THE DESERTED HOUSE
To Mai Thảo
By Doan Quoc Sy
English version by Khanh Doan
A few days before our wedding day, I got upset with Loan.
Now thinking back, I couldn’t remember why I was so upset. Maybe because I had given high compliments to a friend of Loan’s, and then she had retaliated by praising a passing young man as extremely good-looking. Maybe because Loan had carelessly mentioned a next-door young man who had fallen in love with her since she was fifteen and, on an excursion to Perfume Pagoda, had joined a group of other men to follow her steps all the way from the Outer to the Inner Temple, thus making a scene very similar to the poem “Pilgrimage to Huong Pagoda” by Nguyễn Nhược Pháp. It could be because Loan told me of a young man so much in love with her that every midnight he walked back and forth under her window, playing the famous Serenata song with his flute.
I was so much in love with Loan that I did not want any images of young men to linger in her mind, no matter how fleetingly.
You might be aware that, when in love, a couple could be upset by very subtle reasons, so subtle that they forgot readily the cause, to only remember the intense feeling, which they both focused on to wallow in love miseries. Back to Loan and I. I had no idea why we sulked about each other, but that piercing emotion was still in my mind, and would remain there until the end of my life. It was like a lump in my throat that made it impossible for me to swallow any food, while still able to swallow the whole long night. The more I sulked, the more beautiful my loved lady appeared. The more beautiful she was, the more I sulked. It was a circumstance for testing my power against her beauty. And while waiting for peacemaking time, I would quote Nguyễn Du’s verse to describe my miseries:
“Oh wretched sorrow! Would it ever end?”
During that time, my cousin Uyên, together with his wife, the matchmaker of our love story, tried really hard to reconciliate us, but they both failed. To me, their intervention was like pouring oil on fire. For three days, I was determined not to see Loan. On the fourth day, I got up early to walk around Thuyền Quang Lake, then along Cổ Ngư Street that ran between Trúc Bạch and Hồ Tây lakes, then passed by Hoàn Kiếm Lake on the way home. Around 4:00 pm, I walked from Hoàn Kiếm Lake up to Hàng Buồm Street, then entered a Chinese restaurant. At a front table , I could see a lady in a light blue áo dài. From the way she fingered the chopsticks for a while before picking up some food, to the way she wearily held up the bowl to her mouth, I could tell she was deep in some worries.
“Really”, I told myself, “no girls would be dressed up like this to eat out alone!”
Because I was looking at her from behind, I could see just a part of her well-shaped cheeks, a straight nose and a corner of a big round eye.
It would be acceptable for a lonely woman to walk in a crowd, but a woman eating out alone was such a sad sad sight!
She was in deep thought while eating. She was looking afar, as if waiting for someone she knew would never come. She might have the same state of mind as Loan, whom I was ignoring.
In panic, I stood up, paid and hurriedly walked out of the restaurant. But as I was going to step into Loan’s house, my heart turned cold. What was the use of getting in? What would I say to her?
I then walked past Loan’s house, but the farther I went, the more my heart was clearly pulled back. “Say hurray to your future father-in-law! He is getting married!”
I smiled hello to Huynh and patted his little kid. Huynh was an old classmate of mine. He got married almost two years ago and his first son was born last year. As soon as I started dating Loan, he insisted on my having a daughter so our children could marry each other.
He kept telling me: “We have to be in-laws of our children.”
I walked on while Huynh’s words to his son continued to chase me:
“Say hurray to your future father-in-law! He is getting married!”
I then found myself walking toward Uyên’s house. At his and his wife’s cheerful greetings, I suddenly remembered they had invited me to “a special dinner” at 4:00 pm, then have a stroll along Yên Phụ dike.
This young couple often gave invitations at very weird hours; steamed rolls at 10:00 am, cold meat at 3:00 or 4:00 pm, pastries with tea at 11:00 pm or midnight. They called those “special meals”.
Uyên’s wife said:
- You came just in time for dessert, Sơn. We started on time without you. Don’t worry we get offended.
