|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Nguyen Thi Thu Hue
Thang did not think that his wife Mai had suddenly left him, bringing along so many secrets. For many nights, he lay on his side, looking at the high cheek bones on that square face, at those drooping lips and closed eyes of hers and understanding that she was really alive only when those lips opened and smiled. Yes, man could be seen as being alive when man opened his eyes. But it was not true in her case. Thang found that he always wanted to peel her like an onion, layer after layer until he got the core of it. Mai's face seemed to be mad of thousands of thin layers that were tightly rolled into one another, so, even if he could peel it, he would fail because he could not find a core of it.
It was a Wednesday morning. As usual, Mai crossed the street to have a bowl of pho (Vietnamese rice noodles with chicken or beef) before getting down to business in the company. She was only in the middle of the street when three young guys on a motorcycle were driving quickly towards her. All of a sudden they all fell down and rolled forward. One of the guys, a very big one, fell on Mai and lay unconscious. Her head banged on the road and her arm appeared broken. She tried to push the guy away. The other two guys were limping; blood was oozing from their faces. Mai tried to push the big guy away from her. In the end she was able to get up using her one good arm.
"Eh, you've broken my arm and want to run away?" - Mai cried upon seeing one of the guys going away. A big crowd came to the scene.
A moment later, the guy returned and gave her two 500,000 dong notes and said:
"Please take this to have your arm examined. If need be, do call me!"
"How can I find you? It's certain that my arm has been broken."
"This is my company. Do go and have your arm examined now. Call me later," - He said and put a red name card in her hand.
Mai stood there dumbfounded with the money and name card.
"Please make way for me to go. I apologise for it," - The guy said again, pointing to the guy that had lain on her a few minutes ago - "Please, have sympathy for us because that guy was dead for several hours. We were carrying him to the morgue when we hit you."
A cold chill ran through her spine. She fainted and collapsed.
Thang was informed that the guys had taken her to the hospital, where she died of a heart attack after ten hours. He remembered the days when she took the motorcycle to the gate to go to work every day and she always said: "Today there is new food for you and you certainly have it with good appetite." Never had he thought that one morning his wife would be gone for good, along with all her secrets. Every Wednesday afternoon, she went to the street where the Westerners lived and disappeared there until he came home and found her sitting watching the news on VTV1 in the living room with delicious food ready for her husband.
A hundred days after his wife's death, he intended to sell the house. He found that on the terrace there were some rope ladders hung on the wall. Mai was passionately in love with these ladders. She often said:
"These rope ladders are not only used to climb but also as a hammock."
Thang kept everything as if she would be back in a moment. He remembered that when he was eating the food she cooked, she often sat by his side, peeling fruit for his dessert. They had lived in the house for 12 years without having a child. Mai was dead now. Thang had a lot of questions unanswered about her. If she had gone to the company five minutes earlier or later that day, she would have been alive with him and she would have answered the question about why she had gone to the street with the Westerners every Wednesday afternoon, who she had met and which way she had gone back home to watch the VTV1 news in the living room.
He did not go out of the house for days. He sat there by a wooden table just large enough for two, but now it would serve only one person. Thang started to write questions to Mai in a note book: "Why did you die of a heart attack?"; "Mai, I did think about an autopsy for you, but then I thought what was the use of it"; "When I came to the hospital to receive your body, the doctor handed me your money and a red name card. When I came to the address on the card, I found it out that it was a false address.
"Why did you have this card?"; "This month, you are no more, so I haven't watched TV, I haven't used air con"; "Since you are not with me and don't cook for me, I eat instant noodles. I can't sleep well, you know!"
Thang wrote and wrote all the daily chores just to remember Mai, who had a habit of writing down daily events. After 12 years living with him, Mai had left him a lot of the notebooks in which they exchanged what happened in daily life.
Now he continued writing the big question still in his mind: On every Wednesday afternoon, what did she do in that Westerners' area? Who did she meet and which way did she go out? And how could she be back to the living room watching TV with a different meal for him every day?
The street had its own name, but the locals now called it the Westerners' street because the residences were now mainly occupied by foreigners, particularly backpackers. Along the pavements there were the food shops, cafe, bars and other shops. The street was short, so one Wednesday afternoon while he was sitting over a glass of beer with his friends, out of the blue, he saw Mai. She got out of a taxi at the head of the street and walked to the middle of it. His heart was thumping hard and he lowered his head. Mai was walking with her head held high, looking straight ahead. Having come to a cafe, she walked in.
