|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Nguyen Cam Huong
We got out of the car at the provincial capital's bus station at dusk. Teachers and students laden with pots, pans, rice and other foods trudged to a village 10 km away. The end-of-winter rain was not heavy but icy cold, sending chills down to their bones. We tried to walk quickly not just because of the cold, but also because of our churning stomachs.
It was completely dark when we arrived at the village. The advance team had prepared our accommodation. We lived in the villagers' houses. Even the villagers had already slept. They woke up and received us. My friend and I were put up in a three-room house. The owner of the house was a middle-aged woman. We were a bit surprised.
"My husband and his son are in the army and fighting in the South" - She said.
"Only I live here."
We felt a bit relieved, as that the house was not crowded. The next day, the head of the class came and said in a low voice: "Be careful because the house's owner is said to be hard-going."
Early in the morning, we took the spades to the archaeological site to do the job and in the afternoon, we ate until we were full and slept soundly in an empty house. The owner was seen most of the time in the kitchen or in her room.
One night at 8 o'clock, when I was still dozing off, I suddenly heard someone singing a quan ho love duet song so sweetly. I remembered immediately that we were now in a Bac Ninh with traditional love duets.
The next day was Sunday. We had half a day off in the afternoon. Hung asked me to go with him to Tu Son Township, but I refused. So he went with another guy after lunch. I thought with ease about the noon nap to compensate for the toil in the excavation site. But I wasn't able to get a wink of it. The girl with that sweet voice the night before was appearing in the alley before me. She was going to carry water on a shoulder pole for her family.
"Eh, girl, can I go and carry water with you?"
"What? Can you, one of those city folks, do this?"
It turned out that the girl was our next-door neighbor. The two houses were separated by a shoulder-high hedge.
"I'm sorry. I've been living here for a few days, but we haven't carried a pail of water for the homeowner" - I said.
"I often carry water for Ms. Lanh because she lives alone, you know! My brother and her son joined the army on the same day."
"What's your name?"
"My name is Quyen."
"In what grade are you now?"
"I've finished high school, but I am not intelligent enough, so I dared not take the university entrance exams."
"You need not take any university exams 'cause you sing so well. You could join a song and dance ensemble."
"No, I can't. I sing just for pleasure. My village has a singing festival every year. The girls in my village can sing very well!"
I tried to scoop water for Quyen to carry it home, but I couldn't do it well. She burst out laughing.
Hung came home late in the evening. Lying on the bed, he asked me:
"What did you do the whole afternoon?"
I hesitated, trying to hide the fact that I carried water with Quyen. He asked:
"Have you got anything to hide from me?"
"Actually, I met the quan ho love duet singer. She is really…."
"Eh, it's the site I have found first!"
"But I am the first to excavate it!"
"Not on your life! I've determined the epoch?"
Then they burst out laughing. Suddenly Hung said:
"The house owner loves the girl very much. It seems to me that she wants to have the girl lined up for her son."
I lay there thinking hard. So, she had someone to love? I waited for her singing, but in vain. Was it possible that I did love her, I wondered? For her singing voice or for her black eyes? The Kinh Bac girls were rumored to be very beautiful with white skin and a good shape. Quyen was one of them, he thought.
As usual, every afternoon after work, we gathered at the communal house's yard and organized the singing until 8 o'clock in the evening. But that day, I did not stay. I excused myself, saying I was tired, and went home. Having come home, I took a walk around just in the hope that I could see Quyen. It was as if I were blessed by God - Quyen was walking out of the gate, in traditional female garb.
"Oh, where are you going, Quyen?" - I asked.
"I'm going to have a rehearsal for a performance."
"You sound very interesting. Can I join it?"
"Alright. But I'm afraid you'll get sleepy."
"No, I've got used to sitting late at night."
"But every day when I come home, I find you already in a deep sleep."
I followed her to the rehearsal place. It was a large pagoda yard. From afar I could hear the sounds of musical instruments and the tumultuous drum beats. There were also the voices of children and old people sitting to enjoy the rehearsal. I mingled with them just to contemplate Quyen.
After that, I waited for her when she said goodbye to her friends and turned to walk to her alley.
