Viet Nam News
by Như Bình
“Is it the beginning of spring?” Du asked herself. Looking at the dwarf apricot tree, she saw several white buds already in bloom. Last year, when its blossoms and leaves were stripped bare and its stem had been dried by the passing of time, she was going to throw it away, but on second thoughts, decided it had once been too beautiful to throw out.
Now, it wasn’t as warm. The apricot that her lover Văn brought her was dry with few green leaves. He smiled when he saw she wasn’t impressed by the gift.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover, darling. It will become an eye-catching plant in time for Tết,” he told her.
He embraced her tightly, his hands gliding over her firm breasts. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, like the plant I gave you will become,” he said. To her surprise, he was right: just after the New Year’s Eve, the apricot twigs blossomed.
On the first night of the lunar new year that Du spent alone in Ha Noi, her eyes filled with tears when she talked to Văn on the phone.
* * *
“What will I do to pass these sad Tết days?” she whispered to herself. On the first morning of Tết, she just walked around the rented house aimlessly. To kill time she trimmed the flowers, especially the apricot tree whose blossoms had opened beautifully.
The good old days
Du used to look forward to the holidays to return home to her native village Chanh. At first, she found those festive days great. At the news of her homecoming from Hà Nội, villagers would come to her house in large numbers to celebrate. They also wanted to see how she had undergone an amazing metamorphosis from an ugly duckling in the country into an elegant and fashionable Hanoian. In preparation for the all-important Tet, Du’s mother had to get up early to make green tea for the adults and lay out sweets for the kids.
Vinh, Du’s younger brother, borrowed an old cassette player borrowed from a neighbour to dance with his friends, while her younger sister Hoa tried on her fancy clothes.
However, that was the past.
On Du’s following homecomings she was terrified of being asked when she was getting married by her relatives. She couldn’t face the sadness on her mother’s face when her neighbours asked about her career, her salary and her private problems. She knew they meant no harm, simply wanting their children to learn from this successful and lovable city slicker.
She also spent much of her savings on her needy family, always short of meat and fish and so on. Du had four siblings in all, Vân, a freshman in the provincial teacher-training college; Vinh, a jobless high school graduate; Huy and Hoa, the first-year students, male and female respectively, in the same institution as their elder brother. Their mother, a pensioner and farmer with a low income from a small rice field. Looking at them, Du felt deep compassion when she remembered the saying “Children without a father are like a roofless house.”
After a few Tets like that, she did everything she could to stay in the city instead of returning home. She didn’t like many things: her native village of Chanh, gloomy and solitary; its rugged winding rural path, muddy in rainy seasons and dusty in hot summers, or even a smoky kitchen roof; having to stay to prepare huge amounts of Tết. Finding the kids’ faces thin and stretched and the cows bony, Du pitied her poor locality.
In her own family, Du’s mother was the eldest daughter-in-law of the lineage, so the amount of food she was expected to prepare made Du worried for her old Mum’s health.
One Tết holiday, her mother could get only three kilos of pork, nowhere enough. Du and her mom had to add two kilos of rice flour to the pork to make pork-pie, grilled chopped meat, pork rolls and braised pork. Yet, tasting them, Du always found them delicious.
For years, these dishes had tasted the same to her. The Tết meals of her poor family had haunted her throughout her childhood. She only wanted to hide somewhere far away so that nobody would recognise her as the little Du of yesterday.
* * *
Văn understood her upbringing fairly well because he was also a rural youth. After settling down in strange Ha Noi he had experienced many bitter and humiliating days. He came to her out of sympathy and understanding, and most of all, out of affection for her.
As well as finding her a job so she could support her mother and brothers and sisters financially, he also rented a room for her to live in.
On New Year’s Eve, Văn returned to his home town.
When the city cathedral’s bells heralded the commencement of a lunar new year, he called her. “Happy New Year! I wish you success and luck,” he said then stopped abruptly as if he might be in danger of eavesdropping. A few minutes later, he called her again, “Du, I miss you madly. This Tết means nothing to me without you,” he blurted out loudly.
“At home he didn’t dare to talk to me, perhaps,” she said scornfully. “I bet he was worried his family would hear him talking,” she whispered to herself.
* * *
When Văn came back to her, he found the apricot tree had withered. Its blossoms lay strewn around the pot. At the scene Du’s eyes filled with tears.
By the end of the year, Văn recognised that she had changed.
“Next Tết, we’ll celebrate together,” he told her.
To her surprise, three days before Tết, Văn brought her a large kumquat plant laden with a lot of bright yellow fruit that looked like table-tennis balls. In the meantime, she went shopping for many things: meat, fish and vegetables for the celebration. Over many years in love, it was the first time Văn stayed at his sweetheart’s place for Tet.
“Without you, my life means nothing, my honey. I exist for our love,” he admitted. “Wait for me until I’m able to solve everything at home. I’ll marry you and live with you, you only,” he went on. She was tired of his empty promises.
Three days before Tết.
Getting up Du found him busy in the kitchen. It turned out that he was preparing breakfast for them. A few minutes later, he brought a delicious bowl of noodles to her in bed. She saw his eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep. While eating, she felt a lump in her throat and tears forming in her eyes.
Suddenly, he hugged her tightly. “I was very anxious. Last night I dreamt that my son at home fell seriously ill. He just called my name over and over again,” he said to her.
“You should go home at once,” she told him. “Don’t worry about me. I can stay here alone during Tết. No problem at all!”
“Don’t get sulky with me about trivial things, honey,” he said. He embraced her more tightly. His lips swept over her lily-white shoulders. She tried to squirm out of his grip.
“You’d better return home now to see what has happened. You can stay there for a few days then come back to me. Sound good?” Du suggested.
“I guess I could be here to welcome New Year’s Eve beside you and go home the next day.”
She tried to finish the bowl of noodles, eyes brimming with tears. Between Văn’s wife in the countryside and herself, which one would Du chose. “Well, it’s not my choice so I shouldn’t stress,” she decided.
In the afternoon, she told him that she would go out on an errand for a few minutes. Actually, she went to the railway station to get a homebound ticket for him. In her heart of hearts, she didn’t want to spend Tết with him. When they finished dinner, she gave him the train ticket, smiling weakly, “Get your belongings ready, my dear. There’s only two hours left for our coffee break,” she told him.
Văn received the ticket in embarrassment.
“Don’t be upset with me, darling. After Tết, come back to me right away,” she said.
“It doesn’t seem to me that you want me any longer. Why have you behaved so strangely? You think I’m some daft wee boy?” he reproached her.
“Far from that! Your family at home are badly in need of you, much more than me,” she declared. “They will have you during Tết only. Meanwhile, I have you for the rest of the year. I just want you to fulfil your family obligations. I’m used to spending Tết alone,” she replied resolutely.
Văn drove his sweetheart off to the station on his motorbike. During the last night of the year, all street lamps shed their yellow light over the pavements. Pedestrians walked home hurriedly and silently in the drizzle. A cold gust of spring wind bit into their bodies through their thin clothes and made them tremble. Before boarding the train, he hugged her tightly once again.
“Take care of yourself, darling. I’ll come back to you as soon as possible. Then on the fourteenth of February, we’ll go to Tam Đảo resort for Valentine’s Day,” he told her. “As for Tết, it’s merely for family reunions. Too many people out too great a focus or hype on it,” he added. He kissed her passionately. Winter raindrops came down more and more heavily. They made her lips chilly, her head wet and her shoulders tremble.
A few minutes later, the train set off. She fell into an abyss of loneliness where she was only one tiny raindrop, fragile and redundant, floating amidst with his hollow promises.
Translated by Văn Minh