He was well-educated, with a degree like anybody else. But it was a degree in education, literary education, which was only good for decoration. After graduation, he was unemployed for several years, surviving on royalties from his fiction and poetry. Luckily, a friend introduced him to write for a few e-magazines, so he could make ends meet.
His mother was a peasant at heart: barely literate, prone to nagging, extremely devoted to her child. His father passed away when he was still in the cradle, and his mother had single-handedly raised him. He had never dared argue with her, but hummed and hawed to bide his time, especially with regard to the issue of marriage. His house was located near the Ma river, which explained why he was wild. Coupled with a lively imagination, he would travel whenever possible. He travelled tirelessly and only returned when he ran out of money. He travelled alone, and not simply to contemplate natural beauty or find inspiration for his literary creativity. He travelled for a release, to relax his soul. This life was filled with too many struggles, and he found himself living in the wrong times.
But for that meeting, he would have kept on travelling and ignoring life forever. Only then did he realise that money was just a minor reason preventing him from getting married. The fundamental reason was that there hadn’t been any girl who could entice him more than travelling could. That meeting woke him up and taught him that she was more important than his other passions, that this life was filled with countless people who were more miserable than him, that it was he who was pulling away from his own life.
He didn’t know where Tuyet Anh came from, or when she had opened her hairdresser’s shop. Only when he went to have his hair cut did he learn that she had been living nearby for a long time. He didn’t know her because he was often away. Yet she knew him. In the village, he was famous, since he had appeared on TV and newspapers and written literature. Everybody knew him, but he often forgot that. That was why when Tuyet Anh greeted him by his full name, he was startled.
Tuyet Anh was beautiful, very beautiful, in a traditional way, gentle but passionate, easily making men’s hearts skip. He was no exception, many times his heart felt like stopping. It was the first time in almost ten years that he thought about marriage again. Suddenly he found his mother’s words very wise.
For days afterward, he went to her shop, hoping to talk to her. She was always busy with customers. So he sat quietly to watch her work, and felt happy when she paused to relax and pour him a glass of water. He started to think about saving money to get married.
Tuyet Anh didn’t seem to have the same thoughts though. She cheerfully talked to him, but whenever he asked for her phone number, she would say she didn’t have one. When he asked her out for a drink, she would tactfully refuse. In the evening when she didn’t work, he always found her shop closed in darkness.
Tonight, the moon was round and bright, perhaps mid-month. After standing in front of Tuyet Anh’s closed shop for a while as usual, he started home, walking alone on the deserted dyke. The watery moon shone upon the sparkling silvery Ma river. The sky was clear and cloudless, the ground was dry and lit up with moonlight. Quietly, he sat down at the foot of an ancient tropical almond tree. It was a gigantic tree that had been reflecting itself in the Ma river since time immemorial.
Suddenly he heard what sounded like sobs. The sound was very quiet, but in the middle of such silence, it sent chills down his spine. He was about to take to his heels, but his little remaining sense stopped him. He inhaled deeply, mustered his courage then tiptoed past the tree toward the sobbing.
The sight of the sobber astonished him. Wasn’t that Tuyet Anh? But why was she hugging her knees crying alone here in the middle of the night? Tuyet Anh also startled upon seeing him. She stood up and wiped her tears. She forced a smile and stammered unintelligibly. Then to his utter amazement, Tuyet Anh threw herself into him, and held him tightly. She rubbed her face against his shoulder and cried like a baby.
He stood still like a statue, not knowing what to do or say. He didn’t know how much time passed, perhaps a few minutes, or hours, because every thought in his mind evaporated. Tuyet Anh stopped crying, and ashamedly released him. She looked down and said:
He brandished his forelimbs, feeling they were too long.
“No, not at all!”
Tuyet Anh dropped her head lower, told him goodbye then walked away. He stood dumbfounded watching her gradually disappear.
After that fateful night, his life took a different turn. Tuyet Anh started to talk to him more. She was more open and saved her number in his phone. He felt the road he was taking was strewn with flowers. Yet, that moonlit night left lingering questions in his mind. He didn’t dare ask her about it though. Tuyet Anh also seemed to forget it, since she never brought it up.
