Việt Văn Mới
Việt Văn Mới






HOMELAND






              "They have fallen down under unhealthy climate deep in the forest to pave the way for their offspring’s advancement.
                (Bình Nguyên Lộc)

   Sitting imposingly on top of the roof of the most cumbrous fish-carrying boat which was standing out among those moored alongside and behind the fish storage, Đực was delightedly dangling his legs, looking aimlessly at the sky and around. Across the river some sampans, the traveling means of those households on the water’s edge enabling members of those families to go to the market without having to walk and cross the bridge, were bobbing up and down gently on the waves. The chimney of the Bastos tobacco factory, as usually, churned out into the sky plumes of black smoke. Đực was spelling the words across the river as every time they came to his view: The Indochina Tobacco Manufacturer. Founded in 1887. The letters cut in bas-relief were displayed in a very large circle, with the signature of J. Bastos in the center. Everyday, at this time, workers coming out from the factory swarmed this section of the street; those people with palm-leaf conical hats rushed to everywhere, running to all the alleys near by. Some foremen, who were well off, going to work by bicycles, carried their bikes on their shoulders passing the bridge, stepped onto each tier lest they had to ride over a long part of the sloppy road. Every time seeing people shouldering their bikes, Đực felt it funny. Today it was Sunday; the scene was not full of stir and movement as on weekdays. It was gloomily sad. At the slope leading to Rạch Bần Bridge, a cart full of fish was so heavy that the horse was panting to try hard but it could make very slow advance. On the bridge some pedestrians were in a hurry. The lamp-posts along the hand-rails on the bridge sprung up against the clear sky and looked like sky-propping posts. At noon time, the ambience was in quietness; all activities were rather slow, dull and listless; only those friends of Đực, who were diving, swimming and pursuing playfully in the river, were making the scene attractive. “It’s not necessary now,” Đực thought to himself, “just enjoy sitting for the moment and I’ll joint them later.”

   The breezes at noontime seemed to blow off the layer of hot air stuck around his body. It felt so cool. With eyes half-closed, Đực beat time by banging the roof of the boat noisily, keeping up with the rhythmic sounds of the castanets-like clapper from the phonograph player in the hold of the boat playing the piece of Vọng Cổ entitled “Deqi was to meet her end” so melodiously. Suddenly, Đực remembered that owners of boats that were carrying living fish always bitterly resented anyone making noise aboard which would frighten the fishes and make them wriggle violently and lose their weigh, he stopped banging the roof and sat back strictly, and he glanced slyly to the bow to see whether anyone voicing a piece of their mind. Hardly at all; after some moments, everything seemed to be OK, he could set his mind at rest and prick up his ears on the music to enjoy it in a mixed state of fearing and interesting for having done something wrong but undiscovered. A breeze was bringing the stinking smell of spoiled fish from behind. He turned round. Too many fishes being dried in the sun were disposed one by one with their white bellies up almost covering the whole roof of the deckhouse. Ha! Many fishes carried on this boat had died; there were not as many dead fishes yesterday. Due to acquisitiveness all tanks were full to brim with fishes, which were suffocating them, yet the fish owners kept gathering in there to enjoy listening to music as if nothing worth worrying about. It was a great pleasure to be in the money: gleanings of their petty coins might worth someone’s fortune. But Đực’s mind was not steady long enough to consider this futile argument. He picked up a fish, turned it over and took a gook look at it as if he had never seen such a bizarre fish so far. The fish might have been cast onto the boat roof a couple of days ago, it was rather dried, its body scales were bent up, and its tail rolled over toughly. He pressed his fingers onto the fish body. Its flesh felt rather soft, but it would be much drier if exposed to more sunshine. The dried fishes might look like trivialities but they were really worth a lot of money. But by now they smelled so stinky. They stank to high heaven. They emitted a strong foul odor as when old Trịn opened the cup that covered the infected surgical incision on his side – to evoke pity from people. Đực grimaced and blew his nose trying to get rid of the stink from it – the smell of fishes around and from old Trịn in his thought. But that didn’t do the trick, and it was hard for his nose to take. The stink could make you want to throw up. Oh that was it: it smelt like that of that drowned man. Last month the body of a drowned man drifting and caught to the anchor cable of the opposite boat. The pale and bluish black corpse swelled up, its two arms were bending backward, and its face was upward, showing the long neck with the neck bones repulsively exhibited. That day he could not finish his meals and he had to leave his meals over several times later: after having eaten some little food he felt squeamish and gave it up.
   Đực tried to contain himself from breathing and moved slowly to the stern. Thinking of old Trịn just gave him creeps, but recalling the drowned man filled him with consternation as if someone were brandishing a magic axe over his head, so his liking for a swim with his friends or waiting for the tugboat coming and he would plunge into the water and swing himself under the tugging cable easily disappeared in his mind. The elderly often said that those who were bathing in the river thought of or imagined the drowned would certainly be down on their luck; they should be very prone either to drowning caused by a water demon, as the demon wanted to have someone to take their demonic place thus enabling them to go reincarnating, or to getting cramp and thus filling their stomach with river water to a close call. This was a dead certainty. As far as the mischievousness of the water demons and fire demons is concerned, no one could say what would come. Even if such stories had been cooked up by the adults to threaten the young, it was too dangerous to challenge them. “It won’t do me any harm to go without bathing in the river to day,” he thought aloud to himself. “It’s not any pleasure to bath there with anxiety.” And he spoke out his grandma’s catch phrase, “Better safe than sorry. Better safe than sorry.” To completely wipe out the urge, Đực sat bolt upright and looked up and down and around, while his fingers were rhythmically tapped on this knee, and he tried to concentrate his mind on something else.
