|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Da Ngan
The message appeared on the phone: "I saw on TV that a landslide occurred in your area. Did anything happen to your child?"
I replied that nothing happened and asked after them. Actually I only wanted to enquire after Tri's health. It was rumored that his wife was going to rid herself of him as if casting off a piece of a rag. It was possible that he was like a piece of rag - if his disability and appearance were taken into account.
I sat there for quite a time saddened by the message. It had taken me a day to get to where I was when Tri sent the message asking about the landslide. My homeland was where Tri was living. The Vietnamese, no matter where they are, always think about their homeland. Particularly Tri and I. We had a special relationship.
In my mind I pictured the river with Tri's motorised boat. Tri and his boat were something on my conscience. Tri made his boat, which was like the main character in a tragedy play. It was like an old leaf, so delicate, but the man was more than that.
Once I took a motorbike taxi from Vi Thanh to my home village to drop in to see Tri. My husband and I and those people who lived in Sai Gon or in the provincial capital had often gone back to our home village by car. Having arrived at the ferry landing, we left the car there and took the ferry across the river and walked back to our garden houses. Now the taxi motorbike was taking me to the river. Tri lived with his wife on this side of the river. His house was next to his mother-in-law's house. It was good to live in a separate house, and in Tri's case, he could feel safer and less hurt. Green shrubs created a fence around his house. The gate was covered with bougainvillea flowers of all colors. In the garden, he had grown star apples, custard apples, mulberries, pomelos, star fruits, lemons, blue dragons and others. The small brick house had bonsai vases on the veranda. A water tank sat on top of the house.
Having heard a human voice, Tri's wife walked out from the thatched-roof house. It turned out that the kitchen had a thatched roof. The walls were made from timber. Pieces of firewood were stacked neatly. With such a house and kitchen, how could they have discord, I wondered? My husband always dreamt of having a house like that so that he could do the gardening. We now lived in a flat house, simply because we were unable to buy a patch of land and build a house of our own.
Tri's wife called me "sister". We lived on the other side of the river now, but we had lived together during our childhoods. She was the only daughter of a better-off family, so she looked white and relaxed. I was told that she was an idle, indifferent wife and she was said recently to have thought that the grass was always greener on the other side of the fence of her house. When a wife married a disabled husband, she could often do things like that, as her husband was not able to satisfy her desires. I had pity for them both, but naturally I was inclined to have greater pity for Tri. A little over 50, Tri's wife was still young, with shining black hair. She wore a provocative dress. She spoke to me in a hesitant and exploratory voice. She seemed to know I was well-informed about her threat to rid herself of her husband.
She said to me that Tri was on the river fishing. I was invited into the main house. Having a quick look around the room, I saw a salon, a single bed, a small bookcase, a lamp and an open book. There was no imprint of a woman here. Probably she lived in that room. There was not any sign that they had a child. It looked tidy and possibly it would stay tidy forever. It was a still air - or worse, a dead air.
It was quiet all around. I looked at the house.
"I don't think he could make this house!" - I said to Tri's wife.
"Oh, no, he made it, really. He had it designed, instructed the builders, selected bricks and bought everything on his own. This kitchen was made by him from A to Z. It was in the past…. Now he no longer has any energy."
What she said was true. We conversed with each other about the past when Tri was still a good carpenter. He had earned money for the family. His wife was coddled by her husband, who hoped she would have the strength to give him a baby. But she had several miscarriages. Tri thought it might be his fault because of his poor health. Or God did not know his love he dedicated to his wife! He quitted his carpenter job and stayed home to help her. He raised sows, ducks and chickens in the hope that his wife could have more leisure time. But nothing could help him have a baby. At the end of the day, he quitted livestock breeding and in great despair, he turned to do the gardening and lived a very frugal existence.
The boat was coming ashore. I stood and had a look at him from afar. He did not know that he got a guest, so he slowly did everything in sadness before he stood up. He looked thinner in ragged clothes.
