I was testing my magic lantern to see if it worked, watching human figures circle inside the transparent thin paper when my mother called from the kitchen.
“I need your help!”
“Coming, mom,” I ran downstairs.
“Go to Hai’s house and get a bunch of guava and willow leaves. I need them for the sour pork hash we’re having to celebrate the anniversary of grandpa’s death.”
On the way I saw four or five peasants standing around a cage made of rattan with a pig inside. It was grunting heavily, and every now and then it would let loose a series of deafening screams as its empty belly rose and fell. You could hear squeals like that all round the neighborhood, as hungry pigs demanded their evening meal.
Mr. Hai was sitting on a log on the floor in the kitchen. He was a lively man, with a blue crepe band on his head and a pair of pants rolled up past his knees. He was busy working on several brass items, some black and dirty, others shining bright, in front of a steaming earthen pot filled with green leaves. Everyone knew him as Teacher Hai.
“Hi!” he said, a cigarette rolled with young banana leaf between his teeth. “Have you come to pick the leaves for the rice cakes? I remember at your grandpa’s anniversary every year, your mother always sends you over for them. Please ask her to give me one piece of each of the cakes,” he said jokingly.
“Mom already finished with the cakes two days ago. I need the leaves for the hash.”
I glanced at the steaming pot.
“Do you know what’s in there? They’re wild mangosteen leaves, boiled up to remove spots and rust from brass. Pure ashes don’t work. Look at this piece in my hand. Looks like new, doesn’t it? I shined it with those wild leaves.”
He showed me a fist-sized black bronze horse in a galloping position, its front legs resting on a copper pedestal.
“How beautiful!” I exclaimed. “How come the wild leaves work so well?”
“Well, when the French came,” he explained, “they brought along this foreign cleaning product, and I used to ask Mr. Tu’s son in school in Hanoi to buy it for me there. But it didn’t work that well really, not compared to what our ancestors used to use.”
He handed me a round metal box. Inside was a thick foul-smelling yellow fluid, a very bad odor I’d never smelled before.
“I’ve got to clean these ceramics,” he said, rubbing the horse with a piece of dark-colored fabric, “pig-iron and brass things twice, first with the wild leaves, then with that French stuff.”
“You have so many things. Where did you buy this pair of horses?”
“That’s a long story. Your father knows my collection well, and all about my hobby collecting antiques. He’s got a much bigger collection than me, though. Ask him about my family situation, one day when he’s got time.”
He placed the horses on the floor and looked at them with satisfaction. It was the kind of deep appreciation people usually reserve for their idols.
“This is the year of the Horse. You know, we usually take care of my family’s tombs together in July. That’s why I’ll place these horses on the altar of my family ancestors. I’ve often done this over the years.”
He then made me follow him into a dim hallway where, in front of the central altar, I could just make out two white horses, about a half-meter tall, with black manes and tails, fully harnessed, and saddled up ready for their riders.
“Are those the sacred horses you brought home from the village community house for worship?” I asked, feeling rather frightened. “They look so real.”
“No, but they’re magnificent, aren’t they? I got them a few years back, from an artist who lived near the market in Tam Ky. They’re really hard to find, whatever you pay. Touch them. They aren’t made of paper but pure mortar, finely smoothed till it’s hard and shiny, based on a model I found in a classic book. I spent all of my wife’s money from selling rice on these saintly horses. She was so angry! I thought I’d never hear the end of it.”
People used to believe that it was lucky to have precious horses worshipped at the altar. Teacher Hai had probably wanted to be one of them. He went to the front of the house and undid the bolt on the door, and opened it, letting a stream of cool, silvery light shine inside. I could see several pairs of glittering, red-painted vertical boards with yellow borders, and on two porcelain stools were two lumpy porcelain vases with handles similar to the borders of a soft hat, covered with a thin layer of light yellow enamel showing engraved huge lotuses floating on water. It was a humble but noble antique treasure.
“Have a good look!” he said.
Above mother-of-pearl boards inlaid on the two main pillars in the center of the house were two large paintings of girls, their rosy, oval faces surrounded by shining black hair dotted with yellow flowers.
“These two paintings were done by a talented artist directly on glass, not on fabric or paper as usual. Perhaps he was Chinese. If I could take them down, you’d see the finely curved strokes from the back. Look more carefully, you’re not paying attention!”
He pulled my shoulders hard, making me look from the right and the left, then back and forth.
“Go lean on the other pillar then come back here. Wherever you are, those girls always look straight at you with a loving smile. Isn’t that something? When I was your age, a geomancer working for my father realized how valuable they were and pressed him hard to buy them. My father was really poor, but he refused, for they were our heirlooms. Your father often used to say that we should hold on to anything left behind by our ancestors for their descendants.”
