The Breezes of Hua Tat

The Breezes of Hua Tat

In the North West region there was a small village populated by the minority black Thai, and lying about one mile from the foot of Chieng Dong Pass.  The village was called Hua Tat.

Hua Tat village was located in a long and narrow valley, surrounded on all sides by high mountains.  At one end of the valley was a small pond, the water of which never ran dry.  At autumn time, wild yellow chrysanthemums bloomed around the pond, the colour of which dazzled your eyes.

One could leave by many different ways from the valley of Hua Tat.  The main route was covered with small stones and just wide enough for a water-buffalo to pass through.  Both sides of this route were lined with bamboo, mangosteen, mango trees and hundreds of types of climbers the names of which were unknown.  The footprints of many people were imprinted on this road, amongst these reportedly being, those of an emperor.  Hua Tat valley received little sunshine,  so all year round there was a kind of haze hanging over the village which caused people and animals to become blurred images the eyesight.  This created a kind of mystical atmosphere.

At Hua Tat old stories were told in every little nook and cranny, in much the same way as the small yellow wild flowers grow.  It was believed that if a man held this kind of wild flower in his mouth whilst drinking, he would never get drunk.  This flower was much like the small white pebble streaked with red lines as fine as thread, which lay hidden at the bottom of the stream.  Women liked the pebbles.  They took them home and put them in their camisoles for a hundred days.  When they made their husbands’ beds they hid the pebbles in the bedding.  There existed an old wives’ tale which said that when a husband had lain on such a bed he would never think of other women.

Hua Tat was a small, isolated village and the village people led a simple but honest life.  The farm work was arduous and tiring, as was the hunting; however, the people were always very gracious and hospitable.

When arriving in Hua Tat, a visitor would be invited to sit by the fireside, and to drink alcohol from an animal horn whilst eating the dried meat of jungle animals.  If a visitor was a fair and honest person, the host would offer to tell an old story.  Possibly many of these stories recounted human hardships, but because we understood about those hardships, it evoked in us a clear sense of morality, forgiveness and human compassion.

Nowadays, the characters of these old stories live no longer.  At Hua Tat they have become as dust and ashes.  However, their spirits are still lingering around the totems on the roofs of the huts.  They are like as the breezes.

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The tiger’s heart

There was once a girl named Pua who lived in Hua Tat village.  Her beauty was unsurpassed throughout all the other villages.  Her skin was as white as alabaster, her hair was long and smooth and her lips were red as cherries.  The only problem was that Pua was paralysed from the waist down, so all the year round she was confined to one place only.

When this story took place Pua was 16 years old.  At this age she was considered to be at threshold of the discovery of romance–in the Spring of her life.  One may have many romances, but a girl can experience Spring only once in a lifetime.  At the age of 16, it is considered to be the beginning of Spring for someone, but when one turns 19, that is when Autumn is believed to have set in.

Spring at Hua Tat was filled with the sounds of music from bamboo pipes which enveloped the surroundings of the village girls’ houses.  The grass below the stairs leading to the huts could not grow.  In its place lay a flattened silvery coloured area of earth.  At the stairs of Pua’s hut there was no music because nobody wanted to take a girl who was paralysed as his wife.  Men took pity on her, even children pitied her.  People prayed that the evil spirits would leave her body, and they searched to no avail for a cure for her affliction.  Her legs remained lifeless.

That year Hua Tat endured an horrific winter.  The weather went berserk.  Trees and plants dried out, withered and died because of the extreme frosts.  Water froze into ice.  That winter, in the jungles of Hua Tat, there appeared a fierce tiger who stalked around the village all day and night.  The village became deserted.  Nobody dared to go into the fields and terraces to work.  In the evenings the bottoms of the staircases leading to the huts were barricaded with thorny branches and doors were tightly shut.  In the mornings, the footprints of the tiger could be seen around every hut.  The whole village lived in a constant state of fear.

It was rumoured that the tiger had an extraordinary heart.  Its heart was thought to be as small as a pebble and transparent in colour.  The heart was also considered to be a magic charm as well as a miracle drug, for whoever received that heart, would be blessed with good luck and wealth all their life.  That heart, if preserved in alcohol, would be able to cure all fatal diseases.  Surely if this drug were to be taken by Pua it would cure her paralysis.

Rumours quickly spread, like a bird on the wing, throughout the valley.  In the kitchen, by the fireside, by the water’s edge and streams, in the fields and on the terraces, everywhere, people talked about this tiger’s heart.  Rumours spread as far as the lowlands where the Kinh people lived, and to the top of the high mountain abodes of the H’mong people.  Rumours that come from simple-minded people, strangely enough, are more amusing than those which would usually only be expected of worldly people.

Many people hunted the tiger.  Amongst these were the Thais, the Kinhs and the H’mongs.  Some people wanted to hunt it for its heart to use as a magic charm, whilst others wanted the heart as a cure for disease.  How could you blame them?  In one’s life, who has never once sought to pursue a dream?  Among the hordes of hunters, the largest group were the young men of Hua Tat village.  They wanted to capture the tiger’s heart in order to cure Pua.  The tiger hunt lasted till near the end of winter, however, as if there was something supernatural, the cunning tiger knew how to avoid ambushes.  The true fact was that the hunters themselves were being hunted by the tiger.  More than ten people were killed by the ferocious tiger and the sound of people’s moaning mixed with the howling of the wind, lingered throughout the village.  People gradually became discouraged.  The number of hunters diminished as fast as ripe fruit falls from a tree, until finally, only one hunter was left.  That was Kho.

Kho was a young man from Hua Tat village, an orphan living like “con dim’– an animal who lives in isolation avoiding human contact.  Kho never took part in any village gatherings or festivals, partly because he was poor, and partly because he knew that he was ugly.  He had once had chicken-pox and his face was covered entirely in pock marks.  His body was deformed, in that his arms reached down to his knees, and his legs were spindly.  He was always hurrying, just like “con dim’, who is known never to walk, but always to run.

When the villagers knew that Kho had joined the hunt, many were astonished.  They were even more astonished when, they found that Kho was going to hunt the tiger, not for the sake of the magic charm of its heart which would bring good luck to him alone, but for a cure for Pua.  Every nightfall they saw Kho standing furtively at the foot of the stairs to Pua’s hut with a forlorn love-sick look on his face.

Hua Tat villagers did not know where Kho was looking for signs of the tiger.  Neither did the tiger know where to look for signs of an “animal’ like Kho.  The tiger knew of the danger, so he changed his lairs and his trails.  Kho and the tiger stalked each other hour by hour.

One night, when people were sitting on the floor of Pua’s hut, telling stories, they heard the sound of a gunshot.  The noise resounded like a clap of thunder.  There was an ear-splitting roar from a tiger which echoed throughout the mountains.  The tiger was dead!  Kho had killed the tiger, for sure!  The whole village was panic-stricken, and a hustling and a bustling arose, like a storm in a jungle.  People yelled with excitement and many of them cried out aloud, with tears in their eyes.  The young men of the village lit their torches  and went into the jungle to look for Kho.

