by Vo Dieu Thanh
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
The air hostess had just helped Mai tighten his seat belt. The female passenger sitting next to him sensed his nervousness and asked him if it was his first time. No! he snapped, but he was still wondering if Dam, his housemaid, had done what he had asked. He eyed his switched-off mobile phone.
Forget it! He would be landing in a few hours and be home in about another 20 minutes after catching a cab to Binh Tan. But he felt agitated and concerned. Why? I must be calm, he told himself. If I'm late, so be it, it's not my fault.
Mai used to be a calm person, so calm in fact that he'd often been likened to a cold fish, a dead body, inert. And Dam, well she was a chatterbox.
The first day Dam followed Mai to go home she had asked:
"What's your name, sir?" What's your wife's name? How old are you?"
"Mai. My wife…Her name is Trang (White). Still very young."
"What a lady!"
"Any guy who has a young wife must be of great service. If he is negligent, she will leave him at once. What's your name?"
"Mai. What about your husband?"
Mai sniffed and chuckled. Dam looked at him in surprise:
"I hate guys who chuckle!"
Mai opened the gate as a pack of dogs rushing towards him barking. The fiercest was the snow white mother dog called Trang (White).
"Trang, don't get angry. She is our new housemaid."
"You name your dog after your wife! You're crazy..."
"She is my wife, you know. Baby, come here and kiss me."
Mai embraced the dog and the dog buried her head in his lap. She was licking his chin and Mai licked her nose; he felt her wet tongue….
Dam stepped back. She felt like throwing up. Her hair stood on end.
"Rest reassured, Dam! My wife is very gentle, provided that you don't embrace me. She is very jealous!"
Dam hated Mai's tone.
"I am not afraid. I… Oh, what kind of man are you?"
"Don't be afraid of her, as long as you don't mistreat my children. I'll pay you well. Otherwise, your behaviour won't be tolerated."
"Unfortunately, if the dogs hurt themselves, and can't explain, you will blame me…"
"No, they are very clever. If they injure themselves, they will behave normally with you. If you do harm to them, I will know immediately when I look into their eyes. They are much more honest than you."
Dam got angry.
"How dare you judge me when you don't know anything about me!"
"I judge even when I don't know. But if I know, I'll think about it."
"But you don't have a wife here…No woman here… How can I live here alone? I've got a husband."
"I don't care a pin about your having a husband. What's the use of your bragging about it? I still have a wet nurse here."
Dam thought about it for a moment. He looked so weak. Moreover, she was poor. Her monthly salary would equal one tenth of a tael of gold, plus bed and board. Her husband Quai will be happy to carry on training for a job. But should she work for Mai? He looked handsome and was clever, but a bit crazy in the head.
Ms Ba, the wet nurse, was short, slow and taciturn.
"Don't worry!... The boss has no interest in women…"
Ms Ba looked at Dam as if to say that she shouldn't say anything, and then brought milk for the puppies. The mother dog was much happier than the girls in Dam's home village. The dog had given birth to those fat puppies, but she did not have to breast feed them.
Ms Ba's daily job was to bathe the mother dog and the puppies, and then comb their fur. Being a cared for dog was much better than being a human, Dam thought.
Dam was phoning her husband Quai, telling him about her job here. It was not too much work. Cooking, sweeping and cleaning the house. The boss was at work all the time. She thought he taught English. Dam did not tell her husband that she had named the mother dog Trang.
Trang was so clever. When Mai got angry with somebody, she got closer to him but did not lick. She simply lay at her bosses' feet, as if eager to hear everything he had to say. Yes. Mai told the dog about everything. Dam guessed that he was worrying about something…But actually she could not understand what he was saying. And then he would embrace her, and kiss her, and lick her. Dam felt sick.
Mai hugged those dogs as parents coddle their kids…Dam compared this situation to those fathers in her home village. Those country fathers were sometimes so angry that they beat their children when they were disobeyed or damaged something in the house, while Mai just smiled when these dogs bit his expensive English books.
Once, Mai asked Dam when he saw her looking at the dogs.
"Have you got any children?"
"Not yet. I have to wait for my husband Quai to finish his training course."
"It's best not to give birth to humans."
"What an off-putting man you are!"
Dam could barely wait for the day when her husband finished his training and she could get out of this place. This was not a living place, somewhere fit for human beings. Dam liked Quai but he was not friendly with her, but, she reasoned, he was a man. As she looked at Mai, she felt the need to meet normal people.
She missed Quai. She was about to pick up the phone to call him when she remembered that she had just called him about ten minutes before.
"Your husband has not come to see you and it seems that he seldom calls you. Did you take the initiative and call him first?"
"My husband Quai is afraid that I'll be taken to task by the boss."
"Did he say so?"
"I think he thought so."
"Do you believe in your husband?"
"Yes. Is it possible to believe in you?"
"Do you believe that he does not think about other women?"
"You're more stupid than a dog."
"Do you have a faithless wife?"
