(Ha Noi 2006 )
At least once a year, all widows, even those who have received a gold star from their in-laws for virtuous devotion to the memory of their dearly departed husband, will feel a fleeting sense of restlessness. It comes on during a certain day in October, when the gradually cooling weather takes a sudden turn to crisp, dry cold in the early morning. But then the sun appears; at first, a mere reddish-gold ribbon playing along the tops of the areca-palms, but then quickly spreading out to flood the fields and gardens where fruit trees and heavy stalks of rice wait for the harvest. Next, an earthy scent arises, foreign yet familiar, the kind that one cannot identify but knows only that it has taken possession of one’s nostrils and one’s soul. A wisp of a breeze steals through the garden, as gentle as a breath, then gradually builds strength to waken the banana and custard-apple trees…
It is at this precise moment that a widow carries a cotton blanket from her storage loft outside to air. The blanket is heavy; she struggles as she tries to throw it over the metal cable that is her clothesline. Dust flies everywhere, liberally mixed with cockroach droppings and the aromatic herbs she picked and dried on the occasion of the Doan Ngo festival last year. The next thing she knows, the blanket has slipped from her fingers to the ground.
I assure you, dear reader, that on that day, when that first breeze of the season blows through the garden, any widow who happens to feel it is bound to drop something. In Ke Dong village alone, a remote village at the foot of Thien Nhan mountain with thirteen young women widowed when their husbands died of cirrhosis of the liver, five of these women dropped the blankets they were hanging out to air and four of them dropped and broke their household’s single forlorn teapot that was rarely used now that their husbands were dead. Of those teapots, three of them shattered to expose a clump of molding tea leaves stuck together like birdshit inside; the fourth one held a cracked tooth with broken roots, its face pitted with filthy black cavities. The widow remembered the day her drunkard husband had rinsed his mouth and spit out his rotted tooth along with the water, right into the teapot. As for the remaining four widows, they each dropped a nesting-basket they were holding while digging around for the eggs hidden in the straw. For a moment, the stench of rotting eggs caused a bit of panic in those four lonely leaf-thatch huts. But then the autumn wind, which was growing stronger by the minute, drove away the noxious odor and restored order.
Sister Jean, whom we shall refer to as Sister Gian as the inhabitants of this mixed Catholic and Buddhist village do, was in the parish church that day. It was said that she was from Hue, a distant land to which she had never returned since the day she left to follow the superior mother into the convent. Sister Gian, although she cannot rightfully be called a widow, also dropped and broke something as she walked through the church’s vast garden at precisely the moment that mischievous breeze blew past. The item she broke was a small lacquer box holding the sacraments needed for administering to the sick or conducting weddings that the parish priest had entrusted to her care. Fortunately, the box was made of wood and so did not shatter, but it did suffer a chipped lid. Try as she might, she was unable to close it properly after that. A week after this incident, she stood in the confessional and confessed her sin to the priest. The priest said, “Keep in mind that, when He stepped into the Garden of Gethsemane and met a breeze blowing in from Golgotha, Our Lord also dropped and broke a wooden box. He will forgive you.” Sister Gian understood and said nothing more.
One of the four widows who had broken a teapot was Mrs. Sang. Sister Gian told Mrs. Sang that she was lucky to be widow, because it was when her husband started drinking that Ke Dong, a village famous for its poverty and piety, suddenly sprouted four new illegal stills brewing moonshine from slices of dried cassava, kernel corn, or pounded sweet potato. This brew was then brought to market where it was mixed with several drops of the pesticide Vofatox to increase its kick. That year, the church received only one hundred and ten ears of corn in offerings (compared to five hundred ears the year before) because the corn and cassava was being poured into the bottle and many people were so inebriated they could not manage to walk to Mass.
