|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Tran Thanh Canh
Of all the Ma villagers, only Ms. Nhu's family makes the masks. These masks are made of papier mache, then coloured and glued onto bamboo skeletons to make dummies. Actually, the Ma villagers have become involved in making paper votive objects, including all the odds and ends in the world, say, Hades money, clothes and even villas or cars. So these masks are much needed to make these dummies, which are used for worshipping on several occasions, such as community rituals, death anniversaries or village festivals.
Nhu got married to a man from the next village Ngoc, a few kilometres from her Ma village. Vu, her husband, had six brothers, so her single mother agreed to give him matrilocal residence. He knew his wife's situation, but he loved his wife Nhu very much, so he did not care a pin about it. When he got married, Vu was only 21 years old.
Ma village is located by the Duong River, very close to the foot of the dike. Walking on the dike to its bend, the village suddenly appears; yet walking out of the bend, turning to have a look at it, the village is out of sight, like a ghost. So it is called Ma (Ghost) village. Originally, the village had a beautiful name Dong Mai village, but day in and day out, the villagers have got used to calling it Ma village for the sake of convenience. On the other hand, the village has earned a living by making the paper votive objects for worshipping ghosts and spirits in the underworld, so it deserves to be called Ma village as the neighborhood people often say it.
Living as a matrilocal resident in Ma village, Vu is able to make the masks, along with his wife. It takes a lot of time and energy to make a mask. First of all, ban paper strips [made from bark of a thymelaeaceous plant] are glued together with adhesive onto a frame. Then the mask is painted with colored image and hung to have it dried. Inside the house, on the veranda, red and blue masks are seen hung everywhere. If you are not used to seeing these masks, you would feel a bit scared.
Actually, mask making is not very laborious. Rain or shine, mask maker Vu does not care, as he stays inside the house the whole day with two women taking care of him. He looks a lot more handsome and gets a windfall, as the people around often talk about it. What they mean is that his mother-in-law is still young. Hearing this, Vu only smiled. His mother-in-law was from a poor family. Having finished her junior secondary school education, she went to learn mask making from an artisan at the head of the village. The artisan was very rich. She learnt the job for three years until she was 17 years old. Out of the blue, she got pregnant. She was so frightened that she could not come home. The artisan gave her a patch of land on the edge of the village and made her a small house where she gave birth to a daughter, now Vu's wife.
Vu always takes things in a simple way. Sometimes, the 90-year-old artisan is seen coming to visit them and Vu calls him granddad. The artisan's son is a middle-aged man who often comes to buy the masks and Vu calls him uncle. Yet, it is a bit strange that this granddad and uncle often come to see them when it is dark. If the granddad comes, the uncle does not come. This has become quite a normal thing to happen, so Vu does not pay heed to it. On the other hand, he and his wife are in their room early in the evening, so he does not care if the granddad or the uncle comes late in the evening. One year later, his wife gave birth to a son. But one thing happened. His wife was not very eager about her nuptial relationship with him. Vu felt very disappointed, but said nothing. Since his wife gave birth, his mother-in-law slept with his wife so as to be able to take care of his son. So Vu had to sleep in another room.
His mother-in-law made him a pot of liquor with medicinal herbs to help invigorate him. Every night before going to bed, he sipped a small cup of that liquor and felt a bit dizzy. All of his disappointment left him. During his sleep, he often had a dream of some naked one in white prowling in the house, even lying on him. He felt warmer. Then he told this to the family, but his mother-in-law said to him that it was only a dream due to the effect of the wine.
He works hard in the daytime. He has made a lot of masks of some Saints or some Goddesses with their faces painted red and these masks are shifted to other people's shops to be attached to the skeletons to make dummies. These dummies are then used as the worshipping objects. The whole world was praying before these objects, which were later burnt out with the prayers' wondering if these Saints and Goddesses fly to Heavens or to the underworld, they don't know. One day, Vu was working over the masks when the old artisan came with a red face.
"You know, in early morning, some guys in the village came and asked me to have some wine. I seemed over the moon with the wine. They praised me to the sky for giving them a job making paper votive objects that could help them become rich. The whole village is thriving now, you see. So they even fawned upon me as the tutelary god of the village" – the old man said, laughing.
