|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Nguyen Thi Hoa Xuan
I have been living in this mining area for five years and doing a lot of odd jobs to make a living. I am such a good-for-nothing girl with such a precarious life.
The first story
My father got dead drunk and was reeling home, speaking rubbish for the whole night. My house was so small that it could fit only two beds. Mother knew what Father would do to her when he was drunk. He was going to beat her black and blue. We three had to escape his thrashing by running now to this corner, now to that corner. We had become experts at avoiding his blows. My brother Tu tried to hide behind Mother.
"Hey, boy, who the hell are you looking at? What an uneducated boy you are! Why are you looking at your father with those wide eyes?"
"Look the other way, son!" Mother urged my brother.
Father moved to attack Tu, but Mother stepped forward to stop him and he kicked her into the bed. I heard a crash and saw her lying motionless on the floor. Father rushed forwards and seized his sons throat. The boys eyes were bulging. I took something shining at the end of the bed and stabbed Father's back continuously without let-up, until I smelt something offensive. At that time, I was on the verge of 16 and my brother Tu was 13. Mother was 37 and Father was 39. We were all still very young.
The second story
One year after that terrible night, the three of us stood before the court. Mother declared everything loud and clear before the court. The court asked Tu to testify and he did so:
"My father drank a lot of alcohol and as usual, he beat my mother. We three all had to run away to avoid being hit. I looked at him and he saw that I despised him. So he jumped on me and strangled me. My mother was in great fright, out of her wits. She rushed to stab him several times."
I stood in silence, looking at my brother and then my mother. My mother was allowed to speak a few last words. She stepped forward and vowed that all that she had said in court was correct. When Mother was taken away, she turned and said to me:
"My life is worthless, so I haven't left anything good to you. I know it'll be difficult for you to marry any man, while you have to support your brother…."
Tu's face was soaked with tears; I could see the keen, sharp glint of them. There were only a few people at court that day, but none of them were our relatives, only our neighbours. It was clear that Father's killing was a crime, but my father's crime was also known to all. The vehicle carrying Mother to prison was about to leave, but none of the neighbours wanted to be near it, probably because they did not want to make her confused. Mother found it difficult to find a place in the vehicle. The door closed tightly. A moment later, we were left behind, standing there until the vehicle was out of sight.
"Mother told me to say it. You must remember that Mother killed Father, you know! You owe me and Mother. We have to wait until Mother is back home!" my brother said.
"I will go to work in the city. You must go on with your studies!"
"No, I wont go to school any more. I want to work now. In the village, how can I carry on my studies when I am known as one of the three who killed Father? Besides, if you're going to the North and I'm going to the South, who will stay here to burn incense to worship Father on his death anniversary?" As soon as he finished, tears welled up in his eyes.
I cupped my face with my hands, crying my heart out. What a pity for my brother! It seemed that he had hated Father and even me, but he had great love for Mother. That day, Tu left home for the South without leaving a single trace.
The third story
My first visit to Mother in prison seemed the same as the visits of other people. We only cried. Before he went to the South, Tu had asked me to take his photo to Mother and I did it, saying:
"Uncle Hanh took him to the South upon hearing the news, Mother!"
"Why didnt he come to see me?" Mother asked.
"She was still angry with you."
"Is it possible for Tu to go on studying over there?"
"Yes, of course! Uncle Hanh got angry with you, not with Tu."
"That's all right!" Mother said. "Why didn't she take you along?"
"She did, but I said I had to stay here with you!"
Mother looked very sad.
"She wrote to Ms Hanh, his friend in Ha Noi. This is her address. I'll go to work for her up there and if I can do things well, she will help me learn the tailoring job. I think it's good for me because I can do needlework well, mother. Ms Hanh has a big tailor shop in Cau Giay, Ha Noi."
Mother heaved a deep sigh. When visiting time was over, she suddenly said to me as if she had just remembered something:
"The other day, a friend of mine came to see me and gave me some money. Now you take it. When you go to work in Ha Noi, you won't look so down-at-heels! Buy some new clothes. If you look clean, they will have more sympathy with you!"
