|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Phan Duc Nam
When he lived in the forest and fought against the Sai Gon puppet army, Dan was bitten by a poisonous snake and herbalist Hoa saved him. But right after that, Hoa said:
"Actually, your fate is still unfinished."
Dan was still wondering why when the herbalist continued:
"If you were not bitten by the snake, how could we have met? If I were ten minutes late, it would have been hopeless for you. It was meant to be, you see!"
"If it was meant to be, please accept me as your younger brother!"
Later herbalist Hoa continued:
"That night, if I had not met Mr Tho, I would not have been allowed to enter the old village and I would not have saved you."
Now, it appeared, there was another story to tell.
That night, it was just getting dark when a 12-year-old boy rushed to herbalist Hoa's house, insisting he come and save his sister. Herbalist Hoa was famous as the "snake medicine man" who could heal anyone bitten by a snake. He was even rumored to have a serpentine jade that could suck venom from the poisonous snakes. It was wartime and the Bu Nho-Bu Gia Map region was famous for "belonging to the puppet Sai Gon army during the day and to Viet Cong (Vietnamese communists) in the night". A curfew was imposed at 7 o'clock in the evening and people were not allowed to go outside, particularly those who lived in the "strategic hamlets" (strategic hamlets were set up by the Sai Gon puppet regime to control the people within the barbed wire fences). Upon hearing someone in distress, herbalist Hoa started to go immediately. He and the boy were beseeching the Sai Gon soldiers to let them out of the strategic hamlet when a lieutenant came. He looked fixedly at Mr Hoa:
"Are you going to lend a helping hand to Viet Cong (Vietnamese communists) ? Don't cheat me! Open your bag!"
Herbalist Hoa opened the bag. The Sai Gon officer looked into it and said:
"Is there a serpentine jade?"
"No. There is only medicine to heal snake bites. Saving people is like fighting a fire, you know! Please let me go, officer!"
The Sai Gon army officer seized the boy's ear:
"Eh, kid, are you also a VC (Viet Cong) ?
"No, officer! His sister was bitten by a snake and she is now in critical condition!" Hoa said.
"He won't be allowed to go as his family is against being concentrated in the strategic hamlet!" the officer said.
Right at that moment, Captain Tho, commander of the outpost, came with two soldiers. He asked herbalist Hoa:
"Aren't you afraid of being killed? The Viet Cong planted mines everywhere, you know! Even you can be sniped."
"Everyone is afraid of death, but as a medicine man, saving people's lives is my duty."
The captain looked at the herbalist:
"Even if the person you're going to save is a VC?"
"I even have to save a cow if it is bitten by a snake. If you were a VC commander and asked me if I was going to save a Sai Gon soldier, I would say the same, you see!" the herbalist answered.
"All right! Go quickly," the captain said, laughing.
The next day at noon, the commander and his lieutenant came to the house of Mr Tu An. When they opened the bandage from the leg of the boy's sister, they saw two small marks, which they assumed were from the snake bite. They did not know that the herbalist had used a knife to prick her leg.
"Do you need to go to the medical station?" the captain asked.
"Thank you. She is being healed by herbalist Hoa," the girl's father answered.
"So you should prepare to go to the strategic hamlet as soon as possible, you know!"
"Yes. But give me some more time, until I finish the harvest…."
"If you won't go by next year, I'll send my soldiers to come and set fire to your house. Do you get me?"
Time went by. As the war was coming to an end, the lieutenant was killed. After the liberation of southern Viet Nam, captain Tho was sent to a re-education camp. Dan sometimes dropped in to see the captain because he thought the captain had to some extent helped save his life. After he finished his time in the re-education camp, the captain was allowed to go to the United States.
Years later, Mr Tho came back to his homeland to enjoy Tet. Every time he came home, he went to see Dan and herbalist Hoa, his sworn brothers. During those days, they drank many cups of whiskey.
