|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Hoang Thanh Huong
Single mom Y was sitting motionless to listen to the piece of music For Ever in Love when another spring began coming round beyond her expectation. In fact, she did not like anything relating to it. Over the past many years, she had not enjoyed Tet at all. On the Eve of the Lunar New Year, then its first, second and third days; even on the 15th, the most sacred day, according to the Buddhist circle, in the First Lunar Month, all meant nothing to her yet quite contrary to others. She just regarded them as common things as all the other workdays of the year. She felt neither excited, eager nor regretful because many household chores were left unfinished. She had to suffer such a boring existence to get a monthly salary of nearly four million dong over the past eight years in service. In her heart of hearts, she was afraid of human beings and of hypocritical colleagues who were, with lots of make-up, willing to stab her in the back when she was out. She remembered her mother's remark and advice as well, "Women are for the most part like poisonous snakes; they are the cause of all conflicts. As to you, you must do your utmost to keep yourself different from them and stay away from social evils." Y completely believed in God. She claimed to have found paradise in her dreams. At the age of twenty-eight, her lover abandoned her to follow a wealthy middle-aged matron in Distric C. He soon buried his head between her two huge breasts treated with silicon then he was persuaded by her sweet words, "Should you marry me, you would be a lord in this world." As a result, he gave Y up to become the ruler of the big-breasted widow. For a few occasions, he also waited for Y at the entrance to the alley. Once when they had words with each other, she gave him a staggering blow on the face then she rode away at full speed on her motorbike. Reaching the gate of her house she burst into tears. A lisping boy living next door to her showed sympathy with her. From the first day of the Lunar New Year to the fifteenth, her plate of cakes for visitors had been stayed untouched. That made her remember the hard time in her childhood when she had only dreamt of eating sweet things to her heart's content. Unsimilarly to her little son of today, he never paid attention to them all. As to her, she refused to taste them too, solely because she was afraid that she might put on weight sooner or later.
During a Tet holiday five years before, she gave birth to a baby girl at night in a deserted and cold local hospital. A slim nurse on duty took pity on her when she put the little thing into Y's arms with a sympathetical look. "Where's your husband?" or "Where's your mother?" and "Why has none of them been here these days to look after you and your little kid?" the midwife asked her. That was the first time Y had seen her 3-kilo baby girl. She named her Ly Ly or Mai Ly Ly in full denomination.
"Do you like that name of hers?" she asked the medical attendant.
"It sounds nice, yet it might make her unhappy later, according to our traditional custom and manner, of course. Why isn't it anything gentler to the ear like Nu, Hien or Nhai? I mean the flowers."
"Sorry that I couldn't do that at the time. What about yours?" Y asked.
"Thoi! My name's simply Thoi! It sounds laughable, doesn't it?"
"Not really! But in fact, it's also an exclamation word implying 'menace' or 'desperation.' In addition, it's the common order "stop" in the treasure of our language."
Finally, the nurse told her the reason for that ridiculous name of hers.
"My mother had already got eight daughters while she was pregnant," the nurse told her. "Mum hoped that I would be a baby boy when I saw the light to continue the ancestral line of my father. Poor her! That dream never came true! On second thought, she called me Thoi (namely 'Stop'in this case) on the grounds that she could hardly give birth to anyone else, due to her old age and poor health. My full name was then Vu Thi Thoi," she concluded her lengthy story. In the cold post-natal department of the provincial hospital, the two women just chatted about this, that and the other. Y offered her a 500,000-dong banknote as a token of the New Year's lucky money but she refused it point-blank. As a midwife, year after year, Thoi had witnessed many expectant mothers'moments of happiness and suffering in her life full of hardship, self-pity and tiredness at work, now she only wanted to enjoy an early retirement. Yet, as luck would have it, her proposal was denied silently. For the past Tet periods she had to work hard as usual in order to earn more money for her son's schooling still in the senior secondary education. The boy did well at school and looked as handsome as his father and as gentle as his maternal grandmother. Therefore, Thoi also took pride in him very much.
At the moment, Y was carrying her newly-born baby girl in her arms. In reality, the little one was not what she had hoped for, so had her lover. Worse still, he gave her up for good because of the existence of the little kid in his life.
"Please take care of her for some minutes so that I might enjoy a brief sleep," Y told the nurse. "I feel terribly cold and I'm afraid that I might crush her under my legs while I fell asleep," she added.
"What an awkward young mother!" Thoi whispered to herself while looking askance at her. At once, Y pulled the blanket over her head with an ashamed smile slightly opening on her lips. Amid the fragrance of joss-sticks and the beautiful music coming from the obstetrical department, Y tried to ease the pain in her uterus to the utmost.
Poor her! Y grew up without knowing who had been neither her parents nor her relatives. Actually, she was a newly-born baby left abandoned in front of a local church one morning, just a few days before Tet and was taken to an orphanage after that. Later she became an adopted girl of a kind-hearted woman. Soon, in her late teens she turned a healthy and pretty pupil then a graceful student of the provincial College of Medicine. Passing with honours from the Faculty of Pediatrics, she was employed as a GP by the municipal children's hospital as her adoptive mother had ever dreamt of. Regrettably, the generous and gentle old woman was not lucky enough to live until the day when her adopted daughter got married. She was unable to see her beloved daughter's wedding card either. It read briefly,
Mrs Mai Thi Phi requests the pleasure of…
the marriage of her daughter Mai Xuan Nhu Y….,
with her full name and detailed address in its bottom left-hand corner with two simple lines:
Widow Mai Thi Phi
Group 12, Guild K. Pleiku City.
