Whatever happens is truly the will of God.
Heavy rain drops fell continuously for several days. Water from the tiled roof poured through the rain gutters in torrents, too fast to be drained, overflowing in tiny whirlpools to drench the lower steps of the porch. Gusts of wind splattered sheets of rain into the window panes. The glass fogged up and water dripped into the house.
NgocLan wiped the windows and peered outside into the garden. On the small pebbled path that led to the house, fallen plums lay scattered amidst leaves and a few broken branches. Several of the hanging floral baskets tossed dizzyingly from side to side, listing as if wanting to cast down the frail, tattered orchids to the ground. These delicate flowers had tightly knotted roots and appeared to be holding on for their lives. None of them had been evicted. Some of their rich purple flowering branches were broken at an angle, still tenaciously clinging on, their colorful offerings swaying easily while the heaven let loose its power.
It was the bamboo that did not fare as well. The entire cluster was laid flat, one plant atop the other. The sharp bamboo leaves cleaved to each other in a thick green mass, their tips pointing down to conduct the rain water as a thousand tiny spouts, melting the earth around them into a huge mud hole.
A small bird suddenly flew into view and landed gently on the leaves of the rose bush. He turned his head intently from side to side, a friendly bird who had lost his way, chirping all the while. So strange! The rose stems were so slender and fragile, yet under the weight of the bird they did not bow down. His spirit must have been as light as air. NgocLan remembered her mother telling her that a person with evil or sinful thoughts had a spirit as heavy as lead.
Mother must have been right.
The bird finished chirping and launched himself into flight out of sight. Suddenly, the verses of the 19th century poet Nguyễn Công Trứ came into NgocLan’s mind:
“Kiếp sau xin chớ làm người
Làm cây thông đứng giữa trời mà reo
Giữa trời vách đá cheo leo
Ai mà chịu rét thì trèo với thông”
(In the next life, do not be a man
But a pine tree under the sky,
Under the sky, by the steep cliffs
Who’d brave the cold to stand with the pine)
No, to be an evergreen pine standing in one place on the mountain was too lonesome. NgocLan changed her mood,
“Next time I will be a bird
Spreading my wings to fly high
And to roam
All corners of the sky”
“I will sing
I will drive
A chariot of
“Be my space,
Be my heart,
Be my all,
Poetry led NgocLan to the piano. The young woman sat pensively for a second before her hands took on a life of their own, drifting lightly over the ivory. Ah! “La prière d’une Vierge” by Badarzewska. It had been a long time since she’d had any time to practice, but the music sounded smooth enough. She then dreamily went into “Le Lac De Côme” by Mme Louis Roche. Floating in the air was the joyful sound of a bubbling brook: condolezza, condolezza first, so comforting! The music changed tone to the sorrowful dolorosa. “Oh Virgin Maria, oh please hold me in your arms and transform my life …!” The prayer went deep into one’s soul. It lifted the spirit to diaphanous clouds and from there, Eternity took place….
April 30, they came and won the war.
Uncle Ho the Great.
The Party disciplines, the Government manages, the People own.
Nothing is more precious than Independence and Freedom.
Economical, Honest and Just.
Those were propaganda on richly bright yellow banners everywhere. A portrait of Uncle Ho was displayed at the entrance of each home.
NgocLan was cleaning up after lunch when Nhi came to visit. Nhi was a distant relation of her husband’s. He was just thirty-one years old, a security deputy from the North recently transferred to Ho Chi Minh City. Nhi had a bright countenance, calm manner and speech, and a frequent smile. Among the number of relatives, distant and otherwise, Nhi seemed to be the most sincere and down-to-earth.
Nhi draped his raincoat over the chair on the porch then stepped inside. He bowed in greeting,
“Good to see you again, Nhi. Sit down and relax.”
NgocLan went in the kitchen and came back with a pot of tea. She poured some hot green tea in a porcelain cup and offered it to the young man.
The latter took one gulp and lamented, “Lord, the rain here is endless. Just sitting around and watching the rain makes me homesick.”
“We are in the rainy season. But it’s quite strange this year! Usually in Saigon, we have huge rainstorms. They come and go, not dragging on like this. Maybe God despairs as we do—“
The woman realized her slip too late. She stood up, pretending to pour more tea.
Nhi’s face became somber. “I know the people of the South are not yet used to the new regime, and there is still much bitterness. But the difficulties that you are facing are only temporary.”
He grew thoughtful for a minute, then confided, “You see, even the people in the North have obstacles to face, not just you. Like me, for example. I was very good in school, but the only way for me to advance myself is through the police force.”
“Why don’t you apply to go abroad to study?”
“Goodness! Only the children of the big fishes in the Party can go abroad. My father is a Party member, but he is among the ranks of the lowly shrimp, so what does it matter?”
