HO THI HOAI
Born in 1972, in Quynh Minh commune, Quynh Luu district of Nghe An province, she works and lives in Ho Chi Minh City. She has Master’s degree in philology, and used to be a teacher, editor. Her published works are: Poetry collection “This Festival” (2014), short story collection “Going there” (2014), novel “Lines of borders” (2021). Prize: First prize in short story contest (2006-2007) of Van Nghe newspaper with short story “Thung Lam”; first prize in Binh Ca dao contest (2004) of “World in ours” magazine.
By HO THI HOAI
No doubt that people said “the life is not simple”. The more I live, the more I feel that I am still very young and dull. What can twenty-five years say anything? Three years studied hard for exams. Four years studied in the capital. The rest was the time that most people experienced through. A few literal words, and a little life experience meant nothing.
The workplace was much different than I imagined. It was murky and dull. The sublime was hidden somewhere. The lowliness grew like grass in a stagnant, dirty wasteland. People kept complicating trifles to let the suffocated freedom and openness while simplifying the things that should have been carefully cared for. The shallowness was adorned with colorful care, deceitful or otherwise, it was naked to the point of innocence.
I saw erosions, lots of sleepless nights. My bewilderment (people often say that) because of the mountain and forest, Blue valley had been raised with the pureness or because it had not taught me the wisdom and wit? If meeting someone with harsh words, you would be criticized: “Countryside”.
I wanted to go very far! I’ve wanted that ever since. I definitely had to go! I urged me, fiercely, hotly. On Saturday, I rode the bicycle thirty kilometers back home to talk to my parents, to criticize. When it was ripe, was strong enough to make the last jump, I circled first and then informed later the story. Parents were like burning hot oil.
“Every day I see people both disregard and fear, both ridicule behind, flatter in front of me, spit like disgusting maggots, and then smoothly care and pamper…”
“That’s so miserable, my daughter. No one wants that, they probably wouldn’t be happy about it either. Don’t be foolish.” – My father told gently. And I can’t go back. Don’t want to hang around with indifferent, greasy faces.
“The woman who got power, wise, but greedy, subdued people’s hearts with a very delicate deceit. Everything made me bored. Father, let me go!”
“Bored! Bored that cannot be easy? What do you want to do? Okay, if you’re good, go ahead!”
My father got angry. My mother compassionated her daughter, lamented: “she dares to do terrible things. Miserable. She gets crazy.”
Father drank more wine, the life feeling casted a motionless shadow. I was broken, miserable, but I can’t go back. It couldn’t be different, I quietly left with a silent apology and a burning desire to repay in the future.
Got in a car, then on a train, I committed by simple calculations. A friend in the seaside, a little money saved, a university degree. Twenty-five years as a human being, with another very old thing: Money is in will and strength.
The quiet long way, I excitedly dreamed, vaguely feared, sometimes wandered back to the past days by my father’s voice:
“Nguyen, that’s it, I’m done! Huh, after months of applying for a job for you, I’ve become a lot wiser.”
“I know what a wiser father is!”
In the remote mountain, my father tried hard to taste more in the life. Every trip back and forth, he told stories to my mother and I, and after finishing work, he summarized such a sentence. It was recognized that he must be exchanged by tears and sweat, by bloody money to obtain something. Yes, my parents had to sell their bones and marrows from the day my brother and I went to school, until just recently, taking care of me, in turn the bull and the cow left one by one.
In the remote area at the end of the district, sometimes a couple of kids followed to study at high schools, eating cassava and walking by barefoot like my parents, but could care children to study like that, it was a legend. But when first tasted the life, I made up an excuse to do something crazy that made everyone’s eyes widen.
Right from the first days of coming to the workplace, not a beauty queen, or from the US, from Australia, but people had commented and criticized:
“From the deep cave but so proud”
“What pride. She is stupid, dull”
“She used to have a mental illness, or was caught by a ghost or something.”
“A bunch of years old have not been love. There must be a problem.”
I checked, examined myself, and then shrank.
