|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Tong Ngoc Han
"Raining at noon? What horrible weather!" Ngo whispered to herself. "Come what may, I must make everything clear. I don't give a damn if it gets heavier and lasts until midnight!"
With a raised umbrella in hand, bare feet and trousers turned up to the knees, she walked along the short and narrow street where the muddy water was flowing torrentially over its surface. Time and again, a motorbike passed by fast, splashing dirty water over her face. Soon, she reached the market place, which lay below scores of worn-out stone steps. Usually, this place was deserted. Now it looked abandoned due to the heavy rain. A young woman with child was sitting in one corner of the small, shabby eating-house, covered with a lot of mended plastic sheets. "There, she's having a high word with somebody," Ngo said to herself.
She closed her umbrella and put a big knife at the edge of the table where a young ethnic Mong was eating pho. The pregnant stall owner was looking at Ngo defiantly. Picking up the knife, Ngo began taking a defensive posture, although she knew that her weapon meant nothing in comparison with the stall owner's ample store of culinary things: a lustrous meat-slicing knife, a bone-breaking scimitar on a large wooden chopping-block, a big roasting-jack, a heavy hammer, and so forth.
"Hm, where's my husband Phinh?" Ngo asked her curtly.
"I don't know," the pregnant young woman replied in the vernacular of the Mong minority people.
"Where is he?" Ngo shouted.
"Where do you think I'm hiding him - under the bed? Inside my trousers?"
In anger, Ngo looked up and down.
"That old guy must be carrying water or going on errands for her. OK, I'll wait for him here until he comes back," she said to herself.
At home Ngo had predicted that the courting couple were holding each other amorously in the deserted shanty as the heavy and long-lasting downpour continued. But to her surprise, in the stall there were only several Mong youths having lunch.
"If you're unable to give birth to a baby due to your infertility, why do you dare to interfere in another young woman's sacred mission?" she snapped.
Ngo was used to this sort of remark, yet now at her rival's challenge, she could not stand it.
Raindrops poured down more and more intensely. However, the sweet smell of tasty food wafted to her place so attractively that her avenging impulses were soon replaced by a pressing appetite.
"OK, I'll let her pass unnoticed for the time being," Ngo said to herself, then slowly walked towards another cafe nearby. She clumsily sat down on the end of a bamboo bench, thus making it losing its balance. Feeling ashamed, she stood up immediately.
"Don't worry, my dear elder sister. Next time try sitting at the centre of the bench and you'll be quite stable," the old stall owner advised her.
"Elder brother, just call me younger sister, as I'm far junior to you," she replied.
"Sorry, I'm just kidding. You look young and well."
"Please give me a bottle of rice wine and a plate of assorted food," she told him, slipping her knife under the table. "Next get me a hot bowl of chicken pho, will you?"
"But you must pay your bill first, lady," he said after weighing the situation.
"How cunning he is!" she whispered to herself. Then she took a 100-thousand dong banknote out of her handbag and gave it to him.
After finishing half of the plate of mixed food and drinking up the bottle of wine, she began smoking.
"Another bottle of rice wine, please. The service here is too slow and bad," she criticised him. Finding the wine flooding over the brim of her glass, he looked a bit embarrassed.
"Here's some more money for the new bottle of wine," she told him, holding out a 50-thousand note. When the food and wine were gone, she ordered: "Now chicken pho, please." After three minutes, the delicious bowll of pho was also finished. Picking up the knife, she got up unsteadily and went straight back to her rival's eating-house. Reaching one pillar of the shanty, she looked up to the overcast sky.
"I'll kill you for brazenly seducing my husband!" Ngo brandished her knife menacingly in front of the pregnant young woman.
"I'm waiting to see if you are bold enough to kill both of us: me and my foetus," she defied Ngo, showing her bulging abdomen.
Ngo stopped suddenly, dropping her knife onto the ground.
"She's with child, isn't she," Ngo whispered to herself. "So the rumours have proved true. Poor me! And damn my husband as well! For scores of years in our conjugal life, he's been unable to make me pregnant, but now, just in a short time, he's made her belly that big," she moaned lamentably. Her limbs turned dead tired and her eyes were brimming with tears.
She returned home, leaving her big scimitar and black umbrella in the old man's stall.
"Hey, she's pregnant, isn't she?" she asked Phinh furiously with arms akimbo.
"Maybe!" he replied vaguely.
Dropping onto the brick veranda and leaning against a pillar, she breathed heavily. By chance, she heard her ailing mother-in-law scratching noisily inside the house.
All of a sudden, Ngo was inspired to take a trip somewhere. "Go back to my native village, perhaps?" she asked herself. "Good idea! For decades, I haven't returned home once!" A few days later, she made up her mind to go home with Phinh.