   The sky was clear and brilliant. The river glittered in the sunlight. The space breathed its breezes wrinkling the surface of the huge mirror which looked like a glistening scaled glass snake meandering away.
Tired of looking up and down and around, he changed his position and looked toward the river bank. The market place looked gloomy at noontime. It was almost deserted. Dull. Languishing. Quite a few salespersons were preparing to leave for home. Đực’s eyes were clapped on the mendicant whose legs were both amputated and whose face looked very sad sitting on a piece of wheeled board taken from a milk box, beseeching pity from passers-by; his cries sounded melodious and sorrowful.
   “I’m prostrating myself before you passers-by, I’m an ailing and disabled man. Please be kind enough to give me some coins so I could buy some rice to sustain life.”
   He turned a little away. The beggar was not a stranger; he met him every day. The longer he looked at him the unhappier he would feel; it wasn’t anything interesting at all. His entreaties might sound strange and arresting at the first time you heard them; but you’d get fed up with them for having heard so many times that you’d learned them by heart. Đực was casting his eyes to look for something new. He was overjoyed beholding the face of the buffalo-nosed policeman Năm Mãnh who, with a cigarette on his mouth, was sluggishly standing against a lamppost; with his legs crossed, he was looking around the scenery of the market place. Everyone knew every day he consumed a pack of the “Golden club”, the brand of cigarettes preferred by refined-mannered people. “A connoisseur smokes ‘Bastos’; a refined-mannered person smokes ‘Golden Club’,” an ad verse which those shoe polishing boys who were starting to smoke often recited to entertain themselves or to taunt the policeman, came into his mind. It was funny. What a nose! It looked like that of a lion, yet the policeman was puffing away, the smoke got into his eyes making him frown at it; who could help laughing as beholding the reddish, lumpy and lemon like nose which was as big as a fist, running up and down on his face? Đực laughed in his sleeve, taking revenge on the cop for having chased him and his buddies at a rate of knots some days ago when they had cried out to warn the sellers at the market to take to flight as the constable was coming. He still remembered how red was the face of the cop that gave him the jitters that day.
   Tired of the hot noon time, the policeman’s eyes were really funny, but they looked kinder than they had been in the morning when the market was crowded and he had to show his power to intimidate those who were occupying the sidewalks. He followed the policeman’s eyes and stopped at a girl of his age who was re-arranging some little groups of hot chilies, garlic, onion leaves and some lemons displayed on a small bamboo tray covering a hemmed bamboo basket. The girl opened her mouth round to tout for selling the goods the last time before she could put them all into the basket to come home or sell them off at reduced prices to earn as much as possible to make good the weak-market days. Her touting cry was kind of thin, raucous and bothering voice that sounded as heart-rending as that of a cat in heat at mid-night. It sounded sloppy, misplaced, and it conjured up the sounds of some funeral music from a rainy night.
   There seemed no more interesting, and in addition, it was about afternoon, Đực stood up, aimed for the direction leading to the bank. In a sudden, he hurriedly crawled toward to stern and jumped down onto the deck, and as agile as a gibbon, he made his way directly to his boat. He crept into the hold from the stern, pulling the milk carton, which was used to keep clothing, from under the table; he delved into it and brought out a pair of casual shorts, he put it on and took a shirt and put it on too without noticing however it might be or look. All done, and having got away with it without being noticed by his grandma, he was sitting back in the hold, against the hatch, looking out as if he had been sitting tight and studying his lessons so far. It was lucky that his younger sister, who was playing ball and sticks at the bow, didn’t know what he had been doing.
   On the bank, aunt Tư was shouldering some bulky bunches of coconuts, trying to get access to the boat. The owners of fruit depots sitting in the shadow were looking out at her but said nothing. Aunt Tư muttered something under her breath about the sunshine, and about the owners who were occupying the sidewalk while she kept walking. The metal ramp connecting the river bank with boat carrying earthen vases was unstably high that made her steps reluctant. She stopped, changed the basket to the left hand, and rolled up slightly the legs of her trousers, and then she walked slowly. The ramp was sagging and quivering. She looked down the river. This place was near the bank, trash and waste which had been discharged by people for a long time and couldn’t be washed out by the tide, accumulated in big heaps as solid and almost as tall as the bank. Aunt Tư’s mind worked quickly as she thought some day the depot owners would have someone build a roof above these heaps of trash, and put a wattle fence around to easily enlarge their depots. Some years ago, when she first set foot in this land of Sài Gòn, the way passing these depots was so wide that you could walk and dance and it was now this narrow that you might feel tired of walking through and getting away from bumping against other people and things around. People were prospering so quickly. Before you knew it, their businesses had developed and became prosperous. “Whereas,” she thought, “my family is still living from hand to mouth. The urban life may be on safe ground, but I don’t see it any interesting. It’s just temporary and difficult to work out a long-term plan to settle here. Despite our hard work, nothing seems improved; still trapped in poverty, and can’t expect some day we would be well-off thus enabling us to sit pretty. Have been living here for ten years; there’s no joy but it’s boring. The ways of the world here seem to be meaningless. You have no friends but nodding acquaintances who may be socially polite but insincere and heartless. Hoping that the war comes to an end, I’ll turn back to my homeland to cultivate my soil and take care of the field of sugarcane, no longer having to forage for daily food, no longer having to be fed up with the apathetic ambiance.
