|Illustration by Do Dung|
by Vu Thi Hanh
Vung became a notorious young man unexpectedly. One day, he became the talk of the town. Everybody knew his name: Mrs. Lai, a charcoal dealer, Mrs. Luu, a rice wine seller, Mr Nheo, an elderly drunk – even the electricity and water bill collector. Wherever he went, he was welcomed with suspicious looks, pursed lips and shaking heads. The atmosphere at home was just as mournful. His wife looked heartbroken. Strangely, she began wearing a gauze mask whenever she went out. His two reckless sons just played in the family courtyard. The neighbouring kids were prohibited from joining their games for fear that they might be contaminated with the family’s wickedness. Consequently, he just sat alone at home, smoking and smoking. Sometimes he stared at the ceiling. Meanwhile, a great deal of rumours concerning his weird actions echoed to his place from outside.
Coming home, his once-talkative spouse took off her shoes, stockings, scarf and gauze mask without looking at him or saying a word to him, then went straight into the kitchen.
“You aren’t going to the market today, are you?” he asked her.
She said nothing.
“You’re deaf today, are you?”
“You go shopping instead and leave me alone.”
He heaved a sigh. It would be much better for him if she nagged him as usual.
“If I went shopping, what would the children have to eat?” he asked.
Again, she kept silent. In response to his question there was only the noise coming from the bathroom. He felt utterly annoyed. Standing up, he seized the bunch of keys from the hook and took his shirt from where it hung on the chair. After that he opened the gate and drove away on his rattling motorbike.
Now it was twilight. Swarms of insects flew round and round. Many of them darted at his face. “Damn you nasty creatures!” he cursed, rubbing his eyes.
In the street, passengers suffered a lot of annoyances: dust, traffic jams, bustling crowds.
“Brother Vung, give me a lift to the crossroads, please,” said a young girl.
“Sorry! It’s my day off,” he answered, shaking his head. “Besides, without a helmet, giving you a ride would be illegal and very dangerous. What’s more, these days policemen monitor traffic very carefully. At the crossroads, a lot of motorbike drivers have been fined. Yesterday I saw an old man fall off his bike after being hit by a reckless young rider.”
“What! You’re not making much money today, is that it?” she responded.
“No, not exactly! I’ve got another job to do, that’s all. Goodbye.”
He hurried away in confusion and weariness. “Where to go?” he asked himself. What he really needed now was his mind to be at ease – or better still, a way out.
Three days earlier, while he was standing at the hospital gate with his motorbike to wait for passengers, a stout middle-aged man in black spectacles with short hair and stylish clothes came up to him.
“Do you carry goods, mate?” he asked Vung.
“OK, just a minute please,” he told him, then walked away.
A few minutes later, he returned with a large box of sponges. He gave him a name card with an address and phone number and paid in advance.
Vung tied the box on his luggage carrier and drove away.
Over the past ten years, his days had been the same. Early every morning, he transported boxes of fresh fruit from the main market to minor dealers in smaller places. In the afternoon, he waited for passengers in front of a nearby hospital. As a self-employed man, all he wanted was to earn money, the more the better, to provide for his family.
That day, after spending an hour with the heavy box strapped to his motorbike in search of the destination, he couldn’t find it. He called the number given him several times, but there was no answer, except for the same reply from a switch-box operator: “Sorry, that subscriber is not available.”
Angry, he cursed the sender mercilessly. Under the scorching noontime sun, he stopped the vehicle on an asphalt road near a cemetery, where a few dwellings lay scattered at the foot of a hill. There he found a small shop where there were numerous yellow – and red-painted coffins and piles of ceramic sarcophaguses on display. He felt a little nervous and very hungry and thirsty. Never in his lifetime had he been placed in this awkward situation. Usually, everything was smooth sailing – or could easily be fixed with a phone call. But the address in his hand was false and the number did not work. Worse still, he wouldn’t be able to find the sender. He flew into a rage. On second glance, that sender’s actions were quite strange. Finally, he stared at the box suspiciously. It was tied up tightly. “Why is the address false? What’s more, why have I ended up with it?” he asked himself.
He took the box down and put it on the ground, then slowly tore off the sticky cellotape. A cold wind wafted up to his face. Inside the box, he saw three small things wrapped in thin blood-stained towels. Stupefied, he closed the box at once. Goosebumps burst across his entire body. Three infant bodies were inside the box. His body felt damp with sweat. He was stunned for a few seconds. After that he placed the box onto the motorbike again and madly drove away. Going back to the hospital gate, he took it upstairs to the obstetrical department with a view to looking for the nasty guy who had entrusted him with that horrible box. The long corridor stretched from the consulting hall to the patients’ rooms. After going from Section A to Section B to Section C, he was dead tired and the ruffian was nowhere to be found. At last he sat down on a bench at the end of the corridor, breathing heavily.
“How stupid I am!” he exclaimed. “Why did I take charge of this deadly box for a few dirty banknotes?”
Eventually, he took the box out of the hospital in bewilderment. After smoking a few cigarettes to regain his composure, he went to a nearby dump. Putting the box on the ground, he shot away on his motorbike as fast as possible. When he had covered a long section of road, he suddenly realised that his fingerprints were on the lid of the box. As a result, he would be interrogated by the police when the ill-fated infants were examined before their cremation.
Repentant, he returned to the dump to find the box, with its smelly contents, lying lonely on the grass under the scorching sun. Nevertheless, he picked up the box and placed it on his vehicle again.
“Poor little things! How could I have the heart to let you rot here?” he whispered to the bodies. So saying, he carried the box uphill, elbowing his way through high wild plants and bushes. Then he began digging a large hole for them all in a hurry for fear that his kindness might be misunderstood. Finishing the common grave, he prayed to God that the babies might have a peaceful rest.
