|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Vu Van Song Toan
Devastating drought! That was a dreary year with severe dryness. The afternoon sun shined slantingly on Thanh's face, which made it extremely hot. Her skin got red and itchy. Her lips swelled up a little. Shading her forehead with one hand, she looked in the direction of the brilliantly sparkling surface of Lake Ho Ngoc, which for the time being had dwindled down to a large mirror. She heaved a sigh.
"How hot it is!" she whispered to herself.
She stared ahead in search of Bao, her husband, who had driven his herd of goats away to graze somewhere in the early morning.
Legend had it that the waters of the lake looked like the huge eye of a sacred dragon, whereas the Pu Luong Range seemingly looked like its body that stayed in the clouds almost all the year round. So, it never ran dry, unless the legendary animal died. In such a case, its agony would really hurt her Muong region.
With a length of hollow bamboo she blew the stove strongly to make the pieces of smouldering charcoal burn again, causing the dry leaves to continuously crackle. After that she put a saucepan on with some already-cooked sticky rice and hot water to warm the food again.
She was lost in thought. Now it was the fourteenth day of the lunar month, a full moon day, coincidentally with the worshipping ceremony of the Thuong Ngan Goddess. Old people usually told their offspring that it was She who had taught both the Muong and the Kinh people how to grow edible vegetables and plants and how to tame wild animals for domestic purposes. Furthermore, She also persuaded tigers and leopards that they should not attack human beings. In order to pay homage to Her, the locals built a temple deep in the ancient forest. Regrettably, now it could be seen right in the heart of the densely populated township. Gradually, the forest shrank with the destruction of the woodland owing to man's lack of conscience; so did the wild animals' habitats. The evergreen hills now turned barren, except for countless charred trunks standing lonely among the wide, uncultivable expanses. In order to punish man's ingratitude, She caused a terrible calamity. As for Thanh, She took pity on her by giving her a nice baby boy.
Not until the little child tried to suck her breasts for the third time in vain did she realize that she had eaten nothing since the early morning. As for the sticky rice in the saucepan, it had already gone dry and tough.
The last glow of the sunset slowly spread over the ground. Bao's footsteps made the dry tufts of grass rustle slightly. He urged his two dogs to follow the flock of goats. What had looked like a green world before now was just a stretch of grass along the edge of the lake. "How long might it stay fresh for my animals?" he asked himself. "Well, it all depends upon the rain," he added when he saw lots of white clouds drifting in the blue sky.
He tried to plunge his two empty plastic cans into the waist-deep water. The further he inserted them down in the unclear water, the muddier it became. Strangely enough, after only a few months, the immense lake that formerly ran across the township and meandered around the mountains and hills in the Muong Cung locality now looked like a small pond.
When he reached home, it had already been twilight. Inside his house, a candle was dimly flickering. Without water, the hydropower station came to a standstill. Thanh hurriedly went out to meet him while he was closing the gate of the goat enclosure. At once she put her mouth to the spout of one container and began drinking.
"What! Drinking it that way?" he asked. "Stop it at once," he told her.
His objection in a hoarse voice made her conscious. He sat down on the ground.
"Our goats have stayed hungry for days because the sun withered up the grass. In such a situation, the lake would soon go dry," he told her sadly.
"What about tomorrow? Where will you let the goats graze?" she asked.
"I don't know," he answered in a husky voice.
Thanh knew that whenever he said that, he was greatly disappointed. In fact, her whole family relied on the herd of goats. Surprisingly, all of their fur looked white; so the animals cost a lot of money. Before dying, Thanh's father advised her to save up her fortune to purchase a plot of land, build a house on stilts and grow cinnamon trees whose bark would be of high value which might bring her a huge income, thanks to the amount of money compensated by the local authorities for her clan to move out to other place for a new project.
"We'll spend our money on raising goats," Bao said to his wife. "Within one year, we can retrieve our total capital," he went on in a promising voice.