Ngo was fully aware that eighteen was too old to be single. Of course, all was due to her disadvantages - a portly stature, an ugly appearance beyond the expectations of young men in her village.
In her opinion the best way out for her was to follow one of her relatives to this mountainous region to trade in salt and fish sauce. Several years later, thanks to her flair in trade in addition to her honesty and perseverance, she turned so rich that she could purchase a large orchard and build a 3-bayed wooden house in the locality. Not until she reached the age of thirty did she get married.
Meanwhile Phinh, residing in the same area, was too poor to marry any Mong girl because of his incapacity to provide her clan with a suitable wedding gift. Worse still, he and his mother were homeless after their house was swept away in a devastating flood. Luckily for them, in destitution, Phinh met Ngo at the marketplace one day. Finding her lovely and kind-hearted, he soon fell in love with her. As for Ngo, she was badly in need of a young man for support. Consequently, she gladly accepted his marriage proposal. A few days later, together with his old and weak mother, he came to live with her in her large compound.
Without any children of their own, they felt very depressed, although time and again Phinh's nieces and nephews visited the three lonely people and stayed with them for a few days. Then they went away, leaving the orchard ravaged.
"A Western lady, a Western lady!" several little children in tatters shouted excitedly when Ngo, with her curly and fair hair, and her husband reached the gate of her family's house.
"Oh no! It's your maternal Grannie Ngo," the daughter of her youngest sister said after observing the newcomers carefully.
Phinh was in high spirits. They had been married for over twenty years, but this was the first time he had been introduced to her family.
Ngo's youngest sister had thought Phinh was handsome and tall, but she found instead a short and one-eyed man. Actually, in his hometown, Phinh was a jack of all trades due to his great strength, industry and honesty. He could do every job requested by his well-off neighbours: carrying water, chopping firewood, doing the washing-up and so forth.
Twenty years had elapsed and Ngo's locality had changed remarkably. Many thatch-roofed huts had been replaced by brick houses. In Ngo's clan, her youngest sister had turned rather fat and stood beside her stout spouse with many children. Phinh felt very excited and moved at the sentiments and enthusiasm of the great number of grandchildren dedicated to him. Furthermore, he found the atmosphere there lively and warm, quite different from Ngo's place where the family led a solitary life without any peals of laughter.
"Have you ever had your health condition examined to see if you're really infertile?" her sister asked her with a few grains of hope.
"Of course, so far I've been tested many times with lots of medical methods. However, there's nothing wrong with me," Ngo answered sincerely.
"So, it's your husband who has some problems with regard to his reproductive organ. He must be checked by specialists at a major municipal hospital," she suggested.
"You might be right. Money doesn't matter much to me," Ngo chimed in.
"Mr Phinh is impotent!" The doctor's conclusion made her totally desperate. For the scores of years they had lived together, she had resigned herself to the cruel fate of a sterile woman. Then she had put all her hopes in the young owner of that eating-house. Yet all her expectations were now entirely crushed.
"Poor Phinh! That foetus doesn't belong to him." Ngo heaved a sigh.
In the night train bound for the highlands, Ngo tossed about sleeplessly.
"What did the doctor tell her?" Phinh asked himself. "What's the matter with me? In reality, the rumour that she's childless is untrue. She accepted three little boys, one by one, as her adopted sons. But when they grew up, all of them, one after another, left her for good with a little fortune each."
The eating-house owner, a junior of Phinh by dozens of years, was now in confinement. Everything in her house was entrusted to him. "He deeply craves a baby boy," Ngo observed. In fact, she was not quite pleased with his actions, but in the end, his joy was also hers.
When the woman went to hospital for childbirth, he was driven out of the house by her relatives. Returning home, he was in low spirits. Ngo felt rather uncomfortable as well. But on second thought, she hoped against hope.
That morning it rained cats and dogs. All of a sudden, the phone on their bedside table rang loudly. He answered it and an ecstatic look came over him.
"I'm going to welcome the baby to-be," he said to Ngo.
"To take it home! How can you do that?" she asked him. However, finally she followed him, picking up a small cotton blanket and bringing it along.
While Phinh was standing outside the post-natal room, she stealthily opened the door and tiptoed to the expectant mother's bed.
"As luck would have it, I'm unable to provide my baby girl with my breast-milk," she told Ngo. "You may take her home to care for."
Ngo embraced the tiny infant tightly in her hands to warm her a bit. Staring at the newborn baby she felt deeply moved. Under Phinh's wide-open umbrella, they all walked out in the rain.
"Oh dear, she's got a harelip," he exclaimed after observing the little child more carefully.
"Shut up! She might be offended," she reproached him.
Raising the umbrella higher, he followed his spouse obediently.
Translated by Van Minh