(dịch giả: Trần Thiện Huy)
As you know, pal , I would never babble any thing about our affairs, ever. Our secret has to be kept until the end, absolutely. That’s what you’ve gotta remember. Never slip out a word even if they come to kill us. Don’t ever weaken even if they squeeze us with their iron hand, freezing our blood and pummeling our brains until we see stars. Keeping secrets is one of the terms that ensures the success of this contract. You won’t have to do anything else, nor will I ever need to earn my wages by manual labor as I used to. Our only obligation is to be silent. That’s the only reason that we are alive to this day.
In the middle of the night, you are awaken by the slight whirring sound of the windmills from above, making the ceiling shudder as if someone was walking on the roof. You wake me up, sealing my mouth tight with your hands.
A bit later, you whisper:
– They’re looking for us.
– Calm down. They might find us, but the most important thing is both of our mouths are shut. You hear me, we stay silent, silent, and they know nothing. Remember, if we speak, everything we have will be lost, no apartment rent, no shopping, no benefit, nothing, zilch!
You do not answer, listening intently to the attic ventillators.
– They scare me, those ventillators.
– Uh-huh, they used to scare me too, when we first arrived. From time to time, they would make crackling sounds as they softly rotated. There were nights when I’d jump onto the window ledge to look toward the roof of our house. Five ventillators were turning, one after another, sounding not unlike someone wandering on the roof.
We hear a window open. The next door neighbor sticks his head out the window, throwing something toward the ventillators. It hits one of the blades and bounces off into the further darkness.
We pull up the blanket, turn the TV on low volume and lie on the bed with our heads tilting toward each other.
I am at the laundromat. I don’t need to calculate how much money I must feed into the machine after the load is washed to make sure the drying time is not too excessive, or whether to put in one or two sheets of laundry freshener. For each load of laundry, I now stuff in two sheets of freshener for good measure. It’d be like that from now on, I can afford to spend a bit more, to rid myself of my earlier tightwad habit. You come to pick me up right after I finish folding the laundry; the two of us lumber under the weight of the laundry box which is bigger than our bodies. After I have settled down in the car, you say “ I can’t tell what kinda thing our fella threw out last night”.
– What happen? – I ask.
– It looks like a piece of meat.
Back at home, I go upstairs and climb onto the window ledge. It is indeed a piece of meat, with liquid melting all around it. Last night, these windmills must have aggravated our neighbor to such an extent that he had to pry off a chunk of meat inside his freezer to throw at them. No wonder I heard a clattering sound,like a brick.
-Meat in rectangular shape, and quite compact too, isn’t it?
– It could be a chunk of liver, bruised and black
– So, what kind of meat is it?
– Must be either beef or pork, there’s no other meat that looks like this.
– Yep, that’s it, pork, a pork tongue.
You give your verdict, clicking your tongue, ”what a waste, the meat still looks good.”
I come back downstairs to water the plants while you still stand there, looking at the piece of meat. The neighbor walks outside, hands on hips , neck craning toward the sun to soak in some rays, murmuring some sounds. He then quickly throws a glance at me.
I tell him:
– That piece of meat is still good.
– Just bought it yesterday, then threw it in the freezer before I had a chance to cook it, but the blazing noise of those ventillators was just unbearable. I’ve gotta complained with management, either they find a way to shut up them sonofabitches or I’ll hit them with a whole chicken next time. – Having spoken, the neighbor walks inside, waving goodbye at my direction.
You call me into the house.
– Come take a look. – The piece of meat is lying on the cutting board, wilted and soggy, speckled with dried blood.
– It really is a pork tongue.
– So what, it’s none of our business.
You glare at me:
– It’s true, it’s none of our business, but it’s too weird when someone threw it onto the roof. I brought it down only because of that.
– You’re real nut. Now what’re you gonna do with it?
– I only want to make sure I was right and indeed it turns out to be a pork tongue, just like one of those that we would buy to make “phá lấu” – And now I’m getting rid of it!
You pull out the trashcan drawer, throw the poor thing in there and close it shut.
The backdoor’s bell is ringing; only people who live inside this complex could use the path behind the apartments. The door facing front does not have a bell, only a number. I say loudly:
– Please go to the front, we don’t use that door.
Two minutes later, the neighbor comes knocking. I have’t finished opening the door before I hear him ask:
– What’s the matter?
– What’d you mean, what’s the matter? – I retort, opening my eyes wide.
– Give me back the pork tongue.
– We did not take it, she only brought it down so that it wouldn’t rot up there; besides, it lay right next to our window.
– Ok, I don’t want to argue, where’s the tongue then?
– In the trashcan.
At that moment you walk out since you hear something about “the pork tongue”. You step in between me and the neighbor, asking:
– What’s the matter?
– Go get the pork tongue and give it back to its owner.
Suddenly you raise you voice:
– I did not take it, I have no use for it whatsoever. I was only surprised why you wouldn’t throw out something else instead of this pork tongue.
– Because it was the smallest piece of meat inside the freezer, – he answers curtly.
– Even if it’s the smallest piece of meat, I’m still wondering why meat and not something else? Let me ask you, is there anyone who would throw a chunk of meat to the roof because he’s mad at the windmills? No, no! There’s no one! I’ve never known anyone to simply throw out good meat, let alone a pork tongue! There, I’m just perplexed as to your behavior.
Having spoken, you hasten toward the kitchen, then, opening the trashcan drawer, you use a coal picker to fish out the pork tongue, shoving it into his face:
– There you go, a pork tongue still intact, hasn’t lost any meat.
Holding the pork tongue neatly in his hand, he leaves, not thanking us.
– How ridiculous, as if the pork tongue is the most precious thing he has in life! – You say, lips pouting. – Must have regretted after throwing it out, how sick, and dare to accuse other people for taking it, too.
