The Woman with Lipstick – A Short Story from Vietnam
Vu Thien Kieu, a poet and writer from the land of Blue Dragon, shares her short story.
Vu Thien Kieu
Vu Thien Kieu, born on September 1, 1974 in Ngoc Minh Village, Quynh Hoang Commune, Quynh Phu District, Thai Binh Province, currently lives in Hon Dat District, Kien Giang. She is member of Vietnam Writers’ Association. Her published works include poetry collections “Thirst”, “Earth, Water and Poetry Love”, “Burning the Quiet Area”, and “Hungry for lip tops”. She has won several awards including second prize in poetry contest 2010-2011, jointly organized by Army Art Magazine and Song Huong magazine; Award for Good Poetry by Writers Magazine in 2012; First prize in the short story contest “Rainbow Six colors” organized by the Center for Research and Applied Science on Gender – Family – Women and Adolescents (CSAGA), in collaboration with the Swedish Embassy in 2013; Third prize in the short story contest of Literature Art Newspaper in 2015-2017; First prize for Short Story 2018 organized by Children’s Web.
The woman with lipstick
By Vu Thien Kieu
(Translated into English by Khanh Phuong)
Mrs. Bay looked at her daughter-in-law. She was ready to go to work again. She rubbed her eyes. Her eyes suddenly felt itchy. But her mouth even felt itch more. How could she be silent when seeing her daughter-in-law to use cosmetics, apply cream? Even more hates when she wore carrot-colored lips. She used to not have cream powder, lipstick like this.
– Please don’t show me the carrot color again, Madam. Cham.
– I’m leaving. No more trouble for you, mom.
Mrs. Bay specialized in calling her daughter-in-law by Madam. She did not know how to speak sweetly to pat her daughter-in-law. Daughter-in-law caught her smile.
One day, little granddaughter Chon was too hot to speak to grandson Chieu: “You find a few Colocasia esculenta leaves”. “What is it for, sister?”
– To treat grandma’s mouth. No one can stand grandma’s mumbling.
– Huh. You dare!
Bad! But how dare it. Their grandma.
Their father was died. Four people (including 3 children and their mother) and their grandma lived together. Their mother was about to go to work at night so their grandma got angry. Children understood. Grandma worried that their mother had this or that and could leave her granddaughter and grandson alone.
The granddaughter often begged her mother: Mom! No matter how hungry you are, stay at home with us. Don’t go to Binh Duong. I’m so scared of losing my mom.
– What happen if I am going to Binh Duong? There will have monthly salary. Money is more regular, isn’t it?
– But you have to stay at the inn. Then men can approach to you. Mom will leave us to get married. I can’t stand my stepfather. Then my mother’s love for us will be less. I can’t stand it.
– And again. I heard from my friends online that a stepfather beat his stepdaughter to death. The boy is only eight years old. I’m so scared. You promise not going there.
Daughter Chan said while looking at her mother, Mrs. Cham as if imploring, her eyes were wet, her body trembled, as if her stepfather had been before her. Compassionated her daughter, Cham gently hugged her in the arms and nodded. The daughter felt her mother’s boundless love through her warm embrace.
There were five people in the house. Four people were absolutely afraid of ghosts. Whenever they heard about ghosts, the four people cringed. Their chests were pounding. At night, every time the wind and storm flash, their souls were like on the clouds. Cham, every night, she went to work until dawn. Sometimes heavy rain and storms, and Chon begged again: Mom, stay home with us. I’m afraid.
Her mother shook her head. Then her eyes were watery.
Since her father (named Hinh) died, the family burden fell on her mother’s shoulders. She, a thirteen-year-old child does nothing but took care of younger brother, swept the house, and went to school. Her grandma had a heart attack, was sick at times had to take medicine regularly. The drug for her grandma every month cost a lot. Then money spent for food, money for schools. Living in a field, but their family had no field, so how can live. The field had followed the illness of their father. The whole family’s life, the whole family’s breath all depended on her mother.
During the day, her mother followed some other people to transplant seeds, pick fruits, cuts fish to dry, then even heavy work such as carrying bricks, pesticides … she also covered all.
She also looked for a job at night. She worked outside Rach Gia.
