The villagers hear the news of Inh giving birth. The news spreads fast as lightning. Hundreds of people gather at the ramshackle house by the pond. This is one of the three homes situated on the high ground. Surrounding the house is the land with the moss so thick no one can see a brick. The house has been like that for several generations. Just glancing at it, one can see the life without the competition with time. It’s here where the baby is born. People ask about the baby that’s just coming to life:
“Is it boy or girl?”
“Boy or girl? It doesn’t matter to us!”
“It matters! Why not!”
“Girl! It’s a girl!”
“It’s like her aunt! It’s from their family!”
“Why is she like her aunt? Why don’t you say she’s like her Mom!”
“F.U. If they can get that, they are lucky”
“What does that mean? Aunt or Mom?”
“It’s because of love and hate!”
“Love and hate is like kicking the mud to other people’s pond!”
It’s a girl. She is born and doesn’t register into the book of the village. She doesn’t have a name. Even with the ugliest or simplest name, it’s so weird to have nothing to mark the date she is born. Everybody calls her Gai (meaning Girl). That name was by default since the day she was born and it stuck to the future. Everybody calls her that. It became her maiden name. She is the daughter of Sister Inh. This is the story of the girl named Gai.
When coming to life, Gai is wrapped in an old cloth. The blood is everywhere in Inh’s skirt. Gai is put on the bamboo bed that is so old and damaged. It’s a bed that was passed on from many generations. Her mother lies on the bed and holds her while looking at the woods that are burned. It’s the end of autumn and she feels too cold. She dreams of eating a bowl of hot soup. Just a plain soup. But nobody serves it to her. Don’t mention the chicken soup. If she wants to eat chicken then she has to kill one. She doesn’t remember how many chickens she’s raised. She thinks about her husband:” What a husband! He is always careless. He usually keeps a distance from his wife. How could we have somebody like that on earth!”
She feels weak and exhausted. Perhaps because when she gave birth, she lost too much blood. Inh has to take care of everything. Since the contractions to the painful moments, she had to get the wood and set up the fire. She knew that she would need the fire to keep warm. There is nobody around her. The neighbors don’t help. People look at the house by the pond like a stranger. Nobody cares about what happens to her. The mid-wife also refuses to help her when she gives birth. The reason is understandable because the relatives on her husband side got leprosy, a non-curable disease. The disease prevents people from coming close to her family as the village is not large. Nobody visits her even though she has a beautiful body. When she was in puberty, she had pink cheeks. The villagers now look at her with regret.
“She is not ugly! She doesn’t need to come to that family!”
“Why does she hurry, afraid of being single!”
The rumors eventually get to her. She ignores them. This time she stays here. She holds her new born daughter. She looks at the surrounding wall. The fire reflects off the hays on the dry mud. Surrounding her is an old and mended brown shirt and large skirt and the faded coat that hangs on the bamboo rack. The chinaberry poles are smooth. The square handkerchief is losing its original color. She remembers the old days when she hurried on the roads of the village. She hurried to go to the field to work with her husband. Every time she went out, she wore the black handkerchief on her head. She puts it on neatly and folds it like a crow’s mouth. The wings are like the crow’s wings. The crow handkerchief makes her more beautiful. The handkerchief is not the one that she bought from the market. It is not sold by the sellers. None of that color. Don’t mention the black because it’s only for the farmers. For the brown, she has to go the market to choose. It’s expensive, just the work of making the brown color can take several days. But this is the one that she dyed by herself. Dyed with the mud. Mud is black as ink. To get the handkerchief to the color that she desired, she had to work hard. She had to get the mud from the pond. She got the mud from the garden of Mr. Son. She assumed that with just a little digging she could get it. She was smart to beg the owner:
“Please allow me to get some mud?”
Mr. Son looks at her:
“Do you want to get mud from my pond? Why don’t you ask somebody to do it for you? Where is your husband?”
Inh changes to a different topic through a smile as if to prove her ability:
“I can do it. It takes only a little digging. My husband is busy with the field work.”
Mr. Son talks to the woman:
“You can take anything as you please. I need people getting the mud from my pond. The bamboos keep dropping leaves to the pond, it is getting shallower. Perhaps in a few years, it can become land. I want to dig the pond deeper but I can’t do it. You can take as much as you want.” Mr. Son points his hand toward the corner of the pond and continues: “The black and smooth mud is under the fig tree. You must get it from there. But it is thorny and there are snakes and centipedes. That is not the place for women. You need to call your husband to help you!” Stopping for a while, Mr. Son continues: “I tell the truth! Looking at the snakes changing their skins on the bamboos! It’s frightening! I don’t dare to go there!”
Inh knows that her husband will never help her so she answers wisely:
“I know! But in the daytime, why do I have to be scared.”
Then she realizes her intention by working by herself. When the black mud is poured on the ground, she immerses the handkerchief into the mud to make the white cloth become black. She throws her shoes aside and pushes the cloth in the mud. She talks to herself: ” There is no other pond that has blacker mud than Mr. Son’s pond! Even the Chinese ink can’t compare! It is so black! Only one dip is enough! Don’t need to do it a second time!” She doesn’t forget to criticize the brown color. She chooses the black. This is the handkerchief that she wants. It is pure black that no one can criticize.
She lies here. She looks at the handkerchief that is hanging on the pole. She looks at her work that has faded with time. She looks at her daughter. She is so little. With curled lips. A long hair to the ears. The child is closing her eyes. She uses her little finger to try to push off the dry blood on the eyes of the child. The light is not bright enough so she can’t see well. The little finger can’t push off the blood. She pushes harder. The child wakes up. She raises her hands into the air. The legs pulls back. Her actions show that she hurts because of the hard hand of her mother. The child cries. The cry is interrupted as if she has something in her mouth. It can’t be loud enough. She touches her hair. She caresses to calm the child from crying.
Time goes by fast, she feels that the torn shirt that’s wrapped around her is not enough to seal the bleeding. She puts her hands there to search. She brings up her hands to the light to check. The red blood spreads on her finger. She quickly squeezes her thighs to hold off the bleeding. But it’s in vain. She is exhausted. She falls asleep. Her eyes are open. She doesn’t sleep well. She passes away because of hemorrhage.
Mr. Inh is tall. He is middle aged with strong body. All of his life, he never wears clothes, only a loin-cloth. It doesn’t have unique color, half brown, half black. Perhaps this is a dirty cloth, with time it won’t have color anymore. Sometimes when it is sunny, he gets naked and washes and dries the loin cloth. He is just naked like that without being shy. Every time when he takes off the loin cloth to wash, to avoid being seen by villagers, he closes the bamboo gate. It’s just some bamboo and people can still see all of his stuff and his naked body. Sometimes he uses his hands to cover private parts. His hand can’t cover it well. He smiles and walks to the pond and jumps in. All of his actions are obvious and he doesn’t feel shy. He never shows any affection towards his wife. Nobody knows how he gets food but he never shouts at his wife. Perhaps having Inh as his wife is his grace. He never appears with his wife. It seems that the festivals in the village are something out of reach for his family.
Mr. Inh has long hairs. If he lets it down, maybe it can reach his waist. The long hairs are wrapped in a bun, not stable and moving around until the moment it is scattered to his shoulders and face. The hairs need someone to take care of them. He doesn’t have money so he just lets his hairs be wild. In contrary to the hairs, his face is clean, a result of being taken care of.
Inh’s family is not too poor because he inherited some rice fields in Dong Kenh. In the rice season, the rice plants are not higher than the knee because the soil is so arid. But in the corn and bean season, the peanuts are the best plants. The peanut plants are green in all of the field. They signal that underground there are many peanuts. His family is not in the rank of rich and it is a very poor family. The life is shrunk because of being thrifty. The special trait of this family is that Inh never works for anybody. It may be because of his laziness or accepting life as is. Education is the fence that separates him from others. Even though he doesn’t have many rice fields, he can still live. He lives without competition. When he gets home from the field, he hears the child crying hard. He knows that his wife has given birth. Although hearing the cries, he doesn’t get in the house right away. That non-compassionate attitude makes him a careless person to his wife and the villagers. He puts away the hoes and goes to the pond to wash his hands and legs. After that he pushes the door to get in. Nobody knows what his real sentiment is in this moment. Happy or eager to meet his wife and child.
What he sees stuns him. He sees his wife lying face up with blood everywhere. Inh lies there motionless. The skin is white. Her hands hold tight because of the pain. The black hairs are loosely on her shoulders. Mr. Inh looks at the crying child. He holds her. His warmness makes the child stop crying. He doesn’t know when her cries started. Even though he holds her now, she still sobs. Her mouth moves to demand something. She needs milk. But she will never find her mother’s breast. Mr. Inh holds his daughter to his body. He touches his wife’s forefront. A coldness from her body transmits into his. He takes his hand back. He is scared. He looks at her more carefully. Her eyes are wide open. He shakes her and calls her. The body is motionless. He calls:
“Honey! I just came home!” He shakes her harder. He cries: “Honey! honey…” His calling falls into the quiet. He cries. The cries of regret, of anger.
