Chó Ma

Truyện ngắn của Hồng Hoang

Hò chèo thuyền chắc nhiều người biết còn “hò đưa ma” biết có còn ai nhớ không ? Dương hồn tôi xin ghi lại môt câu hò cổ xưa của người dân vùng Thanh-Nghệ-Tĩnh thường đánh chuông gõ mõ mà hò khi đưa đám ma:

Dinh tùng dinh, hò đưa linh…Dinh tùng dinh…hò đưa linh là hò đưa linh …Dinh tùng dinh …dinh tùg dinh…hò đưa linh…

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Đâu đó trên trần gian có nơi xác phàm tồn tại là để quan tâm dành điều tốt đẹp cho nhau. Ở đó người với người là hạnh phúc. Tôi cũng có nhiều kiếp xác phàm được đầu thai ở xứ sở hạnh phúc đó. Để có được hạnh phúc, xứ sở đó đã học được yêu thương trong đau khổ.

Tôi kể lại một chuyện ở kiếp tôi đầu thai nơi đó khi con người với con người chưa phải là hạnh phúc!

Chuyện kể rằng …. Hồi đó nhiều đại ma vương nổi lên dương gian cai quản những vùng địa lý rộng lớn. Các đại ma vương thường xâm lấn vùng cai quản của nhau. Ma vương nào cũng có những minh triết cao cả cho chiến tranh và quyết liệt chứng minh ai thắng ai bằng mọi giá.

Người người chết, làng mạc cháy, thành phố đổ nát. Mọi xác phàm đều trong tình cảnh chịu đựng đau khổ và chia ly.

Thành phố kia đổ nát ngổn ngang, mặt trận đã chuyển hướng tàn phá, người lính hồi hương với cây nạng gỗ. Nhờ phúc đức ông bà, ông vẫn còn mạng sống để  trở về với gia đình đã nhiều năm ngóng chờ.

Ngôi nhà cũ nơi mẹ già, vợ, con ông đang ở đã thành một hố bom to . Trái bom có tên gọi Bom Thông Minh đã rơi trúng ngôi nhà, trúng căn hầm nơi con trai, con gái, vợ và mẹ trú ẩn, ông không còn người thân thích ruột thịt nào nữa. Bây giờ đây ông  trở thành niềm thương nhớ tươi sống của một gia đình đã chết hết ,mỗi chiều chiều chống nạng đi tìm kỷ niệm trên con phố đổ nát, nơi xưa kia từng có mái ấm gia đình ông với bạn bè phố phường và nhiều mái ấm khác.

Chính quyền của các ma vương thời đó nhiều việc làm không xuể, chưa thể thu dọn khu phố bị bom biến thành đống gạch vụn này. Ông vẫn chống nạng đi bới tìm trong đống đổ nát những gì cần dùng cho cuộc sống độc thân. Hôm đi ngang ngôi nhà bị bom đánh xập hết tầng trên, thấy có đứa bé khoảng bảy tám tuổi thấp thoáng lẫn đống ngổn ngang. Ông dừng lại quan sát. Vắng quá. Tò mò đi về phía đã nhìn thấy đứa bé. Đi qua vùng đổ vỡ bên ngoài tới khoảng sân trống trải, bên kia là cánh cửa xập xệ hé mở bên trong có ánh đèn dầu. Chắc đứa bé ở đó, đi tới mở cửa, cánh cửa kêu kèn kẹt không thể mở rộng hơn được, ông nghiêng người lách qua.

Xác phàm người lính chưa cảm nhận được ngay nơi này đang có một vong linh bé thơ còn lưu luyến người anh trai chưa chịu nhập vào chốn vĩnh hằng.

Đây là căn buồng còn lại của ngôi nhà đổ, giữa buồng là đứa bé trai ngồi bên  cạnh một đứa bé khác nhỏ hơn nó nhiều nằm nhắm mắt mặt ngửa lên trần nhà, một chiếc khăn tắm to cũ đắp kín từ chân đến sát cằm. Nó là em trai của đứa bé đang ngồi.

Bằng nhậy cảm, ông biết đứa bé tý nằm dưới khăn tắm đã chết từ lâu. Ông chuyển cây nạng gỗ sang tay bên kia, từ từ hạ thân mình ngồi xuống bên đứa bé, ông hỏi:

-Em cháu phải không?

-Vâng ạ.

-Cháu ngồi đây làm gì ?

-Cháu canh cho em ngủ ạ.

-Em ngủ bao lâu rồi ?

-Cháu không nhớ, em ngủ lâu rồi không dậy, em cứ ngủ.

-Sao cháu không để em ngủ mà phải ngồi đây?

-Cháu ngồi canh hễ em lạnh người thì cháu lại ủ ấm cho em ngủ ngon.

-Bác giúp cháu làm cho em ngủ ngon không bao giờ bị lạnh nhé!

-Làm thế nào ạ ?

-Bác cháu mình làm cho em một căn buồng ngủ nhỏ xinh thật kín để gió không làm lạnh em cháu được.

-Làm bây giờ chứ ạ ?

-…

Người lính chợt thấy gương mặt vàng tái của đứa bé. Ông thò tay vào túi áo khoác, nhớ vẫn còn miếng bánh mì gói kỹ.

-Cháu đói ?

Đứa bé không nói mà gật gật cái đầu, không nhìn lên. Ông lấy miếng bánh ra mở giấy gói đưa bánh cho đứa bé.

-Cháu cứ ăn chỗ bánh này, chờ bác đi lấy thêm.

-Vâng ạ.

Người cựu chiến binh làm những động tác cẩn thận  để đứng lên. Ra ngoài trời còn sáng, người lính đã biết chỗ và biết cách tìm được bánh, còn mang về hai trái cam và hai cây nến.

Khi lách người qua cánh cửa kẹt,ông thấy đứa bé nằm úp xấp phủ toàn thân lên xác em nó. Ông từ từ chính xác từng cử động để ngồi xuống, lật vai đứa bé lên tìm cách bế nó, gọi nó là con và nói  “ngồi dậy nào con trai”.

Đứa bé thở rất nhẹ, không làm một cử động gì cản trở. Người chiến binh biết đây sẽ là ruột thịt mới của mình. Ông cúi sát mặt đứa bé ngửi rõ mùi hôi  khét khăm khẳm của mớ tóc rất bẩn, ông nói khẽ vào tai nó:

-Con lại thấy em lạnh?

-Vâng, cháu sợ em bị cảm lạnh.

-Bác và con làm buồng ngủ ấm cho em nhé.

-Cháu muốn làm  luôn.

-Con ngồi dậy ăn bánh đã nào.

Còn người chiến binh đã vuốt tóc và sửa lại những xộc xệch trên xác hài nhi. Hai người đi chọn những viên gạch đẹp nhất xếp thành một kim tự tháp nhỏ phủ kín xác hài nhi. Công việc kết thúc đẹp đẽ những viên gạch xếp rất khít mạch. Ông thắp hai cây nến trên đỉnh kim tự tháp rồi cầm tay đứa bé kéo ra đứng trước nấm mộ nổi giữa sàn nhà. Ông nói:

-Con đứng sát bên ta, nào ta và con cùng cúi đầu  nghĩ thầm câu “nghìn thu yên nghỉ” và im lặng một phút nhé.

-” Nghìn thu yên nghỉ ” là gì hả bác ?

-Đó là câu thần chú gúp cho những người ngủ thật lâu như em con được mãi mãi ấm áp bình an.

-Thế là “úm ba la xì bùa ” hả bác ?

-Còn hơn thế con ạ, nào con và ta cùng cúi đầu yên lặng một phút nhé.

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Người  thương binh cô độc nhận đứa con trai từ hoang tàn của chiến tranh. Khi dắt đứa bé đi về nơi ở của ông, nó có vẻ chưa yên lòng thỉnh thoảng ngoái đầu nhìn lại ngôi nhà đổ.

Đứa bé kéo tay người lính nói:

-Bác ơi trong ngôi nhà đổ vắng lạnh lắm!

-Không sao đâu buồng ngủ mới của em con đẹp lắm chắc chắn và ấm lắm gió lạnh không vào  được đâu, đi nào con đừng ngoái lại nữa, từ nay con gọi ta là bố nhé?

