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The Nhieu Siblings, This Quynh, That Quynh, and the Tricolored Cat

Monday, 01/04/2019 00:22

. Short story by Nguyen Binh Phuong

On the ninth day of the fourth month of the lunar year, news of the sudden death of two persons during a séance in Dai Tu District, Thai Nguyen Province, Viet Nam was published in a local paper. One of the victims was the householder-cum-psychic and the other was her client from Tan Thanh Ward.

The short announcement was in the back, among other trivial public notices, such as bike thefts, encroachments of the public land, and neighbor disputes, since there was no indication of criminal activity and the cause of death was unknown.

The whole story was as follows:

Quynh had been ill for more than a week after her boyfriend, Tuan, had been killed in a motorbike accident. She refused to contact or communicate with anybody and all she ate, in order to keep her alive, was just some rice soup. On the ninth day of the fourth month of the lunar year, she got out of her sickbed and went alone on her motorbike to Dai Tu for a séance to contact her boyfriend. The medium’s house was far away, near the foot of the mountain. Therefore, Quynh had to leave her motorbike outside and walk for more than one kilometer. When she arrived there, she found three persons waiting, one man and two women, all in their mid or late thirties; one of the two ladies was quite skinny. It was about 9:00 am, but the medium had not gotten up yet; the door remained closed and a tricolored cat was roaming in the center of the front yard.

One of the two women asked Quynh “Did you come here alone?” Quynh nodded yes and then quietly sat down on a log. The tricolored cat approached Quynh, scratched her trouser leg with its paws and made some resounding crystalline meows, which sounded like tapping on glass. Quynh observed the lady who had just questioned her, noticing a glossy hollow crescent-shaped scar running from the left corner of her forehead to the end of her right eyebrow. “Are you going to have the medium conjure up the spirits of your parents?” asked the lady with the scar. “I am going to call up my friend. What about you?” “I am going to ask her to call up my younger brother,” said the lady with the scar. “How long ago did he pass away?” asked Quynh. The scarred lady twisted her hands so as to suppress her inner feelings: While I was escorting some cargo up to Lang Son. Quynh murmured sympathetically: “How old was he?” “Exactly ten.” The woman sounded distraught, with tears in her eyes: “He was born with a handicap.” After her quick response, she rose and pretended to go to the well for some water to wash her face. The skinny woman, who had remained silent so far, churlishly whispered something in the man’s ear and he replied grumblingly: Let her alone! The door opened at 9:30 am. A little girl in a flowered, pink, batiste blouse came out and curtly said: “Come in. First come, first served. No noise.” The three persons looked at each other inquiringly and then the skinny woman determinedly entered first; the other two timidly followed. Quynh was the last to enter.

A lanky and withered medium in bright green, shiny, satin clothes sat on a stool of about 40 cm of height. She looked weary and gloomy, her lips were darkly and heavily reddened by betel juice, but her eyes were as sharp as a splinter of glass. The lady with the scar told her the full name, the birth date, and the death date of the boy whose spirit was to be invoked and then put a twenty thousand note in an ivory-yellow rattan basket. Quynh was amazed by the woman’s shrewdness, for she herself had been wondering where she would put her money when it came to her turn, as other mediums would place out a dish for the fee. The medium whispered some prayers while the little girl lit a bunch of incense sticks and stood waiting with an emotionless expression on her face. Still praying, the medium reached out for the smoky incense and then made some circular movements above her head while the upper part of her body was swaying like the movements of a snake. Suddenly, the medium’s face turned pale, then reddish, and then dark purple and her forehead, her nose and her ears were all wet with sweat. Everyone was breathlessly observing her. The ambiance became eerie. The man suddenly folded his arms on his belly and the thin woman had unknowingly stepped back. Only Quynh and the scarred woman remained still; their eyes were open wide as they attentively watched the spirit returning.

Something spine-chilling was coming, trying to penetrate into the medium’s body.

