by Nguyen Hien Luong
At 6 o'clock in the morning Lan began getting up. Picking up a small bamboo stick, she moved aside the thick ash layer that had been covered over the burning pieces of charcoal left from the previous night. After that she blew the tiny grey dusts off to brighten them up again. In consequence, the flame appeared after a few seconds and made the 10sq-m. room dazzle and warm up. This small place was used as a studio, a bedroom and a kitchen for three people: Lan, Hanh and her first-grade son Chung. Hanh woke up under her thick cotton blanket. Yet she remained sitting huddled up for hours on the bed against the biting mid-November cold. Outside, the northern wind howled wildly and dewdrops kept patting gently on the corrugated metal roof. When the flame rose higher and higher, Lan placed a big saucepan full of icy water, which had nearly been frozen due to the previous night's terrible weather, for their consumption throughout the day.
In the meantime, Chung slept soundly because it was too cold and foggy for children to go to school before 9 o'clock. While it was still rather dark, Hanh gathered some burning pieces of charcoal then dipped them into a basin of cold water. Later, in the classroom, she would put beside each of her kids a used can full of re-burning charcoal to warm their hands before writing. It was her eighth winter in Ta Sua, even before Chung saw the light. Now he was already at the first class of the local primary school. Thanks to his intelligence, he could speak both the Vietnamese and the Mong languages fluently and communicate with his classmates without difficulty. As for Hanh, she had lived in this far-away mountainous area so long that she was accustomed to its bitter cold.
During her study at the provincial teacher-training college, she had never imagined that the living conditions of a teacher in the high region were so bad.
As a pretty, smart, good student doing well at college, she was a dream for many schoolmates thanks to her hard-working and gentle nature. Among them was Dinh, a playboy son of the chairman of the major administrative township. She fell in love with him so blindly that she paid no attention to the sincere remarks of her classmates; as a result she became pregnant. Although there were no marital obligations between them, she thought that she would be much happier than worried, on the grounds that she would soon become a primary teacher in a certain suburb of the province thanks to his father's influence. Poor her, the rascal only regarded her as a sexual partner rather than a real sweetheart! In her imagination, she would enjoy a life of plenty in an urban centre as a daughter-in-law of an important township chief. She turned a deaf ear to Dinh's suggestion of an abortion. She resorted to his parents' advice. It seemed to her that they were more humane than their son.
"You'd have an X-ray to see whether the embryo is male or female," Dinh's mother told her. "If it's a boy, keep it as it is. After your childbirth, I'll have the baby boy raised by one of my trustworthy relatives in the country. Besides, you'd get our proper financial support. In that way, there'll be no troubles for both sides, you see. If it's a baby girl, give it up immediately. Frankly speaking, we have asked for the hand of a Hanoian high-ranking official's daughter for marriage. To the best of my knowledge, Dinh can't stand the rural living conditions in a remote area. As for us, we can afford an adequate sum of money for your efforts in looking for a teaching job somewhere near here." Hanh turned greatly disappointed at her explanation. "The die is cast," she said to herself.
She went to a doctor to ask for her support.
"You're lucky: a male fetus, my dear maid," exclaimed the obstetrician, a worthy GP of Dinh's family.
Hanh fell dumbfounded. The male embryo meant that, at all costs, she would lose her child because she was nothing but a hired embryo-carrying woman. Immediately, she knelt down in front of the specialist, eyes in tears.
"Dear Auntie, help me please! Would you mind jotting the note down that it's a female embryo? I beg you for a favour!" Hanh asked earnestly.
"Why? Do you want to give up this living creature? Remember that the lady told me one morning, 'If it's a baby boy, keep it as it stands. Otherwise, get rid of it,'" said the doctor.
She was greatly surprised at Hanh's request at first, but then she came to know that getting rid of a fetus, willy-nilly, regardless of the baby's sex, would make a naiïve girl virgin. As a result, Hanh would get married comfortably. Thinking so, she nodded her head.
"Oh no, doctor! Far be it from me to think so! I only wish to keep it back," Hanh said to her, staring squarely at her. "I can keep and raise the little one only when it is a baby girl. Please help me. I'll go away to a remote region to give birth to a baby girl and bring her up. I'll break off all relations with their clan so that nothing wrong would come to them," she implored further. Saying so, Hanh tried to keep calm, but tears still poured down her rosy cheeks.
