At twilight

Sunday, 2018-04-29 07:59:12
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Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
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At last, he looked at her. "Are you thin from working so hard these days?" he asked. She looked down in embarrassment.

"Oh, no. We have a normal life like when you were still at home," she said.

She sighed.

She wanted to rush to him and bury her head in his chest to relieve her pain. Yet, between the two of them was a chipped table. He sat there in great distress. He had grown old in a short time. He looked older than his age of 45. With his white hair, he was often mistaken for 60.

"How is our son?

"He’s grown up now. He wanted to visit you, but I was so afraid of that. You know, after his last visit, he became obsessed."

He last saw his son on the battle front. He was a sensitive, stunted and weak boy. He had carried him on his shoulders, asking, "If I die later, will you still love me?" His son had sobbed violently. Yet, now he was an irresponsible man. He longed for the simple days when he was still a just captain.

Five years had passed since he last saw his son.

She sat there, her slender body leaning against that chipped and rough chair. At 40, she had held on to the rare beauty of her youth. Quite apart from the other women she knew, she wore northern clothes. The bluish blouse and the fashionable trousers made her look much younger. When sadness did not touch the corners of her eyes, she looked noble.

The visitor’s room of the prison had a window looking out to the sea. From here one could see the water clearly. Several shabby huts were completely deserted. The smell of fish sauce lingered. She cast an uneasy glance at him. Silence bordering on suffocation reigned.

It was she who broke the suffocating atmosphere:

"It’s been five years already. Now please spell it out to me: Do you still resent me?"

He slowly raised his head.

"Why are we tormenting us about this? I beg you to forget all that so that we can bring up our son well. Another five years, and I’ll return home... You must believe that I am the man to blame," he said.

She suddenly shuddered. Her face turned pale. She closed her eyes, sighing lightly as if in a dream.

"But today I want to hear you say it, because I believe that you will forgive me, won’t you?"

As suddenly as she had come, she stood up and drew out from her pocket a wad of money, which she put on the table.

"Maybe next month I will not come to see you. Please take it just in case."

He wanted to jump up and grab her for a moment, but his feet seemed buried in the ground. Then, she left.

She had lived in loneliness for five years, and she had created for herself a habit of enduring it with resignation. Nobody could share her pain.

The verdict at the court had seemed like a slap in the face: "The culprit Luong Quang Thang has been convicted for abusing power and corruption."

She had sat there at the court, feeling so hurt. Her whole body seemed to float on the waves. She wanted to shout then that he was not the man to punish. It was she who had to bear all the blame. But who would believe it?

"What did he say?"

"Fifteen years of imprisonment, but in recognition of his contributions, he’ll enjoy five years’ reduction. Are you deaf? Didn’t you hear?"

She had collapsed after hearing this.

"Hey, lady, it’s already dark, won’t you go home?" someone said, awakening her.

"Leave me alone. Go away," she said.

The man sat down on the chair next to her.

"Don’t you want to live?"

"There’s nothing more for me," she said.

"You can’t die, even if you want to. It’s not your fate. Do you think that your unhappiness is that great?"

She looked at him. The hair touched with grey, his mysterious eyes, all that made her feel less tense.

"I’ve got pain of my own, pain greater than any other pain. At times I did not want to live. Yet, I remain alive, as you can see."

She felt hot tears on her cheeks.

Her son was crying out in that dark room. The woman she had given her son to was casting an angry, disdainful look at her and the man who was accompanying her. The clanking of kitchen pots and pans was heard in the dark.

"You, son of a bitch, what a whore you are! Your husband is absent only for a moment, and you have already brought a man home!"

The boy cried. She felt a piercing pain in the heart. She understood that from now on, the boy was her reason for living. She embraced him tightly and sobbed.

For five years, she had come to see her husband regularly. The prison staff were familiar with her, the thin woman with beautiful but sad eyes who appeared every Sunday at the end of the month. Her arrival brought joy to him during those months, even though she always cried her heart out.

She had told him everything about the house, about her leaving the office and about the old woman refusing to take care of their son any longer. She was like a wild animal driven into a corner. She stood crying before the dark river in front of her house, thinking about drowning herself there. Yet right at that moment, her son screamed. She rushed to embrace him, vowing to live on. Her son should not be orphaned again.

Hoai, the man she had met in court, sometimes visited her. Her neighbours started spreading rumours about the two of them.

One very cold winter night, when her son Trung had already fallen asleep, he came. She said to him in a sharp tone, "You know the rumours about your relationship with me, don’t you?"

He dropped his eyes.

"Yes, I know."

"What do you think about it?"

"I find truth in it. I have feelings for you."

She jumped up, about to give him a slap on his gloomy face.

"You’re a son of a bitch! I didn’t expect you to take advantage of our difficulties."

