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Ba - The Rạch Đùng man

Thursday, 07/03/2019 10:00

. Short Story by Duong Duc Khanh

When Ba was still alive, he told the story about the moment when his father and his grandfather first discovered this isolated land while he was so young. He was wearing a sack long up to his knees, sitting on the boat while looking at those leeches swimming in the black small canal. At night, when he was sleeping, he could hear the crocodiles wriggling their tails violently… And after a while the town named Rạch Đùng. And who knew from when, that name was attached to his personality, very violent, and then became his name.

He passed away few years ago. His altar had only an incense burner and an ancestral tablet written by a sorcerer ever since. The farmers at his time did not have much chance to get photographed (some said that was “being taken picture”), the only time they got was doing their identification card. Therefore, whose “plastic card” unfortunately disappeared, their great-grand-children would not know how their great-grand-parents would look like.

However, these days, his children was so happy like their (grand)father came alive again!

It was because there were some officers going by canoe, looked for the house of the Rạch Đùng man. The poorly furnished brick house was built on an old ground, while the uneven rocks were used for the column of the old house. The crush tile and grass could be seen on the lean-to up there. Then Hai Lúng, the first born of Ba, was living here to look after his father’s altar. The group was taking with them an American, who spoke Vietnamese with a slight accent and said his name was Rison. According to Tám- the team commune, this American was staying many days here at Rạch Đùng when there was war. It has been years that Rison got a chance to come back here to pay a visit, and especially, he still kept some photos of Ba back 40 years ago, now he wanted to give them back to the family. The American opened a box and took out a frame to show other people: the exact photo of Ba! It was not like the picture from the identification card. It was not either like the one taken from a photography store, where we had a photographer to take a picture and then edit it. This one was a grumpy old man, looked like he was angry at something. The background was blurred and looked like there were many people behind. (When the American was at the Committee, he took this photo out and said many years ago, this picture had been on the American newspaper!) It was the grumpy face of Ba whenever he got angry at something when he was alive… Hai Lúng took the picture in his hand, having tears welling up and kept saying “oh father”, and shakily put it on the altar. His wife picked some star-apples on the lean-to to put them on the altar and burnt incense. Everyone, including the American, quietly clasped their hands and bowed profoundly.

With a sudden and short visit, with a small knowledge of Vietnamese, Rison could not explain all things happened back thirty to forty years ago, even if he wanted to…

When he came back to return to the Committee, the American said that he would have some kind of campaign when he got back to his country. His next visit time, he would ask for permission to have a house for worshipping like the old house of Ba…

*

**

When Ba was alive, he was very nice and easy-going. His wife died soon. He got only one son- Hai Lúng, but his son was ordered to join the army in China, maybe in Quảng Trị, Đông Hà, without leaving a trace. He lived by his own. His life was surrounded by paddy fields, his habits of yelling when hitting the butt of the buffalo, so his quick-temper was well known in the neighborhood.

There was once time, when he came back from the field, he drank a full dipper of water then sat on the terrace and smoked. He was having the addiction to smoking but the lighter somehow did not work. He opened it to check the gasoline, everything was full and normal. He was mad but kept trying more, stroke it on the floor to start the fire, but “it does not do the damn work”! He went nuts and threw it away, far up to the bush at the gate, and then he went down to the kitchen to burn the coal. Even he smoked nearly half, the anger he had was still there. He went to the back of the house and brought back a hammer, tried to look for the “damn thing”! He put the lighter on the rock nearby, grinded his teeth while striking it! The lighter was completely crushed, now he was pleased to throw it to the pond! “Damn it”! In his daily life belongings, the lighter was the only things got “machine-made” a little bit, that was why sometimes it got trouble. And other things which were made by him, from the cord to the plough… those things could last forever. His pillow which was made of the wood of the jackfruit, the longer he used the more yellow it became! (Every time the town made offerings, in which people killed buffaloes, the adult always joked: “If there was no hammer, we could borrow Ba’s pillow to kill the buffaloes!”). And his stick, there was time he spent all the afternoon shaping the cartouche like making a hoof of horse. He tried using it and was satisfied to say “even my grandchildren can use it!”

And also, with this stick- there was a story behind it that made people at Rạch Đùng laugh as hard as they could whenever the war story was mentioned.

