The village that was called the Village of Ghost Houses included more than a hundred thatched roofed houses competing for space with old and abandoned graves. The road lined with red rocks led into the village – the same road that led into the old cemetery – still had two columns of tamanu trees. The tamanu trees were as gentle as any other tree, but because they have lived near the entrance of that old cemetery for a long time, thus people saw them as wild and abandoned, especially in the afternoons when the sky was overcast.
In that village, there was a man about thirty-years-old, he had no children, his wife had passed a long time ago, he got drunk around the clock. Every night – and sometimes during the day – before entering his house, he held onto the tombstone made of laterite screaming and crying. He saw that tombstone as the devil. He chased the devil. Therefore, the people in the village called him the Devil Catcher.
At first, they saw the Devil Catcher as a crazy person. “Only the things that cannot turn into souls become devils.” There were no devils in laterite. But during those nights when the moon was round, deep in the night, when the cripples stopped rehearsing their begging scripts, near the abandoned tomb and next to the tamanu trees, the Devil Catcher’s screams rose high. He called on the spirits of the earth. Eventually they no longer saw him as crazy, but right. Perhaps there were devils nearby. There have been people who claimed to see the tombs move. If you believe in devils, you’ll be haunted by obsessions about devils. And the people from the Village of Ghost Houses began to choose a different paths, especially at night, no one dared to walk the road lined with red rocks. That road was meant only for the Devil Catcher, and the Devil.
Liệng took a handful of rice, fried them, and crushed them into a glass of water mixed with a little bit of sugar. She instructed her four-year-old son: “Hey Young Cu, when your younger brother wakes up in a little while, give him this glass of milk to drink”. Liệng wore a blouse patched at the shoulder, put on a hat and left the house. She was going to sell her blood, to get a little money to buy medicine for Little Cu, who was eight months old.
After the mother left for more than an hour, Little Cu passed away. His face was purplish and bruised as if he had been poisoned. Young Cu took a teaspoon of rice water and tried to force it into his brother’s mouth. He drank whatever was left over, and tasted the sweetness. He got the doll for his brother. Later on, when he was bored, he held his brother and sat on the doorstep on top the wet ground, waiting for their mother, wandering his eyes towards the tamanu trees in the distance.
On a street in town, the May rain was dragging on. Among the people who were waiting for the rain to stop, there was a young woman who stood next to an older man. He had an elegant face, with eyes that were bright but slightly sad. The young woman had her arms around herself, feeling a little cold at the nape of her neck, because the older man kept looking at her. She knew that she was beautiful, but poor; her sandals straps were broken, her blouse was torn, and her pockets were empty.
The rain was cold, the afternoon was coming. The young woman was walking slowly on the side of the road, avoiding the puddles of water that were splashed onto her every time a vehicle drove by. The man walked behind her. She stopped at a bus stop. The man also stopped, standing next to her. While waiting for the bus, he began a conversation.
– Hello miss
– Yes, hello sir.
– Please give me the permission to tell you about a matter.
The young woman answered shyly:
– I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met…
– That’s why I apologize for how sudden this may seem.
– Please tell me what you need to say.
The man looked around and suggested:
– How about if we go into the coffee shop across the street? I get you a glass of water. The story is long. Do you see how many dark clouds are still circling the sky, another rainstorm about to come?
The young woman said sadly:
– Thank you sir. My nephew is very sick at home. He could have passed already even. Perhaps her mom wasn’t able to sell her blood. Last time they told her that her blood was infected.
With a benevolent look, the man begged:
– I hope you’ll help me. The matter of which I’m about to ask you is very serious.
Inside the coffee shop, the light was just bright enough, the music played softly. A black cup of coffee. A pack of “Con Mèo” cigarettes. A glass of iced milk. The young woman reluctantly stirred her spoon around, almost spilling the glass of milk at one point. The man smoked. A chain of afternoon bells rang somewhere. He got up enough courage to begin talking:
– My name is Chiêu. I’m sorry…
– My name is Trinh, sir.
– You don’t need to be formal.
– All right…
The man cleared his throat, his voice lowered:
– I would like to look at your body, Miss Trinh.
– You’re looking right at it.
– I would like to look at it in a different way, without any clothes on you.
The young woman’s face darkened, as if she had just heard two vehicles colliding into each other across the street. She looked around, her shaking hands placed the glass down on the table. The shop was dark. She stood up and said:
– I’m sorry.
