Viet Nam News
by Hồ Anh Thái
Not only did Hốt finally manage to buy a television, it was even a colour set.
One evening his two brats went to visit their grandparents and his wife slunk off to meet her boss, the manager of the Bần Tộc government hotel. Hốt wondered why she was sneaking in and out of the house so often these days. The campaign against corruption was in full swing across the country. Maybe the two of them were covering something up.
Left alone in the house, he turned on the television and grabbed a novel. He read inattentively, listening with half an ear to the TV. His eyes swept up from the book when a fashion show came onto the screen. The models appeared to be amateurs, their movements exaggerated and artificial, their arms flapping loose. They tripped clumsily over their own feet like puppets jerked by strings. The last model was a girl in a two-piece bathing suit. She threw a clumsily seductive look at the camera, turned to display her back and turned again. Suddenly something unprecedented occurred. The model tore off her top, dropped it at her feet and began turning round and round. Hốt shouted at the screen, trying to tell her that she wasn’t in her bathroom. But it was too late. The girl had already stripped to her birthday suit. A sequence of totally nude shots followed.
Hốt couldn’t believe that television was getting so bold. He told himself to be very cautious when talking about it. The next morning, while everybody else in the office was exchanging gossip, he said casually: “That TV programme last night was quite arousing, wasn’t it?”
“It was ridiculous,” a young man quacked at Hốt. “Whenever they were about to kiss, the camera skimmed off over trees or houses or trains to avoid it. That kind of film is for pensioners and old gits.”
“Nonsense!” Diên, their general manager snapped. “Most of us only like entirely open movies—the kind where everything on the girls’ bodies is there to see. We’re too experienced and dedicated to be corrupted by such films,” he said, admonishing the younger man. “While you...If the reins are loosened too much, you’ll soon slide into debauchery.”
Hốt figured that neither the manager not his coworkers had the luck to see the programme he’d watched last night, even though they all hugged their television sets constantly and let themselves be force-fed junk movies, like a flock of hens and cocks being fattened with lumps of steamed rice before being butchered.
For the next few nights the programmes were very proper, much to his relief. After all, it wouldn’t do for parents and their children to sit together enjoying a strip tease.
But now he understood what was happening. Only on the evenings when his wife and children were out and he sat alone in the dark bedroom watching television, did that programme flare onto the screen.
And not only that one. There was also a porno film involving some pigs that contained several truly spectacular sequences.
Evidently, these programmes only were shown when he was at home alone.
Listening to Hốt’s whispered descriptions the next day, his boss Diên was skeptical.
“Really?” He flashed a sly grin. “Well, maybe I’d better come over and check it out, see if it’s true.”
That night Hốt gave his children tickets to the movies and found an excuse to drive his wife away. As soon as Diên came over, the two men went and sat in front of the television.
The pig film entranced Hốt. But when he turned to Diên to see if his boss liked it, what he saw in his living room was a goat sitting with its forelegs folded on its chest, its hind legs tapping gently with the music. Hốt screamed and rushed to the door.
“What’s the matter with you?” the goat asked in a restrained, polite manner, peering at Hốt through the old man’s wire-rimmed spectacles.
The goat still looked very much like Diên. Around its neck was the gold chain the manager usually wore and a wristwatch circled its left foreleg. The only difference was that the sparse beard on Diên’s warty chin had been replaced by a pointy goat’s beard and Diên’s clothing had been replaced by thick flaps of black and white fur.
“Why are you in this pitiful condition?” Hốt asked, gradually regaining his calm.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’ve turned into a goat.”
“What? You have the gall to say I’ve turned into a goat?”
Hốt gave him a mirror. But contrary to his expectations, the goat didn’t seem very frightened. It gazed at the mirror for a long time and even raised its fore and hind legs to examine its hooves.
Though the goat seemed to be in silent anguish, it still remained unruffled.
“Well, my life is shattered,” it sighed, returning the mirror to Hốt. “Never mind, personal affairs must not interfere with the common good. Listen, tomorrow, managers from the Construction Materials Service will visit our factory. As Chief of Planning, you’ll have to welcome them on my behalf. Try to invent a pretext for my absence.”
“I can fabricate something for them, but what can I say to your wife?”
“Don’t interrupt. Just tell her I was sent for by the minister for some urgent business tonight, before I had to catch an early flight to the south.”
“Have you decided to take refuge in my house, sir?”
