The smashed nest
by Nguyen Huong Duyen
I wasn’t born under a lucky star: My parents divorced when I was still a little boy. But I don’t reproach either of them. Strangely enough, since my childhood I’ve never blamed them. I love them both and want them to be happy. Even if they had tried to lead their married life without happiness, I wouldn’t have been happy at all. Nevertheless, for me to live with them under the same roof would have been much better. You’re finding my statement contradictory, aren’t you? Life’s a series of contradictions, you see!
So far since the funeral of my paternal grandmother, I haven’t had any occasion to visit my native village. Once Dad urged me, “Your half-sister’s going to get married. Try to arrange your jobs properly and return home to attend her wedding, or else she would be greatly disappointed.” My half-sister and I always regarded each other as blood siblings. What’s more, we have a common sibling. A new-born child. We feel tremendously happy for Dad’s sake!
My father was a night guard to a State-run office. Every evening, Dad rode his Chinese bike with me on the luggage-carrier at the back to his establishment where he swept away dead leaves, watered bonsai trees and spent the night for a monthly pay of several hundred thousand dong. His cabin was large enough to contain a bed, a small wardrobe and a tea table. Its window faced an immense courtyard where ornamental plants rested. Close by stood a magnificent five-story building. Early in the morning and late in the evening the whole compound belonged to us and the sparrows, whose number might amount to a hundred, hovering up and down and chirping merrily like the atmosphere of a festive day. One afternoon, while I was climbing up to one of their nests on an air-conditioner, Dad shouted at me, telling me to get down at once. He was afraid that he might lose me, his only son – the only one that he could share weal and woe with.
My mother was very beautiful indeed. Later as an adult I came to know why such a fair lady as Mum would marry Dad, an ordinary man. Mum came from a poor family in the country whose single source of income was paddy. The urban origin of my father became the hope for her to get out of poverty. When I was born, I possessed all the nice features of my mother. Mum forsake Dad because he had a small build and never stopped talking.
When I was two years old, their conjugal life reached the most tension stage. That situation lasted for two more years. The one-sided love from Dad forced him to leave his nest to go to Korea as hired labourer. With no days of hard work Mum stayed attractive. After sending me to my grandparents, she went to town to practise hairdressing. Dad started sending his paycheck home for us to spend. Nevertheless, his hard-earned money did not make her happy at all. She kept part of it to open a beauty parlour; the rest went to Granny for a rainy day.
One day Mum, with tears in her eyes, kowtowed in front of my grandparents, entrusting me to them then went away for ever, small bag in hand, with a strong man on his big motorbike.
When I was eight years old, Dad returned home from Korea. He took me to see Mum.
“I know that you don’t love me any longer. But why couldn’t you wait for my homecoming?” he asked. “Our child and his Granny would have suffered less.”
“I’m to blame!” she confessed. “I hope that Mum and you will forgive me. But you see, this golden opportunity only come to me once.”
She moved to a three-story house at the outskirt of the city. Her new husband was in real estate. She didn’t have to work – every month he gave her enough money for her family expenditure. Every couple of months she asked me to come stay at her place for a few days.
I didn’t pay much attention to her new husband because I was totally engrossed with modern, expensive playthings. I also got to fly kites with other kids in the hamlet.
When I returned home, Dad’s eyes sparkled with joy. “Without you at home I feel very lonely,” he said to me.
I ignored his sentiments, and my step-father’s glares, because I was in a child’s paradise.
At the age of fifteen, my number of visits started to decrease. My step-father’s obvious hate stung my heart. Although Mum’s life looked complacent she always ran short of money.
When Dad looked at my new clothes, he rang her up. “You’ve exchanged me for a luxurious life; still you’ve bought him such dirt cheap clothes. Don’t dishonour him and don’t abase yourself that way,” he said to her with a tremble in his voice. Mom’s new money had made me feel that I was always lacking something. Gradually, I realised that Dad’s life was short of riches, even far more than mine, so I began to take more interest in him.
Opposite to Dad’s establishment stood a karaoke bar which stayed open round the clock. He sometimes looked stealthily at its sexy waitresses with the glances of a man missing women. For many nights, he did not go to sleep, but took a few strolls around the compound of his building first then went out into the half-dark alleys. To the best of my knowledge, during those moments Dad missed my mother very much. Then one night he reached a dark lane where many streetwalkers waited to seduced passers-by. He always adored Mum’s charm and beauty, so hookers seemed distasteful. Once he followed one of those hookers into a deserted hut and came back out without touching her body. Returning to our place, he sat down at the head of the bed for a few minutes breathing heavily. He then searched among Mum’s clothes and picked up one of her old blouses. Lifting it to his nose he inhaled her fragrance. Silently, he lay by my side with her garment spread over his chest, breathing lightly.
“You enjoy all the nice features of your mother – the face of an angel,” remarked one of my friends. In secondary school girls usually clung to me or sat close in class. Then in tenth grade I sat next to Le, the pretty but dimwitted girl from a wealthy family on the same street as mine. At the age of sixteen she knew how to use makeup properly and dyed her hair brown. She spent most of her time riding her flashy motorbike around town. Playboys ran after her in legions, but she was only interested in me. On the whole her stylish behaviour made me nervous at first.
In the second semester examinations that year she should have failed in math, physics and chemistry, but I let her copy my test papers. As a result, she got seven marks for each of them. That was a surprise for her and the entire class. She took me to her house after that and rewarded me with a sumptuous meal. Her house looked spectacular, but deserted. Her parents entrusted it to their caretaker while they were off in other affairs. After the meal, she led me to her room where she showed me a thrilling film. After that night I followed her to late-night parties in closed halls with ear-splitting music.
