By Lai Trung Do
(Hãy đọc bản Tiếng Việt sau bản dịch)
(Hãy đọc bản Tiếng Việt sau bản dịch)
- “You know, more than thirty years back I had to leave. We suffered such a big series of calamities that we had to leave although we were not wrongdoers.” Duc began his talk to me.
Every time we talked, it was his habit to use the phrase ‘you know’ in a
very formal way.
- “And you did nothing to defend yourselves?” I asked him.
- No, You know, I could not in that situation” He, then, looked up the sky. It was a starry night.
- “Then what made your return?” asked I.
- “Looking up, one sees the moon lighting. Lowering, he has just found his heart in motherland”1 “Homeland is far away eastwards, the sleeves cannot help to dry pouring tears!”2 instead of answering my question, he read these lines of verse. “For more than thirty years now I had always been in that situation. I could not bear more, you know” he said.
Saying nothing, I picked out the package of cigarettes and lighted one. Duc asked me to give him one, too, although he did not use to smoke. His pale face was off and on in the light of burning cigarette.
We were in the open air, leaning on the narrow wooden banisters of the building. At the foot of the building was a small stone-paved yard from which we could see young green lichens grow from the slits between pieces of stones. On the other side of the yard situated a two-story stone house, one of the tens of guest-houses built in the time of French domination. In front of us was the mount Du Lich, the top of which printed deep in the dark sky, touching a constellation. Now the stars and the mountain top were off and now were on among the flying while clouds. The air was pervaded by the sweet fragrance from the two cangue tress in front of the building.
- “You know, there was another reason that made me return, too. It was a girl.” He broke the silence.
- “A love affair?” I asked him.
- Yes. You know, it was a love story” said he in reply.
I again took out the package of cigarettes and Duc once more asked me for another.
- “You can share that story with me, can’t you?” I gently asked him.
After taking a long puff as if he had been a heavy smoker, Duc said; “You know, in those days we were in the same school. I was in the tenth grade and she was in the ninth. We knew each other thanks to the activities of The Communist Youth Union of the school. Together with times when we helped each other with lessons, went on excursions and for school awards, our love grew. My parents made and sold traditional Chinese medicines which were brought here thirty hundred years back by our ancestors. Thirty hundred years, you know? Is that enough for us to be considered Hanoi-born people? And she lived with her family near the Ancient Street beside the railway line. Her parents were railway officials. Every time there was a train going past their small house, it shook violently as if it had been running in the opposite direction of the train. The sound of coming trains had become her family’s sound of time, the live o’clock, for a long time. So much was my love to her, to the sound of trains and to their small house! Never have I forgotten the times when we, she and I, pressed our ears against the wall to listen to the train coming and guess the time. We had competitions of telling the exact time when a train got to the station. Everything was lovely and colorful to me. Many times I picked wild flowers on the railway sides to make the vase on my desk, which made my mum surprised and then smiled at me. Oh, my mum! In Western land she has been feeling pity for our love till now.”
Duc stopped saying, asking me for a more cigarette. The constellations now hid itself behind the summit Mount Du Lich. And the mount seemed higher in the night sky.
- “You know, she was so beautiful” said Duc.
- “I myself think so” I said.
- “Yes, she was so pretty and beautiful. Every time she stood, pressing her ears against the wall when we played the game. Her dark long hair touched the red-brown brick-paved floor like a silk fall. Her smiling eyes closed to focus on the sound of the train. Her graceful lips pursed playfully as if she had been the winner. And when she won, looking at me, she said; “You see, people from Ancient Street only can study well!”
Duc smiled. Oh, no, it was his sigh rather than a smile. He continued; “Once during our game, she read part of the poem ‘Images of The People In The Platform’:
Once I saw a man going
Without knowing where to
and what was in his mind
when he made emotionless steps
along his shadow shape,
which made a whole separation!
- “I did not understand why she read this blue melancholy during the happy time, which made me a bit sad and worried” said Duc.
