Bitter bamboo shoot
|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Tong Ngoc Han
Mother often boasted about having given birth to 13 children. But as a child, I counted time and again and found that there were only nine of us. My four brothers were finishing the last grade of junior secondary school, while the five girls, of whom I was the youngest, never attended a single class. At age eight, I was given a good hiding by Father because I had left the buffalo hungry and tried to get near a classroom. When I was 10, I was given another good hiding because I had helped a boy next door solve a problem. For women and girls in my family, being literate was a sin.
All the buffaloes look the same. For this reason, I had tied a shred of fabric to each buffalo that my family owned. But one day, when I grazed them in the forest, I lost the biggest male buffalo. Having lost the buffalo, I did not dare to go home. I looked for the missing buffalo for several days in the forest. When I got hungry, I picked fruit in the forest. But one day, I was starving and could no longer drive away hunger. I waited until everybody had gone to bed, then stealthily walked into the kitchen and ate cold rice. I figured that none of the family members, including Mother, had noticed my absence.
Mother did not even remember our birthdays. We all had to remember our own birthdays. In addition, she often called us by a common name:
"Eh, all of you, come here, why is this pig sty so dirty?"
"Tomorrow, all of you must get up early to harvest rice."
She called all nine of us "you". When she spoke to only one of us, he or she was also "you". She did not call us by our names. As time went by, the group of "you" got thinner. Some of us got married. Only my two youngest sisters and I were left in the age of puberty.
That night, after having a good meal, I fell asleep right on the kitchen veranda. In the morning, Mother found me there. She kicked at my bottom and shouted:
"I thought you died in the forest. The missing buffalo came home. We thought you didn't know the way. Be careful with your father! What a lazybones you are!"
I sat up in great joy. So the male buffalo had come home alone!
I grew up with the herd of buffaloes in the forest of bitter bamboo shoots. I imagined that one day when I reached marrying age, Father would marry me to a young man. My husband would be like Father, who was a hard-going man and spoke foul language all the time. I would be like my sister-in-law, who was allowed to give birth to two children in accordance with the family law. And then I would be similar to Mother, who was now in the main house, now in the kitchen, now in the rice field, now back home doing the housework, day in and day out.
Thinking about it, I felt bored to death. I wondered if there was any way out of this vicious circle. I found some old books and tucked them in my dress. Then I took the buffalo to the forest, where I could learn how to spell the words.
At 16, I could read stories. My girlfriend asked me to cross the river to make money, but I refused because even if I could make money, I would not be allowed to spend it. This money should be handed to Father. It was wasted breath! I longed to go somewhere to learn about the world around me.
Out of the blue sky, I heard the man next door yelling at his daughter:
"I have never asked you to go and make a living, you know! Learn how to live first! Dont throw mud at me!"
I was more miserable than my friend next door. When I reached puberty and had my period for the first time, Mother asked me to wash my things in the stream so as not to waste soap. But the next month, I did not have it. Mother vented her anger and doubt on me. She beat me until I went to the medical station for an examination. She yelled at me:
"Who did you sleep with? Tell me now!"
The nurse asked me to lie on a metal bed and used a torch to examine my private parts. After that she said to Mother that she could rest assured that I was still a virgin. However, after I returned from the medical station, none of my friends wanted to play with me.
I was very sad. A few months later, my friend from next door came home from the other side of the river. She soothed me with honeyed words:
"If you had money, you could buy soap and nobody would blame you. If you had money, you would have more friends and so on and so forth, you see!"
She had touched the right chord. I wished to have friends so much. I was not allowed to go to school, so I did not have friends; I did not have any beautiful memories from my friends. I was determined to learn some job so I could have more friends. I wanted to run away from home. I had to cross the river, but I feared nothing. From the top of the tree, I could see the other side of the river with tall buildings and electricity that lit up the whole area. Where I lived was only a small mountain hamlet. I could be with my friend on the other side of the river.
She took me to a restaurant and ordered two bowls of pho. When we finished, my friend told me that my new boss was coming. I looked up and saw two big men looming large by my side. I felt something hot in my throat. I rushed to the door and then ran as fast as I could without turning back. Thirty minutes later, I came to the riverbank. I bought a ticket. Having set foot in the border town, I felt greatly relieved.
I went into the market and asked in a restaurant if there were any jobs I could do. The owner of the shop was a thin woman. She looked me from head to foot and asked me about my birthplace, my name and age. I answered all of her questions without hiding anything. But when she asked me about my education, I had to lie, saying I was an eighth-grader. I had learnt some things from my brothers, who were eighth-graders. If they wanted to test me, I could answer all their questions because I remembered everything from my brothers books.
I sat calmly, listening to the owners instructions. The job was similar to what I did to help Mother at home: washing vegetables, cutting bamboo shoots, chopping meat, doing the washing up. At first I did a few things wrong, but the owner explained those things again to me in detail and I got used to doing them day in and day out. She never scolded me like Mother. If I ate too little, she urged me to eat a lot so I could get stronger. When I had my period, she gave me money to buy the necessary things, so there was no need for me to wash up in the stream. I worked more diligently for the owner because she was kind to me.
