“Get the door!” hollered stepmother from the back porch.
Nkauj Yiv’s right hand stirred the steaming pot of zaub hau with great effort, her hand fanning down the developing smog with a great wooden spatula. Their stovetop ventilator had been broken and Nkauj Yiv knew how much stepmother hated the stove hood becoming greasy from stew steam. It was the only thing she could do to avoid such stains, anything she’d miss, and she would have to scrub later with soap and sponge.
The doorbell range obnoxiously again, twice this time.
Nkauj Yiv’s arms were getting sore. But the stew had only started to bubble over the Yuchoy greens and pork shoulder bones, if she stopped stirring now, the stew could bubble over and splash over the stovetop. That would be an even bigger mess to clean. “Dib can you get that?” she called.
“Nkauj Yiv! Don’t you hear the door?” stepmother said again, furious this time.
“Taub?” Nkauj Yiv called. Any amount of yelling, she thought, was better than an over spilled pot of stew. For not only would she be scolded for dirtying the stovetop, she’d also be reprimanded as lazy, useless, and for “wasting food.”
The doorbell rang again. Twice again this time.
Stepmother abruptly stormed from the porch’s sliding glass door. “You useless child!” she said upon passing through the kitchen. Nkauj Yiv’s heart sank a little, her mind growing heavy with the thought that she’d displeased stepmother. She continued stirring the pot and fanning the steam, noticing that the boil was calming to a low simmer.
“Oh me tub, koj tuaj los?” greeted stepmother. (Hello son, welcome.) “Los tsev.” (Come in.)
From where she stood, Nkauj Yiv only heard muffled voices bouncing off the walls of the kitchen, her haven in many ways. Her small bedroom was situated on the backside of the kitchen corner, and she’d escape there to stay as is customary when guests came over. Stepmother always wanted her out of sight so she wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of awkward introductions. ‘This is my stepdaughter,’ stepmother would have to say, a plight, which was much too hard for her to manage. Nkauj Yiv was not much bothered by it either. She was not fond of being around people let alone strange relatives.
“Koj lam tuaj saib peb xwb los koj muaj hauj lwm dab tsis na?” inquired stepmother in a pleasant tone. (Are you simply here to visit, or do you have matters to tend to?)
“Tsis muaj dab tsis thiab os niam ntxawm.” He said, handing over a fruit basket and a bouquet of flowers. (Just visiting, auntie.) Stepmother delightedly accepted.
“Oh cas koj tsis cia li es tseem mpaj tej no tuaj thiab na, los tsev, los tsev.” (Oh dear, why the formality? Do come in, come in.) They settled soundly on the living room couch.
Even in the kitchen, Nkauj Yiv could feel the awkwardness of her stepmother giving company to an apparently young male, or “someone’s eldest son.” She would take no part in it anyhow, which was both a relief to her and stepmother alike. Turning off the stove, Nkauj Yiv quickly retired to her room and out of sight. Had elders been visiting, Nkauj Yiv usually liked to serve them water and fruits, and welcome them as her dad had expected her to do. But it seemed only to be a young man. Besides, she needed to change out of her soiled top anyways before setting the table for dinner. She’d set out one extra dinner plate for the guest. Or perhaps two extra dinner plates. She wasn’t sure exactly how many visitors there were.
“What is your name? Who are your parents?” stepmother asked. “Oh!” she interjected at her own question. “Aren’t you Niam Txawj Nrog’s son?” asked stepmother before he had a chance to respond.
“Yes their eldest son, Auntie.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of your family’s reputation, but have not met your parents in person. So nice of you to visit us. Since you are here, please stay for dinner.”
“Oh, please, I don’t want to intrude.”
“Oh what’s to intrude. I insist. Just stay, my daughter was just setting the table,” stepmother announced exuberantly, loud enough for Nkauj Yiv to hear the hint.
“Don’t mind me Auntie, but I am here to meet your daughter is all. Would you mind if I took her out to eat? I want to talk with her.”
“Oh lod?” stepmother said. (Oh really?)
