(A short story in Vietnamese by Trần Băng Khuê, translation into English by Nguyễn Thị Phương Trâm)
I took Aqua to a forest full of soothing leaves and lullabies. I took Aqua to my forest that particular day, the forest bed was thick with fallen leaves. But as they continued to dig and search for taller trees to chop down, the leaves became more unreachable, as I retreated further and further away from my forest. What was left of my daydreams, what was left of my forest?
“Don’t cry Aqua”, I soothed. The wind will return. The rain will sing. The sunlight will dance upon the layers of rotting leaves welcoming the fall. But Aqua continued to cry.
March. Secured in my arms, I took Aqua to a place full of clouds. The clouds were endlessly drifting. I ran, and I ran. I thought I would run until the clouds would stop drifting, until the clouds would stop wandering. It’s March, Aqua stop, stop crying. I lifted my hand and ran a finger down the bridge of its nose. A drop of sweat moistened the centre of my palm. A drop of sweat rolled down Aqua’s innocent baby face. What will stop Aqua from crying? I laughed bitterly. My laughter cut through the forest, cutting across the spring, piercing the horizon and the clouds. But it could not drown out Aqua’s crying.
Aqua kept crying.
Hence, after a while I became addicted to Aqua’s crying. I stopped trying to stop the crying. I let Aqua cry as much as it wanted, to its heart’s content. Aqua’s cry permeating the air, scattered mournfully like falling water drops, like old love affairs retreating into the back of a brilliant meadow strewn with fresh golden light.
Keep crying Aqua. The cries formed rivers of refreshing springs which ran across the land, reaching every nook and cranny of the mountain and rivers. From the river, it ran straight out towards the sea. “The sea is very lonely right now Aqua”, I said. The kid stopped crying suddenly, started to laugh like “chú cuội” , the guy always there alone at the foot of the banyan tree on the moon. It was hard to believe, I spent so much time trying to coax him into stopping crying, but he continued to cry as though someone was trying to hurt him. Yet, when I said, keep crying, the sea is very lonely he stopped crying instantly and like a waterfall drowned me with laughter. As it turned out, crying and laughter were not things I was able to by my own volition control. If only we were like a gift, two opposing pieces of a puzzle paralleled to each other? If only they were strange things from some far away place. From the forest, from the mountain. From a spring in the ground, from a lonely sea of the universe.
At a time like this, all I wanted to do was to hold Aqua tightly in my arms. I was worried Aqua will simply disappear from my hands. I was afraid the Aqua in front of me would no longer be of flesh and bone. My love for Aqua was boundless and unconditional, and it existed only in this autumn forest with Aqua. I wanted to sing a lullaby of the forest and rivers, lulled Aqua into a peaceful sleep. But sometimes, I truly believe, there was a time I wanted to be the moon, drifting across forests, across the seas. But as it turned out, I have never once turned into the moon to ever drift across the land of time flipping over and over again like a coin knowing only how to completely destroy darkness, returning light, returning life via the songs of tiny flower-peckers.
Aqua was fast asleep. While I was unready in my reverie. I don’t remember Aqua’s father. He was perhaps my first love at sixteen? Can’t be. No. I knew nothing at that age. Or was he the man in passing at the peak of my youth? Can’t be. No. I was still afraid of motherhood at that age. Was he the one who used to meander the paths though the lush meadows? No. It was not possible.
Maybe Aqua’s father was a wolf. There were only wolves in the forest. Then again even wolves were something in fairy tales. I will pay more attention to the moon, see if I might find a wolf instead of chú cuội at the foot of the bayan. On the moon there were only wolves and chị Hằng, or the icy goddess Artemis. I don’t want to think about Aqua’s father anymore. I don’t want to ponder about those eyes and lips which never smiled, the images which had only brought me pain and suffering. I will leave and take Aqua with me. I had made up my mind to look for a forest elsewhere, where only I will exist, only Aqua and the obsession with the long golden winding paths lit up by sunlight, or the canopies descending along with the sound aching afternoon somewhere other than here.
I allowed my imagination to roam free for a while, by leaving the current numbing emptiness around me, a silent air with no crying, no children’s laughter. I dreamed of a room the summer I was seventeen or eighteen years old, where I was constantly bugged day and night by swarms of cicadas, and there was no way my ears could shut down or block out the noise. Truly surprising, the cicadas from those summers ago were instigators for a bright melodious period of inspired moments. Until they together with the other critters took turns laying eggs in April and May, all I wanted to do was lock them up in glass jars so the sky could attain some semblance of peace. Luckily that April and May, something inside had saved me. I knew that, if I give this forest of vibrant greens, yellows, orange, cumin and reds any thought, it will eventually permeate every fibre of my mind, it may come back screaming silently like a desire perched atop a pile of dry dead leaves like in Pin on Jan’s on an arrow from a city for instance. The remnants of March marked by the blooming of red feijoa, in bunches, some bursting with tiny fruits coated still with white pollen, I could picture the wall of Ivy changing colour in readiness for autumn.
I’m dreaming, in the dark I’m playing with a string where both ends were my memories of April, May. A summer in the forest here and an autumn in another city. Aqua’s sleeping peacefully. Startled by something or another, hastily I searched for Aqua’s eyes. What if Aqua will never wake up again? This morning, Aqua was still laughing and talking, playing, and in late noon it would cry sulking like any other child, as I tried to calm it as best I could as its cry echoed through the mountain – forest – rivers – streams. But at the moment Aqua’s not making a sound. As it got darker later in the afternoon, Aqua shrieked for the last time outside in the yard. Aqua’s tears were a mixture of blood and water. The blood shed did not stop. Dear God, “the queen of the night”, it was what made Aqua cry so loud and persistent; it’s the reason Aqua’s completely quiet right now in the dark. Where’s Aqua’s father? My tears were stuck in my throat. My cries severed the forest, the mountain, pierced the streams, crevices. My cries reached the other side of the ocean. Aqua’s father did not come back. Aqua’s father will never come home, even after Aqua had stopped laughing and crying.
I was no longer brave enough to pursue dreams of leaves falling and autumn. Aqua. Aqua. Oh Aqua. There are wolves in the forest. There is a moon in the forest. And in the forest there’s also a strange creature called Rhabdophis subminiatus.
To Be Continued…
-Trần Băng Khuê (Writer)
-Nguyễn Thị Phương Trâm (Translator)
Trần Băng Khuê, born in 1982, lived for a period in Auckland, New Zealand, currently resides in Huế. An award winning, published young writer and an aspiring artist.
Nguyễn Thị Phương Trâm, the translator, born 1971 in Phu Nhuan, Saigon, Vietnam. The pharmacist currently lives and works in Western Sydney, Australia.
To view Vietnamese art and literature, and read more of her translated work, please visit Songngutaitram.
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