Whenever you miss me, just call out my name...

Anyone who dropped by for a visit would ask, “How long has she been this way?” He didn’t know what to say. He did not know when this strange illness had begun. She didn’t feel any pain or fatigue, and though she’d been taken to countless doctors, no one had been able to say what was wrong, or point to the source of the illness.

Image for illustration
Image for illustration

One female doctor had sighed after a general check-up and said: “If it is a sickness of the heart, then no medicine can cure it.” The old woman smiled and told her husband, “You see, I’m not ill at all.”

Right, she wasn’t ill. It was just that she sat morosely inside her room, staring hypnotically out the window. There were days when sunlight gingerly licked her feet, swollen badly because of arthritis. The sun cast its beams over her pepper-and-salt hair that seemed to glow with age.

There were moments he saw her eyes burst into light then blow out instantly. The moment was as short as the life span of a firework. It burst all of its colors upon the night sky then extinguished them exactly when they were at their glorious best. The moment was too short for him to get inside her mind. Their children kept urging her to see a psychologist. She waved such suggestions away, saying, “I’m not ill at all.”

On sunny noons, when she was dozing and lost in dreams, she often saw white petals bob up and down in the water.

He’d chained up one of the two dogs in the garden to prevent it from darting out to bite visitors. This was a boyish one that barked at every sound. The dog’s bark would awaken the old woman who would rub her eyes and look around for sunlight.

She would also look around in the yard until her eyes alighted on the old man, bent over, drying batches of end-of-season bitter gourds that were plentiful enough for her to wash herself with for a whole year.

Once she had arthritis, he took over her role and went to the street market. He went out every morning. Often, he didn’t buy anything else except bitter gourds. Sometimes he also bought tiny field shrimps whose pregnant abdomen bulged with eggs. He would cook them with brine and soy sauce and add a few thin slices of sour star fruits. He would keep the shrimps cooking for a long while until they were truly well done. When the shrimps were laid out on a plate, her eyes would sparkle like a child’s at the sight of them. Then he would feel all the hard work – of picking out the straws and waste and seaweed and moss that had gotten mixed up with the raw shrimps – was worth it.

The last batch of end-of-season bitter gourds was yet to dry when the monsoon arrived. He opened an old chest that used to store bullets in wartime and was now rank with the smell of cockroaches to take out a bunch of winter clothes to wash. There were some items she had brought when she was young. They were still wearable. It was only the figurative, hazy threads of time that seemed to have disintegrated.

Every year, he took the old clothes out to dry in the sunlight. She smiled and said, “If you keep drying them, even I won’t be able to recognize the smell of their memories anymore.” He felt a jolt of pain shoot through his heart but pretended to be nonchalant, saying, “They just smell of cockroaches. There isn’t any memory-smell for you to regret.”

She looked at the clothesline and saw a few children’s clothes waving ethereally at her. Every piece exuded a fragrant scent. Her grandchild Thao used to have this habit of hiding flowers in her clothes. The richly, sensuously scented jasmine, the gentle-smelling narcissus, and the deeply fragrant pomelo flowers. The day Thao lay still on her bed, she was still hiding a bunch of purplish starfruit flowers in one hand.

The dear little heart had already stopped beating at the moment sunlight from the mountain top flooded down, radiant and sparkling like a pistil. Like sweet honey. Even the most beautiful moment was blood-dyed with despair. Never in so many years had there been a moment when the grandmother was not haunted by the color of the sunlight that day. The golden colour of bitter gall. It had seeped into each and every vein inside her body...

At 7 o’clock every day, people in that part of the country sat in front of the TV to listen to the weather forecast. Many hearts palpitated when the pretty weather reporter forecast showers. Someone would lament, “Oh, I’ve just sown a basket of rice seeds this afternoon.” Another would look out at the corn field in front of their house where the white protein fertilizers at the roots of the plants that were yet to be absorbed. The fields were sloping here, so any shower would simply wash away everything. Someone was worried about batches of bananas that hadn’t dried yet, or bamboo shoots that were still wet, or the firewood that had been freshly split, or winter clothes that had been taken out for washing as the weather suddenly turned cold. What if it rained now and those things could not be dried?

