Nguyen Dac Nhu
Nguyen Dac Nhu has Master’s degree in economics. He is member of the Vietnam Writers’ Association, and the author of many impressive novels and memoirs on Vietnamese literature. He has vast experience with its generous literature style, addition of enthusiasm and love for life. His typical works can be mentioned such as the novel ‘A Bamboo Segment’ (third prize of the Vietnam Writers’ Association, Novel prize); the novel ‘A Swirl of Thunderstorm’ (The Consolation Prize of the Novel Prize of the Vietnam Writers’ Association); Memoir ‘Non-Trade Un-vivacious’; Memoirs “Vietnamese Seen Everywhere’; “Western Europe Without Border’, and “Memoir of South America’.
By Nguyen Dac Nhu (Vietnam)
(Translated into English by Khanh Phuong)
The Jeep car was as compact as a horse-drawn carriage, and in less than two days while traveling and resting, it took the teacher and student across the whole road more than a thousand kilometers. At that time, the car was driving on the stone road cutting through Phuong Ha field. Near a restaurant in the middle of the field, Ba Hung told to the driver:
– Stop here, let’s go to the restaurant and rest for a while, Nam!
While Nam carried the things from the car for lunch, Ba Hung walked around the old restaurant. Two gable walls were built with bare bricks, all still intact with a mossy color like the days when he was a kid. The two rows of stone columns, the front and back doors, were still smooth and purple color by the time. The banyan tree behind the restaurant was still green as before, and the sounds of all kind of still playing music at noon in the summer of the bygone period.
After eating and drinking, Nam spread out a mattress/tarp on the ground, arranged pillows and a rechargeable electric fan, took out a set of kettles and a thermos of hot water to make tea to invite his boss, then returned to tide up the dishes.
After a round of tea, Hung took off his shoes, shirt and laid on the mattress to smoke a cigarette. He did not turn on the electric fan as if he wanted to enjoy the rice-scented breezes, the cool aroma of the homeland wrapping around his body. Flickering in the smoke, Hung’s thoughts became as light as a drifting cloud.
…The cloud slowly flew over the Dong village, only kilometers away from the place. The garden of his childhood, where he was born and raised up, the wooden house, the thatched roof, the brick yard, the pond… in the past few decades, although he had not returned, all were still intact in his memory. Only the people there made it strange. A glimpse of Hoai’s face, his first wife, and Hoai’s stepchild later, the two people who brought him so much torment during many past years.
On the day of victory, when he returned, rushed into his lap, not only Nga, a daughter drop of his blood, but also Bau, a boy blood drop of a strange man. The war lasted too long! Was it possible that his father and brother Cuong had to witness it so cruel, that they could not wait until the day of the meeting to tell Hung what need to say? The reunion dinner, the family were busy taking care of the whole afternoon, but Hung did not touch chopsticks. That night he did not give Hoai a chance to talk, she could only hide her tears and lead two children to sleep at the other room. Hungry in the middle of the night, Hung took out the dried cake to eat and then sat and smoked all night.
The next morning, he visited and distributed gifts to the family of Thoa, his young sister got married in the next village. Thoa hugged her brother and sobbed, told him a heartbreaking story that happened six years ago. When found out pregnant, Hoai told her sister-in-law and discussed how to secretly have an abortion. But all kinds of herbal leaves and medicine, all kinds of self-maltreat, all were not used. The pregnancy was getting bigger every day in front of the village gossip. Thoa had asked her sister-in-law a couple of times how to deal with that, but all she just were sobbed and tried to swallow.
On the day of giving birth, Thoa had to invite Mrs. Khan Bong to the house to deliver the baby. According to her father’s orders, she and brother Cuong had to clean up a kitchen space for Hoai. In the new days of birth, Hoai did not eat or drink anything, her body was so thin that not had a drop of milk, Thoa and baby Nga, the two niece and aunt had to take turns nursing the baby with diluted porridge. One morning, when Thoa pushed to open the door and entered in, she saw Hoai lying face down, half of her body on the cot, half down on the ground, drooling with fresh blood from her mouth and an empty bottle of insecticide next to her.
Thoa panicked to call for help, only a few moments the neighbor Cuu Beng brought a hammock with Thoa stretchering Hoai to the emergency room. Fortunately, it was not too late, Hoai escaped death but had to stay in the hospital for treatment. Dad called the grandparent in-law. He said, the story had come to the reality, then you should take your daugther Hoai back to your home, and baby Nga, the blood drop of Hung, let us raise her here to be a good person! Hoai’s parents only knew how to quietly bow their heads to hug their grandson and went to the infirmary to pick up their daughter.
