|Illustration by Do Dung
by Ho Trung Lien
The wife, her face furrowed by anxiety, was sitting on a poorly rigged bed made of castaway planks. A tray of food remained intact in the middle of the house, showing that she did not want to eat alone.
In the moonlight, she had been waiting for her husband for hours while he was engrossed in carousing with his friends.
That happened five years ago.
Today, he felt terrible pain in his belly due to heavy work. He made more than a hundred bricks a day, as a rule. Poor man, he was now mercilessly tortured on the bed after several rounds of drink with his employees!
In the poorly furnished local private clinic, the general practitioner diagnosed his illness as appendicitis. "You should transfer him to a better institution as soon as possible," he told her, then turned to the husband: "As for you, try to restrain yourself from hard work." At home, after taking some painkiller tablets, he spent a sleepless night owing to his unbearable suffering. As a result, his spouse had to take him to the provincial hospital.
"Appendicitis, urgent operation!" was jotted down in the patient's case history. He told the woman to go to the administrative section to sign him up as an in-patient.
"Oh dear, the hospital charge is roughly equivalent to the value of twenty thousand bricks!" she exclaimed.
After two and a half hours, a surgeon stepped out of the operating theatre. "Who is the patient's relative here?" he called out.
"Here I am, sir," she answered.
"Lady, when the operation was performed, we realised that he didn't suffer from appendicitis," he declared in a repentant voice.
"Oh dear!" she moaned.
"Another operation must be carried out right away, for he has an ulcer in his large intestine," added the surgeon.
"We completely rely upon your skills, doctor," she entreated him. Then she told one of her children to go home at once in order to gather more money to pay for the unexpected incident. However, he protested: "Why do we have to pay more, Mum? The hospital staff is to blame."
"No more arguing, my dear son! Your father's fate lies in their hands," she responded.
Turning to me, she explained, "My children have reproached me for not suing the hospital director for their mistake, but my spouse only says, 'Anyhow, they made an honest mistake. So, it's no use bringing an action against them'."
A long section of his large intestine was cut off, which meant his life might be noticeably shortened. One day he told me, "The doctor advised me to stick to a diet and especially stay away from drinking any spirits, even beer. But how can I abstain from drink when I have a good time with my close friends?" In the meantime, his wife became more and more worried about his health condition.
"What did the doctor say, elder sister?" I asked her.
"When he left hospital, the surgeon told him that if he totally abstained from drink, his life might last a few years further," she replied.
"If so, counting from the moment he entered hospital, his existence will last only a few more months, a year at most," I remarked.
Regrettably, during their parties, his friends completely forgot that he had been subject to two operations. Worse still, later when a nurse took the small plastic tube out of his belly, he tried to resist the pain so strongly that the sewing line on his belly broke, resulting in his blood oozing out profusely.
In the moonlight, she wept and wept. I glanced around the bungalow. Her kids were sleeping soundly on the floor in the yellow light of an electric bulb. They had never been beaten by their grandfather, although in the daytime, they played hide-and-seek among the graves to their heart's content.
Every morning, after getting up, she rushed towards the brick site. She seemed to be afraid that when she reached it, she would find only a veil of fog covering a dead body.
At night, her husband used to lie alone in the hut in the centre of the brick expanse. During the daytime, he walked to and fro between their house and the drying ground, only several hundred metres away.
Tonight, I came to him the same way.
Usually, I called him fondly "Uncle," not because of the fact that he had a few paternal grandchildren, but because he was about to complete the vital round of life according to human beings' natural cycle (birth - old age - illness - death).
I found him stretched out on his bed on the veranda, without a mosquito net. He might be awake, I thought.
"Hi, dear walking skeleton," I shouted jokingly.
"Oh my God! There you are!" he said to me, patting his two scars. After that, he fetched a couple of small cups.
"Let's have a drink, shall we?" His suggestion made me recollect his better half's frown of disapproval.
I began talking about the graves scattered among the nearby gardens. Then I went on dealing with the thousands of forsaken ones lying here and there mysteriously in the dim moonlight.
I encouraged him to empty a few glasses of rice wine. They looked lustrous in the nocturnal light. All of a sudden, I thought of his spouse, a woman sunk in an ocean of suffering, who usually sat on a shaking bed, staring at the tombs in front of her house. Now it was the fifteenth day of the seventh month according to the lunar calendar. The bright moonlight spread through the dense clusters of trees. After living here for over ten years, now I felt great regret that I knew very little about his life, since we had few occasions to chat.
The evening was bright, as usual. After more than a year, many tufts of green grass had grown over his grave. I brought along a bottle of rice wine to sprinkle over his last home.