-Vâng bố ơi…

-Bố nói cho con biết một điều bí mật nhé.

-Vâng.

-Ai đó có một người yêu thương bền bỉ thì ngủ bất kỳ ở đâu kể cả mãi không dậy cũng sẽ ấm áp và không bị cảm lạnh  con ạ. Còn đêm nay bố con mình sẽ ngủ bên nhau.

-Thật thế không bố?

-Thật thế con trai ạ. Người lính không bao giờ nói dối. Từ nay bố con mình luôn luôn bên nhau.

Nét mặt đứa bé rạng rỡ trong ánh  sáng mờ của chiều muộn, nó ôm cánh tay người cựu chiến binh đi sóng đôi bên ông, cứ đi vài bước lại nhẩy chân sáo vì trong lòng niềm bình an vui sướng dâng đầy.

Còn người lính thì nghĩ sẽ cho con trai ăn no ngủ say cái đã. Tắm gội, quần áo mới và học hành là ngày mai nữa .

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Âm hồn đứa em hài nhi còn vương vấn lởn vởn theo người ah trai vừa mới đây đã lấy thân mình nằm phủ ấp sưởi ấm cho xác chết giá lạnh của nó. Âm hồn không chịu “nghìn thu biền biệt”.

Thấy sự lưu luyến âm dương quá mức, dương hồn tôi đã khuyên nhủ hồn ma  thôi đi đừng ám theo người thương nhớ của mình nữa, làm như thế là âm dương hại lẫn nhau .

Âm hồn đã không nghe khuyên bảo của tôi, nhất định không cam tâm rời xa dương hồn người anh trai đang đi theo người cựu chiến binh. Âm hồn còn cự lại rằng tôi còn dương là dương hồn sao thấu được lẽ nghìn thu biền biệt, cho  dù dương hồn tôi đang còn là “hồn  đấng sơ sinh” đương còn khả năng hiểu biết rộng khắp cao sâu.

Trong khoảnh khăc cực kỳ ngắn dương hồn tôi hiểu ra dẫu cõi âm dương là nhỏ bé vẫn có nhiều những điều bất khả kháng, đành vớt vát mách nước thiện cuối cùng cho một  hồn ma mông muội mịt mù tình thương.

-Ơ hờ…ô hô…hơ ơ… Âm hồn hài nhi ơi đừng làm như vậy , làm như vậy là đầy đọa cả hồn và thân xác dương gian của người mình yêu thương. Nếu quả thực hồn ma còn nặng kiếp trần chưa dứt được, tôi sẽ bảo cho cách khác có thể lưu lại được cõi dương một thời gian, Âm hồn có thuận theo ý thiện của tôi không?

– Vâng, âm hồn hiểu ra rồi . Âm hồn thuận theo mách bảo của dương hồn đây.

-Vậy hãy nhập hồn ma vào xác chó con hay mèo con mà sống lại rồi tìm đến hưởng dương cùng với anh trai.

Tôi đã chỉ cho ở đống rác chỗ ngã tư nơi cha con người lính sắp đi ngang qua, có xác chết chú cún con còn tươi mới, hồn ma hãy nhập vào đó mà sống lại.

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Người cựu chiến binh và đứa bé  đi gần tới ngã tư phía trước, thấy có con cún nhỏ bốn mắt, mõm và mặt  đen xì, đôi mắt giả màu vàng đất nổi bật hơn đôi mắt thật, cún con có bộ lông xù soăn nâu đậm ánh hung đỏ như lông ngựa đang đứng sẵn vẫy đuôi rối rit chờ họ đi tới lao ra đi cùng, rồi lăng săng chạy trước họ mà mừng cuống cuồng .

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Mong cho dương thế có ma thì  chỉ có những con ma hiền lương lưu luyến trần gian vì chữ tình như chú chó ma này, chứ đừng vì hận thù và lòng tham không thỏa mà lưu lại trần gian kểt thành bè bọn tà ma, kết thành lũ  “kẻ thù của hạnh phúc” .

Ơ h, ô hô ơ h, dinh tùng dinh…dinh tùng dinh…

Cư xá Bắc Hải TPHCM ngày 26.6.2009

HỒNG HOANG

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SƠN NAM ngoại sử 11

KHI LÃNG TỬ LÊN NGỒI XẾ HỘP

Nhà văn Sơn Nam giàu cá tính, chẳng những nổi tiếng về các tác phẩm trên lĩnh vực văn học mà còn nổi tiếng về đi bộ.

Ngày kia bỗng nhiên có cái xế hộp bóng lộn ghé lại đầu hẻm. Lần này không đi diễn thuyết, không lên truyền hình, không họp hành hội thảo gì ráo.

Lần này là VIP. Có cả bầu đoàn “cung nữ” theo hầu.

Nhà văn Sơn Nam thường nói: Đi bằng máy bay thì hiếm chứ bằng ôtô ngày nay phổ biến. Người nghèo cách mấy ở tận chốn quê làng hẻo lánh, rừng sâu, núi xa… trẻ sơ sinh hoặc thai nhi còn nằm trong bụng mẹ, cô dâu chú rể ngày lễ kết hôn, người tạ thế nằm trong quan tài lúc chở đi chôn cắt… Tóm lại trong đời chúng ta ai ai cũng từng đi ôtô, tuy nhiên trong nhiều loại xe, nhiều hình thức và khác nhau về tư cách.

Lắm lúc đi vắng đôi ba bữa, xe đưa về vào quán giải khát uống bia ông nói vui với bạn bè xúm lại thăm hỏi:

– Tướng tôi “xí trai” lại quen ăn mặc xềnh xoàng. Nhất là những lúc ông đi làm công tác văn hoá tập thể cùng với số người đông đi tham quan. Viếng các lăng tẩm, đền thờ, di tích lịch sử nhiều nơi bằng xe buýt rộng lớn. Ban đầu kẻ lạ nhìn tôi mới bước lên xe cứ tưởng tôi là lơ xe.

Mọi người ngớ ngẩn thì ông hóm hĩnh:

– Ấy chính là những lúc họ đến các quán, các nhà trọ tìm mà tôi vừa đi, không thấy đâu cả. Họ hỏi thăm các tay xe ôm đang có mặt gần đấy quá rành các chỗ tôi đến, như về nhà với các đứa con ở Bà Chiểu – Bình Thạnh, hoặc là ghé các chỗ tụi nó rành tận tim đen. Thế là ôtô bốc họ lên ngồi chễm chệ làm điềm chỉ viên. Đến gặp được tôi ngay phóc. Chủ ở lại làm việc, tài xế đưa ân nhân về chỗ cũ, mời ăn uống… hậu hĩ.

Trong xe có máy điều hoà không khí, có radio, cassette, có truyền hình mini… nhấn nút ghế ngồi bật ngửa nằm tựa thân trên niệm mouse êm ả như mơ.

Thế nhưng, đối với nhà văn Sơn Nam vẫn có cái “kẹt” đầu tiên. Lắm ôtô đời mới không có cái gạt tàn thuốc. Ngồi trong máy lạnh mà phê thuốc thì hết ý, mặc dù không có xe nào có bảng No Smoking nhưng hút hơi sượng và rất khó xử lý. Lại thêm chút tế nhị. Tuy dọc đường các quan chức và người đẹp cùng xe chiều ông thầy hết lòng, nhưng ông nói nhập gia tuỳ tục và mình phải biết thương người lái. Nghĩa là tuy không nói ra nhưng phải chấp nhận mất tự do, không hút thuốc.

Chúng tôi chợt nhớ hai câu thơ của Nguyễn Du:

Vậy nên những chốn thong dong

Đứng không yên ổn ngồi không vững vàng

(Kiều)

Sơn Nam chỉ thích ngồi lộ thiên trên các xe ôm, xích lô. Xe của giới lao động vui vẻ, dễ tính, lại quá rành cái nết của vị khách hàng thâm niên độc đáo này.

