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THE WOMAN OF NAM XƯƠNG

a short story by Lê Tuấn

 

                                                

 

 

Phuong was devastated. She knew she had to do something but was uncertain about what to do. Nevertheless, she felt she needed to see Tran, the fortuneteller, at once, for the second time.

It’ll probably resolve nothing for me, Phuong told herself. She now wished she’d stayed in the North despite its harsh climate and severe economic conditions.

 

Phuong moved to South Vietnam seven years ago, in 1995, with her husband. They had been married for fifteen years, when Phuong was seventeen, beautiful, and strong — seventeen-year-old girls could break the horns of an ox, goes the saying — and, Tung, her husband, was forty-one. They’d met just one time before the wedding. Actually, they had seen each other once, through a curtain made of discarded lottery tickets.

Phuong had lived with her parents and her siblings in a village called Nam Xuong, North Vietnam. Tung, the new landowner, had come for the first time to her parents’ clay-walled shack to collect the rent for the parcel of land upon which her family had toiled for decades. The harvest had been so poor lately due to a protracted drought that her father had to beg for a short loan from Ba Nam, the village’s perennial moneylender, at the monthly interest rate of twenty percent. Actually, her father had no intellect to understand how the interest was computed. All he knew was that if he borrowed from Ba Nam five thousand dong, the sum he owed would increase to six thousand in a month. The rule was dictated by the centuries-old loan shark’s rate that dated back to the colonial time and immortalized a pidgin French rhyme in the Vietnamese folklore: cinq turns into six; dix becomes douze.

        Tung and her father were waiting for Ba Nam to deliver the money when the landowner spotted the tall girl with long black braided hair striding vigorously yet gracefully behind their palm-thatched shack. On one side of her shoulders was a six-foot-long bamboo pole with two large tin buckets attached at both ends. The girl was heading toward the well in the back.

        “Who’s that?”

        “It’s my daughter.”

        “She looks very strong.”

        “She is.”

        “She’s also very good looking.”

        “Thank you.”

        “How many children do you have?”

        “Eight. She’s the second oldest.”

        “How do you feed a family of ten on this parcel of land?”

        “We survive.”

        “What’s her name?”

        “Her name is Phuong.”

        “How old is she?”

        “Seventeen.”

        The men fell into silence.

        “My wife died two years ago,” the landowner confided to his tenant.

        “My condolences.”

        “I’ve been looking for a wife.”

        The tenant knew what his landowner implied.

        “You’re older than her father.”

        The landowner ignored the remark.

        “She has the kind of body that would be capable of bearing a lot of children,” Tung said.

        “One day, some man will marry her and she’ll bring him many children; and me, grandchildren,” her father said.

        “Some poor man from this village?” Tung sneered.

        “We are also poor,” her father replied.

        “I can provide for her. She can have whatever she wants.”

        “We can’t give her whatever she wants but my family has been providing for her since the day she was born.”

        There was some noise coming from the back. The men stopped talking, sat, and waited for the money. The landowner lit a cigarette without offering one to his tenant.

Phuong had scooped enough water from the well to fill two buckets, which she carried on a shoulder pole to the kitchen and poured into a large barrel. She went into a corner of the kitchen and looked into a terra cotta vat. There were some salted fish left. Phuong squatted down on her haunches, lit a thin twig with the flame from a little kerosene lamp, and tried to ignite the dry wooden tree branches to start the fire under the oven. Tonight, she’d be making rice mixed with cassava root for dinner; earlier, she’d checked and found the rice vat almost empty.

Tung could see Phuong moving through the blinds. It was the kind of curtain made of useless, unlucky, discarded lottery tickets tightly rolled into small tubes the size of a cigarette and strung together. It was the least expensive kind of curtain: the material was free and the labor was cheap.

When the conversation in the other room resumed, Phuong couldn’t help but eavesdrop on her father and the landowner.

        “I need a son to carry my name. If I died now, I’d have no heir and my properties would probably go to the state,” the man lamented.

        “Your late wife didn’t give you any children?”

        “No. She was so ugly that I didn’t even want to screw her,” Tung snorted.

        “Why did you marry her, then?”

        “It’s a long story. Anyway, I’m thinking about giving you the land, plus two more acres from your next-door neighbor.”

        “Thank you,” her father said.

        “You accept?”

        “If you put it in your will; when you die, I think the government will honor it.”

        “I’m not talking about leaving you anything, you idiot! You can have it now if you let me marry your daughter.”

        “She’s not for sale.”

        “Who said anything about selling? You need the land to feed your large family; I need a young wife to give me a son and take care of me when I’m old. It’s an exchange.”

        Phuong coughed as the fire caught and smoke filled the small kitchen. She turned to the rice vat, scooped out five cups of rice, and started washing it.

