|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Nguyen Danh Lam
When N opened the letter box, he found it lying amid some newspapers. It read: "A writ will arrive in a few days. Get ready!" Seeing her husbands dejected face, his wife, who was sweeping the floor, asked:
"What's the matter, dear?"
"A writ is coming…." N said indistinctly.
His wife threw the broom away and sat down on the stairs. Tears welled up in her eyes. N came to tap slightly on her back to console her:
"Please, dont worry about it. We always knew it would come one day."
"Let me see it!"
N handed the letter to his wife.
"Here you are. There is nothing new!"
"Why is it only a notice, not a writ….?"
"Its only a way…I think!"
"I beg you not to tell Mother! She will not be able to bear it!"
"Probably so, because Mother cannot understand…."
N sat down beside his wife. It was morning. The cry of a street vendor echoed outside in the street, where the boys were playing football noisily. All of a sudden, his wife burst out crying.
"Why does this have to happen?"
"Do get braver, please! Its all for the sake of our child, for you and me too. Be careful or Mother will know something is wrong. She and our child have not got up yet, right?"
"Maybe Mother has woken up, but she's probably lying there to wait for our child to get up together with her."
"We had better get ready…. Let's have breakfast first. Im going to work anyway."
"Are you still in the mood to go to work?"
"Don't be so pessimistic. If the writ comes tomorrow morning, I will still work tonight, you see! Nothing can prevent me from working!" N punched the wall.
The old woman was carrying a child downstairs. The little girl was still sleepy, but she was smiling. She could stand now, but was yet to speak. The old woman was a bit slow in action. She was limping.
"Say good morning to your parents!" the old woman urged the little girl.
The little girl folded her arms and bent her head to greet her parents. N's wife quickly wiped away her tears. N laughed and reached out to take the girl from the old woman, then pressed her onto his chest.
"You have breakfast and feed the girl later, Mother," N said to the old woman.
"No, she is hungry now. And you should eat first and go to work. I can eat later."
"Or will you have today off?" his wife said, glancing at him. "Just in case something happens in your office?"
"It's all right for me. Whatever will come will come. Im ready for it."
"Whats the matter?" The old woman was surprised at hearing such conversation.
"Nothing, Mother. It's just office affairs," N said, turning away.
"The house needs a repair now. You promised to do it two years ago. Do it now or it will collapse one day, you know."
"Yes, I know…. But you've got to wait for some more time, Mother."
N was thinking hard. Today he received the notice so a writ would come soon. He knew the house should be repaired, but he had to wait. He tried to look calm so that his wife could not know his frame of mind.
His wife was cleaning her daughters face. The old woman asked:
"Where's your husband?"
"He should be somewhere about, Mother!"
"I think he must have caught a cold this morning, because his face tells me so. Did he stay up late last night?"
His wife was pampering her daughter just to make believe that she did not hear the old woman.
"Did he stay up late last night?" the old woman repeated.
"It's likely he did. He's very busy, Mother."
"But he must take care of himself first, I think. I'm very worried. His daughter is still very small…."
N could hear what his mother had said. Her voice was touched with some presentiment that made him feel his guilt.
"Don't worry about anything, Mother. Nothing is happening," N walked into the room and said.
"Oh, it's only my worry. Your father left you to me to care for you and now it's your turn. Have a look at your wife and daughter. I don't think my care for you is wasted."
N received the notice on Wednesday. He took two days off and did not go to work until Friday. His mother looked at him, feeling so worried. Every morning, N went downstairs and searched the letterbox for fear that his mother would see it first. N pretended to work the whole day in the attic. It was so hot up there.
"I think I should go somewhere for a few days. I feel I'm going to get ill now," N whispered to his wife when the old woman carried his daughter to the gate to get some fresh air.
"You're really ill," his wife said, looking worried. "Do you intend to travel somewhere?"
"I did think about it, but I know its difficult for me…."
"You can't now." His wife shook her head.
"We've got to consent to it. I take pity on you and daughter. Is it possible for us to go to the cinema or the theatre?"
"I don't know," his wife said.
N walked towards his wife and arranged her disheveled hair.
"Or how about going to see a friend of ours tomorrow?"
"I feel that your friends are now trying to avoid meeting you. I don't know if I'm wrong."
"Let me call them first," N said, heaving a deep sigh.
A friend who studied with N at university agreed to meet him and his wife on Saturday afternoon. They had a party together. His friend had just gotten married and had no child yet. The table was arranged on the terrace of his friends house. It was a four-storey building. His friend, a man of success, opened the bottle of brandy with a name that was difficult to read.
