Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
By Phạm Thanh Thúy
The barrel of the gun slowly touched the blonde hair. The face looked calm, the eyes closed gently, easily. Not a sound was heard when the gun opened fire.
The shining copper-coloured case of the bullet dropped weightlessly to the polished ground, bounced up a few times, then lay dead.
“What the hell is that?”
The truck driver growled and eyed Sầu’s1 mobile phone with a grudge. Sầu was watching an American action movie on his phone. A woman had been murdered by a masked killer.
“You’re still in the mood to watch movies? Good!” Sitting plumb on his seat, the driver started the truck. The vehicle roared, and then lunged forward.
Sầu put down his phone, and gently squeezed his wife’s tiny hands. Her pair of soft, warm hands that had touched him for two years. Yet she was lying quietly in sickness now, with 400 km of winding mountainside road ahead of them. She needed to get to a hospital quick. Only the most modern equipment stood a chance of saving her.
The wind whizzed around. The blue mountains floated by outside the windows. A big storm was landing. It was right behind, threatening them with a darkened, laden sky.
But for the storm, Sầu wouldn’t have had to hire this annoying truck driver and spend such a long journey holding his wife in this suffocating box on wheels.
The truck driver, who had retired from his profession, lived in a hut on the mountain and made a meagre living by raising honeybees. Sầu had heard about him: reckless, crazy, raising honeybees amateurishly by placing hives in the forest and praying for a swarm of wild ones to split and make their home there. He sold honey to only one regular customer and hardly went downtown or saw anyone. It was this customer, Huân, who advised Sầu to seek him for help. Huân said the man was a first-rate driver and knew the 400-km road from the mountain town to the capital like the palm of his hand, better than anybody else.
The road was narrow. The truck raced forward. A cliff loomed large right before them then faded away in the blink of an eye. A car darted toward them from the opposite direction. Dew-soaked tree tops seemed to have spewed up from the abyss onto the truck.
“Watch out or you’ll kill my wife!”
“You. Watch. Out,” the truck driver spoke each word distinctly.
Sầu hugged his wife tighter. The driver steered the truck to avoid hitting the oncoming car and verged towards the abyss. After the tight escape, his face remained cool, guiltless.
“You want me to speed up, don’t you? She’s dying, isn’t she?”
Sầu felt choked with resentment. Damn you! But for my wife, I wouldn’t give a shit. What the hell do you want?
The storm was fast approaching. The sky was about to burst. Flocks of wild birds flew towards safety. Animals had a better intuition than humans. They knew what was good for them.
With a heavy heart Sầu had crawled up the steps of the truck driver’s stilt house. The man was sitting by the fire. Shining black crossbows hung on the wattle wall. The small house exuded a mild sweet fragrance characteristic of first-rate wild honey.
“I’ve retired. I swore I wouldn’t drive again, ever. Go home.”
“I’ll pay you whatever you want. Just save my wife. Please!”
The driver’s eyes flared up. For such a formidable man to swear never to drive again, there must have been a tremendous reason.
“You care about your wife? Good.”
Sầu had begged. The driver had accepted. Sầu snickered. So much for his reputation. What couldn’t be bought with money could be bought with lots of money after all.
“I’ll take you two through the storm,” the truck driver said, in an unexpected subdued tone. “If I didn’t accept, what would you do?”
“I don’t know. I’d drive instead. As long as I could save her,” Sầu replied.
“Hmm. What a softie,” the driver sniggered.
Sầu looked at his wife and squeezed her cold hands. She was lying in his arms, eyes closed gently, peacefully.
“Did you drive this route for long?”Sầu asked to break the ice.
“Yes. For many years.”
The driver pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and stuck it in his mouth. Then, instead of lighting the cigarette, he withdrew it and crushed it in his hand. Sầu guessed he had touched upon some painful spot in the man’s heart. There must have been a tremendous reason for his quitting.
Sầu had opened Pandora’s box. Or maybe it wasn’t a mistake, because if the driver could start talking, the stormy journey ahead might be lightened, and he could drive with more care and accuracy.
“How long have you been married?” the man asked Sầu.
