Outside the wind hissed in chilling gusts. Suddenly, she heard the cry of barn-owls somewhere outside, coming ever nearer. She rushed out into the yard. A whole flock of barn-owls was calling out as it swooped down on the yard. The birds had bright eyes gleaming with death and they were fluffing out their cold grey feathers and advancing step by step to the threshold. In great fright, she tried to drive the birds away. Yet the more she tried to drive them away, the closer the birds advanced. They moved onto the first step of the veranda. Then to the second step. Finally there was only one more step between them and her. Then, the first bird hopped onto the last step. Then the second, the third... and finally the whole flock of barn-owls moved in on her. They were pecking at her feet and then flooded into the house. She screamed in great fear. She ran toward the old man s bed. But it was too late. The grey birds had already descended on her grandfather s bed. She screamed at the top of her lungs in anger and began to beat at the birds.
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Startled, she woke up to find that the room was pitch black. There was only a single beam of light shining in from the opposite room. She wiped cold sweat from her face. Her body was soaked in fear. She felt for the blanket, but it was not there. She switched on the light and saw that it had fallen to the floor. She sat there, feeling sad. She looked at the telephone. It was two o clock in the morning, but she wondered if she could possibly phone her grandfather. She pulled the blanket over her head and sat there thoughtfully. The wind continued to hiss in gusts outside. She shivered. Opening the drawer, she took out a piece of ginger jam and held it in her mouth, feeling warmth fill her up inside.
It was the same every winter. Her grandfather always made ginger jam. When she was first born she had caught a bad cold that turned into pneumonia. Her grandfather said she was fortunate that fate had let her live to this day, because after laying out in the cold wind as she had done, most babies would not have lived. Now during the winter she always had difficulty breathing and often had a sore throat. She took a lot of medicine, but it never worked. On the contrary, it made her feel even more tired. So to help her out, her grandfather made ginger jam for her every year. He only made a small quantity, because he thought the jam would get soft and lose its scent if he made more than she needed.
When she still lived at home, she had often dug up ginger roots and soaked them in water for her grandfather to roast later. He never let her roast the ginger herself because she often made the flame so high that the ginger lost its aroma, and sometimes she even burned it. Her grandfather had roasted it very meticulously, constantly turning the pieces over in the pan so they would dry and brown evenly. But her grandfather had never let it get dark brown, which could make the ginger jam crunchy and brittle. Finally the ginger was dipped in sugar and by then its scent permeated the whole house. She had tried to perfect the process several times but never with success. A lot of patience was needed to make ginger jam and she just didn t have enough, so she failed.
While she was studying at university in the city, her grandfather s ginger jam had helped her not only quash her fits of coughing, but it also gave her more determination; each time she had a piece of ginger jam in her mouth, she felt her grandfather by her side. Sometimes if she was ill she held a package of ginger jam to her chest and inhaled its scent.
On a recent visit home her grandfather asked her: "Do you want to see your mother?" She thought her grandfather was pulling her leg, but when she caught sight of a glint of sadness in her grandfather s eyes, she knew he had something very important to say to her. In the old days, grandfather had often told her that many things in life were contrary to reason and many things could only be said when people had grown up and gained enough confidence to accept the truth.
She sat in silence, listening to her grandfather. He was sitting in front of her with his head bent. After some time, he raised it a bit and handed her a photo. She immediately knew the eyes that looked back at her, as they were identical to her own; they were eyes "as sad as the surface of an autumn lake", as her friends had often said to her. She was surprised and said: "Didn t you say that my mother had not left behind any photos?" She saw confusion on her grandfather s old face.
When she was young and asked about her mother, her grandfather had told her that she had died in an accident before her first birthday, and that there weren t any photos. She knew her grandfather had always loved her and never lied to her. Yet, she questioned him anyway. Grandfather had sat there, not moving, his eyes glued to his cup of tea. "You re still hiding something from me, grandfather", she thought.
One afternoon years ago Mr Hai had come home from his field with cold, stiff limbs. He smoked some tobacco from his waterpipe to warm up before going to the well to wash his hands and legs. As soon as he grabbed on to the rope holding the bucket, he heard the weak cries of a baby. He stood in silence for a moment. The baby was very near, he realised. He went to the nearby hedge and was startled. It was a newborn baby! He walked over to it quickly. The infant was wrapped in an old woollen shirt. He was so dumbfounded that words failed him. He picked it up but then didn t know what to do with it. Finally he took the baby into the house and wrapped it in with a coat. When it had warmed up, he ran to the communal medical station with the baby in his arms. The doctor examined the baby and declared that it had been lying there cold and hungry next to the hedge for the entire afternoon. The doctor said he would try his best to save it, but the baby had caught a very bad cold. He had said that even if she could be saved, she would suffer from respiratory disease her whole life. It would be very difficult to raise the baby whenever there was a change in weather, he added.
And the baby had been saved. Mr Hai took it home and raised it as his own, taking her on as his granddaughter. His wife had died of cancer quite a long time before. His oldest son had laid down his life on a southern battle field. By the time the baby came along, he had lived alone for nearly ten years. He had thought that some of his loneliness would be relieved with the presence of the baby. He named her Thuong.
The baby had grown up slowly with almost constant illness. Mr Hai s life had become so hard. But in compensation, the little girl had grown up into a fine young girl. Watching the little girl grow up with fits of asthma and coughing, Mr Hai had often wanted to vent all his anger on a certain mother who had the cruel heart to leave her daughter outside on such a cold winter afternoon. The girl did not need such a mother, Mr Hai told himself. So he had hidden the truth from the girl for over twenty years.
