Viet Nam News
by Vũ Thanh Lịch
When the ashes of Mrs Thung’s elder sister-in- law reached Đồng Mô commune it was already two in the morning. The night wind blew violently. The fog thickened with each passing hour. Although the headlights of dozens of cars illuminated a corner of the graveyard, she could not see the village fields clearly.
Having heard that her elder sister-in-law was dying in her native village, Mrs Thung planned to return to Việt Nam from the USA only to find that her sister had died a few days before.
Now, her ashes were being cleansed, washed in balmy water and re-arranged to be placed in a small terracotta coffin laid with red paper before they were buried, Mrs Thung made up her mind to come back to her homeland together with all her kin living abroad.
When her car door opened, she got out. Two of her grandsons went to help her, but she refused. “Thanks but I can manage. I can walk on my native land,” she said.
Trying to keep her balance, she rested herself on a walking stick and inhaled a deep breath. “How wonderful! It’s the beloved homeland of our forefathers, the sweet memories of my childhood and the beautiful scenery of the village that give me strength,” she told them in a soft voice.
* * *
Soon straw was strewn across the floor of the visitors’ large pavilion in the cemetery. The little coffin was in the middle of the building. Two hours were left for the coffin-lowering rites. The fire in the room made the place fairly warm, driving away the cold and darkness of the open field.
“My esteemed Auntie, take a brief rest in our house. Before the burial service we’ll wake you up and lead you back here,” said Mè, her elder sister-in-law’s first-born son.
“Oh no, let me stay here beside the soul of my elder sister. Ouch, my aching knees! They’ve gone stiff like logs,” she moaned.
“If you wish to keep young, how could I grow up?” remarked Núi, Mè’s eldest son sarcastically.
“You naughty kid!” she scolded him. She turned aside, closer to her elder sister’s coffin full of ashes.
“The kids are all here today to pay homage to your soul,” she whispered to her dead sister. “If only my husband had been faithful to me, I together with my children wouldn’t have come to you and my fate would have been much better!” she added out of self-pity.
“While living abroad, you often said ‘a straw litter, a straw litter,’ and now your dream has come true, Grannie,” said Núi. She just smiled. So far she hadn’t slept on any straw litter, nor enjoyed the acrid smell of burning straw as she did when she was a little girl.
While her kids were chatting, she talked softly to the dead woman, “My dear elder sister, together with our kids, I’m now beside you. I still remember when you arrived at my house with your little girls Chao and Chát to ask to stay for a few days to keep them from cold and hunger.”
Your mother died when you were fifteen. You lived on frugal meals from our relatives. My parents passed away when I was nine and my elder brother, seventeen. Thanks to your affection to us orphaned kids, you let us share meals. You took home the big jar left by our grandparents to contain rainwater for common use. What’s more, our dilapidated house was used by both little families. So a fairly big family was formed.
* * *
At the age of thirteen, under your pressure I married Tâm, on the grounds that I wouldn’t be hungry any more thanks to his wealth. However, only one year later, you came to my husband’s house to make trouble. The reason was simple. The previous day, meeting me on the way home and finding my arm bandaged, you asked me why. I lied, telling you that my arm had been wounded in an accident. However, my maid Hơm told you that her landlady’s dog had attacked and bitten me while I was holding a bone in hand. In the late evening, you arrived at Tâm’s place to find out the truth.
“My younger sister is a human being, not an animal,” you said angrily. “How could you treat her that way?”
After that, you dragged me home. “At home, you can eat sweet potato and drink boiled water rather than fight for food with dogs,” you said.
* * *
Several days later you gave birth to a baby boy on the surface of the dyke. You named him Mè. You took off your blouse, using it as a nappy, and then placed him between two large tree roots. Wearing nothing, you walked to the field. Finding a few small sweet potatoes left after the harvest, you ate them raw to stay your hunger before carrying him home.
Because of my squabble at Tâm’s place that day, they would not leave me in peace, especially when they realised that my elder brother was a revolutionary. Knowing that I was unable to stay safe in our village, I made up my mind to leave it for good together with Mè to settle down in the woodland called Thờ. This area was a good place to live because of the fertility of its soil.
When we left, it was icy cold. Walking across the field, you showed me the graves of our ancestors, of our parents and your own father and mother’s as well for fear that I might forget them all. “How can I forget them?” I asked myself. When my mother passed away, my elder brother and I took her body, wrapped in a sedge mat, to the village graveyard to bury. I remembered that hearing our bad news you, still a single girl, stopped working to help us bury my mother.
* * *
While Mrs Thung was telling the story about the sad days that she had undergone, she sobbed. “We led a miserable life, like animals,” she concluded.
In the meantime, the children and grandchildren were all falling asleep, except for Mè, who was trying to keep the flame burning by adding more and more straw to the fire.
“Auntie, it seems that you’ve been unable to sleep, right?” Mè asked. “Come what may, this is a good occasion for us kids to be with you,” he went on.
“I’m too old and weak to help you,” she said to him.
“We really respect your determination to return home to attend the funeral,” he praised his old auntie.
“It’s all thanks to your mother’s blessing, dear nephew,” she told him.
* * *
In her free moments, Mrs Thung pictured what had happened to her in the past.
