by Di Li
One morning the young mother came to see me again regarding a matter concerning her recently-deceased son. I was rather irritated with her entreaty. At first, she just made a request, then she moved on to making a proposal and finally she begged by kneeling down in front of me to ask for a special favour: to provide her poor son with a place in the high burial ground set aside for the elite. With her face drenched with sweat and her unkempt hair falling over he shoulders, she looked at me beseechingly, as if I were an authoritative saviour. But in fact, I was nothing but the landscape architect for this weird cemetery and her request was beyond my power. All I could do was stare at her in despair although I felt extremely sympathetic about the unfortunate destiny of her seven-year-old son who had been as playful as a little sparrow before his death.
I met her son for the first time early last autumn when he was, together with other timid kids, bold enough to enter my office to ask for permission to play inside the graveyard. How could I have the heart to refuse his request when I saw in his eyes, big and round, such an earnest desire. His thin, pale lips and brownish curly hair were quite different from the other children of rural, destitute families. Some faces were endowed with a persuasive power right at first sight even if they were only a child. These kids were from a diocesan village at the foot of the mountain about two kilometres away. They called this necropolis a "park" in the same way that our children avoided the land that might conjure up death. Specifically, this was a chic burial ground, well provided with different forms of amusements for famous people, especially the nouveau riche, who could afford exorbitant prices for an extremely expensive last home for their dear ones.
A long time ago, this mountainous area was vacant except for three desolate peaks. Later, the director of the An Lac Building Group cleared the area to build a beautiful road lined with oleanders on both sides to the three highest lots where he built large swimming-pools, fountains, shrines and a lot of ingenious bas-reliefs and statues of deities. His plan was for the area to become a magnificent cemetery in the future. The three peaks were called Phong Lan, Dia Lan and Moc Lan. At Moc Lan a few enormous mock graves, reaching up to a few hundred sq. metres, were built for publicity.
An advertising forum was now being held for potential customers at a five-star metropolitan hotel.
"This will be an ideal final resting place with first-rate comfort," declared the Group CEO.
"Clearly, it's one of the great creations of our civilised world. No doubt about it!" remarked some customers. Contemplating the path covered with white pebbles and wide courtyards constructed with fancy tiles, customers were willing to withdraw huge deposits from their bank accounts. The obsession with the simple, and neglectful, burial of the past was lifted from their minds. A projector screened a panoramic view of the whole area.
"Lower members of society could never dream of this necropolis," he added. Then a price list for each lot flashed on the screen.
"Too expensive! Why is a plot here more expensive than in other places?" asked many participants. Numerous protests followed. Of course, the CEO had been preparing for these comments since he cleared the land. A broad smile appeared on his thin lips.
"But the price you pay will help keep your earthly paradise safe and sound," he explained.
"Yes, I think so. For that much money, only members of upper-class families can be buried here," someone said.
"If the price were much cheaper, say one-tenth of the proposal, this park would soon become nothing more than a village burial ground," chimed in another customer.
"This place could be called the Beverly Hills of the Immortals," the Group chief concluded as the group's while lily logo turned round and round on the large white screen.
All participants left the meeting-hall in high spirits.
Two months later, all of the plots on Moc Lan summit were sold. Ridiculously, all of their owners were young people in the prime of their lives.
"In a few years, the price for land here will surely be ten or twenty times higher. We'll earn an enormous profit," declared one of the customers who had purchased several plots. Many of the buyers had already ordered iron fences with complicated patterns to mark their territory and planted grass and flowers to increase the value of their plots. As a landscape architect, I was in charge of maintaining the park design. As a recent graduate of the College of Architecture, I was lucky to get my first job, even though I lived quite far from the grounds. In reality, my work here was rather simple and tedious: to implement the exact designs our customers chose from our catalogue. Changes or adjustments were strictly forbidden. "A cemetery without careful attention to detail is just an anaesthetic burial ground," the director said emphatically.
