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Short Story: 'Left-Eared' by Trần Thị NgH

'Left-Eared' (Người Thuận Tai Trái) is a short work of fiction originally written in Vietnamese by author Trần Thị NgH and translated with her assistance for Saigoneer.

After several suicide attempts, out of curiosity, I decided to stop toying around with life and death, and simply go ahead and get married.

He was the only son of a midwife, a single mother whose husband, because of his political ideologies, had left the south for the north in 1954 when Vietnam was divided in two according to the Geneva Agreements. To her, he was a unique son who cherished her hopes, pride, and spiritual comfort. I met him at the university where we were both majoring in journalism. I imagined it wouldn’t be a difficult task to make the last, small changes to the young man’s dress and hairstyle to make him fit my taste. And he was a bit pudgy, huh? Simple! Just make him go on a strict vegetarian diet as it was commonly said: eat half as much, drink just enough to linger in life, leave space for love. And so we got engaged.

As a rural student only temporarily residing in Saigon, he rented a small room in a narrow alley on Truong Minh Giang Street. At any time of the day, fetid air from the canal nearby rose up, wafted across the area and triggered one’s nerves. While I could hardly conceal being allergic to all kinds of colors and smells found in daily life, he proved immune to them. Great! I silently observed and complimented the young man. Yet after our engagement, except when I was in class, he just hung around, right in my house. Like folk wisdom says: ban ngày mắc cỡ, tối ở quên dìa1.

“Moral orders must be respected,” my mother roared at him. So he submissively dangled himself on a hammock placed on our home’s ground floor, right beneath my bedroom above. The creaking sound from the hammock strings rubbing against the hooks drove me mad. Enough! I was allergic to not only smells and colors but also noises; anything that showed signs of life.

Our wedding ceremony was held six months later, a comparatively long period of time compared with my tolerance limit for the annoying swinging hammock. He thus became a permanent resident in his wife’s home.

On the first night of our marriage, he cried.

“Hey, what’s happening?”

“ I miss my mom.” He said in tears.

I then tried to soothe the grown-up boy: “Hmmm…Be good! Just force yourself to sleep; tomorrow I’ll take you to your mom; she’s always there, at your rented room.”

After welcoming the new bride into her family, the mother-in-law who had traveled a great distance from her Central province to Saigon for her son’s wedding, decided to extend her stay for some days more. He must have been experiencing a remarkable turning point in his life, but what about me? We had neither truly dated before the wedding nor honeymooned after it. Ironically the virgin bride was compelled to comfort the groom on their sacred nuptial night.

I performed the meticulous touch-up of him as planned: a wisp of a mustache for his excessively fair complexion to make him appear more manly, several more inches of hair to give him an artistic look. I also chose proper materials for his clothes, not forgetting shoes and matching socks, genuine leather belts, and wallets. But I failed to readjust one thing: he snored.

I remained awake night after night, which resulted in dark circles around my eyes, while the skin on my face became pale and blue veins popped on the backs of my hands.

“Obviously morning sickness,” my mother assumed.

“No way! I’m not yet ready for a baby.”

In the meantime, he innocently went on with his thunderous snoring as I lay there during those sleepless nights, analyzing the high and low tones, the waxing and waning rhythms of his snores, arranging them into music notes for cellos, violins, even percussion instruments, which effectively expressed the interval crackling sounds in between the melodies. A short while after our wedding, we completed our journalism course. He decided to take me to his hometown in the central region to introduce me to my in-laws who had missed the chance to attend our wedding ceremony in Saigon. He also hoped that the sea air would help me regain my health.

*

Friends and relatives on my side showed great admiration for his eye-catching look: a real retouched D’Artagnan – a character in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers – paired with neither horse nor sword. And they compared me with Cosette –a character in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – in a weakened state of health. But his loved ones were startled by his new hairy look. They also regarded me as a threat to the continuation of his family bloodline. And so I was like a criminal living in the accusing tension of his small town, wondering how to deal with the new circumstances.

