Thuyet lost his temper and hurried his father grouchily. Old Gian reached the car’s door then turned around to take a last look. Suddenly he burst out crying. Never once in his life had he been so choked up with tears. He had bawled in childhood when his father whipped him and he had wept silently when his wife passed away. Yet not until that moment when he had to leave his village where his grandparents, parents and wife used to live did he sob so uncontrollably.
Old Gian had only one child, Thuyet, who was living in Hanoi. While he and his wife were still living in the village, Thuyet had asked them many times to sell their house to move to Hanoi to live with him and his wife Le. Yet, the old couple refused. Last year the old woman passed away. Thuyet urged his father to sell his house again, but the old man said he preferred to stay in the countryside. Thuyet then threatened old Gian with an ultimatum: “If you don’t live with me, I won’t have a child.” Thuyet had been married for three years but hadn’t had any children. Old Gian thought he and his wife couldn’t be happy without a baby. Who would carry on the lineage? At last, the old man yielded. He sold his house and moved to the city with his son.
Thuyet and Le lived in a luxurious 12-floor apartment building. Their apartment perched in one corner on the third floor and looked down at a nearby lake. Every day Thuyet and Le went to work and old Gian was left alone with his TV and newspapers. When he felt too lonely, the old man would open the door and walk into the corridor. He would walk from one end to the other. The apartments were often shut tight. Once, old Gian even meticulously counted the number of apartments and light bulbs on his floor. One day, he discovered apartment 306 was slightly open. He stopped in front of it and knocked gently.
A wincing face emerged.
“Can I help you? Ah, you’re from apartment 301! I’m sorry I’m just the housekeeper. I’m not allowed to let strangers in.”
The wincing face slammed the door in his face. Old Gian stood dumbstruck for a few seconds. Back home, a glimpse of a neighbour from afar was enough to call forth an invitation to drop in for a cup of tea. But here in the city, neighbours treated each other like aliens from another planet. “The young woman was just obeying her employer’s instruction,” old Gian thought, trying to justify what had happened. “I’m new here, they don’t know me, so of course they should be cautious.” It then dawned on him that he knew old Dinh from apartment 305. He had talked to old Dinh several times in the yard. “He won’t shut his door in my face,” old Gian thought.
Old Gian walked toward apartment 305. He knocked on the door three times but no one came out. The old man was about to turn away when he noticed an instruction that read “Please press the doorbell”. Old Gian followed the arrow sign that pointed toward a doorbell and pressed it. Wonderfully, the door opened. It was old Dinh himself who opened the door. Old Dinh invited his guest in. The two elders chatted merrily. Then out of the blue, two kids darted out from their bedroom and frolicked around raucously. Old Dinh shouted at his grandchildren to lower their volume but they ignored him. Old Dinh’s daughter-in-law walked out. Old Gian turned red. The daughter-in-law was wearing a very short skirt and a low-cut neckline that displayed her breasts. Upon seeing the guest, she nodded her head to greet him. Old Gian sneezed. The woman quickly asked:
“Do you have a cold?”
“Have you just come here from the countryside?”
“Yes, I’m from Hung Yen Province.”
“Your province has a bird flu epidemic. If you’ve caught it, you must be quarantined!”
Old Gian understood the hint. He stood up and told old Dinh he had to leave. Old Dinh didn’t take heed but begged old Gian to stay a little longer.
But old Gian insisted on leaving. He returned to his apartment and sat down on the couch forlornly. Once in a while he raised his hand to wipe away his tears. He had taken to weeping a lot lately. He missed his village and neighbours. Once he had asked Thuyet:
“Can you take me home at the weekend when you don’t go to work? I miss it very much.”
“Don’t be difficult. What are you returning to, anyway? You don’t have a house there any more. Life is civilised and rich and great here. Why in the world do you want to go back to that poor countryside?”
“I want to burn incense for your mother!”
“Gosh. We have an altar here. Why don’t you burn incense for mom here?”
Old Gian didn’t say anything. He sat quietly, fingering his cup of tea.