As for Mrs. Sang’s predicament, no doubt the reader can only imagine. She was often seen on the road, a bottle in hand, trying to beg some alcohol for her husband. It was a singular sight that disappeared soon after his death. Sister Gian, who had served Christ for more than twenty years and was as filled with the milk of human kindness as anyone could be, told Mrs. Sang that even though her husband hadn’t been baptized, she believed he was now serving at the Lord’s side in heaven. That Mrs. Sang had the same right to happiness as every woman, the right to walk proudly down the road with charming, intelligent children in hand rather than a bottle. That calling her husband home was the Lord’s way of taking the bottle from her hand in his infinite mercy. Indeed, had not He Himself, before mounting Golgotha to suffer punishment for the world’s sins, also begged God the Father to put away from him this bitter cup, only to be refused? He had drunk the fullness of that bitter cup for Sister Gian, for Mrs. Sang, and for everyone else in the world and so understood only too well the bitterness of the demon drink. Now He had put away for her not only a bitter cup but the entire bottle, and, Sister Gian added, if her husband was now serving at the Lord’s side, he need only ask and the Lord himself would take to the streets with a bottle in hand. Yea, the Lord had ensured her salvation with the sweat of his brow and now would go to buy alcohol for her drunkard husband, just as he had turned the other cheek to those who beat him and had healed the miserable, stinking beggars.
Naturally Mrs. Sang didn’t understand who this Lord was that Sister Gian kept going on about. Not being Catholic, she had never attended church and had never been taught the stories to which the Sister referred. Ever since she was a child, Mrs. Sang had only ever believed in the fairy tale of Tam Cam. She believed it all, from the scene where the king’s hammock is chopped down, to the part where the evil stepsister is talked into taking a bath in boiling water, to the urn containing salted human flesh. She believed it because as a child her mother had told it to her hundreds of times, and because she herself had tasted Tam’s sufferings. One time, in a drunken rage, her husband had chopped her hammock in two while she was lying in it; another time, when she informed him that all that was left in the house to eat was plain rice gruel, he had cursed and sliced off his little finger, as neat as could be, threw it into the pot, and then forced her to eat two whole bowls of gruel flavored with that gruesome piece of meat.
As a young woman, Mrs. Sang had followed in her mother’s footsteps and attended the Buddhist temple in the village. She believed in the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and even cried when her mother told her the story of Thi Kinh. One night when the temple’s back courtyard was packed with villagers enjoying the full moon, a young man named Sang pinched her buttocks. She almost fainted with fear that Buddha would punish her by sending her to hell to be tormented and tortured by demons and thrown into a vat of boiling oil. She felt as guilty as though it were her buttocks that were the offender rather than Sang’s hand. Later, she attended the village’s first meeting about irrigation projects. She listened to a stunted man with an unexpectedly loud voice and a pretentious accent say, “We don’t need Heaven, we can make our own rain, we’ll squeeze it out of the very soil! I don’t care if you are the Lord Jesus or the Lord Buddha, if you just sit around yelling save me save me and don’t join the cooperative, or support the citizen’s militia by looking out for criminals and spies, or cheer on the youths who are marching off to the irrigation project, then you are no better than a liar!” It sounded eminently sensible to her, so she joined the cooperative. She dug irrigation ditches and practiced singing patriotic songs. She went on night patrol with the village militia and while she didn’t catch any thieves she did receive many more pinches on the buttocks.
And then she married. She married the first man who had pinched her buttocks, the young man named Sang. She’d lost her virginity to him, her mother said, and so now even though he didn’t amount to much she had to marry him. From then on, her life became tightly bound to the bottle and IOUs. In spite of this, Mrs. Sang’s opinion as a peasant woman who had lived her entire life in a remote rural village was that if it were true the Lord had called her husband home to serve Him as the Sister said, then He really wasn’t being very fair. Because in her village, having a husband who spit his rotten tooth into the teapot and forced his wife to eat his little finger was still better than having no husband at all. Without him, she had to live as a widow. She’d never been a widow before, but was no stranger to what it meant. She’d seen the widows in her village with their bent backs going out alone to search for firewood in the forest, knowing that there would be no one to meet them halfway and help them carry the load home. Say what you will about him, her husband had many times come all the way up to the Nai Bo slope to meet her and take the load off her shoulders. He had even fixed the foot of their bed when it broke one night after they had been thrashing and rolling around on it like two wrestlers in front of the village meeting-house during the New Year celebrations.
