Destined to be a foe
La Thanh Tung
was bent over some rice
seedlings when a big clod of earth landed nearby with a
thud, splashing mud all over me. I raised my head and
looked right into angry eyes that seemed to want to eat
me up. Trying to contain my anger, and a groundless
fear, I asked him in a calm voice: "Why did you do
".... you." He was clearly spoiling for a fight.
"You hate me but have no guts to face me, eh? And you
are bold enough to strike me on only on the sly."
"What have I done that you have to say such
"You haven’t done anything, have you? You and I have
the same patch of rice field, pay the same money for
irrigation, so why have you and your brother prevented
water from flowing into my field? Don’t you have any
guts? Come up here and fight with me."
I turned and looked at his field. I had no idea when it
happened, but there indeed was an embankment preventing
the water from flowing into his field. It must have been
Lan, my brother. Oh, what a monkey he was! What was the
use of doing that? Why did he do such a stupid thing?
But not being able to offer any argument, I had to
swallow my pride, admit the wrongdoing, and break up the
damn embankment. But anger choked by throat.
We are natives of a village that lies right at the wharf
on Moi River that buzzes all day with human voices and
the sounds of boats going up and downstream.
He was of my age, son of hunchbacked Nhieu, wife of a
war martyr. He was very special. Lan and I both were
good looking, but we were nothing compared to him. Was
it because our parents now lived with their daughter in
the south, leaving the field completely in our hands,
that we turned out to get a bad name as loafers? I don’t
really know, but in his eyes, we were both fops.
Actually I had never intended to show any dislike or
play any practical joke on him, and I had no idea why he
was always truculent towards me. And strangely enough,
he was always in the right, making me somehow see my
drawbacks, as though the reasons fell from the sky.
Being inferior in both looks and strength, I had time
and again tried to be friendly, but it never seemed to
last long. It seemed that the way I expressed my
intentions was clumsy, or maybe there was too big a
difference in our spiritual world that would not let us
get close to each other. I just could not find any
reason that would explain this frozen relationship. So
between us, sometime, somewhere, a conflict arose that
was extremely difficult to reconcile - a conflict that
would have been nothing if it had happened between me
and any other person. I was always inferior to him, and
he always played by the rules and I did not. He either
pardoned me disdainfully, or would beat me black and
blue. It was strange that behind his back, people always
showed their disgust, had some disagreement with him,
and clearly sympathised with me. But when things
happened, nobody would dare take my side. Finally I came
to believe my friend’s contention that it was fated and
unavoidable that he was my foe.
It was about six months after the incident in the rice
field, and I was in high spirits as I returned home from
Nu’s house, when I saw some policemen taking him away
with his hands tied behind his back. A strange pain rose
in my chest. That served you right, son! Why have you
done? You’ve bullied me so much, now eat dust! I almost
jumped for joy like a mad man at the sight of my fated,
unavoidable foe in trouble.
Yet out of the blue, an idea was born in my head. If I
were to show my elation at his mishap, what would happen
to me the day he was released and returned home? It
would become impossible to salvage the situation. And I
would lose forever the chance to make peace with him,
and would become his fated, unavoidable foe. The very
thought evoked a fear inside me that evaporated all the
happiness of having been with Nu that evening and the
elation of seeing him in trouble. Now or never, I should
show him that I was a noble man. I should prove to him
an adverse truth. I could even become his best friend
ever. The thought spurred me into action. I rushed at
"What are you doing? I protest.... I protest...."
"Eh? You! What the hell do you think you are doing?"
A policeman who seemed to be the senior pushed me aside,
saying: "Let us do our duty, just go away".
"But why do you arrest such an honest man?" I was
shouting aloud. "What mistake did he make? I don’t
"If you don’t believe it, please go to the office of
the People’s Committee with us" - the youngest of
the policemen taking him said. "We have to arrest and
punish trouble makers and law breakers".
Oh I see, you’re a trouble maker, a law breaker! So from
now on don’t expect to turn up your face arrogantly. Joy
exploded in my heart like fireworks. Yet, I had contain
my emotions and carry out my plan of action.
"What, what do you mean - making trouble and breaking
the law? Please don’t make such allegations against an
honest man. He’s the best man among my friends, the
kindest man in the area. He is a bright example for us
to learn from. He is...."
I lost my head, stammering, saliva dripping from my
mouth as I sang his praises. Then the action extended to
beyond words, as I grappled with the policemen and
generally kicked up a big fuss to the complete surprise
of the policemen and the culprit. A crowd quickly
gathered. This was riveting stuff. In the end, the
senior policeman had to use his martial art skills to
throw me to the side of the road. "Please, keep
detain this accomplice, so that we can take away the
criminal," he pleaded to the onlookers. So the crowd
rushed in to grab me, preventing me from rushing towards
the policemen again as they took him away. Struggling
away from the crowd, I caught a sight of his downcast
face. I was so happy, so satisfied. From now on I could
be assured about the future of our relationship. I could
sleep soundly at nights, and finally get rid of his
predestined hatred for me.
My joy was redoubled when Nu agreed to let me invite my
family over to her place to talk about our wedding. She
said: "No, there’s no need to beg and make promises.
I’ll be your wife on two conditions".
"Okay. What are the conditions?" I was so excited
that I dared not take her hand. "Please tell me. I’ll
carry you on my shoulders and run round the village".
"No." She gave a wan smile. In the moonlight, her
figure was like a flying cloud. "Nothing like that.
You should not work in the field, you have to shift to
another job. Whatever it is, it is up to you."
"Oh, God! I was intending to do that anyway. It is a
lot of hard work indeed". I was bold enough to
fondle her hair as I spoke. "But why do you ask me to
"Don’t ask for reasons. It’s just my desire".
"All right." - I was on tenterhooks, imagining
holding her soft body in my arms. "What about the
second condition? Tell me now."
"This is more difficult for you as it has to do with
your whole family. But, like the first condition, don’t
ask me for reasons. Our first child should take its
mother’s family name. What do you think?"
I was dumfounded. Why was it so complicated? This was a
condition made by the most beautiful girl in this
village before getting married? Even assuming she did
not love me, could it be really true that she was not
afraid of idle talk by the villagers?
But as one who did not take traditions seriously, I was
ready to please her. My Tran clan was a large one with
many children and grandchildren, so we did not lack
people to carry on the line. On the other hand, Nu’s
family had few children, and her father had only two
daughters: Nu and her sister.
After the wedding, my brother Lan had to plough the
field alone for a few days. I kept my promise to Nu. I
bought machines and working tools to open a furniture
workshop. It was not the most harmonious of
relationships, but we were able to compromise. Nu was
with child quickly. But she was reserved and reticent
all the time.
One day, she returned from a prenatal examination
looking different, but said nothing. At lunch, she said
she had a stomach ache, and went into the bedroom to lie
down. Naturally, I did not worry much, as it was normal
for a pregnant woman. But I was a little curious because
she usually went to Mrs. Hanh’s house for a bunch of
duckweed to chew whenever she had a stomach ache. Why
hadn’t she done that today? Was something worrying her?
Was something happening to the baby? Was it normal for a
pregnant woman? I was very nervous. When I took a bowl
of pho for her, I intended to ask her, but the sight of
her weary face stopped me. That afternoon, Lan returned
from weeding the field saying rats had destroyed a lot
of rice plants. I lost my temper. "Serves you right.
I told you to stay at home and do some business, but you
are so obstinate".
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