|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Y Ban
Little Ty, with her younger brother on her back and as silent as a statue, stared at the small front garden of a little house lying at the foot of the hill. She found the house rather strange because it stood isolated from her poor hamlet. What's more, it was surrounded by beds of flowers. Timidly, she pushed the gate open with a small length of green bamboo, then stepped into the courtyard so that she could see the flowers more clearly. She knew many types of flowers, like eggplant, gourd and pumpkin blossoms. But these were a foreign kind that she had never seen. She wanted to know whether they could bear fruits or not and what they looked like up close. She released her brother on the ground. He was wearing a shirt so short that it could not cover his entire swollen belly. He tried to crawl to the fence and finally succeeded in standing up by leaning against it. Meanwhile, Little Ty shyly walked into the garden and sat down beside a cluster of flowers. She pulled back the petals of a flower, exposing its pollen. Looking carefully at the pollen, she found the spores quite tiny. She looked and looked for a fruit among the withered petals but could not find any. "They're good-for-nothing flowers because we are unable to eat them," she whispered to herself, thinking of what her father would say, even though she herself found them very beautiful. After that she lifted her brother onto her back again.
She did not know that her activities had been monitored by a man standing behind the bamboo screen.
"Hey, little girl," he said to her as she approached the garden gate. "If you like flowers, why don't you pick some? I'll give them to you for free."
She turned around and shook her head.
"Why? It looks like you love them very much."
"Because they're good for nothing, although they look very beautiful."
Her reply made him curious. He stared at her more carefully. She looked to be in her early teens with a small thin body, a brown complexion and two fine eyebrows. Out of curiosity he invited her in.
"Come in, please," he said to her in a soft voice.
"With pleasure, thank you, sir. But I must leave before afternoon, for I have to tend my family's water buffalo."
Stepping inside, she found his house rather strange. There was a bookcase as big as an upright bed. At once, she dropped her brother on the ground.
"No, let him lie on my bed," he told her.
"But he might get it dirty, sir."
She proceeded to the bookcase and guessed the number of works in it. "Hundreds of books – at least!" she whispered to herself after counting them silently. She touched one of them, then drew her hand back at once.
"You're very interested in books, aren't you?" he said.
"No, not at all, sir. They're useless." She walked over to her brother. Carrying him on her back again, she began leaving his house.
"Wait, little girl! I've got some candies for both of you," he called out loudly.
Her eyes brightened up. She turned back and put her brother down.
"Thank you, sir," she said after receiving the small handful of sweets given to her. She gave her brother one piece and ate another, then put the rest into the upper hem of her pants, where she hid small things because her blouse had no pockets at all. She smiled after putting the last piece into her mouth. Her dimples looked very graceful on her rosy cheeks.
"How old are you?" he asked her.
"Really? Just ten!"
"I'm quite mature for my age, sir."
"Do you go to school?"
"No, sir. As I said, I'm quite grown-up for my age."
"But why did you say that flowers were useless?"
"Dad told me that any plant you can't eat is good for nothing. Now, I must go home, sir. I'll drop in on you again sometime, okay?"
"You're welcome. By the way, bear in mind that those books over there aren't useless at all. They have lots of sweet rewards in them – just like candies."
She just smiled.
After that morning, Little Ty felt she had found a new friend.
Whenever she had to care for her brother, she took him to that house. She went on her own. She did not want to disclose her destination to others for fear that she would have to share the presents that man gave her with her friends.
Like her mother, Ty never took anything from others without returning the favour. So when she finished eating a piece of bread or a cake, she always did something in return: sweeping and tidying the house, dusting the furniture, doing the washing up. At first the man tried to prevent her from carrying out such jobs, but on second thought he held back.
"This is women's work, sir! You needn't pay attention to these things at all," she told him.
"Why is it women's work?"
"Certainly, sooner or later, I'll be a woman, sir," she replied.
One day, she asked him, "Why do you live alone without parents or children?"
"Because I like to live alone, that's all."
"So nobody, for example, your parents or relatives, compels you to do otherwise?" she asked. "In my village, no one lives alone. Even Mrs Gai, the lame woman, lives with her grandchildren." Suddenly, she grew silent. "Well, I remember that in our place, once there was a man like you. He always stayed alone and had no friends at all. But he died a long time ago. Grannie told me that he was a leper. Do you suffer the same disease?"
"What did your grandmother tell you about him?"
"He had a lumpy face and cut-off limbs, sir."
"Do you find my face lumpy?"
"No, not at all, sir."
