Việt Văn Mới
Việt Văn Mới

The Fair Choice

The airplane glided across a carpet of blue water stretching to infinity below, Net’s mind drifted over the past recent days, mired in the senselessness to a point of self-pity. Torn between calculating whether to leave or to stay and having to bear witness to contradicting situations. Looking along the edge of the aircraft’s wing, her eyes followed the soft snowy white cloud below, Net compared her life with the those clouds. Clouds are undefined and unpredictable, but at least they are oblivious to everything and don’t suffer from circumstances against their will… Why are the fellow travelers so carefree? But she has to be busy with thinking about answers to questions from her nosy neighbors. She can foresee the looks in her girl friends’ eyes, those flashes of pity for her foolishness. The victory flag fell into her hand. Not only did she not wave it, she threw it on the ground and stomp on it.

   Shifting her seated position to interrupt her train of thought, Net secretly admired the painted fingernails of a slightly aging woman sitting at the top row across the aisle. They are shiny and meticulous decorated with bright flowers. Looking down at her own fingernails- smooth and looking little bit country-like. Suddenly Net smiled. It was a good thing she had not used to those styles of high class make-up. It would be more humiliating to return with a set of fancy red fingernails.
   The boat from Dai Ngai entered the pier. The captain turned off the engine, put on the brake and quickly walked to the front to lower the ramp at the bow, setting it down on the earthen bank. The passengers fired up their motorbikes filling the air with deafening sound for some five or seven minutes and then returned the whole area to its sleepy appearance. Life in the country is still like the years before that, quietly repeating each others. Net inhaled deeply the familiar air, the scent of hay from the country of her birthplace. She turned to observe the surrounding scenes. There were changes but they were slow like tortoises so nothing seems strange. “The old man who tilling the field today is the son of the old man who plowed the field a long time ago. The old man who plowing the field today is the son of the old man who tilled the field a long time ago.” Life flows along, but people still working behind the water buffalo or breaking their back carrying agriculture products that don’t worth much. A large sign welcomes the visitors to the town of Beauty Isle. The navy color of the sign over time has changed to a fading moldy color. The lone road cutting through Beauty Isle toward Dai An Pier still appeared sad like yesteryears. Both sides of the road are dotted with shoddy houses. Somewhere in the inside of one, a woman sitting on the earthen floor picking lice from her young child’s hair while outside there are two to three rickety tables that occasionally occupied by young men with bare chest and weak-looking. They wrestled with cups of rice wine chilled in ice cubes. Several bunches of coconuts hung precariously by the door edge. Close to home. Before turning into her hamlet, Net stopped to view the surroundings and to avoid two men with arms draping over each other shoulders, walking aimlessly and peacefully. The woman hurriedly scooped her child under her arm, stood up and walked out to greet Net:
   “When did you get home Net, why so soon? Is it because you missed your daddy?”
Net replied to pass the conversation:
   “I missed the hamlet so I have to visit. Otherwise, when I have a lot of children, I won’t be able to go. Is my father home Mrs. Ba?”
Mrs. Ba stepped out from the awning, raised her hand to shield the child from the sun:
   “I just saw your father receiving visitors from Taiwan Hamlet. I heard someone in their family is in difficult labor, trying to give birth since yesterday, asking your dad for medicine to expel. Goodness, you have been over there only for a few months but you look so fresh. Your skin and flesh are cool to the sky!”
Net smiled meekly to thank Mrs. Ba, bid goodbye to her, pinched the child’s cheek who was still holding a spoonful of rice in his mouth, then turned into the road to her hamlet. She met her father leading a young man to the garden and was repeating some advice:
   “Select a large papaya that is still green, the greener the better. Cut it in half lengthwise, don’t wash away the sap, just leave it that way, press it to the sole of the feet. In about fifteen minutes she will deliver. After the baby came out, watch to see when all the placenta had came out, remove the papaya; otherwise the whole uterus will come out with it. Remember, be careful about it, this is no joking matter!”
Net smiled brightly to greet the familiar young man:
   “Hello Hon. Are you married yet?” A resigned headshake from him. “Let get your act together, past the age and you will remain a bachelor forever. By the way, who is having difficulty giving birth?”
The visitor’s eyes brighten:
   “Hello Net! My older sister. Pity! Their family is poor yet one thing after another keeps on coming.”
Pausing for a long time, he continued slowly:
   “I also wanted a family to settle down, but unfortunately, I was born into Taiwan Hamlet so no girl will come through when it is my turn. So I have to content with being single. It stinks. Last month, two young girls migrated oversea with their husbands. This month another is fixing to leave. If your father ate salted fish, we will suffer thirst. In his generation there were more girls than boys. In our generation, whatever girls we have, the Taiwanese and South Koreans scoop them all up. We just go empty-handed and cry silently at night.”