If days such as those could be called happiness, then she had been happy with her husband. Not that she dared reproach the Lord. Though she had never set foot in a church and so had no idea who or what the Lord was, she figured that anybody Sister Gian worshipped must surely be a good person. Because Sister Gian was a good person. She was kind and industrious and did many good works for the people of the village, Catholics and sinners alike, from assisting at births to handing out medicines. But Mrs. Sang missed her husband, really missed him, with the same real grief that anyone else who has lost a loved one feels. No matter what, he had lived with her for twelve years. Never mind that he’d given her no children, nor reason to be proud or brag, nor that he’d transformed her into confused, pathetic women wandering aimlessly around the streets of the village with empty pockets and a bottle in hand.
Mrs. Sang had gone from one house to another, but at every house they showed her his IOUs, slips of paper smeared with his fingerprints. Each fingertip was rubbed in the greasy ash on the bottom of a cooking-pot and then pressed onto the paper to make a mark which meant one quarter-liter flask. And why shouldn’t he rub all five of his fingers on the bottom of the pan in exchange for five flasks? With no more effort than the twitch of five fingers and a plate of green guava, he could get enough to drink all night and often all the next day.
In the end, she had found a place that would sell her alcohol on credit, the shop of a widower named ‘Weiner’ Ca. He lived on the edge of the village in a lonely building that had once belonged to a certain boastful metalsmith. This metalsmith forged knives that could barely cut mud, yet he styled himself as the first son of a first son of the most famous metalsmith of the Ke Muong region, and naturally the most accomplished metalsmith that had ever lived. While his boasts were free, his knives, scissors, and sickles had to be bought with the sweat of the people’s brow. In the end, tired of paying for such junk, the people pushed over the metalsmith’s house. “If only his knives were as sharp as his mouth!” they said. “Braggarts can only survive as long as the people tolerate them!”.
‘Wiener’ Ca, on the other hand, was a humble man. It was hard to be arrogant or boastful with a sobriquet such as his, which rather than elevating him merely confirmed that he did indeed have that most important member of the male anatomy. Nevertheless, when he lost his wife, still childless, at the tender age of thirty, he became the target of much attention from the widows of Ke Dong. Between the hours of midnight to first light, at least seven of them had dreams that involved sleeping with him. They awoke flushed and embarrassed, then spent a few moments worrying about their reputation for virtuous devotion to their dearly departed husbands before finally smiling and forgiving themselves because after all they had never done, had never even thought of doing, the outrageous things that occupied their dreams that night.
Mrs. Sang was one of those seven widows with sinful dreams. This was very understandable if one bears in mind that back when her drunkard husband was still alive, back in the days when God the Father had not yet displayed his infinite compassion by lifting the burden from the shoulders of this miserable woman and she was still haunting the village’s gloomy, dogshit-strewn streets with a bottle in hand in search of someone who would sell her some booze, the only person who stepped up to rescue her from her predicament was ‘Weiner’ Ca. Not only that, but one night a storm blew up unexpectedly just as she was starting for home with a full bottle. Ca stopped her, saying he would go himself to give that ‘good-for-nothing’ husband of hers his booze before he would allow her to go out in the storm. Flattered, she sat down to wait out the storm. And that night, she gave it up to Cu, when he pulled her to him and said “I’m starving, how about a quickie!” She knew this was a matter of utmost seriousness when a woman already had a husband. But she never considered it a betrayal of her husband as it is so often contrived to be by those self-serving writers who write newspapers and books. If a good man like him, a man who trusted her and accepted her credit when everyone else in the village had turned their backs on her, well, if wanted something then she would give it to him, it was as simple as that. But that was the first and last time. Her husband passed away not long after that night, and then more than half the village bars had to close down because all of the alcoholics were dying off from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by the pesticides mixed into their drink along with the kernel-sized bead of dog feces that ‘Weiner’ Ca was said to mix into every kettle of his moonshine to give it that rich, creamy aroma that the drunkards liked so much. They took their leave of this world one after another, two to three days apart, and after that Mrs. Sang didn’t come to ‘Weiner’ Ca’s shop any more.
