|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy|
by Quan Tan
Mr Hai Nhut's little house was located in an isolated area at the end of Cay Dua (Pineapple) Hamlet, next to the Y-Shaped Bridge and Cho Doi Junction. He lived alone, without wife or children. It was safe from flooding during the rainy season because it was built high on stilts.
All of the local children liked his house because it was backed by an immense orchard, full of a variety of fruit-trees: mangoes, plums, longans and so on. At the edge of his garden, two jack-fruit trees supported a faded old hammock and provided shade for midday rests. A vast treeless plot of land was adjacent to the orchard which teenagers used to play all sorts of games: football, marbles, spinning tops and skipping. When they needed a rest from play, he often entertained them with stories. On occasion, he played arbiter to their disputes. When they behaved, he rewarded them by letting them eat ripe fruit from his trees.
Although he was unmarried, he was very fond of children. He permitted them to drop in on him any time for a bite to eat. His only rule was that they were forbidden from walking on the vast stretch of wild pineapple field. The area had once been full of bomb craters, but after many years it had returned and was beautifully bountiful with fruit. One day Little Na, the son of the Sau Theo family, sneaked into the pineapple field to catch rats. Even though the little guy was Mr Hai's favourite, he was punished by being forbidden from playing in the garden for ten days. Once, when the kid was suffering from dengue fever, he took him to the commune's health station. Unfortunately the illness had progressed to the extent that he had to be taken to hospital. Mr Hai carried him on his back to the district hospital, about ten kilometres away from their hamlet. When they arrived, the doctor told him if they had arrived even an hour later, the boy would have died.
On the day the kid left the hospital, his parents came to Hai Nhut's place to thank him and ask him for a favour: to regard the child as his own grandson. Hai Nhut nodded in agreement and told Sau Theo's wife to kill two fat ducks to celebrate the event. He also invited Mr Ut Chac chairman of the Commune Association of Veterans, and several close neighbours. The old soldier took Hai Nhut's hands and praised him for his devotion to the child. Hai Nhut blushed in part from the chairman's praise, and in part due to the spirits he had consumed. He burst out laughing and said, "It was nothing. You've forgotten that I was once a soldier in Division 502."
At Little Na's request to learn about how he got his unusual nick name (Hai Nhut means Second the First in Vietnamese), he told Ut Chac to tell everybody the story behind the unusual name.
In the first years after the reunification of the country, conditions were very low. Everyone still lacked the basic necessities, especially fabric and clothes. One day a dark-skinned Javanese man with curly hair came to the hamlet with a big bag of fabric and clothes and happily sold them on credit to the hamlet's inhabitants on condition that they would pay their debt one month later. The residents were happy to take advantage of the offer. One month later, the man returned to collect the debts, but demanded five times the agreed upon price. The residents objected to his exorbitant prices and refused to pay. He warned them that he had an amulet that would punish anyone who failed to pay him back.
Auntie Ba Dau, a widow, defied him boldly. "I won't pay at all," she told him. "Now go ahead and use your amulet to penalise me at once," she said. The man said some magic words and pointed at her. She immediately collapsed to the ground. It wasn't until she paid off her debt that she was able to stand up and return to normal. All the debtors were panic-stricken. The haves immediately settled their debts, but the have-nots were unable to do so. When he heard the story, Hai Nhut invited the man and Ut Chac along with a representative from the local authorities to the sacred shrine near the Y-Shaped Bridge to find a solution to the problem.
"Sir, we're too poor to pay you," Hai Nhut said to the stranger softly. "Please take pity on them and let them pay for their things at the agreed upon prices," he added.
"No, never!" replied the creditor.
"Dear Sir, I also know how to use an amulet. As a resident of this hamlet, allow me to challenge you to a duel. If I lose, I'll die in the presence of these witnesses and you won't be charged with any crime. If I win, you must not demand any money from my villagers. Agreed?" Hai Nhut declared solemnly.
"So what are the rules of the competition?" asked the man.
"It's very simple! Each of us will give his opponent a cup of spirits with his own amulet dropped in it to drink," Hai Nhut answered.
The man agreed and poured a cup of water. While he said his magic words, he drew some imaginary figures on the water then he handed it to Hai Nhut. Without hesitation, Hai Nhut drank it in one swallow then offered his rival his own magic cup. Hardly had the stranger taken a sip when he stammered.
"What is this?" asked the black man.
"My cup and amulet, of course," Hai Nhut replied calmly.
The man fell to his knees before Hai Nhut and declared himself as the loser.
"Well done! Well done! You're the first place winner!"
Hence the local people had given Hai Nhut his nickname, which meant ‘Hai the First'.
Ut Chac concluded his lengthy story.
"What! So he really has a sacred amulet?" asked one of the residents. "How clever he is!" exclaimed another. "It must have been a Chinese amulet," another one remarked, amazed.
"Actually, Mr Hai Nhut's amulet was nothing but a plain cup of tea, nothing more or less," Ut Chac explained. "The man was just a swindler in collusion with Auntie Ba Dau to cheat everybody," he commented.
In a pensive mood, Hai Nhut looked vacantly ahead at the stretch of wild pineapples, asking himself, "Is time the best medicine for us to forget about the bad things that happened to us two decades ago?"
Three years after Hai Nhut accepted Little Na as his grandson, Cay Dua Hamlet began going through a period of major renovation. First, the Y-Shaped Bridge was renovated with iron and concrete and, thanks to its favourable geographic location, Cho Doi Junction was assessed as an area of great potential for a regional agricultural market. An asphalt road was built going straight to the bridge and plans were made for a high-voltage power station to be constructed there. Fortunately for him, the planned road would pass close to his five ha orchard which would allow him to charge a high price for his land if he chose to sell. Strangely, while these changes were going on he did not feel happy because his quiet life was noticeably disturbed. Every few days, a land-hunter showed up on his doorstep with the hopes of purchasing his land. He finally put up a large board covered with big letters that read NO LAND FOR SALE on his front gate.
