Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
By Kiều Duy Khánh
Every night, rain or shine, Sừa went out to a gigantic block of stone under the coffee plum tree next to the Sủ Sung stream to fish and sleep. Yet for two days straight, he hadn’t shown up. Did Sừa leave for another stream with more fish? Or was he bored with fishing? Sừa’s fishing buddies had been asking each other such questions on their night shifts.
Sừa hadn’t left for another stream. Nor had he gotten bored with fishing. Instead, Sừa was seriously ill. Sừa was ill, which sounded strange! Even though he was over 40, Sừa looked stronger than twentysomethings. His arms were firm and rugged like an old tree on the Sắng mountain. His chest was square and red, bursting like a stone slab. Sừa wasn’t ill because of an internal problem; he fell ill because of a breeze. Though the breeze was blowing through the silvery reeds just as softly as lovers whispering, it struck Sừa right at the foot of the stairs while he was carrying a heavy string of fish. Before he collapsed, Sừa managed to stammer for help. Tươn, who was awake waiting for her husband, rushed out and called for help.
Now Sừa was bed-ridden like tender greens withering under the sun. His mouth went out of shape; his limbs turned flabby, completely immobile. He kept lying there, desperately grasping at every bamboo beam and thatch leaf on the roof with his eyes. Once in a while he dozed off into lengthy dreams flowing like small currents through tottering sinuous cliffs on the Pó Bua mountain slope. Sừa dreamed about the young him many years before while he was fishing by the Sủ Sung stream.
Sừa couldn’t remember when he started fishing at Sủ Sung stream. He only knew that whenever he and his friends went fishing at night, that’s where they went. His friends would sit for a short while then leave to fish elsewhere if there was no immediate sign of success. For his part, Sừa would stick to this place stubbornly. He always ended up with the most fish.
Next to the rough block by the stream where Sừa often sat, there was a coffee plum tree that reached as high as his head. Every time he caught a fish, Sừa threaded it with a bamboo string and hung the string on a tree. On rainy nights, he didn’t run home but plucked a few arum stems to cover the tree top then crept toward the foot of the tree to continue fishing. Fish often went searching for food when it rained, so he could catch a lot in a short time.
In the blink of an eye his childhood passed. The coffee plum tree had shot up to the height of the stilt house. Sừa had also shot up into a big, husky man.
Now he started to follow pretty girls with his eyes, and stayed awake dreaming about them at night. He also stopped taking his fishing rod to the Sủ Sung stream. Instead, every evening, Sừa and his pals went to neighbouring villages, paying a visit to any family that had a daughter in it. The boys and girls would sit by the fire chatting merrily until the night wore out.
Sừa met Tươn at the Hạn Khuống festival in the Cò Chịa mountain village. Just one song and a cup of cassava wine with her were enough to make him infatuated with her beauty, with her skin that looked rosy like a prematurely hatched chicken egg put before the night lamp. But what Sừa remembered most was a birthmark that was as bright red as a cogon grass flower in a sunny afternoon perched on her slender light-skinned neck. The charming red spot was in front of his dazed eyes briefly when Tươn unintentionally pushed back her loose, long and shining black hair that smelled like rice soaking in water. The black hair would quickly fall down again, delicately hiding the mark.
Tươn was pretty, hardworking and good at embroidery and weaving. Her mother Mrs. Khau often told her, “In our Thái community, men must fish and hunt well, and women must be good at embroidery and weaving.” Her mother taught Tươn to practise embroidering piêu scarves when she was as short as a sticky rice pot on the stove. Her mother made sure she made her first piêu scarf carefully, beautifully. “People judge your dexterity based on your very first piêu scarf,” her mother said. “It is the holiest piêu scarf, the lovers’ scarf, because it holds the soul of the girl who makes it. This scarf isn’t made for anybody in your in-law family but for the man you love. If you give this scarf to your husband, it will unite your two souls forever.” Tươn’s mother told her so every night during their embroidery lessons by the fire.
Tươn finished embroidering her lovers’ scarf to her mother’s satisfaction. In the attic, there were many beautifully embroidered pillows, rolled reed flower mattresses and piêu scarves that smelt of indigo still waiting for Tươn to present to her future in-laws. For many months, the young men in Cò Chịa and neighbouring villages stood outside her house in the cold dewy night, playing the most romantic pan flute songs to woo her. Many sticks had poked up at her floor in vain. Tươn had never once opened her maiden’s door, a square wooden piece on the floor, to let any of them touch her waist. Her lovers’ scarf was still in a red wooden trunk.
