|Illustration by Do Dung
by Trinh Thi Phuong
The crape myrtle tree bloomed one summer after another. I grew up by the river, along with this tree of purple flowers. When I was small, whenever I was sad, I sat at the foot of the tree. When flowers dyed the river the deepest purple, I felt the saddest. As a three-year-old, I could not fully understand my father and mother. But as a teenager, with all the changes of puberty happening inside me, I started to recognize that Father loved his youngest daughter Hien best and hated me openly.
Father beat me almost daily. I went to the market to buy food for the family's daily meals, as I knew what Father, Mother and Hien liked best. Whenever Father got drunk and reeled home, Mother rushed to help him. I wanted to do it for her, but I was so frightened. Mother looked very sad.
My parents had no son. I was five years older than Hien. That was old enough for me to show my self-denial to her. Deep-rooted in my mind was a sad childhood with no toys to play with and no father picking me up from school, even once. I had to drop out of school after I finished ninth grade. I had to go and learn tailoring. I dreamt that I would open a tailor's shop where I could make beautiful clothing for my mother and sister.
Hien grew up fast. When she was still in senior secondary school, I finished my job training. The first thing I made was a white silk ao dai for Hien. Unfortunately, my sister could not wear it, as it was too short and tight.
"I told you that my sister could not yet make this kind of clothing. Now I have nothing to wear for tomorrow's new school year ceremony," Hien said to Father.
Father looked at me in anger. He was about to beat me, as he used to when I was small and broke a cup or a glass. In that afternoon, I rode my bicycle to the communal market despite the scorching sun and bought a new piece of ao dai fabric. The material was not as good as the one Father bought for my sister, but I tried to make the garment more beautiful. I spent the whole night finishing it so that my sister could wear it to the opening ceremony of the school year the next day. Finally, the ao dai I had made was ironed and hung at the head of my sister's bed. Then I sat down and contemplated her as she slept. She was quite different from me. She was slim and pale with an oval face. She took after Father. I had long black hair like Mother's and my skin was as brown as Mother's too. I looked like Mother in every way, but Father did not love me as he loved Mother. Why?
I intended to ask Father and Mother several times why I was not as loved as my sister Hien. I craved a warm and loving look from Father. I still remembered very clearly one incident when I was nine years old and my sister Hien was four years old. It was the flooding season in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta. Bunches of green duck weeds floated in the limpid water. I asked my sister to go swimming. I made a raft from some banana trees for her to sit on. I stood in the water and pushed the raft. I could swim when I was a first grader. Out of the blue sky, a strong wave rushed towards us, overturning the raft. My sister fell overboard. In a wink of an eye, she disappeared. In great fright, I plunged into the river to search for her. When I snatched her up, I saw that she had fainted and her face was pale. I cried for help and my parents rushed to the scene. My sister was given the kiss of life several times before water jetted out of her mouth. I stood behind the crape myrtle tree, watching closely in great fear. Then I ran towards her and my father, losing his temper, slapped me so hard in the face that blood oozed from my mouth. My mother shriveled up when she looked at me.
"How could you dare to take your sister swimming in the river? You're banned from going in the river from now on, do you hear me?" my father shouted.
From then on, Father became cold to me. He did not even pay attention to me. He spent all his love on my sister Hien. Years went by; my sister was a good student. I dropped out of school and took the tailor's job. The crape myrtle was blooming again by the river with those purple flowers. I found my mother sitting alone sometimes at the foot of the tree, crying. I grew up and looked so much like Mother. More customers visited my shop. Hien went to study in the district school and when she came home, she often slept with me. She took after Father so much. During the night she often had a heart-to-heart talk with me. She told me not to marry any man from abroad. She also wondered if I would carry on my tailor's job when I got married, or if I would toil on the rice field for my husband's family. In the end, she whispered into my ear, "Please don't marry any man! Stay on your own!" Hearing this, I cried.
My father had gradually changed. He had never mentioned his liking for food. He was always taciturn with me. But this time, he came home and said to me:
"Hoai, go buy some small fish to cook sour soup. I feel like it as I haven't had it for quite a long time!"
Once, Father gave money to Mother, saying:
"This is money for our daughter Hoai. Tell her to buy anything she likes. Tell her to buy beautiful clothes to wear on Tet."
I went to buy things in the market, my heart jumping for joy. Out of a sudden, I remembered the white ao dai for my sister Hien. The crape myrtle tree was in bloom again. I said to Hien:
"Sister, I'm going to get married."
"To whom?" my sister asked
"To Mr Hiep, an official working for the commune's Youth Union," I answered.