He brings his daughter to the neighbors to ask for help.
“Everybody, please help my wife, help me, I don’t make anything. Oh my God, why did you kill my wife!”
His calling for help has immediate effect. It transmits from one house to the next. Everybody hurries to come. People run toward him. The neighbors don’t hesitate. They forget this is a prohibited land, the land of leprosy. Everybody has that prejudice. The villagers didn’t want to help him before. But at this moment, he asks for help, he needs everybody. Nobody ignores the call for help. Everybody comes to the court. Everybody sees him crying while holding his daughter. The villagers surround him. They don’t know what to do. People are so crowded. Everybody only looks but nobody can determine what to do. How can they help him.
Suddenly somebody clears their throat by the gate. Everybody looks. It is Uncle Cai. He signals to people to yield to him. Everybody understands and steps aside. He sees Inh holding the daughter, Uncle Cai asks:
“I heard that your wife gave birth. Good or bad? Where is your wife? Oh my God! The girl is just born. Why don’t you keep her inside? The wind is not good! ”
Mr. Inh tries his best to say:
“My wife just passed away!” He says it with anger as if he blames all of the problems on the baby :”It’s because of this damn girl! She brings tragedy to our family! If she hadn’t come, we wouldn’t have this disaster!”
Uncle Cai doesn’t hide his emotion:
“What do you say? She passed away? Where is she? You say bad things! Are you conscious?”
At that time, Mrs. Lang arrives. Mrs. Lang lives next to Mr. Inh’s home, just separated by a hedge. But the gate of Mrs. Lang’s and the gate of Mr. Inh’s are completely different. Although the two houses are just separated by a hedge, it is a far walk. When Mr. Inh called for help, Mrs. Lang was not home. She was picking leaves to make medicine. She came back home when everybody was busy at Mr. Inh’s home. According to the rumor, she knows part of the story. The special point is that nobody in this village comes to her house to get medicine. Maybe no man is a prophet in his own country, so most of her patients are from far away. Her neighbors don’t pay attention to her work.
Uncle Cai sees Mrs. Lang coming, like a man getting treasure, he greets her warmly:
“Hurry up! Mrs. Lang! What can we do now!” He talks loudly:” Please make way for Mrs. Lang. This is a firefighter. She is an expert. Don’t block her way!”
The villagers are excited:
She is the only midwife in the village. All of the children in this village are from her help. The village thanks her for her hard work so that the mother can deliver children safely.
There is a voice in the crowd:
“We thought that you would be here earlier!”
“There are no births that you missed!”
“That’s it, everybody believes that!”
“Are you just coming back from Mr. Thao’s garden?”
“To get the leaves for medicine! Silly!
“You talk about Mrs Tinh or Mrs. Lang!”
“I talk about Mrs Lang!”
Mrs. Tinh walks in a hurry to avoid the people gathering in the court. Perhaps this is the first time in her life that she doesn’t help a woman giving birth. Mrs. Inh didn’t get her advice before giving birth. Mrs. Tinh doesn’t say anything and approaches Mr. Inh. She takes the baby. Mr. Inh recognizes her. He doesn’t refuse her holding the girl. She talks, scolding:
“Why does she leave a girl like this! She will only survive if she is lucky!”
She sits down on the ground. Her legs close, she makes her skirt become a little hammock for the baby. She looks at the long placenta. As her habit, she uses her left hand to hold the navel and the right hand to fold the placenta. She carefully folds it close to the navel. After finishing, she breathes in satisfaction.
Her right hand holds onto the ground, and the left hand holds the baby neatly. and she stands up. She looks around. She looks at Mr Inh and asks:
“Where is your wife?”
Mr. Inh cries:
“She passed away!”
Mrs. Tinh asks:
“What! What did you say?” She is mad: “I asked: where is your wife!”
Mr. Inh sobs:
“Over there!” He points his finger.
Everybody looks towards the house with closed door.
Both of the women, Mrs. Tinh and Mrs. Lang approach. The crowd stands by the court.
Mrs. Tinh announces:
“The men need to go away, only women and girls.”
Immediately, the men go away and the women get closer.
The two women step inside. The cold scene stops them. The burned bamboo is cold. In the middle of the house, there is only the white ashes. The bad odors spread around the house. The flies are by the dry blood. Upon hearing the human steps, the flies stop sucking the blood and drift away. Everything is crashing into the people that walk into this world.
They see Mrs. Inh lying there. On her face, the flies gather.
Mrs. Lang signals to stop Mrs. Tinh. The job of taking care of patients, Mrs. Lang tells Mrs. Tinh:
“You stay there. Let me do it.”
Mrs. Lang steps toward Mrs. Inh. She pushes shut the eyes of Mrs. Inh. Her hand scares off the flies. She uses the torn skirt to cover Mrs. Inh. She turns to Mrs. Tinh
“Its’ too late. Even God can’t save her. We can’t do anything.”
Both of them walk out. Everybody is waiting for them. Uncle Cai hurries to ask:
“What’s Mrs. Inh’s situation? What do you think?”
Mrs. Lang answers:
“It’s exactly like Mr. Inh said. She already passed away. We don’t know when.”
There are noisy voices:
“Poor Mrs. Inh”
“She isn’t sick!”
“She is so young!”
“The dead people leave behind others”
“Who will take care of the little girl.”
“Just bury her first!”
“God creates elephants, God creates grasses!”
“Talking like you is easy!”
“Life is not like that!”
The talk is in the crowd and people whisper to each other.
In the face of the situation like this, the human love is immense. They can find true love. A deep love in human spirit. People forget about what makes others scary. The love is large like the sea and long like the river. The jealousy and egoism yields to the generosity. The simple hearts are not lacking the tolerance. They know what to do and are ready to do their best to reduce the tragedy. They discuss and don’t hesitate to open arms. Villagers open their arms to ease the misery falling on Mr. Inh’s family. All of the simple minds express their love. There is no hatred, no jealousy. The nature of people who are born and grow up in the countryside. They know how to respect and yield. One sentence of yielding is nine sentences of goodwill. They learn by their heart. Hatred has no place in this little village. But then the wind doesn’t stop. The sea doesn’t stop. The human mind changes because of competition. When the storm suddenly comes to destroy the good hearts and minds of people. The storm destroys everything and leaves behind destruction, sweat, and tears everywhere.
Mrs. Inh’s funeral is held the same day. The main work of Mr. Inh is to raise his new-born daughter. The villagers see his difficulties. Where can he find the source of milk to feed this baby. In the village, there are some mothers just giving birth. There are some people who volunteer to help. There are people from Xom Truoc and Xom Cuoi willing to come to help the miserable child. The milk provided by the mothers is limited. They have to work for a living. They have to work hard. They are the ones that work in the sun all day in the faraway fields. They have lively resources, full of milk that is unused, it can be tense and uncomfortable for them. People have seen some women stop working to release abundant milk. The fresh milk has to be used to feed the plants. Asking them to stay home to help Mr. Inh’s daughter is difficult, even with the simple minds without thinking about benefits.
People watch Mr. Inh run back and forth to seek milk for his daughter, one day after another. The child’s body doesn’t grow at all. Sometimes she loses weight. There are people saying that she lacks nutrition, lacks love. That’s why she is not as chubby as other children in the village. But nobody pays attention to the irregular eating of the child. Or the difference in the milk providing to her body’s need. Mr. Inh looks at the baby with worries. Her head is big while her body is so skinny. The body grows unequally. Her hands are like straws. The legs are not bigger. The pale skin exists instead of the pink skin.
Mr. Inh asks many people for help but he forgets his closest man that is, Mr. Ly. Mr. Ly is the head of the village. His house is in front of Inh’s house. The two homes are opposite. But they are not near, separated by two ponds. The two ponds are separated by the little river. On the little river bank, bamboo grows scattered. Although they are scattered, when people walk on the main road, they can’t see Mr. Inh’s house clearly. They only see three houses on the high ground. In front of the house is the deep pond where fish are raised. The water is clear. If someone wants to enter the pond to swim or wash then they have to pass through the deep holes that are dug into the garden. The pond’s bridge is made of three bamboos that are anchored into the pond. The middle house is the ancestor altar. Mr. Inh gets the second house. The house faces the West so in the summer nobody wants to stay in because it is so hot. The opposite house is of Mr. Inh’s sister. She got terminally ill. She has leprosy.
On the day that Mrs. Inh passed away, Mr. Ly had to go to the district to do some official business so he was absent. But when he got home, he made the death certificate for Mrs. Inh. The position in the village and the money earned separate Mr. Inh and Mr. Ly. Inh never dares to speak to Mr. Ly. Every time when Inh goes to work, he just sneakily glances at Mr. Ly’s big house. This is the house that the Vu’s great family reside in.