After the Hạn Khuống festival, Sừa felt like a startled fox addicted to the hunter’s light. He thought about Tươn all the time, when he worked in the field, hunted, or fished. He dreamt about her in his sleep. Every day he only wished for the night to fall sooner so that he could get to her house to get to know her better. Tươn lived in Cò Chịa, which took Sừa as much time to reach as it would take him to roast a wild boar. Yet every night he donned his best suit and carried his pan flute to play at the foot of her stairs. The pan flute sounded as if it breathed fire, burning Tươn’s already rosy cheeks. It made her fidgety, constantly standing up and sitting down as she was embroidering by the fire. Tươn, who was known throughout her village as the best Piêu scarf embroiderer, found it impossible to work. The quivering sound arrested her hands, preventing them from giving perfect shapes to her wild fruit patterns.
As the night thickened, Sừa’s music became more and more urgent with love. The heart in Tươn’s chest pounded more and more quickly and loudly, like the drums that cow herding children played after the rain. The quickened breathing seemed to blow up her firm round breasts which seemed ready to burst through the silver buttons of her close-fitting traditional blouse. Tươn tried to subdue her heaving and kept on embroidering in bewilderment.
Yet the pan flute kept on singing every night until the rooster crowed, throwing Tươn’s colorful threads into disarray. On the fifth night, Tươn lightly walked toward her bed, opened the wooden trunk, took out the lovers’ scarf, and walked out to open the main door hesitantly. She stood on the ninth step of the stairs and wrapped the scarf around her neck. She grasped at two ends of the scarf and spread out her arms as if she were about to fly. The pan flute sounded hurried then hushed. Sừa quickly walked upstairs.
Every night afterwards, there was no longer any yearning pan flute music. By the fire, there were only very soft loving whispers that felt warmer than the burning coal.
One night, after Tươn’s parents had fallen asleep, and the coal fire had almost died out, Sừa took Tươn’s hand and led her to the Sủ Sung stream. Amidst the merry burbling of the stream, and the glistening moonlight overflowing on the waters that looked like a gigantic fish inclining on its side showing off its sparkly scales, Sừa tremblingly uttered the words he had prepared for a long time but hadn’t had the courage to say. Tươn remained silent but inside felt like a flying cloth ball played with during Tết. Hesitantly she leaned her head toward Sừa’s shoulder. With embarrassment, Sừa took Tươn’s soft petal-like hand with his rough, callous one.
A night breeze fondled the rustling coffee plum leaves. For a few months, Sừa hadn’t gone to the stream so the coffee plum tree had blossomed and born fruits without his notice. The big dangling fruits bent down the branches with their weight. Sừa plucked a handful of the ripened fruits and gave them to Tươn.
Cold air blew over from the far forest and up from the nearby stream. Sừa and Tươn sat close to each other. They found each other with their burning lips. It was the first kiss of the first love that tasted of the sweet, acrid and buttery coffee plums.
Suddenly, Tươn took off the lovers’ scarf from her head, swiftly wrapped it around Sừa’s neck then ran away. Sừa stood still looking after her in a daze.
When the orchid trees bore seeds, Sừa urged his parents to ask the matchmaker to bring a pair of wine bottles and a pair of chicken to ask Tươn’s parents to allow him to carry out the Pay Khươi ceremony so he could move in with her. After three years of Sừa living in the bride’s family, and after a few more years when Tươn moved to her husband’s house, Tươn’s belly remained as virginally small and smooth as a peeled wild banana, showing no sign of growing.
Sừa’s parents invited the priest home to carry out a praying ceremony for days on end. Tươn also drank countless pots of wild plant medicine made by the best herbalists in the region. Yet her belly didn’t bulge. As a neighbour advised, Sừa sold his biggest buffalo to fetch enough money to take his wife to the biggest clinic in Ha Noi for a check-up. He asked his father-in-law Mr. Túng to accompany them.
After several days of examination, Sừa and his father-in-law were informed of the results.
