As usual at twilight I shut the gate before taking a stroll around our old style compound. Although our road was lit up with strong street lamps I still felt nervous when I walked under the loc vung trees with their strings of red blossoms hanging over my head. I slowly plucked up my courage to get to the gate to find the lock. I didn't feel safe until the moment I managed to shut it, especially when passersby took stealthy glances at the house which had been cleverly designed by my husband. In the meantime, I did my best to drive away my fear in order to get settled into my evening routine: looking over my kids' lessons or looking over documents in a new case. I mistook an old case dossier for my current case. But I still read the whole file carefully, page after page, to see whether I had made any mistakes during the hearings. My night would certainly be sleepless.
I also couldn't sleep because the same old woman kept on passing by my house and staring at the gate. Sometimes, she just stood there listening to my children recite their lessons and playing. 'Is it a wandering soul out in search of the truth?' I asked myself. At dusk one day, I led my children to a neighbours house to wait. An old woman with a weary gait finally appeared among the crowd. To and fro, she passed by my house and looked at it attentively. Being unable to control my curiosity on the one hand and worrying that something bad might happen to us on the other, I ran after her after she had made five trips in front of my house.
'Excuse me, may I ask you a question?' I said to her with my heart going pit-a-pat.
She turned back and looked squarely at my eyes. I felt as if a cold draught had swept over me as I shuddered all over. After a few minutes' silence I asked her again, 'You don't live around here do you? Why do you keep walking back and forth in front of my house? Why do you keep staring into my house?'
In reply to my questions, she just glanced at me again without saying a word. I stood on the pavement for a few minutes in despair at my inability to do anything but gaze vaguely as she walked up and down in the dark.
I was unable to sleep again that night. Whenever I lay down in bed and closed my eyes I saw her gliding in front of me. When I got up, darkness covered me like a terrible black veil filled with many human silhouettes walking to and fro. These scenes were both alien and familiar to me.
All of a sudden I thought of my mother. She was probably about the same age as the female figure loitering around my house. 'Where is she now, dead or alive?' I asked myself. I tried to think about what she would look like after she abandoned me in a dilapidated cradle near several wild cats that were meowing all night long. I was very hungry and so hoarse that all the passersby thought that I was a wild kitten. Honestly, the only image I had from early childhood was of the woman who finally fed me and saved my life.
Dawn set in as usual. I got everything ready for my children to go to school and for my next court hearing. But the entire time I was haunted by the image of that old woman passing by my house again and again. When I returned home at sunset, I went upstairs to wait for the old woman. I waited and waited in vain for three successive days. 'Is she finally gone?' I asked myself again.
Then suddenly my phone rang. I didn't recognise the number so I let it go on ringing. At last I answered.
'Good morning! Allow me to introduce myself. I'm your younger sister,' the caller said to me.
'What? I don't have a sister,' I told her in surprise.
'No, far from it. I'm your half-sister. We have the same mother!' she insisted.
'Well to be honest, I haven't heard anything of her in the last thirty years. I don't even know who my mother is.'
'That doesn't mean you don't have any siblings,' she said. 'Sadly, I must inform you that our mother has passed away. ‘I've visited your elder sister many times,' she told me sorrowfully before her death. So, you never met her, have you? Mum also insisted that I tell you this heart wrenching story. I think you should honour her wish. Here is my contact information. Please ring me. I have to go because I'm busy with her burial service. Good bye!'
'My Mum?' I asked myself with a bitter smile. I have not uttered that term of endearment for a long time. It felt rather strange and I was overwhelmed with confusion. My head was spinning round and round and tears were trickling down my cheeks.
Three days later, I showed up at my so-called sister's home. It was an ordinary house standing in the heart of a bustling street. A sweet smell wafted over me from inside. As I was about to step up to the door a very old man and two men of about five years my junior greeted me at the threshold.
'Good afternoon. I'm here because someone called and told me my mother passed away. Am I in the right place?' I asked the old man. They all turned around. One of them told me to sit down for a chat but instead I asked for a few joss sticks to burn in memory of the woman who had passed. After a moment of silence, the old man entered the inner room to fetch something and returned with a photo album full of pictures of a young woman throughout her life. 'Please take a look. The lady here is none other than your mother,' said the old man. 'She was heart broken about your lot in life. She wept bitterly every time she mentioned you over the past thirty years,' he added.
I glanced at the album then stared at the picture of the dead woman on the altar. In the twinkling of an eye, I realised that the woman who used to pass by my house was really my mother. I felt choked with emotion.
Unfortunately, I had been unable to go with her on life's last journey! I grieved for this family, whether the woman was my mother or just an ordinary lady who enjoyed looking at my beautiful home. My half-sister held my hand tightly in consolation. Without saying a word, we made our way to the cemetery. I placed a bunch of flowers on the grave to pay homage to her. 'I hope that you will recognise me as your daughter. In spite of the fact that you never contacted me, I am proud to say that you were my real mother, even now when you are no longer with us,' I whispered to her soul.
In the third lunar month, when the fragrance of new spring flowers wafted through my house, I felt the stir of a silhouette passing by my house and glide away ahead of me. So, Mum really passed by my life. All that was left behind was an image of her in my mind and dimly floating over my house. Several of my neighbours mentioned seeing her silhouette pass by quickly as well.
When awaking from a nightmare I knew I would have to brave a new trial. I asked myself if anyone had been treated unfairly in my decisions. In our lifetime, do we suffer qualms of conscience after making mistakes? Is it possible to have fair legal hearings?
As for me, during the third lunar month, Mum came back to me with the sweet memories of my birth.
By Truong Le Tu
Translated by Van Minh