by Thu Tran
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
In a continuous and weary journey, Lam searched for himself within a vague hallucinatory experience. During this trip through his dreams, he was tortured by terrible nightmares: being driven to hell where giant beasts were opening their mouths wide to swallow him, floating in the immense sea or mournfully howling like a wolf under the dim light of the crescent moon during rutting season.
He looked at himself in the mirror and realised that he was still handsome and gentle, like a hero who had just returned home from the deep blue sea. As the renowned director of a company that made equipment for ocean-going ships with a beautiful wife and nice children, he led a happy life full of riches. In the eyes of his neighbours and employees, he was successful both in life and in business. Yet, from the bottom of his heart, he did not know what had made him so famous.
As he put on his checked necktie while getting ready for work, his wife brought him a hot bowl of chicken noodle soup.
"Darling, eat it while it's hot," she told him sweetly after placing the dish on the table.
After squeezing a piece of lemon over the bowl, he mixed up its contents. He imagined it was a swarm of caterpillars clinging to the bright yellow threads of noodles. Panicked, he pushed the bowl off the table with such force that he broke the window as it hit the glass.
"What's the matter, darling?" asked his wife.
After washing his hands quickly, he rushed away. His wife shook her head.
"Oh dear, he's haunted by ghosts again. I'd better send for a witch-doctor to treat him," she whispered to herself.
He did not go to his office that morning. He rode his motorbike to the dyke in his native village of Thanh Xa instead. Sitting on the high slope and looking out at the immense blue sky, at the green ricefields now in full season, at the white clouds drifting over the peak of Lac Son Mountain and finally at the lagoon stretching along the edge of the village as the surface rippled gently in the cool morning breezes, he felt much better.
Glancing at the village stadium, with its thin grass and bamboo goal posts, he heaved a sigh. It was on that ground that he and his closest friend Tong, the local team's best players, used to play football to their heart's content with all of the other kids. Football is what made them so close.
Tong's father was so infatuated with football that his wife stopped making love to him when the boy was only two years old. The professional player tried to pass on his special skills to the young pair day after day. As a result, the Thanh Xa team always won the inter-village matches.
When the boys finished their senior secondary education, Tong passed the entrance examinations to the provincial College of Marine Studies while Lam sat for the Central College of Physical Education and Sports Studies exam and passed with high marks. One year later, Lam transferred to Tong's college because he wanted to discover new horizons during his lifetime. While both Tong and Lam were still at the campus, Tong's father Mr Gu, with a bottle of rice wine in hand, frequently hung out around the rural stadium to look for talented young players.
In fact, he could see the old man watching the village kids play football from his perch on the dyke, but Lam did not dare to leave his solitude to meet up with the poor old man as he walked to and fro around the pitch. After his parents and younger sister left their native village to a new home in the district, Lam had never returned to see his old house which had been left uninhabited since then.
Company director Lam was missing!
His wife told the police that her husband had not returned home for several days. The troubling news about a middle-aged man wearing a white shirt and jeans with an expensive watch on his wrist was immediately spread far and wide across the region via the mass media. The district police conducted a fruitless search for him for many days in vain.
Hundreds of reasons for his disappearance were proposed: he fleed because of bankruptcy, or had been killed by some evil murderer. But in his wife's opinion, the disaster had nothing to do with monetary or criminal matters because none of her family's valuables were missing. "He's been taken away by ghosts," she guessed. "A few months ago, he asked a magician to visit his house to hold a requiem service for the crew members who had died during a fateful ship voyage about ten years ago," she added. Things between them became progressively worse and she began to ease her sorrows by having affairs, quite overtly, in fact.
She left her two children with her parents and kept mum about her husband's spiritual deviation because she didn't want anyone to defame the honour of a hero in his unsuccessful attempts to save his fellow-sailors from the fury of the ocean, as was reported repeatedly in the press. Owing to his so-called efforts, he was promoted from the role of an ordinary seaman to the post of director of a major marine corporation with a great fortune: a magnificent building and enough riches that his better half could afford her boyfriend's random orgies.
