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Like salt and like that

Update: April, 26/2009 - 00:00

Short Story

Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy

(26-04-2009)

Like salt and like that

by Pham Thi Diep Giang

I wondered why I suddenly wanted to become a grain of salt. A tiny salty grain lying in silence somewhere in the white salt holder on a spice rack in a small kitchen. Or a grain of salt crusted on an old La Vie bottle, which my father used in the old days to gargle after waking up. Or a grain of salt perched on the brim of a glass of red wine, as red as a ruby. Or a grain of salt shining brightly in the sun amid the grains of sand in the Mediterranean Sea, where I hope to travel sometime in the distant future.

All of a sudden, I earnestly wanted to become a grain of salt more than ever before. What was I expecting from this incarnation? What was I hoping for from this grain of salt which was me? Was it possible for a grain of salt to have a mind? Or when I became a grain of salt, would I live a life different from the other grains of salt, because I was myself, even though I was a grain of salt?

Now I am going to tell you a funny story. One day my niece came back from school and threw herself onto my lap and said that she wanted to become a skunk. "A skunk!" I said in great surprise, because I did not know what a skunk was like – what sound it made, what colour its fur was, and didn’t it give a really unpleasant smell? So I asked her why she wanted to become a skunk. She grinned, showing the gap in her teeth.

"You know, a woman called me a skunk today. She is a fruit seller at the school gate, and I like the name very much!"

I thought I needed to meet the woman. And I did meet her. She was a fat and slovenly woman of about 60. She had tousled hair and a wrinkled face. The fruits she sold were all placed on a small wooden table near some small stools upholstered in leather. The scene was like a badly made silk painting. I sat down on one of those small stools in silence and after a moment asked her in a serious voice:

"May I ask you? Do you know what a skunk is like?"

The woman looked greatly surprised, as if I had fallen from somewhere high above and was not a girl made of worldly flesh.

"What did you ask? What a skunk?" – she asked as if she did not believe her ears. This meant that even she did not know what a skunk was like. It also meant that the woman had only said it accidentally.

I chose to make a fuss about it, because if I wanted I could have just gotten the answer by searching Google. It was like a breeze to get an answer there.

But how could I tell my niece only the scientific information I had picked up from the Net? That’s not what she wanted. On the other hand, I also did not want to stuff her head with all that information. So, my meeting with the fruit seller and my search on the Net were fruitless.

But man still does many pointless things. I used to have long, time-consuming arguments with my university friends on the Net about whether banh troi Tau, Luc tao xa or Chi ma phu were better, even they were merely the snacks that some of my girl friends and I would eat often at street stalls. We let our days pass in that same fruitless manner. We were so concerned with these meaningless things that helped us kill time. Anybody could get scared of time and anybody could say "Oh, time flies, and I haven’t done anything yet". Often someone will remark they wish there were forty eight hours in a day, so there would be time to do everything. What a fool! If time could be lengthened to no end, if each day was prolonged to a year or even a hundred years, we would still while away our time with these fruitless things. Yes, we have to live with these trifles. There is no other way!

It was the same here as I sat in the dark, unable to get a wink of sleep, watching the last minutes of my thirtieth birthday roll by and wishing that I could become a grain of salt. At least as a grain of salt, I could be more useful than I was as my human self. Yes, it was true!

Once during a meal, my father and mother had an argument over the tasteless braised fish. Father said: "If you would only add a grain of salt, it would be much better!" So had I been turned into that grain of salt, could I have stopped the bickering? But I could not. They had that first argument, because father complained that a tasteless braised fish was worthless. Mother should have kept mum about it as usual. But out of the blue, she began arguing the scientific benefits. She said aged people should eat less salty food, particularly men, because it would cause trouble with his kidneys, if he ate too much salty food. Argument turned into argument. Mother began arguing a lot when she retired, and she spent a lot of time listening to the radio or watching television. She followed almost all the programmes during the day. She had even learned the names of the actors and actresses on soap operas, science and current affairs programes by heart. She had been well-taught by those doctors on TV, and she had even copied the instructions on how to teach school children to make decorations.

The argument between mother and father ended abruptly when he began coughing. A fish bone had gotten stuck in his throat because of his fighting. His face began to turn blue, and he clawed at his throat and coughed, trying to get the fish bone out. I could feel something looming large in front of us. I thought he was about to do something destructive.

