|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Tru Sa
"We should take Mom to her hometown. These uncomfortable living conditions are miserable," the wife told her husband.
"Impossible, darling! She doesn't have any relatives there. If she stayed alone in the country, we'd be extremely embarrassed because she might disclose our way of life here to her neighbours," he objected.
"That depends on your decision. As for me, I'm unable to endure this any further," she said in a reluctant voice.
"Later, when we can save enough money, we'll add another floor to this three-story building. At present, we're living on the second floor, our son Duy on the third and Mom on the highest one. Consequently, everything will go back to normal," he went on. Then he returned to watching a TV soap opera with a broad smile. She heaved a sigh, then focused on the film script which would be put into effect by the end of the next month, according to her film studio's plan. Their bedroom was under their mother's, whose ceiling was so poorly soundproof that her pretty daughter-in-law could hear clearly what the old woman was doing upstairs. Not to mince matters, she could not stand her mother-in-law's fastidious character. All her very old things - towels and blouses, even her water mug and jar - were used until they were partly torn or broken into pieces. Once, when her mother-in-law was out, she tossed them all into the dust bin. Surprisingly, the next morning, all of them had returned to their former places. As a result, they often got into arguments. The mother-in-law observed all the actions of this pretty young woman, big or small. If the daughter-in-law did anything wrong, she turned up at once with an outdated lesson on morals.
Duy was now in eighth form. Between him and his paternal grandmother, affection and sympathy were something unheard of. Whenever she hugged him, he tried to push her away with a rude comment, "How smelly you are!" After that he ran downstairs and continued playing video games in his room. "What a diamond in the rough he is!" she complained.
Her handsome husband had so amorous a look that she did not dare to hire a young maid, but employing an elderly woman was not desirable either for fear that a rural person would not be accustomed to her modern home. Therefore, she had to do all the housework by herself. Her spouse never showed impatience with his mother, although she was usually clumsy. Once, the old woman overturned her chamber pot full of urine over the floor. She asked her daughter-in-law to clean it up. Stepping inside the old woman's room, she felt sick, then rushed out immediately. A few minutes later, when she got bold enough, she entered the bad-smelling room and found it rather clean, although the stench could still be smelled clearly.
"Why haven't you used your own toilet?" he asked his mother.
"Because I'm quite accustomed to do that thing in the countryside. By the way, your wife's reproachfully unmannered," she remarked.
"Mum, from now on don't forget to make use of all your utilities if necessary," he told her.
The next day, he secretly threw the pot away while she was out. Although she did not say anything, she felt greatly offended.
The following year, Duy went up to ninth form. He kept up his previous habit of remaining engrossed in playing video games all day long, except for his time at school. When another floor was finished, his mother began leading a lonelier life on the fourth floor. Come what may, the confrontation between the old mother and her daughter-in-law remained unresolved. Every week, she had to sweep her mother's room and endure the nauseating stench of her chewed betel quids and uncared-for toilet. While trying to make it clean, she often took an unfriendly glance at the old woman.
When she came down with acute hepatitis, her son had to get a lot of medications for her to take. Nevertheless, she could not get over her disease due to old age. Worse still, she also had a bad cough and spat phlegm all over the floor, which made her daughter-in-law all the more uncomfortable. In the meantime, Duy overtly disobeyed her requests. When he was asked to massage her back, he gave her so strong a punch that she uttered a loud groan before falling down onto the floor. He then let her lie there unnoticed. His mother reprimanded him gravely, but he only bent his head without repentance.
After a long bed-ridden time, she turned immobile and her disease was getting more and more serious.
"We ought to take her to the municipal hospital," the wife suggested.
"I'm afraid that she won't agree with our proposal," he answered.
"No problem! Let's ask Dr Trieu for help and we'll pay for her to stay there until she completely recovers. Anyway, we're busy doing our business, whereas Duy is at school most of the time. That's the best way out for us, for I'll have to go abroad to shoot a new film for a long time and you're going to enter into a new deal," she went on.
"Surely she wants to drive me away," the old woman whispered to herself.
