Translator’s Note: The following is a translation of a short story by the celebrated Vietnamese writer, Nhật Tiến. The story first appeared in a Vietnamese magazine published in California in 1983 at the time of the Vu-Lan Festival, Ullambana, which is the Buddhist Wandering Souls Day celebrated at the time of the full moon of the 7th lunar month. On this day Mahayana Buddhists commemorate and pay homage to the devotion of one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, Maudgalyayana, (Vietnamese: Mục Kiền Liên) who, according to legend, refused to enter Nirvana until his sinful mother had been saved from the suffering of Hell. Maudgalyayana visited his mother in Hell and with the help of the Buddha’s other disciples saved her. Buddhists believe that on this day the wandering souls can enter the world of Man and partake of the offerings provided. Because of the legend Vietnamese Buddhists also use the day to show particular respect to their mothers and go to the pagoda to pray and make offerings. Those whose mothers have died wear a white rose, while those whose mothers are still alive wear a red rose.
The world of Thìn, widow of the late school teacher, has now been whittled down to two small spaces: the narrow strip of land running along the garage wall and that corner of her mind where her fading memory conjured up a jumbled host of fond reminiscences: a sign of approaching old age.
One must admit that the narrow strip of land is the result of perfect care. Its width is about 1.20 meters and its length about 7 meters. Most of the time in her day is swallowed up in cultivating the garden. There are chilli bushes, as well as patches of coriander, sweet leek, perilla, mint and spring onions. There’s always enough to provide a full plate of vegetables any time the family sits down to enjoy bò nhúng giấm (= fondue-style beef) or gỏi cuốn chấm mắm nêm (= seafood salad rolled in rice-paper and dipped in fish pickles). It is only at times like this that the family fully appreciate the work Thin puts in watering and fertilizing the garden.
Tuấn said, “Now that you eat the vegetables you don’t think Mom’s garden is a waste of time do you? You keep insisting that we should just race down to the supermarket and buy the vegetables but I haven’t yet seen either of you willing to get off your backsides and do that.”
Thúy looked at her brother, pursing her lips, she said, “It’s all very well for you to criticize us but I don’t see you going to the supermarket.”
Thu joined in, “If you’re not prepared to help with the cooking and shopping, what’s going to happen when you marry Hương? Will you just sit there while she pours your drinks and serves you meals.”
“Why wouldn’t I? I’m marrying a Vietnamese girl not an American girl,” retorted Tuấn .
Thu’s eyes stared in amazement as she looked at her brother, “Ha! So you believe that if you marry a Vietnamese girl you will be able to force her to be your slave and she will do your bidding. No way! I can’t see that happening.”
“Go and ask Mom if you don’t believe me. The most important things a Vietnamese girl learns is submitting to three in life: Father, Husband, and Son. She also must learn four virtues: proper work, proper demeanor, proper speech, proper conduct. Isn’t that true, Mom?” he replied.
Thìn just looked at her children, not saying anything. Ever since the day she arrived in America, she had given up voicing her opinion. To Thìn everything around her was bewildering and beyond her understanding, completely severing her from the experiences gathered in a lifetime. That is to say, when confronted with anything here she was bewildered and confused. Everything she said was wrong and she had become a child in her own household. Everywhere she went she had to be taken by the hand and in anything she wanted to do she had to first ask her children’s opinion. Even when her children were gathered trying to explain something to her she still couldn’t make head or tail of what was going on. The day Tuấn got a regular job, he replaced the old TV with a brand new one. Tuấn had said, “This set has remote control, Mom. If you want to watch TV, whatever you do don’t touch any buttons on the TV itself. Everything is set up, so all you need to do is sit on the sofa and press the buttons on this thing.”
Tuấn had handed the remote control to the old lady. She took it timidly as if it would break the minute she touched it…
He continued to explain, “…This is the on button, this is the off button and this is the volume. This one here is to change the channel and this one is the mute button; so if the telephone rings while you’re watching you can pause the sound.”
Her brain was totally confused and couldn’t take everything in. When she handed it back to Tuấn , she had said impatiently, “That’s too complicated and anyway I don’t like TV very much, it talks a lot of nonsense and I don’t understand any of it.”
