by Vu Thi Thanh Huyen
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
"Bi Ngan is the name of a flower in hell. It's a strange name, isn't it? That's the name my parents gave me. They told me that the flower's fragrance has supernatural abilities; it could recall the memories that the dead had when they were still alive. They told me it is the only flower that grows on the way to hell, and that it makes the ground look like it is covered in blood. When a soul begins to enter hell, the flower shows them the way. When the Bi Ngan flowers bloom, no leaves are seen, and when there are leaves, no flowers are seen – even on the same branch, flowers and leaves will never meet, they are forever separate."
Lying on an old brocade carpet, her eyes were crystal clear and full of provocation. Her lips drooped down creating a queer arc, and as she looked at him she burst out laughing, as if someone was tickling her.
Her laughter frightened him, "Bi Ngan," he grumbled lightly, "stop laughing!"
She became utterly silent and flashed him a glance of wild scorn before her eyes resumed their normal brown gentleness. Getting up slowly she placed herself in his lap, like a cat. He lifted her up like a child as she drove her bony fingers through his hair, selecting one strand after another. With a sad green light the moon shone remorsefully onto her face through a crack in the window.
A green beetle perched on the vase of an nha dam (aloe vera) plant became startled and fell onto the windowsill. Fanning its thin wings, it tried to lift itself up, but its efforts were in vain. Buzzing in helplessness, it twisted over and over before stopping short and becoming icy cold and motionless, in a cruel ending to its life-cycle.
Eventually he broke the heavy air of silence. "I really don't understand why you want me to transport the goods on the exact day of our engagement?"
She giggled with a hand covering her mouth; her lips turned up mischievously. "I can't hold my laugh in, I keep thinking about my mother's face when you told her about delaying our engagement ceremony. You know very well that I can't bear the thought of our happiness being arranged by other people!"
He looked at her, a fire building in his heart as he observed her satisfied smile. He sighed and spoke sadly. "It's not an arrangement. Our mothers only wanted to choose the best day because they want the rest of our lives to be smooth. Why can't you understand that?"
She frowned, her rage began to build and she stopped driving her fingers through his hair, instead, she began twisting it. "You and I will organise our engagement. One day, I will get up, stand tall and know that it is the very day I will hand my whole life over to you!" She roared. "You don't need to know how it'll happen, only that it's when I need and want it. It's not a coincidence that life granted you and I such an opportunity as this. You should be elated, Mr Khac!"
He shook his head, looking at her helplessly. She began to blush and her body became stiff with anger. She was obstinate; frank and independent; she was incorrigible and wild. She was queer and mysterious. But he still loved her anyway. He always thought of her as an ancient book full of secret words – words that he could not understand. When he wanted to possess her, he became all the more hopeless. He felt so eager to tie part of her roving soul to his life. He needed a guarantee that this wonderful girl would belong to him.
They would get engaged this Sunday.
But there was a problem. This sudden batch of goods had dashed his hopes. He had been summoned to drive materials to a remote area in Cao Bang for a project he had no concern for. His boss, a harsh and stunted old man who had never replied to greetings, had randomly requested him to transport a batch of goods. The old man had a bank of experienced drivers on his roster, but decided not to choose any of them. Insisting that the young man accept the assignment, he belched "Either you will accept this task or you'll have to resign!"
He felt utterly hopeless. The two mothers panicked at the prospect of delaying the marriage, but the girl acted differently; she was undisturbed and pleased to see all their families in a state of anxious perplexity.
She attempted to reassure him. "I promise that we will organise our engagement and even a marriage ceremony ourselves, ok? You and I will never be separated, you just need to keep the Bi Ngan flower charm I gave to you," she comforted, before adding "and besides, before we get married, I want to finish one thing… "
He was unconvinced. "I'm afraid that this is not a good beginning."
"Rest and sleep well, my dear," she said, ignoring his comment, "you need to be fully alert for that long journey tomorrow. Apparently the road to Cao Bang is snaky and dangerous. You have to be really careful. I'm going home now."
"Please, stay here with me, it's past 11 o'clock now."
She stood up and released herself from him, leaning down to kiss the ivory charm around his neck that she had bought him. "No, I can't, you know I can't."
He always watched her leave him. Those thin arms of hers closing the old iron gate, the sounds of her footsteps as they faded away into the distance. He felt that life was cheating him, like everything was an illusion. She was such a marvellous being compared to him. He was nothing but a worthless driver who even had to walk to work. His mother, a trader of dried goods in the market, had divorced his father and was now living with another man. Bi Ngan was the only beautiful thing in his life, and he could never let her go.