Thích chỗ nào ngừng ngay chỗ ấy. Thường là lúc đang chở ngoài đường bỗng bảo xe quay vào các nhà sách cũ luc lọi tìm mua. Lúc thì đi ngang qua các gian hàng trái cây, hoa kiếng bắt mắt, có “các em” đứng bán sầu riêng Cái Mơn, măng cụt Lái Thiêu, vú sữa Vĩnh Kim, bưởi Năm Roi… Bàn tay đập xành xạch lên lưng người chở, xe chạy ngừng lẹ, vào mua ngay và tỉ tê nói chuyện một chặp vừa ý rồi mới quay gót. Ngồi sau các loại xe này hút thuốc thoải mái vô tư và nhìn ngang liếc dọc cũng chẳng ai chê trách, lại rất trực tiếp thực tế cho đôi mắt và trang viết.

Sắm được ôtô để sử dụng là ước mơ tuyệt vời của tất cả mọi người từ già đến trẻ. Trẻ con mới biết đi chập chững đã đòi mua ôtô, dẫu là ôtô đồ chơi.

Các cụ ông cụ bà, chỉ còn ngồi một chỗ cũng thích sắm ôtô con, để chưng diện trước nhà, để con cháu sử dụng, đôi lúc cần chở họ đi đó đây vừa an toàn vừa sang trọng.

Chỉ độc nhất một người không thích ô-tô, đó là Sơn Nam.

CHỊ SƠN NAM KỂ CHUYỆN CHỒNG

(Bài của Trần Anh Tài)

Tôi về Mỹ Tho thăm chị Sơn Nam. Chị tên Đào Thị Phán, năm nay đã 80 tuổi, đón tôi, chị rất mừng. Nét giản dị, hồn hậu, thân tình của người con gái đất Long Trị, Long Mỹ (Hậu Giang) phảng phất trong cử chỉ, lời nói của chị khiến tôi càng nhớ Sơn Nam.

Chị mồ côi mẹ lúc 5 tuổi, rồi năm 10 tuổi cha cũng chết. Bên giường bệnh, người cha hiền lành, cặm cụi, nắm tay chị đặt lên tay anh Hai dặn dò:

– Ba có mệnh hệ nào, con ráng sống cho trọn đạo, nghe lời anh Hai. Còn thằng Châu, mày thay cha, bảo bọc chăm lo các em nhỏ.

Mười bảy tuổi, chị tham gia công tác Hội phụ nữ xã Long Trị, được chị Phan Thị Tốt (Ba Tốt, dân Vĩnh Long, sau này về hưu, ở Phú Nhuận, mới qua đời tháng 6-2008) dìu dắt, nhất là cho chị đi học hai tháng tại khu 9.

Hôm bế giảng lớp học, khách tham dự có Đoàn Thanh niên cứu quốc tỉnh Kiên Giang sang, trong đoàn, có anh Sơn Nam. Anh Sơn Nam sau đó “để ý” chị, có nhờ anh Năm Tiễn và lãnh đạo xã Long Trị làm mai mốt. Ông Năm Tiễn nhờ chị Ba Tốt và phụ nữ xã đánh tiếng:

– Thằng đó tuy xấu trai, vậy mà có tài lắm, nó là uỷ viên Tỉnh đoàn Rạch Giá đó, mầy muốn ưng thì ưng.

Chị Sơn Nam trong lòng đắn đo, thêm chút rộn ràng. Thầy bói nói anh Sơn Nam tuổi dần chị tuổi tỵ, gia đình anh nghèo, ông già Phạm Minh Sám và bà Lê Thị Quý ở quê, sống nhờ vườn cau, khoảng ruộng nhỏ, cô tư Phạm Thị Xuân chằm nón lá, bác Hai Pham Huy Trân (tự là Khoái) cũng đi kháng chiến và nhất là… “không thấy ở bản thân anh tương lai”. Đâu cũng sáu bảy tháng, anh Sơn Nam tìm cách làm quen với anh Hai chị Đào Hiền Châu, lúc đó, đang làm thư ký Tòa án Quân sự khu 9. Rồi anh Hai dẫn Sơn Nam về nhà nhân dịp gì đó.

Chị đang sinh hoạt Hội ở xóm trên, được gọi về lẹ. Thấy nhà có khách, chị đi vòng vào nhà bằng ngả sau, nhưng cũng kịp nhìn thấy anh thanh niên tinh nghịch “bỏ ống dòm” bằng cách chụp hai ngón tay trỏ vào hai ngón cái đưa lên mắt dõi theo.

Ăn cơm xong, anh hai gọi Sơn Nam và chị ngồi lại. Nói cho chị biết ý Sơn Nam. Anh hai có ý khuyên chị ưng đi. Từ đó, cứ mười bữa, nửa tháng, anh ấy lại ghé nhà…

Anh hai chị nói mấy lần, vậy mà anh Sơn Nam phải chờ đến hai năm mới có đám cưới. Đám cưới chị là đôi bông do chị Hoàng, cán bộ Hội phụ nữ tỉnh Rạch Giá cho Sơn Nam mượn. Một trăm ngàn tiền miền Nam, anh “nhờ” bạn bè và bà con giúp để “đưa tiền chợ” đàng gái.

Chị Phán nhắc điều này để nhớ ơn chị Hoàng và bạn bè, bà con tốt bụng lúc đó. Đám cưới chỉ có anh Phạm Huy Trân qua Long Trị, ông nội bà nội tụi nhỏ cũng không có. Điều này cho thấy, tình yêu chị, cuộc đời chị với anh Sơn Nam là đáng trân trọng biết bao. Đời nay ít có.

Hai năm sau, chị sanh Mỹ Linh (Đào Thuý Hằng). Ông nội bà nội hay tin, gởi qua cho xấp vải, đủ may hai bộ đồ mới cho mẹ con. Lúc đó, bom pháo dữ dội, Long Trị sơ xác. Anh Sơn Nam đưa mẹ-con chị về An Biên.

Đường đi thì xa, anh Sơn Nam chỉ biết chèo ghe bập bẹ, lại cà rịch cà tang, dút dít. Cứ đói bụng là tấp ghe vào nhà bạn ăn cơm, chỗ nào anh cũng có bạn chí tình. Hai ngày, ghe mới tới nhà nội, trời đã chạng vạng.

Quê nội đón mừng cô dâu nhà họ Phạm quá đổi thân tình. Nước ròng, ghe xa bờ 10 mét. Có người lội xuống bồng em bé lên, có người phụ anh Sơn Nam dắt chị Phán đi trên thân dừa (làm cầu) dốc xiên ngược, hành lý là gói quần áo nhẹ tênh… Không có lấy món trái cây, trái khóm nào cho nhà chồng. Chị Sơn Nam xúc động mấy ngày liền về tình cảm quê nhà của anh.

Sống với nhà chồng nghèo ba năm, chị Sơn Nam được cha mẹ chồng cưng chiều trân trọng. Ông nội dành cho cháu Mỹ Linh sự chăm sóc quý báu. Ẵm bồng nựng nịu đã đành, ông nội còn bỏ công cả tháng, tẳn nẳn làm xe rùa cho cháu chơi. Cháu chơi nghịch làm bể ấm trà quí của ông trên bàn, ông không rầy mà chỉ đánh yêu vào mông cháu bồm bộp, nói đớt đát:

– Mồ tổ cha mày, của ông giữ gìn hai ba đời nay, mà dám làm bể của ông rồi!

Đào Thuý Hằng, nhắc lại chuyện này đầy xúc động và tự hào: ông nội lúc đó thương cháu hơn cả con bác hai!.

Ở An Biên, chị Sơn Nam  sanh thêm cháu Nguyệt Ánh (cô tư tụi nhỏ đặt tên này) sau này là Đào Thuý Nga, hiện ở chung lo phụng dưỡng mẹ với chị Hằng. Sau đó, chị đùm túm hai con về Long Trị. Ngày đi, cha mẹ chồng gửi lên ghe bầy vịt, mấy hũ mắm, chị nhớ lời cha chồng:

– Thằng Lạc (tên ở nhà của anh Sơn Nam) nó đi hoài, con ở đây cũng buồn, thôi về bển, khi nào rảnh ba má qua thăm…

Hồi sanh cháu Hằng, anh Sơn Nam  đi công tác cả tháng sau mới về. Anh kể chị nghe: Anh đi “ thi văn nghệ”, hai tác phẩm Cù Lao Dung và Tây Đầu Đỏ được giải, anh tăng chị bộ đồ tơ tằm và mấy khúc vải. Năm đó, anh Kiên Giang cũng có giải, được tặng một cái áo sơ mi đẹp, anh giữ riết tới lên Sài Gòn mới mặc.

