|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Vivian Nguyen
It was June. One day, a storm blew over a small rural area in the coastal plains. It mercilessly wreaked havoc on the poor region. Among its unlucky inhabitants, Mrs Thac's clan suffered the most.
The hurricane lasted a whole day with its sombre sky, strong wind, rumbling thunder and flashing lightning. During that half a day in the nasty weather, she with a walking stick in hand went far and wide in search of her disabled husband on the muddy village path.
"Darling, where are you?" she shouted to him, her voice hoarse, one footstep for each cry, while the chilled salty water made her thin body tremble all the more and her poor eyesight cloud up.
There was not a soul in sight.
Not until twilight, when the rain turned less lashing and the thunder less rolling, did she find him covered with mud from head to toe in a large, marshy hole. She tried to drag him out.
"Let's go home at once, if you still take pity on me," she told him, wiping his dirty face with her wet towel. "In my heart of hearts, I know that you love me dearly as much as I always love you," she added. Finally, she managed to persuade him to follow her, although he was usually rather stubborn.
All of a sudden, the wind blew strongly again, and again the thunder rolled deafeningly.
"Alarming… sirens! Enemy's …jet fighters…are approaching us. Go …into shelters… quickly," he screamed in a muttering voice, tugging at her hand with all his strength.
"Ouch, my hand, darling!" she reprimanded him gently. "Now, listen to me, my dear. There are no planes around here at all."
In the meantime, the sky was overcast with dark clouds. Thunder again rumbled terribly and lightning flashed dazzlingly across the whole sky. He seized her hands tightly. He looked quite shocked.
"Go down… to the shelter… at once," he shrieked loudly. In the twinkling of an eye, he succeeded in pulling her toward the big marshy hole. They both fell into it, and her nose and mouth were stained with smelly, muddy water. Worse still, her body was wedged in so tightly that she was unable to raise her head high.
"Don't… move. Enemy… planes are… releasing…bombs. If… you… stand up, you'll be… killed. Try… to lie… still," he insisted. Then, with all his strength, he pressed her down to the upper layer of mud. "Don't …look up… or else you'll sacrifice… yourself… in vain," he whispered. After that he lay closer to her, staring upward at the brilliant flashes vigilantly.
Her face now stooped down on the sticky mass of mud. She could hardly breath. Her sobs were hindered by mud and rainwater. Above, the strong wind was still blowing violently, the rain coming down ceaselessly and the thunderbolts raging.
Now June came round again. Of course, the storm came to an end a long time ago. The unfortunate village remained in dire poverty and its hardest-hit house was none other than Thac's. Yet, what worried her the most was her feelings being constantly hurt.
In the veranda flooded with yellow sunshine after the storm, her husband was sitting on a sedge mat, looking upward with his misty eyes. He sat motionless like an age-old statue, due to his cerebral disease, which led to his apoplexy. Consequently, he turned half-crazy. Whenever a storm was brewing, he screamed wildly before looking for shelter. That mental disorder came to him some decades ago, and it was quite contrary to his former self.
She put a stool by his side and sat down close to him in order to trim his fingers and toes with a pair of nail clippers.
"Curiously, with a single arm, yesterday you nearly broke my hand," she reproached him slightly. By chance, with her nice hands, she rubbed his scar going from knee to heel. "Oddly enough, being lame in your left leg, your could run as fast as a wild horse whenever you heard the sound of thunderbolt. Poor you! In your prime of life, you weren't afraid of bombs and shells at all, but now in old age you were frightened to death at the din of bad weather," she observed.
He mumbled for a while, as if he had been clarifying the reason for his fear. His remaining arm was trembling noticeably while its fingers clung tightly to a corner of his mat.
"Yes, I see, I see," she added. "I'll ask some young relatives to dig a shelter under your bed immediately," she told him. "Now I'm too old to care for your health. Suppose you ran away when I was out, how could I be strong enough to look for you?" she confessed. "What's more, my heart has grown bigger with every passing week, and I'm afraid that some day it won't beat any longer. If I would die before you, who would look after you? Come what may, I need to live longer than you," she said resolutely. "If only we had had a son and you hadn't have been that polluted by Agent Orange, we would have had a few grandchildren to amuse ourselves with and to rely upon for our old age," she complained. He just sat still without any response.
"May storms not pass by here ever again!" she whispered, looking at the blue sky.
Yet, fortune had not always smiled upon her.
One afternoon in July, the sky was overcast with dark clouds. A strong wind started raging. After the first deafening thunderbolt, it began raining cats and dogs, and then came a terrible whirlwind. Soon, a ferocious hurricane passed over her locality. Her dilapidated house shook violently with its weird sounds. Its temporarily mended roof flipped and flopped noisily, and its wooden doorframe crackled lamentably.
Thac's face went pale with anxiety.
In fact, her dwelling had often been improved a lot thanks to her kind-hearted neighbours. However, it could hardly stand this nasty weather. She just sat there, staring at the flickering paraffin lamp. Heaving a sigh, she looked at a corner of her house where a narrow underground hideout had previously been dug.
Right at the first thunderbolt, he jumped into it with a loud cry, "Alarming… siren… darling." From her seat, she could see him bending himself in the newly-dug shelter. If only she had known such a state of mind in him, she would have had it done many years ago to relieve her distress on the one hand and on the other not to lock him in whenever she had to go out. She shook her head and sighed.
Slowly, she stood up because she had to prepare dinner before it turned quite dark. All of a sudden, she felt her chest hurting a bit and a feeling of discomfort came to her mind. She tried to stand upright, breath rhythmically for a while, then lie down for some minutes, but her uneasiness appeared more and more clearly. Her eyes turned more cloudly, her ears seemed a little buzzing and her breathing tempo got shorter and shorter.
"My dear Thac…," she uttered just a few words then stopped short. Finally, she stared at his hideout, swallowed up saliva before proceeding toward him. Breathing hard, she whispered to him, "My dear…"
In the meantime, thunder rumbled terribly in the distance. Her last whisper reached his ears vaguely. He turned round and saw her collapse. She lay prone on the hard, earthen floor. Her body convulsed.
His eyes turned wild. His far-away memories suddenly surged up.
"Bomb… bomb! One …of our …comrades-in-ams… has been… hit by a… splinter… Take… him to… the shelter… quickly." Then as a reflexive action, he dragged her half-stiff body to the underground hideout. "Blood's… oozing out …profusely." In addition to these meaningless utterances, a lot of other military orders also came from his hallucinatory mind. He also repeated some of his wife's terms of endearment.
On the earthen floor, she remained motionless. Her unkempt, silvery locks of hair touched his cheeks. In the twinkling of an eye, he seemed well aware of her smiling face when she said to him, "Anyhow, both of us must live side by side for good." "Surely, we'll lead such a life together," he replied in a clear voice.
He stood up. After so many years, he felt his cloudy eyes brighten again. "I have to live. Let's wait for rescuers for a few more minutes, darling. You ought to outlive me by some more years," his voice sounded better.
With his lame leg, he staggered to the door then flung it open with his remaining hand. It screeched noisily while a strong gust of wind rushed in. He stood in the middle of the doorway as if he had tried to prevent it from entering the shanty with his unsteady gait. His hump back gradually turned upright. His lips tightened a bit.
Right at the moment, lightning flashed across the sky. Without hesitation, he strode ahead into a blurred curtain of rain.
"Come what may, we have to save her life," he said to himself.
Translated by Van Minh