|It was a summer afternoon on Yen
The water of Nhi Ha River started
to rise; its turbulently powerful current seemed to want to drag away the
islet in the middle of the river.
Flowing along with the reddish muddy
water, tree trunks and dried up tree branches from the forest were floating
disorderly, like a chain of small boats continuously speeding towards an
Standing on the dyke, Thuc the mason,
his eyes hungrily following those branches, turned around and looked intensely
and inquisitively at his wife. She contemplated the river, the sky, and
sighing with a head shake, said:
- The winds are strong, and that
black cloud from the horizon is accumulating too fast. It will rain in
no time, dear.
The husband also gave a sigh and
strolled about. Suddenly he stopped and asked his wife:
- Have you cooked the rice?
The wife sadly replied:
- Yes, I have. But there is only
enough rice for the two kids this afternoon.
They continued looking at each other
in silence… Then, as if hypnotized and oppressed by a same idea, both
of them turned and looked towards the river. The branches were still floating
impetuously in the reddish current.
The husband smiled pointlessly and
said to her:
- Risk it!
The wife quietly shook her head.
He asked her:
- Have you seen Mrs. Ky?
- I have.
- Then what?
- It’s no good. She says she would
only give us the money after we have delivered the collected wood. She
doesn’t loan the money in advance.
The word was as firm as the last
two knocks of a mason’s trowel on a brick in a wall being built.
Determined to do an extraordinary
act, Thuc turned and told his wife:
- Hey! You go home and take care
- There are already Nhon and Be who
are playing with him.
- But it’s better that you are
with him. Nhon is only five, and is unable to look after her two younger
- Then I’ll go back. But come back
with me, what’s the point standing here?
- All right, please go back, I will
Obediently, Mrs. Thuc went back to
the village of Yen Phu.
When she arrived at the doorstep,
she scanned the poverty of the low, dank, and dark house and felt a pang
in her heart.
On a crowded plank bed without a
mat there were three hustling children, all were crying for their mother.
Bo was crying for his nipple meal. He had not had anything in his stomach
Nhon, being unable to silence her
brother, her face twisted, was incessantly telling Be:
- You go find Mommy to breastfeed
But Be refused to go, threw herself
down on the bed, swearing and complaining.
Mrs. Thuc hurriedly picked up the
baby and said caressingly:
- Oh, oh! I always go away and let
my baby be hungry so he cries.
Then she sat down to breastfeed him.
But Bo, without getting the milk after a while, rejected the nipple and
cried louder than before.
Mrs. Thuc sighed heavily, two tear
drops swelled up in her ringed eyes. She stood up, pacing and singing a
lullaby. Then she said caressingly:
- Oh, oh, I have nothing to eat,
so I do not have milk to feed my baby!
After a while, the baby became tired
and dozed off. The mother had sent his two siblings away so he could sleep
Sitting quietly, Mrs. Thuc recalled
what had happened in her life. The rustic mind of a country girl was simple,
neither able to imagine, nor to organize her memory into an orderly fashion.
All she could remember appeared hustled
and chaotic like mixed images of people and animals in a photograph. One
thing was certain; she remembered clearly that she had never enjoyed a
relaxing happy moment like rich people had. At the age of twelve, Lac,
as she was called as a girl, alias Mrs. Thuc, started working as a mason
coolie. There was nothing interesting in all her life. It was the same
day after day, month after month, and year after year…
When she was seventeen, she met Thuc,
who worked at the same place. She was a mason coolie, and he, a mason.
One said a humourous sentence, the other responded in same manner, then
they fell in love, and they married each other.
During five years they spent time
together in that low, dank, and dark house at the bottom of Yen Phu dyke,
there were nothing fond worth recorded; and the empty lives of the two
miserable persons had become more wretched when they had borne three children
in only three years.
At a time when work was rare and
wages were low, the couple had to struggle hard day in and day out, yet
they could not put enough rice onto the family’s table for themselves
and their children.
Then during the tidal season last
year, Thuc discovered a new way to earn a living. He borrowed money and
bought a bamboo boat, and then both husband and wife rowed the boat to
the middle of the river to collect floating firewood. He could clear the
debt after two months, leaving him some leftover money for some extra expenses
As things got more difficult this
year, they could not help but expecting the day the high tide came. And
it came yesterday, as if Providence had provided foods for her family.
