by Nguyen Le Ba
Chi N. with a small stick in her hand, wearily inched her way through the garden full long thick grass following the squawks of the sao cock bird, with its grey feathers dotted with small white spots down its neck and wings. Sometimes, she heard a few weak cries from the female bird here and there. However, she could not see them amidst the long grass. “For some reason, these loud birds are so foolish, they can never find a way back to their coop!” she whispered to herself. “If I followed my husband’s advice, I would not be searching for them so often,” she thought.
She had just left the provincial Cancer&Throat Hospital the month before and was so weak and pale that she had to sit down on the grass and take a rest after walking only a short distance of a few metres. It was in these circumstances that she recognised her humble destiny. “Why has disaster befallen me, why have my family had to endure such hard times?” she asked herself. If she had been luckier, she would have been living in a major town or city, maybe even overseas in another country. “Why do I have to lead such a miserable life with a handicapped husband, not a strong man that I can rely on during these difficult times?” she wondered.
At last, she relaxed in the shadow of a big tree, no matter how loud the cries that reached her from afar were. In mid-summer, she felt very uncomfortable with the heat from the hot ground and consequently, her face and blouse were drenched with sweat.
Usually, she felt very painful whenever she looked at herself in the mirror. Instead of her fully-developed breasts, a flat bosom appeared in front of her. “Part of my body has been removed. That means that my life has been shortened and my days might be numbered,” she said to herself.
During her treatment in hospital, she wept and wept day and night. She sobbed whenever her friends came to visit and console her. Gradually, she came to know that she was unable to change her lot and that in the short remaining part of life, she had to rise up, not be drowned in tears and despair. As a result, she soon felt much better.
The previous month, one of her old friends who was retired met with her. “You feed yourself up as much as possible and be optimistic about life. To the best of my knowledge, some patients with the same illness as yours, can live for scores of more years. By the way, you had also better raise some sao chickens. That way, you can have eggs to eat on the one hand and have a good time on the other,” she comforted Chi N. She thought that maybe her friend had been making fun of her, but the next week, she brought Chi N. a couple of sao chickens: one male and one female. This was the first time in her life that Chi N. had seen this kind of chicken, big and strange looking, similar to a small ostrich. What’s more, they had long legs, grey feathers with white dots, big beaks and bald heads.
“How can I tell the male from the female?” Chi N. asked her friend.
“You can tell the difference between them when they call out.”
“But their cries sound the same, my dear friend,” said Chi N. After that the friend explained to Chi N. the difference in their calls and soon Chi N. could recognise their identity. It turned out that, like human beings, the male sao always took care of his spouse. When he found an earthworm, he signalled her to come and share the little creature with him. Each time Chi N. witnessed that act, she thought a lot about her husband. Without him, or even with him, she could hardly get over her history of breast cancer. Anyhow, she was unable to leave him alone as she always had the image of an elderly man with grey hair sitting in a wheel-chair near the deserted river-bank.
She stood up with difficulty. Suddenly, she saw the heads of the sao birds rising above the green grass. Even though she was unsteady on her feet, thanks to the stick she was holding, she managed to drive them home safe and sound although the male would always stop to wait for the female. Sometimes, while having a rest by the road-side due to her tiredness, she glanced across the road to the far side of the river, where the traffic went to and fro in the bright, hot April sunshine. Meantime, the monsoon rains on the plain far away had turned the clouds dark and thunder and lightning could be heard far away towards the horizon. At this moment, she felt as if the sweet memories of her childhood had come back to her after more than fifty years. “Fifty years to me is no longer than a wink of sleep,” she observed bitterly. In her mind’s eye, she could see the rugged low tree-lined road running alongside a post rigged up by local militiamen, with barbed wire stretching going round the block-houses with black ghostly-looking loopholes. Strangely enough, both their childhoods had many memories of afternoons on that rural path. The crippled young man of those days – her present-day husband – crawled inch by inch along the rough tar macadam road to school in his wet shirt, with scratched and bloody knees. In those days, she had often stopped midway to watch her deformed classmate hopelessly crawl away under the noon sunshine, with red-rimmed eyes. Then for some reason, one morning she knelt down and carried him on her back so he could avoid the last part of the scorching road. Later, she fell in love with him and they soon got married. Surprisingly, their house became a blissful nest. No-one else was brave enough to push his wheel-chair in case they became involved in his unpredictable future? “Why am I about to abandon him now?” She whispered to herself, feeling very tired while walking unsteadily under the hot noon sun.
