She only asked me to help her look for a one-hundred-year-old apricot tree, the only tree left in a certain apricot garden of a manor house.
"It seems silly, but it is my mother’s wish. She has earnestly asked me to find that old apricot tree she believes is still there," she explained to me in precise Vietnamese with a Hue accent.
"My mother told me to go over to Nam Giao, where in the old days the open-air royal altar was. At the foot of the pedestal there were two strange stone slabs. The king then prayed in murmurs, yet hundreds of thousands of people around could hear him loud and clear as if there were a loud speaker system. Go farther and turn right... across a little curved bridge and then turn left, go a bit farther, and ask where the apricot garden of that manor house is."
I had not heard about that manor house even though I had been working as a tour guide. If that manor house was gone, then that apricot tree would be a lost treasure. In Hue, there were a lot of these apricot trees, but most of them were ornamental. Her mother said, "That apricot tree originated from the mountain with its gnarled bark and vitality. In the past the manor house had over 50 apricot trees. When spring came, the sky was lit up with the yellow colour of the apricot blossoms."
It took us almost the whole day to go around and ask for the place, but nobody was able to tell us about such a manor house with an apricot garden. The cyclo pedalist, losing his patience, grumbled:
"There are all these houses, but no manor house at all; all around are jackfruit trees, no more apricot trees. So how can you find such a thing here now? If you continue to do this, I’m afraid they will laugh at us."
The next day we rode bicycles so that we could go deep into the lanes and alleys, but we failed to find anything concerning that missing apricot tree. But I did not give up, because her voice made me think about the tree.
"My mother took me home so many times. Can you imagine. There, that vaulted gate overgrown with moss with three words: Apricot Manor House, and below it was Cao Ba Quat’s inscriptions, ‘In my whole life, I bow only before the apricot blossoms’. Through the gate were the Chinese screen and the rock garden. And behind the old house was the forest of apricot trees."
"Yes, Uncle, may I ask you? Is there any place that was called the Apricot Manor House more than half a century ago? So many apricot trees were planted there!" I said.
"There is nothing like apricot trees. The land here is gold. They have sold land to build houses or open restaurants."
"But is there an apricot tree over one hundred years old?"
"What strange people you are! Nobody here pays any attention to apricot trees."
We again roamed in the area permeated with her memories.
"In my mother’s room, there is a book case with old books brought along from the homeland. There are two lacquer paintings depicting a fisherman and an apricot tree in bloom. A tea tray made of dalag hard wood and a support to keep a tea set made of terracotta. An ancient flower vase to put in apricot branches with blossoms. Only by looking at the vase, my mother could see the apricot branch laden with the just-opened jasper blossoms. She was also my Vietnamese teacher. Having been highly conscious of her life, which was nearly over, she told me about our home country. She gave birth to me in a foreign country, but she tried to breathe the Vietnamese soul into me. The Vietnamese language was always spoken at home. And mother died and I became helpless right inside my family. So this homecoming visit was hoped to pave the way for me so that I could settle down for good in my home country. If that patch of land of my ancestors can be found, I would buy it back at all costs and then I could bring mother’s ashes and bury them here."
She suddenly stopped short and rushed down to the roadside and raised a wild flower in her hand:
"Here you are! Is it the iridescent flower?"
"How do you know it so well?"
"Mother described it to me: ‘The iridescent flower has bright colours and they grow along the river banks and hill sides to mingle with that certain sad-looking violet colour of Bang Khuang (melancholy) flowers, while the ball-like Long Den (lantern) flowers were green amid the grass and the Can flowers were red with long fringes. When still small, mother used to pick these flowers."
"You must have loved your mother so much and your mother must have loved her motherland so much!" I blurted it out.
"Yes. My father studied abroad and when he succeeded in his career, he did not want to go home. Father took mother to live with him." Then she changed the topic and talked a lot about the local fruits.
"You’re an expert!"
"You’re too kind."
"I haven’t tasted these fruits before. But don’t you think it will be difficult for you to settle down here? Aren’t you afraid of hardships?"
"It depends. Our home land has a lot of riches. The thing is we should know how to turn these riches into reality!"
Suddenly we stopped by an old man sitting near a grave.
"Yes, uncle, may I ask you something? It’s said that there was once an apricot garden of a manor house. Is it true, uncle?"
"What! I’m deaf, so say it louder!"
"An apricot garden of a manor house. An apricot garden. Is it here?" she said loudly.
Thank God! Finally he heard the word "apricot"!
"Is it apricot trees? They have been cut down."
"But there were so many in the old days. Is it true?"
"Yes. So many. Mr Than’s garden had so many apricot trees!"
"Yes. Here you are!" She jumped for joy and embraced him.
"Yes, all were chopped down, but one age-old apricot tree has been left somewhere in the garden, so do you know where?" she yelled to him.
"Is it that woman? She is dead! She is lying there!" the old man said, pointing to the grave nearby. "Even the guys Khoan and Le and the girls Buoi and Bong are also lying there. Only I am left behind to build their graves. So I am sad and have come here to forget."
"Do you know where that old apricot tree lies?"
But the old man could not hear her. So we had to leave.
"Yes, we’ve found the place," she broke the silence. "My mother said that the apricot tree was very close to the house."
Her voice was touched with sadness.
"My grandfather died the last apricot flower season. Mother said that year, it seemed that he had a premonition that it was the last apricot season as it was blossoming all over the garden. The whole sky was lit up with yellow apricot flowers. He fell ill all through that winter, but in the end of December, he opened the window for the whole day to wait for the blooming of the apricot flowers. He stared at the apricot tree, at his "elder brother" as he called it, until the first flower opened slightly, as warm as the December sunlight. Then he passed away peacefully with the eternal yellow blossom in his eyes."