   Gái was standing on tiptoe on the bow holding a pole and looking for her grandma. Beholding the form of aunt Tư appearing after the boat carrying earthen vases, Gái cried out uproariously; how clear and lovely was the voice of a little girl.
   “Grandma! You come home so late. I’m ravenously hungry.”
   Đực, hiding himself behind his younger sister, grabbing the chance to cover all that he had just done, raised the voice of an elder:
   “Gái, stand back, or you may fall down into the river. Do you wish to be a drowned one?” While speaking so he was bending his arms backward, raising his head and glowering at her as a drowned man would do to threaten her. Threatened, the girl hurriedly retreated into the hold. She was afraid but kept looking slyly toward her grandma who was distant from two or three boats away. After gently crossing over other boats, aunt Tư gave a sigh as she reached her own. Seeing Gái screwing up her eyes which were dazzled by the sunshine, she said lovingly:
You’ve ignored my words and exposed your bare heads to the intense heat of the sunshine. Such stubborn streak might subject you to unpleasant spank some day.” Touching the niece’s head she chucked and said warmly, “Your head feels hot. If he came to know it, you’d have to lump it and don’t call for me. I can’t help you. He has a fiery temper; sometimes he may be tougher than Zhangfei1. He usually beats his children like an enemy without relaxing his severity.”
   Being reproved, Gái was sullen like a withered flower. Đực, unmoved, added fuel to the fire by saying something distasteful to his younger sister:
   “The medicine branded “The tiger riding a horse” for your cold is very sour, its aftermath lingers on in your throat and makes you choke to the last gasp. You’ll take it three times a day so you’ll quit exposing yourself to the sunshine.” He put on airs by turning away and imitating an adult’s catch phrase: “You’re no longer a baby. I’m tired of telling you things like water off a duck’s back.”
   Gái was tetchy, she showed up her rival:
   “When I’m ill, I won’t let you cadge from my food. You used to swallow my soup noisily as if you had starved for ages, and you wished to get sick like me to be fed daily with hash porridge. You’re just a shameless cadger.”
Aunt Tư didn’t approve her niece’s saucy impudence. She gave her a threatening look. Đực was ashamed. His sister curled up her lips at him; he felt very angry that he wished he could give her a thick ear. But he gave it a second thought. His sister must have been so infuriated that she hit back impolitely. He’d better endure it so that his bathing in the river wouldn’t be given away. He bottled up his anger. To evade the subject, he was bustling around, greeting, asking, and finally he told aunt Tư but ingratiating himself with his sister:
   “Grandma, do you see that Gái looks so pretty today? She’s become a young girl now. Do you see that she’s much prettier than she was some days ago?”
   Aunt Tư was laughing. The boy seemed to be a good flatterer. The girl was the same as from everyday. However, she gave her niece a proud look. Gái went all shy; she looked askance at her brother and smiled quietly.
   To create reconciliation, aunt Tư gave Đực her shopping basket and Gái her petty packets. The three followed one another to enter the deckhouse. Gái had passed up her anger, and she was now talkative with her brother while her grandma was preparing food on a small table against the wall of the deckhouse for the lunch.
   “Gái, would you please cook some rice, dear,” said aunt Tư with her joyful voice like a general giving his order. “Just a full milk-can and a half of rice. Remember to keep the rice jar closed. Wash the rice with the purchased fresh water and then add to the pot four tins of fresh water.” She warned her, “Try to do it carefully. It’d be sinful to waste things.” She turned to Đực, went on, “Đực, you shall wash these vegetables. Wash them with river water, only the final go would be done with our drinking water. Be careful! You may slip and fall into the river. Your grandma is rather old, and can’t jump down to your rescue.”
   Gái did what she was told to do. She took the pot and as she was groping inside the rice jar she touched a custard apple and two star apples which her grandma had kept there to induce ripening. She was feeling them and as they were not ripe yet she didn’t say anything. Đực was also doing what his grandma told him, but he was giggling quietly. The grandma who was a little long in the tooth may be afraid of her own shadow. It’s no use worrying about such a thing. “I’ve ever climbed up to the top of the lamppost on the bridge and plunged into the river from there, what the-…” he thought to himself. “I’ve grown up and no longer a baby. If any dangerous situation came about, I’d make two strokes of arms and reach the boat plank in no time. It’d be as easy as falling off a log.” So thinking, however, he thought he should be amenable to his grandma’s warning. Otherwise he could risk exposing his grave guilt of having bathed in the river or roaming about every afternoon instead of staying at home to do his homework. If the grandma cut up rough and told his dad, he would take the heat.
   He looked at the feather-composed dust remover his dad stuck under the roof of the deckhouse, and took the vegetables to the stern where he would attentively pick and wash them with water scooped from the river like an active and responsible girl.
                                                                                             **
   While getting rid of spoiled leaves, in a sudden Đực cried out in a loud exciting voice,
   “Grandma!”
   Aunt Tư looked at her nephew. “Such a boy,” thought her. “He would always call his grandma all the day as if someone would call his debtor.”
   “Grandma,” he asked, “why does our family live on a boat but not on the land like the others? My friends laughed their heads off when they knew we were living on a boat. They said, ‘Boats are used for transporting and peddling goods not for people to live on them year after year.’ ”
   He hesitated for some moments and went on, “Grandma, don’t be crabby, but they said we were rather peculiar and looked like nothing on earth. I didn’t know how to reply.”