After a few years' construction, the place was frequented by both buyers and visitors. They arrived by car and took a sight-seeing tour in one of our electric vehicles. The local kids considered it a public park. In reality, they had never seen such a beautiful and magnificent landscape project in a thirty mile radius. Here, they were able to sit on the swings, make tiny boats out of dry leaves to float on the surface of the lotus lake which was lined with rows of weeping-willows and enjoy the sparkling jets of water bursting from the fountain.
"Hey boy, what's your name?" I asked one child on a swing while I was conducting a tour of the peak.
"I'm Se Con (Little Sparrow), Sir."
"Little Sparrow!" I burst into laughter. He laughed too, showing a bright set of white teeth on a tanned face. He was wearing a smart pair of khaki shorts and a white shirt stained with a bit of dirt.
"No, your real name?"
"Nguyen Nam Ky Dong, Sir."
"Sounds great. So, your father's full name is Nguyen Nam Ky, isn't it?"
"Actually, I bear my mother's surname Nguyen Nam. Her first and middle name are Mai Anh. I'm a fatherless boy."
"Oh dear! I'm sorry!" I was very confused.
"Hey, kids! Beware of the empty grave over there," I shouted loudly at the little ones as they made their way towards the nearest plot.
"Whose tomb is that, Sir?"
"It belongs to singer Ha Vy."
"But she's still alive, Sir! I saw her singing on our TV set yesterday," said one of them in amazement.
"That's right!" I agreed. "Later, when she dies, this will be her final resting place. Besides, the plots over there already have owners as well. Look, they're all surrounded with beautiful flower hedges. Try to keep off the grass, my dear kids," I warned them. But it was too late! The grass on Ha Vy's future grave was totally trampled. I thought of a way to keep them out.
"Dear kids, do you want to have a free ride in my electric car?" I suggested.
"Yes, certainly, Sir," they answered unanimously. They rushed right over to my vehicle. I took them around to see the plots of painter X, director Y and so on, then to the 500-sq.m. plot in the centre of Moc Lan peak owned by magnate Z which had a bungor tree in one corner and a Venus statute made of white plaster placed in the middle of a path strewn with white pebbles. I kept mum about the other owners' names for fear that they might accidentally damage the lots of those famous people in all of their excitement. Driving the car out of the gate at the foot of the mountain I told them, pointing at the sun going down behind the mountain range, "Well children, your play time is up.
Off with you quickly and head home as soon as possible." They stared regretfully at Moc Lan peak.
"It's high time you went home, my dear Se Con, or you'll be severely punished by your mother," I urged Little Sparrow, sweeping my hand over his head.
"Actually, Mum has never beaten me, Sir," he retorted innocently. "Great! But the park gate is closing right now."
At that, they all left, their silhouettes slanting lengthways along the steep path.
"You mustn't let the kids in again," I told the guards at the entrance to the park via my handset.
"Yes, Sir," replied one of them after greeting me amiably.
The miserable woman bit her lips tightly. Her cheeks were free of tears but in their place were a few tiny drops of sweat. Her eyes looked sunken. At first, she told me that she would sell her house in exchange for a little plot of land on Moc Lan peak. I truly did not want to hurt her feelings with an explanation that the sum she would earn by selling her home, complete with a 200-sq.m garden, would not be equal to a 10-sq.m plot on Moc Lan peak which was far more expensive than a similar piece on either Phong Lan or Dia Lan peak. Plus, all those exorbitant lots were set aside for the elite.
"Besides, they're all sold out," I consoled her, glancing at the door to evade her sorrow-filled eyes. A vision on Moc Lan peak, its fountain and the electric cars appeared clearly in my mind. All of a sudden, she knelt down in front of me.
"Please, could you do your best to persuade the owners to sell me just a small piece of the land, because when you really look at it, they are all still alive and don't actually need it right now?" she entreated.