"Your wife betrayed you, didn't she?"
"Shut your mouth!"
"So, it's true. She is that woman, not your dog named Trang. She must be very beautiful."
"From now on, if you mention that woman again, I'll kill you."
In the afternoon, while having dinner with Ms Ba, Dam asked:
"Is he the man from the western part of the country?"
"How do you know?"
"The way he talks is so fierce. It is so in my home country. That is how I know. A lot of women in my place are very wicked when they rail at their daughters. Yet, in the night time when their daughters bathe in the river, they fear that they might drown."
"Don't mention the western part with the boss, okay."
"So it seems that he had foes there?"
"I'm told that it is his stepmother."
"Every stepmother treats the husbands' children badly."
At that moment, Mai was seen approaching the gate. He took Dam by the arm and pulled her to the water tank:
"If you mention that wild animal again, I'll plunge you into this."
"You're crueller than a stepmother."
Mai pushed Dam's head down into the water tank, but just close to the water's surface, and then he pulled her up. She threw Mai's hand away, feeling a bit frightened. This guy loves his dogs more than people, so you will never know if he will kill you, she thought. It was better not to provoke him. All of a sudden, Dam wanted to hear Quai's voice. Her husband was gentle. This man is so cruel. Who cares if he is talented and rich. Ms Ba knew something about Mai's life story, but she had to take care of his dogs day and night, so she had nobody to talk to and it seemed that she, like Mai, was not going to speak any kind of human language. They only growled.
Dam felt pity for Ms Ba, so she often took the time to talk with her just to fill the emptiness in the house. But Ms Ba only answered once in a blue moon.
"It seems that Mr Mai does not have any friends?"
"Please, never mention his friends in front of him."
Dam changed the subject and asked about Ms Ba.
"How long have you worked here? How do you know him? Before you, who fed those dogs?"
"Don't say anything about the person who worked here before me."
"So it seems that even the servant can hit below his belt?"
Only Ms Ba who openly expressed her loyalty to him could stay here for long a time. Dam could not possibly endure it. She continued to ask Ms Ba:
"Mr Mai, loved his wife?"
"How do you know?"
"Because he was so head over heels in love with her that when she left him he turned to hate. It is quite normal that way. Beauty has an ugly heart."
Ms Ba looked steadily at the gate.
"Who told you that?"
"Nobody. Because Mr Mai bears such a grudge against people…so I guessed."
"Never say such a thing in front of him!"
The house had so many taboos…Dam felt like hearing Quai's voice so much. The phone was ringing. Dam was having a meal. She hastily rushed to pick up the receiver.
"Quai! Ms Ba, Quai is phoning me!"
"Why are you so delirious? I think nothing is good for you."
Quai asked Dam to save up some money so that he could buy a computer, which he needed to finish his training course. The computer would cost Dam two-months' salary.
"Why do you need to buy such an expensive machine?" Mai asked.
"'Cause it's necessary, and in the end, worth it."
"I think he doesn't have any pity for you."
"But I have for him. He'll see it if he has two eyes."
"What a stupid head you have!" Mai smiled.
"What a cruel man! Crueller than your dogs… Even crueller than that white dog."
On the same day, as Ms Ba was pouring hot water into a pot, the white dog bit her leg while it was playing with her puppies. In her panic, she poured scolding water onto the white dog. In the afternoon, Mai came home and found his Trang lying there, groaning in agony.
Mai wanted to know why his beloved was in pain. Ms Ba explained, without elaboration. He went to the kitchen, took the boiling pot of water and poured it onto her feet. Fortunately, Ms Ba reacted in time, and only suffered a minor burn.
Dam sprang to her feet.
"You are a barbarian. You should be put in prison."
"Do you want me to pour hot water on you too? Don't mention prison again. Do you understand!"
"I will mention it again and again. What can you do to me? I'll put you in prison. You'll go to prison… prison, you know!"
Mai roared, and as he did he dragged Dam to the water tank and pushed her head down.
"You son of a bitch! Damn you!"
Ms Ba pulled Dam free.
"Why are you afraid of nothing?"
"But he is so cruel, you know.
"If he was really cruel, he would have killed you."
"When you were alone here, did he treat you as badly as that?"
"Once. When I fed the white dog and it got loose bowels. He asked me to eat the remains of the food that I'd given the dog."
"Oh, my God! What an evil man! Why didn't you leave then?"
"I did not have anywhere else to go. I am not a good cook."
Dam pitied Ms Ba and she loathed Mai.
"If you hate the boss so much, why don't you go!"
"I hate him, but I am not afraid of him. I could earn more money here and could protect you. If you want to leave, I'll leave also."
"I won't go. The boss gets angry, but he won't kill me."
"But I think you're living with a wild animal."
"Oh, yes. Man is also an animal. This man is less than an animal but he is still probably kinder than others. I think your husband is no man at all."
"No, I think my husband is more man-like than Mr Mai. Why does Mr Mai hate the word ‘prison' so much? Was he once imprisoned? OK, I won't mention it again."
