Viet Nam News
by Mai Tiến Nghị
It was twilight. In the sky, there were only some thin light-yellow wisps of cloud. It was the end of autumn, with chilly breezes coming in fits and starts. The sound of waves breaking on the shore conjured up old memories of holidaymakers sunbathing on the beach.
The sun sank below the horizon. The seaside became deserted and the estuary was pitch-black. On the dyke, a single soul could be seen walking silently and quickly. It was fisherman Vọp on the way home after a long night with his crab net. “How miserable I am!” he wailed. Upon completing his military service, he returned home with the lowest rank: private first class.
Year after year, throughout their happy family life, his wife had borne him five pretty little daughters, one after another: Hà, Ngao, Giòn, Sò and Vạng. As an industrious young man, in the daytime, he worked the fields and in the late evening he caught tiny crabs at the seaside. Although he did his best, he could barely make ends meet, with seven hungry mouths to feed. Time and again, he thought of death. “If I left this world now, my wife and children would soon die of starvation,” Vọp lamented.
He looked at the wide river and found the water had darkened. He imagined that the waterway was an unsolved mystery full of deathtraps. Glancing further ahead near the estuary, he saw something afloat. “What’s that?” he asked himself. He ran towards the river bank. It turned out that what he had caught a glimpse of was only a small boat that seemed out of control. “It must be badly moored,” he thought. “It will soon flow away to sea.” He rushed along the dyke as fast as possible. When he drew abreast of the old boat, he hurriedly undressed and plunged into the dark water. He was trembling with the cold. He swam quickly towards the boat. As a skilled fisherman, he managed to cling to its stern easily.
As soon as he looked inside he let his hand go because it was occupied. “Goodness gracious, I’ll be thought a thief!” Vọp whispered to himself. He stayed still in the water for a few seconds. Again, he clasped the boat edge and looked inside. To his surprise, he saw a naked couple in each other’s embrace, moaning and moving rhythmically. What’s more, he realised that the woman lived in his village, a sexy and lusty woman whose name was well known to him; whereas the man was a total stranger. Suddenly, Vọp started coughing. In the twinkling of an eye, the strange guy rose up, rushed towards the boat stern and grabbed the oar. When Vọp was swimming away, the oar struck him in his groin. He was dazed by the blow. He struggled to reach the river bank. It was there he fainted.
Early the next morning he awoke and found himself in an awful situation.
* * *
When I opened my eyes, the sky was dark. I was aching all over. Luckily, thanks to the dim outline of the dyke that I saw which way to go. Unable to stand up, I had to crawl inch by inch.
Reaching the surface of the dyke, I was weary. My body was soaked in sweat. My teeth were chattering with cold. Shamefully, I was naked. Suddenly, I collapsed.
In the quiet morning, I was vaguely aware of church bells. It seemed as though I was encircled by a lot of people. They might be early church-goers. Soon, half dreamy half conscious, I heard weird sounds of surgical instruments and the voices of white-clothed staff, “Smashed to smithereens! It’ll need to be surgically removed.”
Paradoxically, while facing death, I struggled to stay alive, yet when my life was saved, I wished to kill myself because of the mocking smiles of my neighbours and the frosty looks of my wife and children.
Unable to bear it, I made up my mind to tell the truth. “How can I accept a bad reputation not only for me but also for my daughters? How will our clan be looked at? How can I explain everything to our relatives?” I asked myself again and again.
I remembered another painful memory of mine during wartime.
* * *
Those were the days when the war was still raging horribly. Our battalion was besieged by enemy forces for a whole month. Our provisions, especially rice and salt, soon ran out. What was left for us was a small amount of chilli powder. When things got dire, we had to resort to eating banana roots. Sadly, without salt, the roots were too tasteless and pungent to eat.
After the third day, I could not stand it any longer. When I picked up a slice of banana root to eat, I was violently ill. Soon, I became thin like a drug addict. I felt sickly and horrid. Our cook let me have chilli powder instead. That worked only for a few days. Before long, many of us were constipated. In the forest, we would squat for hours in vain. One early morning I ran to the forest to empty my bowels. Sitting down behind a thick bush for about half an hour, I heard footsteps coming closer and closer to me. It turned out to be our company head. He stopped in front of the bush, looked around for a few seconds then took a small plastic pouch out of his breast pocket. “Salt!” I whispered to myself. He pinched one piece as tiny as a grain of sand. He put it into his mouth and savoured it.
A few days later, one of my comrades fell seriously ill. Before breathing his last, he begged for a few grains of salt to enjoy. All of us, including our company chief, couldn’t fulfill his humble dieing wish. We wept and wept.
The next morning, I told my platoon head about our superior’s greedy and selfish behaviour I had witnessed several days before. That evening, I was summoned to the company headquarters. In front of the whole unit, I related what I had witnessed. Everybody listened to my report in silence. At last, our company chief broke the silence by questioning me in a threatening voice, “What’s your evidence?” I was tongue-tied. Unexpectedly, I was condemned for distorting the truth, lowering the leader’s prestige and depriving the unit of its combative strength. After that grave event, my hopes to join the Party after the war were shattered.
