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She resided in a Western European country.
Every late autumn, when it was just at dawn, still sleepy, she could behold those wild geese flapping their wings, pedalling the water and cackling over the marsh, heralding the coming migrating season. The birds stopped over at the confluence of the river and the marsh inside the park for a short time, looking for food to get more energy and then continuing their flight to somewhere far away to the south. All these birds, some have black dots, some have grey dots, even ivory white dots, were now flying high, now flying low over the water surface, making a lot of noises. As noisy as they came, they were now flying away noiselessly until the confluence of the river and the marsh became deserted and desolate, then she could tell that the flock of wild geese had gone.
In her home country, there was also a migrating season of the birds at this time of the year.
Now she already returned to where she had once left. It was close to Tet Lunar New Year. It was early morning and a little cold. A myriad of tiny rain drops were sticking onto her neckerchief and shoulders of a felt overcoat, looking like snow flake. She was walking amid the upcoming seasonal transition. Dong La and Xuan Dinh candied fruit for Tet was seen flocking to Dong Xuan market and on sale by Thuy Khe and Quan Thanh roadsides. Hang Dau flower market was busy from early morning of the 23rd of Lunar December, the day of the Kitchen God.
A granddaughter was walking with her along West Lake. The girl had borne part of Vietnamese blood of hers. She had blue eyes, white skin, but a bit low nose and black hair. She was the final-year student of the Vietnam studies major.
“West Lake is still recognizable, my niece” – She said in a slow voice to recall the past. They both lingered by the rain-wet stone bench, hesitating with melancholic looks.
“But everything around the lake of the past seemed getting lost”
“The first days I was in Vietnam, I tried to follow what you had told me, but in vain”
“Yes, I still recognize that yard of Quan Thanh Temple where I had once played o an quan game with friends. But this Co Ngu Road is a far cry from the past.”
“It’s now called Thanh Nien (Youth) Road, grandma! My boyfriend showed me around along this willow-lined road. And I heard from you a lot about West Lake anyway”
“Yes, I told you about it for the last time over there. Now I ask you: did you and your friend contemplate the sunset in that Trich Sai, Vong Thi place?”
“Not even once. My boyfriend said that he had never seen the sunset. Those sky-high buildings have swallowed the sunset, grandma!”
She only heaved a deep sigh. The girl came to a willow tree, leaned on it and received a phone call. The bench seemed being larger with no one on it. She was silent, leaving all the past images appearing in the pall of mist, so animated and clear.
In those old days….
It was a late, bit cold afternoon.
Mist began spreading over the lake. She sat by that man who was lying face upward, looking at the drifting clouds. Out of a sudden, he cheered:
“Look, my dear, look! Those birds are flying to the south in a V letter shape to avoid the cold”
“How beautiful it is!”
“It is said that the leading bird is always bigger and braver and only if it is a weak bird, the second bird will replace it”
“Possibly they know how to tell each other to fly in V shape, don’t they, dear?”
“They fly in an orderly formation, you see! Have you seen the birds perching on the electric wire in the straight line?”
“Are there any birds flying in pair all through that flight?”
“I don’t know! If we were among those migrating birds, it would be sure that only you and I fly in pair!”
“I don’t believe it. How dare you to be a migrating bird?”
“Migrating or not depends on one’s situation. In my street, there were some friends of mine evacuating to Viet Bac and they are yet to be back now. These days, many class mates whose parents work in the power and water plants and in the post office are also preparing to evacuate to somewhere. My parents don’t want us to leave Hanoi”
The man’s voice was sad.
“Nobody wants to be the migrating birds. They look so miserable!”
“What if they feel sorry for those birds staying back and working hard to protect their nests? I could imagine that under those migrating birds were the red sand, white sand deserts, the golden rice fields, the rolling mountains and forests, the snaking blue rivers shrouded in mist or immense sea. Oh, it is so romantic and spectacular!”
“Oh, how interesting it is! But why do these birds only fly past West Lake?”
“Long time ago, since the French domination time when French warships cruise along the Red River and fired shells onto the city, even on West Lake, driving away all water fouls and wild geese. So maybe that’s the reason the migrating birds don’t want to stop over the lake”
She again walked leisurely with her granddaughter along the lake. In the past, the lake side was not embanked. This road was newly built, paved with asphalt. Willow trees or palm trees were planted on the lake side. On the lake wild geese were seen playing. Her granddaughter said:
“My friend and I did come to Elephant Mountain as you once told me about it”
“Yes, at that time, Elephant Mountain and Hommel Beer Plant were located on Digue Parreau Road and it was often called Duong Thanh (Citadel Road)”
“Now it is called Hoang Hoa Tham Road”
“There are a lot of changes. I cannot find the house I had lived through my green years. My father was a very good beer brewer. He was much loved by the boss”
“Grandma, you’re told me this for a dozen times”
“Oh, yes, I told this for the last time”
“But I still listened to you anyway”
She said again:
“The French withdrew from the North of Vietnam and the owner of the beer plant destroyed all facilities, dismantled machines and transported them to somewhere, let alone with a lot of well-qualified workers. The plant became a ruin. On the way home from school, I met a painter who was getting engrossed in sketching something. I stood there, looking at his painting and then looked up at the migrating birds to the skyline. You see, a girl appeared gradually on that paper. Out of a blue sky, there was a crying bird nearby. The painter dropped his brush and rushed to where he heard the cry. A coot was trembling with fear. One leg was broken.”
