by Nguyen Ngoc Tu
Going through the door, Sau Tam always grumbled. That was because he found Diep bending over doing the cooking or something on the other side.
"Why don't you stay in bed and rest? Leave these odds and ends to me!"
But today she grumbled at him upon seeing blood smeared all over his knee.
"Did you fall down? You should be more careful!"
"No, nothing of the sort. I've got to teach San to crawl," he said.
"Which play are you going to stage?"
"Phan Le Hue."
She forced him to sit down on the bed. Then she gently rolled up his trouser leg and bandaged his knee, adjusting the artificial joint carefully. Sau Tam saw a tear fall right on the injured knee and he felt a burning sensation there.
"What's the use of crying? There's nothing to cry about!"
At noon, San also embraced his knee and cried. She used to work as a waitress at May Lang Thang Restaurant. One day he went by and saw her face heavy with make-up. San always dreamt of becoming an actress of classical opera. She dreamt of playing the main role and becoming a famous actress. Her mother died in labour when she was still a baby. She was now 24. Her father was a habitual drunkard. When he was drunk, he often said to her:
"It's you who has made me so miserable. My wife died and my money has also gone."
San tried to live a useful life. When her father's shirt was torn, she tried to mend it. When her father said he wanted to vomit, San rushed to get a pot and hot towel for him. At six, she had to sell boiled sweet potatoes, carrying the heavy basket from one village to another. At 12, she went to ask for a job as a waitress at May Lang Thang restaurant. At 18, she got married so her father could buy a Honda motorcycle. Her husband was her age. After two weeks, she left him and returned to work at May Lang Thang restaurant. Her dream never came true. When the restaurant had few customers, San tried to sleep just to forget her wretched life.
It took Sau Tam one month to listen to all the life stories told by San. She pleaded for lessons in classical opera, but he refused, telling her that it was a low-paying job and the life of an actor was unrewarding. She retorted that what she was doing in the restaurant was also unrewarding. She said she was despised here and she was determined to become an actress of classical opera. When San was still small, one night after the performance was over and she was still sitting on the ground, reluctant to leave, an actress called Diep came to her, asking San if she was hungry. San nodded, even though she was not hungry. The actress asked for a bowl of rice porridge and gave it to San. San sat there, just looking at the actress. She wanted to lie on the actress's lap and call her "Mother". The actress said:
"Are you selling sweet potatoes? Why don't you go home now? Are there any more potatoes? When you finish eating, go home right away as it is already dark!"
San remembered that gentle face for a long time. She thought that if her mother was still alive, she would look like this actress. She said to Sau Tam:
"I met her only once, but I will love her for all my life!"
The story moved Sau Tam. His hardened face suddenly turned gentle. Then he agreed to teach San how to act in classical opera. Their lessons took place under a terminalia tree near the restaurant. The yard strewn with dead terminalia leaves turned into the King's Court and Sau Tam taught San to play the role of a palace maid. The passers-by stopped and enjoyed it. The diners knew that Sau Tam had quit the opera, but they still asked him to sing. They offered to pay him, but Sau Tam shook his head. Later he said to San:
"I refused them because I have never forgotten that I am an actor. The actor should belong to the public. So I have never acted for money."
Every day, Sau Tam dropped in to teach San for about ten minutes. After that he went peddling scarves and shirts. He needed money, a lot of money at that. But he also wanted to be back home very much. His house was in Go Ma Hamlet. The hamlet was next to a graveyard, but he was not scared. He wanted to be home because his wife Diep was very weak. If he was not at home, she often opened the door and looked at those small graves, thinking about death. Her hair had shed all along the path to the house. Sau Tam went to collect it. She buried her face on his chest, crying:
"What's the use of doing it, my dear?"
It was fate that Tam and Diep had gotten married, even though Diep was six years Tam's senior. When Sau Tam had just joined the classical opera theatre, he called Diep his older sister. Diep always played the role of his mother. Yet, they were head over heels in love. One day, they went to perform in Vam Leo. At midnight, after the performance, they slept under the stage. Unfortunately, the floor of the stage collapsed, so Sau Tam quickly pushed Diep away and his leg was broken. He was taken to the hospital and his leg joint was removed. Consequently, he had to leave the stage.
