|Illustration by Do Dung
by Phan Dinh Minh
Whenever the lasting Lunar July rain came, Ngoc had to give lectures at the university branch in Can Tho for two weeks. So the care of her sons Ot and Mang was in the hands of her father-in-law Mr Tran and her husband Nam. But could these two men take care of other house chores like going to the market, cooking and attending the parents' meetings at the children's school? That was another thing entirely. At the same time, Mr Tran, a taciturn and gentle man, still took great interest in reading books. So they had to hire a housemade named Huong. Ngoc and her husband Nam had rarely seen each other these days.
Since Nam was promoted to the Vice Dean of the Department in the university, the time for him to have dinner at home had become less and less. He became fatter and slower. Sometimes when he got home, heavily drunk, he found it difficult to take the motorbike into the house. Only Huong, the house maid, could help him untie his shoes, wash his face and hands and put him to bed. His feeling of being cared by his wife had gradually faded from his mind.
Since Huong appeared in the house, Mr Tran was no longer seen standing by the window at one o'clock in the morning looking down the street. Most of the house chores had been done by her. Ngoc had more spare time and the family members felt less dependent on each other.
….. Three years had gone by and house maid Huong was 19 years of age. She did not grow much, but she became a fully grown girl. She looked more attractive in those flowered pajamas. Whenever Nam went home in a dead-drunk state, the house maid Huong was the only person to help him get into the house and tend to him. Day in and day out, Nam felt thirsty for her smell and her solid body. Every morning, he got up and found his clothes had been ironed, his shoes shined and his hair sprayer placed ready for use before he went to teach in the university. Nam looked smarter than the days just after he married Ngoc!
The taxi door closed and Nam was totally packaged. And again that familiar smell and solid body and the warm towel….. Nam was plunged into sleep. A strange, gentle dream came to him. He did not dream about money, about cock fighting, about everything so sweet in the past. He dreamt about another wife. What a shame for this doctor degree holder!
That warm side of a girl.
The flowered pajamas
Her rapid breath and….
Nam seemed lost in a fairy land where he was chosen as prince consort. The chubby princess came to rub her hand on Nam's cheek. Nam lived happily in that kingdom for 10 years…. Suddenly he woke up.
Nam found Huong sitting by his side. The upper part of her blouse was unbuttoned, disclosing part of that snow white chest. She withdrew upon seeing him in wide awake.
The door was half opened.
As a member of the jury for the master-degree examination for over a month, so he got drunk all the time….
Outside, Mr Tran, his father, was coughing.
Ngoc was coming home with lots of things she had bought from the minimart to prepare for the four-person meals over a fortnight, because she was going to take a delegation of lecturers from Paris Est-Creteil University of France to An Giang Province for a field trip. She was wondering why Huong was not here to help her with these things. She had to take them into the house herself. Huong was absorbed in her work in the kitchen. Ngoc had not seen Huong for a week now. Ngoc found something strange in the house maid's attitude today. But she had other fish to fry, so she did not pay attention to it. She had to prepare things for her trip tomorrow. She was still thinking about the good co-operation between her university and the French university when she heard something break.
"What's the matter, Huong?" - Ngoc asked from the fourth floor.
Huong dropped a vase Mr. Tran bought in 1973 in Czechoslovakia. Huong was collecting the broken pieces and put them into the dust pin. Then she stood there, dumbfounded.
"I'm going on a business trip for one week. Tell uncle about it!"
"Tell grandfather too!"
"Remember to ask our neighbor Dung to stop pouring water into our house from his air-conditioner."
"Why have you always said 'Yes', Huong? Are you ill?"
"Yes" - Huong replied, heaving a deep sigh.
Nam went home through the alley in silence. He tried to look for the familiar dark corner where he and his wife had in the old days often grumbled with each other for nothing. Mr. Tran looked at his son entering the house in sadness. The kitchen was vacant. Nam seemed being a stranger for the whole year. His wife and children had left him for France…..