“For how long?” I asked.

“For the time being, just try to adapt to the episodes,” he suggested. Returning to his own herd made him act with more self-confidence.

Smells. Of sea wind mingled with Yorkshire pigs’ shit. Of sandy well water. Of flies scrambling on wooden chopping boards. I half-opened the window to look at the pigs lining in their pigsty with their heads popping out of each compartment. In order to go to the bathroom and toilet at the far end of the backyard, one had to swerve past a dozen pig stalls, feeling the nasty, noisy breath from the damn beasts. I couldn’t stop myself from cussing. There was no other way. The pigsties and numerous fish sauce containers stood on either side of the red-brick-paved narrow lane leading to the toilet and bathroom. I had to suffer holding it in and limit my shower routine to only urgent cases. When breeding season came, D’Artagnan paid a man from the neighboring town that earned his living by raising a herd of male boars. A slobbering boar with rosy skin and white saliva dripping from its stout barged through the gate and followed the path alongside the house, heading for the pigsties. I curiously lurked during the mating scene. But halfway through I gave up. I suddenly remembered that my mother would once in a while scold herself for buying the wrong kind of pork; mistaking selecting meat that was evidently from a boar or a sow used for breeding, not a hog meant for meat. “Why is it so stinky? Euh.” I wondered…and threw up.

A litter of piglets was soon born. They crawled about together, a montage that looked somehow…fun. I chirped: “Can I have one?”

“Why this sudden interest in pigs?” He rolled his eyes in surprise.

“Please…Can I have one?” I insisted; then faltered. “Simply to give it a kick for my own pleasure.”

At this, he swallowed hard, gulping his anger down.

Smells. Of sea fish from unknown places poured into huge barrels. Stinking for days before decomposing. The salted fish excreted drop after drop of liquid, dense and amber in color. They slowly dropped down along tiny tubes into collection containers whose edges ivory maggots crawled around. I didn’t eat for a week. “Morning sickness, no doubt,” my mother-in-law concluded.

Not yet. Not ready yet, I thought to myself.

I lifted my hand to chase away the black flies buzzing against one another on the round chopping board surface, used my tongue to sort out some grains of sand that had mixed in with my saliva and let my eyes wander about. Why did the sky-blue curtains so badly match the lemon-yellow door? Who would hang as many as three different monthly calendars on the walls, each showing a pretty woman posing for a photo in a twisting, standing position and, worse, with flowers in her hands? Why furnish the living room with a bed? Why grow red hibiscus beside orange marigold? How could D’Artagnan put on a black-and-white checked shirt and pair it with crab-roe-yellow pants? Why wear blue rubber slippers? Why clean-shaven?

I could every now and then hear a flip-flopping sound echoing from the red-brick-paved lane when D’Artagnan fed the pigs. I also heard the wind sneak in through the shutters while swinging back and forth the tin water cup nonchalantly hung above the well in the backyard.

At night, I counted the fish sauce drip-drops harmonized with the Yorkshire pigs’ heavy breath and the Musketeer’s snores.

“Can you just block the fish sauce tubes; why not let it just all flow out at once tomorrow.”

“Are you insane? Sleep!” He growled.

“Okay.”

I lay on my side, staring at the nothingness in the dark.

In this social sphere I was nothing but a loser while he revealed himself to be an academically qualified peasant, a pious son, the head of a large-scale business; truly a young and successful man in his small town. He had established a career of making fish sauce and raising Yorkshire pigs. I missed the ivory keys of my piano at home. Also, its dead b-flat key, completely soundless when Bach’s Fugue was played on it. Certainly still dead anyway. I missed tilting my head to the right, listening, while my left arm stretched across my right arm to strike the high notes while the latter played the low notes that produced a grave and sorrowful melody. Before leaving Saigon for the Central region, I had written a long letter to my piano and inserted it through the slot in the lower front board, promising to be back someday.