One pitch-dark night at the end of the month, he stood before Tuyet Anh’s house. Looking at the dim light inside, he felt profoundly sad. He didn’t dare to knock at her door and it had become a habit. But life is a strange thing. When he no longer imagined himself knocking and Tuyet Anh inviting him in, she did exactly that. Right after he shrugged and turned to go home, Tuyet Anh opened the door. She wasn’t surprised to find him standing there. She invited him in and acted like she had expected his every move, which confused him no end. He sat for more than an hour idiotically, answering her questions and drinking water until his belly bloated and begged him to say goodbye and go home.
With uncertainty, he told his mother about her. His mother went berserk with joy and made him promise to invite Tuyet Anh home. After trying to brush his mother off in vain, he acquiesced with much reluctance.
He didn’t know how to ask Tuyet Anh, because he wasn’t sure what exactly they meant to each other. He only knew that they had great conversations. During the day he loitered at her shop. At night they talked until after 10 pm. They had done this for a month. Could it be called love?
He pondered hard for several days before he dared ask. His hands sweat profusely as he nervously waited for her answer. Contrary to his nervousness, Tuyet Anh accepted the invitation gently and naturally, which dumbfounded him again.
Tuyet Anh closed her shop and went to his house early to chat with his mother. Then the two went out to the market and went home to cook while he watched TV. At that moment, his heart was filled with bliss. Such a life was enough, all struggles and ambitions seemed to be dead in him. While his mother talked to Tuyet Anh, he learned new things about her that he had forgotten to inquire about.
Tuyet Anh’s parents had passed away prematurely, leaving behind herself and her younger sister. Her younger sister was studying at a university in Hanoi. As for her, she had quit school a long time before to work to support her sister. He felt a little tingling in his nose. Compared to her, he was countless times happier.
His mother didn’t just love Tuyet Anh for her beauty, but her friendliness and warmth. However, when his mother asked her questions about the past, she often evaded them. He also felt curious and asked her many times but she remained silent, or answered perfunctorily. Then, her phoenix eyes would be clouded and lifeless. Looking at those eyes he felt like falling into a bottomless hole. He recalled the moonlit night when he saw her by the river and felt chilly. He never asked her again, and stopped his mother from asking. Her past was important, but the present was decisive.
After that day, he thought that they were in love, though when he asked, Tuyet Anh only replied, “Whatever you like. If you think we’re in love, then we’re in love!” It was an inscrutable answer that he let pass.
A week after, he received a phone call from his best friend from Hanoi. His friend said he wanted to visit him for a few days. It was thanks to Hung that he had secured his employment. So he felt greatly indebted and gladly welcomed him.
Hung was his college friend and came from Hanoi. After college, Hung got a stable job, and a few years later, got married. Hung had a lovely daughter now. Though he was away from Hanoi for ten years, he often contacted Hung. Whenever he visited Hanoi, the two would drink to death. Their friendship was rare, because old friends were difficult to keep.
Hung got off the bus and instantly ran up to clasp him and pat his back passionately. He took Hung home on his shabby bike. Hung shook his head and sighed. He laughed it off. He was poor, wasn’t he?
Hung had visited his house a few times, so his mother was very happy to see Hung again. She bombarded Hungwith questions, then cheerfully boasted that her son had a girlfriend. The news transfixed Hung for a few seconds. Then Hung burst out laughing, which made him blush in shame. Was it so strange that he had a girlfriend?
Hung tried to keep a straight face, patted his shoulder and urged him to introduce Tuyet Anh right away. Provoked, he pulled out his cell phone and called her. She accepted the invitation. He breathed a sigh of relief and told Hung to take a shower. Hung nodded and ran straight to the well, laughing.
At 11 am Tuyet Anh arrived. She looked a bit tired, though she smiled brightly at him. He felt like being squeezed in the chest and wanted to hug her tightly. Tuyet Anh seemed to understand his thoughts, but she lowered her head and walked toward the kitchen in the yard. Hung was then walking up from the opposite direction so the two almost bumped into each other.