But we would be doing a great disservice if we were to say that, on that particular morning when that naughty autumn wind blew through, the widows were the only ones to let slip whatever they happened to be holding. There was another person who was not a widow, even less a woman, yet also dropped his cup of half-finished tea. This was the parish priest. Like Sister Gian, if one considers him from a certain perspective, in particular from the perspective of human biology, then he too could be considered a sort of widow. And so if he happened to drop his cup of tea at around the same time the other widows dropped their items, this could hardly be considered a sin.
A soft-hearted and sensitive man, the priest sensed the unusual flavor of the breeze. It brought back memories which made him restless. He remembered the day there was a great storm which made it impossible for the villagers to get to the market, and a woman had knocked at the door of the church asking to buy some vegetables. She said she needed them to prepare the ceremonial meal for the first anniversary of her husband’s death; this was how the priest knew she was a widow. He graciously told the church’s caretaker to give her a bunch of spring onions from the garden. She politely genuflected to the priest and whispered her thanks. At that moment, the priest turned his face away because he could not bear the sight of the widow’s beautiful, slender figure clearly visible under her clinging, rain-drenched clothing. He had lived in this desolate village of Ke Dong for a long time; this was the first time he had seen such exquisite temptation concealing itself in wet clothing. Several days later, when the month of Lent began, his fellow parish priests noticed that the priest of Ke Dong seemed unusually tormented, almost to the point of illness. He tried to banish the image of the rain-drenched woman that day but could not. In the end, the Most Holy Mother Mary came to his aid as he prayed alone in the bishop’s confessional. After begging with great sincerity for her to come to him, he prayed Immaculate Heart of the Holy Virgin Mother, unstained with original sin, please give me the chance to make amends to Your suffering heart, to atone for my sinful thoughts and actions which have certainly offended You as well as Your Son Jesus Christ. He confessed how it pained him to feel that the Lord had been angry at him ever since that rainy afternoon and would no longer hear his prayers. How he had no choice but to appeal to the Mother to allow me to rest in Your Heart and intercede for me before the Holiest of Holy, Your Son Jesus Christ. He stayed alone in the Bishop’s chapel for a long time, whispering his prayers, and when he finally struggled wearily to his feet he knew at once that the Holy Mother had forgiven him.
She had magnanimously allowed him to take refuge in her Holy Heart, which was the shortest route to re-connect with God and ask for forgiveness.
He completely forgot about Mrs. Sang after that, at least, until the day the first autumn wind of the season blew in.
Sister Gian was holding the little box of sacraments, and had just decided to take out the rosary and crucifix to clean them when she heard the priest call her. He invited her to accompany him in a stroll in the cathedral garden, to see how the Italian kohlrabi was coming along, the priest said. The seeds had been a gift from the Venerable Bishop after his recent trip to Rome for celebrations of the Holy Father’s return.
That was when the breeze suddenly passed by. The priest stopped.
Sister Gian, flustered, picked up the box of sacraments. She quickly thrust the chipped lid into her pocket and hid the box under her robes. The priest noticed, but said nothing. He could read the fleeting restlessness that passed through her eyes. It was the same restlessness that had just passed through his heart along with the wind.
“Sister, do you remember Mrs. Sang, the widow who came to the cathedral last year and asked to buy some vegetables for her husband’s memorial meal?”
“Yes, Father, I do,” Sister said respectfully. “I helped with the funeral after her husband died.”
“But you haven’t been back to see her since?”
“Do you consider that to be the behavior of one who loves others as themselves?”
“No, Father. I’ve failed in my duty. But she isn’t one of the baptized.”
“Isn’t it true that all people in this world were created out of nothing by Our Father On High?”
“And so, as our Father’s servants, don’t you think that we too should strive to create something out of nothing?”
“I understand, Father.”
“Sister, I know that you have been building the Kingdom of Heaven with your compassionate works for a long time without thought for your own hardship. This is just a gentle reminder.”
