Viet Nam News
By Tống Ngọc Hân
The house with four compartments had only one door, so it looked pitch dark inside while it was still bright outside. It was even darker in the room where Mùi and her baby son were lying. All the guests had gone. Her husband Châu was lying by a tray of food. Mùi called him several times without a response. He was drunk again, she thought. She called once more and heard him mumbling something as if he was singing. Yes, he was drunk. She quickly left her one-month-old son on the bed and walked out. She screamed and scratched at him. Châu tried to protect himself by raising his arms to fend her off, but he eventually gave up and lay on the floor, babbling something before he fell into deep sleep amid her nagging.
Diu raced after the squirrel and then after the bird singing, but they all disappeared in the jungle, overgrown with pine trees, tea trees and ancient azalea shrubs. The sun was setting while she was trapped in the jungle. She was thirsty and exhausted. She was looking for medicinal plants her mother wanted. Should I go home empty handed, she asked herself?
Diu was gathering dead leaves into a heap for a mattress. Darkness was her friend tonight, she thought. Diu remembered another night, far, far away. She was drowsy when she heard her sister speaking with mother:
“The bride is very beautiful, mother!”
“Yes, but be quiet!” – Mother whispered.
Diu went straight to the yard. It was pitch-black. She was nervous and wanted to be somewhere else. It was so windy and biting cold. She saw Châu taking his wife home. Diu wanted to hide somewhere to see the bride’s face, but she was afraid of being seen by the groom. She stood still under the melon trellis. That night, Diu spent the whole sleepless night on the verandah. When day was about to break, she heard her mother speaking to her father:
“Never bring hammer or gun into the forbidden forest any more, do you understand?”
Diu got up, wiping her face. Her brother had been married for three years, but his wife was yet to get pregnant. Her mother had gone into the forest to fetch medicinal herbs to help him and his wife. Now her mother’s legs were swollen, so Diu did the job instead.
The night before, Diu heard her brother talking with his wife about Châu having her third child. Upon hearing that Châu’s wife was pregnant again, her belly hurt and her breast was painful, even though she and Châu had not seen each other for a long time, even though she had forgotten him, even his voice and the smell of his sweat.
Diu closed her eyes, sitting still in darkness. The wind was hissing all around like a wild beast. Diu was frightened, waiting for a break in her anxiety. She had roamed the forest the whole day, searching for the herb that could help cure the infertile girl. Diu thought about everything in life amid the howling wind. The day began to break with glimmering light. She smelt something sweet overhead. She looked up and saw some ripe fruit. She ate it thinking that if she could chew the leaves, she could eat the fruit. She ate a dozen fruit and felt invigorated again. Diu stood up and followed the sun. Sweat broke out on her face and she felt a tired. Suddenly, she stepped on a pile of dried red leaves. She looked up and saw a large red canopy. The tree was so big that several people could embrace it. At the foot of the tree, to her surprise, there were many of the herbs she had been looking for. She heaved a sigh of relief; her eyes were wet with tears. Here were the precious medicinal plants! She picked the leaves, forgetting the time. When her bag was filled, Diu found that it was getting dark again. She quickly walked down the mountain to head home. But a small stream with crystal clear water was lying before her. Diu took off her clothes and waded into it. She splashed the cold water all over her body in great pleasure.
Diu was about to sling the bag over her shoulder when she saw a big tree with a myriad of red leaves. She felt dizzy. She closed her eyes and sat down. She wanted to lie down. The carpet of dead leaves was like a soft mattress. Diu was plunged into the caress of the wind. When she opened her eyes, it was so dark that she could not see her hand. She must have overslept for a long time, she thought. She remembered the forest fire that year. She did not know where the fire started, but it nearly killed her when her. She ran for her life, but her body was burnt like a torch. Eventually, she was saved by the villagers. Châu, her betrothed, had run away from her. At first she hated him for his unfaithfulness. Now having thought about it, she no longer hated him because he could not marry her when she looked so ugly with so many scars on her face and body. She was not beautiful any more. Now she hoped that with those precious herbs in the bag, she could help his brother have a child.
