The love of Ochna Integerrima Tree – A Short Story from Vietnam
Nguyen Ngoc Loi, a short story writer and novelist from the land of Blue Dragon shares his short story.
Nguyen Ngoc Loi
Nguyen Ngoc Loi, born on July 15, 1950 in Quynh Luu, Nghe An province of Vietnam, has 6 collections of short stories and 2 novels to his credit. He is winner of 4th prize for short stories of Van Nghe newspaper in 2003; second prize for short story about education in 2010; second prize for novel about transport in 2013; first prize for novel of Ho Xuan Huong Literature Prize for the period 2015-2020; second prize of the National Committee of the Vietnam Union of Culture and Arts Associations and some other local prizes.
The love of Ochna Integerrima Tree
By Nguyen Ngoc Loi
(Translated into English by Khanh Phuong)
The upright ochna integerrima tree placing in the red-brick courtyard of that building had caused a stir in the street. Its root was big, knobs covered with full of green-white moldy lichens. It was more than a meter high, from the root up it is tapered off, twisted full of knobs. Its trunk was like the body of an athlete, curling the wood grain under the dark brown bark.
The canopies were stripped of all leaves, revealing clusters of buds like jade iridescent fruit plates. Scattering from the small branches sprouted purple young shoots. The ochna integerrima tree looked like a tower filled with tens of thousands of buds. The top of the tower, the top of the tree like a cone were knitted with green buds.
No one known the identity of the house owner. The town was upgraded to a second-class urban area, the roads were newly planned, the land was chaotic, people who stayed for a long time sold the land for building houses, and people who come from other places to buy the land, so new houses grew up like mushrooms after the rain. The whole city was noisy all day like a construction site. The sound of hammers piling, the sound of welding machines, the sound of vehicles carrying materials, all were busy causing the fierce noise.
There were all kinds of houses, villas, tube houses… Every house had a few green trees to make it lively, to reduce the glare caused by the large concrete blocks, by the dazzling yellow, brown, and red paint colors. Trees plant in the ground, in cement tubs, in pots, tanks and pots were also of all kinds. Cement pots, ceramic pots… Looking at a tree, can guess one’s economic ability, the aesthetic level and taste of each homeowner. A newly street, the landlords had certain works, each person works at an office, so they lived next to each other but rarely visit each other.
The villa was closed all day. In the afternoons, when a shiny black car stopped as smooth and light as a whisper, the car door opened and a rosy, stylish middle-aged man stepped out, then people knew that the boss has come home from work. On New Year’s Eve, the host had many guests.
Afternoons of near Lunar New Year days, guests were gradually crowded, sometimes two, sometimes three small shiny cars. When one group left, another group came, the car stopped across the street, coming out were suits, ties, shiny brown and black shoes. They confidently stroke their heels, grabbed their bags and across the street, entering the house by the side gate.
The owner of the drinking shop under the tree across the street said that the ochna integerrima tree was transported by a small truck on the afternoon of the twenty-seventh lunar December of the last year. Lowering it to the yard was supported by five or six strong young men, who used skis, levers, and large paddles, carefully moved each section, sliding each inch and lifting like an egg.
The ochna integerrima tree was planted in a square tub, kneeling, about eighty centimeters each. The tub was chiseled by blue stone, the edges bordered by ancient patterns, delicately carved features that viewers cannot help but admire the talented hands of the craftsman. The precious tree was planted in the precious tub, which was quite proportionate. No one can value the ochna integerrima tree. Some said it was VND fifty million, some said it was even VND hundred million… Some people affirmed that it was a family treasure, why people sold it. Passers-by stopped here to look at the precious tree through two huge iron gates or through the green iron flower fence.
Anyone who has stopped to look at the tree was hard to leave. The more looking the more saw it more beautiful. Players of bonsai and trees in the vicinity heard the story of the tree, gathered to come, sometimes stood crowded at the fence. They commented, evaluated and praised the person who had the merit of shaping, trimming, and decorated for many years to have such art work.
The ochna integerrima tree was so beautiful. Looking at the root, trunk, branches with magical curves, people exclaimed how they can create such the beautiful art tree. It met all concepts of Eastern philosophy. That was the concept of the universe, of the philosophy of life. All the branches were full of buds. The chubby buds seemed to be just waiting for the predetermined moment to bloom and dedicate.
