|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nong Quoc Lap
When old Coc Loong, a cancer patient, was sent home by the provincial hospital authorities, his clan was greatly worried. He was not only a descendant of the famous Luu lineage, but also a respected resident of Na Luong Village due to his special ability. As a fortune-teller, he decided the wedding day for courting couples and chose burial places for the deceased. On Lunar New Year's day, his house was crowded with relatives and visitors. Now upon hearing the bad news, the people who felt deep gratitude towards him gathered at his house with countless pieces of advice.
"At home, try to satisfy his appetite and give him whatever he requests, my poor mate," the doctor in charge of the ailing patient's case told his adopted son Thu before letting him take his father home. To the best of his knowledge, Thu was fully aware that the old man would likely not recover from leukemia. However, the youth left no stone unturned to save his father's life. Two weeks had elapsed. Although the old man had taken lots of medicinal herbs, he remained at death's door.
Suddenly, Thu remembered what his father had said to him a few days before he was taken to hospital.
"My dear son, after a period of observing the faces and weighing the behaviour of the existing Luu offspring, I've realized that none of them can be compared with you," Thu's father said to him. "What's more, they're unable to follow my present career."
"I agree, Dad."
"Among my adopted children, there's only one who's worthy of my trust. The rest can hardly shoulder the heavy and lofty responsibility that I want to hand down."
"Who's the lucky guy who has that honour, Dad?"
"It's you, my dear Thu."
"Yes, you and you alone."
"No buts, Thu. I know that you're a civil servant. Yet you can practise my job on your days off. You have a golden heart. That's what's needed for the job."
"It's beyond my expectations, Dad. Maybe in the future…"
"Now I'm still fairly well. I can be useful for the community. But in my old age, how can I help much further?"
"I must perform my duty properly, Dad."
One day, a villager recommended a new method of treatment to Thu: eating some "rock meat". This referred to the legendary red semi-liquid oozing out of a rock that had been torn in half by a thunderbolt on the peak of Pha Din Mount. After the air hit it, it turned into a small lump of hard matter.
Thu set off in search of that seemingly miraculous medicament together with several fellow travellers.
Standing at the foot of the towering mountain, he thought and thought. Then he began to make a round tour that took him the whole morning. Nevertheless, he could not see Pha Din peak, which was fully covered with clouds and light rain. "Perhaps it's because it's a sacred mountain that the evergreen trees are so tall and straight," he said to himself. They started to climb up, higher and higher, thanks to several strong ropes. They discovered many caves with splendid stalactites and stalagmites. Upon the end of the sixth coil of rope, after struggling hard with sharp, pointed rocks, they reached the summit of the mountain. The sun had begun to set and they were dead tired.
"Let's have something to eat," one of them suggested.
Their meal was composed of bread and butter and sausage and a lot of apples. They ate and chatted merrily. In fact, an arduous task still lay ahead. Curiously, in front of them they saw a round marble table. Around it were many smooth stone stools. All of a sudden, while they were eating and enjoying the wonderful scenery, a great noise echoed from a nearby canopy. Glancing at the place where the noise had just come from, they saw a big monkey. Perhaps their delicious food had attracted the animal. Thu tossed a big apple to it. In the twinkling of an eye, the fruit lay tidily between its hands. "How clever the monkey is!" Thu exclaimed.
"Here are some more for you, but don't forget to lead us to Tat Ban open space," Nhiu said, throwing a few unripe fruits towards the animal. Surprisingly, no matter how much was thrown to the monkey, it managed to catch everythng. After that, the animal went back to a big tree, where it seemed to be waiting for Thu's group, instead of entering a cave to rest. When all the ropes had been connected, one after another, it was already late in the afternoon. Therefore, they were compelled to stay on the mountain top for one night. "Tomorrow, take us down to the valley, for it's already late now," Thu said to the animal in a loud voice.
"This evening come share our dinner," Huong told the monkey, who seemed to understand him, shaking the branch violently for a few seconds before disappearing into the green world.