On this side, baby Nga was far away from her mother, fasting, crying day and night, her grandfather ordered Thoa to bring her back to the mother. Two years later, Thoa got married. Many times when visited the house, only saw brother Cuong who was blind in weaving the baskets, saw sister visiting, he had given up the work to earnestly inquire about the health of the mother and her children, and once even asked for a visit. But got order from dad, no one allowed to go and see that bad lewd woman.
The family seemed to have a bad luck. Soon after, brother Cuong suddenly fell ill. He was sick for a long time. After more than 1 year, he died. After his death, his father’s health deteriorated significantly. The father was like a oil lamp that has run out of oil, the day before, still got rice but the next day, couldn’t have three spoons of porridge all day. Hoai heard that she had found Thoa to ask for visiting the father in-law.
She brought gifts, at first he denied to accept, Hoai banged her head and cried and prayed for forgiveness so that she could serve as the daughter in-law. Thoa cooked bran in the kitchen, could not hear clearly the small and loud pleas mixed with Hoai’s cry, only knowing that the father was silent in the end. From that day on, Hoai’s children and she all came, from morning to night, they always cleaned, washed, cooked rice for the sick. Until the day before his death, he called all of his children and grandchildren to his bedside.
Dad told that, Thoa’s family over there, they had enough fields and gardens, so the house and the garden on this side decided to give Hung. Hung was still away, so he gave the whole to the niece Nga to manage on behalf of her father. Since she was still baby, she could pick up her mother and brother to live with, and waiting for her father Hung to return from the battlefield, everything was decided by her father…
Thoa led her brother to the cemetery. Hung burned incense and prostrated himself in front of his mother and brother graves. They laid there, gathered together, which can also be temporarily called beautiful peaceful graves. May all the sufferings of the world be liberated by Gods and Buddhas so that their souls can be in the pure land! A gentle consolation passed through a broken heart. A gentle wind from the field blew to push the smoke of incense covering his sun-tanned face. Spicy smoke or fragile heart made him cry…
A brave soldier, a tactical commander like him, fought hundreds of big and small battles throughout the bloody Central region, many times near death, at that time the image of Hoai and his daughter was bright again, bringing him the strength to overcome death to return proudly. From the height of pride he suddenly collapsed in front of the betrayed woman. The humiliation of being cheated by his wife made Hung feel like he was diving in a pool full of resentment and bitterness.
The raging heart screamed for revenge. But then he looked the graves around, near and far, smelled of smoke, all the same, all green graves again! Soft-hearted in front of the world life, he could only think of how to run away from the shameful complexes that surrounding.
At home, he called Nga and told her that she was now twelve, and she had to be obedient, study hard, and help her mother and brother. Then he privately told Hoai that he had to continue a new mission in a very faraway place, not knowing when to return, but not sure if that day had come, therefore she can be completely free! Hung left all the bicycle, gifts and money saved for long time. He quietly left with only a light backpack and a lonely bitterness in his soul.
The land and the people once nurtured and protected him during the cruel war years, now all stretched out their arms to embrace him. Hai Kien, the closest friend during the war between the life and death, now the vice president of the province comforted him:
– Don’t bother with those small things and discourage the hero, Ba Hung. Your wife has now betrayed, let her be free, don’t torture yourself. This is your motherland. Stay here, tomorrow I will report to the administration division requesting the Military Region to assign you to be the provincial military commander. Uncle Tu Mong insisted on finding a replacement for him to retire. You come back at the right time. I arranged that, if you agree, just stamp it and done!
That was for real! Ba Hung became a true native of Quang region. For the whole year after that, Ba Hung was all alone with the collective life, private bed, certain meal. Hai Kien couldn’t stand it and suggested:
– My youngest sister, Trinh, is a beautiful girl who is studying at Hue University, if you like, I’ll introduce. She is young, but the revolutionary will is very high. The type of man like you is that she loves it. Heroic boy, talanted girl, very worthy!
Didn’t know what Hai Kien has added to her sister, only know that it was done again! News spreading throughout the province, Miss Ut Trinh, the martyred daughter of the former Provincial Party Secretary and the sister of the incumbent provincial vice president, officially accepted the marriage proposal of Colonel Truong Xuan Hung, the provincial military commander. The wedding would be held at the end of the year when Miss Ut returning from university!
