Viet Nam News
by Lương Khả Tú
It was about half past eight in the evening. The only bakery in the little town was almost closed. Tô, the shop owner, and his assistant stayed back to lock up when all the other employees had left. Tô’s wife lay in bed on the first floor with the flu. While Tô was taking the rubbish out he saw a young man of about twenty with short hair, in summer clothing that seemed rather unfashionable, slowly approaching him.
“Good evening, esteemed teacher!” the young man greeted Tô.
It was the first time in the eight years since Tô had stopped teaching that he had been addressed like that. He was stunned into silence for a few moments, before uttering, “My God! Đường, the troublesome child!”
Đường bowed down before him, without looking at his former teacher’s face.
“Welcome to my shop! Come in please,” said his ex-teacher. Seconds later, he served him a plate of croissants and a glass of orange juice.
“Help yourself. How did you know I lived here?” asked the older man.
“I’ve been looking for you a long time, sir,” he answered. “I only found your address a few days ago and came straight here.”
“Thanks a lot. Don’t keep on ‘sirring’me. I quit teaching a long time ago, but you know that.”
“You’ll always be my teacher to me.”
* * *
Eight years ago Tô, a newly-graduated student from a mountainous provincial college of advanced education, found employment in a primary school in a faraway town after a long job-hunt.
On his first day at the school, he saw a small child leaving the headmaster’s room together with a young teacher.
“We’ve warned that boy three times for his bad behaviour,” the headmaster told the newcomer sitting in his office.
The next day, while strolling in the schoolyard Tô saw the boy relaxing on the window seat outside a classroom on the third floor. The small, mischievous kid was gazing around, smiling broadly.
Tô went upstairs. To his surprise, he found the classroom empty because all the students had gone home. Approaching the boy, Tô coughed nervously to signal his arrival.
“Good afternoon! Why are you still here when all your classmates have left? You might be punished if a teacher sees you here after school hours,” Tô said to him. Surprisingly, he remained on the window seat. He just stared Tô in the face.
“Anyhow, I’m new here,” Tô told him. “I might be your teacher soon,” he added.
“I hope you won’t scold me in front of my class for this,” Đường retorted.
“I wouldn’t dream of it!” Tô said in a cheerful voice, shaking his head. “My name is Tô. And you’re in class 5C? What’s your name?”
“Sir, my name is Thanh Đường,” he replied politely.
“OK, Đường it is” After that, he lifted him down without any resistance.
Đường left his empty class although he seemed displeased with Tô’s warning. Hanging his rucksack over his shoulder, he bowed down before the new teacher before leaving.
“What’s wrong with him?” Tô asked himself.
* * *
During the first week as the class 1B teacher, Tô was exhausted. In addition to meeting the teaching staff, he had to control his forty-eight pupils who appeared nice at first, but whenever he was writing on the blackboard, they would make lots of noise. Time and again a few of them asked Tô questions: “Have you ever been to the US?” “What does the US look like compared with our school?” “Why does the elephant have a big trunk, but the goose doesn’t?”
When the day was over, he returned home totally drained. He relaxed for an hour before preparing his lessons for the next day.
One afternoon, he saw Đường in the corridor of the third floor when school was over, standing alone. Finding Đường slowly going downstairs, rucksack swinging, Tô decided to speak to him.
“Why haven’t you gone home after class like everyone else?” Tô asked him.
“Because I prefer staying here than returning home, sir.”
“What? You mean you like school that much? Your teacher must be very happy to hear that,” Tô affirmed.
“Far from it, I only want to stay here as long as possible, sir. In fact, my teacher isn’t fond of me as I’m pretty slow.”
“Don’t all the other boys your age want to be at home instead of school?”
“Sir, for me, it’s quite different.” After that he quickly left, letting his teacher wander in the schoolyard, bewildered.
* * *
One morning, Tô replaced the absent teacher of class 5C. He did not see Đường during the whole lesson. Thinking that he was ill, Tô visited him at his home with a bag of oranges after class.
Đường lay alone on his bed under a thin blanket.