Now we could hear the cock-crow coming from the village for the third time. After a brief pause, Duc continued his talk;
“After leaving high school, I entered Maritime University of Hai Phong and she told me that the following year she would join the railway career because it had created a deep place in her heart and mind since childhood. She, then, would manage freighters to Hai Phong for me to ship goods to all the corners of the world. And that we were born for each other. Her career was that for mine. We would vote our time to the country’s development”.
“Yet I had to leave her. Seeing me off, she cried so much. Our tears mixed in the parting kisses. She said in tears; “I have only you. I will wait for your return. When coming back, just go along the railroad till you see this scarf on a window, you will see me”. It was the first time we called each other ‘honey’ and it was also the first time we kissed” Duc said.
- “The two-century kisses!” I joked to prevent him from sadness. But Duc did not seem to hear my words.
“You know, the scarf she mentioned was the blue one with a branch of willow embroidered on each end” said he.
We were deep in silence and cigarette smoke again. The cigarette trembled in his hand…
- “We fled the country” after throwing the filter tip, he continued; “but you know, we did not go to the place from which our ancestors had left thirty hundred years before. My mum said to us; ‘Whatever happens, we are Hanoi-born people. We will not make our home in the countries that once invaded our land; therefore, we went to Germany – West Germany. After settling, I continued my study and found a job, too. During the time of ‘Embargo’, we, she and I, could not get in touch. Honestly, the fact that we lost touch with each other did not only result from the ‘Embargo’ but also due to my tiredness from earning a living and the feeling of gloom and depression about interminable time of wait. All my younger brothers and sisters in turn got married. My parents got older and weaker day by day. Although they loved her very much and felt pity for our love, after ten years, they began asking me to find a female for myself. My mum said; ‘You are the eldest brother of the family. You should get married and don’t just wait more!”
The fragrance from the two cangue trees seemed to be soaked with dew. We could feel the mixture of the perfume, the dew and the cold spreading in the body.
- “Then I got married” after a short pause, Duc said; “We, my wife and I, were in the same boat. Knowing our love in homeland, she felt pity for us and tried not to make me sad. Then Vietnam started the so-called ‘DOI MOI’ (Innovation). The ‘Embargo’ was eventually removed. I should have returned earlier! But you know, at that time I was a leading specialist of a High Technology and Industry Group which was carrying out a project related to the state secret. My PhD thesis was also considered one of their state secrets. That means only after eight years since my retirement can I relocate and settle in another country. Nine years ago, I submitted request of retirement and it was last autumn that I was accepted to retire, which means that I have been free since then. On the occasion when German Government had an important project in Vietnam, I right away applied for a position. Fortunately, I was accepted. You can understand how happy I was! After interminable wait, finally I could return to homeland. The first thing I did was following my parents’ words to find our house in Ancient Street. But our two-floor house now belongs to another person. The new owner does not sell traditional Chinese medicine but he sells products of metal. Right after taking some photographs of the house, I went to her place just to see the new tin-roofed house on the old floor with strange people. The new owner told me that he had bought the house ten years before from another person, not her parents. And that he did not know her family. My heart hurt. Giving me a pitying look, he said; ‘Everything has changed! I can do nothing to help you’. You know, at that time, our project had not been initiated, so I decided not to waste more time. Meeting her was a must to me. I then followed the words when we parted: Going along the rail road to find the blue scarf on a window. I would go to all ends of railway lines of Vietnam to find her whatever happened.”
- “Yes”. I had no word than ‘yes’ to say to him.
- “Yes. You know” said Duc; “But when starting, I found it much harder to do what I wanted because there are seven railroad lines in our country: Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh City is 1726 km, Hanoi – Lang Son 148 km, Hanoi – Hai Phong 102 km, Hanoi Laocai 294 km, Hanoi – Uongbi 130 km, Hanoi – Quantrieu 75 km, and Kep – Luu xa 55 km. How could I start my journey! Remembering her words that she would manage freighters to Haiphong for me to ship them to all the corners of the world, I started with the line Hanoi-Haiphong. Sitting by the window of a carriage, I kept looking attentively at every window along the road: Hanoi-Gialam then Hanoi-Caugiay… and finally there came Haiphong station without seeing a scarf on a window.
