The Final Stage
by Ingrid Oonincx
Translated from the Dutch by Josh Pachter
Huong was wearing her favorite nightgown, white, embroidered with little red roses. Mr. Li set her empty glass on the night table, took his wife’s timeworn hand, and stroked it. He spoke softly, his voice droning.
“Close your eyes, my dear, and think of the olden days. Feel the warmth, smell the orchids, gaze out across the rice paddies and let the river’s gentle current carry you. Time flowed slowly then, do you remember? Our life together was about to begin. The day you first held my hand, Huong, you rescued me. I felt as if I had been chosen. It was your love that gave me strength to face the terrible times. I knew from that first moment that I would do anything to protect you.” Mr. Li watched her suspicious eyes flutter closed. She was trapped within her calcified brain, where there had been no room for him for years. He sat there for several minutes, but she was sound asleep. He wiped tears from his cheeks with his shirt sleeve. There was no time to lose: He had work to do. He rose and left the second-floor bedroom of their well-kept row house. His joints cracked as he descended the stairs and rolled the vacuum from the hall closet. He rested for a moment, caught his breath. He was getting old. At work, the younger employees joked about his old-fashioned manner of speaking. Sometimes they called him The Poet, sometimes Buddha, on difficult days The Eggroll King. He laughed along with them, but even after all these years he found the Dutch humor and directness impossible to get used to.Mr. Li carefully vacuumed the Persian carpet he and Huong had purchased with their first vacation bonus. Despite a few worn spots, it remained in fine condition. They had never even considered spending their hard-earned money on a pleasure trip. Huong was pregnant with their first child, and furnishing their home was their top priority.
Li smiled. During that first pregnancy, Huong had been a caterpillar preparing itself to become a butterfly. He had observed her metamorphosis with gladness. Today’s transition would unfold in exactly the same manner. In the kitchen, he cleared the table and started the dishwasher. Then he checked to make sure that all the bills had been paid. The children would find a clean house and all the paperwork in order. Don’t cause trouble: That was his first rule.
The letters he had composed so carefully were in their place on the coffee table in the living room. From the moment the solution had presented itself, he had debated how to explain it to the children. They were grown and flown, and had no idea how much worse their mother’s situation had become. In the end, he had written a separate letter to each of the three of them, filled with wise advice for the future, concluding with a straightforward description of what he was now about to do. The youngest would be furious, the middle one would weep, and the oldest would accept his responsibility and be strong. Eventually, they would understand, he was sure of that.
Facing the altar, Mr. Li lit two sticks of incense. He knelt, and with due deference asked his ancestors to take care of Huong’s spirit. He remembered that she had once packed away the altar, after a Dutch neighbor had made an
offensive remark about it. Li prayed that the ancestors had forgiven Huong’s foolish mistake.
He looked at his watch. It was time. Don’t delay, stay focused. Just like at his job: Deal with the tiresome tasks first, and then nothing would prevent you from having a pleasant workday.
He felt a sharp pain in his belly when he slid the brand-new carving knife from its wooden block. He had asked many questions in the cookery shop, and this particular model seemed perfect for his purpose. Li traced his fingertip
along the razor-sharp blade. A thick drop of blood splashed on the kitchen counter and took the shape of a lotus blossom. He examined it in pleased surprise. The red lotus was the symbol of their homeland. The ancestors were
apparently granting him permission.
As he went back upstairs, a hammer began to pound inside his head. Had he thought of everything? Was there nothing he’d forgotten? Had he used enough of the sleeping pills? He had carefully researched the proper dosage
and had added a little extra—under no circumstances would he want Huong to regain consciousness.
His hand trembled as he opened the door of the darkened bedroom. He remembered the suspicion in her eyes and hid the knife behind his back. He slowly approached her. A band of bright light from the hallway fell across her
face. She was sound asleep. In the absence of the accusing glare he had grown accustomed to in recent years, she appeared once again as the innocent girl he had fallen in love with. His heart ached. Dear, beautiful, happy Huong. Giggling at his foolish jokes, deeply touched by the stream of poems he sent her, blushing when he whispered in her ear that her chastity was driving him crazy, completely devoted to him when at last they became man and wife.
A shiver ran through her wasted body. The sight of it pushed Mr. Li back a THE FINAL STAGE: Ingrid Oonincx step. The doubts he thought he had left behind loomed up again in his thoughts. He took a deep breath and shook his head. Don’t give in to them! That woman in the bed was not Huong. It was nothing more than a withered
relic of the lovely flower she once had been.
* * *
It had begun at the party celebrating his twenty-five years on the job. His employer had made a gracious speech, and Huong’s face shone with pride, but she was silent in the car on the way home. For a week, she stubbornly spoke
not a word more than was absolutely necessary. When he finally begged her to explain the reason she was ignoring him, she pronounced the name of his colleague Wies, a cheerful, flamboyant woman whose desk was three over rom
his.“She wants to steal you away from me,” Huong hissed, her voice that of apoisonous snake.
Li was dumbfounded, but she refused to let her anger be soothed. “Wies is married,” he protested.
“So was my father. To three women!”
Mr. Li smiled. “What has that to do with us? Polygamy is illegal in The Netherlands. In Vietnam too, these days.”
She frowned. “But if you could, you would take another wife. I know that for certain.”
“Nonsense, my darling. You know I could never love anyone but you.” He approached her, intending to wrap his arms around her and, as always, to comfort her and convince her of the purity of his love. But she pushed him away as if he were a filthy dog.
Upset, he reproached her. “Why do you treat me in this way?”
“You’re attracted to other women.”
“Since the day of our wedding, Huong, I have never looked at anyone but you. You are everything to me. You know that.”
“You lie! I have eyes, don’t I? That Wies was hanging all over you at your party.”
“What was there for me to do about that? Dutch women are different, Huong. Freer. She meant nothing by it. It’s just the way she is. She treats every man like that.”
But Huong would not be convinced. She had always been jealous and insecure. Long ago, he had seen that as evidence of her love for him, but over the years it had gotten worse. Much worse, and finally unbearable. Unbearable for him, but also for her. The doctors called what was happening in Huong’s brain “early-onset basal ganglia calcification,” and it had turned his wife into a devil and their marriage into a battlefield. It had reached a point where she would call him at work many times a day to check up on him, and he would have to hurry home to prove that she was the only one he cared about. The situation had become hopeless. He could no longer stand to watch her suffer.
Copyright © 2019. The Final Stage by Ingrid Oonincx