Vu Huu Muc was the great-great- grandfather who came here first. Mr. Muc was a mallard hunter. The legend states that one year there was a group of mallards flying from the opposite area. They landed on the field to get food. They are countless and they are like the bees that got out from broken nests. They fall onto his traps. He only needs to throw the traps and get the whole group. It’s countless. They are so many that no cage can hold them all. They say that great richness is from God and average richness is from humans. In a small village, he becomes a billionaire quickly. With the money he buys the land in the village. The most fertile and best land become his property. He passed away and gave all of his properties to his children. Uncle Ly is the first paternal son of the Vus. He learned Chu Nho (Chinese Characters) and Chu Quoc Ngu (Vietnamese language). At this moment it’s hard to find a person who knew these two languages. Uncle Ly has good education. But that’s not the only qualifications to get a high ranking position on the village. It requires a good three-generation resume. This concept sounds old but with time it becomes the norm. Perhaps holding a leader position needs a person who understands the laws and rules from the King and all of the customs of the region. That’s the reason why he was assigned the position as the leader of the village. He is the one that the government was looking for. Perhaps because of his title, nobody calls him by his maiden name. People avoid calling his real name and just call him Uncle Ly.
By the end of that spring, Mrs. Ly gave birth to the fourth son of their family. She has many children. She has only sons. The fourth son is nurtured by her own milk. Perhaps because of the rich family so she rarely appears in the street. The day Mrs. Inh passed away, she went to her mother’s side. She didn’t witness the tragedy. But afterward, she understood the situation of Mr. Inh’s family. Her son is almost one year old but still suckles mother’s breast. She doesn’t stop providing milk to the son so she still has enough milk to feed him.
On a morning when she walks outside she sees Mr. Inh running while holding his daughter. The cries of the child are so dramatic. Perhaps after a long night, she doesn’t have anything to drink. Mr. Inh holds her while lulling her but can’t stop her crying. It’s in vain. She cries more. He hurries to walk and falls into the hole that buffaloes made on the street. He falls onto the ground. The child slipped out of his hand and falls onto the ground.
Seeing that, Mrs. Ly hurries to pick the girl up. She holds the girl and turns the other way to breastfeed her. The baby suckles her breast. The cries stop. Her black eyes fall asleep. Everything signals that she has had a good meal. Perhaps she never had a good breastfeeding like this.
Mr. Inh gets up. He pushes off the dust and dirty sands. He says thank you:
“It’s a great favor, thank you for helping her! She doesn’t have a Mom. I am a widower so I don’t know who can help I just rely on the neighbors help so that she can survive! To get through the bad days!”
“Don’t say that! For several days, I’ve wanted you to bring the girl to me so that I can feed her. Poor girl!She is so skinny!”
“I am afraid of bothering you! I hold my daughter passing by your house but I don’t dare to ask. Thank you for your help. This favor I will never forget!”
“Don’t be so formal. Don’t worry! I’ve given birth several times. I already raised several children. I can help one more!”
“I accept your help and please send my hello to your husband!”
Mrs. Ly pulls the baby away from her breast but the girl still holds on. Mrs. Ly caresses the baby’s breast and whispers:
“It’s enough. You drink too much, you will throw up. If you want more, wait until noon! Your Dad brings you here I will feed you more!”
She pulls the breast from the baby’s mouth. She opens her mouth to want more. Mrs. Ly asks Mr. Inh:
“How many days since she was born?”
Mr. Inh solemnly answers:
“Ma’am, she is ten days old.” He talks while scratching his head.
Mrs. Ly looks at the timid Mr. Inh, she thinks about his difficulties right now. She has intention to bring hope to this miserable man . She speaks lowly but surely:
“I don’t hide from you. My fourth son is one year old, he can eat rice now. My milk can help your daughter for several months” She wants to ease Mr. Inh’s worries for the long days ahead then she reassures: ” Don’t worry. Just bring her here when she need milk.” She gives the baby back to Mr. Ịnh. Mr. Inh gets the life provider for his daughter in surprise. He doesn’t think that Mrs. Ly can easily accept to help him for long term. He knows that Mrs. Ly’s life is comfortable, she doesn’t have to work hard for a living that he’s sure of. His daughter can have a good caretaker. He holds her in his hands. He looks at the girl. His hope expressed clearly in the skinny face. He says in a low voice:
“Please allow me to bow before you. Your favor, I will never forget!” He bows with the girl.
Mrs. Ly hurries to stop him:
“Don’t do that! She doesn’t know anything! Don’t let the girl do that. She just drank her milk. You can make her throw up!”
Hearing Mrs. Ly say that he is afraid and gets the girl up and says: “She doesn’t know but I will remember forever!”
From that day on, every day Mr. Inh brings his daughter to Mrs. Ly to wait. He doesn’t dare to knock on the door. He is afraid to bother her family. Looking at the fierce dogs, everyone is scared. He obediently waits until the gate is opened and Mrs. Ly appears. Mrs. Ly gives her milk regularly. He just brings the daughter to be fed. He sits lonely by the pond to wait until the girl is full. Time goes by, she gets better with good nutrition. Mr. Inh is so happy.
Since Mrs. Inh passed away, the villagers don’t ignore his family anymore. People come and share with him more and more. They come after each other. They bring him the pumpkins, squashes, luffas or the vegetables from their gardens to this poor family. The warm sympathy of the neighbors is expressed with all of the embrace in this little village. They have been living in this village from one generation to the next. They know in detail, the activities and lives of each family. That’s why they love each other and they are honest. There is no jealousy.
The special aspect of this village is that most of the residents are farmers. The field is immense. It’s out of the human vision. In the flooding season, there is only the white color in the filed of water. It’s impossible to distinguish where is the divider and where is people’s own field. They completely trust the reeds to distinguish the field. In the summer, the corn plants are green and as tall as human height covering all of the field. Standing on the high road and looking down the corn field, people can’t differentiate which one is their own field. The prosperity of the village is that. But this village is not far from the city. It is 65 kilometers from Ha Noi. That’s why some villagers don’t want to do farming. They go to the city. They are risk takers who accept the adventure while quitting farming to become the city residents, Ha Noi residents. It seems that every brave person is successful. They come back to the village like the winners of the examinations. The people who come back from the city don’t have the golden certificate but they have a lot of money. They are a new class of people in the village. Even they are away from where they were born but when they come back they never forget where they are from. These people bring to the village the new faces. The French houses, the tile roof houses appear mixed with the cottages with old soil walls.
One of the successful people is Uncle Cai. His real name is unknown. All of villagers call him Uncle Cai. Uncle Cai is an electrician. He worked as an electrician since he was young and eventually he was no longer a simple electrician. He was selected to become a manager by the directors. The manager manages some tasks and the electrician follows his direction. He organizes the work for others to do. As he gets older, he understands more of his work. He is excellent in his work so his life is different. He is rewarded so well. He gets a free house to live in. His life becomes like royalty. He can drink the wine from France. He eats bread and drinks coffee with milk instead of eating rice and sweets. Time goes by. He gets older. He has a lot of money. He retires. He leaves the city, leaves Ha Noi and returns to where he was born to continue his remaining life. But his habit of city lifestyle stays with him, he likes butter and milk when living in this village. Before that he spends a couple of months in Ha Noi to find the old lifestyle. But the transportation makes him uncomfortable because of the long bumpy journey. He still remembers when he was in his highest position, he saw the Indians living by the job of cow milking to provide to the rich people like him. He enjoyed the fresh milk. Its was so delicious, wonderful. He never forgot the taste. Now living apart from the city, he misses it. Every morning, he has hot coffee with the great scent and sweet taste but lacking the fresh milk.
Living in the village, he still has good money to spend. He wants to find the taste of the fresh milk. But he gives up! Seeing the glum attitude of her husband, Mrs. Cai understands what he wants. One morning, Mrs. Cai brings the coffee to her husband and says:
“Do you want coffee with fresh milk?”
He is glum:
“I have to accept it as is. There is nothing I can do!”
Mrs. Cai looks at her husband with love:
“The garden is large, the weeds are everywhere! Do you see that?”
“I know that! What do you mean?”
She smiles again, a smile with love:
“We go to Ha Noi to buy some goats to raise. Let them live in the garden. In the future we can drink fresh milk as we wish. That’s it! You don’t need to hesitate. When do you want to have it!”
Uncle Cai smiles brightly and says:
“Oh! You are so smart! It’s easy but I never thought of it!”
