CURRENT OF NOSTALGIA
Author: Tu Ngoc Nguyen
Born: 1976 in the Southwestern of Vietnam
Award: Level A in the Campaign of Literary Creation for the Age of Twenty in 2000,Level B of the Society of Vietnamese Writers 2001, Society of Vietnamese writers 2006, Asian Literature 2008 with the work “ The
Present position: Member of the Society of Literary & Art of Ca Mau province
This morning, my mother again went to market Three Seven Nine, and stood falteringly there. Looking around for a while, she asked the riverboat girl to row along the floating market. It was the market where people sold and bought kinds of vegetables, fruits and others. The market was so lively that it roused a section of the river. My mother got close to every boat, looked at the owner then got away. Knowing my mum’s intention, the girl (maybe she was an intermediary boat girl) said; “How can you find someone without asking for information, mam!”
-My mum got hopeless; “Yes, everybody! I am looking for an acquaintance” she said.
-“What’s her name? What’s she doing?” some people asked.
- “Sister Giang. She’s a grocer” said my mum.
- “Oh, my God! There are uncountable people named Giang selling groceries in this region! What does she look like?” they asked.
How could my mum know how she looked like then! 16 years had passed since they met for the first time. So she described the woman she was looking for as the memory told her:
-“She’s about my age, 60. Neither beautiful nor ugly. At first, she was with her husband but later the husband left her because of hard life on the river. They had a baby daughter. Unfortunately, when she was about 7 months old, she fell off the boat and no more” my Mum said.
-“Five out of every ten people in this market are in that situation. People of hardship!” they said.
My Mum got hopeless;
-“How did you get acquainted with her? It seems that it is so difficult for you to find her.”
-“Yes. I don’t know how to tell you. It is a long story… My husband’s wife!” said my mum.
- “Oh, it seems a long story. A three - people - love - affair! If it is made into a film, it must be a full - length one! If a tragedy, it will move audience to tears”.
Yes. My mum had cried much because of this.
She said this again and again. Having been the daughter – in – law of my grandparents for over 38 years then with both joy and melancholy, my Mum had never been blamed for anything by my grandmother. Yet she felt resentment towards her till death. When I asked her about the reason, sucking tears with her scarf, she said; “Why did your grandparents marry me to your dad! Look!” pointing at the watering place, she continued; “I have never enjoyed happiness since then.”
It was the time when my Dad leaned against the stick, lurching out to the river. He stopped at the decorative plants, touched the leaves and flowers with his hands as if he had been doing with the long lost friend. He then slowly got to the river bank, stood under the line of old trees that he had planted to prevent erosion long before, and looked at the river with great regret. After a while, he lurched back. The left leg was so weak that it leaned completely against the stick, so every time he made a step, the stick printed a round hole on the ground.
It was our Dad’s routine. And it was our daily routine that when we got together, he lurched to the river… We could do nothing except for following him with our eyes in silence, and feeling great anguish deep in our hearts as if we had been sawn away with a bamboo splints because of the feeling of missing out a member who was lurching in the sun in front of our eyes!
My Dad’s left side had got so weak since the first brain accident. But that was not all. What made the matter worse was that he got in the dotage after the second brain-damage. At times he remembered things, at times he forgot all. To our thought, it was a good luck that he was alive. It was the time when we were living near a market. My dad seemed to be getting sadder and sadder. He usually went away with his stick, which made us worriedly look for him. After that, every time he was away, I just rode my bike along the road to the old garden and I could pick him up. Seeing me, he stopped and said nothing but I could read the ardent solicitation in his eyes. I pretended not to understand what he wanted, took his stick, put him on the bike and pushed him home. Once he wept bitterly, which made his tears and nose mucus dangle.
After that day, we decided to move him back to the garden, my Grandparents’ garden. The garden was taken care well by my uncle and aunt, so it was tidied and green. All we need was building a small house for my Dad. We didn’t need to discuss on who was to stay with and take care of him because my Mum never left him. Once I joked; “whatever you do, you must keep him”. Waving a hand aside, she said; “Your Dad is still there remaining intact! He didn’t run away when young, so what can make me worried now?” Her voice became bitter; “He has never belonged to me. How can I keep him?”
My Dad belonged to the river. It was not the old garden but the river that made him pine for. That was why he lurched to the watering place three and even four times a day, stood there looking over the vast water grievously. It seemed that his heart and mind, and his soul had melted into the water long ago.