One day Mr Hai was roasting ginger when he heard someone calling out to him in a shy voice. He stepped out to find a woman standing in front of him. He was on the verge of falling down because he instinctively knew this cruel woman was the girl s mother. Her face was identical to his granddaughter s, particularly the eyes. The woman walked closer to Mr Hai but he quickly waved her away:
"No, don t come any closer, please!"
Mr Hai had never thought this day would come. More than twenty years had passed. He wanted to hide the truth from Thuong because he never wanted her to live through this day. But then he was confused. His head was spinning with a bunch of mixed ideas.
Thao had been shocked when she looked at the results of her medical exam. She was more than six months pregnant. It was too late for an abortion. But what would happen to her if she kept it? Tinh, her lover, had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for murder. Not to mention her mother had heart trouble; she would never have been able to take the news. She cried and cried in silence and alone because she didn t have the guts to tell anybody. She applied for a job in a desolate, far-flung mountainous area to get away.
One day when she was done with work, she had given birth to the girl. She had felt something weird inside her and ran into her bathroom where she gave birth. Her heart ached after looking at the baby, so beautiful and lovely. She wanted to take it home, but after thinking about her mother, who surely couldn t take the shock, she quickly wrapped it in an old woollen shirt and ran over the hill to place the child next to the hedge of a dilapidated house. Then she ran for her life, grabbed her luggage and ran to the road to hitchhike out of there. She cried but did not know what she cried for.
Eventually she graduated from university and married a rich man. But she was never able to get pregnant again. After running away she suffered from a serious haemorrhage which had made her infertile. Her husband s family had spurned her for not being able to produce a child. She often wondered if her daughter was still alive or not. She had thought many times about going after the little girl she left behind, but never dared. She was greatly ashamed that she had left her daughter to be raised by a strange man. She had become fearful and loathsome of herself. She forced herself to forget about looking for her daughter because she feared that were they to meet, her daughter would become even more sad. She was afraid of meddling in her daughter s tranquil life.
Then her mother had died. And her husband s second wife had one child after another and she had become nothing but a silhouette in that house. She was spurned and despised. She had finally left that house to live alone in her mother s place. In the wintershe began to feel much colder than before. She longed for warmth from people who were dear to her. In the end, the only dear person she had left was her daughter, who she had abandoned. Yet she craved to stand by her daughter s side, for a chance to kiss her. After thinking about it off and on for a long time, it finally became so unbearable that she had quickly taken a bus back to the city.
Mr Hai was sitting on the veranda, looking up at the cold light of the yellow moon. The conversation with that woman that long ago afternoon had made him uneasy. He used to always blame his little girl s cruel mother, and he still felt that way. Yet her visit had stirred up some pity for her inside of him. He had asked himself how to behave correctly with the mother. He did not want to lose his granddaughter; he did not want to lose the joy he had known for more than twenty years. But that mother was somewhat pitiful. For more than twenty years she had been tormented by many worries. And the price she had paid was great.
Now, sitting in front of Thuong, Mr Hai wanted to tell her so many things but he did not know where to begin. He was afraid that he would make her sad. He did not know if she would be able to accept the truth. Could a young girl like Thuong bear this truth? He wondered. Would she cry her heart out? Would those transparent eyes well up with tears?
Tears had finally soaked through to Mr Hai s shoulders after she had buried her head into his chest and sobbed. He could not keep himself from crying either. Chilly winter wind was blowing in gusts. Thuong smelt the scent of ginger jam.
"I only have you. My mother died a long time ago. I don t have a mother any more!" Thuong said in a choked voice.
Mr Hai knew that it was a great shock for Thuong. How could pain that had been hidden for over twenty years be accepted in just one day?, Mr Hai thought to himself.
Not long after hearing the news Thuong had gone back to university. A few packets of ginger jam were carefully wrapped for her. The photo of the woman whose eyes were identical to her own was placed at the bottom of her knapsack. She threw herself into her studies just to drive away any thoughts of the woman. She kept herself constantly busy. She was afraid of free time, of sitting alone. She avoided telling her family story to any of her friends. But one day, the photo in the bottom of her knapsack had somehow come loose and fallen out. Those eyes looked up at her in pain, but Thuong looked back on them with hate in her own eyes. In response, the eyes in the photo had seemed to look down in shame.
The wind was blowing ever stronger. The air was getting ever colder. Ginger jam warmed her throat and made it easier to breath, but it did not help to drive away the chill that was always running down her spine. She wanted to talk with somebody but her roommates had gone home.
It was still early in the morning after her nightmare when she phoned a neighbour in her village. She learned her grandfather had fallen while going up the hill to dig for some ginger roots the day before and he was hospitalised overnight. As soon as she heard the news, Thuong quickly packed her things and went to the village immediately. When she arrived she saw a big crowd of people at her house. Her grandfather was lying there with his eyes tightly closed.
"Grandpa!" she called, taking his bony hands.
The old man opened his eyes, trying to smile at her. She burst into tears, burying her face in his chest. The old man gave her a faded old wool shirt.
"This is your mother!" the old man said, pointing to a woman who was sitting at the far end of the bed, her face lowered and covered with tears. Thuong wanted to say something, but the old man stopped her:
"You need a mother. Humans can err and mistakes need time to be corrected!" he said, waving the woman over to him. "In winter I often made ginger jam for Thuong because she needs to keep herself warm all the time. So you should do it too..." Then he handed the woman a package of ginger jam he had made the day before. He put Thuong s hands in the woman s hands. He smiled at them both and then he slowly closed his eyes...
Thuong was overcome with painful hiccups. With the package of ginger jam pressed to her chest, she sat in front of grandfather s grave, braving the wind that stung her face. The scent of ginger jam was faint.
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