by Hoang Tung
Failing in his university entrance examination, Linh made for the mountainous village of Ta Lap, situated half way to the peak of Mt Dang Sruyn. At the foot of this mountain, the La Nga River flows turbulently night and day. Old Dam Nha's house stood at the edge of the forest of this locality which was nearly isolated from the civilized world.
"Good afternoon, Sir," Linh greeted him formally where he sat at the door, vaguely looking into the distance. "I've come here from the township where Brother ‘Tan the Firewood' lives to pass along to you his invitation to join a forest tree-felling trip for money," he added. Without replying, the old man sluggishly tried to stand up then went into his dilapidated hut.
While Linh was still on tenterhooks, it began raining in torrents. At once, he took shelter from the rain under the veranda of the old man's dwelling. The strong forest wind made him tremble with cold and the sky turned overcast. A few minutes later, Old Dam Nha walked out. At his inquisitive look, Linh implored him for a mercy.
"Would you mind my staying here for a few hours because of the heavy rain?" he asked apologetically. "When it has rained itself out, I'll leave," he went on.
"Please get in or else you'll soon catch cold," Linh was urged.
Linh stepped inside. In the dark, low-roofed shanty, there was nothing valuable. "I'll seek acquaintance with him and have plenty of drinks. When he becomes tipsy, I'll persuade him into taking part in my working group," Linh whispered to himself.
Yet, two days elapsed. The idea of persuading Old Dam Nha turned out to be very complicated, beyond his imagination, and contrary to Tan the Firewood's remarks that "Formerly, he used to follow the hooligans to destroy the forest. So, if you try to persuade him, he'll follow your advice."
"That means that he's hungry for money. With an offer of lots of money, this old man will be easily won over," Linh said to himself.
The previous evening while sitting by the flame, Linh said, "We are equipped with all kinds of instruments. Under your guidance to that spot of forest with all the big trees, you'll have a lot to spend."
"You think that I need the money that badly? No! Get out at once," shouted the old man. All Linh could do was hastily apologize.
The rain kept coming in a torrential downpour. The night grew pitch-dark. Linh put more firewood into the flame to chase away the cold. He silently reproached Tan the Firewood's superficial scheme to convince the old man. "With your good-looking face, hebe greatly sympathetic. Furthermore, you're well-educated with special skills in conversation, certainly you'll be successful. As for me, whenever I come to him, he always drives me away mercilessly," he had said to Linh.
"Why do you hold him in such great esteem ?" Linh had asked.
"Except for him, nobody here can guide us to that primeval forest safe and sound. What's more, he knows how to avoid the foresters. With a few successful trips only, we can afford all of our heart's content," said Linh's friend.
In the dim sparkling light of the kitchen, Linh saw a small altar near a corner of the wall where Dam Nha was sleeping. He proceeded towards it and found two photos: one of them portrayed a woman and the other, a young girl who looked like Dam Nha very much. No doubt, that was the altar in memory of Dam Nha's poor wife and daughter. Nevertheless, he did not dare ask the old man about his past life.
When the rain came to a stop, the atmosphere turned strangely quiet. The sound of moths resounded so clearly that Linh felt a bit frightened. In the sparkling flame, the image of the woman in the photo seemed to be moving. He stared at the altar more carefully. The girl seemed to be looking squarely at him too. He shrank back. In addition, the burning firewood sent out noisy sounds that made him all the more fearful. The flame suddenly brightened, thus making his silhouette flicker on the ghostly wall. All of a sudden, Linh heard noises. To his surprise, Old Dam Nha lifted up the bamboo screen and stepped in. He was completely drenched with rainwater.
"Dear Uncle, it seems to me that I've just been bullied by ghosts. How horrible!" Linh said to the old man.
"Quite true! In this forest there are lots of ghosts. Be aware of them, or else you'll be taken away by jungle ghosts," he replied with a mystical smile.
Afterwards, the old man fell ill. It turned out that during the previous night, he had returned home totally drunk. In wet clothes, he dropped himself on the bamboo bed in the centre of his empty hut and was soon unconscious from the cold wind. Consequently, the next morning, he was unable to get up early as usual. He was as hot as a burning piece of coal and breathed heavily. When it rained out itself, Linh intended to leave, but on second thought, he was determined to stay to look after the poor man.
"If my wife was still alive, I wouldn't have to resort to your help," remarked Old Dam Nha.
"When and why did both of them die?" Linh asked.
"A long time ago. Oh, why didn't the forest gods take me instead of them?" he asked and unintentionally dropped his bowl of porridge, sending its contents flying.
Old Dam Nha had been the best hunter in the village of Ta Lap. He was as swift as a deer and his eyesight was as good as that of an eagle. In the sacred forest surrounding Mt Dang Sryun, he knew every ancient tree and mossy rock quite well. Once, during a hunting trip, he found Lan the Wood and his men going astray in the forest. He took them home, gave them food, then showed them the way back to the town. As a result, they were very grateful to him. Since then every time they went into the forest to fell trees, they always dropped in on him. After that they enticed him into gambling for they knew that he was very interested. On the whole, what he had previously earned went into the cheating gamblers' pockets. Consequently, after two harvests of Indian corn, he was over his head in debt. Therefore, he was compelled to sell his house to pay part of his debt. When the gamblers called him names mercilessly, Lan the Wood solved his problem on the condition that he had to join his group of forest poachers.