"What about my limbs? Are they cut off?"
"They remain intact, but useless."
"Why is that?"
"In general, stork legs and gibbon hands are useless, you see."
"Who said so?"
"Granddad once told me so."
"I'm not a leper, you know."
"But why do you live alone?"
"Because my parents died a long time ago. As for my siblings, they live somewhere else. And I've never gotten married."
"When I come of age, I'll be your wife and do the housework for you."
She looked down shyly. Because her head was bent towards the floor, she failed to perceive the man's face by then: it brightened up like a spring morning.
"I'm now forty and she's just ten. We're thirty years apart," he said to himself.
"If you get married here, you get a rice field. But you're not a real resident here, so you won't get such a portion of land, as I will. So when I reach the age of thirteen, I'll be your wife. In my native village, many girls declare the age of eighteen, not fifteen, to get married early," she said. Lost in thought like an old woman, she did not see the tears trickling down his cheeks.
After she said that she would be his wife, she took more responsibility for his house. Every day, she came to him to tidy it. Sometimes she cooked meals for him. One day she told him, "Uncle, your flowers are really beautiful, but they are useless. We'd better get rid of them to grow vegetables instead." She destroyed them all except for three rosebushes. The next day, he began to grow two rows of vegetables of every description.
Time flew very fast. One year had elapsed since the day they first met. They had become so friendly, it seemed they had known each other for ages. Nevertheless, she never asked him about his origins. Rumour had it that he left his urban residence for this area due to the fact that he found the city boring. Time and again, she wanted to ask him about these matters in detail, but on second thought, she kept silent because she was afraid that, like her parents, if they discussed anything serious, they would quarrel.
That morning she reached his house earlier than usual. Her brother was still sleeping soundly on her back.
"Do you want to go to the post office with me?" he asked her one day.
"Yes, I'm ready! I just have to lull him to sleep first. We should come back early, too – or else he'll cry his heart out."
He led his bike to the gate, then tied a cotton towel to the luggage carrier for her to sit comfortably. The district post office was about two kilometres away. When they got there, she forgot everything in the world. For the first time in life, she realised what the district meant to her, although it was only a minor urban centre in the mountainous region. She was attracted by the things displayed in shops. To her, everything looked wonderful. The man told her to keep an eye on his bike outside for a few minutes while he went inside. A moment later he stepped out in high spirits.
"Very good! Now it's time for you to feast on ice cream," he said.
Never in her lifetime did she taste such a delicious thing! At home, she sometimes enjoyed dirt-cheap ice cream full of tiny ice cubes with just a bit of sugar. After finishing two ice creams, she wanted a third. Taking it in hand, she intended to eat it, but then decided to save it for her brother. While the man was busy paying, she hurried away to a nearby bed of sweet potatoes. She picked a large leaf, then wrapped the last ice cream with it and hid it in the flap of her blouse. Before returning home, the man also bought her a red flowery blouse. When they got back to his place, she heard her brother's cries. At once, she jumped down and flew into the house.
"Stop crying, will you? There's a dear. I've got something tasty for you here," she said.
He was greatly astonished to see her new flowery blouse. He stopped crying at once. In the meantime, she opened the sweet potato leaf. To her surprise, what was left was a puddle of sweetened water! But he still enjoyed it, licking it happily from the leaf.
She took him home, wearing her new blouse. Hardly had she reached home when a gang of kids led by little Ba shouted loudly:
"Ty's come home after her trip with her old lover. He bought her a new blouse!"
"Her lover is a leper!" another chimed in.
Ty's father, in contrast, was pleased to find his daughter in a new blouse. Instead of calling the man a good-for-nothing guy as usual, he changed his way of thinking.
"How can he be that rich? Surely, the blouse must cost as much as one hundred kilograms of paddy!" he said to himself.
"Nearly twelve years of age, yet she remains a little girl!" Ty's mother complained when she saw her daughter. "Anyhow, you shouldn't visit him so frequently because our neighbours are saying bad things about you."
Ty's new blouse soon became the talk of the town. All types of copies were made immediately. The man's dwelling was no longer Ty's private destination. Many other kids also appeared there with their younger brothers or sisters on their backs. What's more, a lot of girls in their late teens could be found near the place.
Strangely enough, despite the pleasures of her new blouse, she looked very sorrowful when she was asked by villagers, "What's going on with your old lover?" She hated the word "lover" because it made other people envious and ill-willed. In fact, Ty had promised that she would be his wife, not his "lover." Little Ba was even ruder, shouting out, "With a new blouse on, Ty looks so fashionable – a modern girl without breasts!"