   Aunt Tư stopped scaling a fish and looked at her nephew for a very long moment, and then she said slowly without any hard feelings:
   “There are some things that a child can’t understand, dear. That’s why you boys are said to be immature and do not know one end of anything from the other. Our country boasts so many rivers and springs while vehicles are thin on the ground and roads are so rough, it’s very convenient to travel everywhere by boat. Some persons or a whole household who either had failed to secure their living or been impelled by hard circumstance due to the rough treatment from their village, have embarked all together onto a boat with all their goods and chattels, and pots and pans. They would depend on the tide traveling along a stream or a river and stopped at a cove or a bight on the river, or a firth, where the soil was fertile enough to cultivate on. They would fell down trees to build a hut for their shelter. The place however deserted it used to be soon became inhabited by people. At the outset it was scattered with some families and their houses, after some years it would have thrived and became bustling villages. You know, our country is immensely large that even if you have spent your life time traveling you wouldn’t be able to cover all of it and thanks to these boats people managed to inhabit all over the country. Don’t think little of the boats. They are the magic means for traveling by water.”
   Aunt Tư stopped to pick up a prepared betel quid from a tin box of Craven A cigarettes and put it into her mouth to chew, and then she went on:
   “Don’t care what your friends have said. Just don’t bother to think about it. Humans are wont to pick to pieces shortcomings in others' private life. We won’t have issues with anybody if we are like them or inferior to them; it would be otherwise if we had something different from them. But everybody is in his own situation. If everyone’s situation were the same there wouldn’t be the haves and the haves-not in the world.”
   Đực wasn’t pleased as his grandma shrugged off the quips his buddies had taunted, but he very much liked her comparison. It was right that in the Chinese romances of Feng Shen and Xiyouji there were many celestial beings who could practice magic. Even if you were skilled at walking in the water you could do it yourself while a boat could carry a lot of people and their belongings as well. He looked at his grandma and smiled quietly in agreement.
Aunt Tư saw it a chance to make more her ideas get through.
   “Have you ever heard of our ancestors’ tactics of “the silkworm eating mulberry” yet? By the chance I’m going to tell you so you can learn something or I may forget to make them known to you.”
   Aunt Tư was thoughtful as if she were talking to herself.
   “In the olden days, this land was possessed by local natives; our people were gradually moving over here from the Central Vietnam. Not only did they walk on foot but the best part of them traveled by boats as well. That enabled them to reach the remote places in the hinterland. Our people came to live with the local natives in their places for a period of time. The latter didn’t like to get in touch with these aliens, and they retreated farther and farther away, and as a result the places finally became Vietnamese villages. Our country was thus enlarging gradually. That was the tactics of “silkworm eating mulberry” our ancestors practiced of their own volition to enlarge the country. It was the great merit of our ancestors, and the boats also have counted for great deal. You shouldn’t think little of them.”
   “So those local natives might have hated Vietnamese people very much, didn’t they, grandma?” Gái raised a good question.
   “Of course,” replied aunt Tư. “It was their land and, out of the blue, our people appeared and inhabited it and controlled it, such emotion of the natives toward our people was something that couldn’t be avoided. It is the same as our emotion toward the Chinese immigrants living and vaingloriously possessing lands and houses and vehicles in our country. For instance, if we came to live in France or the United States years after years, certainly people there would have looked down on us, the both sides would secretly become mutually incompatible, and clash would be beyond reasonable doubt. In my book, xenophobia is running in any people’s blood. And I see it all right, no one can be blamed.”
   “Local natives hated our people, did they tried to kill them, grandma? At the outset, there were many of them while our ancestors were just a minority. If a struggle had happened, our people might have been at a disadvantage.”
It might have happened so,” answered aunt Tư. “That ran against the interest of both sides. At times I was told that local natives rose up against Vietnamese. They killed and beheaded them and heaved their bodies into the rivers. Fishes and shrimps were blubbery but nobody had the heart to eat them. Neither did anyone catch them for selling: they were afraid that the buyers would eat them but they who caught and sold them would be sinful. Sometimes, someone who was reckless of consequence caught these fishes and sold them at remote hamlets, but they later were to be cursed down and they should be accused by gods. Back to the rise of local natives, in fact, I didn’t see it with my eyes. It might have happened from afar. Might be somewhere down there. After all, many people have died for the existence of this wealthy land. Hence rivers and streams are available for our boats to moor. But for these rivers and streams our people could have banded together in cramped spaces out there and we can’t be sitting pretty like we are now. The dice was always loaded against those who broke new ground, but in the long term, these people have turned their adverse situation to our country’s advantage. To my mind, if our forefathers had flinched away from difficulties and danger, our country would have been as tiny as my hand now, or it might have been dominated by the Chinese.”
   “So, our homeland is not here, is it, grandma?” asked Đực who wouldn’t like to hear something so lengthy and complicated. He preferred knowing something related to him.
   “All over the country, either near as Sài Gòn, Lục Tỉnh, or far as Hà Nội, Hải Phòng, everywhere is our motherland.   For one thing, our birth place where our forefathers have founded their early fortune is not here. We are immigrants. We’re not of Saigonese origin. That’s why we’re usually referred to flippantly as “a motley bunch of males and have-been-around females”. But forget it. Our homeland has a name which sounds rather strange: Chợ Đệm.
   Aunt Tư smiled as she was content with having found the correct word to describe her homeland: it’s strange, not rustic. She emphasized, “Chợ Đệm is near here; it’s not very far away. With vehicle nowadays, it’ll take a few hours for a drive from here. If you start in the morning you’ll arrive there at noon time.”