Anyone who had ever played with a tree, once held a scissor and plier to bend the trunk, pruning branches, can imagine the creator’s passion and hard work for decades. The tree was in upright shape, even though its trunk was bent, its bending branches like it has been against many storms of heaven and earth and of time, but its main axis was still vertical.
Its form was steady and proud as a challenge. In the midst of the cold and rainy weather, the sporadic yellow color suddenly appeared so fragile, luxurious and noble. The miraculous nature cleverly placed the essence of heaven and earth into the tree so that its petals had the most beautiful yellow color of the sunshine, the most beautiful buds in jade color. The tree was like a mini universe, it had a solid appearance at the root, an indomitable appearance in its standing form, and the luxuriant canopy shown a strong and lasting vitality like earth and sky.
Especially the color of flowers, in the middle of a cold area, peach blossom evoked the warmth and freshness, the yellow color of the ochna integerrima blossom seemed to signal the nobility and wealth. On the morning of the first day of lunar New Year, yellow flowers bloomed on the low canopy as if bringing a little bit of southern sunshine to show off in the North. The ochna integerrima tree had the western brown color of the house wall, the blue color of the door paint and the red color of the yard brick as the background, so it was outstanding, making the house even more splendid.
Mr. Than heard his son talking a lot about that tree but until today, even though he was not feeling well, he tried to get on the bike to see. For nearly thirty years, Mr. Than has completely entered the profession of collecting and playing bonsai. The more he did, the more he became passionate. Whenever he heard anyone mentioned a place with precious trees, he always tried to see it. The more he looked at the tree, the more things he learned and understood.
The bonsai represented the player’s personality, soul and aesthetic. Some people like straightforwardness, stubbornness, and bravado. Other people like the softness and flexibility. Some like the solid layout of the branches. Some like the bush, delicacy… He understood better than anyone how to plant, care and prune a tree shape. It was said that during a lifetime of making trees, just creating only satisfactory tree can be satisfied enough. The whole garden tried to create but he still couldn’t find a root that he could entrust his soul.
Although many visitors had also admired his talented hands. The beauty was infinite. The beauty never stopped but always tended to reach out. Artists expressed their ideas and feelings through skillful hands and sensitive souls to create art works. Especially in playing the trees, the player’s talented hands were not a decision, but the decisive thing was the time and age of the tree.
One can make the tree canopy becoming densely, the trunk with rough knobs, but no one can increase the age of the tree. The tree had an old age, in addition to the fullness and thickness of the canopy, the endurance of the trunk, it also had the shimmer of the creator’s soul. The entire tree, from the branches, canopy, to the root falling into the soil as a philosophy of life and crystallized so much sweat and human energy. Since he was passionate and started working, Mr. Than still felt like he was groping. The beauty that he tried so hard finding was still somewhere, undefined. The beauty so far seemed to still shimmer in his dim memory.
His garden has nearly four hundred roots including all kinds of ficus benjamina, cedrus, wrightia religiosa, feroniella lucida, ehretia microphylla. Some were already in shapes that he put in tubs. The rest he nursed in the garden. His trees were brought from all over the central, southern and northern regions. Before being imported into the garden, they were mainly in raw form, raw material shapes.
He bought and collected, exploited to take care of, curling and pruning by himself. He often said that playing bonsai without being able to create a position, a shape we like, was just the way of people who earn silver coins too easily. Spending money to buy bonsai to display and watch was the play of the vulgarian rich.
People commented that his bonsai had a strange style. It seemed liberal in form and delicate in details. Most of the bonsai in the garden were made by his own hands, from nursery techniques, pruning to techniques of holding branches, techniques of aging… Even though they still were clumsy features, each bonsai had a different mettle. Every day, at the end of the afternoon, he made a pot of tea, sitting on a stone table under the shade of the old Chrysophyllum cainino tree in the alley and watching it while waiting for friends.
Almost every afternoon, he had visitors to see bonsai and talk about it. The bonsai gave him moments of relaxation. Looking at that bonsai, playing with it, he felt like his soul was soaring, those moments seemed to make him forget all the bad things of human life. The more he played, the more he understood about this elegant hobby. It was a loss for those who did not know how to find joy and relaxation in bonsai and flowers.
