From my promontory I could see the other children who, like flocks of fledglings, were shouting for their snack and, having snatched it from hands that were almost motherly, ran off immediately, laughing and screaming, to feast on the heaven-sent square of chocolate.
I always waited to be called,
“Baô Tran! Come here! Hurry up! There’ll be nothing left!”
But there was always something left. Sister Josèphe would be standing motionless by the big table, while the children scattered, their treasure in their pockets. That was when I would walk quietly up the mud path.
“Hurry up, Baô Tran, you’re always late!”
When I reached her, she would slip my snack into my hands, give me a kiss and a little tap on the head, rolling her eyes,
“Baô Tran, you shouldn’t make me wait!”
But I had had the kiss, so I ran off smiling.
The river brought its boats and its people.
The Hoà-Khanh orphanage was a well-deserved stop for those freshwater sailors. The men, their chests bare, would unload parcels at dawn, when the heat had not yet begun to beat down. From my bed I could hear laughter and men’s voices, carried on the morning breeze. I would creep out of bed and run to perch in the tree and watch all these comings and goings.
I would stay there during the cool hours, until the voice of Sister Josèphe brought me back to reality,
“Baô Tran! Where have you got to?”
In the evening, those workers who had not gone home slept in a building a short distance away. There they could wash, eat and rest. They would leave the next day for a few days’ sailing on the river, before returning home.
Often, the same ones would return.
Nhân was one of those. He used to arrive on a Thursday evening at dusk, just before supper. The first thing he did when he arrived was make us laugh. We could hear him shouting from the refectory and we would run out screaming into the yard, to see him cavorting and jumping about all over the place like the devil. His long plait leapt about on his back like a thing possessed and we would laugh as we watched this maniac fighting off invisible demons.
Sister Josèphe would shout too, and order us to go back inside. But I could see her cheeks were pink and she was smiling in spite of herself. I saw her looking at the big clock just before dinner, on Thursday nights, and the way she jumped when Nhân started shouting.
Sister Josèphe let us applaud and made us go in to finish the meal. Then she would come out, with the keys to the sailors’ building, and we would watch them through the big open windows, an unlikely couple who yet were so loving and so loved: Sister Josèphe and Nhân, the mother and father we all dreamed of having.
Later in the evening, the men would drink a bit. Not too much. The forbidden drink would come out of the bags and backpacks. Little flasks of home-made absinthe, cheap mead for the richer ones, beer for the others; it helped them to cope with the heat, the river, the mosquitoes and the loneliness.
I would sometimes slip out of my bed to go and watch them, without being seen. The older ones would be playing dominos, mah-jong or cards, while the younger ones told stories.
Back in my bed, I could hear them singing and laughing until late in the night. I would fall off to sleep, dreaming that one day I too would leave.
One Thursday, Nhân did not come.
I could see that Sister Josèphe was waiting too. That night, she made us eat quicker than on other nights. An hour passed, then another. The other children didn’t notice anything. Wednesday, Thursday, what difference did it make… Most of them were too young to even know all the days of the week yet. But I knew them.
A different man came to fetch the key.
In the evening, I climbed up into my tree to watch and wait. I could hear Sister Josèphe,
“Baô Tran! Come back here! It’s late!”
Her voice was worried, but I knew it was Nhân she was afraid for.
It started to rain. I saw her running in the rain towards the men’s building and coming back a few minutes later. She hesitated for a moment and then came up to me, along the muddy path that made the hem of her dress all dirty. From my makeshift shelter, built of palm leaves, on my branch, I watched her come, willing her to go away again.
She held out her hand and I helped her climb up. She sat on the branch and wrapped me in her motherly arms… I risked a glance at her face. Was that rain?
“Will he ever come again?”
With my forehead resting on her chest, I could hear her heart beating, about to break.
The river flowed past us, impassive.
Translated by Wendy Cross