Net’s father overheard and agreed so he just half-smiled but did not say anything.
   “Alright! stop feeling humiliated, Hon just need to be patient. Give me some time to find some girl in this hamlet who is decent and I will play matchmaker for you.” Net consoled her friend and punctuated by sticking her tongue out coyly.
   The young man smiled sadly, bid farewell to father and daughter, turned the motorbike around, started the engine and rode out of the hamlet.
The medicine man extended both hands pulling his daughter’s suitcase, his eyes dampened.
   “Why did you announce your return in advance so I can go pick you up or at least hire a car to meet you in the city? I planned to hide as long as I could, but since you returned so suddenly, I might as well reveal the truth. Your younger brother Na had passed away.”
   Net heard as if the sky has crashed down violently next to her. The old man’s voice sounded monotone and unreal as if in a dream: “He went drinking down Dai An Pier and then went on the other side to hang out with his friends. He did not wear his motorcycle helmet and got into a confrontation with the traffic cops. They took him down the station. The follow afternoon I got notified that he hung himself that night with a bed sheet. So horrible! Your dead mother down below if she heard about this probably will die another time!”
The surrounding turned dark, all the columns and walls leaned and collapsed on top of each other. Net grabbed onto the breakfast table in the middle of the house, composing herself. All of a sudden she felt a stiff lump in her throat, anger rose:
   “Hang himself? As if they have bed sheets laying around in jail? Even a child knows something is not right about this. Those cruel bunch…”
Pausing slightly to suppress her anger, Net put her hand on her father’s shoulder and sighed:
   “Anyway, that was his fate so let it be. We will just have to hold our breath to cross the river in peace. Poking into the fire ant mound will do us no good….How many months ago Dad?”
   “About three to four months. After you have left just about one full moon. I tried to forget his date. Once people are gone, time becomes meaningless so no reason to pay attention.”
Net lighted some incense sticks for her little brother, on the altar stood out two huge green papaya (the Taiwanese variety that grows on this isle, the place with lot of pretty girl) then look over to her father, wiping her tears:
   “How is your heart condition? Any better?”
   “The same as before, up and down like it is pretending. Last month Teacher Hoach over at Soc Trang gave me an introductory note to visit the American medical delegation. Their ship just docked at Port of Saigon to do charity work. I made the trip, they told me I needed additional paper to prove my poverty status because there were more patients than they can handle.”
   “Then what? Did you go to the Committee to ask?”
   “I hung around for a few days before they invited me in to explain that our Isle is already reporting up to the town a few years back. The higher up recognized us as an outstanding township, completed erasing poverty so no one dare to certify my poverty status. It made sense! Oh well, let my condition follows me to the grave! I was just saying that because I prayed every day to the spirit of Nguyen Trong Phu, the Founder of traditional medicine to guide me so that I can pick medicine to cure myself. You never know.”
   Net felt that she has no strength to say anything anymore. Constantly listening to her family story made her wanted to faint. The phrase “you never know” from her daddy represents an endless hope, a hope that even he himself felt like a drowning man wishing for a board floating by. Net walked quickly to the back to wash her face, trying to hide her eyes which she knew were red and full of tears.
   The throng of people slowly made their way down to the baggage claim area. The airport is gigantic with people crowded like ants. Net trembled slightly, she did not know English, everything was new and first time for her. What was she supposed to do! Luckily, the agency already stationed an Vietnamese-speaking employee ready so everything got completed. She got annoyed at the life-saving phone she has been waiting on because it never rang. Over two hours have passed before Hoa showed up. He apologetically talked about the traffic jam and the lack of nearby parking space. Fear and anger choked her throat, but she quietly let it passed. When they got home, there were already four to five men sat drinking. Their faces were bright red like Guan Yu, drunkenly rambling about all kinds of things, clinking glasses and seem about not ready to end the party. Net prepared her most presentable face to greet everyone and then slipped into the kitchen as if she has the responsibility to assist Hoa hosting the guests. So exhausted that she can fall down if not thinking, but she has to appear obedient, stand and stand although she has to ask where the pepper, onion, salt, garlic, and everything else were kept.
   She barely hear the comments made behind her back, “woman with one child is easy on the eye” which made her felt even madder. Some friends! She already told him not to divulge their family story to friends. Nothing good can come out of it. If they knew, it does not mean they will have more sympathy. If he already promised, why did he still let other people know? The lustful looks behind her back, the excited whisper “hour-glass figure, good at pleasing husband and raising children” made her blushed. Yes, she has one child, but that was not the result of love, but of a commercial transaction, after the delivery, she wanted to forget the despairing time of being a surrogate mother for other people. She wanted to rebuild her life and although he was older but still a life-saver for her. Even though she was not entirely pleased but a life-saver is not easy to come by. Somehow there was something unsettling from the beginning. The budding courtship seem choppy from the conception.