Năm 1954, anh được phân công ở lại, về Sài Gòn công tác thành. Chị theo anh về chốn phồn hoa. Anh tập tành viết, chị xin dạy ở trường tư gần ngã bảy Vườn Lài bấy giờ.

Chị Sơn Nam  dừng lại ở chỗ này, chị nhờ tôi viết lời cảm ơn với chú Đoàn Hồng Việt, “ học trò” anh Kiên Giang Hà Huy Hà, sau này có làm ở bưu điện Mỹ Tho. Lúc anh Sơn Nam  có “bạn mới”, chị buồn, giận anh, nhưng còn hai đứa con, chị quyết tâm phải ráng cho tụi nó đi học.

Anh Sơn Nam  lâu lâu về cho chị 50 – 100 đồng, khi chiếc mùng, khi cái áo.

Ở Mỹ Tho chị sanh thêm với anh Sơn Nam  cháu Liễu, khi có bầu cháu Liễu là lúc anh Sơn Nam  vào nhà tù Phú Lợi, bây giờ nó làm việc và sinh sống ở Sài Gòn. Mấy năm cháu Hằng, cháu Nga học đại học ở trển, anh có phụ chị lo lắng, dù ít nhưng quý.

Lúc ấy, khoảng cầu Đạo Ngạn tới bến xe Mỹ Tho còn trống trơn, chị “bày ra chuyện” dạy tư ở nhà, mục đích để kèm thêm cho hai đứa con gái. Chú Đoàn Hồng Việt cũng đem hai đứa con mình về chị dạy, để hàng tháng giúp chị, chị không áy náy. Sau này, lúc anh Sơn Nam ở tù, nhà văn Ngọc Linh biết hoàn cảnh anh chị, cũng có phụ chị lo cho gia cảnh khó. Trong số học trò học nhà chị, có con ông Thôn Hai giàu nổi tiếng ở xóm trong, cũng ra học. Thôn Hai thấy hai con lớn của chị tới tuổi đi học mà không có khai sanh, đứa út sắp ra đời. Sẵn dịp, ông giúp chị làm ba cái khai sanh ở xã. Ông không nhận đền đáp, vì chị dạy các con ông học rất giỏi, sau này, chúng cũng thành tài. Vì vậy, ba đứa con chị đều mang họ mẹ.

Chị sống chan chứa trong tình xóm giềng.

ĐÀO TĂNG

CHÚ THÍCH ẢNH 01: Thẳng tiến Vũng Tàu

CHÚ THÍCH ẢNH 02: Bà Đào Thị Phán vợ nhà văn Sơn Nam giỗ 100 ngày mất của chồng tại Mỹ Tho 20.11.2008 trước ống kính Đài Truyền Hình TP. HCM.

WENDY DAO – Fading Dream 03

3: Secret rendezvous, outside the trappings

Wendy knew what the agitation of waiting could bring. She knew how the desired end to that timeless insanity felt like a free fall that would never come even though she knew it inevitably would. Her mind would create agitation as it would question the laws of physics in an illogical thought process.

Time never stopped, slowed, sped or leapt. It always moved in a constant manner. Embracing its consistence was an impossible task.

The passage of time was always consistent.

The passage of time after being filtered through one’s heat wasn’t.

And this moment, with the awkward silence ringing sadistically in her ears, felt like an eternity. Amethyst bored into endless blue, she waited, breathed, and watched; he stared back, his chest rising and falling rapidly. To them, time was put on pause.

Waiting. Both had different thoughts harbored in their minds and wanted something from each other, yet none ever attempted to make that request.

Instead, they waited and waited. For something to change, for the silk to melt into their skin, or for the tatami pad stacked together neatly on the table to catch on fire, or the stars to fall out of the sky they couldn’t see from inside this room.

They waited for the silence to end so all the masks could be torn off; so everything would be laid down on the table. It was then a quiet knock on the wooden door shattered the heavy silence between them, directing their attentions towards the silhouette projected onto the paper screen door.

Andy’s grip on his sword tightened and Wendy eyed him to settle down and lay down on the bed, at the same time cover himself up with the bed sheets while she made her way across the room to see who it was.

Opening the paper screened door, a sullen young face came into view. The girl was no older than fifteen. Her long hair like the finest ebony were braided into two buns and pinned in place with two red ribbons. Her eyes were the rarest color of scarlet red, reminding Wendy of the color of the dusk.

The girl’s eyes widened slightly as she looked up at Wendy’s face but it was gone as soon as it surfaced. Sullen and somewhat defiant, she bowed to Wendy reluctantly and held out a box stiffly, gesturing Wendy to take it.

Wendy put on her charming smile and muttered a quick thanks to the red-eyed girl, but she dashed away quickly as soon as the packaged she was told to deliver landed into Wendy’s hand. Chuckling to herself softly in light amusement, Wendy watched the young girl scampering away as if she had just seen a monster and shook her head.

Closing the door behind her, Wendy brought the package to Andy’s bed. “Here, clean up that wound of yours and put on this new kimono.” She started to take out the different things in the package, the new kimono, bandages, and some herbs to clean up his wound with.

“Get read fast and we’re leaving as soon as you’re done. Taira no Eriol will come back for another round of search soon, for sure, and my plan won’t work again.”

Andy nodded in reply. Just when he was about to take off his blood drenched kimono, he flickered a glance up at Wendy unsurely and Wendy immediately understood that he wanted some privacy. Getting up and straightening out the wrinkled fabric of her kimono, Wendy headed for the door.

But before she left, she heard a hushed apology. “I’m sorry.” It made her pause for just the briefest moment before she proceeded on with what she was doing a moment ago. She knew he felt guilty for not giving her the antidote she wanted so badly, but he had his reason too.

She was his only ticket out of Heian-kyou. And she helped him, not out of the kindness of her heart, but because her life was in his hand. Used and being used was what they were. Thus, words of apology weren’t needed. Both of them were merely following the rules of the game of survival.

Andy watched her disappear out of the door and found himself staring at the empty space of where she once was unblinkingly. The seemingly fragile boy kept on surprising him with everything he did and a part of Andy really admired the boy for his quick wittiness and ability to stay calm even in a life and death situation.

The boy was almost… whimsical in a sense. One minute he was smiling brightly and chatting away about the most casual things, and the next minute he could be oppressive and icy cold. So many phases at the same time…and Andy wondered which one represented the real him.

Like deep, still water, there was no way to tell how much the stone had sunk. Likewise, there was no way to know how far one had waded with the boy before the signs became blaringly obvious.

Grinning faintly, Andy undressed himself and began to clean up his cuts.

*

Sketchy lines drawn by their long shadows cast upon the empty road far from the main entrance gates of Heian-Kyou. They left through the main gates which were guarded by many Taira Clan soldiers, yet none dared to stop them for a check up.

Wendy carried the wooden card which had the Kanji characters of “Taira” carved onto it, and those soldiers knew that only a member from the Taira family had such a card. They respectfully stepped aside and allowed Wendy and a cross-dressed Andy pass through without further questioning.

After all, no one would expect a Taira family member aiding their biggest enemy in his escape.

Right after they exited Heian-Kyou, Andy poured out some water from his water bag and washed off the heavy make up on his face with much disgust, then stripped off the female kimono in which he was forced to wear, since according to Wendy, no one would ever suspect him in that form.

It was a direct blow to his pride and dignity, but he had to do it. A part of him regretted getting onto Wendy’s bad side and he was almost sure that Wendy did it out of vengeance. But then again, Wendy did keep her words of getting him out of Heian-Kyou safely.

He stole another quick glance at Wendy who was standing a few meters away from him and who was waiting patiently for him. Her hands were cupped together gracefully at her back as she stared into the velvety sky. There existed the span of stars – a blurred image of elegant, dull spectacles and a tight smile.

He didn’t know what was on the card she showed to those soldiers, but the way the soldiers stepped aside so quickly and respectfully confirmed his suspicion of her background. She had to be from one of the wealthy and powerful aristocratic families in Heian-Kyou.

But the last name “Ryuichi” didn’t ring a bell in his head. Probably a pseudonym…but then again, it was quite understandable that she wanted to keep her name confidential. But a part of him really wanted to know who she was.

