Two crabs

Saturday, 2019-01-19 11:33:57
 Font Size:     |        Print

Mrs Nam felt her son Teo’s forehead. It was still red hot. Her little son had been in a light coma since early morning. He cried without opening his eyes. His face was crimson, his lips dry. He was breathing heavy and quick.

The young mother looked at him with worry – dengue fever had broken out in this remote area.

She wanted to take him to the medical station as soon as possible. But it was five kilometres away from home. She had to pay VND5,000 for a xe om (motorbike taxi), meaning VND10,000 for both ways. And it would cost her even more with the examination charges and medicines. She had nothing left in her house now, as it was the end of the month. Even yesterday, she had to buy two kilogrammes of rice on credit from neighbouring grocer Xoi.

Could she carry him on her back to the hospital? It was quite a distance, and the sun was shining scorchingly. A small, sick boy could not bear such a long, hard journey.

Her husband Nam, who worked in a private quarry, had not come home yet, even though she had told him to be back earlier than usual and to borrow some money.

She looked at her son with great anxiety. The sun was now in the west. She could not afford to procrastinate. She had to find a way out. Suddenly she remembered that Ms Chin Thao was buying sea products for export. If she could catch some sea crabs, it might be enough for her to take her son to the medical station. Catching sea crabs was her job, something she had been doing since she was ten years old, she knew where the crabs were.

She quickly took a creel off the wall, put on a ragged conical hat and told her twelve-year-old daughter: "Hoa, do take care of your brother. I’ll be back soon."

Walking to the door, she turned to advise her daughter again: "Don’t forget to take a face towel and wet it with cool water and place it on your brother’s forehead. You did see me do that before, didn’t you?"

She walked briskly to the shore, which was a little bit away from home, where there was a dark mangrove forest that stretched as far as the eyes could see. From here, there was a vast sandy beach covered with black, muddy soil. When the tide came in, the whole forest was submerged under muddy water.

Mrs Nam walked with a slouched back along the gaps among the rocks, looking fixedly at the black mud on the sand in search of the creatures taking refuge there. There you are! She saw the markings left by a crab that led to a deep hole inside the rocks. It was not only one crab, but two, even three of them, that were hiding there. The money to buy medicine for her son Teo lay in there, so no need to go anywhere to get money.

The hole was so large that it was like a cave, big enough for her small body to creep into it. She put the creel and the hat down by the side of the hole and tried to creep inside. It was a little tight, but when "the head was through, the bottom would do too", as the saying went. She tried a few more steps and saw a light at the other end of the hole. There, the two sea crabs were burying themselves in the bog with their green eyes poking out. She could crawl there even though it was very narrow. A little more, and then a little more, and she could reach them. Those valuable medicines that would save her son were lying before her eyes. She tried to force her two legs ahead. She caught one crab. The other crab ran away. A few more steps! There you are! What crabs! They would weigh more than one kilo. It was worth her effort!

Mrs Nam tried to crawl out of the hole with her two hands carrying the two crabs. But it was so difficult! The rock before her was so sharp that her back was scratched badly. The more she tried to crawl out, the more she got stuck. She suddenly recognised that this rock hole was like an eel-basket – in other words, it was easy to creep into, but it was difficult to crawl out of! She began to worry. She would get stuck in this hole. Her heart thumped loudly. She began crying out for help. It was no use. Her crying could not be heard outside. On the other hand, the beach was deserted. Only the mangrove trees were blowing in the wind.

She cried out as she recognised the danger coming to her. In a moment, when the tide came in, the hole would be submerged and she would die for sure. She cried not just for fear of her life, but for her two children at home. If she died, who would give motherly care to them? Her daughter Hoa could not bear the burden of the house chores. And what a pity for her son, only a few months old, who would give him milk?

Outside the hole, the sounds made by the moor-hens seemed sad. They were signalling the coming of the tide.

***

The owner of the quarry came home late from the provincial capital. That was why she distributed the salary to the workers late. Having received the money, Mr Nam hurried home. His wife was not at home. He asked Hoa: "Where’s your mum?"

"Mum has gone catching crabs to earn money for my brother’s medicine."

Mr Nam felt his son’s forehead. It was hot. He should be taken to the medical station immediately, but his mother should be called back, he thought. He had the money now, so no need to worry about it. Had she gone catching crabs? He knew where he could find his wife. It was deserted on the beach. He called to her.

"Where are you, mother of Hoa? Where are you?" he yelled.

No answer. So strange! Where had she gone? He looked everywhere. Suddenly, he saw the creel and the ragged conical hat lying near the hole. It was the creel from his house, with a piece of red electric wire attached to it. But where was she? He went searching wildly, and looked down on the sandy beach. He almost burst out crying upon seeing two feet sticking out from the hole. They were female feet.

He touched the feet. They were still warm. He looked at the ankle where there was a coin-size scar. It was really his wife.

