|Illustration by Do Dung
by Nong Van Lap
Old Huong left behind a valuable object to his son Lat. It was a white pearl chain, so rare and precious that even money could not buy it. It was believed that the chain would bring good luck. If you went into the river, you would not drown; if you went into the deep jungle, you would not be eaten by wild animals; if you went into a fire, you would not be burnt. The chain was a talisman inseparable from him. He never parted from it, even for a moment.
Lat loved the chain as much as his own life. However, when he fell in love with Lim, he wanted to share the luck with her. He brought the chain to the most famous jeweler's shop on Tran Nhan Tong Street and asked the jeweler to split it into two. There were 99 pearls in the chain. So that the jeweler could make two chains each with 99 pearls, he asked the jeweler to mix in pink and blue marine pearls. The 99th pearl was reserved for his chain, because it was the pearl of origin. On the day Lim accepted his proposal, Lat tied the chain around Lim's neck, telling her:
"I've turned one chain into two chains. So wherever we go, even to the far corners of the earth, we will remember each other and feel each other's warmth. We will never be separated, my dear!"
Hearing this speech made Lim a bit frightened, because she knew that from then on, her life was closely bound to his. The chain, the talisman, the valuable, would haunt the life of the person who had sworn faithfulness. She had heard that the mountain people knew how to exorcise people. But she tried to drive away that idea because her Lat was a gentle and good man. He could not do harm to her. He had told her a lot about the mountain people who were sincere and honest, but as strong as the forest trees and mountain rocks. He had told her a lot about his father who in his eyes was not only his father, but a hero as well. His father was also a famous hunter in the Highlands. He had commanded hundreds of other hunters. Each hunting spree was an amazing journey. Lim liked to imagine the lively hunting of the seasoned hunters.
It was spring and rain was drizzling. Trees started to shoot out buds, and flowers were in full bloom everywhere. Animals got up from their hibernation and started to go foraging. Entire monkey colonies raced down the mountain to look for ripe fruit, making the whole forest noisy. They seemed to tease Old Huong.
"All right! Go on! I'll kill some of you for monkey bone jelly," Old Huong thought.
He tried to kill some of the monkeys on the way, but he failed because the animals were intelligent enough to keep watch from afar and take refuge in the mountain before he could catch them. This morning he got up early. Dawn was about to break when Old Huong found himself on the top of Phja Deng Mountain, where he hid in a cave just big enough for one person. He guessed the monkeys would pass by to eat ripe bananas. He would shoot at the biggest monkey. He was still in deep thought when he heard a noise by the mountainside. He held his breath. He was definitely not going home empty-handed today. This was the best place for him to hide. The noise of the monkeys was getting ever nearer. His finger was already on the trigger of the gun. All of a sudden, a small monkey ran past him. Having seen Old Huong, the monkey yelled for help, sending the whole colony of monkeys fleeing. In the blink of an eye, they had all disappeared without a trace. He could kill that small monkey, but what for? He broke into laughter, looking at the frightened face of the animal. Years after that, he still remembered that face and smiled.
"The monkeys are really clever, aren't they?" Lim asked.
"My father has a lot more hunting stories, you know."
"Even passionate stories! Every job is different. Each job has a story to tell, has its own risks and joys and sadnesses! Or as the people in the Delta said: you live with your job and die with your job!" Lat said.
"There are interesting things in the mountains too. The mountain people have a unique identity, I think!"
"There are still a lot of stories about my home land and my father."
"Yes, I know, I know, dear!"
It was October and the rice field of Na Slao hamlet was now left with stubble. It was time for wild pigs from the valley to come and glean the littered grains from the vast field. Old Huong had followed these animals for three seasons. They were furious when they met humans. The boars with sharp fangs were the fiercest. They raced after humans at the fastest speed, sending people climbing high into the trees to save their skin. But here in this vast rice field, there was not a single tree to climb.
Old Huong had a lot of fangs hanging on the wall of his house. This showed that he had killed a lot of wild boars. His son Lat time and again asked him for some of the fangs to adorn himself, but his father refused, saying that these fangs were like human lives and he should not steal them for any other purpose: "If you steal them, you will court disaster for yourself. Am I making myself clear?"
"Do you think those fangs of wild boars are more precious than the chain made with the claws of tigers?" Lim asked.
"I don't know. But I was told that my pearl chain is the most precious of all. I think my father just wanted to keep those fangs to remember the hunters who were killed by the boars."
"Your father really has a sense of honour. He thought his hunters' sacrifices were his too. Did they die for him, I wonder?"
"Yes, you're right. Oh, where is your chain?"
"I left it at home, dear! But why are you asking me about it right now?"
"Because to get this pearl chain, my father and family had to pay a high price, you know!"
Two harvests had gone by, but Old Huong still did not have a buffalo to plough the field. They had money, but there was not any buffalo in the area. Old Huong was told that in Khua Khao Village there was a buffalo very good for field work. That family had to sell it to have money for their son's wedding. Old Huong and his wife walked there quickly. It took them one day to get there, taking shortcuts through forest and mountain trails. They walked and walked and sometime talked to dispel the silence.
