Alongside

Inspired by my childhood, and trees.

Gợi nhớ một khoảng trời lá đỏ

Về cây bàng trước gõ nhà tôi

Đêm mùa đông, cháy bùng lên ngọn lửa

Sáng mai ra, trắng một bếp tro trời.

Reminiscent of a mahogany piece of sky:

the tropical-almond tree in front of my alley

Winter night, flamed up the last fire

Came dayspring: its ashes whited out the sky.

*   *   *

“ Shroack… shroack… shroackkk…”

The street janitor hustled dry leaves––my recently lost hair––into humongous brown, crispy piles under my feet with his bamboo broom. In the terminalia catappa family, we called winter “the hair loss season.” Every morning, I awoke to the rustling sound of the street janitor’s definitive sweeping strokes. For the past couple of months, he had more work to do since my crown started falling apart, especially after nights of cutting winds, laying bare the twigs and branches like skeletal arms and fingers reaching for the sky. This morning the janitor was so skilled with his job that he was able to outperform his own record and spent the rest of his working time at the tea vendor next to me. He pulled out a step stool, took off his face mask, and began sipping the steamy, harvest bronze liquid from the tiny cup that the tea vendor lady filled up for him.

The tea vendor lady was always endearing. She said good morning to me every day at exactly six o’clock by throwing a cupful of leftover tea at my feet (an important act of her teacup-cleaning ritual). She never missed doing that to me, not even on weekends. The lady was old, too old to stand with her back straight, yet she was fast, fast enough to set up her stall and pour ten cups of tea in a blink of an eye. Her tea stall was compact and portable: one small wooden table, two tiny step stools, teawares, and a jar of peanut brittle. She loved chewing areca nuts and betel leaves––her lips were always stained red because of the areca juice, and her teeth were dyed black (a blackened set of teeth, as black as custard apple seeds, was a symbol of beauty and longevity of Vietnamese people in the past; tooth blackening was an important ritual of body decoration especially for women). Once in a while she would spit the areca juice at my feet, for if she swallowed it, she would be delirious for the rest of the day and kept asking me “Why did a tropical-almond like you get stuck here anyways?”

I was never able to answer her question. Ever since I started perceiving the world, I had been standing at the head of this alley. I watched the influx of people and moving vehicles from daybreak to sundown; I witnessed the manifestation of the Sphinx’s riddle in real life: creatures who walked on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening––I couldn’t remember seeing how many “running diapers” becoming devoted “making ends meet” citizens, and how many full heads of black hair gradually turning gainsborough and then powdered white. I was born and grew up with this city. I tasted the blood of soldiers and civilians holding the city’s fortification shed deep in the ground, and I inhaled the victory of independence and reunification after the war in the air. My being with the city was not a deliberate choice but a given. I rooted here until the day I vanished into ashes.

I enjoyed the tea vendor lady very much, not only because she chose to be my friend. Her existence with the tea stall under me somehow gave meaning to my presence. The customers called her business “the tropical-almond tea vendor,” which they could recognize from afar because of my robust physical form: sturdy trunk with various knots and holes branching out ambitiously towards all directions; my branches were antler-shaped, and in summer they were gilded with laces of silky, bottle-green leaf. When autumn came, the laces turned sunflame-gold, and my bark smelled rather baked and aromatic. As winter had been occupying, all pieces of my hair became flaky and fell off into pieces, and my body was more dry and wrinkly than the skin of the tea vendor lady closeby.  

The old lady was a natural storyteller; she contained within her a treasure chest of life-story wonders. Most of the stories were collected from the customers she interacted with throughout her lifetime, some others from her own eventful life, and I was sure there were a handful of made-up ones. The customers were faithful to her not so much for her tea, but rather for her talent. Whenever she was about to tell a story, she put one leg up on the step stool, fixed her black kerchief straight, gleeked, spat out the areca juice, crossed her arms around her leg, and started squinting at an undefined space as if she was trying to fossick through her memory. The customers, from faux-hawk youngsters to crinkly oldsters, cleared their ears and gathered around her like loyal disciples, sipping tea and chewing peanut brittle. 

“ Ah… At this street corner a couple of years ago there was a motorbike taxi girl, Hanh, more beautiful than any Miss this and that you see on tivi. She was good, very benign and worked like a buffalo. During the day she picked up and dropped off customers all around, at night she cleaned houses for the intellectuals in the city. Only intellectuals, ‘cos she liked to read, and they gave her free books and magazines. She said the best thing was eavesdropping on their conversations––the internal business of those rich and know-it-all was total chaos. Professor A married General B, together they had Dandy 1 and Dandy 2; Dandy 1 was overly achieved and vain, Dandy 2 a sweetheart but too tired to care too much about anything except food; General B had an affair, Professor A got cancer. Hanh worked for this family for more than five years: cleaning, cooking, taking the Dandies to school, taking care of Professor A during her treatment.” 

