|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Le Nguyen Quoc Viet
Over the past few years, the village path had become overcrowded with cars and motorbikes, whose horns resounded noisily from dawn to dusk. However, Old Tam kept plying to and fro on his bone-shaking bicycle day after day. He tried to control his emotions while he was on the move, sweat oozing out bit by bit under the scorching sun. Still, he could not help being upset over the daily changes, which seemed to gradually swallow his formerly peaceful little village. The path meandered amid plots of green grass partly covered with dark-brown dust. The images of the narrow lanes and the shallow canal, the green tea groves, all of it had been deeply imprinted on his mind in childhood. His rice fields yielded only a few tonnes of paddy after each harvest season; their soil had been noticeably impoverished. He was not rich. On the whole, his family lived in similar conditions to most of their neighbours in the village. Today, he reflected, most of the farmers wanted to change everything for the "better". But their age-old culture might die out as a result.
"Good morning, Mr Tam. Why are you coming home so miserably?" a pedestrian greeted him from behind, interrupting his train of thought. He stopped his bike step by step, due to the fact that the brake was a rubber sandal that dragged heavily on the dusty earthen path. Somebody coming out of the small Huong Dong restaurant by the road was calling from his Innova. Old Tam turned back and recognised an old acquaintance called Coi, an unusually dwarf-like man with a black complexion and a hatchet-shaped, pockmarked face.
To the best of his knowledge, Coi was a notorious intermediary in the domain of real assets who had managed to create lots of secret connections with scores of high-ranking officials, both local and provincial. Previously, he was nothing but a homeless and jobless jack-of-all-trade who hung out at local markets. He was lucky enough to be taken home as an adopted son by a kind-hearted grocer. Unfortunately for him, a few years later, this benevolent woman passed away and he was driven out of the house by one of her distant nephews. After that, Little Coi stole from various rural markets. Consequently, he was arrested and sentenced to three years' imprisonment.
Immediately, Old Tam realised that this guy was going to try to persuade him to sell his land. Previously, he had told the old man that his rice fields and residential plot of land would be incorporated into a vast eco-park by the municipal authorities in the near future. He reiterated that most of the old man's neighbours had sold their plots of land to wealthy city-dwellers. In consequence, a lot of big houses and magnificent villas had been illegally built in haste, before the area was officially dedicated to the project. He also told the old man that he was one of only a few people who were still undecided on whether to sell their land. "You won't have any way to survive if you try to keep the land for your own use," Coi said to the old man in a convincing voice.
"There you are, Mr Coi. What have you called me for?" Old Tam asked, stopping his bike under the shadow of a high ironwood tree and leaning back against the big tree trunk. His old age had begun to torture him. He felt the burden of his children's future lying heavy on his shoulders.
"Uncle Tam, please follow my advice and sell your land as soon as possible," Coi said. "Bear in mind that once your plots come under the project, you won't be able to manage them any longer." He tapped lightly on the old man's shoulder. "With the money you would earn, you could build a decent-looking house and enjoy your old age safe and sound, without worrying about your future. You see, previously I led a miserable life, going from market to market like a scabies-infected dog. But now - at least, for the time being - I can buy anything I want. My advice comes from the bottom of my heart. I'm not aiming for any profit." Coi concluded his lengthy speech. Old Tam felt as isolated as his plots of land would be. Surrounded by buildings, they would soon lie fallow.
"Hm, let me see. I'll discuss the matter with my wife first. Do you know when the planned project starts?" he asked Coi, listening to the chirps of birds in the canopy high above them.
"Perhaps this year or maybe later, but its date is still unconfirmed. How many ha of land have you got, by the way?" Coi asked.
"Three ha of rice field and two ha of residential land."
"That means two thousand and five hundred sq. metres in all. Hm… a considerable amount! It can be divided into twenty lots, each a hundred sq. metres! As for the remaining five hundred, they will be used for a drive to your compound. With so much money, you'd quickly become a millionaire," Coi said after reckoning. "You see, many people turn wealthy overnight thanks to their plots of land. If you try to keep them in your possession, the agrarian authorities will pay you only a small sum, much less than what I've just reckoned, unless you pay a lot of bribes to the local officials to get their official stamps and signatures."
"But Mr Thanh, chairman of the ward, died a few years ago. How could he sign those documents?"
"Don't worry about that. They'll be confirmed reasonably and cleverly by my helpers in high social positions. In fact, your land means nothing to them."
Old Tam kept silent. Yet this revealed that some part of him consented. "Several million dong! That sum is beyond my expectations," he whispered. His eldest son had been working away from home, but he was still unable to provide him with even a motorbike. Meanwhile, his neighbours could equip their clans with so many expensive things: cars, motorbikes, speakers for listening to music. His native village, formerly so peaceful, had changed remarkably. How these changes compared to their former rural way of life! The traditional culture of yore had yielded to the new lifestyle of urban centres. Mobile phones and internet services had become very popular. Their cattle were all sold off, for there were no lawns left for them to graze.
"What's that small thing in your hand?" Old Tam asked Little Teo.
"How outdated you are! It's a mobile phone," the boy replied proudly.
Cafes, restaurants and entertainment centres mushroomed up everywhere. Some of them kept their lights on until early morning. For the first time in their lives, farmers possessed a lot of money and had no work to do. Therefore, they squandered their money in parties at home or on narcotics of every description. In consequence, many died young.
Even Old Tam's cosy nest was not exempt from the harmful effects of modernity. His second son had been expelled from school after getting involved with a group of ill-mannered local kids.
"If you don't get me a brand-new motorbike, I'll leave school early," he threatened his old father.
