Pilgrims Crossing Mê River

August, 19/2018 - 09:00

A short story by Cát Lâm

Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
Viet Nam News

by Cát Lâm


After an early dinner, I washed up then went to bed. Yet, I was unable to sleep straight away. I tossed and turned on bed for a long while like I was sick. Whenever I returned to my native village I felt as if I had taken ill. Strangely enough, leaving the place I returned to normal again. I kept this a secret because I was afraid it would make my mother worried. “Why does my summer vacation last so long?” I asked myself. Since the days I went to district boarding-school and then worked for a provincial establishment I had rarely come home for nearly a decade. I thought it might be unwise due to the generation gap between her and me. Whenever facing her I got an impression that I stood on the other side of the wide Mê River without bridges spanning its two banks. When I felt stressed due to work, I stayed in town for months partly because of her and due to being afraid of living in the country.

Then suddenly one morning she asked me to come back home to find out my opinion of her intention to retire two years ahead of schedule.

“Why’s that? Her job in the commune seems rather simple and easy,” I said to myself. “It’s because she thinks I should get married as soon as possible,” I thought so.

She had led an unhappy life for more than thirty years after a humble wedding party with green tea, cheap cigarettes and candies.

“Even after my wedding afternoon, I only enjoyed six hours’ happiness,” she told me one day. “Right after that short blissful moment, my husband joined a group of ruby diggers in the faraway Quỳ Châu region. After that, day after day and month after month I heard of nothing from him until I was told that his working group had all died in a pit collapse.”

“Why didn’t you marry again, you were still very young?” I asked.

She said nothing. She had never dealt with my father’s unfortunate fate.

*         *          *

One night I was suddenly woken up by the noisy barks of dog. I heard the sound of Old Bát’s footsteps in our back garden. Strictly speaking, we had no close relation to him. However, he was very good to our family. His little son Hứa, of my age, was my dearest chum in our entire childhood. If Hứa had been still alive, I might have been his daughter-in-law some day.

That year, when we reached the age of fourteen a tragic accident happened to him.

One morning Hứa borrowed a water buffalo from one of his kind-hearted neighbours to finish his family’s field work before midday. With deep anxiety I urged the animal to work faster by whipping its heavily pregnant belly, before it flew into a rage and butted Hứa so strongly that he was thrown away. Then after another violent strike at his chest, he fell into the Mê river and died in a few minutes later.

Living in despair for weeks on end, Old Bát existed merely thanks to his son’s sweet memories deeply cherished in his heart.

*         *          *

My village had turned into a small bustling area night and day. The whole community seemed sleepless in the chase for money. The deafening sounds caused by the ferry boats carrying early pilgrims across the river to and from Miss Biền’s shrine and by their noisy chats could be heard from dawn to dusk. They all got there in the hope of meeting and talking to the souls of the dead in the netherworld thanks to her so-called magic power.

Formerly, there was only a single tiny boat of Mr Lùn the Short for that service. Usually, it stayed idle night and day. Nowadays, everything had changed remarkably. Many prayers went to and from her sacred place.

In her childhood, Biền was just a little pretty girl like some others in the village. Growing up she was found to be pregnant by a bridge-building young man at the work place near her house.  To avoid public scrutiny, she went away with a rather big belly to look for the lover of her dreams. Unfortunately for her, after a long search in vain she went mad. Coming back home three years later as a so-called talented fortune-teller, she soon became a notorious woman who could earn a lot of money. Her house turned, in a very short time, into a famous place of worship lit by multi-coloured bulbs shining all day long from her temple to the river bank amid the noisy sounds of the local music band. Sometimes, I felt that I was walking among a line of the dead coming from the netherworld. Some worshippers asked if their ancestors’ graves remained intact while some others only wanted to know where their children had laid down their lives. In the meantime, the rest of them only cried or laughed, or bowed in front of the God’s holy representative.

Going hand in hand with the prosperity of Miss Biền’s family, a locally-made product market also enjoyed a noticeable boom. Votive offerings could be seen in all stalls in the market.

“Why are these kitchen utensils lying disorderly among the old, deformed, dirt cheap pots and pans and stained sets of teacup?” I found fault with my mother.

“I’ve been living alone here for years. Nothing here seems important to me any longer,” she sighed.

I just kept silent. Outside, the awful din kept me wide awake.

“How can I sleep in this atmosphere?” I complained.

“Shut up or else you’ll be spiritually punished!” she reprimanded severely. “You’ll be cursed and stay single throughout your lifetime,” she went on.

“Marriage doesn’t matter much to me,” I told her. “Marrying a young man at first then being abandoned by him later like you? Doesn’t sound great!”

