|Illustration by Do Dung
by Tue An
The boy had strangely bright eyes. We did not know whose family he belonged to. We found him on a survey mission and he kept following us. Hoang asked his name, but he only smiled, shaking his head.
"What a nice kid! He can't speak, so do you know sign language, kid? How old are you?"
Trung smacked his tongue.
The boy showed his nine fingers and smiled again. That smile was so lovely. Hoang took a piece of cake and gave it to the boy, but he shook his head. If Hoang's youngest sister was still alive, she would be the same age as the boy. Hoang loved his sister so much, but she was no longer in existence in this world after a flash flood swept her away, leaving no trace.
It was noon. The sun was pouring its golden rays onto the earth. The mission members were busy collecting things before getting into the vehicle to move to another place. They did not pay attention to the boy anymore. After the vehicle had been driving for an hour, the driver asked:
"So are you going to Cao Lanh or Cai Lay?"
We all joined in the heated discussion. Mr Trung said that we should go to Cai Lay, 60km shorter than the road we had often taken. When we got out of the township, it was starting to get dark, so we stopped and had dinner at a roadside restaurant. There were seven of us. Hoang was still a young university graduate, only 22 years old; he was the youngest. Hoang and Trung were still single and the rest were middle-aged and married with children. After dinner, all the members went to the back of the house to wash their faces, while Hoang rushed to the car to get his mobile phone, which he had left there. It was quite dark now and he discovered a shadow of a person at the end of the car. He tried to calm down and asked,"Who's that?" It was silent.
Hoang stepped forward. The boy looked up in fear. His black eyes were so pitiful.
"Good heavens! Why are you here?" Hoang asked in amazement. It was the boy he had met at noon.
"I wanted to go with you," the boy babbled in a trembling voice.
"Oh, God, it turns out that he can speak. Did he pretend he couldn't speak? So how can we handle this affair now?" Hoang shook his head, thinking in silence.
"Why do you want to go with us? Your parents will be very worried about you, you know!" Hoang helped the boy stand up.
"I will phone home for permission."
"Do it now! Your parents must be very worried about you now, you know!"
"Yes, I'll do it now!"
After that, Hoang took the boy to the restaurant. Everybody opened their eyes wide in great surprise. No one knew what to do with the boy. They were all confused.
"Do you remember your mother's telephone number?" Mr Bien asked the boy.
"Yes, I do," the boy answered quickly. "I'm going to phone my mother. I am sure she will allow me to go with you."
"What's your name? Is your house near our Institute?" Trung asked the boy.
"My name is Sao," the boy replied in a low voice. "I live in Binh Chanh district. I went together with my mother in the morning."
"Does your mother also work in the Institute? Which section? What's your mother's name?" Mr Bien asked in surprise.
"Oh, no, uncle! My mother's name is Yen. My mother and I dropped in to see Uncle Quang in the morning. He is my father's old friend."
"Quang. Who's that Quang? Is it Mr Quang, the head of the Institute?" Everyone seemed relieved upon hearing the name. Now they had something to do with the boy.
Mr Bien phoned Mr Quang, the head of the Institute. It turned out that the whole Institute was looking for this boy. His young mother was greatly moved upon hearing the news about her son.
The nine-year-old boy's mother was a well-known lady in this city. She was the president of the X group with a hundred auxiliary companies. The group had offices nationwide and in other countries as well. She lived with her son in a Binh Chanh farmhouse. Nobody knew that she was a single mother.
The restaurant's potbellied owner prepared fish and chicken dishes for the mission.
All the diners ate good food while talking merrily together. The boy sat shyly, eating. It seemed that he was very happy to come with us.
After the meal, we set off to Tram Chim (a bird sanctuary). When we arrived there, it was completely dark. We got into the hotel rooms and prepared to go to bed so that we could rise early the next morning to enjoy watching the birds. At five in the morning, we were all ready to get into the car. Having arrived at the place, we saw Mr Nam Hoang was already there to welcome us. The sky was still dark, scattered with stars. It was strange that the boy had gotten up with us; he looked wide-awake. Mr Hoang seemed to have been attached to this land for all his life. He had followed the flock of cranes closely for more than ten years, bringing grains to the clearing for the birds almost every day. He could even understand the conversation among the cranes when they cried. He had set up some tents covered with leaves for camouflage. Each tent could hold two.
Day broke gradually and the cranes flew back to Tram Chim. The birds stunned us all, so we took many photos of them. The boy Sao could not believe his eyes and he was amazed at the cries of the birds. At home, his mother Yen had shown him pictures of such birds. Now he was enjoying the cranes flapping their large wings and dancing in the air.
