|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nong Quang Kiem
I drove the herd of goats to the hill fully covered with wild, sweet-smelling flowers. Under their feet, the torn purplish white blossoms fell abundantly while they grazed on them. Loitering here and there, I found my heart heavy with sorrow. The afternoon sunshine spread over the valley created a long silhouette of my slim mother, who was weeding the nearby slash-and-burn maize field. The more I stared at her, the sadder I felt. At the age of 19, I remained a goat-tender with no specific job.
Being lost in thought, I suddenly realised that my animals were nowhere to be seen, but the little bells hanging under their necks were echoing in the direction of Pu Lau Hill. In a hurry, I started going in search of them. Surprisingly, my goats were pasturing together with another herd in the care of a girl who was trying to drive them downhill. Awkwardly, one of my male goats was courting a female one of her flock, although it was continually chased away by her whip. I looked bewildered by the beauty of this maid in her late teens.
"Why're you preventing my animal from loving yours?" I asked her.
"Who gave you permission to make love to her? Love! Love! I'll teach you to love," she said, torturing my goat mercilessly with each blow and angry word. Ridiculously, the more she lashed at it, the stronger it clung to its partner. She burst into tears. That was how I made the acquaintance of Sa for the first time.
Eventually the two herds shared the same grassland on Pu Lau Hill. One week and then one month passed by, and I looked forward to chatting with her. While the animals were busy grazing, both of us wandered far and wide on the flowery hill. Whenever I realised they were going to move to another place, I tried to put them back on Pu Lau Hill.
One day Sa asked me a question.
"You rank first in your class within this hamlet of Cang, don't you?"
"In that case, why do you have to tend the goats?"
"Because I like them. What about you?" I asked her.
"One day, my Dad told me, 'It's unnecessary for you to study further. Just stay at home and get married, that's all.' So I gave up my schooling after finishing the 10th grade. What a nuisance!"
All of a sudden, she sat closer to me. Both of us kept silent. Meanwhile, we just contemplated the forest of wild flowers.
My elder brother married a hard-working, good-natured maiden of our native village. All our fortune was spent on his wedding ceremony. We became much poorer. When my mother fell ill, she asked me to go into her bedroom.
"Your university entrance exams are drawing near," she said to me after a fit of coughing.
"Mum, I'll stay at home to look after you and tend our goats," I insisted, holding her thin hands tightly in mine.
"No, impossible!" said my brother. "You must wash away this insult to our family."
Getting rid of the insult? Studying to get better off so that we shan't be looked down upon further? In fact, the dream of tertiary education had never stopped in my mind.
My father was called an alcoholic. When he tumbled into a creek and died, my mother became a widow. I remembered that one year, when our rice plants were in bloom, water from the dam nearby was drained away and flooded the rice. In consequence, our harvest failed disastrously. During another seed-sowing season, after a lot of baskets of manure were sprayed over our field, its border got broken one night and our fertiliser flowed into other fields. Flying into a rage, my brother went out with a sharp pole in hand to punish those who had made havoc of our great efforts, but my mother prevented him from taking vengeance.
"Our Tay proverb goes: 'hatred begets hatred,'" she advised him.
Mum was always tolerant. She endured everything. Paradoxically, the more lenient she was, the more she was looked down upon.
On my exam day, my head turned round and round. When our bus arrived at an adjacent hamlet, I got out there and visited my friend's house. I stayed there three days. On the fourth afternoon, after my siesta, I returned home.
"How are the results of your exams?" my mother asked me.
"Fairly good, Mum! Surely I'll pass them all." From the next day on, I resumed my goat-raising as usual. Actually, I didn't dare to look at my mother and brother's eyes. Taking it for granted that I had failed and became a goat-tender, that meant I could help my family to some extent.
"Mum has worked hard for her entire lifetime, how can she afford to study further?" I said to myself. Moreover, I'd have more opportunities to meet and chat with Sa.
The rainy season in my town dragged on. After driving the herd of goats to the hill, Sa and I chose a large niche in a huge rock for shelter and observed the raindrops tapping on the ground one by one. All of a sudden she stared squarely into my eyes.
"I was told that you had done well in your exams? In consequence, you'll go to university to study?" she asked me. "I'll miss you very much," she said sadly.
To my surprise, she hugged me. I could hear her heart go pit-a-pat.