In fact, Lam went to the summit of Lac Son Mountain with a hired hooligan from the criminal circle. In his imagination, he was there to pay a dear price for an imaginery debt or love affair. But in fact, the ruffian was there at Lam's own request to fulfil a contract. Reaching a big fallen tree lying across a path, Lam told him to sit down.
"Hey mate, do you believe the charges?" Lam asked.
"You've told me the truth, haven't you?" the wicked guy said, staring at him doubtfully.
"Otherwise, what's the point of walking uphill to this desolate place? Why did I hire you?"
"To cut off all your fingers and toes, then leave you here alone on this deserted mountain slope to die. Is that right?" he replied. "Plus, you'll pay me ten million dong as long as I keep quiet about everything?" he added.
"Of course! No more questions, okay?" Lam insisted.
"To be honest, I find this task abhorrent. If I didn't need the money to support my twin sons, I would never be brave enough to fulfil this dreadful mission," he said sincerely. "Okay, here's my blade. Please look for a flat stone," the hired murderer suggested.
"What for?" Lam asked.
"Because, it will make it that much easier to cut off your fingers and toes, Sir," he replied nervously as he looked around. "There's one over there. Shall I start with your fingers?" he asked.
The guy held up his big knife high with determination then lowered it with a sad sigh.
"Hmm…if you're fed up with this life, why don't you swallow some poison instead? Or, if you've committed a crime, you should turn yourself in to the authorities. Eventually you'll get your death sentence. Why are you forcing me to complete this nasty job?"he complained.
"If you can't fulfil your contract, I'll cut off your fingers instead," Lam raged at him.
"Okay, okay! Give me the money, please and I'll do my bit at once," he implored.
Sucking deeply at his cigarette, Lam took a thick bundle of banknotes out of his pocket and tossed it to him.
"Here's your reward," Lam told him.
The wicked guy knelt down and grabbed the pile of money. He was about to open it when he was threatened.
"Do it quickly! Or I'll change my mind," Lam urged him menacingly.
Putting the money in his pocket, the guy touched the sharp knife slightly agains Lam's skin then raised the blade higher. "Bang!" the knife sounded coldly. Three fingers from Lam's left hand fell to the ground as three tiny jets of blood spurted out. All of a sudden, the ruffian threw the knife away, vomited profusely then rushed downhill.
The contract was breached as Lam writhed in agony.
It was raining heavily. Both the cold and the rainwater penetrated so deeply into his body that he shivered terribly. Waking up he found himself inside the hut of Old Gu.
"Are you still bleeding?" the old man asked Lam.
"The wounds have dried, my saviour father," he replied in a weak voice, glancing down at his bandaged hand. "You've bandaged up my hand, haven't you?" he asked.
"Lucky for you. I found you lying unconscious in a puddle of blood near my hut. It's our obligation to save human lives," the old man answered.
He kept silent, eyes closed tightly. Old Gu lifted him onto a cranky bamboo plank in a corner of the hut.
"Lie here with me. I'm cooking some porridge for you. It will make you feel better. To die is in no way a simple thing. As an old man, I'm still afraid of hell, my dear young man," Old Gu said.
From then on, he stayed with the old man.
A new world opened to him, although Old Gu was rather taciturn. In the mornings Lam followed the old man to catch insects. Old Gu did not eat meat, instead preferring to eat such creatures as termites, scorpions, crickets and lizards. In the afternoons, he followed Old Gu to the terraced fields to tend to the vegetables or pick corn. The old man had a habit of bringing home wounded wild animals or birds to treat. When they were healthy again, he set them free.
Once, he found a flamingo with a serious wound in its chest. He took it home to cure. After three months of treatment it was completely recovered with brilliant rosy feathers, a black band around its neck and a tuff of white on its head. It was a dream specimen for hunters interested in catching and selling wildlife to upstart officials in the upper society. On another occasion he received an order for a flamingo at a price equivalent to a tael of gold, but he refused point-blank. "Only a madman values such a rare and precious bird in terms of gold, silver or money," he declared resolutely. When the flamingo was returned to the forest it visited him only once with its wonderful dance.