   Net sat and reminisce about the event almost six months ago and exhaled. Hoa had not once mentioned about getting a marriage license. He only tended to the noodle shop, the task of paying expenses, and the complaints about the workers do not know how to do their jobs costing him needlessly. Last month, since he was lecturing about the worldwide catastrophe brought about by the Han people, Net advised him to buy pepper, chili and ginger from Korea or Japan instead of Chinese products even though cheaper but possibly harmful to the consumers. He chastised her for mixing politics with business. He said that she can’t even take care of herself much less worrying about the customers. Lately he even got angry and yelled at her for rinsing the vegetables several times, taking too much time and wasting water. The vegetables and dishes, no matter how dirty or clean, they are will not gain or lose customers… The drop that overflow the cup occurred when Hoa came back from the tax office and excitedly announced that since he was cunning, he has paid not even a small portion of the tax collected from the customers to the Internal Revenue Service. She did not know whatever deep-rooted reason that caused her feeling to turn cold upon hearing his announcement. The thought of distancing herself from this man flared up to the max when he hired a middleman to arrange so that the whole family can receive food stamps because of their alleged low-income status. Net still remember vividly when Hoa envisioned the possibility of receiving more money, his hands waved and waved before his face, very proud, his thick gold necklace dangled as if it was about to pull his neck down. And Net discreetly bought the airplane ticket home without any attachment or hesitation.
   “There, you can see, how can I live with him for the rest of my life?” Net spoke through her tears. “Very clever, but we should not get involved to enjoy such scheming cleverness. He cheated therefore his mind is not at peace. Every night he tossed and turned because of bad dreams, or he would wake up in the middle of the night. I cannot sleep sound entirely even though in the daytime I worked hard for fourteen hours. I rather return here and suffer poverty with a clean conscience like grandfather used to teach me in my younger years. My mind will feel more peaceful.”
The medicine man’s hand trembled as he turned the pages of an old and torn medicine book, his eyes looked out to the yard, his lips quivered.
   “Poverty with clean conscience is the virtue of a sage. Poverty with clean conscience is a harder virtue to achieve than that of giving to charity. It also brings a better peace of mind than charity.”
Net leaned forward, picked up and stroke her cell phone. It has sat precariously on the table all day:
   “I don’t understand much like you Daddy, but I still remember the story of ’Four Heavy Rice Kernels’ which grandfather explained as heavy with gratitude to the giver. Grandfather told me that story a long time ago.”
The father poured two cups of tea, pushed one cup in front of the daughter.
   “How does that story goes? I am old and senile, why don’t you tell me the story again.’
   “I was about seven or eight at that time. I used to leave leftover when I ate. Grandfather told a story about a young monk who washed a monk’s robe for his master. He kept pushing it down into the water but the robe would not sink, and therefore won’t soak any water and can’t be washed. He came and told his master. His master told him to enter the kitchen and get four rice kernels. The master placed the rice kernels on the four corners floating on the surface. Immediately, the robe started to sink. He said the rice is heavy because it is loaded with gratitude. In the temple, it is the gratitude to the worshipers, at home it is the gratitude to the parents, in the country, it is the gratitude to the entire of population paying their share of the tax….”
   “And you are disgusted with him because of his…” the medicine man did not finish the sentence. Father and daughter sat in deep thought, each spinning his own cup. After a long while the father spoke up:
   “It’s corruptions, it’s vices, but they are everywhere. Over here there are some, over yonder there are plenty. Living with corruptions and vices but not being tainted is more important. A teacup after being cleaned will still retain a faint aroma of tea because it has been in contact years after years. Only a jade cup will not get contaminated. But it is hard to find a jade cup in this world. You are my daughter, but your life is yours. I will let you decide whether to return to him or stay in our country. Think very carefully, don’t get hard-headed, don’t act foolishly to vent your anger.”
Net extended her arms to hold his bony hand:
   “Let wait for Hoa’s phone call to see what he say before we can decide. After all there is still a bond between us. To be fair and square, I won’t used him to cross the river like other people would, but I don’t think we should end our relationship.”
   The cricket lied sleeping on the table with no desire to chirp anytime soon. In the yard, bags of traditional medicine drying in the sun grew a shade of gray, full of sadness.

. Cập nhật theo nguyên bản của tác giả chuyển từ HoaKỳ ngày 03.5.2014.