"Mum, before long, our doctor will come here to take you to his hospital for treatment. Soon, we'll have to be away for many days on end, so you'd be alone here," he told his mother.
After that, her door was shut tightly.
"Now I feel quite comfortable," the wife said to her husband. Then she entered Duy's room. Taking a thick envelope out of her bag, she gave it to him.
"When Dr Trieu comes here, give it to him at once, my dear son," she told him.
Duy did not turn round, as his eyes were still glued to the TV screen. "Both of us will be away for a long time. You must prepare meals by yourself. Food can be found in plenty in the fridge, so you don't need to get anything else," she added. After that she gave him two million dong. "This is your school fee. You can spend the extra on anything you like," she went on. He did not utter a word. Instead he just stared at the game, where wild animals of all sorts were parading across the screen.
In the meantime, his paternal grandmother remained in bed. She tried to get up, but all her efforts came to nothing. Since the day she came to town, she had appeared rather lazy. In spite of her son's considerate care, she remained unhappy, because what she was badly in need of was not material things, but simply someone to care about her. Time and again, she intended to ask Duy to enter her room for a chat, but on second thought, she gave up her wish. Now she put her hands on her belly and tried to lull herself to sleep.
A moment later, she heard the doorbell ringing. "Maybe, the doctor has arrived," she said to herself. "I'll have to stay in a hospital room flooded with antiseptic smells." However, she was unable to stand up, let alone walk to the gate to open the door.
Duy's room had been left uncleaned for so many days, it looked like a rubbish dump. Wrappers of potato crisps and candy and trays with left-over food lay scattered here and there. His mother was appalled when she returned home after a fortnight. "Perhaps his money has run out, even though it's only been two weeks," she said to herself.
Anyhow, she felt extremely at ease since, over the two past months, her mother-in-law had not disturbed her at all.
Immediately, she started tidying the house so that when her spouse came home in a few days, he would be surprised at its clean condition. After a fortnight working abroad, she would have two weeks off. During that rare period of free time she and her husband would make a long trip because for many years they had not relaxed together. Except for the old woman's room on the fourth floor, which had been carefully put in order before her departure, all the rest had been tidied up.
The next day, he returned home. After an ample dinner, they entered their bedroom and enjoyed some happy moments together. Thinking about his mother in the hospital, he intended to get some food for her, but his wife hindered him. "It's unnecessary for you to do so, for I gave Dr Trieu a lot of money before going away. As a considerate and honest man, certainly he looked after her properly," she insisted.
"Tomorrow, after school, you must drop in on Grannie," the father told Duy. All of a sudden, Duy appeared greatly embarrassed. He just stood motionless. The pouches of potato crisps in his hands tumbled onto the floor.
"No worries! Duy's busy studying. He's got no free time to visit her," his wife said to her spouse, tapping him gently on the shoulder. "Go upstairs and study, darling," she urged the boy.
Suddenly, his mobile phone rang loudly.
"Good morning, Sir. I'm Trieu, a surgeon at the municipal hospital. Please forgive me for my shortcomings. A fortnight ago, according to your request, we took our ambulance to your place to take your ailing mother to the hospital, but nobody answered the door. At that moment, I was summoned back to perform an operation for a new patient, so I was too busy to inform you of the situation that day. I'm so sorry. May I come to your house this evening?"
In confusion, he asked the doctor again, but only heard a vague reply. Suddenly, he remembered the mass of cards for the Vo Lam game of combat art that Duy hid in his room. They had a face value of at least 5,000 dong each; he knew that his son had never practised thrift. Immediately, he rushed upstairs to his mother's room. When he opened the door, a fetid stench wafted to his face from the darkness. Holding his breath, he switched on the light. He heard the noisy hum of flies. To his surprise, the white curtain turned to grey. When he glanced at the bed, his whole body shrank terribly and he trembled so strongly that the small key in his hand dropped onto the floor. The fetid stench grew stronger and stronger. Suddenly, the light went out before he discovered the big swarm of flies buzzing around the bed, an unceasing requiem.
Translated by Van Minh