|Illustration by Đào Quốc Huy
By Lê Minh Hà
Saigon never sleeps. Yet our room is deadly quiet. The quietness feels quite similar to the silence that reigned in those Soviet-style communal apartment buildings in Hanoi where we once lived, when adults went to work and children went to school. But is life ever quiet…
I see the small leaves of the potted plans you’ve put on the windowsill wave. And a streak of light dance on the wall. It must be the wind. The wind is blowing in from the trees outside on the streets. The Saigon streets that are lovingly shaded by gigantic trees, just like our streets, in Hanoi, of old.
I hear the sound of buckets and basins echo through open space from a room downstairs, and a woman’s laughter from a room upstairs. What are our neighbour men doing in the yard at the foot of the common stairs? Aren’t they lifting the hoses to wash their motorbikes? Aren’t they raking the coal stoves to help their women boil water to make coffee to sell at the alley entrance? Isn’t life here any different from life in Hanoi before we left?
Our house is too quiet. The kids have gone to school far away. You’re also on a work trip. These days the housekeeper doesn’t have to come. There’s just me left. And the mice scratching on the grating fence that separates the open space between apartments. It won’t be long, I won’t feel anything any longer, and will remain only a photo, hanging on this wall and looking at the shadows gradually jerk out of the opposite wall to guess the time. Just guessing it, no longer being imprisoned by it. No longer living like a zombie.
The man walked into the kitchen. There was no dirty bowl in the sink. Glasses were neatly placed on the table. The bathroom’s floor was dry and clean. He reached out. The refrigerator opened. The fridge was filled with each and every dish. Though nobody was home. “Still like the old days?” A sigh heaved from the chest, dissolved into the air and the darkness of the kitchen, rose, then melted away. Nobody heard the sigh that sounded like a groan. But it wasn’t because nobody was there. The man knew well that from that moment, when he dropped his arms, and closed his eyes, even if he screamed, nobody could hear him. Yet he also knew well that even while he was living, he had been unable to scream. If only he could have screamed. He had felt like an old trunk dumping off its last foliage. He didn’t know which leaf to save for his children. Nor did he know whether his children needed such a thing, to sustain the memory of a father who hadn’t given them any warmth while living. He knew that too, even when his children were sleeping by his side every night. They didn’t know it was their warmth, from the very beginning when they reeked of urine and smelt of their mother’s milk and childhood sweat to the time their bodies exuded the scent of adolescent men that had fired up the father’s heart that was cooling off day by day. And even the admonishing murmurs of their mother, day in, day out… “Dear, you don’t know it’s you that ties me to this world.”
The man glided into their bedroom, which his wife had given up for him and their youngest boy. Countless nights he found himself trying to catch a sound from his wife’s new bedroom. He found himself tossing and turning his worn-out body next to the growing-up boy, waiting. The footsteps of the woman approached the door, walked downstairs, the water started to run, and the glasses touched each other dryly, wearily. He found himself searching for a passionate scent that was getting fainter, day by day, in the cupboard, between the sheets. Those white nights lying in the middle of this effervescent city were even more terrible than the nights when the soldiers lay next to each other, longing. One would long for the city. Another would long for the mountains. He would long for a small town and a house with a roof darkened, laden with dust, rain and shine. Or would he? Didn’t those roofs and yards and skylines of his naive childhood also seem small and mean at the same time? Was that why when he went to college in Hanoi he felt like a stunted young plant shooting up and exploding ebulliently?
Life’s experiences demanded to be pondered upon, squeezed thoroughly, and written about. Cravings to travel and explore. Desires to love and believe. Self-confidence. He was indeed self-confident. Life was overflowing in him, bursting out in him, making him want to scream. That was when we first met. You were sixteen. The dark and grave street along which I went to work everyday suddenly turned sixteen too. I noticed I no longer wanted to contemplate those old trees with rough stocky roots protruding from under the ground on to the sidewalk but just wanted to turn my face upwards and look at the sky. So blue. So high. The wind blew so vigorously among the leaves that I thought I could be blown away. I, a provincial man, boasted such an outstanding academic record that without any powerful family background, I could still secure employment in Hanoi. I, a budding writer who was recognized immediately, as soon as I appeared on the scene. Wasn’t that enough to make any man of my age confident and proud? And so, when I saw you for the first time standing by the old tree in front of my office, I contemplated you calmly and found myself happy. A happiness based on the feeling that I deserved the very best though it might be impossible. Those days were strange indeed. I didn’t have anything but a single bed, an old suitcase, and a rickety vehicle, but I was bursting with desire and happiness. Yes, even happiness.
