by Vu Tuyet May
It was a winter night. The wind was hissing as if venting its anger on anything it came across. Streets were deserted. Windows were closed. Only the electric lights inside revealed that some houses were still wide awake.
On the veranda of a tall house on a central street, a short old man in warm clothes appeared. After a few moments of hesitation, he pulled a gunnysack from a grimy bag and spread it on the veranda. He carefully put his legs into the sack and in a blink of an eye, he was completely inside the sack, while his canvas shoes and empty bag sat in the place of a pillow. Feeling safe, the old man gradually closed his eyes. No sooner had he fallen asleep when he was startled by someone kicking his side:
"What is it?"
Hearing that high-handed voice, the old man quickly recognised that something bad was about to happen, so he got out of the gunnysack and sat on all fours. His hunchback was higher than his neck. It was this hunchback that had destroyed his life. He could not marry and could not get any job to sustain himself. The reason for his hunchback was that one day on the way to work, he was hit on the back by a falling tree. Since then, he was called "Mr. Hunchback".
"Eh, old man, do you know this place? It's a private house. Go away!" the owner of the house said, spitting in front of the old man.
The old man looked quickly at him in confusion. He was still wondering where to go on this cold winter night when he was kicked for the second time:
"Look, over there, go over there, that huge house where you can stay whenever you like. It's a railway station, you see!"
The old hunchbacked man quickly got everything, put it into the bag, slung it over his shoulder and put his feet in the canvas shoes in a hurry. He was trembling to climb down the steps of the veranda. The owner of the house slammed his door behind the old man. The old man was quite familiar with this scenario, so he did not show any annoyance with the owner. On the other hand, he was dubbed "a forest man" because all his life had been associated with the forest. He had trampled everywhere in the forest: deep inside, along snaking trails, up high slopes, across wide valleys. His feet had been everywhere in the forest.
Now the old man was walking silently on the long road. Sometimes a motorbike would drive the opposite way, its lights focusing right on his eyes, so he had to stop short and cover his eyes with his hands. After some time, he was found at the end of the road. He was standing in front of a row of old houses behind the fence. He had often been told that railway stations were the shelters of pickpockets, homeless people and drug addicts. His son had left the house together with his friends a short time ago and at that time, hearing about this place made his flesh creep. But now he had to entrust his life to this place.
He stood by a big tree to gather his energy before entering. He glanced around and found that there were some benches on the veranda. The cold wind was blowing hard. Inside the station, it was quite empty. The booking office was closed. He heaved a sigh of relief and walked with determination. Actually, he was looking for his only son of 15, a vagabond with his friends. He had left his thatch-roofed house behind in the mountainous town. As for where his son lived now, he could not find any clue. He had left his job to hit the road to look for his son, but in vain. He was heart-broken, but he could not share it with anyone. He had worked as a forest keeper for over thirty years. He had caught hundreds of forest destroyers. He had been praised in many places and won a lot of commendations and compliments. He had kept the forest safe. However, he could not do the same with his son.
His son Cù had left him, landing him in a worrisome situation. He left the house and started to search for him. He was now over sixty, very small, while his son was big; possibly he took after his mother. He married a girl in his home village and his wife was about twenty years his junior. When they went to live in the forest, his son Cù was still very small; he could only babble a few words. Yet his wife had left him to run away with a young log trader.
He worked as a cook for the forest rangers' team to earn some money to raise his son. Their life was very hard. When his son reached school age, he went back to working as a forest ranger. It was a great pity for him when one stormy day, he was hit by that falling tree in the forest. From then on, he earned his living by going into the forest to fetch dried wood and selling it to drivers as firewood.
Even though he had devoted his life to his son, his son had never forgotten his mother. Every day after school, his son Cù climbed on the pile of firewood in the yard and looked down at the road that ran through the town. It was the road where his mother had left him and his father! After every meal, he asked his father: "Dad, when is Mum coming home? Why did Mum leave us for such a long time?"
Whenever his son asked him this question, he tried to make believe that he was sleeping. After asking his father for a long time, the boy slept too. When his son was in junior secondary school, an asphalt road was built through the mountain hamlet, turning the hamlet into a small town. Vehicles ran up and down the road, making the whole area busy. His son grew up and had a lot of friends in the district town.
His son left the house again. The old man felt so worried. It was rumoured that a lot of young boys were addicted to drugs and many of them died. Their bodies were found everywhere, in the corner of the market, at the head of the street, on a stone bench or at the foot of a tree. He felt so sad. He made up his mind to hit the road to look for his son. He could not remember how many days he had traveled looking for his son. He had lived the life of a wanderer: sometimes sleeping in a market, sometimes on a park bench or in a railway station. The more he travelled, the more he felt that he was in a maze.