Pushing aside the thought, Andy approached where Wendy stood and halted into a stop when she looked at him with her head cocked slightly to the right. She kept her end of the bargain, and now it was his time to keep his end of it.

Taking out his sword and sliding the blade across his finger tip, the scarlet liquid gushed out of the small wound almost immediately. A few droplets fell onto the ground. “This is the antidote to the poison.” He explained, holding up his hand.

Wendy narrowed her eyes slightly. The antidote was right under her nose all along. And all along, she thought it was something that was very hard to get even if she used Eriol’s power to get it. Swerving around to face him fully, Wendy ambled over to where he was and leaned forward.

The awful taste of blood entered her mouth. She wanted to cough it out but told herself that it was the only thing that could save her life.

When her soft lips touched his fingertip, Andy felt a spark of some sort jolting through his body. He gawked at her, from her perfect complexion to her chin and down her creamy white neck—and she had no Adam’s apple!

Even though she had a small and slender form, Andy was almost certain that she was boy in her late teens. Andy’s eyes popped wide open as he grabbed onto her elbow almost excitedly. “You-you are not a-man?” He stammered out the question.

Wendy cringed in pain and tried to break away from his tight grasp. “Of course I’m not, I never said I was one.”

But he didn’t mind the implicit sarcasm in her voice, instead, his grin only enlarged. Wendy frowned a little and titled her head upward, when her eyes aligned with his, she saw him grinning at her like an thrilled and overjoyed little boy.

“Don’t get too overjoyed yet, the soldiers are still guarding the gates which isn’t too far from here. If you don’t want to die, I suggest you go right now.” She mistook his happiness as success of his escape and warned.

“Right.” He nodded quickly, but the bright smile was unwavering. “I’ll be back.” He vowed quietly, as if to himself, and Wendy raised an eyebrow.

“I’ll be back, for sure.” He repeated, but with more persistence this time as if he was trying to convince her and left. But before that, he gave her one last look, almost lingering in a sense.

She watched him take off and disappearing into the night like a wanderer of the darkness. Rubbing her tired temples, she was ready to call it a night. Wendy headed back to the gates of Heian-Kyou and for the household and take on her sister’s identity again.

She didn’t take his words seriously when he vowed that he would come back one day, but she was soon to be proved wrong.

It is the deep breath before the plunge

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

Time fleeted by like the careless breeze. The moment was already gone before one could realize it. As the river of time continued down an unknown path towards the verge of forever, each day, each minute and each second became a part of history – a part of people’s memories.

Rita carried a bucket of water with much difficulty and was shakily making her way to where Wendy lived. The wintry chills seeped through the thin material of her kimono and sent shivers down her spine. It was cold alright and her fingers were numbed from the pervasive coldness of Heian-Kyou’s harsh winter.

Still struggling, Rita kept her eyes on the bucket of water and her path to ensure nothing would spill onto the well-polished wooden floor. She didn’t want to be called clumsy because anything she did wrong would be blamed on Wendy, simply because she was Miss Wendy’s lady-in-waiting. And she already hard enough horrible untrue things said about Miss Wendy already and had no intention of worsening it.

Her hasty footsteps slowed down and eventually halted into a stop as she approached Wendy’s room. The narrow ramp that exuded from the compound seemed like an endless road, leading towards an almost magical place embraced by mysteriousness and a rare soul-calming tranquility.

This part of the compound belonged to Wendy only. Only such beautiful place could suit her. It brought out Miss Wendy’s inner concinnous demeanor. And sometimes she wondered why Miss Wendy wanted to hide her true self like this and gave the Taira family a twisted and distorted image of herself.

Upon sliding open the wooden paper screened door, Rita’s gaze swept across the dimly lit room and settled down upon the beautiful woman who was half sitting on the tatami pad and leaning against the wall, with a book in her hand. Her long purple hair cascaded over her shoulder like the finest silk as she immersed herself in her reading.

“Miss Wendy,” Rita called out quietly, interrupting the peaceful tranquility and her soft voice resonated in the air. She slowly lowered the heavy bucket of water to ground level and let go only until she was sure that its bottom touched the ground safely.

When she tilted her head toward Wendy’s direction, she saw Wendy looking up at her, smiling elegantly and warmly as ever. Her eyes fell upon the book as she paused for a minute, as if uncertain of what she was going to say.

But she went ahead anyway. “Miss Wendy, pardon my rudeness and I know it’s not my place to suggest such thing, but you should go out a bit more like the other ladies of the house.” Rita suggested while her crafty hands worked to pour out some of the now tepid warm water into a small round-ish looking metallic bowl.

“Hmm?” Wendy drawled, playing with the book in her hand idly as she listened on, curious of what her lady-in-waiting had to say.

“Like going to the temple to pray, or participate in ladies’ tea parties or something like that.” Explained Rita, elaborating on what she thought a high-class lady like Wendy should do during her spare time. Getting up, she brought the metallic bowl to Wendy.

“Oh? You think I should hang out with those bored ladies with nothing to do other than fighting for who’s the prettiest and who’s more loved by their husbands?” Wendy raised an eyebrow with evident mockery in her eyes as she asked cynically, her eyes boring straight into Rita’s.

Rita bit her lower lip hard and frowned resentfully as she said indignantly. “But Miss Wendy, you don’t know what those people are saying about you in these days! I over heard it from the servant girls and they were saying how you’re not pretty or healthy because you’re always in your room and that once you die-”

Rita’s eyes widened to twice its original size and covered her mouth hastily as a preventative measure to stop herself from blurting out anything else ourtrageous. Regret quickly flashed in her eyes, overriding the indignation Wendy saw earlier. She mentioned the word death, which was considered very lucky by the buddists.

“…once I die from some incurable disease Lord Eriol would be able to take another ‘more suitable’ woman’s hand am I right?” Wendy slowly finished her sentence, looking as calm as ever as if she was merely narrating someone else’s fate.

Letting her gaze fall to the ground, Rita bit her lower lip and remained silent. She heard a cold scoff from Wendy and stole a quick glance at her from the corners of her eyes, there she saw Wendy smiling again. Puzzled, Rita didn’t understand the sudden change of expression on Wendy’s visage.

Did she find the whole thing amusing or something like that? Rita couldn’t help but wonder and frown in slight disapproval.

The gossips and rumors were flying around the house like aimless arrows. Everyone knew about it. Everyone gossiped about it behind closed doors. Perhaps Miss Wendy was misunderstanding the seriousness of this situation because the rumors weren’t just spreading around the house, but were also spreading in Heian-Kyou like a pandemic disease.

Just the other day someone was trying to tie the red string between the younger sister of Heian-Kyo’s number one beauty and Lord Eriol. (Tie the red string is a saying similar to the western expression of “cupid’s arrow of love”, used when someone’s try match make two people).

“You’re worrying too much Rita. Those are just rumors. People like to gossip about others because they’re so pathetic themselves that they need to make other looks bad in order to make themselves look better. You don’t have to take the things they say seriously. All you gotta do is turn on a blind eye and pretend it’s just the wind hissing like a wild cat.

Don’t stress over such insignificant things especially when you know it’s not true. As long as you know it’s not true, Lord Eriol knows it’s not true, then what’s there to worry about?” Wendy smiled assuringly at Rita, patting her on the head a little. She knew Rita was concerned about her image and how Eriol would react when he heard about these things because this could potentially lower her status in the house.

A woman’s status and power was directly proportional to how much attention her husband would gave her. And for a man to pay attention to a woman, he must be attracted to her and like her.

But Rita didn’t know about the deal she made with Eriol. It didn’t matter if Eriol loved her or not, or whether he pays attention to her. Her status as the great Taira No Eriol’s first lady would not be changed so easily, and if ever, at all. This was his promise to her. And at the same time, he had promised to indulge many of the things she did as long as they weren’t too over the line.

So everything was good at this moment. “Cheer up and help me get dressed.”

Rita sighed inwardly and knew she shouldn’t dwell on something Miss Wendy said she shouldn’t worry about. Nodding respectfully, she took out the make up box from the closet, though somewhat reluctantly. The smile on Wendy’s face never waned as she watched the divinely beautiful woman in the mirror turn into a ghostly white woman with almost hideous make up.

