Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
by Hoàng Hiền
It seems that in the whole village of Quế everybody wants Diệu to have an early marriage. “Why are you still single?” Many relatives, even villagers, asked her when they came to her family with season’s greetings at Tết.
“Soothsayers have all told me that fortune hasn’t smiled upon her,” answered the old woman for her daughter.
“My dear, every dog has its day,” she consoled her after they had left.
Each time she dealt with her daughter’s marital status, Diệu remembered the fat body of the local butcher on her mother’s back. He usually stealthily got into her room before giving her little children hush money so that they went out at once to get a few pouches of candy or a small packet of chocolate chip cookies while their father was not home. He hurriedly went upstairs to the small attic full of sundries. After that she followed him up with a rolled up mat…
* * *
Recently, Diệu rented a flat in a low cheap condo with Hoàng’s financial support in a narrow dark alley that seemed a dangerous place whenever anyone passed by.
Hoàng did not know that Diệu, the governess of his little girl, was with child. One day, when she asked for leave, he thought she was looking for a new job. The little kid asked her, in tears, if her teacher had been angry with her, she answered that nothing wrong had happened between them. In her heart of hearts she was fully aware the kid regarded her as a friend. Whenever the kid saw her in tears, she brought her governess some cosmetics or a little bottle of perfume taken from her mother’s make-up cabinet. Diệu had never accepted those things, except for a few chocolate bars or some lemon-flavoured sweets.
The kid always craved for a pretty sister. Yet she never thought that the woman who could give birth to such a baby was none other than her governess Diệu.
At first, Diệu had thought of getting rid of the foetus but on second thoughts she made up her mind to keep it. She would put Hoàng into a right state. Furthermore, she would not follow the way he had often secretly made. The money he had transferred into her account was enough for her to purchase an average flat for her own use if he abandoned his responsibility.
Of course, Diệu had never intended to show her big belly to Hoàng’s wife. She did not want to disturb their daily life. She silently accepted a supporting role of a third person.
“What’s the use of ruining their happiness,” she said to herself.
She showed no sign of repentance about her passion for him because he was worthy. In addition to his sheer ecstasy with her body, he remained a fully responsible husband towards his wife and a good father towards their children.
Hoàng had never said he loved Diệu. What he declared was that he was infatuated with her sweet-smelling body as soft as silk, her broad-minded personality, even her clumsiness. Moreover, his behaviour towards her was not merely his self-discovery but also his respectful and delicate conduct to her, which was clearly shown in his transferring his money into her account, quite different from others’ way.
Sometimes, he mentioned a certain figure in the company that she did not know or else did not need to know. The matter lay in her attentive listening. She listened without any complaints, nor any comments. Each time when Hoàng came to her place Diệu often checked his shirt carefully so that no coloured lip stains were left on his clothes, or the smell of perfume. In other words, she could be sure that nothing special could be detected. Therefore, Hoàng felt quite pleased with her checks.
Diệu had never compared herself with Hoàng’s wife. Never had she paid attention to his home affairs on the grounds that they might hurt her. From the bottom of her heart, she was well aware that he would always go back to his own family. To some extent, a little adventure, a little secrecy made life more comfortable. It showed life was neither monotonous, nor tasteless. Similarly, for people in love, it helped them not become wearily uneventful.
“Darling, I’ll book you a pleasure trip anywhere for several days in a luxury hotel to relax and enjoy fresh air,” read Hoàng’s message. Over the years, she had been fed up with her lonely tours, although the photos taken during the trips might make her schoolmates greatly envious.
* * *
Presently, Diệu was ready for a long-awaited homecoming to her native village of Quế for a short period of time. Situated by the Vận River, her place lying close to Yên Phụ Mountain embraced the rice fields. It was thanks to the clear stream coming down from the mountain that almost all the young women here had a lily-white complexion and a warm and soft voice.
* * *
Diệu looked very beautiful indeed.
Among those of her age of thirty with a lot of children, her single life became the talk of the town with numerous ill-willed stories. In spite of that, she stayed fully attached to her native village.
She often told Hoàng’s little daughter many narratives about her needy childhood. Furthermore, Diệu also wanted to take the kid to her faraway place for her to enjoy its splendid scenery but her dream never came true because of the refusal of Hoàng, a successful but unhappy businessman.
