|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Le Ngoc Minh
On the occasion of the grave-cleaning festival in the third lunar month, according to our faith, Dr Me, a psychologist, was interviewed by the mass media as an advisor on psychological matters at Si Temple in T. region to solve the omens of bad luck for pilgrims.
After finishing all the formalities for the ritual, he made up his mind to make a tour around its most sacred shrine. Under the canopies of its frangipani or in one of its corners he found many fortune-tellers and calligraphers sitting cross-legged on a large yard. Among them, he saw a slender, healthy old fortune-teller of about 60, with a well-trimmed bushy beard, hoary hair and a round pair of sunglasses. He was wearing a white pair of trousers, a black robe and a crepe turban, and was surrounded by inquisitive clients.
Coming back to the fortune-teller while only a few of them stayed with him, Me approached him. Clasping his hands to kowtow, he put two 50,000-dong banknotes on the old man's silver dish with a pile of votive paper sheets under one burning stick of incense.
In response to Me's request, the old man picked up the money and put it back into Me's breast pocket.
"What's the matter, Master? Not enough?"
"Not that! Relieve your bad luck, will you?" he asked Me, smiling broadly.
"Don't stand on ceremony, Dr Me. You mean to deal with your past experiences or future happenings, or simply to relieve your trouble again?"
"Staring at the old man for a few seconds, he exclaimed surprisingly, "So, you're herbalist Thuc, aren't you? Frankly speaking, with hoary hair and beard in the costume of a magician-like man I didn't recognise you at first sight."
"No, nothing of the kind! In fact, I'm a hungry fortune-teller," he said, smiling warmly.
"Really? Why have you given up the family's traditional lofty trade?" Me asked in a confused voice. "Instead of this, you're making money by practising such a superstitious and deceitful job as this!"
"Demand creates supply, you see. How can you say that? Anyhow, I'm able to offer humans some unharmful dose of tranquiliser. What's more, in my hometown I was a famous shaman, too!"
"It's beyond my expectations."
"I can do any honest job, provided it isn't a dirty one."
"May I put a question to you? Suppose one day, when your mother falls ill and has one foot in the grave, do you determine to cure her?"
"Of course I do! A few minutes ago, what did you give me 50 thousand dong for?"
"Not to mince my words, you're not yourself nowadays!"
All of a sudden, several young girls from the city came to him to have their fates predicted. As a delicate person, Me stood up, thanked him and went away so that he might practise his trade at ease.
In their last year of Senior Secondary High School, Me and Thuc were both excellent students.
Me ranked second under his chum. Their houses were situated about 7 kilometres away from each other. In addition to being good at all the subjects, Thuc had a superb memory. During school break, he could mesmerise his female students with his narratives about such romantic heroines as Natasha in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, or his male students with some talented generals in the Three Kingdoms from Chinese classical literature. Other fortes of Thuc lay in his handsome appearance and wealthy family. Yet, he turned a deaf ear to the sweet words of the fair sex. On the contrary, Me's family background was totally different from his classmate Thuc.
In those days, Me's family was the poorest in the entire village. He was the only one who went to the district senior secondary school, about 12 kilometres away from his shanty. Taking pity on his classmate who had to cover 24 kilometres on foot a day, Thuc found a way out for his friend: Me had lunch with his clan before taking the afternoon tutorial class. What's more, on Thuc's advice, at home, at free moments, Me gathered a kind of medicinal herb and dried it to sell to herbalist Quy, Thuc's father. In this way, every week, taking his 10-kg dried plant to Mr Quy, Me might earn 10 dong. As a result after six months Me managed to purchase a mini-bike.
After finishing secondary education, although Thuc got full marks on the GCSE examination, he was unable to enter university due to his unfavourable family background. Yet, he did not yield to his destiny and regarded the tertiary degrees unimportant.
Later, when their school alumnae held the 50th founding anniversary of the school, Me, now a Doctor of Psychology, met herbalist Thuc again. After the ceremony, Th?c invited all his former classmates to his place to have lunch before visiting his kitchen garden, fish pond and a large expanse of medicinal herbs.
In those days, Me did not know what happened to his friend's situation in the land reform before. Now he thought sadly that Thuc had given up the lofty traditional trade left by his ancestors in order to practise fortune telling to make money.
One cool morning after a long hot spell during summer, Thuc, wearing foreign sports shoes, a soft Levis hat and expensive clothes, visited Me in a white Toyota car while the latter was on holiday in a luxury hotel near a littoral area in his hometown whose package tour was fully covered by a wealthy businessman.
"Come to my place to see our clan's medicine production assembly line, will you?" Thuc said earnestly.
"You're said to have given up your herbalism?" Me asked him surprisingly.
Without replying, Thuc only urged him to get into his saloon vehicle at once to enjoy the fresh sea air when it was still very fine.
Reaching his building, Me was greatly amazed when he saw a large signboard in big letters "Herb-Doctor Thuc's Oriental Medicine Drugstore," beside an impressive golden logo. Going inside, he turned all the more astonished when he found an up-to-date assembly line of production whose medicine was boxed up with a detailed trademark in both Vietnamese and English.
"How modern and magnificent it is!" exclaimed Me.
Late into the afternoon, after lunch, they lay on the shiny wooden bed.
"You see, one of our pleasures in old age is that we don't have to stand on ceremony in our conduct," observed Thuc. "By chance, I still bear in mind the moment you looked at me suspiciously at Si Temple. Frankly, I suffered the anguish of your sarcastic smile as well. In fact, I earned money by giving my clients some pieces of advice rather than telling their fortunes, in other words, I was then a real psychologist, not a mere fortune-teller. Only that way could I make lots of money quickly and save up to increase my drug productivity, as you've just seen. In my heart of hearts, I've never abandoned our family's traditional trade, although in our modern time we have to keep up with the advances of technology. Unless we do this, we can't improve the quality of our products so that we may compete with imports."
While Thuc was talking, his mobile rang and rang. It turned out that some client asked him for a bit of advice about the proper time for the burial of his dead relative.
"So your shaman practice is still in great demand?" Me asked.
"Of course, the richer people become, the more demand they call for," Thuc answered. "Anyhow, the death of a human being must be regarded as a sacred matter so that he or she may rest in peace with great respect and honour. Is that a matter of cultural belief or primitive superstition?" he asked.
Me was going to express his conviction on that issue, but he only nodded his head without his old chum's notice.
They silently went to the gate of Thuc's compound.
When the car stopped in front of Me's hotel, suddenly Thuc offered him a big bottle of elixir.
"What for, my dear Thuc?" Me asked in a surprising voice.
"To cure your gastro-intestinal disease, of course! Your pale facial complexion speaks volumes for that illness. What's more, time and again, I observe that while you're seated, you usually rub your belly. So, I have come to the conclusion that you suffer from a chronic malady. Take three teaspoonfuls twice a day after meals. Your health will certainly recover soon."
"Wonderful! You know all the ins and outs of my health conditions," Me said in an admiring voice.
Translated by Van Minh