#7. The Story of Hai “Don Co”*

*Don Co: đàn cò in South-West Vietnam accent – a musical instrument used in Vietnamese opera

It was high noon when I met them just outside the village’s gate. They didn’t go straight through the decayed yellow-painted gate, no. They hid by the gate’s corner, looked stealthily at the empty road winding through the small row of red-brick houses. I said to myself, Must be the thieves Ms. Nam was talking about the other day. A whole gang of them. Stealing everything they can to get some money for the white stuff. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no hero. I didn’t try to be a server of justice, or anything big and fancy. I had no better job to do as I just finished my round through the paddies. Not my paddies, mind you. So I came up to them, and patted slightly on their shoulders.

“Boy, what ya doing here?” I laughed. My stupid laugh often got me out of trouble. Ms. Nam always said, Hai, you are a master at the art of idiocy, and people stop wasting their time with you.

“Nothing, old man. Get lost.” The tall, enormous meatball shouted. His voice was muffled by a thin mask.

“Don’t mind him, please. We are looking for a place to stay, and we are wondering if there is any place to rent here.” The young boy smiled while rubbing his hands nervously. His round eyes stared at me all the while in apprehension. I’d spent most of my life running away from trouble, so I knew – yes, I knew ­– when I see trouble. A big, looming trouble hung above my head like heavy clouds. It’s started to rain. So I laughed again, asked them:

“A place for rent? Here? This nowhere piece of land? This alien town? This deserted shithole? Most people – and I say, young people – have gone up to Sai Gon, ya know.”

“You see, uncle, you see, this here – ” the young trouble flustered, “we really have nowhere else to go. We are hiding from – from debt collectors. And my brother here is trying so hard to protect me, and he’s not very good at it, so we will be found out soon. Uncle, please, do you have a place for us to stay?” He pleaded, his eyes glistened. But no tears were dripping down his face. On my better days, I would have turned them to the police. But when was the last time I had a better day?

“Mind bundling up at my place? It’s on the edge of the village. Not much room there, I say, but – ” I touched the boy’s arm lightly, and giggled, “no one will come. I say, no one.

He twisted his arm away, his dark irises flared up. But he knew better. He’s a smart one. I charged ahead through the bamboo bushes and followed the narrow earthy trail on the side of the village’s rusty gate. The boy hesitated, then quickly dragged the tall, enormous meatball on the trail. And that, folks, was how I got myself two adopted sons.

Whenever Ms. Nam saw me in the village’s market, she always said, “Look here, the old, rusty Hai Don Co is not dead yet.” I often laughed it away. But now, in addition to the stupid old man’s laugh, I said to her, “I have two sons to feed, I can’t be dead yet.” The news quickly got around. Ms. Nam told her friends, who then told the news to their friends and their friends’ friends. Everyone whispered behind my back as if I couldn’t hear their words. But I could hear them words. “Hai Don Co has two sons,” they said, “that Hai Don Co has two sons.” I wanted to spit to their face, “What d’ya mean by “that Hai Don Co”?” I was just me – plain old Hai Don Co. Could I not have the right to have two sons? But oh, that’s their mouths and tongues. Spitting whatever they want. It might hurt me before. Now I’m too old.

So I was not the least bit surprising, ya know, when I went home one dark evening and saw Ms. Nam and her lady friends gathered in front of my poorly built thatched-roof house, talked energetically to the younger trouble, my son.

“Really? That’s what he did?”

“Boy, if you don’t believe me now – “

“But he’s so old – “

“Oh, devil deeds don’t discriminate.”

“Boy, let me tell you one other thing quickly – “

They were going all gaga around him, and I stepped into that commotion, grinning broadly, “What’s the matter, beautiful birds?” And that, folks, was how you stop them female shooting their words like a machine gun. Simply ask them, What’s the matter? They will stare at you, puffing their mouth like a pufferfish, Nothing’s the matter. Yet you musk know with all your guts, that there’s a matter. And that matter was you.

They quickly dispersed and left me alone with the young boy. He didn’t say anything and kept waving his hand at Ms. Nam. “Bye-bye, come back soon,” he said. But he didn’t want them to come back soon. He didn’t want them to ever come back. I saw it in his round, barren eyes. So I jerked my head quickly, motioned for him to come inside the house. He was in charge of preparing the meals today. Not that he’s any good at it, but he’s as good as it could get. The tall, enormous meatball went out from his hiding place in my inner closet and quietly brought out the china dishes and bowls. He stole glances at me and presumed that I didn’t know. But I knew, oh boy, I always knew.

I got down on the wooden bed, picked up my bowl of rice, and started to chew harshly. The sound of chopstick hitting the china dishes, the sound of rice being chewed – loudly here, silently there – and the sound of the boys’ eyes glancing toward me made the meal noisier than usual. Amidst them was the sound of me waiting. I waited for him to speak up, to shoot out the question. Because I knew he wouldn’t keep it silent for long, with the way he and the meatball took turns to glance at me. And here it all came.

“So is it true?”

