by Vu Thi Huyen Trang
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
According to our age-old custom, every year home-owners invite a special person to be the "first-foot" for their family. This means that at mid-night, at the moment the old year rushes out and the new year rushes in, the invitee is the first person to enter the house. During the ritual, this person wishes for everyone in the home health, marked success and, especially, good luck during the year. Of course, the chosen person, usually a young person or a man, must be the same age as the animal representing that year on the lunar calendar. By following this custom, the whole family hopes to avoid trouble and enjoy good luck for the entire year.
This custom is of paramount importance for all families, rich and poor. Yet for Mrs Sang's clan, things were quite different: Binh has been the unique first-foot for her family over the years. He lives in the same village as her, but in a different hamlet. Paradoxically, he had brought her more bad luck than good luck many times. He built her house but its kitchen burnt down a few months later. He was asked to purchase a cow, but it gave birth to a single litter every two years. Simply put, everyone thinks he is a good-for-nothing guy.
"Although he's a clumsy youth, he's honest and kind-hearted. That's what we have called for him so far," she retorted whenever anyone found fault with his unsuccessful work.
That reason might sound good to many, but not to all. Actually, while her explanation sounded rather maladroit, there was a long story about their lofty behaviour, sorrowful but respectful, relating to the humble plight of this romantic old couple.
Mrs Sang was very clever, whereas her husband was very crazy. In this village, the most detestable types of people were young women who had a child out of wedlock and men deprived of their wits. Her husband Ve was a clear member of the scond group. However, Mrs Sang and Binh took great pity on him.
"Surely Binh is Ve's own son," remarked some villagers.
"I'll teach you to hurt my husband's feelings," she warned them. Nevertheless, in her heart of hearts she felt an indescribable sorrow whenever she heard such comments.
It was now the eve of Tet.
She bathed and washed him with numerous kinds of aromatic herbs as he sat unmoving in the bathroom like a little child. "You see, nobody's clumsy like you. You can't even put clothes on by yourself. Later, when I pass away, perhaps you'll go out wearing dirty clothes during Tet," she complained on the eve of the year's greatest event, while her neighbours were busy choosing beautiful twigs of peach blossoms, gladioluses, chrysanthemums, dahlias and so many others in the nearby flower market.
He only smiled, naive as an infant, and splashed her with warm and sweet-smelling water.
After that she prepared a year-end banquet to pay homage to her ancestors.
"Why didn't you adopt a boy when you were young who could support you and your husband in your old age and mark your death anniversaries later?" one of her neighbours asked her one day.
Turning a deaf ear, she just smiled. "Each of us has a cross to bear," she replied. "Besides, I willingly accept any disadvantages out of pity for him," she added. Every year, Tet's Eve was always the longest and most distressing occasion for her as she sat beside him as he looked out over the large and desolate courtyard. She thought a lot about what had happened to her family on the one hand and about any difficulties and obstacles she might face in the future on the other. At twilight, she hurriedly went across the ricefields to Binh's place to ask him for a favour: to be the first-foot at her home at mid-night.
She heard wall clock clicking regularly. At midnight, she led her husband to the gate for him to enjoy the jubilant atmosphere of Tet as much as possible. In her imagination, all other families raised their full glasses of red wine to welcome the new year and to wish one another good health, great success and good luck. Parents advised their little children to do well at school and asked their married children to live in harmony in order to set an example for the little ones to follow.
That was the situation in all extended families, she belived, but for Mrs Sang's two-member clan, a few small wishes were quite enough. The continuous echoes of the fire-crackers going off at the village gate filled their ears. Obviously, the living conditions of people from all walks of life had improved with each passing year. She remembered the old days, when they were first married. They were, like so many others in the area, so poor that their only dreams were of a frugal Tet dinner and a few new pieces of clothing. The roof of their dilapidated house was so rotten that rain water fell drop by drop on the altar. In those days, a gloomy air reigned over her entire village which was ekeing out a bare existence in dire poverty. While she was engulfed in the sad memories of the past, she heard Binh's voice resounding from her gate.
"Happy New Year! Happy New Year!" he congratulated them. "I wish you both a new year with good health, good luck, prosperity and plenty of joy," he added.