The old man didn’t believe in the weather forecast. The night before, he had looked up at the starry sky and high clouds and knew it would be sunny the next day. If the dragon-flies were hovering below the top of the spear grass in front of the house, it was sure to rain. The termites crawling out of their holes and flying here and there, their wings falling off in showers was a sign that some faraway storm was soon to swoop down upon the small hamlet. He knew many other great signs of nature by “observing the sky, the earth and the clouds” as the folk-song went. So there was no way he could believe TV forecasts. Several times it had predicted storms, making the whole village anxious, but nothing happened. There were days when he was too busy making fish sauce dips in the kitchen to notice whether the forecast was right or not.

After inadvertently hearing on TV that it would rain heavily this time, he thought eating burnt rice crust with the fish sauce dip would be even tastier on rainy days. The weather turned out to be beautifully sunny, though.

Ah, woe to him for not having enough time to prepare anything else to appease her fit of melancholy – the devastating fits that often came on sunny days.

To make matters worse, sunlight in this region was as hard as fossils. No matter where she looked, the old woman would see those sunny days when she carried little Thao outdoors to bathe her in the sun, the baby’s lips still smelling of milk. She would see a girl with shining black hair wearing a pair of clacking wooden clogs and a flowery-patterned dress bursting through the sunlight..

Thao went searching for flowers, gliding through one bush and another, white petals dropping off all over her head. She dashed towards her grandmother to nestle in her arms. The grandmother thought she was holding sunlight. Sunlight sprinkles flew off from the girl’s hair, sleeves, edges of her pant legs, and from her exquisitely curled eyelashes. So, whenever she saw sunlight, the old woman seemed to see her 7-year-old granddaughter again. Whenever she touched sunlight she touched Thao’s flesh and skin. Whenever she inhaled sunlight she saw Thao’s hair that smelled of pomelo flowers.

On sunny days, the old man had much work to do. He had to clean one corner and re-arrange things in another. He had to hide a batch of bananas that had been just dried and which he’d saved for their children to eat in the kitchen. He was afraid when she saw it she would shout cheerfully, “Thao loves dried bananas! She stuffs her pant pockets with them to nibble away. They’re also delicious when mixed with boiled molasses.”

He pretended to grumble: “It’s very hard to find good molasses now. They’re sold all over the market but they are impure. People mix them with all sorts of things. Their molasses don’t have the same thick, viscous feel that the molasses you and I used to make. When I find good molasses, I’ll make sticky rice cakes for you. By the way, cooked cassava dipped in molasses also tastes good, right?”

He hoped she would be distracted by his conversation and forget the past. He didn’t expect it to make her remember. She remembered the days when Thao used her ten pretty tiny fingers to wrap stick rice cakes awkwardly. The girl said stick rice cakes looked soft and sweet like a baby’s cheeks.

Now, whenever the old woman took a bite of a refreshingly sweet sticky rice cake, tears would overflow as she remembered the girl. The amber color of sticky rice cakes reminded her of sunlight. The color of throbbing golden memories. Golden desperation. So she started, fearfully, at even the faintest sound of people calling out to each other from faraway. It reminded her of the calling on that fateful noon.

That beautiful sunny noon when the deep pond swallowed her beloved granddaughter. Thao was perched dangerously on the edge of the pond as she pulled down a branch of wild flowers. The pure white petals were still bobbing on the water when Thao was laid, deadly still, in her arms. Ten years later, that flower still blossomed in her heart on beautifully sunny days.

The old man waited for the sun to set as anxiously as others waited for the rains to stop or storms to pass away. He wanted to roll up the sunlight and hide it away. His wife sat motionlessly by the window, staring at he-didn’t-know what.

