by Nguyen Quang Thieu
When the first snowflakes fell onto the city, Mr Mai said: "Heo may (the chilly autumnal wind) has come back."
He said it for the first time 50 years ago, and his wife did not understand what he meant. He told her to sit down and explained the chilly autumnal wind to her.
She was a Norwegian woman. And so, 15 years later, she could vaguely feel what the chilly autumnal wind was like when she followed her husband to visit his homeland. He took her on a bicycle to a suburban area in Ha Noi so she could feel the coming chilly autumnal wind.
He left his home city when he was 17 to go to France to study. And from France, he moved to Norway to work; then he got married and settled down there, until now. One of the unforgettable things from his native city was the chilly autumnal days.
In this Nordic city, he could not afford this romantic autumnal wind. Thus, the first snowflakes in the foreign land in his mind were the coming chilly autumnal wind. Over 50 years living in Oslo, every year when the first snowflakes appeared, he asked his office for a day off, but that day was a very special day that he could not be absent from the office.
He got up early, sitting by the window with a cup of hot coffee and reminisced. Then, he took the tram to the street with a knapsack on his back. He went to a beef shop. He bought bones and beef to cook pho (pho, a Vietnamese special food, rice noodle soup with beef or chicken).
He missed pho bo (noodle soup with beef). He often dreamt of having a bowl of pho with some friends when the chilly autumnal wind came. Each time that happened, he woke up and stayed in bed for quite a time so as to get out of the dream. Pho bo flavours and memories of his native city led him out of the present to such a distance that he found it hard to return.
There was a lot of snow that year. Only after one night, snow covered the whole city. "Why is it so cold this year?" - He mumbled. He felt his steps were very slow and hesitant on the snow. Having walked on the snow for half a way from the tram station, he felt some pain in his knees.
If it was the other day, he would come back home, light a fire in the fireplace and dry his two knees while massaging them. Yet, for the past 50 years never had he forgotten cooking a pot of pho on this day. So he tried to walk to the tram station. He sat down and took out a cigarette. But he felt it hard to breath and lost the sense of eagerness before lighting the cigarette as usual. He put it back in his packet. The tram fully covered with snow seemed like it just got out of a world of ice and snow. He again remembered the tinkling trams running through the old streets of Ha Noi.
He crouched by the window. When he was still small, he had once taken the tram for the whole Saturday morning, pressing his face onto the glass window and getting absorbed in contemplating the street scenes. For this reason he had struggled like a man being washed away in the current so as to get stuck to the chilly autumnal winds, to enjoy Ha Noi beef pho and hear the tinkling sound of the trams.
The old beef seller as always had readied all the things old Mai needed. After all these decades, the beef seller understood his exclusive customer. As soon as he saw old Mai entering, the old beef seller said: "Has the heo may wind come back?"
He said it in a queer and luring Vietnamese. Once old Mai pulled the old beef seller's leg by saying that he should be very careful or else the Norwegian police could doubt him as a secret operative for using the password heo may.
"It has" - Old Mai replied in excitement - "But it'll be very cold this year!"
The old beef seller put the bag of cow bones on the counter and said:
"Look, is it good? I've selected the best for you like a gift, you see?"
They both burst out laughing.
"Do come in the evening!" - Old Mai said.
"How can I forget it?" - The old beef seller said, laughing a horse-like laugh.
For many years now, old Mai had always invited the old beef seller to come and enjoy pho he cooked. The old beef seller had tried hard all these years to learn how to cook the beef pho like old Mai, but he had failed. Once he cried:
"Have you hidden the recipe? Why haven't I cooked it as well as you've done?"
"I've told you everything, but you've still failed to do it and you'll never make it."
"Why?" - The old beef seller asked in a fervid voice.
"Because there is one thing I can't pass it down to you" - Old Mai said.
"What?" - The old beef seller asked in a hurried voice.
"My mother's blood is flowing inside me, you know!" - Old Mai replied.
The old beef seller stood dumbfounded. As if he had just understood something important, he quickly embraced old Mai and said in a sobbing voice:
"My mother's blood has not flown inside me anymore"
"What the hell are you saying like a drunkard?" - Old Mai said, looking straight into the eyes of the old beef seller.
"Yes, it's true. I cannot cook my mother's Lahore lamb curry anymore. My mother's blood is no longer inside me" - The old beef seller said, wiping away tears.
The old beef seller was Pakistani. He was born and grew up in Lahore and then he left Pakistan to live and work in some other places before settling down in Norway.
Having reached home, his wife had prepared everything for old Mai to cook pho. His wife was now a very skillful helping hand. Old Mai sometimes joked:
"When we come back to Viet Nam to live, I will introduce you to a pho shop as an assistant."
"Do you think they will accept me?" - She asked. She knew he was pulling her leg, but she still said in a concerned and less-assured voice.
"Yes, they do, with high salary, I am sure!"