How beautiful nature was! The boy seemed mesmerised by the birds as if he were listening to beautiful pieces of Mozart spring music. When the birds flew high with their legs dancing in the air, it was like a crescendo.
The cranes got absorbed in looking for food. Some of them approached the tent where the boy Sao was hiding. He tried not to move and to hold his breath so that the cranes would not fly away. When the sun rose high, the cranes had gotten enough food and they walked in a leisurely way through the field. Some of them were dancing and playing together. The scene was so eye-pleasing. A moment later, all the cranes flew away, crying. The members of the mission looked out of their tents. The beauty of nature could be seen right here, not in paradise. It was quite a rare occasion. The next day, they set off early to the field, but the birds did not come back.
Later when Sao grew up and returned to the bird sanctuary, he was never able to enjoy this fairyland scene any more. It left inside him a great regret.
The survey mission continued to another place in the Tay Nguyen highlands. The boy Sao had now become intimate with the members in the mission. The car ran during the night, so he leaned on Hoang to get a sound sleep. On the way, the boy suddenly woke up. He looked out but saw only darkness. The boy wriggled a bit, awakening Hoang.
"Why don't you sleep, kid?" Hoang asked. "We're going to walk a lot tomorrow, you know!"
"I don't want to sleep anymore. Where are we going, brother?" Sao said, feeling a bit cold in the night of the highlands.
Hoang covered Sao with his overcoat. It was pitch-black outside.
"We'll climb the highest mountain in Tay Nguyen tomorrow," Hoang said in the dark.
"What is up there?" Sao asked in earnest.
"There is nothing up there!" Hoang burst out laughing, taking the small hands of the boy.
"Are you disappointed? Do you want to continue or go home with your mum?"
Sao was silent, looking out. He missed his mother very much. From the top of the mountain, he could enjoy the panorama of the region, he thought. He could even see his mother down there. Sao told Hoang what he was thinking about. He wanted to have a brother like Hoang very much.
The dark hid Hoang's confusion. What a pity for the boy! He needed sentiment so much, Hoang thought. If his sister were still alive, he would feel less lonely. In his homeland, prone to floods and storms every year, children grew up in hunger and poverty. They had only sweet potatoes and manioc to eat. Many of the children in his homeland had dropped out of school and stayed home to help their parents eke out a living. The children there ran short of everything. But this boy, at first sight, was thought to have everything in life. His mother was a rich woman. Yet. Hoang heaved a deep sigh.
The boy's mother had chosen to be a single mother!
In this big city, it was not a strange thing. Many of Hoang's girl friends had the same point of view. He looked out and saw only darkness. He thought about Sao's mother and wondered how this single woman could live on. Her life must be so unstable, he thought.
Glancing at the boy who had an abundant life, Hoang thought and thought. He leaned on the car and looked outside, up to the dark sky where the stars were twinkling. He wondered if these stars were also lonely like the people on earth when their families were far from one another for millions of light years. And did this immense universe really have dust and magnetic waves? The boy was also silent. Up there, deep in the darkness, was a waning universe with dark holes nothing could fill in.
"Are you sleeping, kid?" Hoang asked in a low voice.
"Not yet, brother," Sao answered, already lying in Hoang's lap.
"Try to sleep more. We are going to walk a lot tomorrow morning when we climb the mountain, so it'll be very tiring. There is nothing on the top of the mountain except for grass. When you look down, you only see a veil of mist as we stand amid clouds," Hoang whispered to the boy.
Sao was surprised, wondering why the survey mission wanted to climb up there. The boy tried to think of some questions to put to the mission. As if guessing what was developing in the boy's head, Hoang said slowly:
"But our journey will be very fantastic on the way!"
"Really?" Sao said, smiling. Then he pulled the heavy overcoat onto his face and slept.
The rows of trees looked black along the way. The road was now strewn with stones. Sao tried to follow everybody, but it was hard and once he slipped and fell. Hoang supported him in time; Sao tried not to cry, although he felt aching somewhere on his body. He climbed up again and this time, he snatched a log on the way and climbed on. To his surprise, it was a rotten log, so he fell and fell but he felt no fear. He found the tiny shadow of his mother waiting for him down there. And he believed that someone had caught him while he was free-falling. Was it his father? At the end of the day, he would meet his father. It was right that every boy should have a father.
Sao opened his eyes in fright as someone shook him. He was still dreaming. The day had already broken. Hoang urged him:
"Get up, kid. We'll have breakfast and continue our journey!"
Translated by Manh Chuong