He had the pond drained and filled. The shovel truck swallowed patches of soil where the white wild flower plants stood. The old woman sat inside her room, imagining people scooping shovels of dirt to fill up the girl’s grave. Her dear little Thao was still holding flowers in one hand. Her shirt pocket smelled of flowers. White flowers were in her hair.

Her children took turns to lead her home. The road home seemed as long as the Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s Journey to the West with his disciples to obtain sacred texts. For ten years, she had prayed in repentance. It was a loud gnawing pain at first, followed by a dull ache. Then she pretended to forget in order to get by. She pretended to forget to reassure her children, so that they could also forget their pain and continue to live all the days and months ahead. So she was seen talking and laughing merrily. She was seen buying breeder fish to raise in a newly dug pond. She no longer cried on Thao’s death anniversaries.

She urged her daughter-in-law to give birth to another baby, saying, “Thao was destined to have a short life so she left us early. It’s fate, you two shouldn’t be too sad.” Only the old man knew that every night, she hugged Thao’s old shirt. She had secreted it when her children were preparing to burn it.

He loosened the shirt from her gaunt hands and washed it. She cried out: “You shouldn’t wash it. It will take away Thao’s smell.” He’d pretended to grumble, “It only smells of your tears and nose runs. It’ll get mouldy if I don’t wash it.” If the scent had worn off and her memories had faded away, it would have been so much better. If so, he wouldn’t have had to lie that a level-10 storm had blown away the shirt and the mosquito-net and all the blankets hanging in the backyard.

She was angry and didn’t talk to him for several days on end. One night he caught a cold and desperately wanted a bowl of hot porridge, but she still hadn’t relented. He wanted her to rub out his cold for him. He wanted to ask her to give him a blanket, but she was still angry. Luckily Thao’s father, their oldest son, happened to drop by. He said tearfully, “How can just you two old people live together while one is half insane?”

Only when the son said he would take them to town to live with him did her anger subside. She refused to go, and pretending to be cheerful, joked: “Since when did I ever become ill?” The old man didn’t have the heart to push his wife. Since Thao died, she’d felt guilty towards her daughter-in-law. Though the daughter-in-law didn’t say anything hurtful, her heart still hurt.

The old man understood his wife well, so he told his son, “It’s enough that I’m still strong. If your mom is sick, I still can take care of her.”

She continued to sit inside her room, looking expectantly out the window. Meanwhile, the old man sat in the middle of the yard drying and rolling saffron into small balls for her to take every morning, to cure her gastritis. She had suffered stomach pain for years and might not have managed without his saffron.

After rolling a batch of saffron balls mixed with honey, his back felt like breaking. When he stood up, he reeled, his face wincing painfully. She didn’t see it, of course. Her eyes were filled with dazzling, floating white petals.

One morning, he left. It was an ordinary morning just like any other. He woke up early, went out into the garden and carried some firewood into the kitchen. He cooked a pot of porridge mixed with lotus seeds, and boiled a kettle of water banyan for her to drink. When he brought a bowl of boiling hot porridge to her room, she was still looking out over the window.

He guessed she didn’t hear his footsteps. Nor did she smell the balm oil he had used to soothe his ache and cold. Even the disjointed cracking sound of his foot joints couldn’t make her turn around. The rasping sound he made when closing the door might have been just wind blowing to her ears.

When he reached the yard he stood hesitantly, not knowing whether to leave or stay. When he reached the gate he wavered and thought he might forget something. When the bus assistant pulled him aboard, he stood dazed, pondering, wondering whether when he left he had said goodbye to her. Had he forgotten to remind a cousin (once removed) to feed their two dogs and cat twice a day?

He had also forgotten to cover the pile of firewood he had split and put on the front porch of the kitchen. If it rained suddenly, as it often did this time of year, there wouldn’t be any dry firewood to use. The white-spotted hen with the golden colored feathers was a naughty one, who wouldn’t lay eggs in her nest and often did laid them in the garden. His wife was unlikely to go out into the garden to fetch them, so the eggs would certainly be food for the dogs. The pot of gobies cooked with brine and pepper was still being warmed on the stove, and without him there to remove the bones from the fish, his wife might swallow them. As for the bottle of centipede wine he had put behind the leg of the cupboard, he wasn’t sure his wife would remember to use it to massage her bones when they hurt.

