by Nguyen Thanh
Five years after the liberation of the city, I was entrusted with taking care of my retired maternal Granddad Tran Dang. He had the nickname ‘Sau Dang', and was a serviceman during the anti-French resistance war. Everything began after my Mum visited her younger brother Ut near Ca Mau market.
"Xieu, where are you?" she called out loudly, having just reached home, "come here and listen to me! After much discussion it has been agreed that from now on, you'll be in charge of looking after your Granddad instead of Bang, Uncle Ut's son. Bang has been ordered to return home by his family, and your uncle has promised us a few hectares of land to make sure your Granddad is provided for," she added.
From that evening onwards, I became Bang's replacement as my father's carer. "Yes Mum," I had replied, "I'm well aware that my obligation is to care for our ex-major general." This so-called military ranking was just a nickname I respectfully gave him in honour of his great exploits during war. If he had not retired from military service early, I was sure that he would have been promoted to this high-ranking position.
I could see that Bang was distraught; he was reluctant to leave Granddad and me, and had been attached to that side of the river since childhood. He was less than enthused by the prospect of taking orders from Uncle Ut, who was now dreaming of a higher position in the apparatus of the provincial authorities.
To the best of my knowledge, my uncle was greatly worried about his aged father. If my uncle received early retirement and returned to our native place to look after his ailing father, he would have to accept a lot of disadvantages. He would lose the opportunity to advance in his career, instead, he would suffer hard living conditions, and give up opportunities for his children to receive further education.
Helping the Aged
Under my care, Granddad looked like a withered leaf. His walk was unsteady, his hair wiry, his back bent; only his white set of teeth remained intact. When my mother visited he managed to muster a smile, but for me, he seemed excruciatingly old and gloomy.
My uncle's daughter Thuy would visit occasionally. Those visits were always short and obligatory, and she always left quickly. As for Bang, he treated the old man a lot better. Whenever he came back to Duong Tat, he always brought with him a lot of food and a few batteries for his outdated radio or some household utensils.
With care and perseverance, Granddad started to look well. He started weeding his orchard where perennial fruit-trees such as mango, jack fruit, coconut and plum grew.
But my mother was concerned at Granddad's activity. "Dad, what's the point of doing such jobs at your old age? You should relax and enjoy your retirement," she told him one day.
"What an idea!" he replied in an angry voice. "Your younger brother will need something to support his family when he retires".
Mum reluctantly retreated inside his house to tidy. There she found a number of ripe papaws in a drawer. "Dad, why haven't you eaten these ripe fruits? They're nearly rotten. What a waste!" she claimed.
"Far from it! I've put them aside for my grandchildren Bang and Thuy when they drop in on me. How could I forget them?" he retorted.
Mum stood motionless, watching his fingers weave through the soil in the vegetable beds. Her hair looked almost white like that of her father.
Granddad visited our own family home just once. He found my mother's room to be very hot due to the sunrays that were piercing through the crevices on the wall, so he tried to mount a dilapidated stool to mend them. Unfortunately though, he fell down. When mother returned home some hours later, she found him stretched out on the bamboo bed, at the aid of her neighbours. She could not help crying.
Five years passed. My Granddad had now reached the ripe old age of 80. Uncle Ut remained in service, and Bang, his son, failed his university entrance examinations. Bang's failure was due to studying irregularly at adult evening classes. The old man was noticeably upset.
Granddad's trees had begun to provide ample amounts of fruit, but by now, his house was deserted and his orchard had become overgrown due to lack of care. As a non-smoking teetotaller, he found himself to have few friends in the locality.
One day I jokingly posed a question to my Granddad. "My dear General. Uncle Ut has stayed in service; so he's unable to invite widow Ba Tho to come and co-exist with you. Are you ok about that?" I asked.
He appeared confused for a while, but then, shaking his head, he asked, "Which Ba Tho is that? Is she really Chin Dao?"
I was somewhat startled. I replied, "Granddad, in this Duong Tat area, nobody bears that name. There's only a widow called Ba Tho, whose deceased husband was a carpenter."
He shook his head again.
In her prime of life, Ba Tho was famous for her beauty and now at the age of 70, she still looked fairly attractive. To the best of my knowledge, she was compassionate towards Granddad.
"What do you think about her?" I asked in a tentative voice.
