THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 2 NUMBER 1
Translated by N. SAOMAI
I happened to meet her. This I ought to say, lest someone interested in romantic be disappointed: Eva was no more at the age that suggested romance. At the time the World War II ended Eva was of an age with the full moon (1). If someone had never known the world history¾ when the Great War ended, he wouldn't have put the blame on me; for I have never been able to open my mouth to ask a lady's age, though she was old enough to be a grandmother.
The World War was an important turn in Eva's life. In one way or another, it took away from her two most stable refuges of human life. Her father died in the battlefield in Poland uniform; her mother was buried somewhere, under the flood of roaring bullets and bombs¾ the whips of fire in the hands of the devils from hell. Left behind all alone in the world, she was herded into the concentrate camp. "You couldn't imagine my childhood. In fact, I did not have a childhood. In the camp we worked hard like slaves. In winter, when the snow enshrouded all we had to work outside, barefoot". Eva always recalled the name of some plant I never heard of. Looking at my perplexed face she seemed annoyed. The kind of plant had stolen her childhood, which must be the most hatefulness in this life, yet it occupied no tiny place in my head that was even no less hateful than the plant had been. She looked at me¾ the rolling eyes made me think of the coldest sharp eyes of a beast, and shook her head as if she'd been taken pity for the great disadvantage of the man she was talking to. "My feet were purple bruised, swollen, and full of cracks; every pace I took was a torture. At moments I thought that if I could have had no leg, it would have been better for me. This foot here..." Eva raised her leg as if she wanted me to reverse it as the sole wonder in the world. But her face, in a sudden, wrinkled up into a grimace of pain, the furrows went deeper; she gently lifted the leg, deliberately manage to put it back down on the mattress, and reproved it, in her tender loving tone of voice, like a mother scolded her restless beloved child, "You gonna torture me again? You bastard!"
The place where I met Eva was not the least a romantic-looking spot. It was a place no one had particularly wanted to come if not being forced bringing himself to. The soulless room of the hospital that stood in the most desert and silent area in the town was a double-room. Two clean beds, bright white, and a great deal of machines occupied most of the room without much space. A desk, a wooden chair, a low table, and two armchairs took the rest. I was sitting in the chair placed flat against the wall, away from Eva's bed by a squeezing space. In the other bed, my sister, who was recovering after a minor operation, lay with a sheet covered up to her shoulder; her face was pale, tiresome. I came and visited my sister, not Eva, yet she engaged me in conversation, and talked freely, endlessly, as if I came to see her.
As for the leg bandaged from the thigh down lying in a rather haughty manner in front of me, Eva thought it must be the centre of attention. No matter how obviously obtrusive was the leg lying there, it was still not enough; she wanted me to know everything having happened to it.
"I climbed onto a wooden chair to fix things in the cupboard hung high in the kitchen. The chair was a bit rickety. But when I wanted to do something I've been wilful always. So I ignored it and climbed up. It was so tricky, too. Had it collapsed right then thing would be better! No, it waited for me to stand high on it then hurled me down, and onto the floor. The leg was really a leg no more when it banged against the edge of the oven as I fell. Nowadays, people do no good job, they has never been be able to make a chair."
Looking at Eva's body that spread out and covered almost entirely the bed I thought in private that the chair should not have been blamed. Still I had to say, in common courtesy, something of tactful comfort.
"Yet still you're with luck, ma'am! My aunt, who also climbed a chair, fell as you did, but headlong into the wall, lying unconscious for more than one day before she could open her eyes again. She has been, afterwards, paralysed for the whole ten years now, wishing to die but not allowed to. Not just having a broken leg like you!"
Eva gave a grin. Her face was coarse, yet the smile cheerful. She turned towards my sister; her voice was in pleasant tones:
"Yes my dear, it must be a luck. If my head is heavier than my legs, then I am now lying in a heap, no doubt. Muchless to share with you this room." And then, she turned back to me, " I say, you have a cheerful sister. We chatted away all day long like two close friends."
My sister nodded, returned a smile to please her, then muttered to me in our Viet language:
"She talked all day long, so I couldn't sleep a wink. As if she's been the only one having a broken leg in the world! Just lucky that she had only one leg broken. If she had two, I surely could not afford to be further along with her dwelling on them day and night long. She gets you now, to whom she would turn for talk as much as she pleases. Bet she's happy!"
Eva glanced at my sister and me in turn, seemed trying to fathom our talking. She did not understand, of course, but still picked up the sound in our language.
