by KHAI HUNG
Translated from the Vietnamese by TRUC HUY
The dam of Yen-Phu, one summer afternoon.
It was the beginning of the rising, and the waters of the Red River were so tumultuous that they seemed to be on the point of swirling away the small island in the middle of the riverbed. Tree trunks and dead branches, torn away from the forest, floated adrift in the middle of a current of reddish water and formed like a continuous chain of small boats slipping at full speed toward an unknown destination.
Standing on the dam, Thuc, the mason, followed the wooden fragments with a glance of covetousness. Then, turning over, he looked fixedly at his wife in an interrogative air. Scrutinizing the river then the sky, the woman shook her head and said with a sigh :
– The wind is too strong, and there are increasingly big clouds in the horizon. It is going to rain, my dear !
Thuc also heaved a sigh. He made some hesitating steps. Suddenly, he stopped and asked :
– You cooked the rice ?
– Yes, but there is just enough for the dinner of both girls, she answered sadly.
They looked at each other in silence. Then, as though bewitched by an unspecified object or an obsession, they turned of the same movement toward the river : the tree trunks always floated and slipped at top speed in the middle of dark reddish waters.
The man had a vague smile and said to his wife :
– How about taking a risk ?
His wife shook her head without answering.
– Did you go to Mrs. Ky ? He pursued.
– And then ?
– Nothing. She says that she will pay only if we bring at first the wood. She doesn’t want to lend us beforehand money.
– Oh yeah ?
These two words had fallen as firm and precise as the last knocks of a mason’s trowel on a brick when he is building up a new wall.
Thuc decided to carry out an extravagant act, so he turned to his wife :
– Listen ! Why don’t you go home and take care of Bo ?
– Nhon and Be are already with him.
– I know, but it would be better if you were there also. Nhon is only five years old ; she cannot indeed watch her younger brother and sister.
– OK then. I’m going home now … You come along with me also. What’s the use for you to stay here ?
– All right ! Go ahead first. I will join you a little later.
Obedient, the young woman returned to the village of Yen-Phu.
The wife of artisan Thuc stopped at the doorstep of her house. The miserable aspect of the small, humid and gloomy house wrung her heart.
On a plank-bed, devoid of mat, the three children were very agitated, calling their mother with loud cries. Bo howled to claim his sucking ; he had nothing in the stomach since noon. Nhon, not having succeeded in calming him, was at the edge of tears.
– Go and fetch Mom so that she returns home to feed him, she had asked several times Be.
But Be did not want to go. She rolled about on the bed, pushing cries of rage.
The young woman hurried in. She took the infant in her arms and fondled him :
– Oh, my poor baby ! Mom left you for a very long time. You are very hungry and you cried a lot !
Then she sat down on the bed and breast-fed him. At the end of a few moments, as the child did not feel any milk coming, he rejected the nipple and began to cry louder than ever.
The young woman heaved a sigh. Her encircled eyes were clouded with tears. She got up and, by pacing up and down, rocked her infant with gesture and voice :
– Oh, my poor baby ! I don’t have anything to eat and don’t even have any milk for you !
The little boy, drunk of tiredness, fell asleep shortly after. As for the two older sisters, the mother had sent them to play outside so that their brother had a little calm to sleep.
Then, sitting in silence, Thuc’s wife reminisced about her life. Girl of the countryside, in the simple and ingenuous spirit, she had no imagination and was quite unable to put any order in her memory. The recollections, which she had been able to preserve, streamed higgledy-piggledy in her head, unclear and confused as the faces of a crowd on a photograph. One thing, however, emerged with clearness from this jumble : she remembered with certainty that never still, so far, she had been able to enjoy the slightest bit of the well-being and the rest that well-to-do people know.
At twelve, thirteen years old, the little kid Lac – it was her nickname – had begun as a help person in construction. Her life, in brief, was spent without surprises, day after day, month after month, year after year…
At the age of seventeen, she had met Thuc, who was employed as mason there where she worked. One had launched a joke ; the other had retorted on a tone of jest. Then they loved each other, and then they got married.
During the five years that followed, in their small, humid and gloomy house, at the inner lower part of dam Yen-Phu, nothing attractive had come to fill the insignificance in the life of this miserable couple. Their existence became even more miserable, when they had given birth, in three successive years, to three children. At a time when work was rare and wages were thin, although they toiled all day long, they did not manage to join the two ends to nourish the whole family.
Then, the previous year, at the time of the rising, Thuc had found a new idea to earn his living : he borrowed some money and bought a small boat, with which, every day, the couple had gone on the river to catch up the floating wood. Two months later, Thuc and his wife had paid off their debts and they even had excesses to spend.
That is why this year, they watched with impatience for the rise of the water level. Since the day before, their livelihood had returned with the swelling of the river.
At this point of her meditation, Lac smiled to herself. She gently laid down her child back on his diaper and went out of the house, on tiptoe. She headed toward the dam, as if she had made a decision to do something.
Arrived on the dam, she looked around for her husband but did not see him. The wind continued to blow and to roar. Streams mooed, powerful and fast like a torrent. She raised her head : the sky had become black.
She stood there, thoughtful. The pieces of her dress floated in the wind, making echo to the lapping of streams against the bank.
A sudden presentiment was born in her spirit. She anxiously tumbled down the dam toward the place where she knew the small boat was attached.
Arrived on the spot, she saw her husband busying to untie with much effort the embedded ropes that still retained the boat. Without a word, she watched at him working. When he had finished, she got in the boat, asking :
– Where do you intend to go, my dear ?