While Bao was falling asleep, he heard at loud noise outside. Taking down a hunting gun from the wall, he aimed at the goat shed.
"The noise was made by a wild animal, my dear?" she asked him. "It seems to me that it's a tiger. Some day before, a pig was killed by a big tiger," she said to him. For a long time, she had not heard the roars of that kind of big wild cat on the grounds, because the old forest had been cleared for growing cinnamon trees. She remembered that during moonlit nights, in her childhood, whenever the cinnamon trees were in bloom its fragrance wafted into her room.
Then one day when her mother came back home from market, she looked greatly depressed. Putting the two baskets down from the shoulder pole, she began complaining. "Poor us! Our cinnamon is unmarketable, whereas this year we have got a bumper crop of this kind of produce, since Chinese traders have refused to buy it," she explained.
As a result, the locals' groves of cinnamon were completely destroyed. Worse still, many other sorts of produce like maize, job's-tears, and so on, also suffered the same fate one after another. In consequence, most of the inhabitants of Thanh's hamlet abandoned their houses and orchards to move to nearby townships to settle down so as to eke out their living by practising other trades, especially when they were told that a hydropower station would soon be constructed there.
Throughout the evening, the hot Laotian wind blew strongly. All of a sudden, Thanh's lights were put out, so they had to have dinner in the dark. Soon the full moon rose high. She looked up and sighed. "Sadly, this drought might last for a few more months," she whispered to herself.
Bao's rhythmical breaths made her unable to sleep. In the moonlight, she could see his weary, worried face clearly. Many goats died of thirst and hunger. Without rain, their entire herd would slowly die off. In the meantime, all their fortune had been spent on Thanh's Caesarian section, then on buying a pump to water the cinnamon trees on the verge of death. Lost in thought, she let her mind wander over lots of things: the dying lake, the green plantations of cinnamon trees, the poor goats grazing on the hill, Bao caressing his two little dogs with a smiling face, and so on. It startled her when she was aware that she was dreaming. Dogs barks resounded fast and thick. She woke her husband up. The movements of a wild animal could be heard nearer and nearer with every passing second. He got up and rushed toward the goat shed, gun in hand. He shot at a dim silhouette, but missed the target. A black figure darted toward the lake and soon disappeared in the dark. "A bear's gone hunting prey, perhaps," he said to himself.
"What kind of animal was that?" she asked him, giving him a hot cup of tea.
"It seemed a very big bear. Yet I failed to kill it. Let's wait and see."
He struck a lighter. She saw a flickering flame dancing on his face. She was well aware that he was very depressed. Suddenly, she felt a bit frightened when she stared at his gun. During the previous night, one of their small goats died from a deep bite in its neck. All of a sudden, her little boy burst into crying. She hugged him tightly and tried to lull him to sleep.
On many occasions, she advised him to hand the gun to the local unit of foresters, but he was still on tenterhooks. She remembered that his father was a well-known hunter. Whenever he came back home from the forest, he always brought along game: now a deer, now a multjac. Strangely enough, he never went hunting in spring, for it was the childbearing season of wild animals, he said, and he had never killed any of them. What's more, it was also a season when buds sprang up abundantly on trees and bushes. Once he involuntarily shot a mother monkey. Finally, he felt totally upset when he saw her little one suck and suck its mother's tits in vain. Immediately, he brought it home and raised it. When it grew up, he released it back to its habitat. During his last hunting trip, he aimed at a big bear, but he missed it. As a result he was counter-attacked with lots of serious wounds on his face and arms. After that he died young, after a month of treatment at home. As luck would have it, his wife passed away in the same year. Consequently, his gun was hung in the middle of his house, under the ancestral altar.
After their deaths, Bao swore that he would never go hunting again.
Bao followed the other villagers to work for a new hydropower project close to his place as an inexperienced hand. All his earnings went to drinking, smoking and indulging in sexual pleasures. The reason for his queer activities was to seek revenge for his spouse's unfaithfulness: she abandoned her native place to work for a karaoke bar as a pretty waitress.