"Have you taken any driving course?" his friend asked.
"Driving a car?" N asked
"Do you think I mean a plane or a tank?"
"How can I learn how to drive without a car?"
"Sooner or later you should have a car, you know!"
N sipped some brandy. It made his throat feel so hot.
"I dont even have money to repair the house, so how could I think about having a car!"
"Its all your fault. We had the same starting point. But I chose stability, while you did not."
"Are you sure you are stable now?"
"On a stormy day, I think we'd better choose the quiet of an empty snail."
"Wed better consent to the situation, I think. Everyone has a path of their own…. Let's toast!"
There was a roaring motorbike down the street. "Stop thief! Stop thief!" The cry for help was heard, followed by human voices and kicking and punching. The wife of N's friend said:
"They have caught him, you see!" No sooner had she said it then she disappeared downstairs.
"It happens often here because there are a lot of alleys. Let's forget it. Drink on, please!"
N had three cups and his face turned crimson. He felt a bit drunk.
"Let's go on!"
"No, I've got to bring my wife and daughter home, you see!"
"Drink on. Leave your motorbike here. I'll drive you home!"
"Actually, I can't drink more."
"Look, no wine, no car, no anything…. I doubt you should have taken another direction or…."
Someone walking upstairs was panting loudly.
"Two robbers were caught. They were beaten black and blue," the friend's wife said, looking pale.
"Stop being curious, dear!"
"Just have a look…."
"Sorry, we've got to go home now. All of a sudden I feel like I'm sitting on brambles," N said, tapping his friend's shoulder.
N's wife looked at her husband, feeling her guilt.
"My mother is at home alone. We've got to go. Let's get together another time."
N felt a bit dizzy.
"Be careful! Are you drunk?" N's wife asked.
"No, but I feel strange inside…."
The old woman lay at the foot of the staircase. The envelope had fallen nearby. It must have been sent with guarantee a few hours before. And the old woman must have read it.
The ambulance was called in. She had already died. N carried the urn of the old womans ashes to the pagoda. His wife slept in the attic for the whole week. It was baking hot up there. His daughter was crying for food, so he had to put her in the cradle to prepare food for her. N was thinking about the letter, which only said: "The writ will come in a few days' time. Get ready for it!"
After a week, his wife suddenly got up.
"I won't lie here any longer! I won't even if I died now, you know! We have to face it!"
"What did you say?"
"Look, that writ will not frighten me anymore!"
"Don't mention it anymore, please! I'm glad that you're so strong!"
"I will go to work tomorrow and well look for a housemaid."
"I think its not necessary yet, until it comes!"
"But when will it come? It's like a suspended sentence! It's so bad that we cannot control our own lives!"
"How can you know? Its the same for everyone," N said, embracing his wife tightly.
Their daughter was still very small, so they could not send her to kindergarten. His wife had to go to work or she would lose her job. N decided to stay home to take care of their daughter. He had some work to do at home without having to go to the office or company, even though his income was reduced a lot. His biggest worry was the writ.
N counted the days. It was nearly one month since he had received the first letter. The house was in a mess. N had to put his daughter in the cradle and wait for the writ.
N could not get more jobs and his income had dropped markedly. He phoned his friends for help, but none of them answered the phone. Two months had gone by and the danger of starvation was imminent. N even carried his daughter to his former office.
"The office already had notice that you were going to receive a writ, so we cannot accept you again."
N felt dizzy. He went home. He was like a sleepwalker. A new letter lay on the floor. The content was the same: "The writ will come in a few days. Get ready for it." N kicked the door, roaring. His daughter burst out crying upon seeing her father in such a state.
His daughter had lost one kilo since he had started taking care of her.
"I'll skip the meals so that we have money for a housemaid. What a pity for our daughter!"
"No, I'll find a way, at least for the short term. A housemaid will come tomorrow. You'd better remain calm and look for a job. Any job will do, I think!"
The next morning, N embraced his wife's shoulders as she was leaving for work.
"Do try to give more care to our daughter, my dear!"
"Don't speak rashly! The writ has not come yet, you know!"
"But you know that it will come anyway at any time, while you work all day."
His wife turned away, crying. The little girl also cried in the housemaid's arms.
That afternoon, coming home from work, N's wife took a letter from the housemaid.
"He handed it to me and has not yet come home!"
N's wife opened that letter. It read: "My dear wife and daughter! I've got to go now, even though the writ has not come yet. I can't live in this frame of mind, just waiting and waiting like this! I'd rather go first. Please take care of our daughter, my dear wife! Kisses to you and daughter!"
Translated by Manh Chuong