“What’s true?” I asked while chewing on my rice more carefully. My ma always nagged me for the way I chewed them. “Too fast,” she said on her death bed, “You always chewed them rice too fast.”

“The rumor. They say that you nearly kill your wife over sixteen ounces of gold.” The boy put his chopsticks down and looked straight at me for the first time in the evening. The meatball continued his noisy chewing at a slower pace while stealing quicker glances at me.

“Yeah? Guess it’s true. I didn’t have two years’ suspended sentence for nothing.” I laughed stupidly and picked up some greens on the serving tray. The boy kept on looking at me, his bowl of rice was settled down on the wooden bed. Without staring back at him, I said, “Don’t ya worry too soon. The damn old hag hasn’t died yet. She probably will outlive me and the rest of y’all. Two years’ probation –” I stopped, then looked at the meatball, who had stopped chewing for a while, “Ain’t regretting. If I could give it all back for a second chance, I would do it all over again.”

The meatball resumed his eating. Somewhere in his loud chewing, I heard a small “me, too”. The damn coward. Both of us. It’s as if we couldn’t face the injustice head-on, so we killed it instead. Didn’t make us heroes. Didn’t make us worse. I snorted, then got myself another bowl of rice. Oh boy, I thought, you’re not even good at cooking the damn rice. But that’s not the point of my story.

“Why did you want to kill her?” The boy shot another question at me. He didn’t chew. He didn’t pick up his bowl or his chopsticks. He just sat there, looked at me, and shot his questions down my throat. I imagined him standing in front of the court as a cruel, indifferent attorney, casually dropping me the question like dropping a pen, And why did you kill her, pray tell me? I smiled a little. Because with all this rice inside my mouth, I couldn’t laugh. Boy, you are the trouble. But his eyes just didn’t move. Didn’t move an inch, ya know. I struggled against the stare the way a wise beast struggled against a hunter’s net. But the net was closing in. And the beast was none the wiser than anyone.
“Because of sixteen ounces of gold. Didn’t ya just say so yourself?” I said nonchalantly. But he wanted more than that. He wanted more than what the blabber of Ms. Nam and her friends could bring him. So he stared on. And I chewed on. The sound of chopsticks moving continued to fill the air. Then the meatball coughed.

“Gold is not very important, I guess.” He said without looking at anyone in particular. “Though I know some people kill others for gold –,” he blurted hesitatingly while covering his face with the bowl as if this small little bowl of rice can erase his existence on the wooden bed, “but you are not one to kill for the money, I guess. ‘Cause you’re nice, I guess.” He put his bowl down to glance at me for a second, then quickly picked it up to cover his face again. “It took a lot to kill a person, I guess.” Seeing his childish actions, I just laughed heartily. To Hell with your ‘I guess,’ ya rascal. To Hell with it all.

“Ya ever kill someone, brat?” I asked.

“No, sir,” he stared at me, then quickly turned away, “On second thought, yes, sir. But nevermind, sir.” He said quickly while choking on invisible rice and greens and braised pork. So the dumb meatball does have a spine, although a small one. Just look at this child referring to me with sir and what not in his fluster. He was a damn coward, after all. If the news were true – if that were what he did ­­– then this damn coward must have used up all his courage in that luckless night. Well, not that I cared for him, anyway. In the end, I still cared more for the sixteen ounces of gold.

“Ah, so ya’ve never killed anyone. Good. Let me tell ya a story. My plain old story. Why did I want to kill the old hag, ya say? Let’s see. It all started with small arguments. That’s where it begins. That’s where everything begins. Just very small arguments. Then one day she said, ‘I’m not gonna live with ya no more, old geezer,’ and left. I didn’t know where she went. She just left. And my four sons left, too. There’s a saying, Every lover left me like the flow of small rivers. The funny thing was, they were not my lovers, but they also left me like the flow of small rivers. Just left me. And no return.” I finished my second bowl of rice and got myself a third one. There’s still greens and braised pork on the tray, and I didn’t have enough money to waste all them food.

“So where’s the part of you killing her?” The meatball asked. Like the young trouble, he put his bowl down and looked at me keenly. His curiosity inflamed his bravery.

“Just a minute, we are getting there. One fine day and I tell ya, it was truly a very fine day, I went to the village’s small clinic to get my health check. Not that I cared that much about me dying, it was just the pain. A blooming pain in my chest. And I thought I knew better than to stay home and wait for death. Boy, I always knew better. But not on that fine day. The doctor said he suspected that my pain was not a simple one. Right at that moment, it hit me hard. I said, ‘What ya mean?’ And he said, ‘Your lungs are not simple ones.’ And I said again, ‘What ya mean?’ And he shook his head slowly, ‘Might be cancer, uncle Hai, might be cancer. Not a simple one.’ I looked at him, and I thought. I thought deep. I went back to when I was a child. When I would get a bad flu, and my mother would sit by my bed, wiping my steamy forehead. The fever always felt worse than it should be, and whenever I woke up from the heat, my mother was there. She would stroke my hair and sing me back to sleep. A sleep where I knew that I was loved. But this time, it was not a flu. I was no longer a child. And worst of all, my mother was no longer there. You know what I did?”