On second thought, the doctor hugged Hanh tightly.
"OK, I see, I see. That means that you want me to inform them that the embryo is just a female and that I have treated your case properly as was requested," she said to Hanh, clapping her on the shoulder. "In fact, I've never wanted to kill any creature," she added.
By the end of that academic year, her college commenced dispatching its successful undergraduates to different districts in the province. Hanh applied for a job in the mountainous district of Mu Cang Chai, about 200km northeast of this midland province. Ninety-nine per cent of the population of this northernmost locality belonged to the Mong ethnic group. At the office of the District Department of Education, she suggested going to the most remote school to teach. Welcoming her goodwill, the Department head introduced her to Nam Co Primary School, about 70km away from the district centre. In the letter of recommendation, he proposed that she should be a teacher in charge of a newly built school at Ta Sua, the farthest hamlet of Nam Co Commune, about a five-hour walk from its centre. Ta Sua lay in the heart of the valley situated some 1,000m above sea level and surrounded by high mountains. This far-away place was ridiculously called the "Five-Nothing Hamlet": without electricity, without a road, without a market, without a health station and without a telephone line. It was accessible only through a trodden track meandering among the stone hair-raising cliffs. In addition to Hanh, there was also Lan, a single childless female teacher of about 50, who had volunteered to live in this place to enjoy the retirement pension ahead of the limited age of 55 for a public servant.
Hanh stayed in the township centre for a few days to get everything ready before going to Ta Sua with Lan and the headmaster of the Nam Co school. When they reached the peak of the Hang Tong Pass, they felt a terribly biting cold. However, they tried to go along a narrow track close to the mountain side full of rugged rocks. It took them two more hours to arrive at Ta Sua Hamlet. To their surprise, the hamlet chief was a single youth, Sua Hong, a demobbed soldier. It was he who had suggested setting up a primary school at Ta Sua with his whole family's contribution. Besides, many residents here would provide wooden planks, logs, bamboo and so on. When the decent-looking shanty was completed, there were no pupils at all. Sua Hong, together with Lan and Hanh, had to arrive at each house to persuade the owners to let their children go to school. Twenty days later, two classes were opened. The nursery one would be taught by Lan with 15 small children from three to five years old and the other one by Hanh with 10 older kids.
Owing to their similar plights, unfavourable and troublesome in marriage, they became new residents of Ta Sua as its first teachers. Year after year, they got accustomed to the local customs in all respects. They made up their mind to stay there for good in defiance of its biting cold and poor living conditions.
Telling her colleague everything about Dinh's irresponsible behaviour and his family's weird conduct toward her and her embryo, Hanh only sobbed and sobbed.
"It's no use crying over spilt milk, my dear," Lan consoled her. "You're not alone here. I'll help you in the matters of daily life. What you must do is to teach the kids with all your heart and soul. Anyhow, You're still far luckier than me." Craving a family of her own in vain, now Lan did her best for Hanh. When the embryo in her belly grew bigger and bigger with every passing month, Lan told their neighbours that Hanh's husband had been working abroad. By the end of the school year, Lan went to the township to ask her friend, an obstetrician of the district hospital, for a favour: to bring along with her all the indispensable instruments to Ta Sua for Hanh's approaching childbirth. When Hanh gave birth to a baby boy, she named him Chung, in the strict sense of common child to both of them. In due course, their lives slowly passed by after so many years. Soon the boy became a second grader in Hanh's class.
On holidays, both of them spent most of their free time growing jujube trees around the schoolyard. After a long period of time, they had a jujube orchard. In the opinion of Mr Sua Vua, the oldest man of the hamlet and the paternal grandfather of Sua Hong, the fruit of that kind of tree was called by the Mong native tu zi, the fruit of love, according to their tradition. Because the Mong led a nomadic life, they grew tu zi trees wherever they settled down.
"If so, our hamlet should be called Tu Zi, instead of Ta Sua, my respectful grandpa," Sua Hong said in a joking voice.