"What a lovely story you’re telling!"
"No, not me. It’s my mother’s story. She told it time and again, and the last time was more interesting than the first. And you know, after my grandfather’s death, all of his children divided the apricot garden into smaller patches for sale!"
Then she continued with a shudder.
"My mother said that she could not forget the moment when the apricot garden was being destroyed. All of her brothers didn’t care about it. The whole apricot garden was a big mess. The neighbour, who also loved apricot trees, could not bear such a scene, so he bought that small piece of land where the age-old apricot tree was still standing, the most beautiful tree in the garden! The neighbour’s son was my mother’s childhood friend, whose name was Luc."
Finally we found that tree. That lost apricot tree was now only a stump! And sitting on the stump now was a man who was smoking.
"May I ask if this is Mr Luc’s house?"
"Yes. But my dad has shifted his household registration to the graveyard, so what do you want?"
The man turned round and looked at the two strange visitors without leaving that stump. She looked at him, stammering, "Is it the stump... of an old apricot tree?"
"How do you know?" The house owner was surprised.
"One old apricot tree... one and a half centuries old."
"Yes, very old... many generations have passed."
"And also very beautiful and very rare."
"What you just said is 100 per cent the same as what my father said. It is beautiful, very rare. Even it’s now only a stump, its roots are seen spreading all over the place. My father became mad because of this tree. Now it’s been cut down, but its roots have caused a lot of trouble. So it’s been left there and if anyone wants to buy it, it’ll be sold immediately. This land has been haunted, you know."
"I’ll buy it," she interrupted him, unable to hide her joy.
The man stood up in surprise and with curiosity, he looked at her up and down as if she had come from heaven. Having looked again at the apricot tree stump and at the yard and the ramshackle house, he said curtly: "Twelve teals of gold. No bargaining here."
"Yes, I agree."
"If you aren’t going to change your mind, deposit your money now."
"But you should invite me in. I want to burn incense for him. He and my mother were childhood friends."
"So you’ve got roots here?"
The house owner became cordial, inviting the visitors into the house and preparing tea. On that cold altar, the man in the picture was looking at her.
"Has he been dead for long?"
"Not yet a year."
"And that apricot tree has just been chopped down?"
"Fifty days after his death, I cut it down. When he was still alive, nobody was allowed to touch it. He would hit the person to death. The tree was his ‘mistress’. In his last years, he was not so quick-witted. He often called that tree his ‘dear one’ and that made my mother so jealous."
"Jealous of that old apricot tree?" she burst out laughing.
"I asked my mother not to do that. My father had often examined the tree when the blossoming season came. For all those years, when Tet (lunar new year) came, he went out and tried to pick a six-petal flower in the dark, and if he did that, he jumped for joy, shouting out loud. These six-petal flowers had been hidden in the box during this time. Please wait for a moment."
He brought a tin box to me. Inside, the six-petal apricot flowers had been placed on a piece of velvet. But she was very surprised that beside these faded, dried flowers, there were paper flowers.
"My father was away from home and could not reach home in time to welcome New Year’s Eve. So when he returned, he cut these flowers just to say that he was absent from home that year. There are 53 all told," he explained.
"You’ve counted them?"
"Haven’t you seen it? It shows that fifty-three apricot flower seasons have gone by."
She took the flowers and immediately some of them fell apart in her hands. She withdrew her hands, stammering: "Oh, my mother. My mother also had the same dried apricot flower! Only one flower hidden in a box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. When she died, I thought there would be something very precious hidden inside that box, but when I touched it, it turned into dust."
"Oh, these old people, these codgers! Let’s go back to our story."
"What? I did agree to your request. You can dismantle the house for your use, but that apricot tree stump must be left there intact and no digging! And this box…" She hesitated for a minute. "Please give it to me!"
"Take it! No need for me to keep it. I’m different from my father. It isn’t worth a dime, so what do I keep it for?"
She put the box into the handbag. It felt heavy with the weight of memory.
A few years later, I had a chance to be back in that area. So much change there. That small graveyard was gone. Huge buildings were cropping up for a university campus.
That apricot tree suddenly appeared before me. Many travellers also cried for joy. I recognised it immediately because of its gnarled, mossy stump. A sprout was shooting up and another young tree was growing on that stump.
She made herself seen from a small house made of bamboo and wood. She told me that she came home this time to teach French. Then she pointed her finger to that apricot tree stump.
"It’s that stump! Do you remember it?"
"Oh, yes, I do! Now I understand why you wanted to find that tree so badly."
"Because my mother and I strongly believed in its power. You see, that young apricot branch is sprouting up from that stump. It’s full of life!"
"Have you ever dreamt of rebuilding an apricot tree garden?"
"Never! It’s different this time. Land can be used for another purpose, but I value the memory," she said, pointing to the building project. "Everything has its own root. Mother taught me that. Wherever she went, she thought her roots were here, on this land. My father could separate my mother from her homeland, but he could not separate her homeland from her heart. I have brought her ashes home. This small house amid these flowers and leaves can help me relax my mind and keep my memories. Sometimes I can hear mother’s laughter, a girl’s laughter, so clear. A relative of mine has helped me take care of the house and I can be home on and off. On the day I can settle down here for good, that apricot sprout can become an old apricot tree! Don’t you think so?"