|Illustration by Đào Quốc Huy|
by Nguyễn Thu Hằng
“Another guy’s going to kill himself by plunging into the river!” Nhâm shouted when she saw a young man climbing over the bridge rail while she was washing soya beans at the wooden pier over her pond. Immediately, she hurriedly made a shortcut across the lawn to the bridge. “Mr. So and So, keep calm. Don’t be that distraught with grief!” Making three strides ahead she reached him and then hugged him tightly. “Why do you act so crazily? Every trouble would be solved sooner or later.
The young man stared at her in bewilderment. Watching him carefully, she found that the left part of his trousers dangled over the knee of his amputated leg. On his face a long scar ran from his left cheek to his ear lobe. His hair was covered with dew. With all her strength, she lifted him down with a heavy thud. “Ouch! You’ve made me hurt terribly,” he shouted.
“I’m very sorry. You seem heavier than I thought,” she said, rubbing her hands, one after another.
“How strong you are!”
“If I’m weak, how could I lift you over the rail?” she retorted. “To the final analysis, what’s the use of dying? Ruin your life in vain! As an ugly woman I still crave for a long life in loneliness, though. Think of it over. How could you deprive yourself of your life so easily?” she added.
“So, you thought I want to die young?”
“Obviously, you did want it. Otherwise, why did you climb over the bridge rail?”
He stared at her first then in a few seconds, he said softly, “When I reached the bridge, I also thought of death at first. Yet, on second thought, if I died, would I be admitted into paradise? Who’d weep for my miserable fate? Could my soul return to my native place every year, and so on?”
“Lady, for me, thinking of death doesn’t mean I’m tired of life. On the contrary, the more I think of death, the more I expect to live longer.”
“Sheer nonsense! You’d better return home to the arms of your dears.”
While he was going to stand up, she tried to help him keep firm with his walking stick. Behind the village clusters of bamboo, the sun began rising up slowly and soon dried the morning dew. The wind strongly blew at their backs. Swarms of bees started sucking pistils. And far away some boys were leading their water buffalos, oxen and cows to the grassland for grazing.
“I’m too ugly, aren’t I?” she asked him. “Paradoxically, my ugliness could make lots of women feel easy-going,” she went on.
“You really are a jovial girl!”
“Not to mince matters, others reason differently, ‘Why do we feel bored to death in comparison with her, they might say’? Do you think so?”
“In reality you look…”
“You mean that I’m not that ugly, don’t you?” she asked, bursting out laughing.
“Excuse me, what’s your name?”
“Hmm, just call me Soya Bean.”
* * *
The old Tý couple were drinking hot tea on their wooden sofa. The husband slowly ate some a soya bean cakes.
At the sight of their daughter in indecent clothes, he said to her, “Nhâm, let your elder brother Hải supervise the group of workers. As for you, you’d wash yourself carefully first, put on your beautiful clothes then prepare a good meal to welcome our guest.”
“Dad, but I haven’t got any decent-looking pieces of clothing.”
Waving a hand to his wife, he said to her, “Open your trunk and choose a suit I bought in Saigon during my pleasure trip to the South and gave it to Nhâm to wear.”
“Dad, I think it isn’t suitable for cooking.”
“Don’t worry! Vn, your elder sister-in-law, will help you put on your make-up. Hurry up or else it’ll be too late for us to receive our visitor,” he urged Nhâm. “If this case comes to nothing, Nhâm would be an old spinster,” he exclaimed bitterly.
“Remember to smile gently to have grace. If you smile broadly, you’ll show your upper gums,” Vân advised her younger sister.
“The point is whether fortune would smile upon me or not!” Nhâm whispered to herself. “Anyhow, let’s wait and see,” she assuaged herself.
The first suitor
“If this meeting is successful, I’ll give the go-between a gold necklace,” Nhâm’s mother said to her. Her first suitor, nicknamed Đo-the-Buck-Teeth, was an ice-cream vendor in the adjacent village. When the courting couple was chatting at the foot of a mango tree, he said he wanted to enjoy a few ripe fruits. Immediately she climbed up the tree, picked a whole cluster of mangos and let them fall to his face. Poor him, his forehead was hurt terribly. Flying into a rage, his mother dragged him home.
The second, two years later
“Is this Miss Nhâm’s house?” asked a strange voice.
Nhâm rushed out of the workshop, face reddened due to the oven heat. Picking up a big pair of scissors, she shouted:
“Who are you? Why are you making so much fuss?”
“I’m Nhâm, the son of Mr Tý in the next commune,” he answered. “I was told that there’s a spinster in this family. So I’ve come here to take her in marriage. You’re her employee, aren’t you? Please ask her out to meet me,” he added.
While he was, with one lame leg, going to lead his bicycle in, a big dog rushed out, snorting loudly. He quickly retreated behind her.
“What a fierce dog! Take it away, please,” he told her.
“What do you mean?” she asked angrily, showing her clenched teeth.
“You look as surly as your pet!”
“Shut up! Get out of here at once,” she shouted, brandishing her scissors.
After turning back, he cursed her noisily.
A group of bridge builders asked Mr. Tý if they could rent part of his compound during their work process. He agreed with their proposal because his two storehouses were still empty.
“Ok, the more the merrier! In addition to extra income, we might have, God willing, a suitable son-in-law as well!” the old man whispered to himself.
