Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
By Tống Ngọc Hân
The stately sunlight of winter only came at noon. It beamed on the rustling Nepalese alder trees. It shone on the hedges and skirts of girls and gently stroked the rice falling here and there on the desiccated terraces which only yielded crops once a year.
The Sa Pa terraces were engraved on her heart like the indelible wrinkles on an old person’s forehead. The harvest season had passed. The stream of people from all over the world that flocked here for sightseeing, recording and photographing had stopped. A clucking mother hen started to take her hungry flock far afield to search for food. A roaming pig in heat uttered a mating cry, even though it bled its nose when it stumbled upon the roots of an indigo tree and some sharp rocks. Gone was the golden season. The season of ripened rice fields undulating like waves in poetry and the complacent eyes of a 30-year-old. On the eve of a new year, the teacher contemplated with a sobbing heart the thirsty rice stubbles craving water, the indifferent winds zipping by, the dying sunlight, the forlorn terraces, and those impotent wrinkles on the gods’ foreheads.
Every year there was only one rice crop, so rice was as precious as gold. It wasn’t a laughing matter to see a Mong woman meticulously pick up the grains sticking between the fingers of her child who was playing nearby to put into the pot so as not to waste any. Here, girls as young as seven cried themselves hoarse on cold nights to beg customers to “please buy something”. Five-year-old boys waded naked in their boots through slimy dunghills and clung to their mothers’ hems to get down to the fields to take care of their younger siblings so their mothers could go looking for water hidden in some hole or crevice. Grown-ups painstakingly transported every bag of coal to the city. Good wood yielded good coal. Countless tree trunks were burned to make coal for cooking. If there was no more rice, people would scour every forest and mountain and waterfall for anything else that could be sold in the city. Anything up here from the heart of nature was considered a marketable speciality.
December slowly crawled through the door and touched the empty and morose compartments in the teacher’s house. On the light peach blossom tree, a few buds burst like a 15-year-old bride who had to get married to obey her parents, only to give birth to a tiny pale bundle who uttered its first cry amid winds and sunshine. The sky looked as if it had been dyed blue, dressing December in peace. Ignoring all worries and crying babies, a Mong man would sit by the fire fondling the money he had earned by selling bamboo shoots and firewood. He would fold the bills in half, put them into a glassine paper bag, then secure everything in his wallet. The wallet was kept in a brocade shirt pocket right next to his heart which pounded louder and louder as Tết drew near. For its part, the pocket of a Mong man’s brocade shirt which was made by his mother or wife was located on the inside of the shirt, which made it all the safer and warmer. In December, lots of things were scarce, including sunlight strong enough to dry clothes. In the teacher’s class on the mountain, damp indigo clothes exuded a pungent smell that brought tears to the eyes. The students dried their clothes with their own flesh during play. As for the teacher, she was wondering what she should wear on the following day to be both sexy and cosy when some inspectors would visit her class. It was a cold month, so the students had to mix chilli with salt at meals to keep warm.
The teacher’s adoptive mother lived in the city. She wasn’t rich but comfortable enough thanks to an almost 30 m sq. grocery store. Even more so than her biological mother at home, the adoptive mother often reminded the teacher to get married and actively sought matches for her. Yet the teacher felt like an overripe bamboo shoot. She loved her students as her own young and found music in birds’ songs and paradise in the schoolyard filled with children’s voices and laughter. It was true her youth was shortening though.
As the air turned bitingly cold and the students had to stay home, making a day on the mountain feel much longer, the teacher went back to the city. Her adoptive mother gave her an unexpected and meaningful gift. Him. The man took her heart at first sight. He was divorced and was living with a little daughter. They swiftly embarked on a beautiful love story. She took him to every place she knew, every cold crook and corner where their love was tested against the elements. The thunderous love turned a 30-year-old girl into a woman after one night when the two found themselves alone in her room on the mountain. Her bag of coal was half used up. Yet she quickly found herself empty-handed again.
He never showed up on the mountain afterwards. Nor did he remain in Sa Pa town.
