The servants carried her through the streets. The farther they walked, the more vigorously the cabin rocked on their shoulders. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and let herself sway with its movement. The thought of becoming a fine woman in a rich man's home relaxed her aching muscles. The folds of her satin gown trapped her body heat, and she began perspiring. "An elegant lady never sweats." She dimly remembered an old saying she had heard as a child. She reached under the veil and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.
At last, the bridal party stopped at what seemed to be the back entrance of a house. Someone swept aside the silk curtain of her cubicle and took her callused palm. She recognized the matchmaker's wrinkled hand as the old lady guided her down a muddy path that led to a wooden door.
At the entrance, a burning pot of red coals sat on the ground waiting for her. It was the custom for the bride to step over a blazing stove before setting foot in her new home. The fire would rid her soul of any evil spirits still clinging to it. The matchmaker explained that, according to the astrologer, Ven's unfortunate time of birth required her to enter through the back door and go straight to her honeymoon suite. The rest of the wedding celebration would continue without her.
Ven had to wait for her husband to come and lift her veil. This was another important tradition she had been told that she must follow if she ever hoped to have a long and happy life with this man. Seeing nothing but the tiles beneath her feet, Ven was led through unseen rooms and seated on her bridal bed, alone in the unfamiliar house. Ven lost count of how many hours she remained alone. From the fading of a few streaks of light on the floor, she could tell that the day had aged into night. Outside the window, the party seemed to be winding down. She could hear the laughter slowly diminish into the slurring of drunken guests. The ebullient opera had ended, and now there was a single, soporific moan of a lute. In the dark, her back throbbed, and the numbness in her buttocks spread down her legs. She was hungry and tired. The gown tightened around her bosom, making it difficult for her to breathe.
Just when she thought she could not wait any longer, Ven heard the squeaking noise of a door as it opened and shut. A small group of people tiptoed into the room. Their whispering sounded to her like the wind rasping against rice paper. The oil lamp on the nightstand by her side flickered into light. Moments later, she heard the intruders withdraw, carefully closing the door behind them.
But Ven could tell that she was not alone. The subtle movement of the furniture, the faint rustle of clothing, and the quiet footsteps moving back and forth kept her frozen in place. It's him, she thought. It must be my husband. Who else could it be? In seconds, her months of waiting would be over. Like a boiling pot of water, the anxiety rose up, and she could hardly control her composure. She sat tightly, watching her hands tremble. She could feel the heat from her husband's body as he approached her. She kept her eyes downcast. Touching the ruby tips of her slippers were two tiny bare feet, just half the size of hers. A small hand reached out and clumsily tugged the veil from her face.
Standing before her was a little boy wearing a groom's costume. He could not have been older than seven. She could see the wide gap of his missing front teeth as he grinned at her, and it came to her that this child was her husband.
She got up from the edge of the wedding bed and lowered the oil lamp until it emitted only a dot of light the size of a pea. Quietly, she took off her restrictive clothing. The boy sat on the bed and watched her with his large, almond-shaped eyes. He inserted his thumb into the gap in his teeth. Ven left her undergarments on and climbed into the bed, pulling the mosquito net over her. As she lay down, her husband snuggled into her outstretched arms. He buried his face in her armpit, sucking his thumb.
Copyright © by Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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