|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Ngoc Tu
Unlike others who usually named their children after famous film stars or outstanding singers, Uncle Doi* called his two daughters Nhu** and Y**. Nhu was now ten years old and Y was eight, but people still commented on their names.
"Sheer nonsense! What made-up names," one of his neighbours remarked.
"What's wrong with them?" he retorted proudly with a broad smile, making his moustache move gently.
Glancing at his face, nobody realised that he was blind, for he always had a calm and untroubled air. Every day, he took the four-member clan through Cu Market, across Nhum Bridge, then wandered around the area all day long. Their working day usually started early in the morning and ended late in the evening. Leading the group was Nhu with a loudspeaker in one hand. In the other, she held a rope connected to her father's guitar to control his clumsy movements. Walking by her side was little Y, who sold passers-by lottery tickets to earn money. In wrinkled clothes with unkempt hair, they elbowed their way through the crowd. Following the two kids was Doi, who sang popular ditties and played a musical instrument. After the three came his wife, half-mad with meaningless smiles, who pinned flamboyant flowers in her hair and chimed in with her husband's singing. They all went slowly on the crowded and rugged path, eking out their living as a minstrel group.
There were three other singing groups in this area, yet Doi's party was easily recognised right from the entrance to the market due to his strange voice, showcased in such songs as The Blouse of a Good Wife and The Old Mother's Daughter. These arias were arranged after the ancient tunes of the Cai Luong*** Theatre.
His soft voice could be heard clearly through the pieces of advice he gave to his family, like "My beloved little daughter Y, don't go that far." Or "Dear Nhu, walk a bit more slowly. I'm nearly out of breath." Or "Darling, come closer to me." Or to passers-by, "Dear Sirs and Mesdames, your jackpot ticket is still here in this bunch. Tickets cost only two thousand dong apiece, much cheaper than a handful of sticky rice." Or "Buying them, you'll help us eliminate hunger and alleviate poverty."
"Is he really blind? Why's he so clever in his gait and wording?" one motorcycle taxi driver asked his mates. In reply to his question, Doi answered, "Do you think so? Although I'm blind, I remain happy. Why do I have to moan lamentably about my fate?" He smiled broadly and lifted up his sunglasses.
In his way of life, Doi proved very satisfied. With such a pretty and easy-going wife, he was not afraid of being nagged after a casual drinking party. What's more, he did not fall into social vices and his spouse managed to stay away from men's attentions.
"Every morning, he buys me a hot cup of milky coffee. That'll do," she said in a deeply moved voice. Moreover, their two little daughters were very nice and obedient. That was why he felt quite blissful with what he possessed.
During hot afternoons, the family took shelter in the veranda of Bach Hoa Market. In the meantime, Nhu went to a nearby popular restaurant to get some fast food for her parents and little sister to enjoy. Sitting in the shade, Doi had lunch slowly while casting a vigilant look at the surroundings as if protecting the clan's sacred meal. Time and again, he seemed to watch his wife and children's ways of eating.
"Darling, eat slowly or else you'll choke," he said to his wife.
"Nhu, take some more broth and pick the bones out of the meat for your sister," he told the elder daughter.
When the meal was over, he usually combed their hair.
"Your little girls look very pretty today," remarked a passer-by.
"Luckily for me, they look like their mum. If they resembled me I'd be greatly distressed all my life," he replied. "Surprisingly, in general, we always find our children pretty and lovable no matter how ugly and naughty they really are!"
Lingering around the nearby streets and markets and finding his lottery tickets rather unmarketable, he made up his mind to go to far-away areas. As a result, his family returned home later than usual. Worse still, his voice was getting more and more raucous.
One day, when he passed by a bottle-shop, he was invited in for a few cups of rice wine, but he refused to drink on the grounds that his singing would get bad. When his health worsened, he told Nhu to buy a bottle of tonic. Once, when they went past the local clinic centre, Nhu succeeded in persuading him to have a full health check.