– Please stay calm. I’m serious.
– How can you be serious saying that?
The man changed his tone of voice and begged her:
– Don’t you see the genuineness in my voice and the manner in which I’m talking?
– That’s just a format. The content is dirty.
– Please just sit down. I think that I can convince you. Please at least let me tell you all about my wish.
Trinh sat down and said:
– You can’t convince me, Mr. Chiêu. I’m sitting back down only to be polite. You are creepy and do not respect woman.
Chiêu pretended not to hear her and continued the conversation:
– Well, I currently live alone. My children are all grown up and live far away. My wife divorced me the day I could no longer sexually perform, it’s been almost fifteen years. I am also one who praises beauty. I would like to look at my idol without any clothing.
– You’re crazy.
– I’m not crazy at all, Miss Trinh. This is a very deep desire of mine.
Trinh looked at Chiêu with suspicious eyes. She asked innocently:
– Are you an artist who needs a model?
– No, I’m afraid of things so straight like paint brushes.
– You should wrap up the conversation to prevent causing any further frustration.
– Well, I’m very wealthy; my house is nice and big; and I live alone. If you agree, I’d like
to look at you once everyday. I know that you are very pure. I will kneel in front of you as if in a holy place. I swear to never violate your body. Because I no longer have the ability to bother you. I will pay you handsomely, perhaps seven or eight times more than the salary of a grade school teacher.
– You’re a sick man. That’s it, good-bye.
On the patio of the shop, Chiêu gave Trinh a business card and said:
– Here is my address and phone number. Later, if you can help this sick person, then please come to me. Please remember that I have never asked this of anyone else. With me, you are the symbol of rescue. I will wait for you forever, Miss Trinh.
Trinh walked away on the side of the street. Her heart was sad with broken and scattered thoughts. The town drifted into a deep purple. Trinh returned home to the village with the Devil Catcher.
Sunset was when you were most likely to see devils and the victory hour of the Devil Catcher. Thus Trinh didn’t see him anywhere. Along the road lined with red rocks, the birds were calling out from the dry branches. Trinh was shocked to see that the whole Village of Ghost Houses had disappeared. There was only a pile of rubble left, where people were gathered to cry and whine about the lack of mercy in this lifetime. The last raindrops of the day made the scene even more frozen; the layers of soft dirt became black burned ash. The puddles of water on the side of the graves reflected the young moon on the surface.
Everyone knew that the Village of Ghost Houses burned easily, but no one predicted that it would burn in the middle of the afternoon, in a flash, the poor world filled with thatched roofs and bamboo burned away. With help from the wind, the fire celebrated with its tongues. This fire burned the chairs with three legs, the cabinets without doors, the torn clothing, the cheap souvenirs of the poor, the braces of the cripples. And yet the Fire Witch was still determined: burn everything.
In that chaotic time, no one paid any attention to Young Cu. They stepped on him and walked over him. Finally, along with the other children, Young Cu carried the body of Little Cu to run away. Right at the time their mother returned, wailing the death of her son.
Luckily, the next morning, the Devil Catcher came back with a new cardboard box, the kind of box that were used to package stereos. The Devil Catcher gave Little Cu a bath, put his body in the cardboard box, and buried him carefully. The Devil Catcher looked the two sisters and said: “Stop crying. The little boy holds no debts with earthly matters. He goes quickly to the kingdom of God, soon, no need for planes”.
Time didn’t have any feet but moved quickly. Three months had passed. One day, while she was sitting on the floor of her old house looking at the young grass, Trinh remembered Mr. Chiêu. She found his business card and decided to go see him. “I will not do what he asked, but I will ask him to help me find a job…,” she told herself. And then she became puzzled, asking her sister a senseless question: “Big sister Liệng, is there a job where you take off your clothes for other people to look and then collect the money?” Liệng looked at her younger sister, in shock, and asked: “Are you crazy? That is the job of whores only.”
Trinh looked in the mirror. The mirror was small, half of the reflective surface had peeled off, so Trinh could only see half of her face. Liệng looked at her younger sister who just turned twenty years old and said: “Don’t do anything crazy. Torn paper have to maintain the margins. Don’t rationalize by a faulty logic that money has no smell…” Trinh answered tiredly: “We’re both starving to death…”
Liệng said: “Just live honestly, the gods will show mercy”. Trinh mocked: “The gods have shown us so much mercy. We lose our houses, we build up our debts, even our thatched roofs burned away. Do you remember, back then, the two of us were women of a different class, daughters of a different bloodline, and now…” And Trinh left.
