|Illustration by Tran Ngoc Quy
by Nguyen Xuan Man
Formerly, the married couple earned their living in town: Ket as a street vegetable vendor and her husband Duong as a porter. On their paltry income, with three little mouths to feed, they could hardly make ends meet. One day, Ket met Thu's wife, a rice dealer, at the marketplace. When the latter complained that owing to her family's poor living conditions in the urban centre, her husband had made up his mind to take his whole family to the mountainous province of Lao Cai to settle down under the land-reclaiming programme of the central authorities, Ket persuaded her husband to follow their example. Duong agreed with his wife's advice at once. After leaving his native village for town to work hard as a porter, getting married and having three kids, he had led a life of dire poverty, without a small plot of land of his own to rig up a decent-looking hut. "In that highland region with a small population, we'll be able to farm a large piece of land provided free of charge by the local authorities, our children won't go hungry any more and we'll enjoy a better life," he said to his wife. Over one year later, they had moved to that far-away locality and his family enjoyed improved circumstances thanks to his great strength.
However, their happiness did not last long.
After three years living the new life, he shouted at his spouse one morning, "Poor me! I've been taken in by you and Thu and your secret love affair since you started a new life here. How could you hide it from me?"
Ket tried to clarify that there was nothing going on.
"Brother Thu, as the chief of my co-operative team of production, thought that I was rather weak after giving birth to two more babies, so he often entrusted me with light jobs," she said to her husband. "What's more, without his devoted help - from felling trees for us to build a house to choosing good cassava for us to solve our hunger problem - how could we tide over our difficult times of crop failure?"
Her husband only turned a deaf ear to her explanations.
"Darling, I swear that I've done nothing wrong. I always regard Thu and his wife as our brother and sister, that's all," she insisted again, but all was in vain.
Seeing Duong trying hard to fell a big kapok tree at the edge of the forest, Thu promised that he would back him in the afternoon when his team caucus was over. However, when he returned home, he saw Duong lying under the fallen tree. Immediately, he was taken to the local hospital. "His four ribs were broken and part of his bowels cut off," the doctor said to Thu.
In consequence, Ket had to shoulder the family burden while her husband only stayed idle at home. The lazier he was, the stronger his jealousy became. As a result, she was often beaten black and blue for small reasons: returning home late from work, cooking food badly, even staying rather long in a neighbour's dwelling. Once he seized her back-length hair and tied it to a column in the middle of the house to punish her for her bad conduct. Under the pretext that he needed spirits to lessen his pain, he forced her to get lots of liquor for him to drink and was soon addicted to alcohol. He cursed her all day long. She could do nothing but pretend not to notice.
Abandoning drinks, he resorted to smoking opium. Gradually, he got so addicted to drugs that if he did not smoke twice a day, he would convulse in bed. Eating less and less day after day, he soon turned into a skinny figure under the dirty blanket.
One morning, Ket went to the highland to get some more opium for him. After a few days away, when she came back home, she saw a funeral procession near her village accompanied by the cries of many children. As she approached, she realised that it was the funeral of her husband. He had died the previous night.
Although she had escaped the misery caused by her husband's addiction, she was now busy feeding five little mouths at home. With her experience getting narcotics in far-away regions, she became engrossed in drug trafficking, which could bring her great profits. She moved out to the roadside of the inter-provincial highway to make a living more conveniently. Her house soon became a reliable destination for mountainous ethnic people like the Mong, Ha Nhi and Red Dao to stay overnight. Some brought with them tiny pouches of drugs. She arranged transactions at secret places: now a hollow of a tree trunk, now that of a rock. Little did passers-by know that the woman by the side of the road had managed to set up an ambitious illegal smuggling line.
Nevertheless, her secret dealings were not always plain sailing. Sometimes there were losses. The traitors were tortured brutally by her henchmen: one found dead in a village-edge lawn, another in a deserted hut, another one hanged in a small shed on a construction site. Time and again, she tried to set up a new trafficking line, yet she could hardly find any reliable supporters.
Six months later, she was terribly tormented with a sexually transmitted disease. She intended to use the drugs to cure herself of that malady, but was afraid that if she did, she would follow her spouse to the grave. One evening, someone told Ket that in a remote mountainous area of Ngai Thau, there was a famous herbalist named Phin from the Red Dao tribe. She went to ask him for treatment. After one year under that therapist's care, she had completely recovered. Taking pity on the miserable patient, the old tribal woman accepted her as an adopted daughter and told her all the secret curing methods, due partly to her intelligent, quiet nature and partly to the tribe's custom of not handing down its secrets to anyone of the same lineage. Kowtowing in front of the altar of the tribal forefathers, Ket took an oath that she would use her skills only for curing sick people and would never do harm to anyone.