With this thought, Lac smiled a little,
quietly put the baby onto the nappy, and soundlessly stepped outside, headed
towards the dyke, and appeared bent on doing something.
On reaching the dyke, Lac could not
find her husband.
The wind was still strong and frightfully
violent, and the current was roaring powerfully like a waterfall. Lac looked
up into the sky; it was dark black.
She stood pondering, while her dress
flapped loudly like waves on reaching the shore. An idea suddenly occurred
to her, and she ran hurriedly in panic to the dyke on the other side.
At the spot where they tied up the
bamboo boat, Lac saw her husband strenuously tying the bamboo knot. She
quietly watched him and waited until he had finished the work before she
stepped into the boat and asked:
- Where are you planning to go, dear?
Thuc glared at his wife and raised
his voice in scolding:
- Why don’t you stay with the baby?
Frightened, Lac stammered:
- The baby... slept.
- But what are you doing here?
- But where are you planning to bring
- Why are you asking? Go home!
Lac hid her face in her palms, sobbing.
Thuc was touched:
- Why are you crying, dear?
- Because you planned to collect
the firewood by yourself, not letting me go with you.
Thuc pondered, looked at the sky,
at the water, and then told his wife:
- You cannot go... it is very dangerous.
- We will both face the dangers.
I am not afraid, I know how to swim.
- All right!
Hearing the cold "all right", Lac
shuddered. The wind was blowing violently, the current flowing strongly,
and the sky was getting darker and darker. Thuc asked:
- Are you afraid?
The couple rowed the boat to the
middle of the current; the man was steering, the woman rowing. Fighting
against the current flow, the husband turned the front of the boat upstream,
but the boat was still drifted towards downstream, being bounced up and
down, appearing, disappearing in the alluvial current, like a dry bamboo
leaf floating in a pool of blood, or like a gnat drowning in a crimson
After about half an hour, the boat
made it to the middle of the current. The husband strained at the steering,
the wife collected the firewood. The boat became almost full in a short
while, and when the couple were about to steer it back to the river bank,
it started raining…. Then lightning tore up the dark clouds, and thunders
rumbled like explosions in the sky.
The small bamboo boat was full of
water and became too heavy. The couple tried to row it, but it was still
pulled away by the current...
Suddenly there were two cries at
the same time:
- Oh, heaven!
The boat sank. The previously collected
firewood joined their old groups and dispassionately floated away, pulling
along the newly bought bamboo boat.
The husband asked his wife:
- Could you make it to the shore?
The wife was determined:
- Swim with the current… ride the
- Yes! Leave me be!
The rain was still heavy, lightning
and thunders were still frightening. The couple thought they were living
in a very deep abyss. A moment later, realizing that his wife was getting
exhausted, Thuc swam closer and asked:
- Good! Leave me.
No sooner than she had said the sentence,
her head went underwater. Gathering all her might was she able to rise
above the water. The husband hurried to help. He then swam with one arm
and with the other he supported the wife. She smiled, looking at him lovingly.
He smiled too. A moment later, Thuc cried:
- It is too tiring, you hang onto
me, and I swim! I cannot support you anymore.
A few minutes later, the husband
felt more tired, his arms felt crumbled. His wife quietly asked:
- Can we swim some more?
- I don’t know. Alone maybe.
- I let go so you can make it, heh?
The husband smiled:
- No! We both die.
A moment later - just a moment, but
it seemed like a day to Lac - her husband asked again:
- Lac? Can you try to swim some more?
- No! … Why?
- No. We will both die.
Suddenly Lac said in a trembling
- Bo! Nhon! Be!...No…you ought
Thuc suddenly felt light. The heavy
burden no longer clung to him. It was Lac who, thinking about her children,
had quietly let go of her arm and sunk herself to the bottom of the river,
so her husband could have enough strength left to swim to shore.
Electric lights shone brightly along
the river bank. The wind had died down, the waves were gone. A man carried
a boy in his arm, crying. Two little girls stood beside him. That was the
family of Thuc the mason, who came to the river bank to say goodbye the
last time to the soul of the person who had sacrificed herself out of love
for her children.
In the immensity of the scene, the
river was still flowing dispassionately away.
from Vietnamese into English by Hương Cau Cao Tân
on 28 July,
2019 in British Columbia, Canada