|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Thi Ngoc Lien
The electronic device company where I had been working was very close to Uncle Thanh's house. Given my paltry income, I agreed with Mum's suggestion that I should go stay with his family. Leaving home for his town on a chilly day with a heavy rucksack on my back, I had the impression that everything was trembling with cold. The coach, with just a few passengers on board, stopped in front of a rosy-painted house. The middle-aged man with a pair of bushy eyebrows and a square face who was grasping his young wife's hands with a satisfied look was my Uncle Thanh. Some onlookers at his wedding ceremony whispered to one another that they didn't know how he had managed to snag the beautiful Nhung. Frankly speaking, I had never seen any bride so sad. Her hair was lustrous and her face appeared naive, a bit childlike. To me, her sorrowful eyes expressed an enigma which made me extremely inquisitive. Standing close to me, the clan's housemaid Tot spat out her red quid of betel and reca-nut.
"Well, I'm afraid that their home might get messy soon. Two wives – one rather old and the other fairly young – with one middle-aged husband, how will their affairs go?" the servant said to me in a low voice.
"What will happen to Mrs Van?" I asked her.
"Surely, you can hardly care, for you're only a newcomer here," she remarked.
"However, her deep sorrow has stung my heart," I said to her. In the meantime, the red quid on her hand obsessed me.
Nhung's mother-in-law was also addicted to that homemade chewing item. It was made of a small fresh areca-nut piece, a green betel leaf and a little white slaked lime, all ground together in the female mouth to create a bright red semi-liquid. "Will the story of the two wives sharing a common husband bring about a bed of red roses?" I wondered.
In fact, Van led a relatively solitary life, like a silhouette. Rarely did she smile or talk. Van was neither indifferent nor friendly to her. It seemed to me that Nhung's beauty made Uncle Thanh so weary that he almost neglected Van's affection, except for every evening when he took her on his brand-new motorbike across the open field to pay homage to their single son's grave in the local cemetery.
In reality, Uncle Thanh was head over heels in love with Nhung. He tried his best to please her. He had her bedroom painted a rosy pink. On her dressing-table, he always put a vase of fresh velvety roses, the flower that bore her name. He asked things like "Where do you want to go during this long weekend?" or "Are you interested in watching a new film at the central cinema this evening?" He did his utmost to bring joy to her: now getting her an expensive wrist watch, now offering her a pair of luxurious earrings or a fashionable dress. With every passing day, she looked more and more gorgeous. Yet she remained sad.
"Nhung's totally pious to her mother-in-law," observed Tot. On winter afternoons, when the sunshine had the golden gloss of honey, the orchard appeared luxuriant and the weather turned fairly warm, she led her old mother out of the house to sunbathe. The old woman's forehead was deeply furrowed, and her health turned worse and worse with the passage of time. Tot put her on a large rattan armchair, used a big ivory comb to straighten her hoary hair, then tied it with a dark brown silk band.
"Are you going to visit your parents some day?" she asked her daughter-in-law.
"I'm accustomed to being away from home, so it's not an urgent matter. Well, during this season, Chinese lettuce was brilliantly in full bloom along the river banks, Mum."
"Another year is drawing to its end. By the way, don't forget to prepare a large cauldron of coriander on Tet Eve for us to have a sweet-smelling bath, my dear."
"Do you wish to have a quid of betel and areca-nut, Mum?"
Staring at Nhung's clever hands, I realised that they had turned noticeably thinner and acquired lots of blue veins.
"Are you happy?" I asked her.
Instead of replying, she just smiled mysteriously.
This year the peach tree near Van's room did not blossom as usual. The dim light penetrated through her half-closed door. After Uncle Thanh's marriage, the lights in her room often stayed bright throughout the night. Day after day, she hoped that one night he would drop in on her. Once, I woke up in the dark and heard grievous sobs coming from her room, which made me deeply moved. However, when I woke again before sunrise, she had already got up early with a pleasant gait as usual. She trimmed her eyebrows, applied some make-up to her face and put on decent clothes, then walked to the dining-room to enjoy breakfast with her husband. Curiously, even though she wore smart clothing on Sundays, she just stayed at home. Once she failed to embellish herself, revealing her true appearance. Her lips looked rather pale with a sunburnt complexion. She wore the weary countenance of a woman on the wrong side of sixty.
One evening, when Uncle Thanh was away and Nhung was in high spirits, she asked me to make a fire with dry leaves so we could warm ourselves a bit. In front of the flames, she talked and laughed continuously like a girl in her early teens. My stories helped her remember her bitter childhood. Slowly, eyes in tears and by fits and starts, she let me know the ups and downs in her existence, including the major turning-point that later changed her life completely.
Born into a poor family in the country, at the age of sixteen, she became the youngest greengrocer in the market place near her house. One day, when the market day was over, she realised that all that day's earnings had been stolen. In despair, she sat down in front of a 4-storey building facing the main street and wept. The middle-aged landlady, who later became her mother-in-law, came to her.
"What has happened to you, poor little thing?" she asked her. After hearing the young vegetable vendor's account, she took pity on her and took her home.
"This pretty, industrious rural girl has ended up in an unfortunate situation," she said to her son, who was the owner of a big furniture shop. "You should help her by giving her a suitable job." Fortunately for the poor vendor, at that time, he was actively looking to recruit more employees.
"Do you know how to sell furniture?" he asked her.
"No, not at all, sir."
"Or how to preserve wooden things?"
"Are you fond of wooden furniture?"