“I’ll kill this bird for meat” – He said.
“Oh, no, please, don’t!” – I entreated him.
He smiled, saying he was kidding. He wanted to pick one blue feather and gave it to me only. But I asked him not to do it because I was afraid it would hurt the bird, even though in my heart, I wanted him to do it.
He said he wanted to take the bird home and try to keep it alive. Right at that time, I saw a flock of coots flying overhead in the migrating formation….
“You did tell me many times about that blue feather and you said it was the last time you told me about it”
“Yes, definitely this is the last time!”
She took off the shoes and walked on a small flower garden bared footedly. Her feet touched soft grass and soil just to feel that she was standing right on the place where she had left it. She still remembered what he said:
“The coot will definitely be alive. After Tet, it is getting warmer and you and I will bring it to West Lake and release it there. It will live there until its flock returns”
“No, I think when we go home, the bird will fly with us, so I think I will take it home again” – She said.
He smiled, lauding her for her good imagination and saying:
“All right, we will continue to tend the bird. Whenever we are not busy, I will go to paint in West Lake and you will take the bird along and leave it to swim on the lake. I can imagine that the bird suddenly fly skyward, cackling. And you see, so many other birds of a feather came flying over the lake, cackling noisily. In the end of the day, they all flew away. The coot we had tended was flying for a few moments and I saw it picking a blue feather and dropping it to us. I watched the flock of birds flying as far as the eyes could see.”
“What an imagination of yours!” – She said.
“It’s not yet over! You know, after one or two migrating seasons, I took the easel to West Lake and those migrating birds had come to stay on the lake. All the students of Buoi high school returning home from their evacuation stood by the lake to enjoy watching the bird playing on the lake.
It was clearing up at noon time.
The girl took her grandmother to the end of the street and sat down on the stone bench.
The grandmother went past the house of that man several times and hesitated in front of the gate. On the other pavement there was a tall young man. When she stopped, he also stopped. When she walked, he also walked. When she turned, he also turned in confusion…. This made her take him by mistake as the man of that year with the easel in the hand.
She felt a bit moved upon seeing the Ylang tree in that corner of the yard. The fragrance of the flower was smelt slightly in the air. She hesitated to press the gate bell….
It was Sunday afternoon on the eve of Tet.
Having finished the mass at Cua Bac Church, she quickly ran to the house of that man. Before she was evacuated together with the family to the South, she wanted to see him for the last time. She wanted to bury her face on his shoulder and say: “I will come back”.
The house maid opened half the gate with a sad face:
“You are unlucky today. He has brought the coot to the veterinary and I don’t know when he is back”
“If so, I would like to take leave of….” – She quickly turned and walked fast. Her eyes were welled up in tears. After that her whole family left for the South in bewilderment and worries. She left Hanoi right at the time the people were seen carrying peach blossoms to Dong Xuan and Bac Qua markets for sale during Tet days.
“You haven’t come into the house of that man?” – Her granddaughter asked.
She nodded, looking sad.
“You’ve changed your mind, haven’t you?”
She shook her head.
“Only I did not dare to…. It was very long time!” – She said, turning to look at that villa. Out of a sudden, she got startled. It was him who was standing at the Ylang Ylang tree, wasn’t he? Oh, no! It was that young man on the pavement.
“Do go with me. I know that house!”
She looked dumbfounded. Her granddaughter also knew that house. The girl stood up and took her grandma’s hand. She urged her grandma to walk quicker.
“Please, wait…. wait, my dear!”
She returned to the hotel.
Lying in the hotel room, she thought uninterruptedly about the past. She lived with her young years. But her grand-daughter took her boyfriend to the hotel and this helped her recall her memories full of missing green years. She could not believe her eyes. The young man standing on the other pavement was now standing before her. She knew that she was facing the truth.
“Whenever there is the migrating season of the birds, my grand-father took the easel to West Lake….”
“The picture with the girl in white ao dai dress sitting by the lake with those willow trees nearby, looking up at those migrating birds, was always hung in my granddad’s room, you know!”
Her chest was thumping.
“Your grand-father did not get married and lived a single man’s life, did he?”
Her heart was clenched. Never had she thought he could have become that way. She hesitated to ask the young man a lot of questions, but the words had failed her.
“My grand-father was a soldier and after 1975, he returned to the North and worked at the art shop….”
The girl sat by her grand-mother’s side. The young man continued in a low voice permeated with sadness:
“My grandfather always thought that you will definitely return and he waited for you”
She felt something bitter in the eyes.
“My grandfather left this box and said it was for you. But he said you’d better not open it now”
She got stupefied. The lacquered box used to contain painting brushes. She took it with trembling hands just for fear that it would get disappeared.
Her granddaughter and the young man came as fast as they went. She stood by the window of the hotel room and look out onto the street. Hanoi street were busy with the Tet atmosphere. Nhat Tan, Nghi Tam peach blossoms and other flowers and Quang Ba kumquat trees laden with golden ripe fruit were seen flowing along the stream of people on Yen Phu Dike.
Suddenly, she missed that man and smiled in melancholy. It was time for her to open the box. Inside there was a parker fountain pen and that blue coot feather! The blue made her recall her memorable past!