Sister Gian arrived at Mrs. Sang’s house when the sun was at its peak, radiating its dry, hot light over the crisp weather that made people’s skin dry up and flake off because it was impossible to sweat in that autumn wind. Mrs. Sang, after breaking the teapot and finding her husband’s rotten tooth, had been holding it in her hand for a long time while wondering what to do. She should have been hanging up her blanket to air and spreading peanuts out in flat baskets to dry in the sunshine, but that tooth in her hand seemed to prevent her from doing anything. So instead she sat on the windowsill and gazed out fretfully at the courtyard, watching the banana leaves sway back and forth in the breeze and feeling the swaying within her heart. The tooth she had just found did not conjure up images of a brutal, drunken husband, but rather pleasant, sweet memories. The night before he had rinsed his mouth and spit out the tooth, she had wiggled it back and forth with her tongue to loosen it up for him, knowing that its jagged edges often caused him to lose sleep for weeks on end. His lovemaking that night had been sweeter than usual, as though her tongue had taken away his toothache and set him on fire. He’d been as dumb and harmless as a water buffalo being scrubbed with a straw brush while bathing in the spring…
“Oh, hello Sister!” Mrs. Sang sprang to her feet and stepped out into the courtyard, stuffing her late husband’s tooth into her pocket and grasping Sister Gian’s baggy black sleeve. In her nun’s habit, the sister’s skin looked unusually pale while her lips were as red as though painted. “I haven’t seen you for a while, Sister!”
“I’ve been so busy!”
“I just dropped and broke my teapot. We’ll have to make do with the eugenia tea I made on the stove.”
“Thank you child. The cathedral has a eugenia tree as well. I often partake of it with the old caretaker. Back in my hometown of Hue, people love eugenia tea. My, what is it with today anyway? Just a little while ago I got all shaky and dropped something too, the Father’s little box of sacraments.”
“Really? It’s because of this windy weather. It makes me feel trembly inside. Sister, I’ve heard that the eugenia tree in the cathedral garden is over one hundred and fifty years old, that it was there even before Father Bay built the cathedral. Is it true?”
Sister Gian crossed herself as she said, “May Father Peter Bay’s soul rest in peace. You’re asking about things from before my mother superior’s time, how could I possibly know?”
Sister Gian asked how Mrs. Sang’s crops were getting on. She lamented the cathedral’s poor harvest this year. The people sent only their old ladies to plant and tend the church’s garden, she said, resulting in stunted plants that were hardly worth the effort. The harvest of corn and commemorative fruits wasn’t even enough to pay for the fertilizer. The peoples’ offerings to the church had also withered away, with each year bringing in less.
“Ain’t it the truth!” said Mrs. Sang. “Anyone who can work is out scratching out a living to feed their children. The fact that the villagers send their elderly to the church to help out at all is proof of how much they love you and the Father. Besides what you get from us villagers, your people out there should be sending money to support the church.”
“But shall the sheep allow their shepard to starve?” the Sister protested. “I’m not thinking of myself, I can eat anything and wear anything, but the Father is our superior and couldn’t possibly!”
“It’s just our parish is so poor.” Mrs. Sang licked her lips. “Everyone works their fingers to the bone and we still go hungry. And our village has more widows than other villages. Everything is more difficult when there aren’t enough men around, don’t you think, Sister?”
Mrs. Sang’s eyes were glistening, overflowing with the emotions she’d been battling without release since the morning. What was it with today indeed? The autumn wind had come, conjuring up a long-lost tooth and whipping up uncomfortable ripples in the surface of her stagnant little pond. Feeling suddenly bold, Mrs. Sang spread wide her arms and then threw them around Sister Gian’s tiny waist as though hugging a girlfriend from the village.
“You’re suffering too, aren’t you Sister? After all you’re only forty years old!”
Sister Gian flushed and wriggled out of the arms of temptation, then crossed herself and whispered a prayer of offering for good measure. Holy Mother, I have offered You my eyes, my ears, my tongue, my heart and my whole being so today I beg you, Mother Mary, I beg you for mercy, I ask that you keep me as your own. Amen.
Mrs. Sang couldn’t hear what the Sister was mumbling, but she pulled back, surprised to see the Sister shaking. She looked as frightened as if she had just stepped on a snake.
When she composed herself, Sister Gian said, “No, my child. I have given myself to the Lord and His Church. I have died to my passions and am as cold as ice now. I no longer suffer.”
“But I can’t be like you, Sister.”
