A lone boatman
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Dang Toan
Having dropped the net, old Ngu swam one more round before he reached the shore and rested his head on a tuft. A cluster of hyacinth flowers was floating lazily towards him, like the vague memories that were drifting into his mind.
When he was still a soldier of the water special force, he often swam in such rivers, putting clusters of hyacinth flowers on his head as camouflage. He never forgot the itchy feeling of the flower roots. He felt that his destiny was closely tied to the river.
Twenty years had flown by since he worked as a boatman at the Gao boat landing. He was homeless when his friend from his old army unit, who was the chairman of the commune, helped him get the job. When the former comrades-in-arms were about to take leave of each other, the communal chairman said:
"Remember, safety comes first!"
He smiled instead of replying. He had lived with the river for almost all his life. During his time in the army unit, he was often likened to an otter. However, he told himself not to be subjective. Human lives were the most precious thing and he could not betray the people's trust.
Having dropped the clusters of hyacinth flowers from his shoulders into the river, he slowly walked onto the shore. The moonlight on the sixteenth of the Lunar month was crystal-clear and the droplets falling from his robust body were sparkling. He took the kerchief from the verandah and wiped his hair.
Around his house near the landing, some women were talking. He heard the voice of a fishwife:
"Since old Ngu worked here, this landing has become more animated and warm. Don't you think so?"
"What the hell do you think it's warm when it's very cold in early morning and we have to wait for the boat?" said a bony-faced banana seller, trying to balance two full baskets on her bicycle.
"I think it's really warming to have him here. Do you remember that boatwoman the other day? We had to wait until day broke, as she was still sleeping soundly. We were late for the market a lot of times!" another fishwife said.
"Our children were also late for school because of that woman," old Beo said, chewing areca and betel. "And you know, from the day this old man started working here, it seems like this fishwife went to market more often. Old Ngu is still single, so you feel sorry for him, I think."
"Go ask him yourself!" the fishwife replied. "I disregard him! Yes, he's strong enough, but I think there is something wrong with him. I wonder why he has not deigned to look at women around here. How cold those eyes are!"
"You've been here a lot of times, so try to find ways to warm his eyes! You've always sneaked loving looks at him!"
Teased by these women, the fishwife started getting angry. Meanwhile, the boat was approaching.
"Stop it! Look, the boat is coming."
Old Ngu jumped onto the bank. The boat was a bit unstable. A moment later, the boat again turned its nose and old Ngu was about to row to the other side of the river.
"Can I pay you when I return from the market?" the fishwife said to the boatman.
"No! It's a rule that all customers have to pay me before getting on the boat. It says so on the Notice Board over there, can't you see it?"
The fishwoman looked angry, struggling to get some money and put it into the boatman's big hand, before she said:
"What does this government do now? It can't even build a small bridge for people to cross the river."
All the people in the area thought that the boatman was much needed now. In the past, when boatwoman Thuyen still worked here, everyone had to be present at the exact same time or they could not cross the river. But the case of old Ngu was the opposite. In rain or shine, day or night, whenever there was a customer who needed to cross the river, he served them right away, provided that the price was doubled. He worked diligently with a sense of responsibility. One day, he was rowing the boat with a lot of schoolchildren on board when a strong wind came. The river became muddy and was churning, but he told the children to sit still and in order. Then he rowed the boat with all his might across the raging river to the other side, getting them there safe and sound. It was probably because of his experience as a soldier that he was able to act so responsibly.
The Gao boat landing was only about three kilometers from the village, but when night fell, it felt as desolate as a remote mountain area. After dinner, old Ngu hung the hammock he had kept from the army on two bamboo trees and lay on it to enjoy the breeze. Gazing up at the moon, he wondered why there were almost no boat-goers on these moonlit nights.
He suddenly got up and took advantage of the moonlight to work on the field he had made during his spare time. To everyone's surprise, in this small patch of field, the rice plants were growing well. Actually he did the weeding during the night not only for pleasure, but also to guard against the thieves who came for his bananas.
