Viet Nam News
by Tống Ngọc Hân
Walking out of the forest, Pù put his newly-gathered bundle of firewood on the ground and sat down on a big rock. All of a sudden, he could see two tufted bulbuls savouring ripe berries on high twigs and branches, which made his mouth water. Right at that moment, Cheo turned up in smart clothes like those of a festival-goer.
Cheo took a catapult off his neck, and a brown chestnut out of the breast pocket of his indigo shirt and put it on the thick and wide leather pad ready for shooting.
“Don’t, don’t, don’t shoot at them, my dear friend!” Pù shouted, trying to prevent his friend’s killing. At once, the birds flapped their wings strongly and flew away.
“What do you think about your marriage, my young brother?” Cheo asked Pù while he was chewing the nut.
“Not too bad! If you want to find out, you might come to Chự’s place,” Pù replied.
Cheo smiled childishly, dusted some ash off his trousers and turned away. Pù held his hand up to tell him something, but stopped abruptly.
* * *
Some 15 years before, Pù’s beautiful fiancée’s family offered his clan 70 silver coins and three big pigs, the greatest marriage dowry in the Mù Cang Chải area. His wife Mẩy was the eldest of five daughters. One after the other they were born, and last but not least, a boy named Tin saw the light. In fact, Mẩy was a hopeful girl for any young man in the locality. Yet her parents only wanted to give their daughter’s hand to a youth who was willing to live with them after marriage, not stay with his own parents as usual. According to the matriarch of the Dao ethnic group, Pù was their best choice. Fortunately, Pù’s family had five sons – a great burden to shoulder by the clan in regard to dowries and wedding celebrations. After the weddings of his two elder brothers, his parents were up to their ears in debt.
“My beloved Pù, you really are a guy eligible to stay with Mẩy’s wealthy family, although this might run counter to your will at first,” said his mother. “We don’t know what would come to us if we did it differently,” she added. Her explanations eased his self-respect to a great extent because he had already fallen in love with her at first sight, not because of money. As a result, his wedding ceremony was held magnificently in the face of other youths’ envy.
After Pù’s splendid event came Chự’s wedding. This marriage proved quite different. Like Pù, the lame Chự was also a young man of Sa Phìn village, Mù Cang Chải area. When he got married, his wedding became the talk of the town. The family of Chự’s wife, wealthy but stingy, had many sons and a single daughter, who looked both ugly and ungraceful. Therefore, when they made up their mind to marry him to their daughter, most of the villagers were greatly amazed. But her parents thought about it in another way. “If our daughter would come stay with her husband’s clan, she would certainly lead a miserable life for good, like most of the unlucky girls of our Dao ethnic group. So, the best measure for us to take is to persuade her to force him to stay with us forever,” remarked her mother.
On the contrary, if Chự took her home as a wife, his parents could hardly afford all the wedding expenses combined with his dowry offered to the bride, let alone host their daughter-in-law, as was the Dao custom and habit. In reality, in Chự’s home there was nothing worthy of being called property, due to poverty. Finally, Chự’s parents had to accept a poor dowry of five silver coins and two pigs from the clan of the bride-to-be. They could not do otherwise, for they still had many other sons who would get married sooner or later.
“How would this couple live together, nobody knows,” Chự’s fellow villagers remarked. However, one thing was certain: there were no squabbles between them.
* * *
On the way home, Pù thought a lot about the pair of tufted bulbuls’ destinies and about his own family’s living conditions.
His daughter was now in her early teens and showed signs of reaching puberty. No more smeared soot could be found on her rosy cheeks.
“Dad, there’s no more fat for our porridge today,” she told him after waiting anxiously for her father at the kitchen door.
He sounded rather tetchy. He stared at the kitchen, where there was nothing but a large cauldron full of boiling porridge.
“How stupid! Just a small amount of food for your sick little brother in such a big pot!” he exclaimed. “No need for fat for it,” he added.
Since the day when Pù’s little family took their meals separately after the death of his wife, his mother-in-law had put away all her cooking utensils, including the common kinds of spices. Instead, all of them went into her locked big wooden box inside a dim larder.
