by Phan Vo Hoang Nam
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
Mr Hai's funeral was like a community event in the gentle district town by the Hau River. People were going in and out to pay respects to the deceased from early in the morning until late at night. Assorted vehicles lined the alley to the end of the street. There were several groups of people from his son's office. The rest were the people in the neighbourhood. The locals had held him in high esteem for his help during hard times. He had regarded all of them as his dear ones, so now that he had left this world, they all came to burn incense and pray for his soul to rest in peace.
Mr Hai's parents had been closely associated with this land for several generations. His family was of the farmer stock, and as the only son, his father wanted him to get a good education so as to move up in society. But as man proposes, God disposes. His education was cut short when his parents took seriously ill and died one by one. In a desperate move, he sold all his land and followed his friends do business in Cambodia and Laos. After 20 years, he had saved a good sum of money and returned to settle down in his home land.
Then he met Ms Hai, a girl of marriageable age in a decent but economically declining family. He then bound himself to this land, setting up a farm and investing all he had in it. Day in and day out, his farm improved steadily, thriving thanks to his experience in farming and his education from reading books and papers on farming methods. He soon became a top-notch farmer in the area. And now he lay peacefully in his land.
Tu Son walked into his father's room and closed the door. He sat there looking around. He had not had any respite since early morning. As the eldest son of Mr Hai, he was responsible for receiving guests who had come to pay respects to his father. All the children had knelt since morning to return their bows. The front room and spacious yard, which was once a grain drying ground, were now packed to capacity with people who had come to pay tribute to the man who had given his kindness to them.
That Mr Hai had passed away was not a surprise to his son Tu Son because he was over 90. Tu Son knew that his father had nothing to be sorry for or worried about. On the day before he died, Mr Hai had suddenly wakened and spoke his last words to his son and grandchildren. Two days later he was organising his father's burial ceremony.
The music during the funeral was sorrowful and heart-breaking amid the incense smoke blown into the room. Tu Son felt lonely and empty. For so many years, his father had been his spiritual support. This room would no longer be lit up at night so that he could bring a cup of hot tea to his father. Tu Son looked at that wooden case in the corner. It was not locked, and he wanted to open it and see if his father had kept anything in it. But he was so tired that he had no mood to do it and thought he would do it after the funeral.
Ngoc, Mr Tu Son's son, was twisting his worn-out fingers. For several days now, he and his siblings had taken turn to keep vigil by his grandfather's coffin. It was the third day today. In the early morning tomorrow the burial ceremony would start. He was closer to his grandfather than to his father. His grandfather, who was knowledgeable about agricultural production techniques, had often taken him to the garden and told him everything about plants and soil. He wanted his grandson to be an agricultural engineer and he was now about to leave the senior secondary school and enter the university. He had studied hard to live up to his grandfather's expectations.
It was now late at night. All the mourners were looking for somewhere to rest. Ngoc lit three sticks of incense and put them in the burner on his grandfather's coffin. It was getting cold in the early mornings. He put his hands into the trouser pockets. Suddenly Ngoc touched the key his grandfather had given him a day before he died.
It was a day that his grandfather had been feeling better than usual. Ngoc fed him some milk while telling him everything. Grandfather had listened attentively and looked at him with love. After that, he asked Ngoc to gather all the children, grandchildren and relatives together. A short while after that, all were present. Mr Hai looked at those near and dear faces, feeling so warm at heart. He tried to raise his voice loud enough for everybody to hear:
"Today I am very happy because all of you are here. Probably it is time for me to go and see our ancestors. I…."
"Don't say that, you are still strong enough…."
"O.K. I'm all right."
It was so noisy in the room. Some one was snivelling. Mr Hai signalled everybody to keep silent.
"I know my health condition. Don't be so down-hearted. I am very reassured that all of you are now grown up and I wish you love and care. It's time you don't need me in this world...."
Mr Hai stopped and breathed heavily. The men and women burst out crying.
"Don't cry! What for? Keep silent to listen to old Hai say something!"
Having waited for the noise to die down, Mr Hai continued slowly:
"Before I go, I want to send you all a gift. Each of you will have a part of it. This is what I have taken stock of for all my life, so I hope that your lives will be richer when you receive my gift."