"What! Are you still waiting for me?"
"I stayed to the last item of the performance. You sing so well, like a professional artist."
"Thank you for your compliment."
We walked side by side in silence.
"You go home so late every night?"
"Yes. It doesn't matter. We are all villagers."
"When you have rehearsal, please tell me so we can go home together!"
When I was going to turn to my house, I was bold enough to say:
"Can you go to my house for a chat? The moon is still bright."
Quyen paused irresolutely for a moment, but she walked with me anyway. We sat on the step of the veranda. I tried to break the ice, but I could not.
"Are you missing home?" - She asked me first.
"Ah… Ah…." - I got startled - "I am very glad to hear you tonight, and now the moon is so bright that I am possibly unable to sleep tonight…."
"You students are very romantic, but also easy to forget" - Quyen said.
Out of a sudden, there was a sound of creaking door. The house owner came and put the kerosene lamp between us and went back to her room without a word. We looked at each other shyly. She said goodnight to me and went home. I saw her to the gate and she said goodbye again.
The next day, when going to work, I looked suspicious because I had such a sleepless night.
"You're a fool. Isn't there any other place for you to go and have a talk with her?"
Day in and day out, Quyen and I became more intimate. We often came to carry water together and sometimes teased each other. I even once took her hand. One day, our class had an urgent meeting. We had to move to another place to work so as to give this place over to an army unit that would billet here for a few days. Actually our new place was not very far from the village well. Every afternoon after work, while we were having dinner, we could see the soldiers' area.
We exchanged performances and played sports together. The village had become boisterous with the cries during a volleyball match. The village was noisier, with the girls coming to get water more often than usual.
One day I was having dinner when I saw Quyen talking with a soldier. She was giving a peal of laughter, while the soldier was pulling water from the well and pouring it into her pail. He even was struggling with her to carry the water home for her. When they were out of sight, I continued my dinner nonchalantly. Having gone home, I was startled, finding that the house owner's water jar was full.
Hung appeared from nowhere, speaking out of breath: "Don't you remember that tonight there is a rehearsal to prepare for a big performance with villagers, soldiers and students? Be quick. There is going to be a roll call."
I reluctantly followed him. At the meeting, the head of the class said there was going to be an art exchange between the villagers, soldiers and students. We had to contribute some items of art performance. Some of us could sing, but the rest would have to design and decorate the stage in the communal house's yard. Hung and I volunteered to design and decorate the stage. I wanted to meet Quyen and ask her if she could contribute anything. One afternoon, on the way home from work, I saw her collecting duckweed with that soldier on a small boat in the village pond. They looked so amiable.
I felt like I had fallen out of love. My mind was not focused. Every night, I lay there, expecting the singing voice to echo in my place. I wished I could sing a quan ho love duet so that I could send my sentiments to her.
After one week of persistent rehearsals with amateur artists and industrious preparation of our designing and decoration, the art festival was magnificently decorated. The whole village was bathing in the festival atmosphere. We came home from work earlier than usual to prepare for the performance.
I was wondering what Quyen would sing and I was sure that she would look so beautiful tonight. I sat right at the wing of the stage just to be near her. When the programme was nearing to its end, Quyen appeared on the stage in the role of a young lady who was seeing her husband off to the battlefront. This rural girl expressed her missing him through her singing of a quan ho folk melody. It was like being drowned in her sweet voice.
The art night closed. All the villagers went home. Only I was left strolling on the village road in an attempt to wait for Quyen. But what was the use of waiting for her when she got a soldier, I thought. The next morning, I found it out that the soldiers had moved on in an emergency march. It turned out that the art performance night was the farewell night to honour the soldiers before they went to the front. The communal house yard was now deserted. Only the banyan leaves were seen littered here and there.
When the later afternoon came, suddenly I saw Quyen carrying water. I came over, pretending I wanted to wash my face. There I met her and to my great surprise her eyes were red. She cried all night last night, I guessed. I looked at her, at my first love, trying to forget it, because the next day, we also finished our practical work and would return to the city.