However, they did not find Kho and the tiger’s body till it was nearly dawn.  Both of them had fallen down a steep abyss near the stream.  Kho had broken his back and his face was covered in the tiger’s claw marks, whilst the tiger had been shot through the head.  The bullet had torn off most of the tiger’s forehead, and continued through to his brain.

However, the strangest thing was that the tiger’s chest had been slashed open and his heart was longer there.  The cut made by the knife was still fresh, and the blood covering both sides of the cut was dripping continuously and bubbling.  Someone had stolen the tiger”s heart!  All the young men of Hua Tat village grew silent, their heads bowed low for they were angry and bitter.  More than ten people had been killed during the Winter because of this ferocious animal, and now two more people were dead because of the tiger.  That was Pua as well as Kho.

The people of Hua Tat village buried the tiger on the spot where he was killed.  Nobody ever spoke of the miracle of the tiger”s heart.  They forgot about it just as they had forgotten many other distressing things that had happened in the world.  This was how it was!  Nowadays, very few people remember this story.

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The biggest beast of all

Those days in Hua Tat there lived a family, but the people were unaware from which village they had come.  They built their house on the outskirts of the village near the mysterious jungle.  Only an elderly couple lived in the house and everywhere they went, they were inseparable.  The wife was always quiet and unassuming, never saying a word all day.  The husband was tall and skinny with a miserable look on his face, and his nose was like the beak of a bird.  His eyes were hollow and glazed, and glowed with a cold and fearful burning.  The husband was also a skilful hunter, and with a rifle in his hand, jungle birds and animals rarely escaped death.  His rifle seemed to have a will of its own.  At the back of his house, feathers from birds, and bones from dead animals piled up.  The piles of strewn bird feathers looked as black as Indian ink, whilst the piles of chalk-white animal bones were mottled with traces of smelly yellowish-coloured fluid.  These piles were as huge as a grave.  The old hunter was like the God of Death of the jungle.  Birds and jungle animals feared him and the hunters of Hua Tat were both jealous and angry with him, for he did not spare any animal within range of his rifle.  Someone even said that he had seen with his very own eyes, the old hunter kill a dancing peacock.

The story went that the dancing peacock had a head gracefully arched like a blade of paddy-rice, its tail displayed in a half-circle of myriad hues, and the rays of the sun reflected the fire-light glittering like gold from its feathers.  It cleverly moved around with circular motions.  Only love could have prompted it to move in such a delicate and precise fashion.  The dancing peacock had been alive, and then, “bang’! the rifle jerked, spouting a tongue of red fire.  The peacock collapsed, its wings coloured with the five colours of the rainbow were saturated in blood.  Then the hunter’s wife had arrived with her dark, dried-up, skinny body, and had silently picked up the peacock and put it into the basket strapped to her back.

However, all his life the old man only hunted the everyday birds and beasts of the jungle.  He had never hunted down any beast weighing three tonnes or more.  His rifle had only shot small dumb animals, and this aggravated, as well as upset him.

All of the village people of Hua Tat shunned them.  Nobody associated with them or wished to talk to the couple, and if they crossed their path, the villagers automatically turned away to avoid meeting them.  Because of this the old hunter, together with his unassuming wife, lived a lonely life.

By the end of the year, the jungle was almost devoid of foliage, birds disappeared and hid themselves, and there were no traces of any animals whatsoever in the jungle.  Never before had the people of Hua Tat experienced such a difficult time, and it was even rumoured that Heaven was punishing them.

The old hunter also experienced difficulty in seeking food.  His wife wandered in and out of the jungle.  It was the first time in his life that he had found himself in such a situation.  During the first three phases of the moon, his rifle had never been fired.  The old man arose when the cock crowed, set off armed with his rifle, and did not return until it was completely dark.  His elderly wife no longer had enough strength to accompany her husband.  So she stayed home by the fire and waited for him.  The flame of the fire that she kindled seemed as if it was possessed by a ghost, for it did not glow red, but burnt with a pale blue light like the eyes of a wolf.

On this particular occasion, the old man had been away the whole week.  He was exhausted, and his knees were sagging with fatigue.  His muscles were flabby to such an extent that when he pinched them it felt as if he was pinching blood-sucking leeches.  He had to drag himself around painfully, but could find nothing; not even a tiny bird nor a butterfly.  He was bewildered and panic-stricken.  Was this Heaven punishing the world, as had been rumoured by the people?

Eventually, the exhausted old man dragged himself home and as he approached the stream on the outskirts of the village, he stopped and looked towards the direction of his home.  There was the fire-glow, burning pale-blue in colour.  He thought that his wife would still be awake, waiting up for him.  He tightly closed his glazed and hollow eyes and for a short time he reflected on this, then he decided to return to the jungle.  His nose had sensed the scent of an animal.  Luck was really with him this time!  He sighted the animal.  It was the peacock dancing, its legs moving delicately towards the right, its tail fanning into a circle towards the left.  The bright emerald green colour on the tuft of its head was so glorious!  The old man raised his rifle and “bang’!  The shot rang out.  He heard a high-pitched cry, and he rushed towards the fallen beast.  It was his wife!  She had gone into the jungle to wait for him.  She was still holding a clutch of peacock feathers in her hand.  The old hunter lay down on his stomach with his face buried in the pools of blood which were flowing on to the rotting vegetation, the smell of which was nauseating, like the stench of a dead rat.  He cried out suddenly in despair, like the cry of a wild boar and lay there for a long time.  Black clouds descended and the forest darkened and became as hot as someone with a fever.  Near dawn, the old man sprung up, as quickly as a gibbon, for he had conceived an idea to use his wife’s body as prey to hunt for the biggest beast he had ever caught in his life.  He lay in the bushes at arm’s length from his wife’s decomposing body, waiting  in agony, but Heaven had punished him, for no beast came.  Only Death came to him!

Three days later people dragged his hunched-up corpse from the bushes.  A trace of a bullet-hole was on his forehead.  At last he had gunned down the biggest beast in his life.

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A woman called Bua

At Hua Tat there was an extraordinary woman called Lo Thi Bua.  When she walked out in the streets nobody greeted her. People would say: “She is an evil witch.  Don’t get close to her!’  Mothers warned their children against her and wives gave warnings to their husbands.  Bua was a charming woman.  She was tall and well-built with strong hips and a firm body.  Her breasts were smooth and well-developed.  She always smiled and was full of life with a radiance that attracted people to her.