This happened time and again for several months. Thang hid himself just to follow Mai every Wednesday afternoon week in and week out. And when the evenings came, she was already found sitting at that wooden table, watching VTV1 and the strange food was already prepared on the table. She sat there looking untroubled, waiting for him to return and have dinner. He wanted to ask her the question, but words had failed him.
Since his marrying Mai, everything in the house was undertaken by his wife, from the small things to the big things. Even when his parents died, Mai took care of everything. Now she died and lay there before being cremated. He thought about her and wondered how he could live on without her.
One day, he walked on the Westerners' street. Having come to the cafe where Mai had often walked in and disappeared, he saw small tables for two. Inside it was cool and dark. A bar ran along a wall. On the left of it was a large kitchen with a lot of cooks working hurriedly. Some of them were cooking; some others were arranging and decorating the food on those plates. A good smell was spreading all over the place. For quite a time since Mai's death, he had not been able to taste delicious food. These food smells had followed him those years living with Mai; during the evenings, he ate the food Mai prepared for him and watched TV. To be exact, these smells were the same as those Mai had brought home to him. He made up his mind to walk briskly into the kitchen where he saw four rows of long tables with a dozen cooks absorbed in their work. Thang stood there watching and discovered that those plates were arranged as tidily as Mai had done when she waited for him for dinner for many years. And what was more! Those knives and forks were arranged orderly on the shelf, just the same way Mai had done at home. He quickly pulled a boy who was washing dishes to a quiet place and asked:
"Where is the owner of the shop?"
"There, over there! He's over there!" - The boy answered in a quiet voice.
Thang walked fast and stood in his tracks in front of the man whose hair was tied with a thin hemp string; that was the same material as the rope ladder in his house. The man was concentrating on the computer. Thang hoped that this man could give him some answers to his questions. He approached to the man and said:
"I want to talk to you. Could we go out for a moment?"
The man nodded his head slightly, looking nonchalant. He walked out with Thang.
The man pushed a glass of German beer towards Thang:
"Do try it. We are going to have this kind of beer next month, you see!"
Thang took it and drank it in one gulp. Then he looked out at the crossroad where Mai usually got out of the taxi and walked into this shop.
"Now, what can I do for you?" - The man asked, looking fixedly at Thang, regarding him as a model.
Thang felt a bit empty for a minute, and then a question came pouring out:
"Have you got a room for rent?"
"Follow me!" - The man said immediately.
"I want to rent a room for sleeping."
"O.K." - The man nodded his head and walked on until he stopped at the place where the boy was washing the dishes. Thang saw a rope ladder hung close to the wall. At home Mai had also often climbed that similar rope ladder. He looked at the man and said nothing. The man raised his chin and said:
"Follow me!" - Then his muscular arms took the rope ladder and climbed very fast to the second floor above the kitchen.
Thang tried to do the same, but with great difficulty because he had never climbed a rope ladder like that. He found out that there were four small rooms with sufficient conveniences like a double bed with white bed sheet, an air conditioner, a small fridge with assorted soft drinks inside and a wardrobe. There was a bathroom, too.
"I want to sleep up here I have to climb that rope ladder?" - Thang asked.
The man nodded his head and gave him the bunch of keys.
"Isn't there any other way to go up here? I cannot climb up here every day. It's very difficult for me."
"Everyone has to do it that way if they want to rent a room here."
Thang stood in silence for a moment and then walked to the bed and lay down on it. He wished to have a notebook here to write something down, roughly like this: "Yes, I know the root of the good food you gave me, Mai. In fact, you did nothing. You only bought the food from this shop. It's very bad that I am mistaken about you. I thought you cooked the food for me." or "Never have I asked you to cook good food for me, so why were you histrionic with me?"
Having thought about it, Thang got up and rushed to the door to look for the owner of the shop. He went to the small corridor filled with the smell of food. He looked out and saw a terrace. And in a corner he found a small wooden table for two. It was the same as the table he and Mai had used daily. It was like a magnet. He walked straight to the table. A lot of emotions were rising inside him. He felt like vomiting. He tried to calm him down and stood closely to the rail. He saw another rope ladder dropped onto an empty yard that led to a road very near a river section. By the river there was a small house. And the man was sitting on the edge of the river with a fishing rod in his hand. Inside the house he saw someone was walking out.
It was Mai.
Translated by Manh Chuong