Kim skips along the village's paths with moonlight as her guide. Dyed in a pale glow, she dances through empty streets, relishing in the fact that Thuy has let her move ahead of him for once during a walk. For Thuy, it's strange to know that his hand is empty when the girl is so near, but he supposes this will happen more often from now on. Kim will grow up safe in this village. As she gets older, she won't need anyone to hold her hand anymore, and of course her dependency on her cousin will diminish.
Will Thuy even be around to see that? By the time Kim is his age, would he have found his way out of this place? He hopes so, but for some unfathomable reason, he feels less excited about the prospect than he has in the past.
"Wait, Kim. We have to go left here," he calls out, "You're going straight."
Uncle Trung's house is undoubtedly one of the smaller ones in this village. While anyone can agree that it's at least a million times better than the one they were given in the hamlet, the home is only large enough to accommodate the family that resides in it. Any more than that and the entire thing might just collapse. If there's one thing about it that's especially piqued Thuy's interest, though, it's the fact that there always seems to be laughter echoing from the inside. Even as a young boy, Thuy could never seem to ignore the constant joy radiating from the place.
It's the same even now. When he knocks on the door, he's greeted with Uncle Trung's ridiculous grin, as well as a chorus of giggling girls from deeper within the house. He must have finished telling a joke or something.
"Good evening, Thuy! I see you've brought back my daughter safe and sound."
"Yes, she actually helped me in the fields today."
"Wonderful!" Uncle Trung pulls Kim inside, "You have no idea how grateful we are for you. Kim has always been in need of a friend, you know? With you around, her life is proving to be a lot better than we could ever hope for."
He ruffles the girl's hair, "The war has taken a lot from us. With our focus on just barely surviving, we unfortunately can't give Kim all the attention she deserves. But now that she has you… It's been easier for everyone."
"W-Well, it's not like I have anything better to do..! She appears out of nowhere while I'm in the middle of important work, and it's not like I can just send her away - she'd make a fuss and..." Thuy stammers, feeling heat creep up to his cheeks.
"You could have gotten rid of her regardless," Uncle Trung chuckles, crossing his arms, "That's what Kim was supposed to tell you anyway…"
Thuy's been cornered. The boy shoves his hands in his pockets and moves his gaze elsewhere. "Good night, Uncle Trung-"
"Wait! Would your father mind if my wife and I accompanied you back to your house? We both would like to speak with your parents."
Thuy remembers what Kim told him at the river and his suspicions. He's planned to ask his father about it, but with Uncle Trung himself coming over, the boy could finally gain a deeper understanding of what all this conspiring is about. He nods, "Of course you can come over. If it isn't too much to ask, though, what is it that you have to discuss with them?"
"The future, boy! Wait just a moment…"
Thuy is surprised to see Aunt Hang so well-dressed when she comes scurrying out past him and her husband. She's got a white ao dai on, complete with black trousers and a silk purse on her arm. The boy's speechless, "What is going on…"
"C'mon, then!" she beckons Uncle and Thuy over, "We haven't got all day!"
Kim gasps, "Can I come?"
"No, Kim. Your sisters will make sure you have something to eat before going to bed. Good night, princess," Uncle Trung crouches down to kiss the girl on her forehead, then goes to join his wife. Thuy lets himself look back before going, catching Kim sadly waving her little hand in goodbye. He returns the gesture.
As they're walking, Aunt Hang speaks to the boy eagerly, "So how are you Thuy? Is your shoulder alright? Oh, I saw what happened to your chickens this morning, it must have been exhausting trying to catch all of them! You know, it was our water buffalo on the street when we first arrived. You saw it, didn't you?"
"Yes," Thuy murmurs, still trying to keep up with everything she just said, "I'm resting my shoulder for now. And I had a friend help me get the chickens to safety.. It's good that you got your buffalo back-"
"Ah! You must be wondering why I'm dressed so formally," she laughs, "I overheard you asking Trung about our sudden visit."
"Yes, the future! We and your parents have realized a lot about life since the war began. Before, we used to think we had all the time in the world to push back responsibilities and wait until we were on our deathbeds before making important choices, but then we were moved to the hamlet, and suddenly we were almost convinced we didn't have a future! We were separated from our lives - the farms, the river, ancestral lands… So, now that you've saved us and brought us back, we've decided to treat life as it is - a rare, precious gift that we must work to preserve for our next generations! With how things are, we can't just wait for the future to fall into our laps. We have to make it ourselves."
