sitting there, smoking a bamboo bubble pipe, he wondered? Or was it only a dream? Phuong's house was locked and deserted. The yard was covered with fallen leaves. It must have been abandoned for quite a long time, Quyet thought.
In the evening, Quyet went home from a drinking spree. He rode his motorbike past Phuong's house. He recalled the days when he spent time there, smoking a bamboo bubble pipe silently with Phuong before he went home to sleep. It had been their habit for five or six years, since the day when his wife Hien and Thu, Phuong's wife, had gone to work abroad.
The next morning, when Quyet sped his motorbike past Phuong's house again, he shook his head, trying to remember if he had only had a dream the night before.
Phuong, Thu and Quyet were bosom friends when they were still small. They were in the same class until the end of senior secondary school. They lived in Cau Chieu hamlet and went together to school when they were still first graders. When they grew up, they still kept the habit of studying together in Phuong's house and played together just as when they were small. Then Thu reached the age of puberty without noticing. Her cheeks suddenly became rosy and she looked ever more beautiful. The two guys suddenly fell in love with her.
Then one day, the village organised a festival. During the festival, there was a performance called "The Reproductive Game". It was crowded because the game was very sexy. Thu and Phuong stood near the stage. Quyet stood behind them, embracing their shoulders. They all felt so intimate, particularly when Quyet took Thu's hands. When it was time to leave, Quyet took Thu home. They got to her place and Quyet pulled Thu into the garden and kissed her in a hurried way. He pushed her against a tree and caressed her. From then on, they loved each other, but they tried to hide it from Phuong, because Phuong also loved Thu. However, their study habits became bad because day in and day out, Thu became ever more attractive, with red lips and rosy cheeks. Thu even felt she liked Phuong too. It all made their lives more complicated.
When they finished their senior secondary education, the three friends stayed home. One of them sold sundry goods and the other worked for a company, but they remained close friends.
"Thu, if you like one of the two, marry him now!" the villagers teased her.
"But I like them both, so how could I choose?" Thu joked.
Actually, Thu was calculating to choose one of the two. Quyet was strong and resourceful, but he had a lot of brothers, so when she married him, where would they live? Phuong was bland and had two siblings. On the other hand, he had a good patch of land in Hoi Lo hamlet. Thu was still hesitating when Quyet was recruited to the army. So they broke the news to Phuong that they loved each other. When Quyet was in the army, Phuong often came to take Thu home when she worked the night shift at the Hai Yen Garment Company. He sometimes took her to a coffee house, where they had heart-to-heart talks. Thu told him about the letters Quyet sent to her. Three months went by. When Thu worked the night shift, Phuong came to take her home as usual. Thu sat behind Phuong and embraced his waist tightly. This made Phuong remember Quyet, but he also loved Thu. How could he resolve the affair, he asked himself? It was quite a tough nut to crack.
One Sunday morning, Phuong was sleeping soundly when Thu came. Hearing her voice, he was about to get up, but she was already in his room. She quickly lay down with him and before he could say anything, Thu was already on top of him. Thu and Phuong loved each other in such a natural way. But something happened. One month later, Thu's period stopped. Thu and Phuong told their families and asked permission to organise the wedding.
Having heard the story, Quyet went home and asked to see Phuong on the dike in the evening. They fought each other at the dike foot. Thu ran to them and said:
"Stop fighting! Are you mad? I have the right to give what is mine to the person I love. If both of you love me, come here and enjoy it," Thu said, opening her blouse and disclosing her two big breasts in the moonlight.
Feeling disheartened, Quyet left. Phuong went to button Thu's blouse and took her home. After that the two guys did not see each other, even after Quyet was demobilised. After the wedding, Phuong and Thu lived in the patch of land at the head of the alley.
Quyet also married. His wife was a beautiful girl from Ao Xa Village, near Ngoc Village. That spring, Ao Xa Village had organised a big festival. Quyet won the wrestling competition. A girl called Hien presented him with a bouquet of flowers and they fell in love and got married.
Hien married Quyet and went to work at Hai Yen Garment Company. She worked on the same production line as Thu, so they became close friends. Phuong and Quyet's broken friendship was mended when the two couples were reunited. No sooner had their relations been restored than their wives Thu and Hien went to work in South Korea. They each had a child, but their lives were difficult. They worked hard all day long, but could barely feed their families.
