Autumn wind

Short story by Nguyen Quangf Than

Autumn wind

Short story by Nguyen Quang Than

 

Nguyen Quang Than was born on April 15, 1936, in Sdn Le Commune, Hlidng Son District in the central Ha Tinh Province. Working as a journalist and writer since 1962, Than has published 5 novels and 15 short story collections, some of which were written for chil­dren.

Lựa Chọn  (Choice) was his first novel and was published in 1977, followed by Mt Thời Hoa M ẫu Đơn (The Peony Time) and Ngoài Khơi Miền Đất H ứa (In The Vast Promising Land), both of which came out in 1988. Con Ngựa Mãn Châu (The Manzhou Horse) published in 2001 earned him an award from the Ha Noi Writers' Association and was adapted into a feature film in 2002.

His award winning children's novel, Chú Bé Có Tài M ở Khoá (The Boy Who Can Open Locks), was first published in 1983 and its seventh edition was released in 2004.

Than nominated his short story Gi6 Heo May (The Autumn Wind) for publication in the anthology Contemporary Short Stories from Viet Nam, Volume One.      .           _

He wrote Gi6 Heo May hoping to revitalise and introduce readers to a type of story that few are interested in writing. Instead of depicting the dust and dullness of contemporary life, he delves into the frail and normally sup­pressed affinity shared by all human beings. Captured in this piece are feelings that we often either cannot comprehend or are ambivalent of. He uses this as a reminder of the fact that in what we call "modern" life, our natural attractions are often suppressed. (Note of OUTLOOK)

 

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   All widows, even those considered by their departed husbands' families to be of perfect virtue, must be rattled fleetingly once a year. The moment occurs on a certain day in the tenth month of the lunar calendar. The air; already fresh, becomes slightly cold all of a sudden, and when the sun breaks through the clouds its washed out light touches first the tops of the areca trees and then floods the gardens and fields where ripening rice awaits harvest. A whiff of something breezes through the air. The scent, familiar and yet strange, is indefinable yet felt vividly in the nostrils and the soul.

One widow was putting up a cotton-lined blanket to dry precisely at such a moment. The blanket smelled of cock­roach droppings and aromatic herbs; it was heavy and she had difficulty unfolding it across the clothesline. She fum­bled with it and it slipped from her hands to the ground.

I can assure you, dear readers, when autumn's first north­westerly was blowing that day, every widow inadvertently let go of one thing or another. At Ke 86ng, a god-forsaken village tucked at the foot of Thien Nh_n mountain, another widow let fall to the ground not a blanket but a teapot left unused since her husband's death. Among the scattered shards, she discovered a tooth broken at the root and chipped and blackened at the crown. The widow's name was Sang, and the tooth belonged to her late alcoholic hus­band.

Sister Jeanne was a popular figure in this particular vil­lage whose population was a mixture of Catholics and Buddhists, She was said to have come from Hu_, and she had not returned since the day she took the veil. Though not properly a widow, she did damage something that day as she was crossing the vast garden at the back of the church, The,thing she let fall at the moment the mischievous northwesterly blew was a lacquer box containing the usual sacramental objects, destined for use in administering abso­lution to people on their deathbed or in uniting a couple in wedlock. Luckily, the sturdy wooden box did not break, but its lid was chipped at one comer, A week later she made her confession to the parish priest.

"Remember," the priest said from the other side of the confessional. "When entering the Garden of Gethsemane, He also felt a wind blowing from Golgotha, and He also dropped a wooden box, He will forgive you for your care­lessness." ,

Sang had found an inexhaustible source of consolation in Sister Jeanne, who repeatedly told her that widowhood should be deliverance for her. Indeed, since her husband began to drink, four breweries had sprung up in the noto­riously poor but pious village. Large quantities of maize and' cassava had gone into vodka making, and contribu­tions to the church had dropped to an alarming level. More serious still, many parishioners had begun skipping Mass because of a lingering hangover in the morning. Sang's sit­uation had been the ,glOst deplorable; she was often seen hurrying down the lane with a bottle in one hand. Now, Sister Jeanne told Sang, Jesus has relieved yoll of the bot­tle by sending for your husband, eventhough he had not been Christianised, and that shows His boundless love for you, He who had to drink tlis bitter cup for me, for you . and for all our bretnten.

