The weather forecast said that today’s temperature might hit 39 degrees Celsius and that it was the hottest spell in the year of our lord 2016. Worse still ,a power cut plunged the whole town of Đong Thinh into darkness. In the daytime, the eternal hum of the cicadas made the atmosphere even stuffier.
According to local practices, adead person’s coffin is laid in the middle of the house for five nights before being buried. On the first and second evenings, many neighbours and relatives pay homage to him. During the thirdand fourthdays, fewer visitors come and on the last, there isalmost none, except for a few standingvigil. They staylate playing cards, not for money, but to dispel thedreary atmosphere, along with a few drinks. Then deep at night, the host cooksgruelto fight their enemies; hunger and sleep.
A siren was echoing from the ferry landing. Huong was busy cooking. It was her daily chore, from early morning to late at night. When she lived with her parents, she did field work, and now with her husband’s family, she had to farm. She planted maize, beans, chili, pepper and cucumber. She was always busy, day in day out. But she was used to it. Every woman she knew was in the same boat.
As I stood on stage for the graduation ceremony of our university one morning, I still thought about the ill-fated elephant in the city zoo from six months ago. The animal’s death was vivid in my mind, while the MC’s introduction sounded totally meaningless. Snapping out of my day dream, I noticed a slender girl in front of me walking off the stage. Looking around, I saw I was alone on stage.
At the end of the year, Huong turned 30. Any baby girl born on the last day of the year will be unlucky in marriage, a Vietnamese saying goes. She did not really believe in such things or in fortune-telling, but her destiny had so far proved the saying true. There had been a lot of marriage proposals from many youths, local and urban, far and near, and they seemed rosy at first, but sooner or later, they came to nothing and left her in sorrow and despair. As another Vietnamese maxim has it: At the age of thirty, young men are still in their prime of life, and young women are on the verge of spinsterhood.
Around when I decided to close Chin Khe Farm for repairs was when the ill-fated tourist came. She told me while pointing towards the highway that she and her friends had been in an accident. Her friends had left for home, but she decided come to this mountain valley.
The weather in March was quite unpredictable. Out of the blue, it began raining with a cold wind on a previously calm day. An old woman was looking for a pair of pants for her grandson. This weather was a cold snap and she felt her joints ache.
Anyone who dropped by for a visit would ask, “How long has she been this way?” He didn’t know what to say. He did not know when this strange illness had begun. She didn’t feel any pain or fatigue, and though she’d been taken to countless doctors, no one had been able to say what was wrong, or point to the source of the illness.