THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 2 NUMBER 2
HOANG THI BICH TI
Woman behind the billboard
As on any other day, going and coming by herself, the woman emerged from nowhere then, disappeared behind the billboard like a ghost. She always carried over her shoulder a big nylon bag holding all sorts of junk found in the garbage heap about the railroad. Her hair was short, tousled, and dirty. Every so often she stooped, coughed painfully. The billboard, erected by the crossroads, connected the low and once yellow wall, near a tuft of stunted weed, to the fence on the side of the church. In the inside, over the fence, little flowerbeds were trimmed with great care, neat and tidy. No one cared about painting or fixing the wall, like the junk heap it was the poor member of those small houses along the railroad. I did not understand the meaning of the winding letters on the billboard. Smudgy and cheap painting made the actress' face seemed to be sagged beside the actors who looked not less dashing than John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Standing on the high floor of the hotel, I could see the bustling streets jammed with heavy flows of traffic down below. People were roaming the streets, stomped on each other to death for their lives. Their any one day was as busy as mine in New York. Thus for years, I had pictured this country as merely the rolling old forests, the wretched villages with low-roofed houses about the flooded rice-fields in rows of squares¾ like a chessboard. And the women, day after day, were exposing their backs to the sun, reaping from dawn to dark. I totally could not understand, and sometimes felt uncomfortable, when David talked about it with his most deep emotions, the place he had come to and would carry it as a fresh memory with him for the rest of his life.
When the giving-up troops came home, David came back whole. Whole. But no longer was he David of mine. His dreams were full of bullets, blood, and fire. His worries ceased to be the things both of us would share. In the wine parties, his friends talked their heads off about the war; bragged about their tasks of righteous cause, about their white nights of debauchery bought with few cheap dollar bills. Gradually, as did David, I became indifferent to their imaginary regrets. I was trying to get away from them; and sometimes had spite against the Vietnamese wives of our friends. Among them was Diem.
I wanted him to forget all about it¾ that country. Sometimes, without hesitation I spoke in private to our friends:
"You can talk about anything. But don't talk about Vietnam any more!"
In truth I did not know if I did such thing because of being so tired of that war, or because of worrying about his sweating nightmares. Many times waking at midnight he held his head, screaming in terror:
"Oh! Damn it! Damn it!"
I was astounded watching he torture himself, and me sometimes, during that whole day. At such moments, all I could do was show my anger.
"I don't know what's the matter with you? The important thing is that you are still alive. You did your duty! If all men have the right to live, why should you keep blaming on yourself? Maybe you want to be carried back home in a coffin, draped with the national flag, to prove to people how heroic you are? You have no duty to that country. You just have the duty to your own country. And that duty was well fulfilled!"
His eyes turned its whites, as sharp as sword slashing across, up and down my heart.
"You know not a damned thing! Oh yeah? I have the right to live? Yet thousand and thousand others, as men, must die?"
He seemed to be annoyed with my dumbfounded face of fear and stupidity, pushed the blanket away, sprang out the bed, said in a weary, listless voice:
"Damn it! I'm sorry. But how could you understand? It's silly of me! Why should I expect you to understand, if I never quite understood it myself?"
Every such moment I always blamed on my stupidity. I felt each of my words the spade that dug deep the separating chasm in our married life, and that made me hate to the utmost the country that cost me David. But still, I was waiting in patience, hoping his haunted memories would fade out with time. But it was David who gave up first. Coming home from work in the evening, I sensed something quite abnormal, quite fearful in the great silence of the house. Things were still in its usual places. David left, taking nothing with him. A piece of paper carrying few lines of his scribble was pasted up on the refrigerator, where we used to post reminders¾ for egg or sugar and such. His scrawling handwriting squeezed my heart.
"Jane, someday you will understand. Forgive me!"
I would never quite forgive him, but was also dead tired, drowning in that intolerance. In recent times, I woke up at mid-night with thousand of questions could not be answered. Years of being a wife, of waiting, of worrying, suddenly became meaningless. What made me drown in terrible pain was to lose him through absurdity, completely, to that country. During his abandonment I still, normally, lived out my life, feeling no desire to look for him. Living normally meant still waking up in the morning, still dressing up, still doing make-up; and in the afternoon still taking an hour for break to sit rock-quiet on the bench, in the park with the mute doves. And, in the evening, I still came back to the house of great silence, changing clothes, making a glass of tea, and again, I sat for hours in front of the TV waiting for the night to die in grief, for another day would come with more wind and storm.
