Viet Nam News
by La Thị Ánh Hường
Life seemed a very thick book whose pages could be turned over and over for hours. So did the affection between humans. It was similar to a debt that none of us might climb out of.
“Mum, I’ve made up my mind to give birth to a baby out of wedlock,” read a message displayed on Linh’s cellphone screen that she intended to send to her mother. Following this, she planned to write her many more encouraging remarks as follows: “Our society is now more open-minded than it was yesterday”, or “No more prejudice against an unmarried young girl with child”, or “You won’t feel ashamed of my pregnancy when meeting our neighbours, when I’m far, far away from you”, or “Don’t worry about me because I can manage everything here myself”, and so on. But on second thought, Linh only put down a short explanation on the display of her handset. The reason was, in her opinion, that her mother would hardly grasp their meaning because she has not been herself since the day her husband gave her up.
Like so many other young men of their village, Linh’s father went away during a period of hunger to try his luck at a promising gold mine in a faraway mountainous cave when Linh’s little sister had just seen the light. That was the motivating force for him to embark on such a risky adventure. In the meantime, her mother at home was afraid because she could hardly afford enough milk for the baby. Each time her husband returned home to visit his little family, she only wished to keep him back.
“You’d better stay here beside us with what we can get. Nobody here has died of starvation yet, you see,” she told him.
“Yet I can’t let our children become destitute. At any cost, I must go away to earn our daily bread,” he answered resolutely.
Then one day, at the news of her husband’s death at the gold mine, she became so depressed that she was taken to a dispensary nearby to be treated. It was there she went into a coma until his funeral was over. Upon her recovery, she was not quite herself. She had lots of fun. Furthermore, she requested to be well-dressed and well-fed. She failed to notice everybody’s surprised looks. In a word, she behaved like a child.
One morning, her little sister Thư called to inform her of the fact that a next-door neighbour had installed the internet. At once, Linh bought two smartphones for each of them. While the girl was hesitant to accept it for fear that it might cost her sister a lot of money, their mother indulged in viewing soap opera series, one after another, and humorous stories to her heart’s content all day long. When Linh’s mother asked her why neither of the two sisters had ever sent her any messages, Linh burst out laughing, explaining that with her poor eyesight, their calls were much faster than the messages sent to her. That was why Linh did not dare send her many more. Besides, she was afraid that the more her mother received, the more anxious she would become.
“That is to say messages from cellphones are of no use to me?” the old woman whispered to herself.
As for Linh, she did not want to make things more complicated for her mother on the grounds that she was hardly aware of so many cases of divorce, adultery and so many young girls who only wished to be single mums.
“If only I had stayed in the country with Mum, got married, given birth to numerous children and led a common life like Mum’s, would my life have been better?” Linh often asked herself. “If so, was my departure a grave mistake?”
In fact, Linh’s mother and sister had never intended to come stay with her in an urban area, although she had purchased a decent-looking house. Many times, whenever she felt too tired during that rat race there, she wished she could have been a plant, firmly rooted in the same place until she departs from her present existence, without any attachment to or involvement in life. “The die is cast! Maybe I couldn’t decide anything for my own life. Oh dear, are there only pangs of harassment that belong to me?” she complained.
Linh always thought that she had gone astray in the heart of this bustling city. Never had she found any source of joy there.
“You’d love a young man of your choice, marry him and have a baby with him,” said one of her close friends in a sincere voice. “How can you keep up this lifestyle for so long? For many others, they have eagerly taken another path,” chimed another one. Yet, she did not know where and when to begin after she had been taken in during a love affair that she thought she would cherish forever. Since then, she had turned her back on any young man’s attention.
* * *
As a department chief in a major company with a huge salary, she was no longer short of money. Furthermore, she did not pay attention to daily expenses at all. Yet after work, at home, she felt extremely upset due partly to her loneliness and partly to her aimless life. What made her feel wholehearted again was regularly sending home her savings after receiving her salary.
“Is there anyone like me?” she often asked herself. “None, perhaps!”
She craved the broad smile of a bread vendor at the entrance of a nearby alley whenever this petty dealer saw an oncoming buyer, or the light-hearted look of a garbage man at work every morning.
“Why have they kept clinging to life in such a dull state?” she wondered. “Is marriage so difficult a matter for me to cherish? Is it owing to the fact that I have no affection for any young man?”
In fact, Linh once told her mother about these situations. Poor her! They were all beyond her mother’s understanding. After that, the old woman was once again engrossed in humorous stories on the screen.
One morning, Thư glanced worriedly at her elder sister.
“You’d better worry about your own life,” Thư told her. “You’ve thought too much about us.”
“What about your love interest?” Linh asked her.
Thư told her sister about a local boy’s attention paid to her.
* * *
Linh’s mother was taken to a local clinic when she started vomiting blood and showing symptoms of oedema.
“Your mother suffers from kidney disease in the last stage,” the doctor said after examining her.
“Doctor, would you mind telling her that her illness isn’t serious at all?” Linh entreated him. After that, she requested that her mother be taken to the municipal hospital so that she might go to work as usual while seeing to her mother’s health.
“Frankly speaking, she should be taken home as soon as possible because her case is too grave. If we treat her here with our kidney machine, she will have a couple of months to live at most,” he advised her sincerely.
However, Linh made up her mind to take a few months’ unpaid leave for the care of her ailing mother in hospital.
“Why am I still here? At home the wifi connection seems stronger,” she said to Linh.
“Mum, the atmosphere here is more comfortable, I think.”
“Look at my hands, dear. They aren’t as slender as yours,” said Linh’s mother. Linh caressed her inordinately chubby fingers and felt greatly grievous.
Starting out on her career in this city by herself was not an easy matter. She met a lot of problems. Now, her mother’s acute disease made her all the more unbearable, although the kidney machine worked effectively every two days.
That day Linh pondered her decision to give birth for a long while. She would be bound by similar affection. She could hardly lead a life of her own. She would work as strong as a horse to earn a great fortune for her child’s future. At that time, Linh would no longer worry about loneliness because she would have no idle moments. She would undergo a whole gamut of feelings. She would share both the happiness and sufferings of her child. When he grew up, he would highly appreciate her deep affection for him. On the whole, life seemed to be countless pages of a novel; so did affection. It was similar to a debt that could hardly be paid off.
* * *
After the death of her mother, Linh became deeply depressed. All seemed meaningless to her.
“As a final analysis, what does this life mean to me?” she asked herself. “What is man’s existence for? Is it a fact that man is born just to pay the debt owed to others?”
* * *
Linh woke up after many days lying like a top in bed. She could hardly recognise herself in the mirror. She looked pale and haggard. “What will I be in years to come?” she said to herself.
As hungry as a hunter, she walked into the kitchen to look for something to eat. To her surprise, a tray of food was available on the table. Next to it was a note that Thư had left for her. “I must go home with Mum, since I’m unable to let her soul stay alone at home. Take care of yourself, my dear sister,” said the short letter. After eating like a horse, Linh looked for a phone to call her little sister. She found one cellphone whose battery had already gone dead because it had been left untouched for a long time. At once, she dusted it off then recharged it once again. Surprisingly, it worked properly. Just half an hour later, it was filled to capacity. She switched it on, then glanced at the display. It was there she saw a brief, long-awaited message. Strangely enough, it was her mother’s last piece of advice.
“Don’t cry, my beloved and well-behaved daughter,” it said.
Translated by Văn Minh