"Awfully sorry! I can't do it although I loved your little son very much," I answered sympathetically.
She trembled violently as we spoke about her beloved little child. At last, she stood up and left my office, back totally straight.
Little Sparrow showed up again on Moc Lan peak one golden autumn afternoon. I saw him sitting on a swing while my car was meandering around the three peaks as I checked to be sure everything was going to plan. He seemed a bit startled when he recognised me.
"My dear Se Con! How did you get here?"
"Thanks to an empty lorry, Sir," he answered nervously.
"Well, do you want a free ride in my car?"
"Yes, certainly, Sir," he replied and stared at me for a few seconds, for he still remembered the warning I gave the guards after his previous trip.
"Don't worry. I'll show you around."
He jumped into the car and sat down beside me. A strong gust of wind swept over his curly brown hair and sent the pleasant scent of a young kid to my nose. He was singing a tune to himself, one which he must have made up himself at that moment.
I've got a swing. Now I'm having a free ride in this white electric car. How great it is!
"Are you hungry, kiddo?" I asked him.
"Not at all, Sir! I had lunch already. Look, my belly is inflated like a bicycle inner tube," he said as he turned up his shirt. I checked his "tube". It was neither round nor flat. I let the car coast downhill across Moc Lan and Phong Lan peaks. My Little Sparrow sang and sang throughout the entire wonderful trip. Meanwhile, I made a tour around the grounds as promised. When we came back to the starting-point, the sun was falling gradually but the mountain winds continued to blow violently. Suddenly, I saw the immobile silhouette of a thin woman. Her hair was tied in a bun. My Little Sparrow darted towards her at once.
"Mum, let me introduce you to the park owner," he said to his mother.
"Hardly, I'm only an employee. Surprisingly, your Se Con cleverly climbed into an empty lorry to get here, Lady," I explained his bold action to her.
"I'm very sorry," she said. Standing beside her, I found that she was still fairly young, thirty at most I assumed. "I'm busy all day, so I'm unable to take care of him appropriately. I'll try to keep him from disturbing you and the others in the future," she promised.
"Oh no, you are not to blame," I said. "As long as I'm around, he can play up here any time. I always have a lot of fun when he's around," I said.
I told Se Con that I went home every Friday afternoon and could pick him up the next morning when I returned to work in the park. He could wait for me at the foot of the mountain if he wanted a ride up to the peak. I could also drive him home any time he wanted.
From that day onwards he was my only passenger during the weekends when he did not have to go to school. On Saturday mornings, I drove him around by car then I taught him how to play video games in my office. He was excited at the extraordinary new world which opened up to him at his first ever glimpse of a PC. I went to Google Maps to show him a view of Moc Lan peak, right where we were standing. He was greatly surprised at the new discoveries each day. I led him to Grand Canyon National Park in the United States of America, then to the gigantic Niagara Falls on the border of Canada, next to the Colosseum in Rome and the famous temples of Greece and finally to the Amazon jungle.
"Have you ever been to this place?" he asked me as he gazed attentively at the Grand Canyon.
"Not yet, but I'll visit when I save enough money."
Little Sparrow did not ask anything else. Maybe he was dreaming about the miraculous world outside. He liked Google Maps far better than any of the video games I showed him. He told me that he had visited Ha Noi just once before the capital authorities expanded its border to the foot of Mt Ba Vi, very close to his house. He asked me how he could go around the world without spending much money.
"Well, you could certainly make your dream come true by becoming a pilot," I answered.
"OK! When I grow up I want to be a pilot," he said resolutely.
During Se Con mother's first visit to me, she rushed into my office at lunch time and timidly showed me a set of mess-tins full of food for her son. Making a wry face, I said reproachfully: "You needn't have done so. I'm happy to provide him with good lunches and lessons. Keep your mind at ease and focus on your work." She nodded her thanks then returned to the humble job of a caddy at the golf course near the foot of the mountain. Sometimes, the boy stayed with me on Saturday nights. Taking advantage of those rare occasions, I gave him lessons in the three R's and shared dinner with him. He happily coiled himself up in my lap during the winter nights and slept soundly until the next morning. Afterwards he looked forward to the following weekend and enjoying another exciting excursion to the park in my car.