Later, a lady told me: “Don’t avoid the gossips. Must criticize the same, or praise the same, know to talk according to the voice of the majority. Speak strongly. Sometimes we have to criticize and praise for people to respect who understand the life. Know it?”
One year of working, calculated, also known more things. Compared that to the value of two cows? Oh, no, human lessons were priceless, right?
A woman in her forties, with a sharp and beautiful face, but she did not appear to be a pimp, took me to the newly built beach hotel. They chose me, but I also had to choose the good side. They needed me fast, simple. And I did not hesitate to have a temporary stop like that.
One afternoon, on the balcony overlooking the vast sea, the man who rented room number six, the third floor got acquainted and talked to me. Listening, nodding, the square and middle-aged face dilated in halo waves. The details on his face showed the wisdom and standard, probably not ordinary people.
“So it is! Graduated from the University of General Literature. Then why are you working here?”
“I (the niece – I choose to address myself) want to be directly with the “green tree of life is forever young”
“Good! Standard of living?”
“Could save some money.”
“How long are you working here?”
“Until I see the need to change, there are condition enough to change.”
“Freedom is great, but it’s easy to pay the price.”
“Many people pride themselves on being this and that, but they can’t get out of what they don’t want. Resoundingly living in slavery, suffering.”
That seemed not like the guest told me. He seemed to be immersed in something.
After the conversation, the guest looked at me friendly and affectionately, the day after said goodbye, said he would see me again.
About a month has passed, I met the customer who loved the sea so much that whenever he was busy, stressed, sad, or leisurely, and he would go to the beach by car. When I saw him, I was as happy as I was to see my soul mate again and did not expect this meeting to change my life.
“There are many reasons why I can’t settle down with work nowadays. The most boring thing is that people keep thinking together to form something really strong, then think of it as absolute, ideal, then threaten and hinder ideas and initiatives. The representatives of power are deaf and blind to kill the values…”
I liked to talk like an old man. Speaking as if you were afraid not to speak. Everything I knew, I poured out like draining a flood. After that, the guest helped me like a fairy man appeared to help a poor in a fairy tale. I faltered and followed him to receive a new life to match a university degree in literature.
Leaving, I hid everything like a sacred thing to wait until one day to open it with all bursting joy, to see the day come back was soaked in the ecstasy of happiness. But it was all opposite. I got on the train back, because heard that my mother was seriously ill. The long distance was restless, faint in tears because I thought of the ferociousness. I walked unsteady, breathing in the scent of the countryside. Along the way, met a few villagers, looked at their faces silently saying unusual words, suddenly my prayer was self-pity in the silent darkness. Arriving at the alley, the smell of incense smoke made my legs weaken. The pain stoke my soul.
When woke up, I was at my mother’s grave.
I kept saying the sentence that was just reassuring, but full of tears: “Mother don’t blame me, does she!?”
Then blankly, repeated: “mother’s illness is not due to me, is it?”
Everyone eased my pain. When the house was just me and my father, I realized that my father was fresher due to my return, his face seemed to gradually melt away the nostalgia, loneliness, and isolation. The austere old look hid behind the eyes filled with love.
I sat with my father on the porch, the afternoon sunshine faded in the alley:
“Do you remember Blue valley?”
“I miss it so much!”
“I still keep the hut for you”
Blue valley and the past time returned.
My brother and I took turns leading the cows into the deep valley. In the second year, then the third year, I studied hard for the exam, and with wrapped rice, I brought the cows into the valley until late afternoon so that I wouldn’t have to listen to my mother complain, discuss and calculate anymore. I was grateful to Blue valley. Friends in the area they got married in four directions, I still rode a cow into the valley. The first few days I followed my older brother to the valley, I was afraid, got used to it, and then fell in love.
