Short story by THĂNG SẮC.
Translated by NGUYỄN QUANG DY.
Photography by NGUYỄN VŨ PHƯỚC.
Her husband was arrested and imprisoned by the French regime on the far away island of Poulo Condore. Both her son and daughter-in-law had died, leaving her with a small boy, now her only true grandson. It goes without saying that she faced untold hardships raising the boy on her own, giving up so much of herself that, over time, she became thinner and smaller and developed a hunchback.
Her grandson grew into a healthy boy who loved his grandma, working hard at school and at home. But, he also loved flying kites, something he did much better than anyone else in the village.
When the kite season came, as the sun went down, the village boys would converge in front of the old woman’s home waiting for him to come with them for kite flying sessions that would last well into the night. While the boy went off to play, she could finally settle down into her bamboo bed in the front yard and enjoy the cool breeze after a long, hard day, with some peace of mind. She would listen to the kite flutes humming in the wind, be able to recognize her grandson’s flutes among all the others, because it whizzed with a clearer and higher pitch. The sound would soon lull her to sleep.
When she awoke, she would hear the sound of splashing water and she knew her grandson had returned, taking a noisy bath at the well. By now, the Morning Star was twinkling merrily in the clear sky. She would scold him albeit in a loving tone, “Bố tiên nhân anh! You’ve been out all night. I’ve left some cooked sweet potatoes in the pot for you, if you’re hungry.” He would laugh heartily and this ritual would repeat again and again almost every night during the kite season.
In 1965, the war came to the North with bombing raids. Almost everywhere, young men were in a rush to join the army. Her grandson was no exception, and getting restless, but she knew he was reluctant to leave her home all alone. She thought, “this boy has his grandfather and father’s blood. It’s going to be hard to keep him home.” But the village recruitment board didn’t call for him. With each passing day, he grew more restless watching his friends go one by one, which filled him with frustration and sadness. The old woman felt so sorry for her grandson that she decided to go straight to the district recruitment board to try on his behalf.
“Please take him!” she pleaded. “People say men are good for war, women are good for peace. Now, I can take care of myself with a few bowls of rice each day. There’s no reason to worry about me.” Anyway, that is how he was recruited.
Before he left for the frontlines, he asked his friends to come and help him fix the leaky roof of his grandmother’s house, clean up the well and plant a row of custard apple trees in the garden. Then, he gave the kids of the village his collection of kites. He kept only the largest one which had three flutes, for himself. He put it away in a kitchen corner and told his grandmother, “Don’t give this kite to anyone, grandma. I’m going to fly it when I get back.”
She replied with a sigh, “Bố tiên nhân anh! A grown man about to go to war, yet you still play like a child!” She looked at him with loving eyes, yet inside felt a somber pain. She knew his world would soon include something more than staying with her and flying kites.
Ten years slowly passed. In those long years, she tried to carry on with an uneasy longing, waiting for her grandson to come home. She grew weaker and weaker. Her memory faded and she became forgetful. She would forget the names of those around her. Sometimes she would confuse the afternoon for the morning. In her mind, there was only one thing she would never forget – to keep her grandson’s kite safe, tucked away in the kitchen corner. During those war-torn years, the kids continued to fly the kites just like before. Every night, she would sleep in loneliness, in the same run-down bamboo bed. The sound of distant kite flutes echoing through the darkness reminded her of her grandson’s absence and made her pain grow deeper.
She kept that three-flute kite like a treasure. It was now a part of her life. The people of the co-operative had repaired her house and fixed up the front yard. But, she would not let anyone lay a finger on the old kitchen where the kite was kept. Sometimes during the night she would suddenly wake up, stumbling into the kitchen and light a match only to make sure the kite was still there.
The custard apple trees in the garden had started to bear fruit. When they were ripe, the old woman picked and sold them at the market. She stored everything she made away in clay piggy-bank that she had hidden at the head of her bed. The neighbors said she was becoming weirder as she was nearing death.
No, she never thought about death. Death was a luxury she could not afford so long as her grandson had not yet come home. But, her forgetfulness would get worse and worse. And, as time went on, she began mumbling to herself all day, trying to recall the memory of long lost days, which were so often full of hardship and sorrow. In these moments, she would imagine her grandson coming home, just like before, like a shadow, so vague yet so real, always laughing heartily. She would call out his name, scolding him, “Chien ơi, Bố tiên nhân anh…”, as if he was still standing right in front of her.
The winter of 1976 was bitterly cold and dry. Frost had made the banana leaves brittle. The custard apple trees shed and littered the garden with leaves. Neighbors who came to see her found her coughing heavily and thinner than before, like a bag of bones. Thinking it would be impossible for her to survive through the cold winter, they decided the least they could do was to make a good coffin for her.