Lam was still tortured by his serious wounds. Sometimes, he cried mournfully during the night and when he woke up, he found himself in Old Gu's lap. Every two days, the old man would crawl down a slope deep into the valley to pick a small bunch of medicinal herbs to cure Lam's injuries.
After the unsuccessful contract with that wicked guy, Lam began to feel afraid of death. In the meantime, Old Gu did not ask him about his wounds. He merely told Lam stories about his solitary existence amid the deserted woodland. Lam acted as if he were a total stranger rescued by the old man but he expected that one day he would be comfortable enough to answer questions such as "Did you and Tong have a good time on the Western waters?" Or "Where were you while my son was being swallowed up by the turbulent waves?" Sadly, the old man had never asked him such questions.
The older Gu grew, the more clairvoyant he became, which frightened him all the more. At night, under the dim flickering flame of the candle, he told Lam stories about his own life no matter how Lam responded, either favourable or reluctant.
"Being unable to stand the solitude that came to me one after another – my wife's abandonment and my son's death in the far-away deep ocean – I left my home in Thanh Xa Village to settle down on Lac Son Mountain. I rigged up a small cabin and led the wild life of a primitive man. Time and again I returned home and walked around the village stadium to chase away my nostalgia for both," Old Gu told Lam his tragic story.
Now, Lam's golden dreams were things of the past. He was afraid of tense meetings with their coffee and cigarette smoke, of resolving the disputes between his employees and bribery in the company and of the sweet-smelling scent worn by his lustful wife and the mobile phone disturbing his daily affairs at home. Furthermore, he dreamt about a life without nightmares or fears, about the good old days in poverty but with serene nights of sleep and fun games of football with Tong and the satisfied observations of Old Gu.
Cold weather fell on them suddenly. His wounded fingers swelled noticeably and he had a high temperature. He wrapped himself in a thick blanket, trembling violently in the hammock. Old Gu hurriedly prepared a traditional recipe of medicinal forest herbs and leaves for him to take. After drinking a hot and bitter bowlful of home-made medicine, he felt much better. At twilight, the old man went on preparing two more doses because he said that Lam would need three bowlfuls for his wounds to recover completely.
"Tomorrow morning, I'll go down to the valley to get some more traditional herbs for your treatment," the old man said. Lam stared at the old man, with his hoary hair and tattered clothes, with deep gratitude, eyes brimming with tears. Glancing at Tong's photo on the mud-daubed bamboo wall, he felt extremely repentant for what he had caused to his once best friend. Lam had thought about confessing his sins to Old Gu many times, but he was never bold enough to do so. "He lets me stay with him and is so diligent about treating my injuries. His self-denial proves that he has forgiven me for my wrongdoings," Lam said to himself. Nevertheless, he thought a lot about the crime he committed against Tong. "Anyhow, I'll have to confess my gross mistake to this respectful old man before it's too late."
"My dear Father!" Lam said to the old man.
"What's up?" replied Old Gu without turning round.
"When was that photo of Tong on the wall taken?"
"So, you know him, do you?"
Lam was very embarrassed and his heart stung with pain. "Has this old man really forgotten me? Is he really as dull-witted as the villagers often proclaim?" Lam asked himself. Lam remembered that the old man had once been an honest village teacher named Bui Van Gu. He had taught rural children all the basics of primary education. What's more, he never accepted any of the presents parents offered to mark the major national holidays like Tet or Teachers' Day.
Lam was quite rational when he hired a weak-hearted hooligan to punish him so severly for his past crimes, as it gave him the chance to meet Old Gu again, like an accidental encounter. After so many days of following the old man's footsteps to the mountain with thoughts about easing his tension and depression after Tong's death, it was the best plan he could come up with.
"Is it likely that Old Gu has forgotten me?" he whispered to himself. A cold wind made him shiver slightly. He made up his mind to take a stronger stance to deal with the problem.
