|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Pham thi Huong
The scorching June sun made the surface of the asphalt road seem to melt in a dim wisp of vapour which was flickering up slightly. Even our wooden plank bed was too hot for me to lie down on. On such a day I usually hung my grandfather's hammock on two strong branches of the sapodilla tree at the end of the veranda to enjoy the cool fresh air from the river nearby. It was there that my paternal grandmother often told me stories about young girls combing one another's hair on the dike embankment during the moonlit nights. "They're the souls of the young girls who died unexpectedly. They sit there to wait for their lovers to come in order to share happy moments together," she said to me. Although I did not believe her narratives, I felt a bit nervous while we little kids played in the moonlight on the village green at the entrance to our village.
One late evening while we were enjoying the fresh air there Na, one of our chums, persuaded us to go watch the courting couples on the dike embankment. Out of insatiable curiosity I followed her to that rendez-vous spot, thinking my fear might be unfounded. The moon rose high, spreading its brilliant soft light over the open space. The silvery river flew quietly below. All of a sudden, she pushed me down behind a high earthen mould. In front of us sat a courting couple by a cluster of bamboos, within a stone's throw of our place. In my mind's eye nothing wrong happened there although rumour had it that, near these bamboos, a few young people had drowned unreasonably.
One June morning, Old Tung, a ferryman, approaching his work place, saw something unusual on the surface of the water near the bamboo cluster. To his surprise, it was the body of a young woman with long hair floating on the waves. After that incident, no young loving couples dared to sit at that place. "I've often seen the silhouette of a young girl with long hair wandering near the bamboo cluster," said the old ferryman. Surprisingly, a few years later, a young man's body was also found in the water, right at the place where the body of the girl had previously been discovered. The ill-fated man was none other than Nam, 26 years old, of the adjacent village, Old Tunng told his residents. Anyhow, those happenings belonged to the fifties of the previous century.
After that, whenever I went to school, I tried to go across the fields instead of going along the dike, although it was rather difficult and took a lot more time to cover. Poor me, after that I was subject to another trouble: being afraid of all girls with long black hair who often appeared in my dreams. Even my mother and cousin Lan terrified me. When I had to wash their hair, I was haunted by the fear that it was not their hair, but that of another woman with a pale face and sunken eyes.
Therefore, at the age of sixteen, I had short hair like a boy's. Meanwhile Lan's long hair looked brilliantly black. The more she grew up, the prettier she became with jet-black eyes. When I stared at them I felt as if she was ready to weep. "Any girl with such beautiful but sorrowful eyes will certainly lead an unhappy life," my mother usually said to me. I did not think so, because she was admired by many people. She did well at school and was nice and kind-hearted as well. The more she grew up, she more suitors she had. At the age of twenty-four she got married. Thanh, her husband, handsome and friendly, came from a wealthy family with a large car showroom in town. Fortunately for her, his entire clan was very fond of her. What's more, her spouse replaced her parents' humble cottage with a well-furnished three-storey building.
"Formerly you often said, 'So beautiful a girl only leads a miserable life.' Now, you should change your expression to 'Beauty can bring about great fortune'." She just smiled a forced smile. In her eyes, I could read a sorrowful look.
When I reached puberty, I became aware of love affairs. My first love was dedicated to Phuc, head of the tailoring team in our garment factory. He was by no means rich, yet he looked gentle and honest and was always considerate to others. Whenever at home we dealt with his behaviour, my mother usually remarked sarcastically, "Whoever marries him will do nothing in her life but eat and give birth to lots of children. The other housework, big or small, will go to her husband."
"Mum, not quite so," I whispered to myself.
He encouraged me to wear long hair.
"I'm fond of sweeping my hands over a thick lock of hair to enjoy its softness," he said to me.
"Yet long hair doesn't suit me," I objected. "Which one do you wish to choose: me or long hair?"
After that, he never dealt with the topic of long hair again.
Soon he took me home to introduce me to his mother. She observed me carefully, from head to toe.
"You lady of the 21st century is very fashionable," she remarked.
I felt as if something had stuck in my throat. I wanted to express my viewpoint clearly, but I did not dare to do so.
One day, Lan returned home. On the way, she dropped in on us. Strangely enough, she remained as beautiful as she had been before although she looked a bit pale. She talked to my mother in the kitchen for a long while. When she left, I found her eyes red-rimmed. I tried not to ask her. Even if I did, she would not reply. That night, I asked my mother about her living conditions, but she refused to tell me the truth. She only heaved a sigh instead. I felt as if I had remained in the kids' world. I was not able to be accepted into the world of the grown-ups in which there were still many secrets that only adults could know.
At the age of twenty, I said goodbye to Phuc. My relatives expressed their regrets about my decision. "What a foolish girl! How can she possibly find such a nice youth in this 21st century?" they said to one another. Through my experiences, I knew that my future lovers would not pamper me like Phuc. Frankly speaking, I could hardly gloss over his mother's unfriendly looks and remarks. She always found fault with me and mocked me as well. She might look forward to a better daughter-in-law than me, I thought. As for Phuc, he loved me dearly, yet he was a pious son. He told me many times to wait and he would try to persuade his mother. But how long could I wait? I was too tired of his wait-and-see game.