One beautiful morning, the sun beamed its golden light and a wind blew down the leaves. Some leaves fell down upon the lake. Old Gian stood contemplating the leaves falling through the window. He spotted a bird jumping up and down searching for worms on a nearby branch. He walked into the kitchen, scooped a handful of rice, sprinkled it on the windowsill, then stepped back to look. The warbler bird either didn’t notice the rice or understand the old man’s goodwill so it didn’t fly over to eat the rice. Old Gian said:
“It’s fragrant rice fresh from the countryside. Eat it!”
“Are you looking down on a rural specialty? Or do you prefer worms? There aren’t any worms to catch here. If we were at home, I could catch tonnes of worms for you!”
The bird soared away. Old Gian followed it with his eyes, feeling a little lost. For two days afterwards, the warbler didn’t show up. The old man thought it would never return. Yet, within a few days, it flew over to the nearby tree to look for worms again. Old Gian observed the warbler. It jumped from one branch to another, looking left and right. Worms were now rare to come by in the city because of pollution. They were even considered a saviour of sorts as their presence on vegetables suggested to human shoppers that the greens they were buying were organic, not something so plagued with pesticides that all worms had been exterminated.
Old Gian pitied the warbler. He came up with an idea. He hastily walked into the living room, picked up a pot of orchids and hung it up on an iron bar on the window. He then sprinkled dozens of rice grains on the windowsill. Unsurprisingly the warbler flew right to the plant and searched the leaves for worms. It didn’t find any worms but it saw the grains. It perched on the sill and nibbled at the grains with its tiny beak. Before it flew away, the warbler saw the old man staring at it. It tilted its head, as if to reflect something. Then it flew away. Old Gian sighed and mumbled:
“You didn’t even thank me or say goodbye. Is it because you’re a city bird so you’re cold like everybody here?”
Though he remonstrated the warbler, in the following days, old Gian continued to hang the orchid pot and sprinkle rice on the windowsill. The warbler came again and again. Day after day it grew more familiar with him. It became warmer. Every time it flew over, the first thing it did was to chirp, as if to say hello: “Chip, chip”. The old man smiled and replied, “Good morning to you, little fella!” In his lonely world, old Gian was able to find for himself a close friend. Every morning at around 9, if the warbler didn’t show up, the old man became agitated. “Is it ill, or are its babies ill?” old Gian would wonder. “Can’t it come because of the upcoming storm?” Or: “Oh, it’s over there.” “Hello, little fella!” the old man would greet it. “Chip, chip,” the warbler would respond.
Every day Thuyet and Le went to work. On Saturday and Sunday they visited Le’s mother or their friends or went for a picnic. Thus for most of the day, old Gian was all alone, except for his little friend. But his friend only stayed with him for half an hour or so before it hurried back to its family. One Saturday, as usual, old Gian and his little friend met. The warbler had grown bolder so it flew straight into the dining room. The bird and the man were having fun when Thuyet and Le abruptly returned. Le had a stomachache so the couple had to cancel their trip to Suối Hai Lake. At the sight of the warbler, Le exclaimed:
“Falling birds and jumping fish are a bad omen!”
Old Gian quickly explained that the warbler was his long-time friend whom he fed every day, not some strange bird swooping down from nowhere as in the superstitious idiom. His was a different situation, a different idiom: where there is good land, birds will build their nests! “It is a sign of good luck,” old Gian said. Thuyet replied in anger:
“It isn’t a sign of good luck. You’re bringing bad luck into our house.”
Thuyet headed to the bathroom, took out a mop and drove the warbler away. The bird was frightened and flew out in such a hurry that it slammed into the window bars. After the bird soared away, Thuyet told old Gian never to feed it again and shut the window at all times to keep it out.
After that incident, old Gian thought the warbler wouldn’t return. Yet, on the following Sunday, it still showed up on the window. It was forced to come to find food for its hungry babies. Before, every time it came, it had always reserved some rice in its mouth to bring back home to feed its babies. It was scared of Thuyet but had no other choice. No sooner did it touch down on the windowsill than it greeted, “Chip, chip!” As it didn’t see its friend, it flew back to the tree. Its friend, who was still feeling angry with his son and daughter-in-law, had gone downstairs to loiter.