The idea of raising goats was before Mrs. Inh’s accident. The tile roof house of Uncle Cai is on large land. The present fish pond of Uncle Cai was the dowry of Mr. Muc for the mother of Uncle Cai’s wife. Mrs. Tu Bien inherits this property and gives it to her daughter. But until Uncle Cai came to live here, he made it neat and to his desires. And after years of hard work, he had a lot of money. The large court is made of red Bat Trang bricks. The pond bridge is paved with brick and the steps are made beautifully. In the pond there are many different kinds of fish. The fish were bought when the Red River was high. All kinds of fish compete in the water. When he wants to eat them, he just gets the net and has food for a whole month. In the garden there are male goats and nanny goats calling each other or running in the large garden. The goats are raised by the green grasses so they are fat. The beautiful young hairs show that they are fed in good nutrition. Looking at the goats of Uncle Cai, one can see the peaceful and richness of Uncle Cai’s family. Since Uncle Cai got the goats from Ha Noi, he enjoys the fresh milk in his coffee.
Uncle Cai’s face is like a red gac. His white hairs and the mustache are taken good care of. The style of a rich man. The villagers respect him. In the spare time, he walks everywhere in the village. If talking about the relatives, he is the brother-in-law of Uncle Ly. He calls Mr. and Mrs. Ly as brother and sister. Mr. and Mrs. Ly are always the honored guests at Mr. Cai’s house at holidays and Tet. Every time when he goes to Ha Noi, Uncle Cai doesn’t forget to have little gifts for the powerful cousin.
The street entering Uncle Cai’s house is crossing Uncle Ly’s house. Then every time when Uncle Cai goes out, he passes by Uncle Ly’s house.
Then one morning when he goes out to visit the field, Uncle Cai sees Mr. Inh holding his daughter to wait in front of Uncle Ly’s house. Uncle Cai approaches him and asks:
“When is your wife’s hundreds days coming! Your daughter is now beautiful. You take good care of your girl!”
Mr. Inh is shy:
“My daughter can be like this because of good care of Mrs. Ly. Without her, she can’t be like this!”
Uncle Cai whispers: “Oh” and continues:
“That’s why! I know now! Mrs. Ly takes good care of her children! They all are like elephants!” And he continues: “If your daughter needs more milk, I can give you some. What do you think?”
Mr. Inh doesn’t understand Uncle Cai’s favor. He asks:
Uncle Cai explains:
“I want to see the girl growing everyday. Today she eats like that but tomorrow she will need more. I have a lot of goat’s milk. The fresh milk. The goats are full of milk. We can’t use them all.”
Until now, Uncle Inh realizes it. His eyes brighten. He is so happy. He remembers Mrs. Ly saying that she can help for about three more months. Since that day, she doesn’t mention it again but he still remembers. It’s as if he is drowning but is given a pole. He looks at Uncle Cai with respect and repeats his thank you.
“The villagers love my family. All of you always think about my daughter. You are indeed the saviors. This favor I don’t know that I can repay.”
Uncle Cai bows his head a little bit to look at the baby in Mr. Inh’s hand. He says slowly:
“I tell you this. The fresh milk has an odor. At first eating it will be tough. After a couple times she will get acquainted. When she gets used to it, she will love it. My experience is that. I tried cow’s milk but only until I used goat’s milk, it’s better. Just let her try it. Maybe you have to force her at first but then she will like it.”
Mr. Inh says thank you.
Uncle Cai signals:
“The fresh goat milk is ready, you can get it any time you want! If you come and you don’t meet me you can ask my wife!”
After talking, Uncle Cai leaves him holding the baby to wait in front of Uncle Ly’s gate. He walks on the road and leisurely wanders the field.
Since that day, Mr. Inh had the source of goat milk for his baby. The job of having the baby waiting for Mrs. Ly was lessened. Mr. Inh tells Mrs Ly about the new milk. Mrs. Ly is happy because she has less to do:
“The baby is lucky and I wish that everything goes well for her forever!”
The girl grows gradually. She grows up through each level. She knows how to stand, how to walk. She runs in the court in front of the house. Mr. Inh looks at his daughter playing. He is happy and sad at the same time. Sometimes because of the field work, he has to leave her alone at home. The girl walks inside and outside. Sometimes she is hungry and doesn’t have anything to eat, she is thirsty and doesn’t have anything to drink. Even water. Her little body can’t climb into the water reservoir to drink. Time teaches her the wisdom. She wanders and picks up a bamboo pipe. She uses it to get the water. She hurries to look around and drink the cool water. Especially in the summer there is nothing else more interesting.
One day, Mrs. Ly sees her not wearing any pants and showing her private parts. She is biting her shirt to wait for her Dad returning home. Mrs. Ly rushes inside to get the old clothes and rice for the little girl. Gai looks at Uncle Ly. She is afraid and doesn’t dare to receive the gifts. Mrs. Ly understands and holds her and the girl accepts. She takes the rice and eats while looking at her. She smiles and taps slightly to show her sympathy. The girl laughs innocently and becomes immersed in the sympathy that Mrs. Ly shows her. Mrs. Ly dresses her. The long shirt covers her legs. She tells her:
“Remember to stay inside to wait for your Dad. Don’t go out, you can fall into the pond, it’s dangerous. The pond is deep!”
She understands and listens. But she is smart when she is hungry and thirsty, she goes to the front to see if anybody can help her. Or she goes to Uncle Cai’s gate to wait. She doesn’t dare to ring the bell because she is afraid of the dogs. Sometimes Uncle Cai sees her and gives her the bottle of fresh goat milk. Her life continues like this. Running back and forth makes her feel bored. Every day she only sees the opposite house. The house always closes its door. She rarely comes close to it.
She knows the person living in the house is her aunt. She doesn’t know the relationship between the aunt and her Dad. She never gets the love from the woman in that house. Her young age doesn’t know anything about the disease, the sickness. how dangerous it is. She sees the house always closed and the woman rarely comes out. There is a time she knocks on door to ask about the sick woman. The knock has its effect. The aunt appears. She has the cloths covering her whole body, only the eyes left. When seeing the girl, the woman quickly closes the door to let only a little space. After that the woman signals to tell her to go away. She runs away.
Mr. Inh’s sister is So. Miss So lives away from the villagers. She has a disease that nobody wants to be near, leprosy. Every time she goes out she wears bamboo clogs. The sickness makes Miss So lose balance so she must use a baton to walk. Her steps leave traces on the street. The traces cave into the ground like fingers. The bamboo baton that helps her has the chance to dig deep into the ground. It leaves a round trace on the ground, especially when the roads are wet. These are the traces that villagers try to avoid. Everybody in the village has the habit to look for the traces from Miss So’s clogs on the roads. If they see it, they will avoid it, as they are afraid of becoming sick. They are scared and get the rumor that she doesn’t have fingers. The legs with no toes and scabrous that is so frightening that nobody wants to see it. The hands are covered so nobody can see them!
The villagers tell each other that they need to avoid the traces to stay away from her disease. If they accidentally step on it, they hurry to wash them carefully so there will be nothing left on their bodies. Although they are rustic, they know about cleanliness and diseases. The special point is that she rarely appears to do the farming. She avoids to confront with people. Every time she goes out, she hurries to avoid people. The appearance of a tall person with the assisted baton makes people stop walking. The image is frightening. A shaking body is skew in the wind. The handkerchief is used to cover her but beats in the wind making it more ghostly. People fear the image. She only goes to the field to plant or plow at the beginning of the season or the harvest time. Time goes by as she always closes her door. Nobody sees her anywhere even in the narrow court. The ground doesn’t have anybody coming and grows green moss. The house is not in seclusion, but as no one approaches it, it becomes abandoned. But inside it really has an owner. The owner is Miss So. A leprosy patient.
The girl has tanned skin with deep, dark color, black eyes, and dimpled cheek. She is tall. Her flying hairs in front of the wind show the black hairs. The hairs are cut short to the ear and arranged into the curl. Her curved lips show two big white teeth. She carries a backpack on her shoulder, it pulls the shirt that makes the breast inflated. The brown shirt is over the black pants that pressed close to the belly. She wears the black rubber shoes that are tied by gray thread. Everything shows long legs. She walks fast. Her left hand waving and her right hand holds the backpack on the shoulder. She comes into the village. She is not a stranger, she is Gai, Mr. Inh’s daughter. Gai is 20 years old. For more than 10 years nobody has seen her.
Today Gai enters the village like a stranger. Nobody recognizes her as Gai. She’s come to Xom Giua. The familiar road to Xom Giua is not as smooth as before. Gai has to overcome the high ground caused by the French bombs that came down upon the houses. The high ground hinders people’s vision of the damaged houses.
The pond of Mr. Son is filled half of soil and covers to the fig tree. The duckweed are blowing off because of the bombs, flying to the big fig tree that needs two people to hold it up. The tall bamboo is dead with nothing left to fall despite the storms.
Gai smiles happily when she sees her house is still intact. The bombs destroyed everything and yet somehow they spared the house by the pond. Everything is intact. She goes to the pond to look at water. Standing on the bank, she still sees the blue water. Standing here, she recalls when she was little, she tried to walk step by step, her hands had to hold the handle to get to the pond to wash her face, to take a bath, or even play with her reflection in the deep pond. Gai remembers when she was hit and scolded by Mr. Inh. His scoldings are still with her:
“You risk falling in the pond and drowning. Do you hear me!” Then the slapping on her body. She gently touches her body to find the hits. Gai shrinks her shoulder and can’t find any traces. Except the smooth and tender skin.
