by Nguyễn Thu Hằng
Uncle Sâm got up, opened the door and looked at the sky. It was still dark and slightly drizzling. The wind was blowing hard over the foliage in the garden. He was about to go to Mr Thanh to buy entrails of a pig to cook for his morning sale of entrails soup. All of a sudden, he kicked at something near the kiosk. He saw a ragged blanket and heard a low cry from it. He turned on the light and an old beggar was lying there in front of the kiosk.
“Why are you lying here, old man?”
Uncle Sâm pulled the blanket off the old man, revealing a haggard face. He recognised the old beggar who had come to his shop and asked for a bowl of soup the other day. He asked the old beggar to go to the shade tree nearby and wait. At noon, his wife remembered the old man and asked her husband to bring a bowl of soup to him.
The old beggar took the bowl and ate the soup slowly, without making any noise. When he was going to finish, uncle Sâm asked:
“Why do you go begging? Have you got any children?”
The old beggar nodded his head and continued to eat.
“Why don’t you stay home with them?”
The old man shook his head. Uncle Sâm heaved a deep sigh. He wondered why the old man’s children had the heart to let their father go begging. He remembered his own situation. His parents died when his family was in dire poverty. Now he had a better life, but he could not pay gratitude to his parents. The old beggar finished the soup and returned the empty bowl to Uncle Sâm. Uncle Sâm went past Mr. Vũ, who invited him to play chess, and uncle Sâm agreed. During the game, the two players were still in a see-saw position and Mr Vũ was driven into a quandary. Suddenly the old beggar joined and showed Mr. Vũ a good move, which helped him beat uncle Sâm.
Uncle Sâm was greatly surprised. He asked the old beggar:
“Do you know how to play chess?”
The old beggar shook his head again. Having seen this, Mr. Vũ said to the old beggar:
“Could we play a game?”
The old beggar nodded his head. The game started. After half an hour, Mr Vũ was defeated. The children standing around applauded the old beggar. Mr. Vũ gave the old beggar a square sticky-rice cake.
Uncle Sâm was also a bonsai fancier. He travelled to a lot of places to buy a dozen vases of bonsai and exhibited them in the house. When his wife asked about the price, Uncle Sâm said only half of it just to please her. He even explained the meaning of these bonsais to her to make her like them. It was true that thanks to the bonsai trees, Uncle Sâm’s house was being visited by a lot of people who had come to enjoy the beauty of these trees. All the while his wife sold their entrails soup like hot cakes. From then on, his wife did not complain about his fancy of bonsai trees.
In the process of getting absorbed in playing with the bonsai trees, Uncle Sâm heard a story told from ornamental tree enthusiasts about an ancient persimmon tree named Kì Mộc tree of artisan Đằng from Cẩm Giàng area. As they said, this ancient tree had accumulated all the beauties of an ornamental tree. Its roots looked like crawling snakes; its branches were like the hands of dancers. On the other hand, the tree grew on rocks. When Kì Mộc tree bore fruit, oh, God, no words could describe its beauty. It was a great attraction. All the family members of artisan Đằng protected the ancient Kì Mộc tree as the most precious treasure they ever had. A very rich man came to buy the tree for one billion đồng, but artisan Đằng paid no heed to it. Another rich man came with a price of more than one billion đồng, but it came to no avail. All the visitors who wanted to come and enjoy the tree were not allowed to take photos and bring along smartphones. Such a bonsai fancier as uncle Sâm wanted to enjoy contemplating the Kì Mộc tree once in his lifetime.
Having been informed that artisan Đằng opened his bonsai garden for free, all the bonsai fanciers were very happy and uncle Sâm was no exception. He came to see the garden immediately. Upon entering the garden, he was dumbfounded at the bonsai vases arranged very close to one another in straight rows. Mr Thanh urged uncle Sâm to come and enjoy contemplating the Kì Mộc tree first. Entering the glass house, he felt he had got lost in another world. All around were bamboo trees, jackfruit trees, banana trees…. amid the singing birds. In the center of the yard was a pile of mossy rocks, on which there was only Kì Mộc tree. He seemed to be mesmerised upon seeing the tree The tree root, the rocks, all had been harmoniously combined. It was quite a masterpiece. Uncle Sâm looked bewilderedly at Kì Mộc tree. He jumped when Mr Thanh patted his shoulder. He asked Mr Thanh:
“What do you want?”