Once, in the middle of the night I suddenly burst out singing: “…a thin thread of white gauze lulls my life into forgetfulness …” I sat up and groped through the utter darkness into the living room where I enjoyed a cigarette, gluing my eyes to the three pretty women on the monthly calendars dimly visible by the street lights that entered the room through the ventilation spaces in the brick wall. Why standing in a twisting position? Why holding artificial flowers? He appeared a while later asking: “Are you insane?” Then he sat next to me silently, waiting, yawning. I returned to our bed and lay on my right side. With the ear that wasn’t pressed against the bed, I listened to all the signs of life around me.

After a lot of consideration and hesitation, he decided to take me to his country home where his mom lived which was surrounded by an orchard and a freshly built room for the newlyweds. The area to bathe was at one end of the garden next to a well. Again, well water. We were near the sea, no wonder. The toilet was at the other end. In the front yard, facing the house stood a rectangular aquarium held up between 4 cement walls of considerable height; the whole structure made the fish tank look like an above-ground grave, big enough for 4 corpses to be collectively buried. I thought, “great.” Much greenery, no flowers. Upon arriving, he warned her: “This creature is scared of pigs and takes no interest in fish or fish sauce.”

The mother-in-law promptly embarked on chasing after a hen. She meant to prepare chicken soup for her daughter-in-law. Flies. Again flies everywhere. An army of flies covered the round wooden chopping board. A simple hand-wave would disperse them. I threw up everything I had swallowed a while before at the foot of a banana tree.

They treated me with kindness, I had to admit. In this community, he was obviously in his element, like a fish joyously flailing in the proper water. The fact that I had given in and accepted to go to the Central region was a victory for them, which was why they were so warm and kind.

But was I deducing certain things going on? Some days later I caught sight of my mother-in-law’s figure outside our room window, her eyes peeking in through the horizontal iron bars. Should I have closed the curtains? Every time he remained in our room rather long, she would call out: “Khâu! Oh Khâu!”

His name was Khôi but became Khâu if pronounced the local way.

And so, I felt constantly spied on. Once, through the leafy branches in the garden, I believed I witnessed mother and son bathing together beside the well. I kept telling myself that I was mistaken, a type of self-suggestion. I couldn’t say for sure, but from a distance, I thought I could see them taking turns showering each other. I also perceived the sound of the water scoop bumping against the well wall, the water splashing and running down their bodies. Oh, just my imagination, I supposed. I dared not get any closer and hid myself behind a coconut tree like a burglar.

“Am I going to have a baby?” I wondered to myself. Not to my knowledge. But imagine a baby born in this situation? Well, acceptable. Urban kids never have the chance to enjoy country life.

But imagine a toddler babbling: “Bà nậu, hái cho tui trái ẩu2” instead of “Bà nội hái cho con trái ổi,” as we would say in my hometown.

Then the four of us would bathe together. Damn. How could my baby pronounce properly any word with ôi? Let’s take an exclamatory expression as an example: “Âu, lâu thâu qué3” instead of “Ôi, lôi thôi quá.

I burst into hysterical laughter and continued until I was crying.

Every time he went back to the house in town to feed the pigs, I remained out there, letting my mind wander about blissfully. I also searched for the eyes that peered in through the window but found no trace of them. I wrote to my piano: “keep waiting, my dear”!

*

At first, it seemed like I had only become hard-of-hearing, but it later turned out to be I was stone-deaf. I wondered if it was because I had always lain on my right side. Blocked constantly, the right ear must have become deaf. Weird! One’s ears are similar to the two amplifiers of a cassette player. We could hear only the boum-boum-boum of a drum from one and loose, high notes from the other. One day, after we had gotten dressed to go shopping, his mother abruptly screamed in a high-pitched tone that undoubtedly hit the high E, her lips trembling.

I asked, “What’s happening?”

He fired back: “Are you deaf?”

