Illustration by Kiều Trinh
A short story by Nguyễn Thị Thu Huệ
She had got everything ready for her husband’s visit to his former companion-in-arms. The gifts he would bring were simple things as a kilo of Thái Nguyên tea, a box of tobacco and a package of dried bitter melon slices. Seventy-years-old though he was, he was still as fit as a man not yet retried. Watching him tying the luggage on the back seat of a motorbike, putting on a crash helmet and wearing a pair of sunglasses covering his ruddy face, she thanked, in silence, her fate for having married and lived with him over such a tranquil and sweet forty years.
“You know, I’ll be there for two days so we can chat away until our heart’s content,” he said.
“Even for three days doesn’t matter to me. I know when you old chums meet, it’s hard to part,” she replied.
He smiled when she gifted him the extra day. Then he sped off on the scooter. The eldest son came out from inside came to embrace her.
“In the previous life, you were holy and in this life were able to meet my father. I can tell you from looking around that if men nowadays are not alcoholics, then they are drug addicts or have other women or get involved in gambling. But father has never been drawn into any of these evils. You see, at his age, he looks healthy and strong and is able to take care of his wife and grandchildren,” he said.
She smiled, satisfied.
“I’ve put all the fresh food in the fridge, enough for two days for you and your family.”
“When will you go to pagoda with your friends?”
“Tonight so that we can start the religious ceremonies early tomorrow morning as it is cool then. Besides, we are going to several pagodas.”
“Enjoy your time then. Don’t worry about us. Grandma will give her daughter-in-law an opportunity to act as master of the family, I think.”
“Oh, yes, at our age, having some free time with friends is the most enjoyable thing, you know.”
The house of Mr. Tâm’s companion-in-arms was 120km away. It took him four hours on the motorbike without stopping. When he arrived Nam, known “amateurish Nam,” and Khoa dubbed “hawkish Khoa” were already sitting by a stone table, finishing a crate of Ha Noi beer (containing 24 bottles) alongside lots of half-dried cuttlefish and a bunch of dried anchovies. Having drunk deeply, Mr. Tâm tossed his head towards one direction. Mr. Nam did the same. The three men all turned their heads in the same direction. There was a girl of about twenty in red shorts revealing her bottom and two chubby thighs dotted with mosquito bites. She wore a camisole with big loose breasts that fell close to her belly. Mr. Tâm looked bewildered.
“Is she new?” he said in a deep hoarse voice.
Mr. Khoa nodded.
He liked visiting his companion-in-arms – a term for the group of certain ex-soldiers who had returned to Hà Nội to work. After their retirement, they had returned to their home villages, so only Mr. Tâm lived in Hà Nội. This group had five persons, but today two were absent due to catching pneumonia and gout from the sudden cold.
For several years, they had chosen the sea beach with its yet-to-be-developed tourism for their gathering, even though it did not have any home villages or any of their houses here. It was because Mr. Tâm had once gone on holiday with the family here, so he liked the wilderness and the heartfelt local people; it was, therefore, his choosing of Hải Long beach whenever he had a chance to get out of the house or have a rendezvous with friends.
The large hotel room had five single beds. He had asked the hotel housekeeper to arrange the beds in the corners so as to have a space in the middle of the room for the next morning when they would stand there and wave their hands a thousand times.
The girl with big breasts, a curvy bottom and thighs with mosquito bites entered the room, and without saying a word, she took off her shorts and her camisole and tossed them onto the bed. Her naked body was revealed to them so quickly that the three men bowed their heads. Amateurish Nam started coughing as if he had choked on water. He always had a kind of uncontrollable cough when he was moved or suddenly taken aback. He would cough until his face turned dark purple, then it would stop. Seeing that Mr. Nam had a bad cough, the girl turned to Mr. Khoa and asked:
“How do you want to play? The girl named Vân told me that I had to ask you old men how you wanted it, depending on your health conditions.”
Mr. Khoa had half-closed eyes and waved his hands, stammering:
“Didn’t Vân tell you how I want to play?”
The girl shook her head. Mr. Tâm looked keenly at the ceiling fan turning slowly, making cracking noises after each turn.
“We haven’t made any confidences with Vân. At most, we would like to see you running on the beach.”
The girl, who was used to having sex in a quick and effective manner, knew that she could please the whoremongers in whatever way they liked.
“Ok. So, I am a substitute for Vân who has something to do in her home village. She’ll be back tonight. So take a look at me now.”
The girl stood with arms akimbo, her two legs spread just a little and her head slightly turned to look at each of the men. Mr. Khoa was the oldest in the group. Having a relatively special face and poor eyesight since his younger years when he had a green-pea-sized skin tag, a hook nose and buck teeth, he was dubbed Hawk. Normally, his voice rang out, yet now it trembled.
