|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Nguyen Ngoc Tu
Sao's husband died for a few leaves of ngo gai.
The local authorities announced that his death happened accidentally while he was stealthily taking something from the floating raft on the river belonging to the family of Dai Thanh and that a fact-finding investigation was in progress. "The first witnesses say that they saw him holding a broken gold necklace," they declared.
"No, no! My husband only wanted to pick some ngo gai without permission, that's all," Sao said.
"It doesn't seem like that's the case. Our conclusion is based on various important sources of news," they reaffirmed curtly.
"But it's not true! We only needed some vegetables to cook with fish."
At last, they summoned a few witnesses to their office. Sao objected to their statements.
Embracing the cold body of her husband on a long table in the middle of their work place, she sobbed and sobbed. "Surely while picking vegetables, he never thought of money or the like," she told them. Then she went to her boat.
Sadly, she realized that the two rare, costly silver-headed fish caught the previous day had died. She remembered how her husband had jumped up for joy when he managed to catch them.
"Never did he love me that way," she whispered to herself.
The annual spate season, starting in mid-January, is a time of panic for the inhabitants of Ray hamlet. "Next year, we'll have our Tet on boats," they say to one another. Their conclusion is very logical. Each year, the season comes earlier and lasts longer than the previous one.
The skinny body of Sao's husband lay in the coffin made of several cast-away pieces of wood gathered from the flooded area. She felt quite sorrowful that her ill-fated spouse could not be buried in the ground. "Let's sink the coffin under water and tie it tightly to one house pillar," suggested one of her neighbours. "Wait until the water recedes, then we'll bury it. Certainly his body won't decay due to the brackish sea water."
Sao's neighbours came to her place to console her and share her sorrow. She felt dead tired. "People die in different ways: drowning, starvation, fighting," they remarked. "As for Sao's husband, he met his end because he wanted some vegetables. Poor guy! Killed by the heartless Dai Thanh gang only because he secretly picked a few leaves to cook with several small sea fishes. How cruel that gang is!" they exclaimed. Sao felt the same. "How can your men have the heart to do such a thing?" was what she wished to ask the raft owners. In their talks, they also dreamt of a high area where they could grow their own kitchen gardens and would not have to wait for the small supply of running water that emerged from local taps at fixed hours every day, or else they would have to buy it at exorbitant prices from the speculator.
Now, she was alone, quite alone!
After lunch, she went to the seat of the local authorities by boat to wait for their conclusion about her husband's death. Arriving at the place, she found some playing chess, while others slept on their desks. In despair, she paddled home. Close to her house, she saw her dead husband lying on the roof. It turned out that her husband's younger brother had taken his body home.
"Where have you been?" he asked her. "Oh dear, your hair looks ruffled terribly." She forced a smile and began cooking dinner for him as she had often done for her spouse. She thought of her paternal grandmother, who had married a second wife to her husband, and her mother, who had to sell all her assets to pay her husband's debts, so that they were forced to live a wandering life on the boat. Sao remembered that when she was nineteen, she heard her grandmother wish: "If only I could be buried on my own plot of land!" Sao got married because of the several ha of land belonging to her husband-to-be, rather than any love for him.
"Can he be the young man of my dreams?" she asked herself when she found him holding a hen and sucking a leaf of grass. On another occasion, when he breathed hot alcoholic air into her ear, she whispered to herself, "Is this really my husband?"
The seawater was submerging the delta deeper and deeper with every passing year. It was due to this stealthy incursion that her marriage became meaningless, like Ray Hamlet itself. Worse still, it made her lose her husband forever.
Her husband's younger brother took a brand-new pair of shoes out of his bag and placed them beside a pair of leather sandals that he had bought for him the last year. Surprisingly, he found the logo had remained untouched. His deceased brother had planned to wait until he could get enough money to buy new clothes to match them. Now the young man just stayed silently beside him to caress his hair. When her spouse's body was placed inside the coffin, Sao would drop them in together and he would be buried.
He quickly tired of Sao's waiting for justice to be done. He just smiled and smiled. "Justice lies in our hands, my dear sister," he told her, playing with his brilliant pocket-knife.
In fact, her brother-in-law was wild as a boy. On his back there appeared twenty-two scars, proof of his implementation of justice. "Without any scars, I would hardly be worthy of my name," he said to her. "My justice is dealt faster and more effectively."
Now he was ready to face the wealthy gang of vegetable raft owners, no matter what.
A few days later, Sao heard an exciting piece of news: "The luxury car of the Dai Thanh clan has been smashed to pieces. Furthermore, their dogs have been killed with poison and their dwelling was nearly burnt down."
