|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Tong Ngoc Han
The Phan family was having a wedding. The bridegroom was Phan Phu Sieu, the youngest son of Phan Quang Sinh. Three years before, Phu Sieu wanted to marry Chao May, then 11 and in primary school, but his father objected to his proposal on the grounds that both of them were still too young to get married. Furthermore, in the family's pigsty at that moment, there were only six animals which weighed about 150kg. There should be twelve and they should weigh at least 300 kilos in total, for this was the most important event of the clan.
A few days before the wedding of Phu Sieu, his compound was filled with family and helpers. Nine big jars of rice wine, carefully covered with red cloth, released a superb fragrance. In addition, scores of baskets of sticky rice were piled up, ready to cook. Beside them lots of chickens with red cockscombs in big cages were making great noises. From the kitchen emerged the sweet-smelling smoke of burnt cardamom leaves. Coming out of the thatch-roofed hut, the smoke smeared the sunset in the mountainous village of Nam Toong.
On that important day, children did not go to school and grown-ups, male and female alike, ceased working on the milpa. The most respected man was sorcerer Ly Bieu San. On the wrong side of seventy with more than thirty years of conducting rituals behind him, he was talkative as usual.
Among the other helpers invited were three well-known cooks, one female and two male. Phu Sieu, a tall and good-looking youth with a deep voice, was quite different from his two married elder brothers. Thinking of his soon-to-be wife, a seventh-grader at a junior secondary school in the area, Phu Sieu felt a bit of pity.
"How can she serve my extended family of a dozen heads, old and young, male and female?" he asked himself. "Worse still, can she face my fastidious grandparents, my taciturn mother and my two hard-to-please elder sisters-in-law?"
The more he thought about the future of the innocent and kind-hearted new member of the family, the more worried he became.
"Can she fulfil her obligations as a pious daughter-in-law? If she's wise enough, she'll know how to treat them appropriately. Otherwise, she'll be treated the same as the other two daughters-in-law in the family, neither more nor less."
When Phu Sieu had requested his father's permission to marry Sinh, the girl of his dreams, the old man did not agree to his proposal. On the contrary, he urged Phu Phong, his eldest son, to marry her instead.
After becoming the daughter-in-law of the Phan family, Sinh led a silent and quiet life, without showing any signs of a discordant or quarrelsome attitude. Once when Phu Sieu helped Sinh bathe her little boy, Sinh burst out crying.
"Why are you crying?" he asked her.
"Your elder brother Phu Phong has done nothing, but led a life of plenty." She wiped away her tears. A few minutes later, she went on: "Men of this clan usually indulge in carousals somewhere in the village. Then they go home and lie on their wives' bellies."
One day, while they were in the thick of the forest doing the weeding for the family cardamom grove, Sinh held her belly tightly, crying. Phu Sieu placed his hot hands on his elder sister-in-law's abdomen. Saying nothing, she just pulled his head down all the way.
The moans of the slaughtered pigs resounded noisily on the edge of the forest. As a result, big pieces of pork drenched with blood were hung abundantly in the nuptial room of Phu Sieu, which made him shudder strongly with fear when he thought about his 14-year-old soon-to-be spouse.
It turned out that the eve of his nuptial day was a working night for the slaughterers. The cooks in clothes stained with pig blood laughed merrily and breathed out the mixed stench of food and alcohol. In the meantime, the proud sorcerer chatted joyfully after finishing his prayers.
For the Dao ethnic group, weddings usually involved a lot of effort and money. However, owing to the flirting and amorous behaviour of males, many cases of divorce, co-habitation out of wedlock and incestual marriage were by no means rare.
Phan Quang Sinh was in high spirits when he secretly told his nephew to take away a big piece of pork. His wife realised that but she ignored it on the grounds that she was quite accustomed to his bad habit.
In fact, he had seven children in all, both legal and illegal: five of them with his official spouse and the other two with another woman out of wedlock. In general, the women in this family took care of the children. Menfolk, after a delicious feast outside, returned home only to tell their children to wash their feet and their wives to cook some porridge and make a fire to warm their bodies before they went to bed.