– Hello Miss Trinh…. oh God, Miss Trinh.
– Hello Mr. Chiêu.
– I had no idea you would come to this lonely man.
– My legs took me to you.
– And you are still unsure of your decision?
– Yes, you can say that.
– Oh thank you God.
Four days have passed by and Trinh could not take off her clothes, even just half. Many times Trinh had suggested, asked, and then begged Chiêu to help her find a job. But Chiêu already had his own idea. Truthfully, he wanted to escape the obsession of being impotent. He had been imprisoned by this armor for many years. Now he was asking Trinh to help take off the forceful armor by revealing herself to him. That world had to reveal itself, clean and bright. That fire will burn more than once the dull and broken situation, the desolate and fearful dreams from him.
In front of an innocent Trinh, Chiêu was the one with all the power to direct his own movie, just like he wanted. He thought that he will not violate Trinh, that paying her a generous salary was enough. “I’m not committing any sin…,” Chiêu told himself. He tried to create a warm and familiar environment to lead the deer into her own path. Besides, Trinh could not hide the misery that was torturing her in her eyes, her signs, even in her smile and voice. Strangely, those gestures enraptured Chiêu, made him want to lengthen the days they were together – before heaven showed itself to him.
The first day they sat across from each other, having tea and desserts, introducing themselves to each other. The second day, Chiêu took Trinh on a tour of his house, the rooms, the gardens, showing her pictures of his wife and children. Some of the children were older than Trinh. While he interacted with Trinh, he was very careful, while he thought many times, “There will be a day when I kiss you.” The conflict implanted itself in his head.
The fourth day, while they were in the middle of a conversation, Chiêu suggested:
– Can we begin?
– I’ve told you, I’m scared to do that.
– Why don’t you give it a try? It’s a good deed.
Trinh reacted shyly and said:
– I will give it a try, if you… want.
– Just try. Just look at it like we are making art.
Trinh sat on top of a high padded chair, facing Chiêu, in the horizontal direction of the room. The big windows were adorn with blue drapes. The music played lightly, enough to block out noises from the outside. On top of the table, besides the drinks, a vase of flowers, the ash tray, there were also two pieces of sheer silk. After a little while, Trinh nervously took a deep breath, tried not to look directly at Chiêu’s face, trying to look through the curtains but she could not see the sunlight. They were a couple of people standing in front of a judge, their thoughts wandering with regret, but had to wait for a judgement. Trinh could feel her chest get warm, her forehead damp with sweat. She held her breath and swallowed. Instead of unbuttoning the first button, she stopped her hand on her chest where her heart was, feeling the saltiness on her lips as if there was blood where she bit her tongue. The situation tottered and dissolved. Finally, Trinh closed her eyes half-way, unbuttoning the first button, revealing a pink patch of breast, right above her bra. Suddenly Trinh stood up, like a wounded bird. She walked towards the door, but fell onto the table.
Chiêu’s voice became warm when he helped Trinh back to her chair. He said:
– That’s enough for today. We’ll continue tomorrow. Thank you Trinh.
– I beg of you, please let me go.
– Tomorrow I will place a big mirror here so you can see all of yourself.
– What for?
– That way I won’t be looking right at you but will see you in the mirror. Temporarily I will admire my ideals through a shadow.
Trinh said sadly:
– That won’t help me in any way. Real or not real, I am still me, still have to do what I don’t want to do. People sometimes think that the reflection of the moon in the water is more beautiful than the moon in the sky, but the content of the picture is a deception, a decoration for your own illusion.
Chiêu shook, he never thought that Trinh could slap him in the face with her words like that. With an average mindset, perhaps peppered with a little ruthlessness of a impotent man, who has long been with a changing physical condition and constricted sexual desire, he suddenly recognized his naked thrill. More correctly, it was covered with a coat like the moon above the jungle, sometimes bright, sometimes dark. It housed a strange and abnormal sound, like the train whistle that chases an invisible train only to dissolve in the night, like the lightning that strikes uselessly in the middle of a big storm. Trinh sat there but was so far away, fading in and out. All was confused inside Chiêu, awake and paralyzed, engrossed and crumbled. He wanted to put his arms around Trinh but his feet could not move. Reality suddenly curled up and emptied. Chiêu was in the condition of a stormy day; ecstatic, deserted, wet, and foggy, even a light of sunshine carried a sad sign.
