by Ta Kim Hung
I was absorbed in making a report reviewing my experience in propagation and caring of water hyacinths in Go Cao field of Quynh Duong Commune, when someone called:
"Are you home, Mr Thuan?"
I looked out and saw Mr Luu, an experienced snake catcher in the area. As I was about to answer him, he continued in an enthusiastic voice:
"You're going back to the district tomorrow, aren't you? So I would like to invite you to come over and have some farewell wine with me tonight. I've just caught a pair of large snakes," Mr Luu said, pointing to the big basket by his side.
I looked into the basket and saw a pair of huge serpents curled up inside.
"Where did you catch these big snakes?"
"I caught these cobras in Quynh Thuong. When fried, they give you the best taste of all!"
I'd been sent by the district to work in this commune a year ago, so I knew Mr Luu very well. He was an ex-soldier. The day he was demobilised and went home, people in Quynh Duong Commune were urgently digging a ditch to irrigate the coming winter-spring rice crop. When the ditch came to Go Cao of Quynh Loi village, it stopped as rain bucketed down for three days and nights. On the fourth day, it stopped raining and felt like the sun was spitting fire on earth, withering tree leaves. One week later, strange-looking dogs with red eyes appeared in the commune, tongues sticking out and saliva dribbling. They barked angrily, making people's flesh creep. In the night, the village roads were deserted. If anyone wanted to go out, they took along sticks, afraid of being beaten by someone else.
One week later, there was a rumour that the digging of the ditch had encroached on the land of the shrine worshipping Pham Nhan in Go Cao, which brought the mad dogs. Some people said they had seen packs of dogs playing on the mound near the shrine. Some even said they saw Pham Nhan lying down and smoking opium inside the shrine, his two horses turned into a pair of cobras as big as a banana tree. (According to legend, Pham Nhan was a Mongol general who invaded Viet Nam several times, never successfully).
The Pham Nhan shrine was built in time immemorial. Several decades ago, at the time of the August Revolution, a movement against superstition was launched and the shrine was abandoned and covered by water hyacinths. When the ditch was dug, the area around the shrine was cleared, revealing the shrine right at the time when the rabid dogs appeared, causing great fear among the ditch diggers. So they stayed home, even though the crop desperately needed water. When he heard about the situation, Mr Luu asked the local authorities to allow him to destroy the shrine and kill the monsters. They accepted his proposal and young people supported him, coming to help destroy the shrine.
When the foundation of the shrine was turned over, disclosing the pair of cobras, Mr Luu quickly caught them with ease. That night, a party was organised and the special food prepared by Mr Luu was enjoyed immensely by the villagers. From that day, the villagers talked about Mr Luu's skill at killing the snakes, praising his miraculous talent. He convened a meeting where he asked the villagers to continue digging the ditch to provide water for the rice fields, saying that now that enemy Pham Nhan had been killed, no one should fear him. He urged the young people not to believe in superstitious things. Almost all the people at the meeting volunteered to join him in digging the ditch.
That year, the villagers got a bumper crop and they had no fear of the monster Pham Nhan anymore. From then on, whenever there was any such big snake, Mr Luu was asked to come and kill it. Now, at 60, Mr Luu had been elected Head of the Reconciliation Board of the commune.
When he accepted the position, he became as busy as a bee. Now there was a land dispute, now a couple asking for a divorce, and so on, and they all came to ask Mr Luu for help. In some cases, the tension seemed so great that it would lead to a fight. But Mr Luu was able to reconcile the parties and help them make peace. Tens of couples had submitted their divorce forms to the court. Yet, after Mr Luu met them during the day, at night these couples were seen riding bicycles together to the district to enjoy an art performance. Each time he was able to help a fighting couple reconcile and live happily together, Mr Luu felt so happy.
From the day I came to work in the commune, Mr Luu and I were close colleagues. Whenever he had difficulties in a reconciliation case, he came to confide them to me. When the case was resolved satisfactorily, he immediately came to see me the next day. Today, he invited me to enjoy the fried snake meat with such an enthusiastic manner, I wondered if he had something to confide to me.
"No. He had a wooden duck with a piece of magnet in its bill. When he started to perform his magic, he released the duck in a large pan full of water. The stick was hollow with an iron ball inside. When he started to perform, he pointed the stick at the wooden duck's bill and the duck seemed to move at his will. Having finished his magic, he quickly stood the stick to get the ball just in case anyone wanted to do the trick, and the duck would not move; the audience would believe him all the more and admire him as a living saint."
"But how did he make you love the snake catching job?"
"Whenever he saw a pair of big snakes, he spread the rumor that there were some 'horse spirits' and people were asked to organise a ceremony to offer things to drive away the 'horse spirits', but a lot of chickens had been killed in broad daylight by the so-called 'horse spirits', so the people could not dare to kill them," Mr Luu answered. "When I was 12, my father had 12 chicken eggs hatch. The eggs were placed in the nest at night. When day broke, all the eggs had gone and the mother hen had been killed. My father was so angry that he asked me to go and fetch all twelve eggshells, fill them with quicklime and cover them with rice paper and egg white. After that we placed the eggshells back in the nest. The next morning, my father and I got up and went to see if there was anything happening in the nest. All the eggshells had gone without leaving any trace around the house. My father went to the ditch at the back of the house and stopped in his tracks. Both cobras were floating dead in the water. The villagers guessed that my family would meet with misfortune. However, for years, nothing happened to my family, while the whole village lived in peace without worrying about losing their chickens. Since then I have never believed in the 'horse spirits'."
