A boat for poor people

(Tàu đi Hòn Gai - Truyện ngắn của NQ Thân, bản dịch tiếng Anh cua Nguyễn Quý Đức)

Nguyen Quang Than


A boat for poor people

Short story



here is no cheaper or easier mean to wash off your sorrow than to spread it along a slow trip ta sea, with the churning noises carrying you a mere four knots per hour toward the dreamy landscape of the Halong Bay.


Sitting across from me was an aged man,his hair irritatingly white. The unruly lines on a face  darkened from the sun and the wind were hard to decipher. He said he was on his way to Tra co to look for “an unfilial son”. The son has been some to ask for his inheritance, to help his wife start a business selling Chinese goods. The father had declined. The son dug up the floor of the house and stole the entire cache of gold meant to provide for the old man’s retirement. “Five bars of gold in all, it was a lot”, she said.


Next to me was a blind woman, accompanied by a small child that was half sleep. She was young, her eyes wide open like normal eyes, and there was not a line on her calm face. You couldn’t imagine that those eyes could no longer take in the light., and that the glorious afternoon surface of the sea on Ha Long Bay was just a vast night to her. She listened to us in the way a blind person listens, with her entire body.


She said, “ a flower to each tree, that would be life. Let me tell you a real story, which happened when I was still a child.” She turned to the man,” Don’t be sad, please. There re people out there much more unfilial than you son.”


Her words seemed to console the poor father somewhat. He leaned forward to listen. The blind woman went on:


“ When I was ten, I could still see. Nest door to my house was an old blind woman. She was widowed early on, but she took care of her son and never remarried. She had a bout of serious illness and became totally blind. The son got married. The poor villagers all helped out, placing money in her palm. In my neighborhood, it was hard for people with eyesight to make a living, let alone widow.


With a good daughter-in-law, her life seemed to be improving. Btu you couldn’t believe the son! Right after he got married, people started telling terrible things about him. I went over to a friend’s house one day, and I found her sticking her nose into a hole in the wall to look into the blind woman’ s home. She motioned me over. Do you now what I saw ?


The whole family was having a meal. There was a plate of boiled vegetables, and a dish of meat stew. The old man was chewing some rice. The son was biting his lip, pushing the plate of meat toward his wife side with his chopsticks. The daughter-in-law, her face all red, was fighting her husband and pushed the plate back toward the mother. They struggled with each other in silence. The only thing you could hear was the sound of the mother chewing. I thought then that she had no idea what was going on. In front of her was just one dark night, just in front of me now. I pray to Heaven that you must never see what I saw. Two years later, the mother hanged herself in that house, the daughter-in-law left for her mother’s home after she had given birth to a baby boy. The husband prospered, bought another house and moved away. Now, that I am blind, I realize I had been mistaken. A blind person sees everything in the dark.


The man sighed. His face had grown pale in the fading light. I sensed that this story hat opened a wound inside. I handed him my bottle of eucalyptus oil : “ Are you all right ?” He waved his hand and stood up, making his way toward the front end of the boat. The wide shoulders drooped down on his back, as though he didn’t have a spinal column.I thought of the blind mother and her death and shuddered. Men aren’t any stronger than women.How many lives had been decided on the deep green water of this bay ? I stood of and followed the man. He was sitting on the pile of anchor ropes.I approached him, trying to find comforting words : “ We won’t get to Tra Co until tomorrow. My house is near Poetry Mountain, if it’s convenient, I’d like to invite you…”


My travel companion gave me a grateful look. But then a great emptiness appeared in his eyes. It’s was a look I didn’t describe, some kind of regret, or sorrow, or similar emotion that made his eyes bulge out as if he was about to die.I sensed that this man had to say some thing to me or to someone.If not,he would crumble. I was not mistaken. He said:


“ Thank you. But there no reason for em to go to Tra Co anymore.It serves me right.You know, I recognized the blind woman over there." Forty years ago, she was the young girl that lived next to my mother’s house.                        



                                               Translated by Nguyen Quy Duc