Sometimes the teacher thought about her first lover as if he were her dead husband. Tens of thousands of buffaloes and cows had been killed in that cold season but her heart was spared, still beating fervently. Her colleague and principal who lived in the adjacent room was about to get married, to a businessman. What’s more, she would be transferred to the city. When the principal redecorated her room to welcome her fiancé who would come up for a visit, the teacher wanted to tell her friend to tell him not to come. Because it would be very cold in December. And she wouldn’t want to overhear their lovemaking, considering their room was just one bamboo screen apart from hers. But the principal was quicker and told the teacher to take a break. “The students will stay home because of the cold anyway,” the principal said. “You should go visit and hug your mother. I only need a week.”
In a week, the teacher went back to the mountain. December had rushed in and squatted on the small bench on which she often sat to comb her hair and pick up the fallen strands of her youth and stick them on the banana tree trunk. There was a letter from her mother at home waiting on her desk. Her mother must have torn a piece of paper from a student’s notebook to write on. The teacher picked up her mother’s loving letter and smelled it. The letter smelled of straw, potatoes, water-ferns and poultry. The fragrances of rural life which might have faded through the years now came back to life, vividly and innocently jumping around her mother’s uneven handwriting. To the teacher’s eyes, the badly written letters on the sheet looked exactly like the rice stubble on the terraces. She smiled weakly. December seemed to be scrutinising her bed which was furnished with a cheap mattress and sunk under her weight in a corner next to the wall. It was scrutinising her plain simple desk. Perhaps it doubted the small joy that had resurrected in her heart.
"Knock knock knock". The teacher knew December didn’t knock on your main door but always snuck in through chinks and holes. So who was knocking so politely? She went out and opened the door. It was him, the man who had visited her in her wasting dreams. In astonishment she dropped her syllabus. Why him? He greeted her on behalf of the principal colleague who would soon go to the city to get married. The teacher wanted to break their old bed to pieces. How could he have made love to two women who were just one fragile bamboo screen apart? “December, get out of my room!” her heart shouted.
The teacher ran out like the wind through the rice stubble fields, which scared her students to tears. “What’s wrong with you, ma’am?” they asked. She smiled, then raised her hands to crush her hair. “I’m just pretending to be the wind,” she answered. The children frolicked after her. “Pretend to be a kite, ma’am!” they demanded. So she kept on running and flying until she felt exhausted and threw herself down by a wild Malabar melastome tree with violet bundles. December still had a heart after all. Malabar melastome flowers were blossoming all over the mountain. A species that nobody sold, or bought. Nor were they put into vases to decorate a windowsill, a wedding night bedroom, or a party. The wild flowers kept blossoming in the winds and soothing her heart. If only she had a love to boast of before flowers and plants. If only she had a family, however small.
New teachers kept coming in and out of her school. Her adoptive mother slowly addressed her heart, which had returned to its peaceful state, “You should remain on the mountain, honey. Don’t go back to the city. There’s too much hankering here.” As if she felt embarrassed for her failed matchmaking, her mother continued, “Just wait and see honey, they won’t last. He married her out of greed, not love.” The teacher burst out laughing. She knew her adoptive mother’s real motive. Her mother wanted her to stay up on the mountain because she wanted freedom. She had an old boyfriend who obviously wouldn’t want to spend another cold winter alone. In the race against time, the teacher suddenly realised she didn’t have to hurry. With age comes wisdom, she didn’t need to brood. Just look at her adoptive mother, who was already 60 and still filled with zest.
One day, as the teacher was preparing to leave for the Tết holiday, her old forester friend climbed up to her school and said in an urgent voice. “Let’s marry as soon as possible. My dad may not last long.” Offended, she let go of his hand and asked, “Why me? Don’t you find me too old, plain, poor and backward?” “Gosh,” he said. “You can’t marry anybody else but me. Are you still thinking about that cheater? Am I unequal to him in any way? Love me. You don’t need to go down to the city after marriage. You can stay on the mountain. I’ve already told my parents that we’ve been dating for a long time.” So he said and dragged her along like a Mong man kidnapping his bride. He dragged her to the train station to go back to her home village to ask for her blood mother’s permission. As for her adoptive mother, the woman was pleased with the match. “Fortune smiles upon fools indeed,” she said. “He has a big house, a good salary and is a virgin for god’s sake. Honey, if you don’t make your decision fast, you’ll live to regret it.” The teacher made her decision. Or to be more accurate, she let fate make it for her.
