|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Que Huong
It was Friday. She was wiping the glass window. When she was in her home village, she only cleaned the windows once a year, in the final lunar month to welcome Tet. She had to toil the whole year round. How could she pay attention to dusting her house? But it was quite different here. The people here did not pay much attention to their daily meal, but they paid a lot of attention to cleanliness. She had a timetable for this purpose: Friday - wipe the glass window. Saturday - Shopping. Wednesday - Clean the floor. Thursday - Clean the kitchen. At first she could not visualise what was going on outside. She only heard the rustling falling dead leaves. She stopped and looked outside. Oh God! A whole herd of deer unfolded before her eyes! Those deer were leisurely walking on the carpet of autumn leaves. Some of them had budding horns. Young antler commanded a cutthroat price in her home country. Her husband explained to her that in late summer, deer rubbed their heads on the trees and their horns fell off. He had gathered many.
She quickly took a camera and opened the door. Hearing the noise, the deer ran away, leaving the dead yellow leaves flying all over the place. She wished her husband could enjoy this view! She sat on the verandah and cried. Fall had come to Virginia for half a month. The scene was more beautiful than a picture. It was beyond her imagination. It was bright red. It was bright yellow everywhere around her… What a big party of colours for her! They were just dead leaves. How did they give humans such a beautiful view? Her husband had often said that the Western culture likened the fall to a mature beautiful lady made up with red juicy fruits. It was the most beautiful season of the year. It was terribly beautiful. It was as if she was not in this world. This made her miss the autumn in her home country.
She was wiping the glass windows slowly and slowly. The day was so long and she did not know what to do. If she watched television, she could not understand a word. She had nobody to have a chat with. Strangers surrounded her. All the windows of the houses around were shut. She had been here for several months, but she did not have the guts to walk out. She was afraid of getting lost, afraid of being discriminated against. She was wiping glass windows in the attic. She stopped for a moment to have a look at her husband's private world. This was his own world with his bedroom, study and toilet. All these rooms were not locked, except for the invisible lock. Only when he went to work did she go in to do the cleaning. Actually, he had never invited her to this attic. Whenever he had anything to do downstairs, he went down to her room. It seemed that he was always in great surprise at her small, smooth child-like body. His previous wife was three times bigger than she was. She was as thin as a leaf in the wind. In the dark, he still saw her two black wide-open eyes. Her hair was falling down. Her toes and fingers were as rosy as a child's. Youth and natural simplicity had made her beauty. His age doubled hers.
She opened the fridge and stood dumbfounded in front of frozen food. She took an egg nonchalantly. She was losing her appetite these days. On the first day she came here, she ate with good appetite. When her husband went to work, she ate a lot to drive away her homesickness. She ate a lot just to make up for the days of hunger at home. Now she hated everything…. Every Saturday, he drove to the supermarket where she bought a lot of food. This made her think of her homeland very much. Wherever she went, the word "homeland" tortured her.
She went into the kitchen and saw two small pots of pepper which were arranged in order. If she put them in the wrong place, the next day, they were put in place again. Her husband would not come home at lunch time today, so she could boil eggs and dip them in fish sauce to eat with boiled cabbage. He could not bear the smell of fish sauce. There were only two people in the house, but there were 20 glasses. He and she sat to have the meals together, but at two separate tables placed opposite to each other. She could not understand what he said, even one word. He had blue eyes, while she had black eyes. He was as white as snow, while she was as yellow as the sun. They sat silent during the meal. It was so dull that she wished a fly would come in. She dipped a piece of bread into the soup. This made her miss her home so much. After finishing the meal, he cleared his table and she cleared hers. Then they went back to their own rooms. She missed Vietnamese so much that she spoke her mother tongue to the picture boy on the chocolate box. Once while going shopping, she saw a head of black hair and ran after the Vietnamese woman. The two stopped and talked merrily. That lady told her to go to Eden Centre where she could meet all the Asians. That lady worked in a nail salon. She gave her a lot of telephone numbers, telling her to call her if she wanted to have her nails decorated.
Under the food case, she hid a bottle of fish sauce she had bought in a Vietnamese market. She was dumbfounded when she spotted the eyes of a small mouse. Then she burst out laughing, thinking about what would happen if he found out that there was a mouse in the house. She closed the door of the cabinet. It was where she kept all the Vietnamese spices for her own use and he never paid attention to it.
