by Hoàng Công Danh
In the early morning of New Year’s Eve, when Tễu passed by the local pagoda, he saw a monk drinking tea on an old wooden stool under an Indian almond tree in front of the sacred place. Its tender buds looked like a group of birdies perching among the canopy. The scene seemed quiet, contrary to the nearby marketplace where its atmosphere sounded fairly bustling.
Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
“Tễu, stop here for a hot cup of tea to warm yourself before the cold evening ahead of Tết,” said the monk.
“Thank you, Reverend,” replied Tễu. “Now I must be going to my shop to serve waiting customers before the great celebration of Tết.”
On its signboard read Tễu Barber’s Shop with the slanted handwritten red letters in an old-style pattern of the nineties that might revive the sweet memories of passers-by.
The shop, set up a long time before the day of liberation, was a well-known place in the area. One day a young man from afar arrived and asked its owner for a favour: to be his new apprentice. Thanks to his quick wit, in a short time, he became the barber’s favourite employee. When the owner left the country for the US to settle down there for good, he transferred his knowhow to the greenhorn. Later, he changed the existing signboard to Tễu Barber’s Shop with his nickname Tễu in big red letters. Thanks to Tễu’s adroit hands and brilliant mind, his place got well known in the area and attracted a lot of customers. Now Tết was drawing near and his shop was bustling from dawn to dusk.
It was already late in the evening. Most of the other stall owners in the market square closed their doors earlier than usual to go home to celebrate the most important event of the year, except for a few sellers who stayed late at the service of shoppers too busy at work. In the meantime, there were also many clients sitting on the wooden benches both inside and outside the shop that waited patiently for their turn.
“Perhaps, around here, there is only me left, my clients and a few hired debt collectors,” Tễu said to himself. “When the last customer goes away, I’ll tidy this place, burn a few joss sticks for good luck then put them down on the small altar before going home to prepare everything needed for New Year’s Eve,” he added. His had already called quite a few times to urge him to come home in time for the event.
“Are you ready for home, darling?” asked his wife. I’ve made everything for the ceremony. Come home as soon as possible,” she insisted strongly.
“Just a few more minutes, honey,” he replied softly. “Surely, I’ll have enough time for this major event of paramount importance,” he whispered to himself.
* * *
All of a sudden, an elderly stranger appeared in front of his door. This well-dressed man of the same age as Tễu’s uncle looked rather serious. He just sat down on an outside bench to wait for his turn. “Obviously, I’ll have to serve him, no matter how late it’ll be,” Tễu said to himself.
The stranger took off his hat. A tousled lock of hair fell down over part of his chin with bushy whiskers.
“Getting here at this late hour of day to get his hair cut and his whiskers trimmed, he wants to be another guy in disguise, perhaps,” Tễu said to himself. Observing the stranger’s face carefully again and again Tễu identified him as the very person that occasionally came to his dwelling-house twenty years ago.
Those days he used to look for Tễu’s mother inside the local marketplace to ask what she owed to his master when she did business there as a greengrocer. She had to so she could pay school fees for her kids and repay high-interest loans like so many others. Usually, at the end of each year, a hired debt-collector went from house to house to claim back the heavy loans for his master.
Tễu was then about 10 years old. He used to follow his mother to the market to help her.
In fact, this hired debt-collector, like so many others, was rather strong-built and rude. At noon he made a tour round the market place to take back debts from the poor borrowers. Whenever a payment was made, he put down a mark on the debt list to see whether the paid sum was enough or inadequate before putting the banknotes into his pocket.
Tễu’s mother’s stall stood at the end of the business place. So when the market day came to an end, he arrived at her place. His sudden appearance made her face pale. She often asked to put off her payment for a few days. In response to her earnest proposal, he silently pressed her breasts or caressed her buttocks in defiance of Tễu’s angry looks. One day before New Year’s Eve she returned home early to avoid him. Unexpectedly, he went straight into her bedroom. Without a word, he quickly took her mosquito net down. For effective defence, when she saw him turning up in the front courtyard she told her son to stand guard outside without saying or doing anything. The boy did as he was told. Since then Tễu had harboured a deep grudge against him.
“Damn the brute!” Tễu, aged ten, cursed the dishonest guy. One day while standing behind the bamboo blind he accidentally witnessed the ruffian’s brutal sexual assaults towards his mother. “You shall be severely punished sooner or later,” he murmured. After that her little family moved about a hundred kilometres away.
* * *
Surprisingly, Tễu now had a golden chance to get his long-desired revenge.
“Serves you right!” Tễu whispered to himself.
On the eve of Tết, he was the last customer on the bench of Tễu’s shop. He was looking at himself in the large mirror. In the meantime Tễu also took a quick glance at it. Obviously, the rascal failed to recognise Tễu. On the contrary Tễu could identify him fairly easily, although he appeared a bit older.
