|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Hoang Ngoc Diep
One early morning in late autumn, Hau caught the express train from the South to Ha Noi, then went upstream to the mountainous district capital of Yen to pay homage to her ex-husband Hien, who had just died of a brain haemorrhage.
She was accompanied by Hien's twin brother Than. The coach was sardined with passengers and flooded with human stench. Yielding the seat to her, he stood near the door all the way. She felt rather uncomfortable and time and again glanced at her ex-spouse's elder brother worriedly. Formerly, the two brothers were as like as two peas in a pod and she could only tell one from the other due to Than's fairly chubby face with a small beauty spot on his chin.
In addition to their similarity in appearance and introversion, they had the same hobby: writing poems. In this respect, the younger brother seemed more promising. Owing to his timidity and inferiority complex, Hien had never sent any of his works to any magazine. When he fell in love with Hau, she became his sole reader. Owing to the fact that the twin brothers looked much alike, among her husband's brothers and sisters, she liked Than the best.
In the coach, finding him in crumpled clothes with a bristling moustache, she felt sorry for him. At 3pm they arrived at their station. She got off and stared around incredulously. The bamboo bridge had been replaced with an ugly new ferroconcrete one. A high cliff stood on the other riverbank. Close to it, a vast expanse of white reeds stretched as far as the eye could see. Further away, at the estuary, a few lonely sails glided fast in the dim mist. She heaved a sigh, recollecting the far-away summer days when Hien took her home along that windy riverbank partly shaded with white bombax flowers. Now, it was the end of autumn and these bare trees stood like lonely soldiers. "Where are the bombax flowers and where's my Hien's smiling face?" she whispered to herself. The scenery deeply stung her heart.
Slowly, she followed Than into a refreshment stall by the roadside.
"Mr Phan, please give us a few hot cups of tea," he said to the stall owner when he and his former sister-in-law were already seated on a low long bench inside the poorly-rigged hut. The stall keeper in a faded military uniform stared at Hau attentively.
"How kind of you to come back to plant burning joss-sticks on the grave of your late husband!" he told Hau. "Once he got so angry with his late wife An that he was going to take their little son to visit you in the South. His mother and I tried our best to persuade him not to go on the grounds that the child was too weak to make such a long trip…"
All of a sudden, a stout woman stepped out. She was the stall keeper's wife.
"Do you still remember me, Miss Hau? I was one of the cooks who prepared your wedding banquet. How fast time has flown! Scores of years already. Frankly speaking, you still look very beautiful," she observed.
"Thank you very much," Hau said to her. Her polite form of address deeply moved Hau, although she had no ideas about the couple at all.
Pouring out some more rice wine into Than's cup, the man took out a long bamboo pipe and produced a long puff of smoke.
"In fact, Hien led a miserable life. After retiring early, he came here only to drink and look around aimlessly," said the stall owner. "He drank too much, in defiance of everybody's advice. I knew that he was really ashamed about not being able to support his wife and children. Besides, he had to silently endure an unhappy life with an unfaithful wife."
"You've gone too far, darling. Things aren't that bad. It's all due to their living conditions, you see. Anyhow, she's done her best to support the whole clan," the landlady defended An.
"In this remote area, what else could Hien do but drink?" Than commented.
The couple looked at Hau with great sympathy. She felt as if something had stung her heart.
"Why did he give up his job early to return home to care for their children?" Hau asked herself. She knew that he had been kind-hearted and tended to avoid any clashes, even with his colleagues. It was quite hard for such a man to live honestly.
Drinking the last of his cup of alcohol, Than stood up. So did Hau. She felt unaffected by their suspicious looks.
The two-story house of the Hien couple stood at the road junction. His spouse was a young woman with slanting, sharp eyes and a pockmarked face.
"I'll have to enter the hamlet to inform my old parents of our visit," Than told them. When he left, An appeared very cautious and ceremonious, with an unaffected look. Her two sons stared at the stranger with curious eyes. An added more boiling water into the teapot. Its fragrance brought her back to memories of the past. In the meantime, Hau secretly observed the interior decoration of the house: simple and tasteless furniture with a low settee and a high wardrobe. To her surprise, on top of the altar there was a photo of Hien in his prime of life with sad-looking eyes. Under a pane of glass on the large table in the middle of the hall, there were many pictures with An and her two children. One, taken during Tet, perhaps, featured four figures with Hien sitting a bit apart with a forced smile, as if he had been a guest of the family.