Tonight her husband did not want to go downstairs, even though she had already had a good bath. She was trying to mumble some English words and waiting. She needed a car; she wanted to learn how to drive and go to work; she needed money to send home. This was why she had come here. She waited and waited, but didn't hear his footsteps. She opened the door and walked like a sleepwalker. She walked on the layer of dead leaves, feeling lonely and abandoned, like a lost deer. It was cold; the moon was shining on the birch trees, softening the flame color of the leaves. The wind was blowing hard, making the dead leaves dance in the air in a death dance.
When the wind stopped blowing, she found herself walking amid dead leaves. The path that led her here was now buried in dead leaves. She was afraid. She searched for the green roof of the house, but she could see only the red foliage and the silver moonlight. She burst out crying. I didn't come here to look for death. I came here to enjoy happiness, she thought! Then she recognised the path.
He woke up amid the noise of falling leaves. Tomorrow, all the heaps of dead leaves had to be removed! In the fall, dead leaves were removed. In winter, snow was removed. She told him that in her home country, there were only sunny and rainy seasons and there was no season of falling leaves! Suddenly he remembered her. He got up, thinking that it was so wonderful to have her gentle, warm body by his side! His first wife had abandoned him. He wanted to have a second wife who could take care of him and cook well. A woman of feminine character! He was told that Vietnamese women were good wives. He loved her at first sight! She was young and gentle, in good shape, with black hair that fell down her back like a stream. He was amazed by her. She was a woman of a few words. He felt so pleased with this type of woman. He knew that she wanted to work so she could send money to her family. He offered her US$500 a month, but she refused to accept it.
Her room was wide open. Wind was blowing hard into it. He quickly put on an overcoat and intended to go out, but he saw a mouse running into the kitchen…
Time went by. She got used to living a good life there. Her long, black hair was seen only in photos. It was now trimmed and curled. Her fingernails were manicured. She drove the car to go to work. She learnt English and integrated herself into society very fast. When they ate out, she always chose the cheaper food, even though he was paying.
But ten years later, he divorced her. She was not sad because she was now the owner of a nail shop that made a lot of money. She had things she wanted. Money and work, that was the secret! Love and happiness were luxurious and vague things. It was strange that she never cried. Her eyes were tearless now. They were like dried-up wells.
Among the workers in her shop, there was one named Huong who was young and well-educated. She had come to the United States with her family, leaving her first love behind. She said to Huong:
"You know, ten years ago, when I listened to Trinh Cong Son's songs I would cry, but not now. Why can't I cry anymore? I hear a lot of moving stories every day, but I can't feel any emotion in my heart! Or has my lacrimal gland gone dry?"
"Only the dead don't cry!" Huong said. "Where love finishes is where death begins!"
"Where did you hear that? Or is it something you came up with?"
"I read it somewhere."
"Ten years ago, I was like you. I talked a lot about poems and literature. In ten years, you will be like me! Whenever I talk, I talk about money and work."
"But money cannot compensate for a lack of love. I'll go back home to marry him! He is waiting for me, you know!" Huong said stubbornly.
"You're so deluded!" She burst out laughing.
For years now, she had worked and earned money and sent it home. The demand from her family seemed unending. The clock struck 12. For quite a long time, she had not gotten up at midnight and missed home. Fatigue had made her sleep soundly until the day broke. Her house at home, the so-called chicken house, was now a two-storey house. It had been built with her money. She had worked her fingers to the bone to get money for her home in the country. Was it that money made people love each other less?
It was fall. She drove through golden foliage in the magnificent afternoon sun. Today she went home earlier than usual. She recognised the fall was setting in. That first fall when she came here, she often picked up red leaves and kept them in a box. Later she found this frivolous, so she threw them away. They were faded autumn leaves. When did I cry the last time, she wondered? Oh, when she saw the mouse. In the end, he killed it with poison. It was 10 years ago and she cried while he laughed. She pulled up the car in a deserted place and sat there, crying her heart out just to compensate for all these years when she had kept silent without crying. She cried for her lost youth, for her dead love and for her loneliness.
"Are you O.K.?" A young policeman knocked at the door when he saw her bent down on the wheel.
She raised her tearful Oriental black eyes at the policeman.
Crying is to live again.
The fall was also crying, Leaves were the tears!
Translated by Manh Chuong