It was a divorce! It was a stupid thing to do, but he could not bear another argument with his wife! I myself at that time thought I would live an easy life when I got old. I was so afraid of becoming a fastidious old woman, critical and demanding, even though I was that person already. But mind you, if you get fastidious when you get older, you will live longer, but more unhappily. Because the longer you live, the more unacceptable things you will have to accept. For this very reason, it was difficult for me to imagine that father had divorced mother just because the braised fish she cooked for him was tasteless, lacking only a single grain of salt.

But my father was like that. It was said that men are like children and it was also said that old people become like children, if they live long enough. It means that an old man has got inside him two children, or in other words, he easily becomes sulky, angry, hurt and flies off the handle. If this is true, my father was a typical person in that sense. The next day, father threw all his personal belongings into a suitcase and told us he had to go to his country home for a while. Mother was not sensitive enough to understand. She insisted on going with him, and of course father refused pointblank.

The lack of a singe grain of salt for a pot of braised fish made father decide to live seperately from mother. And I could not turn myself into that grain of salt in time. I was thirty years old that day. I was sitting in the dark, feeling the heat of early summer days and wishing in silence to be a grain of salt.

When I was a first-year student, I read a moving story titled "Salt Coffee", where a young man loves a young girl. The young man went to a coffee house one day and joked with the waitress by ordering a cup of salt coffee. The waitress thought his order was real, so she went to put some salt in the coffee. Day in and day out the man drank it; he got addicted to this coffee, and they fell in love. A really romantic love story, isn’t it? Back then, we girls all wished for a dream boy, so we could give them this beautiful love story. And one day this story lost its poetry when I met a young guy in the middle of this summer, who gave me a pack of coffee with the brandname Tuy Hoa. He told me I would find the coffee a bit salty. I asked:

"Do they roast coffee with salt?"

"Not with salt, but with shrimp paste" – the young guy answered, smiling.

So, I understood that salt coffee was real, and it was salty not because of salt, but because of shrimp paste. Salt and shrimp paste are in two different categories. They have different smells. But now, at the age of thirty, what was I expecting? Something romantic? No. I was sitting in the dark of my room to dream about becoming a grain of salt at the age of thirty one.

Recently, my girl friends wanted to set me up on blind dates with some of the their guy friends. I was no good at all, if I did not get married at this age. My girl friends were all married and had one or two children already. So they showered me with their pity. However, at first they all told me they were envious of me – that I could travel here and there without any heartache, without thinking about caring for my any husbands, singing lullabies to any children. Even one of my closest friends said to me:

"I wish I could step into your shoes!"

And by looking into her face, I could tell she was telling me the truth. She had two beautiful children and a good husband, but she was unable to go out because she had to take care of her children and her household chores. She was up to her eyeballs in work. One day, we went to a cafe where she ordered a glass of salted apricot juice. Taking a small sip, she grimaced, complaining about the salty juice.

"You see, life is as salty as this glass of salted apricot juice. That’s why I am as thirsty as ever!"

I smiled, understanding that she was thirsty for my life. I was a free girl. I could eat or wear anything I wanted. So I thought about my dream of becoming a grain of salt. If I were like that, I would probably arrange something for myself. It was my habit to arrange everything in life. I was thirty-one years old now and it was true, and I was still unmarried. Actually when I was twenty eight, I did think about marriage; if I had done it, I would have a child already. But I could not arrange anything for father and mother. I never could have predicted that father would live separately from mother. This event cut off the chain of my life. I had to look back and draw some conclusion. I would marry a man who would leave me if I agreed. I would always be the person who took the initiative in things.

Even when I was a grain of salt, it would be better to be a grain of salt lying amid grains of sand and amid the shining sea shells on the Mediterranean beach. This grain of salt would be lying a bit higher than the shore to avoid the tide, of course, to avoid being dissolved, to avoid going another round of the life cycle. But I thought, the life of a grain of salt was so tasteless, if it should lie for all its life under the blazing sun, amid those grains of sands and sea shells on the beach.

I was thirty-one years old now. The clock was ticking, and it reminded me of the fact. The Mediterranean sea had disappeared, those bars and pubs smelling richly of brandy had also disappeared, the glasses of salted lemon juice were gone. Only I was left here, thirty-one years old, in the dark of the room, with my lips tasting of the salty tears running down my face.

Salty as salt.

Translated by Manh Chuong

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