I later learned that she did not approve of him taking me out since he hadn’t finished uprooting those pineapple plants in the garden as she had expected. When she breathed heavily and spoke in her husky low voice, I could make out every syllable: “How unfilial! You crown your wife as a queen. I birth to you so nothing can prevent me from taking back that very precious life of y…o…u…r…s….”

She vibrated the last word y…o…u…r…s…for three more beats, then pounced on him, grabbing his shirt so hard the buttons flew off. Mother and son then tussled about for a while. She raised her voice scolding him in a staccato rhythm, or at least that was how my ears absorbed those downward and underdotted tones:

“You…wife….as long as….you…no right to….”

The other tones, the ones with the acute marks, the hooks, the tildes above the letters, and the unmarked ones all sank deeply into my right ear. I maniacally decoded:

“You absolutely adore your wife; as long as you are still my son, you have no right to…”

I had a very high probability of being correct. Then all of a sudden they let each other loose. D’Artagnan walked slowly towards the kitchen and came back with a cleaver. The musketeer was finally armed, only a horse was needed. How pious! His mother had asked him to hand a chopping knife for her to cut off her maternal love. I bet she didn’t dare. But no, she raised the knife. I jumped in between them, then found myself pushed back, not sure who did it; my head banged against a plum tree thanks to the momentum, and then slammed against the cement edge of the fish tank. Covering my ear with one hand, no idea which ear, I rubbed my bloody face with the other hand. Why did I still hear the commotion? Ah, I had covered the wrong ear which was the right one. I crawled into our room. A short moment of silence, then a whimpering sound. I spied on them from behind the curtains – also sky-blue –hung negligently on the lemon yellow door frame like in the other house. They were hugging each other weeping; the sacred knife was lying peacefully on the ground.

Haha! I laughed like a knight who was swinging his sword. What am I doing here in this house? Staying awake at night, shuffling around during the day waiting for pregnancy?

My “Ôi! Lôi thôi quá3” became “Âu lâu thâu qué” pronounced the local way.

My existence in the house was to simply ensure the Nguyễn bloodline continued? “Damn, I would leave them fruitless,” I mumbled to myself. Lately, I had sworn often, only so I could hear the swears out loud, but what was the point of using my ears in this case?

*

I finally packed up and fled home. Hi! Piano!

After a lot of vomiting not triggered by colors, smells, or noises, I knew I was pregnant. D’Artagnan traveled back and forth between the Central region and the South like the warp on a shuttle loom, but with a waning pace. I gave birth to the child alone - a beautiful baby girl who must be purely European since her parents were no one other than the famous Cosette and D’Artagnan. I became a single-minded shark swimming around a single objective, not wasting a second wondering to myself người đi qua đời tôi không nhớ gì sao người4.

I gave piano lessons to earn a living, with my baby in the pram next to my piano stool. She turned her head in her mom’s direction listening attentively to the music. Worried that she might suffer an audio-impairment, I pushed the pram away from the loud notes. She kept turning her head towards me. At four she was able to turn the dog’s bow-wow into fa-fa, the junk dealer’s street cried chai bán không5 into sol-si-sol.  There was also C sharp for sticky rice, B flat for sweet soup. She was capable of deciphering all kinds of sounds with her extremely musical ears. She started taking piano lessons before she knew how to read or write. With my left ear left, I could hear fully any piece she played. By perceiving in his vision the echo from an approaching ghost army, Mozart composed Requiem while he was bed-ridden with a fatal illness. Beethoven, stone-deaf, still heard the knock-knock of destiny interpreted in his Fifth Symphony: pam-pam-pam-pam. Yippee!

1. One who is shy in the daytime but forgets at night.

2. “Grandma, pick me a guava!”

3. “Oh, how contentious!”

4. “Why is there nothing left in your heart and mind after (you've been) wandering through my life...” from a poem by Trần Dạ Từ, set to music by Phạm Đình Chương.

5. “Who has any junk for sale?”