by Hoang Hien
|Illustration by Do Dung
My friend was lying on the floor looking attentively at the ceiling when he abruptly asked me:
"What will you do when you return to our homeland?"
"The first thing I'll do is get married. My parents tell me that they've just chosen a very pretty and gentle girl from our village to be my wife. That's what I'm most looking forward to," I answered.
"Totally mad!" he lamented. To my surprise, he went on: "As a dynamic young man you should go everywhere and do anything you want. That's your pleasure until you depart from this life. It's far better than being a homebody who just goes to work early in the morning and returns home, weary and bored, with the rest of he masses to cherish your dear wife and children. Don't you know that?"
Staring at him with compassion, I said calmly: "Well, you've had to deal with a lot of annoyances, haven't you In my opinion, every trade can provide us with its special joy."
He just sniggered. A few seconds later he added: "That sounds reasonable! But the joy you're talking about must be purchased with sweat and tears. Plus you'll be stuck in the rat race to maintain your social position until your last breath."
Sadly I was unable to continue advocating my opinion. All of a sudden, he whispered to me softly:
"Hey, do you want to hear a story?"
"Yes, very much. What's it about?"
"First, let me ask you a question. Suppose you're on the brink of dying of starvation as you pass by a bakery. Would you dare to lift a loaf of bread while the owner wasn't looking?" he asked.
"Absolute rubbish! I don't believe you. Surely you've never been hungry, have you?" And with that, he started pouring his heart out to me: "I've stolen things twice. Cursedly, I stole… from my guardian angel! It was like this:
It all happened when I was eighteen years old. After finishing my last class in high school I applied to work at two well-known institutions in town. Sadly, I failed lamentably, bringing shame to my clan, especially my father who was then the chairman of the commune's administrative committee. In low spirits, I followed some friends to Sai Gon in search of work because I'd heard that factory wages were much higher in the South. While Dad paid no attention to my departure, Mum cried bitterly. She tried to put a handful of cash into my hand but I refused to accept it. I left during a gloomy night. It was my first trip away from home. It took us forty-eight hours to reach our city of dreams. I could barely sleep during the entire train ride. During the first night, while taking a jacket out of my rucksack to warm myself, I touched something hard. It turned out to be the bundle of cash that Mum had secretly put into my knapsack.
The megacity that I first set foot into was densely populated. Tragically, I had to work like a horse as a woodwork painter. Late one evening as I was about to head home several wicked co-workers suddenly played a nasty trick on me by dipping my hair into a large bucket of paint.
"You punched at least one of them out, didn't you?" I teased him.
Not even close! I picked up a full bucket of paint and splashed its contents at them, laughed triumphantly and shot out of there like a light to meet a friend who was waiting for me on his motorbike. Of course, they started to follow. I jumped on the bike and urged him to hurry away at full speed. In the dark, the ruffians ran after us. Unexpectedly, we entered a dead end alley. But as good luck would have it, we saw a woman preparing to close her shoe shop. "Esteemed lady, save our lives please. Some hooligans are chasing us," I implored. She let us park the bike inside next to hers before going out to sweep the pavement in front of her shop.
"Ma'am, have you seen two young men on a motorbike passing by your house?" we heard someone ask her.
"No, I haven't! Who would be so foolish to enter this blind alley?" she replied calmly and cleverly while my heart went pit-a-pat.
After they took off, I heaved a sigh of relief.
She came into the room, closed the door tightly and looked at us carefully for a while before fetching a roll of bandages. It was then that I realised my arm was bleeding. It must have been from a stone they threw while chasing us.
"You're strangers here, aren't you?" she asked us. "You're only inviting more risk, or even a worse beating, by fighting with those guys. Well, you can stay here for a few minutes until it's safe for you to leave."
"You had fortune on your side thanks to her bravery and sympathy. Otherwise, you would have been torn into pieces," I commented. He nodded silently in agreement.
Paradoxically, I committed horrible crimes against her twice. What a shame! We leased a flat next door to her house and I visited her and her family frequently. They had a pretty and intelligent daughter about the same age as me named Hue. After graduating from the municipal college of advanced education, she returned home to work and help support her family. Following her example, I started to spend all of my free time hard at work with a view to passing the university entrance exams the following year before asking for her hand in marriage.
"Go ahead, please," I urged him in high spirits.
While I was studying for the exams, Hue often brought over some rice or a meal. Time and again, she encouraged me to be more efficient with my studies to ensure I would succeed. I looked at her as my younger sister while still cherishing my long-standing, beautiful dream.
Sadly, I missed passing the exam by only four marks! At that time, our company was recruiting people to work in the Republic of Korea.
"Yes, I've heard about that," I interrupted. "You needed more than ten million dong to pay for the various fees, didn't you? So you finally solved the problem dishonestly!" I criticised.
He slapped his cheeks twice before resuming his narrative.
