If this cow died of this cold, her whole family could die with it. Because Sua’s family had borrowed money from the bank to buy the cow, if it died, her family could not afford more money to buy another one, even they had to sell the house. Therefore, her father had sat crouching there, fanning the warmth from the fire to warm up the animal. It was icy cold outside, so locals in the whole area had crouched in their kitchen. Out of a sudden, her father stood up and ran outside:
“Do come in, please!”
Sua got startled, looking up. Two well-dressed men with two black umbrellas in the hand stood there. Oh, God, they were two matchmakers, she thought.
“Good day! We’ve come for a cup of good alcohol!”
“Yes, please, do come in and have some wine with us” – Sua’s father said in a friendly voice.
It turned out that Sua’s father had agreed to marry her. Was she no longer needed by her father, she wondered?
“Mr. Dinh, it’s a little bit early to organize the wedding this year, but you see, in such a cold weather. No plowing. No weeding. So it’s better to organize the wedding for your daughter, I think.”
“Yes, yes, we won’t eat our words. Don’t worry about it! In the past, Sung’s family did help me and my wife to live together, and now it’s time for us to marry my daughter to them as a show of our gratitude. What we are concerned most about is that our daughter is still small, so she could not be able to do the house work well there!”
So, it was clear that I had to pay gratitude for my parents, Sua thought! When her parents got married, they did not have enough money for the wedding, so Sung had lent money to them and her parents had promised to marry their child if it was a daughter, and now Sua was the betrothal object. But she did not like the guy Senh. He was five years her junior and very bad at learning. Why did Senh love her when he knew that she loved Cuong, she asked herself? I did not want to be his wife, Sua said to herself!
Sua sat alone in the room and thought and thought, when the two match makers were seen reeling home under the influence of alcohol.
It was very cold this year. Phu just had a son born and he was going to treat the whole hamlet in this Tet as he promised to the mountain God. He had prepared a lot of alcohol. The neu tree was seen planted high on the large field. The sun-like circle at the top was so small that nobody thought that they could throw the ball through for sure. But the old people tried to do it as they wanted to have a thriving year. The young guys in the hamlet were trying to climb up a high pole to get a gourd of wine to drink. The old pear tree was in full bloom, promising to have a lot of fruit this year. Sua in her best stood up and went out to enjoy Gau Tao Festival. She saw teacher Cuong standing there, looking at the pole as if he wanted to climb up to get a gourd of wine.
“Teach, teacher, do try to climb it. We the H’Mong boys can do it easily, you know!” – A young guy said to Cuong.
Sua was trying to elbow her ways into the crowd with a bottle of alcohol in the hand.
“Teacher, if you can climb up that pole, I’ll drink with you to the bottom of this bottle!”
The young guys standing around burst out laughing.
“If I could get that bottle up there, would you drink with me, Sua?” – The young guy said again.
Sua looked at teacher Cuong, speaking in a mocking voice:
“How could you, a young guy from the delta, climb it?”
Cuog’s face got blushed. If I could not be able to climb it, those young students would laugh at me, Cuong thought in hesitation. Even if he could climb up that pole, he could not be able to drink up that bottle of wine. He slowly walked to the pole, breathing hard and touching it. Then step by step, Cuong climbed up and up. He should clutch it very tightly, or else, he would slip down easily, he told himself. The locals were crowding around the pole. They wanted to see if their teacher could be able to do what the H’Mong young guys had done. Sua was the only person who wished that Cuong could get the gourd of wine tied on the top of the pole.
“Try a little bit more, teacher! You’re coming closer to the wine!” – The crowd was acclaiming wildly.
Cuong had been teaching in this hamlet of the H’Mong people for two years. He knew very well that what he was doing here was to try to create prestige in the eyes of the locals. When they all placed their trust in him, they could do anything they were asked to, Cuong thought. At the end of the day, he had made it. He was climbing down slowly with the gourd of wine in the hand among the hurrahs of the crowd. Having touched the ground, the on-lookers rushed to him, jumping for joy:
“Teacher Cuong can now be able to do what the H’Mong young guys do! Bravo!”
Cuong had to drink wine with them. After gulping down two cups, he felt a bit dizzy. He drank and drank until he could not see clearly around.
“I’m dead drunk, dead drunk! I can’t drink on any more, please!” – Having said it, he fell onto the ground, unconsciously.
“Do carry the teacher into the house and put him on the bed for a good sleep!” – Cuong still heard someone speaking.
It was Sua who had left the festival and sat by her teacher.
“Teacher! Are you sleeping, teacher?” – She shook lightly Cuong.
It was very cold outside. Sua was standing there, looking at her teacher. As she was the most beautiful girl in the hamlet, how could she marry that guy Sếnh? She kept thinking about right or wrong, about the true and the false in life. If she could marry teacher Cuong, her parents would be much happier.
And Sua lay by Cuong’s side. She pulled the blanket to cover them. She was also sleepy. But Cuong got sober; even he still had some hangovers.
“What’s wrong, Sua?” – Cuong asked, springing up and saying – “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” repeatedly.
“No need to say ‘sorry’, teacher! It’s that alcohol that should say “sorry’, you see” – Sua said and got up, putting on her skirt and left.
Teacher Cuong could not be able to understand it. He sat in silence on the bed, looking at Sua’s back.
It was pitch dark when Sua got home. She said to her father:
“I’ve just stayed with teacher Cuong. We acted as a happy couple. So you can’t marry me to that guy Senh anymore”
“What are you driving at, Sua?”
“I don’t like Senh. I love teacher Cuong. You can’t force marriage to me. If you won’t allow me marry teacher Cuong, I will go to report it to the local administration”
Having heard it, Sua’s father rushed to the school and rained blows on teacher Cuong.
“Are you teaching your student in that way?”
Teacher Cuong did not fight back. He stood dumbfounded there, speaking nothing. Right at that time, Sua was found present at the scene:
“Dad, don’t beat teacher Cuong. It’s not his fault. I did force him to do it. The teacher got drunk and knew nothing about it.
“Are you siding with him? Do you want to do harm to your parents?”
“No, I don’t do harm to you. It’s only because I don’t want to be Senh’s wife”
“What’s the matter here?” – Teacher Cuong was greatly surprised.
“Because I want to be your wife, teacher Cuong, but my parents want to marry me to that guy Senh, the most dummy student in the class, you know!”
“But you are still the school children. So how can you get married?” – Cuong asked.
“The reason is that my parents owe a debt to Senh’s parents. So my parents promised to marry me to Senh as a gesture of thanks to his parents. But I don’t want to marry him. The Law on Marriage and Families has been enforced. I don’t want to live with a man I don’t love. I want to live with you, teacher!”
“You have to pay the debt on our behalf, you know!” – Her father said.
Now, as usual, spring came to this mountainous area. Gau Tao Festival was opened again to welcome a happy new year with the pear blossoms blooming white all over the region. Cuong was sitting by the side of the bed, looking at his sleeping child and his smart wife Sua. He thanked his wife for having devoted her life to him. He loved her all the more as she had self-determined her life in this far flung area which was still strewn with a lot of backward practices. But his wife had fought to free herself and marry him. What a lovely wife he got, he thought!.