He remembered that one morning when he was entering a market, he heard people yelling and screaming and racing after a young boy his son's age. They were pursuing the boy with sticks and clubs. The boy was bony; his face was deathly pale. He was running for his life. On the way, he tripped and fell flat on the road. The big crowd rushed at him, shouting: "You thief, we'll beat you to death!" In the end, the boy sat up and kissed the ground to cry for mercy.
The old man replayed the scene again and again in his head. He imagined his son Cù in place of the boy. Then he imagined his son begging somewhere, in tattered clothes, lying in a corner and being beaten black and blue. Then his son looked quite different. A strong man with a robust chest was standing in front of him. Nobody could do anything to his son, he thought. Dead tired, he thought he should have a good sleep tonight so that he could go on the next day. If he could not find his son now, he would have to go into the forest to get more firewood to sell and get money to continue his search. He was still asleep when a flashlight focused on his face.
"Look, what is this? Boys, come here and have a look!"
The old hunchbacked man felt a chill run up his spine. The voice was similar to his son's voice. The old man had always felt that all the boys he met were like his son, but he did not have the guts to ask the people around him about his son, because he thought about his honour. He was afraid that these people would recognise him and think he had a bad son. Now he sprang up in bewilderment. He looked at the boys, saying:
"Is one of you my son Cù? Your father is here. I am looking for you with all my energy! If you don't care about my life, think about your life first, my son! Living in that way is not living at all, you know! Look at me! How long do you think I can live on? If you don't come home, how can I close my eyes when I die?"
About five or six young boys were crowding in on the old man. They all burst out laughing.
"Who is your son Cù? Me or this guy?"
The old man wondered why these boys looked so similar! They all looked bony and dirty. The old man felt hopeless. He quickly cleared up everything and walked to a dark corner away from the station and stayed there, crying. Tears were falling down his cheeks. He lamented his fate. When he was his son's age, he had to toil to earn a living. For ten years, he worked in the forest and was promoted to the role of forest ranger. Time flew by, taking away his green years and leaving him such a man. He had worked as a forest ranger for over thirty years. When he was on the wrong side of forty, he still stayed single. His parents blamed him a lot for it. At the end of the day, he got married. His wife was in the same village. She looked strong with big breasts. He was allowed to visit home twice before his son Cù was born. After that his father and mother died. He took his wife and son to live in the forest rangers' area in the hope that he and his wife could reclaim the land there and have a better life. To his surprise, one day, going home from work in the forest, he saw his son crying. His wife had gone. He spent the whole month searching for his wife. Later he was told by the local people that his wife had run away with a log trader. He felt so sad. What a thankless life! He had to raise his son by himself.
Having left the town, he took the road straight back to the mountain. Being home, the old hunchbacked man fell asleep. Out of the blue sky, he heard a knock on the door. He tried to open his eyes.
"Dad, open the door! Be quick!"
He recognized the voice of his son Cù. He got up quickly and rushed to the door. His son rushed into the house and signaled to him not to switch the light on. He whispered:
"Dad! They are coming to kill me!"
"What? What is happening to you?"
"They killed people and robbed me. I was so scared and ran away. So they are pursuing me to kill me to cover it up."
"Stay calm! I'll take care of this! You know I used to be a forest ranger."
His son nodded, but he clearly still doubted that his father could do anything with these guys.
"Now take off your shirt so that I can wash it tomorrow. Put on my shirt and go to bed now. Everything will be fine tomorrow, you see!"
His son followed his father's advice and went to bed. All of a sudden, his father turned and embraced him:
"Remember, you won't go anywhere from now on. You'll stay with me for ever. All right?" His son Cù nodded. "Now don't say anything. Do you get me?" his father said and went out.
Cù stayed still in the dark, trembling. The warmth of the cotton blanket helped him sleep soundly. When he woke up, day had already broke. He looked around the house. Outside, birds were singing. He remembered the night before and had a great fright. After some moments of thinking hard, he got out of the blanket. Everything was quiet. He walked the few meters to the gate, then stopped in his tracks. In front of him was his father with his two hands dropping down. His father appeared to be dead. His eyes were wide open. He had been stabbed to death. Blood was all over his body. He opened his mouth wide, seeing that his father had worn his shirt and carried a stick in his hand. Cù understood everything. He knelt down and prostrated himself before his father.
It was the first time he knew something about love, particularly paternal love.
Translated by Manh Chuong