Later, Sao was urged to see the body of one of the Dai Thanh's guards who had drowned, yet she refused to go, partly due to her unwillingness to see a dead body and partly due to her fear of seeing a certain woman shrouding her dead husband's body, as she had done scores of days ago.
That night Sao went by boat to the office of the local authorities, as they had summoned her. At their headquarters, she found her younger brother-in-law tied up. She sighed at his miserable situation.
"It's no use worrying, my dear sister. I'm just sorry that I could not break the neck of that nasty guy Giang," he consoled her.
His statement made her greatly confused. Sao thought she knew that man with his black complexion, rough hands and taciturn behaviour. Previously, he had been good-natured and shy, but now he was the opposite. She wanted to know how bad he had become. Therefore, she made up her mind to go to his place. She felt quite upset thinking that her last relative might be lost, together with her last belief in man.
When the brackish water began receding, that impression appeared all the more obvious. After her husband's coffin had been interred deep in the ground, she covered his grave with a thin layer of alluvial deposits.
When a patch of green grass grew thinly on his grave, she paddled to the vegetable raft of the Dai Thanh clan lying in the estuary of the Sac River, next to the mouth of the Me River.
The Dai Thanh family was recruiting a new team of employees because half their hands had left in fear of revenge. Sao was refused point-blank, for she was recognized at once as the wife of the ex-vegetable thief. At last she was accepted for some reason and she soon became a temporary tenant in that notorious house. In fact, she only wanted to meet the guy named Giang to see whether he was the man who had intentionally killed her husband.
"It's I who killed your spouse that day, because he had to pay for his theft," one of Giang's sons-in-law confessed. "What can you do to me now?" She stood motionless. She had thought that the culprit would deny the charge. "OK, I'll resort to the legal authorities' enforcement of justice," she whispered to herself.
Poor Sao, she went to them many times, but all in vain. Finally, she decided to avenge her husband's death herself.
Once she saw Giang with a small boy in his lap inside his room, complaining that his father was combing his hair so clumsily that his head hurt. She gave up her intention to stab the man with the knife hidden inside her breast pocket. Seeing Sao outside, he told her, "Let's put it off until next time, will you?"
The man's wife, Sao's landlady, arrived at the raft every afternoon when all the common taps had been turned off. Those who were not at home to get water unpaid had to buy it from her tank at exorbitant prices. From late afternoon until midnight, she also sold vegetables to local greengrocers. Early the next morning, she disappeared behind the very high dyke that circled the locality.
Whenever Sao saw her employer's murderer son, she felt furious, but she had no occasion to approach him. He was always surrounded by his guards. Sometimes the splendid green of the vegetable raft made Sao forget her mission at the place: to demand justice for her husband.
In the meantime, Sao led a solitary life on the raft. Her workmates tried to evade her, while the guards eyed her with suspicion. It seemed to her that the only reason they allowed her to stay there was to keep her under their control. Unable to avenge her husband's misfortune, she was in despair. Worse still, most of the residents of Ray Hamlet looked down on her. "How can she resign herself to being a servant to her enemy?" their looks seemed to say. She was also afraid that with the passage of time, her resolution of revenge might fade to nothing. She tried to get closer to the landlord. One day, while carrying a big jar with him, she was so startled that she dropped it on his toes, making them bleed. Sao felt that if she stabbed him someday, she would faint in front of him. He was far less capable of feeling. She usually caught him casting contemptuous looks at his wife when she counted fistfuls of banknotes, as if these pieces were meaningless.
Their raft lay at the T-junction of the Sac River, where market-goers had to pass. "I'll grow vegetables on the river. If necessary, you can follow me," the man told his wife one morning before leaving. She thought that her spouse was impractical and wished to do so out of deep nostalgia for his sweet days on the waterway. Later, when the whole area was flooded, she realised that he had been incredibly far-sighted.
"How disgusting he looks!" Sao whispered to herself whenever she saw her boss.
One day, insecticide was sprayed far and wide from the raft. All the buying and selling activities in full swing suddenly came to a halt. Sao's landlady did not stay at the place anymore. After a night shower, Sao entered his room in wet clothes. He stared at her, surprised. His rough hands seized hers.
"Will you go with me?" he asked. "Your husband isn't here anymore."
"OK, I'll follow you," she said.
Without any belongings to carry or a boat to get on, both of them swam away. Far behind them, the raft burst into flames. Sao had intentionally placed a paraffin lamp close to the mosquito net, near several heaps of dry straw. Moving slowly beside Sao, he never looked back. Now, she realised that he had wanted her all along.
Sao's tears came down profusely. "What joy could he have taken in paying attentions to me for seven years?" she asked herself. They swam and swam in the saltwater. She hardly knew where she would deal with the man who had put her husband to death.
Around the two miserable human beings, a shoal of sharks was splashing noisily.
Translated by Van Minh