"No, I cant take it," I said.
"Dont let me down!" she said, throwing the money at my feet and continuing. "No need to see me a lot. It's only a waste of money. Don't worry about me here. Everything is all right for me."
I went home, my heart heavy with sadness. I bought some new clothes, folded them neatly and went to Ha Noi.
The fourth story
From the time I was in Ha Noi to the time I stayed in Quang Ninh, I did a lot of odd jobs: washing, working as a waitress, cleaning houses. Some guys tried to solicit me to work as a prostitute, but I always said ‘no' when I thought about my brother Tu. A girl living in my lodging house introduced me to a job smuggling goods across the border, but we were hunted down by the police all the time, so I moved to work in a coal mine. I worked very hard there for some time before I decided to open a small tea shop in the vast area where there were only coal and coal miners. To get the job done smoothly, I had to rely on a guy named Tam Tu. I lived with him for two years when out of the blue sky, he disappeared. I went everywhere to find out what had happened, but in vain.
Someone said he had been beaten to death by gangsters and his body was thrown into the sea. I waited for two more months and then I quit looking for him. I had lived with him for two years without making any meaningful memories. One night he proposed to me, but I said that there was no need to get married.
"How can we be sure how long we will be together? What is for the time being is better than what is for sure, you know! If we don't like each other any longer, we can say good-bye."
Tam Tu laughed this off. During the time I lived with Tam Tu, I did not dare to visit Mother. I didn't want to think about Mother's reaction if I broke the news to her. Mother's heart was so sensitive. Even if I lived with a good man, Mother would still be worried, let alone with…
Right at this time, I received news from my brother Tu that he had come back to the village. I was in an agitated hurry to rush home. On the way, my head was filled with questions about why he had come back to the village. I also wanted to tell him a lot of stories about my life. Then I seemed to hear Tu talking in a low voice, telling Father that he was coming home. He also told Father that what we had done to him was only for self-defense. I even heard him hiccup. I quickly sat back, trying to keep the feelings inside me from moving up to my throat. I again heard Tu tell Father that he had just met Mother and he did not dare to see me. I heard someone say:
"Are you home, sister? Why do you sit here crying? Do come home and stay here. Don't go back to Quang Ninh again!"
"What about you?" I said to Tu.
"I already told you: you live in the North and I live in the South. We cannot live under the same roof anymore, you know."
"Why?" I said in great fear.
"I already have a house in the South. I have to live there and take care of the house. After Mother serves her sentence, I will take her to live with me. You should stay in this house to take care of worshipping Father…."
The last story
Mother was released seven years early on good behavior. Mother's hair had turned white, but her face looked much younger. Tu took his wife and children to welcome her home. Having come home, Mother stood stiff in front of the altar and kow-towed, mumbling something. Then she turned toward us, looking weak. I intended to support her, but she brushed me away.
"No need, dear. We have all overcome difficulties in life. Many of us had to suffer for the mistakes of your father. Tu, I know you are very hurt. You are still sore with your sister, aren't you? Don't think that I have lost everything and don't think that your sister is a coward. Now you are a father, so you should have tolerance. Your sister went everywhere to make a living and did not dare to come home. There's no need to torment your sister any more. It's enough for you to live far from each other. Thu, I love you very much, my daughter. You are the most hurt, not me. That is why I wanted to go to prison for you. You are not a cold-blooded killer. You acted for love and I acted because I am your mother, that's all!"
That night, after twenty years of living apart, my family slept together under the same roof. The old bed was replaced by a new one. My brother Tu's two children slept soundly. His wife also slept well. The three of us lay side by side. I touched his face, feeling that he had had a hard time. We had all become much older during these years. The early autumn night was cool and serene. So another autumn was beginning. My hand was still on my brother's face and while trying to smooth the wrinkles, I found that there were also tears on it. Mother did not know that Tu was crying in silence.
Translated by Manh Chuong