|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Do Cong Tiem
When Mr An passed away my wife cried her heart out. As for me, although I was just an outsider, I had to lean against a pillar, eyes brimming with tears. My heart sank with pity.
Actually, he was neither a relative nor a friend of our family. He was nothing but one of our close neighbours who was enshrined in the age-old customs and manners, and enjoyed deep affection among other villagers.
On my wedding day, Mrs. Mai, his wife with child, came to our place to tidy our flat, high and low. Unexpectedly, that night she gave birth to a baby girl in the commune's clinic. Poor her, she had a metrorrhagia after this third childbirth and left this world for good right at the moment! Her husband fainted from grief. Their two children - Trung, the elder brother in the eighth grade and his brother Hoa in the 2nd - were now in deep mourning, eyes filled with tears due to her sudden death. Sorrows befell our whole village where its residents still led a strenuous life, hard-working and poorly dressed. An named his newly-born baby Ngan.
An's young mother had stayed alone after her husband's death in action during wartime to bring him up in defiance of many suitors' attentions. Not until An married Mai did her sorrows ease remarkably. Later, she turned happier and happier with every passing year when her two grandsons saw the light, one after another. Contrary to the existing bad habits between the mother and the daughter-in-law, An's mother treated Mai with affection and respect. Consequently, they could enjoy a harmonious life. Meanwhile, the old grandmother liked the kids very much.
Now that Mai had died immaturely, she became totally distressed. A week later, she breathed her last.
"Misfortunes never come alone," says one proverb. Poor him, his dears' deaths followed each other that fast! Now, villagers came to her funeral in great numbers to pay homage to her for the last time. "How cruelly God has treated them!" complained Mr Bao, the Master of Ceremonies and chairman of the commune's agricultural co-operative.
While we involved ourselves in An family's affairs, I was repentant for one thing: had Mai not been so busy in our wedding preparations that day, the fatal accident would not have happened to her. What's more, if she had not died, her mother-in-law would have stayed healthy longer. Frankly speaking, I did not dare to reveal that hypothesis to anyone, including my wife.
These days, my spouse had always been busy taking care of little Ngan. To our neighbours' surprise, the little one only welcomed my wife's dry nipples although she was still very young, stayed single before our marriage and had no breast milk at all. Therefore, she had to ask other nursing mothers for milk to raise her.
My annual leave for family reunion with my wife flew very fast. I returned to my unit in the armed forces that were garrisoned on the border. Time and again, I missed her very much. The night before coming back to my garrison I stayed awaked until the small hours to wait for my wife's return from An's place. I pretended to fall asleep soundly. She silently buried her head into my armpit, and sobbed and sobbed.
"What's the matter with you, my honey?" I asked her suspiciously while staying motionless. Surprisingly, she just cried and trembled with emotion. A moment later, she hugged me tightly then she whispered, "Over the past many days, my time for you has been very little and too short. Please forgive me!"
"You're not to blame at all. Indeed, my leave hasn't lasted long enough, but it doesn't matter," I assuaged her.
In those days, for rural newly-married couples there was no idea of honeymoon. As a secondary teacher of the village school, my wife had only three days off for the sake of that major event. After classes, she spent most of her free time for little Ngan. In reality, that made me bored a bit at first, yet on second thought how could she do otherwise, I said to myself. Her act stemmed from her golden heart. How could I be displeased with her?
I turned around, embraced her tightly and wiped away her hot tears.
"I'm not unhappy with your efforts. On the contrary, I take pride in your lofty conduct," I said to her.
"Do you know why? Simply because I'm lucky enough to marry such a wonderful wife as you," I added.
Again, she hugged me more tightly. That night we enjoyed a happy time together.
Back to my unit for one week after my leave, I got her letter. She told me that besides her love and nostalgia for me, she spent the remaining moments on Ngan. Reading her note, I imagined that she was the very mother of Ngan with the assistance of other benevolent mothers. In the following letters, she only dealt with Ngan and her father's difficulties and hardships during hard time owing to his dire poverty.
By the end of the year, I was chosen to attend high-level courses at the regional military academy. Before going to college, I got permission to go home for one week. I brought along some kilograms of sugar and a few cans of condensed milk given by my fellow-soldiers as small presents for little Ngan. An was deeply moved and said that he owed us too much. Little Ngan now looked better, with her rosy and chubby cheeks. In the meantime, my wife kept on teaching and feeding the suckling kid as usual.
I began taking military training courses. Two months later, she informed me that she was with child. Finally, she gave birth to a 3.8-kg baby boy. In fact, my wife's situation was rather disadvantageous. I was at school. My parents died young. My two elder sisters married men in far-away provinces. My wife's native town was Nam Dinh, about two hundred kilometres away from our native place. She was compelled to rely upon our neighbours, chiefly on An's help. Through her letters I felt quite at ease while I was busy learning.