"Both our families are going to work together to achieve this, Thuy."
Thuy is completely lost. He has so many questions, so much pent up frustration over his confusion. If this is the best answer he's going to get, he might as well just wait until they reach his home. When they do, Mother serves up dinner and Father seats everyone at their table. These preparations go so smoothly that Thuy is convinced that his parents expected them to come. A few minutes into dinner, Aunt Hang speaks up.
"I told your son about our proposition," she says. To Thuy's surprise, her tone is far more controlled than earlier.
Father replies, "Is that so?"
It's Uncle Trung's turn to speak, "For the sake of our families' future, we'd like to open up the possibility of combining all our assets with yours."
Thuy's chopsticks slip from his fingers. All their assets… That means their rice fields, livestock, money will be shared freely between the two families. Sure, Uncle Trung and Father don't have much on their own, but together, the possibility of becoming the richest family in this entire village is looking to be very real. But how?
Aunt and Uncle's conversation with his parents devolves into gibberish for Thuy. All this talk of numbers, acres, measurements, and trade leaves him clueless. How does this relate to him? Kim said Father and Uncle have done nothing but talk about him, so why doesn't he hear his name in this mess of a discussion? It feels like hours before Father decides to change the subject, "Enough of all this. It's too late to be talking about money."
"Agreed!" Uncle nods and turns to his nephew, "Let's talk about Thuy instead! How have you been, boy?"
Mother smiles, "He's such a hard worker, Trung. He's done so much for us despite being a boy still!"
"Me?" Thuy straightens his back, "I'm fine, I guess." I've got an unusable shoulder and a shit ton of manual labor to do tomorrow. I couldn't feel any worse.
Wait, but this is what he's been waiting for, right? What exactly are they planning?
"I'm fine, I guess?' You can come up with something better than that, surely?" Father scolds.
Thuy clears his throat. He looks around, shakes his head, shrugs - "I'm… I'm glad that we're all alive. That we still have homes and food. Running from the hamlet could have left us with absolutely nothing, so it's a relief, really." At least he's told a half-truth.
"We'll never forget what you did for us, Thuy," Aunt Hang leans forward, "The way you led everyone, how you were so in control… Even when you reprimanded that other boy! You're a natural-born leader!"
Mother interjects, "Of course! And you know what?"
"What?" Father asks.
"I bet he'd be wonderful at leading a household, too."
Thuy furrows his brows. "What-"
"I think so, too!" Aunt Hang claps her hands.
Father and Uncle Trung lock eyes on the boy. Uncle laughs, "You like any girls, Thuy? Anyone you'd want to marry?"
"Girls?" the boys repeats slowly, "I haven't had the time to think about girls."
"Really? A boy your age? Please."
"My home has been neglected for months. Our village is in desperate need for repairs. Our country is at war. The last thing I'm going to think about are girls!"
"Look at him! He's blushing! C'mon, Thuy, give us something!"
Everyone's stares make him feel helpless. Knowing there's no escape from this causes his stomach to flip over in embarrassment. He stutters, "W-Well…"
"I'd like a girl to love me first before I marry her."
The house is silent. Thuy scratches the back of his wrist, turning to face the wall. He said something stupid. So, so stupid! His family won't ever let him live long enough to forget this. If Mother or Aunt Hang decide to gossip, his friends will catch wind, and he'll become the butt of every one of their jokes.
Uncle Trung flashes one of the most incredulous smiles Thuy has ever seen. "A girl who loves you, huh..?"
"Forget what I said," Thuy pleads, "I was just speaking nonsense. Nothing about it was serious-"
Father nods to Uncle Trung and Aunt Hang. Aunt lets out a satisfied sigh, "Sorry for teasing you like that, Thuy! It's getting late; we'll get out of your hair now."
"You're always welcome here," Mother says.
And just like that, the night ends. Thuy is left traumatized, totally perplexed and upset, and goes to bed without feeling sleepy at all. The future? Combining wealth with Uncle Trung? Thuy and girls? Again, all of his questions remain unanswered, and they haunt him mercilessly as he spends the rest of the night staring at the ceiling.
Thuy doesn't get up in the early morning to pick up rations. The stress of getting up to fight over what little food there is doesn't knock on his conscience. Seeing the sky turn bright doesn't instill panic in him. No, not anymore.
He gets up to feed the chickens.