"To hear you talk seems like to hear them birds sing in the morning. Warbling. Twittering. Your sister is talking ill of me, perhaps?" she let out peals of laughter, "No, I' m just kidding. You'd better go on. I like to hear you talk."
Eva said, but seconds later she clutched her leg, crying:
"Ouch, so achy! They put a dozen of metal screws in my foot, you know. Can't bear that!"
Again, despite myself, I comforted her. I hardly ever did a bit of a thing about 'charity' in my life, and therefore, grasped any chance while it came in order to have 'a good credit (2) rating' I could use at a later time:
"Science is much advanced now. They can change whichever organ in your body, let alone giving you some cheap screws. It should be alright, ma' am!"
I wondered if my comfort brought instant result, or the chance of using her chatty mouth cheered her up. She amused me:
"Say, I think the sick now go to hospital no more; they go to the garage!"(2)
Eva delightfully burst into laughter above the participating laughs of my sister and mine. The reckless laughter shook her body. The bed in front of me laughed, too. Her wounded leg, of course, could not be suitable for such violent rhythm of joy. Eva, again, held it.
"That' s enough, sweetie. You had bothered me a bit too much!"
The leg, of course, had no ear; Eva continued to take hold of it, moaning. In a sudden, the room fell from the top of noisiness down to the bottom of silence. There was the sound of the door opened softly. And in walked two men, as big as two giants, in their white blouses. The younger one, with a gay and lively face, greeted them:
"Hi, everyone! What's up, mother? Are you okay?"
The face of the "mother" looked grimly alarmed, as if she was to deal with the jailers who came to take the death-sentenced prisoner for execution.
"How am I to be okay when I still see you guys!"
"Spare me, mother. Our job (2) is to visit you so that we can get pay! Mother don't want it, then our life will be miserable!"
The man quickly grabbed the walking frame that was on wheels from the corner of the room, pulled it over, and asked jovially:
"How is your leg today?"
"Still hurts me so! Painful to the bone when stirred!"
The two men together helped Eva up.
"Try to stand up and let me see it!"
Eva's face was distorted as she exclaimed in high pitch.
"How am I to stand on such a foot?"
Four ears were pricked-up in such a way yet they didn't hear Eva's cry at all. They lifted Eva by the arms, emotionlessly. She flared up:
"Leave me alone, you brutes!"
The 'brutes' smiled their encouragement:
"Come on mother, try to stand up, just for a while. The doctor said you are able to walk today."
Beads of sweat were exuded from her temple; maybe it was because of the wounded foot, or because she had quarrelled with those two big men. From behind Eva's nape the men winked at me, and smiled.
"See! You do it good!"
Eva was panting.
"Let me sit down for a moment. I'm dying!"
They led Eva over to her seat. Eva winced, seemed trying to ease herself through the pain that was shaking heaven and earth. After a little time, Eva looked at the younger man, lifting her chin:
"Are you married?"
Dumfounded, the man shook his head, smiling:
Eva's face was strangely impassive:
"Come here to night then!"
She gave me a sidelong glance, inwardly scored her points. The young man went scarlet; he forced himself to grin:
"You're a bit much, mother. Come on, stand up, will you?"
They lifted her, again. The enormous body seemed suspended. One man pulled the frame near; he caught her hands, and placed them on the handle. Eva stood shrivelled and helpless, like a convict standing before the court. Her blouse caught hiked up on the walking frame and exposed her creasing thigh. The young man bent down to readjust it, not forgetting to send me a joky glance. He moved back a little and stood close to the frame, encouraging her:
"That's all right now. Try a bit of walk, will you?
Eva pushed the walking frame forwards, using her unwounded foot hopping along; the wounded one hung above the floor, swaying peacefully, innocently. The young man shook his head, giving a deep sigh:
"Mother, you are cheating! Please do me a kindness, lower the foot that brought you in here for us to attend on!"
Full elated with achievement, Eva became good mannered. Gently, she lowered her foot, feeling the floor. Her face contorted.
"I just can't. It hurts!"
The young man coaxed her:
"Take pains to step forwards, just one step, will you?"
Miserably, she resigned herself to giving in, hunched up her shoulders, and paced forwards.
"There's a good girl! One more step!"
Eva ventured one more pace. Beads of sweat glistened on the bridge of her nose. The big olfactory bulbs that stood wide apart on her face seemed to reduce the beads to tiny size.
"It's all done! You bunch of exploiters!"
The man, worthy of the 'exploiter', pointed to the door:
"Try just few more steps, mother!"
