Viet Nam News
by Nguyên Chương
Sunset light slanted down on the Ô Môi Creek in a dark, rosy colour, together with the loud sounds of wild birds and the nursery rhymes of the kids at play under the ô môi foliage at the entrance to the little canal stung the heart deeply. They all sang in chorus:
In March ô môi trees are in bloom, fresh and rosy,
Whom is Miss Miên still waiting for so long
That her shoulder-length hair turns hoary?
Whenever she heard that ditty, she slowly walked toward their place, eyes in tears. The youth in the rhyme was Quyết, a young soldier dispatched to the southern battlefield.
* * *
She knew that right then he was, from the other side of the creek, watching her with a heavy heart. Day after day, reaching home after work he hoped against hope to see her standing under the old tree, where the watercourse had been previously named after together with the narrow bridge spanning it.
Many residents here wanted to fell the tree because it reminded them of the sad story attached to Miên and Hậu, her dear combatant, although its beautiful blossoms made the water red all over when its flowery season came.
* * *
Both Hậu and Quyết, close classmates in a northern provincial college, voluntarily went south in response to the call of war. They looked very young and handsome with vast knowledge. Therefore, the inhabitants of this newly-liberated Còng Hamlet had a lot of sympathy for them; whereas Miên was just a young militiawoman of the area. Being Northerners, born and bred, they seemed unfamiliar with some fruit of the Southern land, sometimes they were tricked by Miên for fun while tasting the strange flavours. On the first day when they were led to the unit stayed in her house they shared the underground shelters for many revolutionaries in her garden that she and her mother had tried to keep dark. Soon, both of them had fallen in love with her. All they could do was wait and see. Later, both were sent to the deep South for more critical engagements and their hopes of marrying her seemed far away. Until now, more than thirty years had passed, yet their cherished dreams never came true. Worse still, Miên’s hair had gone rather grey.
In her heart of hearts, Miên preferred Hậu to Quyết.
“What’s the reasoning behind my decision?” she asked herself again and again. “Was it due to Hậu’s first burning kisses with his wholehearted promise that he would come back to marry me?” Furthermore, she also said to him in a serious voice, “With ô môi blossoms a witness to my loyalty to you, I’ll wait for you until you return.”
Unexpectedly, only Quyết came back to her.
“Dear Miên …Hậu...Hậu laid... down his life...during a horrible fight,” he told her. She felt as if she had been shaken strongly by an earthquake.
“He passed away a year before the end of the war,” he went on, eyes brimming with tears.
Rushing to her room, she collapsed on her bed.
It was there she was bedridden for more than two months with her bony body.
As for Quyết, day in, day out, he sat on the roots of the ô môi tree, staring vacantly ahead.
Since then, she started waiting for Hậu under the canopy of rosy blossoms coming down abundantly every day. She let the prime of her life pass by almost unnoticed in despair.
In the opinion of the hamlet residents, the tree should be cut down on the grounds that it only conjured up her prolonged sadness. However, she objected to their suggestions with a vague idea that Hậu was still alive somewhere and would have returned to her hamlet and found her seated under the old tree.
* * *
“Your feelings towards Miên will soon fade. No need to torture yourself!” Miên’s mother told him one day when she found him in miserable conditions.
“What can I do in the meantime?”
Looking at his face, she realised that he loved her daughter strongly. She had a hut rigged up for him on the other side of the creek because she did not want to let him stay in her house with Miên’s younger sister.
“You can live there until Hậu’s homecoming, or else I’ll try to persuade her into marrying you,” she said to Quyết. Miên often advised him to find and marry another girl. “Your wait will come to nothing, dear Quyết,” she insisted.
Saying so, every afternoon, she went to the creek, sat silently under the familiar tree until the moon appeared in the horizon.
“My beloved daughter, you’d better accept the fact that Hậu has died,” she said to Miên.
“I think he’s still alive, Mum. Until I find his grave, I won’t change my mind,” Miên told her mother. “What if right now he’s being treated somewhere because of a serious wound in a hospital?” she added.