Closing his eyes and touching the ivory charm that she had kissed just minutes before, he suddenly felt warmth in his heart. He stood up and closed the window. He remembered the day that she had hung this charm from his neck, it felt like only yesterday…
That day Bi Ngan's voice was like a far-away echo as she told him the story. Her voice was like a cold wind.
"… my mother told me that my father used to be an outstanding hunter and the chief of the village's hunters. These hunters had often spread the story that my father's gun had a supernatural force. Any animal that lay in my father's shooting range would become mesmerised and dumbstruck, and so it would receive a shot through its head. I was very small then, about five or six years of age.
My enduring memories of my father were from when he would carry bloody animals home on his shoulders, looking like a hero, looking proud. I still remember very well those fearful and blank eyes of those dead deer or wild boars when father threw them down on the ground. Mother rushed out and ran around the wild game, whereas Father looked on nonchalantly, pulling the shirt flap and wiping the gun barrel, his shirt smeared from gun smoke and blood.
Father was so good at hunting game, but there was one thing he had never been able to hunt down. This animal had never been mesmerised by his gun. It was the single tusk elephant. It had never gone with its herd. It had always gone alone, disappearing before suddenly re-appearing. The villagers said that they had seen its beautiful tusk, so shiny, and curved like an early summer moon. That elephant was as malicious as a snake. My father had seen that elephant only once and that day had become his fateful day. He had become maddened by the elephant, and followed it all over the forest, leaving our family and staying there for several months. For eight years straight he had forgotten everything; he hadn't even paid any attention to his family. He had pursued the animal as if he was at the heels of a hereditary feud. My growing years had never seen Father and I was always by Mother's side on the dry fields."
He looked at Bi Ngan, and wondered if this girl with brown eyes that he loved had had a happy childhood. He embraced her tightly, hoping to heal the pain in her heart, but she pushed him away, looking at him with mocking eyes.
"Do you think I am sad because I am lonely without a Father?" she accused. "No, you are wrong. On the contrary, I have never been sad, even for a moment. I admit that I did miss Father, but for me, my pride has replaced that loneliness. You cannot imagine the admiration of my friends who had come to my house that was filled with claws, horns, antlers and even the dried animal heads that were hung on the walls. All were evidence of my father's achievements." Proudly, she went on. "Father was a hero in my heart. You know, after eight years of hunting, at the end of the day, Father's hunting of that elephant had come to an end. On a cold winter's day, Father had found traces of the animal on the way to the stream. Probably, after so many days of running away, the elephant had become exhausted. Father had followed the animal's tracks and saw it clearly for the first time. The elephant was really beautiful. Father stopped in his tracks and watched the animal use its trunk to shower its body. All of a sudden, the animal became startled. It was looking in the direction of where Father was hiding himself. But it stood there, still, probably because Father was mesmerising it.
From a distance, Father pulled the trigger and fired several bullets at the animal. The elephant was hit. It roared in pain and ran away. Father pursued it and shot it at random. There was a great commotion in the forest. Finally, the elephant fell down. It lay there, looking at Father with such a terrible glint. And can you believe it? Father heard a laugh, not a roar from the animal. It was like a child's peal of laughter. Father became so scared that he dropped the gun. A few moments later, he approached the animal and cut off the sole tusk and ran for his life.
He carried that task in his arms dreamily around the cold mountain. When he returned home he threw himself down on the bed without a word to say, even to his dog. During the next few days, Father started dreaming that the single-tusk elephant was laughing at him, laughing and cursing. He could not sleep. He became weak.
Many smugglers came to try and buy the tusk and offered him sky-high prices, but Father refused them. He placed the tusk in a wooden box and locked it. Only mother knew where the tusk was hidden.
Father continued his hunting spree as usual, but he had not brought home as much game as before. For many days he had gone home barehanded, and nobody knew what was going on in his mind.
Then one day, Father did not return.
He was found dead in the edge of the forest, lying stretched out in a pool of his own blood, a bullet hole piercing through his forehead. Nobody knew who had shot my Father. Right after Father's funeral, Mother sold the tusk just to avoid any more trouble. She and I moved away from that desolate forest, and this city became our home. But before selling the tusk, mother cut a slice from it and carved it into a Bi Ngan flower – the flower of my name – you know? I have hung it from my neck ever since as a memento of my father. But for me, it is a charm, a talisman."