She lived alone with her nine children, however, nobody knew who the fathers of the children were.  Even Bua herself did not really know who her children’s fathers were .  At times many men had lived with her, but in the end they dumped her.  Youths, with the smell of mothers’ milk still on their breath, and lacking experience as fathers, older, more experienced men, brave hunters and penny-pinching men. Each came into her life in many different ways, and when they left, they did so again in many different ways.  With regard to romance, the male sex is usually crafty and irresponsible, whilst the female is often too trusting and devoted.  Bua welcomed all the men who came to her and was also indifferent when they left her.  Her fatherless children were raised solely by Bua, for Bua had no strong attachment or connection to any men in the village.  She lived in a way which showed that she had nothing to hide.  Whether she cared about what people said or not, who knows?

Her large family lived happily, harmoniously, and in poverty.  Women in the village  became incensed and they often sneered and screamed abuse at her.  However, deep down they were frightened because the men in the village joked about their lust for her.  They sat around the fireplaces, their eyes grew bright and sparkling, and drooled about the thought of her.

At Hua Tat everyone led a normal family life according to tradition.  A wife had a husband, children had a father.  Indeed, there had never been such a weird family situation as Bua’s.  A wife without a husband, children without a father, and nine children who didn’t even resemble anyone or even each other.  Evil rumours spread like an epidemic throughout the village. The gossiping of the women spread quickly, like chicken fever through a fowl-yard.  The women regarded these rumours more seriously than the men, so they forced the men to try and find a solution to this situation.  In other words, the men were obliged to either ask Bua to leave, or the women would find out who the fathers of the children were.  How could such a family be allowed to stay within Hua Tat?  These children would become young adults, both male and female, and they would break with all the old traditions.  There were many times that the men in Hua Tat village tried to hold a meeting, but it was to no avail.  Many a man felt guilty for having been part of it, and their conscience pricked them.  They did not dare to publicly admit to fathering the children.  They were scared that their naive and faithful wives would spread the true story; and felt that this would be even worse than living a poverty-stricken life.

That year, nobody knew why, but in the jungles of Hua Tat, countless numbers of yams sprung up and the people were able to dig up huge roots without any effort at all.

When cooked, these yam roots became crumbly in texture with a sweet aroma and a rich taste, and on eating them one was left with a lingering piquant taste on the palate which was very satisfying.  Bua and her children flocked to the place where the yams were growing, for the jungle was generous and welcomed everyone with open arms.

One day, after following the growth pattern of one particularly large root, Bua and her children dug up a chipped porcelain jar, the colour of which, because of its great age, resembled the skin-colour of an eel.  Bua scraped a layer of dirt away from the mouth of the jar, and was surprised to find that the jar was full of glittering gold and silver ingots.  Bua trembled and shook with excitement, she felt weak in the knees, and tears of joy welled up in her eyes.  Her children rushed to surround her, looking in fear at their mother. Suddenly, in an instant, this poverty-striken woman who had been looked down upon by all, became the richest woman in the village.

The planned meeting of the men of Hua Tat village to discuss Bua was no longer necessary.  Men, one by one, readily came to Bua’s hut to admit to fathering her children.  The naive and faithful wives urged their husbands to go and accept their children and bring them home.  It turned out there were not just nine fathers, nor even twenty.  As many as fifty men came.  However, Bua did not recognise any of these men as the fathers of her children, but they came, and when they did, all received a present to keep their good wives happy.

At the end of that year, Bua married a gentle widower who was a hunter and was also childless.  Perhaps this was finally her true love, because she shed tears of joy and happiness on her wedding-night.  She had never felt the same with other men.

Bua should have given birth to another child, her tenth, to her true husband, but this woman was not accustomed to giving birth amidst wealth, and in the traditional way.  She unfortunately died in childbirth lying amidst cosy, comfortable piles of blankets.

The whole community of Hua Tat attended her funeral, men, women and children alike.  They finally had forgiven her, and perhaps, she too forgave them.

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A most amusing dance-party

Ha Thi E was the oldest daughter of the village chief, Ha Van No.  Rarely was anyone as beautiful as E.  She had an hour-glass figure.  Her eyes twinkled like the stars above and her voice was soft, so that when she laughed her laughter was light and carefree.  E was beautiful, there was no doubt, but her virtue was also unsurpassed.  She was the pride of the villagers of Hua Tat, and the whole village hoped that she would one day find a worthy suitor.  So did the village chief Ha Van No, and also the village elders.  To give a beautiful girl such as E to an unworthy suitor, would be an offence to Heaven, because she was Heaven’s gift to the village of Hua Tat.  Who would be chosen?  People openly brought up and discussed the topic of choosing E’s husband at village meetings.  Those who wished to become Chief Ha Van No’s son-in-law were many.  There were the young men from Hua Tat village, as well as other young men from outside the village.  The elders of Hua Tat village stayed up all night drinking at least five jars of liquor, then they decided to hold a contest to choose someone who had honourable characteristics, even though this might prove to be a most difficult.  Who would be able to fulfil all these virtues?  Men gathered around fireplaces to discuss this and no one really knew how much meat and alcohol was “downed’.  It seems the younger generation nowadays cannot make a decision without drinking alcohol, instead of just plain water.

One day a young man who looked very impressive came to talk to the village chief and the elders, “Bravery is the most precious but the most difficult virtue to find.  I’m the one with this virtue.’

“Prove it then’, the chief of the village said.

The man went into the jungle and returned in the late afternoon carrying  across his shoulders a wild boar which he had killed.  The beast weighed more than 100 kilograms, and its hair was coarse and spiky like a porcupine.  It was already dead, but its bloodshot eyes still showed its final rage.  He dropped the beast to the floor of the hut, his eyes were radiant and his body was surrounded  in an aura.  Everybody heaped praise on him.

The village chief asked his daughter, “You see, this man is brave indeed. He has proved himself to have the virtue of bravery.’

E smiled.  Her heart skipped a beat when she looked into the courageous eyes of her suitor.  There was fire in those eyes.  But as clever as she was, E knew that brave people are pre-occupied only with what they themselves can achieve in life.

E replied, “Quite right, my father!  This man has proved his courage.  That virtue is really precious, but father, that virtue is not difficult to find because it only took him from early morning till this afternoon to prove it.’

The elders nodded their heads in agreement to what E said.  The boar was slaughtered and the whole village danced all night in celebration of this precious but not difficult to find virtue.

Another time there was a young man who looked bright and intelligent, and who came to talk to the chief and the elders of the village: “Wisdom is the most precious virtue, but also the most difficult to find.  I am the one that has this virtue.’

“Prove it then’, said the elders to the young man.

The young man went into the jungle.  In the afternoon, upon his return he brought back a pair of live otters.  Otters are the wiliest animals in the jungle, for they are very cunning. and to trap them is a feat that is beyond most people.  The young man smiled, his eyes were shining and his body was surrounded  in an aura.  Everybody praised him.

The village chief said to his daughter, “You see, this man is clever indeed.  He has proved himself to have the virtue of wisdom.’