At that time Trinh already buttoned up, her hand unknowingly took a flower from the vase. Chiêu suggested taking Trinh to dinner at a restaurant. Trinh sat behind him on the motorbike, smelling Chiêu’s hair, the scent of old bamboo.
Up until 10 AM Trinh hadn’t arrived. Chieu waited in agony, pacing back and forth, smoking incessantly. Today the room was rearranged more neatly, more aesthetically. The flower vase was changed. The ancient decanter was filled with alcohol. The portrait mirror was put in an angle at the corner of the room, with a high chair in front of it, draped in a large pink towel. The entire world today for Chieu meant to look down and to gaze at the precious moments.
It was 11 AM, and Trinh was no where to be seen. Chieu stepped up and brought his face to the mirror. He suddenly saw a man with gray, curly hair, a pair of eyes soaked with sadness under a vast forhead. That was him, all right, a man who, for some time, had dreamed of doing great deeds, and that same man who had been brought by his own wife to the divorce court for being able to provide her with only delusions in the bedroom, and emptiness in reality; that was him, a king in the middle of the world, yet a dethronee in his wife’s chamber. Chieu had bought her this large mirror right after their wedding day, so she could do her makeup daily in front of it, laugh and joke with her second self without being able to grasp it, which was there and no longer there. Back in those days, there had been a period when Chieu was so strong. Each time his wife came out from the shower and stood before the mirror to brush her hair, he would embrace her passionately and mess her up in some malfaisance so that she had to take a second shower. And yet for fifteen years now, that hero had been impotent!
What would come had finally come. Twelve o’clock. Trinh arrived. She complained of being hungry: “You’ve got to give me something to eat.” They ate a light meal: jambon sandwitches and, as for dessert, apples, grapes, some ice-cream. Trinh drank a glass of strong alcohol. Her eyes of a deer glowed up, her cheeks rosy. She was more cheerful than usual.
She went into the bathroom and took a bath. Although Chieu lived a celibate life, his bathroom was clean and luxurious, having all the amenities for women such as a comb, bathing water, shampoo, towels, brushes. Trinh did not wear makeup at all. She stepped out to prepare for her reluctant profession. There was a detail worth mentioning: today she wore those luxurious clothes that Chieu had bought her the other day.
“You sit here on this chair here.”
“Look into the mirror, and take it as though I am not standing behind you.”
Trinh sat straight, breathing hard, appearing more confident than usual. She saw her mouth smiling in the mirror but her eyes very sad. At the beginning, Chieu tended to sit behind Trinh, but later changing his mind, he sat from an angle in front of her, to be closer to the mirror. For a moment both seemed to close their own eyes, each falling into a separate state of mind.
This time Trinh did not debutton from her neck down but began from her waist instead. Her hands touched her taut belly skin, a feeling warm and so flagrant. Then she trembled. It was like an old person who had failures throughout all his life, and who lost his sleep every night, wondering what he must do with that darkness full of deep, creepy echoes. He shrank his body in, recited in his breath a sequence of numbers, or recalled a Chinese chess position; that would be the magic needed to pass oneself through sleepless nights. Trinh was now no different, as she mumbled, self-consoled, and recalled things here and there, the thoughts in her mind running and jumping, playful yet as pitiful as a caged bird. And in that very moment the Devil Catcher appeared. Like in a certain day back then, the Devil Catcher asked her more than once, “Now Trinh, what is the damned profession that you do these days to dress up in such seeming luxury?” She answered, “I am a private art-craft shop assistant.” The Devil Catcher smiled in a gentle manner, “That’s OK. But I don’t believe you. Why do you wear perfume that smells so sweet?” “No I do not,” answered Trinh. The Devil Catcher insisted, “Don’t lie, I am as keen as a male horse. Wearing perfume is OK, but in this village you should know that there is just one type of people who use it: the whores.” Trinh wanted to bolt away, but the Devil Catcher suddenly caught hold of her arm, and he said, “Trinh, I cannot become a saint so I mess up with the devils just for fun. You should safeguard your own, so that I can love you for a long time, probably into the next life.”