The little girl grabbed a red satin cloth and abruptly covered the medium’s head with it. Soon afterwards, there was a fierce struggle inside the red cloth and everyone was panic-stricken as the cloth was uncovered. The medium’s face had become contorted and was as swollen as a submerged dumpling; her eyes were slanted and squinted, her thick lips were curled, and her little bright yellow eyetooth protruded out of the left corner of her mouth. In a hair-raising piercing voice, she shrieked: “I am coming back, I am coming back. Who’s calling me?” Quynh’s hair stood on end; her heart seemed to stop beating. “Is that you, Nhieu? Are you calling me, Nhieu?” “My goodness! My dear little brother! Why did you leave me without me saying my last goodbye to you?” the woman with the scar wailed, her hair going madly disheveled. The little girl hit the man on his back, yelling “Seize her!” The man hastily held the scarred woman back so that she would not spring toward the medium. The spirit told her in a domineering and patronizing manner: “Stop being insolent! You mustn’t call me ‘little brother’! You must call me ‘uncle,’ Nhieu. Now I’m telling you. While you were away, those two guys tortured me a lot. They forced me to sweep the floor, feed the dogs, prepare mash for the pigs, but left me with an empty stomach. I hate their guts and I’ll never let them put their noses in the air. Now that you are here, and I am on friendly terms with you again as I used to be.” The scarred woman moaned and leaned on the man, with her two hands hanging loose. The medium swayed staggeringly, turning her face toward the skinny woman; she looked ferocious as the left corner of her mouth curled up, showing her eyetooth. The skinny woman lowered her body behind Quynh’s back. The medium turned her head, trying to cast a look at the man and he covered his face with his hands. The little girl urged the scarred woman: “Any questions?” The scarred woman was then alert and quickly uttered “Tell me what you want and I’ll send them to you.” The dull swollen face still swaying, the voice still piercing: “Send me a horse and a suit so that I can go out. It’s very boring to always hang around in the same place.” The scarred woman kept asking: “Do you need money?” The little girl muttered: “So stupid. How can he go out without money?” The spirit responded: “It doesn’t matter whether you send me money or not. Please send me an oval-shaped mirror like yours, but a bigger one, Nhieu. Remember it! And I’ll blind the tax staff for you.” The medium’s face went down and the pupils of her eyes returned to their normal size. Quynh noticed her lips slowly shrinking like a current of water being stopped at its source. “Did you see Mom down there?” asked the scarred woman, out of breath. The medium slowed down and instead of an answer, she gave a slight head shake, almost like the inertial force of the swinging. After letting a breath out, she shuddered and glanced around. At that moment, Quynh found the medium both pitiful and merciful. The medium’s body became loose and haggard. “He’s gone.” The medium wearily uttered those words and jerked up her chin toward the scarred woman: “Can you remember all his requests?” The scarred woman nodded her head. The medium straightened her shoulders, saying: “This spirit was so heavy and unpleasant that it upturned all my internal organs. Damn it!” The skinny woman could just now have the heart to rise up and started to ask something, but the medium cast an exasperated look on her: “Have you not awakened? You must pay the piper. Such is life!” The man breathed in short gasps and was about to smoke when the little girl said: “No smoking! She will choke.” The woman with the scar rose unsteadily and walked out of the door.

“Who do you want to call up?” said the medium. Quynh faltered and shook her head. “Well, if not, why are you here?” shouted the medium with more joy than annoyance. Quynh gave a quick response: “Next time perhaps.” The little girl grumbled again: “Crazy.”

Quynh walked quickly into the front yard and sat down beside the lady with the scar. It was quite airy there. The tricolored cat once again approached her, rubbing its ears against her trouser legs and making contented meows.

The scarred woman turned toward Quynh, saying: “Why did you travel a long way here and then not want to invoke the spirit?” Quynh bit her lips, looking up to the mountaintop behind the house: “I’m scared.” “Yes, I’m scared too,” said the scarred woman and all of a sudden her black eyes looked far away. After a while, she resumed: “Now that you are here, you should call the spirit. You may feel less troubled. Well, who knows . . .” She left her utterance incomplete; her face looked desolate and distressed, like the shadowy water. Her heartfelt and deliberate remark was thought provoking, and as a result, Quynh became brave enough to make a request: “Will you come back with me?” The scarred woman didn’t say anything, nor did she nod her head, but her eyes seemed to betray her.

Seeing Quynh and the scarred woman walking in, the man and the skinny woman, who were about to walk out, lingered out of curiosity.

Quynh put a 50 thousand note into the rattan basket and told the medium Tuan’s full name and death date. “What about his birthday?” said the medium. Quynh failed to recall his birthday and after a moment of hesitation, she clicked her tongue and told the medium her birthday instead. The medium frowned as if wanting to make an inquiry, but then she pouted and started to pray. The little girl lit the incense sticks once more and stood waiting nearby.

