The stirring red



"I'll give you only half an hour," my son said as he drew up beside the pavement to let me get off, "I must take you back to aunt Thao's house, and then, go to the college." "Yep, I will need only half an hour," I said. "Bye, Mum!" my youngest son said hurriedly while handing me the sweater. I watched his head the hair close-cropped, his white car whizzing away, before heading to the lowest step to sit down on it.

Spring has drawn to the beginning of its end. In the distance, there stood the cherry trees which were just coming into young-pecked leaf. Recently, as the sun came late the weather was neither hot, nor dry. I sat looking at the immense stretches of sky and earth. I had been sitting years ago, in late one evening of May the gentle breeze blowing, on that very topmost step with a man, side by side.

I could not imagine that I has stretched my life close on the age of seventy to attend the graduation ceremony at which my son received his highest degree, in a city where I had one day rolled up my trousers bottoms to walk across. I never thought I'd come back here.

I heard my breath, so near, so short. There was something imperceptible in the wind. My heart was quivering, it seemed, as were the smell, the soil, the rock round this place. The acridness rose in my nose, then the burning sensation in the two curve petals. How could an old, simple place be capable of stirring and evoking, in me, suddenly and strongly, all of my emotions? I knew tears were welling up in the corners of my eyes. Dabbing them with the soft white tissues I thought, "At this very moment I had a sudden wish. Wishing at the very moment near death my heart would vibrate with emotions so the tears from the corners of my eyes would flow perpetually till that stream of emotion drained out." I had only few more years to live, yet still I could shed tears this evening while recalling the state of mind in those days of old. I had thought it was my last romance, but the pond of tears for which I was longing, perhaps, would be the last of the last.

I had still then been young. Just started the first few years of the forty, the age at which a woman was wrenched with physical discomfort and really fired with lust. The man had been young. Very young. Young hair was in the early thirty. What made me think of him for years and years was not that he was more hulking than the other men I'd ever known. He never realised this. Never ever he could know, but in all these years having passed, as many a time I felt in me stirring some such arousal I had to try to recover with great effort of recollection his face, his smile, and his voice. Trying to recover the last walk with him I took. The month of May. The songs. The stories. The wind and stars. The body full of life and all the life of youth. A woman having several dozen years of life to think of as I has been I had no particular memory, nor the memories chose me to stay with. Yet I was now rippled with bunches of waves of memory, which was neither great, nor important.

A wander around the city on a Friday. The sky was dull; there was no wind, nor fog. He wore a short sleeve summer shirt. I covered myself with a heap of clothes. As we walked out of an Italian pasta store he said, "You should take off at least one of your shirts for a good airing." He helped me pull the sleeves off and said, "You look astonishingly young while wearing white, sister Mi."

The beauty supply store nearby was feverish in the reds of ranges of lipsticks and powders that stood saturation-displayed in glass-fronted cabinets. "I must call in and get some napkins," I said. I chose a small block of rose-watered tissue paper at the counter and brought it to the checkout. Seeing him stoop surveying the basket in which were displayed nail varnishes I asked, "Choosing nail polish for Michele, aren't you?" He smiled, picking up one, "What colour is this?". "China red." I said smiling. But then, came out of my mouth words clinking, "May be not. That colour looks cute. Pretty cute."

"Stirring red," he said, "Name it so, if you wish. The Vietnamese language is rich in adjective, sister Mi." (1)

"I feel old," I said, in a sudden, as we came out of the store. We walked side by side. The shuffling of his Reedbook shoes echoed the street.

"Nope!" he said, "You're still young." He took hold of my hand, smiled an amusing smile, and went on, "I remember you telling me once, that when you feel your age you would begin to paint your nails. You haven't painted them yet."

"Oh, you should not remember such a trifling!"

"When you're getting old," he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it, "I will send you some nail polish."

"Your wife is crazed with jealousy, and yet you keep joking!"

Turn after turn in the streets. Conversation exploded like firecrackers going off in the New Year Eve. Now his hand resting on my shoulder, now his arm wrapping around my waist. There were times when my whole body was raised from the ground and swung round and round. In the evening, we sat on the topmost step looking down at the park which, merely stretched from the end of this brown to the corner of that eye.

