"How small she is, although she’s been fed well!" I exclaimed. I said to Mum one day when I saw her picking up delicious pieces of meat and dropping them into Dung’s fancy bowl of rice, "When I was a little boy I wasn’t this cared for, was I?"
"You are poles apart," Mum answered sadly.
Mum’s thin body could be described with an age-old expression: "Body of a crane and bone of an apricot tree." Growing up, I imagined that she was a crane that had lost her way and descended from the blue sky on Dad’s plot of land. In my lifetime I always asked myself, "Whose blood is running in my veins, Mum’s or Dad’s?" And the question had so far remained unanswered.
Our house stood near a great river whose flow was blocked by a dam. When an early shower came down, the turbulent current splashed noisily at its stone banks. Hearing the raindrops patting continuously on the veranda, Little Dung dashed out of the house into the courtyard and soon joined the water game with some neighbour children. Drenched with rainwater, she laughed merrily. Immediately, I rushed toward these noisy kids and, seizing her neck, I dragged her home. Her wet strands of hair spread disorderly over her cheeks and her clothes got stuck to her body tightly as if she had nothing on. Mum held her softly and wiped away the water trickling from her head and shoulders with a large towel. After changing the garments for Dung, Mum fetched a big ruler made of wood and struck Dung’s palms. Withdrawing her hands, Dung cried.
"Children of a decent stock wouldn’t have behaved so shamelessly. I’ll punish you severely so that you won’t do the same in the future," Mum said in a loud voice while dealing Dung’s hands many blows with the ruler.
Dung sobbed loudly. Nevertheless, her black eyes looked extremely stubborn and indignant. Unfortunately for her, that obstinacy became detrimental. Instead of forgiving her, Mum forced her to kneel down on the floor and face the wall. I wanted to ask Mum to show her mercy, but seeing Mum’s eyes red with tears, I dared not.
"Strike while the iron is still hot," she said to me. I kept calm. Whenever I looked at Mum’s eyes and found them in tears, I surrendered.
When I was just a little boy I started making sculptures – experimental statues, big and small – and placed them in a far corner of the garden because I was afraid that Mum would not like them. When I came to know the characteristics of clay well, I began making everything: dogs, cats, fairies and human beings.
"Like father, like son," one of my father’s friends remarked. "The son of such a painter will surely become a sculptor," observed another. That prediction might have come true had I not made the statue that fateful day. It was about 30cm high, in the shape of a young lady with nothing on, except a tiny tuft of hair between her legs. I was then 12 years old. Spotting that weird product by chance, Mum, pointing at it, asked me, "Huan, what’s this?" Then she smashed the "nasty thing" into pieces. I was shocked and indignant, for it was to the final phase of an experimental work that started when I saw several neighbour girls bathing in the river. Mum shouted herself hoarse. Worse still, she had a whole wide layer of clay in our garden dug up and thrown away.
"What did you do it for?" asked Dad.
"Because this new kind of soil is much better for flowers," Mum answered. For a long time she had often coped with Dad evasively and gracefully. Between them, there were no disputes on the grounds that the one who always made concessions was Mum. She looked small and thin, spoke softly, worked industriously, and was quite different from Dad, who was tall and hotheaded and behaved like a warhorse tied to its stable. Since then, his study had turned into an ivory tower. Except for mealtimes and bedtime, he always stayed inside. Sometimes he even slept there. However, their conjugal life remained undisturbed. For me, his world was a sealed book full of mysteries and excitement. Never in my lifetime had I been bold enough to step inside.
It was pitiful that little Dung continued to kneel and face the wall. When I got some cakes and stealthily took them to her, I knew that she had not stayed at the same place as was stipulated: she had moved closer to the window to look out to the river. The wind blowing from the riverbanks caused her hair to stir gently. With her half-closed eyes, she smiled at my appearance. She rested her elbows on the windowpanes and watched the world outside to her heart’s content.
"Is this really punishment, dear? If Mum finds you feeling quite at ease like this, she might punish you further, until late in the afternoon perhaps," I observed.
"Keep quiet, please. Mum’s cooking in the kitchen and she can’t detect my negligence," she told me softly.
Kneeling together we both contemplated the dam where the early turbulent current was rolling down and down at its base.
"Brother Huan, why have your eyes turned so red?" Dung asked me.
"I miss Dad," I replied.
"What was he like, brother?"
Dreadfully embarrassed, I did not know how to answer her. Frankly speaking, Dad had behaved improperly towards Mum. Nevertheless, I could not help loving him due partly to our common blood and partly to his strange lure.
