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The call from the other river bank

Update: June, 02/2013 - 16:00

Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy

by Tran Quynh Nga

Sitting down beside a bed of marigolds in the little front garden of my aunt's dwelling, I looked at the dark red sun, its light slanting on the windy dyke embankment. Her house faced the dyke of the La River. Every evening, when I stepped out of the gate into the narrow lane, passing by the yellow flowers with leisurely footsteps and light breaths, I quickly reached that airy dyke.

From a short distance away, I could see her sitting alone and motionless on top of the dyke, in deep meditation. Her blouse was coloured yellow by the sunlight. Perhaps she had gotten accustomed to that tranquil posture, which seemed to indicate a long wait. When the last rays of the sun went below the horizon, her bright expectant look also gradually turned to dim despair.

That day, reaching her home, I found her watering the yellow flowers in her garden with a similar air. Surprisingly, she did not glance at me at all. I knew why: to prevent me from expressing my emotion. Surely Mum had informed her of my trip, so Auntie already knew my purpose. After turning the soil over some clusters of marigold for a few minutes, she said to me in a deep voice, "Vy, take a warm shower and relax, my dear. The water is heated enough, I think."

After resting on the cool veranda for a few minutes, I slowly walked into the bathroom, which was already filled with the fragrance of the lavender-scented soap we both often used. I looked at myself in the mirror, seeing an unemotional and weary face with dull eyes due to a lack of sleep and a pale complexion, all caused by tension and torment during the past hard days. Swallowing the sensation of self-pity surging up in my heart, I lay down on the tile floor and splashed warm water over my whole body.

"What do I need? What do I really want?" I asked myself.

***

I got a divorce recently. Or to be more precise, I set my husband Hao free. I had been thinking about doing it for a few years. "A woman without children is like a withered plant," I whispered to myself. Nevertheless, whenever I thought about the solicitude and care he had given to me, I did not know what to do. Whenever I cried, he would hug me tightly, saying, "You're enough for me – just you." This made me hesitate for a long time. But once I saw him standing confusedly at the gate of the nursery school and I felt very sad and repentant. I hated myself. I asked myself how I could be so selfish to him. I had thought that he would never agree to my suggestion, so I planned a way to explain my situation to him so that he might understand my sentiments. But I was totally wrong. When I finally got up the boldness to deal with that important matter, he only showed silence, which made me nearly faint. If he had flown into a rage or objected to my proposal, I would have cried to beg him to release me – not only for myself, but also for the sake of his new life. What's more, I would have knelt down in front of him to ask for forgiveness because I had trampled on his faithful love for so long a time. However, now everything had gone forever. His air of satisfaction made me feel quite at ease.

***

I wrapped the cotton towel that Auntie had given to me before the bath around my body. Stepping out of the bathroom, I sat down on the highest step of the veranda to look at the marigolds in full bloom. She came to me and sat beside me without saying anything. She looked thin and sorrowful.

"As a woman unable to control yourself, you'll suffer a lot in life, my dear niece," she said in a low voice, tapping slightly on my shoulders.

That night I lay by her side with just the towel on and slept soundly. She told me she used to wear just a towel and walk to and fro in her room until she fell asleep on the sofa. "At such moments, my body moved quite freely, released from close-fitting clothing, and I felt very relaxed," she advised me sincerely.

Once, standing on the second floor of my friend's house, I stared down at the street where a crowd of pedestrians walked to and fro. From the wide crossroads, they went into smaller streets. I asked myself, "Where am I now? Am I at such a crossroads – a place where I can't find a way out?"

All of a sudden, Auntie interrupted my train of thoughts with a piece of music called Unchained Melody. It was her favourite song. For many years, she had had a habit of listening to music without words whenever she found it hard to express her innermost feelings. In such moments, I felt sympathetic with her sorrowful solitude, which to me was like an ancient building modernized with transparent walls, adorned with plastic climbing plants blooming with artificial flowers and fruit and doors that automatically opened.

My aunt was said to be the best in many aspects: her successful handsome husband, her good-looking children and, last but not least, her beauty and musical gift. Her laughs were as clear as the murmuring brook and her charming singing could easily lull stressed people to sleep, even when they were in despair. My uncle was proud of his wife and she herself was well satisfied. Nevertheless, sometimes I saw her heave a sigh when the wind changed its direction and her countenance suddenly change when she saw someone pass by the lane. "Why is that?" I asked myself.

I was a thoughtful young woman. I usually let my mind wander here and there and judged things happening around me with my own intuition. Time and again I tried telling Mum about Auntie's living conditions, but Mum threatened me and told me to forget it. She said my ideas sounded like they came from the fanciful imagination of some madman. Mum also insisted that Auntie had chosen a proper way of living and I should follow her example. "When it comes down to it, what is a woman?" she argued. "She is nothing but the seventh rib of a man. Furthermore, she is his property. Therefore, it's appropriate for you to choose a safe footing in life without worrying about money."

"Surely, Auntie has been leading a wealthy life. So why is she often stressed?" I asked myself. "She lives a life of plenty – at least in her neighbours' eyes." Once I intended to tell her that in urban centres, women of forty like her usually adopted a modern lifestyle: wearing mini-skirts and high-heeled shoes and frequenting karaoke bars or dancing halls where bands played the blues. Why had she chosen a sad life by this far-away river? But on second thought, I realised that I was lucky I had not already spoken. Gradually, I came to know the meaning of her tranquil appearance during the night near the lotus lake, when only a few late-blooming flowers remained and the withered late-season leaves floated on the surface of the water.