He then went on at length about his persistent efforts to go anywhere to buy antiques when they were offered for sale at a good price: a brown clay tea pot, a set of tiny wine cups, a broken classic bowl, anything. If he couldn’t afford something, he felt at least he’d seen it, and that eased the pain of his addiction.
“A month ago,” he continued, “I took a long walk over the mountains to Chanh Ngo’s house in Tien Phuoc, at least 15 kilometers away, just to take a look at – not buy, mind you– a pair of rare porcelain elephants, no bigger than a duck. On my way back, it rained heavily and the path was soaking wet. Suddenly a lunatic named Tam Khung jumped out on me from behind a bush, thinking I had precious chinaware in the bag on my shoulder and expecting them to break when I fell. Actually I hadn’t bought anything, but I was really angry as all my clothes got so dirty when I fell over.”
Another memory evidently popped into his head, and he abruptly stopped talking and rushed to an old carefully carved worshipping chest to take out a large red enameled bowl, which was dark red on the outside, bluish white on the inside, and dotted with purple flowers.
“This bowl,” he said, “was one of a pair; Sau, my careless son, broke the other one when he and I went to bathe in the river one day. I let him carry the bowl to use when we washed our hair. I don’t know what happened, but he dropped it and it broke in half, and I cried all night long. It was made in China, centuries ago, probably under the reign of the second Manchurian king, and was very highly regarded. Just having this remaining one would be treasure enough for some people. I missed the other one so much. The night it broke, I was sleeping on my wooden bed when a long piece of wood fell off the wall and landed beside me. It felt as though my deceased father was trying to punish me for letting the bowl get broken like that.”
His half closed eyes became unusually serious and sad. It was clearly an unforgettable loss, as though he had missed a big lottery win by one digit, or his only chance to have a male heir. He bent down to look at the bowl. I thought I saw him shaking.
“Once, on a rainy day” he went on, “a teacher in the Tam Ky district, Mr. Vo Cam, came to do an inspection of the Duong Dan school in the area. He learned that I had some antiques and, in spite of the wet weather, requested that I allow him to visit me. When I showed him a porcelain tea pot carved with the four mythical sacred animals (dragon, unicorn, tortoise, and phoenix), he insisted on having it, which I couldn’t deny as my son was his student at the Tam Ky Franco-Vietnamese primary school. I missed it terribly but I had no choice. However, I didn’t feel as sorry as I did with the broken bowl.”
He reached his hand upward over the altar to take down a rather large rice container with a white lid, the inside of which was specially enameled to make the flowers on the outside appear blue.
“Isn’t the drawing wonderful?” he asked me. “All the strokes are neat, unlike others on ordinary enamels. The four traditional precious plants are beautifully portrayed. On the lid, four Chinese characters are written in a fantasy manner, probably about the name of the producer. I’m not quite good about Chinese characters though. Please ask your father about them. According to my father, this type of pot can keep meat or fish fresh for three months. I have never tested it; nevertheless, this shows why it is extremely precious.”
His eyes blinked and his hand played pleasantly with his beard as if he had found the right patient person for all his confidences and hobbies. While he looked out dreamily, I thought about me, a seventeen-year-old junior high school student of peasant origin who often liked to be in touch with the people in the countryside to learn about their simple nature and life behind the bamboos, near the rice fields, in a natural environment close to the quasi-deserted mountainous area of my childhood. He kept repeating things I didn’t really want to hear but had to, just to please him. He was perhaps one of those ordinary and simple persons who could become talkative and sentimental by an unexpected touch of their confidences. I never forgot the sudden dialogues I had with a neighboring senior about his gambling chess games or with another former teacher, a friend of my father, about his cock fighting art. In every aspect of life, there were ordinary and quiet people who seemed to possess no particular characteristics, yet they could turn into orators on psychological problems or skillful artists deserving our instant appreciation. No ranking, classification, and qualification existed when dealing with passion.
“Teacher Hai, please tell me the interesting story about your antique collection,” I broke the silence.
“There’s no such interesting story. I’m a poor but ambitious person who’d always try to catch my eyes on an antique item if I happened to hear about it, wherever it might be. It didn’t matter whether the item had any value or the price was set very high, since I never had the intention to buy. Most of the time, I just wanted to satisfy my passion then leave it with sorrow.”
