This time, he was travelling for personal reasons. Of course, he had performed some administrative procedures as usual – asking his boss for a recommendation letter in which he was called a folklorist because he did not want to pay the expenses for the trip with his own money.
One day, one of his colleagues read an anonymous 4-line poem:
From battlefield she came home one day
Only to find house damaged and youth withered.
Soon be over the rain or sunshine may,
But her sorrows will for- ever and ever stay.
Hearing the stanza, he kept silent for a moment.
"Very very interesting. With only four sentences, how can it fully express the plight of a heroic but ill-fated girl? How are such young women now?" he asked.
"Surely, neither husbands nor children. Such girls are numerous in our country," said another. "I feel like I have to assume responsibility for their celibacy. Do you think so?" he asked another man.
"Yes, that’s right."
"But we can’t help. I’m told that there are many agricultural production teams whose members are all women. All have stayed single. Previously, they were young and pretty," remarked another one.
"Really?" exclaimed Huan. A few moments later, he decided that he would visit those unlucky women some day.
He was an honest and credulous man. He was a Hanoian, born and bred. As an elegant and delicate man, he always weighed things very carefully before taking action. Getting divorced five years ago and now at the age of nearly fifty, he remained single and handsome. However, he had no intention of remarrying. His friends said that he was utterly wise: having freedom of sex without binding himself to anyone. His experiences with his ex made him a bit frightened when he thought of marriage. Those whom he had sex with had no reasons to reproach him, although most of them wished to be his wife. They lived with him in his decent-looking house facing Hang Chuoi Street. Another weak point of his was his sissy nature: he was easy to weep. The short poem about that young spinster moved him to tears.
The place he reached first was a mountainous commune in the province of Hoa Binh. It was formed from the dissolution of several State farms nearby whose members were mostly women. This commune was composed of three hamlets not far away from Highway 6. In these hamlets, he found neither houses on stilts nor men – except for little boys – and many water buffaloes and cows grazing on the hillsides or by the roadsides. The sun had sunk behind the mountain in the west.
Huan was in low spirits when he met the leader of the commune, a pretty and strong-built woman in between thirty and forty years old, in her office. After inviting him for a cup of tea, she perused his letter of recommendation. She had a bun of hair on her lily-white round nape drenched a bit with sweat. Her lips were thick and looked quite inviting.
"What can we do to help you?" she asked Huan.
He was at a loss. "Err... I belong to a research institute in Hanoi where we’re carrying out a programme of study about the aftermath of the war – socially, not economically. Precisely speaking, it’s about human beings, especially about the young women who sacrificed their youth for the sake of the nation’s independence," he said at last.
Finally, she knew what he meant. He was glad that such a poorly educated young woman she could grasp the gist of the matter so quickly.
"Another person should have been dispatched to this place instead of you," she remarked jokingly.
"I think so, too. However, our organisation was poorly staffed. As for its female members, they don’t want be away from home for a long time," he confessed.
The whole afternoon, she let him know the real situation in her community. He was attracted to her. He took notes on three full pages. This commune of Kim La turned out to be rather special and was a locality indispensable for his study. Formerly, it had been part of the adjacent commune of Kim Anh. In the late 80’s of the previous century, both of the State farms in the region had been dissolved. Their land was classified into two types: one for the farmers’ residence and the other for cultivation. Consequently, a new commune was formed. That was an ordinary issue. Oddly enough, most of the farmers were female. They belonged to the units of young volunteers coming from the newly liberated areas in the South. The fact that the women were single was the talk of the town among the press. A symposium was conducted to find a way out for them to be married. But it all seemed to be in vain. Few of them were eligible for marriage.
"Why didn’t they return home after the war?" Huan asked her.
"Many did come home, but they were ineligible for marriage due to their age. What’s more, becoming a State employee was then a great attraction to them," she replied.
"So, all their efforts have come to nothing!"
"Right. How can we solve it? Nevertheless, everything has been smooth sailing here, you see. We have obtained the title of Cultural Commune. Moreover, half of us are either married or unlawful wives or have children out of wedlock without being criticised," she went on.
"Were you a volunteer too?" he asked her.
"Quite right. In our commune, 85% of households were previously the members of different volunteer groups, of which females made up 70%. As for me, don’t take pity on me, for I’m married with a husband and children and we’ve been leading a happy life," she concluded.
It was getting darker and darker. She reluctantly invited him to come to her house for a rest. He willingly accepted her proposal.
At dinner, there were only four people: her mother of about 80, a 12-year-old girl, the chairwoman and Huan, of course.
"The kid’s my niece, who came here to help us with our housework. My husband’s a serviceman whose unit has been stationed very far from here. We haven’t got any children because we’re a newly married couple," she told him.
In the mountainous region, nightfall came early. Here it was darker and was in no way cooler than in the lowlands. Bringing a stool with him to the courtyard, he sat down and observed the sky with countless stars, which looked like a cobweb at dawn in a foggy day. All of a sudden, melancholy surged up in him when he remembered that sad stanza. The chairwoman’s bungalow was fairly strong, with a flat roof and a veranda jutting out a bit, typical of the dwelling-house in the plain of Ha Bac Province. He felt rather sorry, although his trip was going much better than he had expected.
What he would do the next day would be to reach the other two hamlets to visit a few more clans and talk to some of their residents. After that, his fit of excitement would soon be over; so would his romantic idea and that stanza would soon be forgotten. That meant that everything would be over, like the rain or the sunshine. For him, he would resume his tedious and monotonous work in the capital city.