Every person pursues their own way of life; so did my aunt. It seemed to me that she had grown accustomed to the formal way of life lived by the guests her husband invited home for evening parties. In consequence, she remained busy doing the washing up into the early morning without any complaints. As for my uncle-in-law, he regarded her behaviour as ordinary for a woman at home. But I found it hard to accept. I often cursed the participants silently for regarding women as housemaids, neither more nor less. It also seemed to me that the image of such a pretty and graceful singer, who used to sing romantic tunes beautifully, belonged to the past. From the bottom of my heart, I felt painfully sorry for her – she who had given up her burning passion simply because of mediocre material things.

Now she was quite a different person. I saw resolution in her eyes when she told her husband that she wished to return to her hometown in order to spend the rest of her life there. He only smiled at her, saying that without him and his huge fortune, she would not be able to preserve her lifestyle. He was absolutely wrong. She had succeeded in proving that there was a great difference between a real life and a commonplace existence. Now, I started to make out the meaning of her words, her advice to control our feelings. She had put this advice into practice in the prime of her life. Now, she lived better. She often smiled and looked more optimistic.

***

After a few decades, she began to tell me stories of her love during her youth. She told me that once she fell passionately in love with a young musician. He used to accompany her sad songs. Unfortunately for both, he had gotten married; so had my aunt. Then one day, she gave up singing at the cabaret for good. He did the same. He stopped playing music forever.

***

Another long, sleepless night!

Sitting huddled inside the mosquito net, I stared at the bright sky through the small window. Strangely, I saw Auntie spreading wooden dolls and brocade shawls on the veranda floor. She cleaned them carefully, then put them all into a large suitcase. While I silently watched her, she picked up a shirt and covered her face in it. Her shoulders slightly trembled for several minutes. I felt pain in my chest. I took great pity on her: "Who could dare to say that my aunt is leading a happy life and that she's unable to control herself?" In reality, she had done her best to harness her emotions, so that by now she could hardly weep. My heart was greatly stung. Silently, I crawled out of the net to sit by her side, with an impression that I had been nothing but a boy watching her performance and waiting for her to finish behind the wings of the stage.

Finally, one special day when marigold petals fell abundantly from their stems, she addressed that instrumentalist. Come what may, they had remained in love with each other for years with all their hearts and souls. Yet they were not brave enough to tell each other about their real married status, when a lot of obstacles to their happy days still lay ahead.

As a result, they parted company with an oath that they would resume their love affairs and live together in the countryside when they turned old and their children became successful in their careers.

My Auntie had been waiting for that day to come. Day after day, month after month and year after year, she went on waiting for her old flame. Alas, all her perseverance came to nothing!

Listening to her story, I felt greatly confused. How could such a profound woman with so much suffering and loneliness cherish such a naive and pure belief that long? All of a sudden, I felt very suspicious of myself. "Is it I who am getting rid of my faith in life, bit by bit, with hatred?" I asked myself.

***

My mother phoned Auntie to warn her about sheltering such a stubborn sinful culprit as myself. In fact, I kept mum about our divorce. I knew that my parents were very sad about the decision. But as for me, I would have felt much more sorrowful if I had tried to cling to a man who did not love me any more.

Five months after Hao and I had gone to court to get a divorce, he married again. And five months later his new wife gave birth to a nice baby boy. Unluckily for me, my own mother kept on turning a blind eye to me, as I had refused to come home with her and chosen to stay with Auntie instead.

"You ill-bred daughter!" she nagged on the phone. Silently, I hung up, asking myself if she was trying to sympathise with me of if she was really ashamed of me, an imperfect child, in the face of her neighbours' ill-mannered comments. That night I wept and wept for many hours. Auntie tried to comfort me as if I was her little girl. But everything felt meaningless. Later, I stealthily went out of her bedroom to the courtyard. The brightening moon spread its yellow light on the marigolds, making them sparkle wonderfully. Lying down between two flowerbeds with cool and fine soil, I looked at the moonlight, clear and shining. I lay motionless there, enjoying the fresh air and flower petals falling one after another onto my bare skin. My soul seemed to gradually vanish into the ground, despite the solitude that was torturing me mercilessly.

***

Strangely enough, whenever the moon season came round, Auntie was unable to sleep soundly. At night, she just lay flat on her back, looking into the immense clear sky high above us. Sometimes a bird flew past, then disappeared into the air. I remembered that sometimes she listened to sad melodies, which made me feel unsafe and confused. I thought that she paid more attention to the breaths of her musician rather than his superb playing technique. Sometimes she sat on the veranda, eyes half closed, enjoying the fragrance of the marigolds.

One night she fell seriously ill. She breathed heavily. Her eyes looked sunken and her complexion turned pale. I called the nearest urban hospital so that they might take her away for treatment. On the ambulance, she tried to stick her head out of the window to see the dyke embankment covered with tall grasses. Her eyes were brimming with tears.

"My dear niece Vy, after this trip please go back to my place in order to wait for him," she whispered to me. "Certainly, he will come back. Remember not to forget to tell him that I will return." She smiled and her two skinny arms abruptly came down. I wept and wept for her for hours.

u v u

One late evening, I perceived her smiling image appear outside the window. She seemed to rush along the dyke embankment, where the tall grasses were covered with yellow sunset. I heard mysterious sad tunes waft over from the far side of the La River, now far away, now very close.

Amid the sorrowful music, I felt that I could hear someone call for a ferry boat from the other river bank.

Translated by Van Minh

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