Like my Mum, Dad could hardly enjoy himself. When I was small, we lived with my grandmother. Every night when all went to bed, he seated himself there, on the single bed in the veranda smoking and looking out to the river. He sat there night by night. No change! At middle night, Mum checked the mosquito net, which made me awake. Looking out, I saw speck of fire off and on. Mum sat quietly inside the net, looking out at him while Dad was looking out to the river. If it hadn’t been for the nipas and wild plants growing near the bank, we could have seen a vast part of the river from my house. At moon, sitting in the house we could see a sparkling current moving. The river never slept at night. It stayed awake together with the ships sailing along and the rhythmic sound of rowing oars. The river ran gently from the confluence Vam because it was sheltered from the wind. Therefore, many boats and junks stopped or anchored here for the night. Sometimes there was a boat selling groceries quietly stopped in front of my house. A lamp was hung on the mangrove tree with many young branches on which dangled withered pineapples and pumpkins on the boat. No one could be seen there but we could hear the sound of the bucket bailing out water. When dawn broke, my Dad hurriedly ran to the water, but the boat had left. He became wordless, sat there smoking more and looking out to the small flaming lamp on the boat. He breathed a sigh. Mum breathed a sigh. She rushed into my grandmother’s room, and talked to her in tears. I didn’t hear very clearly what they said but grandmother grumbled; “What did I do wrong?” “When will he forget her, Mother?” my Mum said in despair.
When young, my Dad loved a lady that he chose for himself. But he encountered violent opposition from my grandmother. She gave thousands of reasons for this but the most important one was that his lover had ever married once. My Dad then ran away from home to lead a wandering life with his love. They underwent much bitterness and were hired to do many things for people such as harvesting, weeding the fields, and building up dikes… After a long time, they could save enough money for a speedboat. Since then they went selling groceries on the river. They were very poor. Every time passing our house, Dad looked up in regret because of disobeying my grandmother. They then had a daughter. Unluckily my sister died of drowning when she was just 7 months old. Not being able to bear this great grief, he went home. But to be allowed to remain home, he had to obey my grandmother’s order. Since then he abandoned his lover to the river… That was all I knew. But they hadn’t told me anything until I was 15. To my surprise, A very long time had passed but aunt, Dad’s lady, had been still looking forwards to seeing my Dad, missing him and waiting for him. How could my Dad forget her?
It was because he couldn’t forget her that made my Mum love him much more. And only when I had grown up and known what love was did I realised that. People, especially men who abandoned their lovers for any reasons are considered vulgar and unreliable. To me, it was not a matter whether Dad forgot her or not because he was so kind to my family. He exposed extra kindness to us as if he had lived for the faraway people. He was so good-natured and became a man of few words. When Mum got ill, he was so worried that he himself rowed her back and forth between the dispensary and home nearly 20 km away without complaint. He treated Mum in such thoughtful way that the female neighbours felt self-pity for them and cried, which made Mum burst into tears. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence! Everyone knows best where his own shoe pinches.
It seemed that we owed someone, so we always felt melancholy although there was no sign of unhappiness. We had got into debt already. In spite of the fact that no one demanded the payment, we felt it everywhere in this house: in the kitchen from which smoke spread out, in the small beds, above the dinning table every day… Clustering around Dad, we thought that there was a lady lonely out in the world. How poor my grandmother was! She was interested in Cai Luong* but whenever there was a drama in which mother-in-law was so strict and cruel to daughter-in-law or found ways to separate the couple, she looked sad. She must have taken the question “I am similar to such mothers-in-law in on TV, aren’t I?” with her until she left us.
Seeing my grandmother’s torment, Mum tried to hide her gloom to comfort her mother-in-law in her rest of life. But as soon as my grandmother was dead, Mum decided to meet that lady once. She hadn’t decided what to do with her but there was one thing she had definitely to do was telling her to spare my Dad. And there was nothing for her to stop her boat in front of my house and looked up again and again.
Lurking many times, My Mum saw that boat with a flaming lamp finally came and stopped in front of my house. Mum told Dad that she rowed to see maternal side for a night. But when cocks crowed for the first time in the night, she rowed back with some kinds of vegetables on the boat. She pretended to be a market-goer. She got close to that boat and said; “Too windy to row”. Mum thought that this lady, like my Dad, was always sleepless at such nights as this. And it was right that she was embroidering a pillow slip. Hearing Mum’s voice, she turned back in a bit petrification and surprise. Smiling, she said;
“Yes, it is windy tonight”. Collecting the mass of clothes on the the boat floor, she continued; “Come in please, sister. Wait for the wind to get calm then we’ll go otherwise you will get ill.”
Mum didn’t refuse the offer. She tied the rope and stepped onto her boat. Mum was rather tall, so she had to bend her head under the roof of palm leaf. They faced each other. Mum appeared to feel a sense of calm and inner peacefulness, which was quite opposite to what she had planned before. Perhaps it was due to the gentleness of hers - Dad’s lady’s - that made Mum forgot all what she had intended to do with her. She was wearing a light brown sleeveless undershirt that was covered with a very thin loose-fitting blouse with many patches. Some of her white hairs hang down on the forehead. Her face had become dark and shriveled because of the hardship. “Much uglier than me!” Mum said to herself. Thinking that it was rude to stare at her for long, Mum looked away. Everything on the boat was so simple and small. There was a hot red pepper and a medicinal plant planted on a lid of the water jar blossoming next to the water hold behind Mum. Coughing, aunt hurriedly put the incomplete embroidered pillow slip aside, took the thermos bottle and poured water into the chipped spout teapot. Seeing that, Mum smacked the lips and said; “Oh, nothing is better than tea now. You look ill. Holding these medicinal leaves together with some salt in the mouth can help to lessen cough, sister”.