Tô made a glass of orange juice for his sick pupil to drink after touching his forehead.
“Hmm, nothing serious! You can go to school tomorrow,” Tô told him.
“Yes, sir, I’m not ill.”
“So, why haven’t you come to class this morning?”
“How do you know that, sir?” Đường asked, eyes wide open.
“Because I replaced your absent teacher.”
“Dear me! I really missed a golden occasion.”
“Now tell me why you were absent?”
“Because I was too tired, sir,” Đường answered in a weak voice.
Tô helped him drink the orange juice. He drank it quickly, pulling a grim face. “Too sour, sir!” he remarked.
“I’m sorry! I don’t know what fruit you like.”
“It’s good enough for me, sir,” he said, spitting out a few seeds. “How long until these seeds give us their fruit after they become trees, sir?” Đường asked.
“That depends, maybe scores of years or less, provided that they are cared for properly!”
With his half-closed eyes, Đường smiled broadly then put the orange seeds into their skins, hoping that they might grow to orange trees later.
While trying to get up, he let the blanket drop onto the floor, laying bare the bruises on his arms. Immediately, Tô moved closer to him.
“Đường, who did this to you?” he asked.
Without replying, he hurriedly pulled the blanket up over his arms while breathing heavily. Tô did not dare touch his pupil’s injured limbs hard, yet he kept on lightly rubbing his skinny shoulders.
“You missed today’s lessons because of these? Answer me right now.”
“You’d better go home, sir,” he said, turning aside, pulling the blanket up further, over his head, without answering. In confusion, Tô just stared at the flowery blanket moving up and down slightly along with the boy’s breathing, in silence. That afternoon, walking home, Tô heard his footsteps sound heavier than usual.
The next week, when Tô intended to report Đường’s case to his teacher he saw the boy in good spirits among his schoolmates. Tô convinced himself that the boy’s injuries were caused by a skirmish with his friends. What’s more, the school’s health check was drawing near and he did not dare to intrude on a student’s private life, especially one not in his class. However, the boy’s injuries kept returning to Tô’s mind.
His health check, carried out by the nurse, occurred very fast. Moreover, the children’s good attitudes towards Đường during the school break made Tô relax. That afternoon, classes ended earlier than usual. Tô was free after his four periods. He walked along the corridor, across class 5C hoping to meet Đường for a brief chat. He looked inside: Đường remained alone, back facing Tô and mumbling a simple ditty. Tô decided not to disturb his pupil. Suddenly, Đường clumsily changed his position. Afraid that the kid might lose his balance and tumble off his seat, Tô quickly seized Đường’s shoulders with two hands. Immediately, the boy shouted loudly. After that he lay on the floor, crying. Many kids together with their teachers and the deputy headmaster, rushed towards Đường. At once he was taken to the school’s health centre. Everybody stared at Tô suspiciously, awaiting the boy’s explanation. Tô felt greatly surprised. He followed Đường to the health centre. Everyone was told to leave, except for Tô, the deputy headmaster and the teacher of class 5C. Đường was sitting on a bed in the corner, breathing heavily.
“My dear Đường! What’s the matter with you?” Tô asked. But the boy ignored him.
The nurse rolled the kid’s sleeves up. The higher they went the more bruises could be seen. She intended to check his shoulders and back, but he tried to resist. Finally, she was compelled to tell everyone to leave so she could perform her job.
A few minutes later, she stepped out with a tense countenance. Đường followed.
“His arms, shoulders and back were all covered with scratches and bruises,” she said in a worried voice. Then she urged the deputy headmatser and his colleagues, “You might console him to ease his anxiety to some extent. Now I must fetch some equipment from the first-aid box. Poor child.”
The class 5C teacher was the first to assuage him. “Đường, I’m here to help you. Don’t worry,” she said to him, hands slightly sweeping over his forehead. “Who hurt you? Tell me the truth, my dear.”
“I’ll protect you from anyone,” said Tô.
Without answering, the boy directed his eyes towards Tô hesitantly.
“Mr Tô!” asked the teacher suspiciously.