He slept on the wooden sofa covered with a spongy mattress in the drawing room, although the hostess insisted on his passing the night in her bedroom. Meanwhile, the old woman and the little girl slept in the inner bay. At first he thought that he would soon sleep soundly after a weary working day, but in fact he stayed up late, tossing and turning on the sofa and listening to the sound of her fidgets in her bedroom for hours. Then finally, thanks to the tranquillity of the night, he soon fell asleep. In his dream, he saw a bevy of pretty girls swimming in the stream after taking off their military uniforms. Then suddenly they wept silently and rushed out of the water into the forest with nothing on. They both ran and cried wildly like mad people. Eventually, they all entered his small house in Hanoi, surrounding him to ask for something. They all wept, and so did Huan.
At 3 o’clock the next day, after saying goodbye to all the helpers in the commune, he was taken to the district capital, by order of the chairwoman of course, so that he could catch the coach back to Hanoi.
This young local, with a shirt of the Tay ethnic minority’s style, an inhabitant of the Son Tay-Ba Vi area perhaps, was cheerful and open-hearted.
"Thank you for coming to our commune," he said with a broad smile. "This time the population of our commune might be increased a bit," he added.
"What do you mean? I don’t get you!" Huan said.
"Last night you slept with the chairwoman, didn’t you?"
"What an idiot! She’s already married."
"Who told you that?"
"The chairwoman, of course! Her husband’s been away from home to do his military service."
"What a pity for you!" he observed in a low voice, laughing. "And for her as well! She’s superb. She stays single because she can’t find a suitable candidate. As a haughty young woman, she’s turned down all proposals in marriage. "Nevertheless, when she saw you, she surely fell in love with you. If worst comes to worst, she’ll have a baby of urban stock, without marriage of course," he added.
Huan reprimanded the boy severely.
Less than a month later, he went back to Kim La Commune again for his own business, not as a sociological researcher at all. This time he went straight into the chairwoman’s compound with a little hesitation. He had thought and thought a lot about this ill-fated but attractive young woman. Sometimes, he had asked himself if he, at the age of nearly fifty, had fallen in love with her. As an experienced man, he did not want to shoulder a familial burden. "Out of selfishness? No, far from it," he had said to himself. "Why am I unable to love her and take her as a wife? She’s still young, good-looking, intelligent and delicate too. What else would I expect from her?" he often asked himself. "Am I really incompetent? How can she, a semi-illiterate, live with me in the metropolis under the eyes of my friends and my small circle of intelligentsia? Can she be my girlfriend, or more than that – would she bear me a love child? No, no, she’s not that kind of girl. What’ll I do for her?" A lot of questions appeared in his mind.
How they had met and what they had talked to each other about during that rendezvous, God knew! What was certain was that within half a year he visited Kim La four more times. Consequently, she was now preparing for her trip to the capital, partly on business and partly to visit him.
Over the past week, she had busied herself with the upcoming journey. Although this was by no means the first time she had ever been to Hanoi, she was very eager.
She would only drop in on him for a short while, then she would return to her native place. So far, she had shown great respect for urban intellectuals, well-educated and elegant. Now such a respectful person had been available to her. He was divorced and lived alone. What’s more, he loved and honoured her. She would have a husband and a baby, a legitimate child of course, and live in one of the major urban centres of the country. She would take care of them devotedly and enjoy a happy life.
After numerous reckonings, she went to Doc Village of the minority people, about twenty kilometres away, in order to get a large piece of cloth with bright colour for his shirt and a brocade piece for his spectacles.
When her coach reached the coach terminal in the capital, she found him already present in the lounge waiting for her. Sitting behind him on his expensive motorbike, she felt rather clumsy with her palm-leaf conical hat in one hand, a bulky cage containing two fat hens in the other and a handbag on her shoulder. He took her through many high streets in the metropolis and finally reached the destination: his small house on Hang Chuoi Street.
An afternoon passed by peacefully. While she was preparing dinner in the kitchen, she felt very glad for having made it much tidier, although it was well-furnished with modern kitchen utensils.
At dinner, he opened a bottle of red wine and poured it into two long-stemmed glasses.
"Let’s drink for our fraternity, your happiness and mine as well," he said to her.
They drank lots of wine together. Her face and neck turned rosy due to the wine and happiness. In soft voices, they timidly exchanged small talk and amorous looks. She felt as if an electric current was running all over her body when he kissed her on the lips. Then he lifted up her trembling body and carried it to the bed, where he clumsily unbuttoned her blouse.
"What’s that?" She asked surprisingly when she saw him taking a small and thin plastic thing out of the pillow-case.
"The condom. It’s for safe sex," he answered.
"No, no! Don’t use it, dear."
Suddenly, she burst out sobbing. After hesitating for a few seconds, he cast it down onto the floor. He lay supine on the bed, totally naked as she was. Profusely crying, she turned her face towards the wall.
"Forgive me! I do love you very much. I only…" he stammered, caressing her body lovingly and slowly.
She insisted on leaving. Reluctantly, he took her to the coach station by motorbike. "Forgive me." he reiterated. Nevertheless, she did not hear his apology partly because of the traffic noise and partly due to the fact that her dream of having a baby did not come true. On her side hung the brocade handbag recently bought at her district capital in the mountainous region, inside which lay the piece of cloth and the well-embroidered holder for a pair of spectacles.
The next morning, with a weary countenance due to a sleepless night, he went to Kim La again. The chairwoman was not at home. He waited and waited, but she had not returned yet.
The stanza returned to his mind again. It sounded rather sad. The house that he was sitting in seemed sad too, and so did the cold wind in the mountainous region. She did not know that short poem, perhaps; but surely, she frequently felt sorry for her unlucky destiny. He took pity on her and on himself as well. "I’ll stay here until she returns," he said to himself. In his heart of hearts, he knew that she would come home to him. The fact was that she was temporarily hiding somewhere, very close to her dwelling-place, to test his power of endurance and patience.