The river was separated from the house by a long landing that ran down the bank, overgrown with nipa and bear’s breech. On a moonlit night, it became a vast expanse of rippling silver. The river never slept, it stayed awake with the chugging of boat engines and the splashing of oars.
As the stretch of river from Vac Fork to our place was fairly calm and out of the wind, boats often made short stops there at night on their way to the market. One boat in particular had the habit of coming to rest directly below our place. A small kerosene lamp would be hung out on a mangrove branch. Nobody was ever seen on the boat, but scooping and scratching sounds were heard now and then. At first light, the boat would be gone.
On the nights the boat stopped below our house, Father’s mood became even more melancholy. He chain smoked, staring all the while at the spot of light at the end of the landing and sighing heavily.
Mother would sigh as well and would rush into Granny’s room where the two could be heard faintly; Granny grum¬bling, “tell me where I went wrong,” and Mother sobbing, “Can he ever forget her?”
Father had loved another before he married Mother. But because of Granny’s strong objection, (Granny always had a million reasons for her actions). Father and the woman eloped.
The newlyweds led a very difficult life but scraped out a living by picking up odd jobs, reaping or weeding.
When they could spare enough to buy an outboard motor, they left firm ground for the river and began selling groceries for a living. But Father had never forgotten his old home. He missed Granny and began to hate himself for his; headstrong behavior. Each time he passed the farmhouse, he looked up with longing. With the death of his child, Father’s: cup of sorrow spilled over. He returned to the land and was! Given permission to stay by Granny, but on one condition: the woman was to be left alone with the river.
That’s the whole story and, though brief, it was only told to me when 1 turned fifteen. I was moved by the constancy of the other woman, waiting for Father for all those years. No wonder she had never left Father’s mind.
Mother loved Father precisely for this faithfulness. This: I realized when I myself came to know love. People, men in particular, who change their hearts quickly are not decent, and should not be trusted. As far as Father was concerned, all we asked of him was his constant presence among us, re¬gardless of the memories of his old love. He was very kind to us. So kind that he seemed to be thinking of more people than just his family; people that weren’t there.
In a rural area like ours, nine out of every ten men was an alcoholic and more than half of them beat their wives. Father was immune to both vices. He said little and was thoughtful. He cared for Mother a great deal and was very gentle with her, addressing her in the most endearing terms. When Mother got sick, he would rush her to the medical centre half a dozen kilometers away, rowing furiously without a letup.
In a way we were a happy family, but not a cheerful one (the two qualities seem to be incompatible). We felt that we owed some sort of debt, and that our union had been bought with the loneliness of the deserted woman. A sense of guilt was with us wherever we were: in the kitchen, at our meals, in our beds.
Granny, who was crazy about TV soap operas, would will at scenes showing tyrannical mothers-in-law. I believe her conscience never had a moment’s peace until she died.
After Granny died. Mother decided to confront her rival. She didn’t have a clear idea of what she would say or how she would act, but certainly she would ask the other woman to leave Father alone. After all, what could the woman expect to gain by hanging around our place and signaling her presence with that blinking lamp?
One evening, seeing the familiar lantern at the foot of the landing. Mother crossed the river alone,
retending to be off to visit her parents. She returned just after midnight, carrying a load of homegrown vegetables in the sampan. When she was sure the woman on the moored boat could hear her, she spoke aloud to herself: ‘‘Blast the wind! I’ll be late for the market for sure.” She hoped that, like herself, the other woman was still awake.
Mother was not wrong. The owner of the boat was embroidering a pillowcase by the light of a small kerosene lamp. She startled at Mother’s appearance but quickly collected herself.
"True, it’s a wintry night,” she said with an engaging smile and began hastily tidying up the bunk. “Come on board and rest for a while. You’ll catch cold staying out in this weather. ”