About six o’clock she left.
The moon was bright tonight. That her father died four years. Four years, a difficult time for her family. In the first year, debts accumulated. In the second year, her mother was able to stretch some debts. In the third year, the whole family passed the suffocation. And this fourth, the family can buy a pack of rice, not every kilogram as before.
It’s all her mother’s works. That was why, grandma loved her daughter-in-law very much. After cooking, she told children to wait for their mother and eat together. There was a meal, a pair of snakehead eggs went around five bowls of rice. Mother picked up for grandma. Then grandma moved to granddaughter, then granddaughter passed it on to the youngest brother (named Duoc), the youngest brother gave it to his thin brother Chieu.
And of course, boy Chieu poured it back into his mother’s bowl: Mom, eat it so you can take care of us. Grandma and granddaughter cried. Really, there was nothing better than their love for each other, though very poor but very compassionated each other. The mother in their lens was the diligent one.
Their mother was kind, diligent. The mother was always looking for more jobs to do. Because if had a job, she can earn more money. Only when have money the family have food, school fees, and clothes.
Their family was so difficult, whether the neighbors or relatives care or not. Yes! On holidays and New Year’s Eve, the family also received gifts as poor households. There were rice cakes, jam cakes, oil and even envelopes. But those were the showers that suddenly come and then stop. “Must earn by yourself. Make your own money, don’t depend on anyone. People can’t help me forever” The mother always told them that.
The moon was bright. Their hearts were sad. It’s almost ten o’clock and they still can’t sleep. The four of them, grandma and 3 children, who are curled up together, could not chase the cold wind outside.
– What does your mother doing?
Grandma’s question startled grandson Chon.
– My mother is going to work. My mother washes dishes for the restaurant.
– Wash dishes, also applying lipstick, Chon.
– It’s okay, grandma. Now everything must have a beauty that can be hired by people. But as ugly as a ghost, who dares to hire her.
– Huh! Ghost!
Grandma wrapped her arms around him. She fears. It accidentally mentioned the word ghost to frighten Grandma.
She laid still. He pulled the soft sheet over his grandma. He loved grandma so much. Whenever a woman or a girl make up, the grandma thought they were doing this and that “dirty works”. Poverty and suffering were closely intertwined. Grandma can’t see a generous glimpse, she was averse to lipsticks and blush.
Grandma was also especially allergic to mother’s phone. The black Nokia phone, when it left the pocket of her coat, is judged. Grandma grabbed the phone and tried to open it. Her eyes were blurred, but her curiosity was greater. She asked grandson Chieu reading for her what the text in phone showed.
– All trash and spam messages, Grandma!
– Trash! Phones also have garbage.
– It’s a random message.
– Is there a message that identifies “dear or lover”?
– Asking too much.
Every day, the mother answered the phone a couple of times. As soon as grandma saw her put the phone to her ear, Grandma sat quietly listening. Mother’s voice says briefly: I know. I go immediately.
And the chorus of lipstick and makeup happened again before mother left the house.
Mrs. Bay was very suspicious. She suspected her daughter-in-law…
She also used to raise children on her own. The night was so long.
One day, she helped her granddaughter Chon pushing a bicycle to repair. She asked the shop owner where his wife was. The husband replied succinctly: It’s over there. She raised her eyes in the direction he pointed. What was that! A tray full of middle women. Also sat on the mat, took glasses of beer. They were very modern.
God! These were married women. What about her daughter-in-law? Her thoughts turned to her daughter-in-law. During the day, she did nothing to hurt mother-in-law’s eyes. But what about at night?
She lured Chon to ask what restaurant her mother worked at. “At that Wave restaurant”. “How do you know”. “So my mother said that”.
She muttered: Wave Restaurant. Madman Cham washes dishes at Song restaurant.
– The restaurant sells through the night?
– No! At twelve o’clock only. My mother finished cleaning up too late, so she stays there and back hom early in the morning.
Mrs. Bay extended her hand to receive the dose of medicine Chon gave, but her heart was still restless.
Wave Restaurant was that. What a beautiful restaurant. The wall was painted with waves.
– Ma’am, who are you looking for?
The young man was wearing a blue shirt with a red ribbon on his sleeve. She thought he must be the security guard.