"Dear God! You want to break this leg for real?"
"Just step forwards! I guarantee it won't break!"
"What if it breaks?"
"I will replace it with mine then!"
Again, there was mockery in Eva' s tone of voice:
"That man's leg won't be suitable for wearing pantyhose(2), period!"
She glanced at me sidelong, giving her pleasant smile for she's just scored. I felt, in a sudden, an uncertainty about my judgement. Was that true that Eva's been in such raging pain, or she had ever pretended, made much of the miserable for attentions? Again, the young man enticed her:
"Come on, take your step. Just few steps. Hurry up with this, and then have your supper. You'll be having beefsteak; it fills your nose with smell!"
He pushed Eva by the back, gently. In her head, might be now so expanded the beefsteak it concealed the nerves that made her be aware of the pain. She eased up her paces patiently, complaining no more. The walking frame inched up to the doorsill, then stopped. Eva said:
"It's all done! Let me take a break so I can eat your steak!"
The man, experienced at fastidious patient, insisted:
"We go to the corridor then come back, shall we?"
Eva stormed out as if the steak having been half way to her mouth was taken away. She craned her neck towards the corridor to squeal like a siren went off.
"What the hell you guys are up to, killing me for real? Doctor! Doctor! Why you let them torture me like this?"
The echoes of her screams sounded loudly in the corridor. The man split his legs, pulled the armchair close to Eva's back, gently pushed her sit down, and hurriedly, pulled both the chair and Eva back into the room. Eva sat holding her breast, heaved a sigh of relief, and shot a sharp glance at the young man who threw her a kiss before walking out the door.
She reached over and fished out a Kleenex(2) sticking out of the small box standing lonely on the table, which separated her from me. She blotted hard, the sweat on her face that was still in rage.
"You see, that is how they are, bloody fool. They just do things as told without using theirs brains. My leg was cut open three days ago, and I am supposed to walk? It is flesh and bone, not the glued-on thing or anything of that sort that could be held together in twenty-four hours. My life is a struggle, and I get used to it. For anything that is not right, I fight to the bitter end. These guys, but what the hell! Can you reach me the glass of water on my bedside table?"
I gave her the glass. She drank as if she'd been thirsty for long. The empty glass put down onto the table sounded a dry sound, like a signal for the watery mouth to start.
"You remember the movement campaigned for women's liberation back in the 60's? I was among the women in the front line of the demonstration who took off their bras fighting for the women's right!"
Eva's tone of voice was filled with her proud boast. The strength from three decades ago seemed still boiling in her huge body bloated in the light blue blouse. Her enormous budging-out breast slid down, nearly touching the seat of the chair. The fight for liberation gained result, no doubt!
Eva's eyes grew radiant as the food trolley appeared at the door. The woman-server, her head covered by a white hat, breast a white napkin, quickly drew the movable table up before Eva, and laid the tray on it. Hurriedly, Eva lifted the plate lid covering the hot food, said delightedly:
"That old fool monkey was right. There is beefsteak. You know, back when I first came to this city, the greed for a steak had ever made me salivated. But I had no money for it. How pity I felt as I went past a restaurant and saw people eat and drink! Don't laugh at me! All those years in the concentrate camp¾years of need and want for almost everything, and the demand of a growing body, all had made me die for eating. Until now, when I see a beefsteak I still feel ashamed at myself, and pity my fate at all."
The medium-cooked steak was a healthy food. Everyone knew it. But I have just learned one more thing that the steak would now cure a wounded leg! With her head bent over, she used the knife cutting the steak into bite-sized pieces, and seemed to forget about her leg that lay inert on the chair. She praised her food as she was eating. And I was forced to hear her praise on beefsteak at the intervals of dozen seconds.
Having been replete with the whole steak, she tapped herself on the belly, sighing in content. I wondered if the pat had disturbed her leg, for she grimaced and looked at me:
"How come I feel itchy inside my leg. The screws may be getting rusty, you think?
I wanted to tease a bit her exaggerated imagination.
"Not yet. Just few days it may not count. It will do in one or two weeks, at least."
Eva popped forwards, asked impatiently:
"Only one or two weeks you say? And how do they plan to deal with it?"
"Something simple about changing the screws."
"You mean they going to open it up again?"
"Can you think of another way?"
Eva's face was pale. She shook her head:
"May be it not that serious!"
I didn't have the heart to tease more at her real worry seemed to be.
"I'm teasing. You are in the hospital, not in the garage, you know. It must take a long time for the screws in your body to rust!"
"Long, but how long?"