“Previously, I used to have my head shaved here,” he blurted out suddenly. “Now twenty years have gone that fast, yet your place has only changed a little,” he remarked further. “What’s the relationship between its former owner and you, mate? You must have been his best choice, I think.”
Instead of replying, Tễu asked immediately, “What type of hair style do you want, sir?”
“Hm, just bald-headed, my boy!”
“Okay, today you’ll have a clean-shaven head,” Tễu whispered to himself. Turning down the client’s jacket collar a bit before making a haircut and shape, Tễu saw a blue tattoo with the following inscription, “life sentence” on the upper part of his back, very close to his neck.
“Early pardon or escape?” Tễu asked himself nervously. While shaving his head, Tễu hesitated and worried. “I might be in danger if I cause a few bloody scratches on his face,” Tễu whispered to himself. Time and again, he stopped shaving to touch his thick wallet inside his trousers back pocket. “Mind this former hired debt-collector,” Tễu went on when he found the streets deserted and houses closed. “Anyhow keeping vigilance against any troubles is the best measure I can take for the time being,” he said to himself again. On the shelf in front of him there were a lot of professional tools, big and small, sharp and pointed, that could turn into the effective defensive weapons within his reach when necessary. With his new appearance – clean-shaven head and chin – he might cheat the police easily, Tễu thought.
“Hey, do you smoke, mate? Can I use your lighter?” he asked Tễu.
In fact, he saw the lighter on the glass shelf under the mirror, yet his suggestion seemed to force Tễu to stretch his arm out of reach, thus revealing his thick wallet of money in his trousers pocket. As for Tễu, he only expected this unwanted customer to leave as soon as possible so that he could return home in time.
At 10 p.m. when the swindler’s face was finished without any flaws, he stood up and took a $100 note out of his jacket and handed it to Tễu.
“Give me the change, will you?” he said curtly.
“Very sorry, sir! I don’t have enough cash for that. You can keep it and pay me the charge later,” Tễu told him.
“Well, I don’t want to owe you on this holy day.”
“Never mind, money doesn’t matter much to me,” Tễu insisted.
“Alright, I’ll give your kids some luck money as my gifts for them for Tết, that’s all.”
Tễu’s abrupt reply meant to urge him to go away as soon as possible. Poor him! Beyond Tễu’s expectation, he kept on sitting on the bench. Then he took out a cigarette to light, despite the year-end celebration being only two hours away! In the meantime, Tễu remained to do his best to tidy his place.
“Where are you going?” asked the elderly man.
“Back home, of course, sir. Our ceremony for New Year’s Eve is just a few minutes away.”
“How far is your house?”
“Just a stone’s throw from here, sir.”
“Do you pass by the market? If possible, I’ll drive along to change my note for you.”
“Oddly enough, there’s nobody around, except for the two of us – the barber and you the last client,” Tễu blurted out.
The stranger burst out laughing because of Tễu’s sharp wit.
“Honestly, during my whole life, I’ve never owed anyone else but you, on this last day of the year. Are you upset? By the way, did you see the tattoo on my back?”
“I paid no attention to it at all.”
“What a liar! To the best of my knowledge, you’ve already realised the matter,” he said. “They put it on my back a long time ago. Then I was freed from prison ahead of schedule thanks to my good conduct. My wife abandoned me soon to go to Taiwan for no apparent reason. That’s how it goes marrying a young girl; you have to accept both happiness and sadness. Anyhow, a few days ago she sent me some $100 notes for me to spend on this event of paramount importance,” he poured out his heart.
Suddenly, from the bottom of his heart, Tễu felt sympathetic for him. The animosity born early in his life had now come to nothing.
* * *
All of a sudden, the pagoda big bell rang in the silent night. Its sounds could be heard every thirty minutes, from ten o’clock in the evening. They called the residents around to give up sleeping to join the sacred moments when the old year is out and the new one is in, to welcome another year with a lot of happy and merry days ahead.
Wiping away the stray locks of hair off his neck and clothes, the man stood up.
“Now it’s time for me to come to my friend’s place. Come what way, there’s nowhere else to go and stay at the moment,” he said to Tễu in a sad voice.
“Where does your friend live?” Tễu said.
“He’s over there,” he answered. “It’s the monk who has just rung the pagoda bell. He became a Buddhist monk to get rid of all his previous crimes,” the man added.
He stepped out of Tễu’s shop after leaving his cigarettes and Tễu’s lighter on the wooden bench as a token of gratitude for Tễu’s service.
Tễu was going to call him back, but on the second thoughts, he stopped when he saw the clean-shaven head already at the entrance to the pagoda.
Translated by Văn Minh