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by Nguyen Thi Hoa Xuan It was a windy afternoon in the village and mother was with child. She rushed out of the house, my blind grandmother unable to stop her. Grandfather pointed his walking stick threateningly at mother: "Never come back here! I gave birth to a good girl, not some whore!" Mother was beyond hearing. The wind blew dust all over the place and lightening lacerated the sky. After running for what seemed like forever, mother woke up in a strange house dimly lit with a kerosene lamp. An ailing, lonely woman was sitting there, looking at mother and at her full, protruding belly. "Five or six months?" she asked "Six-and-a-half months." "If so, you’re a good runner!" "I don’t know if I ran or the wind blew me." "We women never know what pushes us!" Mother cried bitterly, her head beating at the old woman’s thin breast. In the end mother stayed with the woman. The two of them worked the land together day in and day out, and a longan garden grew from their efforts. The woman was a leper; she’d lost part of an arm and a finger from one hand but nevertheless cooked and cleaned competently. The day mother gave birth there was no midwife so the woman used that four-fingered hand to help mother deliver the baby, and the two women cried and laughed with joy. Two women and a baby made up a family. The longan trees grew fast and in lunar March, they began to bloom and bud. Wind brought along a sweet fragrance that permeated the simple thatch-roofed house. The woman looked at the trees, smiling faintly. Mother walked out to enjoy it with the woman, and from that day of simple shared experience, the woman called mother her daughter. The later afternoon wind blew the fragrance of longan blossoms. One day, a man came to look for the woman but she ran to hide herself behind a lychee tree. The man was over fifty and white haired; he had the same disabled left hand as the old woman. He stood for quite a long time by mother’s side, waiting. Mother knew where the woman was but didn’t speak out.
"He came to look for me," the woman said later, "he’s been doing it for over twenty years now, right when the longan blooming season sets in." "Why have you made him wait all that time?" "I don’t want to live with him like this... two disabled lepers. I’m happy with my life here. I’m sure he understands." The ailing woman slept by the lychee tree, while the man stood waiting for her in silence through the night. Early the next morning, he said good-bye to mother and left. The old woman shed no tears. Mother took a two-month maternity break and then got down to business, working the garden with the woman. They dug a hole in the front of the house and the August rain water turned it into a pond, so they decided to raise fish fries. One day, the woman asked mother to go to the village and buy some breeding pigs. Mother went barefoot and none of the villagers knew who she was. She bought a pair of breeding pigs and released them into the sty during the night. The chickens they had bought a few months back scattered upon the arrival of the pigs. The woman never told her story to mother and mother never asked. Night after night they both sat by my cradle, mother often carrying me in her arms, but the woman never did. She’d coo me to sleep and when I was a toddler and would sometimes fall over, the woman never picked me up; but she’d encourage me to stand up again. One month after mother’s arrival at the village, the head of the communal police came to see them and the woman welcomed him with a cup of tea. "The local authorities didn’t know that you two were living in this area. This is a newly established mountainous commune, so control is still loose." The woman interrupted him, saying that they had done nothing wrong. "It’s your responsibility to register with the local authorities, you know!" he said but smiled to show he meant no harm. The woman said nothing more. That night, mother came home in the pouring rain, the wind hissing outside, blowing in gusts over the roof of the house. The floor began to get wet as mother rushed into the house soaking wet, revealing her heaving round bosom. The communal police chief couldn’t go home as part of the road to the village was submerged under water. That night the woman slept with mother on the same bed while the man took the other. The women lay there listening to the sound of his breathing. The house had suddenly become hotter. Two women and a man. That night, I was probably the only one who slept. The man’s wife had left him four years before and the scent of a woman made him toss and turn the