"These bottles are for brothers Hai and Tu to welcome Tet," Mr Tho said, handing two bottles of whiskey to Mr Dan and Mr Hoa. "Now let's drink brother Hoa's snake brandy. It's so good!"
They sat, occasionally sipping brandy and recalling the old days. Time flies. More than forty years had gone by. They looked at one another, finding each other old with grey hair.
"I intend to go back home for good next year. Nowhere is better than home!" Mr Tho said.
Time had healed all their wounds. Now they only wanted to share happiness and joy together. Dan, the youngest of the three, was 65. Over the cups of alcohol, Dan asked Mr Tho:
"At that time, brother Tho must have doubted very much to have taken your soldiers to examine my house?"
"Yes. Actually I intended to forget it, but the lieutenant time and again urged me to examine your house. At first I intended to let him go alone, but after a second thought, I decided to go just in case I could handle the affair by myself."
"If the boy's sister was not bitten by a snake, how would you have handled it?" Hoa asked, smiling.
"I would have asked you if you had healed anybody else and I believe you would have said you'd healed a guy with the name A or a guy with the name B, because you already said if he is a VC, you would heal him anyway."
"What about the boy?"
"If I found that the boy told a lie, I would ask Mr Tu to relocate his family into the strategic hamlet and everything would be over."
They all laughed. Having sipped some more alcohol, Mr Tho asked:
"Mr Hoa, tell me now - or if you don't want to tell the truth, that's O.K. - but do you really have a serpentine jade?"
"Do you also believe that rumor?" Hoa laughed.
"I guess so. Even in the United States, it is rumored about the healer of snake bites and it is posted on a website…." Mr Tho said.
"I don't care. I don't want to take advantage of it. It is difficult to believe that snake has jade. Yes, snake has venom. You know, in Vietnamese jade is ngoc and venom is noc, so possibly they hear the similarity of the sound and they thought snake has jade. Do you want to hear the story about serpentine jade?"
Mr Tho and Mr Dan were happy to hear that story. Herbalist Hoa said slowly:
"When our country was under French domination, there was an overseer of the coolies working on the railway line through Hai Van tunnel, the section from Hue to Da Nang. One day the overseer was patrolling the line and as he was approaching Sen Tunnel, he saw moving lights. He focused the torch onto that strange light and found that it was from the mouth of a more-than-three-meter snake crawling along the line. Seeing him and the light, the snake disappeared. Right at that moment, a woodcutter was coming towards him. The overseer told the woodcutter about the snake. The woodcutter told him how to catch the snake: 'Catch a chicken and tie it onto a basket and hide somewhere to lie in wait for the snake." The overseer did as he was told. After some time, he saw the snake crawling from nearby towards the chicken. It was going to kill the chicken. The overseer ran fast towards it. The snake was in great confusion. It tried to run away, leaving its azure jade - the size of a longan fruit - behind. Anyone bitten by a snake can apply this serpentine jade to the bite and the jade will suck all the venom from the poisonous snake. Thanks to that jade, the overseers healed a lot of snake-bite victims."
Mr Tho and Mr Dan took great interest in the story. Herbalist Hoa smiled:
"The Hue and Da Nang people have told this story time and again, but I think it is made up. Possibly the snake ate some prey and in the prey there was a gem stone!"
"Yes, I understand now. It's like the story about a person who killed a crocodile and inside the crocodile there was a duck and inside the duck there was a lot of jewelry," Dan said, nodding.
"Yes. My great grandfather killed a boa and when it was opened, there was a diamond inside and we thought it was a sign from Heaven."
They all reached the bottom of their cups and enjoyed the spring day. Hoa looked out onto the yard. The spring sunlight was dying yellow over the yellow apricot blossoms.
"I think the Westerners were quite right to select the snake as the symbol of medicine. Even though snake venom is very poisonous, when we know how to use it, the venom can be turned into a precious medicine, a jade, you see! And we human beings should contain ourselves and never lose our temper so we can reduce the venom inside us. Every one of us has venom inside, so we have to train ourselves to be better," Hoa said.
Translated by Manh Chuong