Sừa went back home feeling lost. He hardly ate, spoke, or smiled. Every morning he sat by the fire drinking cassava wine and smoking his pipe. “What did the doctor say? When are we going to have a baby?” Tươn asked many times but Sừa didn’t answer. Tươn cried for two nights, until her eyes swelled purple like two coffee plums. On the third day Sừa couldn’t stand her sobbing any longer. He held his wife in his iron arms and spoke in a choked, watery voice. “The doctor said I couldn’t bear a child, ever… Please don’t leave me, Tươn…” he said.
The news of Sừa’s infertility quickly spread from Chờ Lồng to Cò Chịa village. Tươn’s mother called her home and said:
“Sừa can’t give you a child. You have to think about this. When you age and can’t plant rice or corn anymore, who will take care of you? When you die, who will clothe your dead body? Think about that boy Ứng who often visits us and loves you.”
Ứng lived in the same village as Tươn. He had liked Tươn for years. After Tươn got married, Ứng remained single. Every time Tươn visited her mother, Ứng dropped by. Tươn would keep her distance and wouldn’t talk to Ứng. Ứng would ignore her coldness and quietly sit by the fire until midnight. Tươn’s parents liked Ứng and wanted to match-make him with Tươn’s younger sister Sưởi. But Ứng showed no interest, and Sưởi was too young anyway.
Tươn understood her mother but avoided the issue. Though Sừa was infertile, she still loved him and had no intention of leaving him. Yet, after that visit to her mother, on sleepless nights her thoughts often drifted back to the issue. Sometimes Ứng appeared in her head. Tươn tried to suppress her sighs so that Sừa couldn’t hear.
Sừa went out to fish at the Sủ Sung stream every night again. Before, he had gone fishing to find food for his family. Now, he went fishing to find solace.
Night after night as he sat by the stream, Sừa wished he could drop his sadness into the waters and throw it away to the hungry fish.
The stone where Sừa had often sat remained in place, and the coffee plum tree had grown old, mouldy, and coarse. Its branches had shrunk and withered. Sừa spent many nights staring at the tree, taking no notice of the fishing rod which was shaking under his hands because a fish had bitten the bait and was struggling to break free.
Nobody knew why after yielding fruit just that one time, the coffee plum tree never bore fruit again. Was it because on that night, Sừa had plucked its fruits for Tươn to eat, disturbing and frightening away its spirit which was then sleeping, violating a village taboo?
Yet under the fertile stream there was now a multitude of fish. No sooner did Sừa throw his line in than some fish tugged hard at it. Sừa would swing the rod up skillfully, and a catfish, a mudfish, or sometimes a carp would be thrown up from under the waters into the dew-soaked grass, wriggling violently.
After he caught the cold, Sừa lay in bed for four nights unconscious. On the fifth night, he sat up slowly, feeling fresh and clear. He finished a full pot of porridge that Tươn had cooked for him with relish, as though he were the strong 18-year-old chap of old.
After eating, Sừa walked into the yard, dug up a worm, hooked it into his fishing rod, and asked his wife to take him to the stream.
It was a strange night. The fish seemed to be fast asleep, so none of them took Sừa’s bait even though it had stayed in the waters for long and his arm had started to feel weary. But Sừa remained patient and kept on waiting calmly besides Tươn, who was looking at her husband anxiously.
Near midnight, something tugged at the fishing rod, lightly and hesitantly. Sừa pulled up the rod gently, but it felt heavy. Mustering up his strength, Sừa swung the rod powerfully. The rod swung up high like a new moon. It took Sừa a while longer to drag the fish onto the bank. As they directed their lamp at the fish, Sừa and Tươn stared in surprise. It was a catfish that was bigger than a calf and yellow like a ripe wild banana leaf. It was the biggest catfish Sừa had caught in all his life.
It was a very old catfish with muddy white eyes and wrinkled flat mouldy head. It struggled for life faintly, wearily. Sừa released the catfish from the hook and stood thinking. Then in a frail but resolute gesture, he threw both the fishing rod and the catfish into the stream. The catfish waggled its tail lightly and vanished. The fishing rod also floated away slowly into the eerie darkness.
Sừa and Tươn sat back silently together on the stone, remembering the day when he proposed. Their aged dry thin lips touched each other tremulously. The kiss tonight didn’t have a sweet acrid coffee plum taste. It tasted salty. The bitter saltiness of the rare tears rolling from Tươn’s tired eyes. Tươn felt something was amiss.