From this high ground, Gai looks to the little river of Uncle Ly. Her eyes stop by the little river that is more ragged than before. The guava tree is still there but is lower to the water. There are few leaves. There is no guava fruit even that this is the guava season. Several bananas are intact but are taken care of so the rotten banana leaves just piled up. Gai’ eyes keep wandering toward the roof of Uncle Ly’s house with two tall gate poles where the birds standing have disappeared. There are no traces in the blue sky. The brick gate stands lonely. The hedge of rough bush is no longer there. Gai no longer questions what happened in that big house. Are there still people living in there or are they all gone. How many injured or killed from the bombing. Gai thinks it’s obvious. Gai is not sad that the images she used to know are no longer there.
Gai returns to the house. She pushes the door. The solemn scene makes her feel sad, remembering her formative years. The environment hasn’t changed. The fog and wetness are provoked when the wind blows. Gai takes off the backpack and sets it on the ground. She sits on the bed. This is where she was born. It is where she grew up. But now it is different. The bed is strained by her weight, making strange sounds in the quiet environment. Gai feels comfortable and smiles at the sound. She lies down on the bed. The sound becomes longer and turns to music. It makes her sleepy. The sound disappears and stops when Gai falls asleep. In her twilight state, she sees a young couple flying in the narrow space. Gai tries but she can’t figure out the woman but she knows the man is Mr. Inh, her father. “Daddy!” she calls. The man comes and goes, fragile like a thread with many different colors as a twisting long smoke and disappears into the blue clouds in the immense sky.
They hold each other in the clear sky. Hand in hand like the threads. Then the woman smiles and doesn’t care about Gai’s calling. In this space, they embrace each other. Sometimes, they laugh. Their laughs are so loud that Gai becomes frightened. Gai is mad. She shouts and awakens from her dream. Gai tries to recall the image of the woman, she has never seen her before. Is that her mother? Her mother passed away. Why was Dad holding hands with her? This time, Gai remembers her Dad. The father that Gai lost contact with for a year. Is he mad at her because she didn’t write to him. Since coming back here, she wishes to see him. The strict and poor father with a difficult life. But she doesn’t see Dad anywhere. Or he works in the field. But why is the house cold. There is no evidence of regular life. Spider webs are everywhere. There are some lizards crawling about. They are fighting to get the spiders. They can’t get the big spiders in the webs.
Gai gets up tiredly. She feels hungry. Gai looks in her backpack and unzips it to get rice. The rice is wrapped in leaves. The sweat from the heat gets through the leaves. She starts to eat the rice but stops. Something in the room makes her stop. She puts the rice away in her backpack. She stands up and slowly walks outside.
Gai goes to the veranda and to the court. She looks toward the gate. Suddenly she sees a group of people. There are many of them. She doesn’t know how long they have been standing there. She approaches them. One of them wears a big belt. On his belt, there is a gun. This man solemnly takes one step forward and stands respectfully to talk to her:
“Comrade Secretary of the District”
It seems that she used to the title. She doesn’t answer but smiles, raises her hand to greet, and with a serious attitude, concealing the strictness of a boss, she asks:
“How did you know I was here?”
The man with the gun is the leader of the village and the leader of the group:
“Several days ago, we got the news from the district. We have a responsibility to guard and protect you. We knew that today you would be here. But we were waiting, Comrade, at Xom Cui. We suspected you went that way. However, you used the road by the communal house. After asking the police, we knew that you’d come back to your old house. We came here and stayed by the gate for long time. We knew you were inside. We don’t want to bother you. We wait for your command.”
Gai recalls since she came here that she hadn’t spoken to anybody. On the road, Gai saw an old woman eating betel and areca. She didn’t recognize the lady. She is Theo, an old toothless woman. She saw Gai as a stranger. Gai passed a surveillance post at the beginning of the village. They didn’t pay attention when she passed by. But in reality, they ignored her because they didn’t know how to receive her properly. She noted the careless surveillance from the guards and intends to scold them.
Gai is emotional upon seeing her old environment. Then she looks more carefully at the man she speaks to. She recognizes him. There are scars on the rough skin of his face because of the smallpox. Even when it is cured, it still leaves scars on the face. His body is skinny and tall. He is the rice guard with the name Truong Hong. He doesn’t dare to look at Gai. His eyes try to avoid her. His attitude is of a loyal man who is obedient to commands. He speaks:
“Comrade Secretary, please come to stay at the guest house. Let us serve you!”
“There is a guest house here?” Gai asks.
He calmly answers:
Gai asks more: “Where is it?”
He replies quickly:
“Da’s house. Now it is the people’s house! Comrade! The house has three stories. Double gates. Everything is intact and well guarded. Comrade will be satisfied. All of us have waited for the day that you’d come back here! Today is the opportunity!”
He is still obedient as a subordinate. He doesn’t miss the chance to show off his achievements from the rebellious days. “The revolutionary environment brings the wind. Then a storm. It is like a nightmare that changes everything. The storm destroys everything. The rich people are pushed to exile or forced to live in dog cages, barns, or styes. Taking advantage of the wind, the villagers get up and occupy relentlessly. Then in an instant, they become superior, the big houses or immense fields become people’s properties. Everything is of the peoples. The storm passes by and the injuries can never be healed!”
As a compliment, Gai says:
“You did well!” Gai smiles, a cold smile and continues:”But I want to wait for my Dad! It’s been a long time and I haven’t seen him! I don’t know how he is or when he will come back! Do you know? You must know it, don’t you?”
Perhaps she wants to test and survey these people. The sentiment is deep from one generation to the next. It is respected or disdained. It remains there or fades in the people’s minds. Gai looks at each person. They stand still obediently. Nobody shows any motion. They respect even though they know her intention. They are taken care of, but they are like animals. Their simple souls don’t know the complexity of life as they are inexperienced. Lacking instinct, they go after the illusions, the image of animals hunting food. Their immediate targets are the good preys that are in front of them.
Bien, gazes up at Gai. He sees her bright eyes looking at him. He feels embarrassed, shy and terrified. He is facing the power. He knows his power is in her hands. The news he will tell her about Mr. Inh’s death will have a bad effect. He is afraid of being scolded. He doesn’t want that. He wants to deny reality. But it’s impossible.He feels his hairs stand up. He tries to push them down but his hand is numb. The news about her father’s death will make her sad. It’s a biological sentiment. But he is wrong. He clears his throat and finally speaks:
“Comrade Secretary! You haven’t heard?”
Gai is quiet for a while:
“What? What do you have to say?” Gai is mad.
“Your father passed away.”
He can only say that. He stands in front of a motionless person. What does he expect? A cry? A long regretful sigh? The painful sob? Denial? Will tears flow from those powerful eyes upon hearing this news? It’s obvious. It must be inevitable!
Gai speaks strongly:
“He passed away!” Gai continues: “He is alive or he is dead, it is not important! This is not a loss for country!”
Bien escapes from a heavy burden. He feels weak during the passing minutes. He has a lesson ahead. It is solemn and formal! He must learn by heart. The power is still in his hand. He must hold it. He was taught that if he wants to hold the power. He must push away all of the silly thinking. His speculation is punishable. He looks up! He wants to express his gratitude. He must make human revolution. The revolution of thinking, the way to treat himself. No weakness. Being strong to anybody! Weakness is cowardly. He will obey to execute the thinking of the enthusiastic revolution. He sighs in relief. He has just gotten out of the cover to find his real self. He looks around. He feels more confident then ever. He steps aside to let other people see Gai. He wants them to see the ultimate power that is in front of them. In his mind, he wants to show everybody the visible favor within their reach. Executing and get it on the way. It is the way of life that they have to follow. They will be rewarded accordingly!
Gai crosses her hands in front of her chest. She looks at Bien then slowly around at the people. They are villagers including old and young standing before them. Some flies are looking for food. They land on faces, on lips of the people who stand still. Their serious attitude makes them ignore the flies. The villagers pay their respects. Gai is relieved. She is happy. She speaks loudly:
“I will stay here. I will work with you for a couple days. After that I will go. I can’t stay here long.”
Bien raises his hand to scratch his head with regret when his proposal is denied. He doesn’t want to lose this opportunity. He wants to prove that he is a good leader of the village. He knows his responsibility for the superior. He holds raises his hands and talks with the calm but confident tone:
“Comrade Secretary!When your Dad was still alive, he refused our help to renovate this house. He also refused to move to a better place. He lived as a person who refused to be competitive. Although the revolutionary wave came he still stood by the cane at the gate or went to the Diem cavern to look at the sky. He is careless to the changes. Sometimes he looks up to the sky and laughs. The laugh is loud. He lived separately from the villagers. We have been trying to stay close to him but it’s in vain. When he got sick and almost died, he told us to bury him in the cemetery for the homeless people. This house, we respect the deceased we left everything the same, untouched. Perhaps this can be a people’s memorial site. In the future, the next generation can look at this to follow. Everybody will respect and reserve this place to become a treasure of revolution. But about the burying site, we didn’t agree to let him stay with the homeless, unclaimed people. This would be an insult to people. We decided to bury him on the land of the stern and fierce heads of the village that occupied the people’s land for many generations. This could be against the wish of the deceased!”
