by Ma Van Khang
|Illustration by Do Dung
When the U Ni ethnic group end their long idle hours at home after the long chilly winter along the Vietnamese/Chinese border to begin a new farming season or look for menial jobs in the Bat Xat District woodlands, red flowers begin to blossom on the bombax trees. This unique tree is adaptable to direct light, drought and inclement weather.
It's possible that this is the only place in the country which boasts a long grove of large bombax trees with trunks that reach up to three arm-lengths. Their five-petal flowers shine under the crystal-clear blue sky along the borderland. Many say that this national frontier is defined not only by manmade landmarks but also by these trees. Their beautiful flowers attract flocks of starlings who come and hop on their branches. As flower blossoms are accidentally dropped from the branches by the clumsy birds, they twirl leisurely to the ground like five-winged whirligigs before carpeting the ground.
Ly A Lu, a native of San Cha Chai Village lying close to a high peak along the frontier near a border landmark, axe on shoulder and knife hung on his side, always said good-bye to his young wife before leaving home during the flower season. Many farmers in this remote mountainous region search for additional work after transplanting their rice seedlings such as exploiting stone from quarries, building houses and gathering forest products for other clans until the harvest in the 10th-lunar month, when the trees shed their last leaves.
For Ly A Lu, rustic and austere, this kind of tree has been always been deeply attached to his trade. Most people believe bombax wood is of very poor quality, as it gives off more smoke than heat when burned. Then one unexpected spring, the bombax tree became a much sought-after material due to a new invention. A scientist had discovered that when the trunks were cut into thin planks then soaked until soft before being allowed to dry that they could be ground into a soft powder. When put under high pressure, caused by heat treatment, this powder turned into extremely hard slats of wood very suitable for construction.
The owner of a wood-processing enterprise nearby hired Ly A Lu to work for his company as soon as he learned about the new processing method.
"Sir, you should come to my village where there are a lot of bombax trees," he said.
"Are they very big?"
"Very big, Sir. They have been standing there for hundreds of years."
"Then next spring I'll go there with your assistance."
Sadly, their would-be spring never came true.
Just as Ly A Lu was about to pass through the village gate he heard a series of beats coming from a bamboo tocsin by order of village chief Trang Van Da. He was calling all the village inhabitants to the common ground for an urgent meeting. Lu was forced to set his tools aside and go to the meeting. In a small cabin rigged up in the middle of the ground, the village chief in a grey felt coat and a black felt cap stood among several mandarin's orderlies who had come from the district office. Villagers headed to the ground in succession and took seats on the green grass.
"Is everybody present?" asked the village notable in a bossy voice as he walked out with a stately gait and arms spread above his head. "Attention! Please listen to this mandate carefully then try to follow it as soon as possible. From today onwards, all male citizens, young and old alike, are forbidden from leaving the village either on business or for pleasure. Our District Head has just announced that the King will soon visit our village and canton. All the males have to mend the paths and bridge, and then go to the district capital to escort him here in his palanquin," he went on.
Never had San Cha Chai Village been in such a flurry for such an important mission.
Ly A Lu was very happy for he would be the first to see the sovereign with his own eyes. He might even have the chance to accompany him for many days on end. It was truly a golden opportunity for a guy like him. He prepared for his duty for many days. Yet, the more he waited for the visit, the more disappointed he felt.
Then one day, sudden good news came to him. He ran home quickly from the village chief's home to inform his wife of the good news: the King had started to make a journey to this highland province in a three-horse carriage. Numerous high-ranking courtiers were escorting him along with a group of bricklayers and another group of carpenters selected carefully from well-known craft guilds. On this occasion, the King wanted to expand the territory, improve the landmarks and define the national borderland.
Everyone listed to stories about the King's progression. After reaching Viet Tri township, there he rode a horse, which forced the group of men to work harder, resulting in a slow advance. Many days later, he arrived at the outskirts of Phu Tho Province, then Yen Bai town. Then news about his trip dwindled. One week, then one month passed by. Ly A Lu became very anxious.
