by Le Manh Thuong
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
In the late afternoon, sun rays were scorching the earth and the wind was blowing hard. Cicadas chirped noisily in the trees.
Old Sung, red faced, pedalled his bone-shaking bike unsteadily towards the gate. He braked so hard that the vehicle screeched to a halt. He flung the gate open, making it ring slightly when it struck against the brick pillar. He rested his bike against the hedge and headed straight into his house. Tossing his hat onto the bed, he stared at the vacant room. Several black, curving buffalo horns caught his eye.
His daughter Thuong was cooking dinner in the kitchen.
"Damn you, traitor! I'll teach you to betray your master," he cursed at his rival Hoi mercilessly before turning around and calling out to his daughter loudly, "Thuong! If you keep seeing Old Hoi's son, I'll give you a good thrashing. Both he and his father belong to the same nasty gang. If you don't obey me, you're no longer my daughter."
Thuong was very accustomed to her father's rages so she just continued making dinner in silence. She was determined to stay with Phuc, the handsome young son of Old Hoi, in defiance of her father's threats.
Last night, Phuc dropped in on the house even though Old Sung had forbidden them to see each other. "Dad, we're still single so we have the right to see each other. How can you forbid us?" Thuong asked him politely. Then Phuc said, "Uncle, I'm here on my father's behalf. He wanted me to let you know that he will meet you at the communal house for village affairs tomorrow. Well, good night!"
He left after chatting with Thuong for a few seconds.
"I'll never permit you to marry my daughter," he yelled out at him.
That morning, all the water-buffalo owners were at the communal house to discuss the procedures for the upcoming buffalo fighting festival. After the attendees had enjoyed a few cups of hot tea, Old Hoi turned up. Old Sung cast a disdainful eye at him.
Old Hoi seemed to perceive his opponent's unsympathetic attitude towards him. "OK, I'll tease you to death," Old Hoi said to himself, then smiled at his opponent.
During the tumultuous debates, amid the tobacco smoke, both just looked at each other defiantly.
Old Sung glanced at his orchard. His water-buffalo Huc was standing silently under the jack-fruit tree. Its huge body was rubbing at the tree trunk. On the ground at its feet, only a few leaves of elephant grass were strewn beside an empty basin of maize porridge. He contemplated his new animal with satisfaction. In fact, he had spent a whole month among the Mong ethnic group's mountainous villages of Ha Giang Province searching for the perfect fighting buffalo to purchase. Finding just the right water-buffalo had been quite a task. It wasn't until he was nearly out of provisions and verging on exhaustion that by chance he met Lu A Co, a mountain man who wanted to sell his favourite male animal to Old Sung. After taking a few hours to examine the animal with his long-standing expertise in the water-buffalo trade, he decided to buy it for a very high price because he found that it met all the standards of a fighting buffalo. He named the animal Huc, which meant that it could defeat any opponent. "My water-buffalo will surely be the champion of the Ngoc Da fighting arena this year. Certainly the glory will belong to me," he whispered to himself. "It will be the pride of Van Trang Village as well. Old Hoi's water-buffalo Khoang will lose for sure," he added.
Soon a light breeze from the orchard lulled him to sleep and a triumphant dream.
Both of the old men came from the land of Ngoc Da and had been friends during their childhood. They were good and hard-working youths. They were well-known all over the region for being good boys. Hoi worked for a time as an offshore fisherman but Sunglife was spent as a buffalo trader. Sung's skills were handed down to him by his father, a connoisseur in the water buffalo meat trade, and he took over the business when his father died. The strenuous work took him near and far and eventually he amassed a great fortune.
During one of those business trips, he made the acquaintance of Miss Soa, who had long hair, a lily-white complexion and beautiful eyes, at the Sen market, about two days away from the Ngoc Da area. Thanks to his sincerity and good looks, she fell in love with him and their love affair finally came to fruition. He promised that after the first market-day the following January, he and his parents would come to her home to ask for her hand in marriage. Soa's consent filled him with happiness.
Unexpectedly, Sung suffered a great loss, bitter and deadly, due to the presence of his close friend Hoi.
Hoi became jealous of Sung's quick journey to wealth. Offshore fishing trips were bringing him less and less in terms of income. Consequently, he cleverly asked Sung to give him advice in the lucrative water buffalo trade. Sung agreed.
Thanks to his perseverance and intelligence, Hoi gained skill in the water-buffalo trade with each passing year. Soon, he asked Sung to let him go into business on his own. Sung felt completely pleased with his friend's suggestion. With Hoi's great success, many pretty girls in the area wished to become his wife. However, he was still in two minds for, like so many other love-birds, he was infatuated with Soa. Once while taking advantage of Sung's absence while he was in a remote corner of the mountains in search of water-buffaloes, he secretly went to Sen market to flirt with that beautiful vendor with long-hair, a lily-white complexion and alluring smile.
