|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Cam Huong
The kids of the mountainous village of Com also went to school like those of other localities. Yet, they did so by fits and starts. So, there was a single class for them all under the charge of the local border guards, among them Private Kien was their head, who took turn to teach the schoolchildren. Oddly enough, they all belonged to different age groups with all levels of knowledge. What's more, its school hours were not fixed at all. They all depended either upon the free moments of the soldiers when they were not on duty or upon the idle time of the children when they were not at work on the milpa to help their parents, especially during harvest time.
In fact, in the whole village, there were only two regular pupils: schoolboy Khenh and schoolgirl Mua. The Khenh family was well off because it had a lot of men, so he did not pay attention to housework. Except for his class hours when he could have fun with his mates, especially Mua, he just spent the remaining time idling the days away. Actually, even at school he was not indulged in learning; therefore, his teacher often warned him for his negligence or threated to expel him from school.
Khenh was senior to Mua in age, but less intelligent than her. So, sometimes she had to tutor him. As for Kien, besides his teaching moments, he came back to his unit and let the kids take care of themselves.
"Mua, if you want to learn more, you must leave here to attend a well-known school in town because of my limited knowledge," he told her one day in a joking voice.
Unexpectedly, his advice went counter to Khenh's will, for he only wished to stay beside her forever. He dreamt that when spring came round, he would lead her to the forest to spend one night together during the local festival, then marry her against his grandfather's prohibition. As a result, Khenh bore a grudge upon his teacher.
"I'll marry Mua since I like her," he said to the old man.
"Why not, Grandpa?"
"Because you have a close lineage, that's all."
Looking at his old, weak and disabled grandfather A Khun; not quite himself as the best and strongest hunter in the region of yore, Khenh felt rather disappointed.
As bad luck would have it; a Khun's talent, strength and bravery was so widely known that the mountainous district chief ordered him to come to his mansion as soon as possible.
"You must kill a big tiger for me so that I might have lots of glue processed from its bone. I'll provide you with valuables, say, taels of silver, and so forth and so on, instead," the local chief said to Khenh one day.
To the best of his knowledge, it was not just trading, but also the chief's request. Although he was a superb hunter he only kept on going to and fro at the so-called sacred forest edge one afternoon for fear of the forest's curse: "He who trespasses upon my sacred land will be awarded with death." While he was still on tenterhooks, the last glow of the sunset disappeared. Soon the entire jungle was submerged in the dark. He started trembling for a few minutes then ran back, but the mist was so thick that he could not find a way out. Finally, he had to climb up a high tree and choose a suitable fork to spend a dangerous night. Not until the small hours of the next day did he smell a stench, which he realised as a tiger that had been going in search of prey. In the meantime, birds and small animals ran helter-skelter on treetops, making loud noises.
"A tiger, perhaps!" he whispered to himself when he saw the huge silhouette of an animal below. It went silently and quietly around his place for a few minutes, then lay down, before falling asleep. Soon it snored loudly.
Now, dawn was breaking over the canopies. Sitting on a high tree, A Khun watched it carefully.
"I must shoot it dead with one bullet, just one," he said to himself. "Now that it's been sleeping soundly, I must take advantage of this rare occasion to kill it at once," he added. Silently, he went down to look for a suitable place very close to the huge cat to get rid of it. "Bang!" went his gun. The tiger collapsed and convulsed violently with a few ear- splitting roars before lying motionless. In high spirits, he tried to drag it home slowly, although it was very heavy. Not until late in the afternoon would he reach his place quite alone, leaving the dead body of the huge animal at the village border.
To his surprise, he found his native village rather quiet.
"Here comes A Khun!" shouted the first person who saw him.
"So, you've avenged yourself on your wife's death," said another. "But where's the dead body of the tiger?" she went on.
"Why do you know that…?" A Khun asked her.
All of a sudden, A Khun found his house crowded with villagers. He also heard lamentable cries of his son and relatives. Getting in, he saw his spouse lying dead with her terribly deformed face and deeply scratched body. "Surely, she was tortured by a tiger," he said to himself. Throwing his gun away, he shouted loudly then fainted from suffering.
"Your wife waited for your return for many hours in vain yesterday. So, she went into the sacred forest in search of you," said one of his neighbours. "Poor her, she was attacked near the stream where you had killed a tigress for money," she went on.
After that A Khun gave up hunting totally. He only spent his time caring for the family's orchard, litter of piglets, chickens and so on. What was left behind for him was merely bitter memories.
Khenh gave up schooling for good. He did not explain its reason to Kien when Mua had been sent to the district boarding school as was advised by her teacher.
"What's the use of attending more classes? Hunting wild animals doesn't call for school teachings. What I need now is to marry Mua, that's all," he whispered to himself. "Why has everybody in my clan forbidden me from marrying her only because of our close relationship?" he asked himself.
Since then, his favourite hobby was go hunting.
Usually, he woke up early, brought along a ball of cooked rice, a rifle and a scimitar, and then went to the forest. Each time, finding Khenh set off for such a dangerous trip, A Khun advised his grandson not to loiter deep into the thick sacred woodland, yet he only shut ears to the old man's warning.
One morning, while he was on the way in a good mood, he met his former teacher-cum-soldier Kien who was going downhill to start his class as usual. Khenh did not greet him in defiance of Kien's warm smile.
"Khenh, you're going to hunt wild animals, aren't you? Mind the slippery path uphill owing to last night's heavy rain," he warned him.