"Are you happy?" I asked.

His face grew deeply distressed.

"I don't know," he answered, in English.

"She loves you crazy," I said, American's. (2)

"I apologise for what had happened last night. She was a bit too much."

"Best way to avoid misunderstandings would be to talk. Husband and wife must communicate. Why don't you make it clear to her?"

"I had tried in vain, and wanted no more talk."

I had read in a trashy book, there might well be a sure sign of that the family happiness is at stake when a man can no more communicate with his wife. I knew he was shirking his wife, dodging his work to go out with me on the sly all day long.




"I had never experienced my marriage ceremony," I said, "I had been shacked-up with Man for a period of five years. When leaving him I said: "Other than living with you I don't think I can live with any other man for long." I still remember I was then working for a dressmaker near my house. One night he dropped by and said, in a tone of no tension, -"Will you go with me to-morrow?"-"Where to?" -"Escape the border!" I had been clumsy like a lame duck. Walking my bicycle I breezed to the appointed place where I saw a group of men, women, and children standing about. I was seized up at once. Giving the bike to his niece so she would drive it home, I sent my words: "I am trying to escape, but do not know whether or not I could get through." Not capable of escaping the border was then usually to be expected, remember? I could not imagine that time he took my hand to lead me onto the boat. A boat full of storms, waves, blood, and the tears of my own life. As we're getting ashore, a crowd had been standing about to identify the newcomers. I opened my eyes but saw none of them. I did not even see my own being. During the whole week in the camp the Malaysian women brought me food, water, and clothes. I appreciated the fact that they didn't speak the same language. I had just wanted to have vanished under the ground. Wanted to die. Wanted to get away from the human being. I thought of no one. More still, having no desire to see him. How could I dig up the tomb of memory to burry deeper the picture in which Man and the young lads on board were tied together lest they saw the pirates were doing the crushing of me?"

"Why do you choose this moment to bring it up again?" he said after a long moment of my falling into silence.

"I don't know. I don't know!"

The evening breeze began to send the fog over, slightly cold. He put his arm over my shoulders.

"I still remember the nights when I went to the beach, with you, and Bach."

"Ah! It was your child-like Bach, was it?"

I cocked my head. The smell of man filled my hair.

"Do you remember this thing," he said.

"I do remember you brought me water, took my letters to the post, asked me out to the beach at night."

He would not let me finish:

"Remember the day before I left the camp?" he said, "Bach made a pot of sweet-soup, waited for the night came, and brought it down to the beach."

"What then remained, after the night we eating the rice soup?" I interrupted, "I remembered that after the eating, the breeze rose slightly cold, I made a pillow out of your folded T-shirt and I fell to sleep until being waken up. Why at that moment I failed to ask why Bach had gone. What was really remained I could now have it said without hesitation."

I took hold of his hand, the solid playing-tennis hand, drawing it onto my breast.

"They will, in my heart, live on for evermore. I want to thank the song I heard, that night, rippled so near in my hairYou are a tiny star, and I wish my heart the blue sky."

He spoke about how his life had been after he had left the island for America. Studying at college. Studying at university. How many American peaches he slept with. How many Vietnamese leaves. Why he married his young wife at last. "I can divorce her anytime," he said, "but then there's thinking of my two kids." At another moments: "Kids, well, even though it is no matter. If cheesed off, I will surely part."

I felt his marriage was sliding down the slope.

It was the last day I stayed in Capitol city. I complained of being tired of walking as he asked me to walk along May Street. "I will massage your legs when we get back to the hotel," he said.

I had no intent at all of pushing him down the abyss. I sensed the merest rendezvous would make us the hungers of flesh pounce on each other. I had ever done that to several other men. And perhaps, he too, to certain women. In the midst of our conversation, it seemed, we once mentioned a Hollywood movie which, shown years ago, dealt with two adulterers who were haunted with the strong desires to possess one another that led to brutal killings. "How terrible to see they torture the child and maltreat the woman!" he said.

