by Nguyen Hien Luong
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
I called that man Uncle Than when I knew how to speak for the first time.
Growing up, I gradually realized that between my parents and him there was no relationship whatever. He came from Nam Dinh Province, while my parents' hometown was in the province of Hung Yen, nearly two hundred kilometres away. In 1945, when a horrifying famine burst out in our country, by chance both families moved to the northern highlands to earn their living. Unluckily for him, his wife died of starvation midway. As a result there were only two members left in his clan: Uncle Than himself, and his daughter Thiem, still in her early teens. They stopped their trip at Vat Gio Hamlet and we settled down in the area of Pho Rang.
Traveling between the two localities by water took many days. My mother told me that while my father had been in the armed forces of Van Ban region, Pho Rang had fallen to the French. She, her elderly mother and two young sons – my elder brother and me – had gone downstream on the Chay River together with many of our neighbors. After ten days, their boat was washed ashore and broke into pieces at Vat Gio Hamlet during a pitch-dark night.
As luck would have it, our little clan discovered a hut near the river-bank. At once my mother asked to stay at Mr Than's place for a few days. Thanks to his generous provision, Mum made up her mind to settle down on that piece of good earth. Consequently, my clan became the new residents of Vat Gio. Mr Than's family lived very close to us, only a kitchen garden apart.
After Dad had been demobilized, he reunited with us and soon became chairman of the local authorities thanks to his outstanding exploits on the battlefield. He was usually present at the seat of the commune headquarters during office hours. Meanwhile, Mum was busy running a small haberdashery at the Ngoc market place from dawn to dusk. Therefore, at home there were only Grannie and the two of us boys. All the household chores – tidying the place, chopping firewood, catching the pig when he scampered off, mending baskets – were done by him. On the whole he worked very quickly and carefully. What's more, he was called an "otter man" due to his skill at catching fish. He had a square-framed fishing net placed on a raft at the river mouth where sometimes I used to stay with him so as to learn fishing skills until late in the evening. He also advised me not to catch small fish.
To some extent, he was also the saviour of our family. When I was still an infant, I suffered from scarlet fever. My father was then not at home. French planes were dropping bombs over our homes and nobody dared to go out of the trenches. My mother thought that I might not make it, so she entrusted me to him for fear that I might die in her hands. He held me tightly against his chest and dashed to a herb doctor, a long distance away through the forest. Thanks to this doctor's herbal medicine I was soon fully recovered.
In the hamlet of Vat Gio, everybody held Uncle Than in high esteem. They also took pity on his hard living conditions: raising his small child alone. My father had often advised him to marry again, but he only smiled. One day, he poured out his heart to my father. "I don't want my beloved daughter to lead an unhappy life beside a so-called step-mother," he said. "I'll wait until she comes of age and becomes eligible for marriage. Then I can remarry immediately," he added.
Vat Gio was then a promising land where one could lead a peaceful life. My father encouraged my elder paternal uncle in the country to leave his hometown in order to settle down on this piece of good earth. Furthermore, Dad also pledged to build a simple bungalow for him near Uncle Than's dwelling. As a result, there was a cluster of three houses standing very close to one another at the entrance to the hamlet. It was there that Thiem fell in love with my elder cousin Binh, a strong-built and hard-working youth of twenty. Every day Binh went to work at the agricultural co-operative of the commune while his father just stayed at home to do housework. As a young man of bad temper, Binh often found fault with his father, which made Uncle Than detest him greatly. Consequently, he tried to prevent his daughter from loving him by forbidding her to go out alone. However, they secretly met each other when she led the family's water buffalo out for it to graze. I remembered once she asked me to watch her pet animal so that she might meet him at their rendezvous spot. I helped her enthusiastically, although I was rather afraid of her father's reprimands.
One day Dad and my elder uncle visited Uncle Than to ask for his daughter's hand for Binh in marriage. He just smoked and smoked, listening to Dad's proposal. A long while later, he told my father, "Between us, we treat each other as brothers, so both of them match each other perfectly. However, Binh has treated his blood father badly. I want to wait and see until he changes his conduct for the better."
"The best way for Mr Than to solve the issue early is to urge him to marry as soon as possible," said my elder uncle. As a result, they introduced to him a robust widow named Nhinh, whose spouse had suddenly died in a rough sea when he was catching fish. Worse still, her ten-year-old son died a violent death in the same year. In consequence, she was driven out of her home due to an age-old bad omen and had to come stay with her elder sister in Vat Gio.
One evening, sister Thiem told me that she was too tired to take care of her buffalo, so she asked me to help her. Upon leading the beast home, I was told that she had just given birth to a baby daughter in Binh's place. Obviously, she had been having a secret love affair with Binh for quite some time. Later, in order to conceal her pregnancy, she had to tighten her belly.