“Having seen through all the tragic twists and turns, she was still dedicated to them: they were the family she always wished for. She tried to pull them together by cooking the best meals and sending word-of-mouth messages from one family member to another. One time, when the mistress called and Hanh picked up the home phone, she told the bitch to ‘f*** off’ and made sure that she would never step foot into the family again. Ahah, she was a badass for sure. Very well-intentioned too. Poor thing, later on she had to return to the village to serve her damned, out-of-jail, addict husband. I called to check on her once, and she said he hit her like a dog, bruises everywhere. He had lung cancer though. ‘I can’t wait for the dog to die off at once,’ she said, ‘but its smell may still stink around the house.’ You see, she turned violent herself. This form of rage was a cruel but apparent result of the personal dignity being trampled by human bondage. Had it not been for her little son, I think she would have killed him.” 

The tea vendor lady had a ton of “meet my neighbor” stories like this, from how the street janitor was invited to cast for a movie because of his incredibly tall, muscular, handsome appearance, but he turned it down because he had serious stage fright, to how the female Math teacher of alley 24 refused to marry a well-off foreign businessman because she didn’t know English. “Dumbasses, such Ke-nu Re-vet (Keanu Reeves) and Ma-ji Mau-rau (Marilyn Monroe) of the East but cannot think! Give me their identities and I’d make a fortune! Who cares if you know English or not… hell-low (hello), wood-mau-ning (good morning), watt-doo-zu-wand (what do you want), and every now and then ai-lop-zu (I love you)… easy as eating cake! It’s all about pretending you know what you’re doing even if you don’t and just do it.” The customers nodded their heads, “dat right…damn right,” and asked for more tea fills. 

Occasionally, the tea vendor lady would tell the story of a tea vendor lady who had been selling tea religiously all her life to support her handicapped and wifeless thirty-five-year-old son. She never admitted that the story was her own. Whenever someone asked about it, she would say “get lost” and changed the topic of the conversation. 

The tea lady was quick-witted––she often picked her stories according to the group characteristics of her customers. My favorite story was the tale of the star apple tree, a kind of fruit bearing tree that was locally called vú sữa (milky breast) that the tea vendor lady usually told to the children or student customers to teach them about motherhood:

“ In a poor village, there were a mother and a son taking care of each other. The son was brought up with all of the mother’s care and attention because the father passed away early, which resulted in him being spoiled. He was really selfish, and always rebelled against the mother’s guidance. One day, he misbehaved and his mother punished him, but he was so discontent that he left the house and ran away from the village. He wandered to many places, and ended up in the city. He begged for food and money during the day, and slept under the bridge at night. Months passed by and the son started missing home, where he was living a carefree life within his mother’s embrace. One night, after being robbed and hurt by a gang of street kids, he decided to find his way home.” 

“The village appeared the same in front of his eyes; the house didn’t change a dime, still rustic and endearing like the good old days. He burned his throat calling for his mother, but responded to him was only silence. Exhausted, he sat down under the most robust tree in the garden. The tree suddenly shook its leaves, and a round, firm fruit fell onto his hands. He took a bite. ‘So sour!’– he cried. The tree shook again and another fruit fell off. He tried it, and immediately spitted out the seed he just bit onto, ‘so hard!’. One more time, the tree shook, and the son caught the fallen fruit with both of his hands. The fruit was ripe enough for the peel to crack open, letting the white, rich, sweet juice trickle through. He sucked it, and immediately bursted into tears. The juice tasted like milk, and its freshness caressed his soul. He heard the tree whispered through the rustling leaves: ‘Taste the fruit 3 times shall you know the sweetness. Misbehave how many times shall you know the heart of your mom?’ He looked up to the crown of the tree, where hundreds of leaves were blinking at him like hundreds of his mother’s eyes, red and watery from all the time crying and waiting for him to come back. The son held the tree with his arms, yet no matter how tightly he did that, he could never reverse what he had done and bring his mother back.”

“You see… this story is not fictional. I witnessed it long before your time and I’m sure this tropical-almond tree right here also knows it. Be well-behaved and respectful to your parents, especially your mothers. They have been through enough carrying and pushing you out of them, wiping your butt, cleaning your mess, listening to your bullshit while multitasking to organize the family. We women are invincible, don’t you forget that! The next time you talked back at your moms, think about this story I told you, and count the days you have left with them.” 

The late winter sky was bleakened with ashy layers of drifting clouds. The winds sometimes soughed, sometimes whooshed and howled through my long, spindly and dry arms like they were recounting their odysseys through manholes and alleys and tangling streets. 