"I've told you a million times that I've got no illness at all. We've spent 15,000 dong for nothing," he reproached his daughter.
Strangely enough, he had never borne a grudge against anyone for a long time. The next day, he bought his daughters some new clothes. After bathing them, he dressed them carefully in the new items.
Seeing the blind man, Auntie Lieu praised him warmly. She was an ironware vendor at Bach Hoa Market. A childless young woman, she was very fond of kids and often touched the hair of his two little girls.
"I like these kids very much, for they are honest although they come from a poor clan," she said to another dealer one day while caressing Nhu's hair. Consequently, Nhu told her father the whole story.
"Which one of you is she interested in, you or Y?" he asked his elder daughter.
"I think that she loves both of us equally," Nhu answered. "Whenever she offers us some candies, she always divides the amount into two equal parts before giving it to us."
"Now that I'm too old to support both of you forever, I'd better let one of you be her adopted child," he said to them.
To Auntie Lieu's surprise, he suggested that she might choose either of the two. She chose ÝY because of the little girl's pretty with a bright face.
On the day when Y left home for her place, Doi told his younger daughter to put on new clothes. He let her sit on his lap and he combed her hair for hours, while she just cried and cried.
"What colour do you want to wear today, darling?" he asked.
"A green blouse, Daddy."
At once, he asked his wife to come closer to them.
"Give her a passionate kiss, darling. From tomorrow on, she won't live with us any longer. Poor you! You gave birth to her, but we couldn't bring her up. Don't be angry with me, darling," he said to his wife.
"No, not at all. Only Nhu may appear extremely shocked."
"I love her the most," Nhu said, sobbing uncontrollably.
In the face of Doi's decision, all his wife could do was moan in despair and stare in the direction of the market. In the meantime, Nhu kept on crying.
"Is she still looking back?" Doi asked Nhu.
"Yes, she is. Poor thing!"
Biting his lip, the old man followed suit. He felt that the road ahead was too deserted. When he got home late in the evening, he found her already sitting at the door. After that, he could not succeed in taking her away once again. He insisted that she return to Auntie Lieu, but she refused point-blank. When he beat her, she suffered his blows with no complaints. Once, he led his wife and Nhu away to another locality, but Y managed to find their whereabouts. Finally, one quiet night, he asked her to sit in front of him. Fondling her thin shoulders, he told her that she was not his own daughter. He had picked her up from a dump near the local hospital and raised her with the purpose of looking for a childless family to adopt her.
"Auntie Lieu paid me two million dong for this dishonest dealing," he said, taking the amount out of his breast pocket. Little Y just stared blankly at the money.
The next morning, he led her to Lieu's place together with Nhu. When they began returning home, he asked her daughter, "My dear daughter, is she looking back?"
"No, not at all, Dad," she replied.
"Really?" he said in a choked-up voice.
"Will my destiny be the same?" Nhu whispered to herself one day.
She began eating less and less and putting on old clothes in order to show that bringing her up was not costly. Doi was fully aware of her intention. He just embraced her head and heaved a sigh. With the sum given by Auntie Lieu, he put his wife in the hospital.
"Her disease began a long time ago," the doctor on duty said to Doi. "Yet, let us treat her for a period of time to see if her illness might be cured."
Hugging his wife tightly, he swept his hands gently over her face.
"Try to stay here until your health becomes better. Then we will be reunited to lead a happy life," he told her. "So far, we have had few chances to enjoy blissful moments together." She just smiled weakly.
Now, only two members remained in the family. One cold night, when he pulled his daughter's blanket up for fear that she might catch cold, he found her eyes wet with tears.
"What's the matter, darling?" he asked.
"Now that there are only two of us left in the family, you shouldn't let me go away, Dad," she said to him. "Let me lead the way for you as always. I'll get a bottle of medicine for you to take when necessary. I'll sell more lottery tickets to improve our living conditions."
"It's very nice of you to help me. How could I live alone without your support?" he told her.