Pulling a chair for me, Uyen asked with merry seriousness:
- Do you know who else was missing at today’s dinner?
As Uyên finished his sentence, Loan showed up with a plate of oranges in her hand, looking a bit awkward.
The whole family laughed.
I joined in. I was happy to see their plan collapse almost entirely. He had certainly planned to seat us across each other. How could we, during the whole meal, just staying quiet? Especially at his pre-planned pushy words. It was not my intention, but it was good I forgot about the invitation and ended up coming late. Dessert time was quick to end .
Uyên opened his wardrobe to get a tie, which he put on. Then, he said:
- We’ll stick to our plan. Let me get the car out of the garage.
His wife tapped on her forehead and said:
- I will stay home. Having headache. Old age, you know!
Uyên clicked his tongue:
- Fine, without you, we will still be a crowd. Let’s move on, Sơn & Loan. Go and wait for me in front of the gate.
Without a word, I slowly left the house while Loan lingered on. She walked out only when Uyên backed the car to the gate. I glanced at her and realized, with a start, that she had hurriedly put on some light pink on her cheeks and bright red on her lips. On her silky complexion, the make-ups were enhanced to such brilliance that, even in a black and white photo, the colors would still show up with all their shimmering beauty. When Loan stepped down on the pavement, our eyes quickly met. Loan was pouting.
It was Loan’s habit to purse her lips together like that when embarrassed. She did so when we first met each other. On that day, aware of my admiring gaze on her, she kept blowing her no longer hot tea . Was she blowing away bubbles to find my reflection in the teacup? I instantly fell deeply in love with her since that day.
I heard Uyên’s voice from his car:
- Please get in, Mr Groom, Mrs Bride and both families.
I took the front seat beside Uyên while Loan sat alone at the back . Right then, at the sight of a business partner, he caught the opportunity to pretend to be in great hurry:
- Sơn, you go on with Loan. I have an urgent business to discuss with this partner.
He opened the car door, dragged me to the front seat with one hand, and opened the other door with the other, while talking to Loan:
- Please, move to the front seat with Sơn; otherwise, he might look like a driver, and you the boss.
After the car door was shut, we could still hear him say jokingly:
- The tank is full. You two now can go and empty the East Sea, then drive back.
I started the car, allowing the motor noise to engulf Uyên’s teasing voice.
Sitting beside me, Loan kept silent. I drove along Quan Thánh Street, turned into Cổ Ngư Street, onto Yên Phụ Dike, passed by Nghi Tàm, by the rows of guava trees at Quảng Bá …
At Xuân Tảo junction, I was going to take the road along the lake to get back to Yên Thai when Loan said softly:
- Please go to that deserted military station over there.
That was the widest part of the stone dike, covered with green grass. Along the dike were two one-storey brick houses with a few cars in the front yard and a group of well-dressed men and women. They were scattering here and there, apparently enjoying fresh air near several whitewashed concrete pillars, previously used to hold barbed wires.
I stopped the car. Loan rushed out with a cry of joy and ran toward an old classmate. They were no close friends. The other lady was just a buoy at the right time to rescue Loan from the drowning heavy silence I had imposed on her all the way from Hàng Nón.
Loan’s twittering and laughing caused a deep feeling of guilt in me. I felt so bad about the tough and almost cruel way I treated her. I wanted to come forward and join them so I could say some sweet words to Loan, but she had taken her friend to the far end of the lawn.
The last sunlight had just vanished. Clouds like massive mountains in the West, appeared in bright pink, but faded very quickly, and a few minutes later, only a few elusive streaks remained. In the distant sky a shadow of a stork flew by, its wings moving in slanting line. From afar, a cluster of trees was changing from dark green to purple. Only then did I take a good look at the two deserted houses. All doors and windows were tightly closed. Though both one-storey houses, the one in front of me looked taller and more imposing, probably the residence of the station commander. The other house was lower, probably the office for staff. Both houses were in good condition, though the lower parts of the walls were darkened by moss and in some places the mortar was crumbling.
