THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 9 DOUBLE ISSUE
The character uprising
A SHORT STORY BY
TRAN YEN THAO, poet, writer and translator. Before and after 1975 when South Vietnam collapsed, he has contributed to several literary magazines published in Vietnam. His debut short story collection ‘Mac Can’ was published in 1970 by Tu Thuc Publisher in Saigon, which was followed by ‘Hat tu tho Tran Yen Thao’ (collection of poems set into music by musicians Tran Van Bui, Viet Chung and Nguyen Tung published by Hanh Dong in 1971), ‘Qua tang nguoi xua’ (collection of poems published by Tre Publisher in 1998), and ‘Rung nguyen so’ (collection of poems published by Tre Publisher in 1999). Besides, his works have been selected for several anthologies, including ‘Luc Bat Tinh’ (which includes 501 authors, published by Dong Nai in 1997), ‘Sac Huong Hoa But’ (several authors, published by Van Nghe in 2001), ‘Tuyen tap 7 Tac-gia trong va ngoai nuoc’ (US: Thu An Quan, 2004), and ‘Ben troi’ (US: Thu An Quan, 2004).
I didn’t look at my watch, but knew it was then 9:00 AM. A coconut palm was suddenly uprooted, came down across the street, where the man had just walked past a good half of a minute before; the apexes of the fronds still had time to hit the back of his shirt. The woman, after what seemed like a moment of less than one minute, got there; she was sprayed with dirt from the coconut tree’s roots, soiled from head to toes. It seemed, in that life and death moment, the two characters didn’t even see each other.
The small street was also the gateway of the town’s exit and entrance. Houses of uneven height and alignment cluttered the place. There were buildings that were under construction. And insensible encroachments for space¾ addition which increased the size of a building refused to set back. Daily routines in any developing cities. It was now the northern wind season. Gusts of strong wind swept across the town endlessly. The man has just got home. The near-midday sunbeam pierced the branches of the plum tree, sent light falling onto the moss-grown yard.
He stopped before the gate that was closed. A moment later, the woman was coming in.
“Have you been waiting long?”
“Not long. But why are you all covered in dirt? Where have you been?”
“Unlucky wasn’t I! The palm tree came down in front of me; it must have been less than one minute before I got there.”
The woman was about to insert the key into the lock, but for no reason that she understood then, she gave the key to her husband, and was terrified when the man turned to unlock the door, “For Heaven’s sake, why the back of your shirt was so rumpled?”
The man said flatly, “I narrowly missed being killed by a coconut tree that came down onto the street, where I had just walked past about half of a minute.”
“Thank Heaven, for saving you as well.”
The man suddenly came back, tired-looking, calmly seating himself onto the chair. I was mildly surprised, “Fact is, you’re not allowed to come in this episode.”
“Shouldn’t I, indeed! But you made me lost in vague memory. It seemed I’d seen myself somewhere or other.”
“Perhaps you want to recall a civil war of two hundred years ago, during which you were a colonel.”
“It couldn’t have been mistake. Why don’t you just leave me there?”
After his saying, his hostile eyes settled on me. A gust of wind, which blew through the window, shook the kerosene lamp’s flame in the round cover, and my shadow and his against the wooden wall as well. Being slightly moved, I tried for a friendly tone, “Calm down, please. Tell me, who has the power to make the civil war a stretch of couple hundreds years war? Any war must come to an end.”
“Then why don’t you put me in other position, instead of being the husband of that woman?”
“What wrong with it? There are difficulties that you must join in mutual endeavour to overcome it. The main point is that I brought you a virtuous wife.”
The man’s face was now registering despair and distaste, “Virtuous, my foot. I really don’t understand the meaning of the word “virtuous” you used to praise her for. Also, I don’t understand why everybody should resign themselves to your arrangement.”
He rose to his feet, went away, suddenly as he had come. Through the window, the lamplight was casting his tired shadow onto the sandy yard, stretching it out until it disappeared into the darkness.