Nevertheless, one morning a fat man rushed up to his house without paying any attention to the sign. "If you don't want to sell the whole orchard, let me buy a half-ha stretch of wild pineapples. I'll pay you the same price as the entire orchard is worth,"implored the stranger. Hai Nhut refused the man's proposal point-blank.
All of a sudden, a lot of memories turned up in his mind. He thought about his long life, of his years as a little orphan named Hai, living as a servant to a rich family then moving on to became a kung fu performer in a minor Chinese circus company. When he saved a revolutionary from death, he was recruited as a liaison for a military unit and later became a cadre in Division 502. During the critical summer of 1972, private Hai was promoted to the rank of corporal of a spy squad. In October of that year, his company engaged in a fierce fight with the enemy's Land Battalion 423, which was reinforced with a convoy of armoured cars. After being wounded in the thigh, he was forced to stay at the district military field hospital. It was there that he met general practitioner Da, its deputy head. She operated on him and ten days later he was able to move around on a pair of crutches.
One day, a surprise attack left the clinic completely destroyed. Its leader laid down his life in the attack. Under fire, Da carried him away on her back in defiance of the danger. He told her many times to leave him behind, but she ignored him. She finally managed to get him to Cho Doi Junction, where they found a vast stretch of wild pineapples. Fortunately they also found a shelter made by local guerrillas.
"Rest easy, okay? This shelter is the best in Cay Dua Hamlet," she told him.
"That's not what I'm worried about! I'm worried about the safety of the wounded comrades we left behind at the dispensary," he replied. They both fell silent in the safety of the shelter. As she was falling asleep he was able to take a good look at her. She had long black hair with an oval-shaped face, a small straight nose. Dark circles ringed her eyes. On the whole, she was pretty and firm. A fine cleft in her chin gave her an extra bit of beauty. All her features combined made her look very amiable. As he thought about what she had done for him, carrying him a long distance on her back through dangerous fire, he felt deeply moved.
"Grandpa, a group of visitors are coming up to the house," Na said, waking him up.
"I already told you that I don't want to sell our land. That's it. Tell them to go away," he told Na.
"No, Grandpa! They aren't land-hunters at all. Actually, they seem to be a team of medical workers."
"OK, tell them to wait for me a few minutes," he said.
Na rushed out to the gate to meet the group while Hai Nhut dressed to welcome the guests. The group was composed of three men and one woman. They all looked very young. The lady was about twenty-six years old. He thought she might be the oldest, and perhaps the leader of the group. She greeted him politely.
"Dear Sir, we're medical workers here to provide free examinations and health care for your residents," she said. "Since Cay Dua Hamlet still doesn't have its own health station, we think your garden has a wide enough courtyard to suit our needs. We'd like to make temporary use of it if we could," she added.
He happily nodded his consent. Two days later his yard was full of examinees. In the meantime, the medical team worked with dedicated perseverance and enthusiasm. All of the residents seemed very pleased with their work. When they finished their task two days later, Hai Nhut told Mrs Sau Theo to kill two fat ducks and one big hen to feast them all. At the farewell party, he thanked them for their active and arduous help.
"It was really nothing in comparison with the efforts your residents made," said the group's leader Dr Ngoc. "Anyhow, it's our job to care for your health. Serving you is our joy. In wartime, the residents of this hamlet suffered great losses in terms of lives and property. Now in peace time, you're still suffering from poor conditions and dealing with a lot of disadvantages, especially when it comes to your health. In my opinion, a clinic should be built here soon, complete with a good physician," she went on.
"But no doctor is bold enough to come to this remote and needy area," remarked Hai Nhut.
"If a health station is built here, I'll come and work for it," Dr Ngoc promised.
"Really? You're not joking, are you?" asked the old man.
"No, not at all, Sir! I'll keep my word," the young doctor replied, looking at him. At that moment Hai Nhut took a good look at her. She had round black eyes, a small straight nose, curved eyebrows and a firm and resolute look.
"Sir, why is this place called Cay Dua Hamlet," she asked him unexpectedly.
"Because there has always been a stretch of wild pineapples here."
"Was it behind your garden, Sir?"
"Yes, that's right. In wartime it was much larger."
"There was a shelter in this grove of wild pineapples, wasn't there?"
"What! How do you know that?"
"In the critical summer of 1972, my mother stayed in that shelter for two nights with a patient. Her name was Dr Da, deputy head of the military field hospital," she answered.
There were no longer any wild pineapples in Cay Dua Hamlet. In place of the wild bushes a transformer station, asphalt road, school and clinic, whose head was none other than Dr Ngoc, had all been built. The free clinic was built right on the former stretch of wild pineapples. Hai Nhut had offered the land to the local authorities to use for the public services. A bustling regional market had been built next to Cho Doi Junction.
"Why did you keep the stretch of wild pineapples intact for over twenty years, only to give it to local authorities when it finally became valuable?" asked a TV reporter during an interview with Hai Nhut during the hospital's inauguration. He answered simply and sincerely: "Clearing up the wild pineapples hurt me a lot, of course. Like humans, they also have feelings. In any case, it was my sentiments that kept them alive for so long, and now uprooting them was due to my affections. As for its high value, that means nothing to me. You forgot that I served with Division 502, didn't you?"
Translated by Van Minh