The days in Viet Nam
by Phan Viet
Eventually, the sun still rose after the longest deep freeze in Viet Nam in the last few decades. My mother had gotten up from 6 o’clock to open all the doors to welcome fresh air, then prepared breakfast for Tu Ti, my 4-year-old nephew. Seven o’clock sharp, Tu Ti woke up.
– Grannyyyyyyyy… Where are you, Granny? I want Grannyyyy…
Chaos followed. All doors in the house flung open and foot steps rushed toward the call. I also sprang up in my bed, ready to run.
In fact, I had woken up since 2 o’clock in the morning, then lay awake in bed until 4 when I turned on my laptop to read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. It should be 4 o’clock in the afternoon in Boston then; I should be getting ready to go home. Even now, knowing the sun was rising outside, I was feeling the end of a day, when I would be waiting for the bus outside the Philosophy building. I was feeling darkness and Boston’s winter falling down around me.
I had been back to Ha Noi for two weeks and still could not get over the jetlag. Nor could I get over other things. At dinner last night, my bother said to me:
– I warn you. Those precious little dreams of yours will only get you into troubles. Why do you need to learn so much? Why don’t you go home and start making money?
– Come home – my mother said – Come home and get married and settle down. You’ve been abroad long enough now. Let’s go home, with or without the doctorate, it doesn’t matter to me any more. Just go home.
I said… oh, but anything I said was interrupted by my brother:
– You’re so selfish. Why don’t you finish your degree in finance? Why do you have to change to philosophy? Why can’t you live normal like other girls and give Mom and Dad a break?
– What do you think is living normal?
– I don’t have time for those stupid questions.
Downstairs, it was all silent now. At dinner last night, I was silent too. I just sat listening to everybody, except Dad, say that they were worried about me. I sat there until Tu Ti screamed from the top of his lungs:
– Don’t talk! Why so much noise?
I put my chopsticks down and stood up from the table. My brother also put his chopsticks down.
– Oh, now the princess thinks nobody is good enough to talk to her!
I turned to look at him. I wanted to say “You shut the f*** up!” but I looked at him and I did not know what I could say to him. So I went upstairs to return to my room on the third floor. I was not angry or upset at anyone, I was only going upstairs to return to my room.
But two o’clock in the morning, I woke up. I had tears in my eyes. Then, I lay awake in bed picturing every single detail of the bronze statue that stood at the entrance of the Philosophy building. The statue shows a group of naked men standing on the shoulders of each other to reach up the sky. I kept picturing that statue while listening to the mourning cries from the funeral of a neighbor, who had died from the deep freeze. These days, too many people died in Ha Noi.
Now, I was trying to sleep. I was trying to sleep by focusing on the sounds from the funeral and the loudspeakers broadcasting the news of Ba Dinh district. Two streams of sounds blended into each other like a cirling staircase. I was going up…
A loud explosion just reached my ears from downtairs. I rushed out to the door and called down:
There was no answer. I jumped three steps at a time down the staircase.
– Mom? Where are you, Mom?
I rushed into the kitchen. There, next to the stewing pot, my mother was standing, holding a wooden spoon to her mouth. From the stewing pot, steam came up amid bubbling noises.
– Is it you, Huong? I just fried some rice cake for you. Do you want something else for breakfast? I am cooking bamboo-shoot and pork stew for dinner. But the power just goes off.
I staggered to the dining table, poured myself a glass of water and drank it. My father came down from the top terrace with a washing basin in his hand. He must have just brought laundry up the top terrace so that the sun could dry them.
– Why is it so dark? The power is cut again?
Mother scribbled something on a piece of paper. Father read it under the outdoor light. When he returned to the kitchen, he looked concerned.
– What fuse? Why did it blow?
Mother pointed to the power box near the kitchen, then to the hand-made string electric cooking stove lying on the floor.
– Why should I be surprised? – Father said – I had told you so many times not to use this thing.
Father grabbed a screwdriver and opened the power box.
– Nothing’s wrong with this fuse. It must be the main fuse up the power post.
Father’s voice was strained now. He slammed close the door of the power box, and then threw the string electric cooking stove into the trash can.
– Forget it. Call the power guys; they might fix it for you. I can’t.
Father threw the screwdriver down, and then walked to the front yard. I heard the washing basic being thrown down on the ground. Mother smiled and pouted her lips lightly.
– You see, he is very difficult now. Since he becomes hard-hearing, he is very difficult.