"Don’t be frightened. Here I am!" he shouted.

He did not know if his wife could hear him. But her toes were moving. He took her two ankles and tried to pull. But in vain. He immediately understood that she had become stuck. He started sweating all over. The moor-hens were crying, telling him that the tide was coming in. It meant that his wife was going to die a slow death.

In danger, Mr Nam looked alert and extraordinarily calm. He stood in silence for a moment, trying to devise ways to save his wife. He tapped on his wife’s two legs, telling her to keep calm. Why didn’t he dig up the sand under her? By doing so, he could make space to pull her out. He started doing it right away by kneeling down. He dug and dug.

The moor-hens were crying their hearts out again. It seemed as if the birds were urging him to rescue her as quickly as possible.

He carried on his race against the sea. An unequal fight! Yes, he himself had to wrestle with the vast sea, with the indifferent referee being time.

About 40 minutes more. If he could dig the sand and then push the rock away, he could pull his wife out.

No delaying now! He continued to dig the sand with his two bare hands. No creature in the world could dig the sand like that! The silent and uncompromising race with time continued. He touched the bottom of the rock. Its thickness was about one metre. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath.

He looked for ways to move the rock, but it wouldn’t budge. It was as if it had come from hell. He continued to dig. He hurt his hand. He suddenly remembered his plastic hat, which could be used to scoop the sand out. The water was rising, very quickly at that! It was coming nearer to his feet and nearly flowed into the hole. Should he give up? The water started licking his feet and trickling into the hole.

This was a crucial moment for his wife’s life. He breathed deeply and pulled the rock with all his strength. The rock moved an inch away. The water started to flow into the hole. The race was coming to an end. Mrs Nam felt the water touching her body. She tried to raise her head to prevent water from entering her mouth and nose.

Outside, he worked hard to pull the rock away until it fell into the hole. The water in the hole was up to her chin. If it rose to her mouth and nose, it would mean an end to her.

Mr Nam quickly put his head into the hole and pulled out the sand. The water made the sand clammy and it was easier for him to get it out of the hole. After a moment, he got out and tried to pull his wife. He was so happy that he would cry. He could pull her now, even though it was still heavy. Maybe she was stuck somewhere. So he continued to pull the sand out. He slowly pulled her out.

He had won the race against sea out of his love for his wife.

***

It was dusk now. Mr Nam carried his wife home. Suddenly he realised that his wife was light and bony from lack of food. He should have worked harder to put more food on the table.

"Hoa! Hoa!" he cried.

No answer. Where was she? Her brother? Where were they now? His wife had recovered. He put her down on the bed and changed her into dry clothes. Then he built a fire in the middle of the house to light it up and warm her. He hurried to look for his children. There were Hoa’s sandal prints in the path. Why did she go there? Oh, yes. There lived an old couple who were assistant doctors. They had retired and built a house there to raise shrimp.

"My daughter is intelligent!" he thought.

The doctor’s house was bright with lights. His daughter Hoa was calmly having dinner with the old couple. His son Teo was sleeping inside the mosquito net on the bed against the wall. The assistant doctor was drinking tea at the table in the middle of the house. Upon seeing Mr Nam, the old man said: "The danger is over now. Your son has a lower temperature. His heart is stable. Do you want to take him home in this drizzle? You’d better not do it, I think."

After a moment he continued, "When he gets home, the boy needs more rest and sleep because this is the best medicine for him. Let him sleep here tonight so that I can give more care to him. Your daughter Hoa will sleep with my wife on that bed over there. You should go back to tend for your wife. What a pity! Your wife needs you so much, you know."

Suddenly, he saw Mr Nam’s hands.

"Oh, God! What’s wrong with your hands?"

He pulled his hands close to the lamp.

"Your eight fingers have bled. Now come here so that I can give care to them! If not, you’ll be in big trouble!"

He cleaned Mr Nam’s fingers in hot water and bandaged them, instructing him carefully: "You should stop working for a few days and keep your fingers completely clean." Then he gave him some medicine.

When he got home, his wife was still awake. She was cooking dinner for him. Seeing him, she uttered, "Oh, God!" and took his bandaged hands and pressed them on her face. Her husband was such a good man. He loved his wife not in sweet words, but in action that came from his heart and even blood.

"Are you hurt much?" she asked him.

"A little bit. The assistant doctor has given me some medicine. I’ll be better in a few days. Don’t worry."

She looked at her husband. A hard life had printed on his face some austere lines, but his love for his wife remained as warm as ever. Without him, she would be dead.

The rice finished cooking. She set out the food. He could not handle the chop sticks. So she helped him eat the rice. He found the rice so tasty. It seemed as if they were living their first days of marriage.

Everything around them blurred. The only sound in the room was the fire crackling as the poor couple ate together in brightly lit silence.

By Chu Thao/ Translated by Manh Chuong
VNS