He knew that she had suffered a lot because of her deep attachment to him. But she also knew that this was her destiny.
At eight in the evening, with a torch in her hand, she flashed it into the dim thick clusters of trees in the garden to look for the birds after a heavy downpour from the early monsoon. “In this nasty weather, they are liable to catch a serious bird disease,” she said to herself. Not until she spotted two grey silhouettes with their heads close to each other, perched on a high branch, did she return home, feeling a bit more at ease.
Since the day she had become ill, their conjugal life at home had been noticeably upset. For hours her husband would just sit silently by his PC and click away at the keyboard. Except for these moments working, he sat alone in his wheel-chair and stared at the wharf on the river at the back of their house, lost in his thoughts. Both his voice and laugh seemed a bit unusual. His wife’s care and concern made him more broken-hearted than just being comforted. Even when she was preparing meals in their small kitchen, he just looked on attentively and amorously at her. Nevertheless, his glances seemed to sting her heart all the more.
In the mornings, she usually got up early to tidy their bedroom. She carefully picked up a few hairs lying scattered on her pillow. Unfortunately for her, her lustrous and long hair would fall out after each chemical treatment she received. Whenever she brushed her teeth or smelt fish and the like, she was violently sick. Consequently, she felt totally weary and she cried profusely.
She tried to conceal her suffering and illness with a shawl wrapped round her head. All day long, she pondered why disasters had fallen upon her and her little family.
All of a sudden, she saw an unusual thing – the male sao bird just stared at his dear sweetheart lying motionless on the ground. The poor birds head lying on one side, her dull eyes full of ants, her body stiff and her legs curled up. Yesterday afternoon, Chi N. saw them side by side walking happily in her neighbour’s garden. “What happened to the female sao bird after the rainy weather?” she asked herself. “Perhaps, last night, instead of sleeping in a tree, they just stood in the grass, under the torrential downpour, which resulted in her death.” In the meantime, the male bird, feathers drenched with rain, stood beside his wife’s body and called out hoarsely. At first, Chi N. intended to ask her daughter to take the corpse away, but on finding nobody at home, she put it into a plastic bag, walked into the garden and buried the poor fowl, with the male sao bird protesting furiously. She glanced at the small mound of earth once more, then wearily returned, feeling very sad.
In the afternoon, when she looked for the male sao to feed him, he was nowhere to be found. “Surely, he must be beside his lover’s grave,” she said to herself. But she was completely wrong, the male sao was not there. She searched for him everywhere. Furthermore, there were no calls for his partner as usual. When her husband drove his wheel-chair inside, he found the poor bird standing in front of the glass of his large cupboard of electronic gadgets. She chased the fowl away but he tried to resist. Taking a few steps ahead, then looking back, she saw him standing in the same place. “Poor him, he thinks his reflection in the glass is his darling,” Chi N. whispered to herself. Her husband understood the situation. Leaving the broken TV to fix later, he drove his wheel-chair to the river-bank and sat there alone. He was afraid that he would be in the same circumstances one day, just like the male sao’s plight. Being unable to endure that heart-breaking sight, Chi N. dropped onto the bed and closed her eyes. She wanted it could be the last sleep in her life.
“Mum, where’s the male sao?” Chi N.’s daughter asked her late in the afternoon. “I’ve looked for half an hour to feed him, yet I can’t find him anywhere. Poor him, he’s been hungry since early this morning,” the girl added sadly. The whole family started to look for him. By chance, Chi N. saw him lying motionless in front of the half-mended TV outside the house. “He must have thought that his silhouette was really her corpse,” she said to herself. Turning round so she could not witness the painful sight, she heard her daughter silently standing behind her. “Mum, leave him alone,” her daughter told her. Meanwhile her husband was sitting in front of his PC, fingers sweeping carelessly over the keyboard. He glanced up from the machine unmoved. Yet, he heard his daughter’s voice and his wife’s loud footsteps on the floor. He felt that solitude was ruling his house, friendly but cold. He thought of lonely days without her in the future. “How long would they last?” he asked himself. “Maybe, not far !” he went on.
That night Chi N. could not sleep well.
That night also, her husband sat alone near the river wharf.
