by Pham Thanh Thuy
Aunt Chau said: "This stupid guy, why does he waste so much time? He should go somewhere to hunt for a job, I think!"
She really did not know anything about me. Eating, sleeping, appearing on Facebook, playing games, going to the cinema, listening to music and going to join groups of other unemployed young people. That was what I could do. What else could I do – where could I go – when my pockets were empty?
My mother said with a grimace: "If he was not at home, he would roam freely with his unemployed friends. He's my only son, you know."
Aunt Chau was putting on airs, acting as if she knew everything: "Oh, God! You don't know the first thing about raising children. I told you but you did not listen to me!"
As soon as I had stepped down onto the platform, a lanky guy came up to me:
"Do you need a motorbike taxi?"
I rolled my eyes. It was a European man who could speak Vietnamese. He laughed good-humoredly:
"Are you Trong? I've come to take you home."
This guy's name was Joe. He came with a Nouvo. It was arranged between my mother and Aunt Chau, the daughter of my maternal grandfather's second wife. My maternal grandfather had left his first wife and children for good when my mother was just a newborn baby. Time went by; one day Aunt Chau appeared and called my mother her older sister. My mother accepted her without judgment.
"My house is large and you're welcome to stay. In a day or two, when I can arrange everything, you can fly over there, where your siblings can take care of you."
I had just hopped off the motorbike when my aunt said all these things.
"Oh, brother Trong, brother Trong!" A strong man caught my arm. It was Ta, the youngest son of Aunt Chau.
Ta asked me to climb up a hill. The hill was behind the house. It was not very far – I just had to cross a small field with a few patches of rice plants. People here had planted peas this season. A few years before, I had been here when my mother and aunt had first met. At that time, I had finished junior secondary school. My aunt had four sons who had all grown up; three of them were working abroad. Ta stayed at home with his mother and sisters-in-law and their children. He was two years older than me, but he looked younger. Aunt Chau said Ta had never become a man.
I had never met a man like Ta. His eyes were enchanting and mysterious. Aunt Chau said that when he was in kindergarten, even his teacher was charmed by his eyes. Yet Ta was not a clever boy. When he was twelve, he had to drop out of school. The hill behind the house was not very tall and on top of it there was a castor plant.
"Uncle Ta likes to climb up the hill very much. It's great when he has company, you know!" sister-in-law Hai said.
At that moment, Joe appeared from nowhere with a bunch of carrots in his hand, his blue eyes smiling with excitement.
"This European guy is handsome, isn't he?" I thought to myself as Joe climbed the hill with us. But what would he do with that damned bunch of carrots, I wondered?
Standing with Ta at the top of the hill, under the foliage of that castor plant, I was still wondering if Joe could do anything with those carrots. However, the scenic views at the foot of the hill immediately drove any thought of Joe out of my head. A beautiful small village lay at the foot of the mountain, amid the rice fields divided into square, rectangular and triangular patches. A long road snaked gently through a length of beautiful pine trees. A motorbike was running from the village gate. It was Joe. All the things on the left side of the hill amazed me. A block of modern houses surrounded by walls unfolded before my eyes.
"An alcohol distillery."
Ta seemed to note my curiosity. He sat down on the ground, his beautiful eyes darting towards the faraway land. Far away there was a township with a noisy industrial park, which was busy day and night.
There were often one or two members of the family missing during the meal. Now it was this sister-in-law, now it was that grandchild. Ta's two elder sisters-in-law managed two hostels in the township. Since the appearance of the industrial park and the alcohol distillery, people from everywhere had rushed to work there. Aunt Chau was able to keep up with the times by opening the hostels which stood imposingly at the two ends of the township.
Joe often rode his motorbike to see Aunt Chau. Whenever he came, the children of her eldest son rushed to welcome him with all their hearts, as they would welcome a close relative coming home from afar. Joe taught English to the children, even though he was German. Joe could also speak good Vietnamese.
Joe worked in the alcohol distillery, where there was an immense vineyard. He had a well-furnished room in the vineyard. He had made friends with almost all the villagers. Aunt Chau said every family in the village had a member going abroad, so they were all rich from what those relatives sent home.
If there was no reason to climb up the hill, Ta felt dull for the whole day. He did nothing, only sat there, looking out to the faraway land and thinking. Aunt Chau loved Ta best, maybe because he was the only son that had stayed to live with her. She told me a lot of her memories:
"One day at noon time, my son Ta left the house and went to catch dragonflies with his friends in the rice field…."
It was a summer afternoon. The village children had been playing by catching dragonflies in the lane. At that time, there were a lot of big trees on the edge of the rice fields. Dragonflies came out of nowhere and covered the sky. Ta was seen sitting on a branch of a bead tree. As soon as the children discovered him up there, he fell onto the ground and lay there without moving.
Aunt Chau cried her heart out that night, asking her third son to take all the books to the yard and burn them. Her third son was well-known to all villagers for reading comic books. He talked about fairy tales wherever he was. Now those books were being burnt in heaps, to the regret of the children standing around. She banned any book of the kind from appearing in her house. Since then Ta had not read any fairy tales. But his eyes still looked as if they were enjoying the fairy land. He liked to climb the hill to contemplate everything down there.