Later, Bao went into the jungle as an unlawful gold digger for a gang leader with a dream of making a great fortune as soon as possible. The aftermath of the forest's destruction was that most of the green vegetation was done away with, landslides happened again and again, streams went dry and fish died from pollution. Finally, the sacred forest, home to the ethnic groups of the Muong and Thai minority peoples, also withered.
One afternoon, while Bao was counting the number of his goats at the foot of a mountain range, a villager hurriedly rushed towards him and told him something. He returned home quickly. Late in the evening he reached his place. What he saw was beyond his imagination. His bedroom was brightly lit by scores of flickering red candles. His 3-month-old son was lying unconscious in bed, breathing hard. Sitting next to the little boy was a shaman who was praying in a low voice. A few hours before, a nurse had examined him. "There's nothing wrong with his health," she declared. It turned out that the witch doctor was practising necromancy services to bring the boy back to life as he had promised.
Early this morning, when Bao left home, the kid was still fast asleep. In the meantime, Thanh was watering some bushes in front of their dwelling. Suddenly, she heard her child crying loudly. Rushing inside her bedroom, she did not find him anywhere. Going into the kitchen she saw an old monkey. The wild primate stared at her threateningly. It was holding her little son. She proceeded toward it. It ran away at once.
"Help! Help! Rescue my little child, anyone here?" she shouted lamentably.
Her cries for rescue made a passing forester stop abruptly. The animal seemed unafraid and kept holding the little child tightly in its arms. The more the man came nearer to it, the farther it went away, and then it darted downhill. For a long time, he had been fully aware that there was a serious problem with the forest due to man's commercial exploitation of natural resources. Recently, a lot of elephants invaded this region and destroyed the farmers' crops. Time and again, he heard the roars of tigers. Usually, monkeys did not attack humans, except when they were threatened by them.
On second thought, he found a way out.
He told Thanh to make many small handfuls of cooked rice. He placed them near the rock where the animal was sitting. In the meantime, he and Thanh observed its responsive behaviour from afar. A few moments later, it began picking them up, one by one, and ate the food to its heart's content. When the sun rose over the mountain peak, it felt asleep before placing the little boy down on another rock, then it shot downhill.
Now it was time for the sacrifice ceremony. A small young goat was tied to a bamboo stake planted in the middle of an open expanse in front of the dwelling-house. Many burning red candles flickered around the poor animal, whose eyes were full of tears. Its voice sounded mournful. Instead of sucking its mother's tits, now it laid there amid a circle of fire.
The wind blew more and more strongly with every passing hour. The ashes from the flame first curled up round and round, then came down thick on the ground. The western sky brightened up and the fire spread far, far away. Thanh stared at the Muong Thien area where her parents lay side by side in the coffins made of hollow trunks. Unfortunately, those of their ancestors that had ever been lying there for several decades, beside each other, now might turn to dust.
Thousands of black clouds moved toward her place while the strong wind whistled threateningly. Lightning seemed to tear the sky apart. Thunder boomed in the sky overhead. Maybe the Thuong Ngan Deity had flown into a rage, Thanh thought.
Unexpectedly, the first raindrops began pattering against the roof. All of a sudden, Thanh's baby cried noisily. She hugged him tightly while he searched for his mother's nipples.
Early the next morning, while looking over the window, Thanh found the lake full of water, sparkling under the sun.
The white kid was nowhere to be seen. The heavy rain completely wiped out the animal's footprints on the ground. Bao counted the goats again and again. To his surprise, their total remained the same. "Where is our poor little kid?" he asked himself.
Later, a few local hunters said that they had seen a wild goat as white as snow near the Muong Thien area. "Surprisingly, it appears and disappears like a forest ghost," they remarked.
"God knows," Thanh said to herself.
Translated by Van Minh