In spring, the teacher went to the Gầu Tào festival*. Before she went, she asked her husband to tag along. He threw cold water on her idea, saying, “You’re too old for festivals.” Then he took an abrupt turn: “You can go though. Go and part with your little dishevelled bunch for good. This family doesn’t need your meagre salary.” Granted her salary was small, she thought. But what about her dream, her beloved teaching career? Didn’t he promise to let her work before they wedded? She cried a lot but her tears couldn’t move him. Her adoptive mother lost her temper and said, “Don’t be stupid. Many people dream of living your life. Just stop teaching and enjoy yourself. Don’t be greedy.” The teacher acquiesced and stopped teaching.
Yet she missed her students, her school, her classroom, her syllabuses, her lecture platform, her colleagues all insanely. She missed the cock’s crow at noon, the sunshine and the winds. Her longing seemed to lurk in every cell in her body, ready to shoot out like seedlings under the rain. She fingered a piece of white chalk until it was crushed. She nervously opened and closed a musical textbook and imagined her students’ lisping, chirping. She craved to teach. She yearned to stand on the lecture platform and look down at the little ones with pure black eyes. In her sleep, she dreamt about taking a child’s hand to guide his writing. In reality she had mistakenly taken her husband’s hand. Her dream woke him up. He stripped her naked. In shivers she bade goodbye to herself and faced the same question that he had been asking her ever since their wedding night. “How many times did you fuck that son of a bitch? What did he do to make you unable to forget him?” She didn’t reply but lay quiet, dazed. She felt like an actress who was forced to play two roles in a movie. One role was the gentle, generous, submissive woman who lived for others and was content with giving up her passions to satisfy her husband and family. The other was the mad destructive one who wanted to climb high, dive deep, and reach extremes to fulfill her own aspirations. Whichever role she played, she had to play it well. In fact, she played the submissive one so well that she mistook her husband for her first lover and thought she loved the former as much as the latter. She also thought that he would forgive her for not being a virgin when she married him.
Then all of a sudden, tonight the mad woman showed up to claim her role, and found that her husband was insulting her and treating her with contempt when he asked that question. If he truly loved her, he wouldn’t ask her so, even in jealousy. She pushed him away and said, emphatically, “We had one night together. We made love that night. As for us, never once have we really made love!” Slap, slap, bop, bop. Slaps and punches rained down in torrents on her who felt like a withering cotton rose. The violence that could have befallen her every night was accumulated into that one day.
She went back to teaching. She was revived like a child given new clothes. Her students welcomed her like a mother coming home from the market with presents. Mother and kids frolicked around each other, chattering, laughing. Her husband knew with such a stubborn woman, the rod wasn’t the answer. He silently waited. His time came when he saw her pluck the sour wood sorrel leaves under the hedge and eat them with relish. She was pregnant. He swore to himself to take advantage of the situation and turn her into a benign turtle forever. No mother wanted her child to be fatherless. One day, he showed her a divorce paper and stated his condition, “Either me or your silly career.” She reflected for a while then signed the paper. The marriage felt like a childish game that they two had foolishly played.
They lost each other. The newborn baby didn’t know its father. The father was too ashamed to claim his child. More importantly, the teacher couldn’t find in her heart any feeling for her ex-husband. Time passed. Her child turned one. She was transferred downtown. After 10 years of being attached to the dear old school and many generations of students, she couldn’t say goodbye. Her adoptive mother was different. She said nonchalantly, “You’ve devoted your youth and sacrificed your happiness for your career, so it’s only right that you’re recognised and promoted now. But your love life is rough.”
Her students and the villagers saw her off on a windless day in December. Some gave her a dozen corn cobs; some gave a few chicken eggs wrapped in straws. One student even presented her with a struggling chubby bamboo rat whose neck was tied to a stick. She wiped away her tears. Goodbye, love. The teacher carried her child on her back in the same way as a Mong woman carried her baby to the market, her hands clutching numerous odd things like a Mong girl who went to live at her husband’s house after the wedding. The sky looked as if had been dyed blue.
*Gầu Tào festival: a festival of the Mong ethnic group which is often held in the first half of the lunar January to pray for fertility and health.
Translated by Linh Đỗ