After her homecoming from the business trip in An Giang Province, Ngoc was awfully silent. After some nights, her hair was touched with some silver strands. She looked pale and haggard. Everything in the house was arranged as usual. She gave greater care to Mr. Tran, her father-in-law. Nam was surprised at seeing his wife iron clothes every morning again, prepared his briefcase and made sure his hair spray was ready for him before he went to the university.
Nam suddenly remembered the days when his wife and children went to Paris, leaving him all alone here. Ngoc worked at Paris Est-Creteil in a co-operation project to study the Cham culture between the two universities. Then he recalled the days when they were still head over heels in love with each other. One day, it was raining hard; he stood in the alley to wait for her from the French evening class and upon seeing her, he rushed to take off his overcoat to cover her.
Yet, five years had gone by. And everything was now in the past.
Nam could cook, and bathe his father, who was very ill, and in the late afternoon, he felt sad. The small alley had borne a lot of loneliness without his wife and children by his side. Nam remembered sending emails to his wife on a regular basis. He could not leave father behind and go to France with his wife and children, he thought.
When Ngoc was in the country, surprisingly she wanted to separate from Nam, even though she knew that living in France did not make her happy at all. So many lonely nights with snow falling thick outside. Sometimes she tried to quelch her loneliness by walking along the Seine or on Champs Elysec Avenue. In the end of the day, she could understand that true freedom was how to explain it, not merely to have it.
"If you want to be free from sadness, it is impossible to sit there and nurture it with loneliness like this" - Ngoc thought. She was away from home for nearly a year. For many nights she wanted to scream or press the button "send" to send an email to him: "Words have failed me to express my loneliness here, my dear. Our children were ill or I was unable to enroll them in school because they had no visas yet, it was very bad for me, you know. I wanted to exchange my miserable past to have freedom, yet I have only the icy cold in Paris ...."
Every night, when her children went to bed, Ngoc sat there, trying to get some memorabilia from their nuptial life in the hope of having a certain energy for her ongoing life in the alien country.
It was March when Nam got to the gate and saw those red flowers of the kapok tree. He knew Ngoc loved this flower; even she liked watching the flowers falling in the afternoon. Once he ventured to ask her why she loved the kapok flower so much. She only heaved a deep sigh.
One day, Ngoc sent Nam a letter.
I am dying to have a miracle of a far-away long-awaited landing stage. But it was only a frivolous, insignficant wish without you. Eight years living far away from home is like a sad sonata with a lot of ear-splitting sounds and then the last movement gave me a lot of unbearable bitterness of waiting and waiting.
So I decided to book an air ticket home at the earliest time.
When I return home, we will look after the child together.
The road was bumpy. The village gate was very big, beyond his imagination. In the past eight years, Nam had come here several times, but he did not meet Huong. Her parents had died. From the bottom of his heart, Nam wanted to search for his child only so that he could fulfill his responsibilities, share and make up for his guilt with Huong. Through the information he could get, the little boy Du was given to a lonely, poor person as an adopted child. Nam could not find the address.
He went to see Huong's Aunt Thu.
"Aunt Thu, has Huong come to see you?"
"Yes, last month. She still works as a house maid. She told me that her mistress was on a business trip abroad for half a year, so she was busy taking care of the master and his children."
"Again the mistress was absent...."
"Oh, no. I said there was something wrong in this."
"Yes, working far from home is quite wrong. This village has got some people who have been exposed to HIV."
"Aunt, have you heard Huong mention Du? Does she remember the man who adopted the boy?"
"No, she did not say anything. I wonder if the boy Du is your son or of the old man......"
"Oh, no!" - Nam said, falling on the uneven veranda.
He felt dizzy upon hearing this and wondered why he had heard it after these eight years. After that, Nam went straight back to the city. Having reached home, he rushed upstairs to his room.
He heard Mr. Tran's coughing from the second floor. His father was lying paralysed there. Since Huong's running away, Ngoc went together with his son to France. Nam wondered if Ngoc was carrying along her iPad. In a hurry, he pressed the "send" button and found "Please cancel the trip. Ngoc". All of a sudden, there was black out in the area.
It was 1.30 a.m.
Nam felt so heavy; his limbs were irritated.
He felt like his body was breaking into pieces.
Translated by Manh Chuong