“Me tub, aws, tau kawg los mas,” (Of course that’s okay with me.) she said still idolizing the fruit basket in her hand, within it bearing branch-on golden logans, fresh lychees, plump guavas, robust Asian pears, and furry bright red Rambutans circling neatly around the edge of the basket. “Kuv ob niag ntxhais es phem phem dab dab tuag li os ntshev koj tsis xav nrog xwb lau.” (My two daughters are quite unpleasant and you may not favor them.)
Nkauj Yiv stood at the kitchen entrance, her eyes glued on the strange man in their living room.
“Nkauj Yiv,” she heard him call her. Her throat knotted as she turned to look at the visitor. It was Nraug Txuj, on his feet.
“Why are you standing there?” stepmother called at her with narrowing eyes. “Go set the table, in case Nraug Txuj is in a hurry to take Dib and Taub on an outing.”
She stared at him perplexed. Was he here to stir trouble? Was he here to return her shoe, although such a possession didn’t seem to be apparent. What was he doing here and how did he find her?
“Me Dib, me Taub, tus tub hluas no tuaj xyua neb no laiv,” announced stepmother.
Two disheveled girls with dark lipstick and crop tops galloped down the living room stairs, the way they often did when appearing for dinner.
“Mom, what is it?” Dib asked.
“Tus tub hluas no tuaj xyua neb no na. Me tub koj npe hu li cas no ne?” (This gentleman is here to court you. Son, what is your name?)
“Oh niam ntxawm, kuv…“ (Auntie, I…)
“Koj tuaj lod,” said Dib and Taub in unison. (Hello, welcome.)
Nraug Txuj looked from Dib to Taub to Nkauj Yiv. His stare fixed on Nkauj Yiv a few seconds longer.
“Koj tuaj lod?” Nkauj Yiv greeted, subtly.
“Aws kuv tuaj os,” he said without blinking his eyes.
“Okay, get going son. My daughters are here. Don’t worry about the curfew. I trust you.”
Dib and Tau descended the last steps of stairs as if accepting the invite
“Oh niam txawm, kuv tsis tau tuaj pom txiv ntxawm nej ntev lawm thiaj ces, cia kuv nyob nrog nej no hmo ntshe yuav zoo dua pob?” (Oh Auntie, I’ve not met you or Uncle for some time and I think it’s not a bad idea to join you guys here for dinner.)
“Sure! Sure!” stepmother delighted. “Nkauj Yiv! Set the table already.” Nkauj Yiv was already out of sight, dishes in the kitchen clanked as she began. “Me Dib thiab me Taub,” stepmother said kindly, “Go help your big sister with the task.”
“Mom why do we have to?” the girls said in unison again.
Stepmother made a threatening face, her brows creasing.
“Auntie,” he interrupted. “If you don’t mind, I would like to help your daughter set the table.” He chuckled casually. “Seems like I haven’t done that in a while.”
Nraug Txuj entered the awkwardness of the living quarters and into the kitchen, offering him some privacy.
Blood shot to her cheeks. Her fingers felt numb; she had to drop the ceramic plates on the countertop. Her eyes met with his.
“What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“Nkauj Yiv, no matter where you are, I will find you. Do you know how much I’ve thought of you?”
She shook her head, as if in disagreement. “You can’t be here. Please, just leave.”
He approached her at these words. “Why are you so mean to me? Don’t you want to see me at all?”
Her cheeks warmed again. She couldn’t respond to that.
“Nkauj Yiv!” called Dib and Taub. “Let us help you big sister.”
The table was set. Nkauj Yiv called her father from his quarters to join the table. Each of them, Dib, Taub, stepmother, and Nraug Txuj were seated, patiently waiting for her father’s arrival. Once he arrived and was seated, Nkauj Yiv would retire again in her kitchen-corner room.
“Muam Nkauj Yiv,” Nraug Txuj called out, drawing out a silently held breath in the other women in the room. “Won’t you join us?”
Stay tuned for Chapter 8 in the next issue of the Hmong Times.