|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Le Thanh Ky
Luong Street was short and narrow. It originated from a major avenue that was always crowded with pedestrians and vehicles, then turned into a rugged blue stone-paved path to the bank of a big canal spanned by a curved ferro-concrete bridge. In the water, the bridge's reflection was surrounded by water hyacinths.
The desolated by-pass was quiet and humble in terms of social activities. On the whole, it was mainly used by local inhabitants. Although the place was a closed community, some of its residents' habits were known to all, such as Thanh's uneven way of walking home due to her bad limp, The's noisy spits when he opened his bike repair stall early in the morning and Ta's shouts of "Oh, dear!" at 9am when the products of his bakery appeared unmarketable. Roughly speaking, the locals' relationships were to some extent based on mere profit sharing.
At the sharp bend of the path stood Tuyen's imposing three-storey building surrounded by a steel fence. Every morning, he drove his luxury car out of the garage and waited for his wife by the side of the road. Before walking through the heavy metal gate, she always gave maid Thu, still in her early teens, all kinds of instructions. She told her to give her four-year-old son Thien Su brand porridge after his half-hour nap, followed by three spoonfuls of Sumo brand digestive drink; to give him two Dai Hoang bananas at 8am, followed by a glass of orange juice thirty minutes later; and to finally give him a glass of milk and a Thai cake at ten. "If you forget my advice, I'll teach you to remember it," she warned the poor little servant.
"Yes, ma'am, I'll certainly do as you've just told me," the maid answered as she shut the gate.
Across from Tuyen's place was Mr Toan's grey two-storey house. Formerly, he had been a railway shunter. Although he retired a long time ago, he continued wearing the special uniform. Getting up early, he often opened his screeching gate in order to get a full view of the locality. Not until his daughter-in-law led her bicycle out to go to work would he retrace his steps into the kitchen to prepare a vacuum flask of boiling water. At the entrance to the path, Mr Tao opened his white door and ran out for some morning exercises along the blue stone-paved road, clad in white sports clothing and a pair of white training shoes. A retired member of the Municipal Board of Propaganda and Education during the period when the Soviet Bloc was still in existence, he led a secluded life due in part to his family's hard situation. Actually, he had been a student of Eastern Philology in the USSR. After finishing half the course there, he returned home to continue his study at the University of National Economics, which was quite contrary to his aspirations, as he felt it would not bring him much in the way of earnings. Leaving that institution with a BSc degree, he was appointed to the post of accountant at the district radio station with a ridiculous income: an appropriate amount of paddy. At his request, he was enrolled into a higher course in cultural matters. After finishing his studies, he became a greenhorn member of the Provincial Cultural Department, then of the Board of Propaganda and Education of the same province. Working there for a few years, he asked for premature retirement because of the poor living conditions of his family and the boring tasks at his office.
Passing by Mr Toan's house, he reached the dwelling-place of Tu, a young curator at the local museum. Perhaps, owing to the influence of his special career, his door and windows were all painted red, similar to the sportswear he wore for his morning exercises. After that, both Tao and Tu, one completely in white and the other in red, went jogging together for a long distance to the bridge then back home.
While most of the local residents were preparing to go to work, they played chess at Mr Toan's place.
One day, a female tramp began loitering on Luong Street. Where she came from was still unknown to the locals, but she soon became the talk of the town. People at first said she was a lunatic. Then rumour had her pegged as an abandoned wife, then a bankrupt creditor, then a miserable young woman who lost her beloved young daughter, and so on and so forth.
The story about the stranger's frequent appearance in Luong Street soon fell into oblivion.
In the meantime, every day Thu saw that so-called lunatic standing at Tuyen's fence, staring at her and Little Bin while they were playing in the inner courtyard. Time and again, she waved cheerily. Once, with a doll in her left hand, she frantically signalled to them to come close to her, but Thu tried to keep the little boy away from her. She wanted to cry loudly so that the three chess players opposite to her place might come to their rescue, but in vain. In fact, she hated them because on one occasion she heard their fierce and merciless criticism about her bosses' building.