“Oh, I’m already late. Please allow me to go get the leaves for my mother. She’ll surely blame me since I’m her only helper in the house. And the anniversary is near…”
“Don’t worry, just stay there. I don’t see you often since you go to school in Qui Nhon city. By the way, how many days can you be at home? And what occasion is it?”
“It’s All Saints Day. I’m off school for four days.”
He walked to the kitchen and hurried back with a bowl of dark red tea for me.
“Let me tell you this story. The other year, near the end of spring, I went with some village notables to a cockfight at Cay Coc market in the district of Tien Phuoc. It was a very sunny day and we were extremely thirsty. We stopped by a house on the way and were about to ask for water to quench our thirst when some dogs began to bark at us. From inside the house came a series of humanlike greetings: “Welcome, Welcome! Keep the dogs! Keep the dogs!” I stepped toward the porch to see many turtle doves in several hanging bird cases. At the far end were seven or eight other cases made of bamboo sticks and covered with thin fabric in which I could see black parakeets with yellow necks and reddish beaks, black myna also with yellow and sometimes white beaks, and another type of myna that only buffalo boys often kept as companions. I don’t really like pet birds even though they sing beautifully, because they’re dirty and you have to take care of them everyday. We were then warmly greeted by a lady of whom I asked if we could have some tea, while slowly inspecting the cases.
‘The woman said, ‘That turtle dove can speak perfectly, and its feather, beak, and ears are all magnificent in yellow and red.’ And as if to prove what she had said was right, the bird uttered in a special tone: ‘Welcome, welcome. Mrs. Hai, please keep the dogs under control…’”
“I said, ‘This dove is particularly cute. It speaks perfectly.’”
“I know,” she said. “I’ve raised it for over three years, and put a lot of effort into training it, forcing it to perform up to today’s level. My children also trained it to sing:’ The bird suddenly began to boast its singing ability with some musical notes: ‘Do re mi fa so, … do mi so!’ She joyfully told the bird, ‘Greet him, dear!’ and it made an instant response in a commercial lisp: ‘Please buy some birds. And please have a quid of betel and tea.’ She continued, ‘It’s suddenly and very unusually showing good feeling for you today, since it always remains sad and quietly jumps up and down. It only talks like that when it’s in a good mood.’”
“I stared at the two blue-feathered parakeets with their scattered beautiful red dots, white beaks, and checkered legs, then asked, ‘Are there many people coming to buy the birds?’”.
”She said, ‘Well, they want mostly the ordinary prey doves used to attract other ones. Some did buy parakeets, mynas, bulbuls, though. These customers live as far away as Vinh Dien, Thang Binh, even Hoi An, and Duy Xuyen. Once in a while, a few Chinese from Tam Ky come to buy five to seven-month-old parakeets or parrots.’”
“I suddenly paid attention to a myna in a case at the end of the porch and asked for the price.
”She answered. ‘Why would you take the trouble to buy that kind of ordinary bird? It has a low value. Please buy this yellow one at my favorable, cheap price. It’s strong and its feather is so smooth.’”
“I told her I still liked the other better, since it was perhaps both inexpensive and easy to maintain, and suitable for my kid. I repeated my question about the price.
”She said, ‘Well, it’s the same as for this yellow one.’”
“I expressed my surprise at the unexpectedly high price, and she explained it was because the bird was easy to maintain, and its ability to sing would be much better in the long run. I looked carefully at the case but found nothing special about the familiar bird that my kids could take from nests of four or five tiny babies of the same species from a tropical almond tree near my house. I wouldn’t accept it for free, let alone buy it. Besides, it looked tired in its simple cage with a dirty bowl half-filled with unclean water mixed with droppings. I apologized for not buying anything in return for the tea she had offered, and concluded that I still wanted to buy a bird for my kids to spend their free time with. I then asked for the price of the other myna, and was astonished that she wanted the same price. I offered a slightly lower sum for the second one, which she gladly accepted. She removed it from its cage and put it in another one, nice and clean. She assured against my fear that it wouldn’t survive the trip back home; however, when I had been gone for several hundreds yards, I abruptly returned as if I no longer wanted the bird. Actually, I wanted to get the dirty and valueless water bowl in the other case just to help keep my bird from dying of thirst during the long trip under the extreme heat.
“When she learned of my intention, she asked me seriously if I really thought the dirty bowl was worthless. She went on to say that it looked dirty but had a high value as it was an heirloom from her ancestors. She said, ‘To tell you the truth, thanks to the bowl, I’ve already sold several ordinary mynas at a price similar to what you’ve paid for. Everyone pretends to buy that kind of ordinary myna first and then asks for the case with the dirty bowl. Maybe your real intention is different, but all other customers merely aim at the bowl, not the bird.’
