|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Hoang Cong Danh
At 5 o'clock this morning on September 26, the position of the eye of the storm was 16.4o north, 110.1o east, 120km off the coast of Da Nang-Quang Ngai with gale force 8 on the Beaufort scale near the eye of the storm and at times gale force 9 and 10. It was forecast that in the coming 12 hours, the storm would move northwest, moving about 10 to 15km each hour. At 19 o'clock tonight the position of the eye of the storm would be 16.6o north, 108.3o east in the sea area of Quang Binh-Da Nang and then it would make landfall on…
The radio in the pagoda was blaring the information in a voice touched with fright. It was six o'clock then. Day was about to break. The Buddhist bonze had just finished his praying and turned down the kerosene lamps on the altar. Sanh knew that the bonze had the habit of listening to the radio in the morning, so right after the praying, he left and turned on the radio. The news about the coming storm was heard loud and clear. Having heard the news, the bonze looked calm. September was the rainy season, so there was nothing to be surprised at or worried about. Everything would be all right, the bonze thought. It was beginning to rain now, but not heavily yet. The bonze put on his robe to shield himself from the cold wind and entered the worshipping room, where he met Sanh.
"There is a storm coming, bonze," Sanh said in a nervous voice.
"It's nothing, only the monsoon wind, you know!" the bonze said, pointing to the garden. "There are a lot of trees that will serve as a shield for us, so don't worry about it!"
Actually, he said it only to calm Sanh. He was also greatly confused. It was no problem for the pagoda, but he was really worried for the people in the area. Two days before, he'd watched people harvesting the summer-autumn crop. A lot of the fields had not yet been harvested. He turned the radio louder. The news about the storm was being forecast with an urgent message from the Government. Having heard it, he felt warm in the heart, thinking that nobody in this country would be left in the lurch.
Absorbed in listening to the news, the bonze did not pay attention to the day that had broken already. The wind had become calm. Trees in the garden stood still. A woman who sold cloth, an acquaintance of the bonze, entered the pagoda. She took off her raincoat and kowtowed at the bonze. They smiled at each other.
"It has rained so much, you see!" the woman said, wiping the rainwater off her face.
"Are you coming from home? It's raining so heavily…." the bonze asked while preparing some tea. The woman felt like coming to see the bonze so often because she found that the bonze was always calm, even when the matter was urgent. Whenever she met the bonze, she felt calm and assured in the heart. It was great encouragement for her.
"I came from home and got up early. But having heard the news about the coming storm, I did not go to the market, because nobody wants to buy my cloth in this weather, do they?" The woman stooped to pick up a package of pounded salt mixed with roasted nuts and two bottles of soy sauce. "These things are for you and Sanh. It's difficult to get vegetables in this weather. And you never know. If there is a flash flood, you two can have these things to eat. I have to think about it because I live alone, you know. So don't blame me!"
The word "I live alone" made the bonze feel great pity for her. Before Sanh came to live in the pagoda with him, he had also lived alone. But he had all the statues of the Buddha and Bodhisattva by his side then, so he did not feel lonely at all. But now, upon hearing the woman say it, the bonze suddenly imagined the small house of the woman over there which needed a man to warm it up. The picture of her wedding ceremony had been taken off the wall and hidden somewhere since she had divorced him.
The woman put down the hot cup of tea on the table, making a loud noise that startled the bonze.
"Thank you. It's great to have roasted salt at this time of the year. My mother had a habit of roasting salt and pounding it with roasted nuts to make a good dish. It's very good for rainy days, you see! Thanks again!"
The rain was slacking. But this only made humans more worried about it. It was the same as when the sun appeared while a flash flood was happening, because it meant that the water level in rivers was rising. When the weather was like this, nobody could measure human feelings.
"You know, whenever a flash flood comes, I feel so scared. When my ex-husband had just left me, the first flash flood inundated half of my house. I was so hopeless, I sometimes thought about plunging into that water to go for good!" She stopped, bending her head in sadness.
The bonze made some more tea. He did not know how to console the woman, so he only said:
"In this life, it is difficult to live, but it is also not easy to die. To die does not certainly mean that you will no longer be miserable. Possibly, that foolish act could create misery in your afterlife. So, it would be better to try to live on without thinking about finding the way to death. It's very strange to think that everything will be over after death. Yes, it would be over, but it is yet to be finished, you know!"