Tung stood up; his eyes tried to follow Phuong’s body in motion through the blinds. Saliva began filling his mouth; Tung had some difficulty swallowing.

        “I’ll let this quarter’s rent go for now,” he told her father. “Talk to your family tonight.”

 

Phuong talked to her father that night. They were walking away from the shack toward the river so the family could not hear them.

        “Father, please listen to me. If I go, there’ll be at least one mouth fewer to feed around here.”

        “How can you say that? We’ve been feeding you since the day you were born; and I’ll look after you until the day I die.”

        “Do you think I’ll be better off here, in this little village?”

        “What’s wrong with this village?”

        “There’s nothing here.”

        “You’ll meet someone, get married, have children, and live to old age as we all do.” Phuong’s father was only thirty-five – he had been married when he was sixteen, her mother fourteen - but he looked like an old man; his thin frame stooped under the burden of a harsh life and hard labor.

        They were approaching the riverbank.

        Phuong was known as the mule in the family for her jutting forehead, a sign of stubbornness. She was also the most sentimental.

        “If I could just somehow make it that our family has enough to eat, I’d do anything.” Her tears welled up when she said it.

        “No one sells his children to make gains for himself.”

        “But I want to help, if I can.”

        “It’s not supposed to be like that.” Her father’s voice was sad.

For the first time in her life, Phuong saw her father reach out and hold her hand, the kind of gesture not common in Vietnamese custom. Her father remained silent for a while as they were standing side by side, gazing at the black water.

        “Did your mother ever tell you about the story of The Woman of Nam Xuong?”

        “No. The story of a woman from our village?”

        “Yes. She died right here, in this river.”

        “When did it happen?”

        “Hundreds of years ago. “ Phuong’s father collected his thoughts and began to tell his daughter the story.

“There is a woman in this village whose husband has gone to war to defend his country against the Chinese aggressors from the North. After he left, she gives birth to a boy. Three years have gone by and there’s no news from the front. The boy cries all day and only stops at night when his mother lights a candle in the dark and points to her shadow cast on the wall and says, ‘Here comes your father, don’t cry anymore.’

        “When the war is over, the husband returns home. The woman of Nam Xuong is working in the field. At the house, as he identifies himself, the boy refuses to recognize him, saying, ‘No, you are not my father. My father only comes at night.’

        “The husband is devastated. He writes a letter to his wife accusing her of adultery and leaves again the same day without giving her a chance to explain.

        “Upon returning from the field, the woman of Nam Xuong reads the letter. She’s distraught at the unfair accusation and decides to drown herself in this river to prove her faithfulness and to defend her honor.

        “The husband comes back home at the news of his wife’s suicide. The first night father and son are together, he lights a candle and is startled when the boy cries out, pointing at the man’s shadow cast on the wall, ‘Here’s my father. He always comes at night.’”

        Phuong was silent when her father finished the story. She had never thought that her father had such eloquence in him to be able to tell the story as he just did.

        “Why are you telling me this?” she asked.

        “Because I want to remind you that the women from this village are born virtuous. First, you have the woman of Nam Xuong, then my mother, then your mother, now you.”

        At that, Phuong broke down and cried on her father’s shoulders. When she looked up, his face was also wet with tears.

 

Tung and Phuong were married a fortnight later. It was the biggest wedding the village of Nam Xuong had ever witnessed.

 

The wedding night, however, was a disaster. Tung could not perform — neither that first night nor in the other nights during their fifteen years of marriage. Some forms of a mysterious and incurable venereal disease — untreated due to the acute lack of Penicillin in impoverished North Vietnam — which he had contracted long ago had rendered him impotent.

 

Phuong had been faithful to her husband and kept her family’s honor intact. Also intact was her hymen; Phuong remained a virgin. Tung had given up trying to have himself a son.

        True to his promise to her father, Tung had provided for his wife. She could have whatever she wanted. He was getting on with age; he knew she would be there for him. As he’d told her father, it was an exchange. To be worthy of being her father’s daughter, Phuong had been a virtuous and devoted wife. If she couldn’t give him the son he wanted, she’d at least be able to care for her husband when he was old and infirm.

Husband and wife stayed together, not out of love but of duty.

 

Until fate intervened.

       

Anyone who observed Tran and admired the handsome seer’s magnetic draw would understand why women were attracted to him. No women would be able to resist a person who could reach into their pasts as though he had lived intimately with them, who could steer them from calamities, teach them how to please the gods, and let them peer into the mysterious realm of the future.

 

Phuong had met Tran for the first time three months ago. To her, it were as if it’d happened yesterday.

 She’d accompanied one of her husband’s rich cousins to see the fortuneteller. As he finished deciphering the older woman’s astrological chart and assured his client that she had nothing to worry about her husband’s suspected unfaithfulness, Tran gave Phuong a quizzical look and asked if she wanted her palm read.

