|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Danh Lam
He stepped on the gas, sending the front of the car into a heap of mud, which splashed all over the windscreen. It had rained nonstop for days since he had come here, leaving no trace of asphalt on the road. It seemed that the road was the most challenging part about this journey. He still had no idea what lay ahead. Seeing the bend protruding from the mountainside, he spun the wheel.
The edge of the abyss was only a few dozen centimeters from the front of the car. He pushed the door open. Wind immediately blew hard into the car. Rain was still pouring down. The car lay deserted in this dangerous place. He tried to light a cigarette but failed several times due to the strong wind. His skin was soaking wet. He walked along the abyss, trying to catch a panoramic view of the area. Out of the blue sky, the dark clouds were driven away by the wind, revealing a wet valley down below. Terraced fields unfolded before him.
"Do you want to take a photograph? I've got a horse for you to get down there." He was startled at the call behind him.
An old, hatless, barefoot local man was pointing to two horses grazing a few steps away.
"No thanks. I haven't got a camera."
"So where are you going? Everyone who comes up here takes a photograph."
"Oh, I just came here to enjoy the landscape."
"Really? Why don't you come to my house? It is over there." The old man pointed towards the mountain. He looked up and could only see dark green trees.
"Thank you. Let me enjoy the view here for a moment."
"No, I'm not asking for money. I'm just inviting you to have a cup of tea with me. This is the rainy season and it's very sad. Nobody is around, you know!"
"Do you take care of these horses?"
"Yes, but now I've only got two. The rest died last winter."
"Thank you, but I've got to go now."
"I told you the truth. I don't want money from you. Just come and have a cup of hot tea, that's it!"
"What's your job?" He asked the old man the same question again.
"I take care of the horses!"
"To tell you the truth, I want to give you some money to buy alcohol to warm yourself up in this cold weather!"
"I've already said that I don't need money from you."
"I know. I'm not giving you the money as a present. I'm only giving it to you to buy some alcohol!"
He pulled out his wallet and gave the old man some money. The old man took it, but he kept saying, "I'm not asking for money!"
After standing there for a few more moments, he said good-bye to the old man. He got into the car. The rain suddenly poured down heavily. The trembling old man stood behind the car. He started the engine and the old man waved. He drove the car back to the slippery road.
The silver water was falling from the mountainside onto the road in front of him, making the car's path uncertain. He could not tell where this way would end, but he drove onwards. Occasionally, he saw people walking in the opposite direction through the fog and the curtain of rain. Many of them were not locals, as they had cameras dangling on their chests and heavy knapsacks on their backs. He looked at the clock in the car and could tell that it was already late afternoon. He was the only man driving back to the district town, where he had a hotel room he had rented for a few days, although he was yet to stay there for even a night. He had cold food in the car, even some alcohol.
Darkness came suddenly. In front of him was a layer of milky mist. He strained to look for a space off the road to park his car. He opened half the car door and saw wilderness all around. He could hear the rain dripping on the hood of the car. He turned on the light and looked for the bottles of brandy and water, a cold hamburger and a quilt. Then he quickly turned off the light. The brandy helped warm him up and he felt a bit light-headed.
The road was now plunged into the dark night of forest and mountain. There was absolutely no person or car on the road. It would be better that way, he thought. He drank the local wine freely. He would finish one bottle so that he could fall into deep sleep. A night bird was flapping against the side of the car, crying wildly. It made him nearly jump out of his skin. But he could not close the car tightly because that could suffocate him. He was drifting away. It was getting colder. Yet, with the help of the not-so-thick quilt, he passed the quiet night in sound sleep.
The neighing of a pack-horse woke him. It was just daybreak. A group of people carrying heavy sacks on their backs were walking towards the district town. Some of them looked back at the car. He gradually pulled the quilt down and felt icy cold, but the rain showed signs of stopping. Hopefully it would be not so bad today, he thought.