"Have some rest before taking a shower, my dear elder sister," An said to Hau. "I've heated some warm water for you. Now I'm going to prepare dinner for you myself. My nieces aren't good at cooking."
While Hau was walking to the bath cabin in the courtyard, she found a boy sitting alone on a chair in the centre of the court. Suddenly, she remembered that Hien had a paralised boy with serious cataracts. It was this child, ill-fated due to the aftermath of the war, that had made Hien greatly miserable. With a clean bundle of clothes in hand, she quickly walked past the little one as if running away.
Dinner was served right on the floor. In addition to a few of Hien's close friends from childhood, some of An's fellow traders appeared. During the meal Hau talked a lot in a seemingly merry mood. Before that, she had dropped in on Hien's old parents and gone to his grave to plant a few joss-sticks in front of the tombstone in his memory. She had stayed there until twilight.
When the meal was over, all the guests returned home and her two children went to sleep. It was rather late, but An began chatting with Hien's divorced wife.
"Let's go into the kitchen, since I have to prepare everything for the oncoming market day. By the way, I'll make some sticky rice cakes for you to take home as my little present for your family. Hien once told me that you liked this kind of cake very much," An said to Hau.
That was quite true. Formerly, Hau was fond of that kind of cake very much. Even later on, hearing somebody mention it, her mouth watered.
"You bear a grudge on me, don't you?" An asked her.
"How can you say something like that? Actually, I've never hated you," Hau replied. "Hien used to tell me that you were a capable and economical wife. He also said that what he had had until then was thanks to your hard work."
In fact, he only disclosed that he had recently married a grocer and never dealt with her particular character. She had also heard bad rumours about the couple's troubles. Through the remarks of An's neighbours, Hau got bad ideas about her, which were revealed in her bossy attitude towards Hien.
Worse still, in a letter An sent to Hau many years ago, she complained with a lot of misspellings that she had been wrong to marry Hien, a good-for-nothing guy who drank continuously day after day on the pretext that he missed his former wife Hau very much. "You both loved each other so dearly, why did you say goodbye to each other so early?" Her mocking words made Hau extremely offended.
"Indeed, why did we bid farewell to each other?" Hau asked herself. During the days when they lived on campus, Hau was well-known as a beautiful student with a great skill in dancing and singing, and was passionately liked by her classmates. However, she fell in love with Hien, a romantic guy who loved poetry more than anything else in life and dedicated many works to her. Paradoxically, they got divorced after only a few months of conjugal life. The reason was rather simple, but they had not expected it: she was told that she was barren. In despair, she decided to give up her place to another young woman of his choice. Hien insisted that they would adopt a child, but in vain. Eventually, she went to the South to settle down there for good.
"Have you remarried?" An asked her in a soft and sincere voice.
"Frankly speaking, I've lived with a few men. But for the time being, I'm quite alone. So I guess Hien didn't disclose anything to you?"
"No, nothing at all, for he was an introvert," An replied. "In my opinion, you shouldn't have separated because Hien and I led an unharmonious life. He was solely engrossed in poetry, while I focused on my business and home life and my handicapped boy. Besides his poor pension benefit, he earned nothing to support me. In the end, I asked him to stay at home for familial chores so that I might eke out our living."
Actually, Hau had had three love affairs. One of them was with a youth two years junior to her who led a wandering life; the next was with a hen-pecked man. The most recent one was with Quang, who according to her appraisal had many good points, except for one thing: he could not decide whether to get divorced. Finally he returned to his better half. Consequently, she made up her mind to stay away from the opposite sex for good.
After finishing making a batch of cakes, An put the whole lot into a cauldron of boiling water and stood up. After that, she took out of a large cardbox many kinds of things: pouches of wafers, sugar, tea, dried bamboo shoots and numerous multi-coloured packets of candies. In a minute, she tore them and divided their contents into small parts to put them into smaller packets. Finally, she placed them all in a large seed bag ready for market. Silently watching her clever hands, Hau found herself redundant. Suddenly, she remembered the short period when she was Hien's wife. After their wedding, they stayed in a small room in their friend's house in Nam Dong Street. Once, while she was cooking dinner, she got an electric shock. Hien just stood motionless, panting for a while. Nevertheless, she did not reprimand him for his clumsiness at all. Every time Hien returned home, she followed him around the palm hills or along the Lo River to enjoy the beautiful scenery mirrored in the blue water.
One winter evening, as the north-east wind blew strongly, they went to the old local cinema several kilometres away to see a new film entitled "The Golden Autumn". The audience was quite small. "Romantic girls are usually unhappy," Hau's elder sister remarked bitterly. Such a practical woman as An could hardly lead a harmonious life.
