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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the November 2018 issue

Endless Universe

In a sleepless night, an old man remembers how he and his wife have spent a lifetime speaking the language of feet.
 

One sleepless night typical of the old and insomniac, Mr. Thuyết suddenly remembers the eyes of his daughter when she was three or four years old. For decades, he has kept that evening in near-complete oblivion without once recalling the eyes of the child who was always attached to him, the eyes of the child who would lie with her head in his arms, listening to his stories. Some forty-odd years have passed. He thinks in silence. Then slightly turns in his bed. The bedside lamp feebly projects sallow light onto the white mosquito net over the adjacent bed. The bed of Mrs. Thu, his wife. The sound of her regular breaths could be heard clearly from his side. Thanks in part to the clear desolate night. Peaceful. Quiet. Almost to an absolute. Wonder what time it is. Must be past midnight. Lord. If only it were daybreak already. He lies still and thinks of his daughter. She is over forty years old now. More than a decade older than he was when he and his wife first had her. She has passed the midpoint of a human life. And I have nearly reached the end. Life is truly like a horseshoe dashing by a window. The little girl Phương then is now a mother of three, about to have in-laws, up to her neck in business at the market, her hands relentlessly working on the fruit stalls, now spraying water, now fixing the display, now measuring the fruits on the scale before gathering them into a bag for the customers. Day by day immersed in noise, the ceaseless buzz of air and sound. She has divorced her husband, a sleazebag, and single-handedly raised the children. Once again he whispers to himself: How chaotic, the human life.

He feels for his daughter. He recalls the days of her childhood. And so the memory of that evening rushes back, the evening when she lies with her head in his arms, listening to his stories. Her eyes emerge, gathering all that is associated with her. It is a summer evening. Mrs. Thu, his wife, has to be present at the bureau to listen to the reading of the news. Every Thursday evening, all bureau staff members must convene and listen to the news reading. She takes her bicycle and leaves. It is only him and little Phương left. He is employed by the marine services, which provides a reliable excuse for not following the state-governed hours, so fortunately he can stay home. The father and daughter eagerly wait for mother to return. To then play house. Draw dogs and pigs. Then finally storytelling time. The fairy tale of Tấm Cám. Or the tale of Thạch Sanh with the singing instrument, tính tịch tình tang, who rescued the princess from the dungeon and returned her to the pavilion. The little girl has heard the story many times and yet she still asks about the goby of the maiden Tấm, or the snake emperor beheaded by Thạch Sanh’s hammer, while he ceaselessly waves the handheld fan for her. Then suddenly the little girl stops asking. He goes on telling the stories while the girl lies motionlessly. A moment later, she is already drowsing in bed with limbs relaxed, eyelids slowly closing. He raises his head slightly to look at her face as she enters sleep. The thing that sticks to this day, the thing that resurges suddenly tonight in his memory, is little Phương’s eyes. The half-closed eyes, with pupils growing slightly smaller. Her immaculate eyes suddenly turn sleepy, growing smaller and smaller until the eyelids closed shut. The little girl has gone to sleep.

The eyes of the little daughter have returned to haunt him. Now that he has grown old, he recognizes that is how people enter sleep, in absolute isolation even if some loved one is right beside them. Like how people enter the realm of death. Utterly alone, no matter how many others are around. Drifting off. Drifting off for a night is no different than drifting off to never wake up again. No one can intervene. No one can help. No one can offer company. Even the closest, most beloved ones. Solely alone. He fears that moment. The lonely moment of entering that realm. Like how he now fears the long nights of old-age insomnia, which makes it difficult for him to enter sleep alone.

Sleeplessness often brings worrisome thoughts. He recalls the house that belonged to his parents when he was tiny, burned down long ago by Westerners during the land reform era, after its gardens and yards had already been divided among the peasants; his parents were not permitted to reclaim it even after the error-rectification campaign began. He remembers the early sun showers of the rainy season, the days of running out to the front yard to catch tilapia swimming upstream and the bubble-like eggs of leaf frogs that would appear overnight as a blinding white surface, the eggs clinging to the corners of the family’s water tank. And whenever the leaf frog mother would detect human presence, she’d dive down into the rainwater that filled the tank, her glistening brown legs lengthening against the crystal clear water as a swimming champion. An enthralling series of events.