Might that have been why she fell for him? It was extraordinary love, not between a mature Hanoian woman and a successful provincial man. It was the love that a young Hanoian girl felt for an artist who knew he was talented and famous, and confident that he would still conquer new summits in life. It was him in those days. Those days, he didn’t have any sense of inferiority just because he was a provincial man who was lucky to make a girl like her love and marry him. We deserved each other. I deserved your passion, your subtlety. Did you see how big my self-confidence was? It helped him remain completely serene before her bunch of smart and mischievous Hanoian adolescent pals. He fretted but also managed to keep his poise perfect before her parents, who were his senior colleagues. He believed he would make their daughter happy. How naive then and bitter now.
The man stared at his own photo on the opposite wall, surprised. The man in the photo didn’t have the slender figure which was often attributed to artists. He had thick shoulders, a short neck, and the build of a physically active man. His forehead and eyes exuded something like contempt. His lips looked passionate and vulnerable. Even his thick moustache couldn’t hide its sensitivity. It was the first time the man had paid attention to his image. He wished the eyes’ contemptuous gaze could cover the sensitivity of the lips! Or, if only the lips’ sensitivity could soften the contempt of the eyes. That way one would become an arrogant one who believed in oneself, only cared about oneself and went out to battle with life without hesitation. Or else, one would quickly succumb, and thus, yes, thus, one wouldn’t have to strain oneself trying to slow down the collapse that was happening inside.
This city didn’t destroy him. This city had only witnessed him degenerate day by day in a process that changed something to nothing, a process that had actually started in another city, in another period. It was a period which, in his mind when he was sober, took the form of disorderly streets, fading walls, extremely gaunt figures, distraught faces, and a gray sky. It was the time of peace. A peace that he wanted to capture in his writings. Chopped into scenes. Arranged into frames. Engraved into words. A peace that was even more frightening to face than danger and more difficult to live in than war. A challenging peace. Yet only young souls were bewildered by it. As for him, at his age, with his talent, any feeling of bewilderment had already been exhausted, leaving only impotence. Impotence.
If they had been simply powerless before money, they would have weathered it. The whole country was stricken and subsisted on government subsidies, not just their one family. When the country could struggle to its feet so would everybody. Or suppose they had only focused on making a living, they could have been well off by and by, once the government permitted private enterprise. But they belonged to that group of people who were often jokingly called the minority, who wouldn’t survive without such worthless impractical things as words and art. He wanted to support his family with the profession he had chosen, studied, practised, and with all the professional plans he had in mind. Oh no. He moved his family far away, thinking they had found a place to live, thinking they could rule the roost. Yet every profession had its own peculiar freedom and limit, and in his line of trade writers needed colleagues like soldiers needed comrades, no one could exist alone. And when he realized his professional loneliness, it was too late. He couldn’t write anymore. Words didn’t just play hide-and-seek. They disappeared before his eyes. Vanished. All sense and substance.
Neighbours who now walked in the hallway and happened to look through the window which was always left open couldn’t see the shadow of a man sitting with his hands covering his face. A face that had lost its sense and soul even when he was alive. Only he knew when it all started.
It was after he was startled out of a short nap, or more accurately, a long coma. His body sweated. A kind of sweat that felt foreign to him, drowning even the smell of alcohol that had dissolved into his gastric juice, stinking of fear. The arm that he leaned on a side rail of the bed shook violently, as if he had gulped down too much coffee. There was no scary dream. He didn’t dream at all. There was only a very thick and off-white screen that looked like a stiff impenetrable rubber-like bulk of dewfall, buried in which were his tomorrows, the days he was yet to live through. He saw himself living as a lackluster official who received a ridiculously meager salary every month. He saw himself watching a movie he couldn’t make. He saw the shadows of his wife and children being pressed further away, smaller and smaller into that rubber-like bulk of dewfall. He saw his character receive his retirement confirmation letter and hobble away to shake hands with colleagues and neighbors to go back to his hometown with his wife and children after years of being a government cadre. He saw his character after days of sitting and drawing the faces of his old dead comrades in war now hanging himself on a tree during the season of ripening fruits. He saw his character walk away from his family. Yet he didn’t see himself. Not in the ancient gait of a retired old man. Not in the relaxed dangling body on the tree. Every way of leaving excluded him.