Gai is quiet when Bien talks. Suddenly, she asks:
“Comrades did against my Dad’s will!”
When hearing Gai talk, Bien is happy. Bien replies quickly:
“Yes!” Bien continues:
Everybody has a good tomb! Even though he passed away, he must smile in the place he belongs.” He expects a compliment! The thinking of an idiot! But the compliment never comes!
Gai doesn’t say anything more. The quietness embraces the expectations of the simple souls. Then Gai speaks:
“Comrades, you can go home. We will meet later!”
She walks away. The crowd is stunned.
Bien orders everybody to return home but doesn’t forget to assign two people to guard the home. The sun goes down, slowly scattering the last bits of sunshine of the late day.
The high ground land emerges in the middle of the field. From the high ground, one can see all different kinds of plants and trees. And far away, flows the water of the Flowing Field. The Flowing Field is one piece of land from the high ground. Both pieces of land are owned by Mr. Muc. In the dirty water, there are groupers, perch, and snakes. The two pieces of land are good for taros. Summer comes and the big taros are shown on the soil when the leaves are dry and dead.
It is winter, and the remaining yellow leaves are about to fall. The road leading to the high ground is by the field. The road is upright. Going from the road to the high ground is quite difficult within the basin. On one side there grows a tall wild sugarcane. There are dozens of cows eating the grasses. Several abandoned tombs are invisible because of the buffaloes and cows. The sad scenery of an abandoned land. But the grass is green.
The harvest season is done so there are people on the high ground. There is a tall man standing. The tall wild sugarcane’s leaves can hide the high image of the man. The hands are long to the knee. The hairs are on the shoulder, they are put on the ears neatly. The hairs divide into two halves. The division shows a white line on the head. It seems that the hairs aren’t combed but they are still straight. He has a high forefront and square face. The cheeks are spread out and push up the chin higher. That man is Uncle Ly. He is the first grandson of Mr. Muc. After many years, he retires to give the head of the village to someone else. In the time of holding the office, he abandoned the farming. All the time he was busy with official works, and he ordered someone else to do the farming for him. The farming was good. The corn and sweet potatoes are plenty. The scene is busy and he has a lot of money, not from the powerful title or from stealing from people.
Today is as usual, every time when he goes to the field, he goes to the high ground to look faraway. From the high ground, he can see all of the activities below. In the corn season, even the corn leaves are high but they can impede his vision. In the rice season, there is nothing more interesting to observe than green rice fields. In the harvest time, looking at the buffaloes and cows walking noisily on the white water, there is nothing more beautiful than that.
The idea of looking faraway existed for long time, he doesn’t remember when. In the time of holding office or in the tender years of his life. The proper clothing that he wears when he goes to the district shows his power.
Maybe it’s the ghost seduction. Perhaps when he sees he has intention. When his children are eighteen, he has them learn to compete. This land is not the ultimate target. He looks for something else. The society that everybody tries to live. The society is the society of city. It’s the time that he holds office, he builds a good position, a beautiful image of a public servant. Perhaps that’s the morality, the good character that is stable, durable and stuck in people’s mind. In the opposite of the power that is built on the violence, hatred, on blood, it’s real and it can’ be denied. The idea of the good and the evil is just a silhouette. Just live with the present time, and let the future to the people’s judgment based on their abilities and instincts!
From the high ground, Uncle Ly thinks he stands in the immense space with only the winds and the clouds. He doesn’t know where he is or how his place compare to others. But around him there is nobody. He doesn’t know. He is careless. He looks at his happiness. He looks at others’ happiness. The unintentional bringing happiness to others. Only a word, a criticism will bring the joy or misery to others. It can be an action intentional or unintentional. The people inside the situation understand. The people who get it don’t forget. They live in waiting without dreams of being repaid. But the deep favor nobody forget. It is deep inside. Let the debt settle in the mind. Repaying is to seek the pleasure or responsibility. They know. They remember. It’s not important. The insiders think so.
The outsiders criticize. It must be some mysteries. He holds his hands over the sun. Today he stands here comfortably. The buffaloes and cows eat the grass to find food. He looks at the unclaimed tombs in the ground. In the poor soil, there are traces of bodies. Everything hides in the soils but he doesn’t see. The land is destroyed by the animals. Careless. Inhumane. He feels sad. From the high ground, he sees the tombs by the field. They stay separately on the fertile field. There are dead people lying in the cemetery without incense smoke. Nobody visits. The last rest site is trampled by the animals. Sometimes there is no trace left. In contrary, the deceased stay in the fertile field that they worked in before. They are happy to have a place to be buried with incense and visitation. In the fifteenth days of the third month of the lunar year the people come to show their respect for the work of giving birth and raising. They have real power. That is the private property in limited area.
Today he stands here to look down at the pieces of land he and his brother own. Faraway there is the dirty water flow of the Flowing Field. The Flowing Field never stops and never empties. The Flowing Field brings life to the field. He also sees the people on the road. He feels comfortable when leaving everything behind. There is no sadness or regret.
He lets free his mind to the winds and the clouds when he hears the voice behind him:
“Uncle Ly, I thought someone else. You watch the cattle eating grass. Or watch the taros? Looking at your taros, everybody envies you.”
He turns around and recognizes a young man name Ky. Ky is the son of officer Bon. Ky holds on to his bicycle. His left hand holds tightly onto the break. One leg pulling, one leg pushing. The legs try to make balance to the bicycle so it doesn’t fall. He stands far from Uncle Ly. He’s come here for long time but Uncle Ly didn’t know. Uncle Ly hasn’t answered yet then Ky continues:
“You are from faraway to see the cattle eating grass here. Why don’t you have them eat by the village!”
Uncle Ly slowly answers:
“The harvest is finished, I am wandering. The cattle are not mine. You are from faraway, what do you know, But the grass in the village is not as good as here. But you are right that no other grass can be good as the grass of this high ground. But you see this road is not familiar. Perhaps there are few people leaving their cattle here. Are you just coming back from Ha Noi? When will you return there?”
“I’ve come here for Tet. My parents too!”
Unce Ly says:
“Oh! I forgot! Tet is almost here. When will you return to Ha Noi? Say hello to your parents for me!”
“In January! I will go with my parents! Perhaps the tenth or the fifteenth. I don’t know!”
Uncle Ly continues:
“What did you come up here for? The bumpy road is not good for your bicycle!”
“I came up here to get the buffaloes home. Do you see my buffaloes. They are over there!” He points to the buffaloes eating grass by the bush.
At this moment, Uncle Ly recognizes the buffalo of officer Bon. The buffalo revered as the strongest in the village. It can pull the plows as if promenading. Each step is firm. Even with the deep plowing, it still goes straight. Everything symbolizes that it has power of the champion. This is the buffalo that only officer Bon can afford.
Ky puts the bicycle aside and approaches the buffalo. The kind buffalo doesn’t run away when he gets closer. It looks at him while showing its long tongue to eat the grasses. Ky pulls the animal and releases the rope wounding the head of the buffalo. He pulls the buffalo toward Uncle Ly and the bicycle. The obedient animal walks along while continuing to eat. Uncle Ly talks to Ky:
“Ky! Do you want to eat taros?”
“Our family doesn’t plant taros. The field of my parents are by the flowing field. It is inundated all year. The rice season has two seasons. We don’t have taros. If we want to eat we have to go to the market. It’s rarely that my Mom will buy them for us!”Uncle Ly pulls Ky and shows him. He goes to the taros field. He carefully gets rid of the dirt on the taros. He sets the taros onto Ky’s bicycle and smiles:
“I’ll give you some taros to give to your parents! Taros can be cooked with meat on Tet. It’s delicious!”
Uncle Ly and Ky say goodbye. Ky pushes his bicycle and leads the buffalo to the road without forgetting to say thank you.
On the road, Uncle Ly looks back the high ground. The destined high ground will be his burial site. He will be staying here forever along with the unclaimed tombs to look down the flowing water that never stops.
The judge to sentence Uncle Ly’s family is Gai. The leader of the village, Bien, wants to show the revolutionary environment of the power of people then he gathers a special meeting. The special trial is to accuse the landlord of exploiting the villagers. The trial occurs in the communal house. The communal house was bombed by the French planes and remains damaged. The roof is gone. The walls stand lonely with the debris scattered on them. Everything has holes. But the wooden poles are still intact. The bricks and tiles are scattered everywhere. All of this is propagated as the crime of the colonists and the bad Vietnamese.