One evening a soldier on a red horse galloped to San Cha Chai Village. The next day Ly A Lu and three other young men, each carrying a long and strong pole, left their village for the district in high spirits. The village chief saw them off to the common ground and told them they should get to the district capital soon so as to bring the King to San Cha Chai, where the outermost landmark stood. Two days later, they arrived at the district after a lot of effort and hardship. To their surprise, a multi-coloured lantern was hung in front of every house and the streets looked very tidy and clean.
Early the next morning, when Ly A Lu and his three fellow-travellers got up, a soldier came to meet them. He was short with square shoulders and small legs wrapped in tight leggings. He was clearly a rustic guy with a pock-marked face.
"Let's leave early before the sun gets too strong," he urged them.
"We'll carry the King on his palanquin, won't we?" Ly A Lu asked him in a worried tone.
"You're all from San Cha Chai Village, aren't you?" asked the soldier painfully.
"The U Ni ethnic group?"
"You're good at carrying things, especially on your heads, aren't you?"
While Ly A Lu was still confused, he replied clumsily.
"We'll carry the King on his palanquin?" said Ly A Lu.
"OK, let's go now, shall we?" the private as he waved his hand to indicate that they should follow him. The four residents of San Cha Chai silently followed suit. After following many bends in the path, they arrived at a thatch-roofed hut. Its door was still closed. "What! Is the King really staying here?" Ly A Lu whispered in surprise.
"Your so-called sovereign is staying in here. Open the door and carry it away quickly," the private told them.
As he reached for the door, Ly A Lu felt nervous. "What's the matter? Even Mr Trang Van Da, the minor ruler of San Cha Chai, never stays in a rudimentary and dirty hut like this!" he said to himself. "Is this some kind of wicked trick here?" he asked himself again. Hardly had set his hand on the door when the door bent aside with a screech.
They only saw a dark space through the open door. Due to their belief and respect, the four men knelt down and kow-towed three times. The private gave way. At first, he just smiled scornfully, but at their sincere and respectful attitude, he stood like a stone. What they saw in the dark was a big, thick and white slab of stone with several deeply-carved words. Perhaps owing to these mystic words, the block of stone became sacred to them. After a few minutes' astonishment, the four of them approached the stone, trembling strongly.
"The King is so busy with military affairs that he only arrived at the chief provincial town by boat. He sent us this stone inscribed with his command that we must carry to the peak of San Cha Chai Mountain. Now, get ready to take it away soon, or else we'll be stuck in the direct sunshine," he said to them in a sympathetic voice. At once, they made a stretcher-like carrier with their poles and ropes then took it away on their shoulders.
When they had managed to carry it out of the district capital, the fog began to disappear.
They were told that the stone had been brought here from the capital together with the King. Wherever the King was, the stone was not far away. From the chief provincial town down to the district capital, the ceremonies had been reduced remarkably; still, its solemnity remained: the stone was carried on a three-horse carriage to the district and was finally placed in that thatch-roofed hut temporarily under careful watch. This is the story narrated by the soldier as they left the district into an open field of the immense jungle.
"Can we reach the mountain by tomorrow afternoon, mate?" asked the soldier anxiously.
"It took us two days to get here, but going the opposite direction will take us much longer because it's all up hill," replied Ly A Lu.
"Where shall we stay tonight?"
"We'd better go ahead. We'll sleep wherever we can."
"No, no! We can't do that. We must sleep at Pa Mao Chai Village because its chief was ordered to welcome us there," said the soldier.
"Oh no, we can't take that path because the bridge across the stream at the entrance to the village was swept away a few days ago," said one of the carriers.
"It would take us many more days to follow that path," added someone else.
"It would take us at least five days to go that way. In my opinion, we should take this short-cut or else the inhabitants of San Cha Chai will be waiting for us for a long time," Ly A Lu added.
"It's so difficult!" said the soldier.
"In any case, we'll be very careful with our mission," Ly A Lu encouraged him.