E smiled. Once again her heart skipped a beat. The suitor’s eyes were fiery and stormy. But clever people will always suffer hardship and even misfortune, and they know too much.

E replied, “This man has proved his precious virtue, but father, that virtue is probably not difficult to find because it only took him from early morning till this afternoon to prove it.’

The elders nodded in agreement.  They agreed to what E said.  The otters were slaughtered and the whole village danced all night in celebration of this precious but not-difficult-to-find virtue, for all honest young men in the jungle need this virtue.

Another time, there appeared a burly young man riding on horseback into the village.  This young man said:  “Wealth is a most precious virtue, but it is most difficult to find.  I am a wealthy man.’ He then threw numerous pieces of gold and silver on the ground.  People were dazzled at the sight.  The village chief and the elders sat in silence, because they had never before seen a man as rich as this.

“Wealth is something you do not need to prove!’, said the burly young man.

The village elders nodded in agreement and so did the village chief.  The burly young man smiled but his eyes were stormy and fiery, and full of darkness.  His body was surrounded  in an aura.

The village chief asked E:  “Well, my daughter, is wealth the most precious but most difficult virtue to find?’  “Difficult to find, yes.’  E replied.  “Wealth is not a virtue, but deceitfulness is.  One cannot be rich without being deceitful.’

The village elders burst out laughing, then they arranged an all-night party and entertained the man.

At last, a young man from Hua Tat village came to see the village chief and the elders.  He was called Hac, an orphan, the most brilliant hunter in the village.  Hac said to everyone: “Honesty is the most precious virtue, but it is most difficult to find. I am the one that has this virtue.’

“Prove it then’,  everybody said.  Hac replied: “Honesty is not like a silver necklace that can be displayed and touched by everyone.’  People started to talk about this noisily and animatedly and the village chief became enraged, his face was red with anger.

“You must prove it!’,  the village chief screamed out.  He had noticed E’s eyes looking lovingly at Hac. ‘Who would believe someone like you? Who said that you have the virtue of honesty?’, the village chief asked.

“Heaven knows!’ replied Hac. ‘I know it too!’  E said solemnly.

“You fools!’, the village chief roared.  He looked to the village elders for support.  He knew that elderly people always look for the simple solutions to every problem in life.  Finally, one of the village elders said to Hac: “Let’s pray to Heaven then!’ At present there is a drought.  All the water sources from the mountains have run dry.  If you really are honest, pray to Heaven for rain.’

The following afternoon, the Hua Tat villagers set up an altar in order to pray for rain.  The atmosphere was sultry and stuffy.  Hac stpped up to the altar solemnly looking to the sky and said: “I live an honest life, although I know that being honest can often cause you to suffer and be disadvantaged.  However, if honesty can gain forgiveness for sins and bring love to all the world, please, Heaven, let the rain pour down.’

At the time, the sky was clear and the air was still.  Suddenly, as if from far away, an unexpected gust of wind blew up.  All the treetops in the jungle rustled and small whirlwinds sprung up at ground level.  In the afternoon, the sky was full of clouds, and at nightfall, rain came tumbling down.

Then the village people danced nearly all week to celebrate the wedding of Hac and E, the village chief’s daughter.

This was the happiest party of all at Hua Tat village.  The whole village was staggering drunk and even every house pole, and every tree in the garden was invited to drink a large horn of liquor.

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The wolf’s revenge

At Hua Tat there was a family with the surname of Hoang.  They were a family of hunters.  When it came to Hoang Van Nhan’s generation their fame had spread widely throughout the village.  Nhan was a sharp shooter and  he was always the leader of the hunt for he had no sense of fear.  This trait was the same as possessed by his father, his grandfather and his great grandfather.

Nhan had two wives, but both of them were barren.  When he was more than 50 years old, Nhan married another woman, and fortunately this wife gave birth to a baby; a boy who was as beautiful as an angel.  Nhan called him Hoang Van San.

From the time he was five years of age, he followed his father into the jungle as Nhan was determined to train his son to become a fine hunter.  The village elders offered him advice, “Just wait until San is over 13 years of age.  That is the age when he will be fully mature, and he will not be harmed by the evil spirits that lurk in the jungle.  You should have a healthy respect for the jungle and its terrors.  If you let him go into the jungle at such an early age, it will not be good for him.’

Nhan replied, “When I was five years of age, my father had already allowed me to follow him into the jungle.’

The village elders added, “It is different now compared to the old days.  Your father had four children but you have only one.’  Nhan smiled sneeringly.  Young people today sneer at the old people in the same way.  We don’t know that the old people’s words are often like a portent of the future, because old people understand what fear means, even though the feeling of fear does not bring them joy.

San gradually grew up, and at eight years of age he could even trap wild fowl in the jungle.  At ten years of age he could hit a target and score seven shots out of ten.  Nhan realized that it was about time that he took his son to hunt wild animals, so when his son was 12 years of age, Nhan took him on a wolf-hunt.

On this occasion, as many as 30 hunters followed Nhan.  Wolves are very cunning, and proud, jungle animals, as well as being cruel and crafty.  When they are attacked by hunters, they scatter and some sacrifice themselves to ensure the safety of the leader of the pack.  Nhan was an experienced hunter, so he allowed a number of hunters chase these sacrificial wolves, whilst he and others gave chase to the leader.  He was not going to be deceived by the leader of the pack.  It was an ageing female wolf with reddish-coloured fur. When she ran, she slunk low on the ground and dashed in a zig-zag pattern.  Nhan was determined to stay in hot pursuit, pushing her to the very depths of her last stronghold, the lair.

San followed his father closely.  He had been used to the sound of the cry of wolves.  Nhan taught his son how to distinguish between the various sounds and signs made by wolves: the cry of command, the cry of calling, the cry of fear, and even the different meanings attached to the wagging of their tails.  By the end of the day, the pack of wolves had nearly all been killed by the hunters.

The hunters cornered the female leader in her lair, a deep cavern in which there were limestone columns covered in dark-green moss.  The female wolf was old, the coarse fur on her back was mottled and silver-grey in colour.  Having been pushed into her lair she fought ferociously, her eyes were bloodshot, and one wondered what she was thinking at this time.  For an instance, she stared at Nhan as if to imprint his image on her mind, then she flung herself into the depths of the cavern where her children were nestling together.  No sooner had she grabbed one of her cubs in her mouth, then a shot rang out.  Nhan kept firing rounds of shots into the wolf’s back.  The female wolf fell on top of her tiny cubs, biting hard into the top part of the cub’s head.  The hunters swarmed in and dragged the body of the wolf out, at the same time capturing the cubs.  Young San prised open the mother wolf’s mouth, picked up the cub and took it home.  This was the finest cub in the litter.