Immediately, I dashed towards Uncle Than's house. Finding him sitting alone in the dark, I tiptoed inside. All of a sudden, I heard his loud call. "Boy, take these eggs to Thiem and see if the baby's in good health," he said to me in a choked voice before he closed the door and went out to the river bank.
"Esteemed Uncle Than, the baby only weighed a little over two kilograms, just like a little puppy, due to being tightened too long," I told him. He was stupefied. But he still could not bring himself to go to Binh's place.
Later, he started telling me to take his disobedient daughter some foods: now a chicken or a dozen eggs, now several fish.
Soon Uncle Than married Mrs Nhinh. On their wedding day, he held a simple party with the presence of my parents, Nhinh's brothers and sisters, some neighbours and the brothers and sisters of both Binh and Thiem.
A few days after the wedding, Uncle Than joined the "Land-Reclaiming Team" of the local agricultural co-operative, together with a lot of others, to go to a remote mountainous region to set up new residential areas, for our locality would be turned into a reservoir for the future Thac Ba Hydro-Electric Power Station.
Then one day, my paternal uncle came to us from my former native village. Surprisingly, he brought with him a set of tools to make paddy grinders in case jobs could be found in our area. Soon, he made an excellent mill for us that worked smoothly without breaking grains. He was also good at telling humorous stories. Whenever he told us a story, our sides felt like they were splitting from laughing so hard. After finishing our mill, he created another one for Auntie Nhinh. He charged us half the usual price since we were his kin. Good news flew fast. In a short time, he became renowned around the region for his mill-making skills.
He had meals where he was working. Late in the evening, he returned to our place to spend the night, no matter how far it was between the two places and how many times our family told him he didn't have to.
"I'd better relax here so as not to bother any others," he said to my father.
"You're right, but you can also tell your wife and children to come reside here for your convenience," Dad told him.
One night, I was walking home at ten in the evening after a late meeting of the hamlet Red-Scarf Teenagers' Team. Passing by Uncle Than's house engulfed in the dark, I heard soft whispers inside. I intended to step in, but in second thoughts I refrained from doing so to honour his privacy. "Has Uncle Than just returned home?" I asked myself. When I reached the hedge of hibiscuses at the entrance to the alley, I heard a loud rattle of the door. Then I dimly saw a head stick out and glance quickly around!
Finding the surroundings quiet, a man stepped out. From behind the hedge, I was startled when I realized that the man was none other than my respectful uncle, the skillful mill maker. Passing by me, he left behind the stench of alcohol. "So, is he having a stealthy love affair with my Auntie Nhinh?" I whispered to myself.
When I reached home, he was there, sipping tea with my father in high spirits. "This evening, I've drunk a lot owing to the pressure of my host; so, excuse me for my late home-coming," he entreated my father.
"What a dishonest liar!" I said to myself. I was going to lay bare the truth to the face of my father when he reproached me seriously for my tardiness.
"Why are you still standing here? Get away to prepare your lessons at once," he shouted at me.
The next morning Dad went to the district headquarters early to attend a meeting with other local leading figures. In the meantime, the mill maker was busy carrying out his job in the adjacent hamlet. He came back home after ten o'clock in the evening. I intended to tell the truth to Binh and Thiem, but their little daughter had just fallen into a fit of epilepsy. Meanwhile, my mother was still at the market place. I could not disclose their secret love affair to anyone in the family. "Besides, when all is said and done, who would believe the word of a third-grader?" I said to myself.
One month later, Uncle Than returned home to have a rest at his place for half a month. When I dropped in on him, I found Auntie Nhinh preparing a plentiful dinner to celebrate his home-coming. She was in high spirits. She tried to get me to share her joy, but I refused. Then one morning I had a chance to tell him what I had witnessed that night.
To my surprise, he just sat motionless like a statue, his face twisted out of shape a little. A few minutes later, he returned to normal. "Does anyone else know the truth?" he asked me.
"Nobody else, except me, my dear Uncle. I've tried to keep your secret," I replied sympathetically.
Holding my hands tightly in his, he told me not to disclose the affair to anyone, including Mum and the newly-wedded couple. "He only visited your Auntie for a chat, just so. Nothing serious happened between them then. Pay more attention to your study and ignore it," he insisted. He remained friendly to his wife and what's more, he kept on being polite to my father and visiting his maternal grand-daughter as if no wrong had ever come to him. He also urged Binh to join his team because they were related. "Iset aside a nice plot of land suitable for your family to build a dwelling," he said to Binh.
After staying with Auntie Nhinh for a fortnight, again he went away, this time with Binh. The next day, the mill maker told my father that he could not find any more jobs here. "Allow me to come back home, Brother," he blurted out sincerely. Early the next year, Auntie Nhinh gave birth to a 4-kg baby boy. Uncle Than named him Mao, in memory of the Year of the Cat, and highly appreciated the little infant.