“Just be normal. There is no need to become so stressful. What is your name? What is the price for our contemplating and talking for two days?”
The girl walked towards Mr. Tâm and Mr. Nam in the way a model walks the catwalk looking to impress the jury, her two breasts swaying, her belly beginning to show folds of fat and a pretty attractive navel, and then she stopped at Mr. Nam.
“My name is Tươi. My pseudonym is Phạm Băng Băng. The price for each is 250,000 đồng. When we have many clients, we can have intercourse up to ten times. At this time of the year, with not so many clients, we can do it five to seven times. But I have no precedent for how many times you can do it and it’s difficult to convert to a price. So, now we will ask you for a lump sum price of one million đồng for a day, not including the food if you allow me to eat with you.”
Being conscious of getting one million đồng per day without reckoning for beer and wine was satisfying. Băng Băng was responsible for the three men who were as old as great grandfathers. But they still looked very young, so each time she gulped down a bottle of beer, she burst into laughter, lauding the men. She urged them:
“There’s a very interesting little rustic market they have in this area; if any of you want to go and buy things for the meal, I will give you a lift to there.”
The three men shouted a war cry. So the four set off on two motorbikes. Băng Băng was sitting behind amateurish Nam, with one arm embracing his waist and the other waving high, tally-ho-ing. Some female street vendors were bursting a gut laughing.
“Do a wheelie, Phạm Băng Băng!” they shouted.
Băng Băng turned her head, cheering again.
All three men felt ashamed at first, trying to speed up through the busiest streets in the coastal town with their heads stooped. Almost reaching the market, Băng Băng shouted:
“Please, old uncle Hawk turn left, and when we reach that row of sea pine trees we are there.”
The afternoon market was in the centre of the town. There were two pretty long rows of houses with all sorts of goods for sale like any other market. A bit further along were goods for exchange and the locals’ products. Some sold bunches of bananas, some ducks, and others fish and small prawns. There was someone selling duck organs and a single duck. The three men felt elated and attracted by everything, so they took a look, picked things up and asked the price. And having availed themselves of the opportunity, they even talked about the origin of the products for sale.
After half an hour roaming the market, bags of fresh fish, squid and mussels were seen dangling on their motorbikes. The cooking began. One man was washing vegetables, another preparing the fish before cooking and another making dipping sauce. The head of the hotel also contributed some fish sauce, salt and crispy fried onion whose tasty aroma spread through the air.
There was a billowing sea. Waves run over the stone embankment. So, the men decided to put bricks under the table and chairs to have an enjoyable meal outdoors. They started their drinking binge, shouting one, two, three before bottoming up. The sea flooded into their eating spot; Băng Băng’s white legs were under water; and at times, village boys sped their motor bikes past, making little waves.
They sat there until daybreak. The water receded. The sea water was dyed purple by the water hyacinths. Then it turned into pink and the sun rose.
After meeting for two days, the three old men broke up and each returned to their own homes. As if they still wanted to be together for a little longer, they dropped in on a sugar cane juice stall at a crossroads before they parted. And there, they continued their endless stories.
“Look, that girl Băng Băng is two years younger than my maternal granddaughter, but she is really filled out by puberty, whereas my granddaughter is just asked to focus on her studies by her parents. I’ll ask her to have some tonic,” Mr. Tâm said, smiling.
“I must admit that the girl’s bottom was really hard. That healthy body will be prolific when it comes to bearing children. You know, I wanted to turn away but when she appeared before me, her two tits looked so inviting. My whole life I have got used to looking at my wife’s breasts, which have now become so flat.”
“Do you know what impressed me most by what the girl said?”
“I found everything she said interesting.”
“What I found most pleasant was her saying that your copulation has no precedent. A girl of the ninth-grade would use formal words like ‘no precedent.’”
“Oh, possibly her previous clients were government officials.”
The three men burst into laughter.
“I did several times give her some advice to return to her home village and stop doing what she does here. She said she made a mistake by boasting to her whole family that she had gone to South Korea to marry a rich man. But at the end of the day, she was hoodwinked by a Korean family and was married to a paralyzed old man. Finally, she had a narrow escape back to Việt Nam. When she had arrived she found her parents had been bragging about her thriving life in Korea. Now she thinks if her parents knew the truth, they should die from it. So she tells them she will go back when she is rich enough.”
“But she has been doing anything to make more money, even selling her body, so she can get rich enough to return home.”
