|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Tri
At the age of twenty Duong looked fairly handsome, with a fresh complexion and gentle manners. Besides, he was always decently-dressed. Surprisingly, as a clever bricklayer, he usually succeeded in keeping fit and clean – even at work. In late afternoons, after leaving his construction site he usually rode a Honda-67 motorbike to a public cafe. In his workmates' eyes, he was really a happy youth, though he led a solitary life.
His Honda was the vehicle of their dreams. It looked nearly brand new and always worked smoothly. Several rich guys often offered him four gold taels for it, but he refused to sell. Many supporting female helpers on his team wished to be his girlfriend, but he tried to stay away from them all with his secret, icy smile. In addition to being attractive, he proved to be a very skilful worker. His wages were nearly double those of the other ordinary mates among his group, but none of them dared to envy him.
He did not enjoy carousing about at night. At 10pm he usually went to bed. He got up around 4 o'clock and came to Uncle Tu Thau's small restaurant to have a hot cup of coffee. This man also lived alone, although his plight was quite different from Duong's. Contrary to Duong's character, this shop owner was a talkative person. In reality, Duong belonged to a construction company which moved here and there time and again, from the province of Lang Son in the North to the Ca Mau promontory in the South.
"My love, how do you prefer your coffee?"
"I like it black, without sugar, please."
"You never go to work on Sundays, do you?"
"Yes right, Uncle!"
"Most of the others in your company work hard to catch up to its schedule. As a skilful hand with high wages, your boss doesn't criticise your apathy?"
"Far from that! I'm an industrious worker."
"Solely because of the Christian holiday?"
"Oh no! I'm a Buddhist, Uncle."
"May I ask you a question, just one?"
"Why not, Uncle?"
"I've been told that you often go to houses of ill-fame. How can you get enough for such pleasure every Sunday?"
"Frankly speaking, at those places I always drink only one bottle of mineral water. Neither more nor less!"
"Really? You can't cheat me, an experienced man in these matters, young man."
"I've never told a lie, Uncle. Just two bottles: one for me and the other for my partner, that's all."
"Only two? And you've never done anything else?" asked the old man. "If so, why haven't you come to my place instead?" he added.
"We'd better stop our story here, if you don't believe in me!"
"I'm awfully sorry, mate."
Then they kept silent and resumed to drink.
"H'm! When are you going to marry?" Tu Thau asked him in a soft voice.
"I haven't decided that issue yet. After finishing my job, I'll begin to ponder over it, Uncle."
"As a mason assistant always going here and there for your project, how can you assess its completion beforehand? In my opinion, you'd better chose a pretty girl among your group to live with, out of wedlock, of course," he advised Duong.
"Now in my turn, might I put a question to you?"
"Come on, my dear."
"Why haven't you got married to have a few children?"
"Empty our glasses of brandy first then I'll let you know everything about my life."
"After my release from prison, I met a woman of about 30 in a pub. She told me a lot about her unfavourable plight: being abandoned by her lover, becoming a waitress in a restaurant then sold to a bawdy-house and finally turning into a street-walker due to her outdated conditions.
"Taking pity on her, I decided to co-habit with her illegally. While I was working as a mason helper, she served drinks in a small refreshment stall by the roadside. After a short time, she gave me up because she found me too poor to support her properly. So I had to stay alone.
"And you? How many localities have you stayed in while your company's work was in progress?" the old man asked Duong.
"Some dozen provinces, Uncle," he answered. "This motorbike has led me through these regions. I spent many days in the borderlands between Viet Nam and China. Certainly I'll make a trip to Thailand when I'm able to get enough money," he went on.
"Simply because I want to look for a person."
"Who's that? Your naughty wife?"
"Oh no! Just my younger sister."
Duong's sister was Di. Their parents loved them both very much, especially their young daughter. In appearance, he looked good-natured but in fact, he was rather mischievous.
He left school after he finished the 5th class in junior secondary education, owing to his parents' poverty. At 10, he supported them in any possible way, provided that he could earn enough money for his sister's studies. When Di became a pretty student of the 10th class, her brother was already twenty with seven years in trade.
With such long-term experience in craft, his skills had improved remarkably, year after year, resulting in his noticeable pay, which, to some extent, allowed his family to have a life of plenty. That was why she had no problems in her schooling.
Until one day, when she did not return home after classes.
Her parents, as well as her teachers, reported her missing to the district security authorities. After that Duong went in search of his sister thanks to his company moving to various localities after the completion of each project. Month after month, year after year, Di was nowhere to be found.
One month after her disappearance, her mother fell ill because of the great loss to her clan. Soon her father committed suicide by taking insecticide.
"Oh dear, what a tragedy for your family!" Tu Thau said to Duong.