   All of a sudden, aunt Tư became thoughtful. The name of her homeland hadn’t been mentioned for a long time; today she occasionally heard it from her very mouth. It made her feel on the tenterhooks and restless. The way to homeland was not far why, for many years she dared not think of coming back? She left no relatives there; her acquaintances had drifted away from the village, and the place was in hard situation now. The way to her homeland was blocked, but she could make her return in her mind. Imagination alone could make her heart feel melancholy. Her memories mixed with old space and time in her mind and turned out to be present time in her eyes which is cutting her to the heart; her tears were going to fall down with her grief.
   Đực felt bewildered. He leisurely turned up and down some lettuce leaves and washed off dust on their stems. To him, Chợ Đệm, Chợ Quán, Chợ Rẫy, Chợ Đũi, Chợ Gạo or the like were just words or names like Thị Nghè, Bà Chiểu, Đất Hộ, Dakao which were not concerned with him, and then some, not exciting, and not melodious as were the words Chợ Cầu Ông Lãnh and Chợ Cầu Muối he heard everyday, where he was living and growing up with lots of his friends and lovely memories.
   “… I still remember the house of your great-grandfather near the river,” said aunt Tư. “Across the river, there was a small market place which was far from my home by the time I finished chewing my betel quid. Every time I would like to go to market I had to call out to Thơm, the village notable Ngọ’s daughter, for her ferry-boat. Many a time it was not until I had a sore throat of calling did she reply. The river was not wide but both its banks were rather bare and deserted, except some scattered shrubs of the genus Avicenna, there were no trees or bushes, and the sounds were absorbed into the space. Being ferried across a river you wouldn’t have to row the boat since no ferrymen would allow you to do so, because you are their client. Yet they have to be grateful to you. Many a time Thơm didn’t feel happy and you had to sit timidly.” Aunt Tư uttered something which had nothing to do with her talk, “That’s the way of life. Depending on someone for help when their business is in decline you’d feel uneasy and anxious. That’s why I very much dislike asking anybody for help. It’d be just a stopgap measure.”
   Her voice sounded somewhat sad and ironic as if she referred to her absent daughter-in-law. Gái raised her eyes looking at her grandma. She hesitated for some moment before asking:
   “Is it like I thumbed a ride from the bridge to the school, grandma? Many times the cariole driver didn’t feel like to pick us up. He said that we would take a very short distance which would strip him of opportunities to pick up other long-haul passengers.”
   “That’s right,” said aunt Tư. “Nowadays vehicles are running on the ground, and we no longer say we get ‘ferried across’ or ‘ferried over’. For one thing, when thumbing a drive to school by horse drawn carriage you will travel a short distance, not the whole of its itinerary, but what counts is that you pay the fee. ‘Thumbing a drive’ is just a polite way of speaking. ‘Good words cost nothing.’ ”
   Gái lavished praise on her grandma.
   “You’ve explained it so well, grandma. It went as well as on the other day when you spelled out why those who were selling us their fresh water said they were ‘exchanging’ it. Before that I had been always surprised that we did not exchange anything with them. Those things – when I grow up and study at a higher school I’ll cotton on to them, won’t I, grandma?”
   Aunt Tư was washing a piece of fish the last time in the blood-colored water in a pot before putting it into another pot which then was put onto the cooking fire. Parched firewood which had been split into small pieces, was burning and sending up sparks around. Aunt Tư was moved and tears came to her eyes. Đực and Gái had raised a lot of good questions. They seemed to be quite savvy about life. “If they were still living in the countryside they would stand out among the village children and I would be proud of it,” she thought. “Everybody is the same out here, men coming from all sources, and every man for himself. The good and the bad are the same. It’s so regrettable.”
   “Right. Our language has acquired many interesting words,” she said nodding her head. “Many people can speak but they don’t know whether their speaking is correct or not. You are growing up. Keep watching your language and you’ll gradually learn good things. Speaking correctly and you’ll gain the respect of other people. Just look at the old Trịn. He is usually irritated by the children because he speaks many words incorrectly. He says: ‘You behave toxin toward me God shall punish you,’ or ‘You live with predestined affinity and God bless you’.”
   “Grandma," Đực was impatient as his grandma was pushing her subject too far. “Please talk something more about our great grandfather,” he insisted.
   Aunt Tư was looking ahead but she didn’t behold any scenery. She looked dreamy and she was speaking slowly as she was reliving the past – a past rather mediocre but time failed to fade it out of her mind.
   “Yea, as our family had been living there for many generations,” said aunt Tư, “we were quite well-off then. I remember that the house of our family was very large. It was a four or five-compartment house, let alone a number of granaries. I was the youngest child. My brothers and sisters had their own families and were living at their own homes. Sons with their wives and daughters with their husbands were living far away. Your great grandfather was rather old. About seventy then. In the house there was a coffin, which was then called the “one’s end service,” just in case he might pass away there wouldn’t be perplexity for his offspring. Your great grandfather… Well, it’s no use recalling the past. It’d just make you cry.”
   Aunt Tư took out her handkerchief to wipe out her tears. Gái was looking astonishingly at her grandma. Aunt Tư smiled at her.
   “Let me look back on those days…” said aunt Tư. “When I grew up, your great grandfather married off me to your grandfather, who was in the same region, whose family was not well-off but was of laborious and good folks. When we settled down to our married life, we were supported effectively by both families to have our house built and to purchase a boat. Your grandfather possessed a large boat to fetch goods from the province for retailing as my parents were running a small shop. But it wasn’t before long war broke out, many people spilled their blood or were killed. Our whole extended family was fleeing together in the boat. We were migrating along the rivers. We settled at Tàu Hủ Canal for a while, then at Lò Gốm Canal for a rather long time before drifting unto here. Many a time we had to change our boats – that is, to sell the big one and buy a smaller one in order to make a catch-as-catch-can living on the profit margin. Finally we’ve acquired this boat. Many years have passed since then.”
