|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Duong Giao Linh
The sparkling sunbeams, coming down from the top of the hills, spread over the multi-coloured flowers in the valley. On the milpa, the wide skirts of the Mong women could be seen behind the bushes by the stream. All the year round, day by day, they went to the milpas, hills or stream, while their husbands walked into the forest to gather dry twigs that were used as firewood, carried goods to the market and then met one another at the pubs.
In this whole mountainous village, Sa was the only young girl who did not have to tender cows or work the field. She was like a silhouette on the walls. Besides her black pet dog, she had no one by her side, as a friend or a protector.
Not to mince words, but she looked like a newly opened beautiful wild flower, although she did not pay much attention to her own beauty. Similar to most of the good-looking women here, say her mother and sister, who got married early, gave birth to a lot of children, and then thought nothing about their prime of life, let alone their beauty. Yet they remained fair until old age to some extent. What they recognized about their appearance was their suntanned complexion, reddened curly hair, flecked cheeks, in a word their ugliness, beyond their husbands' expectations, or last but not least, about their miserable living conditions in a poor mountainous region.
Now Sa's mother carried a basket of Indian corns into the kitchen before hanging them on the raft with her trembling hands. In the meantime, her sister-in-law was busy feed-ing a cow in the shed while urging her first-born boy to wash his younger brother.
When Sa returned home, she put a basket of vegetables down on the veranda then went straight into the kitchen. Her mother was pleased at Sa's early homecoming. At one, she hurriedly chased some chicken into the coop. At that moment, little Nhi of her sister-in-law was having a few sweet potatoes already swarmed with ants that had been boiled early in the morning. Finding her aunt at home, she felt happy, pointing toward the gate. Wiping the little kid's smiling face carefully Sa lifted her up in high spirits.
The evening sun began to set behind far-away high trees. Sa's black hair turned bright in the brilliant sunshine. She touched her silver bracelet. "Who would put a silver necklace round my lily-white neck some day?" she asked herself.
The small footpath meandering among the low hills to a seemingly unstable wooden house was a shelter for her father, who often climbed up there with his callous feet for some relaxation before falling asleep.
"Don't amuse yourself by the stream or else you'll tumble down and die some day," Sa's mother often warned her. Yet, she usually arrived there to enjoy the murmurs of the water and the sounds of Vu's footsteps wading in the cool water while her mother was busy working on the slash-and-burn terraced fields.
Vu tendered cows on a hill nearby. Whenever he felt tired he slept on a large flat rock near the stream. In a few minutes, he had already yawned noisily. In fact, the cow shed was also situated near it. It was made of broad leaves with wooden piles. Half of it was for the cows and the other half was for Vu to sleep.
Vu was well known to everybody in the village. He had big firm feet and naiïve eyes. His hair was dark red, like the colour of a cow tail. At the age of 14, he could care for the entire of cowherd, and go in search of medicinal herbs to cure poor people's illnesses in the area. Paradoxically, his mother had taken some of his so-called medicine in vain. "Your mother's disease is too grave, beyond recovery. You'd better take her to hospital for treatment," said one of the villagers.
On the path to the institution she died while she was still holding a red purse on which a pattern of poppy flowers was embroidered. From her purse a gold ring could be found. It was the ring that Vu's father had used to marry again. After their marriage, Vu rigged up a hut on the hillside to stay alone and eked out his livelihood by selling his medicines at various markets. Soon, he became a well-known herb doctor in the region.
Poor her, Sa had also taken many dosages of medicine prescribed by him, but her dumbness seemed beyond everybody's expectation. Yet, in her heart of hearts, she missed him very much.
One day, she saw him when she went to the brook to wash her vegetables. At first she thought that he had been sleeping too soundly to come back to his hut and to look after the herd of cows, but things did not seem so. After shaking him for a few minutes, she found him still unconscious. Touching his forehead, she realised that he had a temperature. Suddenly, Sa's sister-in-law turned up. Together, both of them took him into his place, which had a single bed full of the aroma of medicinal herbs. Taking a wet towel, Sa's sister-in-law applied it over his forehead. In the meantime Sa had managed to send for a local nurse. The latter examined him carefully.