Once, they came to the primeval forests near Mt Dang Sruyn to fell ancient trees. They cut them down, one after another, except for the biggest ironwood tree because the cutters did not dare bring it down. The next afternoon they were they all dead tired. While Old Dam Nha was sitting in the tent, his daughter turned up.
"Mum's asked me to take you home immediately to get something to eat. Our rice and maize have run out. What's more, she's got no more money either," she told her father.
"Get in to have a rest, my dear daughter," he said to her in a choked voice when he found her trembling with cold under her wet clothes.
At once, the old man rushed towards the hut of Lan the Wood.
"Please give me some money in advance so that I can return home to get rice for my wife and daughter," he entreated.
"OK, but first of all you must lead us out of the forest," said the ringleader.
"Let's leave this place at once. Your vehicle is already full of logs. No need to fell down that ghostly tree," the old man said to him imploringly.
"No, no! I'll have them cut it down before going away," he replied.
"Hey you blind guys, why do you spare that tree? What's the use of these small things alone?" Lan the Wood cursed his hired workers.
"No. You can't do that. The deadly tree is haunted by ghosts," said Dam Nha. "You're not allowed to fell it," added the old man.
"Are you afraid of ghosts?" Lan the Wood asked them. "Cut it down at once. So long as you haven't finished your work, you're not permitted to go home. Go ahead with your job. No more discussions!" he threatened his employees.
While his men were sawing the ironwood tree, a strong wind blew over them. Then came a terrifying thunderstorm. The earth's surface shook so violently that it made their hair stand on end.
Suddenly, there was a horrifying scream which drowned out the sound of the rain. In the heavy downpour, Old Dam Nha was seen madly digging up the ground. His tent had been crushed under the weight of the huge fallen ironwood tree. Worse still, the canvas sheet for keeping out the rainwater was drenched with blood, under which the body of his poor daughter was badly deformed. Crying bitterly, he put her body on a nylon sheet then wrapped it carefully before making for Ta Lap village.
"Hey old man, help us shun the rangers first then receive your pay," said Lan the Wood.
The old man said nothing as he slowly walked away.
Turning around, Lan the Wood cursed his men mercilessly. When he saw the tree heavily stained with blood, he felt a chill. He urged them to cut it into pieces before leaving. Reaching the destination, he had them unload the logs then returned home. All of a sudden, a devastating landslide came down and swept the lorry down to the deep abyss. Most of his workers died at once. Lan the Wood was barely alive when the public security forces arrived to rescue them.
"The ghosts, the menacing ghosts!" he screamed loudly, eyes wide open. Then he breathed his last.
"When my daughter died, a Public Security officer came to my place to arrest me for my bankruptcy and my accomplice in the destruction of the forest according to the declaration of Lan the Wood before his death," the old man told Linh. "Meanwhile, at home my wife committed suicide by hanging herself," he said in a choked voice.
Linh kept silent after having listened to the horrifying account of Old Dam Nha.
"Frankly speaking, Tan the Firewood ordered me to try to persuade you into joining our group of forest tree cutters," Linh said to the old man. "Can you give us an opportunity, just one, on any condition you want, please?" he insisted.
"You want me to destroy our forest once again? No, never!" answered Old Dam Nha. "Moreover, you'd better not follow Tan the Firewood; you'll ruin your life forever," the old man went on.
"As a poorly-educated youth, I've come here with the hope of earning enough money for my future business. That's all," Linh poured out his heart to him with a forced smile.
"Once you join the gang of these rascals, you can hardly withdraw and leave them." the old man concluded.
The rain stopped gradually. Getting out of Dam Nha's house, Linh hurriedly made for the town.
He informed Tan the Firewood that Old Dam Nha had refused to take part in his risky work. In order to avoid the gang of Tan the Firewood, he caught a coach to the city. A few weeks later, thanks to a newspaper article, he knew that Tan the Firewood was shot and paralysed while resisting the rangers with his weapons.
This year, Linh came back to Ta Lap Village as a university graduate with a well-paid job. On his trip to the Tanh Linh Forest for field work, he went in search of the dwelling-house of Old Dam Nha. It remained standing in the same place, dank and dilapidated. But he could not find the old man anywhere. He asked some inhabitants about his whereabouts. What he came to hear was a heart-renching account about that ill-fated old man.
In the wake of a storm last year, the La Nga River was in terrible spate with a lot of logs coming down from upstream. The young people of Ta Lap Village living by the riverside did their best to pick up firewood to sell. Accidentally, one girl fell into the muddy turbulent current and started to get swept away. Old Dam Nha plunged into the flow to her rescue. When he managed to drag her to the bank, he fainted and died.
Linh went to the village burial ground to pay homage to Old Dam Nha. His grave lay beside those of his beloved wife and daughter. It was partly covered with a cluster of tender grass still wet with the evening dew. Linh bowed his head in his memory. All of a sudden, a cold light gust of wind from the forest blew past with a seemingly human voice. "Is it the one of Old Dam Nha?" Linh asked himself. He looked around. What he could see was countless forest trees rustling in the breeze.
The villagers of Ta Lap believe that after death, human souls will wander here and there with every gust of wind.
Translated by Van Minh