“She then gave me a small bowl filled with clean water for the bird, but I was no longer interested as the myna meant nothing to me. I had paid a high price because of the high value of the dirty bowl. I was profoundly unhappy for having been outwitted by the woman and wasted my money. As a conclusion, we should never be too self-confident by overestimating ourselves in dealing with other people.”
As he stopped talking, I realized I had been late in my duty.
“Oh, my!” I exclaimed. “I’ve listened to you too long and forgotten my mother’s assignment.”
“Don’t worry!” he said and called his niece to bring me a full bag of green and fresh leaves.
Instead of letting me pick the leaves, he had deliberately retained me in his company so he could relieve himself of his antique addiction. In my teenager’s mind, the opening lesson on antiques with teacher Hai was still intact and seemed more interesting than any other academic stories about antiques told by the late learned Vuong Hong Sen. Hai’s story sounded much more emotional and impressive.
That afternoon, when we were getting ready for the anniversary, I told my father about the teacher’s story.
“That Hai!” my father exclaimed. “His antique addiction has been well known, that’s why he got the nickname “Mr. Antique”. Despite his poverty, he usually woos people, sometimes with insistence, into selling him their antiques at low prices. He’s sold two portions of his hereditary rice fields just to satisfy his hobby. I don’t blame him, as each of us has a passion and his is actually a noble one suitable to those who want to connect their present with the past. Gazing at a layer of enamel or a stroke of Chinese character can bring back memories of an ancient way of life with pleasure. It’s also an addiction, a nice cultural one, of course. We have some very old antiques here in the family, kept in the altar cabinets. However, I don’t have any obsession for them.”
He slowly removed from the cabinet a stack of white enameled china bowls and plates he said were all made of very old and rare porcelain. A pair of big flower vases decorated with mountains, rivers, and fishermen in an open landscape were also taken out, showing in their center two poetic lines written with fantasy characters that he explained were in praise of the large-petal peonies, growing mostly in the Lac Duong Mount in China. Next, he took out a plate as large as my mother’s flour sieve, decorated with orchid flowers and leaves, and directed my gaze to a rare square urn placed on a wooden support on my grandfather’s altar.
“It’s jade,” he explained, “decorated with a small pine with two birds standing on a twig and full of needles and flowers at the base where two poetic lines were written in an archaic type of characters that I think convey best wishes of long lasting prosperity and fame to our ancestors. That’s why it is placed there on your grandpa’s altar, so that our family can share the outcome of the wishes.”
“Don’t we have any paintings or antique items portraying the horses of Health and Happiness like those at teacher Hai’s, Dad?”
“We don’t need to,” he replied. “He kind of wants to show up his treasure to everyone. Look at those two pretty sky blue plates decorated with two fighting seniors on horses that are galloping toward one another. They’re followed by their troops holding banners bearing the word “Goat” on one side and “Horse” on the other side. At the bottom of the plates are four characters probably about some ancient period of China’s history or an old legend.”
He took a short pause before resuming his lecture.
“I’m currently reading the popular story ‘Horses in Paintings’ about a multitude of horse positions: standing, lying, galloping, and so on. It’s probably the best story of the famous ‘Anthology of Unreal Stories’ by a well-known Chinese author whose pen name was Bo Tung Linh, an excellent student who was always failing his exams. To show his literary talent, he wrote the anthology that has widely been considered one of China’s best. As for the old system of examination, it was not uncommon for outstanding students to fail repeatedly. Here in Quang Nam, that’s exactly what happened to Tran Quy Cap, the famous revolutionary.”
“Bo Tung Linh,” he went on to explain, “was born when China lost its sovereignty to the Manchurians for over a half century. He grew up depressed and chose to live in a secluded area in the mountains, surrounded by pines and creeks, spending his time writing ghost stories. His anthology consists of 431 stories, highly appreciated by readers ever since. The stories are about elves living together with human beings without distinction. According to legends, he built his house on the top of a mountain from where he climbed down very early in the morning to knock at the doors of ordinary people to wake them up and ask them to tell him miscellaneous stories. When they ran out of tales, he asked them to tell him lies until they could no longer continue. He then talked with them about elves, showing all the impetuousness of a strange recluse.”
I had a thousand other things to think about, but I kept on listening, despite my lack of comprehension. But those antique explanations and literary stories stuck in my young mind, creating in me some sort of elementary and vague feelings that became more intense and attached to the homeland. Now, with age, I live more and more with these vague and complicated memories, memories of a life filled with personal changes, national upheavals, and pain at being forced to live far from my native land.