A neighbor friend – A Short Story from Vietnam
Do Cong Tiem, an eminent writer from Vietnam, known as the land of Blue Dragon, shares his short story.
Do Cong Tiem
Do Cong Tiem, a short story writer of Vietnam was born in 1955. His published works are: ‘A neighbor friend’ (Short story collections-2005); ‘A sparse night’ (Collection of short stories- 2010), and ‘Neighbor’s Lights’ (2019). He is recipient of C Prize for “Neighbor’s Lights”, Collection of short stories in 2019 and First Prize on Memoir for “The Land of Minh Tan 2018”.
A neighbor friend
When informing the news that Mr. Phan had to go to the emergency room, I panicked. Phan and I became close friends due to many reasons. He belongs to the senior generation who is the predecessor. For more than ten years he fought at battlefield B. On holidays, New Year’s Day, medals were covered full on his chest. The children in the village kept looking and admiring him very much.
It was said that at the time, he was studying in the tenth grade on a district street, he had cut a hand to write a volunteer application by blood. The country was unified, he left the army to return to the village. He worked hard to build his homeland. Although a farmer, he was very fond of reading books and loves the literature. Yet I became close to him. Sometimes in intimate conversation, he often told me “you and I are still related. The relationship is far but a drop of blood is more than a pond”.
Until his children started going to school, he was a person who always wanted children to be good at studying. Since I taught his son, he had completely changed the way of addressing. He kept to address “the teacher” with my wife and me. My wife complained. He dismissed “We are adults; if not keep right manners, how can do young children follow”.
The villagers all loved him. Loving due to his industriousness, kindness, open and honest with everyone. But people also complained about him because no plan for giving births. They gave birth to a bunch of children in a short time. The younger baby is the less than two years than the older one. Just knowing to the way he named his children according to a system, it was like he set a purpose. As his wish, his first son named Hoc (study), then Thuc (knowledge) Van (literature), Minh (intelligence), Giau (richness), Co (prosperity).
Mr. Phan’s children were like young trees growing on a barren land. They grew up struggling but they were all strong and healthy. All children were obedient and strangely good at studying.
Every time Mr. Phan was invited by the school to attend parents’ meetings, to hear the praise of his sons under the flag, his dark face lit up with joy and happiness. He kept cheerfully “I feel so happy! Thank you all teachers”.
As Phan’s children grew older and studied up, his family’s economy became more and more difficult. It was not enough even he and his wife all worked, so they had to borrow money from the families outside the village. Someone loved him and said, “The older children grow up, force them to quit school to help parent. People are indebted when children are small. In the meantime…” He was silent.
There was not so many field, husband and wife both had to take advantage of time while working and spending their time in brick kilns to carry bricks for the kiln owner. They waked up from very early morning. Everyone in the village felt unrest to look at the two people’s shadows, haggard in the twilight. Compassionated for them, some people got angry: “You tortured yourself! You gave birth so many, and even send children to universities with nice clothes”.
The fact was, Mr. Phan’s children also known their fates. Went to Hanoi to study, they would not dare to compare with others. Also be saved in spending. Every time they hold the money from their parents, each child shed tears. When Hoc was in his final year of college, Thuc was in his second year, and Van started going to university, Mr. Phan had to cut a garden to sell.
Mr. Phan inherited a heritage of about 1000 m2 of garden with five-wood-room house left by his parents. The first time he cut 350 m2 to sell. Then when Minh entered the university, he cut another 350 m2 to sell. This time he sold it to my wife and I. My family became a closed neighbor with his family. Our relationship was more intimate.
Mr. Phan’s hard days passed slowly. Then, son Giau went to the university. Next, son Co graduated from high school and entered the math specializing class of Hanoi National University of Education. One day, Mr. Phan called my wife and I over. He told the long story about all the secret inside him.
…In the past, his parents raised him very hard. There were eight older brothers and sisters before him. But not a single person lived to be more than 3 years old. When his mother gave birth to him, his parents chose the name “Phan (feces)” to give him. They believed with such a bad name, the mandarins in death world did not want to catch him. Experienced several cases of fatigue, a few times missed deaths, Mr. Phan overcame the fate of his older brothers and sisters. He was the faith and hope of his parents.