"Good! Good!" said Mr Ve with a silly smile.
Placing Binh's hands on her husband's cold hands, she said with emotion, "We're very grateful to you because you're the first person to bring us good luck this year. We also wish you to get married as soon as possible. You're old enough to get married, aren't you?"
"Well, first you'll have to wish for me to find an eligible young lady. In fact, I've been thinking about it for years!"
"Surely you'll find a nice girl this year. Now, let's raise our glasses to welcome a new spring," she said.
"Good! Good!" exclaimed Mr Ve, raising his hands.
Mrs Sang poured out three more glasses of wine then said, "This year, Spring looks very fine and doesn't seem to be as cold." Mr Ve looked up and drank his entire glass in one gulp. He made a wry face and Mrs Sang and Binh burst out laughing. Over the past years, Tet came round in this little house with a speechless joy. At that most important moment of the year, she though about her past and the existence of a man at two different stages of life – youth and old age – who filled life with her in this little house.
In the past, when Ve was still very young and dynamic, he was very handsome and extremely skilful in many respects. A lot of pretty girls in the village were secretly in love with him. He worked for the commune's agricultural co-operative. In addition to his work in the field, he also joined a group of amateur performers who participated in every major event, sometimes as a singer and sometimes a musician. At that time, she was head of the commune's Youth Union. She loved him in secret but he had his sights set on another beautiful girl.
Binh's mother was a rice trader. She was both pretty and witty. Before giving birth to him, she followed a male trader to the lowlands to establish her own business. In those days, the whole village was in a pandemonium owing to two things: Ve turned mad after a serious accident and Ha suddenly eloped with a man without leaving a single trace.
Twelve years later, she returned home with Little Binh. Sang took Ve home to look after him in his madness. Rumor had it that she had been so charmed by the good for nothing guy that she left her peaceful life behind. "How could I have the heart to see him go begging and bullied by naughty kids?" she said to herself. As a result, they became husband and wife. Actually, she had never enjoyed a blissful day in the strictest sense of the word: her dream of having children never came true. When thinking of her humble plight, she wept openly in silence.
Outside, tiny drops of drizzle fell and slightly coated the leaves and buds.
Mrs Ha died five years ago, leaving Binh alone. He was handsome and kind-hearted but rather clumsy. Several parents in the village advised their daughters to stay away from him because his mother had died of a contagious disease and left him nothing but a small plot of land. Yet, there was another problem that only Mrs Sang knew about. One moonless night when Mrs Sang took a short-cut across the submerged fields to Mrs Ha's place at her invitation. They sat opposite to each other. After a long silence, Mrs Ha said, "I asked Binh to invite you over so I could ask you for a special favour: to allow me to place him in your custody, for he's your…"
"My husband's son! Is that what you mean?" Mrs Sang stated. "I knew it! You followed that trader to cover up the truth, didn't you? From the bottom of my heart, I don't blame you at all because the situation is really quite human, especially for us women. Nobody else wanted to be so deeply attached to a mad man."
In the thick of the deep night they vowed to keep the secret of Binh's origins. When Mrs Ha breathed her last, Mrs Sang took him home out of pity on the honest but poor youth She also wanted to add a member to her own small family. In her heart of hearts, she looked at him as her own child without revealing the truth to the public. Otherwise, public opinions were very stern. If villagers knew that Binh was Mr Ve's own son, he would remain single until his old age, for no parents would want to give their daughter's hand to an illegitimate young man. "In his previous life, Mr Ve must have led a dishonest life, so in this life he has to suffer such a horrible chastisement," villagers often whispered to one another to pass the time. In their superstitious minds, they were afraid that bad luck would cling to guilty people from generation to generation. Such was life!
Come what may, during the first day of the new year, when Mr Ve had the chance to meet with his own son, she felt very warm and happy. "What a sacred joy!" she said to herself. Binh just sat motionless, staring at the early spring drizzle. Sometimes, Mr Ve uttered a few vague words, "Good! Good!", then he laughed in a silly way.
Mrs Sang poured out three more glasses of wine. She felt glad that this year once again she had an honest youth to first-foot for her family.
Translated by Van Minh