One only chair in the front is for Gai. Behind it there are the long student benches. Mrs. Ly is tied to a pole. Her two hands are tied backward by long ropes to the pole. The long hairs are nailed into the pole. Her head is fixed so she can’t move. Her eyes can only look straight ahead.
She sees Gai. Yesterday she heard there was a high official from the district coming here. She doesn’t recognize Gai. She doesn’t know that the powerful person sitting there is the one that she nurtured by her own milk. She smiles dryly. Her kind face is always like that. Time goes by but it never changes. It is so beautiful and loving. Hatred, torture are scared of it and want to destroy it but it’s impossible. Now a dozen years later, that face is still full of love, forgiveness and tolerance.
Before being dragged here, Mrs. Ly sensed something bad would happen to her. She was beaten badly because she refused to go with them. By the end, she knew her energy was limited and that she couldn’t resist the inhumane actions, so she begged them to allow her to wear the proper clothes. The youngsters keep insulting and bad mouthing her. She was quiet. Finally, they tied her here.
Bien had his subordinates force everybody to attend this trial. The calling is spread out by the amplifier from Xom Truoc to Xom Cui. He wants to show the ultimate loyalty to the revolution. People wait for their destiny in the days ahead. But in reality, there are only a few of them.
Uncle Ly’s family is the richest family in the village and the immense field shows that. Aside from the land, Uncle Cai has fish ponds, and large gardens. Everything is inherited from one generation to the next. For this reason, during the time Uncle Ly was holding office, he was accused of abusing power and exploiting people. This is the target of the poor, jealous, and hate filled people. They wait for the chance to get revenge. They are brain washed towards the hatred of class, and trained to destroy Uncle Ly’s family.
His family was rich for a long time. During the time he held office, he didn’t make any money from the title. He was slandered and falsely accused. When he held the power of the leader of the village, he didn’t torture or hurt the people that now try to kill him. He always treated people with love. He believed in righteousness and equality. There is nothing they could use against him. But that concept no longer exists. The time of fairness has ended. Slandering has become the art to frame good people. The more people shouting the harsher the sentence. But human conscience is still present. It can’t disappear over night. Landlords are the minority and the poorest are not the majority, they are also the minority. Most of people go to work in Ha Noi. But some have money and go back to buy land. They don’t live permanently here. But the bad people who take advantage of the situation are dangerous. They are not poor but they shout that they are poor to get benefits and escape from the accusations. Being poor is the mode of this period. To advance, to harm, to rob, to steal.
The trial is in the afternoon when the sun is lower. Gai is the judge, she sits on the first chair, the only chair. In the second chair no one dares to sit. The officials sit on the third row. The second row is for the special guests. The elderly are not honored any more. The only special guest is Gai’s Aunt. That is Aunt So. Since the revolution, Miss So is treated so well. Miss So is respected. Although she is sick, she is still respected the most in the village. All her life, she avoids people and never attends any activities in the village. Everybody knows that if she has to go to the field, she runs from people. But today she appears. Miss So appears suddenly. She isn’t invited but she knows today is an important day. Perhaps because of the loud speakers. The day of executing the crime of the landlords, the enemies of people. When she appears, she is received warmly because she is the aunt of Comrade Secretary. Miss So is the special guest of this trial. That’s why she sits in the special chair after Gai.
She wears a square cloth on her head. She wears a long black dress. Her left hand is hidden in her clothes. Her right hand holds the cane, still with no visible body parts. Many people are forced to be here. They don’t express their attitude. Some show hatred toward Mrs. Ly and they want to eat her flesh. Miss So walks into the communal house, people are stunned. The subordinates of the leader ask people to clear the way for her. There are greeting voices:
“Hello Miss So. Comrades please let her get through. Please have a seat in the special guest chair.” The officials sitting in the third row stand up to greet her.
The trial begins.
The leader steps out. He looks at Mrs. Ly and he shouts:
“This woman, what crime has she committed, comrades?”
There are loud voices from behind:
“Evil landlords, sucking blood of people, anti-revolution!”
The voices just stop. Bien laughs loudly. He kicks Mrs. Ly. Everybody sees Mrs. Ly in pain. Her face changes from pink to pale. The scene is low. Bien doesn’t let the trial calm. He shouts:
That’s the voice of Chung. For work she carries the waste to fertilize the field for Uncle Ly. She is strong and tall like a man. That’s why she can do this heavy job. She doesn’t have a husband or children. She is the neighbor. Her house is just several houses from Uncle Ly.
She steps up toward Mrs. Ly. Her face, ready to eat the other person. Her teeth are screeched. She kicks and slaps the victim. After a minute, she stops and looks at the crowd:
“This woman exploits my family, forces us to work, doesn’t pay me! She’ll die, then can’t pay the debt for people!”
Suffering from the relentless torture, Mrs. Ly says:
“Miss Chung, why do you say that. Every day you work I pay you fairly. How much do you ask me, I pay you all of it. I cook for you. God can prove my word!”
Chung is mad and shouts:
“Now you still lie. You never pay me. Exploiting people and lying!” Chung stops and looks at people to explain. Then she kicks Mrs. Ly more. The weak victim can’t escape. It’s more than a fierce animal getting the prey. Mrs. Ly’s face is disfigured. The blood comes out. She chokes on the blood.
After beating Mrs. Ly, Chung is still mad and shouts:
“Comrade Bien, what are you waiting for, why don’t you give her a knife. What an evil. Nobody loves her.”
Bien laughs. He gets the machete. The sound of the machete is frightening. The people are scared. Some people want to ask to spare Mrs. Ly’s life but they don’t dare to speak. He looks at Gai. Gai smiles. She talks loudly:
“Killing her is easy! But we should torture her. Let her die gradually. Comrades, remember my words. Dying gradually is the proper punishment!”
There are shouts and applause.
In that fierce environment, Bien says:
“Comrade Secretary is right! We will torture this woman. She can’t die right away, she has to die gradually. Like when she sucked blood and exploited people!”
He gets the machete. The machete is right in front of her. She closes her eyes waiting. The machete gets to her shoulder and belly and stops. The clothes that she wears are torn out opening her chest. The bra is cut into halves. The blood comes from her chest. The two white breasts are exposed showing the brown nipples like thumbs. The breasts nurtured children and they were the life provider for Gai. Gai sits here to torture the woman who took care of her life. The life that now she insults.
Gai claps her hands and laughs teasingly.
“Comrades see the breasts of this woman! That’s from the blood of people. ”
Mrs. Ly tries to say:
“Please! You already killed my husband. Just kill me now. Don’t torture me. I didn’t commit any crimes! Please!”
Mrs. Ly can say only that before she faints. The scene is quiet and people can hear the flies.
Her body awakens when cold water is poured onto her body. Water and blood mixed together and the white breasts are exposed.
Mrs. Ly pleads:
“Please. Please think about me. My children go to resistance. My children contribute to the revolution. She cries: “My God! It’s so painful!” Her eyes are blurred to imagine her children in the uniform of the regiment protecting the Capital. The shirt that is put on her son by the highest position in the battle at Dong Xuan Ha Noi.
“The revolution of people, not your revolution! Kinh is not her son. She didn’t give birth to Kinh. Kinh is the son of people. Don’t get it wrong. He is the son of people” She approaches to kick Mrs. Ly again. Mrs. Ly’s body suffers the kick like the punishment of God. Her body is motionless, without spirit. People in the distance think she is dead. But the people standing nearby still hear her breaths. She is still alive. She lost her consciousness. Her soul is floating. She hears some sound. She remembers the day her husband is tortured to death. She remembers the image of her husband living secretly in Ha Noi and one night the strangers taking him away and readinf=g the verdict. They pushed him into an old car and drove out of the city. On the road from Ha Noi to Hung Yen they pushed him out and put him in shackles. They brought him to his homeland to execute him. A big body left in the rain. He tried to walk. The human strength is not metal. He fell down by the levee Doc La. He died after the torturing. His body is pulled out. They dig a hole and bury him. Hearing the tragic news, Mrs. Ly and brothers went to retrieve his body and bring it to the village. In the chaos, all of the field, gardens and properties were lost to other people, so nobody could think of a place to bury him. They had to sneakily bury him by the high ground. The place that he used to come to look at the sky and the landscape after the tired plowing. He laid down with the unclaimed tomb. Lying here he witnessed the fields that he inherited from the ancestors and suddenly lost them. They came to somebody else. In the robbing of the daytime robbers. Even the taros fields lost to somebody else. He doesn’t have luck to hold anything, even a little piece of land.
The trial scene is silent because the victim is motionless.
But then someone pushes a chair and stands up. That’s Miss So. Miss So kicks the chair falling down. The chair falling onto the officials behind. Miss So walks up. The sound of clogs breaks the silence.
When Bien sees Miss So approaching, he asks her respectfully:
“Miss So! What do you have to teach us?” The machete is menacing in his hand.
