When I was young I used to stay at my granddad's in a small village by a river. My best friend was Khanh, a boy who took care of Granddad's water buffaloes. I liked to go with Khanh to the pasture, especially when his large khaki shirt pockets were filled with mud pellets and a catapult hung from his belt.
When the buffaloes were grazing or wallowing in the mud by the river bank, Khanh and I played games. Our favorite was "Tarzan". We covered our bodies with banana leaves and wild flowers. Khanh was Tarzan, and I was Jane. He went hunting with his catapult or fished with a bamboo basket while I collected wild fruit and flowers. At lunch time we spread out everything we had gathered and had a feast.
Sometimes there were wars, because Khanh was not the only Tarzan in the neighborhood. The other Tarzans were much bigger than him, so we usually had to achieve peace by surrendering.
When the rice was harvested and then dried in the yard, birds came to pick at the grains or make off with pieces of straw, flying over the thatched roofs or singing gay songs in the bushes. Then we children knew that the Tet holiday was coming. Students were on vacation, and hunters were everywhere. Roasted wild bird was a great treat, and baked bird eggs were wonderful too. We buried them in hot ash. The eggs might get slightly burnt, but we eagerly broke the shells and stuffed them into our mouths. Nothing tasted better.
Khanh sometimes would find bird eggs when he was climbing trees looking for fruit. Once he ran shouting to me that he had discovered a dong-doc's nest. I became excited and ran after him to the highest coconut tree by the riverside. There near the top of the tree hung a beautiful straw nest. We stood on the river bank looking up at it.
Suddenly a new, giant Tarzan appeared. He grabbed our ears and said, "Get out of here. That dong-doc is mine." We could do nothing but run off and nurse our stinging ears. Disappointed, we watched the great hunter aim his gun arrogantly at the nest. But the mother bird was not in the nest. He waited for a while, then walked over to us and said, "You see mother bird, you call me, understand?"
After a few minutes Khanh decided that the alien Tarzan only wanted the mother bird and that the nest was ours if we could get to it. He glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then quickly climbed to the top of the coconut tree. He found two lovely eggs in the nest, but just as he was showing them to me, the mother bird returned home. Khanh hurriedly hid the nest in a bush.
Both of us started shouting and waving our arms to drive the mother bird away. I didn't want the bird shot by the hunter. But she kept flying around and around the coconut tree, crying out desperately. "She's looking for her children," Khanh said.
The shot startled both of us, but I saw the bird flying safely in the sky above us.
The second shot made the bird dart away like an arrow. But she soon returned, still flying around in circles and crying out for her stolen nest.
I shut my eyes and nearly burst into tears. But when I opened them, magically the bird was still flying unharmed. Khanh shouted: "Fly away, mother bird, or you will be killed !" I shouted too. Both of us shouted and danced around like mad. The hunter got angry, gave each of us a kick, then went away.
Khanh hastily carried the nest back to the top of the coconut tree, but he could not get it back into the same place where it had hung before. So he put it all the way up on top of the tree, then called to the mother bird, "Here is your home, come back!"
The bird continued to fly round and round, not understanding our good intentions. Then she flew higher. Khanh cried out through his tears, "Don't leave, mother bird! Your home is safe!"
It was dusk now, and the bird's pained cries became more and more faint. She also became harder and harder to see. Khanh kept calling to her. "Don't leave! Who will hatch your babies?"
We waited for the bird's return until Granddad came looking for us. Khanh sobbed to him, "Tomorrow I cannot take care of your buffaloes. I have to go to pagoda."
Granddad laughed. "Why?"
"I have to atone for my sin. When my mother left, Grandma said that unless my aunt showed repentance in her next seven lives, she could not atone for her sin of separating a mother and child. Today I made the mother bird leave its own babies."
Granddad rubbed Khanh's head. "Your mother is traveling on business somewhere and will be home for Tet. No mother willingly leaves her children, not even a mother bird. Tomorrow she will come back to look for her nest. Wait and see if I'm not right."
In the morning the mother bird did return to the nest. Khanh embraced me and both of us danced and sang: "On Tet holiday Mother will be home!" Nobody ever so longed for Tet as we did.
Khanh's mother did return home, but mine did not. Now that I have grown up, I know what death means. But whenever Heaven and Earth prepare for a new year, I still long for my mother's return.
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