The cub grew up with the dogs.  He still bore the teeth marks on the top of his head; a scar upon which no fur grew.  The cub was raised in Nhan’s house and was used to humans.  It had a dog’s characteristics, only its eyes and its mannerisms were different.  Its eyes were wild and its mannerism was sly.  Nhan and also his son San did not like this wolf-cub.  However, the wolf never showed that it disliked anyone or any animal in the house.  It avoided any conflict and its compromising attitude was very disturbing.  It did not compete with the other dogs for food and it did not cause any trouble to the horses, goats, pigs or chickens.  It lived in isolation and seemed very understanding.  However, it was apparent to the animal that everybody in the household disliked it.

Time went by, and soon San had turned thirteen years of age.  Nhan set the date on which prayers would be offered up to the spirits on behalf of his son and he ordered the members of the household to slaughter two pigs, as well as slaughter the wolf as a treat for the villagers.

On this day, when the members of the household were preparing for the ritual killing of the pigs, something horrific happened.  San was sitting next to his father, wearing his best clothes made of satin.  He had the distinguished look of a man of importance.  Nhan asked his son to oversee the servants’ work.  San nodded his head and took three jumps down the gilt-edged wooden stairs, but unfortunately, the leg of his satin trousers caught the edge of the tread, and he fell to the ground right beside the wolf who was tethered with an iron chain.  The wolf, lying half-asleep, was suddenly startled and jumped up.  San hit his head on a stone lying beside the wolf.  His mouth went against the iron chain which was attached to the neck of the wolf, and blood started gushing from San’s mouth.  The sight of the gushing blood stirred the subconscious mind of the beast, and reminded it of something in the past.  It jumped up, baring its sharp white teeth and fangs, and bit right into San’s throat where the faint traces of a recent ringworm attack still remained.  Nhan’s servants rushed in a panic to the scene, but the wolf was in a maddened frenzy and would not let go of the lad.  It bit, scratched and tore into every piece of blood-covered flesh, tendon and ligament from San’s throat.  San died instantly, his eyes rolling up into his head.  There was a gaping reddish-coloured hole in his throat from which spurted bubbling gushes of blood.  The blood had spurted all over the wolf’s head, making his dishevelled furry head red in colour.

With great difficulty the people managed to drag the wolf a way from the young lad.  Nhan, holding an axe in his hand, approached the wolf, tears streaming down his face.  People stepped aside to let him pass through.  Nhan was quaking with shock.  The wolf cringed down.  The chain was wrapped around the base of the stairs.  For an instant, Nhan stood still, and then he suddenly wielded the axe and repeatedly rained blows down on the iron chain.  The axe-head became blunt from the blows, and the links of the chain came away.  The wolf gave a few yelps and then dashed towards the jungle; on its neck still remaining a short, dangling piece of chain.  People surrounded Nhan in disbelief, as he dropped to his knees next to the body of his only son.  In anguish he ran his long, bony fingers though the blood-soaked ground.

*
*        *

The forgotten land

Lo Van Panh was a well-known old man in the village of HuaTat.  He was more than eighty years old, however his teeth were even and as well-aligned like the teeth of a seventeen-year-old man.  He needed to only use one arm to effortlessly lift up the stone mortar used to pound rice.  He worked with the strength of three men, and his ability to drink alcohol was the same.  He could take on many men at the one time  in a drinking bout.

The young men of the village looked upon him with great respect.  Mr. Panh had three wives, eight children and about thirty grandchildren.  They lived together in harmony and in affluence.  Families are just like coal- kilns.  The burning coals radiate warmth towards each another, but, later on, the heat generated can burn each individual piece of coal to destruction.  Aren’t families the same as this?

This would not have happened if Mr. Panh had stayed within the confines of the Hua Tat valley.  However, all of a sudden, he had the bright idea to go to Muong Lum to buy water-buffaloes.  In fact, if only he had wanted just to buy water-buffaloes he would not have had so much trouble.  What he needed to do was to go to the Chi or Mat village.  There Mr. Panh could buy the best buffalo for ploughing. But Muong Lum was where Mr. Panh lived in his youth, and memories of the past flooded into his heart.

Muong Lum was a remote and distant region, as far away as Chau Yen was. Muong Lum, in the minority Thai language, means “The Forgotten Land” Here there were mountains which had existed from ancient times, covered with abundant, lush tree-growth, and sheltering vast numbers of birds and animals.

On that particular day,  Mr. Panh on horseback was nearing Muong Lum just as night fell.  Suddenly , a violent hailstorm plummeted down.  Mr. Panh looked around in order to find where to take shelter, but all he could see were hills covered in wild grass, the blades of which were as sharp as knives.

Hailstones came pouring down.  His horse was so frightened he baulked.  He neighed loudly and pawed at the ground.

Mr. Panh dismounted quickly from his horse cursing and swearing.  He had never seen such a heavy downpour.  The wind was so strong, and the hailstones hit his body with such force that they stung.  The night closed in, and the roaring sounds of lightning made the earth tremble.  The horse broke loose from its tether and dashed downhill.  Mr. Panh was about to give chase when suddenly, a small black shadow appeared running towards him.  He looked carefully to see what the shadow was.  It was a girl who was coming back from working in the fields.  She had come across the unexpected downpour and she was so frightened that she was stumbling and running, and at the same time crying out to Heaven for mercy.  When she sighted Mr. Panh she was exhausted and she fell into his arms.

It was pouring rain. The hailstones were splattering like bullets on the ground.  Mr. Panh stood shielding the lass, whilst the girl put her face in her hands and her whole body trembled.  She confidently leant against Mr. Panh’s strong well- built chest.  Mr. Panh consoled her:

“Don’t be afraid!  Don’t be afraid!  the Heaven’s anger will eventually pass.’  They stood like that amidst the hills covered with wild grass, surrounded by the roaring of the thunder and the hailstones.  Mr. Panh was overwhelmed by a feeling of something mystical happening to him.  Through his life’s experience he had never had such a feeling.  He knew that this was what he had been thirsting for.  It was more than romance, more than the women he had met; it was “bliss’!  When it had stopped raining, there shone from above, hazy, rose-coloured rays of sunlight.  The lass took her hand away from Mr. Panh’s hand in embarrassment.  He had never seen anyone more beautiful!  She quickly ran off, and he haltingly chased her, stumbling after her, and finally managed to grab her by the hand.

“What’s your name?” he asked, “I will come tomorrow and propose marriage to you.  Do you find me pleasing?’.  The lass was bashful for a short time, but after a while she mumbled: “My name is Muon, from Muong Lum village’.

She pushed away from him and ran away down the hill, her lily-white, well-rounded calves flashing as she ran.  Mr. Panh crouched down, sweating profusely and feeling faint.   Happiness overwhelmed him.  He lay stretched out on the wet grass, ignoring the huge black ants crawling all over his naked chest.  He passed out until his clever horse woke him by using its hot mouth to gnash at a big curly tuft of hair sticking out of Mr. Panh’s ear.