Sometimes Doi passed by Bach Hoa Market, yet he did not sing.
One day, he stopped his daughter and told her to stop selling tickets.
"Nhu, have a look at your sister YÝ to see whether she is well, what the colour of her blouse is and how long her hair has grown," he entreated her.
"She's quite well and looks chubby and fairly white. She has hair like a boy. Regrettably, she is pretending not to recognise us."
"Is she wearing a green blouse?"
"No. I think she hasn't worn green for a long time."
His heart was stung deeply. "So she has forgotten me. She feels quite happy beside her new mother. Unfortunately, I lost her for good!" he exclaimed.
When the summer was over, his voice turned remarkably hoarse. As a result, he only played the guitar while his daughter sang ancient songs with a weak voice in his stead. Eventually, he gave in to old age and disease and told her, "Well, it's high time we gave up our performing career."
Soon, he sold his favourite guitar, the crackling loudspeaker and the half-flat set of batteries.
He sent Nhu to a popular restaurant in the area to work as a waitress. At first, she objected to his suggestion on the grounds that she did not have the heart to let him stay alone at home. "When you still had the guitar, you could amuse yourself with it whenever you felt sad. But now that it has been sold, what will you entertain yourself with?" she asked him. However, at dinner, when she found that he had little food to eat, she made up her mind to accept the poorly paid job. One afternoon she brought home a big bowl of soup for him. He was greatly surprised.
"Why have you done that? Surely, your employers don't like it when you take their food," he said.
"No, Dad! My boss told me to take it. She feels bad for me, you see."
"It turns out that in this society, there are still a lot of kind-hearted people," he observed.
Another afternoon, he asked her to stay beside him longer than usual. He combed her hair, which now fell down to her waist. "When you reach your late teens, it might grow beyond my imagination," he said.
"If it does, you'll get very tired when you comb it."
"Certainly, but we have a long time ahead before that happens. I miss your mother and Y very much."
"Dad, how joyous we were in the old days!" she remarked.
All of a sudden, he reminisced about his little children playing with rubber rings while the entire family had lunch in the shadow of a big tree, relaxing and enjoying the fresh air. When the kids tired of the game, they came to him to pick out a few strands of white hair from his head, then placed them on his hands. "How sharp your eyes are!" he blurted out when he found them extremely thin and light. Then he recollected his spouse resting her head on his shoulders like a nave little child. Poor man, he craved those lost afternoons!
"Tomorrow, go to Bach Hoa Market to ask Auntie Lieu if Y can come back here for a few minutes. I miss her very much," he told Nhu.
In fact, Y had left Auntie Lieu's place a long time before. "She's not here any longer, my dear child," she said to Nhu. At first, Nhu believed that the shopkeeper had tried to hide Y somewhere in the market.
"Auntie, please let her come back to my poor father for a few hours. I promise that I'll never entreat you once again," Nhu said to her.
All Auntie Lieu could do was seize Nhu's hands, eyes in tears.
So Y had left home to lead a wandering life somewhere else. Y must have felt that because her father no longer went through the market with her elder sister, he did not love her anymore. So what was the use of staying there longer to wait in despair?
Nhu did not know how to explain the matter to her father. Returning home, she stood hesitantly at the place where her mother used to relax and sing.
"If it's because of our predestined love, I'll wait for you endlessly." Hearing the words of a familiar old song, she swung the door wide open and stepped in. Surprisingly, her mother gave her a signal to keep silent.
"Don't shout, dear. He's very tired. You'd better go to sleep as well," she whispered to her.
Nhu rushed toward her mother to hug her. Then she saw her father lying on the floor. "Surely he is pretending to sleep," Nhu said to herself.
She tried teasing him by poking his ribs for a long while. However, he remained motionless.
"Is everything really to his liking?" she whispered to herself.
Translated by Van Minh
(*Doi means life;
** The compound nhu y roughly means satisfaction;
*** Cai luong means reformed.)