– I’m looking for my daughter-in-law. She washes dishes here.
– What’s your daughter-in-law’s name?
– Cham. Her name is Cham.
– There’s no one here named Cham, ma’am. And how old is your daughter-in-law?
– She is thirty eight.
– There are only owners who are over forty. The rest of the staff are all under thirties.
Oh my God! She sat down on the ground. Tears welled up in her eyes. “It’s clear”. Her daughter-in-law lied. Hinh! Your wife was spoiled.
She looked at the street through her cloudy eyes. Lamp. The street was lighted. Green and yellow and red lights, so crowded. Her heart roared: “Hinh, my son. You lived wisely and died sacredly, guide the way for your wife to return home to raise your children. Don’t be like the moths that suffer in the life, poor children”.
After a rough night in the street, Mrs. Bay also arrived home about half an hour earlier than her daughter-in-law. Miserable! How was she so hard for an old grandma to take care of his wife for her son. She knew that but what would be matter? Her daughter-in-law has not yet passed young, not reached the old. Without a proof cannot say then the daughter-in-law would deny. Then the neighbors can talk behind. Then the kids scared. No matter what, she had to create peace for the children. They were in adult hood, the psychological shock would affect their whole life. As if it were true. Madam Cham would cry and beg her, that “mom please understand me. I don’t want that”. Her heart would be soft. As if she pushed hard, her daughter-in-law would lose face and leave. Then what would her grandchildren’s lives be like?
She kept her eyes on daughter-in-law. Cham went to the kitchen. Cham boiled vegetables, cooked rice. Mrs. Bay carefully examined the spirit of her daughter-in-law through the light of the fire. The color of her cheeks was pink. The color of its luscious lips meant that she has just been “full”. But where she did “eat”? Was she like that fire? Fire encountered everything. Fire burned anything. Probably not! She sighed heavily.
– What’s up, mom!
– YES. Ah… ah it’s nothing, daughter
She was surprised when she suddenly called her daughter-in-law as “daughter”.
– In a little while, mom please let the children eat rice. Today, I go to cut rice for Mr. Thuan’s house.
The story of last night haunted Mrs. Bay very much. Her daughter-in-law did not wash dishes at Wave restaurant. It was clear. Uncover or cover the story was up to her. When it come out, it could not only deal with her daughter-in-law but for the whole family.
– Where’s Cham?
The bundle of incense on Mrs. Bay’s hands felt freely. A woman with a sullen face entered the house.
– Ma’am, you are looking for my daughter-in-law.
– Your daughter-in-law. She is a wife all over the world, but she also has a mother-in-law. Where is she?
– My daughter-in-law is working.
– Your daughter-in-law steals other’s husbands. Even a poor guy drives a motorbike taxi, she is not accepted.
– Why do you say that? You must not lie.
– Ask your daughter-in-law. I warn you. You must teach your daughter-in-law, if I give her a can of acid, her face would be beautiful.
The children were afraid and hid in Mrs. Bay. Grandma Bay pushed the grandchildren behind her to avoid the fierce woman’s gaze. She glanced around the house. Seeing her daughter-in-law’s lipstick box on the shelf, she crashed to the ground.
– Hey! She uses lipstick as a charm. This charm. I’ll ruin her charms.
She used her foot to crush them breaking the boxes of cream and lipstick. Satisfied! She turned on her heels and got into the car. Her voice squeaked into the house:
– My message to damn Cham, if she keeps going with my husband, I’ll scratch her house too.
Mrs. Bay shocked and her grandchildren had green faces. At this point, they burst into tears:
– Call mother back, grandma. Mommy!
– Mom. Huh…
Mrs. Bay coaxed: Hold on. That’s what they say, kids. Don’t believe it. People hate your mother saying that. But your mother works at a restaurant.
– Grandma met our mother at Wave restaurant.
– I’ve met her. Your mother is busy washing dishes all the time. That’s great.
Granddaughter Chon was excited: Yes. I know. My mother is very good.
The older sister smiled, making the two younger brothers laughed as well. Childish indeed. All three of them ran to the gate to play.