The best thing was lying in a hut, swinging in a hammock, reading a book, listening to birds and cuckoos sing. The melody and flavor of Blue valley penetrated to the bone and marrow. In the afternoon, the cows were full and stretched as if pregnant, both the cow and people were slow to walk back with a few bamboo shoots, a couple of bananas, or some firewood. I did not believe in ghost stories. Ghosts did not exist, but only occasionally encountered wild animals. At first, only saw snakes but also ran to death to the hut, then the story slowly faded away. Never forgot my father’s advice: “Don’t go in deep valley alone, in case you encounter dangerous animals”.
Missed home, missed Blue valley, I longed to come back, but…
Father said something else.
“You are so many years old and you don’t worry about your husband and children?”
Family? There was a widowed man who silently gave me things that were very different from everyone else’s without asking for anything in return. I was respected, cherished like a strange flower. It was the guest who was in room number six, third floor by the sea. And Song, the guy who conquered me with his strong personality, rolled into the delay, as if he understood the complexities in me. Song, the street man had a magnificent exterior, but the inner substance was more natural than polished.
My love story was messy. The desire to give was burning, but I did not dare to hurt anyone. Not strong enough, not having the right to hurt either of them, had to restrain myself, languished in silence, let the heat inside burn, but the ice outside couldn’t be melted. When can’t be carefree and decisive, people were so miserable.
Remembered the days of Blue valley, I innocently followed cows, hold books to read. There was also a time when my mind was tense because my heart was two and three junctions. “Should I stay at home peacefully with my parents at Blue valley, not tired of competition, or just hope and commit to know the horizon? But it’s not so confusing, so deadlocked to let it go like this”.
Father waited for. And I didn’t want to tell my father what my emotional troubles were. Nothing clearly so I did not what can say. Father seemed to suppress a sigh. I got up and went to cook rice, talked for something else:
“Don’t worry, father, in the city people like to get married late, and even prefer to be single.”
Next morning. The feeling of ecstasy on the old road to Blue valley, made me feel sorry for the potholes, the erosion spots, the jagged stones and the slopes of the road. I trembled, tears welled up when I saw the hut from afar. After all these years, my father still kept it. I knew that every time it was torn, my father fixed it. The hut was small and simple, but the capacity was endless.
One afternoon in August, I was hanging out in the forest hammock when my father took the university entrance exam paper into the valley, made me jump up and hug him happily, I saw Blue valley swaying and ecstatic. At that moment, the image of my father and Blue valley always stirred my memory.
I walked deeply in the old way to find feelings from the connections of yesterday and today. The share like the old friend made me calm and lightheaded. When returned to the hut, I was stunned to see that Blue valley was violently transformed. What about Song? How could the elegant guy of the street be…? I stood still, and the blood seemed to pour pink all over my body.
Can’t believe in my eyes. Can’t believe that was possible. This was a remote mountain area and not even a mountain forest in a fairy tale, how can he appear as if he has magic? But it was not that strange for a person who was so strong, always wanted to conquer what he already liked. So, did he know that he had infused my heart, liver, and blood vessels with the mysterious life that I both craved and fled since in the street?
He kept pushing me into trembling, ready to burn me to the ash.
Then he played a bold and reckless game, called me to the lake without knowing the depth and suddenly pushed me down. I had often been mesmerized by him, then sunk into him by such sensational blows. He picked me up.
The hut, Blue valley became infatuated and intoxicated in the eyes of a person who was being led into the enchanted land to be a woman. Thought of the stubborn, solid, and immovable in me instantly turned into water, into smoke and clouds, drifting, both close and far, both me and not me anymore.
When I came out of the enchantment, I suppressed the feeling of boredom, I made excuses. He gave me back the natural feeling, dispelled the turbid air born from my regret and perfection with his fresh, passionate eyes and even tacit share. He was happier, stronger and more confident.
Then he brought back to the hut a few young banana leaves that were said to be made for me. I just prayed that the sunshine and wind in Blue valley would be fierce. Only love can play tricks, push people into situations like this.
I look out there hoping for the sunshine and wind to quickly cool the “products of urban civilization” that were squeezing on the bushes. Blushed looking at my “original” figure, but wished he could quickly knit a dress made of banana leaves. Watched him stretching, smooth in “designing” the costume.