She would mumble curses at the carpenters, now noisily working on the coffin as if they wanted her to die. She wished her grandson would come home now to punish them for taunting her. Those who knew her felt so sorry for the poor woman in a tattered cotton jacket, like a ghost, and for her grandson who had failed to come home after so many years.
It was a miracle that she survived such an unkind winter, but she did. And as spring settled in, the garden was awash with the scent of fresh flowers. She hobbled over to the grapefruit tree and drew a deep breath. For a moment, she had the vague yet ironic sense that this might be the last time she could enjoy the tranquil scent of the countryside that had accompanied her through the better part of her life. But the thought of her grandson endured in her mind, like a searing flame, and instinctively, she drove off any thoughts of death. Now, the scent of the grapefruit flowers and the fresh spring air at once became healing, helping her to regain some of the strength she had lost.
One morning, they brought her a letter. Folks in the community came and sat around her, very excited. Hai, the teenage girl who lived next door shouted in her ear, “Look! You’ve got a letter, from Chien!”
She stared at the envelope for a moment and asked, “Chien who?”
“It’s your grandson, who else? Are you so confused that you’ve forgotten even your grandson?” Then, the girl opened the envelope and read it aloud for the old woman to hear,
“Dearest Grandma, I feel so guilty, writing nothing to you for so long. But deep in my heart, I’ve missed you so much and worried for you without me there to take care of you when the weather changes. But let me tell you right now. I’m coming home soon. Maybe by the time you see this letter, I’ll already be on my way to Quang Binh. I love you so much and can’t wait to see how you are. I’ve bought a betel mortar for you as a present, Grandma.”
Everyone listened to Hai with compassion as she read, some even with tears in their eyes. But, the old woman was quiet, as if nothing happened. Suddenly, she said pointedly, “You’re fooling me, aren’t you? How can you fool a poor old woman. If it’s really from Chien, he would have asked me about his kite!”
Nobody knew what she was talking about. What kite? But, the villagers ignored her. They did not want to hurt such a confused old woman.
When Chien finally came home, she would not accept him. As Chien embraced her, she momentarily tried to push him away. “This was not her grandson, not this big grown man with a scar on his face”, she thought. Chien was in shock, getting down on his knees to beg her, tears running down his face. But she remained indifferent, pushing him away while mumbling something to her “true” grandson, now a pale shadow of more than ten years ago.
With a heavy heart, Chien looked after his grandmother, whom he loved so dearly, even as she continued to see him as a stranger. Sometimes, she would stare at him for a moment or two as if to search his face for something she recognized. Then, she would withdraw and become still again. For the first few days, Chien was saddened and worried, but with time, he reluctantly accepted the fact that his grandmother had become so confused and forgetful over the years that she may never again recognize him.
Finally, the kite season had returned. One day, when she was sitting on the old bamboo bed, Chien came home with a good strip of bamboo. “I’m going to make a new kite, Grandma. I haven’t made any since I joined the army.”
The old woman, with her poor eyesight kept staring at the bamboo strip, and for a long moment looked back at Chien. Then, like a splash of cold water, she sat stunned and shaking. Something in the far corner of her memory came rushing back, telling her that the vaguely familiar shape of the big man sitting there making a kite was, in fact, her real grandson. She slowly approached him, reaching out to touch his head, then his shoulders. She asked softly with a trembling voice, “Is it you, Chien?”
He threw aside the half-finished kite frame and embraced her, overcome with a surge of painful and loving memories for his poor grandmother who he had waited to see in those years.
Still trembling, she dragged Chien to the kitchen, pointing up at the corner where the kite was tucked away, “That is your kite. See it? I’ve kept it there for you!”
There he found the three-flute kite frame, now blackened with kitchen soot. He then remembered how he had told his grandmother to take care of his kite over ten years before.
That night, as her grandson went out yet one more time with his favorite kite, the old woman tottered to the same old bamboo bed and lied down. Among the humming sounds of many kite flutes, she still recognized the whizzing sound of her boy’s three-flute kite. Now, the Morning Star was once again twinkling above the horizon. The peaceful night was awash with the familiar fragrance of fresh flowers. And the night was so tranquil that the old woman, at last, found peace.
When Chien came back, he took his usual noisy bath at the well, but now he didn’t hear his grandma’s stern but loving holler of “Bố tiên nhân anh!”, as he had so many times before. Well, never again… Three days later, when he was cleaning up her bed, he found her old clay piggy-bank. He broke it and found all kinds of small notes and coins, even more than what he had spent for her funeral.
He burst into tears.