I walked out fast. Tri looked, beaming in great surprise. If that fragment of a shell had not punched through his spine, paralyzing his legs, he could have been a tall, handsome man. I liked his well-trimmed moustache.
"Are you coming home for your paternal grandfather's death anniversary?"
His wife ran to get the basket of fish from the boat and went past him without any feeling.
"What a day for me! I could have a meal of fish today!" I said, but thought: How could I have a meal with them, with that revolting wife of his? I said to him that I would not stay long, as my relatives were waiting for me to come to the other side of the river.
"Let me take you to the garden and get some dragon fruit for worshipping Grandfather," he said. Then he took me to the garden and picked some fruit for me. He did it very skillfully, as if he were a Paralympic athlete.
My paternal grandfather and his were close friends. They sat over tea together in their younger years. Then, later, his father and mine were the close friends in the don ca tai tu music band. During the Anti-French War, my father went with Viet Minh (an anti-French revolutionary organisation) and his father stayed home and worked as a village teacher. After 1954, my father continued in the second war while his father remained a teacher. He and I were the same age, but he was better at studying. Now, sitting in the garden, we were silent for a moment, thinking about our beautiful childhood together that would never come back.
In 1960 in the concerted uprising, my father was captured by the Ngo Dinh Diem clique and was deported to an island. At home, his father was also arrested and taken away without any trace by the revolutionary force because he was rumoured to work to the enemy. It was a coincidence that my father and his father died in the same day. The school was destroyed by the war and our grandfathers died one by one. My mother sent me to the resistance base and Tri and his brother were sent to Vi Thanh to continue their studies. Tri's brother was then conscripted to join the puppet regime's army, while Tri was seriously wounded by a fragment of a shell that paralysed him for good. When peace was restored in the country, the South was liberated and the country was reunified, Tri's brother came home from the reeducation camp. He built a small house to live and worship ancestors in, because he was the eldest son in the family. Tri got married to the girl on the other side of the river, but I could not make it back in time to attend his wedding ceremony. I was told that the whole hamlet was very happy with his marriage.
"Have you got a bumper mulberry season this year?" I asked him.
I remembered that last year I went to attend the death anniversary of his uncle and he gave me the best mulberries he had. On that day, we met and talked about our childhood dreams. He dreamt of becoming an architect and I dreamt of being a literature teacher. When we were small we liked books so much. But now in middle age, we both seemed to be in a hole together. Each of us had something worrying us. We tried to get out of it. In peace, he succumbed to his disabled life; it seemed that he was urging me to climb out of the hole and walk on the road of my clan, and asking me not to worry about him. I did leave him behind, even during the war. I lived in the city and got married there. We had often mentioned about him with great pity and admiration.
"This season, the price of mulberries is very low, and I have cut down all of them. Now go with me, there is still only one tree left and hopefully I can get some bunches for you," he said to me.
And we sat down by the stumps of mulberry trees. I saw his wife going in and out of the kitchen. The good smell of fried fish was spreading all over the place. I ventured to ask him about his married life, even he was yet to change his clothes after fishing.
"Is it true that your wife wants to separate from you?"
"You see, everything in this family has been cared for by my hand. I live with honour, you know. I don't want to rely on anybody until I know that I cannot save the situation. But there is one thing... " Tri said, smiling.
My father's grave was placed in the cemetery for the island's prisoners, but his father's grave could not be found. He tried to look for it, but in vain. It meant that he was still worried about his father's grave. I stood up from those mulberry tree stumps and wanted to help him, but he said he could do it alone. I thought we were in the same hole and I climbed out of it and left him inside it, so how could I? No, I always prayed that he could be given a miracle!
I went towards the kitchen and said goodbye to Tri's wife. A tray of food that included fried fish and a bowl of sour fish soup was ready. It looked so appealing. Hope was still there. They could still sit down together for a meal, I thought with joy. I took leave of them. The taxi motorbike driver was still waiting for me in a roadside tea shop, a few meters from his house./.
Translated by Manh Chuong