"He's suffered from a sunstroke," said the medical worker. A few minutes later, Sa gave him a bowlful of porridge. After that she went uphill to lead the cows back to V?'s place.
At midnight, when Vu became conscious again, he found himself in his hut while Sa's father was sitting beside an empty mug of rice wine.
"You'll be well soon, won't you, my witch doctor?" he asked V? in a sarcastic voice. "Surely, you've suffered from sunstroke while staying under the hot sun too long, haven't you?" he added.
To his surprise, when he woke up Vu saw his herd of cows already inside the shed. All of them had big bellies.
"Sa has fed your cows maize, you see," the old man told him.
Early next morning Vu led his animals out of the shed to let them graze, although he was still dead tired. Now, it was the windy season. Gusts of strong wind swept over the valley. Its houses looked dim and swayed violently in the hallucinatory air.
Vu craved the warm hand of a certain young Hmong woman.
The brilliantly red sun had rose above the mountain range in front of her. Sa bent down, ignoring the jeers from a drunken gang sitting beside the inter-district road. Following her was the black dog. Time and again, it ran ahead of her. The bundle of firewood on her back became heavier and heavier with every step. Sometimes, she felt that she might be swept down to the deep abyss by the roaring wind.
"Would Vu lead his cows away for grazing today? Would he go in search of medicinal herbs in the woods as usual?" Sa asked herself repeatedly.
Climbing over the high slope, she took a rest for a few minutes.
All of a sudden, Phay, a rascal in her area, turned up in front of her. His eyes went wild and his smile looked aggressive. He was approaching her.
"Be my wife, you beautiful girl!" he said to her.
All of a sudden she was dragged back violently. She tumbled down on her bundle of dry firewood. Then a heavy body pressed her down mercilessly. Her hands were pinned down tightly. She felt extreme pain in her back. She tried to resist. But all her efforts came to nothing.
"Oh God, my dear Vu! Come here to save my life at once, will you?" she wished to blurt out.
Bang! A heavy blow struck against Phay's head. He collapsed immediately. Opening her eyes wide, Sa saw a big log in Vu's hand. Immediately, she understood what had happened to her.
"You nasty guy! How could you dare do that in broad daylight?" Vu shouted at the ruffian. Unexpectedly, Phay picked up a big length of wood and dealt a heavy blow at his opponent's face, then ran away. Sa just lay motionless. She was unable to cry further. Her dog barked noisily.
Sa's sister-in-law placed her hand on her shoulder, saying nothing. In reality, her husband had not returned home for many years. Her father-in-law now indulged in drinking all day long. He felt greatly worried because his son had sown the germs of a deadly disease among the young men of the village then went away for good. What Sa's sister-in-law could do then was to weep and weep.
In this mountainous village, such a case was by no means rare. A lot of young men had died of drug addiction.
"In order to get rid of this natural calamity we must uproot the poppy plants," said many villagers. Yet, Sa's mother stayed in love with the colour of that dangerous kind of plant. Nobody knew her reason but Sa. Her mother grew that kind of plant so as to contemplate its beautiful flowers. When the flowering season was over, she removed it completely. She would embroider that kind of flower on her handkerchiefs. Like so many other women of this village, to the best of her knowledge, she only realised that the opium flower was the most beautiful of all.
When Sa stopped crying, her sister-in-law remained to sit still like a stone statue.
In the early morning the next day when the mist was still spreading densely in the air, Sa woke up. She hung her basket on her back. Opening her eyes, her sister-in-law tried to drag Sa back. Their mother came closer to her. By chance, she recognised that on the back of her daughter, there appeared a few minor scratches.
"What happened?" she asked Sa. Sa just shook her head while tears were trickling down her cheeks.
