“Hmm, I haven’t slept in the past two days. Now I need relax a bit, just a bit, my dear,” she mumbled with bleary red eyes.
Although she tried to force a faint smile to put him at ease, she was unable to. She was exhausted after the intense flooding.
While the ambulance kept on blaring outear-splitting alarms, she fell unconscious on the first-aid stretcher inside. In a dreamy state, she vaguely thought about what had happened to her before.
* * *
That day she was seated silently on the bank of the Con River, lost in thought. Unexpectedly, from a peacefully slow-moving river, it became a turbulent current beyond control. Its muddy water seemed to swallow everything on its way to the sea. Its water level had risen a bit higher than usual over the past few days. During this monsoon, its flow was high. Heavy rains pounded down. Yet, early this year, when farmers were warned that this, the 12th storm of the year, would be very dangerous, so they had tried to prepare.
In the meantime, the squalls of torrential rain continued to come down. In the late afternoon, a young villager came to her to take all reasonable precautions against natural disasters. He put her TV, bed, wardrobe and other items of furniture in high places for fear she would be unable to cope with bad situations quickly.
“Now everything will be okay when the weather gets worse,” he told her before leaving to take care of his wife and baby at home. “You should shut the door carefully. If possible, come stay with us for a few nights rather than to stay in this low area,” he added.
“Oh no no! I must stay here to take care of my property, chickens and pregnant pig,” she explained.
However, the situation was getting worse and worse: no power and flood waters overflowing all the village paths at three in the afternoon. Her house was completely isolated from other parts of the area. At once, she took the pig to the highest place in the house. As for the chickens, she let them fend for themselves. Now water flooded the courtyard. At first, she tried to cover the well with its metal lid and carried firewood pieces to a very high place at the back of her house. Half an hour later, all the firewood was swept away, then the courtyard and the well were all submerged under water. Rushing inside the house, she managed to grab the few taels of gold and her money she had saved for her son’s tuition fees in the year to come.
The water kept rising. At five in the afternoon, it reached the threshold. Hurriedly, she prepared a quick dinner. She was rather hungry because since the early morning she had had nothing to eat, except for an uncooked packet of instant noodles. In addition to a pot of rice, she toasted some peanuts. When the rice seemed well done, the water had reached her knees. She climbed onto the bed while the piggy kept on moaning loudly. She still hoped that she could afford the family’s Tet (New Year) party. She tried to put the little pig on the small wooden table. Right then, the water flooded over the floor, up to the legs of the bed. Finding an empty plastic bottle afloat, she picked it up and filled it with warm water from a flask. She felt cold all over due to her soaked clothes. In a few seconds, the muddy water reached the surface of the table. From it, she tried to climb up to the bed to get some rice to eat, but the pot of cooked rice fell into the water by the frightened piggy. In a hurry, she picked up the bedsheet to cover her body. If the bed sank under the current she would not know what to do next.
“After this flood, all my belongings might be lost,” she whispered to herself.
Outside, it was getting darker. The wind was howling terribly. Her house began to shake. It seemed to her that the local dyke embankment had been broken somewhere together with the drainage of water out of the dam. As a result, the flood became more turbulent.
Suddenly, her phone rang loudly.
“Perhaps Nghiep is calling,” she said to herself, eyes in tears.
“Are you all right, Mum?” said her son from school. “How high is the water? Our class is off today, Mum. However, I’m unable to return home at once due to the dangerous flood.”
“I’m all right, my son. But all our belongings are gone forever, everything I mean…” her voice suddenly came to a stop due to the phone battery dying.
The dim light of her electric torch swept over everything while the piggy kept shrieking loudly.
A strong current slammed the door open. Immediately, the poor animal swam toward the doorway. The only thing that could maintain her life for the time being was the high window. She tried to cling to it when the torch slipped out of her hand.
The flood now came up to her neck. Biting her lips nervously, she inched her way across to the window railings. She climbed up successfully. “How can I get up to the roof?” she asked herself.
Surprisingly, she heard some sounds echoing from the water below. Yet, she could not see anything. They became more and more clear with every passing second. “Maybe, someone is swimming toward my place,” she guessed.
The beam of a torch swept over the window.
“Who’s there?” a male voice resounded.
“Just stay there.”
It was her next door neighbour’s voice.
She burst into tears.
“Hang tightly on the widow and wait for me.”
Saying so, he tried to reach her. Sweeping the brightly-lit torch all over the house he gave it to her.
“Don’t leave the window. Just focus the light on me quickly.”