The only thing she told me never to touch was ecstasy. It didn’t matter – I could drink beer with fast food and watch them dance and dance until the morning. At the end of the orgies, we wearily returned to her place. Le always asked me to stay with her overnight because the house was too deserted for her and she was afraid. I wanted to stay there, but I had to go back to Dad because I knew he would be waiting for me. One night I returned to his place earlier than usual. Not finding him inside, I became frightened and stayed up to wait for his return. At dawn he came back looking haggard, and his clothes were stained with blood.
“I’ve looked for you the whole night, but you were nowhere to be found. Where have you been?” he asked. Then he wept and wept, tears trickling down on the corners of his mouth, swollen and covered with blood. After that he fell ill for a whole month. I realised that I was very selfish. I had paid no attention to his worries – I was only concerned with my personal pleasures.
One evening Le seemed displeased at my refusal to go out with her. “Why have you changed your mind so abruptly?” she asked me.
“Because I’m fed up with your overnight parties, that’s all,” I retorted. Actually, from the bottom of my heart, I was unable to tell her about the state I put my father in. Nevertheless, I did not dare to say so for fear that she and her friends would laugh at me.
“I’ll bear a grudge against you the same way I did to my parents,” she said. Le was now a heavy drug-addict.
I returned to Dad’s world where the chirps of the sparrows resounded all day long. One morning, I discovered three tiny eggs in a newly-made nest in the middle of a bush at the corner of the compound. I intended to show it to Le to try to return her to the youthful ambiance of the teenagers. Later, I realised my intention was merely a hallucination.
On the morning of her seventeenth birthday, she rang me up.
“I’m going to have my birthday party at the Den dancing bar. Try to come, dear,” she said in a soft voice.
“I’m awfully sorry, but I can’t because my dad’s seriously ill. Anyhow, many happy returns of the day!” I congratulated her.
“What’s the use of your congratulations? I’m so disappointed with the bundle of money my mum tossed to me as she got in her car. She completely forgot my birthday present. But I’m not mad at you. Bye bye!”
The next morning, I returned home from Dad’s early. Passing by her house, I found lots of her neighbours surrounding her place. “Poor little girl! She’s died from an LSD overdose, hasn’t she?” one of them asked. I elbowed through the crowd and got in. Lebruised body was placed on her bed. On her fair face were remaining clues from her previous night’s party. I started to tremble. ‘If I had gone, would she still be alive?’ I wondered.
Le’s death perplexed our class. In their making-money boom, her parents couldn’t see their daughter had gone too far. Her funeral was attended by crowds of teenagers on luxury motorbikes, whose faces still disclosed late nights. Now they were weeping for Le’s death. Who would be next? God knows!
Dad soon found another woman, by chance. Van was a young woman with a plump and healthy stature, tanned face and rueful eyes. She was neither pretty nor ugly, but her submissiveness and insult-bearing countenance deeply moved Dad. Her 5-year-old daughter Chut did nothing but remind me of my own lonely childhood.
Van came from a needy stock in Binh Thuan Province. She had suffered from being married to a notorious gambler. Even their baby girl could not level the hatred between her parents. Worse still, her husband sold the child’s cradle to gamble. Van left home, child in arms. But wherever she went, he found her. Each of their encounters was a terrible event for her. In one of her dire straits, she took her little one up north with her bike – her single possession. After arriving, they loitered among the brightly-lit streets and finally stopped at the riverside park near my father’s office. There she spread her plastic sheet over a bench and slept soundly with her child in her arms. A few days later, she managed to find a dilapidated hut to lease.
I was glad that she had met my father fairly soon. Every night she patiently came to him. At first he was indifferent, but when she did not turn up he became anxious. One rainy night I woke up after a sound sleep, hoping that something wonderful would come to us. All of a sudden, I missed Le badly. The adventurous youth in me rose up violently, but Le’s pale face made me shivering with fear.
Mum seemed glad when she heard Dad had a new girlfriend.
“With another woman for your father, I feel at ease,” she said to me when she dropped in one day.
“Dad still loves you very much, Mum. When he knows that you’ve visited me, he’ll lose sleep,” I said.
“Where’s your father?” she asked me, feeling her old blouse that Dad used to cover his chest before going to sleep.
“He’s taking a stroll with little Chut, his new girlfriend’s daughter, along the river bank,” I replied, “but now you’d better go home immediately, for I’m afraid that after seeing you, he would break up with Van. Without a woman, Dad was miserable,” I said, trying to persuade her.
“Well, I’ll go. I missed you badly and I couldn’t help visiting you, my dear son.”
In a smart dress, she graciously walked out of our house, wiping away her tears. “For you, the die is cast, Mum. As for Dad, he’s badly in need of a new nest,” I said.
Chut, with her brown complexion and rosy cheeks, looked truly joyful when I came back home to wish her happiness on her wedding day. She showed me her bridal dress with pride.
“My fiance looks like you,” she said to me. “But he’s not as great.” Had she ever found out the full extent of my teenage years, she would not have spoke so highly of me.
“Your room’s been kept the same so that whenever you return home, you’ll be quite at ease,” Dad told me. He looked much younger and far fatter than he had been when I stayed with him in the country.
“Have you paid any attention to the birds on the eaves?” I asked him.
“No, they no longer live there, for the whole building has been pulled down to be rebuilt. Everything has changed remarkably. I took home a few nests to keep a few birds, but when they grew up they flew away. Our house is too close to traffic for them to be safe and sound,” he said with sadness.
“What about Mum? D’you ever see her?”
“Sometimes I see her in the streets. She looked rather sad, but still beautiful. You should try to visit her for a few days after the wedding.”
I stayed silent. I would have given anything to return to innocent days that were filled with the sound of chirps, but my own reckless actions took that all away from me. I stood next to my father, but we were a world apart.
Translated by Van Minh
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