|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen The Hung
Finally, spring passed rapidly. The light green tender buds began turning darker. The last yellow leaves were gently floating down to the ground. A hot gust of Laotian wind started to blow over the high mountain range into the Vietnamese lowlands.
The mating season of wild animals seemed to come to an end. In the zoo, female deer lying idle inside the huge iron cages slowly ruminated, eyes looking upwards proudly, their bellies bulging noticeably with child. The cutting traces on the antlers of the stags turned dark brown and their lustrous orange fur looked a bit reddish. With the end of the season, these beautiful animals ceased breaking cages to look for their female partners as they used to do during the previous months.
One early morning of a fine summer day my father, in a ritual robe, prepared a ceremony to finish the antler-cutting season. On the large tray that he was going to put on the wooden altar in the centre of our house, there was a bright red cloth with a small bottle of rice wine and a hand saw. Hardly had he burnt a few joss-sticks when the doorbell rang loudly. This early visitor was a snobbish-looking woman, half rural and half urban. My father was compelled to stop his religious service, while my mother and I had to retrace our steps into the kitchen. About fifteen minutes later, he called me to him. Standing behind him, I politely and silently waited for his orders.
"This is Mrs. Ngan Hoa, the spouse of Mr. Ngan Luong, the manager of our local brewery," he introduced her to me. "And this is my son Thien, who'll accompany you to your place," he said to her.
"But sir…" she said in a hesitant voice.
"Don't worry, lady! He's quite a skilful worker in this trade."
"Take this hand saw and follow her at once," he told me after giving me the instrument.
"Dad, no more stags with two intact antlers can be found in our village," I argued.
"Yet, in many other localities, there are still a lot of them, I suppose," he objected. "How can we have the heart to...
... shake her confidence? What's more, she believes in you and wants you to keep mum about everything you hear or see there. Bear in mind that when you finish your work at her place, come back to me at once. If you find anything unusual, don't leak it out to anybody."
I followed her to the waiting car. It was the first time I had ever sat in a vehicle. The reason was very simple: I had never gone beyond the bamboo border of our village. On the way, we stopped to have a drink in a roadside restaurant where most of the waitresses wore very short skirts. It was also my first chance to step into such a luxurious place.
"What's that?" I asked her.
"No need to worry! My vet and I will hold the guy's head tightly so you can perform your duty properly. Anyway, he has fallen fast asleep so there's nothing for you to be nervous about," she encouraged me.
We proceeded to a double bed where a thin man was sleeping. Looking at him, especially his head, I felt frightened out of my senses: on his head, there grew a couple of rosy antlers. Oddly enough, since the establishment of the Tinh Ha Brewery in this locality, I had seen a lot of weird monsters: a two-headed calf, a four-legged chicken, an elephant-shaped piglet and a dog-like rat. Yet a man with a pair of antlers on his head was beyond my imagination. Come what may, I had to cut them off.
From the deep cut, a thin flow of black, stinking blood oozed out. Its stench resembled the ill-smelling waste water from the beer factory.
Immediately, Mrs. Ngan Hoa felt sick. She dashed into the toilet.
Never in my lifetime had I seen a man with a pair of antlers on his head or human blood looking so black and emitting such a stench.
Translated by Van Minh