"Ten or fifteen years, so I hear tell."
The heavy sigh of relief seemed to help Eva lose few pounds. She waved her hand, said smiling:
"By then who cares about they get rusty! I will be here no more, but deep down in the earth!"
Her finger pointing downwards the floor looked a full stop alike.
Eva reclined her head against the back of the chair, with her eyes closed, looking quite lost in a sort of last sleep. I rose, stepped up to the window, and looked outside. My sister in her low tone of voice was heard from behind.
"Let her sleep. She's never quite leaved me alone. Hospitalised yet noisy like attending a party, period!"
Eva's ears were kind of tiger's. At the sound of my sister's voice she woke and cheekily, struck up conversation:
"Say, how come you don't ask me why I had drifted to this coldest Canada?"
My sister threw her a sidelong glance, muttering:
"It's your business, and it had nothing to do with us. Nonsense!"
Out of the bother my sister said, but the fact is that Eva's talking was extremely cheerful and pleasant. Her mouth was talking much, yet her eyes and her gesture doing the talk even more. They made the story come alive, like the pulsating drumbeats and trumpets' sound pulsing through the parties or ceremonies. Worse still, I liked the merriment.
"It was impossible that you could walk here, I guess!"
Eva smiled slightly:
"Actually, released from the concentrate camp with such feet how was I supposed to walk! I flew by my stubbornness, you know! By then, the war was just over, and facing the ruin people became more kind-hearted. Organisations of charity competed each other to soften the human suffering caused by the war. Alone then with no relatives, and not a grown-up yet, I was the considered target for numerous 'chivalries' all alike. They said they would help me back to my homeland or whichever the place I want to come. You know, coming back to my homeland is coming to my dejection, nothing much left there is the good for it, so I asked them to send me to some faraway place. And they threw me over here."
I grasped my turn to tease the woman in whom was running the funny blood.
"They're rather strong, indeed!"
Eva burst into laughter, and raised her arm, pretending to hit me.
"I was thin, and a delicate rose then, period! For now, they must hire a towing truck!"
I laughed my turn, praising her sharp wit. The laughter ceased; Eva reached out for a napkin, dabbing her eyes.
"At the beginning they let me live in a nunnery. The nuns helped me look for a job. To work at a hospital, you know. I met there a man who felt pity for my position and helped me a great deal. After a time I decided to marry him, despite the fact that everyone tried to stop me. Not only my acquaintances¾ even his family members, they convinced me to drop the intend."
Eva's eyes were downcast. Her arms dropped alongside the arms of the chair. And it was all gone, the mischievous sense of humour in her tone of voice. The whole miserable past had grasped her.
"As I said, a stubborn sort of people I am. Only heaven could stop me when I had a wish to do something. I owed him too many thanks, and I just couldn't push him away from my life. He had been sick, you know. The prolonged sickness without hope of being cured. Yet he held on life, and lived with me for ten years. Ten years in the bonds of my love were the most beautiful years in his short life, perhaps. I has quite been content with my decision."
It seemed that I was seeing in front of me a different person. There was no more a chatty and cheerful Eva, but an Eva who, in the folds of her body, went over the books of her tragic life. She sighed, tried to speak in a careless tone of voice.
"I am still alone. Lonely as I had always been. Wish I had with him a child! But I just couldn't demand what so far impossible for him. We surely cannot count loss or gain against our life, you know! Sometimes, what we gain is not the gain, what we lose is not the loss. It's a game, they said. Yep, let's play! Can you lend me your shoulder for a mo? I want to return to my bed. My leg is about to raise her voice!"
I rose and came forwards, standing in front of Eva. She leaned her hands against the chair's arms to heave herself up. The wounded leg was swinging. I slid my arm under her armpit to raise her from the seat. She rested one hand on my shoulder. My body was inclined sideways. I led her over to the bed, and lowered her onto it. I felt my shoulder released from a mountain.
I went back to the chair and sat myself down, completely exhausted. My sister's mischievous eyes set on her brother's dreariness; the smile was still held in her lips. As I was leaving, Eva called after me, attempting a tone of voice that betrayed no mockery:
"Hey, don't forget to stop by a restaurant, and allow you a steak!"
Translated by N. Saomai
(1)Lunar calendar showing the moon is full on the sixteenth night of the month. The age of the full moon: the age of 16.
(2)credit, garage, job, panty, and kleenex are used as Americanisms in the original version.[Chan mang giay so 6, short-story collection (California: Van Moi Publisher, 1999), pp 103-107].
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