"De facto, Miss Hanh has already become a member of our Mong community. She won't come back to her native town, I'm sure," observed Sua Vua.
"To all intents and purposes, I'll stay here to become a Mong inhabitant like all of you. Well, will you willingly act as a go-between for my future life?" Hanh asked the old man sincerely.
"Why not? What about Sua Hong, my grandson?" "So much the better, Sir. I'm afraid that Brother Sua Hong won't choose me for his conjugal life," Hanh replied, smiling broadly.
"In that case, both of you'd better share some pieces of tu zi to that effect," he replied. "Once you both have eaten them together, you can hardly say farewell to each other. Miss Hanh, if you marry him, I'd give you our whole tu zi plantation." After that he asked Hanh, "By the way, has Miss Lan come back here after attending her nephew's wedding in her native town? These days, you've taught both classes alone, so you must be very busy and tired. Well, I'll tell Sua Hong to help you grow more tu zi trees." All of a sudden, Chung moaned that he had colic. Hanh returned home immediately. She let him take a painkiller. In the late afternoon, he was all the more in pain. While she felt greatly worried, she saw Sua Hong passing by. At once, she called to him loudly. Entering her house, he found the boy convulsing in bed.
"He's having appendicitis. He must be taken to the district hospital immediately," he said to her. "I'll carry him away on my back first. You'll prepare everything necessary for him, then come to my house to ask my younger sister Thao Mi to go with you." While Hanh was packing things, Thao Mi came in.
"My brother has told me to go to hospital with you at once," she told Hanh.
Thanks to the district vice-president's lift in his car, both of them arrived at the hospital nearly one hour after Sua Hong and Chung.
"If the patient had arrived here half an hour later, his life would have been in great danger," the surgeon told Hanh. "However, he'll have to stay here for five more days before leaving our place."
When Chung had already come home, Sua Hong often came to Hanh's house with presents for the recovering child, now a wild grouse, now some pieces of pork or veal. What's more, he also repaired several broken tables and benches from the school or helped her grow some more tu zi trees. As for Chung, he had been very interested in Sua Hong since the day he came to his rescue.
One evening Chung followed Hanh and Lan to Sua Hong's building to attend a farewell party held by the young host on the occasion of his going to the lowland province the next day to take a mid-level political course.
"Here they come," Thao Mi exclaimed. Rushing out, Sua Hong came downstairs to welcome the new guests. He embraced Chung tightly then invited the two teachers in.
"Today, you are welcome to our party to congratulate my grandson on his going to town to study further on the one hand and to rejoice over our bumper tu zi harvest with a very high income on the other. From now on, we'll no longer be afraid of hunger. Well, let's raise our glasses of rice wine to mark this important event," declared the old man.
When the moon rose over the peak of the Hang Tong Pass, Sua Hong, with Chung on his back, led Hanh and Lan back to Ta Sua school. Walking in the serene moonlit night amid the forest of tu zi, Hanh felt as if she was in the seventh heaven. Previously, on the day she made up her mind to leave for Ta Sua, she only thought of finding a teaching job and of keeping her future son safe and sound; now her vistas seemed far brighter than her wish.
"Miss Hanh, please sympathise with my clumsy behaviour this evening. If you leave Ta Sua, I'll miss you and Chung very much," Sua Hong admitted.
Hanh blushed with embarrassment for a long while. A few seconds later, she regained her self-control.
"How can I be displeased with you?" she answered sincerely. "From the bottom of my heart, I'm much obliged to you for what you've done for us. Well, have a good trip! Don't forget to come back to us, to our school and Ta Sua Hamlet as well," she added.
Silence! Now they were slowly walking along a small track leading to Ta Sua school.
Chung remained sleeping on his back. Hanh opened the door then placed the child down on the bed. After covering him with a thick cotton blanket, she went out to see him off as far as the end of the gentle slope. Suddenly, he stopped abruptly as if he had wanted to say something to her but he hesitated for a few minutes, then said goodbye to her. He made for the small forest of tu zi. She stared fixedly at him until his silhouette completely disappeared behind a cluster of tu zi trees.
His absence left a big hole in her heart.
One afternoon, while Hanh was in the tu zi orchard, Lan hurriedly rushed toward her and urged her to return home at once. "A certain old man from the lowlands has just come here to meet you," she told Hanh.