Being no Catholic, Sang didn't understand a word of what Sister Jearme said, and was not sure if it had been up to Him to take her husband from her. True, he had been a bully. He had once slashed the hammock where she was laying because she had failed to get llim his daily supply of vodka. Another time, he chopped off one of his little fingers, dropped it into a boiling pot of rice porridge and'forced her to eat the entire pot, all because she failed to get meat for 'his IDeal. Even so, having a man by your side is better than living alone. To do him justice, her husband bad Qccasion­cillyJerit her a hand in fetching firewood. Once, he even fixed the'broken leg of the bed after they had thrashed and rolled around on it"as though in a wrestling bout in front of the communal house on a festival day.

Ca was a meek man, having very little in terms of prop­erty and certainly nothing in terms of honour. However, a '

widower from the age of thirty, he had been the object of the secret desire of many widows in the village. In ftle small hours of the morning, not a few of them would dream of sleeping with him. When they awoke they would blush with shame, quickly forgiving themsel_es. It had orily been a dream.

Sang often had such sinful dreams, with good reason: Ca was the orily shop owner who willingly offered her credit. One rainy night long ago, as she was about to leave the shop with a full bottle, Ca told her to wait until the rain was over. "I'd rather take the bottle to 'that good-for-nothing husband of yours myself than let you get soaked to the bone," he said, and pulled her to him. "Give me a quick one, I'm starved," he implored. That was the first and last time. She knew it was an all-important thing for a woman to do, but never thought of it as a betrayal to her husband. She had done it out of gratitude to a man who was not mean to her.

It would be incorrect to say that widows were the orily ones affected by that roguish'northwesterly. Another person - not a woman but, like in the case of Sister Jeanne and from a biological point of view, a widow nonetheless - spilled a cup of tea that morning. The parish priest, kind-hearted and sensitive, was moved by memories as the wind was rustling through the back garden. In particular, he remembered a stormy morning when a woman had come with an unusual request. She urgently needed some vegetables for a meal to mark the first anniversary of her husband's death, and she could find none at the deserted market. The kind priest told her to go and see the verger, and quickly averted his eyes. Not quick enough, though, because he already had a glimpse of the widow's lithesome body in her wet clothes. That was the greatest temptation he had faced in this remote parish, and he was in great torment throughout Lent of that year.

Afterwards, the priest had completely forgotten about Sang, until that morning brought the first autumnal wind. He sent for Sister Jeanne, who was busy cleaning the soiled crucifix and rosary that had spilled from the box, and the two of them ,made a tour of the garden to inspect the state of the kohlrabi of an Italian variety brought back by the bishop following his recent trip to Rome.

"Sister Jeanne," the priest cleared his throat.

"Yes, Father."

"Do you remember the widow who came for vegetables

last year?"

"Yes, Father. I assisted her at her husband's funeral"

"But you haven't called on her again, have you?"

"I'm afraid not, Father."

"You still haven't learnt to love other people as you love

yourself." .

"I'm sorry I've failed in my duty, Father, but she hasn't been baptised yet."

  "God created this world out of nothing. As His servants, we shoutd also make things happen."

  "I understand, Father."

  "Go and expand God's Kingdom with your love."

   It was before noon when Sister Jeanne arrived at Sang's home and found the widow in a pensive mood. In fact, Sang had been like that all moming, ever since she shattered the teapot and stumbled upon her late husband's decayed tooth. She sat on the front steps, gazing at the relic in her cupped hand and reliving her married life, which, strange enough, now seemed filled only with sweet moments. The night before the tooth finally snapped, for instance, she had tongued it until itloosened and thus made him more loving in his embrace.

"Good morning, Sister," Sang said, quickly dropping the tooth into her pocket. She grabbed the nun's arms; Sister Jeanne's fair complexion anq. rosy lips stood out against the black of her robe. "I ha,yen't seen you for a long time. I'm afraid we'll have to make do with plain water. I just broke my teapot."