Le saw the warbler and observed to her husband that something must be done to keep it from coming. Thuyet agreed. “What a pain in the neck. Dad shouldn’t fool around with such a bad omen,” he said. “Ah, there is a way!” He told his wife something then went down to the parking lot and drove his motorbike to Trường Chinh Street where poison was sold. He didn’t have to go as far as Trường Chinh. No sooner did he drive out than he saw a vendor. Thuyet asked the vendor if he sold rat poison. The vendor said yes and gave him a packet of made-in-China chemicals.
The rat poison was made from rice and had a purple colour. Thuyet opened the packet with a pair of scissors and sprinkled the poison on the windowsill. The warbler was searching for worms on a branch. It ignored the poisonous grains. Le told her husband:
“It’s more familiar with dad. Why don’t we ask him to feed it?”
“Are you crazy? He won’t agree to kill his best friend!”
“Oh, right. You should put on dad’s clothes and pretend to be him. It may come over.”
Thuyet followed Le’s advice. He went into old Gian’s bedroom, put on his clothes, and walked back to the window and pretended to sprinkle rice on the sill. Thuyet resembled his father closely. He was also wearing his father’s clothes so the warbler was completely fooled. Thuyet and Le disappeared behind their bedroom’s door to watch the scene. The bird flew over, and with relish, it pecked at the purple grains. At that moment old Gian walked in. He saw his warbler pecking at the grains and his children sneaking up on it. He felt something amiss and walked to the window to check. The bird had consumed an extremely strong poison which was attacking it violently. It tried to fly but failed. It dropped to the ground, struggling in pain. In panic old Gian picked it up. The warbler looked up at him with its tiny eyes for the last time then slowly breathed its last. From its mouth, a stream of bright red blood oozed out. Old Gian hugged the dead body, turned around, and cursed his children:
“You’ll be punished and never have a child!”
“You aren’t in your right mind. It’s just a bird, not a human being.”
“Shut your mouth. Birds are like human beings. We must treat them kindly.”
Old Gian walked into his bedroom and packed his clothes. He left the city and went back to his village, carrying the dead bird. There wouldn’t be any place to bury the bird in this crammed city, he thought. So he planned to bury it at home.
Back in the village, old Gian could live on his pension. Yet he didn’t have any shelter because he had sold the land and house that he had inherited to have money to give to Thuyet and Le to treat their infertility. He would borrow some money to buy a small plot and build a house, but until then where would he stay? Old Gian walked around the village. His neighbours took pity on him and invited him to live in their houses but he turned them down. Even his own son’s house suffocated him! Besides, he didn’t want to bother anybody.
Old Gian walked to the edge of the village and saw the village garage which housed a funeral hearse. These days in the village, young people had taken to drug addiction, gambling, prostitution and theft, so as early as sunset, all villagers shut their gates and doors, unlike in the old days. The hearse garage was perhaps the only place that remained open. Its two wooden doors were left ajar. Old Gian pushed them back and walked inside. “Alright, I can stay for one night,” the old man thought. The hearse was made from iron, painted red, and had four wheels. It had been repainted so it looked quite new. Old Gian found some straw and made a bed inside the hearse. In the poor old days, he and other villagers didn’t even have blankets, so they used straw to keep themselves warm in the biting cold. Now, life had gotten better with mattresses and blankets, and straw beds had faded into history. But old Gian was sleeping on a straw bed tonight. A sense of nostalgia surged in his heart.
Old Gian crawled into the hearse and lay down. The straw which had been dried in the sun exuded a pleasant fragrance that even drowned out the scent of incense left over from a funeral from just two days before. The old man’s straw bed was thick and cozy. He made a stir, moving up and down on the casket rollers on the floor. He recalled his wife’s funeral the year before. She was lying in this hearse waiting to be carried to the field to be buried. He had seen her off all the way. He had whispered to her, “Someday I’ll follow you. Wait for me!” Now, he was lying in the hearse, almost like her. The only difference was that there wasn’t any casket.
For the first time after many nights sleeping in the city, old Gian slept soundly. Though he had to lie in a hearse, the old man rested in bliss throughout the night. As the day broke through the window, old Gian woke up and crawled out. He stood still and was amazed at what he saw: a whole flock of birds chirping on a tree next to the garage.