The day before she went, Hien said to Quyet:
"Please try to give good care to our child at home, my dear. Let me go and earn some more money to improve our life. We cannot sustain ourselves in this situation when we can barely make ends meet!"
Thu and Hien left, leaving Phuong and Quyet to stay and take care of their children. It was very hard for men to do the housework. Quyet was luckier, as he lived with his parents, who could help him take care of his child. Phuong was in a more difficult situation because he lived alone with nobody to turn to. On the other hand, when a man lived alone, it was so lonely and sad. He shared his loneliness with women and alcohol. When night came, Quyet left his child to his parents and went to drink booze in the street. He asked Phuong to come along.
"I've got to attend to my daughter. You go!" Phuong said, sitting in the corridor and smoking a bubble pipe. He looked up at the moon, enjoying it.
When night fell, Quyet rode drunkenly past Phuong's house. Seeing Phuong still sitting in the corridor, he dropped in and they smoked a few bubble pipes without speaking. The two lonely men had nothing to start a conversation about. They only smoked and smoked, spreading the fumes all over the alley amid the night mist.
Two years went by and the labor contract expired. Thu and Hien extended their contract for one more year. Then another year went by and they still did not return home. The villagers whispered that Thu and Hien had not fulfilled their contracts and instead worked somewhere illegally in South Korea. Then one day, all of a sudden, Phuong received a divorce form from his wife Thu stating that she had a child with a South Korean man. Hien came home the next year. Quyet went to welcome her home by taxi, overjoyed. That night, he could be seen staggering to Phuong's house.
"Why are you here at this time of night?" Phuong asked.
"Our lives are so miserable! We stayed home to take care of our children so they could go and work abroad; we tried to contain ourselves for not betraying them. Yet now we have lost everything!"
"What's the matter? Your wife Hien just got home this afternoon, didn't she?"
"Yes, she has. But she is going to go away tomorrow morning…."
"You know, in the evening, I was so happy that I was about to….but she pulled away from my embrace, saying that she had not been my wife for several years! She had just come home to take her child back to South Korea…."
Phuong looked at Quyet and said nothing. He smoked a few more bubble pipes and handed the pipe to Quyet, but Quyet could not go on smoking. He sat there, his head hanging in silence. Phuong also sat there, looking up at the moon. The pale moonlight was shining on the two men who were sitting like statues.
One month after that night, Phuong died suddenly in front of his house. His daughter got up in the morning and opened the door. She found her father still sitting with his back against the wall; she thought he was sleeping. When she touched him, she found that her father's body had become icy cold. Phuong died of a pulmonary embolism. His lungs had been weak since he was small. After his death, his daughter was left to his parents' care. His house had been abandoned for a year.
Every day, Quyet went to work at the building materials shop. In the night, he rode his motorbike to drink alcohol in the street. He often drank alcohol with rock snails. A 65ml bottle was enough for one night.
Then he rode home, passing Hoi Lo hamlet, and saw Phuong sitting there, smoking a bamboo bubble pipe. He called out, but his friend did not answer. He only sat there, looking up at the moon with his back against the wall. The house was locked; dead leaves covered the yard. Quyet got angry with his friend and rode straight home to sleep. He shook his head vigorously to see if he was dreaming or drunk. However, when night came, Quyet was again on the booze in the street.
When he went home, he again dropped in at his friend's house and got angry with him because his friend only looked up at the moonlight without saying a word. He flew into a rage, shouting and cursing:
"Phuong, you're my only friend. So why the hell don't you say a word to me? Why?"
His voice resounded in the quiet night and awakened the whole hamlet. The villagers rushed towards the abandoned house. They found Quyet lying motionless in the yard.
He was taken to hospital immediately. The doctor said that he had suffered a nervous breakdown due to heavy drinking. So it took him a long time to be rehabilitated. It was rumoured that when Phuong died, he could not be reincarnated, so his soul lurked around his house. That was why Quyet could see him.
On moonlit nights when some late home-comers or those who went to market early in the morning passed Phuong's house, they saw him sitting in the corridor, looking up at the moon with his back against the wall. They even saw fumes emitting from Phuong's mouth as he smoked his bubble pipe. The fumes spread all over the alley, shrouding the whole hamlet.
Translated by Manh Chuong