The following afternoon he rode his horse to the village to look for Muong’s house.  He kneeled down and offered the money he had intended for the buying of water-buffaloes to Muon’s father.  Being aware of the visitor’s proposal, Muon’s father roared with laughter.  He called to his wife, his children and the villagers.  Everybody joked and talked about it.  Mr. Panh did not seem to mind the ridicule which was a sharp as the cut of a knife.  Muon hid herself behind the door and peeked out through the chinks of the door.  She found it amusing and thought it laughable.  Indeed she had completely forgotten the hailstorm from last night, her tears, and their chance meeting on the hillside.

Adamantly, Mr. Panh repeated his proposal again and again.  Everybody stopped laughing after a while because it had become too much for them to tolerate.  Finally, Muon’s father was obliged to set the following conditions:

“All right.  If you want to become my son-in-law, you must be able to fell a mahogany tree which is the biggest on Phu Luong mountain, and bring the tree here.  The lumber from this tree will be used later on for yours and Muon’s house.”

Everybody again burst out laughing .  They all knew that the diameter of this particular mahogany tree at its base was bigger than the arm-span of eight men.  It grew on the top of a stony mountain which was so high that if one stood there looking down to Muong Lum village, you would think that the whole village was only the size of the roof of a hut.

Mr. Panh’s reply was as quick as a knife going through butter, “All right, providing you keep your promise’.

The following day, Mr. Panh climbed to the top of the mountain, and with just the first blow of his axe into the base of the mahogany tree he became exhausted.  He finally died when his heart gave out.

Muon did not attend Mr. Panh’s funeral.  On that particular day she had to go to Yen Chau market to watch the cock-fighting.  In the afternoon on the way home, she again was caught in the rain, but this time there were no hailstones.

*
*        *

The forgotten horn

In the attic of the village chief Ha Van No there lay a horn which had lain there since time immemorial.  The horn was made from the horn of a water-buffalo complete with silver inlays.  It was cracked with age and covered with cobwebs, whilst inside the horn, wasps had made a nest.  Nobody took any notice of it,  so it lay there, neglected and unloved.

That year, in the jungles of Hua Tat there suddenly appeared a strange type of black worm.  These worms were as small as toothpicks and clung together all over the branches and leaves of the trees.  When you went into the jungle or out into the fields and terraces, you could hear the click-clacking of the contraction of their bodies as the moved, and the munching sound as they chewed the leaves.  This made people shudder with fear.  There were no leaves which those worms would not or could not eat; from blades of rice and bamboo leaves right down to the thorniest rattan leaves.  They chewed away voraciously.

The chief of the village, Ha Van No, became thin and drawn with worry.  He, together with the villagers, tried every possible way to eradicate these mysterious worms. They would shake and set fire to the trees in order to smoke them out, and the pour boiling water on them, or else a liquid made from the juice of special leaves, but all was in vain.  The worms multiplied faster than ever, at a strangely unusual speed.

Hua Tat village looked as if it were desolate and plague-ridden.  People discussed the possibility of evacuating Hua Tat to go and live in other places.  The village elders pondered on the problem at a meeting, and everyone invited a spiritual healer to come and pray for the salvation of the village.  The chief, Ha Van No, ordered water-buffalo and pigs to be slaughtered, and offered them up to the gods in order to receive their blessing.  The spiritual healer said, “The bones of the ancestors of the Ha family are rotten and decaying and turning into these worms.  You must take these bones and expose them to the sun to cleanse them in order to rid yourselves of these worms.’

The village chief was taken aback by this statement.  The Ha clan had a custom of burning their dead, and after the burning ritual, the bones were put in small earthen urns and hidden away.  Of all the people in the clan, there was only ever one clansman who knew the whereabouts of the urn.  Before his death, this person would choose another to succeed him.  Tales were told that if a feud broke out, your enemies might find the bones, grind them up and mix them with gunpowder to shoot you.  In this way, the whole clan could be exterminated.  The Ha clan was not without many an enemy.  If the bones were to be taken out to cleanse, the hiding place would be disclosed, and it was as good as giving your enemies a golden opportunity to destroy the whole clan.

The village chief pondered upon this, for he knew the enemies were stalking him every inch of the way, but how could he stand helplessly by watching the worms destroying his homeland?

One night at the end of the month, the chief awoke and called to his son Ha Van Mao to join him in searching for the bones.  Mao was eighteen years of age with a face that was both handsome and intelligent, and he was cleverer than most other people.  The chief and his son set off secretly.  The hiding place of the bones of the Ha clan was in a deep cave high up on the top of a mountain, and the roots of a century-old tree totally covered the entrance to the cave.  In order to gain entrance, the chief and his son had to push aside the thick trailing tree roots.  After a great deal of hard work, they managed to retrieve the earthenware urn and bring it out of the cave, just as the first rays of sunlight broke through.

The chief of the village opened the earthen urn, displayed the bones on the ground and washed them with alcohol.  The bones were intact, not rotten and decayed as the spiritual healer had foretold.  Amidst the pile of bones there was a silver chain, exquisitely crafted.  Mao asked his father, “What’s this chain used for?’.  The answer was “I don’t know!’.  The chief of the village wondered about this himself.  “Possibly, it may have been used to attach to a weapon.’  “I like it!’  Mao said to his father, and he quickly attached the chain to his own body.

Both father and son left the cave and took the short-cut down the mountain side.  When they approached a bend in the path, not far from the cave, they saw a group of strangers lying in ambush.  The chief recognized his enemies and he told his son to go ahead to the village and called the villagers to come to his rescue, whilst he himself would stay behind and stop the enemies in their tracks.

The chief of the village worked out a plan to try and trick his enemies into staying far away from the vicinity of the secret cave.  In this one-sided situation, his fate was hanging in the balance, as if by a fine thread.

Mao went back to the village.  He immediately called to the best sharp-shooters in the village to accompany him to the jungle to rescue his father.  Sporadic shooting echoed through the jungle and made Mao’s heart feel as if it were on fire.  Not until noon were they able to locate the village chief who was tied to the foot of a tree at least ten miles’ distance from the secret cave.  His rifle was out of bullets and had been thrown down at his feet, and his enemies had cut out his tongue, because he would not disclose where his clan had hidden their remains.

Mao took his father back to the village.  The chief did not die, but from that day onwards he was dumb and could not speak.  The worm plague was still spreading and becoming more damaging, day by day.  Mao became furious and ordered that the spiritual healer’s tongue be cut out to avenge his father, then he ordered that preparations be made to evacuate the village.