"Right you are," observed the other carriers.
As a result, the heavy stone on their shoulders moved smoothly away under their regular gait. Wading carefully across a wide but shallow stream at the foot of the plateau in the San Cha Chai region, they heaved a sigh of relief at the beautiful scenery of their native place, with the yellow mountain sides and stretch of elephant grass gleaming under the afternoon sunshine. They entered an old forest with a canopy that nearly reached the surface of the earth, giving the woodland a pensive, secluded and quiet air.
"Let's take a rest here, shall we?" suggested the soldier.
"Just a little further across this slope, Sir."
"How strong you are! How many hours have we been walking, Mr Ly A Lu?" asked the soldier.
"When I think about it, we should keep moving, Sir."
"I'm afraid that you're too tired."
"This is village business and our duty is to perform it properly, in time, Sir."
"Village business or a national mission! How meaningful and profound this plebeian's idea is!" the soldier whispered to himself. "For the sake of the nation, these men have given up their farming jobs to shoulder this heavy task, how excellent they are!" he thought further.
At midday, the soldier suggested that they should have a rest because he felt very tired, although he wasn't carrying anything. They stopped at a clearing amid the old jungle. Hardly had they halted the palanquin when they felt the deserted and cold atmosphere of the remote place. They were so surrounded by bushes and covered by the luxuriant canopy that they relaxed into a dim state of relaxation. Fog reigned over the forest. They could only see as far as the nearby stream.
"Have you noticed anything unusual since we entered this old forest, mates?" Ly A Lu asked them.
"Yes, I've noticed an unpleasant smell," replied one of them.
"Well no matter what, we should take a long rest here. We'll continue on tomorrow," implored another one.
"No, impossible, my dear friend!" exclaimed Ly A Lu, staring at his fellow-travellers. Immediately, they agreed to his proposal and put the poles on their shoulders and left without let-up. In fact, they felt an imminent danger chasing after them, but none of them was bold enough to say anything.
At the sight of the big stone being carried away hurriedly, the soldier got up, breathing heavily.
"I'm dead tired with your determination," he remarked.
"We'd better go head quickly, Sir. I'm afraid that…" Ly A Lu advised him.
"What are you afraid of?"
"Say no more, Sir! Let's do our best."
At once the soldier had a better understanding of their bad situation.
That night they slept in the deep jungle. Except for the soldier, who slept well, the rest of the group shared the obligation of keeping vigilant watch by separating themselves into two groups, each with two men. They made a fire and kept the flame flickering throughout the night.
Early the next morning when the first sun-rays pierced through the thick canopy, the soldier woke up. He was in high spirits, for his strength had recovered noticeably. He felt like the carriers because under their plain clothes were hearts of gold.
"Are you still weary, Sir?" Ly A Lu asked him. "Today, if we try a little harder we might reach our destination ahead of schedule," he added.
"Yes, as long as we try harder," the soldier told him.
"Tonight, after arriving at San Cha Chai Village, we might sleep safe and sound in our own houses," said another one.
"Sir, would you mind staying with us?"
"With pleasure," he answered. "As long as we bring the King's stone to the border and complete our task appropriately," he went on.
"I know where the landmark lies, Sir," said Ly A Lu.
"Where is it, Mr Ly A Lu?"
"At the peak of our mountain near a grove of bombax trees. Thanks to God's decision to define the borderland with rows of bombax trees, we're sure about the exact line. No trees like this can be found on the other side, Sir."
"Placing the stone in the right location is our mission. Planting it is someone else's job. Well…wash your faces with the fresh stream water before we get going, mates. Come what may, take it easy, not in a hurry like yesterday, my dear friends," the soldier suggested further.
"In fact, we don't want to finish our work early to return home, Sir."
"Why not?" asked the soldier.
"Well…just because of village business, Sir. That's all," Ly A Lu replied vaguely to avoid a delicate matter.