When the Thac Ba Hydro-Electric Project was completed, everything in my commune – houses, gardens and ricefields – was submerged in the reservoir. The family of Uncle Than, including Binh and Thiem and their children, moved out to Viet Tien Village, Bao Yen District, Yen Bai Province, near the river bank of the Chay. He practised the same trade: catching fish. In the meantime, we settled down in town. I said goodbye to my childhood memories of the Chay River, Vat Gio hamlet, my friends stroking water buffaloes, the sunshine on the paddyfields and the moments of secretly picking up villagers' sweet potatoes.
Unfortunately, Binh and Thiem lost their first daughter, but thanks to God's blessings, she gave birth to seven babies, one every two years.
Now the couple had become grand-parents. As for the wedding of all their children, I was always the representative for their paternal side, and Mao for the maternal side. Auntie Nhinh had also given birth to two more babies: one boy and one girl. They all got married and had their own families. Uncle Than and his wife lived with Mao's little clan. All led a happy life in harmony in the highlands. Time and again, I paid visits to them. At dinner, he usually told me numerous stories about the days when we lived at Vat Gio. However, he never addressed the mill maker. During my stays with his family, I usually followed him to go fishing on the Chay River early in the afternoons. There I lay in the shade on the sand bank with sweet dreams.
Two years later, Auntie Nhinh passed away. Attending her funeral, I found Uncle Than very weak. In the wake of her death, I stayed with him for a few more days.
"I'll soon follow my better half. You see, the days I've enjoyed with her were beyond anything I could have expected. I've got nothing to be regretful about," he said to me one morning.
One evening I went fishing with him.
"Have you often come back to our native land?" he asked me in a soft and low voice.
"Yes, sometimes, esteemed Uncle," I replied.
"Is the mill maker still alive?" he said.
"Yes, he is, my dear Uncle. What's the matter with him?"
"Mao is actually his son!"
Then he told me a lengthy account about Miss Nhinh's life a long time ago.
‘In fact, when I met Nhinh for the first time I did not intend to marry her. One night, while I was fishing on the river I heard a loud noise near my place. With a long and strong pole I pushed my raft upstream. To my surprise, I realized that there was a case of attempted suicide. At once, I plunged into the cold water and tried to drag the drowning person up onto my raft. It was Nhinh.
‘Oh dear, Miss Nhinh! What's the matter with you?' I asked her. She didn't answer. She just wept and wept.
‘What's the use of rescuing me? I'd rather die than live in humiliation,' she said to me in a sorrowful voice after a long silence.
‘Why was that?'
‘My brother-in-law has sexually assaulted me many times. One evening, after drinking hard, he slipped into the bathroom while I was having a shower there, planning to rape me. But I resisted him with all my strength. His wife scolded me mercilessly, for she had thought that I had a stealthily love affair with him. I felt utterly ashamed, so I made up my mind to commit suicide because I've got nobody to rely on. Now that you've saved my life, you should lend me a hand so that I may live with you, or else I'll die of starvation as a homeless young woman.'
‘Nevertheless, I'm too old to be your husband.'
‘It doesn't matter much. I'll be your servant, that's all.'
‘I was in an awkward situation. We were trembling with cold due to our wet clothes and the strong wind. Finally, I resigned myself to fate and took her home. The next morning I reported to my relatives what had happened the previous night and declared that we would be husband and wife. You see, I remember that day when you told me the truth about Nhinh's disloyalty. But after second thoughts, I made up my mind to forgive her for her mistake and not to reveal her wrongdoings to anyone, including Nhinh herself. Thanks to my wise decision, now we've got two more children, in addition to Mao: Ty and his younger sister Than. They are all wonderful children, and they are mine to care for. If I hadn't met Miss Nhinh that night, I wouldn't have had today's happiness to enjoy. No, nothing at all! All in all, forgiving her just one time saved her entire lifetime for good, so it was a worthy deed, you see. What I'm still worried about is whether I should let Mao know his origin or not. Now that your aunt Nhinh is dead and gone and my days might be numbered, I entrust that sacred matter to you to solve,' he concluded his moving story.
Anyhow, Mao was my blood relative. I would wait until Uncle Than breathed his last, then I would let him know whom his real father was in order to keep my promise made to the kind-hearted old man so that his soul might be at ease before he lay in his grave.
By the end of that year Uncle Than closed his eyes for good. When I stood in front of the wooden coffin to pay my last tribute to him, I saw Mao in his mourning clothes kneeling beside me. I came closer to him and hugged him tightly to share his grief and express my condolences. His tears drenched my shoulders. When the funeral procession reached the river bank and stopped for a rest, I looked at the raft on which Uncle Than used to stand to catch fishes. The frame of his square fishing net remained there over the surface of the river while its current kept on flowing turbulently, carrying with it a stirring tale of love and hatred.
Translated by Van Minh