"If only Mum had been still alive!" Y wished mournfully, eyes in tears. Unexpectedly, all the sad events in her lifetime fell on the occasion of the Tet holiday or close to it: her mother's death, her childbirth and her lover's abandonment!
In her private clinical room, every day there were a lot of sick children waiting for her presence before she had finished her work at the medical institution. Some of them came from afar. She was said a skilful doctor with two clever hands, a beautiful face and a golden heart. Thanks to her mother's fortune left for her after death, she had the old house improved to be a well-furnished pediatrical clinic.
After work in the municipal hospital, she went straight home alone to treat diseased kids, even during the Tet period, if necessary.
In fact, at work she did her best to treat little patients. She was friendly with her colleagues and other medical workers, although she was not toady to her boss by virtue of her honesty. Usually, by the end of the year, she was severely criticized for lacking co-operation with workmates and worse still for being indifferent to sports movement of the hospital and so forth and so on. As a result, she had never been awarded with any credit.
"At Tet, you'd come to the hospital manager's house with some presents in order to get on well with him," one of the young GPs of the same department said to her. In reply, she only shruggered her shoulders. However, at Tet she offered a small parcel of lucky money to the security guard of the office and to close nurses with a good excuse, "I'm in deep mourning this year, so I'm unable to visit you during this event of paramount importance." Taking pity on her, some of her colleagues were willing to be a go-between in marriage for her, but she usually denied their assistance.
Not until one day when she was introduced to a forestry engineer working in the district Department of Agricutural Affairs, would she feel fairly interested in him. When she fell in love with him and wished to marry him he ignored her proposal on the grounds that he did not want to have children at the moment. What's more, he'd made great efforts to run for the post of deputy chief of the district administrative committee for five years and now he could not give up his high-flying ambition. In the meantime, she did not want abortion due to her belief in Christianity, as a result she fell ill seriously.
Later another youth, two years junior to her, came to her and asked her hands in marriage. It was love at first sight and they fell in love with each other passionately, although many people told her that he was just a fortune-hunter.
Ly Ly liked him very much and called him papa. Poor Y, her love affairs did not last long! In reality, he only wanted to become the director of a private company, instead of an employee in charge of managerial affairs of the hotel as he stood for the time being. If so, he had to be a very, very rich man, which was beyond his financial capacity. Finally, he fell into the arms of a wealthy woman, seven years older than him.
Consequently, Y crossed his name out of her mind. Again and again, he rang her up, yet she just kept silent. If anyone had reminded her of her past love affairs, she only smiled.
By now, while she was enjoying another song "Happy New Year," another spring came round again. On the trellis of her veranda, the pergularia climbing plant was in full bloom. She closed her consulting room, for it was now her 30th birthday anniversary. She had been a mother at the age of twenty-five then turned a single mum in the same year.
All of a sudden, her door bell rang and rang. She went to the gate and saw the lisping boy. He gave her a letter through its crevis. Opening it she read, "This afternoon, come to me to enjoy our party in celebration of the Lunar New Year's Eve. I've made lots of sticky rice cakes for you and the kid. No need to get them further for worshipping your mother." She smiled happily and looked at the opposite house across the hibiscus hedge. The lisping boy's father was trimming the apricot plants and singing the song Happy New Year. She heard the voices of Ly Ly and her maid over there. She opened the gate and entered his compound. After the lisping boy's mother died of liver cancer, this was the second time that she dropped in on his place. Actually, the man moved in here when Y was just twenty years old. She greeted him in a cheerful voice.
"Sit down here please," he told her, pointing at a garden bench. "This pot of apricot with yellow blossoms is for you as a token of your birthday anniversary and our new year's welcome as well. If possible, the three of your clan are invited to get here in order to commemorate the Tet's Eve," he added. She stared at him passionately. By chance, she remembered her mother's remarks about him, "Strangely enough, he's a rare man in this world. He's been looking after his bedridden wife for years without discouragement."
"Smile broadly, will you? Don't you know that your smile looks very charming?" he encouraged her.
She nodded her thanks and smiled.
"Well, Mum's laughed," Ly Ly shouted for joy.
Suddenly, her eyes were brimmed with tears. She wanted to go shopping to get something for her birthday celebration, for their oncoming Tet holiday, then for Ly Ly's birthday and for her dears as well.
"Dear Brother, would you mind driving me, Ly Ly and your boy for our Tet shopping?" she requested.
"Yes, of course!" he answered.
"What a wonderful shopping trip for Tet!" the two children burst into laughter.
She smiled happily, cheeks turning rosy, while she stared at the kids, at him and at the apricot whose yellow blossoms began opening brilliantly to welcome a new blissful season for them all.
Translated by Van Minh