by Tieu Quyen
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
Since that hot evening, when its sunrays were slanting over the city, when Giang's lover helped her lead her Mio motorbike out of the Melody Restaurant then tightened the belt of her safety helmet with a soft smile, she had never seen him again.
Worse still, when she sent him a message of good-night sleep via her handset, she did not receive any replies from his webside nicknamed My Darling either.
The next day, she sent him another piece of information early in the morning to remind him not to forget his usual lunch, but she got no answer. "Surely, he's too busy," she said to herself. Once, she turned angry when he was speechless. Finally, when meeting each other, he had to clarify sincerely, "If you haven't got my answer, that means that I'm either at the meeting or on my way home then I'll ring you up later."
Again, the next morning, when she cited a famous saying for him to know then told him to have lunch on time because he used to have a tardy meal, he remained silent. At six in the evening when she took her motorbike out of the garage to go home she realized that the rear tyre of her vehicle had gone flat. She had done her best to lead it out of the tunnel of the building, but again in vain. She made a phone call to him for help. Instead of his reply, she heard nothing but part of the melody of the Song from Secret Garden. "Perhaps, he's busy at work," she whispered to herself.
A few minutes later she phoned him again.
"Darling, call me back later. My motorbike's now out of order. If possible, pick me up for eating out this evening," she said to him.
"Awfully sorry! My hands are full."
"Can I wait for you further, my dear?"
"Impossible, darling! I'll be busy until late at night."
At last, she had to resort to a nearby bike mender for help.
"Strangely, these days he's been that busy? What's more, his replies have never been so frosty!" she exclaimed.
Early in the morning, Giang opened her window by the balcony. To her surprise, she saw a red flower in full bloom on her cactus. "How wonderful!" she cried for joy. The pot of cactus he had bought for her and placed it at one end of the balcony, under a dozen pots of multi-coloured orchids and above many containers of vegetables of various descriptions, which she called a "secret garden" after the name of that well-known song, an online ditty for both her and his phone signals. "When I grow old, I'll play that song for you to enjoy," he said to her one day. But where was that peaceful garden remained an unanswerable question.
At the sight of the newly-sprung flower, she informed him of that fact at once like any other sources of joy, great or small.
Surprisingly, during this warm morning the Song from Secret Garden seemed resounding sadly. Being crestfallen for not getting his reply, she tried to tide over her sorrows by watering those pots of flowers and vegetables, especially that of the cactus and humming the tune Come toi. Previously, he had never let the Song from Secret Garden go to its full way.
She did not discover any strange traces in his goodbye smile during their last rendezvous. Nor did she find any unusual glances in his lovely eyes. Notwithstanding, she was unable to comprehend this long silence of his.
At lunchtime, she called him via the mobile phone of one of her colleagues. She heard his Hullo said in a hurried and surprised voice. She stopped the call immediately and rang him again through her own mobile set. She waited and waited. What she could receive was the same lengthy song.
This situation had never happened in her love offered to him. Between them, there was a promise to honour each other's choice. "Whenever you want to break off our relationship, you'll let me know your reason, that's all, so that our love affair would come to an end quite at ease," she once told him so. What she received from him then was just a lovely touch on her head with his short comment, "What a proposal!"
Although she could not find the key to the problem, she kept on loving him with all her heart and soul. Sometimes she thought of an abrupt farewell. In that case, she would treat him like a friend or better an elder brother with the sweet memories of their happy days together.
"Why's he so silent?" she asked herself again and again. "Has he forgotten his soft-hearted promises?" she added.
"No problem! Nothing is serious at all, my dear younger sister!" said he brother Song when he tumbled off his bicycle one morning. What she could see on his face was his gentle smiles, in stead of his pain as she had thought of at first. She helped him stand up with her anxiety, but he only smiled with his simple explanation, "It doesn't matter much, my dear."
Song also comforted her sincerely one evening when he had regained his consciousness after he had gone into a coma for many days in hospital owing to his falling down from a high place of a sky-scraper where he had been at work. She felt great anguish when she was told that he might be survived. However, he had to suffer a tremendous disadvantage for the rest of his life: sitting inside a wheel-chair for ever whenever he wanted to move here and there.
Therefore, she lost her long-standing mainstay for good. Sitting in the hospital corridor, she just wept and wept. She did not dare to touch his completely paralysed legs for fear that he might feel painful.
"Poor my younger sister! Nothing more serious would come to me, I hope so," he consoled her with a broad smile.
