Mother jumped at the invitation. She secured her boat and stepped aboard, stooping to fit under the curved roof of the woman’s tiny deckhouse. Finally face to face with her rival, Mother was at peace with herself. What was happening was entirely different from the terrible scenes she had imagined for herself. Obviously, Mother had softened at the inoffensive air of the other woman. She wore a threadbare! Heavily patched pyjama top over a dark brown sleeveless undershirt; her graying hair was sparse; her face was heavily lined. Not fit to hold a candle to me, Mother observed to herself with some satisfaction.
“You’re alone in the business? How do you manage?” Mother asked after looking around at the sparsely furnished deckhouse.
“I’m used to it,” the other woman said, pouring hot water from a thermos into a chipped teapot.
“What about your husband?”
"He lives far away.”
“Mine left me for another woman,” Mother lied shamelessly.
The other woman sat bolt upright and looked at Mother searchingly as if she were weighing her own sorrow against Mother’s.
“Have a drink,” she said after a while, averting her face! “I can understand how you feel. Don’t despair though. He’ll come back. Men are basically good.”
Are they? Mother thought. He deserted you to marry me and you said men were good?
But Mother couldn’t give voice to her thoughts; neither could she muster enough courage to broach the subject of her husband.
In the weak light shed by the lamp, Mother could just make out the few articles available from the floating shop: jars of sweets, bunches of garlic, pineapples, and vegetables. On the floor next to the owner were clothes, worn and faded but folded with care and set in two piles, one much smaller in size.
"You've got kids?” Mother blurted out without thinking.
"I had one, a baby girl, who was just starting to crawl,” the woman said almost in a whisper, looking vacantly at the lamp.
“It was so careless of me, leaving her alone. She fell into the river and was carried away. Lost. That was many years ago. Had she been alive, I could’ve been embroidering wedding pillowcases for her right now. I often see her in my dreams. She could talk already, in a sweet voice. ‘Don’t leave me, Mum,’ she would plead, and I’d hear my ghost saying, ‘No, I won't. Wherever you are, I’ll be with you.’”
“Sorry, I’ve been so selfish,” the woman apologized, coming out of her reverie. “You’re also in a sad situation and here I am troubling you with my own problem.”
Pointing at the old clothes beside her, she said: “They belonged to my husband and my child. I wash them regularly to keep them from getting moldy. The only problem is so much washing has done away with my husband’s smell.” She smiled sadly and turned her face away.
Mother tried hard not to cry. “Sorrow is the common lot of us women,” she said in a tremulous voice.
Cocks were crowing in the distance. The river was rising fast and had already submerged half of the pole to which Mother’s boat was fastened. But she was pleased the boucals were quiet because of the high tide. Otherwise, they’d have filled the night with their mournful calls. Then she realized she was lucky in many ways, having Father by her side all those years, in the fields, in bed, facing each other at meals and in sleep. This woman, whose heart was also bursting with love for him, could have rushed up the bank to see him anytime. Instead, she had resigned herself to just watching him from afar, as he would watch her from a distance. She must have suffered terribly.
It was still dark, but other boats were already on their way to the market, splashing water rhythmically with their oars. The wind had dropped. "The night's almost over,” the other woman said with regret. “I must be off now.”
"Why so early?” Mother asked.
"Well, it’s a habit. I like to go before other people wake up"
“You couldn’t finish the embroidery because of me.”
“It's all right,” the woman said, her face darkening. “Embroidering is my way of passing the night. As soon as I finish a piece I'll undo it and begin all over again. I must do something to keep myself from thinking of my husband and my baby. Life is hard enough for men as it is, we shouldn't make it any harder for them with our tears.”
“If he ever returns, you must forgive him,” the woman told Mother over the roar of the engine. “Wherever they go and whatever they do, their love’s for us.”
Mother turned away and wept.
The following month we settled in the market town in a house that cost Mother all her savings. We went into business; Father making furniture, Mother selling fried groundnuts, and my sister making clothes. 1 started college.
The house was compact and well-kept and everything in it was brand new. Mother wanted to keep Father there although she knew full well that inside him old memories still (lowed like an underground river. She never mentioned her encounter with her rival, but at meal times she saw again in her mind’s eye the small bamboo basket containing the one dish, three rice bowls and three pairs of chopsticks that she had seen in the desolate deckhouse.
♦ »3» ♦
Mother kept looking for the woman. She waited and waited but her boat never turned up. Years went by and the search continued. I asked why she so desperately wanted to find the women, and she said it was for Father’s sake. “Maybe he'll get better with her around.”
Father did not get better; he wasted away and died not long afterward, an utterly broken man. We laid him to rest on Granny’s land mother did not give up her search. “I must break the sad news to her’, she explained. “Besides, I’ll request that she come and join Father at the old place in her death, after being separated from him in life.”
This win be Mother’s ultimate attempt at restoring Father the river of his memories.
Translated by Song Kiều
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