It was when the American soldiers came to the town the second time. Parallel to the town was the the fence of strategic hamlet, separating the paddy fields with the village. Who wished to go through those gates, had to show their paper.

Early that morning, Ba was taking his stick, intended to go to his field. When reaching the gate, he saw no guards but… a young bewildered American. He put up his gun to stop Ba, spoke in Vietnamese:

- ID? Do you have an ID?

- I come to see my field so I do not bring a plough! – He pointed to his field, answered immediately.

- No, no, the ID… ID! – He emphasized each word, used his finger drawing something rectangular in the air and kept saying “ID, ID”!

- I… come… to … see… my… field, so… I… do… not… bring… a… plough! What do I need it for? – He started getting angry. Suddenly he raised his stick before the guard’s face:

- There is no plough, but how about this stick?

- …?!

At that time, the farmers were going to their paddy fields too, Ba called them:

- Come here, come here! Bring your plough! The American asked me for a plough! I do not know why!

Everyone bursted into laughing:

- Oh my god, Rison! He was asking for the ID! Your “plastic card”!

Like recalling some old memories, his face suddenly went red, his eyes were red too, his mouth shook together with the beard. His voice broke down:

- I and D! My field has had enough… with the two Chinese canons! The church and even the altar of my family, all things burnt into ashes, even the ID!

He was screaming and pointing at the American, who did not understand what was going on!

He even raised the stick and pointed the cartouche: “Here, this is your bullet! Don’t you dare to deny it!”

This made everyone burst into laughing!

Everyone gathered and said:

- It is the war, Ba! Maybe he was ordered to join the army like our children. Don’t bother being angry!

Rison was familiar to these villagers (they were used to his something “Son” on the pocket)!

His face looked so dazed. Maybe he was student but suddenly was ordered to join the army. The bang of guns was everywhere every time but he did not seem to be scared any of it! Ever since he came here, he always brought a camera along and took picture of anything he saw. There was a day when he took the scene of ladies singing while working on the paddy fields. He kept re-watching that, looked like he was very happy! And every time he saw drunken men singing non-sense, he would definitely take picture of them. Especially when there was a group of Reformed Theater performed in the communal house. He was seen with other soldiers walking there every night. The soldiers made use of their guns to watch the show free. Only Rison paid for the ticket. In the day, sometimes he sang the song from the performance of the Reformed Theater!

A few months later.

Ba was hanging his gourds in the yard when he heard an announcement. He leaned against a stick and saw the Tư alo was coming. (Everyone called him as Tư but the name Tư alo existed for many years. He had this announcing job since he was fifteen.) Tư always wore pants and never wore shoes because he said it was comfortable for “the contact task”! He did not know how to ride a bike so he was on foot all the way. That was why the announcement he made always delivered to people very late!

Ba asked:

- What do you announce?

- Tomorrow morning, at exactly 7 o’clock, come to the communal house to receive your compensation! The government compensate for the damage of the canon last year! Ba, remember to bring your “family statement”!

- Damn it! Paper all the time? Are you sure about this?

- I have done this job for many years, if I lied about the government, they would send me to jail. – then he continued his announcement – Alo! Alo! Everyone remember, tomorrow morning, at exactly 7 o’clock, gathering at the communal house… Alo! Alo!

Ba came back to his house, mumbling:

- Compensation huh? Like the aid just before! Damn it!

Thinking about that time made him angry. He heard everyone talking about the “aid” called “War Victim Aid Program”, it was announced by Tư too, Ba went to that event. It was in the middle of the flood season, all the paddy fields were all covered in water. “Misfortunes never come alone”, the canon just ruined the village and the fields were gone. Now the big flood came and the paddy looked like it was going to die. The whole village was going to starve! According to the announcement of the Commune, everyone has to gather at the swollen hillock in the middle of the field, then a group of people would come and gave them aid. In the early morning, many canoes came like they were grouping to go to the market. They were waiting until nine or ten in the morning, but there was no one coming to aid! Both the adults and the children were sitting there and there were no shades. It rained suddenly. Everyone was as wet as a drowned rat! They started screaming. Especially Ba, he was like insane since the morning, was about to hit the officers in the Commune with his stick for his anger! That morning he hitchhiked the canoe of the neighbor, now looked like he was locked in the middle of the island! He could not either swim or get through the water, if it had been dry, he would have gone back home! Why did he need the aid? Damn it!