   Đực asked his grandma sympathetically:
   “Have you ever missed the homeland, grandma?”
   Gái also followed suit:
   “That’s right. Do you miss the homeland, the place where you were living when you were young, dear grandma?”
   “To be fair,” replied the aunt, “everybody’ll certainly miss his homeland when it was left behind. I’ve heard you reciting by rote that ‘Home is home, be it ever so homely’.”
   The aunt fell in to thoughtful state: “At first I was missing it very much, but as years and years elapsed, everything has come down. ‘When at Rome do as Romans do’ is the way of living. If you keep recalling the past all the time you won’t be able to keep pace with life.” Then she went on, “What I feel sad about is that your dad has already put down roots here. He’s become too acquainted with everything here that he doesn’t think of returning to our homeland. Especially you both are out of tune. Hearing the word Chợ Đệm, which sounds unfamiliar to you, you deemed it a rustic hillbilly place, how could you think of returning to our homeland there.”
    Aunt Tư moved close to the place where Gái was sitting, opened the rice pot. The rice was already done. The cooked rice smelled sweet. Aunt Tư was turning the rice over using a pair of big chopsticks. She was stirring it strongly, getting it down to a fine art, but she tried to fight shy of breaking the eggs which she had put in to cook with the rice. Finally, she struck the chopsticks onto the edge of the pot slightly to let go some rice from them. She put the cover upon the pot and made sure it was fit enough to keep the steam from escaping from the pot.
   Gái guessed her grandma’s intention, she used a pair of metal sticks to stir the stove. Pieces of live crushed charcoal were falling through the grid brightly. She dipped some burning sticks into the basin of waste water nearby then put them onto the pile of firewood to save them for later use. Aunt Tư looked at her niece smiling with satisfaction. She cleared up everything around, pulled open the window, threw the waste into the river and she stood up to go get the bowls and dishes for the lunch. All her acts were natural and normal, but Đực saw his grandma was trying to restrain some kind of feelings which he could get vaguely that it was the nostalgia of those who had left their homeland for a long time and did not have a chance to return yet hearing someone mentioning it. He was watching every gesture of his grandma, he thought he heard a sigh. He loved and also respected her. Everything she said was correct. It was just yesterday when he was waiting for Gái coming out of the Tôn Thọ Tường high school crossing the road to go home with him, he was curiously looking at three women from the countryside who were stopping to buy some herbal medicine which was displayed for sale on the sidewalk by some Chams. He was not much surprised seeing the Chams. They were speaking a twittering language with rising and falling tunes of voice. They were wearing sort of flashy and baggy clothes and dozens of bracelets on their wrists. These things were strange when he saw them the first time, but now they were common to him. Every other week there would certainly be some five or seven of these persons, male and female, displaying their herbal medicine for sale. The medicine was just dried roots and leaves. They also exhibited, on pieces of oiled paper, some products from forests very attractive to urban citizen such as bear gall bladders, wild boar fangs, antlers, ginseng, tigers’ teeth, strands of elephant hair. Once they even displayed a desiccated monkey. The animal which was put squatting, showing its teeth like when it had been alive scrambling for food attracted a crowd of onlookers and the sidewalk became heavily crowded. Yesterday he jostled to get in the crowd to see the desiccated monkey one more time but the animal wasn’t there. Only some women from the countryside who were wearing two or three pieces of attire at one time when having to pay for their purchase, they were shyly tucking up each piece of their apparel to get access to the money in the pocket of the last piece of their raiment. They were striving to unlock the safe pin, taking out each brand-new one-piaster bill quite neat and smooth that smelt of new paper and camphor. They carefully counted and recounted the bills several times before giving them to the seller. Even when having paid the money they seems to hesitate for a moment.
   He stood staring the scene without feeling tired of standing, forgetting that Gái repeatedly pulled his dress to remind him to go home. He was like having suffered aphasia or his soul was high in the heaven. He seemed unaware of everything around. He saw these things strange, he should look at them, should behold them. These Chams were like those Tom, Dick or Harry, resembling no one else. Listen to what they were talking to one another! Not only was their language so peculiar but was also their parlance. Their language was thick with dialects and bizarre patois. These people looked timid, absurd and bewildered, unlike his dad who was usually in a good mood; unlike his mom who always put on the same sort of a pocketed gown year after year. When his dad needed some money, his mom would provide it immediately, without dilly-dallying or regretting. Neither were they like their customers who were very agile and smart. Nor were they like those porters who were carrying merchandise running brashly paying no attention to whomever in their way; if objected, they would swear flippantly.
   So were people living here. They were quick-witted, keen-witted, fierce, in-high-spirited, and voluble. They didn’t frighten the others. Those that were doing things leisurely, spending half a day buying just some herbal medicine, and those who were such diffident as if they would be eaten alive, would be recognized to have come from the countryside although local people met them just once.
   Đực raised his head as he had encountered a problem he could not understand.
   “Grandma,” he asked. “Are all people coming from the countryside rustic and uncivilized?”
   “Not really,” replied his grandma. “But people living in the countryside more or less have some habits or gestures which can be considered unsophisticated by urban people. In the countryside there are also lots of educated people. They are village officials, young ladies and gentlemen who are children of those landlords, or of sugar mill owners, brick-kiln owners, market holders, or ferry-boat owners… and teachers. It’s not that everybody there is uneducated, block-headed, leading only a farming life. Some among them have gone studying in the province, and even in Saigon. But since they have been living very long time in the countryside they may have acquired the local customs or habits which are not familiar to town people. You see,” she commented, “the problem is something familiar and unfamiliar, and not rustic or uncivilized. Even if they were rustic, it is nothing bad. They are what they are, but they’re good. They are truthful and honest. They may look clumsy but they’re full of sureness. After all, if I were still living at Chợ Đệm now, your dad would have been but a rural rustic. You are rural rustic children. That’s what people refer to as a completely raw rustic, being rustic for three or four generations.”