The new happiness overflown like cool and calm waves every morning. A beautiful young wife, educated, gentle, very respectful and proud of her husband. A spacious garden house in a quiet central street of the town, always filled with the chirping voices of his two daughters, the little fairies of his life…
But sometimes in the dark corner of the soul, the image of his blood daughter that day, and then the image of Hoai, a famous beautiful woman in the region, the wife he once loved fully; and then the image of Phuong Ha village and the childhood garden in the North, images of relatives’ graves… all of them still returned in anxious dreams…
According to his father’s will, Hung wrote a paper handing over the ownership of the old house and garden to daughter Nga. Then the daughter got married, and she and her husband stayed there with her mother and brother Bau. It was the presence of these two persons that he found it difficult to return to the house. Even on his daughter’s wedding day, he only sent gifts. Occasionally going to the North for a meeting, father and daughter, grandson just made an appointment to meet at sister Thoa’s house. Everything has become familiar, used to the way of people who have been stolen from their birthplace. It hurt a lot, but what can he do?
Then a week ago Nga called to tell him that her mother Hoai was seriously ill, wanted to see him for the last time, had something important to say, and requested him arranged to return immediately!
The old landscape, outdated beloved wife was not only in the imagination, all presented in front of his eyes, Hung followed his daughter into the new small house built for Hoai in the corner of the garden. A faint, trembling voice came from the room:
– Is that Nga’s father back?
In front of Hung’s eyes was an elderly woman, long white hair covering on a green flower pillow, a delicate oval face still retaining the elite features of a spring time. A thin blanket covered Hoai’s body.
– Nga’s father must have had a hard time traveling long distances. Take a rest and then eat.
Up to this point, Hung could only say a sentence that only after twenty-five years of silence did he have the opportunity:
– Don’t worry, I’ve already eaten, Hoai!
– Yeah, I forgot, since that day when I went back to leave for B on the New Year of 1965, Nga’s father have not eaten a home-cooked meal for decades!
Hung tried to suppress a sigh and turned to another matter:
– Heard the daughter say Hoai is very sick, how is it now? When I return this time, I will take Hoai to a provincial hospital for examination and treatment.
– It doesn’t matter. I feel a lot lighter inside. After a few meals for a month and a half, I’ll be healthy again, and I’ll be able to go back to work right away!
A moment of silence, Hoai took a small long key and gave it to Hung. She ask Hung to help taking the leather briefcase at the bottom of the box in the corner of the house. Hung trembled and touched the worn-out briefcase when he realized it was the school bag he used during his high school days at the district school.
So many childhood memories suddenly rushed back. All thoughts have passed, but all were kept by Hoai’s hands. Hoai took out a piece of paper rolled in a wooden tube with a tight lid and gave it to Hung, the handwritten paper has now turned yellow.
“Phuong Ha March 5, 1972. Dear Hung. Dad probably can’t wait for you to come back, it’s time for me to go and find your mother and brother Cuong. I love you so much when returning to be orphaned…”.
Tears welled up in his eyes at the familiar trembling words. Witnessing the scene of a strong man who was once affectionately called as the husband, now hold his face and cried like a child, Hoai’s heart fluttered with sadness, she raised her hand to touch his grey hair, but then suddenly retracted as if suddenly touching a fired ember. A voice as sharp and cold as steel whispered softly:
– So boy Bau is my brother’s son?
There was no answer, instead there was a weak cry of Hoai. The small room suddenly became cold and lonely. For a long time, Hung said as ordered:
– Tell me how things were!
At this point, Hoai suddenly sobbed, the cry broke out as if she had never cried like that. Those sobs were of pain and sorrow would never stop if Hung didn’t take a sudden movement to get up and pull out a towel from the line to wipe Hoai’s face and talk to her in a gentle voice:
– Please stop crying, I’m already here.
The sobbing sound has become smaller now, interspersed with broken voices like broken pieces trying to put together…
– Me, I… so miserable… dear Hung…!
– In the father will, he said that before died, brother Cuong confessed to the father…
– Poor uncle’s grave! I am the biggest sin, if I have a heart, a pure heart then could not happen such big matter. Today I would like to apologize in front of the spirits of mother in-law and uncle Cuong, so that I can tell you once again the story…
Both were silent. Hoai’s eyes looked at Hung as expected. Hung remained silent, once again wiping Hoai’s face and lowering his voice slowly:
– Well, don’t tell me what happened.
Hoai’s voice suddenly became urgent:
– “No! I have to tell you because there won’t be another chance… Did you know, that summer the water of the Vai River rose like never before, sometimes the flood seemed to be about to cross the dike of our village. That day, there was a sudden thunderstorm and rain poured down on the fields. The commune mobilized all villagers in the two villages to rescue the dike. Our family also contributed enough, father, Ms. Thoa and I and brother Cuong also, but Uncle Cuu Beng said that blind Cuong would not go, he could stop the way of other people, let him stay at home and care the children!
The whole village bringing hoes and shovels rushes to the dike. Around midnight, there was an order that women with young children had priority to go home first. When I got home, the rooster crowed for the second time, baby Nga was asleep, brother Cuong was still knitting baskets, the lamp on the sofa turned as small as a pea. I turned up the lights and told him about the work on the dike and then urged him to go to bed before it was too late. He said that he had boiled a pot of water with grapefruit leaves and told me to take a bath to avoid a cold.