The man didn’t see himself in the old city with those cold, rainy heart-warming days where they first met. Nor did he see himself in the new one where what was called a cold wind was merely a mild tickling that he took his wife and children to. Did you expect this southward trip to herald a new journey? You didn’t know that the man you loved, took pride in, and trusted everyday stared at every part of himself in consternation. Crumbled. Exhausted. Torn. Away from desires, struggles, human intercourse, and willy-nilly scrambles that he couldn’t join even though he tried very hard. But for his wife and children. But for them. Even though his presence at home at some point became naught.
The woman didn’t know that at that moment there was only one thing that frightened the man: His wife would leave him. Yet many times in that biting, deadening fear he also wished his wife would leave him. He was an artist. He wasn’t romantic in an ordinary way. He knew very well that he was no longer the man his wife had fallen in love with. He was bitter. To see such beautiful love that used to light up those wet gentle dark eyes of a sixteen-year-old Hanoian girl now fade away. The bitterness was so intense that he could not proudly face that girl turned mother of his children who chose to stay by his side, for his sake. If only she were a simple hard-working complying rustic woman who had to use her children’s happiness as an excuse to cling to the fantastic façade of being married. But she was not. He knew why she stayed by his side. She knew he needed her. Yet, when staying by my side, do you still believe even just a little bit in my talents, my integrity, and hope it hasn’t all vanished?
The husband never dared to ask his wife that question. Nor did he dare to tell her how much he loved her. But for that love, he would have left. Just like a character of his. Simply leave, everything, put on a backpack and walk away, knowing that even without him, his wife could still bring up the children well. She didn’t know, more than once he had stood under the iron fence separating the open space shared with the upper apartment, looked at those iron bars to measure their hardness and imagined himself dangling on them. How easy it was to die. How difficult too. Not because he was scared, or might be saved. He wasn’t scared of hanging himself after having subjected his character to all sorts of masks and suicide. When he merged with his character he didn’t realize that he would need another dozen years to separate fiction from reality, to know that though he wasn’t afraid of death he couldn’t die. People could only commit suicide when they were no longer attached to anything and saw themselves in a different space, foreign to any living being. But I still have you. And the children. The children are reaching my age when I entered my prime.
Drinking couldn’t lull him to sleep, or free anybody, ever. Yet drinking could help forget. Drinking helped dilute the man’s blood and make his heart beat vigorously like in youthful times. Drinking increased friends. And it turned out that the most pleasant drinking buddy must be somebody who didn’t talk. Where to find such a one? For many afternoons he had sat down among a bunch of younger colleagues and listened to all sorts of petty rivalries and vain hopes. At other times he drank with a few young guards and motorbike-taxi drivers at the alley entrance. They were open and simple, so simple as to be simplistic, with all of their lively tricks to survive that couldn’t help him in any way because he couldn’t apply them. If only words hadn’t sulked away, their stories would have provided throbbing fresh material for him to write. Short stories. Screenplays. Maybe novels. He had never written a novel. But now… As for drinking with like-minded writers and artists, it only made him want to get inebriated right away. Sadly he remained sober, only to see how half-baked and disgusting those who had succeeded really were. How worthy and pitiful those who hadn’t succeeded were, on the contrary. At a time when everybody had to live, to accelerate and compete, their type stubbornly held on tight to their bulky dream about art, letting it drag them straight down the abyss. Battered. Broken. Crushed. Until it wasn’t just their own selves and families that were crushed. That bulky dream also crushed itself to powder along with pride. Drinking then tasted like living. Sordid. Insipid.