Mr Luu stopped telling the story, raised the cup of wine and gulped it down before continuing:
"I think when you do anything for the community, you must first have a good heart. Take reconciliation, for example. Whenever a reconciliation case is settled, whether it's a dispute between neighbors or a couple trying to divorce, I feel a sense of relief and sleep well that night."
"Yes, I agree. What you have done thus far is much better than the work of the Marriage God!"
"But you know, there are also a lot of headaches!"
"You mean the cases you cannot resolve successfully?"
"Yes, that's right! You see, in the old days, our people were so poor, but husbands and wives lived faithfully together until old age. Now living standards are high and wedding ceremonies are organised with pomp and splendour. Yet, only a few years later, these couples show up at court for divorces."
"I am told that you and your wife have a real love story."
"I don't want to hide my love story from you if you want to hear it…." Mr Luu said after a moment of silence. He began in a passionate voice:
"Yes…. My father used to be the village's crier. In the old days, the crier's life was impoverished, but he was provided with a patch of land for growing rice. At 60, he was seriously ill. I was 14 then. I had to be the village crier on his behalf. If I did not do the job, the rice field would have been confiscated. So, day in and day out, I had to do the crier's job. And you know, I was illiterate, so I had to learn by heart all the information…. At that time, a lot of shrines cropped up around the village. Everywhere there were incense burners and earthen statues. The villagers were in great fear of all sorts of ghosts: the beggar ghost, the pig ghost, the dog ghost. One drizzling night, while I was doing the crier's job in the deserted village, I came to a sycamore tree by a ditch where a beggar had hanged himself. I stopped, my heart thumping. I was so afraid that I forgot all the words. All of a sudden, there was a giggle from the sycamore tree. My whole body got goosebumps, thinking that it was that beggar ghost. I pissed myself. The ghost did not disappear. It was still sitting there, looking like an ape. As the ghost was coming down the tree, I started to run. I quickly threw the wooden fish at the tree, but the ghost suddenly said: 'Please, brother Luu, don't throw things at me!' I was all the more frightened. I was about to strike the ghost with the wooden fish stick and run away, but the ghost entreated me to stay: 'Please, stay with me. It's me, brother Luu, don't throw at me….' Hearing the familiar voice, I stopped and tried to take my courage in both hands, asking: 'Who are you?' 'It's me. Nhan'. 'Really?' I was a little bit less frightened and asked in an assured voice. 'Yes, it's true. Don't you recognize me?' Oh, yes, it was little Nhan who had gone with her father to go begging in the market, I thought. I approached her, asking, "Why are you here alone, Nhan?' 'I am stealing the sycamore fruit because it is banned during the day time, you know!' 'Aren't you afraid of the ghost?' 'No!' She shook her head.
I suddenly remembered that Nhan lived alone. Her father had died a month before. She was only 11 and was forced to go from village to village begging for her daily food. I felt so sorry for her. But I was also so poor. My father had been seriously ill for two months now. We had only a few sweet potatoes and a bowl of thin rice soup for our daily meal. I stood dumbfounded in front of Nhan for a moment and then took her hand: 'Come home with me!' She looked at me: 'Would your father mind?' I shook my head: 'Come boil some sweet potatoes!' The girl was shy, smiling. 'Don't be afraid. Stay with us!' 'But you still have to do your job.' I suddenly remembered my task. I quickly went to look for the wooden fish and Nhan helped me find it. 'Here you are!' Nhan jumped for joy. 'Let's go. After I finish my job, I'll take you home with me!'
Nhan followed me obediently. After that, we took a short cut through the Bac hamlet to my house. It was not a house, really, only a hut. I took her in and told everything to my father. She came up to say 'hello' to him. We were both so worried. My father pointed to some sweet potatoes under the bamboo bed: 'Please boil these potatoes now.'
I started boiling the potatoes together with Nhan. My father was tidying up the corner of the hut. I rushed to help him arrange a few jute bags for her to sleep on.
Since that day, Nhan always followed me to harvest sweet potatoes or plant beds of vegetables. Every night when I went to work as a crier, she also went with me. That gave me more courage. Day by day, Nhan grew up and become more vivacious. She worked hard and looked ever lovelier. My father showed his love to her and wished to have her as his daughter-in-law. Yet, one year later, he was bed-ridden for two months. He knew that he would not live much longer. He called us to his bed, speaking in a trembling voice:
'I'm very sad that before I go to the other world, I won't be able to organise a wedding for the two of you. If you love each other from the bottom of your hearts, I will feel so pleased before I die.' He took our hands, placed them on one another and continued: 'There is a patch of rice field over there. Because I was ill for such a long time, I had to mortgage it so I could pay for treatment. All I have left for you now is the wooden fish and its stick. I wish for you to love each other faithfully and be able to stand on your own two feet.'
My father died that afternoon.
We lived happily together even though we were very poor. When the August Revolution was successful, I quit the crier's job and joined a class to learn how to read and write. After that, I took part in the propaganda work with young people in the commune, disseminating information on the revolutionary government's policies.
At that time we had two sons. The elder was more than two years old. The old house left by my father was rebuilt with the assistance of the villagers. In early 1950, the French had occupied some Northern provinces. I joined the revolutionary army to fight against the French aggressors… I was in the army for about nine years before I was demobilised…"
Mr Luu stopped telling the story. The moon was rising high, shining brightly throughout the area. A lullaby was heard in the quiet night. It was the voice of Mr Luu's wife singing her grandchild to sleep.
Translated by Manh Chuong