It was in the car while he took me back to the hotel that I said, "You get home so late it will provoke your wife into jealousy." He laughed, "For the worse, just like I had ever heard my Mum yelling at me when I came home late after sneaking out to go with girls."

He was, anyway, so lovely a male. I looked at his talkative mouth. My eyes dimmed. My head thinking. This man, after making love, will talk beguilingly, perhaps. But I was a dead body, which shattered into a thousand tiny pieces of glass. I had crawled to bed with many men, trying to assemble what could be assembled no more: it was the tenderness, the warmness every girl having been dreaming all her girlhood when thinking about the first time she would sleep with a man.

There was at last no hotel, motel at all. As we were about to part, standing in front of the Shade I said, "It is twelve o'clock at midnight, and you must go home." I kissed the stalk of his neck where the veins stood straight and warm, felt our bodies ballooned out and possibly exploded in any minute.

Here lying on the bed in the hotel I thought how funny it had been. It was only our meandering around the streets, which wore off the day. This morning, when coming to meet him I had thought that I might meet him in a bed.

I slept the night through, got up very late the following morning, and went to the airport.




His wife and his two years old daughter stood lingering over the Mickey Mouse pictures displayed at an airport's kiosk. He came back, sitting at the table where I sat sipping my coffee, waiting to board.

"Do you think you'll return to Vietnam and live there?"

"Um, yes." I said.

As his wife and the child neared, he took from his pocket a music tape. I grasped the tape, and put it into my purse. Their footsteps echoed regularly. He leant back in his chair, and said in a natural tone:

"We might see each other in Vietnam, who knows?"

"Gosh, Vietnam's romantic sentimentality," I said quickly. "It takes all sorts." (3)

Vietnam's. Silly. Romantic, romany (4). Dolled-up cai-luong (5). Poetic and dreamy. Of low quality. Different from everyone.

He was quite right. "The Vietnamese language is rich in adjective."

However it might be. The last memory of our relationship was more rubber-banded and ballooned. The music tape, which I stuffed into my purse at the airport, recorded an old song of Anh Viet Thu performed by a male singer and the lyrics he had blown into my hair the silent night on that beach in that old island.

I had listened to that song over and over again, and outlasted in my heart the phrase he sang into my ear at the airport when his wife was not standing beside him: "Where are you going to? Remember the flickering stars..?"



I had no love story. I did not come to love Man yet. Never had I trusted man. Including him.

I had come back to and decided on Buon Me Thuot for living there all those dozen following years. Then coming under raising children, of which I shared the tasks with another man. Then again, remarrying the third. My husband died when I was near the age of sixty. I knew 'he' had been divorced from his wife, and remarried a certain woman. I determined not to establish any relationship after my coming back to and living in Vietnam.

The old woman now had many dozens of years that crumpled the lines in her palms. I hung my head, looking anxiously at my rough, tortoise-shell-skinned hands. "When you're getting old I will send you some nail polish."

It seemed I'd never polished my nails in all my life now Never.   

Translated* by N. Saomai


Translator's note:


(1) It is 'My' in the original, adapted for pronunciation.

(2) intended as a joke. 3) Saying: 'It takes all sorts to make the world'.

(4) In the original version, the author plays alliteration by using of the same sound at the beginning of the words 'lang-man' and 'lang-dang', but not intending the meaning of the second word 'lang-dang'. In the translation, 'romantic, romany' uses alliteration with the sound 'ro'; the translator intends no meaning of the word 'romany'. (Example of alliteration: in Vietnamese, ba ba ban bun bo; in English, the rat ran round the rock.)

(5) Cai-luong: reformed drama. In the original version it is used as an adjective, meaning 'of dolled-up, fanciful or trashy quality'. In the translation it remains a noun, for the Vietnameseism purpose. Vietnameseism is a word or expression which is Vietnamese, used in other languages writing or speaking. In "The Ao Dai is the Vietnamese traditional dress", Ao Dai is a Vietnameseism. Compare Americanism (translator's note (2), page 40).

(*)Translated from the original version published in SongVan magazine [USA: SongVan (ISSN 1089-8123), issue 12&13, 1998, pp 16-21]  



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