On the day that he was packing, Mao found the horn in the attic.  On the horn there was a little hole to which one could possibly attach a chain.  He suddenly remembered the silver chain taken away from the ancestors’ bones.  So, he took it and attached it to the horn.  The old horn, all of a sudden, looked as if it had new life.  Mao held up the horn to his lips and hesitantly blew upon it.  What a strange sound came from it! As soon as the horn sounded, the black worms on the trees suddenly squirmed and fell to the ground.  Mao was amazed.  He held on to the horn and tried to blow upon it several times.  The black worms fell down like rain.  He was so happy that he quickly ordered everybody to stop packing.

The whole village rejoiced and followed Mao into the jungle.  All through the day the old horn resounded with its strange noise.  Black worms kept tumbling down like rain, and the people scooped them up and destroyed them.  The plague was over within the space of a day.  After this the people of Hua Tat village had a big celebration and the old horn was placed solemnly on the altar.

From that day on, every morning in Hua Tat, the sound of the horn echoed throughout the village.  The sound of this ancient horn was a reminder to all to remember their ancestors, and it heralded the peaceful time without the harmful worms.

That horn was always carried around by the old dumb man Ha Van No, and it looked just like an ordinary horn, with not the slightest bit of difference between it and any other horn that you may see.  In fact, it even looked uglier and its sound was not as loud as an ordinary horn, even though it had worked wonders.

*
*        *

A man called Sa

The craziest person in Hua Tat village was Sa.  He was the youngest son of Mr. Pach, a man who was the head of a large family, including eight children and nearly thirty grandchildren.  Mr. Pach was a well-known identity throughout the Muong villages.

Since childhood, Sa had been playful and adventurous, and all his life he dreamed of achieving something extra-ordinary.  Ignoring all good advice, he adamantly did anything that he wanted to do; for instance, drinking?  Who was there that could down twenty horns of alcohol in one go?  Try him!  Hunting deer?  Who could chase a deer to the point of exhaustion, for more than three days on end, till the deer collapsed beaten and broken?  Try him!  Who could wield a “fighting stick’ more quickly and cleverly than he could?  Who could play the pan-pipes more beautifully than he could?  And added to all this, who could capture a woman’s  heart more skilfully than he could?

On one occasion, the people of Hua Tat village had worked hard all day at catching fish which were then placed on a boat ready for distribution to all the villagers. Sa came along, and tipped over the boat.  Ignoring the jeers and abuse from the villagers, he just roared with laughter and jumped in amongst the silvery mass of fish which were swishing around, hither and thither.

He was crazy as a loon, to the point that he would have jumped into a burning fire if someone had dared him to do so.  To him, praise from a child or a woman was more precious than gold.  However, the truth of the matter was that nobody in Hua Tat praised him.  They did not even call him by his proper name.  Instead they called him “The Crazy Kid’, “The Lunatic Kid’, or “The Nutty Kid’ .  He was just like a strange animal living in the midst of human beings.  Sa lived this way full of anxiety, and in misery, so much so that he became unsure of his intellect and talents.  At a festival he would be happy one minute, and as mute as if he had been turned to stone the next.  He would sit all day long, month in, month out, making different kind of toys or weapons, but when they were completed, he would throw them away.  Nobody entrusted such an unpredictable young man with anything.  Unbearable loneliness tore at his heart and his hunger for life and his intense desires put him apart from the everyday routines.

When he was thirty years of age, a salt trader from the lowlands induced him into leaving Hua Tat. As well as doing this, Sa left with the intention of achieving great things in another region.  After Sa had left, life in the village became even more dreary.  Fights were not as fierce as they had been before, women did not have as many affairs, there were no longer any all-night dance parties, the smiles were few and far between, and even the birds flying in the skies above Hua Tat flapped their wings lanquidly.  People became grumpy and looked as if they were burdened down with a heavy work-load.  Within a short time they realised that they were missing him and that they regretted his departure.  News of Sa was sometimes carried back home by the salt trader, and the news amazed everybody.  It was reported that he had taken part in the Save-the-King movement in the lowland area, and at one stage he had acted as an ambassador in a far-away and remote country.  On another occasion, it was reported that he had been banished because of his involvement in a plot against the Royal Court.

Women started to use Sa as an example to hold up before their husbands.  The people of Hua Tat village brought up his name when comparing the deeds of people of Hua Tat with those of other villages, and they went even further by mentioning things which Sa had not even done.  The mere mention of his name gave them pride.

Time passed.  People thought that Sa had probably died in a foreign land, but suddenly he reappeared.  He was no longer young and exuberant.  There he was, a hunched-up old man resembling a forest dweller.  One leg had been amputated and his old eyes were watery and weak.  When asked about the remarkable life he had experienced, Sa replied hesitantly.  Rumours previously spread by the salt trader had a certain amount of truth to them.  The people of Hua Tat built a hut for Sa, and he lived an ordinary, everyday life like other people.  When someone would start to talk about the stories of long ago he would avoid talking about them.

Sa married and the elderly couple had a son.  He lived to the age of seventy before he died; however, it was rumoured that before his death, he recounted this story,  “The last period of the ordinary life I lived in Hua Tat village living like everybody else, was, in fact, my greatest accomplishment.’

Could this have been true?  No one in Hua Tat ever discussed it, but Sa’s funeral was held with all the solemnity giving to a person of royal blood.

*
*        *

The plague

At Hua Tat there lived a couple, Lu and Henh.  They had been close since childhood, and when they grew up, they fell in love, married and had children.  They were very familiar with each others’ gestures and thoughts and were never apart.  When it happened that a cholera epidemic broke out in Hua Tat, by that time the couple had been together for fifty years.

The epidemic originated in Muong La and Mai Son, and spread from there to Hua Tat on a day when the weather was strange and eerie:  with both scorching sun and heavy, driving rain.  The humid steam arising from the ground, together with the oppressing heat, was everywhere, and made people feel full of trepidation.  Children died first, followed by the aged;  poor people died, followed by the rich;  the good died before the bad.

Within the phase of the half-moon, thirty people had died in Hua Tat village.  People hastily dug holes to bury the dead and sprinkled lime on the bodies, and by the time night fell it was if the God of Death was holding a dance-party under the reddish-glow of moonlight.

People of Hua Tat tried to control the epidemic by drinking hard liquor and eating ground ginger mixed with garlic and hot chilli.  They even forced bowls of these mixtures into the mouths of bread-fed babies.  The babies screamed and screamed because their insides were burning up.  Who cared?  At least if you are alive, you are still able to experience the burning sensation!

When the epidemic broke out, Lu was away from home.  His habit of gambling and carousing, which he had had since childhood, had caused him harm many times over.  However, this time his habit proved to be his saviour.  Throughout the period of the epidemic, Lu was far away in Muong Lum busily pursuing his gambling habit.  For ten days straight, Lady Luck was with him constantly, even when he went to the toilet, where he even found money there.  His fellow gamblers suspected that he had a magic charm.  On his last day, weighed down with all his bags of money, Lu left to go home, leaving the others in despair, and with feelings of bitterness towards him.