Hawk looked into the distance and spoke: “We have agreed to welcome the Lunar New Year Eve here. There are twenty days to go, so we’d better tell our families that we are going to visit the ex-commander of the division and then we will make a spring tour. We’ll be present at 9 o’clock sharp at this sugar cane juice stall. Mr. Tâm will book the entire second floor of the hotel. I’ll make a list of things that need buying for Tết and you will be given specific duty.”
“All right. Done,” Mr. Nam said.
Each of them had a glass of sugar cane juice then rinsed their mouths with cups of strong tea. They all set off for home in different directions, raising clouds of dust behind them.
In the evening, Mrs. Tâm was glad to receive a bag of dried fish and a kilo of half-dried cuttlefish, a gift from his friend. It took a long time to arrange the things in the kitchen cabinets. Heading back to the living room, she found her husband watching a current affairs program on TV, and said softly:
“You know, every time you come back from your visit, you always have so many gifts, and we can’t eat them, so next time, don’t buy and receive so many things like that, please. I’ve just checked and found we have 20 kilos of dried cuttlefish and tens of kilos of dried anchovies, and that’s after I have given a lot to our relatives and friends.”
Then she sat down by his side, taking a piece of apple and putting it into his mouth. Mr. Tâm glanced at his wife stopping at her flat breasts, and then he continued watching TV. The son and his wife were heading downstairs. His daughter-in-law said to her husband:
“I wish in my life that if you could have had one per cent of your father, I would feel much happier.”
He was watching TV, but still heard what his daughter-in-law said; he smiled and chewed the second piece of apple that his wife had just put into his mouth.
“Mum, Dad, please make a plan for Tết holiday. This Tết, we’re going to enjoy it in the South with my wife’s family. Where do you plan to go for this year’s religious festival, Mother? You’ve just mentioned cuttlefish, and I’m craving it now. My dear wife, can you have some cuttlefish grilled for me so that father and I can enjoy it over some beer?”
“All right. I also want to taste it, as father’s cuttlefish is extremely delicious,” she said musically and then disappeared.
“Our pagoda-goers will make a pilgrimage the same as last year. This time, we’ll go to the big pagodas in Đà Lạt, Lâm Đồng Province.”
“Very interesting. What a pity for father! He has to stay at home every Tết.”
Mr. Tâm smiled a bit, then he looked blankly at the dark space glowing in the rain outside the window.
In early Lunar January, Mr. Tâm’s wife made a plan for the family’s Tết. The whole family would make ceremonial offerings to the ancestors on the 29th of the year and on the 30th, the whole family would start their journey, each going to their own direction. Mrs. Tâm would made her pilgrimage at noon on the 30th through the 15th of Lunar January. Their eldest son’s family would enjoy Tết in the South with his wife’s family. The second son’s family would spend their holiday abroad.
Mr. Tâm had stayed at home for four years now; during this time, he fed the family pets and welcomed the neighbours coming to wish a happy new year to the family. After that, he followed a delegation from the street to go and express good wishes to other families. This year, the pets had been entrusted in the care of the pet centre. And then the house was closed.
Then off they went.
At 8:30 in the morning, Mr. Tâm arrived at the rendezvous and saw Mr. Nam and Mr. Khoa already there. Behind their motorbikes were big packages.
“Please check if everything is ok.” Mr. Tâm said, exhaling tobacco smoke.
“Everything has been tightened well. I also cleared everything in the fridge, including pork sausages, dried beef and South Korean chicken legs. Everything. We’ll enjoy it to our hearts’ content.”
They stopped at the ferry landing right just as the ferry started to cross the river. There was a biting cold wind on the river bank in winter. The red river water was flowing swiftly. Along the road, the tree lines were wet with rainwater. The road from the city to the town in the winter rain had left everything imbued with a beautiful sadness. Smoke was seen billowing up from the roofs of the houses nestled amid the trees. The three old men stopped their motorbikes and walked towards the wooden bench of the still closed roadside tea shop and then sat down.
“That smell of square sticky rice cakes being boiled makes me very hungry,” said Mr. Tâm, inhaling the smell.
“This time tomorrow we’ll have the cakes to eat.”
“Our children phoned me this morning, saying that they had already soaked the sticky rice, cleansed the leaves and after I finished wrapping the cakes, they could build the fire to boil the cakes.”
The ferry was coming. At this landing, besides the three old men, there were some cars and delivery trucks. The old man waved all the people on the landing in a friendly way: “Get on, please. We will leave instantly despite there not being enough passengers, as Tết is approaching fast.”
Mr. Khoa got a packet of Vina cigarettes and respectfully handed them to the ferry controller:
“Please, take one.”