Nobody suspected that Ket, who usually turned up in the highland market and came back home a few days later with a big bag full of medicinal herbs on her back which she put to dry in the courtyard of her house, was a drug smuggler. Her dwelling was frequently visited by strangers. The messages coming in great numbers from the opium dens in the mountains set her on tenterhooks. At first, she intended to let a few of her grown-up kids join the smuggling, but on second thought, she was afraid that they might unintentionally disclose her wicked trade, so she did it by herself. She was seen going to and fro between her place and some mountainous villages in tatters, a bulky bag full of forest leaves on her back. Her trips became more and more frequent with the passage of time. At last, her great fortune in gold and silver, which had previously been buried carefully, was unearthed for more daring trips. Once, she was stopped midway by the local police, who wondered if she was involved in illegal dealings because she moved between localities so frequently.
But no drugs were found. One day her house was ransacked thoroughly, yet again, no drugs were found.
After six months, she decided to make an even greater trip. All her gold taels were put into use. Instead of taking her usual path, she chose a jungle trail and carried a small electric torch. Reaching Mt Phin Ho Thau on her way home, she felt uneasy. Soon, she had a fever. Immediately she swallowed a small pinch of opium. "Fifteen kilograms of narcotics are a great fortune to me," she whispered to herself. She wrapped the whole amount in a large piece of plastic, tied the parcel carefully with a long and strong length of vine, then let it go all the way to a deep stone cave which she had discovered during the previous trip. After that, she tried to crawl to a trail, slipping and falling against big rocks many times until she fainted. Luckily for her, late in the afternoon, she was found lying motionless by several people on the way home from their milpa. At once she was taken to the provincial polyclinic, then further away to a major hospital in Ha Noi. After being X-rayed, she found out she had broken several bones. Returning home from hospital, she was crippled. Whenever she wanted to walk, she had to use crutches. Her life as a smuggler thus came to an end and she became a total parasite. Her three sons got married and lived in their own houses. Their wives regarded her as a heavy burden. At last, they decided that each of them had to look after her for an entire month. Meanwhile, her two daughters lived afar with their husbands and children. They asked the local authorities to provide her with a relief subsidy, but it was inadequate. "I can't expect much from my undutiful children when I die," she said to herself one day. For many nights, she thought of kind-hearted Luong, the son of one of her former neighbours, Mrs Thu, in the area of Hai Lung. He was in town for the time being. In order to please his mother, her eldest son Tuat went in search of him in town.
"Dear Brother Luong, my sickly old mother has forced me to look for you at all costs. It's our last duty for a person with one foot in the grave, you see. Could you spare some free time to visit her?" Tuat tried to persuade him.
At the age of seven, Luong had followed his parents to Hai Lung to reclaim wasteland. In those days, the area was surrounded by thick jungle. It took them an hour to cover a half-mile path section covered in tall trees, big plants and dense bushes. Growing up, he attended a mechanic course. After graduation, he worked in town. When his parents turned weak and old, he invited them to live with him. After their deaths, one after another, he rarely returned to their former home, due partly to his strenuous job at the enterprise and partly to the fact that the path there was 80km with many steep passes. Now more than forty years had elapsed. The old forests had nearly disappeared. The mountains were bare, revealing exhausted stretches of milpa with a few clusters of newly-grown plants.
Luong felt very upset. The mountains and hills had been deprived of their immense green vegetation carpets, so each rainy season, most of the area was flooded.
Tuat and Luong reached Hai Lung at five in the afternoon. Large clouds of silvery fog coming from mountain gorges made the air much colder as the last sunrays turned yellowish. The garden of Luong's clan was nearly unchanged, with the rough roots of the longan and jackfruit trees digging wildly into the earth. Ket's five-bayed wooden house with stone foundations that could stand intact had been replaced by Tuan's long and narrow dwelling like a train carriage. Close to its gate was a two-bayed wooden house with corrugated roofs. "My mother lives in that flat," Tuat said to Luong. "You can park your motorbike in my house."
Leaving Tuat's place, Luong made for Auntie Ket. Going in, he smelt a nauseous stench and tried to keep himself from vomiting. On a bed in the interior compartment, Old Ket sat slanting among the three bulging bags of husks. Her face looked like a withered leaf, full of wrinkles.
"Is that Luong?" she asked when she heard a strange voice. "Haven't seen you for ages. Now I can die without regret."
He put a bag of fruit, a pouch of sugar and a tin of milk at the head of her bed.
"You needn't have bought so much. I'm unable to eat," she reproached him slightly. "What I do wish is that you stay here beside me for a few days. Surely, your parents have passed away, haven't they?"
After finishing dinner at Tuat's place, he walked into the old woman's flat. She asked him to let her lean against the bag of husks, for she felt very uncomfortable from lying down for so long. With his experience drawn from his parents when they were still alive, he touched her bony hands to check her pulse. Suddenly, Tuan stealthily got in to tell him to go outside.
"I'll have to go out to see how dry the lake becomes so that next morning I might catch fish for market," he whispered to Luong.
"Although her pulse is now rather weak and slow, nothing serious will come to her tonight," Luong assuaged him.
In the light of the neon lamp, he found her complexion very pale. Knowing that her son had gone out, she talked to him in an indistinct voice.