Ty became terribly ashamed. For months, she did not go to his place. Not until the wicked rumours faded away did she turn up at his house again.
"Where have you been that long?" he asked Ty. "I was afraid that you'd fallen ill. When your chums told me that you were still quite well, I was very glad!"
"Who were they, sir?" Ty asked him in an envious voice.
"Well, little Mui, Bong and some others."
"How bad they are!" Ty exclaimed loudly.
After that, she silently tidied the house. Without her help, it looked messier and dirtier. The man observed her quietly. Finishing her job, Ty went to the well to wash her hands. The man was already standing there.
"How terrible your unkempt hair looks! Let me tidy it for you," he suggested.
She agreed at once. Otherwise, her hair would be cut short with a sickle by her father. Then the man washed her hair with shampoo. In a minute, she looked very pretty.
"You look so nice. If only I had a beautiful daughter like you," he said.
"Why a daughter, sir?" she asked. "In two years I'll be your wife. Have you forgotten?"
"How could I forget your promise?" he said, bursting out laughing.
In fact, she knew nothing about the duties of a wife. Her affection for him was that of a child towards a parent. She wished to be cuddled, as her mother often did. In two years, when she was his wife, he would hug her lovingly, something her father never did. Suddenly, she wanted to curl up in his lap.
"My dear Dad!" she cried. His eyes brimmed up with tears. She approached him and stood by his side. To her surprise, he called her, "my beloved daughter." Her heart at once responded in return, "Dear Dad."
In the country, it was usually pitch-dark at night, so everybody, adult and infant alike, went to sleep very early. When Ty reached the age of twelve, she often went to one of her chums of the same age to chat instead of going to sleep.
"My mum told me that old Kha sells pig sperm and even human sperm," one of them told Ty.
"Really?" asked another girl.
"It's absolutely true! Mum also told me that Miss Suu, who lives near the border of our village, married an infertile husband. For ten years, she was unable to conceive. But when she brought her young sow to his place, the young woman gave birth to a chubby baby boy nine months later!"
Such stories seemed very strange to Ty. She told them to the man in order to get some reasonable answers, but he just stayed silent or said things like "Sheer nonsense! Don't pay attention to those old wives' tales. Tell me something interesting."
"Interesting stories? The following anecdote is worthy of a listen. I don't know if it's true or not, but it's quite strange. A long time ago, we raised a male cat. One day it brought home a litter of kittens to raise near the kitchen. When the little ones were hungry, they cried noisily. As a result Dad took them away and put them in a thick cluster of bamboos."
"What a bad omen! How can a male cat raise kittens?" he said.
"Quite laughable indeed!"
At the age of thirteen, Ty could not idle away her time like before. She had to go to the field with her mother. In her free moments, she had to raise pigs. Sometimes, she was able to go to the man's place. In reality, she was free enough that she could visit him more often if she chose. But she instead joined a group of older girls to have fun. Day after day, she increasingly realized that her native village was by no means peaceful at all. Moreover, it was abundant in secrets. A small bridge across the river leading to the village was a rendezvous place. Two groups of teenagers – the boys on one bridge railing and the girls on the other – told vague stories for hours before returning home. When they came of age, they went out on dates many times before getting married. Ty felt ashamed. Although she loved sweets and biscuits, she was hesitant to visit the man. But one day, she decided to bring him a few eggs to cook a bowl of porridge for him, as he had fallen ill.
"Dear Uncle, recently my mother told me that I'm hardly grown up, although I have nearly reached the age of thirteen. Get married as soon as possible, Uncle. Living alone like this only makes your health worse and worse with every passing day," she said to him.
"Who should I marry?"
"To the best of my knowledge, there are many young ladies who are very interested in you," she blurted out to him one afternoon. "If you like anyone of them, just get her a beautiful flowery blouse from the district capital. After that, you can ask her parents for their daughter's hand in marriage, then prepare everything for a wedding. Soon she'll be your wife!"
"But you promised that you'd be my wife."
"Yet I can't grow up to become your wife, Uncle. Well…I'll be your adopted daughter. My parents have six daughters in all. Without me at home, there's one less mouth to feed. I'll go home now and again to help my parents. But I won't be able to get a portion of land unless I really am your wife," she admitted.
"I think so too. However, I'd prefer a wife to a daughter. Place your hand on my heart. You'll find that it's beating very weakly. By the way, I want to ask you for a favour: take this sheet of paper to the post office. With the small change, buy three ice-creams as I did before."
