Viet Nam News
by Nguyên Hương
I frequently recalled the special stories, told by the old woman in a peculiar voice, about her imaginary journeys up to the mountain and down to the sea, which I guessed she had often seen in her dreams. Surprisingly, all the localities in her narratives, high and low, spanned a distance much shorter than that between two places in the house: her hammock downstairs and her husband’s altar upstairs.
On the early days as a housemaid in her place, I’d never forget that while she was sunbathing alone in the courtyard one morning, upon my arrival, she followed me right away into the kitchen when she saw me enter the building. At first, I thought that she was watching over me closely by order of the landlady, her eldest daughter, on the grounds that I was only a part-time helper who had found this job from an ad in a local newspaper when I had just finished my business course at the municipal university. “All the better,” I said to myself. “If something goes missing, it would be due to a clever trick of a dishonest thief who might have mingled with the newly-wedded couples in need of some photos to mark their greatest event in a lifetime taken by my noted landlord-cum-photographer,” I thought further.
Soon, I discovered that my guess proved completely wrong.
“How could this old and weak woman perform her duties properly when she’s unable to stand up for a few minutes, let alone to find her slippers lying close to her feet under her hammock easily?” I thought to myself.
* * *
The ground floor of the landlady’s three-storeyed house was divided into two compartments. The large outer section facing the street was used as a shop window for bridal gowns and photos, whereas the smaller one was set apart for her mother’s bedroom and family kitchen. The landlord was only a roaming amateur in photography who, after teaching his wife all the skills of the trade, went here and there to catch precious and rare glimpses of the country’s landscapes. This married couple had two children: a boy of fourteen and a girl of sixteen. Both of them were students of a boarding school. Their mother was both a self-manager and a salon stylist at the shop. She went out more frequently than she stayed home in order to run her business.
“This old woman must be very sad due to nostalgia,” I thought to myself at first. My reasoning was that on those days, there were a lot of tragic stories carried by the press about many old people being taken to urban areas to live with their sons and daughters for more comfortable reunions. Unfortunately, most of them had led an unhappy life beyond the expectations of their dears. All were due to their alien environments.
Contrary to my poor judgement, I later learned her situation was absolutely different. The old woman used to be an industrious and clever seller in the local market for 30 years, where she earned a living as a petty vendor of little things like sweets, biscuits and snacks for kids at school or on the playgrounds. Not until one day when she was terribly tortured by serious disease due to old age did she make up her mind to sell her own house for good. After that, she divided the fortune into five parts. Four parts went to her daughters as part of the inheritance, and the rest she kept for a rainy day. She then came to live with her eldest daughter, the former landlady of the house she sold. Prior to their decision to let her come stay with the landlady, they also decided to help her run a petty business at home to keep her healthy on the one hand and prevent her from feeling lonely while at work on the other.
Poor her, owing partly to her bad memory and old age, and partly to her poor eyesight, she mismanaged her work, resulting in a great loss before she stopped it for good. Now she was quite free. Whenever she felt fairly well, she went to the market to enjoy its bustling atmosphere, taste her favourite foods and, last but not least, chat with her friends in the same situation.
Outwardly, she was said to live on the success of her son-in-law. That was one of her troubles. Another was the fact that the seat for her husband’s altar, due to the local customs and habits for sacred worshipping items, had to be placed in the home of the eldest son of the family. Of course, this matter meant nothing to her when it stood in the heart of her own simple house. But when rumour had it that her dwelling would lie very close to a new magnificent market within the planned area of the locality, its value skyrocketed. Consequently, she sold it and gave each of her four daughters a great sum of money for them to build a house of their own. That was the reason why she came to stay with her eldest daughter. Sadly, that decision ran counter to the matter of creed and a lot of troubles began to occur. At last, the final and decisive solution was that the altar should go to the second floor of the elder sister’s house, whereas the ground floor was set apart for the convenience of family business.
* * *
My daily household chores here were to do the washing left from the previous evening, clean and tidy the three floors, do the laundry and hang it out to dry on the roof terrace.
While I was tidying her bedroom and kitchen, she often told me a lot of stories, even the narratives of her own life, or stories from TV programmes, one after another, with her cloudy eyes thanks to my control over the set. Surprisingly, the items she liked the best were the Discovery channel and original programmes on events in faraway lands.
“Is there any interesting programme today, madam?” I asked her one evening.
“Only one about a lame mountain climber,” she answered in such an admiring voice.
* * *
That day, it was so cold that she had to wrap herself up in a thick blanket inside the hammock. Worse still, she had been unable to watch TV.
“Madam, you’re very tired, aren’t you?” I asked her.
“Yes, indeed. My eyes were so blurred that I could hardly see the pictures clearly.”
All of a sudden, her daughter came in. “Why don’t you lie further inside the room to get warmer?” she asked her mother.
“It’s OK here, my dear,” she muttered.
“Make a cupful of ginger tea for her,” the landlady told me. I stared at the old woman. She also glanced at me. We both smiled secretly.
“Well, have you had breakfast yet, my dear niece?” she asked me.
“Yes, Grannie! Just a few minutes ago.”
“What did you eat?”
“Sticky rice as usual, madam.”
“Ah, the same as yesterday and the day before yesterday?”
“Absolutely right, madam.”
“Hmm, not too bad! Anyhow, it’s fairly cheap and nutritious enough as well. Now, come closer to me. I want to ask you something right now,” she ordered.
I approached her at once. To my amazement, she stealthily put two banknotes of 20,000 đồng into my hand.
“Thanks anyway Grannie, but I dare not accept them.”
Looking at the doorway, she whispered to me, “Why? This note is for your breakfast of beef noodles starting tomorrow. The other should be used to buy small pouches of rustic tobacco, which I’ll use on the first and fifteenth dates of each lunar month,” she insisted.