I was happy when the owner commended me for working hard. At home if I did something well, nobody, even Father or Mother, would give me a word of praise for it. I liked the job; I liked life here. I began to make friends who were doing the same job. I particularly admired those who were entrusted with the cooking. I was determined to learn something from them so that one day I could step into their shoes.
When I received my first monthly salary, I suddenly remembered Mother so much. Mother had never got such money. All the money was in Father's hands. To tell the truth, since running away from home, I missed Mother more than anyone else.
The owner saw something on television and her face went pale. She told me to go home immediately. There had been a landslide that buried several dozen houses in the hamlet, killing over 30 people. I saw Mother's body on the ground, along with that of my paternal grandmother and one of my sisters. Father was like a wild animal, running around, screaming and screaming. A few days later, the dead body of my paternal grandfather was found. Father fainted right away.
I rushed home in a state of great sorrow and sadness. Father was like a madman, crying and running here and there. He was scared out of his wits. After a few days, I took my sister to the town. The owner of the food shop opened her arms wide open to welcome both of us.
She even helped me realize my dream of learning a foreign language. I worked for her during the day and studied by night. After several years of working hard, I was recruited to work for a tour company in a city close to the border with China.
In my first task as a tour guide, I took 16 visitors to Sa Pa. Due to my inexperience, I did not satisfy the boss. After that, I worked hard to please him. One day, I was assigned with the task of taking 21 men to the sea. I wondered what the sea was like. I had never seen it.
It turned out to be very beautiful. I was dazed at such a gorgeous scene!
Before I went, the company advised me not to talk a lot about the country's sovereignty over the sea and islands, but I did the opposite. As a citizen, I reasoned, it was my duty to explain the facts to foreign guests so I could make them aware of the reality and win their support for the country.
Unfortunately, after that tour, I was sacked.
I intended to go home and live with Father. Father's temper was less severe now. My friends in the hamlet had gotten married. I was twenty-five years old. My house was now very close to the newly opened road. Father had gotten to know a truck driver who transported materials for building roads. His age was twice mine, so I was hesitant to call him "brother".
My family owned two hectares of the forest of black bamboo shoots. They were called black bamboo shoot because they had black covers. When this cover was peeled away, the yellow flesh was revealed. When the flesh was boiled, it turned white and sweet. It was very profitable to grow this kind of bamboo shoot. However, Father still kept a few beds of bitter bamboo shoots for the familys use. Father and that driver liked the bitter bamboo shoots. Eating this kind of bamboo shoots while drinking alcohol would get you really drunk.
When the second harvest of the black bamboo shoots came, the driver asked Father to buy all the bamboo shoots. He also asked me to work for him. I would do the packaging and he would pay me a daily wage. Father nodded his permission after a moment of thought.
While working for him, I was always on guard. I forced myself to stay vigilant because there was a human trafficking ring in the area, selling women and children across the border. A lot of women and girls in this hamlet had disappeared and never come back.
The black bamboo shoots ran out and this was the last batch. As usual, I climbed onto the truck to arrange the goods. All of a sudden, I felt someone grab me and I fainted.
A long moment later, I woke up. A bunch of rags was pulled out of my mouth and my hands and legs were tied. I was a prisoner.
In a foreign land, I was like a black bamboo shoot, the cover of which was peeled. I wanted to scream, but I could not. I wanted to wriggle, but I was not allowed to do harm to the thing that was forming inside me.
I was told that I had been assigned a sacred mission. I did not know what mission it was, but I did know that it was a cruel arrangement. Who did it? Why did they choose me for it? I wanted to be home with my father.
Father did not punish me for it. The old father was so tired of what had happened to his family. That terrible landslide was still lying deep in his heart. However, thanks to his growing the black bamboo shoots, he had built a good house, the most beautiful one in the area. He often said that growing the black bamboo shoots could bring about good benefits and he advised other households to follow him.
In the past, I was dying for a friend to play with and have heart-to-heart talks with. Now I was a girl of few words. I did not dare to share anything with anyone around me. Did anybody still place their confidence in me? All people around thought that I was a cheater. The thing inside me got bigger day in and day out. In my loneliness, it was my only consolation. I had to live with it, both in joy and in sadness. It was like a bamboo shoot which was being watered with my tears. It grew very fast. The day came when this thing wanted to come out of me.
I had to go through a Caesarean operation in the hospital. When I regained consciousness, my baby was not by my side. My heart clenched with pain. I dragged myself around the room to look for my baby, until I found Father standing against the wall. His face was snow-white. He consoled me:
"Its father has taken the baby away. Dont regret those bitter shoots, my daughter…"
I reeled over to my father and buried my face in his shoulder. For the first time, I entreated him:
"Dad, give my baby back, please! Give it back to me!"
"How can I? It has been taken far away," Father said, smiling with a deformed mouth and continuing. "This is also a way of making money, you know, daughter! Do you think I could build this house with the profits from two harvests of black bamboo shoots?"
I quickly stepped away from Father in bewilderment. He collapsed at my feet. I tried to stand up. Blood seeped through my blouse to my hands.
Translated by Manh Chuong