by Dinh Thanh Quang
Having received the Decision of the Provincial Education Department, Thanh prepared everything in a hurry before heading to Duong Son, a mountainous district 200 kilometers from home, to start his teaching job. From the township to the junior secondary school of Son Kim Commune, it would take a two-day walk or a day's trip boat through a dozen streams and waterfalls. To decide whether he would walk or take the boat, he stayed at the township for a day. Fortunately, he was able to take the boat the next day. When the boat owner heard that Thanh was the teacher in his area, he gladly agreed to give him a lift.
It was getting dark when the boat reached Kim Binh Hamlet. The boat owner invited him to stay at his house as it was already dark. The school had just been repaired and did not have boarding accommodation yet. The head master Tien lived in the next hamlet, so Thanh could only report to him the next morning.
When he entered Mr Tien's house, Thanh was amazed. All the furniture was made of precious wood. He had never seen such luxurious things. As if he could read Thanh's mind, the headmaster quickly explained that it was not only his house that had these beautiful things in the hamlet. All the villagers had these things by going to the mountain and prospecting for gold.
In the afternoon, Thanh was taken to Mr Phong's house. He would stay there temporarily. Mr Phong, the wealthiest person in the hamlet, had two sons studying in the school. He also had a beautiful daughter. Thanh was surprised because he had seen her at the wharf yesterday, but not known that he would be staying in her hourse. Mr Phong's house was near the river, so Thanh could hear clearly the sounds of the water-run mortar pounding rice. The bass sounds were melodiously poignant in the deep, silent night. The mortar had been in existence here for as long as people could remember. It was something like the windmill in Europe. That night Thanh was wide awake for along time. When he did fall asleep, he heard the sound of rice being pounded in his dream. Sometimes it was near, sometimes it was far.
A new day started with the cries of children, the cocks crowing and dogs barking. Smoke belched from the roofs of the houses. Thanh got up and did not find Ha (the house owner's daughter). He looked out and saw two girls pounding rice. She must be in the stream to get water, he thought. He went down there and found Ha scooping up pounded rice from the mortar and putting it into the dosser. He approached her, took a bamboo section and went down to the river. Clumsily, he plunged the bamboo section in to collect water but it kept floating to the surface. Ha came to help him. Instead of plunging the whole section into the water, she held it sideways and let water into it until it was full. When Thanh took it and turned around, he saw a young man standing on a boat, looking at them.
Thanh asked an exploratory question. "You are engaged, aren't you?"
"No, not yet! I am still young. He is teacher Tan."
"Why don't you go to school and be a teacher? You've finished junior secondary school, so it only takes a year of training at the Son Ky Pedagogy Institute to become an elementary school teacher."
"Oh, I can't be a teacher. I have to work on the field and pan gold to help my parents."
The two ethnic minority girls, looked at them, smiling. Then they said something in their language that he did not understand. Ha blushed. Thanh understood that the girls were teasing her. He felt a sense of relief.
Their laughter rang in his ears as he walked back to the stream to get more water.
Ha went into the forest to pick bamboo shoots, mushrooms and wash the sand for gold. Thanh helped the two boys to learn lessons in preparation for the new school year. After studying for a few hours, they also went to help their parents prospect for gold.
Thanh was tasked by head master Tien to take care of the boarding house's construction, but work proceeded at snail's pace because the villagers were busy in their gold rush. Mr Phong asked Thanh to go and dig gold with him. Thanh had gone several times, but only to see what was happening. This time, he also dug and panned for gold with Ha. At first he worked so clumsily that Ha could not help laughing, covered her mouth with her hand. Then she took his hand and showed him how to do it. He did for a long time without any success.
Ha helped him with great patience and towards the end of the day, he found first piece of gold, the size of a grain of rice. He jumped for joy:
"I've found it! I have become a gold panner!"
Mr Phong generously said that Thanh could keep all the gold he found that day for himself without splitting it. He even gave Thanh some more of the precious metal to save for rainy days. Mr Phong was an industrious and resourceful trader. He knew everything in the forest like the palm of his hand. His house was always visited by guests from other hamlets and from the plains. His wife was good hostess and a good cook; and Ha learnt a lot from her mother. She could embroider beautiful head scarves. Her brocade creations amazed Thanh.
The sounds of rice pounding at night came distantly from the river. Thanh lay awake, following attentively the tossing and turning in Ha's room. She was still awake, he guessed. They were both awake.
When the boarding house was built, Thanh moved to live in the school. Whenever they wanted to meet, their rendezvous was a big tree by the river bank.
They stood under the canopy of the tree, kissed each other and whispered endearments. Tears had wetted Thanh's shoulder:
"Please, don't go and live in the boarding house. Stay with me. My parents want it too…."
"But the school has asked me to live in the school for the sake of convenience. I'll be with you more often to help you learn better so that you will become a teacher like me, my love."
It was tranquil at night. The sounds of the waterfall and the pounding of rice could be heard clearly. There was the sound of an oar splashing the water. After a moment, a boat appeared in the dim moon light. A big man was rowing it, catching fish. Thanh recognized Mr Tan. He quickly told Ha:
"Do go home quickly, my dear! I've got to prepare the lessons for tomorrow."