   Gái clapped her hands laughing at her brother:
   “Ha ha! You’re rustic!”
   Đực looked dreamy; he didn’t seem to have the words of his sister’s absurd taunt. He felt he had become a grown-up after his grandma’s chat. He made a comment:
   “Grandma, we both are rustics, ain’t we? What the names Đực, Gái(2) we’ve been given! Such names should be used at home. At school we should have other names,” said Đực.
   “I’m the one that has given you those names,” replies aunt Tư. “Your parents had to agree with them. You’re called what you are. Gái, Đực, Bông, Lành, Tý, Sửu, Dần, Mẹo, Trâu, Bò. I could have given you good names such as Huỳnh Hoa, Trí Dũng, Hiền Tâm, or Thiên Kim. But a rustic name contains in itself something lovely of its own. Don’t you see that it is very simple, rustic, and frank? What are good names for? It’s your good heart that counts. Moreover, children that have good names could be reproved by the spirits of their forefathers causing them running a temperature, bringing up milk and crying all the night, which their parents wouldn’t be able to stand.” She concluded, “Thanks to the names I gave you, you both have been in good health so far. Otherwise, speaking the bad, you might have got big risk last year. Especially Đực was the one could be at it. You were the first born child, yet was not very hale and hearty and was ailing for years, but for me, you could have been reincarnated for many times. I alone went looking for traditional doctors and medicine. Your mom was too young then, unable to contrive anything at all.”
   Đực was afraid his grandma would recall the phases of their sickness in the past. Getting onto this subject a half-day time wouldn’t be enough for her to relate to them the whole story with her emotion.
   “Is that being rustic or not rustic depends on where we’re living, grandma?” asked Đực. “And we are to love the rustics and not to look down on them, ain’t we?”
   Aunt Tư was bowing to cut some pieces of onion leaves. Only after a very long moment was she whispering to answer her nephew, in a vague tone of voice from far away:
   “One’s homeland may be rural, but one is not uncivilized.”
   Aunt Tư’s eyes were rather wet. They were filling with tears, with just a single blink the tears could be falling down. She was remembering her rustic hillbilly homeland. The river was running softly, boats sailing on it were very few and far between, sometimes there was only one boat passing in the whole day. The scene was rather melancholy but it was suffused with many memories of her childhood: swimming in it with the support of a piece of coconut stem when she was little; splashing water and stirring mud when in juvenile; or when shyly taking a bath under the moonlight in a sultry night. There was a field of plump sugarcane before the front yard whose leaves were rustling in the breezes which could make you feel sweet in your mouth let alone sitting on its beds in the field, chewing some pieces of the cane and feeling its sap sticky on your hands. That was that. You should hold the sap in your mouth and experience its taste. That field of sugarcane was the best in the whole region. And the house, its floor was paved throughout with red clay tiles which were so glossy. Lying on that tiled floor in the noonday heat your entire body would enjoy feeling its comfortable coolness. In early mornings, birds were twittering in the bushes around; when the first sunbeams were falling onto the earth, sparrows, hoopoes, thrushes… were giving a concert to welcome the glow of dawn. The rectangular well heaved into view behind the clump of red banana whose trunks were as big as the house pillars...
   “I should love countryside people, shouldn’t I?” asked Đực as he reminded himself an obligation he should have had when seeing a strange kind of emotion looming on his grandma’s bony face. He was with a heavy heart not only because of the tears in his grandma’s eyes but much more because of the silent ambiance in the boat. In a sudden, he got the feeling of a very close relationship with the place which, so far, was gloomy and quietly deserted in his imagination, but it was there generations of his forefathers had been living at, those with bony faces and muddy feet in simple garments he had looked at as aliens and even with contempt.
   “Tell me,” said his grandma, “why do you think so?”
   Đực was truck dumb. He found it difficult to put his ideas into words. He was twelve or thirteen years old now, but so far he never had any abstract thought nor could he express his feeling. He was standing still with set lips. He gave it his best shot but couldn’t bring out his ideas clearly:
   “I think… maybe… I’m luckier than those people… It’s not that… I’m any better than they are.”
   Aunt Tư was surprised to hear such an answer. She had expected he would say something about the affection from human nature, for one’s nation or for one’s compatriots, but his words hit the reality. That was right. It was luck that made one an urban person and the other a rural one. It was nothing better than that truth.
   “Yea. Everybody has his own lot,” said aunt Tư. “Everybody enjoys what endowed by God. It’s not a sure thing that urban life is good, neither is it that rural life is bad. The good is that even if you’re living in the countryside but you’re not ignorant and fogeyish, and that if you’re living in town but not cunning and deceitful, and not hiding ridiculously the origin of your forefathers,” aunt Tư explained to him. “I’ve met someone who had been here for just a short time but as he was in luck’s way he claimed to be the power in the land, telling lies shamelessly and ridiculously… As to me, my homeland is always a bright image in my mind although I’ve left it behind for a long time.”
