|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Ly Thi Minh Chau
Due to his impetuous temperament, he killed several people and became a condemned prisoner. Revenge. It was what he thought. He became resentful because the father was adamant to hand his daughter to a homeless, vagrant and jobless guy like him.
Sharing the cell with him were some one-time notorious gangsters. His head was always cool. He had the cold blood of amphibians, so the human nature inside him was not easy to see, but he could sense the sadness, and could cry and love. He worked hard for leniency, so the scythe of death could not be put to his throat. He got scared, even during sleeping, because death always came in his sleep. He became emaciated despite not skipping meals. Nobody came to console him. He cried upon witnessing the relatives of his inmates visiting them, even only once a month. He wrote a letter to his mother, begging her to pardon him, but he was not brave enough to tell her that she might not see him again. His home village was very poor. The villagers there worked their fingers to the bone days and nights to make meager livings. On the other hand, the land was arid and they had to live on shrimps and fish.
He knew his mother was very old now. She was on the verge of death, so she could not afford any money to come to this out-of-the-way place to visit him. He had to assent to it. Only the tears could understand his feelings, the tears of repentance from the bottom of his heart. It was late, too late, but they could help console him to live on. Those tears always oozed out when his inmates shared their food with him. When people cannot control themselves, life is meaningless. But he could not do otherwise, so he felt he had to live and let live. For many months, he had not gone near the visitors' area because he thought he did not have any close friends who want to have a heart-to-heart with a condemned prisoner. He snuck up to the production area and stroked the leaves of vegetables in the garden he tended lovingly. All of a sudden, he felt that he wanted to be those leaves, which showed no worries. Those leave lived on and also died for life, even they could only be cooked into a bowl of good soup. He dared not to think about himself.
"4313, go to visitors' house A4. There is someone here to see you."
He heard the words vaguely and stood rooted to the ground.
"Do you understand, 4313?" - the prison superintendent repeated.
"Yes" - He said, running quickly to the visitors' house. He stood dumbfounded because it was his mother and his friend who had roamed with him around to make a living in the old days. "Mother!" - he could utter this word only and then he prostrated himself at his mother's feet. Instead of speaking, both he and his mother sobbed. Even his friend Du's eyes became red.
"I met your mother about seven kilometres from here. She was lying on the ground, dead tired."
"Without you, I should have died," - His mother said with thanks.
"He carried me on his back…."
He gave a long kowtow to Du, regarding him as the benefactor. Now he could have time to look at his mother. She looked so miserable. Her back became hunched and her hair was snow white. Her two feet were swollen and had bled. She should not have walked so far. He dared not think if even he himself could walk a thousand kilometres.
"Have you received my letter, Mother?"
"I sent it to you a long time ago."
"I started walking right after I knew you were here."
"It's been about a year, mother?"
His mother did not say anything. More tears fell from her face. She wanted to hide from her son that she had hanged about to beg for some food or for some small change of the passers-by just in the hope that she could come to this place. Fortunately, she had come safe and sound in the end of the day. Nothing could prevent a mother from taking such a long road; she could meet danger, even death, but she would come anyway. Mother would come; even it was a distant island or the rolling Truong Son mountain range. Life is the journey, but a mother's journey is a journey of fate, of love. The journey was filled with worries and wishes.
"How is father?"
"Not very well" - Mother said with slight start - "He misses and loves you very much."
"Not the same as the days when I lived in the village?"
"Spare the rod, spoil the child, you know" - She wiped the tears in silence - "You will greatly regret it if some day you no longer have advice from your father. If he was well, he would come here, you know!"
The afternoon sun was shining hot at the gate of the prison; the areca trees were withering, proving that the weather conditions here were very harsh. The straight road running from the prison gate to the administrative area was bedecked with flags and a red band inscribed with the motto: "Let's study and work in accordance with the moral example of Ho Chi Minh". It reminded not only the prisoners but also the passers-by to live good lives. His mother thought and hoped for tolerance and leniency from the authorities for those prisoners who repented for their crimes on the occasion of the annual National Day.
The time for visiting prisoners was over and the superintendent took his mother to a house where she could spend the night.
"I am told that prisoners could meet their dear ones in this 'happy house'. Is it true?" - She asked the superintendent.
"Yes, it's right, but it is given only to those who have been reeducated and have had their sentences reduced."
"But my son cannot be given that treatment, can he?"
The superintendent did not answer her, but he looked at her for quite a time. It seemed that he was expressing his sympathy toward her. AT the image of a haggard, ragged mother who traversed thousands of kilometres in her bare feet to visit her son, a condemned prisoner, he felt greatly touched. He had witnessed such a meeting and parting. He was about to go when the mother begged him:
"Can you give me one more chance to meet my son?"
"It's the same as we did in the afternoon. Nothing matters, I am sure."
"Your case is extremely special and there aren't many exceptions. The way you came to visit your son by begging has moved the heart of God, I think."
"If it is impossible, please, do come to see me here tomorrow morning because I want you to do me one last favour."
"Can you say it now?"
"But my son is not here to listen to his father's last words."
The superintendent rounded his eyes at her in surprise.
"I am sorry. Tomorrow is not a visiting day."
For any condemned prisoner, there was not any visit. The superintendent was afraid if he told the mother this it would hurt her.
"If so, we have to obey it, father!" - The mother looked far away to the last rays of the sun - "I fear our son is not so happy if…."
She stooped to get a roll of paper wrapped in nylon from her chest pocket. And she turned to the superintendent and said slowly and clearly:
"This is the last sacred thing of the family that I could bring along, on behalf of his father. These are three incense sticks on the altar of his father…. He wanted to meet his son for one last time…."
And, unable to hold in her tears, she burst out crying. The superintendent's eyes were also red. Never had he witnessed such a mournful scene, even though there were more than a few pitiful partings here. Suddenly he felt he was so small before life, before the mother. The mothers who work hard and always sacrifice for their dear ones without thinking about themselves./.
Translated by Manh Chuong