His parents passed away long ago. The house is no more. The garden and pond have changed completely. Whenever he revisits quê, he dares not return there, where the placenta from his birth is buried. It makes him mournful. After all, the people who got their shares of the house, the briefly legitimate owners of the estate, have either died or moved elsewhere. The house has gone through countless owners and their descendants. They do not know who he is now, just as he does not know them. Such matters, like the stars, share a common truth of change. It is harmless to keep a childhood home in the imagination. That house shall live until the day he dies.

He fears death. Death spares no one. The only comfort is that everybody has to eventually die. He sorrows. For he knows it awaits him and his wife, too. He has once said to her:

“Dear one, you must die after I do. You, dear one, are too considerate.”

He has already thought about his death-day commemoration. Sometimes the two of them still call each other dear this, dear that. Occasionally they even address each other as comrade. It was how they spoke all through their vivid youth’s moments of excitement and affection. For instance, when she wakes up from her own bed, she softly approaches his bed, lifting the veil to slide in and lie next to him. He turns around to hold her tenderly as she rubs her body against his, from the feet all the way to the shoulders, where she rests her cheek:

“Comrade, how did you sleep last night?”

“Very well.”

“I slept so hard I couldn’t tell heaven from earth.”

Then she turns to lie on her back, parallel to his body. He takes the side of his foot to softly touch the sole of her foot. Feet that speak. The silent language they shared throughout the young years is etched in their memory. She knows exactly what to do. She knows he would like her to lean her leg against his. She does as he wishes and waits for the next command. His foot again touches her other foot. She obediently shifts her foot to the edge of the bed, her two legs now forming a wide angle. For the last decades of their companionship, she has done the same. Just like when she was twenty years old. But unlike when she was twenty years old—when he would place his hand between the widely splayed legs, and she would lie in the ecstasy of waiting—now she gently takes his hand and holds it in hers, “Come on, what’s the point . . .” Her two hands softly say so. He understands and leaves his hand in hers. Both have absorbed the potency of time. The days of youth seem to have passed just now. Honeymoon nights and days lasted for years. Her sliding gesture remains entirely the same, though without the luminous eagerness of desire. But it is still full of loving compassion. Still profound and obedient, absolutely belonging to him, intimate with him. Still the same language of the body, even the soft touch of the foot. Though both bodies have turned distorted and unshapely to the devastating extent that neither dares to look at each other in that moment. They never used to sleep in separate beds like this. Like other inseparable couples, they spent every single night wrapped in blissful intimacy. She was always the one who turned out the lights and went to bed after him. While undressing to change into her plain or patched-up night clothes, she knew that behind the bed’s translucent canopy he was entranced by her body—young, lean, and bursting with life. Many times, despite the cold, she would wear nothing and nakedly slide into him. She knew he was waiting for her. Under the cotton blanket, lying on his side, also completely naked, he lifted the blanket to welcome her in. His warm body embraced her wholly, transferring his warmth to her. The two of them sensed all the beauty and fire in each other’s body. How marvelous it is to be young. The youth have time on their hands. They have health. They do not overthink. They surrender everything to each other in hard times. And together enter heaven.

There were days when they did not enter heaven together. Their romance began when he was twenty-seven and Mrs. Thu was twenty. Her family did not sanction their marriage because he belonged to the landowning class. But nothing could stop a twenty-year-old woman in love and beloved for the first time. She lied to her mother that she had already surrendered her body to him and thus could no longer marry anyone else. Her fabrication convinced her parents that the damage had been done. Her fabrication made him understand her grave sincerity. Filled with love and gratitude, he held her and lifted her off the ground: “Don’t make false charges against me now. You’re quite skilled at defamation. We must cure this habit of making slanderous accusations against one’s comrades!”