However, the old woman kept on growing that deadly kind of plant, looking forward to its flowers in full bloom.
"Are there still any Mong women who so passionately like poppy flowers like Mum?" Sa asked herself. Then one day she stared attentively at the few plants that her mother had grown during the previous season. Sa was totally lost in thought. A few minutes later, she rushed toward that cluster of plants now in blossom. She uprooted them all, one after another, then slashed them against a big stone. Their flowers were torn into pieces. Some of their petals landed on her tousled hair. Sitting down on the ground, she burst out crying.
"If only my elder brother had been still alive, nobody might have dared to attack me that brutally," she said.
Vu found Sa while she was crying. She intended to run away, but he had success-fully kept her back.
"Why are you going to avoid me?" he asked her. Saying so, he pulled her to his side. She fell into his warm arms safe and sound.
Soon both of them went uphill after his herd of cows. It was there she went away in search of firewood, whereas he picked herbal leaves to process them into his medicament to serve the poor. Time and again, he offered her some wild flowers. She smiled broadly for the first time.
"Why don't you come sit closer to me?" he asked her. Sa remained seated on a large rock. She bent her head down, covered her knees with the patterns of her multi-coloured skirt.
The evening sun set slowly behind the mountain peaks. They returned home behind the cows. The whole valley was submerged in the yellow sunshine. Her fine skirt danced gracefully with each of her footsteps. On their way home, he played his leaf-made flute for her to enjoy. She smiled, though she did not catch the meanings of its melodies very much.
Sa followed her father into the house, step by step. In the meantime her mother was busy cooking. Noticing her presence, the old woman rushed out, eyes brimming with tears. She seized Sa's hands then sat down on the ground in the courtyard. Her sister-in-law also followed her into the house. Inside, their father remained beside the empty mug of rice wine.
"My beloved Sa, you must get married as soon as posssible," the old man told her. "Now that you've reached puberty. It's inconvenient for us to keep you at home so long," he added.
She looked at her father, eyes in tears. He poured out another mugful of rice wine and drank it up. Her sister-in-law led her out. She knew that Sa was quite disappointed.
"Whom does Dad want to marry Sa to?" she whispered to herself. "Did that guy really fall in love with her?" many questions came to her mind.
By chance, Sa came to know that that youth was none other than Phay, the dirty guy who had raped her that day at the slope. "I'd rather die than marry him," Sa thought.
"Our parents know that terrible incident that came to you at the slope. 'The die is cast' goes an age-old saying you see, and we couldn't do otherwise when Phay had declared in public that you are no longer a pure forest flower," she assuaged her younger sister-in-law.
Sa went in search of Vu. He was not in, neither was he on the hill. And the herd of cows was nowhere to be seen.
Finding her daughter's homecoming, the old mother felt very happy. Now the whole village sank in the dark. Sa's mother began putting the fire out. Her father was sleeping in his bedroom. Her sister-in-law fell asleep, back leaning against the door and her little girl Nhi was dozing off soundly on her mother's lap. In the meantime, Sa was unable to sleep due to the nightmare coming to her that night.
Walking slowly in the dark she felt the strong wind slash her face rather painfully. Coming nearer to Vu's hut she saw it now in flame. When she reached it she found him lying motionless on the ground, clothes stained with blood and mud. Suddenly, he opened his eyes wide. Staring at Sa, he uttered something unclear to her. She screamed loudly. That was the first time in her life she had expressed her ideas in words. He lay silently in her arms. Villagers came to his place, crowding around. Some tried to extinguish the fire while some others went out in search of the lost animals.
"This was done by the drug-addict gang," remarked one of them. In the meantime, the wind kept blowing stronger and stronger with every passing minute. Suddenly, she was haunted by what had happened to her at the slope that day, when the sunbeams darted slantingly over the mountain peaks. On the path meandering among the high hills, the multi-coloured skirts of many Mong girls, followed by carrying horses, went home in the brilliant light at sunset.
Translated by Van Minh