Then he went to school. There was someone called him as “shit”. Many times he had to fight due to his name. Some people said that just adding a mark that would make him no longer in that bad name. But he didn’t follow. The more growing up, he was never ashamed of the name his parents named to him. It is a waste of people but the shit is a useful thing in certain kinds. In this world, many people had taken the name of beauty, politeness, and elegance but their hearts are narrow and dirty, more rotten than shit. Well, they can deceive the teacher, betray friends, insolence, harm the country, and harm the people… So he kept that name to himself.
He was studying in school when the country was at war. At that time, he was a youth with spiritual calling from the country. He left the school to take the gun. The country was at peace, he returned. His parents were old, he can’t continue to go to school, and he had to pick up a plow and a hoe. Then got married and had children.
Yes, he used to think. His parents were hard to have children. Now there were hospitals and dispensaries. He can give birth, then can feed them. And he kept thinking that he had to give birth to his comrades as well. His teammates, how many people entered the battle, but not so many returned. They were all very young, never married or had children. They were never allowed to get married and have children again. So he tried to have many children. Fortunately, at last he also stopped, although it was late. Now he realized that his ideas wear very stupid and outdated.
Life was getting harder day by day. His parents passed away one by one, but he was never fully cared for them. Up to now, the inheritance left by his parents that he cannot keep…
His voice choked. Hands covered his face and cried like a baby. His wife, Mrs. Lieu sat motionless like a wooden statue. I understood that she was also suffering not less than Mr. Phan. At the age of eighteen, she entered his family, she only knew to give birth for her husband, not to love him but to help him keeping the inheritance.
And my wife and I also became dilemma. In the past, I bought his land, but was not happy. Right from the first time he cut the land to sell, he also told us but I kept refusing and advised him not to sell. But then he couldn’t keep it. The second time, he said directly, “If the teacher don’t buy it, I still have to sell it to someone else”.
But those were things of the past. Now, son Hoc and son Thuc had finished universities. They had jobs right in Hanoi. Daughter Van also finished the school. Everyone just kept looking at his children. How many people have wished to be poor and work hard like him, they were also willing to trade that.
Waiting for him to calm down, I am gentle to say.
– Come on, man. Your troubles will pass. Even you had to sell parts of your land, it’s also because of your children’s education. For the future of the children.
Heard me saying that, he looked up at the roof for a moment, then decided.
– My wife and I have discussed carefully. I invite you here today to ask you for a favor.
My wife and I looked at each other, then he suddenly changed his addressing, maybe that more intimate.
– You have something to say, then speak out
My wife spoke up.
– My wife and I and the children all know that uncle and aunt have helped us a lot. Please do your best to help us this time.
My wife and I replied in unison.
Mr. Phan looked at me. His eyes flashed with sharp, determined glints.
– My wife and I decided to sell the rest of the house and garden. So please help us buy it.
– What did you say? We dare not.
My wife was bouncing.
– Don’t think like that
– You don’t have to worry, if you need, we will lend you some. We haven’t built a house yet. When your children finish universities, then decide late
– I don’t know what to say to your kind heart. We’ve calculated everything, we have to sell anyway. They are all in Hanoi now. My wife and I will go there to look after the grandchildren and earn money to support them.
– Then you go there with your children. The house is left to us to look after. You need some money then we will help
My wife actively raised her opinions.
– That can’t be. Right now, we don’t just own you. Before going to Hanoi with the grandchildren, we will no longer owe anyone, we do not want to let anyone think this way about my family. We decided, if you do not buy it for us, we had to sell it to someone else.
Mr. Phan determined to make me a little confused.
An entire property with five rooms, a rainwater tank, flower walls, a brick yard, a garden. Before, I used to talk to him often. If I build a house in the future, I will make an old style house like his. He might still remember my wish then now Mr. Phan wanted to sell it to me. In the situation of Mr. Phan at this time, if I buy from him, I would feel very sorry, I am concerned with a feeling like stealing from them.
Having to sell his father’s inheritance, he must be heartbroken, and it was a great loss for him. Then how can I gain by his loss. But if we don’t buy it, someone else will buy it, because Mr. Phan can’t keep it anymore.
– Okay, you have decided, we would follow. But you give us next week will answer you.
– Okay, I just hope you don’t let me sell this property to someone else.
Oh my God! In this world, there were many people who sold their houses and land. But has anyone sold houses and land like Mr. Phan?
In the following days, my wife and I struggled with buying a house. The back and forth thinking, then one day my wife whispered in my ear. I hugged my wife in my arms “How could you be so secretive? I agree with both hands!”