He was stunned by her story. He took the piece of tusk and caressed it between his fingers, but he was unable to recognise it as a Bi Ngan flower. She had once told him that the flower was like a daisy. She saw his hesitation, smiled and pulled a silver string out from her blouse pocket. Placing it around his neck he became startled and saw that he was wearing the very same charm.
Bi Ngan whispered, "This is a leaf from the Bi Ngan flower belonging to me. I asked someone to detach it from the flower and now, now I present it to you, my dear Khac. I hope I can share its protective powers with you. It still has some blood from my father's heart, so please, care for it and keep it with you and the leaf and the flower will meet. Despite what the legend says, we will be together forever!"
He was so moved that he covered her lips with his kiss. The kiss was permeated with the salty taste of tears. He promised in silence that he would keep this girl by his side and never let her go.
The bell that hung in front of the car rang loudly as the vehicle moved along the bumpy road. The bell was Bi Ngan's gift, she had given it to him to keep him awake during his journey. He told himself that he would finish this transport mission soon and return to her, but something was confusing him. He had suddenly remembered something she had said when they were together, something like "Before our marriage, I have to finish one thing…." He felt nervous. What were her intentions? What was she going to do?
The road from Bac Can became difficult to tackle. He had successfully passed through many dangerous bends, and when he arrived at Deo Gio Pass there was just 30 kilometres remaining before he would reach his destination of Cao Bang. A storm raged at the top of the pass and soon it became dark. He had been driving for ten hours now, and he was tired. Wild grass covered the sides of the mountain road, but as he drove straight ahead with more ease something suddenly happened.
He slammed his brakes and came to a screeching halt – he had hit something.
His heart thumped in his chest, sweat dripping down his face. He climbed out of the car and went to see if he had run over an animal or a human.
He screamed. "Oh, my God!" His car had run over the lower part of a woman and blood was oozing out. He jumped back in great fear. He did not know what to do. If he saved the woman, he would be held responsible to nurture her for life; if he killed her, he would also be financially liable.
He began thinking about his beloved Bi Ngan. Delirious with fear, he started the engine and drove forward. But BANG! He crashed the car into a wall. The front of the car was smashed to pieces, and he lay there, unconscious.
Owls were hooting all around when he returned to consciousness. It was dark outside. He touched his head and found blood oozing from it. He touched his neck and found a shard of glass had pierced its way through not only his neck but the leaf-shaped charm. The charm had saved his life. He tried to keep calm and started the engine. Without a second thought, he turned his car and drove back homeward. He had just killed someone.
Three days later, he returned home. He could not eat, he kept his phone switched off and his house locked. Nobody knew he was there. He laid on his bed, trembling at the enduring image of the dead woman, the blood pouring from her stomach. He was haunted by these thoughts for days, but then suddenly remembered Bi Ngan. Only she would be able to save him. He switched on the phone and called her, waiting for her reply.
"Bi Ngan, it's me!" he exclaimed joyously.
"Are you Khac? Are you….?" It was Bi Ngan's mother. He felt so confused and then out of the blue she screamed, "Oh, my God! There has been a great tragedy, my dear Khac! Bi Ngan is dead. Where are you, Khac? Why haven't I been able to contact you for days?!"
He could not believe his ears. He rolled his eyes in great fear. Did he hear her right? Did he call the wrong number?
At the other end of the line, her mother was still crying her heart out. "Khac, Bi Ngan died a terrible, terrible death! Bi Ngan, why did you want to visit your old house in Cao Bang when your wedding day was so close? Why?! Bi Ngan told me that before the wedding day, she would go to visit her father's grave. Oh…. How can I live without her?"
He felt a chill in his spine. The words "Cao Bang" had left him thunderstruck.
"Did Bi Ngan die in Cao Bang? Is it true that Bi Ngan died in Cao Bang?" he asked, almost unable to believe these words were coming form his own mouth.
"She was run over by a damned driver of a container truck and then he ran away. Khac, it's so tragic for me!"
The phone fell down on the ground and broke into pieces. Bi Ngan had never told him where her old house was.
"This charm of Bi Ngan flower is very sacred, my dear. This charm will lead you to where we can find each other. Even if I am already dead, I will find you. So we will be together forever, my dear."
The roughly made wooden window suddenly flew wide open with the force of a cold wind, as if invisible hands were pulling at it in madness and anger. He could hear thousands of cries in the wind and the charm on his neck had suddenly become biting cold.
He looked fixedly at the window.
The dark night was coming in a rush outside.
Translated by Manh Chuong