He defamed Sung by telling her that he had been caught red-handed in the bed of a married woman whose husband was out to sea. As a result, he had to run away to avoid shaming his clan and himself as well. At the horrible news and with her innocent belief, she cursed her lover mercilessly. Finally Hoi's sweet talk and good looks won her over and she quickly married this nasty guy. Their wedding was one of the biggest celebrations in the Ngoc Da area.
When Sung returned home it was too late. He never thought that Hoi could be so wicked, especially since they had been such chums. He was disgusted by Soa and hated her completely, but he detested Hoi even more, like the plague. Since then, they had been arch-enemies. Sung suppressed his hatred and vowed to get his revenge even if it took years.
Sung later married another woman and they had a daughter named Thuong. He continued with his water-buffalo dealing.
Twenty years ago, the Water-Buffalo Fighting Festival was resurrected after a long lapse. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Old Sung switched jobs. Instead of buying buffaloes to kill for meat, he bought animals that he believed would be good in a fight. He travelled everywhere, even to Laos, to select the best fighting beasts. Each trip generally took at least a month. Although it was arduous work, he knew he could earn a lot of money. Old Hoi followed suit. He was clever enough to choose good buffaloes in the highlands to sell in the lowlands and soon got rich. Old Sung had never forgotten the old hatred and made up his mind to avenge himself.
Several years later, Old Sung started to raise a fighting buffalo of his own to enter into the regional Buffalo-Fighting Festival. With his long-standing experience in tending to water-buffaloes, he had earned many big prizes and glory for Van Trang Village. From the bottom of his heart, he always took pride in choosing the best fighting water buffaloes as his vital means of living.
Woe be to Old Sung! While his debt of vengeance was still left unpaid, his beloved daughter fell in love with Phuc, Old Hoi's son. "Thuong must choose one of the two: either me or her lover. Nobody can intervene in our issue," he declared solemnly.
"It's high time you left," Thuong urged Phuc.
"You know it's difficult for me to get here. Let me stay a few more minutes, my dear," he pleaded.
"I'll get in trouble if you stay," she said sadly.
"Your father is so bossy!" he said critically.
"I don't know what happened between our two families that both old men still loathe each other so strongly!"
"I don't know, either," he replied sincerely. "When I ask my Dad about their grudge, he just smiles. What a dilemma!" he went on.
"What will we do if your father prevents us from marrying each other?"
"I don't give a damn about his opinion! The more he forbids our relationship, the more I love you! My dear Thuong, if the situation continues to get worse we'll have to steal away from here to a far-away locality to lead a happy life together. Promise me, my darling," he urged her.
She nodded her consent, tears in her eyes. Smelling her delicately fragrant hair, he hugged her tightly. On the windy dyke and in the early moonlight, Phuc sealed a burning kiss on her lips. In an ecstasy of love, he pushed her lightly down on the grass. It was ecstasy for both of them. "This is the only way her father won't be able to keep us apart," Phuc whispered to himself.
Over their heads, dark clouds were drifting away.
Huc was indeed a stubborn buffalo and hard to tame. In order to ensure victory, Old Sung hired Vi, a young and well-known buffalo-tamer from the Hai Luu region, to take charge of his obstinate animal. During the initial days of training, Vi only gave the animal simple lessons, such as getting it used to a crowd, because Huc was stubbornly disobedient. "Huc was a strong beast of the jungle, so it's hard for him to accept you as master," Old Sung assured him. "Anyhow, take it easy at first. You're sure to be able to control him soon," he said. In fact, during this simple lesson, the ferocious animal broke his rope and ran helter-skelter all over the field. Worse still, it rushed towards some buffaloes standing nearby in search of a fight. It took the trainers a few days to force the wild animal to stand among the crowd calmly. It was just a basic step in the training course. For complicated lessons, more efforts were needed. Every morning, both of the trainers and the buffalo had to wake up at four to get to the village's common training ground. Being bound by the strong rope, the poor animal had to run around for hours with Vi. Next, it had to trot on the sand or in the muddy field, then to fight another beast in order to improve its combat skills. After the strength-training lessons came the skills for different situations. At the end of a day of hard training, the animal was given nutritious food, scores of vitamin B1 tablets and a lot of beer. All were aimed at bringing the championship prize to its master. Old Sung had put all of his confidence in the animal. In the meantime, he also knew that Old Hoi and his son had done their best to make their buffalo agile and strong.
"How can it match ours? Let's wait and see," Old Sung said to himself.
In conformity with Old Sung's prediction, his Huc and Old Hoi's fighting water-buffalo Khoang easily made it into the final round.