Finding a way, my wife and I started to purchase Mr. Phan’s house. As for the price, in less than a minute we came to an agreement. My wife and I were eager to run money and do the paperwork. There was only one thing we had been struggling with. That was Mr. Phan determined to deduct from the amount that we lent him before. We definitely would pay for full the house. We still accepted the old debt. Mr. Phan refused. Finally, Mrs. Lieu suggested “sharing for two, Mr. Phan deducts half of the old debt”. All agreed.
It has been two years, the house of Mr. Phan’s family had been owned by my wife and I. Occasionally, he and wife and their grandchildren went back to their hometown, still stayed at my house. Everything in the house remained the same. Because I wanted him and his children still have a feeling of returning to their own home. He seemed to notice that too. In front of all his children and me, he often said “You and I were just different from not being born with the same parents”.
Phan’s children had also considered my children as siblings. Although my wife and I only taught them in elementary school. However, they were still as polite as they used to be.
Last year, when my son Tam had just finished his 12th class exam, his two older children went to the countryside to pick them up so they could tutor my son. On the day of the exam, Thuc came back to pick me up. Mr. Phan said “pick you up so that you could stay with us a few days, and the transportation of Tam to the exam place, we take care all”.
For a few days when Tam took exam, I stayed at the same place where his family accommodated. Only the people in his family were already cramped, now adding me and my son. He seemed to have guessed my concern “Only a narrow heart is scary, uncle”.
Every meal, he served as if big events. By the time Tam finished his final exam, it was like a party. Seeing that I looked confused, he patted me on the shoulder “Don’t worry, I’ve got two kids finished college now. They’ve all got jobs. I don’t see the sun coming up for my family”.
Yeah right. His house had two motorbikes. He prepared to buy another one. Just a few years ago, it seemed as if his life had sunk to the bottom of a pond. He had to drown in the mud of need. Of all the sufferings of life, nothing was worse than the suffering of poverty. It was true that God never closed all doors to anybody.
The dishes that he served us only available in big restaurants. It was not something for everyone. I found the most delicious for my favor was his pickled solanum macrocarpon.
We all raised our glasses. Mr. Phan tilted his head back and drained his beer in one gulp. His face beamed with happiness.
The children congratulated to each other. All naturally formed into two groups. The children turned to talk to each other about their studies, about the situation in the country, abroad, about their plans for the future… As for me, Mr. Phan and Mrs. Lieu, just listened to them talking, looked at them happily.
I was really happy in front of his children. They were all born and raised in poverty. They would become helpful people. I was also glad that my son would be closer to Phan’s children. My son would have good examples to follow.
I saw that Mrs. Lieu was now whiter and more beautiful. Only Mr. Phan was still the same. Still his body was thin. And his back seemed to be bent a little more. There were already gray hair due to years of battle, due to the hard days of the past. Tomorrow he would be the father of engineers and doctors. And may be the father of dignitaries. But at the time, they were still poor people, still working hard to collect every penny.
Now he has to go to the emergency room again. As if there was a premonition that made me panic. I look at the ancient house under the canopy of jackfruit and longan trees. The morning wind is cool. I hope nothing serious for Mr. Phan like the previous times. Then tomorrow, I will be able to tell him “Your parents’ inheritance is still kept! Now I ask you to redeem it!”
Just then, the taxi driver arrived. I told my wife and children a few things and then got in the car and drove straight to Hanoi. When I got to the hospital, I rushed to the emergency room. Mrs. Lieu, my son Tam and all of Mr. Phan’s children were waiting in the hallway. An atmosphere of fear and anxiety pervaded everything.
The Doctor looked at us once and then shook his head slightly. Mrs. Lieu hugged me. The children surrounded us, then they hugged each other. Mrs. Lieu hiccuped and then shouted.
– Oh my God! What can I do now!
I sent Tam to the post office, telegraphed to his mother what to do at home first. Hoc and Thuc informed to the working place and went straight to the hometown. Van and Minh stayed with Mrs. Lieu. I and Giau, Co went to do procedures to bring Mr. Phan back to the hometown.
– Where do we go back now?
Mrs. Lieu wiped her tears and asked
– Come to my house! Is my house is not yours?
My words had a power. Everyone listened and followed.
Outside, I appear to be very strong but inside my heart is sobbing. “Brother Phan! Let me and you and the grandchildren take you back to your hometown. Back to the place where you were born. Where you gave birth to your children. You can rest assured and return to the eternity. Only regret that the day I deliver the inheritance of your parents to your wife and children, you will no longer live, but you will surely smile at the other world”.
(Translated into English by HFT)