“Just for a few days. Hurry up now, help me find a place to hide.”
Hốt had no choice but to lead the goat to the pig shed in the corner of the backyard. Until a short time ago, his wife had often brought leftover food from her hotel, saving the choicest courses for the humans and giving any food that was stale or rotted to the pigs.
But recently the atmosphere at the hotel had become tense and she no longer dared to bring anything home, so the shed was left vacant.
Hốt came home early the next afternoon. Making certain that his wife and children weren’t back yet, he approached the pig shed. The goat, under the impression that Hốt would come home to feed it lunch, had been waiting for him impatiently. When he finally did show up, the goat could barely keep calm.
“There you are, wasting your time boozing it up with those guys from the Construction Material Service, leaving me here to starve to death!” the goat yelled at him shrilly. “I’m almost done for.”
“But what kind of care do you need from me, sir? Isn’t the grass on my lawn enough for you?”
“Grass? For me? Are you joking? Get busy and prepare my favourite courses: pullet with lotus seeds in bain-marie; chicken chitterlings and pineapple browned in fat, some fresh bean sprouts, and a glass of lizard wine.”
“Maybe you should go home, I’m sure your beloved wife will cook those delicious foods.”
Hốt stuck out his lower lip, pouting, trying to calm down by humming a soft, soothing song to himself. “All right: I’ll buy the foods for you, sir. However...”
Hốt bent over the pointed ear and whispered that in the meeting today with the Construction Material Service, he’d like to ask for some bricks, tiles and cement to be supplied to himself under the pretext of being used for repairs to the factory day care centre.
“Impossible!” The goat sprang up onto its hind legs, vigorously waving its right foreleg. “That means taking the common property of the people for your individual benefit.”
“But didn’t you say that you’re hungry?”
“I won’t let you profit from my predicament!”
Hốt left the goat overnight with an empty stomach. Though it was almost too weak from hunger to stand, it didn’t dare bleat for help, for fear that Hốt’s wife would hear. The goat knew that if it fell into her hands, it would end up as several dishes of half-done goat meat. Unable to bear it any longer, the next morning the goat accepted Hốt’s conditions. Hốt laid out some documents he’d already prepared on a pinewood box. The goat took the pen, but sat lost in meditation for a while before it signed. It shook its head in sorrow.
“What humiliation! And just for food.”
“Everything we do is just for food, sir.”
In no time, Hốt had a heap of renovation materials for his house. Combing through his paperwork, he beat his brains trying to figure out what he could next gain from the goat by starving it.
He had not yet carried out his plans when one morning Toán, Diên’s wife, burst into the house.
“You can fool everybody but me that my husband went to the south! I’ve just met with the minister who said my husband had no urgent business he knew about. Obviously, you’re an accomplice in some affair he’s having with some bitch.”
Suddenly Hốt’s calmness struck Toán in the face like a dash of cold water. Beneath his calm she saw the chilly soul of a cold-blooded killer. She felt panic-stricken. But she was also accustomed to being loudmouthed and arrogant: whatever was on her mind flowed out uncontrollably.
“Or you killed my husband by hacking him into pieces and threw them into the pig shed, right? He was wearing his gold chain and watch and his gold-rimmed glasses.”
At the mention of those precious items, her greed and regret at their loss stoked her anger and she became fearless. She turned and rushed impetuously to the backyard, and to the pig shed.
Hốt had no time to explain or to stop her. Well, let her see, he thought. But at first, Toán couldn’t see anything in the dilapidated shed. Finally, when her eyes got used to the dim light, she stared for a long time at the goat. Suddenly she trembled.
“Is that you?” she asked pityingly. “Have you been living in this shed all this time?”
The goat didn’t answer. It bowed its head, as if admitting to a mistake. Toán noted that it still wore the gold chain, the watch and the gold-framed glasses.
Surprised, Hốt asked her: “How did you recognise him?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Seeing that Hốt was sympathetic, Toán poured out her heart. “I saw him for the first time like this on the very day he came to ask me to marry him. My parents and siblings were all full of praise for him: he was so handsome and so talented, a General Manager and barely over 30 years old. But all I saw that coming into our house that day was a sharp bearded goat, insensitive to human beings. But I was a spinster of 33, and he was my last chance. For over twenty years now we’ve shared our lives, and I always see him as he is at this moment, in this pig shed.”
The three were silent for a long while. Finally, Hốt asked:
“What are your plans now?”