Dam understood that Ms Ba had said her bit. Moreover, she hated the thought of prison. Dam would never mention it again.
"He was imprisoned for many years."
Dam said: "'Well!' and I felt sorry for him. It is a shame. He is talented and smart."
"Don't mention it again. We are so lucky and you are so good that you can live for such a long time with such a hard man as Mr Mai."
"I don't want to go back to my home village. My husband is also not good to me at all. I'd rather be here as an animal with Mr Mai and earn some money for my children. Such a man as Mr Mai is good enough for me. It's sad that his wife made such a mistake."
"Did his wife leave him?"
"Not only that. She also got him thrown in prison."
Dam wanted to ask something more, but Ms Ba had left with a bottle of milk. She felt sad for Ms Ba, for Mr Mai and for herself. She wondered why her husband Quai did not answer her last ten phone calls. Forget it. I will call him after doing the washing up, she told herself. Maybe he is ill?
Mai came home from teaching and asked Dam to prepare the meal quickly because he had an evening class. The examinations were coming. She said "yes", while washing vegetables, but she did not prepare the meal for him right away. She dried her hands on her blouse before removing her mobile phone from her pocket.
"What's the use of calling him? You can't get any sugary words from him. What a dull-witted woman!"
"You're dull-witted, you know! If you say anything more, I'll kill you."
Quai picked up the phone and asked her if she wanted to say anything. He did not explain why he had not answered her earlier calls.
True, Dam did not have anything to say to him, except to let him know that she had two days off. But Quai said nonchalantly that she had better stay put because if she came home, he would not be there. He had to be at school, he said. Dam put the phone down and sat dumbfounded. Mai laughed, an ugly laugh.
On one evening, as Dam repeatedly picked up and then put down her phone, Mai became agitated – he was reminded of something. He was so stupid, foolish and dull-witted. He was led by the nose all the time.
Dam felt so empty and weak. Then one day, a pregnant woman came to see her, saying that Quai belonged to her and only loved her. Mai witnessed the scene and smiled. Dam threw the phone on the floor and it broke into three pieces. Mai collected the pieces and handed them to her.
"Keep the SIM card so that you can use it again."
Dam took it, broken and threw the bits on the ground. She then trod them underfoot.
"I'll give you one puppy. It will be more faithful than your husband. Do stay and work here. You'll have these puppies to console you," Mai said to her.
Mai came home from teaching to find Dam washing the puppies. Half a year had gone by and Dam had missed Quai. She wanted to call him and say something but she wouldn't let herself.
"I don't want to see such a scene, you might get mad one day, so you can go now."
"Don't worry. You cannot make me mad."
"I don't like pretend people."
"I don't pretend to be like that. I don't miss him at all, but it is a habit."
Dam prepared her luggage in readiness to go home. She felt neither sad nor happy.
"Wait, wait! I have to find a substitute first. So stay here until I am back from my holidays."
Mai went to the airport and came home late at night. His heart was uneasy thinking that Dam would harm his dogs. Upon entering the house, he saw Trang lying in agony on the kitchen floor. Nearby, Dam was fending off a burglar. Mai grabbed the dog and ran away. The burglar released Dam and ran after Mai, but Dam grabbed his leg, making him fall to the floor. Ms Ba rushed to hit him on the head with a stick and knocked him out cold.
Later, when the burglar was arrested by the police, Mai noticed blood oozing from Dam's face. Ms Ba's arm was also hurt. Ms Ba, Dam and even his dog Trang were taken to hospital. Mai wanted to care for Dam, but he felt shamed at the thought of Ms Ba feeding Dam, day in day out.
He now watched Dam sleeping. She was so gentle and lovely in that position. He wanted to come to her and take her hand, but he could not. In his mind, women were tricky and disloyal. He knew this. He could never tell what they were thinking.
He left the hospital to go home. He asked Ms Ba to take care of Dam.
Mai was on a plane talking with a foreign passenger in English. After an hour, he fell asleep. He dreamt of Dam. After landing, he hailed a cab. His mind was so confused that the driver had to ask him several times where to go, but he did not answer. In the end, Mai apologised and asked the driver to return to the airport.
He boarded a plane home. His mind was swaying. He was dying to call Dam because he wanted to hear her voice, but the phone was switched off. There was a lot of turbulence. The air hostess asked the passengers to stay calm. Mai was not afraid of death. He only felt regret for the years he had been alive. The female passenger next to him was praying. He felt he was being flung to and fro, but he did not care. He thought only of Dam. He saw Dam fighting the robber and the blood on her face. He now wished to hear her voice, to see her cutting firewood…to hear her quarrel.
He dashed out of the plane on landing, forgetting to switch on his mobile phone. Mai was not alive. He was approaching a new life. It was impossible to explain. In that terrible situation, the plane had landed safe and sound. He did not believe that God had pity for him. God pitied another.
Translated by Manh Chuong