Viet Nam News
By Nguyễn Ngọc Đào Uyên
A siren was echoing from the ferry landing. Hương was busy cooking. It was her daily chore, from early morning to late at night. When she lived with her parents, she did field work, and now with her husband’s family, she had to farm. She planted maize, beans, chili, pepper and cucumber. She was always busy, day in day out. But she was used to it. Every woman she knew was in the same boat.
The pot of rice was boiling, spreading its fragrance around the room. She was in deep thought when she heard her husband clearing his throat:
“I called you loads, but you didn’t answer! Dish the rice out, now! Oh, by the way, you’ll have to go to the parent-teacher meeting at school for Giao.”
Having finished, Tánh, her husband turned and left.
He strolled out of the house, leaving the revolting reek of alcohol behind. They had been married for years but she still wasn’t used to that smell. On their wedding night he was blackout drunk and she couldn’t bear the smell of booze mixed with his sweat. When Tánh woke up the next morning, he found his wife lying on the floor. This was how he found her for many nights.
It was roasting hot when she went to her daughter’s parent-teacher meeting.
“You should pay more attention to Giao. She is always aggressive with her classmates. Why does she miss so many days of school?” the teacher asked her.
Hương didn’t know that Giao had skived off school. She was pampered by her grandparents, possibly because Giao had lost the love of her mother and father at an early age and her grandparents wanted to pick up the slack. When she was young, she had been told she was the illegitimate daughter of Tánh’s brother Lành. One afternoon, Lành came home, carrying a two-month old baby and gave it to his mother. Then he graduated from school, got a job, got married and moved to a city. Tánh loved Giao like his daughter. Hương also loved her, but she thought it was wrong to pamper children.
A crowd appeared before her on her way home. She saw a skinny boy lying on a hammock while a woman was giving him water.
“Who’s that boy? What’s wrong with him?” someone in the crowd asked.
“He sells gum in the street. He is very weak. Apparently his mother was a wild woman who couldn’t be pinned down. So he has to earn a living on his own.”
“Where is his father?”
“He left his wife and son years ago.”
She heard people around jabbering.
“Can we raise some money for the boy?”
“Yes. I have some for him”
She fumbled in her pocket and took out some money. The countryside was in dire poverty, but rich in compassion.
Suddenly, she heard someone calling:
She turned and saw Hùng, her old friend from her home village.
“How are you?” – Hùng asked.
“I’m fine. Thank you. What about you?”
“I’ve got a café across the road. Want to get a coffee with my wife and I?”
She apologised for having to go home now. She said goodbye to Hùng and hurried home. But it seemed like there was someone chasing her. As soon as she got to the gate of the house, she saw her husband Tánh, carrying a stick. He said in a drawling voice:
“Why are you so late? Have you been talking to your old flame? Do you think you can fool me? Who was he? Is that curly-haired Hùng?” he screamed, racing after her, trying to beat her with the stick.
She ran and ran, wailing. The neighbours rushed out but they were too late to stop Tánh. She was beaten black and blue. Her mother-in-law took her to the kitchen and rubbed her injuries with herbs, consoling her:
“Forgive him, please! He’s drunk and could not control himself. I will tell him off tomorrow when his hangover ends.”
She tried to wipe the sweat off her face. When she decided to marry Tánh, many people had warned her:
“Please think twice! How can you marry such a rich but nasty man?”
Remembering those words, she blamed herself for not following their advice. After a few years together, she had given birth to a boy with curly hair. This had made her husband Tánh question her, as Hùng had similar hair. He did not show any love to his son. This cut her to the bone, but she had to bear it. Many people advised her to divorce him. But she could not bring herself to do it. When Tánh was drunk, he often beat her. But normally, he was a quiet, hard-working man. He was a good son to his mother. Another reason not to leave her husband was her mother-in-law. She was a lenient woman who always stood by her side when she was beaten by her husband.
And today was the same. Tánh came home and pissed again. He ran forwards her and cursed like a sailor. Then he left. She tossed and turned the whole night, but her husband did not come home. The whistle from the ferry landing was echoing, signaling the morning. Yes, she needed to cross that landing to the other side, everything would be different. But what about her son? No, she could not do it, she thought.
Tánh did not come home until the next night. He took a bath, had dinner and then left again after whispering something to his mother. He was gone for several days. He came and went in that way, looking slovenly and exhausted. She felt something bad was happening. Even her mother-in-law was different. She seemed like she wanted to tell Hương something.
One windy afternoon, Tánh came home again. He was standing in hesitation by the hammock, looking at Hương and their sleeping son. After a moment, he took Giao away. Hương’s mother-in-law came to speak to her in a trembling voice:
“I am sorry to say this to you, we have concealed this from you for a long time. I think it’s time you knew the truth. Giao is Tánh’s daughter.”
Hương felt her legs turn to jelly and a weight dropped into her stomach from her throat.
Her mother-in-law began the story. Tánh once loved a girl named Thu, but the two families did not agree to their marriage. But they had slept together and Thu was with child already. Thu ran away to the city and Tánh had been angry ever since. A few months later, his brother Lành brought Giao home and gave her to Tánh. After seven years without hearing any word from Thu, she had come back to their village. Tánh said Thu was seriously ill.
Hương felt so weak. She felt betrayed by Tánh. He had never forgotten Thu and loved Giao so much. Now Thu had come back. How could she and her son live now? Either she or her husband had to leave, she thought. It was late at night. She tiptoed to the door. The moon was high in the sky. The river’s surface was sparkling with silver light. She held her son tightly and walked toward the ferry landing. She walked and walked. Where to? To Hùng, her old flame? It was late at night. No, she could not go on like this.
After a few days, Tánh came home and told her everything.
“Please, give me some more time. Thu is dying.”
She went to see Thu and found her husband tending to her. She stood there for quite a while, knowing that her husband was conflicted. She decided not to leave him.
Thu passed away a few days after that. Hương went to the funeral. Her husband was distraught. He looked far away in silence for days. She wondered why he had not come back to her.
One windy afternoon again, Tánh carried his son in his lap. He said:
“Shall we go see your mother tomorrow? We haven’t seen her for a long time, have we, my dear wife?”
For the first time she heard her husband talking to her in a sweet voice. Her eyes welled up with tears. Her husband was now by her side in a true sense of the word. VNS
Translated by Mạnh Chương