“Don’t you worry about that,” she assuaged me.

I changed the subject.

“Last night I noticed Mr Bát going to the landing stage of the Mê river again,” I said.  “You’d better pay more attention to him if he’s in danger.”

She said nothing. Taking a big pack of old clothes out of the wardrobe she began mending some items.

Getting up, I proceeded to the gate.

“My God, why didn’t you go to sleep?”

“When did you come back home?” he asked me in a piteous voice.

“Yesterday. Early tomorrow morning I’ll leave.”

“If so, I’ll come to you for a few chats, okay?”

“Sure, why not?”

At once he turned around hurriedly.

I had been waiting for him throughout the evening but he did not turn up. I stepped out then made a tour round the village amid the crowded line of pilgrims. In the dim light I could see many bleak faces and heard a lot of accounts about Miss Biền’s red temple. The market of votive offerings was bustling. I seemed to see that the eyes of these paper figures were in tears.

All of a sudden, I found him standing at the river bank thanks to his short stature with a humped back. On his shoulder there were a lot of things: bags of fruits and flowers and votive offerings including paper human beings. It turned out that he was at the landing stage ready for carrying pilgrims’ things over the sloping bank. His silhouette went up and down according to the tempo of his footsteps. I rushed toward him.

“Can I help you?” I suggested hopefully.

“No thanks! I can manage,” he refused. “I try to take these things for pilgrims to earn enough money to gain admittance to the shrine. As to money for my son’s memorial service, I resort to their generous tips. These days I’ve found him hungry and in tatters.”

“If you’re in short of anything, tell me at once.” I saw him wiping away the sweat on his face.

“I can give you some money right now for meaningful purposes, not for your nonsensical matters,” I stated in a serious voice.

“But Hứa came back again and again, wet and hungry. Poor him!” he answered with a distorted mouth.

“You’re imagining things due to your grief.”

He just heaved a sigh. Without saying goodbye to me, he mingled with the crowd of worshippers. It seemed to me that my refusal had completely crushed his hope, though I had only encouraged him to give up his menial work. Tomorrow, I would leave to resume my task in my office.

“Will Mum go on mending her old clothing? Will Mr Bát keep on practising his ritual service at that red shrine?” I whispered to myself.

While I was packing my belongings before going to the ferry early in the morning, my mother prepared food for my trip.

“I’m going to lend some money to Mr Bát for his dream of conjuring up Hứa’s soul,” said my mother. “Can you add some more to my amount because it isn’t enough?”

I just kept silent. I did not agree, nor approve. I picked up my luggage to proceed to the landing stage.

Unexpectedly, I saw him standing at the entrance to Miss Biền’s shrine to wait for me. Seeing me coming he turned around. “Perhaps he is still angry with me,” I said to myself. “If only I had been dead at the strike of the mad buffalo, instead of Hứa, the situation might have been better because I still cherish a lot of sweet memories about him. I’m not the same person I was in the past.”  

*         *          *

A few days later, I got a phone call from the owner of the refreshment stall near our house.

“You’d better return home right now because your mother has fallen seriously ill. Yesterday she was taken to hospital,” said the message.

Packing my clothes quickly, I took a late afternoon coach to return home.

Staying in the crowded hospital without a decent place to sleep I felt exhausted. “Your mother should stay here for us to check her health further,” the GP on duty said to me. Taking advantage of these idle moments, I went back home at once to bring her some more necessities.

All of a sudden, I saw a dark figure going to and fro under the ylang-ylang tree in front of my dwelling.

“Oh dear, you’ve gone back in time,” said the figure. I breathed softly when I realised that it was Old Bát. He held my hand tightly as if he was afraid of my running away.

“What are you doing here at this hour?” I exclaimed.

“Oh, just this and that, Miss.”

Opening the door I invited him in. Not until this moment could I see his face clearly. He looked very pale and weaker than before. His back had humped noticeably. He managed to walk up the doorsteps, grasping the handrail. If he dropped the walking stick, his hands might touch the ground.

“Last night Hứa returned home again. He insisted that he was very cold and hungry,” Old Bát said to me. “Could I borrow some more money so that I might have an opportunity to talk to him?” he added. Taking pity on him I took a banknote of five hundred thousand dong out of my trouser pocket for him.

“This amount is only enough for the soul-conjuring rite for Hứa. As to the ritual service for him, let’s wait and see,” he told me.

“In my opinion, you should give up your goods-carrying work for good,” I persuaded him.

“If you’re free now, you can follow me to that sacred place at least once,’’ he said.

Feeling unable to reject his proposal, I was compelled to follow him to Miss Biền’s place. To me, the point was that his mind should be quite at ease.