This morning the street janitor didn’t talk much. He lighted a cigarette, inhaled deeply and slowly blew the smoke out of his nose and mouth into dense air. He sipped the steamy, slightly bitter liquid from the tiny tea cup, and looked at the tea vendor lady.

“ Today is a dreary day, isn’t it?”

“ It is, my son. Not much from other winter days though. What’s on your mind?”

“ Not much… Just work and some family business. I gotta sweep the tombs this weekend at my family’s cemetery and lineage temple. Bringing the kids with me, so they can see more of their father’s home village. Mai is away this week so I have to take the kids to school before my morning sweep and find a way to work the night shift after I tuck them in bed… It’s nice to have some tea break time here.” 

“ You’re welcome anytime. Bring the kids here, I can look after them for you. They can play here and help me with my business. I’m sure they can count change faster than I do. You feel free to go finish your businesses, and come back to pick them up before my closing time.”

“ You’re too kind, mother. That would be much appreciated.” The street janito smiled, and looked down hesitantly as if he was choosing words before spitting out something. 

“ Erhmm… Mother… I listened in at my company yesterday. The bosses are thinking about clearing out old trees on this street. The alley will also be expanded so cars can drive in and out. The construction plan will be proposed next month to the big bosses above these bosses. I just want to give you a heads up…”

The tea vendor lady threw her eyeballs at the janitor, shook her body, and stood up from her stall. She made a fist and squeezed a corner of her already wrinkled shirt. She uttered as if the words were trapped behind her teeth: 

“ What? No… No! Mother of dogs… Did their mothers teach them to think with their heads or assholes? How the hell are they gonna cut down all of the big old trees on this street? These trees are the guardians of the land. All of the homeless spirits take refuge here. Look, look for yourself! Look at the leaves––see thousands of eyes blinking at us from up there? Many of them are infants’. Killing them is killing ourselves!!!” The tea vendor lady cried out, and threw her fists above her head. 

“ Sit down, sit down mother. I know… I know your stomach and I hear your heart. If this construction plan is still young, maybe we can change it. Let’s think about it… It doesn’t make sense to replace old trees with fancy new ones because baby trees take decades to grow back. We don’t support this insanity.” The street janitor sat the tea vendor lady down and caressed her shoulders.

The lady’s voice turned hoarse as if she just swallowed something very sour and bitter. 

“ I know this kind of scheme. It had happened before when I was still able to stand straight on my back. The local authorities cut down all the trees and sold the bark for loads of money. These motherfuckers, bored of aristocracy, sick of sitting still signing paper, turned megalomaniac and wanted to experiment on us. They sucked the money out of our blood, and now out of these trees. Who knows if tomorrow they’ll turn to lakes, bridges, old heritages! They play us because they can. They’ll say ‘hail a new city landscape’ and trample on our history.” The lady spitted out every word as if it hurt her tongue. Then she looked at me, touched my crinkly dry skin, and whispered: “It’s gonna be alright. You’re not going anywhere. You’re meant to be here and will be here until you choose to leave this life… ” 

The afternoon lumbered by, dragging the shade of dusk down to the tea stall, where sat an old lady and a tall, middle-aged man drafting schemes to organize against the city’s eminent policy of madness. The tea stall closed much later than usual, and the tea vendor lady’s walk seemed heavier, yet more determined than yesterday. 

I stood by the flickering light post of the alley. No crickets’ symphony, just bare winter night and the whisper of the winds. I thought of the tea vendor lady. She was furious and on edge today. I couldn’t tell her that it was okay––I had lived long enough to depart from this land. I was less worried about me being cut down than about her and our companionship. 

Whether I was skeleton-bare or a leafy paradise, the tea vendor lady wouldn’t look at me differently. She sat peacefully under my embrace, on the carpet of crispy leaves; sometimes she would hang her cleaning cloth and teawares onto the protruding knots on my body. The entire space around me belonged to her. We existed together and within each other’s company. Without me, she wouldn’t have a spatial background and an old friend to rely on, and her business would no longer be “the tropical-almond tree tea stall.” Without her, I would no longer be the tropical-almond tree next to the tea vendor. Our existence, from both sides, would lack half of its meaning. Yet I know that we had made the best out of our time together. We had carried thousands of stories within our memories and we had witnessed god-knows-how-many lives passing by. Everyone was seeking an anchor in his life, a peaceful harbour to store his values amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. I was lucky to have found mine. The tea vendor lady was not just my most faithful companion. She was my soulmate. 

Tomorrow, I would tell her that everything was going to be okay, and she would see spring coming on my body soon enough. I was already feeling the itchy vibrancy across my arms and under my skin; certain spots on my body were ready to crack open for the new lives to thrive. As long as the soft green buds appeared, she and I would make it through.

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