        “It’ll cost you nothing,” he had said. “There’s an aura emitting from you that I am curious to find out.”

        Her cousin had to run an errand. Phuong stayed.

        The aroma of expensive cologne pleasantly embraced Phuong as she sat down next to Tran on the sofa. Tran reached for her hands, which were folded on her lap. His touch was warm and put her at ease.

        “May I?” His voice was tender and respectful. His mellowed and charming southern drawl was a sharp contrast to her cold and high-pitched northern twang — the so-called Vietcong talk.

        Phuong lifted her hands; the seer covered them with his soft palms. His fingers started a gentle probe at the mound Venus, the fleshy part of her palm. Phuong shuddered.

        “What sign are you?” he asked.

        “I’m a dog.”

        “Thirty three? You look twenty five, tops.”

        “Thank you.”

        Tran used a magnifying glass to scrutinize her pink palms, which had been rid of calluses after the long absence from the hard daily farm work. He peered down for a while  then looked up sharply.

        “You are in great danger, I’m afraid,” he exclaimed.

        A sudden chill enveloped Phuong; she shivered.

        “There’s a force from the other world that wants to harm you,” the seer continued.

        “Can you tell me why? I’ve done nothing wrong in my life,” she pleaded.

        Tran closed his eyes.

        “I see children. They are crying, asking to be brought to earth.”

        “I don’t have any children.”

        The seer was silent; his brow knitted. When he spoke again, the gravity of Phuong’s situation was unmistakable.

        “That’s the problem.”

        “Why’s that a problem?”

        “Because you are destined to have them.”

        “But …” she protested.

        “Your sign plus the tiny star here,” he cut her off, pointing to a spot on her palm, “call for you to have at least six children. They all need to be born. I see four, no, five girls and one boy…”

        “My husband’s always wanted a son…”

        “You’ll bring him a son…”

        “No. We have been married for fifteen years and I’m still…”

        “…There’s no way I could tell whether a son would come first but…”

        “…I’m still a virgin.” Phuong couldn’t hold back.

        The air was heavy. Nothing moved. Phuong could hear the fortuneteller’s sharp intakes.

        “He’s…not capable?” There was a great deal of concern in his tone.

        Phuong nodded. Her cheeks had turned crimson. A long time went by.

        “We need to resolve the problem,” the seer said at length; his voice was eerily prophetic. “The children need to be born. There are six unclaimed souls on the waiting list slated to be reincarnated in your womb. If you won’t bring them to life, they have the immense power to cause you and your loved ones much harm. A source from over there told me that If you defied their wishes, either you or one member of your family would be dead in three months.”

        Phuong started to cry. Tran’s right hand took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed away her tears while the fingers of his left hand were making circles in a tender caress on the back of her hands. Half of Phuong wanted to withdraw her hands; the other half didn’t.

Phuong thought about husband, her father, and her siblings. Thank God, her mother had passed away so she wouldn’t have to suffer should the unborn children decide to harm her family. Do the unborn children have that much power? Who’d take care of my husband if I were dead in three months? How can I get pregnant and bring the children to this earth? The questions swirled in her mind.

        “But it’s not up to me to bear a child. My husband, my poor husband…he…” she whimpered through her tears.

        He cut her off, quickly.

“If you listen to me, you’ll make it. With my help, he will make it. Trust me.”

        Tran released Phuong’s hands, stood up, and locked the front door. He then came back, took her hands again, and led her to the bedroom.

        “Your husband’s problem is not incurable. I’ll teach you how to return him to normal. I’ll show you all the techniques to make a man pour all his strength into your womb and you’ll conceive. That way, the children will be born and you’ll be out of harm’s way.”

        Phuong was mesmerized by the powerful voice of the seer. That moment his sincerity, empathy, and authority were, in Phuong’s mind, absolute.

        “Now,” Tran told her, “take your clothes off, piece by piece. Slowly, slowly…start with the first button on your blouse…look in my eyes…move your hips a little…give me a small smile…”

        And then.

        “Pretend I’m your husband. Take me in, do as I say, and you’ll have a son.”

        As she obeyed his commands, Phuong’s eyes were glazed.

 

Before she left, Tran made her verbally repeat, step by step, what he had taught her during the two-hour session.

        “Your husband will treasure you, my dear. He’ll appreciate you more than ever,” he said when they parted.

 

Phuong went home. That night, she repeated what she had done that afternoon in the fortuneteller’s bedroom with her now fifty-six-year-old husband. She was confident that miracle would be created with her newly acquired skills. She failed.

 

Three months later, after the morning sickness, lack of appetite, and constant fatigue drove her to see a doctor for the first time in her life; Phuong found out that she was bearing a child in her womb.