He smiled broadly and exclaimed "You bastard!" I could see he was thinking hard. "Beware of what you've started," he threatened.
I sat down and started to massage his legs. It was the first time in my life that I had heard this strange name. Chin Dao. I racked my brains, and tried to remember words my mother had spoken to me before.
Back in the Day
Granddad's name was Tran Dang. Before joining the Viet Minh forces, he had been a so-called notorious playboy on the land of Tam Binh. Thanks to our Great Grandfather's exceptional fortune (gained from his immense rice fields at Tuong Loc Village and a carpentry workshop at Tam Binh Market), Tran Dang was pampered to the hilt because he was the unique son of the family.
At the age of sixteen, Tran Dang gave up school in Vinh Long province and started to follow the Nhut Hong theatrical company. He travelled far and wide with a talented dart thrower named Bay Huong. My paternal Great Grandfather went in search of the company's manager, as well as Bay Huong himself, to ask for Tran Dang's release. But unluckily for him Tran Dang jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire – he began gambling.
Whenever Tran Dang lost all of his money, he returned home to ask for more. While my Great Grandfather denied his request, my great-grandmother tried to meet his demands because she was petrified that he would commit suicide.
By the age of 26, Tran Dang had been married three times in succession. He also entertained a number of secret concubines whilst driving his coach between provinces.
As a service man of the anti-French resistance war, Tran Dang took part in the Rach Goi and Tam Vu battlefields near Highway Four, thus sowing panic-stricken fear on the French troops at the O Mon, Tra On and Tam Binh barracks. As a result, he became the pride of his family.
Two years of being in active service saw him make acquaintance with Miss Hai Lanh, a pretty member of the District Logistics Unit who came from the village of Thien My. After numerous meetings, he fell in love with her. At last, with the consent of my Great Grandparents, they became husband and wife.
In addition to offering many rice fields to landless farmers of Tuong Loc, my Great Grandparents also gave the young couple a few plots of land to support themselves. After giving birth to two children – my mother and her younger brother – Mrs. Hai Lanh died of a serious heart attack. Tran Dang had returned home late to find her dead.
Those were the details that my mother gave me about Granddad. There was no mention of a woman named Chin Dao, at all. But despite the name seeming somewhat meaningless, Granddad just sat there utterly motionless, staring at the sunlight that was dancing on the forecourt of his house.
When Granddad eventually returned to his normal self, I told him in a low voice, "Dinner is ready, my esteemed General." I helped him to stand up; he put his right arm over my shoulders and I led him down the boat. Day after day, I took him across the river to have meals. Later, he would urge me to take him home early when he'd finished eating. His physical and mental health was deteriorating with every passing day, and Mum and me started staying beside him at night.
One night, he was tossing and turning in bed for a long time. When he eventually appeared to ease, we stared at him through the mosquito net. "There you are! But where's your son Xieu?" he asked my mother.
"We're both here Granddad," I replied.
"What about Bang and Chin Dao? Where are they? Why haven't they come back to me?" he asked confusedly.
"What's happened to him?" Mum asked me, bewildered and anxious.
His delirium became the greatest worry in my extended family. Mum urged Uncle Ut, Ut's wife, cousin Bang and I to join the search for Chin Dao. Then, via numerous contacts with Granddad's former comrades in various localities far from and near to South Viet Nam, we eventually found her address.
Her house stood in a deserted hamlet amongst scores of thatch-roofed huts. Tran Dang's unit had previously stayed on that piece of land, with he himself staying in Mr Bay Ba's dwelling at the edge of a vast open field.
The Bay Ba family had ten children. Most of them had their own families now, except for the eldest daughter, and twin boys named Big Ut and Little Ut who were still living in the same house as their father. By virtue of his good behaviour, Tran Dang had become a quasi-child in the family.
Mr Bay Ba was very fond of music and when they stayed up late drinking Tran Dang tried share his knowledge gained from his time spent with the Nhut Hong theatrical company. As for the twins, Tran Dang had taught them ‘the three R's', and he also enthusiastically assisted Chin Dao with her housework.
"Stop it, please. You're doing it wrong," she would tell him in a soft voice. He was grinding grains for her, staring up at her pretty face. She would then instruct him the correct way of doing things. Looking at her waist-length lustrous black hair, her lovely eyes and her plump breasts, he was filled with passion for her.