“If you truly desired it, no one could stand in your way. The embrace of the Holy Mother and her children is infinite, and She never refuses anyone who comes to Her.”
“Are you saying I should become a nun like you?”
“Not at all. But if you agree to be baptized like the other faithful in the village, the Lord will forgive you of the original sin passed on to you by your forebears. And you will no longer suffer and feel torment when the autumn wind comes.”
“Is there no other way for me, Sister? Maybe if I remarried?”
Sister Gian gazed at the widow before her with pity. Her superior had told her to build the Kingdom of Heaven by redeeming this woman. To bring a stray sheep into the fold, he had said, one must first offer it fodder. There was the cathedral garden; it was huge, and tended only by a few elderly volunteers in a feeble effort that might better be expected at a Buddhist temple. They needed to hire an able-bodied person, experienced in the cultivation of new strains and new methods. “If you think it’s a good idea, Sister, tell her to come to work for the cathedral,” the Father had said. “I will pay her generously, and it will give you the opportunity to talk to her on a regular basis.”
Mrs. Sang did not refuse. Working for the church would be better than a hand to mouth existence scrounging firewood in the exhausted forests of Ngan Eo, she said. But she’d need some time to put things in order first.
Sister Gian left. She knew that she would have to return many more times. In her heart, she pitied this widow who had suffered so much, with so little recourse, and had escaped her life sentence of misery only by becoming a widow. But that widowhood would become another kind of life sentence if the woman did not offer herself up wholeheartedly to the Good Lord.
Mrs. Sang wrote the day off after that, and no longer worried about doing any of the work waiting for her in the house or garden. She felt that this was a day of particular importance. Perhaps it was the wind that had led her to find the rotted tooth of her husband, of whom she now had only tender, sweet memories. Never mind all of the beatings and humiliations and resentment; all was forgotten now. She took the tooth out of her pocket and examined it, wondering again what she should do with it. It was part of her husband’s remains, after all, so she mustn’t do anything imprudent. She thought and thought, even forgetting to light a fire for the evening meal. Even so she didn’t feel hungry. On a day like today, eating seemed superfluous. She felt as light as air, suspended somewhere between reality and fantasy, between hunger and satiation, not even hearing her own footsteps as she walked or feeling her own hands as she aimlessly picked up things in the house. She’d felt this before, she remembered now. She’d had a few days like this back when she was first married. And there was another time too, when her life with her husband was as rumpled and filthy as a rag in a pile of hellish diapers, there was the night when pity and naiveté had led her to allow ‘Weiner’ Ca to mount her and roll her back and forth like a stripped-white round of banana wood on his rickety camp bed. It was the same feeling of airiness that she felt now. But the bliss she had felt on those other occasions was real, whereas the lightness she felt today was but an echo, a fading, ethereal dream. Her soul felt anguished and taut, and her heart crushed and ruined, when she realized that it was all over for her, and everything was sinking into a morass of despair. At that moment, the thought flashed through her mind: “Maybe… maybe becoming a nun like Sister Gian would make it stop!” But the unwelcome thought frightened her. It was true that the people of the village were fond of and respected Sister Gian for her compassion and good works. But any time she called on the people to get baptized, the villagers shuddered to think that they could be such a traitor and avoided the good Sister as though she had suddenly morphed into a demon leading them down the road to damnation. For who could possible abandon the altar of their ancestors, or neglect to make offerings to the Buddha on the day of the full moon? Mrs. Sang was gripped with fear at the thought of it. She gave a great sigh. Her thoughts were in a complete muddle now. It was all the fault of that damn wind! Only yesterday she had been as peaceful and serene as a cat sleeping in a haystack, and today she had become a deer who has burst out of its pen and is flitting frantically across the fields.
She went to bed hungry that night. It had been a long time she had done that; now that she no longer had the dubious help of her husband, she had managed to store up a good supply of paddy which she conscientiously replaced every year. In the morning, she felt she could hardly lift herself out of bed. Her face flushed beet red as she remembered the wild and wicked dreams of the night before. Finally she had to thrust both hands between her legs and after a few moments of grinding, gritted teeth she was able to come fully awake.