Duc paused. I dared not to ask him more. The sound of cock-crow resounded and sent back long echo for the fourth time, which means two third of the night had passed.
- “On the return, I kept looking at the window on the other side of the railway. Nearly the half way had passed but no scarf appeared. Nothing! Nothing! And nothing! I was filled with depression when appeared on a wooden window of a small house next to the station of Caoxa a blue scarf. Oh, my Gods! Finally I could meet her. I quivered with palpitations. I hurriedly got off the train and rushed to that house. On, no, exactly I rushed to the scarf” he said. “Holding the scarf tightly in my hands, I looked fixedly into the house with thumping heart. Inside the house by the window, there was a lady at about my age sitting. She looked up with a start, which gave me quite a start, too. But, my Gods, it was not she, my first love! Leaving the chair, she said in a quavering voice;
- ‘You…are…D…uc…, aren’t…you…’
- ‘Y…e…s, I…am’ I replied. She burst into cry, covering her mouth with hands; ‘How poor my sister!’ she cried out. I got horror-stricken.
- “She took me into the house” Duc continued. “When I passed the door, the very first thing that appeared in front of my eyes was the altar on which there was her picture with the blue scarf around the neck. My heart melted. You know, I met her but I could not touch her! She was there on the alter with fruits, with flowers and incenses, with years of wait and with my unfaithfulness! She was looking at me with extremely sadness but full of vain-glory”.
Cock-crow surrounded for the fifth time, but in this mountainous region it was still dark. Duc was looking down at the abyss. He seemed to be whispering something to it but the abyss totally hid itself in the strong- milky color of dew.
- “The night is nearly over!” His voice became less excited. Recovering self-possession, he continued; “Let me tell you the rest of the story. But now it is about Ms. Binh, the lady who I met in her house that day. Ms. Binh was her colleague, one year older than she. Binh had worked in Caoxa station for a long time before she came. At first Binh did not understand why such a beautiful and active girl as she had a desire to work in such a small station of Caoxa and why she was lonely. When they became close friends, she was shared our love story after the promise of keeping secret. Then she had seen my photograph many times. Binh told me that fifteen years later, after she, my lover, had refused many offers of marriage and her parents one by one had passed by, she sold her house, left Hanoi and came to Caoxa station, which was located on the half way line of Hanoi-Haiphong to wait for me. She had bought hundreds of blue scarves like the one I had given her. She tied them in turn on the window each day, each month and each year. ‘She was afraid that the scarves would fade and you would not be able to recognize’ said Binh; ‘She then took a photograph with your scarf and kept it for herself’ Binh told me in tears. Eating her heart out for me, she wore herself out gradually till early autumn last year, when I completely free, she left the world on the exact day on which we had parted thirty years back! Binh said; ‘on her final days, she did not eat or drink anything but kept calling your name in her delirium’ and before drawing her last breath, she looked at the box of scarves and said to Binh; ‘Help me, sister. Don’t leave the scarves fade!’ Those were her last words. Oh my Gods! From that small station of Caoxa, so many times had she made separations by herself and died slowly when looking at the blue scarf!”
Duc was nearly exhausted. He collapsed on the handrail. His shoulders shook violently.
- “It was due to the fact that you did not have fate in marriage” I consoled him uncouthly.
- “No…No…No! All was my fault. It was my responsibility. It was me who killed her” Duc stood up and groaned; “Why did I not return earlier? Why could I get married while she was waiting for me??? I was unfaithful to her!”
I could say nothing. The cock-crow surrounded for the sixth time. The tiring sound came through the dew and clouds. The strong fragrance of the two cangue trees made it difficult for me to breathe. Stars disappeared.
Waiting for the sunrise, we left the mountain for daily work. Since then, I have not met Duc again. He has been very busy traveling between the two countries for his project.
Translated by Vuon Le