“Then just listen to the music Mom.”
“I don’t like the modern music, it seems to punch at my ears and my head starts to ache.”
In the end her entertainment was confined to a few cassette tapes of Vietnamese classical theatre which she had listened to time and time again on her ancient cassette player. She didn’t mind the cassette player as it was simple and easy to operate. The only trouble was that when she listened to the tapes, Thuy didn’t seem to mind, but Thu would grumble anytime the tapes were on.
Thu would say, “Switch it off please because I get a headache from that droning, nagging sound. I don’t know how you can listen to that.”
There were times when Tuấn felt a bit sorry for his mother and thought his sisters were being a bit cruel. He shouted at them, “This is the only enjoyment Mom has, why don’t you let her listen to her music.’
Thu would retort, “Why doesn’t she wait for us to go to school and then she can listen all day if she wants to.”
Naturally, Thìn never wanted to become the cause of her children’s arguments so she reached out to press the button to stop the tape. She looked at her children through sad eyes and opened the back door to go and stand in the backyard. She stared at the wall on the other side of the lawn. The wall, painted in a dark pink lime wash, reflected the hot June sunshine and the glare hurt her eyes. She thought about her own tiny world, the little garden plot, 1.2 meters by 7 meters, with its shallots, mint, coriander and perilla.
A few weeks ago she had met Old Phong at the shopping centre, who promised that the next time Thìn came to visit her she would pull up some rớp cá [= an aromatic herb which has a distinct fishy smell (Saururaceae = “Lizard Tail”)] plants and give to Thìn.
Thìn had happily announced this piece of news to her children and had suggested timidly, “When someone can spare the time, would one of you drive me to Old Phong’s place so that I can pick up the rớp cá plants to put in the garden here.”
At this, Thúy had shrugged her shoulders and stuck out her tongue, “Yuk! rớp cá, no way. I give up. I feel like fainting just thinking about it.”
Thu said, “Me too! How on earth can you like such a vegetable?”
Again Tuấn intervened on behalf of his mother, “Mom likes to eat it even if you don’t. Why don’t one of you drive her there so she can get the plants.”
“I’m busy this week because I’ll be helping Liễu to plan her birthday this Saturday and on Sunday one of your friends is having a party and I’m invited”, Thúy replied.
Tuấn turned to Thu, “Then Thu, why don’t you drive Mom to Old Phong’s place? What are you doing this weekend?”
Thu shot back defiantly, “And what areyou going to do?”
Tuấn stared at her defiantly jutting chin. Thìn hurriedly intervened, “It’s alright, if everyone’s too busy this week, next week will do.”
But the next week had passed into a month. The subject of rớp cá had come and gone in minutes and was immediately forgotten except by Thìn. She was still waiting for the chance to drop in to see Old Phong.
Back in Vietnam, Thìn had been addicted to the habit of rubbing her teeth with tobacco and chewing betel. When her husband was alive, out of affection for her he had planted a vine of betel next to a trellis in the backyard of their spacious house in Saigon. The plant had grown gradually covering the overhead trellis. In the corners of her mind the memory which stood out the most was the image of the trellis of betel leaves but not simply because she was so addicted to chewing betel at the time but it reminded her of all the love and care her husband had for her. When her husband died, the trellis had been covered in luxuriant green, and many a time, as she stood by herself picking the leaves, she allowed herself to sob, hidden by the trellis. Her eyes would still be red when she went back into the house. At that time, her children had been young and innocent. Thu had only just turned 5, Thúy was 8 and Tuấn, a boy of 12. She then devoted her days to love and care for the children. As they got a little older, Thu and Thúy enjoyed helping her fold the betel leaves around a mixture of tobacco, areca nut and lime. She smiled to herself as she thought about their small chubby hands awkwardly filling the leaves and finally stabbing with a betel stem to hold it all in place. The results were often less than neat and very lopsided but it was a happy time and Thìn remembered feeling happy and at peace watching them solemnly completing their task.