Another weightless, miserable day passed. The autumn wind blew more energetically than ever, as though it had just burst out of a cage and was seeking a path across the moors of Thien Nhan mountain into each person’s house and each person’s soul to seduce them, call up memories, and then goad them into destruction or keening. This strange wind that sucked all of the heat and moisture out of the air left no one untouched. That night, as she tossed and turned on the bed with the fan-shaped headboard that she had bought when she was first married, Mrs. Sang noticed the latch-string on the door suddenly jerk and fall to the floor. The door opened and ‘Weiner’ Ca stepped inside.
He couldn’t imagine how it happened, he told her, but that autumn wind had blown clean away the lean-to attached to his house. Perhaps it was because his house had no sheltering hedge of bamboo around it, but the lean-to had been ripped off his house and carried all the way into his garden where it had neatly crushed a row of freshly-planted kohlrabi, a tortoise-shell cat, and two puppies that had just been weaned. He had poured all of his savings into that garden in the hopes of earning enough money to rebuild his dilapidated house before the Lunar New Year. Now, after such a catastrophe, he was depressed, miserable, and could not possibly get to sleep. There was nothing left to do but to come to her. He had been watching and lusting after her for two years. For propriety’s sake he had intended to wait until her three years of mourning was up, but what was the point now, why should he wait any longer?
“Turn out the light!” he urged her.
Mrs. Sang was still hesitating as he quickly stepped up to the table and grabbed the oil lamp. He didn’t bother to blow it out, but rather turned it upside down in his rush to drown the light, then pulled her down onto the bed.
‘Weiner’ Ca slept the sleep of the dead until the following afternoon. Mrs. Sang boiled up an entire nest’s worth of balut eggs, good ones that had been developing for seventeen days, then set them to soak in a bucket of cold water so that they would be easy to peel and waited for him to awake.
Sister Gian was watering the vegetables when the old caretaker came to tell her the priest wished to see her. She had noticed that he’d been leaving his light on at all hours of night these past two days. His window faced northwest, which naturally enough was the direction from which the autumn wind came, yet he did not close his window. The light spilled out of the window to illuminate half of the garden, and because her room was in the row of quarters that lay perpendicular to his, that unexpected light, coupled with the moaning of the season’s first wind, caused Sister Gian to lose sleep as well. Her hometown of Hue had occasionally experienced an autumn wind, but it was not as devilish and malicious as this wind.
“I’m here, Father. Are you not well?”
“No, I’m fine. I just wanted to remind you about Mrs. Sang. Have you been back to see her yet?”
“I’m sorry, Father. I was planning on going this afternoon.”
“Well, tell her to hurry up with her arrangements. The autumn wind is here and the vegetables are ready to harvest. The kohlrabi that the Bishop gave to the church will no doubt bring a good price, but they need someone who will take care of them. We must not disappoint our superiors.”
“I will do as you say, Father.” said Sister Gian, and she felt an overflowing pity for this man who stood before her. Dear Lord, she prayed, may you save such tender and easily swayed souls.
When she arrived at Mrs. Sang’s house, the door was closed. Perhaps the wind was too strong, she thought, or the woman is ill. She gently cracked open a shutter and peeked in. She saw ‘Weiner’ Ca laying on the bed, spread-eagle and bare-chested, his face weary and rumpled but utterly blissful as he chewed noisily on the bits of balut egg Mrs. Sang was feeding him with a spoon. She was straddling him with her bare back to the door so the Sister could not see her face, only a cascade of black hair rippling down her back as though dancing against her naked flesh.
“Hey, if you lose an upper tooth, should you throw it under the bed or up on the roof?” Mrs. Sang was asking as she tipped another spoonful of egg into her lover’s mouth.
“Poppycock! Just chuck it anywhere!” ‘Weiner’ Ca replied as he munched away.
The Sister quietly backed away. Between the moaning of the wind, and the fact that Mrs. Sang was preoccupied throwing something under the bed, the two lovers never knew that she had come and left in utter silence.
After that day, Sister Gian was never seen in Ke Dong again.
Kim Giang, 1997
(Translated by Rosemary Nguyen – Seatle – USA)