"Frankly speaking, I gave up my exams to stay home with you."
"Absolutely true! When this season of wild flowers is over, I'll marry you."
I embraced her tightly. I removed the silver bracelet from my wrist to offer her.
"This precious thing was given to me with the instructions, 'Keep it for my future daughter-in-law,'" I told her.
Day after day, I waited for the mornings to pass so that in the afternoons I might be beside her. In this moonlit season, lots of youths came to her place, but none of them was able to see her. The reason was fairly simple: she stealthily walked out of the back door and came to sit close to me by the murmuring stream. It was at that place we made love passionately.
When he found me driving the goats to Pu Lau Hill, my brother asked me one day: "Are you falling in love with Sa?"
"Yes, my dear brother!"
"Take care of yourself, my dear," he told me. "You're only the son of a widow, whereas she is the daughter of a rich shaman. You aren't really a good match. If your love affair comes to nothing, you'll suffer your entire lifetime."
"No problem, my beloved brother! We're both human beings in love. I find nothing wrong with it." To the best of my knowledge, I knew that Sa's father was a well-known and wealthy sorcerer in the area. All the procedures for funerals and marriage here were put in his custody. In this respect, we were poles apart. Yet, I believed in her feelings for me.
One night, my brother's 3-year-old son was running a high temperature and then suffered from a fit of convulsions. Early in the morning, he died a violent death. My mother and I went to the adjacent hamlet in the rain, thunder and lightning to ask Shaman Pu for burial services for the ill-fated child. We wanted him interred at the local juvenile cemetery. He prayed in front of the altar for the craft ancestors.
"Impossible! It's beyond my power," he told my mother.
"I beg you to do me a favour."
"But the ancestors don't agree. You can go home."
"I beg you once again," she said, kneeling down in front of him. I couldn't stand it any longer. I lifted her up. Her eyes were drenched with tears.
"How can he have the heart to treat us that way?" she whispered to herself.
I folded my umbrella to let the raindrops ease the anger rising in my heart. After that, we had to go to another hamlet to ask for sorcerer Tuong's assistance.
At the funeral there were just a few attendants. Surprisingly, Shaman Pu appeared. He bent down over the dead body and cried for a long while. The more I heard his cries, the angrier I turned. I only wanted to give him a few kicks. Nearly half an hour passed, but the streamer in Sorcerer Tuong's hand remained motionless. A few seconds later he tossed it to the ground and trampled it down under feet, face full of sweat.
"The dead child has been deprived of his soul!" he exclaimed loudly.
At once, my elder brother rushed to the coffin. He opened the shroud. To his surprise, the little finger of his child had been cut off and taken away.
"Who dared to commit that deadly sin?" shouted some attendants.
Rumour had it that when the little finger of a dead body was removed, its ghostly soul would return home and stay there. I do not believe in such things, but I took pity on my unfortunate nephew on the one hand and I despised the shaman who had carried out that wicked act on the other. In the meantime, my brother roared, eyes shining like two pieces of glowing coals.
"Where's Shaman Pu?"
Everybody looked around. He was nowhere to be seen. So the matter was clear. He refused to attend the boy's funeral because of this malice when he stooped over the body in the coffin. I darted to that mischievous magician's house with a heavy stick. I went upstairs and saw him putting a small box wrapped with a piece of cloth into a drawer under the ancestral altar.
I pointed the stick at him and said in a loud voice: "Give me that little finger at once."
His face turned deadly pale. While I was raising the stick high, I saw Sa turn up by my side, eyes in tears. Mum also rushed to me and seized my hand.
"Stop it, my dear son. Things happened that way and we can't change them. Forgive him. Let's go home," she said to me. Casting the stick away, I shot to the hill to have a rest. Wild purplish-white flowers fell to the ground, marking the end of the season.
I had been waiting for her in the rock shelter, where I used to sit by her side. The moonlight spreading over the Pu Ngang range turned faded and the fog had drenched the withered wild bushes, yet I kept on waiting. For many nights, she had not turned up. In the daytime she was not present with her herd of goats either. They were free to graze, then went home by themselves. Was she angry with me? Was she trying to forget me? Or for some other reason? I did not know. My heart was burning with impatience. I missed her. I felt very sad and pained.