The man opened the door, and stepped inside. The woman, who was about to follow her husband, stopped short, turned to look out over the street, while at the gate a mendicant monk was standing holding his alms bowl.
“Homage to Amida Buddha.”
The woman was beside herself, stared at the monk’s face for a long time before she could speak to him, “O venerable one, may I ask what you need?”
“I’m begging for food.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t cook today. But I may go buy for you what you like to eat.”
“Homage to Amida Buddha. I cannot ask you go to so much trouble.”
The woman frowned, then went across the street. After a short while she came back with two loaves of bread, which she put into the monk’s begging bowl. She called after him as the monk turned and went away.
“Just a moment, please. I would like to ask you about something.”
“Why must you wander begging for food?”
“Homage to Amida Buddha, that’s the mendicant monk practices.”
In the sky, there seemed to have been air currents winding round and round in the heat haze. One after another, the gust of north wind blew through the street; it suddenly caught the monk’s robe. Still, the woman didn’t take her flirtatious eyes off the monk’s handsome face.
“But … who made you a mendicant monk?”
“Oh, that would be another matter.”
The monk closed his eyes, seemed to recall something, in a place that was far-off, at a time far-off as well¾ when he could not figure out yet my own face, when patches were being fused for his creating my new life. The monk, at last, almost spoke to himself, “First of all, he created me as a beggar covered with sores. Matted hair. Tattered clothes. There was no way of knowing why did he have to but coop me up in the corner of the house, instead of letting me take part. I couldn’t remember for how many days he has been distressed, as if facing certain imperative problems. He kept pacing up and down, and threw away many cigarettes he has just lit. He sighed; he scratched his head, and tore at his hair. There were a number of times I almost forgot the shame of my status and felt a pity on him. Until one night, when suddenly he shoved down the floor all the leaves in which he had written his pieces, stood up, and then walked towards me. Frankly, at that very moment I had the impression that he was an angel, if not a witch. In a blink of an eye, my whole physical appearance, except my face, has been changed showing no vestiges of a beggar. From then on I took part as a mendicant monk.”
At the very moment the monk opened his eyes what he saw were still the woman’s flirtatious eyes.
“But what possessed you to accept to be a monk? You didn’t choose that status.”
“I didn’t. However, he brought me to a new life, from a beggar’s.”
“In fact, your being a beggar was his own making. You didn’t choose to be.”
“Homage to Amida Buddha, everything had already been disposed.”
The woman became more and more ardent, never taking her eyes, which bore the flirtation look, from the monk’s face, “What are you talking about? Since he created us as human beings, we then surely are able to practise the human right. Now look here, if you just let grow your hair, just take off that yellow robe of a mendicant monk, I believe things will change.”
The monk was terrified to hear that, he hung his head and began to walk slowly towards the town. He seemed to avoid the flirtatious eyes, rather than what the woman has just said.
I knew for certain that the woman would return, but contrary to expectation I saw her again so soon. This time, she struck an attitude of a rather extraordinary steely determination, and not to consider me as the person who took the initiative.
“Why didn’t you have my husband killed by the falling coconut tree?”
“He must take part in the last stage; thus, he must not die. What’s more, I’ve plotted out the story in which no one would die.”
“If that’s so, why didn’t you let that handsome monk be my husband?”
“If you wanted, I would let him return to his lay life. But would you dare to be the love-mate of a beggar, disgusting dirty and ulcerated?”
The woman was frighten for a moment, but gained back her steely manner at last, “If you don’t give in to my request, I’ll try another way. I’ll poison my husband’s food.”
“Try it, if you want. But I must warn you, that you’ll be the one who must eat that poisonous food.”
“How particularly cruel you are!”
“I must be cruel sometimes, only to the character like you.”
