Good heart, Khái Hưng

A short story by Khái Hưng,
translated by James Banerian

Nhan climbed out of the family car, a leather briefcase under his arm. He turned toward the edge of the field, then followed the narrow path between two sparse rows of bamboo dotted with golden leaves.

Here and there along the way he turned to ask the servant coming with him, “Are we close?”

“Not too far, sir.”

Nhan was a former university student. First he had studied at the medical school, but twice he failed in his pre-med exams. Frustrated, he gave up medicine for law and wasted two more years of effort. To say he wasted his time studying would be a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, he did little studying at all. Only as the test dates approached did he open his law books and his appearance at the examinations was more for form’s sake so that his parents could not claim that he was using his education money to go carousing in Hanoi.

His father, Clerk Phan, had sold government-approved alcohol for nearly twenty years and thus had become the wealthiest man in the area. [1] In all the prefectures and subprefectures around the county seat, rarely did one come upon a place where Clerk Phan did not own some property. Debtors and those who had pawned him their goods numbered in the hundreds, the thousands, and they daily came to see him at home, just as people might go to the mandarin court in the prefect town.

Clerk Phan paid for his son’s education. After eight years of residence at the Albert Sarraut High School, Nhan had received his baccalaureate. The clerk was quite pleased and went all over bragging about his boy. He even held a lavish dinner to celebrate in the village, complete with butchered cow and buffalo. He placed all his hopes in his son. Surely he would see to it that the boy became a mandarin.

But ever since he was a child, Nhan had received the education and training of Europe and the West and had lived with youths of the modern era Consequently, the ideas he developed were liberal and plain, completely contrary to the bourgeois, narrow and deficient ideas of his parents. After two months of insistent begging and pleading for permission from them to enter medical school, he gained their approval. He was happier than the day he passed his baccalaureate. Not because he wanted to study medicine or felt that curing the sick was a finer vocation than any other. Rather, Nhan simply wished to rebel against the wishes of his parents, who he felt were stubborn and incorrigible.

When Nhan quit medical school for law, it was his father’s turn to be happy. Clerk Phan believed it was the hand of Heaven acting and from then on his son would enter a political career and gain renown for his family and village.

But after forcing his son to follow his own grand aspirations and expending nearly 10,000 piasters while not seeing even a ray of hope, the clerk regretted his losses and began to think his family did not have what it took to make an official. As for Nhan, he simply grew weary of both study and horseplay. Eventually he returned home to live with his parents.

In time he became imbued with the habits of those who lived around him. After a couple of years, there was nothing left of his education and Western learning. His liberal and plain thoughts, when set in a traditional environment, diminished, changing so much that eventually they disappeared entirely.

Now Nhan was no longer concerned about his search for the truth. He no longer winced as he witnessed the inhumane actions of his parents or felt troubled in the soul as he once had.

Two years before, when he began keeping the books and overseeing his father’s business, not a day went by when Nhan did not cause a disturbance or quarrel in the family. Watching his father lend at an outrageous interest rate and cheat the poor who came to pawn their property, Nhan made many suggestions, and when that proved futile, he raised his voice.

Ah, but in only two years he was already a totally different man, from his character to the way he lived and acted. His wife, a loose girl from Hanoi he had married for her looks, was cultivated by her environment until she became frugal, fat and slovenly, her looks fading, her clothes a combination of city and rustic styles. But Nhan did not notice these changes in his wife and he forgot how just five years before this woman had utterly captivated him. Now he seemed not a bit captivated with anything, but rather, indifferent to all that happened, so much so that he no longer cared to distinguish between good and evil, and he often committed offenses which previously he would never have allowed his father to perform.

Noticing his son’s change in character, Clerk Phan beamed.

“You thought his schooling was so rough,” he said to his wife. “But now he’s learned and achieved something. He ought to find business a snap!”

From then on, Clerk Phan placed his confidence in his son. For any difficult task that could not be trusted to his servants, the clerk called on “Uncle Number 4.” And receiving his parents’ praise and flattery, Nhan went further down the road that his father had traveled blindly for twenty years of his adult life. Oh, a couple of times those liberal, free and easy thoughts from days gone by flashed into Nhan’s mind, but they soon dissipated in the practical realities of doing a job and making a living.

One day Clerk Phan sent his son to collect alcohol money at a small shop. He had already given the job to a servant, but two trips had brought no results. He said to Nhan, “I have to rely on you to get it done. Demand the debt of 200 piasters for your father. If they don’t have the money, then make them sign a deed selling their land to us cheap. That’s all I don’t have to tell you. You’ll do what needs to be done”.

Nhan assented and left Going to the alcohol shop in the county seat and finding out that the manager was gone, he told the driver to take him straight to the man’s village.