"For six months and thirteen days, I've been unable to go out," she began her story. "My days are numbered. But I can't rely upon my children for help. I've got something that I can neither bring along with me nor tell any of them about. You're the only one I feel confident of; therefore, I asked Tuat to invite you to my flat," she added lengthily.
Luong felt utterly bewildered.
Since the day he arrived here, his family and that of Mrs. Ket had always regarded each other like kin and shared everything. He knew that Mrs. Ket had had so serious an accident that she could not move inside and outside by herself. Now, something must have befallen her family that was so grave she had to resort to him as a mediator. After drinking a hot cup of tea, she started whispering to him in a low voice, "You must keep mum what I'm going to tell you, OK?"
"Yes Auntie! Go on, please."
Now in high spirits, she pointed at the altar and told Luong to take down a bundle of false banknotes. Thinking that she had gotten worse, he was going to summon her children to her place, but she assured him that she was fine.
"I'm quite well. Nothing bad is happening to me right now. But my accounts are still unfinished," she told him. With trembling hands, she opened the carefully tied parcel and took out a piece of paper that had yellowed due to the passage of time.
"Take it along when you climb up Mt Phin Ho Thau," she told him. "Use it as a guide and you'll find what you're searching for. You can do whatever you want with that thing. My disloyal children are not worthy of it." Then she narrated her adventures in an indistinct voice, from the first days of reclaiming the land through her drug trafficking and her last trip, which caused her disability.
Her story was beyond Luong's imagination. By his watch, he saw that it was already 10pm. From outside echoed the sounds of frogs and crickets. Finishing the hot cup of tea he offered her, she closed her eyes. However, a few minutes later, her opaque eyes were open again. "I still have another interesting secret that I wish to disclose. Now listen to it, will you?"
Our native village was very poor. With our flooded rice fields, we went hungry most of the time, for we could hardly make ends meet. In consequence, I had to go to town to earn my daily bread. My living conditions in town were much better than my life in the country. With two baskets of vegetables bought from country people in the early morning, which I wandered here and there to sell, I could earn enough rice for two days. In my boarding house, there was a rickshaw driver. I soon fell passionately in love with him thanks to his devoted help and warm feelings. Yet, one day, finding me with child, he ran away, leaving my belly bigger and bigger with every passing day. Those days, being pregnant out of wedlock was an appalling scandal. In confusion, I went to the Dao River to terminate my life. While I was drowning, I was lifted up and pulled to the bank.
"Life or death, everything depends on fate. You think it's easy to commit suicide?" my young saviour asked. "If I could die, I would have ended my life a long time ago." After that, he carried me on his back to a shabby hut at the end of a small alley where he lived alone. Then I became the second owner of that shanty. Early in the morning, I went to the nearby market to get vegetables and walked home to arrange them in an eye-catching manner before going to sell them from street to street. In the meantime, my "husband" left for the river harbour to load and unload merchandise. One evening, after dinner, when I was going to bed, he said to me in a serious voice, "I've thought a lot about your foetus for many days. After giving birth to a baby, you'd better leave him or her at the municipal orphanage for anyone that really needs him. I want my own child, not one by another man."
I felt greatly embarrassed. If I went back to my village with a big belly, I would subject my parents to terrible shame. Going back to that hut to lead a humble life with my would-be baby was beyond my expectations. Killing myself for the second time would also be impossible: Duong was both my saviour and husband.
As luck would have it, the next morning when I went to market to get some rice, I met my close friend from childhood, who later would become Mr Thu's wife. "Oh God, my beloved Ket! Haven't seen you for ages," she said to me in a merry voice. "Everyone thought that you went to some far-away province like Thai Nguyen or Thanh Hoa to do business." Through our chat, I learned that after seven years of conjugal life, the couple was still childless. I told her my sad plight. On the morning I gave birth to a baby boy, she visited me in the hospital with a lot of presents and insisted that I let her adopt the baby. I agreed with her proposal. When I left the hospital, she took him home right away. Her neighbours were very happy and congratulated the kind-hearted couple on their adopted son.
By the early morning, she was already dead tired. Yet she seemed afraid of death. She stared at Luong for a few seconds, then said to him in a heart-rending voice:
Certainly, Mrs Thu* never brought up that delicate matter with you. Yet, as the last old person of the two families still alive in this world, I must let you know the truth. You were the baby and my friend was none other than Mrs Thu, your deceased mother. Owing to our secret relationship, I did my best to follow you to this remote place. You can regard this semi-circle necklace of silver for a suckling as a proof. Surely, before going away forever, Mrs Thu gave you the other half. If you put the two pieces together you'll find the figure of a dragon which includes the name of the lunar year when you were born."
She burst out sobbing.
"However, I'd like to ask just one thing. These will be my last words: let me address you as my beloved son."
After her funeral, Luong was seen taking his half-brother Tuan together with two policemen to the highland.
* Her nickname after she married Mr Thu, according to our former custom.
Translated by Van Minh