Four years later, she gave birth to a second baby boy when I was already back to my unit after finishing my courses.
Time flew fast. Now I was demobbed and retired on a pension. I returned to the normal life of a citizen in my native village, with a lot of sweet memories about my childhood, both joyful and sorrowful.
My native place had changed remarkably, with a large concrete path forking in many directions, 2 - and 3-storey buildings mushrooming up everywhere. Meals with cooked pieces of sweet potato or cassava and rice were something of the past.
On the first days of my homecoming I visited many close neighbours in the hamlet. An's house was properly rebuilt. He stayed widowed to look after his three children. All of them were well educated and became public servants in Ha Noi. They returned home only at Tet or on their mother's death anniversary. However, for many needy clans there, their members only passed over the threshold of poverty and cold.
While chatting with me many were still reserved in their words. One morning when I took a stroll along the village path, I heard someone calling from behind, "Hiep! Hiep! When did you come back home?" I looked back. It turned out that the caller was my elder cousin Toan. "Just two days ago, dear sister," I answered.
"Why not drop in on us?" she reproached slightly. I followed suit. To put it frankly, I had never liked her on the grounds that she usually told tales with a lot of exaggerations. Not to mince matters, but she only paid lip-service to others.
Hardly had I drunk up my first cup of tea when she stared at me squarely.
"What about your so-called teacher?" she asked.
"As usual, sister. She keeps on teaching. Perhaps, she would retire on a pension next year."
"Well I mean… How do you find her after your return?"
"To be frank, I don't know what you mean."
"No, not at all! What?"
She cast a piteous look at me.
"Between us, sister and brother, I put it frankly: everybody does their utmost to cheat you. As to me, I'm unable to do so," she stopped short.
"If so, please let me know the truth, sister," I insisted.
On second thought, she whispered, "Nobody has ever thought that Mr An and your spouse had a furtive love affair. It makes all of us here very indignant. Worse still, they ignore the commune head's advice and criticism. But… now it seems over and he doesn't dare to return to our village."
I walked unsteadily on the rural path. Its concrete surface seemed to be floating under my feet. My head spun round and round and my heart went pit-a-pat. "Is she really unfaithful to me?" I mumbled my words all the way home.
I questioned her. Her face went pale. She stared at me with astonishment.
"So, you believe the rumour, don't you?" she asked me.
"There's no smoke without fire," I replied. "Oh dear! How can they have the heart to smear my face so mercilessly?"
I was embarrassed. Both my wife and An were dear to me. His children and ours were close friends to one another; they always treated each other like siblings by birth! "How did they dare to act that way?" I asked myself. According to my wife's statement, she remained faithful to me. When I asked a few close neighbours, they told me that it was only a heresy. "Oh my God! Whom do I believe in now, my wife or my cousin?"
Previously, I had been absent from home for a long time. Now we were side-by-side and no longer young, yet not quite old. We were able to compensate for our shortcomings. For many nights I just stayed awaked. "If only she confessed, I would forgive her for her gross mistakes. As a man, I was fully aware of the matter and I would sympathise with my wife's erroneous behaviour while I was away. Yet she objected to my remarks strongly as if I had misunderstood her.
On second thought, the matter was now merely public opinion, I whispered to myself. Anyhow, it was over. "Let bygones be bygones." This proverb could be applicable to my case. It would put my mind at ease. Nevertheless, I felt rather annoyed to some extent. "OK, I'll give him a staggering blow," I said to myself.
One morning, I was told that he had returned home during the previous afternoon. At nightfall, taking advantage of my wife's absence I put a sharp knife with its cover into my bag then I went straight to his place. Hardly had I reached his gate when I saw him standing at the door as if he had been waiting for me.
"You're welcome to my place," he warmly invited me in. "I got home in the afternoon. I'm going to pay a visit to both of you after dinner," he went on. After that he fetched a bottle of brandy. "Let's have a few cups of whisky to keep our spirits up," he suggested. "That's a good idea. I'll drink to get some boldness," I whispered to myself.
After a few cups, his face turned red. He looked straight ahead.
"My dear mate. I'd like to tell you this story," he said.
"Come on please," I urged. "I'll forgive you for your gross error, if you show sincerity," I said to myself.
And he began to tell me the following story.
That day, there was a young man who had made a bloody application for enlisting in the army like so many other youths. Surprisingly, after writing it, he burnt it up at once. He did it again and again for a simple reason: he wanted to conceal one horrible secret on his body. If he was summoned for health check, his inborn defect would be revealed and he would turn a laughing-stock for the recruits.