She looks at Bien, and suddenly she spits into Bien’s face. He doesn’t have time to avoid it. The spit lands on his right eye. He raises his hand to wipe it off. His face is red. He is so mad but he doesn’t dare to do anything.
Miss So waves the cane and talks loudly:
“You guys are inhumane. Our ancestors teach us: ‘When eating fruit, remember the planter.’ You guys eat fruit but you don’t appreciate who planted the tree for you. Who brought the ripened fruit for you. Can any plant grow up by itself? I stay in my house but I observe everything happening outside. You think that I don’t know anything. You are wrong. I know everything. I see everything. Uncle Ly’s family is benevolent and righteousness. When he had power he didn’t abuse it. I know. Without a report from him, my body could not be here today, it would be sent off to the leprosy camp. He didn’t do that. You killed him and buried him by the levee. It still doesn’t satisfy your evil intention. Today you gather here to torture a weak woman. What does she have for you? A kind, nice, good-heart woman. Without her, Gai, you wouldn’t be alive today.” All of her anger shows. Miss So doesn’t stop there. She acts immediately, striking Gai with her cane.
“You are a prostitute. When you were out of sight those years, where have you been. Now you come back here. You bring disaster to the village. The Chu family doesn’t have anybody like you. You don’t even love your father. Bastard. I will kill you so that the inhumane people will truly know what is righteousness. I will teach you what is human love!”
In her anger, Miss So doesn’t care about the means to protect her from disease. Her left hand is her handicapped hand. The hand without fingers. The square cloth falls to reveal her bald head. Abnormalities caused by disease.
Miss So’s action is so sudden. At first Gai is sure that nothing can happen to her. But when the baton hits her, Gai only has time to cover her face. Gai doesn’t fight back or call the officials help. She suffers in her chair.
In an instant, Bien and his subordinates regain their calmness but they still don’t know what to do. They are afraid of the angered woman. The woman with the uncured disease. They want to get up to stop it, but they don’t dare. Touching that person is like touching death. Until now people didn’t see clearly the egoism of humans. People are afraid of death. Bien holds the machete and says:
“Comrades! What are you waiting for! Stop her.” He says that but doesn’t jump in. Because of her age and sickness then she only hits in few minutes. She has to stop, Gai runs away. Miss So breaths heavily. She stands against the cane to regain the balance. She runs after Gai. But she can’t catch Gai. Gai runs out the communal house and disappears. The energy of a sick person can’t catch Gai. She looks around but can’t see anything.
Bien orders the subordinates standing as a fence to prevent Miss So from getting back into the communal house. They wait. Miss So doesn’t come back. The villagers leave with love in their heart but don’t do anything because they do not want to be implicated. Hatred is like a deep hole. It gets deeper everyday. The image of Miss So, a leprosy patient and a regime are no different.
The communal house is less and less people. Bien and the subordinates gather and discuss. Bien is mad.
“F.U. sabotage. Having fun then we have a Yaksa!”
There is another voice:
“Nobody invited her! How does she know!”
Bien says madly:
“You didn’t hear the speaker!”
“Let’s go home. It’s late!”
They talk to each other:
“What about that woman?”
“Don’t care! She is tied! She can’t escape!”
“Let figure out tomorrow!”
“If she dies!”
“Throw her in the hole in the cemetery!”
“What if somebody helps to unleash her rope?”
“You are stupid, this communal house is next to the surveillance post. Nobody dare to act. Let’s go home!”
The discussion ends. They go home. It is so dark. The pain wakes Mrs. Ly. She moans. Uncle Ly is dead, there are no children here. Where are they? The solitude embraces her. She is half awake, half unconscious. She feels her body too cold. She wishes for a fire. Jut a little bit to warm up. But around her, there is only darkness. There is only coldness, the fog and mist. The fogs falling more and more. Like the little rain. She dreams of the good old days. The peaceful family. Now she is tied and lies here. What is she waiting for? Waiting for death. She thinks only a miracle can rescue her. She cries. She tries to raise a hand to wipe away the tears. But her hands are tied. The body is exposed to the mosquitoes. She falls asleep.
In the darkness, there is a silhouette. The person walks quickly as if they know the place well. She gets closer to Mrs. Ly. A soft and tender hand checks on Mrs. Ly’s head. The person checks on Mrs. Ly’s heart. The heart still beating. The happiness in the darkness. The silhouette gets out scissors and cuts the rope. She tries to keep the hairs . It’s impossible. The silhouette carefully raises up Mrs. Ly’s head. She holds Mrs. Ly tightly to transmit the heat to her.
As planned, the silhouette brings black clothes for the both of them. She tries to help Mrs. Ly get up but she cannot stand. After dressing her, she lays her on the ground. She massages Mrs. Ly ‘s body. The silhouette knows the time. She checks the surveillance post next door. Time is so precious.
The clothes make Mrs. Ly warmer. The massage make Mrs. Ly awaken. The silhouette whisper:
“It’s me! Sister! Do you hear me!”
Mrs. Ly’s voice is weak
The silhouette is Aunt Doan Tuong. Mrs. Ly’s sister. Aunt observes from beginning to the end. Aunt Doan hides from the look of Bien and his subordinates. She waits patiently. She wipes off her tears when seeing her sister being tortured. Her happiness when Miss So hit Gai, she thanked the Buddha, if Miss so were not there, Mrs. Ly would be dead by now. She picks up her sister, Aunt already has a careful plan. She has to bring Mrs. Ly out of this village tonight. Her body is skinny but she is strong. Mrs. Ly asks:
“You want to bring me to your house?”
Aunt Doan covers her sisters mouth and whisper:
“Sister! They are in the post. If they can hear, we are dead. There is no house. You have to follow me!”
Mrs. Ly awakens.
The two bodies go close to each other. Aunt Doan keeps looking up to the sky to keep track of time. From here, she will hold Mrs. Ly through the post. She is smart to go around. Because the wall is high so it’s hard to be seen. Aunt decided not to use the road by the field. Everything she already planned thoroughly. She pulls Mrs. Ly down on the road when there are people. They are going through the field of Xom Cui before getting on the village’s road. In the darkness, they are like two ghosts on the quiet road. By midnight, they pass by Mr. Ba’s garden. Both see the road by the high ground. The sky is dark but clear. Mrs. Ly pulls her sister to a stop. She shows to Aunt Doan on the horizon a line of bright light. She imagines the day that she hastily buried her husband. His tomb is still fresh. She cries. Aunt Doan holds sister and says:
“It’s the past! We have to get out of here as soon as we can!”
Mrs. Ly wipes her tears:
“I want to visit my husband’s tomb. I don’t know when we can come back here!”
“If you want, but I am afraid that you can’t climb high!”
“I’m fine. I have you I am stronger.”
Aunt Doan says:
“You have to promise that you have to be fast and get down!”
“I promise!” Mrs. Ly replies.
They climb to the high ground. Mrs. Ly runs to the tomb and weeps.
Aunt Doan comes to Mrs. Ly and pulls her up:
“The road is long. We have to go now.”
The two silhouettes get down and quietly walk past Mr. Ba’s and Dong Luong. Aunt pushes Mrs. Ly to walk. The roosters are shouting. The night is almost over. They come to Tien Cau. Aunt holds Mrs. Ly to a little restaurant. The early morning without people. Aunt pulls Mrs. Ly to sit down. She looks at Mrs. Ly. The scars are on her face. Mrs. Ly’s face is swollen. Aunt says:
“The hairs are not good. Having the hairs like this people will suspect.”
She looks for scissors and cuts her sisters hairs. She picks her up to continue walking. She follows her sister without asking. The two sisters have to walk all day and night to get to Ha Noi.
Uncle Ly’s vision was the treasure for his children and all of the following generations. If he had been satisfied with his good life at the moment he wouldn’t have had his children go to the city to compete. The consequences of the bloodbath will be forever. His generation looks at the theater and regrets the silly people that brought hatred towards the future.
Everything is like a castle in the sand. Just a little wave can destroy it all, bringing it to the bottom of the ocean. They don’t leave a trace of the grandiose for the next generation.
He holds part of his children in his hand. He sees the children in the far horizon. The hand of the mother just escaping from this Hell on Earth. Her leg bleeding. The joy of life reborn. In her life, she never has to walk as far again. She sees the fingers without skin and flesh, only the white color. Looking at the injury, she cries. She has precious time to see the children. Heaven has eyes.
She lies down on the mahogany bed. When her husband was still alive, he had people deliver it from the village to Ha Noi. She raises her hands to find the coolness of summer in the homeland. Now on this bed, she finds a tender sleep like before. The sleep helps her forget everything, as if it were a dream. She continues to lay on the bed until she is 98 years old. Then she leaves forever. Everything is a nightmare. A nightmare that happened to countless families in the little land that is called Vietnam.
VŨ VĂN TÙNG