He swam across her room then pushed the table closer to the altar before placing a stool onto the edges of the two wardrobes then swam back to the window.
“Give me the torch please,” he told her. “Now sit on my back. Take hold of the altar edge. When I’ve managed to climb onto the table, try to reach the rafter under the roof.”
Finally, she succeeded in reaching the rafter with a lot of effort. He also tied himself to it before letting himself go down over the window.
“Try not to over sleep, my dear,” he told her. “If you’re very tired, fasten yourself to the rafter with a rope. If the worst comes to the worst, break some tiles into pieces then find a way out before taking a seat on the roof. Mind the bag hanging over your shoulder with a small electric torch, a bottle of water and a small hammer to break them up if necessary. A few minutes ago, Nghiep rang me up while I was looking for a safe place for my wife and child before coming to you. Now, it’s time for me to leave.”
“Bear in mind that... Nghiep that... Nghiep is... your own son,” she stammered.
“I know, I know, darling.”
Although the wind had stopped, heavy raindrops kept on coming down and the waters remained high. Opening the packet of instant noodles, she chewed it raw and swallowed it while tears rolled down her face. She thought about her traumatic childhood.
* * *
Throughout her life, she had never enjoyed a happy day. Since her early childhood, she had never known her father, for her mother would never tell her.
“You bastard” was what she was called by village kids when she was going to join them at play. In response to their cruel words, she just cried and cried. When she was 10 years old, her mother led home a man that she was forced to address as father.
“I suppose having a father is much better than being fatherless,” she said to herself.
Later she was beaten black and blue whenever he returned home blind drunk during the night. At school, no one dared call her an illegitimate child any longer. In her naive mind, she thought that if she respected him like a real father, he would behave properly to her. At the age of 12, when her mother made long journeys on business, her family’s living conditions became fairly better off. As a result, she could enjoy a life of plenty, her step-father would take care of her more appropriately due partly to her good behaviour and partly to her good results at school.
One day, after seeing off her mother as far as the railway station for a 3-day trip as was planned, he returned home in ecstasy. It was there he offered her a glass of milk mixed with a small amount of tranquilisers. She drank it then fell asleep after a few minutes later. Waking up, she found him naked in deep sleep beside her, and she knew something horrific had happened to her. She tried to keep it dark to lessen her mother’s pain as much as possible. She was only 12 years old. His wicked deed happened again and again during her mother’s absences. She was only freed from this torture when the scumbag died of an accident. After that, she lived on the streets as a tramp in her teens.
Then during a strong tempest like this one, she found herself wrapped in the arms of a local young man who made fall in love. Both clung to each other in a passionate embrace. When the storm was over he said goodbye to her before leaving a living germ inside her womb that a long time later became a baby boy named Nghiep. Her brief happy moments were kept secret although lots of widespread rumours that reached her ears. She only wished to have a husband to rely on, not in terms of financial or material assistance but for spiritual and emotional support. Yet her dreams never came true despite three fleeting love affairs. By the age of 20, she thought her fate had been sealed, to live here alone.
* * *
The more Nghiep grew, the more he resembled his father. Rumour had it that his mother had three illegitimate husbands. In fact, they were all men who had other wives. However, she could not stand the residents’ ridiculous remarks. Neither could her son. “If anyone mocks my child, I’ll teach them a lesson,” she declared. “Mum, give him up,” Nghiep told his mother one day when he was beaten cruelly. “We can live alone without men,” he insisted. During that year’s flood, her last man returned home so drunk that he tumbled down to the foot of the dyke embankment nearby. Three days later, his body was found at a cluster of bamboo when the flood had gone down. After that, she stopped wasting time thinking about men.
* * *
While the flood remained rising, she clung to the rafter tightly, exhausted due to the cold water. The water kept going up to her knees, to her waist then her neck. She stood up. She swung the hammer against the tiles over her head.
Outside, it was daylight.
Surprisingly, Nghiep’s real father was crawling to her house. Behind him was his wife.
* * *
Waking up, Nghiep’s mother found herself on the first-aid stretcher to the emergency ward. Holding the hands of the saviour’s wife, she smiled her thanks, stammering, “Forgive me… sister. I... I... haven’t... fallen... in love... with your husband... at all. He’s... merely... my son’s father.”
Following the stretcher-bearers, Nghiep sobbed and sobbed.
“Mum... Mum...,” he said, eyes in tears.
“I’m quite all right. I only slept a wink, my beloved child! Don’t worry too much,” she whispered to him in a weak voice.