But the next day, we receive a call from the same neighbor. His voice is in monotone:
– What are you doing, please give me back the pork tongue that is twelve centimetres long and five centimetres wide. The tongue you gave back is not mine.
I yell at the telephone:
– What is all that about? We’ve got no tongue whatsoever in our house, pork tongue, beef tongue, chicken tongue, none, unless you are talking about our own two tongues!
He yells back just as loud:
– The tongue she gave me is not the right one, because it is two centimeters shorter, and slimy too, nothing like the delicious tongue I bought from the market on Tuesday. Don’t be such cheaters!
I can’t believe my own ears, he must be truly insane because how in the world do we have a pork tongue in our apartment! I slam down the phone and turn to you:
– He has lost his mind, that damn neighbor of us. He told me that the tongue you gave him is not his. He said that we must have switched them and now he wants the right one.
– That psycho, I know too well he is not normal. Who the hell would throw a piece of meat to the roof at midnight, and worse, a pork tongue, how disgusting!
There is no way we could have known that for the next several days, he would keep growling on the phone, harassing us with calls after calls , demanding to get back the pork tongue that, as he claims “thrown to the roof on late Monday night, twelve centimeters long, five centimeters wide, fresh-looking.” On our part, we keep insisting that the tongue we gave back to him was the very tongue we picked up from the roof, after you had the opportunity to observe it for a while and decided to climb out the window to take it in for a closer look.
The squabble turns dangerous when he says that within a week, if we refuse to return his pork tongue, he would tell the whole complex what we do for a living, and then we would be kicked out of here immediately.
I ask him cautiously:
– What do we do for a living, can you guess, what do we do?
– You two keep silence! All the time I hear you two reminding each other to stay hushed, and since you moved in two months ago, every morning, that’s the only thing you tell each other when you lock the door. So think about it, aren’t you in the silence business? Is that true? Is it because you do bad things to other people? Or you often witness the bad deeds of others and they have to pay for your silence? Have I guessed correctly, have I, huh?
I feel this heat at the back of my head. We take a lot of time reminding each other to be silent, and indeed, our business is working out well because both you and I have the talent to control our mouths, not letting out unnecessary words. We don’t have any acquaintance, and never let on what secret we are safeguarding. But this madman only needs to hear so much to imagine all sort of terrible things, and possibly, everything could be discovered just as easily?
Finally, I decide to concede:
– Please be patient, Mister, let me ask her again whether there has been any mistake; I wasn’t the one who climbed out the window to pick up the meat.
I turn toward you:
– When you climbed up there, did you see any other pork tongue or just this one?
You stand dumbfounded:
– How could I have thought that there might be a second, third, or fourth tongue up there? Besides, I was staring at the very tongue that he threw out that night. Gosh, he made it such that now, I am not even sure if the tongue I picked up was the right one…
Now we are truly confounded, not knowing what would happen next. At night, tossing in bed, you say finally:
– Tomorrow, let’s go to the market, bring along a measuring tape, and measure each and every pork tongue. We’d buy the one that has the measurements he gave and bring it home.
We finally have a couple winks of sleep with that solution, hoping that the affair would not lead to further shenanigans.
The next day, we discretely venture to all the markets – it turns out that there are a lot of tongues having the same size. We pick the freshest, best-looking one to bring home. That same night, we both walk into his apartment, asking:
– Is this your tongue?
He is delighted to see it.
– Yes, yes, that’s the one. How awful of you, to even think of switching a pork tongue.
Not knowing what else to say, we decide to just let the whole thing pass. As we about to head back home, I tell him:
– Incidentally, for your information, this lady is working as a secretary and I am trying out at the tobacco company.
He says cheerfully:
– I know, I know, everybody has to have a real job to get into these apartments. I was only joking the last time, we all have many secrets to keep. Sometimes there’s nothing serious or bad, but nonetheless, it’s better to remind ourselves to be silent, right? That makes good sense, no?
I have just finished negotiating with the manager, successfully forcing him to waive our whole rent. We don’t want to pay a dime for rent, trash collection, electricity, or water. We open both of our mouths and show him what’s inside: “See, both of our tongues are intact, which means we can talk”. He grudgingly looks through our rental contract, finds our names and scribbles on the margin: “handicapped, eligible for state subsidies”.When it is done, he closes the book and coldly throws it into his safe.
Now we are free to find more desirable jobs. After a long while the neighbor seems also to have disappeared. We no longer see him bombard the ventillators with anything else. About half a year later, by chance I see from afar his figure at the gate, visibly aged and emaciated. I rush out to strike up a conversation, but he can only make garbled sounds, pointing into his mouth. I look with shock at the remainder of his tongue, only a small bit of flesh, about one third of a normal tongue. Suddenly, I have a gut feeling that something is about to happen to us.
You and I begin to take precautions; we create special locks for all the doors and make plans to move out of this complex as soon as possible. We spend a week to gather information and another week to clean out our things. We work in complete silence, making not a single noise, moving our things gradually and trying not to leave the house too often. This may be our first failure ever, or it could be that the number of victims-turned-accomplices working for the apartment manager has risen, such that we are unable to fight them. Fortunately, we already had the opportunity to blackmail the manager for quite a decent amount, enough to find another place. Throughout this entire apartment complex, everyone has become mute after witnessing the manager in the act of doing something, and yet we thought ourselves lucky to have known his secret.
Shutting the door, you are now in our car. You turn on the air conditioner and say in an annoyed voice:
– Next time, we must not make any mistake. All these years doing this, yet we still missed a crucial detail and never found out why our neighbor threw that pork tongue onto the roof. – And you sigh. – or why we kept hearing the sounds of attic ventillators.
(dịch giả: Trần Thiện Huy)