He wanted to return to bring down the batches of corn silk being dried on the kitchen roof, but the bus had gone too far. The bus assistant stood ominously in front of him to collect ticket money and asked, “Where do you want to go?” He gave him a small piece of paper with an address in it. The conductor nodded and said, “It’s quite far. When you reach the final stop, you have to take a motorbike taxi and ride for another 20 kilometers to get there. Mountainous roads are very hard to take. You’re old and weak, so why are you going up there alone?”

He pulled out from his chest pocket some change to pay for the bus ticket, showed a toothless smile and said, “People say there’s a great herbal doctor up there.” “Who are you getting the medicine for?” He didn’t have the time to reply, since his mind had become entangled with fingertips that had just touched some dry petals lying quietly inside his shirt pocket. The pocket whose color had faded lay on his left chest. His flesh and skin seemed so worn out and fragile that the petals seemed to pierce right through to his heart, stinging it with a very sweet pain.

While the old man was away, the cousin moved in to take care of the house temporarily. He grumbled when the old man asked him to do all those thankless tasks. Cooking for the old woman and taking care of the dogs were alright. But to get up very early to remove all of those white wild flowers blossoming all around in the garden… that was insane.

This part of country lacked everything but wild flower plants. One might break one’s back pulling them out for days, but even this effort would be in vain. It was as if those plants had been nursing their seeds under the earth for thousands of years in order to multiply now. The flowers didn’t have names, their pistils were yellow or red, and their petals were pure white. Some were fragrant and some not. Some showed off big blossoms while others only gave out shy, small ones until they withered. The 17-year-old boy thought this task was too meaningless and tiring, so he just stopped doing it.

The old woman sat inside her room for exactly two days before waking up from her dreams. And realized her porridge had a different smell. The sound of the door closing was also louder. There was no sight of the old man bending over to dry one thing or another in the yard. Usually, he found an excuse to be in the yard every day.

Many times, when he split bamboo strings, he didn’t want to sit inside the house. He but took them out into the sunny yard. Sunlight soaked and faded the back of his shirts. It shone upon his beard and hair and made them whiter. It blackened his blackish arms even more. He sweated profusely in the hard dizzy sunlight but she didn’t notice.

One day he hit upon the idea of taking a broom out to sweep the yard while it was still raining. The bead trees were being stripped off their leaves. No longer had he finished cleaning away the old leaves that new ones fell, covering the yard like a yellow carpet. The wet ground made the broom heavier to handle. The sweeper, drenched, just wanted to drop down like the leaves. This happened right in front of her eyes, but still she didn’t see anything.

She kept being drawn into a maze of memories of chaotic longing and pain. Her body was here, but her heart belonged to the past. Yet this morning, all of a sudden, she gave a start and looked around searchingly with her melancholy eyes.

She asked the boy, “Where is grandpa?” The boy grinned and said, “Grandpa has been away for two days but you are only asking about him now?” He picked up the kettle used for brewing herbs and walked across the yard to the kitchen, dropping sulky words like raindrops pattering on the ground: “Grandpa said he was going to get medicine for you. He’ll go and won’t return until he hears you call him back.”

She smiled and thought: how in the world she could call him when he was very far away? Again, the boy ran across the yard, dropping words along the way: “Grandpa said if you missed him you could just call him. Wherever he is, he still can hear you.” The boy mumbled something else but she only saw him shrug and disappear.

Did she ever call him? Nobody knew. And if she did call him, perhaps only he could hear her. Perhaps the loving words that blew out through the wide empty gaps between the few teeth that were yet to fall out might not be as clear as it was in her youth. But that would not be a problem, since it was enough that he would understand them. And this morning, white flowers again blossomed all over the garden as if they had told one another to do so in accord...