Ever since arriving in America both Thu and Thúy had been in agreement suggesting their mother stop her betel chewing habit. Thu explained, “Chewing betel is not done in this country. If your mouth is covered in blood-red they think we are savages.”
Thúy added, “You see! There’s not a soul in the whole of America who chews betel. If you chew betel in this country everyone will stand and stare at you.”
Although more sympathetic Tuấn was inclined to agree with his sisters and said, “Why don’t you let them buy you some chewing gum if you want to keep your mouth busy. Thu! after school this afternoon can you drop in somewhere and buy some of that cinnamon-flavoured gum, which might be more to Mom’s taste.”
It was the first time Thu had agreed to any of her brother’s suggestions. All three of them had joined together as one to break Thìn’s betel chewing habit. So Thu energetically went about the task of bringing home many varieties of chewing gum; long flat pieces, small white squares, as well as the cinnamon-flavoured Dentyl gum that Tuấn had suggested.
When Thìn realized the amount of money spent on the gum she had said emphatically, “No! No! Why on earth did you buy so much gum? If you want me to stop chewing betel, I will. I don’t need chewing gum…”.
She continued in a sadder tone, “…When in Rome… Now I live in a different place I will conform.”
Indeed, Thìn stopped betel chewing for good. She never ate any of the gum Thu had brought home. Her habit had been crushed but the memory of a trellis of lush green betel leaves would stay with her forever. There were days when the children were out that Thin would sit on the sofa with her arms wrapped around her knees, looking at the glass window which became blurred in the glare. She looked so thin and small curled up on the immense sofa looking like an old lost cat. Only a few years had passed since coming to America but already her hair had gone completely white. As her eyes blinked from the glare, her heart was in the tiny living room in Saigon looking out into the yard where the betel leaves climbed over the trellis. With his own hands her husband had made the bamboo trellis. The sounds of the street on the other side of the wall reached her and she thought she could hear the sound of a motor-pedicab as it passed the street beside the market. She heard once again the sounds coming from the public water tap and those of peddlars shouting out their food wares as well as the train from Bien Hoa chuffing past the level crossing. Her homeland was far away and out of sight and could only exist now in a corner of her mind. Her thoughts drifted back to when the four of them first arrived in America. They would all sit down together to a meal eagerly competing with each other to talk about something they remembered about Vietnam. Such fond memories of her late husband, Saigon, school, streets, relatives and friends. These occasions became more and more rare until it was only Thìn who was left telling the stories. They hardly ever ate as a family anymore. At noon, the children had lunch at school and in the evening they arrived home at different times. Thu was usually the earliest and the hungriest. She would go to the kitchen and heat a bowl of vegetable soup (ready made in a cellophane bag) and eat it with several slices of bread.
Thìn would implore, “Only eat a little bit, not too much, wait until the evening when the whole family can eat together.”
Eating together! That was the one small dream Thìn still held for this household. It was only on very rare occasions now that the whole family ever sat down to a meal together; perhaps occasionally on weekends. By the time Tuấn arrived home at night, Thu and Thúy had already retired to their room and closed the door.
Early evening would often find Thìn, sad and lonely, dozing off in the chair waiting for her children to come home. The dishes she’d laid out on the table for their meal, grew cold. There might be pickles, meat cooked in fish sauce and vegetable broth. Some nights Tuấn would sit down to the food out of kindness to his mother. He wasn’t really hungry but he would scoop half a bowl of rice instead of a full bowl. After that he would continue his meal by making up some packet noodle soup. Tuấn was absolutely addicted to noodle soup. He never seemed to grow tired of it. At other times, Tuấn would carry a big bowl of noodle soup into the living room and eat it while he watched TV. So a pot of nicely cooked white rice would often be left sitting on the table. Thìn never threw anything out. After she cleared the table she would put the leftover food in the refrigerator to re-heat for her lunch the next day. Many a time Thìn added a little bit of water and made herself a bowl of rice soup from the leftovers of the night before. As time passed, her lunch of rice soup became an established habit. For the whole of her life Thin had a horror of throwing anything away. Even, in Saigon, at a time when she was quite comfortably off she never believed in waste. Her children had often heard her use the expression: “If you waste what is given by God, you won’t have it again for another ten generations”. Thìn lived her life as though the eyes of Heaven or Buddha were always looking down. So she worried even if she spilled as much as a grain of rice on the floor. That’s why any leftover food was always put in the fridge, even if it was only salted fish sauce, salted prawn heads or crumbed fish that had been simmered in fish sauce.