Now Khenh did not want to go to Ta Kham peak as usual, but he wished to reach the sacred jungle instead, which had greatly attracted him for many months.
"I'm going to enter that notorious place with good reason, not to destroy it, why do I have to abide by its curse?" he whispered to himself. Thinking this, he eagerly wet on despite the fact that it was fully covered with thick fog. The farther he walked, the more astray he became. No more sunshine under close-knit canopies! Worse still, tribes of monkeys threw ripe fruit at him while they were moving noisily and quickly on the treetops. Hardly had he resorted to the compass to find a way out when a strong hand seized him.
"Keep mum, or else you'll be done for," a stranger threatened him.
"You're a human or a ghost?" Khenh asked.
"Not a ghost at all. I'm A Cha of another Mong tribe like you, from an adjacent land."
"Why are you here in our sacred forest?"
"Because we only want to help you get rich and happy soon."
"By what means?"
Khenh was strongly dragged away by a hairy man to a hut covered by a densely growing cluster of trees where there was a gang of awesome people.
"We're badly in need of your natives for the purpose of goods exchange."
"OK, if so, no problem!" Khenh replied.
"We'll get your honey, bear galls and skins of different kinds of deer. In exchange, you'll be provided with a lot of things, for example cakes, sweets, cigarettes, and so forth and so on, together with electric appliances, both useful and beautiful."
The next morning Khenh took his casual acquaintance home.
"Dragging him away! This forest ghost isn't allowed to stay here," A Khun shouted loudly when he saw that awesome stranger.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"No problem! My grandpa's half mad, that's all," Khenh replied.
While the newcomer was hated by old villagers, he was liked by the young people. He showed the latter how to use mobile phones then let them see pictures of beautiful girls. Besides, he also promised that some day he would introduce Khenh to some of that bevy of charming girls. What Khenh could do for A Cha on the first days was to help him to make the acquaintance of other youths. In return, Khenh and others were allowed to inhale a kind of white smoke free, which made them go into ecstasy.
When Khenh came back to his native village a few days later, he was told that time and again Master Kien wished to see him. Yet he tried to evade his ex-teacher because of his past grudge. A Cha, who knew Khenh's hatred, wanted to tell him the way to avenge an insult but Khenh remained in two minds.
"Tonight, you'll have to cross the borderland to our locality to receive goods," said A Cha, " because they're too heavy and plentiful for me to carry alone."
"Why do I have to leave at night? I'm afraid I might lose my way. Well, let me ride a horse so I'm more comfortable," Khenh suggested.
"Oh no, impossible! Vietnamese border guards won't let us do so. They prohibit any illegal smuggling. I know that you don't like them either, so I quite believe in you."
"However, they often conduct regular patrols in this forest during the night."
"I know, I know. Nevertheless, only very early in the mornings. At night, they also go to sleep like everybody else."
Suddenly, Khenh remembered Kien's instruction to his students at the previous class: "Tomorrow night I'll be busy carrying out a patrol. Wait for me if I come to class later than usual." One of his former classmates told Khenh so. Khenh intended to let A Cha know that, but on second thought, he just kept it to himself.
"I can let fly a dagger superbly. I never miss my target," he told Khenh while he was putting a small thin and pointed knife into his trousers back pocket. "I'll teach you that skill one day," he added.
After enjoying a plentiful dinner in the afternoon, the two of them looked forward to the moments when everything fell into silence and darkness. They began to grope their way along under A Cha's instructions, for he knew all the ins and outs of the forest. When they reached a high cascading waterfall, A Cha stopped and said, "Khenh, on the other side of the watercourse is our land. We'd better halt here to observe. When no border guards turned up, I'll wade across the stream to receive goods and you just stay here to guard. If there's nothing special coming at us, you make three howls like a baboon's cries."
Khenh did as he was told. In response to Khenh's calls later, A Cha replied in the same way. A moment later, A Cha crossed the stream with a heavy bag on his back. Hardly had he set foot on Khenh's bank when he was warned, "A Cha, you've been arrested."
To Khenh's surprise, Kien appeared in front of them with his AK rifle aiming at A Cha. In the meantime A Cha showed no fear. He seemed very calm. With an unemotional face, he carefully felt the pointed dagger behind and took it out of his pocket. At once, Khenh kicked it so strongly that it flew up in the air. Unexpectedly, A Cha drew another one and stabbed Khenh in the back when he darted to Kien to push him aside. "Bang!" went the teacher's gun. A Cha collapsed by the stream bank.
When Khenh regained consciousness, the first person he saw was Mua. He felt greatly bewildered when he found himself lying in a strange place fully covered with a white blanket.
"You're lucky enough to have been given blood by Master Kien. Without it and for such a far-away distance between the forest and the district hospital, you would have breathed your last," she told him. The second person he recognised was his father. Coming to his son, he sadly informed Khenh that his grandfather had passed away.
"Oh dear! Really, Dad?" Khenh asked.
"Before dying, he smiled happily," the father told Khenh. "What's more, your Grandpa also said, 'Now I may leave this world quite at ease and rest in peace, because my grandson has managed to nullify the forest curse and done nothing wrong there. As luck would have it, he remains alive at last '."
"But, Dad. Did he agree to let me marry Mua?"
"Don't worry, my dear! My Grannie has told me that both of us do not have the same blood," Mua assuaged her lover.
"It's your Grandpa who persuaded border guards to get rid of that smuggler," said the father.
Translated by Van Minh