Sadly, Dao women were often forced to eliminate their babies, owing to the fact that they did not want to be humiliated, living alone and feeding the poor infants without any help from their husbands. A lot of pregnant women came back home alone from the forest with flat abdomens and pale faces. Phuc, Phu Minh's wife, was an example. Once she returned home from the jungle in that situation.
As for Sinh, Phu Phong's spouse, she felt sick at the sight of pig blood. Phu Sieu looked at her in bewilderment. His mother stared at him suspiciously. All of a sudden, she remembered one of her newborn babies, attacked by swarms of ants after being abandoned on a mass of dry grass. She had kept it dark for her whole lifetime but never forgotten that shameful action. A long time after each of her sons had wedded, she felt greatly worried whenever one of her expectant daughters-in-law came back home alone from the forest.
"What's the matter with you?" she asked her poor daughter-in-law.
"Unfortunately for me, I've just had an abortion, Mum," she answered in a repentant voice.
On the eve of Phu Sieu's wedding day, nobody went to sleep, except for his paternal grandparents on the wrong side of eighty and Sinh's one-year-old infant. As for Phu Sieu, he could stay awake for ten days on end without getting tired. Every time he went past his second elder sister-in-law, he stole a glance at her, yet she remained indifferent to him.
Strangely enough, now that he was married, he only wanted the time to fly past quickly and for the ritual services to end so that he might start his own business as soon as possible. In the meantime, every day his two elder brothers went to town on brand-new motorbikes with their expensive mobile phones to chat amorously with their girlfriends. His sisters-in-laws did not notice because they were illiterate.
As determined by the clan elders, at the hour of the Buffalo, when it was still pitch-dark, the bride-welcoming procession would set off. Phu Sieu took the lead, next came Master of Ceremonies Ly Bieu San, then came the ritual music band and finally four well-dressed virgin girls. They all went slowly in the direction of the bride's dwelling under the flickering light of two huge dry bamboo torches.
In the meantime, all the helpers at home started to get everything ready for the major reception banquet: cooking sticky rice, boiling and grilling pork and roasting and boiling chickens and vegetables. According to the sorcerer, the bride and her accompanying party had to reach the bridegroom's home before the hour of the Dragon.
At home, Phu Sieu's mother stepped into the couple's nuptial room to make the beds and put a small amulet under their long pillow with the presence of her two sisters-in-law. Soon a tray full of food and other major items was placed on the altar: a 10-kg roast pork, a 3-kg boiled cock, one bottle of rice wine with six cups of alcohol, one packet of paddy in a white cloth, one silver coin and a lot of votive banknotes for the dead.
They also hung a large red piece of cloth with the Double Happiness monogram. At midday, the hour of the Dragon, when the fog had completely faded away in the warm springtime of March, the procession arrived at Phu Sieu's home in high spirits. His mother frowned at the sight of the 50-member party of the bride's side.
"Well, my darling, why are you displeased with such a big bridal group? What are you afraid of at our old age?" Phu Sieu's father asked his wife.
When the procession stopped in the middle of the courtyard, Phan Quang Sinh rushed out to welcome his partner. He led the bride's father in and asked him to sit down on a new sedge mat in a compartment close to him.
The bride-welcoming formalities began. In a traditional costume composed of a red turban adorned with numerous strings of silver beads, a silver necklace, a pair of silver earrings, six silver wristlets and one silver finger-ring, the teenage girl looked very pretty and carefree.
All the guests from the bridegroom's side sat close to the kitchen, whereas those of the bride's side were seated near the altar, very close to the master of ceremonies. After finishing his ritual text, the village notary wrote down the name and age of the bride on a red piece of cloth and put it on the altar for the forefathers of the youth's side to declare that the bride was now a member of the Phan family. When the wedding rite came to an end with the bride's kowtows to the grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters and kith and kin of the bridegroom's side, it was already early afternoon on the next day.
After that, the bridegroom together with his chums and young relatives began enjoying an ample meal full of warm and delicious foods. Several hours later, some of them lay writhing around the tray. Some rested their chins on their hands while others were in half-sitting half-lying positions.
That was early in the afternoon; so from eleven in the morning the meal had lasted at least three hours. Many old men returned home with unsteady gaits while some others just sat down on the veranda, smoking. Meanwhile, Phu Sieu, totally tipsy, seized Sinh's hands and squeezed them so hard that she stared at him sulkily for a few seconds. He glanced at her abdomen with deep implications. Pushing his hands aside, she hurriedly stepped out of the dark. In the daylight, her eyes looked very naive.