He stared at his wife and said with surliness :
– Why didn’t you stay home with the kids ?
Frightened, Lac stammered :
– The kids … they sleep.
– Why do you come back here again ?
– But … where do you want to go with the boat ?
– You don’t need to know. Go back home !
Covering her face, Lac started to cry softly.
– Why do you cry ? He gently asked her, very touched in his heart.
– Because you want to go and seek wood without me.
Thuc reflected. Scrutinizing the sky and the river, he said :
– You cannot come … It is very dangerous !
Lac laughed :
– It is also dangerous for you as for me ! Don’t worry. I know how to row.
– All right then ! He replied in an ice-cold tone that made Lac shiver.
The wind and the water were always so threatening. The sky darkened at every moment.
Thuc asked his wife :
– Are you afraid ?
They began by trying to bring the boat to the middle of the river, the man guiding the maneuver and the woman rowing. They tried to put themselves in front of the upstream, but the current countered them unceasingly, pushing them backward. Tossed by the waves, the boat now disappeared now reappeared at the crest of the muddy waves, such as a dry leaf of bamboo floating in the middle of a pool of blood, such as a mosquito flooded in a pot of red ink.
After half an hour, they reached nevertheless in the middle of the river. While the man firmly immobilized the boat using his perch, the woman caught up the floating wood.
The boat was soon almost full of wooden fragments. They got ready to return toward the bank, when the rain began to fall. Flashes of lightning tore the black clouds and the thunder shook sky and earth.
The small boat was filled with water, and the frail skiff threatened to sink at every moment. Although they tried to row with all their might, the strong current deported them ceaselessly…
All of a sudden, the man and the woman shouted at the same time :
– Oh, my God !
The frail boat had turned over. The freed logs had joined now the procession of their colleagues, and they all together slipped inexorably forward and pulled the capsized boat into their suite…
Thuc, while swimming, asked his wife :
– Do you think you can swim to the bank ?
– Yes, she answered with assurance.
– Let yourself carried by the current and benefit from the waves !
– Yes. Don’t worry for me !
Dreadful flashes of lightning always streaked the sky and rain continued to pour down. Thuc and Lac had the impression to be thrown in a bottomless abyss. A few minutes later, as Thuc saw that his partner showed sign of weakness, he got closer to her and asked with anxiety :
– Is it all right ?
– Yes. Don’t worry !
Hardly had Lac finished her sentence that her head plunged into the water. In a desperate effort, she returned to the surface. Thuc rushed in for her help. Then, supporting her with an arm, he swam with the other one. She gave him a smile full of tenderness. He also smiled back to her.
A few moments later, he admitted :
– I’m tired. Hold my shoulder and let me swim ! I cannot support you any longer.
A few more minutes passed. Thuc felt more and more exhausted. His both arms were broken with tiredness. Lac gently asked him :
– Can you continue to swim ?
– I don’t know … Alone, maybe.
– In that case, I’ll let go so that you’ll be able to regain the bank…
He made a smile :
– No ! We’ll die together !
One moment later, one moment that, for Lac, had been as long as one day, her husband asked again :
– Lac ! Do you think you can swim now ?
– No ! … Why ?
– Nothing. Alas ! Since we’ll have no choice, let’s die together !
Suddenly, the voice of Lac rose, trembling and weak :
– Bo, Nhon, and Be ! … No ! … You must live !
Thuc felt suddenly lighter, free of the weight that retained him. Upon thinking of her children, Lac had quietly taken the decision to release her hold on her husband. She let herself sink into the deep waters, to allow her man to regain the bank.
The light of street lamps reached up to the riverbank. The wind had dropped completely and waters became peaceful. There was there a man who lamented, holding a small boy in his arms. Two little girls were standing beside him. That was the family of mason Thuc coming there to make a last farewell to the soul of the woman who, for maternal love, had sacrificed herself.
In the immensity of the space, the Red River, indifferent, let its stream pursue its course, as forever…
– Translated from “Anh Phải Sống”, a title story from the collection “Anh Phải Sống” (You Must Live) by Khái Hưng and Nhất Linh, published in 1934.
– Khái Hưng (real name : Trần Khánh Giư, 1896-1947), was one of the most famous Vietnamese authors of the first half of the 20th century. In 1931, he met Nhất Linh (real name : Nguyễn Tường Tam, 1905-1963), the most important pre-war Vietnamese novelist, and the two founded, in 1933, the “Tự Lực Văn Đoàn” (Self Strength Literary Group). He contributed largely to ensure the literary revival in Vietnam during the pre-war period. Khái Hưng’s main works are :
– “Hồn Bướm Mơ Tiên” (Heart of a Butterfly in a Dream of Immortality) – 1933 (novel)
– “Đời Mưa Gió” (A Stormy Life) – 1933 (novel) (in collaboration with Nhất Linh)
– “Nữa Chừng Xuân” (Mid-Spring) – 1933 (novel)
– “Anh Phải Sống” (You Must Live) – 1934 (short stories) (in collaboration with Nhất Linh)
– “Tiếng Suối Reo” (The Whispering of a Brook) – 1935 (short stories)
– “Gia Đình” (Family) – 1936 (novel)
– “Tiêu Sơn Tráng Sĩ” (The Knight of Tieu-Son) – 1937 (novel)
– “Thoát Ly” (Separation) – 1938 (novel)
– “Hạnh” (Hanh) – 1938 (novel)
– “Thừa Tự” (Inheritance) – 1938 (novel)
– “Đợi Chờ” (Wait) – 1940 (short stories)
– “Đẹp” (Beauty) – 1940 (novel)