I finished taking a shower and was about to go to bed with my baby when he told me to sit down, he had something to say. I sat in the chair across from the table. Silence did not say anything, for a long time he burst into tears. Not understanding what happened at home, I asked what to do, he said that this afternoon, Uncle Cuu Beng berated his blind to make him feel ashamed and wanted to die. Why was God so unfair, so many healthy village boys, all of them have flown away, only disabled man like him forced to be a guard dog, sometimes just wanted to plunge his head into the well to finish the human life.
Hearing he said that made me feel so sorry. At that time, I don’t know why I suddenly thought of you. The two brothers were like two drops of water, tall, muscular, and bright, just because of his eyes, his life became dark. I sought consolation that God did not give him eyes to shine, but gave him golden hands, good at knitting and sewing, I said that can assure that a village girl still on the horizon, and eventually he would have a happy family like anyone.
Heard me say that he tried to hold back the tears and said thanks for encouragement, but how am I, I am thirty this year, never once stood near a woman, never once held hands anyone… Then he reached out and grabbed both of my hands. I tried to pull back, but he was standing next to the person begging for my forgiveness, he only asked to hug me once to know what the warmth and scent of a woman was, and then die willingly. I jumped back in panic, but he hugged me. A mix of emotions welled up inside me, fear, pity, wanting mixed together, leaving me bewildered not knowing what to do. He carried me into the inner room, and so in a moment of infatuation I became a betray with my husband”
Hoai’s cry again sobbed overpowering the voice, at that moment just like a breath “dear Hung, I know my sin is great, so I also understand that no matter how you treat me, I can’t complain about anything. I just feel sorry for boy Bau who doesn’t know his father, even have to take mother’s last name, with no title in this house. I also feel sorry for brother Cuong, from the time his son was born to the moment he left the world, he has never been able to hold his son in his arms, for many years never heard his son speak…
Hoai’s voice gradually became smaller and at this point, she could no longer speak a word, instead, there were weak coughs. Hung had to urge several times to stop talking and then gently stroke Hoai’s chest to ease the cough. She looked at him with grateful eyes and gently took his hand, Hung hold it tightly and looked down to move her cold hands over his own face. Tears welled up in his eyes and his voice choked.
– Hoai! I am guilty of you. I have finished your whole life, now I will do everything to compensate for you… This time I will stay at home to take care and treatment so that you can recover like before, I will do the birth paper for Bau officially as Uncle Cuong’s son. He will…
Hoai pulled her hands out of Hung’s hands and then gently touched his tear-stained face and said, out of breath:
– Thank you… as long as you do it for Bau, means that you compensate for everything… then I’ll have a satisfied life…
And Ba Hung stayed in Phuong Ha village. During his days in the village he did everything he could for Hoai. Hung’s high school friend, who now was the director of the provincial hospital, sent a group of doctors and nurses to Phuong Ha village to examine and treat for Hoai, and her health seemed to have gradually recovered. The second thing was to transfer the surname to Bau. In fact, this was not a simple job, but thanks to friends working in the district, he had an official birth certificate in less than a week.
Hoai trembled to receive the birth paper still smelling of ink from Hung’s hand. Her face lit up when she read the words that Truong Xuan Bau, the biological son of Truong Xuan Cuong. Then, as if a cloud suddenly flew across the window, Hoai’s face suddenly darkened with a desolate sadness. She suddenly put the birth certificate on her face. A heavy sigh came from the paper, which now had two faint wet on its back.
Hung gently removed the paper from Hoai’s hand and then wiped the tears on her face sweetly coaxing:
– Stop crying, everything will be fine again!
As if there was a mysterious internal force from inside, Hoai’s hands suddenly pushed Hung’s hands away, the force was so strong that her whole body was moved a distance back to the wall, she told Hung with an unsteady voice:
– Thank you for doing a good deed for me and my son. From now on….
She turned to the two children, she clearly instructed each word:
– From now on, the sister and brother take care of me, don’t let Uncle Hung do it!
Also from that moment, Hoai did not say anything to anyone. It seemed that all the remaining strength she tried to talk last words with Hung. After three days, Hoai passed away. The nurse who cared for her said that before she died, her face suddenly became pink and strangely beautiful, she lovingly hold each person’s hand with trying to say that she loved them all!
As for Ba Hung, when he knelt down beside the bed, downed on her face and cried: “Hoai dear you, I will find you again… wait for me, dear Hoai!” Her eyes were so gentle and trusting then. She looked at him with a small smile and nodded before her eyes closed forever.