The two startled and stared at each other for a long time. Hung frowned, and Tuyet Anh turned pale. He walked up and stood beside her and introduced her. Hung eyed Tuyet Anh moodily. Tuyet Anh still looked very pale with her head down. She walked into the kitchen without a word. Hung looked as she disappeared through the door and said with a sigh:
“Is she your girlfriend?”
He gleefully nodded, but was startled upon seeing Hung’s moody face:
“Do you two know each other?”
Hung remained silent for several minutes then shook his head:
“Not really, but we’ve met a few times.”
Hung said thoughtfully:
He frowned, then remembered Tuyet Anh telling him that she used to work in Hanoi for several years. So he patted Hung’s shoulder and said:
“That’s right. Did you have your hair cut at Tuyet Anh’s shop?”
Hung was silent and didn’t confirm or refute the guess. After a while Hung walked toward the table, sat down, and said:
“You should investigate thoroughly before going any further.”
He ran up to pour water for Hung, and chuckled:
“Don’t worry, Tuyet Anh is very good. I believe I’m not mistaken!”
Hung lost in thought, leaned against the chair, and sighed. He was about to ask something but his mother brought a tray of food and urged them to eat. He stood up unwillingly and spread out a sedge mat. The meal felt suffocating. Tuyet Anh lowered her head and barely spoke. Hung looked ill-humoured. As for him, he felt stormy inside.
After lunch he walked to Tuyet Anh home, feeling distracted with hundreds of questions. When they stopped in front of her house, he couldn’t help asking:
“Do you know Hung?”
Tuyet Anh looked down to avoid his eyes and answered:
“Not really, but we’ve met a few times. What did he tell you? “
He shook his head in extreme confusion:
“Exactly what you’ve just told me!”
Tuyet Anh forced a smile, then turned silent. He wished her a good sleep and went home. When he reached home, he threw off his bike and ran to find Hung. Hung was lying in bed smoking. Seeing his best friend’s panic-stricken face, Hung stamped out the cigarette.
He walked over, sat down by Hung, and asked:
“What exactly do you know about Tuyet Anh?”
Hung shook his head lightly:
“Nothing more than what I’ve told you!”
“I don’t believe you. After all those years, what could there be that you can’t tell me?”
Hung went outside to light another cigarette. He lay down and sighed. He couldn’t imagine things had taken such a course. He had thought he would have a great time with his best friend.
Hung didn’t have any difficulty in finding Tuyet Anh’s house. The house dangled on the dyke, overlooking the rolling muddy majestic Ma river. It was old and very small, with the front being used as a shop. Tuyet Anh opened the door for Hung. She looked much calmer now.
“I know you would come to see me!”
Hung sat down and glanced at Tuyet Anh who stood leaning against the door. She looked fragile and lonely. He didn’t hurl all the sharp words he had intended at her, but simply exclaimed:
“You should break up with Hoang!”
Tuyet Anh smiled bitterly. She had expected it but still felt morose. Before she could answer, Hung added:
“He’s honest and nice. I don’t want him to suffer.”
“Why? Is it because I did what everybody despised?”
Tuyet Anh’s sharp tone took Hung by surprise. He stood up, and said slowly:
“I’ve told you what I must. If you really love Hoang, please do what’s best for him!”
Hung left. Tuyet Anh covered her face and cried.
Night fell calmly, the scene looked dark and dull. The two best friends sat on an old narrow bamboo bed drinking. Hoang filled Hung’s cup, his face swelling red.
“Drink. I know you’ve seen Tuyet Anh today. I don’t know what has happened between you two but let me tell you again that I love Tuyet Anh very much. Nothing can change it!”
Hung nodded, also looking drunk.
“What do you understand? If you do, why do you stand in the way?”
Hung silently emptied his cup, nodded a few times then said with a smile:
“Forget everything. You do whatever you want. Lately I’ve seen you write regularly. Today I met an old man on the bus. He told me a story. Do you want to hear it? It may inspire you to write!”
Hoang gulped down his cup, slowly re-filled both of their cups then told Hung to proceed.
“About ten years ago, the old man lived next to a happy family. The father single-handedly brought up his two daughters after his wife died. He worked hard day and night to give his children a good life. The whole village admired him. Yet, one night at year’s end, he committed a terrible act. Do you know what he did?”
“How the hell do I know!”
