|Illustration by Do Dung
by Nguyen Lap Em
We all want to experience a stable, happy life; all the unpredictabilities, hardships and miseries are what fate brings to us beyond expectation. Yet, after many years living peacefully with his wife and children in a rustic life, my uncle Hai left his house to start living a swashbuckler's life.
His wife guessed her husband wanted to go with some rice sellers. She felt worried about it as in her eyes, these rice sellers were not good men. Once my uncle Hai complained:
"I'm so sad"
"You see, we work our fingers to the bone all year round without having a day off. So how can we change our lives?"
"If we have a life similar to Mr Nam's, the rice seller, it would be good" - Uncle Hai said to his wife.
His wife listened to him with discontentment. The guy Nam, the rice seller, had a real name of Nam Meo. He wore better clothes and was a spend thrift. In her eyes, he was a tricky and debauched man. Even though he had two or three wives, he could flirt with any girl he encountered. Upon hearing that her husband wished to be like Nam Meo, she said in an angry voice:
"You are very different from him. If you want to be like him, do follow him. I don't care!"
Yet, having seen her husband going with Nam Meo, she said, crying:
"I said it because I did not want him to go. To my surprise, he has gone with him anyway!
Then she ran quickly to the river and looked toward the boat landing where Nam Meo used to dock his boat. It was deserted there. Nam Meo's boat had been gone for quite a time. They should have gone for quite a distance.
"Your father had sold rice to have money and gone with that guy Nam Meo, you know!" - She said to her children. Her neighbours came and consoled her:
"Mr Hai has followed Nam Meo, not followed any girl, so don't worry, please! He'll be back in a few days"
"If he follows Nam Meo, he will follow some girl one day! Oh, good heavens! Such an old man is having an Indian summer, you see!"
"Mr Hai returned home after such a trip with Nam Meo after two days and one night. He brought home a new black felt hat and said it was for his son Thang and a pair of plastic shoes for her youngest daughter.
"Where did you go?" - His wife asked
"Just to go and enjoy the view of Sai Gon!"
"Why don't you say anything to me?"
"Do you think I could go easily if I said it to you?"
She heaved a deep sigh as if she were releasing all her worries from her heart when her husband was away from home without any trace for two days. For her, his being home was nothing but good for her. His son Thang and some of us tried to learn about his trip. We all wanted to know what he had done in two days. In the end of the day, uncle Hai had let the cat out of the bag when his wife was not at home. Everything began in an afternoon….
He was a farmer. His hands were full all day. Yet, one afternoon, he had nothing to do. He sat there alone, looking into the river at those green duckweeds floating past. Suddenly he thought about human life, which was like those duckweeds that drifted to nowhere in this world. He looked at himself, thinking he had lived in this land almost his whole life and the farthest place he had gone was the district town. So he wished he could see more things in a faraway land and he thought about Nam Meo and his boat. They had talked in secret about something. And at two o'clock in the morning, Uncle Hai had gone with Nam Meo on his boat.
To our surprise, we wondered why such an old man as Uncle Hai could aspire to go and discover something new. He had sold forty bushels of rice for the trip to Sai Gon. It was a special event in his life. We were so eager to listen to his story. Uncle Hai began.
"You know, Nam Meo is a crook!"
"He told me that he had a wife, an owner of a beer house in Sai Gon. He said to me that he would take me there. When the boat was racing on the river, it stopped in the middle. I thought there was something wrong with the machine. I intended to get up and see what happened when I heard a female voice. It seemed to me that the woman was in another small boat that was getting closer to his boat. Then the woman said: "You planned to go for several days in those dirty clothes, didn't you?" "Look, the money is in that pocket, be careful, or it will drop". The woman kept silent upon hearing the money. After that Nam Meo restarted the boat and they went on. After a few more hours, he again docked the boat and sent some dirty clothes and money to another woman. Then he went again, smiling:
'This money is for our return trip, you know!'
'Did you have any dirty clothes for your wife in Sai Gon?' - I asked.
He shook his head, saying with a deadpan face:
"The city women don't want to wash our clothes, so I have another 'miracle' for her!"
His son Thang interrupted his father, asking:
"What's the miracle, dad?"