Diep and Sau Tam went to settle down in Go Ma hamlet. She felt no regret at all. All man needs in life is food and sleep; once those basic needs are fulfilled, he can find his other half. She now had Sau Tam by her side. Poor as they were, they were always together and worked hard for their art. At that time, Diep was yet to fall ill. But now her days were numbered. The tumor in her neck had spread to her brain. Her once-beautiful face had changed. Some days when she woke up and looked in the mirror, she could not recognise herself. Her eyes were swollen; blood oozed from her nose. She became hard of hearing. If he did not have to pay her hospital fees, Sau Tam would not have to roam in the streets, peddling things like that. He wanted to be by his wife's side so that when she was in great pain, he could get her water to drink, bring her medicine, wash her face with a warm towel, embrace her in his lap. Many days when it rained, he sat there and wanted to cry. He looked down at his hands. They could do many things to earn a living, yet they could not save his wife's life.
But he always came home with a smile, just to reassure his wife so she would not worry about him. Many times, when he reached the head of the alley, he stopped and smoked a cigarette just to calm down. He was even afraid of entering the house when she was still sleeping. But Diep knew it all. As tired as she was, she tried to wait up for him. It was fortunate that they had San, whose stories helped make them recognise that they had the meaningful life of artists. They were yet to change San's life, but to some extent they had consoled her a lot.
"I have no regrets, my dear husband! Don't be sad for me, my dear!"
Then she asked him not to tell San about their married life and about her existing illness.
"She is keeping something beautiful in her heart, so don't spoil it!" Diep said to Sau Tam. But one night, she could not sleep, just lying there and listen to her husband's heartbeats. She felt how vigorously alive he was. So how could she leave him in the lurch? Unintentionally, she thought about San.
One afternoon, San came to the house. Sau Tam did not go and sell things. He stayed at home and covered the roof of the house. It was raining hard, so he tried to cover the head of his wife with a towel. San stood still in her tracks upon recognizing Diep's gentle eyes.
"Are you San?" A sweet voice was heard ringing in the rain.
San recognised the sick woman and felt a sharp pain in her heart. It turned out that this man who peddled things day in and day out did not live alone! Still in great confusion, San ran quickly to open the window. Later, when Sau Tam went to peddle the scarves and shirts in the streets, San came to sweep the house and cook meals. She waited until Diep slept, then went to collect the strands of hair and hid them. One windy afternoon, Diep told San to get her a comb so that she could brush San's hair. Her hair was similar to Diep's when she was still young.
"Look, you and I have similar hair. Can you see it? I also did not have a mother. I grew up in an orphanage, you know! I came to the classical opera stage just to understand the sentiments that I had never had. I had a very miserable life when I was small. You and I both love our Sau Tam, don't we?"
San was still in confusion for a moment before she shook her head. Diep said:
"Don't lie to me, dear! If you don't have any bad feelings about his disability, when I go to the other world, I would like to hand him over to you. Please make a new beginning, my dear! Sau Tam has a noble heart. He is a simple but dignified man. It's not easy at all to have such a man today!"
San did not answer. Sau Tam did not know what had happened. At night, while in bed, with her head on his arm, Diep said:
"San loves you very much."
"I am an old man now, you see! That girl…." Sau Tam said, smiling.
"It doesn't matter, it's just the same between us."
"Do sleep now, my dear!" Sau Tam said.
But Diep knew that her husband was still awake, thinking about something new in his heart. Meanwhile, his wife fell into a deep and lasting sleep.
San left May Lang Thang Restaurant. She sold bananas and sweet potatoes at the gate of the culture house every afternoon. She had abandoned her dream of becoming an actress in classical opera. Sometimes, people have to separate from the ones they love. It makes them heartsick, but they cannot do otherwise.
Translated by Manh Chuong