They both laughed happily. He took the bag of cow bones and beef into the kitchen. Out of the blue, he fell onto his knees.
"Gosh!" - He cried. One knee was aching very badly. His chest seemed like it was being pressed hard by someone. She rushed to him.
"What's the matter, dear?" - She said in a worrying voice.
"I think my knees are going out of place" - He said, dropping the bag of bones and beef onto the floor and dragging himself into the living room. He sat down on a divan next to the fireplace. She quickly built a fire. Old Mai pulled up the legs of the trousers and massaged the two knees.
"Can I boil the bones now?" - She asked in a bashful voice. She had many times wanted to boil the bones for him, but he always refused in an angry voice:
"Don't touch it. You can spoil the whole pot of pho now. It's Ha Noi beef pho, not Norwegian stewed mutton, you know!"
Having heard it, she did not feel thin-skinned. But she did not understand the enigmatic thing in her husband's beef pho. Never had she seen anyone who had to spend a day to cook the food, using so much skill. It was a ritual. However, she was allowed to boil the beef bones today after he had tried several times to stand up and walk to the kitchen to no avail. Upon hearing him say "Yes", she was very happy. She rushed into the kitchen and put on an apron right away.
"Don't be in such a hurry. Listen to my instructions first."
"Yes, I'm listening."
"Have you cleaned the pot yet?"
"I did when you were still in sound sleep."
"Now clean the beef bones. Rub cleanly every piece of bone without leaving any meat on them."
"After you have finished the job, take all the bones here for my examination. Have you got the cardamom ready?"
"I've done everything."
"Is it enough? Have you roasted ginger?"
"Yes, it's enough. I've done this job for several decades now, you see."
"But I've got to repeat it. If you forget one thing, the whole pot of pho will be spoilt."
"Who have you invited to come and enjoy your pho tonight?"
"Only the old man from the beef shop."
"But this pot can satisfy the whole city, you know!"
"You don't understand pho at all. Haven't I told you time and again about it? You must have a lot of bones so as to be able to get the best broth out of it."
He had cooked such a big pot of pho every year. And she had enquired him about it every year. And with patience, he again told her about pho and its secret. Even until now, she could not make out the secret of this food. But she could understand one thing: her husband's soul had not left his native city. For him, cooking a pot of pho is a ritual. And every year, he worked hard and enthusiastically for the whole day to cook such a big pot of pho, but in the end of the day, he had only one small bowl of it with a bit of rice noodle. On the first days when he started to cook pho, he was in great distress because he could not fetch the necessary spices in this city for the pot of pho. After the country was reunified, he had come back to his native land. When he returned to Oslo, the whole baggage of his was filled with all the spices for pho. Now in the house there is a special case reserved for holding all the necessary spices to cook Vietnamese food, especially pho.
This year was the first year after half a century he had not cooked pho in person. He felt exhausted. He had intended to get into the kitchen several times, but his limbs were so weak. He had to lie of the divan, his eyes closed. But he still instructed his wife every step of the way as she cooked. And then he dozed off. In the mid-afternoon, he suddenly woke up.
"Yes, there is the flavour of pho, but you are yet to add sufficient salt and fish sauce."
"I've done it as you've instructed me."
"You've lied to me. There should be one more spoonful of fish sauce. Just do as I've told you. Am I clear?"
His voice was trembling. She was startled. She decided to put only two spoonfuls of fish sauce, not three as he had told her. She wanted to prove that this food had not any secret at all, as her husband said. Now she was dumbfounded that why he had known that she had not put enough fish sauce. She put another spoonful of fish sauce. A moment later, she heard him laughing heartily.
"Yes, it's enough now. You cannot hide it from me, my dear."
Having heard this, she walked to him and looked at him as if he was a saint. She had not understood entirely her husband and the pho of his native land. She sat down on the edge of the divan and took his hand, finding that his hand was a bit cold. She decided to ask him about the secret why he had known that she had added only two spoonfuls of fish sauce. She had no intention of becoming a pho cook. She knew that there was one thing which was greater than all food. When she begged him in a passionate voice to tell her about it, he was lying still with closed eyes as if he was sleeping. A moment later, he took her hands and placed them on his chest, speaking in a low voice:
"This is the secret."
She saw two tear drops running from the corners of his eyes as if he was dozing off. She bit her lips tightly so as not to burst out crying. She stooped to embrace him tightly.
In late afternoon, she was busy preparing the bowls and chopsticks for the pho feast and waiting for the old friend, the beef seller. Her husband had left the present and returned to his native land. The tinkling tram was taking him home to the Old Quarter. The first heo may winds were blowing, fluttering the canopies along the street. He suddenly recognized the pho flavour of a pho shop nearby. He hopped off the tram. His mother was standing on the pavement, waiting for him. She looked at him, saying: "Where have you been for such a long time?" He walked towards his mother and said: "I'm coming home with you, mother!"./.
Translated by Manh Chuong