I guessed that she did not want her daughter to know the intended purpose of her money.
* * *
One afternoon, when I reached the shop I saw the landlady making up a pretty bride-to-be.
“Come in to make a glass of milk for my mother if she has already woken up,” she told me.
In fact, the old woman was sitting on a chair instead of lying in the hammock as usual. Hearing our talk, she tidied her hair and pulled the flap of her blouse straight.
I handed her a pouch of rustic tobacco. Holding it tightly, she dragged me closer to her and whispered.
“Your shop owner is tending to a customer, isn’t she?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s right, madam.”
Again she told me softly, “That work will take her quite a long while. Taking advantage of her business, please take me upstairs?”
Her request surprised and embarrassed me greatly.
Habitually, on the first and fifteenth dates of the lunar month, my shop owner brought home a lot of apples, pears, grapes and other kinds of fruit to mark the events.
“Mum, today on the occasion of the first date of the lunar month, I’ve bought these fruits to pay homage to dad,” she told her old mother before going upstairs.
By now, in face of the old woman’s proposal, I was on tenterhooks. In my mind’s eye, I pictured her slowly ascending the staircase, one step at a time, with a clumsy gait for a few seconds before falling down…
“The altar of my ill-fated husband is situated in the middle of the second floor, you see,” she whispered to me. “It’s too high for me to reach. That’s why over the past few months, I’ve been unable to burn a few joss sticks in memory of him with my own hands. Poor him, when he was still alive, he used to enjoy smoking rustic tobacco very much,” she went on in an excited voice while she looked around anxiously.
The disclosure of her husband’s former habit deeply moved me, because in my hometown, my father also smoked that special kind of tobacco.
At last, I did as I was told.
I tried to lift her upstairs with all my strength. Her feet seemed rather stiff when she put them, one after another, on the steps with difficulty.
“Ouch, ouch!” she cried out with short groans of pain and breathed heavily. Sometimes, she had to stop while her hands still held my arms tightly. Reaching the second floor, I could hear her heart going pit-a-pat. I saw her face was full of sweat. However, a wide smile opened on her thick lips.
I burnt a few joss sticks then handed them all to her. She planted the dimly lit pieces into the middle of the incense burner with her trembling hand.
“For a long time I’ve been unable to burn a few joss sticks to pay homage to your immortal soul,” she said. “Today I’m offering you some rustic tobacco for you to enjoy. I’ll do the same, among other things, in memory of your death anniversary every year to pray that God blesses you. Although our elder daughter is very pious, she prevents me from offering it to you because, in her opinion, it’s harmful. What’s more, I’m too weak to go upstairs to pray for you frequently. Forgive me and don’t be sad about that,” she added, sweeping her hand over his portrait on the altar, eyes in tears. In the meantime, incense smoke curled up to the ceiling then slowly fell. It made my eyes itchy.
“Grannie, let’s go downstairs, shall we?” I said to her. “Or else my landlady might reprimand me severely.”
“I think so.” However, she lingered for a few minutes before leaving the family shrine.
To my amazement, going downstairs was much more troublesome because her weight became a great burden on me. Her feet seemed likely to slip on the steps. Meanwhile, my hands ached terribly as I had to cling to the rail of the staircase and hold her firmly around the shoulder with my tired arm. It seemed to me that we were trying to release each other, one away from the other. Our bodies were soon drenched in sweat.
“Oh dear, Mum…” the shop owner shouted loudly from the foot of the staircase. Her cry of surprise made me stupefied.
* * *
“Tiến, come here quickly to bring my old mother downstairs,” she called her assistant in an anxious voice.
Being well aware of the situation, the young man jumped up two steps at a time to reach us. At last, he let my arm go. In a few seconds he succeeded in taking her downstairs safe and sound.
“I’ve told you for the umpteenth time not to do anything risky. Fortunately for us, I’m on time to save your life. What would happen to us when you try to go upstairs only to burn a few joss sticks? Have I ever misbehaved against you? I’d have been ashamed of myself and lost face with the housemaid if anything would have gone wrong. What’s more, our neighbours would have laughed at me if they learned I had mistreated you so brutally. “‘How can she have the heart to torture her old mother that mercilessly’, some of them might say,” she reproached her mother in a bitter voice full of anger.
The old woman stayed motionless in the hammock. Her tight-fisted hands full of blue veins remained on her chest.
Tiến had already walked out.
“Hey Tiến, from now on I’ll pay you 2 million đồng a month so that you can carry my mother upstairs on your back for her daily ritual service,” the landlady told him. After that, she warned me sternly, “Will you take responsibility for my mother’s serious injuries if she falls down the stairs?”
“Madam, please forgive me,” I mumbled in a repentant voice. All of a sudden, I remembered the pouch of tobacco left on the altar and started to worry.
“If she found it there, what would come of me?” I thought to myself.
I often recalled the idle moments when the old woman told me stories here and there. I guessed that she often dreamt of the trips up to the mountain and down to the sea. Come what may, I thought, the distance between any of them and her dwelling-house was surely much shorter than that between her hammock and her husband’s altar.
Once, while passing by the municipal cultural house, I saw the shop owner’s husband in front of an imposing building where a painting exhibition on the theme of the fairer sex was being held. Out of curiosity, I stepped in. I gazed at the exhibit in admiration. These pictures depicted women, young and old, in different living conditions: an ethnic girl in her late teens carrying her little child on her back on the way to the market; a middle-aged farmer working diligently in the middle of her salt marsh in the scorching heat; a female vendor walking wearily along the tiled pavement strewn with yellow leaves, and so on and so forth. But what struck me most was the one portraying an elderly lady with hoary hair partly dyed yellow in brocaded clothing who was sunbathing happily in the front courtyard.
Translated by Văn Minh