As Trinh removed up to the third button, she touched her bra and her virginal breasts. For the first time Trinh felt strange right when she touched her own body. Then she pitied this so fragile body. She opened her eyes to glance at Chieu and saw his eyes half-closing and his mouth holding a pipe. He sucked his pipe constantly, and smoke flew up like clouds. Trinh closed her eyes to perform her duty-of-the-day as planned: to expose half the moon.
Then her thoughts wandered, as she remembered the day she followed Lieng to go selling blood. “Blood in your body is not water coming out of a spring that you can sell forever.” Lieng was so thin. Cu Ti was so thin. The day Trinh brought her first sum of money back to Lieng, Lieng looked at her younger sister and cried, believing she must have gone to the inner-city to sell herself, or with more character she must have worked at one of those embrace-beer parlors or dimly-lit cafes, in order to make such an amount of money. Later that afternoon, while holding a bowl of white rice containing a few pieces of meat saltly cooked with tofu, Lieng still cried, then moaned:
“I am eating the water that you have washed your body with, my dear Trinh.”
A loud crashing sound.
That sound had in fact come from a collision. In fact Chieu had seen in the mirror a set of rosy breasts full of life, a part of a long hair piece and a seductive and painful face. He had unconsciously leaned forward to reach for them and hit the glass causing a loud crash.
When Trinh calmed down and looked across, she saw the mirror having a long crack, cutting her figure in half. Chieu threw his pipe down to the floor and put the back of the one hand dripping with blood to his mouth to lick the blood off. Trinh was stupefied, then quickly grasped the pink towel to cover her body. Only after a while, she recognized the feeling of half her body getting cold, and she did not know since when she had removed the shirt…
From that day she left Chieu’s house and never came back. A mirror was cracked into two, lying in a corner of the room. And there was one wandering man, searching for something-not-yet-achieved-but-having-been-lost, remembering the thing-suddenly-seen, and imagining the thing-never-seen. That short moment had become an eternity. It was like the moonlight in a night after an alter-life dream, which had woven itself into a spring that had existed in the world and had become immaterial. “I was dissolved by an empty dream.”
Also from that day, a young girl returned to her noisy but remote village, where people struggled against each other for each meaningless, nauseous instant. She bore the obsession of being forced to dedicate, of being watched by the power facet of money. She repented, no matter how many times Chieu told her, “By doing that you have made art. All the beauty of the world is contained in you.” Oh, like you had to peel yourself naked to the ten different Buddhist directions as the sakkamuni found his path. “But now I am hungry.” Yes, for several past months, Trinh and her sister were very desperate. She was very afraid to cross the garden where she had more than once made art, though just the art of removing her shirt.
Trinh and her sister strained at odd jobs without making enough money for food. During the lunar new year occasion that had just passed, Lieng’s the eldest son had come home after a term of prison.
“Mom, rest assured. I will make a lot of money.”
“What will you do to make a lot of money, my son?”
“Go on stealing.”
He did what he had said. On new year’s fifth, he had knived someone on the highway, stealing the vehicle. Another prison term. “No matter what, he still has a dwelling place more cozy than the Village of Ghost Houses,” thought Trinh.
Trinh was so afraid of each dusk. For, each afternoon at this place, there were trips, two girls per cyclo, their hand-waving departures. The next morning, they came back with their money pouch, but usually two thirds of that money would be used in curing sexual diseases. The red gravel path with two tamanu rows had transformed the pretty girls of this village into pale, unendurable, and contemptuos ones.
One day, the Devil Catcher asked Trinh in an honest manner.
“Trinh, do you want to go beggar?”
Trinh thought the Devil Catcher was kidding, so she replied,
“Want to very much.”
“So come here, come here with me.”
Trinh followed the Devil Catcher down to the leafy roof at the end of the tamanu path. Here a scene exposed itself which gave her creeps, plus an urge to throw up due to the stinky odors. In front of her, in the leaf-bound house, were hung in display on several rows of strings, some torn shirts, trousers with holes, cone hats, canes, wooden crutches; and laid on the floor were bandages, cotton, red iodine fluid, a basin containing pig blood, a mandolin, a broken acoustic guitar. Trinh stood dead silent, then asked,
“What the heck are you doing, Devil Catcher?”