The lady of the house walked over to a desk nearby and took out a small box from a drawer. It held the new Seiko watch that she had bought the day before. Falteringly, she handed it to Nhi.
Nhi stared at the wristwatch for a moment and burst out joyfully,
“Really, this is for me? My God! I’ve dreamed of having a watch with a date window like this for such a long time. You really want to give it to me?”
NgocLan nodded, touched, as Nhi tremblingly put the watch on his wrist. He confided, “A lot of the other Northerners and I came here to liberate the people from the domination of the American imperialists. But we truly did not know that the Southerners were so prosperous. I think this time, it is more correct to say that it is the Northerners who are being liberated…”
He shivered and changed subject. He pointed at the magnolia tree in bloom in the garden and said,
“You own such a beautiful place.”
NgocLan looked out. On the right hand side of the paved path, the magnolia tree was loaded with white flowers. Nearby were low-hanging plum trees, in season and heavy with fruits. Bunches of pinkish-red hồng đào plums so overburdened their slender branches that some brushed against the pebbled path.
And the orchids! The pure whiteness of the petals was faintly touched with pink, as light and translucent as the wings of a butterfly. And the irises! Rich purple dusted with saffron-colored powder from their pistils, like invitations and endearments for those who love and admire flowers. The bonsais were cultivated from pines and oaks, grown here and there among the orchids, giving the impression of masculine strength and power beside the gentle coquetry of young noble ladies.
“Hạt giống ai gieo mảnh đất này
Nắng mưa sương gió bấy lâu nay
Này cây này lá này hoa đẹp
Trái ngọt trái bùi trái đắng cay”
(Who has sown the seed in this land
Sun rain dew wind to withstand
Now tree now leaves now beautiful flowers
Fruits sweet and tasty, fruits of pain) (hkkm)
Nhi raised his voice. “Why ‘fruits of pain’ ? “
“Outside of this place, Saigon is filled with chaos and uncertainty. We all are prisoners
NgocLan sat on the front step. Her head sagged, filled with troubled, restless thoughts. When night fell, the magnolias’ fragrance became even heavier, the sky pitch black. It was September, and the air was dry and much cooler. NgocLan stood up to spray the water hose over the garden. The magnolia tree had appeared a bit odd over the past few days. The tips of its leaves were touched with yellow-brown and drooped, as if affected by some ill winds.
At 8:30 pm, NgocLan joined other women in the neighborhood to attend an unusual meeting, buổi họp nhân dân khu phố , at a public house nearby.
The district chief công an Ba Tung arrived very late, trailing behind him were three other công an officers. All were carrying guns prominently. They appeared mulish and did not utter a word.
Ba Tung pulled a chair and sat down at the front desk to begin the buổi họp nhân dân, the people’s meeting. He raised his arms, signaling everyone to sit down. Clearing his throat several times, Ba Tung began his speech,
“People, all of us are children of the great beloved Uncle Ho. He had shed his own blood and sweat to chase away the imperialists so that we can have warm homes and full stomachs. All the conspirators in the old regime are now receiving full clemency from our government, and they are allowed to attend reeducation. For their wives and children, we must help them to build a new life suitable with the ideals of the revolution….”
In hearing these words, NgocLan felt her stomach tying itself into knots. Up in front, the high rank officer was still heaping verbose praises on Uncle Ho and his Party. Each time he finished a sentence, he clapped his hands soundly, and everybody in the room clapped their hands to follow him.
Ba Tung finally stopped speaking. A man stepped up to stand next to Ba Tung, introducing himself as head representative of the people. His name was Bien, a second-generation trash collector at the Truong Minh Giang open market, well established in his working-class background. His more significant credential with the revolution was earned, when he supposedly helped Nguyen Van Troi by carrying Troi’s bicycle to escape after the failed attempt to bomb the Cong Ly bridge and to kill the evil imperialist, McNamara.
Head representative Bien reported that the supply of pork had not been distributed in sufficient amounts by the district last week. He announced that from now on, each household had to wait its turn to buy meat. Every week, only twenty households were allowed to get meat, rotating in turn with all the families in the district. The limit on pork was 300 grams per household, regardless of the number of people in each.
There was uproar in response to the alarming news.
Ba Tung banged on the table, calling for quiet. He urged the people to think of some way for the district to be self-sufficient in food production, especially meat. He rolled his eyes around the spacious meeting room and landed a suspicious look at several individuals.
“I noticed that the orchid garden in Sister NgocLan’s home is a shameful trace of the materialist world. Those flowers might please your eyes but they do not please your stomach. Let’s use Sister NgocLan’s garden to raise pigs for our subdivision… ”
NgocLan stood up, lamenting,
Ba Tung cut her short,
“You! Who’ll be your comrade? You have to be a little more careful of what you say! Well, the decision has been made. Nothing will change that.”