The scariest bout of drinking happened on a trip back to Hà Nội, during which he met an old friend by chance when he jumped on a taxi-motorbike. When he studied for a new degree in Poland, he’d befriended an archeology student. Now, the man who had a doctorate degree in archeology waited at street corners and read the faces of human passers-by to offer them a ride. The two guys sat down by a smuggled bottle of wine hugging their knees and laughing like firecrackers.
He remembered this archeologist from Hà Tĩnh Province. Growing up on that impoverished sandy soil the guy nevertheless enjoyed his undergraduate years in a country known within their circle for being the most well-off in the whole Soviet bloc. He went on to pursue his doctorate right away. He was very handsome, very pure, very trusting. Different from himself who first went to college then to war then back to college.
The doctor of archeology fondled the two broken halves of a roasted peanut whose skin had peeled off for a long time, and said in a raucous voice and with a heavy central accent which he’d striven to preserve for many years away from home:
- You do art. I do science. Though I only dig up dirt and turn over grass my profession is no difference from yours. Whatever we want to dig up and turn over and extract we need money. Money… Fuck… Money. And even if there is money for research we must know how to elbow each other on the face to take our turn. With such moribund government subsidies, how the fuck do you say scholars like us can devise this or that plan to beg for money. My father is too old and weak and yet still has to take the plough to the field. My mother is sick all year round. I have an outstanding younger brother. He studied much better than me and is now teaching right here in Hanoi. Everyday he goes to his lecture with a belly half fed on cafeteria food. His wife is outstanding too. They planned to have only two kids but have produced twins in one go. Their salaries are a joke. So if they didn’t bend over to work for hire for now how the fuck could they feed a bunch of people!
It was a pleasure to hear the meek doctor spout obscenity. Was it one of the new tools of trade that his buddy must acquire to rival his motorbike-taxi driver colleagues and lie in wait for customers everyday at street corners? What exquisite character development, both for the stage, the screen, and the literary text. Great wine. Great stories. And he was anxious to go home, sit down and write. His character was beginning to speak.
Yet his friend couldn’t become his character. Because he was getting drunk. In his drunkenness, he ranted:
- I wasn’t drafted to the war during college like you. In college I munched bread too but wasn’t as hungry as you. But life in secondary school in our bomb-ravaged central region was infinitely hard. So we’re even. Every one of our generation can be said to have braved through two wars and government subsidies and a postwar time after all. You’re even better than me though. I can’t abandon my wife and kids just for the sake of some stupid doctorate reputation. My wife’s family lives on Hàng Bông Street, has a street-front house but after the wars, rents it for fucking peace’s sake. No one can help anyone because everyone is worried about being laid off. So honestly only such a doctor like me who doesn’t crawl to the office to intellectually masturbate everyday but dares to go out into the streets to drive a motorbike-taxi can be said to be great. My wife isn’t as educated as yours, a bit slow too. It’s quite fortunate.
- Fortunate. Only I don’t know whether it’s her fortune or mine.
The friend wheezed with laughter, poured the whole persimmon-sized cup of wine into his mouth, choked, coughed, and tore up profusely. Was this guy really crying? He shuddered. And thought about those countless times when he drank with countless colleagues and comrades. Eventually he would get bored and waveringly stand up and walk home, grumble and snap at his wife and children, and vomit alcohol which he fancied to be some kind of art that he vomited from above down to this vapid life. He shouted at her to go away, partly unconsciously partly not, only to wake up in the middle of the night shivering to find life resembling a river that once flowed out impetuously but was now narrowing in and drying up, day by day. And she: dark, enduring. Gentle, cheerful. Impeccable, at work, at home. He was stunned by that bottomless strength. Women. Without their hands molding life into ordinaries, would artists like him be able to lecture rapturously about lofty things or fumblingly contemplate all that lonelinesses and sadnesses and sickening things and believe that they were noble? No! Women! Without them, even that tragedy of trying to get by that held us tight to this earth, whose arms opened into an endless sky, couldn’t have become some tasty food for countless generations of intellectuals and artists in this country to gnaw at. Those ordinaries were greater than the extolled heights. Or do people extol heights only because through them they want to reach ordinary life? In a sleep that had just returned, he dreamed about a pair of silky-white female hands spreading out, growing in size, roughing up and a pair of brilliantly bright, eager, extraordinary eyes of a sixteen-year-old.