I heard some light sounds of laughter. Loan, together with the friend, was approaching. The friend greeted me with a bow, which I returned. Loan, fearing to be politely released back to me, held her friend’s wrist tightly, even though the two were already arm in arm, then gently steered her straight to the deserted houses.
The friend was going on with her narration:
- There was a time when an artillery platoon of Vietnamese soldiers under the command of a Vietnamese second-lieutenant was stationed at Yên Thái District. One night, the station was unexpectedly attacked by a Vietnamese Resistance Group. The second-lieutenant died right away. The District Commander managed to escape into a secret basement while his sister was too awkward to get away. She was taken prisoner. The next day, her body was found with her throat stabbed many times.
After that, Yên Thái headquarter was re-located near Bưởi Market, the artillery platoon moved to Chém Vẽ station. This station was abandoned since then.
The friend lowered her voice:
- Rumor said the girl’s spirit often comes back to haunt the station. That’s why nobody has the courage to live in.
I could hear Loan say very softly:
- The deserted house is such a sad sight!
Loan seemed to be stunned. so was I. The deserted house, from the height of the dike, in the late afternoon full of rising wind, caused both Loan and me to shiver. The distance between us was even more lamentable as we were still in love and longing for each other. Loan’s face was half turned, probably to glance in my direction. We felt like Ngưu Lang Chức Nữ who, with their deep telepathy, projected their love to the infinite world. Loan and her friend had reached the far corner. I looked down at the green field enriched by layers of silt while thinking about a lively river. It had changed its flow, but some part of it kept wandering about, and lingering here, The late afternoon was spreading and the breeze was softly whispering. In that rustling, the field suddenly changed into a ghost river. Not until then did I feel deep empathy with Trần Kế Xương’s nostalgia expressed in his four verses:
No more river! It has been changed into fields
With houses here, corn and potatoes there.
Frogs now croak all night,
But I’m still startled, thinking it is somebody calling for ferry-boats.
I could hear a car engine start, then the wheels turn onto the road. People were leaving.
Thinking about the deserted houses, I made a few steps forward, then noticed between the two, a bit farther back, there was a thatch-roofed house, apparently shabby, but with firelights inside and smoke from the kitchen, Was that a poor family’s cabin or a guardian in charge of the two deserted houses? A swine was wagging its tail by a bamboo fence in front of the cabin. Its liveliness, the engine noise and the screeching sound of tyres against the road could not brighten the sight of the deserted houses. Instead, they seemed to be even gloomier, and more devastated by their icy isolation and secret miseries. The pig took several steps backward, then rubbed its body against a stake of the hedge. In this motion, it might instinctively choose something not too lifeless. The so frigid houses gave the impression that even living beings like lizards, cockroaches could have left it long ago, just as lice would leave a carcass.
To drive away thoughts about death, I started visualizing the houses when still inhabited, when the lady sister of the District Commander had not been killed like a pig by the Resistance guerillas. The houses were then warmly lit, and at meal time there was still smoke from the kitchen. There would probably be family gatherings every night with merry sounds of laughters and chats… And that girl at her prime age – Loan’s age – would probably spend many sleepless nights weaving dreams by the flickering oil lamp amidst the sound of falling rain, or the lapping sound of an illusionary river.
A car beeped. The friend hurriedly parted. Passing by me, she nodded her goodbye again, then I could hear a car start… Only our 203 remained. I stepped back a little to watch the house etched against the fields and Loan’s shadow reluctantly moving in my direction. My beloved shadow! Loan’s scent seemed to envelop wholly this part of the dike, the vast sky and field. I remembered the afternoon when I was first introduced to Loan and observed how she pursed her lips to cool her already cool tea. Right in that afternoon, I came to see her to confess my feelings in a brief sentence: “Loan, with your beautiful and sweet eyes, I can laugh at all miseries in this life.”
As Loan approached, I greeted her with a smile. She smiled back, but with a shade of sadness. We both looked at the deserted houses. With a sigh, Loan repeated:
- They are such a desolate sight, aren’t they?”
Before I could say anything, she continued:
- They’d better be run-down houses or dilapidated inns!