And so I fell in love with him more when realized that he brought the civilized nature of the city into the primitive wildness of Blue valley. He had just infused me with a new vibration with a new emotion. Did he know? If there was any doubt of his civilized deception, it was all gone by now.
Blue valley told me the strangest feeling of being a girl. A feeling I couldn’t have imagined would be. It would be like this in Blue valley.
We walked out of Blue valley in drunkenness. Then came the day when I had to go through a lot of contains. The sadness of losing my mother was twisted again. And compassionated for my lonely father in the deserted house. Seeing me silently wipe my tears, father said:
“Father would stay to light incense for your mother and ancestors. You can rest assured, don’t worry about me. When you get married, I’ll go on a trip.”
We returned to the city. Now I, Song and the man of the sea were different. The days were no longer the same. I no longer suffered in the guise of a monk and run away from love. Song pleased to introduce me to all friends and relatives. But the moment of tenderness, caress in front of the balcony of room number six on the third floor of the sea street, immense affection, and his eyes that were both gentle and warm, and remove melancholy, made me feel like a punishment daily.
When I was in Blue valley, Song made me forget that there was another man who also loved me very much. And I had a lot of respect and admiration, but I did not know if it was love or not? So in the middle of life, I regularly and quietly worked. Then hurriedly became Song’s wife, gave birth to children, worried about my family…
But the man of the sea was still lonely, still intended for me warm, pure and rare love in the midst of life with many philistines. No matter how much I prayed, his life was still quietly alone as if to make me more punished. The strength of Song when come to Blue valley already owned me, never belonged to me again, the deep greatness of the “god” who stepped up from the sea.
The road back to the homeland was crooked and blurred. The shadow of my distant father always made me feel tormented but I had to bear because I still had a front that was too messy and wide. Father was content with his life, but then suddenly passed away like a mother, not allowed me to see even one last glimpse. Why did both mother and father suddenly leave as if they were blaming me!?
Moreover, for several years, I had been worried about giving birth to my second child, and my father was old and weak, unable to walk, and my father and I had not seen each other. It has been three years. That period of time combined with the sudden and unannounced departure of my father made me feel like a dummy.
Song? Old brother? Sister-in-law? Nieces? My children? No one came Blue valley with me after days of mourning. Only I considered that Blue valley can dilute the thick sadness. Only I was earnest with the forest road, to which I knew clearly its temperament.
But a coat of the valley was no longer spreading splendidly, proudly throwing up a wild primitive dance, but it had been torn by humans, revealed each piece of painfully trimmed flesh and bones. Its majesty and power cannot subdue the human being. Its mystical magic did not make people helpless. The sound of animals was absent, only a lonely bird called the flock somewhere.
Hut!? I knew. Father must be sick so he can’t come here. My tears welled up again. The thatched roof, the bamboo walls… it wanted to rot like the father’s flesh would be decayed in the ground. Only the skeleton, like the father’s bones, was the one that time would eat away. Thoughts, images filled with tears. I just sat there with the rock next to the hut, not bothered to move.
The “Heart” lake was dry and cloudy. A few branches of wildflowers waited for its overflowing vitality.
The sound of valley was choking. I disintegrated.
Then my old brother returned to his city. I also returned to our distant city. Feeling sorry for leaving the house in cold and empty, only relied on relatives and neighbors to take care of it. I also did not have Blue valley to relax and be relieved. Just getting lost. Even things that were hard to see with the eyes.
During the long days at the city, whenever I shared stories about my hometown and home, my husband could only say:
“Whatever you are demanding to be perfect. It’s tired.”
“There is nothing that cannot be changed! You have to accept the rules and live.”
“If not, then this life is so ideal, there is nothing to blame!”
“Who wouldn’t? Let your energy take care of many other things! And the house in the countryside where no one lives, why not sell it!”
“People use wood, they have to cut down the forest!”