"Frankly speaking, I don't know how to answer you either," she replied in a hesitant voice.
Thanh intended to terminate the brief interview. Then he felt pity for her when she seized his hands. Teardrops were trickling down her rosy cheeks.
"Please, give me a chance, Sir. I'll try to learn more and become a skilful seller," she entreated him.
Thanh deeply moved. Finally, he accepted her proposal. Several days after, he felt bewildered. "Am I falling in love with this girl?" he asked himself.
One day, Nhung took pity on her boss's great loss: his only son Son had a terrible road accident on the expressway and died just a few days before his planned departure to the USA to continue his studies. In the meantime, Van refused to eat. She only wept and wept. Thanh was stupefied. Son's grandmother missed him so strongly that she fell seriously ill.
"Who will the couple rely upon during the rest of their old age?" Nhung whispered to herself.
Van was the chief accountant in a major domestic company in partnership with a foreign corporation. The business of the family furniture shop was getting on fairly well.
Nevertheless, the wealth could not make up for their horrible loss.
In their free moments, they watched TV soap operas. Unluckily for them, most of the programs dealt with discord between husbands and wives or with their naughty children. Lying beside each other, they did not know what to say for fear that they would touch on their profound sufferings. The string that had previously bound their conjugal lives together was broken.
Van's fertile age had gone by. Determined to have another child, she went to the hospital to check her health condition. When the gyneacologist said to her in a pessimistic voice, "We don't have the capacity to help you," she fell into a deep despair.
Uncle Thanh did not give up hope. He felt Nhung could relieve the problem.
One day Van asked Nhung to go shopping with her at the Big C Supermarket. She bought her a lot of expensive things and treated her to a copious dinner. During the meal, Van entreated her in a sincere voice:
"My dear Nhung, please help me."
"What can I do for you, Sister?"
"Give us a baby, will you?" she implored. "You know, every lineage is badly in need of a boy to carry on their ancestry. My age of childbirth has come to an end. To the best of my knowledge, Thanh is very interested in you. I wish that you would give us a baby," she added.
Nhung kept silent, although tears were raining down her cheeks.
That night, she stayed awake with a lot of questions. Did she really love him?
One evening, Nhung was seen sitting on the luggage carrier of Thanh's motorbike, arms hugging his waist tightly as the heavy rain poured down. Time and again, he stopped to wipe away the tiny raindrops on her face and caress her shoulder-length locks of hair. In the wake of those happy days, she began to turn over a new leaf.
"I want to marry Nhung, yet I don't want to get divorced," he poured out his heart to Van. "We'll live under the same roof. I expect that you'll sympathise with her," he went on. Van nodded her consent.
The wedding for the concubine took place in a solemn atmosphere without the local authorities' legal certification. Van recollected the bright red quid on Tot's hand that day with a few well-known lines the famous Vietnamese poetess Ho Xuan Huong penned in the late eighth century:
Damn the two wives' situation of sharing a husband,
One is covered with a warm cotton blanket, while the other feels utterly cold."
Now, the three of them were walking side by side along the street. Thanh and Nhung were arm-in-arm while Van walked silently beside her husband. In the restaurant, Thanh talked to Van about their business, past and present, and to Nhung about their promising future in terms of offspring. The situation of the two wives was similar to the quid of betel and areca-nut and lime. Just as those disparate ingredients are eventually bound together in a wonderful piece for chewing, so the two women, with their different aims, led a harmonious life under the same roof. One wife relied upon the Certificate of Marriage, whereas the other was held in her marriage by the prospect of future children.
Soon Nhung came down with a serious pregnancy sickness. "You'll suffer it until childbirth," said one of her paternal aunts. Thanh left no stone unturned to comfort her. But she denied her husband's indulgence on the grounds that she felt too weary to please him and requested to stay alone. When he came to Van instead, she was in high spirits.
She went into premature labour. When Tot brought her a glass of milk, she shook her head with a whisper, "I'm too in pain to drink." Her body was drenched with sweat. At once Thanh took her into a taxi. On the way to the hospital, Van held her hand tightly.
"Sister Van, I'm afraid I can't survive this ordeal," she said in a choked voice.
"No, nothing bad will happen to you."
"I'm afraid that my foetus will suffocate."
"No, nothing of the kind! You'll be alright soon."
But Nhung was showing dangerous symptoms: her blood coagulated slowly, her amniotic fluid soon ran out and most dangerously, the foetus had turned upside down. "If you keep your baby, you will likely die," the gynaecologist told the accompanying couple.
"My wife must be saved," declared Thanh.
"On the contrary, our baby must stay alive at any costs," Nhung insisted.
"No, you can't say such crazy things. You're only twenty-four years old and may have many more children," Van stated in a resolute voice.
"Our baby must survive safe and sound," Nhung said emphatically. Suddenly, she let her hands loose. A baby boy came into existence.
"How stupid she is!" I whispered to myself.
Every suffering comes to an end with the passage of time. Thanh and Van again clung to each other as they had formerly. The little boy now looked active and intelligent, like his mother. On Nhung's first death anniversary, the bush of roses she had grown burst into bloom. One morning, while tidying her room, Tot found a small notebook with a blue cover hidden behind a large picture on the wall. In the booklet, there appeared a few lines already faded with the passage of time.
"I'm nearly dead of dengue. The doctor has decided to carry out a blood transfusion for me. My blood belongs to the rarest type. Yet, luckily for me, Thanh's mother has donated it to me, even though she's not very well."
Reading those lines, my heart stung greatly.
Translated by Van Minh