A few months before during a visit to Thu's father, Tuyen, who had previously been in the same army unit as her father, complained that he was badly in need of a maid to care for his mischievous four-year-old son. Taking advantage of that rare opportunity, Thu's father recommended his young daughter to his close friend.
"How about my little daughter?" Thu's father told his former comrade-in-arms. "She left school one year ago as she was unable to study any further. However, I'm afraid that she isn't strong enough to do heavy things at your place."
"Where's she now? Please call her here for me to have a look," Tuyen said to him. Actually, Tuyen had heard of his friend's nice little daughter and the purpose of his visit was to that effect. So, when he saw Thu, he decided to accept her immediately.
"Frankly speaking, we've hired so many young women to take care of my boy, but they all refused to look after him because he is too playful," Tuyen declared sincerely. "You see, a dynamic kid is so stubborn, not like a little pagoda novice at all!"
"That's right," Thu's father agreed. "Taking care of young kids is not an easy matter."
"OK, she can come home with me right now," Tuyen said.
Thu's father gave his dear child a lot of advice before she left. "Take pains in looking after his little one, my beloved daughter. You'll enjoy a good life there, much better than ours, of course. I promise that I'll visit you frequently!"
When Tuyen took her home, his wife Tuyet thought little of Thu.
"How can such a little girl care for our son properly?" she asked her husband.
"I think otherwise, my darling. Adults usually pay less attention to kids' psychology. Children may be harmonious with one another easily. Anyhow, her father was one of my dear comrades-in-arms and his clan is now in dire poverty," he replied.
"Which one do we need: a real maid or another young mouth to feed?" she retorted.
"I've weighed things very carefully, darling. Let's just wait and see," he said to her.
So she had to let the girl live with her family. "If she's obedient enough, I'll let her stay here. Otherwise, I'll fire her as soon as possible," she whispered to herself.
Once, while washing the kid's hands, he splashed Thu with water. She threatened him: "I'll spank you if you keep doing that!" Disregarding her warning, he kicked the plastic basin so strongly that he hurt his right foot and cried out loudly. From the inside of the living room, his mother rushed out hurriedly.
"What have you done to my dear child?" she asked Thu. Immediately, the boy grabbed at Thu's hair. His mother tried to release his grip. "You ought to make concessions to him and try not to menace him next time," she said to Thu resolutely. Having witnessed everything that happened, Tuyen said nothing.
Gradually, Thu grew accustomed to all kinds of ill treatment from the kid and endured it without any objections or complaints. One day, when Tuyet found several scratches on Thu's face, she asked how she had gotten them, but Thu only said that she had been wounded by thorns, which the landlady knew was untrue, for there were no thorns around her compound.
"Next time he does anything wrong, just punish him," she said to Thu in a seemingly sympathetic voice.
Thu knew that she did not mean it.
Thu often saw the madwoman around the married couple's dwelling. She just stared at Thu with a broad smile. Although Bin always threw his toys at her, she continued looking at Thu attentively. Finally, Thu was compelled to tell her boss the whole truth. "You ought to ask one of our neighbours for help some day," she told her husband one morning.
"Oh dear, they never pay attention to their neighbours' doings! All they care about is playing chess." Thu thought the same. Except for the moments when people came home from their offices, Luong Street was always deserted and its houses were kept under lock and key.
On Thu's first day of service at Tuyet's place, she was taught the three "no's": no opening the gate for any unfamiliar faces, no obeying any order given by any stranger and no believing in any alien soul. "Yes, I'll remember them all, Lady," Thu replied resolutely. In her heart of hearts, she felt doubtful about her owner's advice. "Are there so many wicked guys around here?" she asked herself. In comparison with her native village, living conditions were much more comfortable here.
"Oddly enough, that madwoman is nowhere to be seen these days," Tu observed.
"She might have gone somewhere else," chimed in another chess player.