The road to the spiritual realm was very lonely. Maybe that was why the secrets of the soul insist on appearing in some forms or another. I relied on the story of how my grandparents lived in the remote mountains, with Blue valley, to weave into a fairy tale. I wanted to share with my children
“Once upon a time, there was a prince who escaped from his father, brought a poor village girl to a remote mountain area to live. Early in the afternoon, the smoky silk strips and the fragrance of cassava flying away, calling other couples to come together to build villages and open roads. The newly opened roads were full of snakes, sharp rocks, and thorns. A road grew larger, heading towards the castle of the king. Then, one day, when he heard that the country was in turmoil, following the news of his father’s death, the prince said goodbye to his wife and son to find a way to save the country. The prince was strong and brave until the day he took his last breath, never to see his wife and children again. The son, when he was sixteen years old, when the country was peaceful, went all over the horizon to find his father. When he knew that his father was gone forever, he returned to the mountain country, leaving all the invitations and promises of the capital. He thought: “I still have my mother, I have a forest, and there is a girl on the other side of the mountain. But the road connecting to the city is still very bumpy. I don’t want to be different from my father.”
Had told a lot of stories, my daughter said: “The story you told is strange, both like a fairy tale, but also different.”
My brother called me several times:
“Someone bid VND twenty million. I want to sell it and build a third floor, have a decent and spacious place to worship.”
“But the house is empty. It’s getting worse and worse.”
“I want to repair and remodel, sometimes we come back …”
“There, then you go back and keep it, see if you can keep it?”
A few years recently, since my father’s death, I returned to my hometown on the second and third day of the New Year. How far away, mixed but only a week back to remember more. So my brother wanted to sell. Tears welled up in my eyes on the night train. Tears kept flowing. What about the next trips?! Surely it cannot work.
After a cleaning session, my children and I went in and out to watch the house and garden. Looking at the two children fascinated with flowers and grass, looking at the old peach tree in front of the yard as if waiting for us to return to show off their beauty, my tears were about to flow again. Two years ago, my brother and I came back from before Tet to prepare the house altar. Why was it so cold this year?
When the remote mountains were scattered with lights then he returned. Put the fruit cake on the altar, finished the vows, and in the smell of incense on New Year’s Day, then we would be able to eat together. He poured his heart into confiding, perhaps to justify the delay, not fulfilling his fate with ancestors:
“You see, for the past two years, my children and I have not celebrated New Year in the capital. This year, I told him to go back before but he refused, father and son were not in a row. Things in my family have been getting worse recently. Then my older son is about to get married, has no home, and Nga, my daughter applies for a job that costs a lot of money but still hasn’t obtained the result.”
I kept silent. Then he continued:
“And you, coming back, being nostalgic and let it get in the way, get too much involved in the present life, blurring other values is not good at all. Please be more realistic. Tied to the past, to the back to the extent like you, it will upset the present and future. In the future it will regret. Does your husband share and sympathize with you? Every year, you and children return to such a long distance, leaving your husband to suffer the absence of wife and children… Do you think it does not affect family happiness?”.
Listening to my brother said, I was confused, stuck, and lost all my will. The silence and coldness of my husband when we were preparing to return homeland appeared again. I had to suppress the pain to be sweet, but Song was still. We all wanted to share. He considered that I focused on waste things and lost both tangible and intangible things. I thought I was lonely. I was no longer loved. Many times, I pushed the “Sea God” to wonder. Then just like that, just a glimpse in my mind made me less lonely.
Late at night, my brother and I still sat by the kitchen and talked. I made him lose interest in selling the house. Since then, he had not heard anything more about selling or not selling. But a few months later, he wrote a letter announcing that the house had been sold. I was silent indignantly. On the death anniversary of my parents that year, I put chicken sticky rice and flowers on my altar to remember, but refused to go to his city to see how my father’s alter?
Countryside. The only graves left were that my brother can’t move. People in the remote mountains still put incense for all the graves in the cemetery. Surely the souls of my parents and grandparents were also warm. I went back to visit my hometown. It was a long time!