– But he’s right, Mom. You keep cooking this way, who knows what might happen.
– Oh, don’t worry. I’ve been doing this for many years. I know what I am doing.
“I know what I am doing.” Why did everybody keep giving me this line? Why did everyone keep saying they knew everything and that they were living more normal than me? Yet, everywhere I turned, things blew, things broke, things collapsed, things were difficult. And death. Ahhhhhhhh, I was about to lose my mind now. I was loosing my mind.
– You always say that, Mom. You want to save but what if you get electrocuted? Good Lord, I can’t even touch anything around here. You keep telling me to go home but go home to what? To this?
– Alright, alright. I will throw them away if it makes you feel safer.
I was hearing water running in the front yard. Mother glanced to that direction, then went to the cupboard to get the electricity bill. I put some fried rice cake into a bowl, then sat down to eat. I was eating rice cake.
– Hello, is that Ba Dinh Power Department? Oh, the power just goes off in my house, can you please come check? Please, can you help me? I need to cook lunch for my children. Please have mercy. Can you come check for me, please?
Mom’s voice! Mom’s voice! The rice cake was sticking to my teeth and throat while Mom was talking on the phone to some stranger.
And now, she was speaking to me.
– Huong, you stay here in case they call. I will go see if someone else can climb the power post to fix the fuse. We need power to cook the bamboo-shoot stew. Ah, last’s the last rice cake we have.
The last rice cake. Then Tet was over. It was indeed over. Another year was coming. I had been gone for six years. How much time was six years? I could not tell. I only remembered the starting point of that stretch of time. Six years ago, when I left Ha Noi, everything here was clear and solid. When they saw me off at the airport, everybody was happy for me and proud of me. But at dinner last night, everybody said they were worried about me.
Mother just came back with a young man. He was small, had dark skin and dirty clothes. He must be one of the laborers working for the house next door.
– Just double-check for me – mother said to him – My husband said it was alright, but just double-check.
The young man opened the power box. But before he could look, father had walked in the room and saw it.
– What are you looking at? – Father said – I said that fuse was alright. Get out!
The young man glanced at mother. She nodded. He went out. Mother followed him out.
Father slammed close the power box again, and then walked to the front yard. I again heard water running… and another sound. It sounded like a knife stabbing onto the soft soil around the foot of the split-pea plant.
Father had a dream. I have heard this dream during so many dinners when I grew up and father was still working for Ha Noi Power Department.
No, to be exact, I had heard this dream over and over again from the time I was still a child in my crib and father just returned home from the Southern front. He said, after one full year fighting death due to malaria in the deep forest, he marched to the South with various groups of soldiers and somehow drifted to Da Lat. For the first time in so long, he saw green hills of pine trees and valleys full of yellow flowers. He said when he saved enough money, he would buy a hill in the area around Da Lat; then he would move there, build a hut and grow green vegetables. The weather in Da Lat was always nice; perhaps it could cure his bronchitis and any diseases he inherited from the war.
That dream had been the same in the last 30 years. But now, it was realized in the split-pea plant in the back yard. The plant climbed from the first floor to the roof of the third floor; its flowers bloomed through the winter and covered our whole house with a demanding colour of violet. The day after I came home, father held a basket, so that Tu Ti and I could pick the split pea for dinner. That was when I heard him say again that he wanted to buy a piece of land in the South.
– Living like this is like committing suicide – father said – It’s concrete walls everywhere you look. Plus, the air is polluted, the food is full of dangerous chemicals, how can one help from getting sick? I tried exercising but it doesn’t help.
– Don’t worry, Dad. After I graduate, I will get a job. I will save money for you to buy a piece of land.
– Look at this split-pea plant. I sowed the seed last spring. It had the size of a tooth-pick when it first broke the ground. Everybody said it would die. I wish you had seen it at the beginning of this winter. It had violet flowers everywhere, from the ground to the roof. Very very beautiful. It’s always beautiful to plant something by your own hand and see it grow up.
That much, I knew. Just like what I was doing with philosophy. I could not calculate nor show how much I had gained from it, but I knew I was growing up. I knew it. Perhaps its fruits were not visible now, but how about tomorrow? How about the day after tomorrow?
– We will need 300 millions dong as seed money. When the land makes profit, I will pay you back.