Last night, Old Sung didn't get a wink of sleep. He was on tenterhooks. He had been waiting for this day a long time as this struggle would be a life-and-death event for him, a golden opportunity to avenge himself honestly and loftly. In a few hours, he would be hailed as a hero of the Ngoc Da land.
The day before yesterday, all the fighting water-buffaloes were made public at the court of the communal house to prepare for the qualifying rounds. It was at that moment that he saw Huc's opponent for the first time. Frankly speaking, it was a well-matched rival as it had all the characteristics of a fighting buffalo, in his opinion. "Being equal in strength and ability is one thing, but skill is another matter, and I've trained my fighter for months. Clearly, the first prize in all past competitions has always gone to my water-buffalo," he whispered proudly.
The first rite for the contest was for buffalo owners and trainers to attend the deity – worshipping services at the shrine in the communal house. There they made an oath for their honesty and kow-towed to the holy village genie. In a loose-fitting ritualistic costume, Old Sung stealthily glanced at Old Hoi. His rival also stared at him with a scornful smile before they entered into the solemn services.
The Ngoc Da fighting arena was crowded with onlookers from all walks of life. Banners and pennants were fluttering everywhere. A bustling atmosphere reigned over the whole area. All the onlookers wanted to see the upcoming life-and-death combat with their own eyes. Old Sung was in higher spirits than usual. "Will my ex-sweetheart Soa be here with her husband to witness this decisive struggle?" he asked himself. "If so, maybe she'll watch the disgraceful defeat of her husband," he added, smiling broadly.
After a series of drumbeats and to the jubilant sound of gongs, both old men led their water-buffaloes into the fighting arena amid the cheers of thousands of spectators. Huc seemed to be aware of the paramount importance of the moment, so it raised its head high and, from the eastern gate of the arena, bravely made great strides ahead. Meanwhile, from the western door, Khoang also walked in with pompous footsteps behind Old Hoi. Both the fighters were marked with large white figures on their backs. Cheers arose again as the animals made their way into the arena.
With his experienced eyes, Old Sung saw that Khoang's horns had been sharpened to noticeable points. Old Hoi had undoubtedly run against his solemn oath of honesty and was playing a nasty trick on Old Sung. "Damn him!" Old Sung secretly cursed him. Come what may, he cast a contemptuous glance at Old Hoi. "Surely, the day will be ours," he said to himself.
When the signal to begin was given, both ferocious animals rushed towards each other. "Bang," went their headlong strike. In the first minute, Huc showed his agility by tilting his head and dodging Khoang's pointed horn which was aimed at his eyes. Huc then raised his horns and darted against his rival. Khoang stopped short and missed Huc's blow. They continued their critical fight by quickly locking horns with hind legs spread wide to keep their balance. Their eyes flashed with rage and foam oozed from their mouths. The whole arena cheered madly to encourage them to continue the viscous fight. Yet, their efforts came to nothing: no fighter could drive its opponent into an impasse. All of a sudden, Khoang retreated a few steps. Taking advantage of this rare chance, Huc spread its forelegs to trip Khoang to the ground. "Well done, my dear Huc," Old Sung exclaimed happily. Suddenly, Khoang withdrew his horns, backed away a few steps then shot back at Huc. Their fight went on for hours in a seemingly drawn battle.
When Khoang seemed to loose his mind for a moment, Huc thrust one of his horns at Khoang's armpit. At the unexpected hit, Khoang staggered a little then ran away, blood oozing out profusely. In an ecstasy of victory, Huc swiftly chased its rival. "Finish him, my beloved Huc," Old Sung incited his buffalo loudly.
"Heavens!" Old Sung screamed horribly when Khoang suddenly turned round, lowered his head with horns pointing upwards in wait for Huc who was rushing so rapidly that he was unable to dodge Khoang's thrashing on time. Sadly, Huc's left eye was penetrated Khoang's pointed horn. Staggering for a few minutes, Huc collapsed to the ground. His eyeball was gone. Blood was oozing abundantly from the empty eye socket. Khoang quickly pulled out his bloody horn, breathed heavily and stared at his opponent that was shacking on the ground in front of him.
Old Sung was stupefied beyond endurance. He took a few steps then fainted onto the muddy ground. He looked upwards with a vacant stare, eyes wide open, head resting on Huc's leg, uttering a few hiccups then breathed his last amid the chaos in the fighting arena.
Thuong elbowed her way through the crowd to reach her dying father. "Good Heavens! Wake up, wake up, Dady. Don't leave me alone," she cried.
The fighting arena emptied. Maybe the spectators were huddling outside to get a few kilograms of buffalo meat from the killed winner for a blessing.
Translated by Van Minh