|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Ngo Thi Y Nhi
A heavy feeling was weighing on me. I was half-conscious in sleep. The evening light shrouded the large garden. I was lying on a hammock tied on two breadfruit trees. On the other side of the fence, quite close to where I was lying, a person was looking at me fixedly, and strangely at that…. In fright, I stood up, my heart beating fast. A wrinkled face, a familiar smile! No greetings! She turned and walked away. It was getting dark quickly. I felt so sad. Who was that? I tried to rummage in my mind to remember who she was. I had not come back to my home village for a decade now. Who was still alive? Who died? I was lying in the garden of my maternal grandmother's house. My grandmother had died a long time ago. There was only Aunt Huong's family. On the other side of the garden, there used to be Miss Nguyet, yes Miss Nguyet, living there. Before I started my journey home, my uncle Hai teased me:
"Give my regards to Miss Nguyet!"
Uncle Hai at that time was a widower with five children. He was handsome and always looked smart. A lot of women - some widows, some who had passed their marriage age and even some young girls - in the area had sympathy with him. But at the end of the day, having come with me to the village, he had fallen in love with Miss Nguyet. That early morning, while going to get fresh air on the village road, he met Miss Nguyet, who was carrying vegetables to the market. She nodded to him and went on. What a beautiful body! She looked graceful. Actually, Miss Nguyet was a household name in the area for her beauty, gentleness and industriousness. She had a large vegetable garden. On her slender shoulders, she had to bear the responsibility to help her four brothers who were still of school age. Any young guy who wanted to ask her hand hesitated to do it. So her green years had gone by without her notice. It was the first time Uncle Hai came to my maternal home village, but Miss Nguyet's smile and graceful body captured his eyes. He told her everything about his situation. Maybe she liked him because he was a sincere man.
One afternoon, her youngest brother left dinner and went to cry by the river bank. Miss Nguyet rushed to look for him and she also cried.When the moon was rising, they both went home. A few days later, she replied to the matchmaker:
"You know, I have to take care of my four brothers. If I agreed, I would take care of my husband's five children too. That's unbearable, you see!"
"You'll be the wife of a captain. You'll be so happy when you can drop your heavy job of selling vegetables. You'll see!"
She tried to contain the tears rolling down her cheeks, shaking her head. Her refusal made all the villagers happy because they all did not like that Sai Gon puppet army officer in Phu Bai. After that, Uncle Hai never followed me to my maternal village. When I moved to the South, I sometimes remembered Miss Nguyet. A young lady who had borne the heavy load of life; her beauty would have faded with time, I thought. Yet Miss Nguyet was quite a strange woman. She knew her beauty and was well aware of her virtue. She had earned admiration and compassion from the whole village. She had organised weddings for her four brothers, one by one. Of her four brothers, the youngest was the most successful. He had settled down in the United States. The last time I met her, she was carrying a baby in her arms. Since then I had rarely thought about her. There was another man who was head over heels in love with her. He studied pedagogy in Quy Nhon. One day he came to see her. Yet he did not know what to say to her. He only sat there, sipping some tea. All these romantic stories were obliterated from her life when her parents died. Sorrow had fallen on her family. Since then, she had to earn money to keep the wolf from the door. The teacher did not come to see her any longer. Later it was rumoured that he had got married. She was so calm when she heard the rumor.
So what on earth was going on now? I got out of the hammock. There was a call from the house: "Huong!". The light from the house was not bright enough. My aunt said:
"It's very dark now. Why are you sitting there alone? It's terrible!"
"Miss Nguyet, where are you going? To the city?"
"Let her go to the city to fetch a man of high social position!" - Another teasing laugh was heard after that.
Then they all burst out laughing. A middle-aged woman said in a low voice:
"It's only fate…. What a pity for her!"
In sadness, I followed the white shirt disappearing gradually behind the grove of bamboo trees. It was Miss Nguyet. I could not be mistaken. Now ten years had gone by and I was home. All of a sudden, I heard an angry voice from these women:
"She can't bear these sisters-in-law!"
"What do you mean by 'Terrible"?" some young girls asked noisily.
"But it is Miss Nguyet's mistake!"
"Is it because she is cruel or because she is sharp-witted?"
"Yes, she is sharp-witted. Without that, how could she bear the burden of earning bread for her four brothers?" Mrs Tam stood up. "You are still young, so you don't know how life works, you see!"
After that the crowd of women dispersed. The river was bathed in sunlight.
I stayed in the village for two days, although I had intended to drop in and see my aunt for just one. I wondered if anything had kept me here. In the morning, I got up very early and rode a bicycle along the village road. At the end of the village, the road led me to a vast rice field which ran as far as the eyes could see. There the road was cemented and straight. The rural area had changed a lot for the better. I rode around the village. Some new houses cropped up on the way. The face of the village had got fresher and more beautiful. Electricity had come to the village, so somewhere music was heard vaguely from a distance. Given such a happy situation, I wondered why I was sad.
I went to visit Miss Nguyet the next morning. A girl opened the door. Miss Nguyet sat on the plank bed to welcome me with a smile. She seemed not to recognise me and took me for another person. We sat together and chatted. But she seemed not to remember anything. She was said to have had memory failure and her loneliness had made her illness more serious. Yes, she was so lonely. What I heard in the last two days proved this. On the other hand, her three sisters-in-law showed no love towards her. They were so cold and distant to her. She could not live with her brothers any more. So one day, she left to return to her home village and lived with her niece. She lived in silence and loneliness. Her sacrifice for her brothers had in the end of the day come to a sad end. She had squandered a lot of good opportunities to have a happy life, but now she had to accept her fate. All of her dreams were buried in the past.
I sat with her for quite a long time. She said things to herself, in a low voice. From such a beautiful and gentle woman who had won the love of her villagers, she was now the target for their jokes. She had been forgotten by them now. I suddenly remembered a liberation fighter who had come home from the war. His wife and children had been killed. His office tried to matchmake him to her but she refused, thinking that she was too old for marriage.
I got startled remembering Uncle Hai, a Sai Gon puppet army officer from Phu Bai, who had been head over heels in love with Miss Nguyet. But she refused his proposal for fear that he could be killed at any time. Of her four brothers, her youngest brother was the closest to her. Unfortunately, he lived in the United States and could rarely come to see her. She sometimes went to the river bank and tried to look for her brother in the dusk like the old days. She and her brother had cried by the river bank that day…
Yes, I spent two days in my native village in that way. During the night time, I lay there, listening to the cars honking and the girls giggling. My village had changed a lot. The ring road had now been cemented. Gardens were lush with trees and vegetables. A lot of patches of land had now been split into lots for sale so as to be able to develop it into a township. A whirlwind was sweeping through my village. My village now had two faces, one face was the old-looking face with dilapidated temples and pagodas and the other was the new one with new houses in different sizes and hues.
I left the river and walked along the red earth road. I looked around for the last time. Over there, a woman was picking vegetables with a bamboo basket by her side. It was Miss Nguyet. The garden now lay in waste. I looked into the basket, finding some pieces of vegetables mixed with wild grass. There was no more value, I thought! She was lonely in that patch of garden.
I stopped at the village's crossroads. Life has placed all of us at the crossroads. We are forced to choose and to accept what we lose and what we gain. It was the same for that small, pitiful village down there. This crossroads took me to the town. In the old days, at this crossroads, I would stop for a last look at the village before my journey to the South. Years had gone by and my life had had ups and downs. At the end of the day, I had also stayed single. I was lonely. I started to hit the road. The road opened wide before me. Yes, I was lonely, but I walked on and on.
Translate by Manh Chuong