Those days, the jungle around here was covered with high trees and dense bushes. There were a lot of wild animals too. Woodland spread as far as the eye could see. For hard-working people like me and my elder sister, leading an ample life did not matter. Time and again, my elder brother came home to visit his wife for a few days. When returning to his unit, he took a large package of local nuts and corns. “You can do your military service without worrying about our living conditions,” I told him. I thought that, by saying so, my sister would let me stay beside her to care for my two sons, Mè and Mắm. However, she forced me to get married once again. My new husband was Khấm, a minor coal dealer in an adjacent area. “He isn’t rich. Yet he’s a charitable working man. He has a younger brother, a revolutionary too, like our elder brother,” she said to me. Days later she introduced me to him.
“I’m afraid of marriage, sister, for I was unhappy with my ex-husband Tâm,” I blurted out.
“You must marry Khấm at any cost. At the age of sixteen, without a husband, you’ll soon turn a spinster who’ll be in the kitchen all day long,” she persuaded me.
However, everything we had been duped. My husband had no revolutionary brother at all. Moreover, his old wife was infertile. What he wanted from me was to bear him a lot of children.
Eventually, I gave birth to two baby girls: Chao and Chát.
Unexpectedly, Khấm soon forced us to live in the cowshed because he could not stand my children’s cries. It was there that my little ones cried all the more as they couldn’t bear the cold and hadn’t got enough breast milk. Sometimes, I thought of death. If I died, my kids would die of starvation shortly. I couldn’t do that to them.
In the daytime, I worked the field with my first-born daughter on my back, at night her younger sister clung to my blouse to ask for milk. One night, I heard Chao shrieking terribly out of fear. It turned out that the ox, while chewing dry straw, touched her with its nose. I could not stay there any longer, I fled with the kids, the bigger one my back and the other in my arms.
Thanks to God’s blessing I managed to run across two valleys and several maize fields to reach home at four in the morning. At that moment, I found my sister cooking corn. Putting little Chát into her arms, I collapsed. I regained consciousness three days after, I was told later.
“Sister, let the kids and me stay here for a few days,” I proposed.
“This is also your home. Stay here as long as you need,” replied my elder sister.
Later I came to know that while I was sleeping; my sister took a stick to Khấm’s house. She attacked him before setting his house on fire.
* * *
“In 1954, there was a mass exodus of people from North to South Việt Nam. I craved to leave too. But I was hesitant because I did not dare ask for my elder sister’s permission,” said Mrs Thung.
“How can you abandon me and my children, while our elder brother is away?” reproached my elder sister. I knew that he was now an officer in a military unit fairly close to our home.
Eventually, I made up my mind to go away. As my little children, Chao and Chát, were suffering from scabies, I had to take them to the district health centre. The three of us secretly got on a small southbound boat.
Our life in the South was full of difficulties at first. But thanks to our great efforts and partly to my new husband, a widowed officer of the Saigon army, I could soon tide them over. My brother in the North and my husband in the South were opposite each other on the battlefield. In those days our country was divided into two zones and the two clans also lived under different regimes.
When Saigon was liberated, my husband saw us off as far as the airport. Afraid of fleeing the country, I cried my eyes out. Chát assuaged me, “Mum, do as our step-father has decided. There’s nothing to worry about.”
When we reached the USA, my youngest son died of cholera a few days later. So, there were now only four children left to me in this strange land. We led an unstable life for years with a faint hope that some day I might see my elder sister, elder brother-in-law and my nephews Mè and Cam in my hometown.
One day I received a call from the North, saying, “Good morning, my beloved Auntie. I’m Mè, your nephew,” I burst out crying.
I remember that during my first trip back to North Việt Nam to see my kin, my elder sister was as calm as if we had stayed side by side for years.
“No matter where you’ve been living and whatever you’ve done, you remain my younger sister,” said my elder sister when we first saw each other after years of separation. “Before your elder brother-in-law died, we asked us to meet you at any cost, we’ve tried our best to contact you by phone. Luckily, my dream has come true,” she went on.
“Dear elder sister, I’m afraid that this is the last time I will come back to our native land because I’m too old and weak,” I said in a sad voice. My eyes filled with tears.
“Oh no, you’re still very well, my paternal Grannie,” Núi encouraged me.
“Please burn these joss-paper things in memory of my mother-in-law. It’s time for us to start our memorial service,” Mè’s wife said, handing her old aunt a packet of votive money for her to burn in memory of the woman in the underworld.
While I was burning the sham money, my kids took the little terracotta coffin to the hole, close to the grave of my elder brother-in-law.
“My respectful brother and sister, I’m glad that from now on you both are lying close to each other for ever,” I said, sobbing.
After that I picked up a handful of earth and cast it into my sister’s grave. I did the same for a second lump of earth. Then I took a third fistful of dry and fine earth and secretly put it into a small pouch of cloth in my hand. I fastened that little bag with a safety-pin before keeping it tightly in my skirt pocket.
I pointed at a far-away mountain and told Chao and Chát, “Previously, your father’s grave was lying at the foot of that hill over there. Our relatives transferred it to this cemetery so that it lay near our native village. Now that both of your parents are resting in peace side by side here, you must pay homage to them frequently and appropriately.”
* * *
When Mrs Thung made her re-entry into the USA, her weird pouch was discovered by the TSA agents. They demanded she throw it into the rubbish bin.
Silently, she poured the small amount of earth into her mouth. She chewed and chewed it. After that she swallowed it calmly to the surprise of the security agents and passengers standing around.
Translated by Văn Minh