I came here following some friends on their business trips. Scott was eager with his plan of making money, like an American hundred years ago with the boiling hunt for gold. Larry, with accurate costings, pondered on setting up a company with cheap labours. And Diem, came back to her homeland in a state of an arrogant woman, with the desire of revenge against her miserable old time by tossing away, turning her dollar bills into soaring butterflies. And I? ¾I came to this city not just for his sake. Like any stupid woman, I merely wanted facing my rival, just once. Facing once, even without knowing why. Indeed, I hated to the utmost things that went off half-cocked. I was uneasy and annoyed with myself that I didn't feel a rancor against him, unlike other women abandoned by their husbands who did. David and I had not yet an ending for our story. And now, I was about to search for it.
During my stay about a month in here, I used to amble for long alone around the grounds of an ancient church, which bore a high bell-tower, beyond the street. There I found sort of peacefulness, of nearness, when seeing the familiar face of Christ on the cross, when touching Marie's hand to forget for few minutes the sensation of being lost. I liked to perched atop the highest one of the blue stone steps leading up to the church entrance, waiting for the bell tolling the evening... slowly, slowly, then, pealing out into an endless stream whirling my mind. By this time, the flaps of white dress (1) would pour out of the high school at the dead end, stirred and whitened the streets, like a flock of sweet doves. Little girls, books in hands, took their paces gently, and softly. The tamarind-tree stood alone in a corner, like an old mother worn-out with age, strewing every leaf of love, in silence, down on the young heads. ¾What kind of dream were you dreaming that you're now carrying in those books? You know your country had long ago buried in it souls and hearts of the young, by millions, who also had had a dream as you did? Among them was David of mine¾ Oh gosh! There was an invisible hand that squeezed my heart painful as his name flitted across my mind. Indeed, he was always in me, though I had struggled, tossing him deep into my dark memory, locking it up.
As the white flaps of student dress (1) thinned out, the evening grew wearily old like a girl passing her marriageable time. By the layers of cloud in dark purple colour the sunrays at twilight turned ill, pale orange. The sun, swallowed by the darkness, tried to rise tiredly at the far end of the street. By the grille, the nun smiled softly. The ring of keys in her hand sounded click-clack. The dark swooped down quickly. I went towards the fresh rising, inviting lights at the street end. The hunger from a lazy day without a bite tortured me. I wanted to find something to ease my stomach before getting back to the hotel. Strolling along the iron fence I came to the crossroads, where stood the billboard. Not one traffic light was to be seen.
I hesitated, embarrassed before the disordered flows of traffic, waiting in patience. Behind the mountain-like junk heap beyond the street was a row of wretched houses, bobbing up and down, pulling in and out, along the railroad. Fetid smell was strongly exhaling¾ accumulated, stifling. The dim red light from the house in front of me smarted my eyes. At the front door, a small board that carried the drawing of a big palm, with winding and tangled lines, made me smile vaguely: "That's it! Palm reading, isn't it? Are not the five-fingered hands of both Vietnamese and American very much alike?" Suddenly, entangled in the roaring of traffic came the groans of a couple, now in arousal, now in urge. The slight coughs, choked from time to time, mingled with the greedy panting of a woman. The grunting of a man. Foolish. Witless. I pivoted to look around. An abandoned pedicab was parked against the wall that smelled of ammonia. Under the streetlight, behind the billboard, was 'the house' of the woman I saw in the morning. Few wooden boxes, planks of board, raised from the ground level, hardly fit a place to lie. Her stuff were in piles around. The mattress in tatters was bobbing up and down, as was their flooding arousal. Four dirty legs were peeping out, wrapping round each other.