Thuy tiptoes past his sleeping parents and goes outside to the side of the house, equipped with a bucket of scraps from last night's dinner. He's greeted with the incessant crowing of the rooster, but the noise does nothing but inspire nostalgia. What he's doing is so… Normal. Back in the hamlet, he had doubted that he'd ever feel normal again. The constant paranoia, the stress… With those feelings gone it's almost as if he's missing something. And if it isn't those feelings he's missing, then it must be Kim coming to find him in the morning.
He lets the chickens out and pours out the scraps. They all swarm around it and eat at a rate he's never seen before. These poor animals… They must have missed eating a diet like this.
He turns around and sees Father approach him with an oar. "Good morning," Thuy says, "Are you taking the boat? I haven't checked to see if it's still in good shape."
"It's fine, Thuy. I wanted to tell you to come fish with me and Trung."
"This early? You should be resting, Father. The fish will still be there later-"
"I'm telling you to come with me."
Thuy pauses for a moment. "Okay, I'll go fish with you and Uncle."
"Let's go, Trung should be there now."
It's quiet by the river. Thuy's family actually owns a good length of it, his ancestors having been opulent fishermen in their past lives. Pulling the tall grass aside reveals their side of the bank, Uncle Trung, and their boat full of supplies. The breeze is gentle against his skin, the sound of flowing water reminds Thuy of a melody. The colors of dawn paint the sky, from orange clouds blotted on a deep indigo canvas to the white, fading moon surrendering to the sun. With no bamboo walls to block Thuy's vision, he has to wonder how many times he's taken beautiful mornings like this for granted before the army took them away.
He enters the boat and helps Father in before Uncle Trung lets the river take them. He jumps in at the last minute, greeting Thuy with his signature grin, "Mornin', Thuy!"
"Ah, good morning."
"It's been a while since you've been out on the water, hasn't it? I've never fished in this part before. I got nets, bait, fishing poles if we have to use them…"
"I'm afraid we might not catch anything, Uncle," Thuy climbs to the back of the boat after taking the oar from Father to row, "It's far too early. The fish aren't very active at this hour."
Father sighs, "Stay seated, Thuy. I don't know why your uncle insisted on doing it like this."
"Hey! How else can we speak in true privacy? We could also be a little productive this way. Here, Thuy let's switch."
In private? Is Thuy in trouble or something? Crap… This might be because of last night. His attitude probably irked them or something. But how else did they expect him to act when asked such ridiculous questions?! "What's going on?" Thuy asks, his patience running dangerously thin.
"I know how much you dislike it when we dance around issues, so I'll make this brief," Father says, "You remember last night, when we were discussing sharing property with Trung and his wife."
"There's only one way to make that happen, Thuy."
"What is it?"
Uncle Trung laughs loudly, "For such a cunning boy, he's pretty dense! Can I just tell him?"
Father relents, "Go ahead."
"When you're older, son, you'll be the one to unite our families. You'll marry my youngest daughter, Kim."
The world around Thuy comes to a stop. The morning twilight dulls, the water rocking the boat makes him sick to his stomach. His uncle and Father blur into nothing but maddening, insufferable, unbearable silhouettes of people he used to know. He grits his teeth. He grips the side of the boat, never minding the splinters threatening to embed themselves into his skin. He's not sure if he wants to vomit, yell, throw something -
The future. What fucking bullshit.
Thuy doesn't want to be stuck in this miserable fucking village for the rest of his life. This river can dry up and kill the rice paddies for all he cares. He isn't meant for this. He's meant for something greater. He's meant to lead - isn't that what Aunt Hang said? He could lead people, lead an army, do something honorable! Not.. Not inherit some hopeless farm!
"Are you kidding me?" Thuy seethes, "I'm not going to get married here."
"We put a lot of thought into this. It's the best thing for both our families," Uncle frowns.
"You don't know a thing about what's best for me! Neither of you do! I'm better than this. I'm not going to let you tie me to this shithole-!"
Father strikes him, slaps him across the face. Thuy is frozen, wild. "This is the purpose we've found for you! Your dreams are nothing but that - dreams. I knew I shouldn't have let you grow to be so ambitious… You humiliate me, Thuy."
"From now on, it would do you good to save your words for when they matter. Circle us back, Trung. I think he understands."
Thuy keeps his gaze on the sunrise for the rest of the ride. He dares to ask one more thing, "Why Kim? Does she know?"
Uncle explains quietly, "We'll tell when she's your age. And… I remembered what you said last night. She loves you, Thuy, and I know you love her, too."
Thuy hates that he can't refute him.