There was no more sobbing. They all looked at each other. Tu Son was very surprised at what his father had done. For so many years having lived with his father, he did not think his father could spare something for them because Mr Hai had entrusted his son Tu Son with everything in the house for many years.
Mr Hai signalled to Ngoc to come closer to him and told him to take out a key from his shirt pocket. He looked around again and continued:
"This is the key to open that wooden box with the gift inside it in the case in my room. I've entrusted Ngoc to keep it. After I leave this world and when everything has been done for my funeral, you can open the box and take it as my inheritance for you."
Ngoc burst out crying and embraced his grandfather:
"Grandpa, I don't need it. I only need you to say with us."
Cries were heard all around. Mr Hai caressed Ngoc's head:
"Now now, how can I live with you forever? Now, all of my grandchildren go out so that I can talk with your uncles and aunts."
Ngoc went out with his siblings and cousins, feeling sad at heart. He had forgotten the key because he was so busy these last few days with his grandfather's funeral. His siblings had asked him to open to box when there was nobody around, but he refused to. He wanted to reserve the sentiment and emotion of his grandfather. Ngoc looked at his grandfather's picture on the wall, feeling that his image would never fade from his mind and heart, even though tomorrow his grandfather would be lying six feet down under. Outside in the garden, a cock was crowing, announcing a new day.
After dinner, the whole clan was present by Mr Hai's altar. The guests had gone home and all the family seemed eager to know what was in the box. Everything to prepare for Mr Hai's funeral had gone smoothly. They all found the inheritance alluring, not only for their own benefit, but for curiosity as well. Mr Hai was fair to his children. His five children had their own families and had been given their shares of cultivable land. Mr Hai had set up no small assets in his life. What he said as the gift he had taken stock of for all his life would be of good value, there was a great deal of guessing about what it was. They conjectured that the gift would be a gold bar.
Mr Tu Son lit three more sticks of incense and put them in the burner on the altar and then he knelt down and kow-towed, praying in silence. All the people had followed him. After that, he asked his son Ngoc:
"You and some others go into grandfather's room and bring the box here."
Ngoc did as he was told. He was followed by some other boys and girls. Everybody sat with anxiety.
A moment later, Ngoc appeared with the wooden box in his hand. It was a rectangular box 10cm in length. He put the box down on the empty bed where his father was sitting with his siblings. He handed the key to his father.
All eyes were on the box, a shining, well-carved black box. Mr Tu Son carefully fit the key into the lock. With everybody was holding their breath, it was dead silent. The sound made from opening the box was heard loud and clear. Tu Son raised the lid of the box and saw a package wrapped in red cloth. The second son, Mr Hai Minh, urged:
Tu Son did not answer. He slowly raised the package and then carefully opened it. Inside the package was a thick book bound in a black cover. Everybody burst out their surprise.
"Only a book."
"Can you see if there is anything more?"
There was nothing except the empty box. Everyone started to talk. The way he had talked about it made it sound so desirable that they could not get a wink of sleep in the last few days. Yet at the end of the day, it was only a book.
Tu Son opened the first page of the book and recognised his father's hand writing: "Ethical ways of being a human being". The children started to cluster around Tu Son and looked at the pages as he leafed through them. Tu Son suddenly felt an indescribable emotion rising inside him. He respected and loved his father so much. Mr Hai had given him and his siblings a life in plenty and stability, and even before he died, Mr Hai had not forgotten to tell his children about the ethics of being a human being. He suddenly remembered that Mr Hai had for so many nights burned the candles to write something down. So the book he was holding in his hand was the outcome of his father's sleepless nights of so many years.
Having talked noisily for some time, all the people had dispersed and gone to sleep. Ngoc sat in silence in front of his grandfather's altar. He let his tears run freely down his cheeks. He had lost his grandfather indeed! His grandfather had gone to eternity before he could be able to witness his grandson enter the university to become an agricultural engineer. He caressed the book entitled: "Ethical ways of being a human being". He understood that these were his grandfather's devoted words, wishing his children and grandchildren to live a moral life. He decided to photocopy the book tomorrow so that he would leave the original copy in the box which would be placed with respect on the altar. He promised in silence to his grandfather that he would live the life of a good man to please his grandfather. Having looked at the altar, he thought he saw his grandfather smiling at him amid the incense smoke./.
Translated by Manh Chuong