Heedlessly, I stepped into a small restaurant in the corner of a wretched market. Finding a seat at the table hidden in a corner, I picked one number at random from the menu, and then sat there worrying, having no idea about what would be served. An old lady went from table to table, spreading out the lottery tickets as she did a fan, soliciting them in despair. Her smile was so old, so shrivelled¾ the pitiful smile. A brood of kids hesitated at the front door. Some sat waiting on the slippery, filthy steps. Pale, tiny mouths slightly parted, eyes widened; they gazed intently at the steaming bowls. The man sitting nearby threw some money down on the table, drew back his chair, and got to his feet. He had a pudding face; his stomach ballooned out, bloated, sagged below the belt. The toothpick, lying loosely, showing off on his dark and greasy lips, made me frown, full of discomfort. The girl flagged getting up to follow him. Her reluctance raised a strange sadness. Her hair straggled down her half-hidden bosom; her shirt slightly slipped off her shoulder as she bent down exposing the very old bra strap, loose and twirled on her pale white skin. The dark black eyeshadow still could not cover the innocence, the stray mind bereft of hope in her eyes. The man threw the toothpick floating in his bowl of leftover soup, took a firm hold on the girl's hand as if he was a creditor. As they were about to leave, the children and the old woman rushed in like a flock of bees. A kid pounced on the bowl of soup the girl had just abandoned, brought it to her mouth, had no chance to eat before the old lady's bony hand, tightly, gripped hers. The woman's piercing eyes turned its whites. Immediately, the kid obeyed by giving her bowl in exchange for the woman's, and then held out her fingers to skim the toothpick, dropping it on the table. Both of them, one young one old, passionately buried their faces in the bowls before the hungry and thirsty eyes of the kids standing round about.
"Oh! Damn it!"
The familiar curse that had long ago made me sick hearing from David burst out unexpectedly, painfully. A bitter taste filled my mouth when I saw what was in progress. Gosh, how could I see these unexpected pictures in that luxurious hotel? I had seen the strikes, with banners stretching everywhere in the streets, against this war considered fruitless by the protestors. I had seen the body count soaring high on television during my country's stormy days. I also saw the new, inviting city with its name hard to read. Yet none as this show gave such an accurate picture of the cruelty of the war, of the regime, and even of the society. People had bragged about the war to the bore, about the against-tyranny heroes of my country, who fought to bring peace to the whole world, and about the heroes of those North and South regions. The heroes with mission accomplished, the heroes of running away, the fallen heroes. The unwilling heroes. And now, when the war was almost over, people again polished a new kind of hero that was ranked higher than others by years of serving jail term accumulated. All was like a movie. The main actors made their name to public, beside the ones who played minor parts were known by no one. They were the soldiers' wives who collected every bit of food and money to support their husbands in the re-education camps, the children who were jostled and shoved, swung round in circle by the war, abandoned up to this very moment.
The waiter served up my greasy meal in a bowl, putting it in front of me with a timid, yet friendly smile. I suddenly felt a sense of strange dejection that filled my heart. I lost my appetite, beckoned to the little girl to come to my table before the others' eyes widened. I did not trouble myself about what they were thinking of me, in those eyes. Also, I did not want the bother of what I am thinking of myself. I merely knew, at this very moment, my sadness became meaningless; my hunger became a cheap, pretend demand. I made a gesture for the girl to sit down, pushing the bowl toward her, paid off the waiter, then took a leave in a heavy sorrow. I found my way back to the old street. As the night drew late the street became crowded and noisy. Stars scattered dim and silent in the inky-black sky. The billboard stood motionless by the electric pole. The pedicab had been gone. At this moment, the woman might be deeply asleep. The stray cats began roaming the streets for food. Some tottering, old and frail; some walking in drowsiness, tiny and naive. Slightly pulling up the collar, I felt uneasy as thinking of David.
For several days I didn't step out of the hotel. It was raining. Showers of rain teeming down¾ unexpected, without warning. From the window, I saw a crowd still flocked about the rubbish-heap like flies. They were searching the garbage for every single rare, empty coke-cane, vestige of the 'deceitful American', while the rain was sheeting every moment against their heads. The billboard was to be detached, taken down. A film had been shown; another took its place. In the morning, Diem invited me to go to downtown. Annoyed by staying for long alone indoors, I accepted it without hesitation. We went from small to large market places. Diem bought, and bought heartily. She grasped this and that one in sight. It seemed she was afraid of having no more occasion to buy in future. Leaving the small market, we went over the little bridge that crossed a thick, inky-black river. Diem pointed to a range of houses in disorder, saying that was the place where she grew up. She tried to speak in a toneless voice, as if she was telling a story in which the characters had no connection with her. Her voice was in a monotonous tone. Her tale was disjointed, part disconnected from part. Every now and then, Diem gave in a joke with her rather bitter laugh. Yet the pretend indifference seemed give off a solemn sadness. She seemed like an immature fruit ripened by all sour, bitter, salty, acrid¾ different tastes of life.