He had grown many bananas along the riverbank near the Gao boat landing. He had cared for them well and they had not suffered any diseases. Looking at those bunches of big bananas, customers could not help admiring them. The woman who was his frequent customer sometimes felt the price was unbearable. However, she wanted to buy his bananas because they sold well, particularly on the first and fifteenth days of the Lunar month. His bananas sold like hot cakes on these days, when people bought the fruit for religious reasons.
It was also rumored that he had saved a lot of money in the past twenty years. He had lived a simple life. Sometimes he was seen riding a bicycle somewhere and about two hours later, he was seen coming back. He had no relatives and it was certain that he had no sexual desire. So where did he go?
Vong, a notorious thief in the locality, waited until old Ngu took his bicycle and rode it out of sight. Then he and his devoted follower snuck into old Ngu's house. But they rummaged through the house and found nothing. They were still standing in bewilderment when old Ngu appeared from nowhere and stood right behind them. No sooner could they begin to run away when he kicked them to the ground. The two thieves wriggled on the ground, groaning in pain.
"Go away! This is not the place for you to make a living, you know!"
They managed to get up and ran for their lives.
"You know, old Ngu looks different these days," the fishwife said to old Beo on the way home.
"How do you mean 'different'?" old Beo asked, walking with difficulty.
"You see, while he was rowing the boat, he looked listless and sometimes he stood unsteadily…. Is he ill?"
"No, I don't think so," old Beo said, chewing the betel. "If he is ill, he should drop the job. No, but he loves money very much, you see!"
The fishwife was silent, but she kept wondering if he was ill. She found his eyes sometimes glazed over with boredom and his skin not so shiny. He looked quite old….
The Gao boat landing appeared in the mist. The boat was lying in silence, so desolate. But old Ngu was not there. After a moment, the fishwife was worried. She went to knock at the door. There was no answer. She pushed the door open and saw old Ngu lying on the ground. She cried "Oh, God!" and old Beo rushed in and then they both ran out, crying "Help! Help! Old Ngu is dead!"
The forensic doctor examined the body and concluded that old Ngu had a stroke. The next day, all were informed that old Ngu died of exposure to Agent Orange.
"What a pity for him! He has no family and now he has died," someone in the crowd said.
"He worked so hard for money. What for?"
The funeral of old Ngu was very big. All of Gao village came to pay tribute to him. Young people from the village carried his coffin to the grave. All of a sudden, a car pulled up at the funeral house. A woman and two men got out of the car. A man opened the car trunk and took out a wreath with the line "The Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development pays a tribute."
The three people walked briskly towards the funeral table.
"What a man, old Ngu! He must have deposited a huge sum of money in the bank! The bank has come from the district to pay tribute to him!"
"Yes, he has worked at the boat landing for twenty years, you know. It would be strange if he did not have money in the bank! But who will inherit this sum of money?" someone else interrupted.
The short man came to the altar and kow-towed. Everyone followed closely. After that, the short man took the microphone and spoke in a slow voice:
"Dear venerated soul of Mr Pham Van Ngu! Ladies and Gentlemen! We were very surprised to receive the news that Mr Ngu had passed away. In this sorrowful moment, on behalf of the district office of the Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, we wish to burn incense to remember the venerated soul of the departed."
Then the short man continued:
"Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the deceased, I would like to read the will of Mr Ngu…"
"…I am Pham Van Ngu. I work as a boatman at the Gao boat landing. I consider Gao village my second home. For a long time, I have wished to build a bridge for Gao village. Lately, my health has not been good. My old suffering has returned and possibly I cannot realise my wish. I write this will to hand the sum of money I have saved all these years to the Communal People's Committee to build a small bridge for temporary use for the villagers before the Government builds a more solid bridge at the Gao boat landing. This would make me so happy…"
The short man raised the will for everyone to see. Then he kow-towed three times and put it on the altar. Some people were weeping silently. The air was stuffily hot, but a cool breeze was blowing from the river. The stream of mourners along the riverbank was growing.
Translated by Manh Chuong