Over there, separated by a short hallway, behind the door, the passionate forty-year-old woman was desperate to find her soul dry up. She no longer found the past flowing in during the long night. Nor were there anymore inexplicable tumults or vague hopes. There was only a tiring wish, that she was still strong enough to maintain her parents’ tranquility, her children’s innocence, and to walk through every tomorrow to see the future of her children brighter, better than the future of their father that in the past she had believed in… believed in… A heavy sleep came with the noises of mice scuffling on the fence separating the open space shared with the upper apartment. Right at the moment the man was dreaming about his wife, his wife was dreaming too, a dream perforated by mice and sprayed with tiny mouse feces the size of moldy beans that everyday after getting up she had to sweep into a corner of the door and remove, so that her men wouldn’t step on them. Men often didn’t take heed of such trivial things. Her husband however had never been heedless. Was that why he had to soak his days and months in drinking, so that its black power could lead him to a different world? Differing. Not delivering.
If he wanted deliverance, there was only one way out. Death.
The window was still wide open. In the hallway two women were chatting about daily life. Meat. Vegetables. Exactly like what happened at those communal apartment buildings in Hanoi where he once lived. As if time had stopped. Or the earth had stopped spinning. He stood up, leaving the couch that was placed right next to the window. The two women were still chatting with excitement while indifferently looking through the window into his house, as if he wasn’t there. He couldn’t make anybody see himself anymore. Now he only remained a hazy stream of light which was difficult to separate from the sunlight overflowing in the room. And when he walked towards the kitchen where the sunlight stopped, he became darkness. Only the mice, which were sleeping on the fence separating the common open space, felt anxious. They knew somebody was in the house.
The man glided through the stairs, stopped in front of the bedroom where a few months before he had slept in, and opened the door. His wife had returned to this room. There were many changes. It looked neater than when he and his boy used it. The new ivory-yellow furniture felt soft and shiny.
The man looked at a new bed that had been made to replace the old one that had been burned after he died. There was nothing else on the bed but a thin blanket, a pillow, and a book. The book was the only thing that wasn’t neatly placed, as if it had been read and put down casually.
He leaned over and sat down on one side of the bed, lay down and turned towards the blanket and pillow, inhaling lightly. His body had turned weightless since the day he passed away. He spread out his hand and stroked gently. The curvy hips, which were slender at sixteen, rounded out in shape after every pregnancy, and were just beginning to become voluptuous. For many indifferent nights he had caressed in his mind, the reclining body, the strong shoulders, the sloping hips.
On his last days he had again felt that warmth, and seen that pair of eager dark eyes. Closer, and closer, everyday she leaned over on his sick bed. The woman didn’t know how bitter the man felt then. Not because of his last journey. He felt sorry, impotent, mad. All his life he had been bred up to know how to compromise, strive forward, obey, and suffocate his desire to be himself. But he had never been instructed on how to express his love and affection, directly, face to face, in the most ordinary way, first of all to the people closest to him. Yet it was they who were his biggest success and by whose side the shining halo of art that he had achieved dimmed. You are the moon in the freezing rain... Back to whom I come to soothe my manhood fire…(1). Manhood fire. Fire. I pray that you will meet a woman who loves you like your mother has loved me…(2). His dying moments were filled with flickering, gnawing patchworks. Afterwards came an immense sweet space of silence that only he walked towards. No one was in sight. Nor was he.
The man lay down for a long time in the sweet light and quietness of the bedroom. Right as he was turning around to get up, his eyes caught an empty space which made him spring to his feet. The new bed was unevenly divided. It was a twin-size bed, yet only one side was complemented with a bedside table. On the other side there was only a simple side rail, a straight line, clear, resolute. The space where he had reclined wasn’t reserved for him, or anybody else. The man held his chest. It was hollow.
The mice woke up en masse and scuffled away when he glided downstairs, looked deep into the darkness at the end of the house, then stretched out of the window, grabbed a late afternoon wind, and flew away.
The man in the photo hanging on the opposite wall above the altar followed the ghost with his eyes, the contempt in which slowly faded away.
That was the last farewell to a ghost on the last day the ghost was allowed to wander the world.
(1),(2): Untitled lines written by poet Đỗ Quang Nghĩa
Translated by Thùy Linh