Reaching home, she saw an elderly man waiting for her. She was going to greet him when she turned so confused that the hoe in her hand suddenly dropped onto the ground. It turned out that the man was Dang, the very ex-chairman of the town. He also recognised her right away. He stood up with difficulty, quite contrary to his former self.
"Good afternoon, sir! What did you come here for?" she asked him in an icy voice.
"Because of my... my... grandson, lady! Where... is... he... now?" he mumbled.
"What do you mean, sir?" "The... boy! My... grandson. That obstetrician... told... me everything... about your proposal that day. Don't try... to hide it... from me any more, please." She burst out laughing. A few seconds later she said in a cold voice: "I don't know what she told you, but it was just a personal matter between the two of you. It has nothing to do with me. If you arrive here just for that purpose, I can say point-blank that it's the problem of your clan. It's none of my business! Anyhow, it's rather late, and you'd better go home." When she was going to step out, she found him kneeling down in front of her. He implored, "Forgive me, will you? Dinh has divorced his wife, but none of the two boys was his own. Now he is totally depressed. It's only you who can save his life. Come back to us please. Our entire real assets will go to you, you alone." Hanh was not patient enough to hear his explanation. Anger, bitterness and resentment were what was left in her after nearly 10 years living in misery. Hanh told him that she would get married soon and settle down at Ta Sua Hamlet forever.
"I don't need your property no matter how much it's worth," she said to him proudly. Then she burst out crying. Lan stepped inside after listening to their whole dialogue.
"My dear Hanh, keep calm, will you? Anyway Chung is our common child. Nobody can take him away," she consoled her close friend.
"As for you, Sir, please give up your aim to renew the bitter relations between her and your wicked son. That dream of yours will never come true," Lan told the old man.
"If so, would you mind allowing me to see the boy once, just once? Now he really is the single offspring of my long-standing lineage," he reiterated emphatically. Meanwhile, Hanh seemed totally bewildered. Lan came to her and slapped her on the shoulder.
"Now it's nearly midnight and he's unable to go away right now. Sympathise with old people, my dear," she advised Hanh sincerely. Then turning to the old man, she said to him resolutely, "You may stay here overnight then leave early tomorrow morning. And you're not allowed to tell him who you are. Agreed?" "Yes, I see, lady," he replied. When he was going to kneel down in front of her, she lifted him up.
That night, lying beside her colleague, Hanh could not sleep. All the memories of yore, sweet or bitter, surged up in her mind, one after another. She wept bitterly.
She took pity on her son, on her parents in their native place and on herself too. Those past years that should have been the most beautiful and happiest time in her prime of life had been replaced by countless miserable days.
"Without the support, spiritual or physical, of my close friend, of the affections of my schoolchildren and, last but not least, of the kind-hearted Ta Sua inhabitants, what would have happened to me?" she whispered to herself. Suddenly, the image of an old man, trembling and collapsing in front of her, came back to her. Come what may, Chung was Dinh's son. The more he grew up, the more he looked like that cheating guy! "Would he become a copy of his father in the future?" she asked herself. "Oh no, never." On the other bed, the old man and her child were sleeping soundly. She silently opened the door then stepped into the courtyard. In the bright moon light, from the small woods of tu zi trees she heard the melodious notes of the locals' musical instruments calling young people to come together in order to enjoy their blissful moments. Over the past moonlit nights when Sua Hong came and visited her, he also played the pan pipes; as a result, they often met each other and spent wonderful time together.
Sua Hong had been at campus for four months. He sent her six letters full of warm feelings and, ironically, full of grammatical mistakes as well.
The moon started coming down behind the summit of the Hang Tong Pass. No more musical sounds could be heard. Perhaps young courting couples were staying as happy as the day was long.
All of a sudden, a cold draught of air blew over her face. She left the tu zi orchard. She opened the door and walked in. In bed, she tried to close her eyes but the images of Sua Hong and of the luxuriant woods of tu zi trees kept dimly floating in her mind.
Finally, she fell asleep amid the sweet sounds of the valley echoing back to lull her into a peaceful slumber.
Translated by Van Minh