The medium reached out for the incense, grabbed the red cloth and put it on her head; her body shook violently and she started to call the spirit. Quynh became more and more restless, feeling as if her organs were being pulled out. She felt more and more dizzy and drowsy. Quynh was conscious that her body was slowly and steadily expanding until an identical, but thinner and more transparent, figure was drawn out. The medium made a slight sound and somebody vaguely uttered: “The spirit is coming.” Soon afterwards, Quynh saw somebody exactly like her, with chubby cheeks, very thin lips, and balanced delicate nostrils, sitting across from her like her reflection in a mirror. Quynh was almost in a trance and wondered which Quynh was the true Quynh. This Quynh asked: “Can you recognize me?” The other Quynh replied with a hoarse male voice: “Yes, but you look pale, don’t you?” This Quynh admitted: “I’m frightened and don’t know why. It’s so weird.” That Quynh sounded sympathetic: “I’m frightened too. Oh, why have you been so worried these days? You may fall sick.” This Quynh bit her lips, explaining: “I can’t stop thinking about you because you come back every night and open my eyes. Poor you!” That Quynh replied with exactly the same voice, resulting in an echo: “Uh, you come back every night and open my eyes. Poor you!” A silence followed as if that Quynh had left for somewhere else and then returned with a rough male voice: “But I must say I can’t resign myself to my fate. Why did I have to die when everything was all right?” This Quynh was startled and hence overwhelmingly inquired the spirit: “Is that you, is that you, Tuan?” Silence again. Somebody hurriedly exited and that Quynh switched her tone, denying: “It’s me, it’s me, Tuan isn’t here.” This Quynh disappointedly said in a low voice: “The night before your accident, in my dream, I saw an old woman lash my face with a bunch of flowers, blaming me, saying that it was all because of my very thin lips. The bouquet was as soft as a cat’s tail. How could I be so ignorant as to not figure out your imminent situation?” That Quynh sighed, repeating in a double voice: “How could I be so ignorant as to not figure out your imminent situation?” This Quynh reached out her hand for the other Quynh and that Quynh reached out her hand for this Quynh. The ten fingertips touched one another, the five of which were cold, whereas the other five were warm, but it was impossible to discern which five fingertips belonged to which Quynh. “Goodbye?” said this Quynh. The other Quynh nodded and the distance between them widened immediately. “I have to go,” said that Quynh. “Where are you going?” this Quynh startledly asked. “I don’t know. It’s time to go and I must go. Missing you so much, Tuan.” The invisible mirror broke into pieces with low crackling sounds . . .

Here are the witnesses’ statements:

The scarred woman stated: “As the spirit was almost coming, I saw the medium’s face turning pale and her limbs shivering. Later I saw two persons, as alike as two peas, though their voices sounded different, at some times a male voice, at other times a female one. So confusing! After their talk, the medium dropped dead first and was followed by Miss Quynh.”

The skinny woman said: “I did not take a good notice of it. I just saw Miss Quynh walking out and talking to Nhieu and then she walked back and asked for a séance.” The police queried whether Nhieu was the one with the scar on her forehead. The skinny woman confirmed: “Yes, she’s my husband’s sister.” The police went on: “Could you hear Nhieu and Quynh saying anything while they were in the yard?” The skinny woman shook her head “My husband and I walked into the yard much later, so we couldn’t hear them at all.”

The man recounted: “The two of them touched each other’s hands. After that, the medium’s face turned red, whereas Miss Quynh’s face turned dead white. As soon as the cat from the door jumped in between them, they fell down at the same time.” The police asked again: “They fell down exactly simultaneously?” The man asserted: “Sure, it was me who held up Miss Quynh.” The police continued: “When you helped her, did you find her body cold or warm?” The man unwittingly looked at his two hands as if finding an answer there and then gave an uncertain answer: “Cold, I think.”

The little girl related: “I held my aunt up but she was so heavy that we fell together at once, almost falling down on the cat.” The police inquired: “Did you find her body cold or warm?” The little girl scratched her armpit with her hand: “Warm, quite warm. As I remember, I held her neck up with this hand and I found it rather hot.” The police carried on: “When that young lady went out and did not want to call the spirit anymore, what did your aunt say?” The little girl replied in a rasping voice: My aunt said, “Luckily, that brat gave up; otherwise, I must be extremely agonized today.” The police kept asking: “And what happened when Miss Quynh came back? You must be honest.” The little girl was timid, her two lips taking turns biting each other: “When my aunt saw that girl coming back, she jokingly told me I might be helping her for the last time. I asked why she had said those ominous words, but she did not answer because the girl had already settled down in front of my aunt. That young woman made an offering of a 50 thousand note, one corner of which was curled. Oh, I almost forgot. My aunt told me to keep an eye on the cat and prevent it from entering the house when the spirit was returning.” The policeman’s face was covered in an incomprehensible smile and no note was taken of the little girl’s last words.

About the cause of the simultaneous and mysterious deaths of Quynh and the psychic, the same line was written down on a legal medical report dated the ninth of the fourth month of the lunar year: “Died of cerebrovascular stroke.”

 

Translated by Van Thi Nha Truc

Edited by Richard Bradley and Nguyen Thi Nhu Ngoc

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