- “Yes, it helps me much when it is windy…” said she in reply.
- “You row alone, don’t you? How can you?” Mum asked.
- “Yes, sister”
- “Where’s your hubby?” Mum continued.
- “Hmm…he was far… far away” she said in embarrassment.
- “And my husband left me for his concubine already” said Mum.
Surprisingly, she looked at my mum as if she had been comparing the pang of her being abandoned with my mum’s pain of losing husband. After a while, she looked down and said;
“Have a cup of tea, sister. You are in a so upsetting situation but I’m sure he will come back. Believe me, almost all of men are good”
“Good? He left you and married me!” Mum asked herself.
It was not the time for the most important sentence to be stated now, Mum looked round seeing some grilled rice snack on the wattle, some boxes of candy and cakes, pepper, garlic and onions on this side and some kinds of fruits as pineapples, squashes and sweet potatoes on the other side with the help of the flaming lamp. Right beside her, under the haft-done pillow slip was a pile of old clothes including adult and children’s clothes tidily arranged. All were faded. With a slip of the tongue, Mum asked aunt;
- “Oh, you have a kid?”
It was that question that tormented Mum most afterwards. According to mum, it had been the most wicked sentence that added to aunt’s pain. She looked at the lamp in great pain and said;
“My little daughter was so ill-fated, sister. It was due to my carelessness that she fell of the boat and went missing. Nearly 20 years has passed! If she were alive, maybe it would be the time I made her a pillow as the gift for her wedding. I… I dream of her so often. In the dream, she can speak. She, in sweet voice, asked me not to leave her. I told her that I would never leave her. She smiled…” She said long in a voice choked with emotion. Pausing for a moment, she continued; “Oh, my God! I’m sorry, sister. You are not happier than me. So, what makes me tell you my story? These clothes (of my hubby and daughter’s) were laid by long ago. But afraid that they will get mouldy, I wash them every one or two months. These are my husband’s. I’m so mad, aren’t I? I can’t help washing them. And washing them again and again made his smell faded completely...” She smiled in pain. My mum tried to stop tears. Repressing feelings, Mum said; “How miserable we are!”
Far away, crowed cocks. The tide tonight got high so quickly. It reached as high as half of the pole to which they tied the boats. Mum got calmer. “How mean am I to scramble with her for this? I have spent much time living with him. He have been with me on the field in day time, shared bed with me at night, faced my face when sleeping, and eating…, whereas she could do nothing except for sitting here and looking up my house. She even daren’t to call him when seeing. How poor she is!” Mum thought. It was still early, yet some boats were passing them. Wind seemed to become much calmer, too. Dad’s lady looked out;
- “Oh, how short the night is! I must go, sister” aunt said in regret.
- “How early?” Mum said.
- “I always leave… before they get up…”
- “You can’t finish the pillow slip because of me…”
- “No, no.” smiling painfully, she said; “I just do this to get over the loneliness. But I immediately unstitch it as soon as I have finished it. Only by doing this can I help mollify myself. I’m afraid of doing nothing and sitting here feeling the nostalgia for my husband and daughter. My husband has suffered much sorrow. How can I tie him down by tears, sister?”
It was time they said goodbye to each other. Getting the motorboat started, aunt said to Mum in curling smoke;
- “Don’t be angry with him if he comes back, sister. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he always loves you”. Mum could say nothing but turned away and wept bitter tears of pain.
The month after that, Mum decided to afford a house near the market. She wanted Dad to leave the river! He could do a little carpentry, so he made wooden things as tables, chairs…for people every day. Mum made soya-cake for customers. My sister became a tailor and I myself attended a university. Everything became new-arranged. Mum could force Dad live far from the river but she knew that never in her life could she stop the currents of nostalgia in him. Even she herself was not able to forget the image of the old basket made of bamboo in which a plate, a big bowl, three rice bowls and three pair of bamboo chopsticks were put. That lady kept them as if she were with her husband and daughter long back.
…Up to date, Mum hasn’t been able to find aunt, Dad’s female. Knowing that I wanted her to stop searching, Mum said; “I want them to meet. Maybe their meeting can help to improve your Dad’s situation”. I’m writing this when my Dad is no more. He was buried on the third row in front of my Grandparents’. Mum keeps on looking for her. When we asked her for the reason, Mum told us that she wanted to tell aunt that when alive they were living apart, so Mum would offer her a place beside my Dad in my garden if she liked.
That is Mum’s last attempt to stop Dad from thinking of the flowing rivers while lying beside Mum.
*Cai luong: a form of arts of performance in Vietnam
Translated by Vuon Le