Soon, Nhâm fell in love with a foreman of the bridge workers called Tuyên. One evening he had a date with her.
“Ms. Nhâm, have you got a lover?”
“Who’s fond of such an ugly woman as me?” she replied in confusion.
“On the contrary, my men remark that you would be a perfect wife. By chance, may I ask you for one thing, just one?”
“I’m ready to help you, if possible.”
“In fact, we’re too busy to cook. Can you hire a helper for us?”
“Why not me! Just get meat or fish together with vegetables and some ingredients. I’ll do the cooking for you. Anyhow, we’re grateful to you. When you complete the bridge, our residents will miss you very much.”
Owing to the fact that Tuyên did not have to spend any time on meals and on shopping, he usually played a few games of chess with the landlord while eating his green soya bean cakes and sipping some hot cups of tea. In the meantime, Nhâm often washed his dirty clothing or mended his torn pieces of clothing.
One day, an accident happened to Tuyên. While he was guiding his workers to mix concrete, a big part of the scaffolding came down to him. He was taken to hospital at once. After many months of treatment, he recovered and returned to his normal job. In the inauguration ceremony of the bridge the invitees were Nhâm and her father.
“This is the nurse who took care of me during my hospital treatment,” Tuyên said, introducing a pretty girl standing beside him to the old man. “By chance, we invite both of you to attend our wedding early next month,” he implored.
Hardly had she begun leaving the place, when she was kept back by his father. “This is the main financial sponsor for our bridge,” he told her. “It was the wounded American sailor whose left arm had been cut off by me as a first-aid measure before he was taken to our field hospital when his QT-1 warship sank to the bottom of the river by our heavy mortars. Now he returns here to attend the bridge-clearing ceremony. This afternoon he will, together with Tuyên and his sweetheart, come to us for dinner,” he added.
That afternoon, Nhâm prepared the meal with tears.
* * *
Nhâm, just stay at home. I’ll go out to welcome my new guest,” Mr. Tý said to her.
“Curiously, why do you have to do so? Why can’t the invitee come here by himself?” she asked.
“Because he’s a special guest. I’ll tell you his conditions in detail later.”
“Strangely enough, you’ve just come back home after a long trip to visit the sites of your old battlefields in the South. Now why do you have to go away so hurriedly?” she asked him.
“Because of my old age, I want to let you and your brother run the company instead of me, my beloved daughter,” he replied.
“Yes Dad! How dare I hinder your ambitions? I’ll just stay alone here for good to continue your career.”
After saying something to his wife, the old man started a new adventure.
Again, Nhâm was engrossed in making soya bean cake.
“Take it easy, my dear! You’d be a supervisor rather than a worker. Or else your health would soon turn worse,” her mother warned.
“If I don’t do my best who among them willingly helps us to fulfill our plan?”
“OK, go it alone. What a stubborn girl!”
* * *
Two months later, the old man came back home.
“Dear Nhâm, come here and help me.”
“Just a moment, Dad.”
“Hurry up or else our guest would have his leg more tired.”
To her surprise, her father’s guest was none other than the guy whose life she had saved on the bridge that day. Perhaps he also recognised his rescuer!
“Help Brother Bình get in, my dear daughter,” the old man told her.
Bean cakes were served. The newcomer drank tea and ate cake without standing on ceremony.
“How do you find the product of our hometown of Hải Dương?”
“Very delicious, Sir.”
A few minutes later Mr Tý told his daughter about his trip to his former battlefields with their critical days.
“If Bình hadn’t been brave enough and good at driving during the trip, our jeep would have fallen into a deep abyss,” he said to her. “As luck would have it, the vehicle crashed into a steep cliff. Luckily, only a few of us were hurt slightly. As for the driver, he was taken to the Vietnam-Germany Hospital due to serious injuries. Poor him, while waiting for an operation, he only cried loudly and wanted to die!” he concluded.
“Try to tide over these terrible moments,” I assuaged his fears. “To die isn’t that easy. I’ll take you home and my daughter will take care of you for your whole life,” I said further.
“For me, leading a disabled life is tantamount to death,” Bình complained bitterly. “Moreover, I still have an old and weak mother to support. What can I do in such conditions?” he muttered.
“Be my son-in-law and everything will be all right. You’ll have lots of things to do in my place. Don’t worry!” said the old man.
“How can you say so?” Nhâm objected to her father’s promise.
Turning to Nhâm first then to her father, Bình said in a serious voice, “I’m afraid that Miss Nhâm would regard me merely as a waste!”
“Oh no! There’s no such a thing. So, you’ve agreed to my suggestion,” declared the old man.
* * *
The moon rose high in the sky and cast a silver light on the river, over the courting couple and the green carpet of grass. Sitting there, Nhâm did not say anything. She just picked up some leaves of grass and nibbled at them slowly.
“My dear Soya Bean Cake, why don’t you say anything to me?” he asked.
“What else would I say?”
“Well, you’d say that you agree to marry me.”
“Yet, my Dad has implied that.”
“However, I wish that you’d express it yourself.”
“OK, I’m going to say that I’ll never let you stand on the bridge like that again.”
“Yes, I do promise that! Mind those leaves of grass, they might make your mouth nice and cold with the dew. A lot of dew tonight! It smells like bean too.”
Translated by Văn Minh