Bảy Trưởng was wise, he only sat on the canoe, held the speaker and kept saying “Alo! Alo! Everyone calm down, wait for few more minutes! The aid is on their way by canoe! Everyone calm down, don’t worry! Their canoes are carrying food, clothing and medicine here to aid us!”

Until at noon, when the sun was above us, the villagers had to wait under the heat of the sun. They waited too long but did not see any canoes came. In the afternoon, they started groaning, people was standing and sitting everywhere. While they were wailing, two helicopters suddenly flew to. “Oh my god! The plane comes to shoot us! Run everyone, run!” The helicopters slowly landed. The people were so freak out that they jumped into the water, one by one! Poor those elderly and the parents who had small children, they also jumped. It was a troublous scene in the water place, looked like the chickens saw the hawk, so pathetic!

Illustration: Do Dung

Suddenly there was a sound from the speaker in the sky “Everyone please pay attention! This is the aid of International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement… Everyone please calm down and get ready to receive the present!” All by one, a huge amount of gifts was falling from the sky. Bảy Trưởng said again: “Everyone calm down! Everyone got one present and receive only from the officer. After getting it, please come back to your canoe. Dismiss!” When the villagers came back their home, everyone was exhausted. But it was consoled and excited to receive the present. What was in there!? The thing that everyone needed then was five to ten litter of rice, some salt or some fish sauce indeed. But this big bag yet light, definitely did not contain those things.

Ba was also exhausted when he got home, he was starved to death! He opened the present bag and took out some things: a hard square box, shook it sounded cooing, maybe that was cow milk; a bánh mì sealed with nylon bag. Something triangle, like the fat, maybe the butter! They were all the things he has never tasted from his childhood. He was hungry so he tried a Western meal to see how it was! He took the bánh mì, opened the milk box. He bit a small bit of bánh mì then drank the milk. When the food only reached his mouth, he vomited. He could not stand this taste! He was vomiting for a while. He stood up and threw the milk box out the garden, swearing. Then he called his dog Mực, gave him the bánh mì and the butter. It bit the bánh mì, the other it only smelled it then went away. See, even a dog did not like the butter! He suddenly remembered that he cooked some sweet potatoes before leaving that morning. So he went to the kitchen to get them. Then he went to the big jar to have a dipper full of rain water. “East or west, home is best”. Done! He smoked while thinking that “he was old but still be fooled”!

It was not finished; he also looked at the clothing bag in the present. Maybe there was not anything to eat, but to wear was ok. The north wind was about to come so the clothing was the plus. I took out each item: the first one is pants – old and big. He stood up to see its length; it was right up to his nose. Two men could even wear these pants! “Damn it! You call this is aid?”. The second thing was a bright yellow shirt – big enough for three men like him to wear, there were some pictures on it. He put it on the floor and saw on that shirt was a picture of a cowboy, on the back of the shirt was a skull, oh my! He tried it on himself; the shirt was long to his ankle, so he would not need to wear the pants! If he wore this, everyone would run away from him! The third item made him said “Hohoho!” It was a big dress with red flowers on it! Seeing this did not make him angry anymore, instead, he laughed as hard as he could!

Looking at those giant clothes, he thought of something unique and great. He thought “Save them for later!”

His paddy fields belonged to the hillock near the border of the village, so it was not drowned in water. That season he grew two lines of glutinous rice. The plant just burst but these days the birds were coming and intended to eat it. The day after that, he spent the whole day making the scarecrow by cutting off the bamboo to make the body and using the straw to make it bigger. He put those giant clothes on it, turned it into a cowboy with red dress! He found an old cap and put it on the scarecrow. “Foreign scarecrow, haha, is it scary?” He was fully satisfied, laughed by himself and brought the scarecrow to the paddy field; put the two of it at the two points of the field.

The hot news “The Americans standing in the field, scaring the bird away for Ba Rạch Đùng” spread over the place in that afternoon. Everyone came to see, like they went to the theater, laughed so hard “Wow, these two color, red and yellow would scare the shit out of the birds!” “Wow, the cowboy has a gun too everyone!” “Oh, there is also a skull! The hawk would fly away when it sees this, how dare the sparrow! Oh such a man, Ba Rạch Đùng!”…

Ba Rạch Đùng suddenly became famous. Wherever he went, whatever he did, everyone was watching him. One morning at the communal house, the red banner was hanged. Rison was there too, brought his camera and came with a group of foreign soldiers. Their mission was to support the local government in compensating for the people.