I held Loan’s hand in mine and said:
- I am sure the houses will not be empty forever. They will be inhabited again and there will be light inside, smoke from the kitchen.
I held Loan’s hand more tightly and continued:
- Houses in good condition like these should not be abandoned. They should be renovated to be inhabited again. This is the wish for the houses, as well as the scenery.”
Loan looked at me:
- And it’s also our wish, don’t you think so?”
I could only pour all my passionate love into her eyes.
Since we fell in love with each other, no matter how passionately, I had never dreamed of holding her into my arms and kissed her on the lips like actors and actresses in movies. There were times when we went to the movies together, in the dark, I held her soft hand and felt her slender fingers cling onto mine, as a quiet response and that was all we did. Loan’s image in the dark appeared so pure to me. I did think about our first night after the wedding ceremony, when we were allowed further intimacy. I still thought only about leading her to a vast meadow, where each pretty flower was a star, where our souls would melt into the starlights and transcended into scents of grass and flowers. How infinitely pure!
But this time, with our spirits wide open, our hearts elated, in the vast melancholic dusk, we could so truly feel all reservations disappear.
I drew Loan closer to me:
- Our house in the coming days, my dear, will be smaller and much warmer …
Loan sadly interrupted me:
- Most importantly, we should not allow it to become deserted.
Then, bursting into tears, she laid her head onto my shoulder and said in a sob:
- Don’t you know that by driving each other out of our hearts, we would become deserted houses.
We both shuddered at the thought of solitude and hugged each other in a passionate embrace. I started with a kiss on the drops of tears in the corner of her eyes. Its salty taste enhanced my already growing emotions. I stooped down, passionately searching for Loan’s lips, at the same time aware of her eager response. I smiled like a child and it was shining in her eyes.
On the elevated dike, there remained only our shadows, but the scenery around us did not feel isolate; it spread out and warmed up. High in the sky, some early stars sparkled like our love.
When we left the dike, it was getting darker. The distant lights from Hanoi were shining around Hồ Tây (Western Lake). I slowed down the car to the max as we drove into the shady area of the Quảng Bá guava trees. I continued to have the feeling of taking my loved one into an endless wood, where the leaves and flowers were rustling their eternal call for mutual love.
I hurriedly stopped. After an instant of surprise. Loan tilted her head to my side, so we would together look ahead. The tall dragon plum tree in front of us was shedding its yellow leaves, like a living soul shaking off all sad feelings. In the late afternoon light, it looked exquisitely poetic. Looking into Loan’s profound eyes, I asked:
- Do you remember the day when I was waiting for you at the gazebo in the center of the Botanical Garden?
Loan answered gently with a soft smile:
- It was a very cold and windy winter day and there were also falling leaves.
- And it was drizzling too, don’t you forget it?
- No, I don’t.
We still looked at each other while refreshing our memories. It was my first date with Loan. I had been waiting for ten minutes, but could only see falling leaves, birds scattering around, then rain falling. Wearied, I started turning to a different direction when I had a strange feeling and immediately turned around to see that Loan had been on the appointed road for a while. She hastened her steps as if wanting to catch me by surprise. We greeted each other with warm smiles and bright eyes. Once beside me, under the roof of the gazebo, Loan said to me with such emotion in her voice that it was like a complaint:
- No matter what directions you look in, I still have the feeling that you are looking at me.
I would never forget the anticipating feeling of our first date.
I started driving.
We gradually moved into the city lights. Loan leaned onto my side and I could smell the scent of her hair in the wind. I accelerated.
Loan leaned further on me.
- Darling, the wind is very refreshing, isn’t it?
I chose large avenues so I could keep that speed. At the beginning of Gia Long Street, I drove close to the curving border of Hoàn Kiếm Lake. At each turn, I could hear the humming of the engine and the screechingof the tyres dragging pebbles and dry leaves on road. The lights around the lake seemed to rise and spread to the vast sky above, reminding me of the ancients’ teaching: “The righteous path for a gentleman starts from the love relationship between husband and wife, but when fully achieved, it pervades all over the universe.”
I have never seen Hanoi so brightly lit that night.