That day, I knew she was gathering all her earnings to purchase new goods for the shop. She put all the money in her handbag then placed it in a drawer close to the TV in the drawing-room before walking into her bedroom. Taking advantage of her brief absence, I grabbed the bag and concealed it under my jacket before returning home. I figured that my one-year salary from working in Korea would leave me with enough to compensate for her loss while also acknowledging my guilt during my first home-coming. It turned out that I earned less than ten million dong!
"So you stole from her again? Son of a bitch!" I observed seriously.
I robbed her again. That evening, her husband returned home late. He was ruthless and repremanded her severely for the loss. I heard everything through the thin walls. At first I thought about throwing all the money back at them, but in the end I wasn't bold enough to do it. The next day, as if proving I had an alibi, I dropped in on them and exclaimed sympathetically, "I'm thinking about going to Korea to work. My wages would be much higher there than here, so my life would surely be much better." Upon her sympathetic glance, I went on: "The problem is that I haven't got enough money. I've tried to borrow from my friends but I still don't have enough."
"You're so stupid! She must have known you stole the money when you said that," I said.
On the contrary! She told me that she'd lend me the missing amount as long as I promised to repay her when I made it rich. As I was getting ready to leave, she came to my place with the money, some of it in cash. With the bundle of banknotes in hand, I thanked her profusely then rushed off to the coach because I was worried that if I stayed any longer, I would burst into tears because of her kindness. For the first time since leaving home, I cried silently.
When I sighed loudly, he stopped to look out the window. Outside, it began to snow over the strange land. A few minutes later he went on.
While I was gone, Hue occasionally sent me a few lines via email saying that her Mum had enquired after my living and health conditions. After working for half a year, I sent the gentle and kind-hearted lady the money she had lent me plus the amount I had previously stolen from her. Strangely enough, she only accepted the sum of the loan. She sent the rest back to me. That meant I still owed my saviour a lot. So, I bought a new laptop and sent it to Hue as a gift. In reply Hue sent a fax saying she loved the computer but couldn't accept such an expensive gift. She promised to hang on to it for me until my home-coming. Her behaviour spoke volumes for her character as well as her great affection for me. To be honest, when I read her note I knew that I would never be able to face her again although I missed her very much.
I tore the fax into pieces and told myself would always be his first love.
"Afterwards, I ended our relationship by ticking OFF when I saw that she was online. Then one day, by chance, I opened my email to find a long message from her. "Dad has sold the plot of land in the country," Hue wrote. "Mum and I loved that place because that's where I spent my childhood. It had a small courtyard where I used to spread a sedge mat to enjoy the moonlight, when I was just a little girl. During the harvest it was nearly covered with yellow paddy. We had a small orchard that I spent time in every day looking to see what kind of flowers had blossomed and which fruit had ripened. It was in the familiar kitchen, warm in winter, where I used to oversleep so soundly for hours that I completely forgot to take care of the cauldron which was set over the flickering flame, full of sticky rice cakes for Teât. In a word, it was our home and filled with all the treasured memories of my teens. Sadly, Dad told me that he was compelled to sell it because he needed money for his business," she concluded.
I sobbed as I read her letter. If only I had been with her, I would have let her rest her head on my shoulder as she cried her heart out. I would pool all three years of savings to buy that patch of land for Hue. From the bottom of my heart, I knew that if I hadn't stolen her mother's money, they wouldn't have needed to sell the land thanks to my saviour's perseverence and hard work.
"You should confess to Hue, for she was a generous young lady. If you don't, you'll regret it for your entire life," I advised him sincerely.
No, never! Thinking about it is one thing, but doing it is another. I'm too ashamed to admit my mistake.
I was going to ask him why he had never admitted his mistake, but on second thought I realised the question was unreasonable because he only wanted to vent his troubles. If I were him, I would do the same.
Lying on the bed, I turned my face towards him only to find that he had fallen into a deep sleep. I tried to sleep too so I would be alert for my night shift.
A few days later, while he and I were taking a walk before returning to our flat, we heard a loud scream. He rushed over to the sound of the scream and punched a would-be-robber before returning a handbag to a sobbing girl. "I'm much obliged to you," she said. He just smiled broadly and slowly walked home.
Stretching his hands out to welcome the early flakes of snow, he whispered to me sincerely.
My dear friend, I must leave this country to return to Sai Gon as soon as possible. Hue is still unemployed even though she graduated from college years ago. She might be in financial trouble. I think she really needs me. Yesterday, she sent me an email saying: "Mum told me to tell you that she knows everything but she believes you are honest. When I asked her what she was talking about, she just smiled. Does she know we have had so much contact with each other?"
He stared at me for a long while before repeating his determination: "Anyhow, I must leave this land quickly." After a moment of silence, he added: "Seriously speaking, you'd better go home early to get married to make your parents happy."
Translated by Van Minh