The First Thunder of Summer
The First Thunder Of Summer
(Tiếng Sấm Đầu Mùa)
by Trần Thanh Diệu
Short story prize awarded by Viet-Nam Pen Club - 1965
Translated from the Vietnamese by Kitty
I have this phobia that I don’t seem to be able to overcome: I’m scared of thunder. Not the thunder that tears off the sky and brings along driving rains, but only the thunder that rumbles, echoing through the valley, thunder that breaks out from a reddish horizon at the end of a hot day, announcing the arrival of the summer, like today.
I have never determined the reason for that state of mind, but every year, with the coming of the first summer days, this image of the reddish stormy sky reminds me of an event which ended my childhood in my home village. It was an insignificant anecdote, but it took me from pre-adolescence to too early an adulthood – like a young fruit that has parted from its branch with its velvet powdery skin to ripen in a jar of rice or husk and whose bitter juice will never turn sweet.
At that time, I was still only a schoolboy finishing his classes at the village’s elementary school. My village was on the Binh-Luc river, a branch of the Perfume river, but in fact it was separated from the Perfume river by a solidly built rock dam. Every year when the season of rains and floods came, for children my age, it was an opportunity for lots of fun mingled with fear. Day and night we listened to the river roaring over the dam like waterfalls. The river swelled to immense proportions, became like a sea, and the village seemed to have shrunk into a small isolated island. Rains poured down incessantly, but that didn’t keep us, the village children, in groups of four or five, from playing merrily, wading in floodwaters, or following our parents to collect driftwood that the floods had brought down from the mountains a long way upstream, and that we would use for fires. We also often spent hours and hours anxiously watching the ferries that precariously transported travellers across the river to the town. Even at our young age, the roaring of the river, and the image of ferries which might sink into the waves and drown people would keep us from sleeping at night.
Nevertheless, every time we heard the warning that the dam would be flooded, we, the village children, were secretly elated because there would undoubtedly be special days off school.
One day, when the dam was well covered by floodwaters and no ferry would risk transporting travellers across the river, the level of the water in our village reached our knees. Of course, for children like us, it was like a festival day with lots of fun. Apart from the very old people and the very young children who could not yet wade in the water, everybody was out, whether having fun like we were, or collecting firewood like the grown-ups.
Completely naked, I was splashing the floodwater, pretending to be a car. Behind me were three or four boys about my age who belonged to my form at school. We held each other around the waist, and so our little chain ran through the area like a miniature train. We were having so much fun that we forgot that in the village there were schoolgirls the same age and that on ordinary days, when we met them, either we, the boys, or they the girls, usually showed timidity and reserve.
When we got to the corner of a street we slowed down, “honking” the horn hard like a car about to take a dangerous bend. Suddenly I heard someone call my name at the same time as he touched my side:
‘Lâm, please let me be part of your train.’
I turned round, not specially surprised:
‘Ah, Tuân, yes ! Get on quickly or we’ll leave without you.’
And so our little train had a new small “wagon”. But as he was so small – he was three years younger than me – I should have let him join us at the tail end. Instead, I let him join us straight behind me. He had to reach up to grab my waist with his arms, and the boy behind him had to bend down to reach his. From that moment on, our train ran no longer smoothly, either as a result of our uneven height or because of some psychological reason that I did not know about. The only thing that I was aware of, was that Tuân was wearing a pair of blue shorts with suspenders, while the rest of us, including me at the head of the train, were in our birthday suits – stark naked.
When we arrived at the village market I decided to break up the train without explanation, and rushed straight home. Tuân who had just joined us was very disappointed. He called after me, but I went on running, saying nothing. After slipping on a pair of boxer shorts I returned to the market, where the others were still wondering why our train had stopped.
I took Tuân’s hand and led him away from the others. When we were out of earshot, I asked him:
‘How did you get to come alone, you cheeky brat ?’
‘I like wading in water, but my parents don’t allow me to, so I slipped out’, he replied, hopping joyfully from foot to foot.
‘And what if your parents got to know ?’
He didn’t hear my question, but pointed at a wooden box floating on the floodwaters a little way from us. I quickly ran after it to fetch it. It was an empty cigar box. Tuân was very pleased with it, but at once I thought of its usefulness. It reminded me of the beautiful boxes of certain rich friends of mine, in which there were separate compartments, and the words “Le plumier ” (pencil box) were beautifully written on it. I turned to Tuân:
‘This box is completely soaked. I’ll dry it and bring it to you in a few days. And also, if you take it home right now, your parents will know that you have been out, wading.’