“What, uncle Hai?”

“I laughed at the doctor. I laughed at his stupid face, at his stupid ‘not a simple one,’ at his stupid clinic. And I also laughed at me, at the pack of cigarettes in my threadbare shirt pocket, at the lovers who left me like the flow of small rivers, at the motherless bastards who always beg for a second chance at love. ‘Cause what else did I have? I had nothing, except for the stupid laugh. And I continued laughing my way home, which was near Ms. Nam’s home at the time. I laughed into the dark night. And by early morning, I ended up laughing all my tears away. So I called my eldest son and told him I need some big amount of money. He said, ‘Why don’t ya sell me that piece of land, pa?’ And I laughed, ‘Sure. Take it. Take all of it. Just pour me some money. Some very big amount of money’ And he gave me just that. Sixteen ounces of gold. Then – here comes the funny part – the old hag returned. Can y’all believe it? Forty-five years. She’s been gone for forty-five years. A big four and five. And in the worst nightmare of my life, she’s resurrected like a monument of haunting ghosts. She said, ‘Where’s my money?’ And you guess what I did?”

“You killed her.” The young trouble dropped his words again, quietly. He should be an attorney, that young trouble. If he were the attorney – If only he were the attorney –

“I killed her. That’s exactly what I did. I didn’t care whether she’s still alive after drinking the rat’s poison. I knew from the moment she drank the tea, that she’d be dead, forever dead, and never again reappear in my life. Now, I said to her in court, you are nothing but a phantom – a phantom of the lover who left me like the flow of small rivers. I ain’t regretting it, I tell ya. It was only this small guilt at the back of my mind. That when I cross through the border of this life, my mom will wait for me on the other side. How will I ever look at her? How will I ever have the heart to tell her that her son was a murderer? When the judges announced my sentences, all I heard was my mother’s voice as I turned restlessly in my childhood fever. She said, I will always be there. But I could not see her. I’m no longer the child lying uselessly on the small bamboo bed. She’s no longer here.” I laughed hysterically, almost to the point of not feeling my own tears streaming down the wrinkled canvas. Oh Hai Don Co, so much for always knowing better.

“Did you confess?” The young boy asked, his hand reached out, and touched my shoulders lightly. I could feel his fingers dancing on my shoulders like wild feathers.

“Yes. Yes, I did,” I looked up, and grinned broadly at him, “I confessed right away. Ever heard of ‘too little, too late’? That’s what I was. My son took my land. She took my money. I served two years’ suspended sentence. And that, boys, is how the story ends.” I swallowed my rice hard as if this rice here were all those years’ shame and pain mixed together in a twisted, funny irony. Not a problem, I thought, I will swallow them all. And in the dark, twisted night, I will even swallow my whole shitty life. After all, my life was a simple one, was it not, doctor?

“Did you ever regret it?” The meatball asked.

“There’s no regret in the things that were said and done. You have your reason to kill a man. I have my reason to kill a wife. There’s no use regretting it because right at that moment, you are doing the right thing. And the consequences – they are hardly about you. They are about disappointing the ones who love you. That’s not a regret. That’s tearing your heart down in an agonizingly slow way. And I happened to enjoy torturing myself. That’s why I got myself lung cancer, right?”

The meatball bit his lips hard. His eyes were glistening under the dim, yellow light. Right when the first tear started to form, he turned his head away, mumbled, “I gotta go somewhere,” then disappeared into the night. The young attorney did his usual duty of cleaning the tray and the wooden bed. He laid the sedge mat down, sat neatly on the outer edge of it, and spoke cheerily:

“Uncle Hai, can you sing me a vong co**?”

“Boy, you are only good at asking people for favors.” I laughed heartily and drank the hot lotus tea he just put down before me. What a nice, calming fragrance. And ya are also damn good at steeping the tea, I thought. I took down my don co, adjusted the strings, coughed up my raspy voice, and sang:

Cơm ngày hai bữa cầu no
Dám đâu bàn chuyện cơ đồ viển vông
Đời này có cũng như không
Sớm còn tối mất bận lòng mà chi.***

The young attorney by my side submerged himself in the dreary tune of my don co. He placed his head gently on my laps and hummed the song’s melody. The crickets screamed louder and louder outside the thatched wall of my tottering house. It sounded a lot like peace to my ears.

“Uncle Hai, why did you kill her?”

“It’s all because of the money, boy. It’s all about the money. What else do I get to cure these damned lungs, eh?”

“And after that, she’s gone?”

“Gone.”

“And your sons?”

“Gone.”

“And your neighbours?”

“Gone. Everything is just like that – gone. All gone.”

“But you knew better, right, uncle Hai?”

I heard a burst of coarse laughter escaped my rusty throatBoy, that was the point of my story. Because I knew better. I always knew better.

Ma, are you watching?

**The basic form of cai luong.

***Translation: I only ask for two meals a day[2]

I dare not dream of unrealistic plans

Living this life or not, either way, it is fine

Alive by morning, dead by night, why should I worry

******************

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