Love filled up the young man's chest. For the first time in his life, he could embrace a young girl, the most beautiful flower in the forest and could kiss her passionately. Pure love made them both adopt noble ideas. In the school, there were two sides - one with young teachers devoted to the job of helping students make progress, the other interested in performing their tasks and going to dig for gold or do other business to earn extra money. This side mostly comprised middle-aged teachers, including the headmaster. As a result, the quality of education and of the students left much to be desired.
To certain extent, headmaster Tien was right. At this difficult time, teachers could not live just on teaching. They had to do some extra work to support their families. Blessed by nature, the area was found to have a good deposit of placer gold in the river. Thanh adapted to the mountainous life quite quickly. When the first semester ended, he could drink like a fish and had begun to dream about a gold ring. Rafts mushroomed on the river and the school had one of its own. Thanh took an active part in panning for gold.
Hoa taught at the elementary school. She was beautiful and good at business as well. She had her eye on Thanh ever since she first met him. She came to see him every Sunday and gave him small gifts - a bar of soap or a packet of cigarettes. As the days passed, he felt melancholic and his sentiments for Ha began fading, gradually.
One day, a friend of his came to see him and they had a heart-to-heart talk. When he heard about Ha, his friend urged him to go farther with her. But Thanh did not have the heart to harm to her, she was so pure and honest. Spring came and the Tet holidays were being celebrated everywhere. The school's yard became an entertainment centre for dancing and singing. All the gongs and drums of the hamlets in the area gathered there welcome the Lunar New Year. The school was bedecked with decorations. Young girls and boys throw con (cloth balls) at each other. The mountain and the forest resounded with sounds of laughter, singing and dancing.
The celebrations lasted until midnight. Headmaster Tien raised his cup of rice wine to wish everyone a Happy New Year. All the people present joined in exchanging similar greetings. People sang folksongs of different ethnic communities. Thanh, a bit drunk, took Ha's hands and said in a low voice:
"I'm going to wait for you in the forest behind the school. Come there, my love!"
When they met on the edge of the forest, Ha seemed upset. She did not want to go into the forest. She sat on a rock, saying nothing.
"What's the matter, my dear?" - Thanh asked in a drunken voice - "Please, don't get angry with me. I only love you, very much at that! Hoa likes me, but…. I…."
"You are an insatiable man!" - Ha interrupted him and all of a sudden, she embraced him tightly.
Thanh kissed her passionately and carried her into a bush. He unbuttoned her shirt. Suddenly she cried:
"Look, a bear, a bear, my dear!"
In great fear, Thanh released her immediately. She was trembling and collapsed. Thanh called out: "Ha! Ha!" A man heard his cry and ran to them. He carried Ha into a cottage nearby. It was Tan. He asked everyone to go out. Then he rubbed her forehead and temples with an oil. A moment later, Ha came round.
The next morning, returning from the stream, Thanh saw that Tan was already in the meeting room. He said:
"I want to tell teacher Thanh a story. Two years ago, Ha and a cousin of hers went to pick amomum in the forest. While going along the stream to a cave, they were attacked by a limping bear. It hit her cousin in the face and she died. Ha ran, crying for help. We heard the cry while we were working in the field. We ran down to the stream and saw Ha lying unconscious there. We carried her to the medical station. Finally, she came to herself. But after that incident, she has been prone to fits. I came here to have a few words with you. Please, when you love her, do love her with all your heart and never leave her. You should go to the medical station now and take care of her to help her come back to normal. When she is completely recovered, you'd better take her to that cave…."
"What for?" - Thanh asked, surprised.
"I have borrowed a gun and I will kill the bear in front of Ha so that she can see it with her own eyes. Maybe then she will not be obsessed with that fear, and can get back to normal."
Acting on Tan's advice, Thanh asked Ha to go with him saying he wanted to look for some herbs and plants for his biology lesson. Tan was already there, waiting for them.
"The bear is in the cave. Both of you go to a safer place. After I kill it, I will call you."
The bear was lying on a rock at the mouth of the cave. Tan crawled skillfully towards the animal and took aim. All of a sudden, a bear cub came out and tried to suckle its mother. But Tan was about to squeeze the trigger anyway, when Ha shouted:
"Don't shoot, Mr Tan! Don't shoot! I beg you! Don't do it, please!"
Tan stopped just in the nick of time, saying: "I did not know that it had just given birth."
"Even if it had not given birth, we should not kill it. Leave it alone, so it can nurture its cub," Ha said.
Then she brightened up. "By the way I want to tell you this: I am determined to learn to be a nurse. My parents have agreed already."
"That is good. You can help a lot of people in the hamlet. Our homeland will prosper and we'll have a hospital built sooner or later," Tan said in a happy voice.
Suddenly, they heard headmaster Tien's voice.
"You know, I shot the bear in the leg. We will wait until the bear's cubs grow up and we will catch them all."
"No, you are wrong. Because you shot it, it attacked Hien and killed her, and Ha fell ill. It is a crime! If you kill these bears, I will shoot in the leg! You know my sharp shooting skills, don't you?"
Hearing this exchange, Thanh felt a bit dizzy and ashamed of himself. It is Tan who deserved Ha, he thought. Tan had done everything to make Ha happy, even sacrificing his love. This was a true love.
Translated by Manh Chuong