At dawn, villagers came and sat all the way before the communal house. Every family got a compensation as two hundred in money with twenty sheet metal for the roof. When one received it, they tied it to the bamboo and two men carried it away.

Rison tried to lift up at the big tree in the corner of the communal house, showed the camera up high to take the whole scene. And, suddenly he lowered it to see more clearly. That angry man on that day – Ba Rạch Đùng! He leant against the stick like people punting a raft, the head of the stick had a cartouche. He pulled the crowd aside by himself to get through. The smoke from his cigarette was green and compact. Rison kept clicking the camera. He threw his cigarette on the ground, went to the officers of Commune with furious expression.

Knowing well Ba’s characteristics, Bảy Trưởng said:

- Oh, Ba came! You, hurry count the sheet metal for him! Do any children come along with you to carry them? Or let me ask the guards to bring them to your house? You can go there, make your fingerprint and take the money first, Ba!

With his angry face, Ba looked at all the blue eyes that he considered as “the reason for the canon war” at Rạch Đùng last year!

Suddenly Rison pulled his hat down to half of his face and took the camera behind another guy but kept clicking.

Ba went over the money table, shook his head. He went to the sheet metals, cleared his throat with a cough. His voice was like burning wood then he went through the crowd to get out.

Sitting on the grass before the communal house alone, he lighted a cigarette.

When he saw Rison with a camera and a happy, naïve face like having something valueable! Rison turned on the video recorder, Ba’s voice was on:

- No, no not this one! My roof is double tile! It took long time to finish! This is not the one?!

All the foreigners stood there and did not understand anything! But all the villagers could hear that and everyone laughed so hard!

Outside the communal house, Ba stood up and went home. His shadow was blended with the smoke through all the village road…

Lying on the hammock after hanging the stick to the column, Ba had a bunch of thinking. About the war, about the living. “Life is more important than money!” Luckily, on that day, he was at the paddy field, if not, maybe he could have died!

Everyone lost their belongings, not only him. But every time he missed his father and his grandfather, he could not stand it! His grandfather spent all his life farming, tightened his belt, wished to build a house like the one of his hometown far away in the middle of Vietnam!

Ba remembered when he was a child, every good harvest, his father would wear the black south Vietnamese pajamas with bare feet, carried the bag full of money, took a ferry to Cần Thơ harbor. He might wait for a whole month for the wood which carried from the middle of Vietnam. He bought a bunch of them whenever he got good harvest. But near the day having a carpenter to make it, he became ill.

Before passing away, he asked to cover him only with mattress and seven bamboo stick, no trunk was needed. He wanted to save for a better house for a better worship!

And when Ba’s father died, he only got one light trunk! Until Ba got married, he could afford a door, to fill up the altar…

*

**

Few months later.

Hai Lúng was half-naked, playing some music at the front yard then suddenly Rison appeared. His hair full hand raised up with his smiling full of beard. Rison came back this time with another good looking man, who was told to be an interpreter of some travel agency.

Rison came in and bowed in front of Ba’s altar, he looked at the picture for a long time. His “artwork”, which he kept from when he was young to now he became an old man like Ba. Every time he looked at it, he hoped for a forgiving look! To him, when he was so young, was sent to this strange area, was scolded by this hot-tempered man – he remembered very well, from the first time at the strategic hamlet at the communal house, he always lowered his head like a son with mistake!...

All the touching moment, he shook Hai Lúng’s shoulders and touched the string like to say he wanted to hear the sound from the past that he used to love…

When the music stopped, he took out of his suitcase – a bunch of color photos! He talked his light Vietnamese and thanks to the help of the interpreter, he showed his intention to Hai Lúng. It turned out that this whole month, he took his camera everywhere, not to take picture of everything like he used to do, but to take photograph of those old wooden house in the countryside! Especially the ones were on sale.

Showing all the pictures in front of Hai Lúng, he wanted to know which house Hai Lúng would choose that resembled the most his old house! And the action of building it was for Rison in the future…

Writing Camp - Đồng Nai, May 2014

Duong Duc Khanh

Translated by Le Hoa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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