Her intention was never “fall in love with her husband”, thus it didn’t matter what he thought of her. As long as she still enjoyed the privilege she had at the moment, she could care less what he thought and did when she wasn’t around.

Love wasn’t necessary when one had great powers.

*

You should visit her more often even though she’s ill in bed all the times. The words of his Mother’s advice rang in his ears as he made his way down the meandering long hallway that was leading towards the foreign place which he had only been to once–his so-called wife’s compound.

He never saw her again after the night of their wedding. She didn’t want to see him, and he didn’t want to see her. She kept her end of the bargain, which was leave him alone, and he would keep his end of it which was make sure no one bothers her and the best way of doing it was to announce to the world that she suffer from a long term illness.

Arriving at her bedroom’s door, Eriol paused for a moment, but entered anyway.

“Nataly,” he tried her name on his tongue. It was the first time he ever called her by her first name, it felt somewhat strange and awkward to him but he didn’t know any other term he could call her with.

The word came out as a soft echo, almost sounded as if he knew her all his life. Wendy turned slightly, looking over her shoulder with a somewhat surprised look in her eyes. But it quickly disappeared as soon as it surfaced. She put on her trademark smile and got up obediently like the perfect wife to welcome his arrival.

“Master Eriol, please excuse my rudeness of not welcoming you at the door. Rita should’ve notified me.” She lowered her head and bowed to him. Even though it sounded as if she had blamed Rita, but he could tell it was just polite act that she had put up for him.

“Don’t worry about it.” Eriol brushed it off nonchalantly and looked around and came to a strange conclusion. “How come I don’t see any servants or ladies in waiting around?” He questioned with perplexity evident in his eyes.

“I’m not really used to having too many people wandering around me all the times. Besides, Rita is my lady-in-waiting and she serves me really well, so I didn’t see the need to have too many people around.” Wendy explained cap-in-hevndly.

“I see.” Eriol nodded lightly in acknowledgement and bought her reason. He flashed a quick glance at her and saw her with her head low again. Even though she seemed fragile on the outside, but his gut instincts told him that she was who she seemed to be.

She only had one servant girl around – a servant girl she brought from her family – was enough to show that she didn’t trust people easily and that she was enough smart to know that trusting people easily could potentially be the end of her in a deceptive place like this.

But it didn’t mean he couldn’t keep an eye on her either. As long as she didn’t do anything too extreme, he would turn on a blind eye and indulge it all. After all, it was his promise to her. “One lady-in-waiting is too little, you should at least have one more around to serve you in this compound.”

Even though she seemed calm and elegant on the outside, her fingernails were digging into the flesh of her palm underneath the cover of long kimono sleeves. Wendy wasn’t stupid enough to think that he was just being a caring husband.

He wanted to add one more servant to this peaceful compound because he wanted to keep an eye on her every move, implying he didn’t trust her entirely and she should be cautious of her actions. He was indirectly warning her not to step over the line.

Tightening her fists, she forced herself to smile thankfully. “I really appreciate this Lord Eriol but the last thing I want to do is to worry you with my unimportant business.” He glanced at her and lifted the corners of his mouth just slightly. It appeared to be a harmless smile, but somewhat it sent shivers down Wendy’s spine.

He really wasn’t someone to be taken lightly. She concluded.

Ever since he set his foot through her door, her mind raced at the speed of light as she tried to figure out a legitimate reason of his sudden visit. She just couldn’t think of anything that could’ve caused him to come over to her place and have these little seemingly harmless chats with her.

Well looks like she would just have to wait around and see what he had installed for her. Enlarging her obedient and gentle smile, she offered him to sit. After all, she was the perfect host and she would never show her fears or doubts to anymore.

Being the master of pretense wasn’t easy, but she was intelligent enough to hold her mask in place, and so was he.

She watched him carefully as he took a seat, and sat down herself as well. “Please make yourself comfortable here. And what kind of tea would you like to have? I’ll call Rita over to prepare it for you.” Wendy offered, and just when she was about to get up, he gestured to remain where she was.

“It’s alright, I just came to let you know that I’ll be leaving for a few months to train some of the Taira clan soldiers to prepare them for future prevention of attempted assassinations of the emperor.” Eriol explained vaguely, eyes set on afar.

“The previous assassination already stirred fears in Heian-Kyou and we were the ones to blame for allowing that assassin escape right when he was underneath our noses.”

Of course she remembered it. Taira no Kiyomori, Eriol’s Father, thought his one stone for two birds plan was brilliant, but he never thought of the possibility that SHE would be involved in this underlying political struggle. Thus, he was forced to announce that the assassin escaped and call for a massive search and make the entire event public.

Wendy nodded and listened quietly while she scrutinized his handsome features from the corners of her eyes. She didn’t know if it was the affect of the room’s shadowing that made him appear so unreadable and mysterious, or if this was the way he is. In a way, he reminded her of a deep bottomless abyss.

“Please becareful Lord Eriol, and I’ll be praying for your safety while you’re away.” She replied understandingly, acting her role of the perfect loving wife. He nodded at her in satisfaction and let a serene silence wash over the two of them.

The way he described his journey was extremely vague and made it sound insignificant. But Wendy knew there was more than that to it. This was just the peaceful and calming stage before the arrival of a raging storm.

Looks like chaos is going to embrace Heian-kyou pretty soon. She thought to herself almost amusingly. In a way, it sounded extremely ironic to her because the name Heian meant Peace, but this place was far more dangerous and scheming than any other place in Japan.

Unlike the other women who prayed for peace, she wanted war. She looked forward to the start of a war that was going to change Heian-Kyou forever.

Because she remembered clearly: in the midst of chaos, only heroes could arise from the ashes and only the rule of survival of the fittest would apply. Status didn’t matter anymore, only true talents could take one to a greater height.

But then again, this state of anarchy could either make one or destroy one, and she intended on making it to the top.

With Minamoto No Yoshitsune escaping and meeting up with his brother, it was only a matter of time before they revolt against the Emperor. To take out the emperor they must first get rid of the Taira family because only through the downfall of the powerful Taira family could they finally claim the throne.

Well… it was the battle for the ultimate power. life was finally getting more interesting. She mused to herself. This was her chance to shine and she would not miss it.

“Anyway, Mother wants to speak to you about this, which is part of the reason why I came here to inform you on it. She has this talk with every single woman married into this family and let them understand that we’re a family of samurai generals, and it is our job to protect Japan and its leader so it is only natural for us to be a way for long periods of time sporadically when it is needed.”

This snapped Wendy out of her thoughts. She never really wanted to social or interact with the people in this family, unless she had to, and this seemed like one of the moments when she had to put on her obedient and serene smile and be as fake as she could.

“Perhaps I should go right now, it’s not polite to make the lady of the house wait.” Wendy suggested, one hand pressing against the floor to pull herself up as gracefully as possible. But what she really meant was: I want to get this over with.

Eriol, being the gentleman he was, automatically held out an aiding hand. She gave him somewhat surprised and doubtful look but took it anyway.

When their fingertips touched, Eriol felt a familiar spark bolting through his body and his eyes widened slightly. Lowering his head a little bit, his piercing gaze paralleled with the beautiful hand resting on his palm.

The breath he inhaled in a moment ago was caught in his throat as he stared and stared at it as if his penetrating eyes were trying to puncture through the smooth pale skin.

Her skin was soft and cream, just like the last time he had touched it, though unintentionally. And Eriol was struck to a realization. He couldn’t be wrong and was rarely wrong, but this time, he almost wished that he was wrong, because it was none other than that “boy’s” hand he was holding at this moment.

Secret rendezvous, outside the trappings of time

The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped

Stunned for a moment there as if time was placed on pause, and as if all the motions in the world were frozen in place like a still water color painting, Eriol stared down at the beautiful hand resting on the callused surface of his palm. His lips parted slightly.

Sharp, cat-like amber eyes traced the contours of those delicate long fingers from their polished tips their other end. He flickered up a glance at her, aligning their visions. He saw confusion and surprise flash briefly in her eyes – so briefly that his eyes barely caught it.

In the depths of her amethyst orbs, like an endless and boundless sea of purple, Eriol found the same pride and fierce indignation he saw in the “boy’s” eyes. Even with the heavy make up and distractive thick eyeliner in place, he still saw the resemblance in their ethereal features.