Vu does not like that laughter of the old man as he thinks it is quite false. He said this to his wife who then replied that false or not false did not matter to her. Yet, he felt strange these days when he saw in his dream his wife Nhu standing by his bed with snow white face like the ghost's. At lunch the next day, he found that his wife Nhu always looked down with some tears in her eyes. He asked but she did not say anything. Vu is a heedless man by nature, so he forgets things quite easily. He only works and works, making papier mache, painting the masks and then in the end of the day has some wine before going to bed The people outside Dong Mai village always spread rumours that ghosts are always found present in the night as the whole village has created things for the people in the underworld. The ghosts, old and young, have come and danced in silence. The artisan's house has got a lot of dummies, so when the night comes, a lot of ghosts appear in his house, dancing and flying around the shop where the dummies are made... In the past, it used to be a studio of the artisan who made fold paintings. Vu's mother-in-law used to sleep there when she came to work as a hired hand for the artisan. This is a very large room where all sorts of dummies are found on display. At first she was very frightened, but day in and day out, she got familiar with it. She told this to the master of the house, but the artisan and his son brushed it away, saying that there was no ghost here.
However, when she was seventeen years old, something serious happened to her. She was taken to the hospital for examination and was found being with child for a few months. The wife of the artisan's son vented anger on husband, but she could not do anything about it. She decided to be mum on the matter. Finally, the girl was moved to live on the edge of the village and Nhu was born there. Now the artisan came to see her, now his son came to see her. They seemed to be taking turns caring for the mother.
The Ma villagers laughed at them, thinking that the father and the son had shared their part in having created Nhu. In fact, men in this village are the same when the village has become rich with the job of making the paper votive objects. When they are well fed and clothed, the men of Ma village are rumored to have kept mistresses. Even they were talking big, fact is fact. That guy Cuong had slept with a girl named Ben in a motel and he was caught red-handed by his wife. There was also the story about the artisan and his son with Vu's mother-in-law. There were many other stories in the village, too.
These days, Vu has often heard the villagers gossiping about his wife. They wonder if his wife has half the blood of the artisan and the other half of his son. But Vu does not care about it. Nhu is his wife and that's it. But now his wife is still lying in and his mother-in-law told him to keep away from his wife for at least three months. As strong as he, how can he bear it, Vu thought? When night came, after having some wine, he slept and had a dream as usual. He felt a fragrance of a woman about him. Vu got awakened, but he heard someone whispering that he should keep mum, just keep on doing it. Vu stopped thinking about it, just doing it on and on. How could he stop it when he was having a climax...?
The artisan's family is famous in Ma village. In the past, they carved wood frames and sold them in the area to make folk paintings. Now they have shifted to make paper votive dummies. And the whole Ma villagers have followed them to make rich. They don't care if they are making fake goods, even fake humans. People now believe in spirits and the masks and dummies have thrived. The artisan's workshop hired hundreds of people, yet he could not deliver enough goods to his customers.
Apart from their daily chores, it is difficult to understand why the artisan and his son look irritated while Vu's mother-in-law is feeling unwell these days. But Vu does not pay attention to it. Yet, one day, he heard his mother-in-law whispered to his ear that she had not her monthly menses for two months and he should take her to the hospital for examination or things would be turned in a big mess. But as soon as Vu was going to take his mother-in-law to the hospital had the old artisan asked Vu's mother-in-law to come to his shop for a talk. Then his son was found present, too. Right after that the artisan phoned Vu to come immediately to resolve the affair once and for all.
Nobody knew what they had talked about or done, but all of a sudden, the old artisan's shop was ablaze. The Ma villagers guessed that the son smoked, causing the fire. The fire spread while the shop was tightly locked. That was why the four persons could not get out. They all died from the heavy smoke and flames. All the four bodies were finally found charcoaled together. No, it was not just four of them. It should be five, as the embryo was still inside Vu's mother-in-law. The fire sent great fear to the Ma villagers that day. The fire brigade could not save the shop and the people inside because when it came, it was already burnt to ashes.
After the fire, Nhu and his baby son came back to her maternal home village. The small house on the edge of Ma village was abandoned. Those masks were hung everywhere inside and outside the house. Every time night falls, the wind blows from the rice field, swinging these masks, making them look like the enigmatic dancing ghosts.
Translated by Manh Chuong