In fact, before getting married she had been the most beautiful girl of the village. "I'm now only a withered flower, whereas Chao May is still a bud," Sinh whispered to herself when Chao May set her first footsteps inside the house of the Phan family. Sinh clenched her teeth tightly. From her eyes, some teardrops began falling. She remembered that when Phu Phong had been at home, during the night he lay on her stomach indifferently and softly whispered another girl's name. When he stayed out all night with his sweethearts, she just sobbed.
One evening, finding her younger sister-in-law sad, Phuc, Phu Minh's wife, put a fistful of sticky rice into her hands.
"Help yourself to the rice, my dear younger sister. Tonight will be a long one, far longer than the future nights you will wait for him in your nuptial room. Anyway, don't worry. I'll stay awake with you," Phuc consoled Sinh. Angrily, Sinh threw the handful of sticky rice to the dogs lying at her feet in wait for something to eat.
The sun had disappeared under the horizon. Previously, the fluorescent lamps in the house were switched on only when everything sank into the dark, but tonight electric lights already brightened the whole building when the daylight still shone weakly.
In her room, Phuc was trying to re-arrange the clothes, headwear and other things put in disorder by her younger sister-in-law. She talked and laughed a lot more than Sinh. She rarely wept. Perhaps her tears had trickled down inside her. They seemed to have destroyed her beauty remarkably, resulting in sagging breasts and a pale complexion.
Poor woman, she got married at the age of thirteen and did not know how to cook. As a result, she had to eat the leftovers after every meal. Now she had reached twenty-six. She had told Sinh again and again about the plight of a daughter-in-law in this clan, but the latter did not seem to follow her advice. Taking pity on her, Phuc tried to lend her a hand in heavy tasks, yet she could not manage to cry for her younger sister's fate.
Phu Minh also looked as handsome as his two younger brothers. Yet the living experiences of a man of thirty seemed to make him more attractive to young girls. Sinh was often beaten black and blue by her husband, but she was not so unlucky as Phuc. Phuc, Sinh and May all came from humble stock. Getting married with no dowry at all, they were humiliated as daughters-in-law.
Sometimes, Phuc intended to lay bare her unfortunate plight to her mother-in-law, but the latter refused point-blank to sympathise. "All of you are very happy by now. I had it so much worse. I got married at the age of seven. My father carried me on his back to the bridegroom's dwelling-house," she told her resolutely.
Chao May's escorts came back to their houses early the next morning. In high spirits, each of them brought along a big piece of pork weighing about two kilograms. As for the sorcerer, he had an entire huge pig leg. Each of the three cooks had nearly the same. The other helpers took away a string of pork offal. In the meantime, Chao May had to carry warm water for Phu Sieu's grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters to wash their faces. Consequently, she felt dead tired. Her nuptial night was the most miserable one she had ever had!
She felt even sicker when she found big pieces of pork hanging in her room.
"As long as our guests are here, you're not allowed to go to sleep," her mother-in-law warned Chao May.
Suddenly, the old woman remembered the first day when she became the daughter-in-law of the Phan family. She was pushed away as she went to sleep with her mother-in-law.
"Go lie with your husband right away. That's the rule," she told Chao May. "At the age of twelve, how could I possibly know anything about conjugal life? Worse still, at that time my husband Phan Quang Sinh was an amorous guy. When he left home at night, he could sleep with any young woman he wished."
In her heart of hearts, the old woman knew that Phu Sieu was different from his two elder brothers.
"Surely, he's fully aware of how to take care of his wife and children in the future, for he loves Chao May dearly and looks after her when she falls ill," she said to Phuc one day.
To the best of the old woman's knowledge, the indifference of Phu Sieu's two elder brothers had driven their spouses into their younger brother's hands. Again, Sinh was nauseated, which set the old woman on tenterhooks.
"In the end, her foetus belongs to the Phan line of descent," she whispered to herself.
In the meantime Sinh convulsed with labour in a corner of her room. Her two hands were stained with blood and her abdomen was quite flat. She mumbled her younger brother-in-law's name. The relevance of that fact was unknown to anyone in the village, except the old woman and Sinh herself, of course.