“What do you mean, Đường? Did Mr Tô beat you? Can you tell me exactly what he did?”
“Mr Tô punished me so cruelly with his terrible thing,” Đường stammered after a few seconds. Then he looked down with shame.
“Don’t worry, my boy. We’re all here to listen to you. Tell the truth,” the deputy headmaster encouraged him.
Đường kept on bending down his head shamefully.
All of the visitors came closer to him, except for Tô, hoping to hear his explanation more clearly.
“It was terribly painful. He inserted that thing into my body and beat me black and blue” Đường told them.
“What do you mean by ‘that thing’?” asked one of them.
Đường shook his head then curled up in a far corner of the narrow bed.
Tô was dumbfounded. When he had set his mind at ease, he cautiously approached the child and said something to him quietly, after which Đường buried his face between his own thighs, in tears.
They were all silent as the grave.
* * *
After that a resignation letter was given to Tô. He was greatly puzzled by the school board’s dubious and fast decision.
“I can’t understand this,” Tô told the headmaster.
“Neither can I,” said the school leader in a sympathetic voice. “Frankly speaking, all the teachers like you very much. So do all children. I think that there are a lot of mysterious things about this issue. Đường has refused to collaborate with us, begging us to keep it dark, even from the police. Sorry, but you have to go,” he said.
“Thank you very much,” said Tô. “I don’t want to bother you at all. I don’t really know what happened to me. I only wish that justice is done as soon as possible and that Đường is okay. What has come to him headmaster?”
“Nothing serious so far. I think the matter will be solved when he’s ready to talk to us,” said the headmaster.
In truth, Tô thought that everything had gone to shit. Shortly after, he left the little town for another locality to look for another job.
* * *
“back then I was….” Hardly had Đường begun the story about that fateful day after he had drunk half of his orange juice, when he was interrupted by his ex-teacher.
“You’d better not go on,” Tô told his former pupil. “Let bygones be bygones, Đường!”
“Come what may, I must clarify what happened, sir,” Đường said.
His determination forced Tô to let him go on.
“Sir, that day I made a gross mistake,” he declared.
“That mistake has followed me through my life,” Tô said angrily. “It deprived me of the teaching post that I held so dear. When I got married, we didn’t dare to child for fear that he might make other human beings miserable because of his lies, as you did to me. Now, let’s go back to your injuries. You can tell me the truth, can’t you? Who did it?”
“My stepfather, sir.”
“I see. Is that why you used to stay late at school?”
* * *
Đường’s misery began after his divorced mother’s second marriage with a newcomer to the little town. The man proved friendly to Đường at first. In the daytime, the newly-wed couple were busy at work. However, he used to return home early while Đường was playing with other kids in the courtyard of the condo. Taking advantage of Đường’s mother who often came home later, he secretly told obscene stories to the ten-year-old boy day after day. Soon he became like prey to the wicked man. One day, Đường fell into his dirty trap.
“Did you see him in me?” Tô asked.
“No, never, sir! Without your …”
“I never did anything good for you really.”
“Do you remember the glass of sour orange juice you made for me at my house? And the few seeds left unnoticed on the orange peel before I put them into the empty glass? Later, I buried them in the garden near the condo hoping that they would give us fruit some day.”
“What kind of life have you led since then?”
“I only got the courage to tell my mother about it three years later. The court sentenced him to ten years’ imprisonment for his crimes.”
“What has happened to your family since?”
“My poor mother! She committed suicide when her husband was found guilty. Her dead body was found near the river bank a few days later. As for me, my aunt said I could live with her. A short time later, I left the town after receiving a grant to study at a college. It took me a long time to find your whereabouts.
“Accidentally, the orange seeds from that day have grown to luxuriant trees laden with big fruits, my teacher. Whether their juice tastes sweet or sour doesn’t matter to me, sir,” Đường concluded the long story of his life, full of ups and downs.
Both of them smiled happily.
The next day, Đường left his ex-teacher. Beyond his expectation, he was forgiven totally. He bowed down before the noble man then went away, filled with gratitude for him.
Translated by Văn Minh