One day Tuyen had his garage repaired. Several blacksmiths brought some iron rafters to his house and leant them against a big tree in the courtyard. It was a Sunday and the street was crowded with peals of laughter and beautiful music. In the meantime, Tuyen and his wife went downtown with their blacksmiths to look at steel frames. Little Bin seemed very happy, for he had many things to play with. At first, he dragged a copper roll of electrical wire around the courtyard. Thu's face went pale when she saw him doing this. She chased after him and shouted loudly. Tired of playing with the metal roll, he began climbing up the rafters, higher and higher. His hands grabbed hold of a tree branch while his feet rested on the support of the tie-beam. He swung to and fro.
Looking up from the copper roll, Thu looked up to see Bin in great danger. Across the road, Tao, Toan and Tu remained interested in the chess game and Thu knew that she could not expect their support.
"Bin, come down, come down at once!" she shouted.
The little kid only giggled while the rafters began shaking according to the rhythm of his dancing gait. She was frightened to death. She rushed toward the gate and across the road to Toan's house.
"Help! Help! Bin is in danger!" she screamed loudly.
All of them just stared at Thu's pale face.
"What's the matter with you?" Toan asked.
"Save my little brother's life, will you?" she told him. Then she rushed back to the house without any further explanation because of Bin's critical situation. Hardly had she reached the place when the rafters fell down together with the little boy, who was shrieking in a terrified way. The chess players ran to the couple's dwelling. Screams resounded wildly and footsteps went stamping noisily. Bin's face was drenched with blood. Right at that moment, Tuyen and Tuyet got home. She rushed towards her little child. "The kid must be taken to hospital immediately," someone urged. Another person uncovered the kid's hair. Luckily, his head was only scratched a bit. Tuyet carried her son in her arms to the ambulance. One of her hands held the bandage tightly on his wound to prevent his blood from oozing out further while her right arm tightly embraced her beloved son, who cried and cried. Tuyet's loud cries made the onlookers feel deeply moved. While getting in the vehicle, she cast an angry look at Thu, who remained sitting in the courtyard, hair unkempt. "Surely, she won't forgive me when she comes home," Thu said to herself.
The curious neighbours gradually dispersed, leaving Tuyen's courtyard deserted, while the heavy gate was still wide open. On the other side of the road, the three chess players resumed their game amid the noisy music echoing from Miss Thanh's house next door and Uncle Ta's bakery.
Thu left the gate wide open. She was unable to close it due to the mass of steel frames that were lying across her body. Her face appeared agonised and exhausted. Not knowing what to do, she was compelled to wait for her furious boss to come home.
All of a sudden, the madwoman turned up in the courtyard. Spotting the poor little girl lying alone there, she walked toward her. Curiously, instead of being frightened, Thu felt joyful. She missed her mother, who had left home for good when Thu was small. She also missed her father, who had promised to visit her the following week. "When Dad comes, I'll tell him to take me home," she whispered to herself.
Seeing Thu's tears, she tried to lift the rafter lying across her leg. Thu's leg was broken. Staring at the strange woman who was doing her best to save her life, Thu felt deeply moved.
"Is there anybody around here? Please come to the little girl's rescue as soon as possible," the woman shouted.
Nobody paid attention to her urgent calls for rescue.
She rushed toward the blue stone-paved road and cried: "Help! Help! A little girl over there is in danger."
Nobody glanced at her but the chess players, who just gave icy peals of laughter.
"Anyone here who can cure a madwoman?" one of them asked.
She quickly walked toward the rafters and tried to lift them up, one by one. Doing her best, eventually she managed to release Thu from the cumbersome mass of steel. Carrying Thu in her arms, she quickly left the place and went across the blue stone-paved road to the main street. They passed by the grey door, then the red one and finally by the white gate. All of them were locked. Thu's arms clung tightly to the woman's neck. Her eyes were wet with tears and her face rested on the woman's trembling shoulders. Vaguely, she could hear the cries for rescue from the heart of her saviour.
Translated by Van Minh