The day Giang took him home, she pushed his wheel-chair on the dyke during a windy evening.
"How beautiful our native place is!" he praised its breathtaking scenery then humming a merry song. After many days being confined in hospital, now he could inhale the fresh air of an open field, he was in high spirits. He told her to stop near the dyke embankment full of alang grass. Over the other side of the river, the sun had gone down. He lost in thought at the fantastic beauty of the twilight. She put her arms over his shoulders. He perceived her tender affection in agony.
"How can she support her living conditions, let alone share my sufferings, when my legs have been rendered useless?" he asked himself bitterly.
At home, he did the cooking, while his sister went to school half a day. For the other half, she did menial jobs for villagers such as carrying water or cutting grass for them. Early in the morning, she picked up vegetables then tied them into small bundles before going to the market to ask Auntie Ba to sell them for her sake. On holidays, she cooked sweet porridge then went from house to house to serve kids and adults out of their pity for her. Later in the afternoon, she sat by his side to make little sticks for grilled pork at the request of the eating-stall owners in the market to eke out their livelihood. When she came across a difficult math exercise, she resorted to his assistance. In the subject of literature, when she discovered some interesting passages she shared them with him and both of them laughed happily. Besides, she liked his smiling eyes and usually brought him some joys thanks to her humorous stories and innocent and considerate cares.
"I won't never let him be sad," she promised secretly.
She also said the same while she adored her lover. "We live just one lifetime. So, try to lead a peaceful and lofty life in security and good health," she advised him one day.
"What a theoretically-minded lady! You talk as if you've experienced lots of ups and downs in life," he remarked, smiling.
Sometimes, she had an impression that she found Song's image in her lover, shown in his vacant glances in different situations. Song usually stared at the alang grass on the river bank and expressed his comment, "It doesn't matter much. Nothing's serious."Every so often she felt confused whether she loved him for the sake of Song, or she remembered Song because of her love for him. She could not find a delicate answer to that question. Anyway, one certain thing was that she had offered her love, sincerely and devotedly, to both of them at different times. It was out of this love that she had accepted great sacrifice so that they might obtain full happiness.
Her lover's silence enabled her to come back to the sweet memories with her elder brother. Her brother had secretly gone away and left her a fine dream about the tranquil garden with his promise that one day he would play her favourite piece of music that she always hummed in her free moments.
She remembered her lover's words while both of them were inside the Melody restaurant, attentively listening to evergreen pieces of music with his promise, "In spite of the fact that four or fourteen years later, or even further, when you come back to me after a long absence, I would be present in that tranquil garden at sunset to play the Song from Secret Garden for you to enjoy." In her heart of hearts, she was well aware whether his promises might be kept perfectly or her dreams might come true or not, they would leave her a delicate and serene feeling.
By now, for her, everything belonged to the past: no more going for a stroll together, no more offering music DVDs by chance, even no more saying goodbye while he was passing by her house. Nothing, nothing at all! The reasons seemed rather simple: both were too busy.
Then he took French leave. She was left abandoned for a long time in harassment. At the worst, when she rang him up at his office, she got his curt reply, "I've got so many pressing things to do that I'm unable to care for you any longer. You'd choose another youth who can bring you the ultimate happiness."
She turned stupified. Oddly enough, she did not cry for she had learnt the lessons of keeping calm. Moreover, she had promised to honour his choice, providing that choice might really bring him happiness.
"I'll remain here to wait for your return," she said to him that briefly, without calling for his further explanations.
"Come what may, his deed is much better than Song's abandonment without any excuses," she assuaged herself.
That evening, when she reached home after classes, she was told by her landlady that an urgent message sent to her from a woman named Auntie Ba coming from her native village saying that she had to go home immediately. She hurriedly called back to that kind-hearted old woman. What she received was "Song fell ill seriously." At once she took the homeward-bound night train and arrived home early the next morning. From afar, she saw a lot of villagers standing in her front courtyard. She dashed across the already-harvested paddyfields.
"Your brother tumbled down in the morning while selling sweet porridge," one of them disclosed the truth to her.
At the heart-rending glances of the onlookers, she knew that she was going to brave a great trial. She just stood in the middle of the courtyard, staring at them in the hope of hearing a few grains of comfort such as, "My dear niece, he's been out of danger," or something like that. What she found in them was merely their red-rimmed eyes and tears. Her brother was lying there on a narrow bamboo bed, eyes wide open. His lips were still moving slightly and quickly as if he wished to say something to her. She knelt down by his side and burst out crying. She touched his cold hands and realized that blood had stopped circulating in his arteries.