Both hands clinging to the iron fence, despite the barking of the dog on the steps, Mr. Than watched the ochna integerrima tree passionately. His whole body was like goosebumps. He shuddered. Maybe it was like that. It was right. Standing outside the fence, just two meters from the tree, he looked very clearly. He clearly saw every detail of the pattern on the side of the stone tub.
The four sides of the stone tub, in the bent rectangles, were embossed with four grape characters “Dai”, “An”, “Thanh”, “Dat”. Those four Chinese words have been imprinted in his memory since then by the precious tree, by the skillful carving of the carvers. The two words “Dai” and “An” on the other side couldn’t be seen, but he remembered it clearly.
As for the other word “Dat”, the word “Dat” had a set of “scratched strokes” with sharp marks like a sword, but curved by the curver, perhaps a slight carelessness had left a small streak in the last stroke. The whole tree he can see very clearly. The branch near the root was cut, the cut was now healed.
The branch was close to the root, at that time the owner said that it was broken by a piece of firecracker. He had to raise one more canopy for the “five blessings”. After nearly thirty years, the tree had not grown much. It was this tree that nurtured his love and passion for nature and plants that he had built his landscape garden today.
But why was the tree here? His heart was filled with worrisome. He might call the guard and ask to come in.
But why is the apricot tree here? His heart was filled with worry. Maybe he called the gate to ask to come in. That day, after that Lunar New year, his unit withdrew from Hue. Because of injuries, he was sent back to a village north of Hue. Every day, through the crevice of the tunnel behind the thorny bushes, the soldier Than looked at the ochna integerrima garden passionately. In his sight, very close, just a few steps away, was the ochna integerrima garden. The whole garden, even though the spring was over, still dedicated an overwhelming yellow color.
The yellow one was like light sunshine. The yellow color glowed, tinting the entire space of the garden with yellow. Big trees, brilliant flowers were all from the base to the top. Small trees were also scattered with shy flower clusters among new branches and leaves that turned green buds.
Looking at the yellow color, Than sometimes forgot that he was hiding, forgot the danger lurking from the groups of soldiers who always went back and forth to harass the old owner, from the AR15 series that suddenly exploded on the other side of the dike was just far from a hundred meters where he sat. Although known the ochna integerrima from the forest in the west of Hue.
The ochna integerrima trees, the wild flowers that he had met on the way, in the forest where his unit was stationed in the previous springs had not given him any idea of the beauty of the ochna integerrima. Yet standing in front of a forest of the ochna integerrima with all shapes, the trees with green and jade flower buds, yellow petals seemed to rise, rising up in him the hungover feeling. An indescribable excitement made him feel like was being hypnotized.
Sitting in the basement, Than watched the old owner carefully use pieces of steel impregnated with python fat, later he was taught such explanations, wrapped around branches to bend, tie, hold and shape each tree.
He was so engrossed in observation that he was waken up when the old man’s little daughter brought food. “Why do you ashtonish?”. Knowing that he loved to look at the trees, she said, “My father just lacks sleep by the trees. If you like, ask my father to teach. My father likes you very much.” The little girl said as she looked at the soldier with sparkling and clear eyes.
The old man was probably in his sixties, elegant in appearance with sharp features. Sometimes he holds pliers, scissors, he looked at all sides of a tree to cut off its branches, clinging to the other branches. Sometimes he untied the rope to re-bend branches. The bending of trees he only did in the afternoon. Later, Than was explained by him to do it in the afternoon because at that time the trunk was less watery, the stem would be more flexible, bending would not be broken.
The ochna integerrima garden of all sizes, were classified and planted in straight lines. The old tiled house had a rather large brick yard, near the house were large trees planted in pots and tubs, perhaps for its convenience and watching. Smaller numbers were grown in small pots lined up in the garden. Another types were planted in beds, above there were shelters from rain and sunshine.