So she was that “boy” – that mysterious, exceptionally beautiful boy with a captivating, unwavering smile regardless of the predicament “he” was in. Feeling a small smile blooming on his lips, Eriol let go of her hand and gave her a lingering look before turning away to take the lead.

This was getting interesting, and his gut instincts were proven to be right once again. She wasn’t whom she appeared to be, but so wasn’t he. Having an obedient wife who would do anything as he asked would be boring. This way was somewhat better. It adds more excitement to life, in a sense. Besides, as long as she didn’t do anything too overboard, he didn’t see the problem of sticking his nose into the things she does during her own time.

Once Wendy saw him turning his back on her, she felt suddenly it was easier to breath again. She didn’t like his aura. It was too oppressive and cryptic. She didn’t like it when she didn’t know much about him. The guessing game was fun, but only to a certain extent. Passing that point it would become frustrating.

She wasn’t very fond of his eyes either. There was just something about them that simply irked her to no end. Like Infinite amber glistening with a hint of mischief and iciness — such beautiful contradicting elements clashing into one – it spelled out danger.

Specially that smile of his, although she saw it more as a faint smirk, as if he was snickering about a joke that only he knew about, and most likely, the joke would be on her. But more importantly, under his intensive and penetrating gaze, she always felt like her façade would crack and fall apart.

*

“Princess Lilia what are you doing?!”

The tip of the brush came into a messy, faltering stop, while the ink continued to bleed an ugly splotch on the mesmerizing watercolor painting, and it was right in the center of it too. Lilia looked up from her ruined painting, which was actually a portrait of the young man with ethereal beauty – the one that captured her heart with a warm smile and a pair of brilliant amethyst purple eyes.

Startled and greatly annoyed by what she would call a rude interruption, she narrowed her fire-like eyes into slits and cast up a glance at the old-aged man in front of her. He held onto his long silver stranded beard for a brief moment as if he was contemplating over a very sophisticated philosophical theory, and ran his fingers through it slowly.

Lilia knew this gesture very well, unfortunately. She stifled an impatient sigh, “What is it this time? Did I do something horrifically wrong that disgraced the royal family or did I fail again as the last princess of the Tang Dynasty?” She challenged, struggling hard to keep her voice from rising with anger.

“Princess Lilia,” he sighed, sounding tired, the shadows that cast upon his aged face masked his eyes and made his expression almost unreadable. “The Tang Dynasty fell when you were just a baby.”

”While the entire loyal family was massacred by the rebels, the Empress, your Mother, asked me to fled the country and raised you as my own daughter until the you are old enough to understand the responsibility that lies on your shoulders.” A hiatus, as he recalled those unforgettable events.

”You are the last princess of Tang Dynasty—and the only one that can revive it again. China right now is in the midst of the greatest chaos that have ever embraced this ancient country, and it will be your duty to gather the pieces together again, and fulfill your destiny as the ruler of the revived Tang!”

Snorting at the last comment which she had heard at least a hundred times already ever since she found out about her true identity, Lilia furrowed her eyebrows. “I’m not meant for this job. I can’t run a country, and look at the current state China is in right now, how on earth am I going to revive what’s already been destroyed into pieces?”

Lilia exhaled, slow and controlled. It was becoming hard to keep her voice level.

“I will assist you in fulfilling your destiny, as I have sworn to the Empress; we are safe in Japan at this moment, and I’ve been gathering men and sending off well-trained spies back to China to be updated on what is happening in China.” He explained, like he had done so many times before.

The Tang fell apart; the royal family was exterminated; they’ve been hiding in Japan ever since she was a baby and running this stupid Chinese-styled tavern to collect funds for their ultimate plan. Like it was ever going to work. Lilia laughed bitterly in her mind.

Shang Guan Yun stared down at the rebellious teen, and shook his head slightly. She used to be bright and obedient, until the time he told her the truth about her identity. It was then she became defiant, bitter, distant, cold, silent, and full of resentment.

He knew it was hard for her to take up this responsibility, but she was their only hope. The Empress, his younger sister sacrificed so much to take her only child to me when Tang faced its fateful down fall. No matter how much he hated pushing her like this, he had to do it and keep it up.

“Princess Lilia, I have heard from trustworthy sources that Taira no Eriol’s wife is deeply ill and probably won’t be able to live long. This is your chance to sneak into the powerful Taira family as a maid and bewitch Lord Eriol and gain a higher status as his wife. Then you can use this status to visit China and carry out our plans from there.” Shang Guan Yun announced his plan, and Lilia knew she do nothing but accept it. However, Li Lilia never accept anything without a fight.

Biting her lower lip until she tasted blood, Lilia slammed her fist against the red-wood table and jumped off her seat. Her eyes were like blazing fire, and if glares could murder anyone, Shang Guan Yun would’ve been burned to ashes already.

And suddenly it hit her. I could use this chance and run away… I could fake a death of some sort when I get into the Taira house and I would be free from this entire load of crap. The thought trailed down her mind, and it undeniably brightened up her mood and made it turn an entire 180 degrees.

“Whatever, I’ll do it.” She sat back down, slumping into her seat with annoyance flashing in her eyes and smirked inwardly when she saw the satisfied look on Shang Guan Yun’s wrinkled face.

“The Taira family has been orderly dinner from our tavern almost everyday in the recent week, and the order will come again later on today… and you will be the one delivering it this time.” He clapped his hands together, and stared straight into Lilia’s eyes. “Failure is not an option, remember that Princess.”

*

Eriol meandered down the zigzagging stone-laiden path idly, breathing in (almost greedily) the soul-calming scent plum blossom that pervaded the lung-freezing wintry air. Halting into a stop, he titled his head slightly upward to watch the almost fragile branches of the plum blossoms sway back and forth.

Feeling a sudden invasion of vacuity in his heart, Eriol reminisced with a lingering look of nostalgia in his eyes. He promised Yuri that he would build her a garden full of plum blossoms and let it be their sanctuary – no one except them could set foot into such a heavenly place. And in that secret garden of theirs, he would propose to her and marry her.

He let out a bitter laugh, full of self-mockery. Life really had a twisted and nasty sense of humour. It enjoys prompting people into having unrealistic dreams, and just when their hope was at its highest peak, life crushes it and snickers as it watches one fall apart in despair.

He always thought Yuri was a part of him – someone he couldn’t live without. But he was wrong, time proved him wrong. Without her, he was still standing, making through the days. Life was like this, when you think you’ve bumped into a dead end, or your world just fell apart. In actuality, however, there was no dead end, and nor had your world fall apart.

Everything is just a state of mind, and nothing is ever absolute.

Like he had told himself so many times before, from now on, Yuri will be a memory that he would treasure in the deepest part of his heart – a dream from the distant past that he would never forget – and nothing more than that.

But he still unconsciously wandered to this place. Every now and then, he would come here — to the place where most of these memorized where buried under – where he would indulge himself and take off his masque, and let his true feelings show, even if it was only temporary.

Shaking his head slightly to drive away the trains of thoughts that were rushing into his mind, Eriol turned to gaze at the plum blossoms again. His eyes softened as he remembered the first time he showed her this place and how she danced through the falling petals in joy…

For a moment there, he almost thought he saw her again. Standing in the rain of plum blossom petals, elegantly poised as always, but she looked different somehow. She wasn’t the same Yuri from his most treasured memories.

Suddenly, his eyes widened with shock and disbelief. Could it be… could it be her?

Yuri brushed aside the stand of hair that fell into her eyes, and smiled, her eyes twinkling. “Lord Eriol. How have you been?”

*

Lilia had been holding a hamper with bentos (lunch boxes) sacked neatly together, meandering down a singularly dreary alley alone, and at length found herself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy yet sumptuous mansion of the eminent Taira family. But with the first glimpse of the luxurious building, full of pageantries, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded her spirit.

She inhaled deeply, and tilted her head to look upon the scene before her, with an utter depression of soul which she could compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon optium, like the bitter lapse into everyday life, like the hideous dropping off the veil.

There was an iciness, a sinking and a sickening of the heart — an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

This was the Taira household, and her chance to remodel her life and her supposed destiny. Though she could not restrain herself from contemplation what unnerved her when she first set her eyes upon this building.