“Let him stay here, take care of him for a while. I have no place to feed him in my house, and besides, we’re receiving guests from the country. I’ll provide food for him, and you’ll be paid for your trouble.”
“But you’ll have to arrange for his return as soon as possible. If my wife discovers the boss,” Hốt jerked his chin at the goat, “she’ll take him to the Bần Tộc hotel, sell him for meat.”
That evening Tóan brought a sack and they put the goat inside it and strapped it to the luggage carrier of her motorbike. Soon the goat was back in its own room, with its own table and books. Toán had carefully prepared a welcome home party for her husband, including champagne and his favourite foods.
After a glass of whiskey, the goat’s eyes grew damp and his face grave. In a choked voice, he said, “I used to have dreams. But now they’re completely shattered. You two need to start spreading a rumour that after returning from my urgent project, I was so weak I couldn’t continue working. And you, my wife, will need to file my application for retirement.”
“Why should a goat care about retirement?” Hốt asked.
“Don’t say that. My career, full of satisfaction in every respect, demands a smooth and honourable end.”
“I understand you,” his wife nodded. “We’ll need to invent a contagious disease for you, so nobody comes to check. I’ll tell human resources at your factory that you have AIDS.”
The goat sprang up in anger.
“You’ll smear my honour and prestige. A man with my reputation can’t fall back on a filthy disease like that as a reason to retire.”
Finally, Hốt and Toán settled on hepatitis and pulmonary tuberculosis. Under that pretext they would file the applications for his retirement.
Hốt came home tipsy. Nearing the house, he remembered that his two children were away this evening, attending a meeting of neighbourhood teenagers. His wife would be home alone. He wondered what kind of programme she would watch on his television.
Hốt glued his eye to the gap between the door and the wall.
The room was dyed with the pale sickly light of the television. He strained his eyes for a long time before he was able to make out a figure on the screen: a graceful man displaying his back and chest, spinning like a fashion model. Suddenly, within a second, he saw the same model parading around without a stitch on his body.
Hoi banged angrily on the door. He even threw himself against it. His wife quickly opened the door, not even deigning to switch off the television. On the screen Hốt saw the same man, with the same graceful smile, now spinning round and round and displaying new clothes. The change of sequence didn’t deceive him.
“Be careful,” Hốt scowled at his wife, “I know someone who turned into a goat by watching that kind of film.”
His wife calmly returned to her chair.
“People only say one thing turns into another,” she said firmly. “But you’re wrong; nothing changes into itself.”
Hốt stood transfixed for a few moments before he caught her meaning.
“You mean human beings are like goats?”
“No, not ‘like’. They are goats. All I see around me is a society of goats. The houses and the streets are swarming with goats. Goats riding bicycles and Honda motorbikes. Goats sitting in Toyotas.”
“Why have you never said this before?”
“Because I would have been thrown immediately into the Bò Đứng Mental Hospital. Instead, I greet the male goats as uncles and brothers. And the females as aunts and sisters. Though it’s quite different with the flocks of goats delivered each day from the suburbs to my hotel. There I slaughtered one goat, imagining it was the director general of the hotel #who didn’t give me permission to visit France, skinned and carved up another that resembled the woman from personnel who refused to hire my brother. And I prepared half-done dishes from the meat of that old bitch, the assistant manager.”
Hốt shivered. He wanted to ask his wife whether she had always felt she was sharing bed and board with a goat. But he held his tongue. Some things are best left unsaid.
* * *
After some time no one cared about the unexpected retirement of Diên due to a serious disease. It was said, though, that once a neighbour came in through the open door of the house, looking for Toán. When she didn’t see her, she proceeded to Diên’s study where she saw a bespectacled goat writing at the table. In front of the goat was a thick pile of paper, with the huge word MEMOIR written in capital letters on the top sheet. Dismayed, she rushed around the neighbourhood, spewing out what she’d seen until she was finally committed to the Bò Đứng Mental Hospital.
As for Hốt’s wife, once again she began bringing home leftover food from work, including his favourite goat meat. But every day before eating he first carefully read through the obituary notices in the newspaper. Only when he was fully confident that Toán hadn’t announced her husband’s death, only when he was certain she hadn’t sold Diên to the hotel, only then could Hốt calmly enjoy his half-cooked goat meat. VNS
Translated by Hồ Anh Thái and Wayne Karlin