“Hmm. Too short for you to know what hell marriage is.”
The driver pulled out another cigarette and stuck it in his mouth. Sầu held his breath. Alright. So here was another victim of marriage. The man must have stopped driving and started living like a prisoner serving a life sentence in the forest, all because of women.
“Never mind. It wouldn’t be fair to bad-mouth marriage to you. As for us drivers, do you know we have a saying that for a driver, every stop is a home?”
“Yes. My father used to be a driver too.”
“Good. You do know some things. I, along this route, have at least three women who are ready to welcome me anytime.”
The man broke out in peals of laughter. Again, he crushed the unlit cigarette in his free hand.
“But I haven’t seen them for a long time,” he said. Then continued: “One misty night, as I was driving along this familiar road, something suddenly jumped right into my truck from a side brush. Fuck!
“I roared. I really wanted to strangle that damned ghost. If it wanted to commit suicide, it could jump into the abyss. Why me? As my headlight glared, the ghost stood trembling. It dazedly turned back to look at the misty pitch black darkness behind.
“I brought that ghost home and asked my wife to take care of it. A few days after, it recovered. It turned out to be a married woman, still in her youth. She said she didn’t want to go home, because her husband often got drunk and beat her.”
Sầu guessed the man and the woman had an affair after the incident.
“Right,” the driver answered, as if he had read Sầu’s mind. “The woman didn’t dare return to the forest, so I had no other choice but help her settle down in town. Then we became lovers.”
A downpour came, washing the road white in an instant. Sầu wrung his wife’s frozen hands, fearing the storm had arrived. Sweat oozed out, soaking his bald head, forehead and nape.
“It isn’t the storm, just ordinary rain,” the driver said calmly. “It often rained when I drove on this route.”
Then he went on with his story: “Shortly I’ll show you a house with a light bulb hanging on a cherry blossom tree in front. Next time if you pass by, notice that the bulb is always on.
“All of a sudden I was hospitalised. The doctor said I needed a new kidney. Damn. How could I find a donor? The woman volunteered to give one of her kidneys to me, if we matched. I’d given her a new life, so she could die for me, let alone give me a kidney.
“We matched and I had a successful transplant. After that she got tired of living in town and wanted to return to the forest, as long as she didn’t have to encounter her ex again.
“I took her back to the forest, and bought her a roadside house to make a living by selling drinks. As for me, I had two homes, my old one in town, and another on the road where I could visit her almost every day as I drove by.”
The vehicle abruptly rattled out of the rain. In an instant, the dazzling white wetness receded. A patch of sunlight blazed up in front. The storm had stopped somewhere behind the light blue mountain ranges. The driver was right; it was just a passing rain.
The truck had traversed more than 100 km. Mountains still lined up in rows. The driver sped up. Then he asked, coldly: “Do you know what it feels like to be dragged up from one abyss only to be pushed down into another?”
Nah. How the hell would Sầu know? His own life had been fine.
“I didn’t know either,” the driver continued. “That morning, I didn’t intend to visit her.”
The driver remained silent, memories dancing in his mind. The vehicle seemed to be flying. It wound around bends almost of its own accord.
“Do you remember 12 years ago, a terrible accident happened on this road? A child ran out one beautiful morning. I was sent to prison for a few years, not because I had hit the child. I was just a small smuggler. That morning, I tried to flee from the police. I couldn’t spare the child… How is your wife? Is she still alive?”
Sầu clasped his wife to his chest.
“I owe her. While I was in prison, she visited me regularly. She said whenever I got out, she would be waiting for me.”
“She didn’t wait for you, did she?” Sầu asked with sarcasm.
“I… don’t know. Huân says she’s still waiting for me.”
Again the sky darkened, heavy clouds having swiftly gathered while Sầu didn’t take heed.
“She said she would turn on a light bulb on the cherry blossom tree to signal that she would still be waiting for me.”
They came across a small waterfall pouring down from a mountainside. It might have showered heavily just a while before. The driver stopped his vehicle right under the waterfall.
Why? Did he forget that Sầu’s wife’s life was counting on him?
