by Vu Thanh Lich
It was scorching hot in deep summer. The market day was dragging on, with just a few buyers. Yet Old Khoan, trying to refresh himself with a little bamboo fan, made up his mind to linger on after everyone else had left.
Today’s market had some newcomers. Whenever any strange market-goers arrived, he invited them into his refreshment stall, offering them free green tea and a few homemade green bean cakes or peanut candies.
Khoan was the single son of wealthy parents of nearly fifty. During the appalling famine of that year, this couple helped lots of needy people from all walks of life, making porridge to alleviate their hunger. Unfortunately, many who came from afar died on the way, before getting relief from these elderly saviours. They chose a clean plot of land in the middle of their tea plantation as the last home for those ill-fated humans.
Old Khoan became the talk of the district marketplace. In fact, most locals in this little community were his relatives, both near and distant. However, few of them, including Khoan himself, knew much about their lineage. Now on the wrong side of eighty, he entrusted familial affairs to his daughter and son-in-law. What he liked most was to care for his refreshment stall near the entrance to the marketplace, where he served customers hot green tea that he grew and prepared himself. In the eyes of many residents, he was acting rashly. With his great fortune, he needn’t do such charitable work at that chaotic place, they thought.
But he did not care much about their comments, favourable or adverse.
This small market was situated near a national highway. Strangely enough, his refreshment stall was the only one built here. It was rigged up with a palm leaf roof under the canopy of an old plane tree and furnished with lots of plastic tables, stools and chairs. On every table, he placed a hot pot of green tea. Jasmine and lotus-scented tea were also available. While drinkers sipped their hot tea, he stared at the market gate as if waiting for some special person to come. Sometimes customers left his place without paying, yet he did not feel displeased. When strangers came from far-away localities, he offered them a free pot of strong tea and sesame candies or peanut nougats. Taking advantage of their presence, he inquired at length about the living conditions of remote areas. More often than not, he dipped his fingertip into the tea and used the table to draw a picture of a communal house standing under an old banyan tree near the river.
Today he kept looking at the market gate, waiting for the two strangers to leave. “Why the devil have they stayed inside so long?” he asked himself. “I’ve set aside a pinch of jasmine-scented tea for them!”
He waited and waited, growing increasingly impatient.
At last, they turned up with some heavy jute bags on the luggage carrier of their bone-shaking motorbike. Crossing the road, they came to his stall.
“Please give us two big cups of iced tea and some cheap food,” said one of them.
“Yes, certainly I will, young mates.”
They sat down on two stools by a small plastic table, wiping away sweat with their cotton towels. The stench of their perspiration, together with the bad smell coming from their wet bags of fowl feathers, made other drinkers sitting next to them get up and leave. “What a smell!” they said.
A few minutes later, with trembling hands, the old man brought them a tray with a warm pot of fragrant tea, two cups, a bowl full of ice cubes and a dish of assorted candies. After that, he sat by their side.
“Please help yourselves to the tea and candies. Then tell me stories about the localities you’ve travelled across,” he said to them in a cheerful voice. He placed the tray on their table and poured tea into their big mugs.
“What have you bought from the market today?” he asked them.
“Oh dear! Nothing at all,” replied one of them. “Just a few bags of poultry feathers given to us after we plucked scores of ducks. Amazingly, we were lucky enough to get all these bagfuls for free. Your locals must be very rich to willingly cast them away without regret!”
“On the contrary! How can we mountaineers living in this remote region be compared with you plain-dwellers?” answered Khoan.
“We lowlanders have our own problems too. Some lead a life of plenty while lots of others still live in low conditions like us. By the way, which ethnic group do you belong to? To put it plainly, you’re good-looking and a nice talker.”
“Actually, I was born and bred here. If you’ve got a lot of free time, I could deal with that matter later,” the old stall-keeper suggested.
“In fact, our job here is over. We’re badly in need of something to eat this evening. If you have any hard work beyond your capacity, we can help you for a bit of money.”
“No, there’s no need! If you have any good news, please tell me and I’ll offer you a herd of fat water buffaloes.”
“What! You’re pulling our leg, aren’t you?” asked one of the two men. “Moreover, what do you mean by ‘good news’? We won’t do anything unlawful like drug trafficking, you see.”
“Of course not! How could I ask you to get involved in such an illegal and dishonest activity?”
Taking a few sips of hot tea, the old man began narrating them an oft-told tale of his clan in a deep voice.
Our wide river flows between the two banks, which are covered in abundant crops. On our side stood the Dong Communal House; on the other lay the But Market, with several thatch-roofed huts built on raised plots of land. It contrasted with our communal house, a magnificent building with stone walls and dragon-scaled tile roofs, standing under the canopy of an aged-old banyan tree whose roots spread as far as the river bank.
The river was then spanned by an old wooden bridge situated about one kilometre away from our village. From the Dong Communal House on our side, if we wanted to reach the But Market place on the other or vice versa, we had to choose one of these two ways: either swimming across the river or going upstream to the bridge and crossing it before walking back downstream.
On the fifth, tenth, fifteenth and twentieth day of each lunar month, But market days were held. Sadly, the number of beggars was bigger than the total of both sellers and buyers put together. Worse still, a lot of women with little ones on their backs also went begging there. As for my mother, she never let me go along with her to the market. Instead, she just left me alone in the court of the Dong Communal House, although I cried my eyes out and stared in the direction of the market in vain. In this sacred building, joss-sticks were burnt on the first, fourteenth, fifteenth and thirtieth days of every lunar month. On those days, famine-stricken people crowded at the court to beg for alms.
