Viet Nam News
by Hoàng Long
I was about to begin my flight. The starting-point was the window of my room on the sixth floor of our condo and the end was the ground. It would take just a few seconds.
While stretching my body out of the window, I took a brief glance over my familiar alley to get remember some sweet memories to block out my fear.
It was a cold December night. Everything in my room was dry and mouldy and my body trembled. I tightly held the corners of my large white towel and my pyjamas.
“It’s going to be cold when I jump in such thin clothes. I supposed it’ll only take a second, being cold before breathing my last doesn’t really matter,” I said to myself.
With the towel as a pair of wings, I would flutter in the wind. Surprisingly, my alley was tranquil. Usually, at times like this, I stayed inside, so I could rarely enjoyed this splendid scenery. Unluckily, my alley was said to have been haunted by a ghost.
From six floors up, I could see the laundry at the entrance to my alley and the bin of the lady’s house, where I often came to ask for cloth odds and ends to turn into dolls when her husband was out so I had more things to play with. Also, I would often find real dolls more beautiful than any I could make in the dump.
Still, I was very fond of my hand-made little princesses. I loved to play with them just like I loved the delicious bowls of phở gravy that my mother bought for me to eat with rice at dinner when she had money. When she was penniless, we stayed hungry, staring at each other across the table in the dark. Although I was hungry, I was not sad because I had my dolls to play with. My mother would just sit there like a speechless silhouette.
* * *
As a child, I knew nothing about her trade. I was well aware that in the evenings she was usually busy entertaining many man who came to visit her, one after another, and stayed in our little house for an hour or so while I was locked in the kitchen. After that, she would buy me a bowl of phở or a few grilled corncobs for dinner.
During the day I often loitered in our area, though she didn’t like that. However, she would sleep deeply during the day so she couldn’t stop me from going out. At night, she didn’t get a wink of sleep, whereas I could sleep well all night in the kitchen. To my surprise, when I woke up I often found myself beside her in the bed.
The neighbour kids went to school during the day while I stayed at home. It was for the best, they couldn’t bully me this way. None of them loved the alley as much as me. I knew its back streets, wide or narrow, and all of their houses, big or small.
Now, I was moving upwards slowly and looking down onto my small world. The phở shop had already closed, but its old gravy still wetted the pavement. Its owner had never asked me to work for him, even though my mother owed him money. As I grew older he starting gazing at me with lusty eyes, which led to many quarrels between him and his wife.
“Who’s my father?” I asked my mother one day.
“I don’t know. He could be any of the guys who comes here to relax for a few hours before leaving,” she answered.
“All while I’ve been sleeping in the kitchen?” I asked.
“No silly, one of the men who came before you were born.”
“So I’ll never meet him?”
“Probably not. You’re not missing out, he’ll be just like any of the men who come here.”
“In that case, I’ll choose one of them to be my father, Mum.”
From then on, I paid attention to those who came to the house to see who deserved to be my father.
The motorbike taxi driver? No way! He looked like a creepy one. The security guard? Nope. He always threatened Mum before leaving? Or the young playboy? Or the barber at the entrance to the alley? Or the owner of the phở stall? Oh no, none of them were suitable!
The retired public servant living alone near the alley? He was a widower whose wife died a long time ago. He usually played chess with the barber at his work place.
“Without an education, your life will pass you by. You might waste your precious youth,” the pensioner usually told me when he found me stood beside their chessboard watching the game unfold.
“What’s the use of teaching her about morals?” said the barber. “When she grows up, she’ll follow her mother,” he added, laughing scornfully.
Once when I was just a young teenager, this widower arrived at our house in the evening. Surprisingly, during his visit to my mother, he just stayed in the kitchen with me and sometimes with Mum. He urged my mother to let me go to school and a lot of other strange things. After that he sighed because of his unsuccessful advice, then left. From that evening onwards, he had never dropped in on us. Sometimes, when I stood beside the chessboard, he even seemed to ignore me.
* * *
I felt like the breeze was carrying me across the widower’s house. It seemed to me that he could see. He was the only person apart from my mother who cared about me at all.
In early mornings in autumn, I often saw him sweeping dead leaves on the pavement, opposite my house, while I was picking up yellow leaves. He put them all into a large bag. As for me, I brought them upstairs to let them fall, one by one, out of my window so that they fluttered in the breeze before landing on the ground. Finding the dead leaves I had dropped on the pavement, he just gathered them then smiled to me, whereas I was a little angry because there were no more leaves for me to play with.
When it rained heavily, our alley would flood. Taking advantage of these occasions, I swam in the violent current joyously. At the same time, he tried to drain the rain water by dredging up the sewage system. Again, I was displeased because he was getting rid of the water I was enjoying bathing in.
Nevertheless, I was aware that he did these things for his love for our area. That’s all.
Most of us were quite upset that our locality was haunted by a ghost.
Rumour had it that the spectre appeared each evening for a few hours then disappeared immediately, then turned up again and again alternatively. My mother told me about the strange phenomenon. That was why I did not dare to go down the alley or to open our window at night, for it might drag me out to the ground, as my mother warned me.
Now, I’m too old for such gibberish. I was not afraid of anything tonight as I will fly away in my large towel amid the brilliant nocturnal light.
Over the years, my mother got weaker and weaker with every passing month.
“Mum, what can I do to help you?” I asked.
“Not much, my beloved daughter! First, look for a job so that you might earn some money for your schooling and to support me,” she answered.
“Now I know I should have listened to that kind-hearted pensioner,” she added.
Unfortunately, that dream would never come true.
* * *
This morning, waking up as usual, I did not find her anywhere: not our room, or in the kitchen. By chance I saw a piece of paper with scribbled handwriting that I could not read. I looked for her high and low and called her. Meeting the retired public servant at chess, I asked him, but in vain. I showed him my mother’s message.
“She left home to have her disease cured, I think,” he said to me. “I don’t know when she’ll come back. Now that you’re grown up, you must take care of yourself,” he added sadly.
I asked him for help, but he just kept silent. I asked the barber too but he refused to reply at first, then a few seconds later he said, “Do what you have to. However, your best bet is becoming a street-walker like your mother, I think,” he answered in a contemptuous voice.
“Shut up!” shouted his chess partner. “She’s a little girl! She needs love, care and respect, you rascal.”
“Damn your moral lesson!” retorted the barber. “Tell her the truth. Over the years her mother has become like a ghost. Now the mother ghost is no more, the daughter ghost will replace her.”
I burst into tears. Sitting in the kitchen I cried and cried.
“Why did nobody tell me about her plight?” I asked myself.
Finally, I chose a special way of my own. Climbing up to the windowsill, I breathed in a deep draught of air then I decided.
I did not want to be a ghost that might scared kids so much that they did not dare to go out after dark. Nor did I want to be a whore in everybody’s eyes or a mother-to-be whose little daughter might sleep in the kitchen at night, hugging her dolls tightly.
I would flutter in the air before coming down to the ground.
Suddenly, it hit me that I would die if I crashed to the ground. In such a case, my soul would stay for a long time in this world. I might return as a ghost to the alley. Or maybe I would come back as a person, with two parents who send me to school.
I was unable to return to normal life. If my mother suddenly returned home, she couldn’t see me like this, although she loved me dearly and I also loved her much as I usually did to my dolls made of cloth odds and ends, and my back street strewn with yellow leaves by the end of winter. I would go away, leaving behind my deep memories in our small house. I would fly a long way away; far, very far from the streets that I had never reached to know new places.
It seemed to me that I had just made a landing onto the ground lightly as a leaf and softly as a loving kiss of goodbye.
Translated by Văn Minh