"Say a few words to me, my beloved brother," she insisted. "Call my name Giang at least one time, just once, my dear brother. I've already come back to you now…," she went on.
"He's been waiting for your return for hours, my dear niece. Now, shut his eyes on his death bed," a sympathetic piece of advice resounded to her ears.
Afterwards, his eyes closed for good. His countenance seemed quite at ease. She held his hands tightly then pressed her cheeks against his body. She felt as if, together with her elder brother, she had been lifted to white clouds; after that his soul had been drifted towards the paradise with his waving hands for farewell.
If only her lover had been similar to Song who left for her some words of consolation! Song used to say that he would protect her throughout his lifetime; whereas, he also reiterated that he would spend the rest of his life for her sake.
So, she lost both her brother and her lover. "It's not I who leave either of them alone," she whispered to herself.
Her brother Song had safeguarded her devotedly from the time she did not know what a loss meant to her. She also remembered that he had not let her know the bodies of their parents after a road accident that had taken away sixteen human beings. Song used to help her avoid the sensation of self-pity when most of her class-mates had either their father or their mother accompanying them to school. In a word, he had provided all his affection for her during his lifetime. He had tried his best to support her schooling for her to get a better life in the future. She recollected his statement, "Happiness is the most valuable possession in our life."
"For the time being, are you leading a happy life?" she once asked him when he was still alive.
"Of course, I am. You see, I enjoy it totally because I always have got you beside me, my dear younger sister."
"As for me, I will never leave you alone. Whether we would become happy or miserable, we'll share it together, shall we?" Both of them burst out peals of laughter so brilliantly as the early sunshine.
Unfortunately for her, she failed to keep her promise to stay beside him for ever because she had to leave her hometown for the city to attend her tertiary courses there. Obviously, she could not earn enough money to take him along, or to cook delicious dishes for him to enjoy, to give him a bath and to push his wheel-chair on the dyke so that he might contemplate the splendid rural scenery. However, he told her that he could manage thanks to the neighbours' hands. "It's not you who have left me alone, but you've only said goodbye to me temporarily so that I may enjoy freedom. I've backed you so long a time that, for the time being, you have to let me be free," Song said to her in a joking voice.
"Yesterday morning, your elder brother tumbled down into the canal while fishing. His body went to its bottom without our notice when his wheel-chair had overturned on its bank," said one of her neighbours.
Without the mainstay from Song, she fell as if she had gone astray.
Then one day, accidentally, she met a young man that she would soon fall in love with.
"Please, let me know if a certain young lady has been carefully looking after you. In that case, I'll be quite at ease, without thinking further," said her message sent to him.
"I've found such a young lady, indeed. Wish you happiness!" he replied briefly. She was in despair.
Being dead tired in tidying the balcony she tried to uproot the whithered plants due to her long negligence and grew some new ones with multi-coloured flowers in their stead. The cactus died of long submersion in the rainwater.
What she did every day was to cook a simple dinner in memory of her parents and elder brother. She also bought some heather bells and planted them near the window. To amuse herself she began to learn the skills for guitar performances in the hope that one day she might play the Song from Secret Garden in a quiet orchard.
In her heart of hearts, she kept on thinking about her former lover. Come what may, she together with both two men had covered a long distance on their blissful path.
Surprisingly, one day she received a phone call with her region code. "Dear Lady, come home as soon as possible to meet Van," said a familiar moved voice from the other end. She was stunned by the following bad news."Van has tried to prevent me from ringing you up, but I take great pity on him. Anyway, you'd come to him just once time at least. Maybe…," the call ended abruptly.
"Does that mean it's our last rendezvous?" she said to herself. She was deeply lost in thought in her night train under a starry sky. "Is it likely that another misfortune is going to come down upon my destiny?" she asked herself. "Will this trip witness another farewell? Why have I suffered two pieces of bad luck in my prime of life?" she whispered in a low voice.
She closed her eyes slightly. There were only the whistles of the late train piercing the nocturnal tranquility. "Why has my life undergone so great misfortunes?" she exclaimed.
"How can I meet you again, just one time? If I'm no more, please forgive me, my darling Giang." Those lines were written in a sealed letter placed in the drawer that his mother had found by chance when she took his photos home from the hospital authorities after his last period of chemical treatment.
Translated by Van Minh