“How strange it is, tell me again.”
The Devil Catcher explained,
“I am booming in this business. With permission I can even open a Beggar Company. Let me call it BEGACO.”
Trinh thought the Devil Catcher was kidding, so she smiled.
The Devil Catcher cowed,
“What do you smile at? Is being a beggar so shameful? You so joyful? Begging as it becomes a profession is no longer begging. Here, there are cotton bandages, pig entrails, red fluid. If you want to go beggar, then come here tomorrow morning, and I will put you in disguise. Whether you want to fake blindness, leprosy, or deaf-mute is fine. I have lots of disciples, who after being disguised each morning, would go into the city to beg. Depending on their arts of begging, each returns in the evening handing me three thousand dongs. That’s today’s rate, which may be increased in the future.”
The Devil Catcher smiled seductively, then continued, “But you, you just need to hand in one thousand dongs per day only, leaving two thousand for the next life when we will pay each other back fairly. As flagrant and beautiful as you, it would be difficult to beg. I will tie at your belly a piece of pig entrails to increase the rotten smell, play it up some more with the red fluid, cotton bandages, a torn hat. That way, at your mere sight, they will offer money right away; who dares look closely at you to know whether you are good or fake.”
“It is so funny what you say, yet it is so horrible.”
“I am master of the art of disguise. That guy Mang has a sharp nose ridge and wide nostrils, so I turn him into a leper, just by plucking off both his eyebrowses to the bare skin. Damn it, when he debutes he is afraid that he hass become a real leper. Now that he has made tons of money, he is afraid people would know he’s a fake leper.”
When she figured it out, Trinh stood pale as a stem of leaf. Her forhead sweated. In an instant, she thought there was something relating the Devil Catcher to Chieu. Although one regarded Trinh as an idol, and the other wanted to transform her into a beggar, indeed some thread in between—such as the low-class instinct, albeit very “logical”—was being formed. Seeing Trinh becoming sad, the Devil Catcher asked,
“Or let me put it this way, Trinh, please forgive me, and you must understand my situation, that now I am living off those beggars. The more beggars I have, the richer I get. I cannot make you into an invalid, that would be a crime of me by heaven. So, here as I have big and small guitars, you go ahead and test your singing voice. You rehearse with Blind Mau. He is very gentle and righteous. You sing in pair with him. Just go to the taverns and sing those songs of ‘lost youth.’ Even women can remarry, much less art. Just sing for a while, like those other blind, you will sing with passion, forgetting that you sing for money. Damn it, so many singers stand on the stage, in colorful limelight, but their singing is fake, untrue with what they feel inside. And those beggars in the middle of the day sing of their true feelings. Trinh, do you know why? Because art must really begins from your inner feelings, no matter how sad or how dark, no matter whether that truth is emitted from black mud or red wine…”
Trinh pulled both palms up to plug her ears. In a moment of being moved and puzzled, she looked directly at the Devil Catcher: a hairpiece turning a yellow color as ferocious as the forest, a pair of eyes deep and bright hiding under two rows of long black eyebrows, a high nose ridge, a wide mouth, all of these discharging a fabulous thunder. People said that the Devil Catcher had a bachelor degree in philosophy and had entered monkhood, but no, in front of Trinh, the Devil Catcher was a Downgraded Deity. Trinh suddenly ran away. When she reached the grave where the Devil Catcher used to scream day and night, Trinh tripped and fell down. The Devil Catcher gave chase, laughing out loud, throwing his voice up after her,
“It’s the the devils that have jumped over my lover!”
That night Trinh tossed about in bed, being unable to fall asleep. Why not turning the fake into the real, she foolishly thought, “How about me going beggar? Still better than making art by removing clothes?” The Devil Catcher? The old man Chieu? Stone obelisks standing erect on a deadly mountain ridge.
It was too late, yet Trinh couldn’t find Cu Ti, her nephew, anywhere. Deeply asleep, he might have rolled onto… a neighbor’s. Here, leaf-bound houses did not have walls, and dividers between the houses were made only of scattered wood sticks, so sleepy people from one side were able to roll to the other side easily.
A dry-season moon hung high, spreading its yellow light down on the tamanu rows, on the cold, dry tops in the grave-hair rafia area. Trinh sat with her arms folded in front of her breast, as to cover it from the cold, looking vaguely outside. Dew had soaked the gravetop cement platforms. There were bird calls somewhere. The Village of Ghost Houses, the sanctuary for those who lived homeless and died graveless, still sleeped coldly in an earth that spinned on evenly.