*         *          *


Arriving at the hospital I saw my mother fingering her ring of beads, one after another, while staring over the window.

“My dear daughter, take me home right now. I can hardly stand the stench of this place,” she told me while I was stepping in.

“Oh no no! You can’t leave here before getting over the fever,” said the doctor on duty.

Consequently, my appointment with Mr Bát was cancelled.

To my surprise a few days later, I found him in the hospital.

“He came here to meet me, not to visit my mother.” I whispered to myself.

“Try to look after your mother until she recovers,” he advised. “As to our planned memorial service for Hứa, we may put it off for some more days. Don’t worry. I’ll wait. Maybe my unthoughtful declaration remains an obstacle to your future in terms of marriage.”

“If so, you’d better do your bit, as soon as possible,” I said to him.

*        *          *

For a long time, I had not dropped in on Mr Bát. His house was dank. Everything connected with Hứa’s possessions stayed the same. His new jacket bought on his last Tết’s eve stayed hung at the back of his bed. His large square velvet blanket for two, adorned with a gaudy peacock and folded in half, lay on the inner part of the bed and looked brand new. On the altar, Hứa’s eyes in the photo taken during Tết seemed to stare at me mournfully.

Now I had to take a nap in this house before leaving in the morning for my early work.

*         *          *

The Mê river brought pilgrims to Miss Biền’s shrine night and day. One morning Mr Bát and I joined the crowded line of worshippers. It seemed to me that we were slowly moving amid the procession of the dead.

“You mustn’t utter a word; otherwise, the soul of your relative won’t accompany you,” said the old man when we were amid the red world of everything: Old Bát’s ritual clothing, travellers’ faces, their robes, Miss Biền’s dwelling-place together with so many lanterns going from her shrine to the landing stage. Normal ideas time and space did not seem to exist in this special area.

Mr Bát and I then sat down beside Miss Biền in red, of course, swinging round and round or to and fro in the middle of the shrine while chanting her prayers like a nursery rhyme. Folding our arms over our chests according to the rhythm, now fast now slow, of her graceful movements. Suddenly, she cracked her whip onto the floor so strongly that both of us bounced up.

“Your sum is just enough for the rules of admittance, not your son’s fare across the river,” she said to my old man.

“I’ve been burning a few votive offerings for him, Lady. If they’re still insufficient, please tell me and I’ll send him some more,” insisted Mr Bát.

“Oh no no, impossible!”

“What else could I do to meet my son’s soul, Miss?”

“A sumptuous dinner to feast and make merry the souls of the dead, you see!”

“Now, next please,” stated Miss Biền.

So all the food prepared by the old man in the afternoon was useless.

He sighed. A few seconds later, we silently went straight home.

After that he never dropped in on me to tell me his dreams about encountering his son. In addition, he also gave up carrying goods for pilgrims.

“So much the better!” I said to myself. Sometimes, I saw him loitering at the market of votive offerings. He looked at some pieces of paper clothes, touched them slightly then asked the sellers about their prices before going away in defiance of their curses. One day, I found him wandering in front of Miss Biền’s temple, reckoning the costs of some items on display then getting lost in thought.

The day that my mother left hospital was also the day that the market of votive offerings burnt to the ground.

Prior to that event, he went to the market and asked some buyers for their small changes then bought a bottle of petrol. He poured it over Hứa’s old clothes that he had taken with him, including his son’s blood-stained jacket pierced by the furious buffalo that day. He snatched a dimly-lit paraffin lamp of a market stall owner then set them all on fire. From a market corner he rushed forward, tossed the burning pieces of clothing at the paper things on display. It seemed that he tried to burn all the votive offerings there to pay homage to his dead child. Nobody dared to stop him. Soon the whole market, together with the red lanterns leading to Miss Biền’s shrine, burst into flames.

I dashed straight to the place to watch the conflagration. I was told that Mr Bát had lost his life in the fire. His dead body, coal-black and curled up, was detected in the charred ruins.

A few days later, his death notice came out with only two simple words: Old Bát. His age and full name were unavailable. As an alien resident, he was regarded as a second-rate citizen. In his funeral procession no mourning head-band could be seen. There was no one standing beside his coffin to express their sympathy or gratitude. The ceremony only lasted a short afternoon without requiem.

Coming back home, I saw Mum preparing a tray full of food.

“Take it to his grave to show our respect for him,” she urged me. “He led a lonely life after his son’s death. It’s the least we can do.”

I obeyed her order with no objection.

The late afternoon sun was setting down behind the western sky.

The boats kept on carrying pilgrims across the Mê river as usual. — VNS


Translated by Văn Minh