|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Tran Nguyen Y Anh
Little Lat was lying flat on the ground, crying loudly and flailing his arms and legs wildly as if he were practising swimming. The reason was rather simple: he was ravenous. Meanwhile, his elder brother Luom was sitting against the wall, staring at the rough footpath between two rows of stone graves in the Chinese cemetery. He did not pay attention to his younger brother's moans, as he was quite accustomed to the kid's bad habit. In the kitchen Lat's elder sisters, Roi and Rot, were washing several tiny sweet potatoes that they had gathered from the field. They put them into a deformed one-handled saucepan and placed it on the stove. Rot added a few dry twigs to the hot mass of smouldering ash. She knelt down very close to the earthened floor in order to flare it up. A few minutes later, it burst into flames again.
"Your face looks like a clown's mask," Lat mocked his sister.
After that, he lay down again and sobbed and sobbed.
In the completely deserted burial ground of Cantonese-born Vietnamese, just a few sunbeams still lingered on the treetops. It was there that Mrs Chau, named after her work of chanting chau van during religious services in temples and shrines (similar to how people were called Mr Butcher, Mrs Vegetable, Miss Cake and so on), had rigged up a humble hut for herself and her four small children. She had two sons, Luom and Lat - the eldest and youngest respectively - and two daughters, Roi and Rot. That day, before leaving home, she had carefully checked her worn ceremonial robe and put it over a tombstone in front of her dwelling to dry in preparation for the evening rite of the Thanh Le Temple congregation.
"Mum, you'll go out to sing this evening, won't you?" Lat asked. "Tomorrow, when you come home, please bring me many things to eat!"
"Certainly, my poor little thing!" she replied, kissing his skinny face.
"Does my cheek smell good, Mum?"
"Yes, of course! It smells so sweet!"
"Mum only pampers you," Luom said enviously as he crafted a hook of wire and tied it to the thin end of a strong bamboo stick.
"I'm going to pick tamarind fruit right now," Luom told his younger brother. "However, don't expect to share with me. Enjoy what Mum will bring home for you instead." Lat pulled a long face, since he knew that his brother rarely made a joke. Yet he tried to persuade Luom once again.
"Let me eat them with you, dear brother. Tomorrow, when Mum returns home, I'll give you a lot," Lat said to him.
"You're a big liar. Nobody believes you."
"How can you say something like that to your poor little brother? As the elder one, you ought to provide for him," Chau reproached Luom. He just kept silent, for he knew that his mother always sided with her youngest child.
One afternoon, their mother left home early. Before going away, she prepared a frugal dinner for her little ones. "Tomorrow morning, get some rice and cabbage pickles at Old Sau's with this cash. If it is not enough, I'll pay her the rest later," she told Roi. "Don't forget to shut the door carefully and cover your younger sister with a cotton blanket."
"Yes, Mum," Roi told her, then sadly watched her mother walk unsteadily amid the sombre graves.
Late in the evening, in the dark purple twilight, the cemetery looked more deserted than ever. Nevertheless, the kids did not feel frightened at all, because the misery and poverty of their clan had inured them to their surroundings.
All of a sudden, Luom stood up and shouted for joy. "Here comes Mum!"
"Where? Where?" Lat asked, crawling on all fours. Then he looked at the narrow footpath ahead and saw her carrying two baskets full of things. She rushed into the shanty, for she knew that her kids were looking forward to her early homecoming. Hardly had she put the contents of the baskets on the table in the middle of the house when Lat darted towards the food.
"These are mine," he declared, seizing a rice cake and a tangerine. He sat down against the wall and devoured them hungrily. In the meantime, Luom glanced at what his mother had brought home: two kinds of rice cakes, one plate of steamed sticky rice, one set of mess-tins full of sweetened porridge and a lot of bananas and tangerines. "There are plenty of foods for us to eat!" he said in an excited voice. Chau took her titual robe out of her bag and hung it on the clothesline in the veranda.
Roi and Rot left the half-washed sweet potatoes and hurried to the table full of food.
"Surely, they've picked sweet potatoes from To's field because the rice has run out," she whispered to herself. The old man was also poor, but he took pity on the kids and intentionally left behind potatoes for them to pick.
"Roi, take some rice cakes to Mr To. He has given us a lot," she told her daughter.
"Yes, Mum," she answered, taking two rice cakes and hurrying toward his dwelling-house.
Chau divided what had been given by the Master of Ceremonies into small parcels and let them eat everything. Each of them heartily enjoyed a handful of sticky rice, a small bowl of sweetened porridge and one fruit. Watching them swallow the things that children of rich families never touched, she smiled bitterly. "Although my children often go hungry, all of them obey our forefathers' instructions, 'A clean fast is better than a dirty breakfast,'" she said to herself proudly and wept for a long time.
She remembered the miserable days after she had given birth to the youngest, Lat, just a few months before. At that time Roi, her first daughter, was only eight years old.
Whenever she was invited to sing for ritual services at temples or shrines in the evenings, she felt very happy. That profession was handed down to her by her mother, and to her by her grandmother, and so on. In the daytime, she cooked sticky rice and sold it to passers-by on the pavement near her place. Her husband was a good spouse. He was a porter in charge of loading and unloading goods for lorries to and from Sai Gon. But he had a meagre income and their combined earnings were not enough to cover all the family's expenses.
That day, while her children were crying because of hunger, she got bad news.