Not until the afternoon did she come back. Entering the man's house, she breathed heavily, her face brightening up as she saw himi.
"Here are two ice-creams for you. I wrapped them inside two sweet potato leaves," she told him while opening the bundle. Sadly, they had melted. She spoon-fed him the contents, which he swallowed with difficulty. Suddenly tears began flowing from his eyes.
"What's the matter, Uncle?" she asked.
"It hurts here," he said, pointing at his chest. "What's more, I'm sorry that I'm unable to marry you in this world." His voice was very low. Although she understood the words, she could not understand what he meant. "What does ‘this world' mean?" she wondered. "If he wants to marry me, he can wait for me for a few more years."
The next day Ty stayed at the ricefield with her mother until midday. Not until late in the afternoon did she come back to the man's house. All of a sudden, she saw a car standing in front of his gate. She hurried into the dwelling. Inside it, she found three strangers packing his books into large boxes. Lying in bed, the man waved her to him with a weary hand.
"I must leave this place now," he told her. "They are going to take me to the municipal hospital. I leave my house under your care. When I recover, I'll come back to you and you'll have grown up beyond my expectations. By the way, grow rose bushes instead of vegetables, for nobody will eat them anymore."
As Ty stared, he went on, "Take this red bag. It's your dowry."
"Thank you very much," she said. Holding the parcel up, she found it quite heavy. Was this another village secret?
She waited until he was taken to the ambulance. One of the strangers locked up the man's house, then put the key into his pocket. Another stranger asked him to give the key to Ty. After that, all of them got into the standing car. It remained there without moving. They seemed to be quarrelling with one another. A moment later, they opened all the doors and told Ty to pass the bag to them.
"Do you know what it is?" one of them asked her. "It's his manuscripts. We'll send them to the printing house. When they are published, we'll give you one copy. You've already learned the three R's, haven't you?"
The silent man in the car opened his eyes wide and waved to her. Ty got in and sat beside him. He hugged her and kissed her head, then whispered to her, "My dear little angel, I wish that I could live longer! Don't forget to water the red roses every day. Red is my favourite colour, you see."
Ty descended from the vehicle. At once, it shot away.
Suddenly, she felt sad. She went into the house, then walked out immediately. After that, she sat down beside a rose bush and began to caress one rose. Unexpectedly, a thorn pierced her palm. She burst out crying. In reality, she was crying because of the pain in her heart rather than her hand.
One year later, she still remembered that man. Yet his house turned more deserted with every passing month. The kids said that the house was haunted because its rose bushes were watered every night. Indeed, they grew noticeably. One year later, Ty put on flesh. She walked to the bridge every evening. Her mother declared her daughter's age two years higher – sixteen, instead of fourteen.
When she was sixteen, a young man from the neighbouring village asked her parents for her hand in marriage. By now, she was unable to wait for that man any longer. The rose bushes had withered and wild grass had grown all over the garden. She married at the age of seventeen. Her husband was two years older than her. They were provided with three acres of paddy field and she worked diligently on that piece of land. One year later, she gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Hoa. However, she was also called Little Ty, like her mother, according to the custom of their locality. Ty's own name – Thom Thao – only appeared on legal documents. One day, the postman came to her native village and called out "Thom Thao!" from the entrance to the village, but she did not pay attention. She was – eeding her baby.
"Thom Thao, you have mail," her mother called.
"Thom Thao is your real name, you know."
"Mum, hold the baby for a few minutes, will you?"
A red square package was given to her. Thom Thao opened it. It turned out to be a thick book with the following inscription on the second page: "In memory of my Little Ty, an eternal source of inspiration for me and the one who inspired me to write this book."
Thom Thao was greatly surprised. "Why did the author know my nickname? It doesn't matter. I'd better put it aside." She wrapped it carefully and placed it on the altar.
At midnight Thom Thao woke up, lost in thought. "So, that man is still alive and remembers me. But why didn't he come back to look for me? Anyhow, my husband Chien is a good and honest man, who loves me and the baby dearly," she whispered to herself. Embracing her little girl tightly, she sobbed for a while then fell into a deep sleep.
She did not know that a single book could change a man's life. Indeed, this book made its writer rich and famous, with a beautiful wife and nice children. Oddly enough, he dreamt that one day he would return to the cottage, with many rose bushes in the garden and a little wife like an angel.
Perhaps that dream might inspire another book.
"I wonder if it would be better to exchange this expensive book for a flowery blouse for that Little Ty of yore?" Thom Thao asked herself.
Translated by Van Minh