The clamor from the room became a single voice. At the same moment, NgocLan felt as if her whole world was crashing from under her feet.
Darkness was falling.
NgocLan sat on the sofa on the porch, looking out. On the ground laid a tapestry of white wilted magnolia flowers whose fragrance still wafted through the air.
Little Pao swooped into the mother’s lap, pouting. “Mommy, why isn’t Daddy home? I miss Daddy.”
“Daddy goes to a school far away; he will be back soon.”
“Why does he have to go to school when he’s so big? Does he have a teacher like mine?”
“Ah, your school is kindergarten, for itty bitty kids like you. Daddy’s school is for hard-headed grown-ups. Do you remember the công an officer who came to our house yesterday? The people at Daddy’s school probably look just like him.”
“Mommy, he was so mean. Is it he who will take our garden to raise pigs?”
“Oh, yeah. The pigs will make oink, oink noises all day… You will have fun with them, for sure.”
The daughter burst out laughing, her lips sounding out “oink, oink, oink,” while her little bottom shook from side to side.
What a cute darling girl!
The bell rang in one long burst.
Little Pao hurried to the door and shouted back, “Mommy! Mommy, Y is home!”
NgocLan went to open the gate for her eldest daughter. Y had just turned six, but in her blue skirt, white shirt and red scarf uniform, she looked very serious and mature. On her face was a trace of sadness.
The mother affectionately greeted Y. “Ok, pal, are you hungry yet? Today I‘ve got lots of caramelized pork and a crème flan for you.”
“Flan!” she yelled. “That’s my favorite! It’s been so long since we left Can Tho and you made crème flan.”
While Y changed her clothes, NgocLan brought the food out to the yard for her to eat in the cool air. Little Pao buzzed around her sister, “Sister Y, what did you do today at school?”
“I went to a youth’s meeting for our town,” she spoke with utmost solemnity.
The two little girls chattered like birds. The older sister bragged, “I’ve learned a lot of new songs.”
Her little sister begged immediately, “Sing it, sing it!”
The school girl stood up, her face set sternly, and sang,
“Như có Bác Hồ trong ngày vui đại thắng…” (author unknown)
(As if Uncle Ho on our day of joyous victory…)
NgocLan watched intently while the younger one kept up her non-stop chatter, “Teach me that song, would you please? I love to sing! When you go to meeting again, please, please bring me along!”
“Ok, ok. Calm down. You are too noisy, I can’t remember. Here’s another song:
“Bé bé bòng bong, đôi má hồng hồng
Mẹ đi sơ tán bế bé theo cùng
Mẹ mua xe gỗ cho bé ngồi trong
Bao giờ bé lớn mẹ đưa bé về phố đông” (author unknown)
(Little, little bubble, cheeks pinky pink,
Mommy fleeing the enemy, bringing you along
Mommy bought a wooden cart, taking you for a ride
When baby gets bigger, Mommy will take you to the North side…)
This song was easier on the ear than the last one. NgocLan urged, “Now sit down and finish eating. Your rice and soup are getting cold.” Then she lovingly asked, “When you came home today, you looked a little sad. What happened?”
“Mom, I was mad. The other kids kept calling me the enemy conspirator’s kid and they did not want to play with me. Is Daddy the enemy conspirator?”
“Yes, that’s what they call anyone in the South who used to be in the army or work for the government, but as long as we’re not what they called us, it does not matter. You should not bother paying attention to them.”
“Ah, the soldier and the house mother taught us that we have to compete very hard to become Uncle Ho’s favorite”
“Mom, every meeting, we have to stand up and tell everyone what our parents do at home. Does any stranger come to the house? Do our parents hide anything? Where do they hide it?…”
NgocLan closed her eyes, feeling dispirited.
Her children shook her by the shoulder, “Mom, what happened to the magnolia tree? It has been wilting the last few days.”
“Darling, the tree is sick. And I am sick, too.”
“Mommy, who will take care of us if you are very sick? You are not the magnolia, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yeah, I am,” she replied, fading away.
The two little girls cried and screamed, “Mommy! Mommy, please do not keep your eyes closed so long. Please do not leave us! We never want to be Uncle Ho’s favorite. Never!”
As always, pouting her lips, Little Pao spoke to herself, “I’ll go water the magnolia tree for my Mommy to wake up.”
From somewhere, a song floated in the air:
Viva the pretty tree
Under the sun shine
My love is free”
Wipe out your beautiful tears
Because your face is dear”
Oh, Magnolia of my dreams
You are so pure and so quiet
So white and so light
You walk into the moon
You dance in my soul”
“La, là, lá, la”
Viva the goddess
Of my endless
You are my fondest
Reverie….” (music and lyrics by hkkm)
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