"We come from a poor clan, whereas she's from a wealthy stock." My brother's remark was absolutely right! We shouldn't have been in love. Now things had become worse and worse. Shaman Pu would never let his daughter marry me.
Suddenly, my dream of tertiary education again surged up within me. Consequently, I became engrossed in study, and as a result I passed the exams for the province's College of Advanced Education. I left home with an old indigo shoulder bag and some handfuls of cooked rice. Only Mum, my brother and my sister-in-law saw me as far as the border of my native hamlet with their sincere instructions. When I looked back, I found my mother's thin figure standing dimly in the early fog. Sorrows lay heavy in my heart while I staggered away on the seemingly endless path, rural and rugged.
I made up my mind to become a well-educated young man so that nobody could despise us further.
In the next two years I indulged in studies and never came back home. During summer vacation, I became a mason for a construction company. Not until the third academic year did I go home to visit my mother, who fell seriously ill. Withered wild flowers lay thick on the path meandering among the white hillsides. My native hamlet remained poor. Shaman Pu's building towered over the dilapidated shanties amid the green woodland. Rumour had it that this sorcerer could predict humans' future. His fame spread nationwide. Cars of every description came to his mansion all day long. Their numbers were legion.
I came to learn that my old flame had married a few months ago. I was depressed for a whole week. In my mind's eye, her husband must have been superior to me in all aspects. Anyhow, I was glad for her happiness. When my academic vacation was over, I returned to my university to resume my studies in the hope that I would soon graduate and find a good job in a locality very far, far away from my humble hamlet.
I graduated from university with a BA Honours degree.
Returning home, I found my mother's hair hoary and her body skinny, whereas my brother and sister looked emaciated due to their worries about my studies. I took great pity on them. I made several files to apply for a job at a lot of far-away schools, and then I waited and waited. Half a year elapsed in vain. Sadly, I resumed to tend our family's herd of goats as I used to do before, instead of my brother. At the age of twenty-four, I was nothing but a goat-raiser!
The more I waited, the more anxious and hopeless I became. Finally, I followed a gang of smugglers. I was arrested twice while carrying illegal goods across the border for three months. I earned next to nothing, in comparison with all my efforts. While I was thinking of becoming an employee, my brother rang me up, saying that in a nearby primary school, a post was left vacant because a female teacher could not stand the hard living conditions there. Obviously, I could find no way out for the time being. On second thought, I applied for that place immediately and was accepted. Paradoxically, I had tried to improve our family's social status to get us out of poverty and get rid of villagers' scorn by means of following the learning path for so many years, but now I was going back permanently.
I was told that the small house looking tottered at the foot of the hill in front of me was the shanty of the Sa couple. In reality, from my class I often saw Sa going to the milpa to care for her maize plants, opposite my school. "Why is she always alone on the maize field, without any support from her husband?" I asked another farmer on her way to the work place one day. "Why does she lead such a needy life while her parents are so rich?" I added.
"Such is life! It's all due to the karma of her father," she answered. "He gave his daughter a big amount of fortune, but her wicked spouse spent most of her dowry on gambling and drink. How can she afford her husband's overspending? Moreover, she's beaten black and blue whenever he's dead drunk."
My heart seemed to break into pieces. The time she went to the milpa was also when I went to school. Clearly, we met each other on the way every day. She remained pretty, although she looked rather pale. Usually she avoided my eyes and walked faster in silence.
Poor her! After that I met her for the second time when she carried her little child in her arms to her maternal parents and the third one when I found her face covered with scratches. It was at this last encounter, she took out of her bag the silvery bracelet, the gift I gave as a token of my affection for her.
"I'm giving this costly jewel back to you. Although it had been hidden very carefully in my bag, this morning my husband found it by chance. After drinking, he's beaten me brutally," she said to me, eyes in tears.
"Why didn't you come to our rendezvous that night? I waited and waited in vain. During so many following nights, I did the same... " I reproached her slightly.
"Because my father prohibited me from going out. How could you have the heart to go away without a word of farewell in such a hurry? Now your homecoming only makes me more sorrowful... "
Saying so, she turned away.
Once again the wild flower season came round. And its flowers again covered the surrounding hills with an immense, white blanket. Every day we passed by each other in silence and in suffering! My footsteps sounded heavier. In front of me, the familiar rural path seemed to stretch endlessly.
Translated by Van Minh