|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Phan Dinh Minh
My family was allocated a four sao patch of land right in front of the village's gate when we moved from Phu Tho [one sao equals 360 square meters]. Ours was the first household to settle down here. Later some other families moved to live next to my family after their children got married and started independent lives. As a result, a new hamlet called Trai Hamlet was set up. Among these families, Mr Cuong's was the last to arrive here, very close to my house.
Actually Mr Cuong's household did not belong to our village. He came from Hui village, a bit far from here. I did not know why his family had moved here. When I was still small, I often went to catch some crabs or snails or glean grain in the field and dropped into his house for a drink of water. His house was very near a graveyard. At that time, I always wondered why when all the other families had joined the agricultural co-operative, Mr Cuong did not do the same. His house was made in an improvised way and looked dilapidated. I was told that his father used to be a mandarin who had owned a lot of land. When peace was restored in 1954, his father had distributed all of his land to the villagers and kept 3 mau for his own in Hui field [mau is a Vietnamese acre, equivalent to 3,600 square meters]. Later, when the agricultural co-operative was set up, Mr Cuong's family did not join it but continued to work privately. Mr Cuong and his brother Phuc worked hard on the field, but they could not cover the entire field, so sometimes they abandoned patches of land. At the end of the day, he gave all three mau of rice field to the village. For this good deed, he was given a patch of land by the commune leaders. It was taken from my family because my family owned a very large piece of land.
When Mr Cuong became my neighbour, he and my father grew close, visiting each other night after night. We did not know the reason, but I vaguely understood…
In the past, my paternal grandfather was very poor, so poor that he had to leave the village to earn a living in Dong Bang in Son Tay Province. Actually, the land of Son Tay was not more fertile than the land in my home village. So my grandmother had to work as a hired hand for some wealthy families on Dat Nai Street, while my grandfather made ground-nut candies and sold them to traders. In this way, they earned enough to raise my uncles Phan and Thanh. My grandfather saved some money to help my grandmother while she was carrying my father. Unfortunately, he then fell seriously ill. Knowing that he would not recover, he told my grandmother to go to the church, which was about three kilometers from Son Tay's provincial capital, and ask for help if he died. The church would provide him with a coffin so she would not have to spend his savings. Before he breathed his last, he said to my grandmother:
"Please, if we have a son, do try to keep him and bring him up. If it is a girl, you can give it to someone else. Otherwise you and the three children will die of starvation, you know!" Having said that, he died.
Thanks to my grandfather's savings, my father was able to finish his primary education and could speak French fluently. When he was 18, my grandmother took him back to the village to meet his relatives and the other villagers. That was where he met my mother. After I was born, my father took the whole family to Phu Tho, where his uncle still lived. He worked as a clerk in a department store and was unmarried. Back in the village, my father could not do the farmwork, so my mother took care of it. My father could only do house chores, grow fruit trees and teach village children.
Mr Cuong also came from a wealthy family in the old times, so probably they felt that they had something in common. Every night he came to my house and had heart-to-heart talks with my father. They talked a lot about everything under the sun. Sometimes they told historical stories from China; sometimes they discussed culinary affairs. It was the same every day: after an hour of talk, they started playing chess by the light of the kerosene lamp and played until late at night. A few years later, they dropped talking and started playing chess right at the beginning. When I grew up, I understood that my father and his neighbour played chess not only because they enjoyed it, but because neither of them could win or lose. At that time, there were frequent chess competitions everywhere in communes and districts, even in the provincial capital. My father and Mr Cuong always entered the final round and they had to share the prizes in silence.
It was certain that in my house as well as in Mr Cuong's, there were still a lot of prizes kept as keepsakes.
My father did not go anywhere far from home, except for once a year when my grandfather's death anniversary came. With incense, a bottle of rice alcohol, a boiled chicken and a plate of steamed sticky rice, all prepared by my mother, he took the train to Ha Noi and then took a passenger car to Vuon Oi Cemetery in Son Tay to burn incense for my grandfather. When I grew up, he took me along too. The first time I went with my father to my grandfather's grave, I asked him:
"Dad, where is Grandpa's grave?"
"I really don't know. Somewhere around this place," Father said, pointing around the hundreds of graves. "When burying your grandfather, your grandmother was not allowed to enter the church because she was not a believer. His grave was marked with the name of a saint, so Grandma could not tell exactly which grave was his."
Three years after my grandfather died, one cold, drizzling night, my grandmother carried my father on a shoulder pole and a small earthenware coffin on the other end of the pole in an attempt to steal my grandfather's body, but to no avail. They were discovered by the church, although fortunately she escaped. When she got home, she cried her heart out. Now it was known to all that my grandfather's grave was somewhere in this cemetery. Seventy years had gone by and the once-great cemetery now looked dilapidated. What a pity for my father that he had to come from a long distance and burn incense for my grandfather every year.
One night, Mr Cuong came to see my father just after he returned from such a trip. Seeing that my father looked tired, he said:
"What a nonsense thing you are trying to do! You can burn incense here at home and pray for your father."
My father looked serious and a bit angry. Mr Cuong was frightened and ashamed. He quickly went back to the alley. That night, they did not play chess together.
Mr Cuong had two sons, the older named Ha and the younger named Chu. Ha was on the list of young men recruited to the army. But he was excused because his grandfather was a mandarin of the old society. Mr Cuong had a rich sister in Hai Phong. She came to see her brother one day and proposed reburying my grandfather and grandmother in Hui village's field so it would be easier and more convenient to remember them. Mr Cuong thought it over for some time before he said that it was better to put the graves in the middle of his garden. His sister was moved by this idea, so she paid all the costs for the construction of these graves. Then she said to him that she would pay for his son Ha to go and work in South Korea. Mr Cuong was so overjoyed that he forgot to come to my house and play chess with my father. However, there were some rumours about Mr Cuong building graves in his garden. Some said it would be good for him, others said it would be bad luck. One year later, his son went to work in South Korea.
His son earned a lot and sent a good sum of money to Mr Cuong. With the money, he thought about building a house. His long-awaited dream was now going to come true. However, there was one issue. If he built the house facing southeast, he would have to remove all the graves in the garden.
He quickly phoned his sister. There was a lengthy meeting that did not come to any conclusion. At night, his sister cried and went back to Hai Phong. Mr Cuong ran after her, shouting:
"In about ten days, if you won't come back, I'll start the building, you know!"
Before the groundbreaking ceremony, there was a downpour. Out of the blue sky, I heard the cries of Mr Cuong's wife and children. Then his wife, wet to the skin with tousled hair, rushed into my house. She said breathlessly:
"Please, do save…. save my husband. My husband is digging the graves…."
After a moment, my father guessed what was happening. He looked pale and in the wink of an eye, he jumped onto the top of a rainwater tank that lay between the two houses:
"Hey, old man, stop! Do you know who I am? What the hell are you doing? Stop now!"
Everyone was in great fear looking at my father, his hair and clothes soaked with rain. Mr Cuong stood dumbfounded, witnessing my father's anger. Out of a sudden, Mr Cuong fell down by the half-dug graves. Then he was taken ill for two months. When he recovered, his mouth was deformed.
I worked far away and could rarely come home. My mother told me that after he recovered, Mr Cuong never came again to play chess with my father.
Translated by Manh Chuong