If only I had been a Party member, back in my native village at least, I would have become a public servant with a retirement pension and my life would turned for the better.
Similarly, if I disclosed the truth about that female villager’s love affair in the boat, who would believe me? The couple had been leading a happy life side by side, how could I damage their honour and ruin their children’s future?
However, I could not help laying bare her unfaithfulness. I had to defend my good reputation. Nevertheless, not mentioning her name would make everybody suspicious. Who would believe me? Some even said that while in hospital I had spun yarns to cover my wicked conduct. They laughed at me, even despised me for having been so stupid.
In the meantime, the icy attitude of my wife and the great worries of my children whom I loved so dearly made me all the more indignant. After my abrupt injury and homecoming, my wife had shunned me in all respects: no talking, no sleeping together, no sharing meals and so forth. When I complained, she just said, “Let me alone! Eat to your heart’s content, that’s all.” As a result, at dinner time the kids stared at me and glanced at their mother suspiciously. After nearly a fortnight, when I could bear it no more, taking advantage of the kids being at school, I told my wife about what I had witnessed in the boat that night and the woman’s name.
Half an hour later, the woman’s husband arrived at our house with a length of rope. Without saying anything, he put the string round my neck and pulled it hard. When I fell onto the floor, he punched me in the face. My nose was bleeding profusely.
It turned out that my better half had gone to their house and related what I had told her. Listening to the story, his face turned green while his wife burst into tears. She claimed that I had slandered her brazenly. To prove her chastity, she rushed into the kitchen to look for a length of rope to kill herself with. Thinking that his wife’s name had been besmirched groundlessly, he snatched the rope from his wife then went straight to our house to avenge her honour.
* * *
Worse still, my wife’s ways of punishment, like contempt, hate, ill-treatment and so on, went beyond my imagination: she committed adultery in our house. Although I was unable to stand her shameless actions, I could hardly do complain because I was now totally sexually impotent. Sometimes, I felt so ashamed that I only wished to commit suicide.
“Come what may, I must stay alive because of my children’s future,” I said to myself.
After that I had to live in a hut at the foot of the dyke to tend ducks. I gave the kids all my income, except for a small amount for me to live on, of course. In that secluded place, I could turn ignore everybody’s curses.
* * *
Every morning his youngest daughter Vạng went to the wharf where he, together with some other fishermen, sold the tiny crabs caught during the previous night to dealers coming from Hải Phòng and Quảng Ninh.
Because she did not go to school in the morning, she usually came to see him at his cabin then took his earnings home to her mother. One day, while waiting for his turn to sell his produce he embraced her tightly and smelt her hair again and again.
“Why don’t you stay at home with us as like before?” she asked him.
“Because I want to live here to catch crabs as many as possible to get money for your school fees.”
“Why do other fishermen stay home during the day then catch crabs in the evening?”
“Because their situation is different from mine, my beloved little girl.”
He thought that thanks to his money earned during the crab season, he could afford his children’s schooling fees, but as to their expenses in the future, he didn’t know what would happen.
* * *
The next evening, Vạng saw a young woman come to her house. She talked to her mother for hours. She did not know what happened, yet when that woman had, her mother hugged her tightly.
“Tomorrow, you’d better see your father and ask him to come back home as soon as possible. Do you miss him?” she said to her little daughter.
“Of course, I miss and love him very much. What about you, do you feel the same?” Vạng asked. Her mother did not answer, although her eyes were brimming with tears.
The next morning, as usual, Vạng went to the wharf early. It was there she waited and waited for her father in vain. When all the other fishermen had left, she remained alone by the sea.
“Perhaps, Dad’s ill,” she whispered to herself. “What’s the matter with him?” She ran to his hut. To her amazement, it was quite empty. In addition to a few pieces of uniform and a thin blanket of an ex-serviceman placed pleasantly tidy on his bamboo bed, there was nothing else.
“Where’s Dad?” she asked herself, sobbing loudly. She darted towards the river bank. She looked around for what felt like an eternity. A short distance ahead, she saw a lock of black hair going up and down on the waves. “A drowning man, a drowning man!” she screamed for help.
* * *
Vọp’s body was taken ashore. He had died of an unexpected accident. He had been trapped by his own crab net that tied round his body when he was dragged into a whirlpool.
Standing in front of his dead body, which remained tied tightly around his net, was a group of veterans who came to pay homage to their ex-comrade-in-arms for the last time.
“Oh dear, the body of an ex-serviceman must be covered with a red piece of cloth before it is put into the coffin according to military rites!” exclaimed one of them.
“This is a special case, my dear friend. He didn’t belong to our association owing to his alleged incident during that night. Poor him, since then he hadn’t been allowed to attend any activities of our organisation. So he can’t have the ceremony!” explained another.
At dusk, in the soft glow of the flickering candlelight, his coffin slowly moved up and down on the dyke ahead of the funeral procession amid the mournful music and the gentle sound of waves lapping the sand. Everyone seemed to weep and wail for the unfortunate destiny of a hard-working young man who had totally devoted his life to his family.
Translated by Văn Minh