One day, after leaving me alone in that court, she swam across the river to reach the market but came back with empty hands. She looked very pale and tired, shivering with cold. A few minutes later, she tumbled down on the roots of the banyan tree and breathed her last. Embracing her tightly, I cried and cried for hours. At noon, a group of well-dressed pilgrims found me lying unconscious by the banyan tree. They fed me and took me away in their horse carriage. Not until two days later, when I regained my consciousness, did I find myself in a totally strange land.
All I remember about my native place is our communal house opposite the But Market place across the river. That’s all. Both of you have travelled extensively. If you know the bearings of my village with these special features, please inform me at once and I’ll offer you a herd of fat water buffaloes. My house stands at the foot of the hill over there. Our gate is always wide open to welcome such visitors as you.
Although I don’t know how long I’ll remain in this world, I have to find my native village, no matter what.
Khoan was going to tell us more, but he stopped abruptly. He wiped away his tears and covered his head with a wet towel to lessen the impact of the hot sunshine. To the best of our knowledge, for scores of years, in addition to his trips to look for his relatives, he walked around the market to tell strangers about his clan’s tragedy. A lot of people had suggested places that they thought might be his native village, but none of them were the right place. His dream never came true.
Once his daughter and grandson accompanied him during his long search for fear that he might get in trouble on the way due to his old age and weakness, but their trip came to nothing.
“Dad, we’d better end our search here,” his daughter said to him one morning. “Over the past years of war, both our communal house and market might have been razed to the ground. How can we find them?” He just heaved a sigh.
The two strangers kept listening attentively. They seemed to scent a big profit. They looked at each other hopefully.
“As a rich man, certainly you’ve got a lot of relatives living here and there,” one of them remarked.
“Frankly speaking, I don’t know how many relatives I have in that distant native town,” he replied in a sorrowful voice.
After that, one of them took out his mobile phone and made a call.
“Hey mate, have all of your carpenters still stayed with you?” he asked.
“Why? What’s the matter? I’m going to let them leave in a few days’ time.”
“Try to keep them longer. Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after tomorrow, I’ll come back home to disclose something of paramount importance to you.”
“It’s a secret! I’m unable to tell you right now. Please do as I’ve just told you. A great fortune is awaiting us.”
“How much is my commission?”
“Shut up, you greedy man! I’ve never let you suffer a loss, have I?”
“Anyhow, I’m just asking to make sure.”
After his call, he hurried back to his co-traveller’s place.
“Damn it! I’ve got a family trouble at home and I have to come back at once. Can you go with me?” he said to his friend.
“You’d better leave as soon as possible. Anyhow, I must stay here to solve our dealing with these bags of duck feather. When can we meet again?”
“I don’t know.”
Turning to Khoan, the caller said to him, “I have to go home immediately. Surely I’ll have another opportunity to meet you. Please give me your address.”
“Goodbye, dear good old man. We have to go at once. How much should we pay you?” they said to Khoan before leaving.
“Oh no! I offered them to you free of charge,” replied the old stall keeper.
“Thanks so much for your kindness!”
Heaving a sigh, Khoan looked at them until their silhouettes disappeared behind a bend of the rugged road. After that, he tidied up his little shop and went home.
Day after day, Khoan silently watched the gate of the district market in the hope that something interesting would come to him one day. Sometimes in his dreams, he recognized the Dong Communal House under the canopy of the ancient banyan tree on the sacred land. He cherished it much more than his huge fortune.
Again, he told many people, even those who had heard his story many times already, about that sacred building for fear that some day he would be too old to remind them…
One morning, three strangers went into his refreshment stall and sat at a table close to him. At the sight of these newcomers, Khoan felt very happy. He served them a pot of hot lotus-scented tea.
“My dear old man, let me pour hot tea into our cups because your hands are trembling remarkably,” an old-aged man said to Khoan.
Another elderly customer pushed him towards Khoan.
“Oh my God! You’re my elder brother Tun, aren’t you? I’ve been looking for you for decades,” exclaimed Khoan. He stared at him for a long while. He realized that the man resembled him very much, except for his paler complexion and thinner body.
“My dear younger brother Khoan, before our mum died, she insisted that I look for you. When her body was found in the court of the Dong Communal House, our dad and his first wife brought her home in preparation for her funeral. Somebody told them that you had been taken away on a horse carriage.”
Khoan’s eyes blurred and his ears started tinkling. He leant against his thin brother. The four trembling hands clutched at each other, their eyes brimming with tears.
“As a carpenter, I’ve gone everywhere to look for this young brother of mine, you see,” Tun said to his fellow travellers. In the bright afternoon sunshine, the two others thought about the herd of fat water buffaloes that would be their reward.
Later on, the Dong Communal House, destroyed by enemy bombs and shells during the war, was rebuilt on its former foundations across from the former But Market. Monetary aid from a wealthy clan in the village allowed the builders to shape the walls from stone and make the roof with dragon-scaled tiles. Yet the canopy of the banyan tree would take a very, very long time to shade the Dong Communal House again.
Translated by Van Minh