The ferry controller smiled, saying: “Tomorrow is the New Year Eve and it’s very precious that you’re going to visit relatives. Our ferry will operate through Tết, so if you need to cross the river to get back to Hà Nội, all that you have to do is to switch on your bike lights and honk your horns, and I’ll come to your service right away.”
“We’ll welcome Tết right here.”
“Oh, how wonderful it is! Who will you stay with? I’m familiar with all the people in this town.”
“We don’t have any relatives here. We will stay in the hotel,” Mr. Tâm replied.
Out of the blue sky, the wind rose, bringing a drizzle. Mr. Khoa turned his face skywards for a pleasant feeling.
“It’s the best for you! Travelling is the best thing to do these days. You know, at our age, life is short. So, when we are still strong enough, we should go anywhere we like. I also have a craving for it, but I have got used to transporting people for several decades now.”
After two hours, all the square sticky rice cakes had been made and now they were well arranged in a nylon bag. Mr. Tâm admired what Mr. Nam had done with his deft hands to produce those nice-looking square cakes, whereas the girl Phạm Băng Băng was concentrating on wrapping the cake of her own. But hers looked shabby.
“I’m sorry for it. I don’t know how to wrap square cakes,” she said.
“You can do it after practising several times. This kind of cake has been made in frames to look neat and nice, but if it is wrapped manually, the quality of the cake is much better.”
“Having seen your hands dancing with the cake, I feel you have put all your heart into it,” Vân Củng Lợi remarked.
“You know, we used to be soldiers, so we got used to carrying guns and hoes and shovels. Look at my calloused hands,” Mr. Nam said, showing his hands to the girl.
Củng Lợi, he had named Vân when he first met her. He had taken that name from the famous Chinese actress Gong Li, because he found Vân, in some ways, as beautiful as her.
The wrapping of the cakes had finished and now came the cooking. In the morning, Củng Lợi bought flowers and a five-fruit tray ready for worshipping. The three old men added what they had brought from Hà Nội and the tray of offerings was now ready for the ceremony.
It was the afternoon of the Lunar New Year's Eve.
The road along the coast was deserted. It was drizzling plus had cold wind. Smoke was seen belching up from the thatch-roofed houses. The tray was ready for the New Year's Eve’s worshipping. Everyone looked seawards with respect and said prayers amid the crashing sound made by the sea waves.
Then, the worshipping ceremony was over. More than ten people were sitting around the table and raised their toasts for a happy new year. It was getting colder when it was in the deep night. The cheeks of everyone looked rosy.
The three old men were warmly welcomed by the local Christians and the Bishop. They were all in their best to welcome the Lunar New Year.
“You know, after the days I escaped from South Korea, I stayed here with Vân. I had three New Year's Eves here. And strange enough, after that I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
“I also like this place. Whenever I have free time, I only want to come here. The more I come, the more I fall in love with it.”
“So do I.”
“Don’t you want to go back to your home village and live with your parents?”
“I miss them very much, but my parents still believe I am still in South Korea, and I have to tell lies to them.”
“It’s strange that your parents haven’t known you are living here for three years now.”
“Because I keep sending them fake photos of South Korea.”
“But sooner or later, you will have to go back home. Stop doing this type of job. It’s no good at all.”
“Yes, we have a plan to apply for a job at the garment-making centre and learn a trade there. After having lived here for several years, I have learned many jobs such as sailing, salt making and doing nails.”
“Yes, everyone has their own values. You are good girls. If you are put in the right position your abilities will grow, I’m sure. I wish you girls will go back home one day and get jobs of your own.”
“Yes, we will follow your advice, grandad!”
They all sat at the party table until day broke. Human voices were heard ringing all over the area. The atmosphere was touched with the fragrance of agarwood incense. The three old men prepared red envelopes for the people around them, especially for the girls Băng Băng and Củng Lợi.
“On the occasion of the happy New Year, we wish you a good job and a stable life. After finishing your studies, do go back home and get married. I believe your parents will extend a greater love to you if they know the truth about your drifting life after all these years,” Mr. Tâm said.
Băng Băng blushed, her two eyes glowing. “Thank you very much. We want to go back home very much, but just fear that our parents won’t understand it and send us away,” she said.
“Or we will go with you?” Mr. Khoa said with excitement.
“Oh my goodness, that will be the best for us!” – Củng Lợi said, with shining eyes.
Mr. Nam raised his glass of beer.
“Let’s drink to your luck!”
Out at the sea, the waves tinged with a purple colour were rushing to the shore. The town with the church and sky-high buildings was brightly lit on the first day of the New Year.
The coastal town had a sleepless night.
A rising sun was expected.
Translated by Mạnh Chương