The sobs of the new bride during her nuptial night startled Phan Quang Sinh. He got out of bed. "What behaviour! Crying while sleeping with her husband?" he thought. "How awkward Phu Sieu is! At such an age, he remains clumsy!"
Only when the paternal grandmother coughed and coughed did Chao May grow silent. Meanwhile, Phuc and Sinh stayed in the kitchen. All three daughters-in-law silently wept and wept during the wedding night of Phu Sieu!
On her first night beside her husband, Chao May lay motionless in bed and eavesdropped on her two sisters.
"How many months have you been with child?" Phuc asked Sinh.
"Just three months," Sinh answered. "My dear sister, did you do the same to Phu Sieu?"
"Yes, that's right, my dear," Phuc replied.
"So where is your child then?" Sinh asked again.
"He's dead. He died in my hands right after childbirth."
"As for me, I can't wait until that moment," Sinh said. "I wish my foetus would die right now. How horrible! Come what may, I feel very weak."
Chao May did not quite catch their meaning. She got up. Through a small window on the wall, she saw that it was already late.
Later in the afternoon, after drinking a boiled lotion of medicinal herbs, Sinh found her belly bulging noticeably. She imagined she could hear cries and complaints from inside her abdomen, where she could feel convulsions.
Clenching her teeth, she drank another bowlful. Although she had taken three so-called "bowls of tonic" a day, the embryo still clung to her womb, as if it wanted desperately to be a human being. When she was going to beat her body, Phu Sieu stopped it. Suddenly, she dealt him a heavy blow on the face and burst out crying.
The more she abstained from food or drink, the more dates Sinh's husband had with other young women. "How crazy my spouse is! Always with child!" he observed coldly. In this family, the most heart-rending human being was her mother-in-law, the most worried youth was Phu Sieu and the most indifferent young girl was Chao May. Oddly enough, the good-for-nothing man was Phan Quang Sinh; whereas Phuc frequently paid attention to Sinh. In reality, she wanted to know the fate of the embryo inside Sinh's belly, similar to her condition three years before.
When Sinh was nine months pregnant, she asked the family to let her go into the forest to gather medicinal herbs. Phu Sieu forced her to come back home immediately. Chao May, at the age of fifteen, was only vaguely aware of what was going on. At three in the morning, Sinh woke everybody in the house with loud screams of pain. Despite the chilly wintry weather in Sapa town, Sinh was drenched with sweat. Phu Sieu's mother, quite accustomed to such cases, helped her give birth to a baby boy safe and sound. Sinh lay on her side, without looking at her little one.
"Sinh, let the baby suck your breast milk right away," the old woman said.
"Do as Mum says. Or else give him away for adoption. Anything but starving him," Phu Phong chimed in.
"Sister Sinh, open your eyes wide to see. He's as handsome as his father," Chao May remarked.
In defiance of everybody's advice, she remained motionless in bed. Until early in the morning, the baby continued crying loudly due to hunger.
When Phu Sieu came back home, he rushed into Sinh's room. Picking the baby up, he licked the baby's mouth. In response, the poor little child licked Phu Sieu's tongue hard for a long while. At once, he pulled her arm away and placed the baby on her stomach, then criticised her strongly.
"Poor baby! Let him suck your breast milk immediately. If you gave him up, I would look after him and he would be my own son. Please listen to me! Cruel tigers never do harm to their cubs, you see," he told her.
As tears trickled down her cheeks, Sinh let her baby boy suck her breasts. Meanwhile Phuc, standing by her side, could not stop her tears.
"What's the matter with you, dear sister Phuc? So far, I've never heard you cry," Phu Sieu said. Her mother-in-law exhaled and walked silently to the kitchen to prepare lunch.
"Sinh'll soon turn naughty if you try to please her that much," Phuc Phong told his mother.
"Spend your precious time caring for your wife and child and play less," his father warned him.
Now, standing by the pigsty, Chao May understood everything. She wiped away her tears. After six months beside her husband, that was the second time she had wept. Many years of conjugal life remained ahead of her.
"We Dao women must learn how to save our tears for more serious things in the future," Phu advised her youngest sister-in-law.
Translated by Van Minh