He fetched some water to do the washing and had a sandwich and instant coffee for breakfast. Having a look at the fuel meter, he could tell that there was enough petrol. The road ahead was meandering along the mountainside. The car climbed the slope and he reached the inhabited area by noon. There were a few houses scattered along the road. He could see a crossroad running to the valley, where there was a communal post office with a high telecommunication pole rising skywards. A group of foreigners appeared out of nowhere. Their motorbikes were gathered in front of the post office. The locals were surrounding them, selling their hand-made brocade. He stepped on the gas and drove straight ahead.
He drove away from the crowd for a few kilometers. The road was again deserted. There was mottled sunlight on the mountainside in the misty abyss. He drove slowly. He saw a tiny spot in front of the car. It was the only human shadow on the road.
That person was walking shakily. Sometimes he sat down on the road. Huge knapsacks dangled on his back. When he got closer, he recognized that it was a foreigner. He looked at the rear-view mirror and found that the man showed no sign of asking for a lift. But when the car was a few hundred meters away, the foreigner sat down on the ground again, then fell down on his back. He quickly hit the brakes. The foreigner looked absent-mindedly towards the skyline. His lips were dry and his mouth was covered with beard. He smelled strange. Possibly he had not had a bath for days.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
The foreigner replied in a foreign language he was completely ignorant of.
"Do you need any help?"
The reply again did not give him any information. So he pointed to the car to show that he wanted to give him a lift. The foreigner tried to walk after him. To his surprise, he touched something hard in his knapsack. It was a gun. He felt worried that he had invited him into the car. But it was a done deed. Moreover, the foreigner did not look as if he would attack him, he thought.
He put the knapsacks on the back seat and asked the foreigner to sit next to him. He hoped the foreigner would not use the gun. The foreigner did as he was asked. He gave him a bottle of water and the foreigner gulped half down quickly.
"Do you want to eat anything?" he asked, but suddenly remembered that he could not speak the foreigner's language.
He reached for a sandwich and hamburger from the back seat and gave them to the foreigner. He took them nonchalantly, but slowly started to eat them. After that, he showed him the road to see which way he wanted to turn. The foreigner shook his head slightly and after a moment, he pointed to the road ahead. He stepped on the gas, but suddenly realised that he actually did not want to have the foreigner traveling with him. However, he did not have the heart to ask the foreigner to get out of the car now. Hopefully there would be some residential area ahead with an administrative office where he could hand over the foreigner.
The foreigner was finally asleep. He was probably exhausted. The road was now running to lower land. It was noon and he felt hungry. There was still no sign of any residential area ahead. The rice fields were also disappearing. He lit a cigarette and it seemed that the smoke woke the foreigner. He yawned nonchalantly. He handed the foreigner the pack of cigarettes and the lighter. The man quickly snatched it and lit a cigarette.
He looked at the fuel meter and started calculating. Maybe he should turn back. But what about the foreigner? He signaled the foreigner that he was turning back. The foreigner understood his gesture and nodded. By this point, he just wanted to carry him to where there were people and he could drop him off. The foreigner suddenly sat up and pointed to the road, showing that he wanted to get out there. But how could the foreigner go on in this wild deserted area and where did he want to go? He was still thinking hard when the foreigner signaled again that he wanted to get out. He decided to stop the car.
He again touched the gun in the heavy knapsack. He wondered if the foreigner had anything else inside the knapsack. The foreigner sat down on the roadside. He gave him the last hamburger, a sandwich and a bottle of water. The foreigner waved it away, showing that he did not want to take these things. The car drove on, leaving the foreigner behind. The foreigner was sitting still. He was driving the car to the bend when he heard a gunshot echo in the valley. He quickly stopped the car and tried to listen again. A gale was coming. Flashes of lightning forked the sky, accompanied by rolling peals of thunder. Maybe the sound was only a hallucination.
Translated by Manh Chuong