With his strength and determination, he soon finished all of the work with ease. He helped her with heavy tasks and tried to find ways to stay near her. Later on, when he was away on business for a few days, she missed him very much, and so did he.
Six months later, they left Mr Bay Ba's home together.
On the Road
When he felt better, Granddad told my mother to let him go to the provincial capital so he could receive further medical treatment, as well as visit his paternal grandchildren, especially Bang. At his earnest request, my mother reluctantly agreed.
I asked Bang to meet us at the town ferry the next morning, and Mum prepared everything, including gifts. She packed a score of guavas, some ripe papaws, a few jackfruits and several coconuts.
When our ferryboat reached its destination, instead of getting in Uncle Ut's waiting car, Granddad wanted to go straight to the market place by boat. To our surprise, he urged Bang and me to go with him. "It's more convenient for us to take the river route," he said when our boat had left the ferry.
Bang nodded his consent with a broad smile. As for me, I was a little surprised. The waterway trip was longer than the road to the market place near my uncle's house, but Granddad continuously watched the row of shanties on stilts perching over the water.
We got off the boat to walk into a small alley. Stepping out of it, Granddad stared at the houses on the other side of the street with old kiosks whose parasols nearly covered the whole pavement. The narrow way was huddled with people going shopping. At Granddad's request, we led him across the street. With a walking stick in hand, he inched his way along the pavement, carefully observing the shops and houses standing close to one another where we passed by.
"Dear Granddad, my parents are waiting for you at their place," Bang reminded him softly.
"Leave me be! Why do they have to wait for me? Take it easy, my boy," he answered.
We just kept quiet.
"Maybe, he's looking for a familiar house as he has lots of friends in this area," I said to myself.
I was right. While walking along the street, he stopped in front of a bungalow with a large courtyard where pots of multi-coloured orchids hung under the trellis. The building was decent looking, and quite different from others around it. I followed him to step inside as far as the threshold.
"Is there anybody inside the house?" He said loudly. "Would you mind allowing us to get in to enquire about the lady's health conditions, please?"
I stood behind him in silence.
All of a sudden he trembled a bit when he saw a little girl turning up beside the door. She stared at him with her round eyes.
"Is this the house of Mrs Chin Dao, coming from the village of An Xuyen, my dear child?" he asked her.
"Sorry, Sir. I beg your pardon?" she mumbled.
Granddad asked the same question in a friendly voice.
The girl remained at the door, shaking her head.
Granddad seemed hopeless. "Mrs Chin Dao living near the O Ro brook, An Xuyen Village. Do you know it?" he repeated.
To our surprise, an old woman unsteadily walked out from the screen made of multi-coloured plastic bands. She looked unwell like a person who had just recovered after a serious disease in a large loose blouse and a scarf covering her forehead.
"My dear little Cuc, what has he asked you?" she said to the little girl. The child repeated my grandfather's words. The old woman slanted her ear towards Cuc, then looked around in confusion.
He stood silently in front of her. His lips moved up and down slightly, but he could not utter a word. Suddenly, he turned round, then walked hurriedly back to the street without looking back.
"Sir, Sir! You're right, quite right," Cuc shouted loudly behind his back.
I did not know whether he could hear her voice or not, but he kept on walking as if nothing had happened to him.
I came to know Mrs. Chin Dao's face after that meeting. As for Granddad, he insisted on coming back home after two days' sojourn at my uncle's place.
Once he had returned home Granddad looked much better, and soon became his normal self. He urged my mother to get new clothes for him, Bang moved back in (pending his second set of exams), and mine and my mothers' lives became much more comfortable.
Some time later I reminded Granddad about our strange trip in search of his old flame. He smiled happily like a child.
"You see," he said in a soft voice, "I wished that I would lead a content life before death."
On hearing this, I took great pity on him.
One day, a few hours after dinner, Bang came to us across the river. He banged loudly on our door. "Dear auntie and elder cousin Xieu. Our grandfather has passed away," he blurted out, panting.
Mum, trembling violently, bent down to shut Granddad's eyes before she collapsed. Perhaps he breathed his last when the last sunrays pierced through the clusters of bamboo encircling our poor hamlet. Bang and I stood motionless beside his body. In a brand-new suit, he looked as though he was sleeping peacefully, hands crossed on his belly.
In my ears, his words "I'd lead a content life before death," resounded sadly.
Translated by Van Minh