Now the sun had sunk in the west below the mountain range. Darkness started spreading over everything. One man of Thu's party placed some food on a distant rock, then went back to enjoy the meal together with his friends. Soon, they discovered a stone cave. To their surprise, in the cave stood eight stone beds as if God had placed them there to welcome them. They spent a peaceful night. Before going to sleep, Thu made a phone call via his handset, yet he was unable to hear clearly, as they were far from the radio station. Before long, he fell into sound sleep. In his dream, he met the monkey. Immediately, it led him down to Tat Ban and he took home some pieces of rock meat. Then he climbed up to the highest peak and called out to his mates, "I've found the rock meat!" His loud voice woke them up. Outside the cave, the dark reigned over everything and the strong wind was shaking branches. All of them lay down on their stone beds again, but they were unable to have a deep sleep.
When dawn began breaking, they packed up their things and prepared breakfast.
"Where's yesterday's monkey?" one member asked.
"That's so strange. Where has it gone?" another chimed in.
All of a sudden, twigs and branches full of green leaves moved up and down over their heads.
"Here comes the animal!" another shouted.
"Come down and enjoy breakfast with us before leading us down to Tat Ban," Huong said, throwing some food and fruit to the monkey. Finishing all the food, it chattered a few words of its own language as if it was uttering its thanks to them with the wish to lead them down.
Thu began doing a hard job: climbing down to look for the so-called "rock meat".
A round rock was used to coil up the ropes for Thu to go down. After ensuring that it was safe, he fastened the rope around his belly together with the safety belt. At once, the monkey jumped down onto a big flat stone. The rounds of rope on high were loosened one by one; the animal disappeared, making him think he had been abandoned, then re-appeared. Accidentally, he discovered that there were a few horizontally-oriented caves owing to the fact that there were many monkeys playing hide-and-seek there. Confused, he spotted the monkey again, sitting at the entrance to a narrow mountain gorge and smiling at him. He tried to creep through that long narrow opening. To his surprise, at the end of the gorge he reached a wide, dimly lit cave. He walked along it. The further inside he went, the brighter it became. What struck him the most were the many stone stools, beds and tables lying here and there, of every shape and size. "Is this a real or illusory world?" Thu asked himself. He rubbed his eyes, but everything in front of him appeared clear. On the beds, he saw many dark-coloured clods of monkey blood. "They're an effective kind of medicament," he thought. Using a sharp knife, he detached them from the bed surfaces and put them all in his cloth bag. The monkey chattered noisily as if urging him to reach the place where rock meat could be found.
After that, he saw several pieces of rock meat. The way down was difficult because many tiny, sharp pieces of rock protruded from the cave walls. However, finally he managed to cut away three pieces of the so-called rock meat and put them in his cloth bag.
Something like red blood was oozing out of the big split rock. He shouted loudly for help. In scores of minutes, he was taken out of the deep cave.
Thanks to the pieces of rock meat brought home by Thu, old Coc Loong's health condition returned to nearly normal after he ate them cooked with chicken and monkey blood. To the surprise of his doctor, he asked about getting more of that special substance, but nobody seemed willing to make the climb to the peak of Pha Din and go down into the deep cave of Tat Ban to bring it home. Thu had done it out of piety for his adoptive father.
Later, a 20-member party of locals and scientific researchers agreed to make another research trip under Thu's guidance. Reaching the mountain, they stopped to find an appropriate way up and enjoy the stunning scenery.
"Brother Thu, where can we find the rock meat?" one member asked him.
"At an open space called Tat Ban fully exposed to sunlight," he replied.
"We're unable to spot it," another said.
"Of course, from here you can't. Please give me the binoculars, will you?"
But all the efforts of the party for many days came to nothing. No monkey led the way, nor could the stone tables, stools, beds and split rock be found. Eventually, they returned home in a sad mood, leaving Thu behind.
It seemed to him that he was going along an illusory path. "Where are the things I previously discovered? Perhaps only God knows!" he whispered to himself. Walking away with unsteady steps in the fine drizzle and strong wind, he felt as if he were flying higher and higher into the air.
Thu vanished without leaving any trace. The mystery of the legendary rock meat and monkey blood disappeared with him. Old Coc Loong, who was able to predict the fate of others, could not foresee the destiny of his adopted son. Thus, he could not pass down his secret to him, as he no longer existed in this world.
Translated by Van Minh