It was a mystery, so insoluble that she could not grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon her as she pondered, and she was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion that, while beyond doubt, there are combinations of unspeakable objects which have the power of affecting us. And incontestably, the analysis of such power lies among considerations beyond our depths.

Approaching the soldiers who were guarding the side entrance which serves the singular purpose of permitting the movements of servants entering and leaving the compound, without disturbing its proprietors. Lilia pulled out the previously prepared wooden identification card which conceded her the freedom to leave and enter the household with loosened security checks, whenever she was running errands for the masters of this mansion.

The soldier wearing the easily recognizable uniform, which identified him as a private soldier serving the Taira Clan, took a quick glance at Lilia’s identification card and sent her a small nod of approval, stating “You may enter.”

“Thank you, sir.” Lilia uttered her barely audible gratitude, and kept her head lowered the entire time, showing her obedience and humbleness. The soldier then ushered her into the presence of the interior of the household which resided the most powerful and Junoesque people in Heian-kyo.

What needs to be done, must be done. She imparted the words of wisdom to herself, as she felt the gates closing heavily behind her. With ruby-coloured eyes fixed on what was presented before her, on the whole mansion and domain, hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity — an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven.

The almost poisonous air, whispering the nameless fears and mysteries surrounding the mansion, was full of pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, and faintly discernible.

*

The wintry days within the household of the highly-respected and aristocratic Taira family were dull, dark and soundless. The clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, as if prognostic of the series of unfortunate events laying ahead in the mortals’ destinies. Wendy sat by the black oaken table, her eyes were hazy of cadaverousness.

The trellised panes of traditional Japanese paper sliding doors were slightly open, permitting the feeble gleams of obscure lights to make their way through the gap, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber.

It was then, the paper sliding door swung open, forcing Wendy to squint her eyes in order to adjust them to the pervasive white rays of lights that invaded her dark, sullen territories. There, Wendy saw the forever exuberant Rita standing before her, with a vivacious warm smile tugging on those bright pink lips.

“Miss Wendy, I’ve got the good luck charm you wanted from the Temple!” Rita exclaimed excitedly, and rushed to Wendy to show her most treasured possession, like a child eagerly presenting her treasure to the grown ups. Wendy smiled gently, before taking the good luck charm into her hands.

“I thought I had to wait for hours to get it, but once I told them I was from the Taira household, they immediately moved my placement up so I could see the priest as soon as possible.” Rita rattled on, unaware of the waning smile on Wendy’s now solemn countenance.

“Rita,” a soft yet stringent whisper escaped Wendy’s parted pallid lips, which grappled Rita’s undivided attention almost instantly. “Never speak of your status as the Taira household’s maid ever again. If it wasn’t for my Father’s wealth, the Taira family would never have consented for a girl with such interior birth as myself, to marry into the family. And let alone, become the wife of Taira no Eriol.”

Wendy paused for a brief moment, bitterness and an unspeakable resentment polled in her eyes, yet her voice remained soothing and soul-calming, as if the story she was narrating was extraneous to her. “My inferior foreordained me, a long life of a concubine of any man with power. Yet fate believed that I could become something much greater, and thus, it brought us here, to the Taira clan. Thus, we shall be unpretentious as always, and never take advantage of the Taira family’s viscounty ever again. Do you understand that, Rita?”

Rita nodded unobtrusively, while lowering her head like a child that just had done something wrong to displease her parents. “Yes, your ladyship.”

Wendy smiled and slowly got up; her graceful and elegant actions suggested the exalted position she held. “I’m going to visit Lord Eriol to deliver this good luck charm to him, for he is departing Heian-Kyo tomorrow morning with the troops, and as the dutiful wife of Taira No Eriol, I must bid him a formal goodbye and wish him the best of luck, and a safe return to home once the rebellion is resolved.”

*

Walking down the dreary, yet resplendent stone-laden trail in the Taira gardens, Lilia let out a sigh. She could not help but disrelish her lack of sense of direction, for she was absolutely lost again. Oppressing the urge of wanting to curse her self and the large compound, hitherto only reminded her of an antiquity full of mysteries rather than a residence for living.

To worsen her predicament, she could not as for directions, for the strict rules of the Taira house does not allow incompetent servants to serve the masters of this mansion. If anyone discovered that she skipped the first stages of servant training, she would be put to death immediately.

Thus, at this point, all she could do was to pretend she knew exactly where she was going, and hopefully during her trip to the middle of no where, she could find her destination.

Suddenly, her nose picked up a strong scent of plum blossom. It was her Mother’s favourite fragrance, or so Shang Guan Yun had claimed. Though she was deprived of the chance of meeting the women whose womb she came out of, she really wanted to know who she was, the kinds of things she liked and disliked.

Following the scent on adrift, Lilia hurried down the path which was leading her to the center of the plum blossom source. Eventually, the passage she followed conducted her to a fantasy world, with plum blossom petals drifting weightlessly through the air, like millions of butterflies flying over a field of dreams.

Enchanted by the picturesque scenery she had beheld, Lilia carefully entered the land of ecstasy and mystique, and her eyes widened as she saw two lovers holding each other, through the rain of blossom petals. No wonder this place had no guards nor servants, it was a secret rendezvous for cross-stared lovers.

Lilia fancied upon witnessing such scandalous yet forlorn love, however she could not help but let out the gasp that was forced to stay in her throat.

It was then, a small delicate hand, soft yet icily cold, covered her mouth. Terror flashed in Lilia’s widened eyes as she struggled in vain, but her pointless endeavours were quickly diminished as the gentle words of her captor were murmured into her ears. “Stay still if you want to live again.”

Meling gulped painfully, and did as she was told by staying still, while fighting off the fears arising in her which were disheartening her. She was able to tell that her captor is a young woman, perhaps even of her age, yet a part of her questioned the credibility of this observation, for a girl of her age could never have such an oppressive and imperatorial aura.

“Who are you?” Lilia whispered, after gathering up the remaining courage in her heart. If she were to die, at least she needed to know who it was that brought her such fate.

The young woman chuckled, letting out a light-hearted quiet laughter, as if she found a sense of hilariousness in the precipitous situation. “You’re a quite brave young one.” The young woman mused, and Lilia wasn’t certain if it was meant to be a compliment or satiric comment, mocking her miserable predicament.

Not giving Lilia a chance to reply, the young woman proceeded on “Most people in your predicament, would beg me to spare their lives, which I shall ignore and take their lives without giving my action a second thought. However, you’re different, and you’ve successfully captured my attention. My name is Nataly Dao, the wife of Taira no Eriol, your new patroness.” As soon as the words rolled off Wendy’s tongue, Lilia found herself dumbfounded and caught in a web created by bewilderment.

“I do not see the reason for you to decline this offer, unless, you prefer to die.” Lilia’s breathe hitched as her mind dwelled upon the word death. She knew succumbing to Lady Nataly’s ascendence would be dishonouring her royal blood as the last princess of the fallen Tang Dynasty, but would be the meaning of honour and pride, when one already lost the ability to live?

“Lilia at your service, my ladyship.” Lilia bit her lips and announced her decision. Either way, she just wanted to leave the Tavern and Shang Guan Yun’s control, and her supposed fate of reviving the Tang Dynasty. This was good enough for her. She tried to be hopeful.

Wendy didn’t seem to respond to her declaration of loyalism, but rather, directed the intense conversation to a whole different path. “You must be wondering who those people are.” She began, as if speaking to herself rather than speaking to Lilia. “That man is my husband, and the lady in his arms is my sister-in-law.”

The news struck Lilia like a thunderbolt, leaving her practically cataleptical. How could she watch her husband having an affair with another woman so calmly as this, especially when the woman involved is her sister in law?

“Well, I know what you’re thinking, but I have no plans of apprising you the reason of my nonchalant reaction. Now tell me Lilia, what is a servant girl like you doing in the well-known forbidden grounds of the Taira household? Correct me if I am wrong, for I’ve been horridly ill ever since I stepped foot into this house, that the servant girls all have been trained and well-informed of the rules of this family. So why are you not informed of this well-known unwritten rule?”

The sudden turn of the already intense conversation left Lilia holding onto her breath with trepidation, as if breathing any more of this poisonous air produced by this household would perish her soul entirely.

“I…”

By daohieu Posted in Không phân loại