        The irony of the situation struck her hard. If Tung had been able to make love to her that night, just once, he would certainly be the baby’s father and filled with joy. She would take her secret with the fortuneteller to the grave.

Now, Phuong felt an urge to see Tran again to tell him that his prophecy had materialized and she was pregnant from the single sex lesson he had taught her. Why, she didn’t know.

 

She had come to his place yesterday and learned that he’d moved. His former landlady gave her his new phone number. She’d made the call and later, ridden her scooter through the street where he lived. His new address was a high-rise housing complex in Saigon’s District One, a desirable area. He must be doing pretty well, Phuong told herself. He’d sounded vague on the phone but agreed to see her anyway.

 

Phuong stopped the Honda Dream at the curb and walked it into the cavernous ground floor that had been converted into a parking facility for scooters and bicycles. The strong smell of gasoline in the enclosed space churned her stomach. Phuong staggered.

“Master Tran is on the eighth floor?” she asked the old attendant who sat on a crudely made aluminum wheelchair in a dark corner; the lower part of his body was absent.

He nodded, hooked a ticket on the handlebar of her two-wheeler, gave her a receipt, and pointed to an empty spot. Phuong handed him a five-thousand-dong bill. The parking fee usually was one thousand but she felt sorry for the man, more than likely a veteran, who had sacrificed for his country. She’d read somewhere that three million people from both sides, North and South, were either dead or maimed during the war.

“Thank you, miss.”

Phuong parked her Honda. She turned the handlebar to the left, inserted the key to lock it, and bent down to loop a heavy chain through its rear wheel.

 

Six flights of stairs drained all her strength. Phuong stopped and leaned against the balcony’s rail to rest. Two more to go.

 

He looked skinnier than the last time they met. Phuong noticed it immediately — maybe he was five kilos thinner. As he had been on the phone yesterday, his voice sounded guarded.

        “Welcome to my new abode,” he said formally. Noticing that Phuong’s face was flushed and she was still panting from overexertion, he added, “I apologize for the height. I wish the building had an elevator for my clients.”

        As he lifted a hand in an inviting gesture for Phuong to sit, the telephone rang.

        “Excuse me, Miss…”

        He cracked an awkward grin and crossed over to the commode to pick up the phone.

        He doesn’t remember my name; I just talked to him yesterday. I don’t think he even recognized me, Phuong thought. A wave of sadness came and gnawed at her. What am I doing here?

        “What can I do for you today? Cards, palm, or astrological chart?” the fortuneteller asked as he came back.

        “What did you say?”

As she was still trying to overcome the disappointment, Phuong, nevertheless, couldn’t help but notice that he wore a different brand of cologne today when the fortuneteller sat down next to her on the sofa.

        “Would you like me to read cards or your palm? Or draw you an astrological chart?”

        “I…I’m pregnant…” she blurted out.

        “Congratulations!!!” He reached for her right hand and turned her palm up. She shivered. His hands were like ice.

“Your hands are cold,” she said.

He didn’t seem to hear, peering at her palm.

“I see a boy…Your…future husband must be very happy.” He looked up and stared into her eyes.

        “I’m married. My…my husband doesn’t know.”

        “Why do you keep that from him? The father must be ecstatic. I would if I were him.” He looked down at her palm again. “I see great things for the boy. He’ll succeed in…I see papers and pencils… he’ll be a writer … or maybe a painter …not a soldier or a laborer, I’m sure. When he’s born, I’d like you to bring him here. I’ll do a physiognomy on him and draw a chart for him; it’d be more accurate…I’m sorry, I have to meet someone in five minutes…if you would…” He released her hands and stood up.

        Phuong rose, walked to the door, and opened it. The air, even at this height, was stagnant; there wasn't a breeze. She stepped out onto the balcony. A row of potted orchids lined up against the railing. She bent down and touched the silk-like petals of a white flower. Her life had been as white as this orchid but it had been defiled. A single foolish act had turned her virtuous life into a mound of stinking mud. What was I hoping for when I came here? What did I expect from him? What was I thinking when I let him teach me the sex act? Was it lust or I really wanted to learn how to make my husband potent again and to bear him the son he always wanted?

Phuong began to cry softly. Her first drop of hot tear fell onto the orchid’s pistil and disintegrated. I’m glad my mother’s not alive to suffer the shame and indignity her daughter caused her family. What will my brothers and sisters think? What will the people in the village think? What will my husband think of his wife of fifteen years who has lost her honor? What will my father think about his precious daughter? He had told me the story of the Woman of Nam Xuong and said that, like her, I was born virtuous.

        Phuong stood up. Dizziness overcame her and she had to lean against the balcony railing a moment to steady herself. Phuong looked down to the courtyard eight floors below. I think it’s high enough.

        It was her last thought as Phuong climbed over the railing and flung herself into the void.

 

 

 

                                                     


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