"Auntie Chau, your husband fell off the lorry. He has been taken to hospital," one of her neighbours told her.
She felt as if an electric current was running along her spine. Her eyes were dazed, her heart heavy and her legs flagged. Putting on a blouse, throwing a shawl around her neck and carrying little Lat in her arms, she rushed out of the house. At the moment, both Roi and Rot burst out crying. Reaching the entrance to the hamlet, she was picked up by motor-taxi driver Nam.
In the emergency ward, she found her husband's head bandaged and his stained yellow T-shirt drenched with blood. Sitting down on the cold floor, she wept and wept.
"I can hardly live longer, darling. Please forgive me and try to bring up our children properly," he said to his wife. After that, he sank into a deep coma and late in the evening he died. The lorry company owner paid her a small amount of compensation and the whole charge for his funeral was paid by her fellow villagers.
After staying in the rented cottage for three more years, she had to leave, as the local authorities wanted to raze it to the ground along with the nearby houses to build a new housing project. Thanks to the sympathy of the Cantonese caretaker of the cemetery, she was allowed to rig up a small hut at its edge, where nobody else had ever thought of living. Fortunately for her clan, the children were provided with many leftovers, such as plates of sticky rice and fruit or cakes and candies, by the people who came to visit the graves. After that, she worked for wealthy locals as a part-timer. She could not escape dire poverty. However, she was so passionate about the music and songs of those ritual services that she almost forgot her humble position and solitude. Time and again, she successfully played the title-roles of heroines in ancient Chinese dramas. That was how she could feed her children, although she was unable to finance their schooling.
"Mum, I'm still hungry, very hungry. Give me another rice cake, please," Lat requested, walking to and fro and revealing his belly full of blue veins.
"You're always hungry. If you eat too much, your stomach will blow up," Luom said.
"Shut up! Is that what you often do to tease him? OK, let him have some more," Chau repremanded Luom. Then she took a few banknotes out of her blouse pocket.
"Get some rice for today's dinner, darling. Sweet things only stay your hunger for a few hours, that's all," she told Roi.
Chau fell sick for several days. Although she took many pain-killing tablets, her illness tortured her continuously. As a result, Roi had to fetch many medicinal herbs to boil so that her mother could inhale the hot steam. Chau took off her blouse. The daughter covered both her mother's body and the half-opened saucepan with a thin blanket for some minutes. Luckily for her, that age-old treatment made her much better and later in the evening she fully recovered from her illness.
Lat opened his sister's textbook to contemplate its pictures. The previous month, Luom and his younger sisters began attending an evening course for illiterate children in the area. All of them took the same class regardless of age. When she came home in the evening and found her kids busy studying, she felt very happy. "They're much more blissful than I, who have never seen the inside of a school. What I've accomplished is due only to my innate ability to imitate my predecessors' talent," she whispered to herself.
When Chau put her robe outside to dry, Roi realised that her mother was going to perform evening ritual services, a plan that she was vehemently opposed to.
"You're still very weak, Mum. Let me go tell them to put the rituals off for a few days."
"No, impossible, my dear! How can I break my promises?"
In fact, she preferred to attend those religious get-togethers than to stay at home. During those festive evenings, she found that she was not herself any more. She left behind the sufferings of miserable human bondage. Her soul was engrossed in the realms of fancy and oblivion.
Again, Chau went away. "This time my trip might last many days," she thought. Before leaving, she bought a lot of rice and fresh vegetables, cooked a pot of fish for her children and told them lots of do's and don'ts. In addition, she also gave each of them a little pocket money. Roi was aware of something strange in her mother's behaviour but she was unable to find it out. Chau's destination was the biggest and most ancient temple of the province.
Two days elapsed. The ritual services at this provincial place of worship lasted three days and were fully sponsored by a wealthy overseas Vietnamese who had recently returned home. "Try to do your best this time and I'll tell him to reward you with a fairly big sum of money to support your kids," the Master of Ceremonies persuaded her. She was in high spirits. During her free moments, she often rested in a spacious corner of the kitchen where food was kept. She felt dead tired. "I just have another day to go," she said to herself. She had to play the part of Yang Gui Fei, the consort of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty. She was one of the four most glamorous beauties of ancient China. This was one of the best-known Chinese classical dramas, and was the one that Chau liked best. Her mother had performed this play so superbly that, at the age of fifteen, she burst into tears.
Before going on stage, she felt a splitting headache. She took two aspirin tablets to relieve her pain.
After finishing the first episode of the play, she sweated profusely and her limbs seemed to turn flaccid. Before the last part began, she drank a hot cup of ginger tea and entered the stage amid resounding drumbeats.
"Your Majesty, this is the gourd of poison I'm going to drink to prove my loyalty to you. I'll die, yet I'll stay loyal to you forever. Take care of yourself for my sake. I expect that you will keep the nation safe and sound in spite of the ups and downs of the country. My sacred soul will belong to you for good…" She recited the last words of the episode and pretended to drink the contents of the gourd. "Bang!" The gourd crashed to the floor and she collapsed on the stage. Prolonged rounds of applause resounded like thunder. "Bravo! Bravo!" "Well done! Well done!"
She stayed motionless on the stage floor for a long while. Before she breathed her last, she saw her mother, arms wide open, waiting for her amid the rosy clouds in the blue sky.
Translated by Van Minh