Whereupon, someone launched a pebble which hit me hard on my back. It hurt a lot, so I looked around, trying to spot the culprit, when roars of laughter broke out from behind the village small shrine:
‘Hey ! Hey ! Lâm the bootlicker !’
Stunned, I couldn’t understand why they called me the bootlicker. And whose boots was I supposed to be licking ? I turned around. There was no one besides Tuân and me. They couldn’t have understood my secret thoughts about the cigar box. And even if this was the only reason, it certainly wasn’t reason enough to call me a bootlicker… I thought for a moment. Perhaps they thought that I was sucking up to Tuân because his father was a teacher in a school in town! Nevertheless, I felt that my ‘pride’ had been wounded, and my rage was ready to explode. I needed to show everybody that I was a hero, particularly in front of “someone” like Tuân, even though till now, I had never won a fight against any of the boys my age; moreover, they were four of them now against me. Tuân looked frightened, he pulled me away. But that response from him convinced me to stay. I turned to face the others, one hand on my waist, shouting:
‘Damn you !’
At once, all four of them rushed threateningly towards me. But fortunately, at that moment, someone shouted out from a small tea kiosk. I recognized the voice of Mr. Tinh, who was a member of the village militia squad:
‘Hey ! You boys there ! You want to fight ? I’ll chain you all and put you up on the guard post !’
Feeling reassured, I considered myself the winner of the battle.
On the following day the floodwaters had receded a lot. The ferries, loaded with travellers, started crossing the river. Students of the town schools resumed their work, but in our village there were areas where the streets were still flooded, and so was our school. We had a few more days off. However that morning I had woken up early as usual. I went to the street along the river bank with other people who had come to assess the damage caused by the floods. I meant to meet Tuân, because I knew that he would be going to school with his sister. I had the cigar box in my hand. In the box, I had slipped a piece of paper on which I had written something, meaning that I offered him the box. Now thinking back, I realize that it was totally ridiculous from my part. But when I put my pen down to write these words, I thought that I was doing something really “sublime”. Tuân was only a fourth form schoolboy, and perhaps my handwriting at that time was not even legible enough for him to decipher. However I wanted him to keep something from me, something that would make him remember me; I didn’t really know why.
I waited for a moment. I started feeling disappointed and was about to go back home, but then a vague hope made me walk towards Tuân’s house. When I reached the blacksmith’s workshop I saw the shape of a small girl about my age, still in the distance. She was wearing a long raincoat. I thought that it was Liên-Hy, Tuân’s sister, but Tuân was not with her. I hastily hid behind the corner of the workshop, waiting for her to pass by, then I stepped out and followed her silently, holding the cigar box in my hand, not knowing what I was going to do.
After a moment, Liên-Hy turned her head round unintentionally and caught me staring intently at her. Her expression was completely indifferent, to the extent that I wondered whether she had recognized me. However, I felt something hard to describe, a pinch of joyfulness mingled both with a twinge of reproach to Liên-Hy who didn’t seem to recognize me, as well as a bit of shame at the memory of the word ‘bootlicker’ the boys had called me the previous day.
I was still lost in my thoughts, when the horn of a bike startled me; I turned my head and saw Mr. Minh, Liên-Hy’s and Tuân’s father. Mr. Minh was a teacher, of a very kind and jovial nature, he liked me very much because I was neither an unruly boy, nor an insolent child. Sometimes he came to my house as a village elder to ask my parents about my schooling and studies. Nevertheless, taken unawares, and especially as I had the impression of being caught red-handed doing something illegal, I couldn’t reply him in time when he asked me:
‘Aren’t you going to school today, Lâm ?’
I still heard his voice fading away as he rushed past me on his bicycle. Hesitating for a moment on the spot, I watched Liên-Hy’s shape and Mr. Minh’s bicycle disappearing behind the village shrine, then suddenly I remembered Tuân: “Why didn’t he go to school ? Perhaps he was sick because he had waded in water the previous day !” A sense of guilt seized me, and I ran straight to Tuân’s house, to try to find out why he had not gone to school, and whether he was ill. But no, he was not ill. Simply because his parents thought that he was too young to cross the river in those weather conditions, and had allowed him one more day off.