Next were the low stands with the soil to nurse the seedlings. The old man worked hard at the garden from morning to noon, from noon to afternoon, he plowed the soil, pruned the branches, and then used a small bottle to spray something that he mixed very carefully on the ochna integerrima trees. While working, he kept an eye on and listened to the movements around him. Sometimes he softly said as if indifferently: “Don’t rush, please”. When he mentioned, at any moment a group of soldiers or strangers who passed by the alley.
Than noticed it seemed that the owner of the garden was most interested in the tree in the middle of the yard. Looking in from the corner of the garden, the top of that tree was level with the roof of the house. The top of the tree was a small golden tower that glowed in the light of the sunshine. When the sunshine was out in the garden, the old man glanced again before entering the house. From then until the lights came on, Than saw him hard working around that ochna integerrima tree.
Nearly two months later, when the wound on his right foot was taken care of by the owner’s young daughter, the skin appeared to be good. On the occasion of nobody there, Than entered the garden and watch that tree. The tree had a root about the size of 2 round hands, upright and about eighty centimeters tall. Its branches were evenly distributed in all directions.
The bend of the tree was soft and natural as it had been since childhood. No trace of human interfere could be found. Although the trunk was bent, its axis was still vertical. Its stance seemed to say that even after going through many harsh and stormy events, despite having to struggle, it still stood firmly and defiantly.
When realized that Than loved bonsai and flowers, the old owner told that not everyone can “play” bonsai, especially ochna integerrima. The profession of “playing bonsai” was not for the lazy and superficial. Those who did not love bonsai and did not consider them as their own children should play in vain.
Habits of conceit, snobbery, and cheating, lying, thinking money were better than people… all were contrary to “the ochna integerrima spirit”. In him, the old saw a “follower” of “the ochna integerrima spirit”. When became the “follower” of “the ochna integerrima spirit”, then would understand more deeply what the old owner said.
The old reminded him that playing bonsai was like everything else in life, if you wanted to do something, you had to be passionate about it and put in effort and pursue it. What he wished for would come true because the war would be soon end. Thieu’s government was full of greedy plunderers, they acted, shoot and killed for no other than the purpose of filling the pockets of dollars. Such a government would be sooner or later end, would be destroyed by the revolution…
Hearing the old man said, Than woke up. The sublime philosophies through the old man’s words became coherent. Than did not expect that a normal person who worked hard all day with plants and trees had such a simple and pure philosophy of life. As a politician, often explaining and encouraging the soldiers, now thinking back, he found that the words he said were empty.
The old owner’s words, the man lived in the heart of the enemy, deeply understanding the truth of life, every day had to reason and fight with the enemy, made him feel like he was drinking a cool stream of water. The old man told him that with a tree, when a person dedicated his whole life loving it, it will not turn back/betray to you. Those trees also cannot be valued by money.
Who can calculate the price of the sleepless nights, awake, the sweat drops dripping down the trees. People loved trees as much as they loved children. For some reasons people can be away from you painfully, but no one will sell their children. Selling children, maybe those were dishonest people…
How much did the old man love that ochna integerrima tree. He boasted to Than, that his father bought the tub in the Non Nuoc mountain of Quang Nam province with expensive price of gold. Four Chinese curved characters on the four sides of the basin were “Dai”, “An”, “Thanh”, “Dat”. Although Than did not understand anything about that confusing words, he still remembered the old man’s words.
He said he liked the shape of the tub, it matched the shape of the tree, but he was not satisfied with the words engraved on the basin. Only two words fit his wish. Those were “Dai” and “An”. He did not expect “Thanh” and “Dat” (meaning of success and satisfy. His life only wished that the country would be soon end the scene of killing so that he could be satisfied with the trees, follow his father’s footsteps, and continue to take care of the ochna integerrima garden according to his father’s wishes.
He believed that the garden would have a successor that was the eldest son who had gathered and worked outside. When his son returned, he would hand over the property that his father and his whole life worked hard to build up. And he also had to pass the secret of the profession to his children… This precious ochna integerrima tree, when he grew up, he saw his father taking care of it. He himself did not know how old the tree was.
In 1960, when his father died, Mr. Can sent someone asking to buy the ochna integerrima tree. When hearing the request, he laughed and shook his white beard:
– How can be hidden the money of the “lord of the Central region”, but you cannot think that with money you can buy anything.