The wind started to blow hard, beating against the window. The woman asked permission to go home.
"I understand what you mean. Now I would like to go and fix some windows at home. It's fortunate that the storm is not sweeping through this area. We are little affected by it!"
As she said, the storm did not hit the area. It changed its way and was going north, hitting Hainan Island. The bonze guessed that the storm would cause weak flash floods in the area. When January came, he went and searched the bamboo groves to look for bamboo shoots. If these shoots were seen growing amid the groves, a storm would come. Anyway, it was only a guess. At noon, he saw that some banana plants behind the pagoda were drooping, while others had fallen to the ground. Sanh cut off some of them with an intention to make a raft to play with the young boys in the area when the flood came. But the bonze asked him to keep it so he could use it to go around in the hope that he could help someone in adverse circumstances.
It got dark quite early. The news about the storm was still on the radio. The bonze and Sang had dinner earlier than usual. The praying also happened earlier. Sanh felt happy as the praying did not last so long. It was raining more heavily. The strong wind was hissing outside. The bonze went around the pagoda, checking the gate again to be sure. Tonight Sanh slept in bed with the bonze to feel warmer. He liked to sleep with the bonze. It was like sleeping with his grandfather. The bonze pulled the blanket over and Sanh tried to get it. The wind was blowing hard outside. Sanh embraced the bonze and buried his face in the bonze's side.
The bonze and the boy were yet to sleep. The boy suddenly said:
"You know, when I was in the village, the flash flood made all the members of my family sleep together on one bed. My mother slept very close to the wall. My father lay on the edge of the bed so that he could get up sometimes to check the progress of the flood. I lay in the middle of them."
The bonze felt pity for Sanh. Children wanted to sleep with their parents so that they could have the love of mother and father. Now Sanh had the warmth of the bonze, but the warmth could not be compared to that of a mother. All of a sudden, Sanh whispered to the bonze:
"Bonze, why didn't you ask the woman to stay? Now she is alone and she cannot get a wink of sleep, I think!"
Sanh's unaffected idea made the bonze very moved. He felt sorry for it. She could sleep on Sanh's bed. He could even arrange for Sanh to sleep with her so that he could have motherly sentiment from her. The more the bonze thought about it, the greater his love for the boy was. The bonze embraced Sanh to find that the boy had fallen asleep. The bonze could not sleep. So he reached for the radio and turned it on, leaving the volume just loud enough to hear.
There was an urgent announcement that the storm was making landfall on the shore, right where the bonze lived. Leaves were falling on the ground. The bonze got up and covered the boy with the blanket. He got out of bed and lit the lamp. He opened a book and tiptoed out of the room. Then he closed the door. He quickly put his raincoat on and went straight to the gate of the pagoda, braving the strong wind beating tree leaves. He went on the trail to the market hamlet where a lot of poor people lived. It was where there was a person with a pale white face. It was the face of the cloth-selling woman. That face was clear in his mind while he was racing through the rainstorm. The bonze stood before her house, trembling with cold. As soon as he touched the cold lock, he felt suddenly scared, wondering why he came to see a single woman in such weather. But he thought God and Buddha would have sympathy with him and pardon him.
He turned on the knob and then stopped, thinking he should knock on the door. Oh, no, he thought. The rain and the strong wind beat the corrugated iron roof of the house. The bonze went around the house and then left to go back to the pagoda. He hoped that the woman was safe in the house. He felt assured of it.
The way back to the pagoda seemed a bit far. Rainwater was splashing under his feet. The news was still describing the eye of the storm. Right at that moment, in the pagoda, a woman was trying to turn the knob of the door and then she hesitated. She went around the pagoda and then to the market to go back home. A lot of ideas cropped up in her mind. One might wonder if the two persons would meet each other! Possibly they would, on the trail, walking opposite directions. Possibly they would not because it was raining heavily. You never know! But one thing was certain: the storm was coming closer to the shore. Even though it had gotten weaker, the eye of the storm was heading west, towards land, towards people.
Translated by Manh Chuong