Thúy had once shouted, “Mom, there’s plenty of food in this country, but you spend your life eating food that’s off.”
Thìn retorted, “Damn you! It’s good food and it’s not off!”
Thu joined in, “If it’s not off then you keep re-heating it all week. If you don’t throw the food out, I will!”
Thúy was as good as her word. She would wait until her mother was absorbed in the garden and set about cleaning out the fridge. Out would go rice soup, old cooked rice, fried Chinese cabbage, cooked shrimp paste, and something “blackened” which looked like neither meat nor fat, intermingled with some shrimp barbel. The clean fridge would last about a week then Thìn would be back to her old habits again, storing leftover food. Eventually the children didn’t bother any more and let her free to adhere to her own eating and drinking habits, just as her children each had a favourite dish. For Thu it was the vegetable soup, Thúy loved rice vermicelli with barbecued pork and Tuấn sat with his bowl of noodle soup as he watched T.V. After each of them had finished eating they would head for their separate rooms and shut the door. The image of the shut door in American homes left Thìn with the feeling of horror; she was not only shut out of their rooms but out of their lives. She had no idea what her children did behind their doors. Sometimes she stood out in the corridor under the weak yellow light. In reality she was only a few feet from each of them but in loving closeness she was at a great distance. They would never know, there were many a day when she would be so overcome by emotion that she would lay her head against the wall and sob.
In the past she could have a thorough knowledge of her children’s daily activities. She would be able to tell whose piece of garment it was, which of Tuấn’s trousers had been mended, which of Thúy’s or Thu’s tops had a split seam or needed a button. She could also tell if Thu had scratched her hand, when the wound had healed or when the scab had eventually dropped off. She could even tell what tooth of their comb had broken, which of their sandal straps had come unstuck and whose handkerchief had been stained with purple ink. In those days she’d known her children as well as she could read her own palm.
Now she was barely allowed to step through the doors of their rooms. If she wanted any of them she had to stand outside and knock on the doors. Sometimes, when Thin wanted to speak to one of the girls, Thu and Thúy might open their wooden doors a fraction, just enough to put their heads out and exchange a few words with Thìn and then the door would be snapped shut again. Thìn had come to realise that in every way the children had flown out of her reach. Each of them now had his or her own world both in its strict and figurative sense of the word.
Once Tuấn had been ill and lay in bed for three days. Thìn had then found herself rejuvenated. She bustled about the kitchen making hot rice soup, chopping onions, squeezing orange juice, soaking hot face towels and preparing condensed milk and gathering Tuấn’s dirty laundry and washing and hanging it to dry. During this time she was able to come and go from Tuấn’s room as she pleased without knocking. She gave herself up to the luxury of sitting at the end of his bed for hours. Sometimes she would put her hand to his forehead or stroke his feet or simply pull the covers around him. At other times she would straighten the bed clothes or listen attentively to his laboured breathing. She was so busy and full of love but it only lasted three days. In the evening of Tuấn’s first day back at work, Thìn hesitantly approached Tuấn’s tightly closed door. She knocked softly.
Tuấn called out, “Who’s there?”
“What do you want Mom?”
“I just wanted to know if you’re feeling alright today.”
“Fit as a fiddle. No worries! Mom,” replied Tuấn loudly.
Thìn stood thoughtfully by his door for a moment and turned and walked away. Intermingled with the joy she felt at Tuấn’s recovery, was an indescribable feeling of anxiousness that she had lost something precious. She again went to sit on the sofa, curling up like an old sick cat. She looked through the glass window into the deep hollow of the dark sky thinly dotted with stars. As if from afar the sound of music reached her vaguely, echoing from behind the doors of her children’s rooms. She immediately regretted her very foolish thought, “Thu, Thúy, I have never ever seen them sick!”
By Nhật Tiến
Translated by Frank Trinh