"No, no need to know" - Uncle Hai said curtly.
Uncle Hai stopped there. We all dispersed for another occasion. Later I found out that all through his story, uncle Hai did not touch anything about Sai Gon, as if he had never been there. I thought he wanted to keep it for himself. From then on, I tried to read Uncle Hai's mind.
My house was a garden away from Uncle Hai's. We lived on the same patch of land left behind by our grandfather. I found that sometimes Uncle Hai looked toward the river in deep thought. I was on tenterhooks, because Uncle Hai could make another swashbuckler's trip! I wonder if his wife could bear it when he did it. As a relative of his, I was really worried about it.
One day, when we were transplanting the rice plants, I ventured to ask him:
"Uncle Hai, do you plan to go to Sai Gon again?"
"That's enough, isn't it?"
"I did not know what Sai Gon was like then"
"So…. Where did you go then?"
"To…. Sai Gon!"
Having seen my surprise, Uncle Hai burst out laughing. When we took a rest, Uncle Hai told me not to say it to anyone and he revealed the secret.
"…. The boat arrived in Sai Gon that afternoon. Nam Meo took me to his food shop which looked neglected. It was near the river side. The shop served only truck drivers, boat owners and the like. But it had bathrooms, and even lodging rooms for overnight boarders. Having had a bath, Nam Meo took me to a table:
"Let's have some drinks before my wife comes to say 'Hello' to you"
"…. I saw a young girl, of my son Thang's age, amid those heavily made-up girls. The girl stood in the corner of the kitchen. I asked Nam Meo who that girl was and he said that she was a helping hand for his wife. It seemed to me that the girl looked sad. Nam Meo told me that she was from the countryside and her parents were very poor. A few months before, her mother fell ill and could not afford money to buy medicine and they borrowed money from Nam Meo. Then they could not pay him, so they had to send their daughter to work for him as a housemaid.
I thought hard over it. Such a human fate! Among us peasants, there were also a lot of poor peasants. Then I thought Sai Gon looked so magnificent, but it also had the rich and the poor living in it. It was so sad! I sat there, drinking a lot of alcohol with Nam Meo until it got dark without notice. Then Nam Meo said he was tired and wanted to go to bed early. His wife came to meet me and said that there was a room for me. I went to the room, but could not sleep.
"And what happened, uncle?"
"I lay there until midnight. All of a sudden, I heard noises outside and a girl was crying. I got out of the room and saw that girl sitting there, crying, and the shop was closed. I signaled her to the table and asked her the reason why. It turned out that some guy had got into her room and wanted to deflower her. But she was able to run away. I asked her why she did not scream. She said the owner did not allow her to shout, or she would reduce her pay. This had happened to her many times.
'Why don't run away to your home village?' - I asked.
'But uncle Nam knows my house. If I do that, he will come and demand the debt my parents own him. So I try to bear it until we can pay him all the debt'
Then I told the girl to keep calm and I would think of a way to help her. That night I sat in the middle of the shop and waited for daybreak. In the morning, siting over a cup of coffee with Nam Meo, I told him that I wanted to redeem the girl.
'Which girl, brother Hai?'
'Is it that girl Thom?'
'Yes, it's she!'
Then I told him what had happened the night before Nam Meo said:
'Let me tell my wife to rearrange another room for the girl. You should keep your money for the fun and fair here'
'I don't want to have any amusement now! I want to help the girl and then I will go back to my village'
After a few moments, Nam Meo called Thom to see him.
'Uncle Hai wants to pay your debt, so do you want to go back to your village?'
'Yes, I do!'
Fortunately I had enough money to pay him to redeem the girl. After that Thom and I took a tri-shaw to the bus station. I gave some more money for her to go back to her home village.
On the way home, I thought that if I saved Thom, that guy Nam Meo could get another girl and things would happen again. Life in this world was very difficult and many other girls from poor rural areas had to go to the cities to earn money by selling their bodies. I was trembling thinking about it!"
"Do you believe what I told you?" - Uncle Hai asked me.
Then Uncle Hai laughed aloud in confidence and satisfaction. I was certain that Uncle Hai was fully happy with what he had done. And I believed in what he had told me about his short journey.
Translated by Manh Chuong