The soldier smiled broadly. He stood up, took a towel out of the small bag that hung at his side and picked up the water-bottle. Then he walked through many thick and high bushes to the waterway.
Oddly enough, what Ly A Lu noticed by intuition when they reached the edge of the jungle finally occurred: a hungry tiger following them all the way from yesterday was waiting for its prey by the brook.
Hearing the deafening screams of the soldier, Ly A Lu dashed towards the stream with the others. All they found were the soldier's towel and water-bottle.
Torches in hands, they hurriedly went in search of the ill-fated soldier from bush to bush and called him loudly. But all their efforts came to nothing although they did not wish to abandon their unfortunate fellow-traveller.
The next day, Ly A Lu proposed that two men should stay back to search for the missing soldier, while he and another youth, Ly A Tin, would go ahead with their task: carrying the sacred stone to San Cha Chai on schedule. They all agreed with his suggestion.
Now the task of the remaining two stone carriers turned all the heavier. Nevertheless, as strong farmers who were accustomed to poverty and hardship they knew they would succeed in performing their task to some extent. For the first half day, things went on normally, but as the day moved on their strength decreased noticeably due partly to the very steep path and the heavy stone, and partly to the sunshine. Worse still, yellow flies clung heavily to them to suck blood.
"I'm dead tired, my dear friend," complained Ly A Tin before collapsing when they were half way up a slope.
Ly A Lu turned round, eyes red, breathing heavily with heart going pit-a-pat. In the thick silence, he suddenly fell asleep. A few moments later, he woke up. Finding his friend lying motionless beside the sacred stone, he prayed and prayed. "Wake up, wake up Ly A Tin. May your soul bless me so that I might finish my heavy task!" he said. Luckily for him, Ly A Tin recovered a few minutes later.
"Hey, my dear, your brief rest has eased your tiredness, hasn't it?" asked Ly A Lu.
"I was too weary, Mr Ly A Lu."
"So was I. You should have stayed back to look for the unlucky soldier."
"Impossible! Born in the Year of the Pig, I might have died of fear."
"Woe be to us! Just another short walk and we'll reach our native village. Let's push ahead, my dear mate."
"Right you are! Anyway, what else can we do?"
"Frankly, I've asked the lost soldier's soul to endow us with blessings too."
Again, they resumed their weighty task. In reality, they fell on their last reserves as they move the gigantic stone ever more slowly. A few minutes later, both fainted beside it on the way uphill. When he woke up again, Ly A Lu was in high spirits to find his friend's eyes still half open. Although Ly A Lu was unable to stand up, he tried to encourage his mate.
"Ly A Tin, wake up, wake up! I'm going to tell you what I've figured out," he said to his seemingly sleeping friend. "In our San Cha Chai locality, most of our wooden landmarks were removed, one after another, by hostile forces on the other side with a view to occupying our land. Luckily for us, we have those lines of bombax trees to deter them from carrying out their wicked scheme. Can you hear me? Do you believe my words?" he asked.
"Of course, I do. I'm listening even though I'm extremely exhausted."
"It doesn't matter, really. Rest a while and you'll feel much better," Ly A Lu urged.
"I…, I…might die of… weariness, my dear friend."
"Foolish! You are talking nonsense!"
Ly A Lu tried to stand up in vain. His last bit of strength had nearly run out.
"OK, let me try something else," implored Ly A Lu.
Opening his eyes, he screamed in fright: his good friend had managed to put the stone upright, bind it with two long and strong lengths of leather going across his shoulders. After that he leant his back against the stone, lifted it up then walked away unsteadily, as Jesus did when he carried his big cross on his back.
At noon of the next day, Village Chief Trang Van Da came to the stone landmark. To his surprise, he found the stone standing upright with the red caption. "The new landmark from the Sovereign of the Kingdom of Annam," read the King's large words in Han script.
"Wonderful! Beyond my imagination! Ly A Lu has succeeded in performing his gargantuan task. This task called for the strength of two baggage horses together to drag this huge stone up here," he exclaimed in admiration.
Translated by Van Minh