"I really don't know Tong. But I read about his misfortune in newspapers and magazines."
"What do they say about him?"
"They revealed that Tong was a skilful and brave sailor. Before his ship sank, taking all its crew except for one lucky seaman, Tong struggled heroically, but in the end unsuccessfully, to save his men," Lam replied.
"Who knew about this tragic event?" asked Old Gu.
"Perhaps, one of Tong's friends has talked about that tragedy to the press many times. Do you remember that?"
"No, I know anything about it. Nothing at all!"
Lam felt confused. The afternoon sunshine spread over the old man's bent back.
"When he returned home, the survivor of the accident said the story being told by the press was untrue. If I tell you another account, will you be able to forgive me as the messenger?"
"How do you know anything about this?" asked the old man.
"Because, he's my friend Lam, or Bui Thanh Lam, his full name. Do you remember him? Now, please listen to me, my dear."
Both Lam and Tong were good helmsmen on the large ship. During one of the voyages, they quarrelled about a technical problem: how to operate the ship and how fast to go when all the cargo in the hold was being covered with sea water while the ship was bouncing terribly in the heavy sea. The captain agreed with Tong's operational suggestion because he had good experience with technical maneuvering. Lam was choked up with anger because he had been belittled in terms of experience on the one hand and his boss didn't have confidence in him on the other. So he went on to make a great mistake.
"Dad, keep calm while you listen to my account, please. Anyhow, let bygones be bygones."
…Lam opened the air-shaft of the cargo hold to let water in quickly with the aim of getting Tong into trouble and to prove that he was right. The entire crew was unable to act quickly enough to the sudden excess of water, so the ship sank to the bottom of the ocean with all of its crew except one who managed to catch hold of a drifting life buoy…
Old Gu nodded his head.
"What came next?" asked the old man.
"He was the single survivor and returned home safe and sound, Dad."
Old Gu felt as if he had fallen into an abyss. Breathing heavily and poking the coal fire unconsciously, he told Lam, "No more, please! Anyhow, it happened a long time ago. Right now I have a splitting headache. You look much better now, so get down here to keep the fire going!" he added.
Old Gu seemed weary after a sleepless night. How did he fail to recognise Lam, who still had the legs that played football with such skill years before? He had known something wasn't right on that fatal ship when he had been told that Lam was the only one to survive the disaster. And again when he had found Lam sitting alone on the dyke in Thanh Xa Village at twilight without returning to his old home, and again when he had found Lam writhing in pain on the mountain slope with his left hand drenched with blood and his face pale and out of touch. It was Lam's strange behaviour that had spoken volumes for his altruism. Actually, Old Gu pretended to be crazy to determine if Lam could sincerely repent and reveal his shameful past. In fact, Old Gu had forgiven him a long time ago, but the old man was still greatly shocked at what he had witnessed at the age of nearly eighty. His body ached as if he had been tortured horribly for his entire life.
When he woke up after a brief sleep, it was sunrise. He was too tired to walk out of the hut because he had a high temperature. In one sudden movement he sat up. Sitting in bewilderment, he vaguely perceived that Lam had gone in his stead down the valley in search of medicinal herbs.
At once, Old Gu stood up and hurried out of the hut. He ran and ran until late afternoon. Half way down the valley he saw Lam's body clinging to a tree trunk with a bunch of herbs in his hand. No doubt, Lam was killed by snake venom in the valley full of sweet-smelling and attractive flowers that made a wonderful home for venomous snakes of all descriptions. Old Gu had been safe when climbing down the valley because he he had applied a special anti-snake bite lotion to his hands and feet which was well beyond Lam's knowledge.
Suddenly, Old Gu realised that he should not have played the so-called remembering-forgetting trick which turned out to be detrimental to Lam's life.
Maybe, Old Gu should have woken up early this morning in order to collect the medicinal herbs to treat him as he had done numerous times in the past for the wounded flamingo.
Translated by Van Minh