After reassuring the grandchildren, Mrs. Bay turned to be lost. Her daughter-in-law was in danger. Falling on a married man was like a fish on a cutting board. How she could live if being cut and kick like the cream box.
How can be safe for her daughter-in-law? Motorbike. Jealous. If her daughter-in-law drove a motorbike taxi again, it would be beat by that jealous woman. She hurried into the room and opened an old tin box. She opened the lid of the box. Money. The money was enough for her daughter-in-law to buy an electric bicycle. The money she saved for whole lifetime in case… VND three million seven. Active means would be always better. Imagined that Madam Cham would sit on a car soaring, Mrs. Bay’s heart suddenly warmed up. When her son died, her daughter-in-law would be like a daughter. She loved her daughter-in-law, the daughter-in-law loved mother-in-law. But if only it weren’t lipstick, just leave the tanned cheeks, who would be jealous.
You should believe in me. I just want to earn money to support my children. The children are good, your health is good, and then that is the most I ever care.
– Madam Cham is telling the truth. Acid has no meaning to anyone.
– I know mom. Feel free to watch out the children for me and remember to take your medicine regularly. Don’t think too much, mom.
After the sweet sound as a sugarcane, Cham pursed her lips so that the lipstick was evenly covered.
– I don’t like these. But thanks to its color, it is lucky and earns a lot of money.
– Do you have a tip for washing dishes?
– Then, if more customers at night, I would have a lot of tips.
The phone rang again. Glance over the number to Slow off subtitles.
– I’m going, mom.
Saying that, Cham took the electric bike to the gate.
Mrs. Seven looked at her daughter-in-law again! It must have been standing all night. She did not expose her actions as right or wrong. Wrong or right was not as important as the children’s rice and clothes. Children needed to be well protected. Can’t let the children know that their mother who had to do a job that the whole society laughed and scolded.
She searched for a lighter to burn incense. “Husband and son, how can you think to help my daughter-in-law? Limited human power. She plowed day and night to aim for a long time. Dear son Hinh. Was I too bad? I was complicit in giving my daughter-in-law to do bad thing. The road is over. I hope you understand mama”. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she mumbled.
This morning, when the weather was calm, Mrs. Bay went to exercise. This road was only made by the state. She walked slowly. Her hands waved. The doctor told her to walk regularly to be good for her health.
At the foot of the field was the Bau Trau field that once belonged to her family. Now people bought and built a bird’s nest house. She regret. How much sweat were put to the field by all members of the whole family. But in the end, couldn’t keep it. On the day selling, she begged people to set aside a corner of about 100 square meters for a future burial place. Her husband’s grave was buried in the graveyard of Cau No. Five, where all day the cows bulldozed, Hinh also needed a warm place to rest after a series of days of suffering and illness. The new owner said coldly: if bury the grave here, then no birds go back to live. If you don’t sell it, I’ll buy it somewhere else.
Her field was in a stuck position, with no frontage, no water line. Well, let accept. As soon as the children growing up, they would choose to buy land to gather the graves of their grandparents in one place. She had high hopes for her grandchildren. Chon and Chieu were all good kids, who would how to love their grandma and mother. Now suffering and hard work, the next day her grandchildren would try their best to be rich or poor with people.
While thinking, Mrs. Bay suddenly heard a noise ahead. Two women were arguing. Is Cham, her daughter-in-law?
– I said it was mine.
The woman’s voice was bitter.
– Two months ago I gave you one night. Why are you so tough?
The woman scolded and cursed Cham. Cham lowered her face. Tears were down.
– You cry. Fake tear. I told you. Whenever he calls you to bed, you must make excuses for being busy and let me know.
– Yes. Because he likes me.
– He likes you. Damn you.
The woman repeatedly slammed her hand into Cham’s face.
Mrs. Bay panicked and rushed to pull her hands.
– It’s not that. Please calm down. Forgive my daughter-in-law.
– Give my way. I have to teach that damn woman. Every business has a law. You have to look ahead and look back. My rice cooker, you dare to jump in and dig.
After her pushing, Mrs. Bay felt to the edge of the field.
– Mom! Are you okay?