"Please Thao! Listen to me. I love you, with all that is left of me. The first days I came to you out of sympathy. But, I don’t know when I began loving you. Yes, I am a son of a bitch, but I’m that way because I love you."

He bowed his head on the table, while she stood there, looking at him with senseless eyes.

"Thao, you know it. Yes, I’m a miserable man. I abandoned my wife. But you’ve given me hope," he said.

She lowered her voice.

"Get out of here now. Never come back."

The man dragged himself out the door and disappeared in the dark. She trembled in fatigue. Burying her face in her son’s chest, she sobbed on.

She was told that her husband had become ill. She was panic-stricken, not knowing what to do. She decided to lock her son inside the house.

He was sick with malaria. He looked pale. She hurried to take the first bus to see him.

One day it was raining hard when the bus climbed the last steep slope towards the city. The rain had eroded part of the road. All of the passengers looked disappointed. Many of them were asleep, waiting for the bus to return to its starting point.

It was pitch dark. The rain grew heavier and the wind became stiff. In spite of advice she had received, she decided to walk home. Her head got dizzy as she thought about her son being alone in the house. She walked fast, and her hair became wet.

It was already 10 o’ clock in the evening when she arrived in the city. She ran back to the small house in the lane. She listened attentively for her son. It was quite silent. She shuddered at a terrible thought. The door was opened and the light glimmered in the dark. She rushed into the house and stopped short at the door. Her son was lying in Hoai’s lap. She called to her son, then she collapsed at the door. Hoai quickly placed the boy down. When she woke up, she found herself in warm clothes and a blanket, and sitting by her were her son and Hoai.

She did not know how many times she had blamed herself for this. Many times she had wanted to break off the relationship, but each time he came, she felt warm in her heart. However, she had always kept a distance from him. He understood her and kept silent. For him, it was enough to nurture his love towards her.

She had regularly taken a bus to visit her husband once a month, but Hoai eventually insisted on driving her. All she had done, she had done for her son Trung. She had bought everything necessary for her husband in the hope that he would stay in good health. She felt ashamed when she lied to her husband.

For five years, once a month, she went to see him. After five years, this was the last time. Who would fill her shoes? Who would bring him the joy he had been awaiting for the whole month? She quickly threw the wad of money on the table and rushed out without looking back at him. She knew that if he asked him only one question, she would confess everything to him. Now she was no longer herself; she was somebody else. She suddenly hated his patience, his shamelessness.

"You know, I love you so much. Maybe you still don’t love me, but when you need me in your life, we will belong to each other. We will go to a far away land, very far from this country."

She gave Hoai a violent slap on his seemingly happy face. Yet, a glimmer of hope was still there on that face. She screamed.

"Oh, God, what about my husband? How can he keep on living in that way?"

"Do you believe that he will tolerate you for the days you have lived with me? Do you believe that he will tolerate the child in your belly?"

She drooped and cried. Hoai accepted the truth she had tried to forget. She had lost all people dear to her, friends and her first love. Even if her husband did forgive her, she would not have enough courage to keep on living with him; she could not look squarely at him any more.

When they first fell in love, she had whispered to him: "You’ve got strange eyes. They have fire in them. If anyone looks into them, the truth will be laid bare!"

He laughed.

"Do you think they are? Oh, I’ll never be able to lie to you, I guess. That’ll be my Achilles Heel."

Achilles died with an arrow in his heel, and she had lost him because of her indifference to the people around her. She wished that she could have gone back to the river of her home village, which had been left out of her memories, and buried her face in her mother’s lap. But mother had died alone, longing desperately for her unhappy daughter. She suddenly missed her home village so much that her heart ached. The road back to the north was not so simple anymore. The barrier was invisible, which made her stop thinking about it. She had wished many times to lose her mind, to become a crazy woman, to walk aimlessly, without joy and misery. It would never be like that, as Hoai said, fate was like a circle set up by God for each man.

She was out of the correction camp when the sun had become yellow. Seeing her walk alone on the road, the owner of a roadside inn asked her to sit down. She was so tired that she fell asleep on the edge of the table. She was deep in a dream when the inn’s owner called out to her suddenly, "Look! The bus is coming!" Out of the dream, she quickly took the bag. The lorry was full of barrels. The driver’s assistant, who had no shirt, guided the truck to a stop. He grinned at her.

"Are you hitchhiking to town? Hop in the cabin with us!"

She felt a thrill at his nicotine stained teeth.

"I’ll sit in back," she mumbled.

She climbed the steps quickly, afraid he would change his mind. He tried to touch her. She screamed, pushing his dirty hands away from her body. But she fell down, with her head striking violently on the ground. "Don’t worry! If you take this truck, you’ll be home with your son in 30 minutes," she told herself.

The image of her son Trung appeared before her. He was jumping for joy upon seeing her at home. Then she saw her husband. "Please, don’t be angry with me," she thought.

By Do Thi Thu Hien/ Translated by Manh Chuong