Hau added a few more pieces of firewood to the flickering flames. The silhouettes of the two women danced on the kitchen wall. When all her articles had been neatly arranged in two bamboo baskets, An heaved a sigh.
"Previously, I used to sell my goods in our marketplace," An told Hau in a sad voice. "But now the number of dealers has increased so remarkably that I have to go to remote areas to do my business. When I get home, I often feel so exhausted that I'm unable to eat dinner with a good appetite. In the country, making money is quite a problem, dear Sister Hau. Before Hien passed away, we were often sulky with each other. One day, he got lost in thought about a poem and let the contents of the saucepan of medicinal herbs dry up. Flying into a rage, I tossed his new work into the garden. Surprisingly, he didn't say anything. A few days later, he died of a brain haemorrhage. I still feel so much regret for my bad temper," An said.
Both of them were silent. A few drops of boiling water dripped from the saucepan, making the burning coal sizzle. Outside, the wind was blowing stronger and stronger and twigs were cracking noisily. Winter was drawing near. The sound of a gecko made Hau nervous.
"Don't be afraid, dear sister. That's the reptile my son Hung has been keeping," An assuaged her. "Hien and his son used to go to the mountains to catch geckoes to soak them in alcohol as a tonic. Hien indulged him very much and the child also loved him dearly."
All of a sudden, An looked straight at Hau's face.
"Dear Sister, I'm very wicked, aren't I? Hien never wrote any poems about me! In the end, God's so unfair to me! I've borne Hien two handsome boys, yet he stayed indifferent to me. Over the past twenty years, he only offered me a wristwatch. That's the reason why sometimes I hated him bitterly. Seeking to satisfy my thirst for sex, sometimes on my long business trips I followed a married truck driver. Poor me! Each time I asked for a lift, he tortured my body mercilessly. Soon Hien knew the truth, but he ignored it. All he did was sleep alone in another room. Once at night I came to him. However, he pushed me away. I was both ashamed and furious. But on second thought, I had been an unfaithful spouse," she confessed.
An burst into tears, trembling violently. Hau felt greatly confused. Moving to sit closer to the unlucky woman, she gently caressed her shoulders. Strangely enough, just a few hours before, Hau had regarded An as a culprit, but now she felt quite sympathetic for her. Anyhow, both were Hien's predestined women. Each of them had their own sufferings and joys. In comparison with An, Hau found herself very feeble, even powerless, when she lost support from her lover. In fact, she lost her balance as if she was daydreaming. Hien was the same. He was good at studying but lacking in ambition. He felt that Hau was worthy of his extreme admiration. Losing the woman he adored, he turned to a vague silhouette. As for An, she was brave and practical. It was An who had to bear the burden left behind by Hau, like a perseverant camel carrying a huge mass of luggage across the hot desert. Undoubtedly, An still craved love. With such a husband, An was alone and she was badly in need of a shoulder to rest on. Regretfully, Hien failed to provide her with the warm feelings that she deserved to enjoy. They were like two pieces of a plaything glued to each other temporarily, then detached from each other as if they had been subject to a trick of destiny.
The fragrance of the well-done sticky rice cakes made An look up. Her sobs had come to an end.
"How crazy I am! I've wailed over my karma in vain. Don't reproach me, my dear sister," An told Hau.
"No, not at all. Our fates are much alike," Hau said to her. "I totally sympathise with your condition. Hien is to blame in this matter. Please forgive me for ever thinking harshly of you. Forgive his soul as well. In the underworld, he will pardon us completely, I hope," she went on in a moved voice.
After tidying the kitchen, An led Hau to her sleeping place. Walking through the children's bedroom, An stepped in. The kids were fast asleep. She smiled broadly.
"Sister, look at the sleeping boys. They look like our Hien. Right?"
Hau nodded. She felt so warm, but throughout the night, she pretended to be asleep so that she would not bother the landlady. Time and again, An pulled the blanket over Hau for fear that she might catch cold. An stayed awake all night too.
The next morning, when An saw Hau and Than off at the coach station, she gave her a small packet.
"Here's a collection of poems that Hien wrote for you. After he died, I intended to burn it. Then on second thought, I made up my mind to give it to you in the future. Please drop in on us next time you have a chance, my dear sister," An said.
Nodding, Hau grasped An's right hand. Her fingers felt as rough as those of a hard worker. It seemed that a grain of dust had just fallen into her wet eyes, which made them bulge and sting.
Translated by Van Minh