Since the day Quyết returned to Miên’s place, he had behaved like he was a member of Miên’s family.
As to Miên, when she was unsuccessful in convincing him to marry, she thought of Mai, a pretty and kind-hearted girl of her age in the same hamlet. She made up her mind to play match-maker. But all her efforts were in vain.
Finding that Quyết remained single while Miên, day after day, went to the creek, sat under the tree and stared into the immense vacancy, the old woman was afraid that sooner or later she would die in despair, and she should solve the problem as soon as possible.
“Miên, if you wish to stay single forever, how can I leave this world at ease to join our ancestors?” she whispered to her daughter.
“Mum, please don’t put such a delicate question to me?” Miên said, while sobbing.
Quyết embraced the weak old woman tightly.
“Mum, that’s my destiny. I feel quite happy beside you and Miên,” he blurted out.
“How can I stand these circumstances when both of you have been leading such miserably weird lives?” she complained.
“Are you willing to wait for Hậu until death?” asked Mr Năm, one of her old neighbours. “I’ll play the role of his father during your wedding, if you marry Quyết,” he went on.
“That’s no use to me! The die is cast,” said Miên.
After many days under treatment for a serious illness, Miên’s mother passed away while her sweet dream about her daughter’s marriage had so far not come true.
After her death, Quyết pondered over his problem for months.
Bowing to the deceased woman in front of her altar with three burning sticks of incense, he asked her for forgiveness after glancing over all the furniture of the family that seemed to stay vivid in his memories. He made up his mind to lay bare his long-standing well-hidden fact to Miên.
* * *
Taking a long trip from north to south, Miên looked for the address that Quyết had recently jotted down on a small piece of paper.
What appeared in front of her was a large metal signboard “Sanatorium for War Invalids". Her heart jumped.
She took a deep breath, unsteadily walked into a room bearing the name Hậu after stepping across the threshold.
“Is that my Hậu over there?” she asked herself when she saw a man with a skinny body, two legs amputated at the thighs and one arm dangling over the bedside beside an elderly woman. What remained lively was his eyes. Yet, they suddenly closed for a few seconds before opening again. He was lying motionless there in a faded army uniform.
Suddenly, she burst into tears.
“You have a sweet-heart’s support,” she said reluctantly.
She seemed to hear some excited words from Quyết vaguely coming from afar in the immense vacancy:
Whom have you been waiting for throughout your happy days?
When your blue eyes looked bright but now turned grey.
Who has been waiting for you during his youth?
With a forlorn expectation amid two deserted ways…
Both of them looked at each other, speechless for a while.
Not until a few minutes later, did Hậu whisper something to her in a broken voice.
“I was buried under a huge amount of debris during heavy bombing by enemy aircraft while my unit kept on marching to a new base,” Hậu told her in difficulty. “Everybody thought that I had lost my way in the jungle. A unit of engineers discovered me. I was sent back to a field hospital in the rear.”
Realising that both of them fell in love with Miên, the two soldiers had agreed that either of them, if alive to return home, would look for Miên, marry her and care for her.
When Quyết went south to meet her, he was sure that Hậu was dead.
A long time later, one of his ex-comrades in arms told him that Hậu was still alive in a sanatorium for war invalids. As for the woman in charge of taking care of Hậu, she was only a voluntary youth in the next room, who suffered from a serious disease like him and stayed back at the place. They might help each other in case of need, as hospital-mates, not a married couple.
* * *
When Miên returned to Còng Hamlet, Quyết had already left this place unnoticed. Rushing to Năm, she asked if he had left a note for her.
“No, nothing at all! When you went away, he also left this place at the same time,” he replied. “What a strange guy! He didn’t utter a word for you to wait,” he added, looking far away.
Many months passed by without any information about Quyết. Evening after evening, she slowly walked to the creek and sat under the ô môi tree to wait for his return. In the meantime, its blossoms bitterly fell in a great number, thus reddening the current that rapidly flew away into its main course.
Translated by Văn Minh