As he passed through Yen Chau market, Lu bought a horse, without even bargaining, which shocked the Kinh horse-trader so much that he hit himself for not having charged Lu more.  Lu then went to an inn and drank so much that he did not realise that someone stole his winnings whilst he was drunk.  Lu was teetering and tottering on his new horse as he wended his way homewards.  He felt very light-hearted.

When he arrived on the outskirts of the village he was shocked to see that green leaves had been stuck into and all over the fences.  White lime lay everywhere.  The totems on the roofs of the huts were swarming with fattened crows.

Lu was stopped from entering the village: instead he was directed to go into the mysterious jungle where his children had only just that morning buried their mother.  Henh, his wife, had died and her newly-dug grave had been sprinkled with lime.  Lu dashed into the jungle on his horse to the place where his wife lay buried.  He prostrated himself before her grave wailing and sobbing pitifully.

“Oh, Henh!’, Lu cried out.  “How can I live any longer without you?  Who will boil the water for me to wash myself, after I have toiled in the fields all day?  After I have been out hunting, who will make a special dish for my dinner?  Who will share both my happiness and my sorrow?

Lu wept for a long time.   Memories stirred within him causing him pain.  He felt great sadness at the loss of his wife and he realized that he had been ungrateful and indifferent, whilst his wife had been generous, tolerant and long-suffering.  The more he thought about it, the more he regretted what he had been, and the more intense was his love for her.  Whether it be a small morsel of food or a beautiful piece of cloth, Henh would always let him have it.  All these things were for him and the children.  Henh was a sister, a servant and a mother to him; and him, what had he done for Henh over the past fifty years?

With his head bowed low before his wife’s grave, Lu suddenly heard moaning coming from under the earth.  It was Henh!  He had known every breath that his wife made, so he immediately recognized it as her moaning.  Brushing aside his initial shock, Lu hurriedly clawed at the earth, hoping deep down that a mistake had been made, and that she might still alive.

The more her dug, the more distinct the moaning became.  Lu was overwrought with happiness.  His hands were cut and spurting blood, but he did not feel any pain.  At last, he managed to pry open the lid of the coffin.  He noticed that Henh’s breathing was shallow.  Dragging his wife from out of the coffin, Lu quickly lay her across the saddle of his horse, holding tightly on to his bag of money, and rushed as fast as he could to Chi village to look for the doctor.  He was stopped from entering the village, so Lu poured half of his money on the ground to give the guards.  Finally, he and his wife were allowed to enter, on condition that he give the guards two-thirds of his money instead of half.  Upon entering the village, Lu found his way to the doctor’s house where he piled the remainder of the money in front of the doctor and begged him to try his best to save Henh.

Lu could not anticipate the disaster that was about to happen to him for he also contracted  the disease.  Both of them died that very night.  The doctor took the money and held a funeral for them.  Both were buried in one grave and when the grave was filled with dirt, it was sprinkled with lime as well as a bundle of white banknotes.

Under the three metres of dirt, Lu’s spirit was probably happy in the netherworld.  The plague in Hua Tat ended some time afterwards.  The feelings of panic regarding the plague continued to linger on for many generations before they were erased from memory.  The grave in which Lu and Henh were buried was now a high mound of earth covered with thorny rattan trees.  The old people of Hua Tat called it “The Grave of the Faithful’, but to the children it was just known as “The “Grave of the Victims of the Plague’.

*
*        *

The girl called Sinh

Sinh was an orphan girl living in Hua Tat village.  It was said that in the olden days her mother had been beguiled by evil spirits, leaving her in the jungle to fend for herself.  Sinh was an emaciated-looking girl.  She had never eaten wholesome food nor worn beautiful skirts and blouses.  She was low-class and lived a lonely life, hidden as does a quail.

At Hua Tat, on the way to the spooky jungle, there was a small shrine which was used to worship Kho, the man who had killed a fierce tiger in days of yore.  In the shrine there was a small fist-sized stone which was laid upon a brick shelf.  The stone was as smooth as polished marble.  Deep inside the layers of stone there were red streaks as tiny as blood vessels.  Whoever wanted to pray for something had to touch the stone, putting his or her mouth close to it, and confide their wishes to the stone itself.  The stone had been there on the shelf of the altar since time immemorial, witnessing the lives and fate of many people.  It  became a mysterious, sacred object which at night time, glowed brightly as if it were on fire.  The many miseries of life, and the prayers asking for favours accumulated deep in the heart of the small stone.

One day, a stranger came from the lowlands.  He was big and tall and he rode a sturdy black horse.  He called in to the village chief’s home to visit the elders.  Strolling around he became very much aware of the village customs.  The villagers of Hua Tat guessed that he was either a trader in bone marrow, or in rare animal furs.  He had vast amounts of money, and he behaved extravagantly and generously, in a most noble manner.

It so happened that the stranger passed by Kho’s shrine and sighted the stone.  He decided to pick it up and have a closer look, but strangely he could not lift the stone from the altar.  Astonished he called the villagers to come and see what was happening,  People gathered in huge numbers around the small shrine.  The visitor let each person, one by one, try to lift up the supposedly immovable stone, but it was all in vain.  The stone was too heavy.

“What was the mystery surrounding the stone?’, he asked.  “In this village, is it possible that there is someone who has not tried to lift the stone?’

The people checked and discovered that Sinh was missing.  They had completely forgotten about her.

The visitor asked everyone to go and ask Sinh to come.  She was digging taro roots at the head of the river.

Sinh arrived at the shrine and everybody stepped aside to allow her to pass.  He asked her to lift the stone.  As if by a miracle, to everybody’s amazement, Sinh was able to lift the stone like a breeze.  Everybody yelled for joy.

Sinh handed the stone over to the visitor.  The sun’s rays shone upon her callused hands and her disfigured fingers.  Sinh gently squeezed the mysterious sacred object, and the stone suddenly melted away into water, right in front of everyone’s eyes.  The drops of water were as clear as teardrops, slipping through her fingers and falling to the ground, making star shapes in the dust.

The visitor stood dumbfounded, and then wept.  He asked permission of the villagers to take Sinh away with him, and he presented her with a new skirt and blouse.  Sinh suddenly became extraordinarily beautiful beyond belief.

The following day, the visitor departed from Hua Tat village.  It was rumoured that Sinh was very happy after that for the visitor had been an emperor in disguise, travelling amongst his people.

At Hua Tat, the pebbled road leading out of the valley is narrow, just wide enough for a water-buffalo to pass through, and is fully lined with trees, such as bamboos, mangoes, etc. and hundreds of unknown climbers.  This road is called the Sinh Road, and up to the present time it still exists.

 

By Nguyen Huy Thiep

Translated and adapted by

Frank Nhat Trinh

Sydney 1996

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