"Uncle, I've suffered a lot over the past seven years. Anyhow, I must find my sister. A rural, nice, pretty girl of fifteen with such a miserable fate! Therefore, one day I made up my mind to arrive at Bay Tai's place."
"Who's that man?"
"He makes money by means of pimping rural naive girls for foreigners."
"What did he say to you?"
"He told me that he didn't dare to do so. In consequence, I got to Mrs. Bong, Tu Lai's younger sister. She was the wife of the district chairman who got sacked mid-term due to his immoral conduct. At the age of forty Bong became a madam, unmarried and childless, who always proved herself wealthy with lots of make-up, costly ornaments and varnished fingernails. She lived on loans with high interest rates and turned pandar like her elder brother Bay Tai," Duong said to Tu Thau.
"You mean that I've persuaded your sister into leaving home? Why do you suppose so?" Bong asked Duong.
"Because my young sister had contact with you often and one day disappeared for good. Soon my mother died of losing her daughter, that's all," he answered.
Bong flew into a rage and threatened him in a loud voice.
"Surely, my sister is still alive," Duong declared, "If I can find her some day and know her story I'll punish you severely for your crime."
"I'm willing to defy your groundless accusation. Do your utmost to find her then come back here to deal with the matters with me."
Duong pooled all his clan's money to buy a Honda-67 motorbike and started his risky and unspecific long trips in order to find his beloved sister. To this effect, he applied for a humble job in a construction company whose tasks were to move to different localities to build new works, one after another. Upon the completion of its duty in each region, he would go further and further. In a new area, after work, he went into red-light districts with a view to finding his missed sister. That was why he spent most of his Sundays at these places – for her sake.
"Surprisingly, six years have elapsed, Uncle. I've travelled extensively from North to South, across the borderlands between our country and Laos, Cambodia. Alas, all my efforts seemed in vain!" Duong told the old coffee-house owner.
"Perhaps your sister has lost her life somewhere."
"If so, everything wouldn't be so anxious to me. Thinking of my ill-fated 15-year-old sister who had been kept so many years because of sex abuse, I feel deeply painful."
"Just regard her as being lost forever, your mind would be more at ease."
"Yet, she's still alive, Uncle."
"Why are you so sure?"
"Owing to my instinct, that's all."
"Don't torment yourself with such a crazy thought," Tu Thau said to him with a sigh. "To the best of my knowledge, think of lots of other kids who have also undergone the same situations as your sister, but finally they'd been freed from slavery, that would be much better for you. Well… what would you do if you found her?"
"I'd bring her back to a normal life, of course."
A few weeks later, Duong said goodbye to the kind old man, although his company's project was still under way, since he had carefully checked all the suspect places in the area.
All Tu Thau could do was offer a few words of consolation.
One morning, Tu Thau's customers were very excited at the news carried on many newspapers about a deadly sin, whose culprit was none other than Duong.
"How could he commit such a terrible crime?" they wondered. Using a sharp knife to stab a woman of forty to death was beyond their imagination. He was caught red-handed while his younger sister cried her eyes out. Deeply moved, Tu Thau closed his shop, pooled up all his small fortune and took a coach to Duong's little hamlet where the homicide had previously taken place. He was unable to visit Duong in jail due to his felony, but thanks to a local's help, he found ?i in a rent-free, dilapidated shanty.
"Are you Miss Di?" he asked the poor girl.
"Yes, sir! Sit down please."
"I'm one of your brother's close friends. Through his narration, I've come to know something about your family's tragic conditions. Poor Duong, he has been looking for you over the seven past years only to accept this pitiable end. Where did he find you, by the way," he asked her.
"In a bawdy-house, Uncle," she answered. "I told him my whole story from the beginning until I was set free from the sway of a frontier-crossing gang of human traffickers. At first I was persuaded by Mrs Bong, one of my next-house neighbours, into going to a far-away town to become a waitress in an eating-house with a high income, which could afford my school fee for next year. But in reality I was taken to her brother's building as a sex slave for one month. Later, I was driven to the borderland when I became outdated. Consequently, I began a life as a homeless call-girl for a madam," she said.
Listening to his sister's painful account, Duong made up his mind to avenge her miserable ill-fated destiny.
"Unexpectedly, he took action immediately. The aftermath of his hasty deed was carried on numerous newspapers as you've ever read," she went on. "Now that my parents have passed away and my brother is in prison, I don't want to live any longer. Well… will he receive a sentence of death, Uncle?"
In the quiet boarding-house, both of them burst into tears.
"After seven hard years in search of his unfortunate sister, Duong only enjoyed a few brief happy moments prior to leading an imprisoned life. How harsh his life is!" Tu Thau complained.
Translated by Van Minh