That night last year, if she had known that I invited him to drink several glasses of wine and that he breathed his last after drinking, she would have hated me and I would have repented my foolish act for the rest of my life.
Now I could raise my glass together with him without fear. I poured most of my bottle of wine over his grave and drank the rest after touching my full glass to his tombstone. His soul seemed to tell me that my wine was very tasty. I replied that a lot of lingzhi mushrooms had been soaked in the alcohol.
"After death, will I be able to reach nirvana?" he asked me sincerely. "Recently, I realised that my sin is very grave and that I believe strongly in the cause-and-effect doctrine. Frankly speaking, it's too hard for me to practise Buddha's teachings. Now I feel extremely regretful for my shortcomings towards that faith. By the way, I once discovered a huge grave in my dense orchard and I thought that it must contain a great deal of gold. In those days, many people were rushing to steal gold from ancient tombs and I joined them. One day, telling a lie that I had to move the big grave out of my garden to a higher and cleaner place, I opened the rotten wood coffin and struck gold, a lot of gold, indeed."
The yellow moonlight spread over the graves in front of her house. It felt imbued with spiritual sensibility. It turned out that the living had sown horror from the dead. Here, tombs were utterly sacred things. The graves lying under the moonlight in front of her house made me greatly confused.
Once again, I glanced at him through my glass of wine. He looked rather calm. "I buried that gold under our altar," he confessed. "After that I covered the floor with a thick layer of cement. Nobody suspected my dark scheme at all. Therefore, I made up my mind that I would use my small gold treasure fifty years later. Strangely enough, our life became better and better with each passing year. All my children ran their own businesses successfully and got wealthy. So that precious treasure-trove under the worshipping place for the Goddess of Mercy remained intact. I intended to surprise my whole clan with that precious metal, yet after listening to the Buddha's teachings in the pagoda nearby, I realised that my karma was too heavy for me to ease my worries, so I decided…" He stopped abruptly.
These words of his can be regarded as my rough descriptions of the ups and downs of his life and his inability to defeat time.
I poured out another glass of wine on his tombstone. To the best of my knowledge, his children were all money-grubbers. However, with his hidden treasure, the will he had left to them would perhaps mean nothing in their eyes. They were good people, but they were rather stingy. Once I found her refusing to buy a packet of incense offered by a Buddhist nun as a symbol of benevolence. If I had not witnessed that bad behaviour of hers, I would have portrayed her personality more positively. Nevertheless, the disadvantageous image she had in my eyes disappeared when I saw her sitting alone on the wooden bed, staring at the abandoned graves in the ghostly moonlight, especially when she looked after her ailing husband in the hospital tirelessly. Regrettably, her husband passed away unexpectedly. If only he had existed longer, we would have had many opportunities to figure out the best way to make use of that gold for charitable purposes.
Every evening on my way home from work I looked at her house, or precisely speaking, at the altar on top of it, where the statue of the Goddess of Mercy stood with a tolerant smile. Repeatedly, I glanced at the section of floor under the altar, where the great fortune lay. Sometimes I asked myself why he had not put that responsibility on her or her children.
Every night, when I took a stroll around the hamlet, I saw her sitting on that old bed, staring at the abandoned graves. I wanted to sit by her side to talk about her husband's greatest aspiration so that he might soon reach nirvana, but on second thought, I gave up my intention. I also wished to purchase her house, but my dream would never come true because its price was beyond my reach.
Gradually, I became accustomed to the living conditions in this place, where every plot of land had at least one grave. One day, on my way home after work, I found her dwelling-house crowded with people. Oh my God! The floor under the altar was being dug up.
Things began with her entering the hospital. Her treatment cost a lot of money, but her disease proved beyond recovery. Her children had to resort to a fortune-teller. "Under your altar, there's a corpse," he declared calmly. That afternoon, a group of grave-diggers was hired. After digging the floor one metre deep, they discovered a small terra-cotta coffin, tightly sealed with cement. My heart began to thump.
Luckily, these diggers said it should be taken to a hill nearby to be buried after being wrapped in a large red cloth, as is the custom for a burial.
That night in the middle of my courtyard, I made a pot of tea and poured out a hot cupful to enjoy alone. Looking at the dim moonlight, I asked myself whether he still remained where he was or had entered paradise. Suddenly, he turned up. He blurted out a weird idea: providing the new tombstone with a given name Vang (Gold), so that it would read Nguyen Thi Vang I laughed at his vague suggestion. "Oh, no no! It should be Nguyen Thi Hu Danh (Vainglory) instead," I objected. Saying nothing, he went away immediately. His silhouette staggered in the sombre moonlight and soon disappeared in cold mist.
Translated by Van Minh