The night fell. I lay there, tossing and turning without being able to sleep. The late month moon was not bright. I lusted for a quan ho folk melody sung by her. I tip-toed out and sat on the veranda to look at the moon and then at her house. She should have been sound sleep now, I thought. Then I walked along that hedge separating the two houses like a sleepwalker.
Early the next morning, we were woken up by the house owner. We got up and prepared everything before we said goodbye to her. She walked towards me and gave me a letter.
"I've found it at the crack of the gate. It's for you."
I was startled and thanked her a lot. We concentrated in the communal house yard. We were about to be back to our university to carry on our study.
"What about last night? Did you say goodbye to her?" - Hung asked.
I did not answer. When we arrived at the school, I walked to a corner and began to read the letter. But I could not find anything in my pocket. It was lost. So I could never know what she said to me. I wondered if she loved me!
I graduated from university and was sent to work at a research institute in Ha Noi. Once I had a chance to return to that village. I came to visit my old house owner. She was still living alone, even though the war was over and the country was reunified. Her husband and son had laid down their lives on the battlefield. They were now only on the altar. No sooner had I asked anything than she said:
"Quyen has gotten married in the next village. They are now in Dak Lak Province and grow coffee."
"Is her husband a soldier?"
"No, I am told he is a worker."
"Oh, no, I am sorry!"
Now I had been retired for two years and stayed at home almost all the time. I did not go out often. My only hobby was listening to quan ho love duet songs. One day I heard a quan ho love duet song on the television. On the screen was a middle-aged woman whose eyes and smile remained as fresh as ever. She was teaching quan ho folk songs to a group of teenagers. It was Quyen. Finally I could recognize her. I took note of her address on TV.
With her address in the hand, I found her house with no difficulty. It was a beautiful house amid an immense coffee field. Actually she did not recognize me. She was still hesitating when she asked:
"Are you Mr Son? Oh, God, you've changed a lot!"
"Yes, I've changed a lot. For this reason, I decided to go and look for you."
She smiled a crooked smile, hidden with heart-rending plight.
"At that time, I thought…You…Only for fun. How could a student like you love a country girl?"
"Actually, I loved you and you were my first love. But I hesitated to say it to you because I wondered if you would be the house owner's daughter-in-law. And after that I found you liked another guy."
She laughed a little.
"You were so careful. Ms Lanh loved me as her daughter, because when her son joined the army, I was still very small. Yes, I liked Minh, a soldier, because he was going to the battlefield. I did promise to wait for him. But a few months later, I was told that he had sacrificed his life. I felt so empty those days. Later, I got married to a man from the next village. He was a worker in the new economic zone in Dak Lak. We have settled down here, growing coffee. Unfortunately, my husband died in a mine explosion while he was working in the field. I have two children who are now married and live in the city."
The sun was setting behind the coffee trees. I stood up and prepared to say goodbye to her.
"Oh, no, do stay here with me, please!"
"Yes, can you find me a lodging house here?"
"No need to do it. My house is large enough for you to stay. Do sleep here!"
"Is it convenient?"
"Do rest assured. You are sheepish, I know."
We both laughed it off.
Quyen was preparing the dinner. I told her not to cook a lot of food, because I could not eat a lot now. She said:
"Don't worry. There is another person to eat it."
I was surprised and wondered if she asked the neighbours to come and join us. Night fell and the house was brightly lit. All of a sudden a 16-seat car pulled up in front of the house. A young guy got out of the car first, carried a man in his arms and put him in a wheel-chair. I found out that his two legs were cut off at the knee.
Quyen rushed out and pushed the wheel-chair into the house. When all of us sat down round the dinner table, she introduced everyone:
"This is the soldier I met in the village. One day, I came back home and visited the Thuan Thanh War-wounded Soldiers' Camp and I met Minh there again. I asked the camp to bring him here so I could take care of him."
That night, we three drank wine like three old friends. Quyen silently poured the wine, and her eyes were wet with tears:
"I thought I could never be as happy as this. From the bottom of my heart, I loved both of you at that time. So do you hate me?"
No, never. How could we hate such a lovely woman? We only loved her more. War can bring you tragedy, but love never does such a thing to you. The quan ho love duet songs had always been heard ringing in my life.
Translated by Manh Chuong