Not only was she ready to cure this slanderous habit once her parents gave her permission to marry him, but she urged his family to quickly facilitate the engagement and wedding ceremonies. They made love during the daytime and he could not get over how unfathomably marvelous she was. A mixture of embarrassment and desire. She cried. Cried out of joy. He held her and called her an unexploded ordnance, which made her laugh.

Only once before the wedding. She said she obliged because she did not want to be a slanderous accuser. Because he called her an unexploded bomb. After all, the wedding took place only about ten days later.

Honeymoon. Life after the wedding was a honeymoon week that lasted years. Times were hard then. The concept of vacation did not exist in anyone’s thoughts, including the newlyweds’. But they didn’t need much. Only a space of their own. To close the doors and be entirely free with each other after work. That space, two hundred square feet, with floral ceramic tiles that, despite looking infested with scabies, were constantly cleaned to a shine, was equal to all the world-famous tourist destinations put together. And more. For the sum of all renowned and sublime landscapes might not be paradise. But here was paradise, within their embrace. He once called her his heaven and when she dismissively pouted, he added that he knew the gate to paradise and he had the keys. And she rewarded him with a trip to heaven. Only then did he understand what wholeness in life meant. It must be lived in pairs, wives and husbands. He felt sorry for separated couples. He could not imagine that couples could sleep separately, refraining from relations. Such life would no longer be life. It couldn’t be called life if there was no intimacy in bed. Intimacy is a great gift of creation. What would his life be without the love of his wife, without that girlish body, that womanly body of hers. These things amplified their love. Even well after they reached their fifties.

When he visited older friends, he knew the couples slept separately. Each one had their own bed. It was nonchalantly mentioned in passing, like a fact among the elderly. He felt sad for them. Sorry for them. Is that all that a human life amounts to? One starts out alone. Growing up, one acquires a partner. During old age, one returns to being alone even in the presence of another. This phase of aloneness is preparation for eternal separation. One dies alone. Just like how one goes to sleep alone. He resists this narrative. No, although he and wife have aged, he refuses to sleep separately. Doing so would mean admitting that life is over, that one is about to die.

*

He does not speak but she understands him nonetheless. After a whole life together, with children alive and dead, having shared joyous, sorrowful and hard times, they don’t need spoken words to reach an understanding.

The two of them still sleep next to each other, still rubbing their feet against each other’s, still hearing each utterance of the body, still speaking to one another in that silent language, though only to reminisce about distant memories. They no longer remember the last time they made love. Once, they both wanted to try again. Almost like an outbreak of resistance. And an excuse to record the exact date of the ending. That was all. But they shouldn’t have done so. Shouldn’t have at all. Because they failed. Although the two tried their best, they failed miserably. A ravaged landscape and a ravaged city! They knew they had been ripped away from each other’s embrace.

She ached for him when she came home from the market, seeing him half-awake and half-asleep in the armchair. He was resting his body on the frayed rattan chair, his eyes drowsily gazing at the blank television. Once one starts to stare at the blank television, its opaque gray screen suddenly transforms into a dead eye. Two living eyes gaze at a single dead eye that casually gazes right back.

She hands him a pack of snacks. She picks up snacks for him the way a mother picks up snacks for her kids. He asks her:

“Do you remember that time we both had dengue fever and afterward, this old man here carried you back home on his bicycle from our quê?”

“Yes I do. I remember. That time you made this old woman here have that bowl of phở, isn’t it?”

He laughs:

“Those days were miserable, weren’t they.”

Those days were miserable but now, in retrospect, they become delightful, beautiful memories. That time, on their way back from their quê as their bicycle passed a phở restaurant, the two of them inhaled the delicious and seductive aroma, felt a craving, and decided together to get some phở. But they rummaged through their pockets to find only three hundred đồng. Enough for one bowl with brisket, well-done. No more. Who would have it? She told him to eat because he was emaciated. He told her to eat. She said then neither would eat. Let’s go home together. But he knew that all these years, she had endured austere measures, stifled cravings, stomached blandness to serve her husband and children. He softly raised his voice, forcing her to eat. She obliged. He even reminded her: You should eat the first half of the bowl as it is, then add lime and chili to the second half. That way you’ll almost get to eat two styles of phở. She obediently stepped into the restaurant. He waited outside on the sidewalk with the bicycle.