     "Now that you mention it, I also dropped a box this morn­ing. Bow strange."

     "I suppose the north-westerly was the cause."

     The two talked about crops. The nun complained that the only help the church could get now was from old women, and that contributions were scanty.    

   "You're lucky to get at least some help frompld women," Sang replied. "Able-bodied people have to look after their own families. It's a hard time for us all.'"

     "I'm not thinking about myself," the nun said. "I can subsist on very little, but our shepherd can't."

"How come this parish is so poor, Sister?" Sang asked in an exasperated voice. "Why can't we eat our fill even though we have worked our fingers to the bone? Why are there so many widows here? We suffer because there aren't enough men around, don't you think?" Then, in an expansive mood, she wrapped her arms around the miiTow waist of the nun. "You're also unhappy, aren't you?" she asked with womanly, "understanding. "You're only forty of so."

Sister Jeanne blushed to the roots of her hair. She wrig­gled away from Sang's tempting arms and crossed herself. "No," she protested with vehemence. "I've offered myself to God and the Church. I'm as cold as ice and nothing can make me unhappy anymore."

"But I'm not like you, Sister." Sang said, unconvinced. "Do what you want," the nun said. "Our Saintly Mother is generous in her love. She refuses you nothing if you come to her."

    "You want me to go your way?"

     "I didn't mean that. I wanted to say that if you agree to

be baptised, God will forgive your original sin. Then you won't be in tonnent again each time the north-westerly blows."

"Is there another way?" Sang insisted. "Should I remarry?"

The nun looked at the widow with pity. To bring a stray sheep to the6fold, give it fodder first, Father had said. The church's garden was too big for a just a few oldies to man­age. "« she agrees to take care of our garden, I'll pay her handsomely," he had protnised.

Sang agreed. Working for the churchwOJlld be mJlch behi ter than gathering firewood in the exhausted forest. She took' the broken tooth out of her pocket and gazed at it fondly, wondering what to do with it. In her dreamlike state, she forgot all about her evening meal and went to bed dream­ing of things that made her ashamed the next morning.

The cold that was accompanying the insistent northwest­erly had gathered strength and was making people restless. That night, as she again was tossing about pn the cheap bed bought years ago for her wedding, the cord that tied the door to the post was undone from the outside and Ca stepped in. He said the wind had blown off part of his roof, destroyed the patch of kohlrabi he had just planted, and killed a tricolour cat and two puppies. "I couldn't sleep because of the losses," he complained. "I felt miserable and I thought of you. I know you respect his memory, but why should I wait any longer?"

"Put out the light," Ca urged. Before Sang could react, he reached for the kerosene lamp, turned it upside down, and flung himself upon the woman.

Sister Jeanne was watering the vegetables when the verger came up and said the priest wanted to see her. Two nights in a row, Father stayed up very late, the old attendant grum­bled. He left the light on through the night and kept open the window that faced north-west, despite the cold wind. That much Sister Jeanne already knew, the priest's unusual hours also troubled her sleep.  .

   The priest looked his normal self, though, and said he only wanted to know if Sister Jeanne had spoken to the widow.

   "I'll call on her again this afternoon, Father."

   "Tell her not to drag her feet. This wind is good for the Italian kohlrabi and I don't really want to disappoint the Bishop."

 "Yes, Father," the nun said, her heart filled with pity for the man standing before her. “Oh Lord, save our weak, vul­nerable souls," she prayed in silence.

The door was ajar but Sang was nowhere to be seen. She must be under the weather, too, Sister Jeanne thought. She tiptoed forward and peered in. Ca was lying on the bed, drained of all strength and naked, but obviously pleased. He was lazily chewing a cooked egg that Sang was feeding him with a tiny spoon. She was straddling him, her bare back turned towards the door, her long loose hair dangling between his thighs.

   "Where do you keep a fallen upper tooth, under the bed or on the roof?" the widow asked her lover.   t.

"Oh shucks, chuck it anywhere," Ca replied, chewing a mouthful.

Sister Jeanne withdrew noiselessly. She was not seen at Ke Dong again.

 

Translated by Song Kieu