I lingered under the bamboo trees in front of Tuân’s house. Gusts of winds showered down what water was still remaining on the leaves from the previous rains. I shivered with cold but still tried to stay and wait. I whistled a scout tune, and Tuân hesitantly appeared on the threshold. I walked out from under the bamboo trees, holding out the cigar box. As soon as he saw me, he rushed out towards me when Mrs. Minh’s voice sounded at the same time, making me fear that perhaps I was doing something at the wrong moment.
Tuân also looked frightened, he grasped my hand and pulled me to the house. I had no time to protest when Mrs. Minh arrived on the threshold too. To explain his doing, Tuân hastily said:
‘I wanted to invite Lâm to come and play with me’.
Shyly I followed Tuân into the house. The old people in the house saw that I was only a child, they left us alone and paid no attention to us.
Tuân showed me around every nook and cranny of the house and I was filled with wonder by everything. In reality there was nothing really special, but compared with the simplicity and the total lack of decoration of my house, what I saw in his own was for me something too wonderful, surpassing anything in my imagination, even though the outside of the house was already well-known to me. How often had I attended campfires on his square clay yard – I was at that time a cub scout, and Mr. Minh was my troop leader – but I had never known what the inside of his house looked like. Sometimes I had imagined how it might be, but all my imaginations and suppositions were wrong, and far from the real thing.
That whole morning, I went from one wonder to another. Tuân showed me his toy box, full of “real” toys, mechanical toys, all kinds of toys and all beautifully made or coloured, not like my own toys which were all designed and made by myself. Suddenly I envied him, I envied his way of living, and I hoped I could have some relationship with him, with his family, I didn’t know really why, and what it really meant.
Then Tuân left aside his toys when he was tired of them. He led me to his room, which was also his sister’s. Seeing the books and school stationery on the table and the shelves, I thought that it was a student’s studio. But what mostly drew my attention in the room was the enlarged portrait photo on the wall. The photo in itself was not special, but what made it special to me was that it was Lien-Hy’s portrait. I stood perplexed, silently hesitating while Tuân showed me his picture books, cheerfully chirping away beside me. I became suddenly thoughtful, I didn’t know why, because at the age of ten, I could not truly analyse my state of mind. Tuân took my hand and pulled me down on the bed.
‘Sit down here, and look at these beautiful pictures.’
He told me stories from his picture books, as he had heard from his father. But with his way of tale telling hopping from one subject to the next, plus my kind of stupefied state of mind, I didn’t take in a single word he said. I was only aware of a strange newly born emotion I felt in me. Then from time to time I turned around and moved closer and closer to the pillow which bore the sky blue embroidered initials “ LH ” in the corner. I felt a warm sensation flowing throughout my body.
The wall clock struck ten. Although I didn’t want to part from this particularly attractive room, something, on the other hand, made me fear that perhaps it wouldn’t do to linger; I got up and left the room, leaving the cigar box on the bed where I had been sitting, pretending I had forgotten it.
I went home in the stillness of the world that was enclosing me and the seething emotions in my heart, the heart of an elementary class schoolboy.
What had happened during these last two days is not really the subject of my story for, in itself, it was insignificant.
Since that day on, I felt that I wanted to be closer to Tuân. That was not difficult for me, but paradoxically, the closer I became to him, and the more opportunities I had to play with him, the more I felt that it was not enough for me and that it was not my true desire.
From then on, every time I talked to my sister, I tried to turn the conversation to subjects concerning Liên-Hy or having something to do with her. My sister was two years older than me, and we were very close to each other. And I knew that she was a friend of Liên-Hy’s too, even though there was a difference of three years in their ages. Liên-Hy liked my sister very much. Sometimes she came to ask my sister about her homework, or to show her new knitting or embroidery patterns. Every time after her visit, I lingered around my sister trying to know what her visit was about, what she had said, but each time I learned nothing more than homework or knitting and embroidery patterns. Normally I should have tried on these occasions to find ways to come near my sister and join in their conversation. It was the other way round: I lost all my normal countenance. Even when I was doing something very important, I would drop it at once and run to the rear garden to hide myself. I wanted Liên-Hy to feel free so that she could stay longer with my sister. I feared that my presence could make her feel uneasy and would make her leave quickly. Sometimes I tried to get a look at her through a slit in the bamboo woven wall of our house.
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To be continued
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