***

Three mottled dogs ran out barking. They came at the heels of a man in his forties, with a gaunt face, pale complexion, and sunken eyes, looking every bit like a debtor whose time had come when he had no way to come up with the money.

Meeting Nhan so suddenly, the man’s face paled even more. In all those parts, who did not know the notorious reputation of Clerk Phan’s son? Nevertheless, the man forced a smile and invited Nhan into his home.

Without malice, Nhan spoke easily and curtly.

“I’ve come to collect the alcohol money.”

The debtors face contorted as he described to Nhan his family’s predicament- their girl was ill, they had just been robbed of more than 100 piasters… His wife stepped in from the next room, weeping and entreating.

Meanwhile, Nhan’s eyes coldly and aimlessly wandered to the family’s bamboo bed with brown curtain, old and patched with pieces of Western cloth, a wobbly table and two long bamboo chairs eaten away in places by termites. The stink of the curtain, the musty odor of the damp ground, and the smell of smoke from the kitchen did not cause Nhan to frown in disgust If he had been in this circumstance two years earlier, he would have shut his nose and run away, troubled about the poverty and squalid lifestyle of the peasants. Today as he looked around, he was used to it all.

Waiting until the couple had finished speaking, Nhan politely repeated his first statement

“I’ve come to collect the alcohol money.”

Then he continued.

“Five hundred was borrowed, less 300 in security, leaves 200.”

In distress, the man and his wife begged and explained once more. Nhan remained unmoved. More than that, he did not seem to hear anything, his eyes cold and lips twitching in a sneer.

“If you don’t have the money, then write up a contract to sell your estate. Here’s the paper. Write it out and I’ll take it to the mayor and get it notarized. Once the contract is finished, tomorrow you will have alcohol to sell.”

Realizing that they could not move Nhan’s heart of stone, the couple looked at each other and streams of tears flowed from their eyes. These tears were sincere and spontaneous, not forced to implore the compassion of their creditor. Suddenly from behind the brown curtain came the sound of weeping and the cry of a girl awakened abruptly in fright The mother ran over to the bed and held the child in her arms.

“Oh, my! I know you are hungry. My baby is sick!”

“How’s that?” asked Nhan stiffly. “If I leave today empty-handed, it won’t matter. In a couple of days I’ll send the alcohol owner back to confiscate your house and fields.”

The seller’s face fell.

“I beg you, sir. Have pity- “

“Pity?” Nhan interrupted him. “I pity no one”

Then he jumped to his feet and stormed out of the house.

The man and his wife, still holding the child in her arms, followed him outside pleading.

At that moment, a girl appeared at the gate. She had a pleasant, rosy face topped by a silk scarf, her form comely and well-proportioned in a country dress of four pieces dyed brown.

Nhan stopped in his tracks and looked at her. The pretty looks and youth of the country girl awakened in him the feelings and sentiments of the past All at once Nhan saw the sordidness, the degradation and the pettiness of the world in which he was living.

The girl bowed shyly, her cheeks flushed.

“How is it, daughter?” asked the alcohol seller.

“How is it, Nam?” echoed his wife.

The girl, Nam, twisted the long trailing ribbons of her bodice, moving them from one hand to the other as she answered softly.

“She said it’s not ready yet.”

Nhan looked at all three and asked the mother, “Your daughter?”

“Yes,” the woman replied. “My oldest This year she’s 18….”

Then she stared at her husband in silence. The man’s face appeared thoughtful.

“Nam can stay out here,” he told his wife. “I need you inside for a moment.”

The two passed through the gate, leaving their daughter alone in the yard with their creditor’s son.

Nhan fixed his eyes on the girl and did not notice that the others had gone Seeing that Nam wanted to run away, he called to her.

“Say there!”

He stood there quietly, smiling. She turned her face away in shame.

“Where have you been, Nam?”

Perhaps the girl suddenly thought she could save her parents, for she looked up with a smile and answered boldly.

“Sir, I went to borrow money for my mama and papa, but it was no good.”

Then Nhan remembered the debt and the man and his wife He looked around anxiously.

“Where are your parents?”

“Sir, they left.”

Nhan was startled as he realized how they were using their pretty daughter to try and influence him. And in an instant he saw the abhorent cruelty of the man who owed a debt along with the disgusting pettiness of the man to whom it was owed.

Coldly, he opened his briefcase and handed Nam a note for the debt payment and a permit to purchase alcohol from his house. Then he hurried back to his car.


[1] During the French occupation, the colonial government oversaw a monopoly on opium, alcohol and salt- two forced vices and one dire necessity of the colonized people.

Photo: Réunion de Femmes by Joseph Inguimberty 

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