Acquaintances greeted me warmly, but my heart still felt lost. Still sleeping in my house but only found the things that did not belong to me anymore. There was nothing more empty and cruel than feeling alienated from what was once your flesh and blood, your breath. The owner shook his head when I suggested I would buy the house again. He wanted to settle down in a peaceful career, did not want life to turn upside down when it was already smooth. Home affairs at countryside was the biggest thing. I did not know when my brother’s hair would be grayer, would the years seep into him the love of spicy, salty ginger countryside? Would he be awake and restless with Blue valley, with the countryside?
This time I felt scared when thought about going to Blue valley. The hostess told me about it last night. Then the aimlessness led me down to the district, to find the old working place. The old scene was much different. But the surprise, and the happiest when the new “Headmaster”, was “Bao Geography”, the best guy in my class at that time in geography. So glad to say everything. The story had no beginning nor did ending encroach on each other. We were like sitting with a party of so many delicious dishes that we could only taste it, pick it up and put it down.
“Bao have been here for five years? Until now, Nguyen see that Bao is the first person to leave the city and return to the hometown. It’s amazing!”
Bao stood up, went to the window and looked out, then went to the cabinet to take out the file and gave it to me, said:
“Please read it, maybe you will like it.”
I read a series of articles by Bao. Bao walked in and out to wait. When I put it down on the table, I didn’t say anything, but Bao turned around, eyes focused on me:
“What about that?”
“Does Bao still write articles for the newspaper sometimes?”
“Is it okay?”
“Can Bao go with Nguyen tomorrow?”
“Where to go? How’s the article? It will be sent to the provincial newspaper.”
“Tomorrow, will know everything.”
At nine o’clock the next morning we were in Blue valley. It was a pleasant surprise idea according to Bao. Standing at the top of the forest path, the cloudy sky became darker, from the end of a fallen forest.
“What do you see Bao? The ghosts still suck the blood of the forest! No sound, very quiet. Started from the shirts, to the flesh, to the end of the bone. “House of Culture” (Bao works at Culture House) see how people deal with nature (Bao’s article)?
“Must edit a lot, Nguyen!”
“Can the wind turn into a storm?”
We returned to the lake. The storm wind came very quickly. My father and the hut appeared. Little Nguyen quickly ran up to the hut to watch the forest rain, watched the lake sipping the rain.
“Nguyen! Why are you standing like that? You Ok?”
Bao woke me up. Both were so wet. I felt hot, remembered the scene in the past, Song held me wet… Bao seemed to be unusual and put his hand on my forehead. I sensed what was about to happen, getting hotter and hotter. Bao hugged me. I stirred in a tight embrace, willingly listened to Bao’s voice: “Just like this!”
It was like a breeze, then I pushed Bao away, regained my calm. I knew that was the moment when Bao found it difficult to control the strong emotions of a man who was so easily yielded to what he probably thought was wonderful. The image of a past friend who loved to read and write forgetting all around appeared clearly in my mind.
We came back a bit late. Bao’s wife was not happy. I did not want to stay. Bao saw me off at sunset in the district town.
Returning to the city, I was informed that the “Sea God” was seriously ill. Fear the pain would take him away! Stunned, tormented because still could not return with him to Blue valley. Running back and forth worried, grief turned into tears. People gossiped about things. My husband did not trust in me. Cold. It seemed that my husband had a strange smell on his body. Lost him!? The pains of life squirmed again like an evil thing about to swallow us.
I returned to Blue valley. Sometimes standing on the top of the slope, looked at the high mountains in the sun. The splendid green coat danced the primitive dance. Then seeing my mother suddenly turned into thousands of green trees. The brother in the hut came down, I confused him with my father. Sometimes I saw Song and I swimming and turning into fish in the lake. When he was a man of the sea again, together with Bao, surfing the car on the road into the smooth, shady valley of ancient trees…
(Translated from Vietnamese into English by Hanoi Female Translators)