Sometimes, feeling bored without Facebook, films or meeting with friends, I felt a bit irritated with Ta. I thought about the villagers going abroad to work and how my mother had to sell her land and garden while I stayed here in this village. But Ta was always in high spirits, looking at things without feeling any guilt.
I sat there, looking at Aunt Chau's daughter-in-law Hai, who had been married to my aunt's third son for three months before he flew to Japan to work. Five years were quite a long time for the new couple. And then for another five years, he had been absent from home without any traces. One day she complained to me:
"Do you think I am happier than a woman in war time?"
She worked as an elementary school teacher in the village. She was pretty, but still childless.
"You know, Ta likes his sister-in-law!" Joe said to me while we were sitting over glasses of beer in his vineyard. I was so surprised that Joe had let the cat out of the bag. I thought that European people did not like gossiping.
The sister-in-law worked so hard at home. She had to do all the housework as well as care for Ta, who was not so much crazy as enigmatic. He always looked at things with his clear eyes. However, these clear eyes sometimes got a bit cloudy.
I stayed with Aunt Chau to kill time while waiting for the day I could get a permit to go abroad to work. During this time, I had to witness Ta's endless sadness and hopeless love for his sister-in-law….
My mother did not know anything about Aunt Chau. She lived a simple and lonely life. For her, it was quite normal to have a family without a man. But I wondered why first my dead maternal grandmother had to endure her husband leaving her and children to live with another woman, and now the same fate had befallen my mother and Aunt Chau. However, Aunt Chau could not resign herself to her situation. She vowed to destroy her unfaithful husband's new family. Ta's clear eyes told us all. I did not know what had happened, but Hai told me that Aunt Chau had vented her hatred on her ex-husband.
Hai showed me the photos of the happy days when she and her husband had fallen in love. They walked hand in hand along the bank of a river, by the golden rice fields. They studied together in the teachers' training college.
"He liked to teach literature very much, you know," Hai said. "He always had a novel by his side."
Yet he did not teach literature. At the end of the day, he got a job as an electronic goods assembler in Japan. Hai suddenly took my wrist:
"You…. You know, I feel so uneasy about how to say this to you… If you can help me, I'll have the guts to say it to you." She looked so nervous, with red cheeks.
"I'm afraid that brother Ta…."
So it turned out that Hai knew Ta's sentiments for her and the hopeless love had been binding them together. Sweat was falling on my back, making me lose my balance, as if I was having that silent love with her, rather than Ta.
"You know, Joe keeps coming to see Ta. I am told by my teachers in the school that he is a homosexual. He likes Ta very much…."
Oh, God! So the story was now going in quite a different direction. I tried to contain myself.
Joe agreed to go and climb the hill with me and Ta. It was a clear morning. He was beaming. He suggested bringing along beer and some food.
"When I was small at home, I also liked climbing a mountain which was very high," he said, waving his hand to show how high it was.
"Why did you come to Viet Nam?"
"I like Viet Nam," Joe said, laughing. His blue eyes and red lips showed his pride.
"What do you like in Viet Nam?"
The story continued all the way up the hill. I could not remember how, but we finished all the beer and ended up sleeping like logs. Ta did not touch anything. He seemed to be trying to avoid looking at of me and Joe.
When I got up, the sunlight shone through the grass. It was already near dusk. I was left alone with a pile of empty beer cans at the foot of the castor plant. Joe and Ta had disappeared. I was walking unsteadily down the hill, through patches of pea fields, to go home. Along the way I was imagining in my mind the secret love between Joe and Ta. I felt so stupid for asking Joe to go with us and wondered why Joe had agreed.
Joe's motorbike was not in the yard. He had gone. The house was deserted. I tiptoed to open the half-closed door and groped my way to the familiar wooden bed. Out of a sudden, I bumped into a person standing in the middle of the house. It was Ta, who was standing there motionlessly. His eyes were wide open and looked towards his sister-in-law's room. Inside a harrowing human cry was heard.
The English class for children was stopped immediately. Joe was walking alone to his office in the winery. An angry Aunt Chau was beating Ta:
"What a fool you are! Why didn't you tell me if you saw them sleeping together so many times?"
Aunt Chau cried madly the whole night. When she exhausted herself, she embraced Ta's trembling shoulders.
Never had I awakened on such a deserted morning. All the sisters-in-law had gone in the early morning and the children had breakfast at the school's gate. Aunt Chau had gone to her daughter-in-law's family to tell them what had happened. Ta and I were left alone in the house. However, I found that even Ta was not there. He had gone somewhere in the early morning.
The castor plant on the top of the hill looked at me nonchalantly. At the foot of it, all the empty beer cans had disappeared. There were only some books arranged tidily there, the books owned by Aunt Chau's third son. Ta was lying by these books, his clear eyes fixed on that faraway land.
And those eyes never closed.
Translated by Manh Chuong