Three hundred millions dong. My brother was doing a lot of stocks transactions these days. Sometimes, he made half of that much in a single day. But he said:
– Oh please, I am tired of these little dreams of father. How do you think he can make it when he has been living in Ha Noi for decades and not making a single friend? Mother takes care of him day in and day out and he still gets sick every other day.
The phone was ringing now.
– Hey, where the hell is your house, kid?
I told the power guy where our house was. I told him mother was waiting for him outside.
Father had come in from the front yard with a big scissor in his hand. He came to the peach tree that was given to us as a gift from an employee of my brother. The peach tree was huge and very pretty but it could not bloom on time for Tet due to the cold weather. My brother had spent one whole afternoon pouring warm water into its root; yet, the tree did not bloom. And now, when the sun rose again, it bloomed in full, lighting up the sitting room. Pink petals from the tree dropped on the floor like a carpet of pink silk.
– Well, that’s it for Tet – father said – Let’s put the tree away.
Father carefully cut the tiny branches on the outside first. Each time he cut a branch, he mumbled:
– I am putting you to rest now. If you come back in the next life as a tree, I pray that you will be living in the forest.
The pink petals rained down on the white marble floor as father cut the tree down. I came up to remove the tiny red ornaments hanging on the trees. The ornaments were all carved with the golden words “Happiness – Wealth – Longevity” on their bodies.
When the trimming was done, father gathered the cut branches into a bundle. He put a rope under the bundle in order to tie it up. His fingers were shaking – the joints had hurt him throughout the cold days. Sometimes, his thumb could not even move or feel.
Father was trying to hold on to the two ends of the rope. He was now making a knot. One knot… then another one… but he lost it. His fingers shook harder when he tried again. He held on tighter to the two ends of the rope… he pulled and made a knot. One knot… two knot… he lost it again.
I sat down next to him and took the two ends of the rope. Father looked up, then let go of the rope. He stepped back to give me room. I let go of the ends. I rearranged the twigs. Then I pressed my knee on them. Now, I took up the two ends of the rope. I held on tight to them and made a knot. I tightened the knot. Then another knot. Then, it was all done.
– Alright then. That’s it for Tet – father said and stood up to find the sweeper to clean the petals left on the floor.
I brought the bundle to the dumpster at the foot of the power post near my house. Mother was standing there with the power guy. She just gave him some money and he was now putting it in his back pocket. He then took the safety belt out and tightened it around his waist. Mother and some kids stood watching him.
I put the bundle on the top of the dumpster, above rubbish bags and chicken feathers. There were still some fresh and intact flowers stuck inside the bundle. But each time a motorbike flew by, one or two flowers would fall off.
The sun was traveling fast across the winter sky. I could smell chicken feathers. I could smell the soil drying up after long wet days. I could smell damp clothes in the air. Then I could smell the perfume of the last fresh peach blossoms on the top of the dumpster.
And now, the wind was picking up. I was smelling incense being burn… stale rice cake… old beer… smoke from coal stove… bad watermelon… mud on the road… more incense… funeral…
Another peach blossom was blown away by the wind.
The flowers fluttered in the wind, then left the branches and rolled down to the bottom of the dumpster.
Mother was now talking to the woman selling live chicken near the power post. The power guy was now starting to climb up the post now. He was going further and further up on the post next to the dumpster where I was standing.
Note: This is a significantly shortened version of an original Vietnamese-language story by Phan Viet, from the collection, America America.
- Japan wants to attract more tourists from Việt Nam
- Rough Guides names six must-visit places in Việt Nam
- Việt Nam have nothing to fear against Thailand: coach Park
- Việt Nam records more than 6,200 cyber attacks in seven months
- JICA implements sustainable development projects in Quảng Nam
- Klook Fest travel show comes to Việt Nam for 1st time
- We all have a part to play in making Việt Nam’s cities greener
- RoK President hails relations with Việt Nam
- Be a farmer for a day in Đồng Tháp
- Family Day on June 28 to be public holiday
- Poor co-ordination stymies fight against fake goods
- Textiles firm race to list on the market
- Salmon with a Vietnamese take
- Conservatory graduate goes traditional
- Respect for international law crucial in East Sea
- American veteran finds peace in his new life in VN
- HCM City open futsal tournament for women starts
- Toll collection to be supervised to prevent fraud
- Four BOT booths to be inspected
- Unregistered SIM wasting digital reserves
The days in Viet Nam have 2972 words, post on at December 7, 2008. This is cached page on Business News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.