An exceptional candle for the rainy night

Sunday, 2018-04-22 07:42:17
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Illustration by Do Dung
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In the afternoons of early summer, I usually sat alone in the deserted courtyard of our compound. When sunset began, frogs appeared in ponds and lakes, resulting in a symphony of croaks.

Chu, my husband, often came home late, because he drank a few mugs of beer with his close friends after work. When Nhim, our daughter, left Viet Nam for France to study music, I became busy with the bushes of sweet briar laden with rosy pink flowers that she had planted as a child. Although she was away from home for several years, whenever she emailed me, she always reminded me to water her plants regularly.

At the age of forty, I frequently sat by the edge of the pond, leaning against the small trunk of our single white-blossom apricot tree to look at the surface of the water, which reminded me of the past. I imagined Nhim (which was a nickname for The Tu, our daughter’s real name) on her way home after school walking under a drizzle without a raincoat on.

"Why didn’t you bring an umbrella with you?" I asked her.

"Because I prefer wet hair, Mum," she answered and quickly buried her wet face in my chest. We both laughed happily.

Then my mind went back to a more remote past. I saw Tuan, an old flame of mine, under the canopy of my garden. In white, I returned home after class, hair sprinkled with tiny raindrops.

"You’ve left your raincoat at home, haven’t you? Well... I’ve reminded you to carry one for the umpteenth time," he told me tenderly. Leaning against his shoulder, I stared at him teasingly.

"You don’t realise that raindrops are sweet-smelling, do you?" I objected.

He smiled and pressed my face against his shoulder to wipe away the rainwater because we both did not bring handkerchiefs with us.

Later, when Nhim grew up, I once told her about my love affair with Tuan.

"Why did you marry Dad, then?" She asked me.

"Because your maternal grandparents did not like Tuan’s career as a musician. In their opinion, his would-be profession was unstable and they didn’t want to place me at the mercy of such an uncertainty."

That year Nhim was only sixteen and yet she looked straight at me as if I were a teenager.

"And you didn’t express your own opinion," she criticised me.

"Anyway, your granny gave birth to me. How could I do otherwise?"

"However, you must assume responsibility for your own life," she went on.

***

My daughter might explain her own decision in the same way. Her phone call from Schiltigheim puzzled me. What would I tell Chu? The previous week, when he was told that she had just graduated from her conservatoire, he was ecstatic.

"We’ll have a silver wedding to mark the event," Chu suggested.

"Silver wedding!" I was taken aback. "It should have taken place a long time ago, in the lunar second month," I observed.

"It’s unnecessary for us to mark it on the exact day," he retorted.

"What will we hold it for?"

"Er... we’ve attended lots of others’ silver and gold weddings. Now it’s time for us to return our gratitude," he replied. "Our marriage took place twenty-five years ago, you see, and we’ve led a stable life with our single daughter’s great success. It deserves others’ admiration," he added.

I wasn’t so sure.

***

Formerly, when we had just begun our married life, a female fortune-teller told me that our viewpoints would usually be contradictory. She had been wrong, for the most part.

"I remembered you quarrelled with each other only once, when I was about to go abroad," Nhim remarked. That year, our living conditions changed remarkably. During a gala night held by students, our daughter met Kim, an overseas Vietnamese member of the Asian Studies Association in France.

"You’re a promising pianist," Kim said to Nhim when he heard her play a piece for piano. "If you wish to go to France to study music further, I’ll help you," he went on.

"You will?" she asked him.

"I’m now doing a treatise on Vietnamese music. You may become my assistant by signing an agreement with Archipel Adigo. To this effect, you’ll be provided with money, accommodation, food and a lot more," he promised.

"I’m afraid that it’s beyond my reach," she answered jokingly.

"I’ve never assessed anything wrongly. Moreover... "

"Moreover, ability ranks second only after opportunity. Is that what you mean?" Nhim asked.

***

"She has tried so hard to be admitted into the municipal Medical College, and now she’s going to take a different course at another institution!" Chu lamented. When I insisted in letting Nhim study music, as she saw fit, he flew into a rage.

"You think that going west is a golden chance, don’t you? Just an adventure!" he said, cursing Kim.

"Running after an overseas Vietnamese man! When will we get rid of that foolish dream?" Chu said in despair.

I told him that Nhim changed her mind not because of Kim.

"Don’t do it," he told Nhim. In all frankness, I didn’t think it would work.

When I saw her off as far as the airport, Chu stayed at home. One hour before her plane took off, she changed her mind again.

"Mum, I won’t go abroad as planned," Nhim told me. I tried to persuade her and finally she followed my advice.

"Well... tell Dad that I love him so much and that I’ll return home," she said to me. "What’s more, I know that I’m afraid of Dad and in his turn he’s afraid of you," she added.

"And I myself, I’m afraid of you, my beloved daughter!" I told her jokingly.

When I came home from the airport, I found Chu weeping.

"Nhim loves you so much, she’ll return home to you," I consoled him.

"Far from it! If she had loved me that much, she would have followed my advice," he objected.

After she left, the gap between Chu and me broadened more than ever.

"Dear me! I’ve lost my daughter!" he complained again and again.

In my heart of hearts, I knew that we would not lose her. On the contrary, I had lost myself...

***

In Paris, Nhim’s application to one of its well-known conservatories was conditionally accepted. One month later, she wrote to me, "When I first played a piano sonata for my future professor, he listened to me very carefully. At last, he said, ‘very good’. Of course, he congratulated me on my performance, not on my beauty."

While I was happy at her success, Chu only hoped that she would give up her music lessons to return home.

"Since she’s been a child, she’s never experienced a day of trouble," he observed.

Nhim passed her exam and was admitted into the conservatory with a full scholarship. Chu appeared more desperate, for fear that she would never come back.

