|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nong Quoc Lap
"My bracelet is made of a special material," Pao told me. In his opinion, its brilliance was more lustrous than silver and more reddish than copper. "Even Mr Kieu Kim Trong, the general director of Kim Tinh Jewelry Co. Ltd, can't define its compound," he continued. "If you put it in fire for three days, it remains un-melted. If you expose it to a month's continual rain, it doesn't turn rusty, and if you drench it in strong acid, it stays intact. It's said to be made of material from another planet!" Surprisingly, I had never seen him wear it on his wrist, but only on the upper part of his arm, close to his armpit. "You're the only person to notice this," he said to me one day.
Finding me still suspicious about the origin of his precious ornament, he just said, "OK, there is no evidence on whether it belongs to an extra-terrestrial man. But when I wear it, my life is always safe and sound. In a fire, I won't be burnt; in the water, I won't be drowned; what's more, bullets can't kill me. If anyone tried to exchange it for a trunk of gold or a box of diamonds, I'd deny his proposal at once."
As a wounded soldier with a lot of bomb splinters in my chest, arm and leg from the crucial fights at the ancient citadel of Quang Tri, I felt terrible pain in bad weather. But I was lucky to be alive, as most of my comrades-in-arms laid down their lives there.
How about Pao, you might ask? He had also undergone scores of major engagements. Out of his whole company, only five combatants survived to see liberation day. Among the living men, he alone was unhurt, although he had always been the first to make an assault. The other four lost over eighty per cents of their strength.
Later, when we talked about our period in active service, I asked him, "Is it thanks to your wonderful bracelet that Death spared your life?"
"Quite right!" he answered resolutely. "Once my unit was on the march, a big bomb fell down in front of me, but it didn't explode."
When he was awarded the title "Hero of the Armed Forces," he showed no signs of joy or sadness.
In the village of Canh Phuong, Pao's hometown, his widowed mother Hong and her two children were looked down on overtly. All the widows in the area were held in contempt by their neighbours. That was the outdated custom of the village. As a result, they were left abandoned and unaided. Soon Hong turned as thin as a lath, with a dark tanned complexion. Yet she did not complain at all. She worked as hard as a water buffalo in the fields. Her family lived in a dilapidated hut. Her crops were usually destroyed by wicked guys' oxen and buffaloes. Worse still, they did all they could to harm and defame her clan. One day, she prayed for a blessing.
"Khui, that good-for-nothing guy, was struck by a bolt of lightning and died," said one villager the morning after a thunderstorm.
As a rule, for those who died in such a situation, no funeral was held. Besides, he was buried right under the floor of his house, for fear that his body might be unearthed some day to be burnt and ground into powder for a so-called panacea.
Although Khui's body was interred and watched carefully, however, it was soon taken away stealthily in a way that the villagers could not have anticipated.
As for Pao, he only paid attention to Khui's magic bracelet, not the skeleton. According to his father's recommendation, he made for the place where Khui had been struck down. He managed to find a magic bracelet with a mysterious sparkle. He put it on his left arm. Small wonder, it suited him totally.
"Dad, I've found the thing you always craved," he whispered.
"Go home at once, my beloved son. You must keep it dark so that nobody can see it," his father's spirit urged.
Immediately, he left the place where the Thunder Genie had sent down the magic thing to punish the wicked guy.
"Once you told me that God had given it to you in such a strange way, didn't you?" I asked Pao.
"Yes, quite right! It may contain human beings' emotion," he replied.
"Why do you say so?"
"Otherwise, why was Khui punished so lamentably after my mother's prayers that day? The bracelet is a symbol of both the good and the bad," he said to me.
"Since you got it, you've worn it all the time, right?"
"Even on the battlefield?"
"That's why I remain safe and sound after so many crucial battles. Without it, I could hardly have survived until today."
"You really are a lucky man!" I remarked.
"I think so. However, I regret that I can't share my luck with everybody else, especially my comrades-in-arms."
"I know, I know. It's all due to destiny. Come what may, we're unable to escape it."
"But why do you dare to let me know this secret while you keep it dark from your wife and children?"
"Because you're both my close friend and my saviour."
"They're also your close ones."
"Yes, they are, of course. But you're dearer to me. I'm afraid that you hardly understand the matter."
Indeed, I was his saviour, and I always remembered that.
Pao and I were members of the same unit; we were also the same age. Otherwise, he would have called me Dad. For the residents of his native place, I was worthy of being such an elder. In fact, I was his blood-donour when he suffered from an acute stomachache. Before dying, Pao's father told him, "When a person willingly gives his blood to you, he's surely a kindhearted man." Now he wished to let me share the wonderful features of his bracelet with me and enjoy the good luck that it might offer me. However, I turned down his proposal on the grounds that it was now peace time. What's more, it was only suitable for those who were blessed with happiness; it could not help me stay away from my fits of pain on rainy days. Furthermore, it could not be handed down to the younger generations. Therefore, why would I need it? After that, Pao never discussed his magic thing any longer.
One day, my son Tra received a phone call from Tung saying that his father had just passed away. Sadly, I was unable to go to him to say farewell for the last time, because I had been bed-ridden for years. Tra paid homage to him on my behalf. Returning home, he said to me, "Younger Uncle Pao's got a beautiful bracelet on his arm close to his armpit. All his sons wanted to remove it but all their efforts came to nothing."
"Really? Do you know what it's made of?"
"No, Dad. In their opinion, it was neither gold nor silver. It's a magic bracelet made of something I have never seen."
"Is it true?"
"Absolutely true, Dad. There's another mysterious feature attached to it."
"What is it, my dear?"
"Usually, a few hours after death, a body will turn completely stiff and the skin gets very cold. But for Uncle Pao, it was different. When his body was put into the coffin the next day, his complexion remained rosy and his limbs stayed flexible like a man asleep."
"How strange! Perhaps it's all due to his magic bracelet," I said to myself in a low voice.
"Which magic bracelet? So you also know that he has a magic bracelet?" Tra asked his father in surprise.
"Oh, no! How could I possibly know that? Maybe he's a special person, that's all."
"Usually after a few days, a dead body goes bad. Man comes from dust, then returns to dust, you see."
"Frankly speaking, I'm not fully aware of it."
"Do you think that whatever our forefathers said and did was always right?"
"You shouldn't assume that you're more advanced than ancient people and despise their thinking. There are still a lot of things beyond our knowledge. Moreover, all the debates between the two trends - idealism and materialism - remain unresolved."
"We should end our discussion here to rest, for both of us are too tired to enter into further controversial matters," Tra said to his father.
Tra went straight to his bedroom. I lay down quietly and soon fell into a deep slumber. In the end, human beings cannot shun old age and death, no matter what magic power they possess.
Then one day Pao's grave was stealthily dug up by a certain wicked guy. Perhaps he got wind of Pao's magic bracelet lying in the coffin. Yet he would have then despaired when finding nothing special in it: Pao's sleeve was cut to the armpit, but the wonderful object was nowhere to be found. Burning a few joss-sticks and planting them in front of Pao's tombstone, he kowtowed to Pao's corpse in the grave for having hurt his soul.
"This magic bracelet is meaningful only when it is used honestly," was the message I bore in mind about Pao's words a few years ago.
Translated by Van Minh