For a long while, the monk never came back to the town. The woman, appearing at the entrance to the house for days on end, got even more strung up with expectation. The man had a very calm manner, although he knew everything. Gusts of north wind became less and less, then died down for changing to the possible direction of south wind. One evening in February, not be able to wait any longer, the woman silently walked out of the gate. She mooned along the streets of the town. So small a town it has only few streets. She remembered by heart every house in it. At some blocks houses were scattered, which revealed the river and sea beyond. The evening sunlight spread and rippled on the white waves. The woman was mooning about, like the one who was suffering from memory loss, the child looking for the dime escaping from his hand, and even a mendicant monk. Now and then she came round, is if certain image had woken her. Just for continuing to moon about, afterwards.
The monk threw away his alms bowl, flounced into my house. It turned out that the woman was chasing after him. Seeing his entering the gate, the woman recoiled, then left. The monk was now putting his hands upon his chest, gasping for breath. Furious breathing of a person who has just got out of danger. Experienced an episode of terror, perhaps. I didn’t yet make any question, letting him compose himself. But he was the first to speak, “You once revived me. Please sir, have a heart, and do take even more pity on me.”
“Are you in an embarrassing position?”
The monk hesitated a moment, “Please make me a person with energy and ability.”
“I’m just the one who arranges the conditioning causes.” I said, “Ability, you must gain it by yourself. I couldn’t grant you ability, even if I have discovered it myself and been possessing it.”
“I’m dreading having to yield to temptation.”
“Keep your end up, with dogged determination. There has been no monk asking ability to be granted to him, especially no Buddha’s wandering monk. Nobody but you would be able to improve the self of yours.”
“I’m afraid I cannot fulfill my duty”
“You can return to your lay life, if you want to. But I must remind you one thing, that you should know through which way you will return.”
The monk looked at the corner of the room, where he had spent many days sitting motionless before his rebirth. The weather was now the wrestling between North and South. The wind which was due now north now south made the coconut fronds spinning like fans in the air. The sun was licking the trees clumping together at the far end of the field.
I’ve been in an agony of indecision over how to tackle the unexpected situation, like a sick person convulsed in pain. It would make no sense if those sheets of paper from now on became the proof on the one who lost a battle. If I must fold my arms and stood looking at the characters trampling all over the plot? I created a faithful and virtuous woman, but taking part was an unfaithful and lustful one. I created an experienced man I believed was able to overcome difficulties regardless of circumstance, the irony of it was that the man asked to abandon his position in the first instance. I created a monk who with his actual spiritual attainments was to have been valiant against temptations in lay life, which would enable him to enter the omnipresent state; ironically the monk was close to being defeated when preparing to fight his own battles.
The wicked circumstances kept torturing me until one day, the whole shoal of the characters congregated to surround me. They yelled furiously their demands in a threatening, and in gentle tone of voice as well. The woman demanded a more or less sure way to seduce the monk. The man insisted that he must have back the army’s rank of colonel he had been awarded in the civil war of two hundred years ago. And the monk, who although seemed to be pleased with his position as a grace, still demanded ability to be granted.
They brought about a large following among the souls of the characters all whom I had decimated centuries ago. There were deaths full of pain like the shredding of a sword across the surface of a cliff. Deaths beautiful like an epic. Poetic like the cloud floating over the rice field. Romantic like a peach petal drifting downstream. The dead joined the living, and they mucked in to complain, curse in disregard of the meaning of their deaths. Their lament for lost life mixed with their piercing screams of towering rage. Now thunderous like an uprising. Now dispersed like the fragments of music from a Chinese guitar. I thought of prevailing over them no more. Tried to fight by myself all alone to break through the siege. But the siege tightened even more. At the critical moment when I thought I should give myself up to whatever the fate, I became suddenly aware of my last power¾ to put down right here a final full stop.
TRAN YEN THAO
Editorial note: The Vietnamese original version was published in Van, Issue 83, 9- 1998, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The magazine was then under the editorship of Anh-Duc.
The Writers Post
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Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Translation copyright © N. Saomai/ Nguyen Sao Mai
Copyright for the story © Tran Yen Thao.
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