Worse still, his younger sister, a ninth-grader, got involved in love affairs. She began to dye her hair half-blonde, half-red, in the style that was fashionable, and to wear low-cut blouses and miniskirts, read low-brow stories and novels and sing dirt-cheap ditties, in defiance of her father's sincere advice.
All the old man could do now was watch the peaceful rural countryside get worse and worse with every passing day.
During tranquil nights, with an earthen pipe on his lips, he usually rested at the foot of the age-old banyan tree at the entrance to the village. He remembered that when the harvest had been in full swing, he brought home yellow rice-ears on the village path, which was flooded with their fragrance. In the open sky, paper kites flew high from the clever hands of joyful children. He seemed to relive the days of yore, when little kids on the back of water-buffaloes played the flute at sunset, when white storks were busy looking for food in the submerged paddy-fields, when frogs croaked loudly during the rainy season to call mates and when young farmers went to seek out fish in murmuring brooks.
"Alas! All has gone into the past," he whispered to himself. "Who is to blame for these unexpected changes?"
Only the thick shadows of night could answer his question.
When Old Tam reached home, it was late afternoon. He was thirsty for a glass of green tea. All of a sudden, he heard an enormous din echoing from inside his house. He figured the noises were due to the collapse of furniture, or the crash of kitchen utensils. At the foot of the giant mango-tree laden with ripe fruit, he saw his tea-pot broken into pieces and his clan's title deeds lying scattered all around. Worse still, he could hear the loud scolding of his son Thanh and the choking cries of his wife.
"Damn you for not getting me a motorbike! I'll break everything to pieces," Thanh said in a menacing voice. He had been expelled from school two months before.
"I beg your pardon, my dear son. Wait until your father comes home. Surely, he'll buy one for you," Thanh's mother said. "I'm utterly ashamed of your rough conduct. After this happening, I can hardly brave our neighbours' inquisitive looks."
"I warn you once again. Unless you buy one for me soon, I'll set this house on fire," Thanh threatened his mother.
Parking his bike against the gate, Old Tam hurried inside. He found his son completely drunk, with a red face and nauseating-smelling breath. Picking up a bamboo length in the courtyard, he asked his naughty boy to come out to meet him.
"I'm here! Who's bold enough to challenge me?" Thanh shouted loudly.
"What an ill-bred son you are! I'll teach you to be rude to your parents," he told the drunken teenager.
Saying so, he whacked Thanh on the back. At once, Thanh tried to dart to his feeble father; yet his effort came to nothing. He collapsed and writhed on the floor, his eyes dazzlingly red, amid the heart-rending cries of his poor mother. Now, Old Tam's own eyes appeared red-rimmed. Teardrops fell profusely on his wife's blouse.
"OK, kill me if you can," Thanh defied his father after he became conscious. "I don't wish to live any longer." Suddenly, Thanh snatched up that piece of bamboo and started to attack his father. The two human beings, one very old and the other very young, fought each other violently, amid the lamentable cries of the poor elderly woman. "Oh dear! They are trying to kill each other," she shouted loudly.
A few minutes later, Thanh jumped onto the motorbike of a friend with yellow hair. At once, the vehicle shot away at full speed.
The next morning, while the thick mist was still spreading over the hamlets and rice fields, surrounded by corrugated-roof houses, Old Tam silently went in search of Coi on his old bike. Last night, the old man felt great pain all over his body, so he could not sleep. It seemed to him that he suffered a terrible headache. He waited for Thanh and his younger sister, but none of them returned home. At home there was only his youngest son in the sixth class, who continued to study industriously. As for his eldest son, who worked far from home, he did not know that anything wrong had occurred in the family. The old man woke up as early as the cock crowed. Then some minutes later, he fell into a terrible nightmare. In his sleep, he dreamt that he was walking in the fields full of yellow rice ears and heard their rustling in the breeze. The harvest was now in full swing, which caused him to be in high spirits. In a nearby field, he spotted Thanh on the back of a white water-buffalo, attentively reading a book. He called Thanh, but he did not turn back. He intended to run towards his son, yet he could not lift his heavy feet. He cried and cried. Suddenly, the buffalo jumped up and tossed Thanh onto the ground. His blood oozed out profusely. The old man began crying for help in the deep night.
From afar, a motorbike suddenly shot into the village path. Its driver Tam stopped his vehicle in front of Old Tam.
"My dear Brother Tam, Thanh had a serious road accident," he said to the old man. "He has just been taken to hospital."
The old man trembled with fear.
"Which hospital, mate? Who caused the accident?" he asked.
"I'll take you there at once." The driver turned his motorbike in the opposite direction.
"Where is the hospital, mate?"
"The provincial polyclinic, Brother. An ambulance took him away."
"Where did the accident take place?"
"On the highway in front of his former school, while he was crossing the road to enter his class."
"Why? He was expelled from school recently, wasn't he?"
"Recently, I was told that he went to school every morning. He just stood outside his classroom and looked inside. Poor boy, he was enticed to commit serious sins by his wicked friends." Old Tam felt deep grief. He buried his face in the driver's chest, drenching his shoulder with tears.
While finding fault with his son, he also blamed himself for what had happened on the previous day. "If only I had been able to bear the sinful burden of my son! The naive child just came of age," thought the old man.
"Thanh was run over by a lorry while he was crossing the street with a textbook of maths for Class 12 in hand," Thanh's friends told the old couple. "Before dying, he said in a regretful voice: 'I miss my school very much! It's me who is to blame. Please forgive me, Dad and Mum.'"
When Old Tam and his wife arrived at the hospital, Thanh had breathed his last. At once, the old man collapsed unconscious by his son's dead body.
In the air, a wild grouse flew past. It chirped a few sad notes as if announcing the end of another dreadful day for Old Tam's clan.
Translated by Van Minh