“Come what may, I would soon leave him alone in this world,” she whispered. However, in her mind’s eye, she would feel greatly tormented when she found him sitting alone in his wheel-chair by the river after all their happy days together. He would stare into the dark to find her, during his few solitary months at the end of his life, just like the male sao bird’s.
She could not stand it any longer. “Anyway, I need to free the male sao bird from his suffering and to drive out of my mind images that arouse sorrow for the end of a life,” she said to herself.
“Today is Sunday,” she told her daughter the next afternoon. “Ask your brothers to return home to have a small party by killing the male sao to eat,” she added. Her daughter stared at her for a few seconds, but did not dare to say a word. While her children were busy preparing dinner, she slowly and silently slipped into the garden then chose a shady place under a thick canopy to sit down in distress. That way, she could avoid both the scorching-sun and the nauseous sense of discomfort.
How could she forget the stuffy air, full of petrol vapour and the human stench of the crowded coaches leaving Dong Thap Province for Sai Gon City? When could she rid herself of the images of the paths and corridors at the hospital full of patients who bore all the hallmarks of sorrow and hopelessness? How could she free herself from the uneasy dryness in her throat and the twisting in her stomach?
The rain made the garden green again and purple bunger flowers had blossomed. A pile of dead flowers lay on the newly-grown grass or floated on the surface of the pond. A safe sensation returned to her once again. Her joy and hopes were always stronger when she heard the melodious chirrups of birds’ calls to one another at the far side of the garden. On the other side of the river, peal’s of children’s laughter echoed in the distance, reminding her of the primary school that both she and her husband had attended during their childhood. Over the past year, she had given up teaching in the school where she had spent more than half her lifetime. She remembered that on the first days at school, she had stood on an old platform, with a stick of white chalk in hand, she taught the kids the first lessons on pronunciation. Nowadays however, she missed them very much. Her sweet memories were now replaced by her agonies.
From where she was sitting, she looked at the clusters of trees in the distance. The images of her mother’s house beside an ancient pagoda soon appeared. The ringing chimes of bells that used to resound merrily from the belfry could hardly be heard now due to the hi-rises mushrooming up in the one time peaceful rural village of old. The first day she left hospital, she had returned to visit her mother.
“Why didn’t you tell me about your illness?” her mother had asked her.
“Because I was afraid that you would worry too much, Mum,” she replied thinking that nobody would possibly be able to share her pain with her.
While sweeping her bony fingers through her daughter’s hair she found just a few locks of coarse hair on her head.
“How old are you, my dear?” the old woman asked her.
“Mum, fifty-nine already.”
“My goodness! That’s well beyond my expectations,” exclaimed her old mother.
Chi N. burst out weeping, just like she used to during her childhood.
From where she was sitting, Chi N. could see a long stretch of the river bank in her home town. That was where she spent her childhood. Now it was mid-summer. The river ran dry, leaving bare long muddy stretches of water where kids would hunt for crabs and oysters just as she used to do as a little girl, looking for food for her little family. Then with her family, she asked for a lift on the ferry across the river in a rush every day to be in time to teach her little schoolchildren. Then during school breaks in the afternoons, standing among the kids on that river bank, she usually nestled under the green canopy of her garden, where her little son was tottering beside his father’s wheel-chair. Those sights occasionally filled her eyes with tears.
“Dear me! All my sweet memories will disappear for ever,” Chi N. complained mournfully about her lot.
Before long, back home she met her husband and children, enjoying the warm air of their happy cosy nest they had shared together over the years.
She proceeded to the table full of food – wet vermicelli, bread, raw vegetables and fried chicken – under the green canopy of her garden where her husband and children had been waiting for her.
“Congratulations on your good health,” said her eldest son while raising his glass of beer. She laughed unaffectedly amid the clink of glass, the peals of laughter from her children and grandchildren. Sitting beside her husband, she picked up the well-done chicken liver that her husband liked the best. “Your father can chew only this kind of food, for his teeth were in a terrible condition,” she told her children in a joking voice. Then she picked up another piece of meat for herself. Hardly had she put it into her mouth when she began to tremble with fear and felt nauseous. With a pale face, she hurriedly left the table with her daughter’s support.
Meanwhile, her husband quickly put down his chopsticks. The chicken liver in his mouth had tasted bitter.
Translated by Van Minh