whole night. For four years, no women had slept with him and he had not smelled that fragrance for a long time... The man lay in the dark, breathing his sadness, his eyes wide open. Early the next morning, the man left, eyes red and swollen from his sleepless night. The fish pond over-filled with rain water and the police chief promised to send a machine to pump the water out. The woman nodded as she thought they were going to lose all their fish. That afternoon, the house stirred with the noise of the machine. The man also brought some fine red clay from a field far away to shore up the lychee trees. He even gave the woman some strange trees to grow on the banks of the pond. The chickens bred to great numbers and the house was soon walled with mortar mixed with cement, sand and stone. Every time the man entered our house, bringing along his ringing laughter, the woman remained taciturn – it was her nature – as she looked at mother’s trembling hands. The woman understood well, but only heaved a deep sigh. Mother was a beautiful woman. Despite her hard life, her skin was as smooth and supple as if she was in the prime of youth. At thirty-five, she remained captivating, full of aspiration and dedication. Her first man had been a construction engineer in charge of the section of road that ran past grandfather’s house. Grandmother was blind and didn’t notice mother’s pregnancy till one day, she inadvertently touched her big belly. Grandmother burst into tears. "Go and fetch that man here right now!" she yelled "Where can I fetch him?" mother cried even louder, "they left the construction site two months ago. I only know how to love, but I didn’t know what to do when I was with him, mum." Upon hearing this, grandmother dropped her hand from mother’s shoulder and walked away, her red eyes frightening mother. Grandmother still insisted that mother should go and fetch that man so mother travelled the central stretch of the country for the next three months looking for him. She found no trace of him. She roamed one construction site after another, working as a hired hand to sustain herself while looking for the father. Finally, exhausted, she hitched a ride home on a truck. A week later, she left again, this time for good, only sending word to grandmother through a villager. She was so scared... Grandmother knew that her daughter was now safe and sound and she really wanted to come and see her grandchild, but she could not get the address. The communal police chief came to see mother regularly. They often walked side by side, and he showed no sign of caring what others thought. Mother looked at her feet whenever she saw a familiar villager and some asked the police chief who mother was.
He smiled but gave no answer. Everyone knew the truth. The police chief’s young child followed mother everywhere and we regularly played together; at night, we slept together. Villagers often came to buy seedlings from the old woman and one told her that the wife of the communal police chief had returned home. She wanted to live with him again as they’d never actually divorced. She’d brought a lot of money with her and had urged the police chief to build a new house. The young son was overjoyed at having his mother back home and he sang all day. The woman did not say anything, only heaved yet another deep sigh, looking at the trellis of those gourds. That summer was sizzling hot and fewer gourds than ever were to be seen. The woman told the villager not to tell mother. But what of the child? He was innocent and ought to live with his mother. It would be for the best. So the woman told mother and the two women embraced each other in tears. Mother tried to avoid the police chief and the woman told him why. Undeterred, the police chief looked for mother behind the longan tree. Blossoms fell all over the ground, transforming it into a fine patch of white flowered cloth, scented with a sweet aroma. Every night mother dug a new hole. The old woman began to suffer painful fits, spitting blood and coughing as if her lungs were trying to flee. Her skin turned wan and yellow. Mother carried her to her bed and turned to leave, but the woman held out her ruined hand and stopped her. "I can’t go on," she whispered hoarsely, "I’ll stay in bed and await my fate. Please call your daughter to be with me." After that mother and I kneeled by her side until she breathed her last. Mother carried her to the field and buried her right where she had dug a large hole. Then mother grew new longan trees around the grave. Three days after the woman’s death, my grandmother died too. Mother took me home once relatives and villagers had shrouded grandmother. Mother could not cry; she simply stared at grandmother’s coffin and then fainted. Grandfather asked mother to stay home but she cried and asked his permission to leave. Before she went, she let me stay with grandfather for a few days. I stood there, staring at her receding figure until she disappeared. I missed mother and the old woman. When she came back, mother embraced me as usual, and in the afternoons, she smelled of longans. It was lunar March and longans were blossoming white all over. I visualised the image of the ailing woman sitting in silence there at the end of the row of longan trees. Every afternoon, mother sat there, looking out into the distance.
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