Whenever I looked at the dam, I never forgot about those early downpours. One day Dad took me to the riverbank when the rain was finished. The current flowed over the dam’s surface, cracking one of its sides. After the monsoon, it would have to be mended.
"Why didn’t they build the dam much higher?" I asked Dad.
"The dam’s a harness to the river, but not the river itself," he answered. Up to now I could hardly understand what he had meant by that reply. Indeed, those days were the most memorable times for both of us, because later he became more and more taciturn. What is more, if he had not confined himself to his study, he would have traveled far and wide. Then one evening, we were told that he had died during a pleasure trip. I remembered that it was the last month of the rainy season and I was nearly 17 years old.
Mum had led a miserable life just to be the master of ceremonies during Dad’s funeral. I collected all of his brushes and palettes and dropped them all into his grave. All of a sudden, at a distance, I perceived a young woman carrying her baby girl in her arms, face half hidden behind her conical palm-leave hat, walking toward us. Many cast a contemptuous look at her. At last she asked Mum for a favour: to put on a white mourning headband.
"Don’t give it to her. She only wants to share your property later," said one of my aunts. "Are you sure this kid really is your husband’s daughter?" another added. Mum only wept and did not dare stare at the ill-fated woman. "Ask Huan, for he’s the single heir of the family," suggested another. "If you let the bitch wear a white mourning band, there will be lots of trouble for you in the future," another advised Mum. Suddenly, that miserable young mother with her baby came up to me. I stretched out my arms, took the poor little thing and held her tightly in my arms. "Are you mad, Huan? I’ve just told you...." "Another Buddha, perhaps!" "He’s taken pity on a stranger instead of his own mother," said people in the crowd. I said nothing, pressing her tightly to my chest. Her eyes and lips indeed looked similar to those of my father.
I did not become a sculptor as Dad had wished. On the contrary, I went into agriculture, as Mum had hoped. She only wanted me to lead a tranquil life, quite different from my father’s career full of haphazard. In fact, I liked my profession very much because I was greatly interested in the green world. Upon my graduation from university, I told Mum that I would go away to a remote corner of the country at first, but finding her eyes brimming with tears, I stayed with her. She only expected that afterwards my children would live around her. Obviously, she could not stand Dad’s behaviour: his body staying at home but his mind wandering to far-off dreamlands.
When Dad passed away, I was able to step into his study. His paintings were hung everywhere on the four walls. They looked splendid. He left for me a great fortune! To me, each picture was an enigma that I could hardly find the key to solving. Needless to say, what was the point of solving it? "Life’s for us to enjoy, not to explain," he once told me so. In these works of art there were numerous masterpieces portraying a young lady with a charming complexion and stunning flesh. From the colour patches on her breasts, lips or arms grew plants, grass and flowers full of vitality. I knew who the model in the painting was: it was the woman who handed me Little Dung. Sometimes, I said to myself, "Do I owe her or does she owe me?"
One afternoon, when it stopped raining, I returned home from the rice fields of Huong Thuy Commune to visit Mum. Our courtyard was flooded with water. From the eaves, raindrops came down continuously, one after another, making small holes on the surface of the ground. Dung dashed out to welcome me. Her thin arms were like two twigs clasped to my neck. She leapt and leapt beside me as if she were still a little girl. I pinched her cheeks.
"You’re already 10 years old. Not too young, you see!" I said to her.
She led me into her study and pointed at some watercolour paintings on the wall. "Brother Huan, these are the prize-winners that I’ve been awarded at the Culture House for Teenagers," she told me proudly.
"Let me see some more. How are you so lucky?!" I exclaimed.
She showed me one picture in which she had drawn the dam flooded over by a strong current with several queer fish trying to jump against the stream.
I burst out laughing.
"I painted these fish with big breasts so that their little ones might suck them to their heart’s content and grow up quickly as well," she explained it to me. I nodded my agreement and put it in the drawer.
"If Mum finds it, you’ll be in trouble," I warned her.
"Why? When I was a girl, I took nourishment from her breasts, didn’t I?" she asked innocently.
Saying nothing, I only stared into her eyes. Her black eyelashes curved upwards like those of a young gypsy girl. From the bottom of my heart I knew that Mum wanted to extinguish the flame in these wild eyes, but to no avail. I also predicted that one day Dung would go away forever.
During the moments that I truly loved the green world, I also came to understand the river and its dam: without that structure during the rainy season, the whole delta south of it would become a terrible whirlpool. On the other hand, without that overflowing current, the basin would turn barren or the dam would be torn into pieces in the great fury of the river during the wet season.
That was why every year, the dam suffered the effects of erosion. It endured this slow deterioration so it could co-exist with the river.