Heartless fate had reserved for Trinh an evening that, afterwards, people called “the Fateful Night.”
For three months already, Trinh had been a teacher to small children—thanks to a warrantor, because she did not have a household-member status yet, thus could hardly be given a job. With no training from any pedagogic school Trinh was very surprised with the children’s daily life, even with their laughing, crying, and bathroom behaviors. However she was so happy, loving her profession more and more, living temporarily with a salary that, if-one-wanted-to-live-from-one-day-to-the-next-it-would-be-best-to-constantly-feed-on-porridge. All the teachers in that school loved Trinh. One even promised to lend her some money to buy clothes, a watch, and an old bike, “Such a beauty should not walk a long way. It’s so pitiful.”
On afternoon as school was over, just as she walked out the gate, Trinh suddenly spotted Chieu across the street. Chieu was shaking a friend’s hand, right inside the church yard, then turned toward the school gate. In panic, Trinh sticked close to the gate door, under a trellis of flowers getting purple in the evening. Chieu, like a big shadow of a crow, walked straight up, as though he knew, “Just go to that gate, just walk forth, the idol of whom I have seen just a half is being there. Oh my angel…”
“Hello Mr. Chieu. Sir… please forgive me.”
“I have just knelt down inside the church. Now do you want me to kneel down right in the middle of this road?”
“I beg you, Mr. Chieu.”
“Trinh, I have been looking for you for all those months. I am so weak, unable to suicide if the cause is not from you.”
The black crow had transformed into a fox. And that fox carefully donned its foxy fur to lure Trinh. Chieu knew pretty well that if he wanted a girl to surrender he had to instigate in her a great and enduring anger. For Chieu, Trinh was an idol, a materializing of the arts. Those who made arts were gifted with some naivety, some carelessness, and some purity in a beggardom sense. They were ready to dedicate to the world probably their own entire small intestine or large intestine, only if such sacrifice was noble.
It would be equally fine to say that Trinh was very wise or that she was very stupid. Only that no one knew how—wasn’t it that the sun and the moon had both faded, night and day and the high and the low are no longer distinguisable?—on that day, Trinh had dinner at a restaurant with Chieu, and even came to his home at dusk; still that same door, that same room, that flagrance from the outside orchid garden mixed in with the cigarette smoke so strange to her; still that hint of perfume from the impotent man, with a homosexual smile; still that same chair made of precious wood and inlaid with mother-of-pearl reserved for her, that pink towel, that decanter of expensive wine; that same high-class, luxurious, extremely fashionable world. A pédé between the modern and the classic, temporarily vital but eternally rotten; a song flowing smoothly in the air; the blood-mixed, elegant shade of afternoon having been extinguished outside. It was incomprehensible, really it was incomprehensible, that the situation suddenly turned into rags: a delirious guy was crawling on the floor, and a naked statue of Miss Trinh appeared. That idolizing human crawled, licked on the statue’s feet. After a while, he stood up, and with all his spirit and strength, he said, “Oh my, you have made me reborn.” Again he knelt down and began to caress the statue, a human-turning-into-angel, a realm of nature with hills and mountains and forests and oceans, no longer under any veil of even a scattered cloud…
Right then there was a knock on the door. The authority appeared. It said,
“You, lady, are selling sex. You are under arrest. You, sir, are buying sex, so follow us.”
Just like a forest in spring, full of birdrs, or, to put it more succinctly, like a nest of chickens, where, while the half-asleep mother chick was brooding, suddenly all the eggs hatched into little noisy little chicks. When he came to, sitting on his chair, Chieu realized at once that he had forgotten to close the window. Children like chirping birds were hustling, competing against each other to watch through the window barriers, creating a scene both noisy and deplorable. Some applaused Trinh… “In folklore, stories about girls bathing naked in rivers and streams were neither rare nor bad. If someone from the other sex inadvertently happened to behold the scene, then the girls in their shyness would run or turn away. Meadow girls would unconsciously cover their faces with their hands. Mountain girls would not cover their faces but put their hands, palm-facing-in, on that very place. One group hid their faces, because people’s faces were more important, and what was made ugly was the face. The other groupd hid that thing, because it needed protection, otherwise, it could be attacked, whereas faces and noses were just the same from one person to another.” Trinh’s hands in the moment did not cover her face, neither were they put on that place, “I am dying, crumbling in the ashes of my life.” Trinh’s two hands were pressing on her chest, where there was a crushed heart inside…
Due to the sad story, a year-end afternoon I got to come to the Village of Ghost Houses, looking forward to a visit with Trinh. I told my driver to stop very far from the village, so that I had a chance to walk on the red gravel path, under the tamanu rows, to take a close look at the black laterite grave said to have devils.