He did not dare to submit any previously-made applications written in blood, as a result, he had to stay at home in perpetual celibacy. His mother usually urged him to get married as soon as possible, but he was not bold enough to fall in love with any girls, although he took pity on his mother.
One afternoon, as the sunset spread its purple light over the river, he met a crying young lady by the riverside. She was very pretty and in her mid-teens. He sat down beside her and struck up a conversation. She belonged to an adjacent village. To his surprise, she disclosed all the ins and outs of her pregnancy to him, which made him deeply moved. At last, he led her to his house. He introduced her to his mother and pretentiously confessed that they were in love with each other.
The next early morning, his mother arrived at her home and asked her hand in marriage for her son. Beyond her expectation, everything was plain sailing. Finally, the young couple held a wedding right in that month. Seven months later, a baby boy saw the light. Immediately, a fresh air enlivened his deserted house. His mother's dreams came true.
Lovely days passed very quickly.
Yet all his reckonings went bankrupt. Ridiculously, the girl of that day remained his quasi-wife. At first, she refused to accept his proposal for a real marriage. In fact, he only wanted to save her face and her family's honour by claiming himself to be her husband. When she gave birth to a baby and later if the child grew up further, he would free her.
However, she did not yield to his good intention. After she had been taken in by a swindler, she decided to commit suicide. As luck would have it, her kind-hearted youth saved both her life and honour. Consequently, she vowed to live with him her whole life so as to return his favour on the one hand and to avenge the insult caused by that swindler on the other. In other words, she loved him sincerely by virtue of his kindness.
He was in bewilderment. Clearly, the first joy in the clan belonged to his mother: she had a grandson, worthy of her love. As for him, he also loved him dearly. Paradoxically, he was unable to love her as a real wife.
Finally, he was compelled to confess his impotence to her. What's more, she was requested not to disclose his impotence to anyone. She nodded her agreement in tears.
An stopped his lengthy story. He looked quite dumbfounded. His eyes turned wild. His hair stood on end. I stared at him in an inquisitive manner.
Frankly, the benevolent youth in his narrative was none other than me. The fact in my childhood was as follows. When I was in the last class of the senior high school of the district I fell so seriously ill that I had to give up my schooling. When I recovered from illness my penis got smaller and smaller with every passing month and finally, it became as tiny as a pea. I was fully aware that I was an imperfect young man. I was totally ashamed and tried to hide my shame. I intended to kill myself, and tried many times, but I still had my mother to look after when she turned weak and old. Her whole life was dedicated to me and she looked forward to my pious care. Thanks to God, I met that pregnant girl who would later help me pay Mum's favour. Her next two childbirths were due partly to Mum's expectation and partly to my advice and encouragement. I knew that she did those things because of me.
Her children grew up thanks to the generosity of my neighbours. I would never forget it; neither would my children. The hard time was now over for most of us. The sentiments between my family and that of Uncle An were beyond evaluation. When I was away from home because of my military career, An was always beside my teacher. After that all the children grew up and went to universities or colleges in the provinces or cities, near and far, away from my hometown. When I became a public servant again, she and I willingly took care of each other if either of us fell ill. That was the reason why many co-villagers had misunderstood us. On my part, I could not clarify my awful destiny to them; whereas on her part, she did not pay attention to public opinion. God knew our situations and blessed us all. The Creator gave me an imperfect body, yet I felt quite pleased with what offered to me.
I explained everything to Uncle An and asked him just one favour: keeping it a secret until he died. He agreed with my proposal. I owed him a lot.
The air was stuffy. I felt it hard to breathe. My heart sunk. I wished to kneel down in front of him and kowtow to him a hundred times.
Returning home, I found my wife leaning against the door, eyes in tears. "Hi, honey!" I greeted her, but she did not reply. I embraced her tightly. Her clothes were drenched with dew. "You've heard a lot about our talks, haven't you?" I asked her. Nodding her head, she just sobbed and sobbed.
"Just cry more, my darling. In that way you'd feel more comfortable," I consoled her. "Unfortunately, you have a heavy cross to bear and you can hardly remove it. It's only your husband who is fully aware of your grave injustice," I added.
Soon we got on well together. We intended to persuade Uncle An to return to our native place to lead a peaceful life as soon as possible. "Our old age needs fresh air and calmness. Both clans would live side by side in harmony and support each other during our remaining period of life when our children stayed away from home," I told him.
However, dreams were one thing and putting them into practice was another one. He died suddenly of a heart attack.
I joined the funeral procession to follow him to his last home. My heart ached.
"Uncle An, rest peacefully in your permanent home. You really are a perfect man. Thanks to your wholehearted help, ensuring I didn't become a good-for-nothing guy," I whispered to myself.
Translated by Van Minh