Holding the pack of snacks she gave him, he recalls stories from those old days. He feels for himself. He feels for his wife. His compassion gets even more acute when he sees her going through all the trinkets in the old chests, the worn clothes and rags. She pulls out a cube-shaped thing so tightly wrapped in a plastic bag that she can’t even tell what it is. It turns out to be a pair of Soviet Union soap bars, the 72% kind. She holds them out for him to see:

“Look at this. I’d entirely forgotten this. This is the soap we were allowed to barter for after we imported gelatin for the Canned Fish shop.”

Combing the cabinets and sifting old documents is her favorite pastime. When she comes upon their marriage certificate, she exclaims and innocently asks:

“Why would someone doodle on this?”

They both closely look at the line scribbled in purple ink on the margin of the yellowed sheet, which seems authored by a chicken’s digging feet. It says: Triple-beamed bed frame: 01. Mosquito net for two: 01. He abruptly exclaims:

“It’s the tradesfolk’s writings. We had to bring our marriage certificate to the tradesfolk and get their permission to buy the mosquito net and the bed. Don’t you remember?”

After this memory came back, the old couple quickly decoded the inscription on the birth certificate of their daughter: Potty chair: 01. They had to bring the original birth certificate to the shop to buy one potty chair with a lid from the tradesfolk. And they were allowed to buy only one.

Life was grueling but wonderful nonetheless. When people are young, they easily overcome everything. Especially when one has a life companion to share the good and bad times. The fervent love in the past is now substituted by intense compassion, since they have missed out on most pleasures in life except for their love. The passion and blind devotion are no longer. The ending is near. The old couple understands they are about to separate forever and refuses to acknowledge it. They refuse to sleep separately like other old couples. Still lying next to each other, with unspoken words, the silent language of the body. Even if only to invoke distant memories. This is clearly an intractable resistance to the rule. Afterward, both turn their backs against each other to enter sleep. It is unclear when this habit of lying with their backs against each other’s was formed. Perhaps it is the scent of time, lingering in layers on their skin, within their love. And myriad other inconvenient things. For instance, their biological clocks are now entirely out of sync: she could fall asleep as soon as her body meets the bed and she gets up very early, around three or four in the morning, whereas he is the opposite. He sleeps best when she is awake. When she is deep in sleep, he is wide awake and struggles to lie still so she can sleep. That is not to mention his snores. The snores which, in her good mood, she describes as something only she could withstand. And so, during her nearly fatal bout of sickness, she had to sleep separately, which was the beginning of the one person per bed situation that lasts to this day. And both feel better now that they get to sleep alone. There is infinite freedom to toss and turn, freedom to think, freedom to stay wide awake, freedom to snore and to get up to urinate at night, without any worry about bothering the other.

Despite having slept separately, she still occasionally slides into his bed for a while, before she goes to sleep or at dawn when she wakes up. In order to rub her body against his. To listen to the language of his feet and respond in the language of hers. Then each returns to their own bed. Lying completely still. Or speaking randomly about whatever comes to mind. It often happens to be something in the newspapers. For instance, tonight, after the lights have been out for a while, and it seems both have fallen asleep, he suddenly says to her:

“The television just broadcast the news of a new universe forming about thirteen billion light years away from earth.”

She might be asleep, for there is no response. He mutters to himself:

“Thirteen billion light years. How terrifying. Who knows what lies beyond those thirteen thousand million light years? Let’s call it another universe. But what about the one beyond that ‘other universe’? And beyond that one too? And beyond? There must be something else outside the edge . . . ?”

In the next bed, her breaths rise and fall without disturbance.

Lying curled in his bed, he thinks about the endless universe.
 

“Vũ trụ không cùng” © Bùi Ngọc Tấn. In Người chăn kiến (The Ant Herdsman) (Trẻ publisher, 2014). By arrangement with the author's family. Translation © 2018 by Nguyễn Hoàng Quyên. All rights reserved.

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