She talked about the love of her childhood who was the boy next door, about the time the couple shared each other every piece of burnt rice, and about the dream of escaping the grinding poverty. He wanted to take Diem and her mother away from the river of viscosity and horror. During his absence, she still clung to the Cinderella's dream to live her days. Time dragged by, clogged as was the river filled with litter and mud. Still, the young man was not in sight; and unwillingly, she prostituted herself to feed her mother. On that evening, the man with flaxen blond hair came to her fate. The young driver in uniform sat in a daze in the jeep, waiting in patience for half of the day, like a slave. Sensual delight was over, she followed the stranger getting into the car. Her face was coated in make-up. Clothes brightened. Laughter licentious. Flesh shine. Four eyes were kept averted. Silently, the young man buried his complacent face of sorrow into the flat cab. She gnashed her teeth in great anguish, ordered bossily:
"Say, driver, go to restaurant X!"
The man smiled showing his white teeth. The driver said yes, softly. She leant her head against the stranger's shoulder, and suddenly felt the edges of the medal on the hero's shirt rubbing her ear painful.
We took a pedicab (2) to the hotel. Again, the weather misbehaved. The rain poured down heavily, like a wild woman threw a bucket of water out of anger. Diem had overcome her sorrow. She was joking, teasing, talking, and laughing, like a mad woman. The shower was just enough for calming the whirling dust. The smell of soil wafted in the air. The pedicab ran slowly. I wondered if we are so heavy that the driver sometimes had to stand up on the pedals to cycle with all of his strength. Diem felt a pity for his stunted appearance, kept asking edgily:
"Can you make it, old man? How about we get off?"
The man was frightened, tried to calm her down:
"I am OK, miss. Be patient, we are almost there!"
The pedicab (2) stopped at the front door of the hotel. We both got off. Diem was busy paying the driver. I gave a look across the street from habit. Two men were carrying a woman. I recognised the familiar short and dirty hair. The head turned to one side, swaying by the movement of the two men's steps. Her two arms were hanging loose, stretching stiff, swinging in an awful dance. Blood spotted the chest of her brown blouse. They put her down on the street soaked and wet, near a stagnant drain holding turbid and dark gray water. Part of her hair was straggling down the gluey surface of the street. The small mat hardly fit a place to lie. Two feet were exposed, stretching out inert¾ no longer held on as they did the other night. The man stood on the sky-high ladder earnestly assembled the new billboard. The only incense was burnt. The piece of newspaper covering the woman's face was shaking in the wind; it brought me the thought that the corpse was about to rear up to curse its life before abandoning it. Diem clutched my hand. Tears welled in her eyes. Silently the pedicab driver turned away, after mumbling few words to Diem, "To die is to escape your fate, miss." The man had climbed down the ladder. Slowly, he lit a cigarette, gave an indifferent glance at the sight, and then took his paces back and forth viewing his work.
Citation was given to the "to be in comfort" doctrine of Mark and Lénine. A war movie was to be shown. The billboard filled with airplanes and guns. Young soldiers were glancing at the flag, worshipped their leader. The drawing showed a violent tempered Hitler turning the whites of his eyes, near the bright, bloody-red-coloured flag. The flag's colour was as red as the blood on the chest of the woman lying dead on the street.
Sadly, I turned pacing away, feeling confused to hear my voice calling David in an unexpected remembrance.
Translated* by N. Saomai
(This English translation version has been published in Songvan magazine (ISSN 1089-8123, discontinued in 2000], issue 8 & 9, 1997, which is under the same ownership and editorship of The Writers Post’s publisher and editor N. Saomai / Nguyen Sao Mai).
Translator's note: (1) High-school regulation dress for girls, the white "ao dai". The Ao Dai is the traditional Vietnamese dress. In the US, famous fashion designers have based on the Ao Dai for their new collections. (2) a small, three-wheeled passenger vehicle serving as a taxi, pedalled by a driver)
(*)Translated from the original version published in SongVan magazine [USA: SongVan (ISSN 1089-8123), issue 3, 1996, pp 4-12]. The translation version first published in SongVan magazine (issue 8&9,1997) was smeared with typing errors which could easily be avoided by a careful typist. Corrections are made in this version.
Copyright © 1999 The Writers Post.
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