Three years after his spouse breathed her last, Pù kept on staying under the same roof of his parents-in-law. But now, he only wanted to return home to ask his own parents for a favour: to pay ransom for his little clan’s release, no matter how costly it might be. He took pity on his parents, who had been too poor to keep him at home for good, and his wife, who had died young and on his bondage in his in-laws’ dream home.
On the other hand, he could not reproach his wife’s parents either because they had paid for his existence in their dwelling. “Are all my efforts worthy of their total dowry?” he asked himself.
“What shall I do now?” he wondered. At the age of 35 he was able to plough the field as strongly as a water buffalo and could collect more firewood than his wife’s younger brother, Tin, who was already a good-for-nothing guy.
Holding a big wooden ladle in one hand, he added some salt to the boiling food with the other. He slowly stirred the contents so that they did not brim over the large pot. Suddenly, he felt as if something was slightly striking against the ladle. Stopping abruptly, he asked his daughter, “Has anybody ever walked into the kitchen?”
“No, nobody except Grannie, my dear Dad,” she answered.
Suddenly, it made his flesh crawl.
“What did she put in our pot of porridge?” he whispered to himself. Focusing on how she had treated him from the first days he came and stayed with her family to the death of his wife, he realised that her behaviour towards him had changed remarkably – from affection to hate.
He scooped up a spoonful of porridge then walked out to the kitchen door. In the bright light, he saw small pieces of well-done meat and smelt the fragrance of the food. He tasted a bit.
“Where’s your Grannie?” he asked his daughter.
“Perhaps, she’s gone to the forest to gather medicinal herbs, Dad,” she replied.
Right at the moment, his little son uttered a loud cry. “The kid must be very hungry,” he said to himself. Carefully, he poured another bowlful of porridge into a large old aluminium plate for his dog to lick before letting his child eat, pending a long wait. Finding the dog safe and sound after eating the food, he decided to provide his own son a bowlful of porridge. To his surprise, the kid was now eating the food hurriedly while slowly savouring it with satisfaction.
Tossing in bed sleeplessly for hours, he thought a lot about his mother-in-law’s wooden casket. He felt greatly self-piteous. In fact, after a 15-year stay with his parents-in-law he had treated all of them well, including Tin and the other children, of course. But now things had changed noticeably…
All of a sudden, he thought of going somewhere for some relaxation. But where to go? At last he made up his mind to come to Cheo’s place to make clear everything that Chự had been fully aware of.
Although Cheo had many brothers, his mother did not want him to be separated from her clan. “If he stays with his wife’s clan like me, what would happen to his mother?” Pù wondered. According to the customs and habits of the Dao ethnic group, in such a case, she would have to follow her son to live with his son’s in-laws. Was this acceptable to her? In fact, Cheo’s mother was the same age as Pù. In the meantime, he also had a lot of sympathy for this unlucky widower.
Pù returned home late. Reaching the door, he heard the loud voice of his mother-in-law echoing from inside: “The reason for my decision to let Pù and his little son have meals separately is that he might soon get a chance to marry again, for he’s badly in need of a woman,” she said to her husband. Her husband whispered something to her in response, but Pù could hardly catch it. “As to the biggest item for his wedding party, I can afford most of it. Have you glanced at it? If anything is inadequate, we may borrow the rest from our relatives,” she went on.
“I’ve already had a look at it. That’s a set of silver bracelets you’ve just brought home. They’re all newly made…” her husband answered.
* * *
He did not sleep a wink throughout the night. However, early the next morning, he took a rake to the field along with his daughter as usual. Halfway, he returned home on the grounds that he had left tobacco behind. In the dwelling-house, there was nobody but his sick little son. He rushed into his mother-in-law’s bedroom. His trembling hand touched the wooden casket. Surprisingly, he withdrew it at once with a strange feeling. It was similar to last night’s incident, when he reached Cheo’s house. He intended to knock at the door, but he was on tenterhooks. Finally, he had to leave Cheo’s place beyond his expectation.
Clearly, in his mind’s eye, he saw the pair of tufted bulbuls sharing ripe red berries and chirping their merry songs.
Translated by Văn Minh