One day Lan left her husband and moved back to her parents' home. She rarely went out. Time and again, during her visits to us, she always poured out her heart to my mother. Rumour had it that she had been cast out by her spouse's family due to her inability to have children. I demanded my mother clarify this account. At last, she told me that Lan's parents had only two daughters. They wanted to give their daughters' hands in marriage to rich young men in the hope that they might get some financial support from them later during their old age. Therefore, Lan was looked after very carefully in all respects by her mother and was cherished as a valuable treasure. She bought her all kinds of fashionable clothes. At the age of eighteen, she looked more and more beautiful with the passage of time. Soon she fell in love with Sang, the only son of a clan living on the other bank of the river. After a long search, Lan's mother came to know that the youth's family was rather poor and that his mother died young, leaving the lonely child with his old father. Right at the first meeting, Lan's mother showed her disagreement. When Lan's suitor had gone home, the old woman said to Lan, "I've invested a lot of money in you, not for that humble kind of youth. Don't be so silly. If you marry him, you'll live in dire poverty and work hard all day long." Lan was going to protest, but she had to keep silent because of her mother's staggering blow. Since then the old woman tried her best to control her daughter. However, the call of love was more powerful than her threats. Thanks to one of her friends' help, Lan often secretly met her lover at the riverbank, near the ferry, for she knew that no courting couples were bold enough to sit there owing to the tragic story about the death of the long-haired girl. Late one evening, she was discovered beside Sang at the cluster of bamboos. She was taken home and got a good thrashing. Then at nights she was locked in. The next day her mother went to Sang's place. The result was that one month later he went south to earn his living. After that, Lan was released, but she was too ashamed to go out.
Three months later, she did not have her period. When her mother asked her about the situation, she was compelled to tell her the truth. The old woman decided to take her to a female witch-doctor to procure an abortion, fearing that when her daughter's bad condition was disclosed, her opportunity to marry a rich young man would come to an end. Unfortunately for her, that illegal abortion made her seriously infected. Thanks to her mother's great efforts, she soon recovered. But after that, she did not dare to love any young man. She let her fate lie in her parents' hands. Later many youths wished to take her in marriage, but her mother refused them all point-blank. Then Thanh, a rich young man living in the district capital, met Lan at a wedding party in her village. He fell in love with her at first sight and decided to marry her. Her mother consented to Thanh's proposal immediately. Consequently Lan married Thanh with the consent of her parents, although she thought with humiliation that her marriage was none other than a bargain in the open market. As a result, her mother was provided with a three-storey house, the best one in the whole commune. The night before the bride left her parents' house, the old woman instructed her to take all the measures necessary to prove that she was still a virgin. During the nuptial night, she did not show any pain, and early in the morning her husband did not see any blood stains on the bedsheets. However, he did not say a word.
As for Lan's stout mother-in-law, she did not like her on the grounds that she was too clumsy when she did housework. On the whole, Lan did not meet the familial standards. While the old woman always found fault with her, Lan just kept silent, thinking that the best way for her to behave was to be silent. However, the landlady assumed that this meant her daughter-in-law despised her. Time passed by uncomfortably. Meanwhile Lan's husband, a heedless man, paid no attention to the family affairs. Although he never reprimanded her, he did not encourage her at all. Two years had elapsed, yet she could not have a baby. Her spouse's clan was very anxious and so was she. One day, on the pretext that she had to return to her native village to visit her parents, she went to the municipal hospital to be checked. The gynaecologist, a kind-hearted woman, told her that she had become infertile due to the infection she had suffered after the abortion. She collapsed at the bad news like a lightning bolt had shot her from out of the blue sky. Coming back home, she did not know how to explain the condition to her husband. When his family urged her to check her health at a certain clinic, she tried to put it off again and again. As a result, her mother-in-law invented a lot of reasons to nag her. "My son is the only one in the family, so we're badly in need of a baby boy to maintain our lineage," the old woman often said to her neighbours. She also implied that she would rather accept a low-born girl as her daughter-in-law than keep a barren one in her family. Consequently, soon the old woman took a young pretty girl home to be her son's concubine. Worse yet, Lan was expelled from home due to the new-comer's heinous scheme. Humiliated, she returned to her home to meet her parents and my mother with a view to explaining to them her miserable plight. When I saw her red-rimmed eyes that evening it was because of all she had suffered at her husband's home.
One stormy night, when I opened the gate to lead our frightened dog in, suddenly I saw the silhouette of a girl with waist-length hair passing by. At once I hurriedly stepped into our house. While I was closing its door, my heart went pit-a-pat.
The next morning, Lan's mother came to us to ask if she had stayed at our place during the previous night. I shook my head. That afternoon too, villagers went in search of her but all their efforts were in vain. Finally, Lan's mother reached Thanh's building to get information about her daughter's disappearance, yet nobody knew her whereabouts. Three days after Lan had been lost, at five o'clock in the morning her body was found floating at the ferry place, close to the bamboo cluster.
June came round again and flamboyant flowers were in bloom on the riverbank. While villagers were taking a stroll along the earth-trodden path along the river on dim moonlit nights, they often saw the silhouette of a young woman with long hair near the ferry. They asked themselves whether it was Lan's soul or that of the girl who had been sitting there to wait for her lover. So far their question remains unanswered.
Translated by Van Minh