“A woman must be good-looking with an attractive body,” Diệu’s mother remarked when she found her beloved daughter in good health.
“Is it a fact that a woman’s joy can be merely assessed by another’s desire?” Diệu whispered to herself. By “another person” here, she implied the woman’s husband, his own mother or her kin without any efforts or upbringing made to her. If Diệu put such a question to her mother, she would hurt her.
In fact, Diệu dearly loved her unhappy mother. She remembered the long nights when her old mother had stayed up late to care for her weak, asthma-riddled daughter. Diệu also recollected the days she in high spirits followed her mother to the ricefields to do her work.
* * *
Now, Diệu wanted to tell her mother that she was with child and that her mother would have a grandchild. If Diệu had really wanted to get married, she would have taken pride in declaring this fact to her mother. Certainly, her mother would have done her best to welcome her dear daughter’s success. Furthermore, she would have caught a carp to make gruel for her to taste, would have warned her to be more careful in her movements as her elder sister had done before. In a word, she would not have let her do anything.Yet, such things had never ever happened because Diệu could hardly conceal the embryo that had been getting bigger and bigger with every passing day.
One day Diệu felt so sick that she vomited up all her dinner.
* * *
When her annual leave came to an end, Diệu returned to town to resume her teaching in a private school where her colleagues often spoke ill of their husbands while they themselves had also caused a lot of scandals.
Paradoxically, one of their controversial arguments was that while some wives wanted to get a divorce, they advised Diệu to get married as soon as possible. They would even act as intermediaries in her marital matters.
During that time a penal code was put into practice. One of its acts dealt with the accountability towards those who “infringe on the monogamy regime.’’ While the menfolk were strongly against it on the grounds that it broke human rights, birds were totally for it. Diệu stayed out of all the arguments.
She might have got married three years before if nothing bad came to her. Unluckily for her, a road terrible accident happened to her, resulting in her leg being broken. Due to undergoing long treatment at different hospitals she was afraid of those places. She shuddered when somebody mentioned her long stay in hospital. It was during that miserable year, her lover gave her up forever, when she dragged her injured leg from room to room.
“A friend in need is a friend indeed, my dear,” said her father when he visited her at the hospital for the first time.
“What about you?” she asked him frankly.“Have you ever taken pity on mum? How could you both lead such an unhappy life side by side?” she added further. Out of their four children, only Diệu was aware of this familial tragedy. Maybe her elder sister also realised that situation.
* * *
That rainy evening, after class,while Diệu was going home along the dim ill-smelling alley, she noticed Hoàng’s wife standing in front of her flat. When her heart went pit-a-pat, she turned back and shot out of the dark lane. Reaching a toy shop, she breathed hard. Thinking of a jealous wife’s brutal treatment towards her loving opponent she was frightened to death.
Not until nightfall did Diệu take a taxi to a nearby hospital. At the emergency room she was asked to name a husband or relative, but she just declared a false name.
“There’s nothing wrong with your health conditions, except for your high blood pressure,” said a GP on duty.
Early the next morning, Diệu’s mobile rang loudly.
“Yesterday evening, my wife and I, together with our little girl, came to your place but you were away,” said Hoàng. “The problem was that our kid refused another governess. Can you solve this issue?” he added.
“Quite a problem!” Diệu said to herself. “How can I dare enter their nest?” she went on.
* * *
The next morning, Diệu returned to her native village.
She felt greatly depressed when she found her mum sitting wearily beside the dining-table full of vegetables.
“Morning mum,” she said when she got in.
Closing the door at once, the weak-looking woman spoke in a soft voice.
“I was well aware of everything while taking care of you when you got ill at home that day, my beloved daughter,”she told her in an assuaged voice. “After giving birth to the four of you, I came to know that you were with child.”
Saying so, she burst into tears. Diệu also wept in front of her after a long time of separation. Diệu was unable to express her emotion by now, nor to explain to her what she had done previously.
Hugging her white-haired mother now curving up like a dry shrimp, Diệu took great pity on her old mum.
“How old she is!” she said to herself while covering her thin body with a wide blanket.
“Oh dear, my baby! You’re stirring strongly. Just a bit longer, my little one!” Diệu whispered to herself. Softly, she caressed her living germ again and again.
Translated by Văn Minh