Cham struggled to lift Mrs. Bay. Suddenly Cham turned back. Cham removed a sandal with a wooden sole. She pursed carrot-colored lips and shouted at her:
– Yes. He likes me to sleep there. Why don’t you call him? You are out of time. If you lack of money, I will you some hundreds to eat. Don’t talk to me anymore.
Cham picked out her pocket, she took out a VND five-hundred-thousand and gave it to that woman. She took quickly and said:
– YES. Cute. If you use mine, please share. We share 1/3. Bye bye.
Mrs. Bay’s limbs were trembling. Her eyes rose. Cham was panic:
– Mom. Calm down, mom. Let me take you home.
Recently, Cham was less going to work at night. Mrs. Bay’s health seemed to be weaker. Spending was less than before. The children rarely asked for money for snacks. But they were happy because the night had their mother sleeping together. The sunshine was always above. The ground was getting closer every day. That was, grandma’s back was also bent. Mrs. Bay looked at her daughter-in-law’s neck and saw it was green. It seemed that she also coughed and suffered from cerebral ischemia.
She said to Cham: “you try to eat well. You have something happened, the children cannot depend on. Mom is old.”
– Mom, don’t worry. I’m strong. Ah. I’ll go again tonight, listen to me.
Cham was needless to say, she also knew. Because in the afternoon she saw her daughter-in-law on the phone. She also lit incense to pray to her husband and Hinh to bless her with peace.
She followed her daughter-in-law’s lipstick-painted hand. The carrot color was bright today. She found her daughter-in-law’s lips strangely beautiful. Instinct or bad news for her. Only when one would be close to the earth and far from the sky, one can think clearly. She didn’t hate the color of carrots anymore. It was the color of smiles, of life. It did not matter. She can follow her husband. She didn’t help to see her daughter-in-law, and the money for medicine increased and for children’s school fees. She looked up at the altar, husband’s picture with a kind smile. An incense stick turned off. What would be go on here?
– Mom, you take the medicine. Let the kids go to bed early.
Cham took the mask to cover her face. Through the mask, the carrot lips were still cleared as if screaming in the eyes of Mrs. Bay.
It was nine o’clock in the morning. But Cham has not yet returned. Mrs. Bay went in and out of uneasy heart. Without rice, she cooked noodles for Chon, and Chieu to eat in time to study. The youngest boy was lying in the hammock sleeping in the middle of the day. What was wrong with her daughter-in-law?
She burned incense again. The smell of incense sticks spread the house. She prayed: “Husband! Son Hinh. I pray that Cham would not get bullied. Ours daughter-in-law wears lipstick. Due to the poverty of the house, she chose the profession of standing on the street at night. she has suffered for this family already. I know all. But I didn’t speak out. Women’s fate…”
– Mrs. Bay! Where are the children?
Mr. Thuan’s voice interrupted her line of vows.
– What’s the matter?
– Do you know what your daughter-in-law does?
– Then she goes to work at a restaurant.
Mrs. Bay looked up at him hesitantly. Maybe he already knew. She hesitantly asked:
– Is my daughter-in-law beaten by jealous woman again?
– No! Your daughter-in-law is dead. She is not as bad as people think.
Dead? My daughter-in-law is dead. Why?
She felt onto the ground.
He wiped his tears with his hand.
– Calm down. Her daughter-in-law worked as a sleeper in a coffin.
– Who knows that last night she slept and didn’t wake up? The owner of the camp called the police to search. Looks like she had a stroke. They’re about to bring her home.
Mrs. Bay seemed no longer to listen to the man talked.
“Dear Cham. Her daughter-in-law, who liked to wear carrot-colored lipstick. She put on lipstick to go to bed. They hired her to sleep in a coffin to sell at a high price. My daughter. Carrot lips were fake but your heart was real. The long nights I thought you were in the arms of men and boys. I thought you was immersed in the sale of your body. I have loving you so much. Dear Cham. Can you sleep in the long, cramped nights of the coffin? I was so sorry for you. I’d rather have a bad reputation than tell you. Money. What is money that people have to suffer so much? My daughter!”
Grandma was sobbing.
Outside the gate, a car stopped.
People gathered to carry the red box, which was also the color of carrots, into the house.
In the box, the woman with lipstick was asleep. Her lips were still the color of carrots.