In the thick of winter we stayed in my office during his visits. He seemed happy to accept my rules and idled away his free time with the world outside on the web. Nevertheless, one afternoon, when I returned to my office I did not find him sitting beside my PC. I quickly drove to Moc Lan peak and saw him sitting motionless on a swing. I rushed him back to the office and called his mother when I realised he had a fever. When he regained consciousness he apologised for disobeying me.
"I was trying to see if I could fly like an aeroplane on that swing," he explained. Unfortunately, he was taken to hospital the next morning to seek treatment for a serious cold.
But things turned out to be much more grave than expected, beyond my prediction.
"Our advanced medicine has made great progress: original cells can be transplanted in humans," she observed, eyes wide open with a ray of hope. "In many countries, as many as eighty per cent of little patients suffering from leukaemia can be cured," she added.
Sadly, my Little Sparrow was very pale and much smaller in his iron bed, next to other sick children and their desperate parents. Worse still, his body was entangled in a mess of tiny plastic tubes. I swept my hands over his hair.
"Some day, I'll be allowed to make a trip to Ha Noi," he said to me in a sickly voice. "Mum told me that when I get better she will take me to the Water Park in the capital, which has a fountain that is much bigger than yours," he went on. I was moved to tears.
"Why are you crying, Sir? I'm not. Now, let me sing a ditty for you to enjoy, La… la… la… I've got a swing. Now I'm riding free in a fast-going white electric car.
Little Sparrow said that he wanted to stay on Moc Lan peak where there were many things to play with. "I could see you passing by every weekend," he told me. Suddenly, his mother burst into tears. That was the first time he saw her weep.
"Mum, don't cry. I have never even cried…," he said.
I gathered up all of the money I was saving for a long journey in the future. Instead, I spent that money on many useful and urgent things: making a swing complete with a climbing plant wrapping around one of the supports that Little Sparrow used to sit on, creating a multi-coloured set dining set on the green behind his mother's house, growing a hedge covered with the antigone climbing plants full of beautiful flowers and a small bungor tree a corner of the garden and last but not least, planting a black stone slab bearing a little cross. That's as far as my money went in memory of Little Sparrow. I remembered his dream of visiting the Water Park by West Lake in the capital and my wish of making a long journey abroad. Sadly, his dream never came true. As for mine, it was buried deep in that windy mid-air cemetery.
I was later fired for my sincere but unfavourable comments about that isolated, queer and costly monument during a consultation with one of the customers, "If you don't really need this kind of plot, you should leave it for someone who is actually deceased, otherwise this park will become a cemetery for the living rather than for the dead." Unluckily for me, one of the newcomers in my office shared my statement with the boss. Consequently, I had to look for a job elsewhere to earn my bread.
Two years later, I learned that the price of land on Moc Lan peak fell dramatically due partly to the global financial crisis and partly to the struggling real estate market. As a result, the so-called Moc Lan Garden of Eden, as it was called by my former boss, soon fell into oblivion.
I rang Se Con's mother to tell her that she could take the remains of her deceased son to the place of his dreams for his final resting place. In a sorrowful voice, she said that she no longer needed it and then shared a secret with me: "Last night, I dreamt that my Se Con returned home. He told me that he was very interested in sitting on the flowered swing specially made for him thanks to your kindness and efforts. He also asked me whether I had ever been to the Grand Canyon National Park in the USA. While I was listening to him, I heard the sorrowful sounds of the cold wind blowing across Moc Lan peak paired with a young voice singing, Now I've got a wonderful swing…"
Translated by Van Minh