Diu was still in deep thought when she heard footsteps walking towards her. Were they human or animal steps, she wondered? In great fear, she screamed:
No reply. She hurriedly gathered dead leaves and covered her body. Or was it a ghost? The forest often had a ghost, she was told. And she heard the breath. She was waving her hands in darkness to protect herself when she touched something like a human hand. She jumped and tried to run away. But she was stopped and a body fell on top of her. She tried to wrestle it off but in vain. She was tied tightly. She lay there, wriggling, but she was held firmly. Her body was being searched by the stranger’s hands. And a tongue was licking her naked body. Why was this man doing such a thing to her, she thought? Darkness was his accomplice? She was in a daze, forgetting all the pains and bitterness of the last ten years. She was plunged into a raging flame of love. She embraced the man and held him tight.
It was rumoured that Diu was pregnant. Her mother was both frightened and happy. But her sister-in-law Sán was envious. She asked her mother-in-law and husband to put Diu out of the house, because Diu could not tell them who the father of her baby was. If Diu wanted to live in the house, she had to have an abortion. Diu had to go and live deep in the jungle.
Sán had never liked Diu and her horrible face. She said Diu was like an old ghost. Her husband broke the news that Diu’s son was lovely and chubby. She was enraged upon hearing it. She wondered why she was pregnant and with whom. Was there any man in this hamlet who dared to sleep with Diu?
Diu was lulling her son to sleep when suddenly she heard Sán calling her name.
“Why have you come here?” – Diu asked.
“Just to see the boy!” – Sán said, walking into the hut. She took the tiny hands of the baby boy named Sùng and caressed them. The boy looked rosy and so cute. Sán felt as if some hands were throttling her.
“Who is the father of the boy?” – Sán asked in an insolent voice.
Diu did not answer. She was about to go down the stream to do the washing when Sán took Diu’s hand and said:
“My time in your family is over now because I cannot bear a child. My husband has not expelled me, but I have to leave so he can remarry.”
Diu felt touched upon hearing that.
Sán followed Diu’s advice and went into the jungle to fetch the medicinal plants. Diu was on tenterhooks, waiting for Sán’s return because three days had gone by. On the fourth day, when the sun was setting, Sán came home. Her face was badly scratched, her clothes tattered. She stayed quiet. She was about to pack her clothes and leave the house when her husband stopped her. Sán stayed back, but did not talk with anybody. Three months later, her belly got bigger and she got morning sickness. Her husband jumped for joy, while her mother-in-law was over the moon and the whole family was overjoyed, because they now had an heir.
One day, Sán went to see Diu in the forest. She told her everything about her search for the plants. That day, Sán was roaming in the forest when she met a group of loggers. They saw her taking a bath in the stream. They pulled her onto a meadow and took turns to violate her. Having heard the story, Diu felt choked up and pitied her sister-in-law. Tears ran down her scarred face. Sán went home.
“Where is my dad?” – Little boy Sùng was crying when Diu returned to the hut from the stream. Diu was in great fear. What was wrong with her son? After that night on the carpet of dead leaves, Diu had never met the man again. She had gone back to that place several times. She wondered if that man had come to the hut and told her son he was the father!
Diu took her son to the local hospital for a vaccination. Parents and little children crowded the yard. Sùng yelled when he was injected in the arm. Suddenly, Sùng sniffled, speaking:
“My dad is over there”
Having heard him, Diu went stiff; her face turned pale. She dared not to look. She quickly took her son out of the hospital.
“Sùng, do you love your mum?”
“Yes, I do very much” – The three-year-old boy said.
“If so, never call dad!”
From afar, Diu saw Châu carrying his son in his arms.
Translated by Mạnh Chương