“My dear kids, I’ve done my best. I hope that from now on no grudge will be borne to anyone and your souls will be free from suffering and be blessed to the utmost.”
All of a sudden, he heard lots of footsteps coming from afar, together with the barks of a dog. Immediately, he crawled downhill through the thick bushes. At last, he got home, exhausted. Consequently, that night he had a high fever and fell into a nightmare. In his dream he saw the babies’ eyes rolling downhill and he tried to pick them up. But the faster he ran, the more quickly they went down, leaving bright red drops of blood on the grass. His wife hurriedly put a few painkillers into his mouth. In half an hour, he fell into a deep sleep. When he regained consciousness, he kept mum about his tragic case.
The next day, when he felt mostly recovered, he heard many noises from his neighbourhood. Staring through the green canopy, he saw a group of women chatting and looking at his house. He had a presentiment that something bad was going to happen to him. He hurried uphill. To his surprise, the grave had been partly dug up. He sat down in tears. “Where is one of the bodies?” he asked himself. He felt greatly sinful: he had caused this wrongdoing. If he had made the grave deeper and heaped on the earth much higher and more carefully, this lamentable situation would not have taken place.
“You’re caught red-handed.” A strange voice resounded behind him. He turned back. A group of people, including the commune chief and a lot of women and kids, was approaching. They looked angry, as if they wanted to seize him and tear him into pieces.
“Explain this to us, will you? What have you done here?” asked the local notable.
He was speechless.
“Who hired you to do this nasty job?” the notable asked. “How much did you earn from the boss to bury the kids?”
He remained silent. In his mind a wild animal’s sharp and pointed teeth were tearing up the bleeding body and swallowing it in pieces, one after another.
“Who hired you to carry out this job?” the chief asked him once more.
“Nobody! I did it myself,” Vung replied in a choked voice, while looking at the horrible large hole.
“Were you mad? Why didn’t you bury them right in your courtyard, instead of on this hill?” Mrs. Theu demanded.
“This hill doesn’t belong to you at all,” he retorted.
“How can you say that? Clearly, it doesn’t belong to anyone, but you still can’t bring such a bad influence to our community. Surely, a lot of villagers would be terribly haunted by ghosts,” the chief blurted out.
“There are no ghosts here. Have you ever seen any? Can you describe one in detail for me? Sheer nonsense!” Vung snapped.
At once the village notable snatched Vung’s shirt collar. Luckily, the two men were quickly separated by the crowd.
“This hill can’t be soiled without consequences,” echoed an old man’s serious voice.
“Quite right!” chimed in lots of others.
Vung stared furiously at the crowd.
“One body has been unearthed and taken away,” he said. “I myself have done nothing wrong. So I’m afraid of nothing.” In a minute, he had elbowed his way through the crowd safe and sound.
“Stop, Mr Vung,” ordered the chief.
All Vung could do now was to cry loudly and writhe in agony, instead of disclosing the nasty cheat. “If I told them the truth, would they sympathise with me?” he thought. “After that they would look at me with their angry, scornful and disgusting eyes. Damn the deceased children’s wicked parents for cruelly depriving them of their lives and leaving me ashamed.” He walked away slowly. In his mind’s eye, he saw their torn bodies. He found it difficult to breathe.
The next morning, he was summoned to the seat of the local authorities for an ad hoc meeting of the residents of the street. There were numerous participants, including several strange lookers-on.
Before he left home, his wife said to him in a sulky voice, “It’s up to you to solve the problem. The authorities plan to make a village path that we’d be forbidden to use.”
“What did they tell you?” he asked her.
“They told me that if we shared the path, you would be likely to bring in more ghosts, so they wouldn’t be able to live a peaceful life,” she said.
“Did you clarify the matter?” he asked.
“I gave it up,” she replied sadly.
He felt dumbfounded. “Will I be expelled from this locality? In the end, what am I, a Good Samaritan or a criminal?” he whispered to himself.
Finally, he consoled his wife, “Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. As for you, couldn’t you just believe in me?”
She replied with a sigh.
When many criticised him with rude expressions, he just sat silently in place, without correcting them. At last, the chief gave Vung a pre-written statement with a promise that he would never relapse into error. He read it perfunctorily, then stood up.
“I can’t sign this document, because it’s untrue,” he said solemnly. “I didn’t bury the deceased babies for money. Believe it or not – it’s up to you. I was hired to carry the box to an address without any explanation. When I realised that I had been taken in, I was compelled to bury the poor babies.”
“Your statement sounds false. Previously, you said that you did the job by yourself without any orders from anyone. Now you’re saying that you were cheated. Which one is right?” said one of the participants.
“No more lies! I’ll give you a choice: sign here, or we’ll put the bodies in another place,” said the chief. “It’s up to you to decide.”
Vung sat down. At the moment, he could only yield. He was not bold enough to cause further damage to the remaining bodies. Keeping silent for a few minutes, he put down his signature on the paper and quietly went away.
When darkness began to cover the area, he looked in the direction of the hill. “Have the unfortunate infants slept well?” he asked himself, whispering aloud: “Poor little things, are you still suffering?”
He stepped into a small shop to get some bundles of joss-sticks and a few joss-paper things. Using the dim light of his mobile phone to light the way, he walked uphill. After burning the joss-sticks and the votive offerings, he bowed his head in front of the grave and prayed.
“Please forgive us adults, my dear children,” he said to them for the last time. In the flickering flames he saw two little angels slowly soaring up with lovable smiles. Suddenly, the third one appeared and joined them. They all came and perched on his outstretched arms for a few seconds, then flew upwards. Soon they vanished in the dark.
“Surely, they are making for paradise,” he whispered to himself with a broad smile.
Translated by Van Minh
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