Our Founding Fathers

Sunday, 2017-06-18 01:08:14
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Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
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For a whole year, whenever Hung, a doctor, worked a night shift, his wife Ngoc would also be away from home, but Hung’s aunt Hai wasn’t worried about that.

But today, Hai suddenly felt very nervous when she saw the doubt in Hung’s eyes in the afternoon. She was feeding her grandniece An when Hung came home. Hai was dumbfounded:

“What! You’re home so early today!”

Hung said that he had left something at home. Hearing his daughter crying, he asked:

“Where is my wife?”

“She, she said she was going out with her friend and she would be back soon,” Hai said falteringly.

Hung wasn’t working the night shift today. He knew his wife wasn’t at home when he worked a night shift, he could guess where she was. He raced to where the Don ca tai tu (a typical southern folk art) singers and cải lương (a theatrical art in the south) performers met. He stopped in front of a restaurant where his wife had once told him that artists from the Reformed Theatre Club had set up to earn a living.

Since the restaurant had opened, the artists’ lives had improved. It seemed as if the founding fathers of the art had blessed them. Hung remembered that when they went past the restaurant once, his wife Ngọc boasted: “I used to perform in this restaurant, so well I was given tips.”

One night, Hung woke up without his wife by his side. He went looking for her. As soon as he got to the second floor, he saw Ngoc practising her singing. She was startled upon seeing her husband. She entreated Hung:
“Please, let me go and sing in peace. I miss the stage and music so much.”

Hung silently glared at her. Ngoc turned away to avoid his stare. It was synonymous with his disagreement, she understood. They had agreed after the wedding that Ngoc would not sing any more. Hung did not want his wife to be a cai luong performer.

Ngoc wanted to forget the theatre and everything related to cai luong singing, but she couldn’t seem to shake it.

Cai luong is in my blood!”

“Do you love the stage more than me?”

“If you are the air, cai luong is my blood. Without one of these things, I will die!” she sobbed.

She was head over heels in love with her husband, so she eventually decided to give up her passion. Yet, the founding fathers seemed to want to her to perform the role of Thuy Kieu in The Tale of Kieu. Ngoc missed her job so much it drove her insane. Her friends gossiped about her:

“This girl is off her rocker. Her husband is a doctor for crying out loud! Any girl would kill for her life, but all she wants to do is perform cải lương. What a nutter she is!”

“She should have been punished by the founding fathers!”

********
Hung went straight into the restaurant. He sat down and ordered a beer. He could see Ngọc walking onto the stage in a colourful costume. Hung felt a lump in his throat and wanted to drag her off the stage and take her home. Sad music started playing.

When Ngoc and Hung were first dating, her mother Nga often said to her daughter:

“I don’t think you two are a good match”

“Why, mother? He has got a good education. Don’t you like him?” Ngoc said, rolling her eyes.

Her mother heaved a deep sigh:

“No, I like him very much. But one of you lives on earth and the other lives in the clouds. If you both want to live with each other, you’ll have to quit your job. I doubt Hung will marry you if you keep on singing cai luong.”

Nga knew this because she was also a cải lương singer. She loved her job so much that her husband had one day jumped onto the stage and dragged her home. Nga did not want her daughter to suffer that, she told her to quit before marrying Hung.

After the wedding, Ngọc took a vocational course so she could find another job. Yet, the music was calling to her. One day, when Hùng came home, Ngọc was gone. She had left without a trace. He found the note she had left behind: “Please, forget me, forget your singer. I am not meant for you!”

How could Hung forget Ngoc who had helped him find a cheap enough house so that he could continue studying in medical school? Ngọc had helped him while he was struggling. A poor student in a part of the country only rich in the sun and the wind, Hung fell in love with Ngọc. When Ngoc went to on the road to perform, Hung missed her as if he was missing a limb.

********

Upon hearing that Ngọc had married, all the cai luong club members were disappointed, because Ngoc was the star. Since she left the club and restaurant, business had suffered. Ngoc felt great pity for her former colleagues. So, whenever Hung worked a night shift, Ngoc went to sing in the club. Bigger and bigger audiences came to see her. But Ngoc was ignoring the great risk she, like her mother before her, had taken.

Having finished performing as Thuy Kieu, Ngoc was given a bouquet of roses from a young man. To everyone’s surprise, he embraced Ngọc and kissed her passionately. Sitting among the audience, the sound of their most lips smacking as the crowd roared its approved cut deeply into Hung. In a rage he hurried straight home.

After the performance, Ngoc quickly went home. As soon as she entered the house, she saw Hung standing there, waiting for her.

“Where have you been?” Hung asked, looking straight into her eyes.

Ngoc felt so weak that her handbag dropped onto the floor.

“I…. I…..”

Hung said in a cold voice:

“I’ve just came from the restaurant, from your cai luong club.”

Ngoc sobbed:

“Oh, my dear! Let me sing again. I can’t live without. Without me, the club is lost!”

“If you want to, sing to your heart’s content, but don’t come back here!” Hung screamed as he slammed the door. Ngoc left the house and wandered aimlessly. In the yellow street light, Ngoc cried and shrieked with laughter. She began singing as if she was being haunted by a ghost.

Passers-by stopped and enjoyed her singing. One woman recognised Ngoc and said:

“What’s going on here? You’re the singer Bach Ngoc. Why are you here?”
Ngoc went on singing. Some young men went by, saying:

“Look at her! She’s off her barnet!”

The crowd followed her. An old woman heaved a deep sigh upon seeing Ngọc singing cải lương:

“This lady is singing for the last time before quitting her job.”

Nearby there was a swift river flowing.

VNS