“I don’t remember the way,” the driver said. “It’s been a long time since I last drove here. Ah, I forgot to mention that I had a daughter with the woman. Such a beautiful girl. Incredibly beautiful.”
The truck slowly rolled out from under the waterfall. The driver had sunk into a monologue. He didn’t care if Sầu was listening.
The road suddenly brightened. The mountains on both sides moved back, making way for rice terraces that had gone through a harvest. Simple houses lined up along the road, nestling under the shade of fertile trees.
In front of every house there stood a cherry blossom tree with a deeply scarred lumpy trunk.
“Why don’t you stop for a while?” Sầu suggested, waking the driver up from his reverie. It was an extraordinary idea coming from Sầu, who only wanted to get to his destination quickly. Yet Sầu felt the gentle tremors of his wife’s heart. She seemed to have been listening to the whole story and wanted the driver to stop, to check upon the one who must be waiting for him.
The truck slowed to a halt, but didn’t steer toward the roadside. A small house stood apart from the other houses. It too had a cherry blossom tree in front. A bulb was hanging on its trunk. Oh, the light was on! The light looked feeble but wasn’t totally submerged by the sunlight.
Slowly and anxiously, the driver tiptoed on a small path covered with wild, green grass. The door was shut tight, looking old and lonely. The cold fingers of Sầu’s wife seemed to move slightly. She must have been extremely touched.
But nobody lived there anymore. The house had been abandoned. Sầu didn’t understand how the hell the light could be on though. The bulb looked new, as if it had been recently installed to replace an older one.
The driver returned to his truck. There was nothing to stop him now. He drove like a mad man. The sky gathered clouds. The storm started to chase them again.
The driver gathered his cool and drove on. The mountain ranges on two sides drew closer, exhaling a cold breath. Then darkness closed in, as though the vehicle were driving through a tunnel. After this bend they would reach the Vong Tình2 mountain pass. After the pass there wouldn’t be any more dangerous bends. There would be prosperous residential areas all the way to the city. The city. Sầu’s destination was close at hand.
The driver didn’t utter a word after he left the house with the bulb hanging on the cherry blossom tree. Sầu didn’t know what to say either. A deadly silence fell down on them. Before their eyes, the Vong Tình mountain pass was emerging from the mist.
The pass towered toward the clouds. From the top, one could see a deep valley underneath which was covered in mist all year. On sunny days, one could spot the leaves of the gigantic trees growing in the valley. Every day people who drove by would stop to take pictures and eat food sold in roadside huts.
The truck turned abruptly and stopped in front of the huts. The winds swirled, exuding cold steam. The sky was soaked with moisture. The huts were empty, their torn canvasses flapping in the winds. Everybody must have run home to avoid the storm.
Sầu was 100 km away from his destination.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Sầu shouted.
“You know what? That morning, when I was racing like crazy to escape the police, a child ran into my truck. I couldn’t avoid hitting her. It was my daughter. She must have run out to greet me like she did every day…”
“To hell with you and your daughter. Drive on now!”
“I don’t want to. I’ve quit driving. What are you going to do to me?”
Sầu ground his teeth and pointed a gun against the driver’s salt and pepper hair. The driver’s face looked cold, his eyes revealing tiny bloody veins.
“You think I’m stupid? Your wife is stone-dead. For all I know, you may have killed her, sewn heroine into her body and need to deliver her to your client.”
Sầu sneered and pressed the gun against the driver’s head. The driver cracked and pressed on the pedal. The truck sprang forward.
The driver slowly turned the wheel. The Vong Tình mountain pass jerked forward. Sầu felt as if he was being thrown into empty space. An eerie smile seemed to break out on his dead wife’s lips.
Not a sound was heard as Sầu fired his gun. The shining copper-coloured case of the bullet fell. Sharp broken pieces from the truck’s window shot toward Sầu’s face. The watery sky burst. Thousands of transparent drops crashed down on the deep green valley. Very quick, the rain covered Sầu in a cold embrace./.
1“Sầu” means melancholy in Vietnamese.
2Vong Tình means the ghost of love.
Translated by Đỗ Linh