Approaching Khua Khao Village, they stopped to take a short rest. His wife released herself behind a bush. Out of a blue sky, he heard a loud noise. He had a foreboding that something bad had happened to his wife. He walked back to the bush but his wife was not there. Only her sandals remained. What a disaster! His wife had been snatched by a tiger. He raced through the trees after the tiger. But he had nothing in his hands, so he had to stay away from the furious animal, knowing that he would be killed by the animal too. He stood there crying. But he had to continue to Khua Khao Village. The villagers found out that his wife was seized by a tiger and wondered why he and his wife had been coming to the village. Old Huong said:
"I was told that in this village there was a buffalo for sale. So my wife and I came here to buy it for field work. But now…."
"We know how you feel. You know, this tiger has killed six people and ten buffaloes in this village."
"Why can't you find a way to kill it?"
"We do want to very much, but we can't, you see."
"Why can't you?" Old Huong asked.
"This tiger is not a normal one. It has been turned into an elf!"
"An elf tiger?"
"Yes! We've gone hunting it time and again with all we had in our hands, but we failed. We even used guns to shoot at it, but nothing doing."
"Maybe this tiger has eaten a lot of people to become an elf. I have to go to my teacher, who is now taking a secular life in the jungle, to ask how to kill the tiger."
That night Old Huong stayed at the house of the head of the hamlet. He could not sleep that night, as his wife's soul was lurking around. The night was so quiet that he could hear even the sound of dew drops. When the day broke, he went with the hamlet head to buy the buffalo.
"Now I have paid all the money and received the paper from you," Old Huong said to the owner of the buffalo. "But I can't bring the buffalo home because I've got to go to my teacher in Thenh Keng hamlet to solicit his advice about how to kill the tiger. I'll be back here to make the animal surrender to us."
After five days, Old Huong turned up in Khua Khao Village.
"Have you got the advice?" the head of the village asked.
"I have, but we have to find the way where the tiger frequently comes."
"The way? There are a lot. I'll choose one way the tiger often goes by these days."
Three guns were selected by Old Huong himself. The gun barrels and bullets had been dipped in the blood of the hunters. After going a short distance, Old Huong chose a spot on Khau Cay Khan Hill as the place to spring the trap. Five strings were stretched along the path, connected to the three guns. Old Huong placed his CKC in the middle. One string was placed about 20 centimeters above the ground and this string was connected to the three guns' barrels. If the tiger went through this path tonight, it would be killed right away.
After dinner, all the hunters waited in anxiety. They all hoped that the tiger would appear. Dew drops were falling in the dead of the night. All of a sudden, from a high tree, the hunters saw the tiger walking towards them. As planned, it got caught in the strings and explosions were heard, lacerating the air. The tiger roared in great pain and ran away. The hunters raced after it with sticks in their hands. When they came to a trail, they found the tiger lying dead. They used strings to tie it and carry it on their shoulders back to the hamlet. Old Huong accepted the teeth and two strange claws of the tiger and then he took them to the Highlands City to get them processed into a chain of shining pearls.
"Oh, so this chain is made of the tiger's teeth and claws?" Lim said to Lat.
"Yes. These claws have killed a lot of people, you see."
"Oh, dear, I think it's quite unsafe to wear this chain. I'm scared to wear it."
"Why are you scared? My father asked his teacher, who said that all the best souls were killed by these claws, so they will guard us against evil spirits and protect us and help us to make a lot of money. Don't you like it?"
"Why do you ask that? Everybody likes money. Everybody wants to be rich, you know!"
The day Lat took Lim home to meet his parents in the Highlands City, Old Huong was very happy. He saw the two pearl chains on the necks of his son and his daughter-in-law. The young couple was very happy too. Lim was happy to discover the mountainous place that was her husband's homeland. Today she wanted to climb Phuoc Tien Mountain, part of the sacred Coc mountain range, with her husband. When they had climbed to the middle of the mountain, she lost her footing and fell. She tried to snatch a tree, but a rock fell onto her and pulled her down to the foot of the mountain. Another string pulled Lat's leg, sending him crashing into the side of the mountain. He lay beside his wife, blood oozing from his head.
The family was waiting for them at home for lunch. It was already noon and they had not yet come home. Old Huong was in an agony of impatience. He felt a strange presentiment that something bad had happened to them. He and the other family members rushed to look for them. When they arrived, they found a colony of yellow monkeys surrounding them and a lot of flowers covering them. Who brought these flowers? These monkeys could not have brought the flowers, he conjectured. Those flowers were fresh and multicoloured. It was very strange! Old Huong had seen these flowers somewhere, but he could not remember where. He sat down and touched the blood-smeared bodies of his son and daughter-in-law. He wondered why the two chains were all broken and the pearls were scattered everywhere on the ground. This valuable of his had now disappeared with the two dead bodies…
Translated by Manh Chuong