   Gái was the one that usually had kept asking incessantly, now she got a fright hearing such new things. She was bewildered, on tenterhooks and in a melancholy mood. She was thinking of another girl of her age, who had the dazed eyes, with a three-pieced hair pin on, wearing a bluish dress, all day lonely in the deckhouse of the boat carrying terra-cotta pots and stoves that moored alongside the boat of her family. Every time she glowered at her, and pretended to threaten her, the other girl seemed to be afraid, crestfallen and turned away in dead silence. Gái wished that one day that boat would be moored at that place again so she could apologize the other girl and make her acquaintance. “I didn’t know that it was wrong to tease her that way then,” Gái thought to herself. “May the Earth God help me to see that girl again.”
   She looked at the stove in which the fire had died down. Some pieces of coal which had almost burned down were covered with a coat of greyish white ash and at times they shone brightly reflecting the smoke on the wall of the deckhouse when a breeze blew in. She was looking into the fire, imaging her and the girl with bewildered eyes were holding hand going down the bridge where bagasse was accumulated into heaps. The two would be talking and laughing friendly while looking at some women who were peeling sticks of sugarcane and put them onto tricycles, and she would bravely ask for a stick; she would break it into two pieces and gave one to the other girl.
   Đực was pursuing his own thoughts. Being a countryside man or not depended on whether one had left the countryside early or late. Nothing was would be in being this one or the other. One was good when he still missed and loved his homeland, or as his grandma had said, “One’s homeland must always be a bright image in one’s mind”.
   After some long moments, aunt Tư stood up to set the table. She broke the ice that was covering the ambience, saying:
   “Let’s have lunch, children. It’s so late now. I’m so hungry. We have been talking all the idle good-for-nothing matters.”
   On a boat moored somewhere nearby there was a woman reciting poems to entertain herself. She raised her resounding voice reciting some verses from Sáu Trọng poetic tale. Her voice was so melodious, and the verses were worth listening:
                   “You don’t care your business,” Trọng observed.
                   “Just prating on and leaving everything disserved”
                   Đẩu replied: “Since I’m in love with you
                   Everything turned disserved how could I do!
   Đực pricked up his ears on her voice. Every time she was reciting the poetic tale on Sáu Trọng he was very pleased. Having listened to her day after day, he managed to learn by heart the whole poetic tale. He thought of Sáu Trọng, who was drifting away from his native soil yet a heroic man, quite straightforward and bold. In his eye, his grandma who looked rather rustic and illiterate but was very admirable for having said something he had not learned from school and no one had ever shed light on such things better than she did and moved his heart that much.
He silently repeated in his mind the phrases ‘idle good-for-nothing’ and ‘driving a ferry’. “It’s not ‘idle good-for-nothing’, grandma; nor is it the matter of ‘driving a ferry’, big sis,” he thought to himself. “It is as good as ten tonic decoctions, grandma; it’s worth more than a thousand piasters, sis. You’ve taught me to love our country, and love those dear people in the countryside, grandma; and you’ve also taught me about chivalry and courage, and to be indignant at the unjustness and unfairness in life, big sis.”
   Gái had come down to earth after her grandma’s chatting. She regretted that the talk had to come to an end, but she obediently stood up to help set the table.
   While taking the rice pot from the stove to put onto a bamboo pad, she came up with something. She hurriedly put the pot down, flicked her hands, asking a significant question:
   “When shall we turn back to pay visit to our homeland, grandma?”
   Aunt Tư was moved looking at the niece:
   “That depends on many things, dear.”
   She said no more but the word ‘dear’ sounded protractedly, so sweet and immense. Đực and Gái were looking at each other. In their mind’s eye, they made out vaguely that their home coming should depend on many things that their grandma hadn’t elaborate as yet, but their visit to their homeland some day could be in their pocket. Even a stupid one might discern from their grandma’s words the hidden overflowing and profound feelings, expectations, and regret. The two felt they had picked up her message; they understood why her eyes looked distant away, why her answers sounded like a moan. Đực served out a full bowl of rice and with two hands he offered it to his grandma, while Gái chose a pair of best chopsticks and gave them to her. She gave the second pair to her brother. Đực was moved when receiving the chopsticks, he looked at his younger sister with love. The both were smiling light-heartedly, unlike the way they normally were, as if they had been given a piaster, or a handful of sticky rice, or a loaf of canned fish stuffed bread. It was so strange, so different.
   On the other boat, the woman had passed up the poetic tale of Sáu Trọng, and now she was reciting other verses:
The ship arrived at Bến Thành at ten
Ship whistle was hurrying passengers to disembark then.
   Đực and Gái looked at each other again. In their mind’s eye appeared series of the images of the bustling wharf at the other end of the market place where well-dressed women were disembarking followed by some children and were bewilderedly looking at the unfamiliar scene around. Both of them wished they could be sitting aboard a ferryboat to return and visit the homeland in their mind, sort of homeland formed by their hallowed feelings and not by any petty memories.
   Aunt Tư was sitting overlooking her meal. The river with its spaciously deserted banks, the rustling sugarcane field, the birds twittering in the early morning, the rectangular well whose water was so fresh near the clump of banana behind the house, all were blotting out the reality before her eyes.

(from a Vietnamese text excerpted from “Ngày Tháng Bồng Bềnh” - Drifting phases of life, Gió Việt, TX, 1987)
1  Zhangfei, a general in the Chinese romance San-Kuo Chih Yenji (Records of Three Kingdoms) who is known to have a terrible temper.
2 Đực, male; Gái, girl or female. In the old days, some Vietnamese living in rural areas used to name their children with such “coarse” words to protect them from any harm caused by devilish spirits.

. Cập nhật theo nguyên bản của tác giả chuyển từ HoaKỳ ngày 15.6.2014.