“He got drunk, called his wife’s name repeatedly, then raped his oldest daughter who wasn’t even 16.”
“That’s what everybody said. So a few days after he killed himself.”
Hoang put his cup down and thought for a very long time. Then he drilled his eyes into Hung:
“Tell me, is that girl Tuyet Anh?”
Hung didn’t answer directly, but stood up and said:
“She didn’t turn her father in. Nobody would have known if the naïve younger sister hadn’t told a neighbour about it. The old woman then told everybody, which led to the father’s suicide.”
After telling his story, Hung walked inside to rest. Hoang was left alone. He turned his face upward and gulped down two bottles of wine noisily. His throat felt like burning. Yet he didn’t stop until he drank the last dregs. Strangely though, he became more and more sober. Sober, but mindless and emotionless. He hastily went inside to search for more wine. He kept searching and drinking until he collapsed on the bamboo bed exhausted.
Outside, in deep darkness, a lone slender figure followed his every act and cried.
The day after, he woke up noon. Feeling parched, he hurriedly looked for water. At the sight of him, his mother gave a scolding. He didn’t react. He looked around and didn’t see Hung, who had left for Hanoi early in the morning. His mind gradually cleared up, he started to remember everything. He must see Tuyet Anh. He must tell her that they should let her past rest. He would never bring it up. Then he would call Hung and made him understand how important Tuyet Anh was to him. It wasn’t her fault. She deserved better.
Tuyet Anh didn’t open her shop that day. The small house was shut in silence. He knocked. Tuyet Anh showed up with dark puffy eyes. He felt touched and stretched out his arms to hug her tightly.
Tuyet Anh didn’t react. Her body felt like a log. He consoled:
“I know your story. I won’t leave you!”
Tuyet Anh burst out crying, then guffawed, in bitterness.
“Do you know my story? You don’t know all of it yet. Do you know why my father jumped off the bridge? Do you know the real reason behind it?”
Tuyet Anh pushed him away. She turned around and sat down on the chair. She looked strangely calm. She continued while he was reeling in astonishment:
“It turned out my mother had been pregnant with me before marrying him. He learned about it and deeply resented it. Though he didn’t say anything, he brooded about revenge. At last he took it out on me, who wasn’t his blood daughter. As for his suicide, he jumped off the bridge because he had HIV!”
Hoang staggered and almost fell down. He leaned against the wall to steady himself. He looked at Tuyet Anh with his eyes and mouth open wide, speechless. Tuyet Anh laughed again, crisply, blandly.
“Why are you looking at me like that? Yeah, I’m HIV-positive. For years living in Hanoi, in order to feed myself and my sister, I was a whore. My heart was filled with hatred, so I often asked my clients not to use condoms. Many of them were infected. Then they came to me for revenge. One time, I was almost beaten to death. Fortunately, Hung rescued me. Do you see how good your friend is to you now? Do you still want to stand by me?”
This time Hoang did fall down. His mind was frozen. He didn’t know how he could stand and walk out of that house. Yet at that moment, he simply didn’t want to stay there, to stand by Tuyet Anh. She seemed to expect it too. She didn’t react, or look at him again.
He stayed inside for a whole week, eating nothing, just drinking. He lost weight drastically, which scared the wits out of his mother. In response to his mother’s pestering, he remained silent. His mother went to find Tuyet Anh as a last resort. But her shop was closed.
Tonight the moon was bright and cold. Hoang woke up in the depth of night. Outside, leaves were drenched in dew. Right after he gulped down a glass of water, his cell phone rang, with a text message. It came from Tuyet Anh. He hesitated for a few seconds but read it at last: “My dear, I’m going. My sister is graduating soon. I intended to wait for her to graduate before making any decision. But unexpectedly I met you, my true love. I don’t deserve you. Only the Ma river can wash away my sin, so that in the next life I can come to you in purity.”
He dropped his cell phone. Without thinking, he darted out into the freezing windy night.
He didn’t knock but struck the door open with his foot. The house was empty. He walked into her room only to find the window overlooking the river open. There was a forlorn pair of sandals on the ground. He plunged forward, looked outside, and saw the immense swirling muddy waters. The wind beat his face, slashing it like a knife.