Many times Mr. Can sent people to come but he still shook his head.
Why spent all efforts to make a beautiful tree for others to watch. Sell any tree, but this tree, he definitely did not sell. Money can buy many things, but also things that money cannot buy. When you can make a tree yourself, you would understand…
The wound healed, the unit sent people down to pick Than up. Than had to say farewell to the old man and the girl. Had to leave, he was extremely motioned. The anxiety before leaving Than cannot be clearly explained, the kindness of the old man, the feelings of the young girl or in the ochna integerrima garden. Everything seemed to hold his soul. Before immersing himself in the dark night, he looked at the precious tree, watching the whole garden as if he wanted to gather everything in his deep soul.
The South was liberated, Than left to the army. Remembered what the old man said if loved plants, come back here when you were in peace. On the way home from Saigon, suppressed his eagerness to reunite with his wife and children, Than got off the bus and found the house that had taken care him. The precious tree was still there along with other scattered trees around the yard.
He saw that the trees seemed to have grown up. As for the old ochna integerrima root, he did not see how big it was, but only found it to be more ancient and luxurious. Only the old man was left at home. The daughter, who used to take care of Than, got married to a man in the next village.
Than stayed with him for five days. Five short days, the things he told him about the techniques of care and pruning, Than wrote densely in a notebook. He also gave Than two small ochna integerrima trees for trying to plant. When giving the trees to Than, he said ” Wrightia religiosa”, ” Ochna serrulata”, they can live in all regions, any climate can produce flowers, but ” ochna integerrima” cannot.
“Do not know if it would bloom in cold weather there or not, because each land and climate zone was only suitable for one species of tree. It could be with your youth and new knowledge, can improve it…” – Than understood the old man’s words as a reminder and a profound message.
Watched the ochna integerrima tree, Mr. Than seemed to see the shadow of the old man at that time. Hue’s deep and warm voice seemed to be resounding clearly: “…If you play ochna integerrima tree, you must know how to love and care for it. If you are indifferent and mistreated the tree, don’t expect it to repay you…”
Then why was that tree here, right in front of him?
Eyes looked towards the ochna integerrima tree but Mr. Than’s soul was like drifting. The sound of a car parked behind him startled Mr. Than. A man with a briefcase got out of the car. He was young, perhaps ten years younger than him.
While waiting for someone to open the gate, that person glanced at Mr. Than, his face suddenly softened: “Uncle, you seem to love the ochna integerrima tree…Please come in, please….”
The owner opened the gate, extended his hand to invite Mr. Than to go first. Hesitating for a moment, Mr. Than boldly stepped into the yard. This was his chance to see the ochna integerrima tree for his heart’s satisfaction.
The host, after putting away his briefcase, walked out into the yard with a voice:
– Bring water to invite the guest.
Mr. Than almost knelt down next to the tree. The two words “Dai” and “An” appeared here. As he approached, he noticed that on the large root on this side there was also a dent that had been there at that time. He stretched out hands and gently stroked the tree trunk, then stood up and looked from a little far. Looked again at the tree, Mr. Than realized that his skills were still very clumsy.
-The profession of playing is also very elaborate… The satisfied laughter of the owner sounded behind him, making Mr. Than awake.
-Yes, yes…May I ask…where did you buy this tree? Seeing his mistake, Mr. Than became embarrassed.
– I love the tree, right.
After inviting the guest to sit down at the stone tables in the foyer, the host said. Mr. Than looked at the owner. The man who was probably in his forties, graceful and elegant figure pushed a glass of orange juice in front of him.
– Who doesn’t love this beautiful tree…
– Is that so? But not everyone can play the bonsai, right?
– Yes, you are right.
Mr. Than kept a glass of orange juice in his hands and listened to the owner explaining the rules of the tree game, but secretly rejoiced in his heart. It was really worth it to be able to enter a house like this for the precious tree. Although he still wondered why the tree was here, he found it inconvenient to ask.
That evening Mr. Than wrote a letter to Hue city. Although he vaguely remembered the address, he still wrote. It had been a long time since he wrote a letter to there, even though he knew it was his fault. The hunch was like a news that something wrong with the old man’s family. He wrote that if anyone received this letter, please let him know the news of the old man and why the precious tree was here. Mr. Than did not expect such an indifferent letter to receive a reply.