Entering the village, I stopped a child and asked for Trinh’s house. He looked at me from head to toes, then answered,
“Trinh has a grave but no house.”
A blind—that I later knew to be Blind Mau—who was groping to fix an old guitar, directed his lightless eyes toward me and told the boy,
“Who is asking for Trinh? If it’s Chieu then kill him.”
I shrivered and stepped back. In just an instant, people crowded around me. Knives sticked their ends out, canes waited for their chances to strike. Suddenly, a man, tall but skinny, pushing the crowd aside, stepped forward and examined me, then determined I was not Chieu. Only then the crowd retreated.
I asked the little boy,
“What did you just say? Why does Trinh have a grave but not a house?”
“Follow me. You will see Trinh’s grave. So beautiful. It’s happier to die like that.”
Trinh’s grave was indeed beautiful. Painted platform and washed stones. In the middle, there was a rectangular basin to grow some flowery plants. The flowers were of many colors. Looking from afar, it was like a tear reincarnating. A big tombstone contained Trinh’s picture. In life she might be sad, but in the picture in front of her grave, she smiled, her hair shining silky. The time betwen her birth and her death spanned twenty three years. I said in silence, “You die too young, just a thousandth of the time for humans to become human from being apes. Twenty three years?” I sat down next to the grave. The boy asked whether I wanted to burn incense so he would go to buy some. This grave never lacked of burning incense. I asked, “Who built Trinh this grave that’s so beautiful?” The boy replied, “The Devil Catcher. He built it out of his own money.” I was very sad. The sky was full of dry and dark clouds, like wandering tumors.
The boy said, “Since Trinh died, the Devil Catcher stopped catching devils.” I asked, “Where is the Devil Catcher now?” The reply, “He’s gone to buy flowers for her. On days with no money, the Devil Catcher tells us to gather flowers from some other graves and bring them here. He says it suffices that the whole world should bring flowers to this one grave.”
I burned incense, sitting in the dark afternoon, thinking about the person with the name Devil Catcher, and thinking about Devils. I had had some education, to know that on this earth, living together with humans there were the animals like buffalos, cows, dogs, and horses. I had learned to distinguish among fish under water, animals in the forests, the mamals, the breastless ones, the reptiles, the invertebrates or those with spines like humans. I could even draw the shapes of many species. But I gave up on the devils. Probably devils were super, equal in status to the immaterials, so people grouped them together as “devils and angels.” Devils were formless, yet someone could even catch devils. But the devils asked in return, “If not being devils, what would we be? Being humans? Being Miss Trinh?”
Very luckily, when the moon came up, the Devil Catcher returned. Upon seeing me he asked, “You came here for what?” I replied, “I pay Trinh a visit but she is already dead. I will write a story about Trinh.” The Devil Catcher looked at me with hypnotizing eyes and said, “First, to me Trinh is not dead. Second, you write a story, what for? Publish where? Is there any meaning to draw snakes with feet while the whole world has turned into water and fire?” I told the Devil Catcher, “I want to turn Water- -Fire into Words.” The Devil Catcher laughed, then said, “I shit on whatever called language. Do you see those waves? They make sounds but no speech, yet they are eternal.”
As the moon was budding high up, the Devil Catcher told the little boy to run and buy a litter of rice alcohol, some food to eat over the sips so that he could drink with me for a while, looking at the sky and remember Trinh. Midnight, as dew soaked up the graves, young men and women arrived in crowds—the Devil Catcher’s disciples. He ordered, “You guys sing a few songs for the one from far away and for Trinh. Remember to sing in proper manner. This is not a limelighted stage. I will twist the throat of anyone who sings as a fake.”
In the quiet night, Blind Mau cleared his throat, started strumming, and lifted his voice, “After you are gone, this place remains the same.”*