***

Upon hearing the news that Nhim had given up her medical course to follow music, our relatives who came to visit us were greatly surprised, which made Chu more grievous than ever.

"Darling, did Nhim tell you anything about Kim?" Chu asked me one day. "Why didn’t he ask for her hand in marriage ?"

"Between them there is nothing but business," I explained.

"Hmmm... I didn’t think of that."

By the end of the year, Nhim sent me a letter saying: "Kim’s asked me to marry him. I’ve told him that I’m not in love with him. ‘Love comes in the wake of opportunity,’ he says. ‘Over the past four years, we have not had a relationship. So, your dream will never come true,’ I said to him."

Later, she phoned me to ask for permission to get married. Oddly enough, her would-be bridegroom was not Kim! Instead it was a man of forty-seven.

Now, Nhim’s fiancé was sitting in front of me. He was two years older than me, she said. But why she didn’t stay at home while he was visiting us, I don’t know. Perhaps, she did not want to see us both at a loss. Chu was also absent.

"I’m fed up with our daughter. Besides, I have to attend an important meeting at the office," Chu told me. "Tell her that she must ponder her choice very carefully: either him or me," he said.

I knew her personality. She was not the kind of person who was afraid of choosing. Nevertheless, she would make no choice, I felt.

"I love Dad, but I also like my fiance Lam. There are no contradictions here: either can’t negate the other," Nhim said to me.

"Are there no men in this world other than him?" I said.

"You see, men are everywhere, but they’re not interchangeable," she retorted.

Under the white-blossom apricot tree, I sat opposite to my would-be son-in-law.

"Frankly, I don’t know how to speak to you," I confessed after a long silence.

"Don’t be too worried about your way of speaking to me. It’s only the facade of our relationship," he replied calmly, smiling. "I know that you’re very sensitive. Sorry for making you worried, but I can’t do otherwise," he apologised.

Strangely enough, I felt at ease. Although he was two years my senior, he looked much younger than his age. Moreover, his gait and way of talking were still very lively.

"I’m your daughter’s instructor. I lead a stable life, but I am not rich," he said. "Besides music knowledge, I’ve got nothing else. In my lifetime, I’ve never paid any attention to marriage. However, since I met her everything has changed remarkably," he went on.

"But she’s still too young," I said, bursting into tears.

"As for me, I’ve told her that I’d die a long time before she says good-bye to this world."

"Yes, I know, I know! We’re poles apart. She’s often asked me, ‘Between fragile happiness and firm despair, which will you choose?’ "

The sky turned overcast. A few minutes later, it began raining. Several white apricot blossom petals fell upon us. I got up and went into the veranda. Lam followed me. After that, we both sat down silently.

"Morning, Mum!" Nhim greeted me as she ran across the courtyard. Her hair and clothes were drenched with rainwater.

I quietly wiped away my tears for fear that she might recognise my grief. All of a sudden, I glanced at Lam. He understood my intentions immediately. He proceeded to Nhim, then stood between her and me. He wiped the raindrops from her hair in the same way I had done to my daughter in her childhood.

"You’re always getting wet," he told her in a soft and bass voice.

"It’s only a drizzle," she answered, smiling innocently. "What’s more, it’s laden with the fragrance of flowers and leaves," she added.

I suddenly saw what a woman she had become. She was now a tall, well-shaped young lady with a brilliantly rosy face. In fact, she was in the prime of her life with all the youthfulness of a girl in puberty.

The rain kept falling for a while.

At nightfall, when we were alone, I softly said to Nhim, "When you deal with the matter with your father, you should reduce Lam’s age a bit; say, ten years younger for he looks much younger than his real age."

"That means that you’ve agreed to our marriage? Do you believe that we’ll lead a happy life?" she asked me.

I stammered, without saying anything.

"What made you accept?"

To put it frankly, I did not know.

That night, when I entered my room I found Chu curled up on the bed, eyes brimming with tears. Suddenly, I took pity on him. He had suffered great losses in his life.

"That man’s my age. How stupid! I can’t stand it."

I turned cold and trembled with worry. Nhim did not follow my advice: she could not tell a lie. So, the burden on my shoulders had not been lifted yet. Meanwhile, Nhim believed that I had succeeded in persuading her father!

I caressed his forehead in order to ease his tension. I would try to persuade him for my daughter’s sake.

Incidentally, I felt bored. This feeling usually came over me in the past twenty-five years whenever nightfall came, especially when it rained with the fragrance of flowers, leaves and grass.

Nowadays, with these feelings at the bottom of my heart, I intended to expound to Chu what I could. I would tell Chu to hold our silver wedding and accept Lam as our daughter’s fiancé.

"If The Tu stays in Viet Nam for another six months, I’ll arrange to return here to live with her. I know that we can’t be beside each other forever. So long as we’re still alive, we’ll never live separately from each other," Lam said to me.

I got up, went into our bedroom and took out a candelabrum. It was Tuan’s gift. He had left it for me as a souvenir before his departure.

***

Tuan was an unshakeable youth. After I had said farewell to him, he never came back. For so many years, I did not know where he was, except for the fact that he had led a peaceful life.

This rainy night, I performed an exceptional deed: burning two candles at once. One was for Nhim’s conviction and happiness, and the other for myself. It seemed to me that they had their own destinies – Nhim’s candle burnt brightly and mine flickered unsteadily. Over the past twenty-five years, I had felt like a young woman crossing the ocean in a dilapidated boat that might be broken into pieces at any time.

Luckily for me, the ocean had spared me. Thank God, I had managed to find happiness, although my boat had never called on any ports.

I sat down beside Chu and began to plan a wonderful silver wedding party that would take place in the days to come.

By Tran Thuy Mai/ Translated by Van Minh
VNS