Viet Nam News
By Bùi Nguyên Ngọc
I had not taken a bus on holiday for a long time. Taking a bus on holiday is hell, but I had no other option. It was so crowded at the bus station. I had to flag down a bus on the road! I was told that doing this was very risky. Risky because people were packed like sardines inside the bus and the driver would shout at you if you said it was too packed.
I sat on a low plastic stool in the aisle. A woman’s large bottom was close to my face. She was standing in front of me. Once the bus turned a bend, my face was engrossed by her bottom. Lucky me. Next to me was a man standing against the side of the bus, embracing a woman wrapped in a blanket. She could be his wife. I couldn’t see her face, but she looked skinny. Her husband looked dead tired. I scanned the bus, looking at different faces, but the couple next to me had caught my attention. The husband kept his eyes down. I thought I should wake him up in case he had to get off somewhere soon. I lightly tapped his hand:
“Hey, where are you getting off?”
In great fear, he said:
“Oh, what? I beg your pardon?”
There was something very strange about this man. I looked into his eyes, but I could not read anything from them.
“Is your wife ill?” – I asked.
“Please, I beg your pardon….” – He looked around in great fear.
“What can I do for you?” – I said.
After hearing that, the man seemed to relax. He bowed to me, but nobody in the bus saw it. I wondered what he was scared of.
The bus was bowling along smoothly when a police officer signaled us to stop. The bus assistant jumped down and in an instant jumped back into the bus and signaled the driver to continue. I wondered what he had said to the policeman who waved us on despite how overcrowded the bus was. I looked at the old couple again. He had covered his wife’s face with a large scarf. All through the long journey, the woman had not moved, keeping her head bent on her husband’s shoulder as if she was sleeping. Suddenly, the man stepped on my foot as if he was signaling something to me. I caught his eyes but was still confused. A moment later, he whispered into my ear:
“I’m going to get off at the Lim Bridge. Would you mind helping me?”
I said to the bus assistant:
“Someone is getting off at Lim Bridge!”
I decided to get off to help him, even though my stop was in two kilometres. The bus stopped and we all got off. After a moment I realised that the woman was dead! Greatly afraid, I was about to scream when the man covered my mouth.
“Please, I am so poor that...”
I was suspicious of him, thinking that he had killed the woman because he was poor. But the man was shaking from coughing and fell flat on the ground. I was so confused. In broad daylight, I was standing by a dead body with a man lying on the ground. What could I do? I asked the man to take the woman to the other side of the road under a large tree. The man tried to get up and cried:
“Oh, my dear wife, why has this happened? Let me go with you!”
My heart melted at his unhappy state. I took a closer look at the woman and saw the scarf wrapped tightly around her. I accidentally touched her feet. They were icy cold. I felt chills all over my body. I tried to carry her legs, while her husband carried her torso across the road to the tree. The afternoon sun waxed. No human voice could be heard. No dog barking. The tranquility of the rural area reminded me that bad things can happen anywhere. I placed the woman on the root of the tree. It was cold. I looked at her face, finding dried tears in her eyes’ corners. I wondered where her children were. I ventured to ask the husband standing behind me, but he was praying to his wife and to me, saying:
“I am indebted to this person….”
I did not understand:
“Who are you indebted to?”
“If I owe money, I can repay it, but here I owe a favour, so how can I repay it?”
“What’s your job?”
“I’m a teacher, but I’ve retired!”
“What about your children?”
Having heard about children, he choked up:
“I’ve got three children, two of whom died, and a daughter who married an alcoholic.”
What a pity for him, I thought.
I did not know much about rituals for the dead, but I knew that usually there would be a bowl of steamed rice and a boiled chicken egg to worship the spirits. I looked at the woman lying there. I picked up some large leaves and some persimmons I had brought along and put them on her. I preached for her.
Having seen me, the man cried:
“Oh, dear, I owe you so much!”
I looked at the man, understanding that he was an honest man, but poor. So I consoled him:
“Do pull yourself together, please. You’ve got to organise her funeral now!”
Having heard me, he cried louder, so I had to console him again:
“Don’t cry any more, please. What happened?”
“My wife was ill and hospitalised. I sold my land for the bills, but in vain! When she died, I did not have enough money to rent a car to take her home and I had to take her onto the bus.”
“Oh, I understand now!” – I said.
The man looked away, saying:
“My home village is very poor, so I don’t have anyone to turn to”
“Everyone has a destiny of their own. You’ve tried your best for your wife, so don’t blame yourself!”
“No, I am to blame. I was late feeding her porridge, so she died of hunger!”
“You’ve got to phone your relatives to come and take her home” – I said to him.
“Please can I use your phone, I have no credit.”
I phoned his relatives and gave him all the money left in my wallet. He embraced me, crying and crying.
When the stretcher came and took the woman away, I walked alone. It was not far, but my heart was heavy with sadness. I walked quickly. It was dark already, but I continued to walk, my ears ringing with the man’s cry:
“You know, I am so poor…. so poor!”.-VNS
Translated by Mạnh Chương