“No, nothing. Artisan Đằng want to speak a few words to the bonsai fanciers. Please listen!”
Uncle Sâm looked up and saw artisan Đằng standing in front of a large door. He wanted to say a few words. His voice was warm touched with a slight sadness.
“Please, do have sympathy with me. In recent time, we all are worried about losing the precious tree, so we cannot arrange time to receive you here. However, my family has now lost a dear person. We would like to rely on your help to together with us to find him.”
It turned out that Tết days were drawing near and someone wanted to buy the Kì Mộc tree with a price of two billion đồng. Artisan Đằng could not refuse such a lucrative price. But his father, old Đặng, did not allow his son to sell the tree. As a result, there was a quarrel between father and son. And all the relatives had come to join it, turning it into a fight for the shares if the tree was sold. Old Đăng fell ill and later was bed-ridden. When he recovered, he had abandoned the house and the whole family went searching for him, but in vain. Artisan Đằng in the end of the day decided to open the door for visitors in the hope that all the bonsai fanciers could help him find his father.
Artisan Đằng gave the flyers with his father’s photo to everyone present. Uncle Sâm was startled upon seeing the photo. He quickly whispered Mr Thanh:
“Look, old Đăng looks like that old beggar very much.”
Mr Thanh pulled uncle Sâm along to see artisan Đằng. Having heard the news, artisan Đằng invited Mr Thanh and uncle Sâm into the house. Uncle Sâm told everything to artisan Đằng and he was sure that the old beggar was the man in the photo. He also stressed that the old beggar was a very good chess player. Artisan Đằng hugged uncle Sâm and cried:
“Yes, it’s my father”
Without delay, uncle Sâm phoned home to his wife, telling her to go to the market to look for the old beggar immediately. Right after that artisan Đằng and uncle Sâm went home. But his wife said that the old beggar was not in the market anymore. On the way, artisan Đằng said to uncle Sâm that he had loved the tree more than his father. They had searched the whole market, but could not find the old man. Suddenly uncle Sâm met Mr Vũ. After a few minutes of conversation, Mr Vũ told them that he had just played some chess games with the old man.
“Where is the old man now, do you know?” – Uncle Sâm asked.
“I don’t know. He left us right after the game was over.”
Artisan Đằng, uncle Sâm and Mr Thanh had gone searching everywhere until dusk without having found the old man. Artisan Đằng went home disappointed.
Two days later, Uncle Sâm and some bonsai fanciers had gone searching for the old man, but there was no sign of him. The old man had most likely gone to other areas. Out of the blue, the next night, the old man came back to uncle Sâm’s kiosk and slept there. In the morning, uncle Sâm found the old man.
“Are you old Đăng?”
The old man nodded his head.
“Have you got a masterpiece called Kì Mộc tree at home?”
The old beggar shook his head.
“It’s that ancient persimmon tree, don’t you remember?”
Having heard the ancient persimmon tree, the old man’s eyes were strangely bright as if his memory had come back. He said in one breath:
“Yes, it is. It’s the tree my father got from the pagoda by the Cái River. At that time, the pagoda was destroyed and my father brought the persimmon tree home because he liked bonsai trees. Yet, you know, my children and relatives wanted to sell the tree to have more money so that they can destroy the ancient house and build a modern one. They fought against one another for the money they could get from selling this ancient tree”
The old man stopped and made a wry face. He looked very sad. Uncle Sâm tried to calm the old man down. Then he asked his wife to phone artisan Đằng. He asked the old man to play chess with him. Uncle Sâm lost three consecutive games. He also asked some old men in the neighborhood to come and play chess with the old man so as to keep him as long as possible. All had been defeated by the old man. While the old man was about to stand up and go, artisan Đằng rushed to embrace his father, crying his heart out. In the end, he had found his father and could take him home.
“We will never sell the tree, dad!”
Cây Thị Pagoda was rebuilt. A great number of visitors came to the pagoda this Tết. I met a person who was standing motionless before an ancient persimmon tree with its large canopy in the pagoda’s yard. I came to make acquaintance with him and he introduced himself as Sâm. At the same time, an old white-haired man came. Uncle Sâm jumped for joy upon seeing the old man, whose name was old Đăng! Since artisan Đằng presented the ancient persimmon tree to the pagoda, the old man became fit and healthy. He often came to worship Buddha in the pagoda and visit the ancient Kì Mộc tree./.
Translated by Mạnh Chương