The writer who replied to him was the old owner daughter, who took care of him in the cellar next to the bamboo bushes in the past. The letter replied to him that the old man had died in 1985. The older brother returned to take over the great estate but did not inherit his father’s business. The precious tree was sold by the older brother for a large sum of money. Along with the money from the sale of the land and the garden, he bought a house in the city to trade.
That was clear.
Thanks to that, Mr. Than was able to meet the tree again. It had now been given to a worthy new owner. He was someone who understanding the rules of the game and knowing how to play. Then it would be well taken care of. The tree that has been imprinted in his memory since then, it was now next to him. For a long time, every time he was busy trying to find a way for the bonsai shape, he struggled a lot, and finally he returned to his upright shape.
It was difficult for him to break out of its steady shape. So, the whole garden of hundreds of tubs and pots, all of his trees were still the same. Whether it was “twin trees”, “child and father” … The position of any tree had a strong, indomitable top. The two ochna integerrima trees he brought from Hue were also created by him in the shape of this tree. Although it could not be as flowery and beautiful as the old man’s apricot tree, he was so happy.
He chose the soil to replace in a regular basis, chose the clean water to water the tree and shielded it from the cold wind. He took care of two trees exactly as the old man told him to. He considered his actions as a gratitude to the person who helped and taught him the profession. And the two trees have paid their respects, and every New Year giving bunches of flowers. Although there were not many buds and flowers like the other, the two trees had also shown that the creator’s hands were also talented.
The precious tree was more than ten kilometers from his house. The road from his house to the street, which was bumpy and muddy among vegetable fields, was replaced by a concrete road. Passing this section, on the main road, he leisurely pedaled for more than an hour to arrive.
From time to time Mr. Than cycled on the new street with the desire to watch the ochna integerrima tree. Not wanting to disturb the owner, he set up his bicycle at the foot of an electric pole, a short distance from the iron-gate, and then entered an old man’s drinking shop nearby. Sitting here he can also watch it as much as he wished.
It was almost five o’clock in the afternoon and it was still hot. The heat from the asphalt surface emitted, from the yellow and brown painted walls, making Mr. Than’s whole body was sweat. Having just parked the car at the usual electric pole, before he had time to enter the drinking shop at the invitation of the owner, whom he was now used to, he saw that someone watering the tree. A middle-aged man hold a plastic hose to the ochna integerrima tree. The stream of water rushed out and hit the tree, causing the ground to splash. Mr. Than quickly ran to:
-It can’t be watered like that, why water now?
The other man let go of the hose in astonishment, causing water to splash on the yard:
– What do you say, why not?
Mr. Than looked closely at the tree. Oh my god, it has been a few months since the tree was so different. They took care of the tree like that, no wonder it looked like a seriously ill person. The flowers had all fallen, and from its branches sprouted young shoots. No one had bent or pruned, so the branches and branches were deformed, looking like a grove from afar. The dark green, glossy leaves have turned dry. The soil around the root was eroded by water, exposing the old root, white moldy. The soil on the surface of the tub was compacted, hard and cluttered with gravel.
-Come on, come in and have a glass of water, old friend.
The drinking shop owner said: “Are you worried about the tree? The owner is not worried about it, but you are worried about for get tired. Drink water already”
The owner set a table with a cup of water, but Mr. Than’s eyes were glued to the tree.
– Then it will die, sir.
– What do you say?
Mr. Than turned back sadly…
– Then you look.
He pointed to the pile of trash across the street. The pile of garbage waiting for the sanitation worker to clean up, was littered with a few pots of withered precious trees.
– Its fate is the same as the other pots. They just threw it out yesterday.
He ended the sentence with a distorted smile.
At the end of the year, Mr. Than came up and did not see any ochna integerrima tree in the tub anymore. The drinking shop was also moved, replaced by a large foundation. Standing at the electric pole, he saw that the tree had been taken to an unknown location. Replacing it on the precious tub was a large, bending trunk. From its base to its branches, it was coated with a brown-tinted varnish. The branches were studded with crowns, neither leaves nor flowers, probably made of plastic in orange red color.