Hiep had a dark complexion, but he was so gentle. Two years my senior, he often came to have his clothes repaired at my shop. I did not ask for money. Later he had a new shirt made.
"Miss Hoai, please make it beautiful because I want to save this shirt for my wedding!" he said to me.
Hiep's family was not wealthy, but they were quite satisfied with their lives. If I married him, maybe I would not have to leave my tailor's job. He came up to me one day:
"Hoai, do you love me? Will you marry me?"
"I'm not very well-educated, so please don't pull my leg!" I said to him.
He immediately swore that he loved me and wanted to marry me from the bottom of his heart.
"We'll wait until the harvest time is over. Then I'll go and buy you a pair of earrings and a necklace together with a dozen items of clothing as an engagement gift!" he said.
I smiled. Mother asked me if I agreed and Father said:
"I find him a good guy. He looks quite dignified, you see!"
I kept silent and ran towards the crape myrtle tree. The river was flowing with a strong current. High above, the crape myrtle flowers were blossoming with a violet color, the color of faithfulness.
When my wedding ceremony came, my friends rushed to help me. My sister Hien had three days off to help me prepare.
"I didn't know what to buy for you, so I bought you some shampoos and shower gel that you can use in your husband's house," she said to me.
I felt so happy that I wanted to cry. My sister was really grown up, I thought. She came to me and said:
"Hoai, do you remember the day we swam in the river and I almost drowned? Mother told me that Father beat you so hard. I'm so sorry!"
The night before I was to go to the home of my husband, I could not sleep.
"I'll sleep with you tonight," Hien said, "because after tomorrow you will no longer be here for me to sleep with!"
That night I slept with my mother and sister. When my sister was sleeping soundly, Mother asked me to sit in front of the mirror so that she could comb my hair.
"In your husband's house, remember to boil pomelo leaves to wash your hair! It will make it smooth!" Mother said; her eyes were wet.
"Don't worry, Mum. Hiep will be a good husband. I won't quit my tailor's job, I'm sure about it. Mum, can you tell me why Father has had a grudge against me since I was small? Why can't he love me as he loves Hien?"
Mother heaved a deep sigh.
"Your father is ten years older than me. At his age, he loves me with gentleness. He can't express his full vigour to me as a younger man could. At that time, my parents were very poor, you know, so your father's family did not agree that he could marry me…." Mother stopped, saying that it was a long story. I insisted and Mother continued:
"I married another person at the end of the day, but the love between Father and I never changed. Father did not forget his love for me, so he was not happy with the woman your paternal grandmother had chosen and he found a way to continue seeing me. Even though I was already married, I was always so moved to see your father. After each meeting with him, I nurtured the hope of being able to take you to him one day."
The day Mother took me back to Father, she left everything behind. She had to bear all the insults from her husband's family. Mother left with her only asset being me and the love debt to her husband she had never slept with. The day she came back to Father, there was no wedding ceremony, no wedding gown, no relatives. Yet Mother felt she was the happiest woman in the world.
Father welcomed her with open arms. He transmitted all his warmth to Mother and Mother placed all her trust in his hands. Yet, year in and year out, Father could not love Mother as he had before because in his mind, Mother used to be another man's wife. He was not brave enough to tolerate Mother and accept me, a girl called Hoai, as his daughter. However, after all these years living together under the same roof, I grew up and took after Mother. I knew that Father no longer blamed Mother. He knew that Mother had sacrificed her whole life for her love for him.
"The day your mother brought you to me, I dared not carry you for fear that my callous hands would hurt you. Now that you are grown up, I don't feel strong enough to carry you in my arms. I do not know how to express my love to you, and all the more, I don't have many opportunities to express it to you. Probably I am a selfish man. The result of my meanness is my beating you, an innocent daughter. It's so strange! You know, I anxiously waited for you and your mother to come back to me, but when you came back, I treated you cruelly. Now my daughter is getting married, so I have nothing to say but please forgive me. Even though you are now grown up, I want to call you 'my little daughter Hoai' for good!"
I folded the letter, feeling warmth in my heart. Father was preparing beef to treat all the neighbors for my wedding. He could not express his feelings in words, only in deeds. His dowry for me was the pink cloth for my ao dai. I felt the cloth and my eyes were wet with tears.
Dad! The memory of a three-year-old girl is not good enough for me to know if I am your daughter. I only know that you have been by my side for all these years and you have given me your sacred fatherhood. I still remember the pain you caused, but time will help heal the wounds. The river still flows peacefully. The river did not take away my sister's life. Dad, I hope I will live a happy life and I will give birth to beautiful, healthy children. Our family remains the most peaceful place as long as Dad, Mother and Hien are there!
Translated by Manh Chuong