After midnight, the couple led each other home. Sừa lay down, took Tươn’s dry gaunt hand, and said in a trembling voice, “When I die, please don’t marry again… You don’t need to burry your lovers’ scarf with me either… Keep it…”
Tươn grasped her husband’s hand and broke out crying.
A barn-owl screeched three times sharply and coldly at the rooftop. It wasn’t a good omen. Tươn ran out and shouted it away. The barn-owl teased her and flew around the stilt house thrice and screeched a few more times before soaring away into the dark.
“Tươn, your husband has been dead for two years. You should move on. Your youth and beauty will pass away with every orchid tree season. Ứng is still waiting for you.”
Every time she visited her mother, this was what Tươn heard. Tươn’s father, who was drinking and eating a roasted piece of mouse meat, flung his cup of wine against the wattle wall and raised his voice in anger:
“Is your brain as small as a rat? When Sừa was alive, you told your daughter to leave him because he was infertile. Now that Sừa is dead, and the abstinence period is not ended and you’re breaking the customs and telling her to marry again. I was as blind as a dead fish when I chose you.”
Mrs. Khau trembled in fear and kept her mouth shut.
Tươn didn’t dare to say anything either. Yet afterwards, she visited her mother more often. Ứng also dropped by more often whenever Tươn showed up. There were nights when the two sat up late by the fire. Tươn’s father had to chase Ứng away. Night after night as she slept at her parents’ house and listened to Ứng’s warm pan flute music floating up from the cherry blossom tree behind her house, Tươn silently counted the days for the abstinence period to end.
Yet Tươn only dared to do so at her parents’ house. When she returned to her own, and looked at Sừa’s old blouse still hanging on the wattle wall and the lovers’ scarf she had wrapped around his neck that night whose indigo colour still looked fresh, Tươn didn’t dare think about Ứng’s pan flute.
Sưởi, Tươn’s younger sister, showed no sign of pregnancy after three years of marriage. Sưởi’s husband was the only son in his family, which was also the richest family in the village. His parents gave the couple a big bag of money and told them to go to Hanoi to see a doctor. They wanted a grandchild at all costs.
As Sưởi and her husband had never visited Hanoi, they asked Tươn to take them to the old clinic where Tươn was once examined.
Tươn still recognised the doctor, who called her into his room after examining both Sưởi and her husband. “Your sister has polycystic ovary syndrome. With our advanced science today, this problem can be cured,” he said.
“Mom and dad, the abstinence period has passed. I don’t want to remain single and childless until the day I die. Ứng loves me, so if you two agree, please let him choose a good day to ask the matchmaker to bring a pair of chickens and a pair of wine bottles to ask for your permission to move in with me here.”
Tươn asked her parents softly one day, as she pushed wood into the burning fire.
Before Mrs. Khau could speak, Mr. Túng jumped up, pulled down a knife hanging on the wattle wall, struck violently at the big pillar near the stove, and roared:
“Are you a hungry rat that has to gnaw at bamboo roots yet makes little of bamboo shoots? Sừa forbade me to tell you, but I’ll tell you now. You won’t get pregnant because you’re hopelessly infertile. It won’t make any difference if you marry Ứng.”
While both Tươn and her mother were dumbstruck, Mr. Túng darted away and back with a piece of paper. He threw it at Tươn’s feet. Tươn read the medical results and collapsed on the floor.
“Love, why didn’t you tell me… I almost sinned against you… The abstinence period may be over, but it will always remain in my heart.”
Tươn hugged her husband’s grave for a long time. The lovers’ scarf in her hands was soaked in tears. It was a special scarf today. Tươn removed the patterns at the two ends and replaced them with three silver buttons from her blouse as well as three cloth buttons from her husband’s old one. They now symbolised the soul of the lovers’ scarf. From now on, Sừa would follow Tươn and Tươn would look back, forever.
Then Tươn cut the lovers’ scarf vertically with a knife into halves. She left one half on her husband’s grave and the other on her shining black married woman’s hair. The symbolic hair was combed up high into a bundle with a silver brooch that Sừa had given Tươn on their wedding day. The brooch looked anew, glistening like a half-moon.
Translated by Linh Đỗ
*Piêu scarf: the traditional brocade head scarf worn by women of the Thai ethnicity, many of whom live in the mountainous northwestern region of Viet Nam. The scarf is a cultural and religious symbol marked by its colourful patterns that evoke natural beauty.