Putting away childish things

(No.7, Vol.4,Aug-Sep 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

A Hanoi man recalls ghost stories and a haunted tree

I often come back to my village, my childhood’s world, full of mysteries. I come back, sit down and hope that the old feelings and visions will come back too; to scare me vaguely, to seduce me wildly, and make me believe that miracles can happen in this world.
My village is not far from Hanoi, just an hour’s bus ride. That’s why I often come here on holidays. I stay up late at night, sometimes until two or three o’clock in the morning. During those times, I am an ancient man from a place far away, hardly known to anyone. The village is deep asleep. Just a breeze playing with the leaves in the garden and rare barks of the sleepy dogs. I am alone in the whole world with its infinite darkness and felt so uncertain.
On summer nights, alone in the garden, listening to a cricket singing in a bush nearby, I often think about my grandma and her ghost stories. But now, after over 40 years, the wild fright and excitement about the ghosts hiding in the village trees are gone. I feel so much sadder by this lack of fear. I realize my alluring, dreamy childhood world, full of contrast, is fading away. The naiveté and curiosity are leaving my soul. When those are gone, the light in one’s soul will also be gone. The person is left only with the rough and nasty reason that he mistakes for maturity and wisdom.
The mysterious ghost stories my grandma told me during my childhood are the biggest heritage she left me. In those times, though the fear they invoked in me made my hair stand up, and made me wet myself because I didn’t dare to leave her warm embrace, I asked for more every night. Some stories were told many times, but I always felt the same palpitation that squeezed my heart and made me shrivel up.
When I was ten, my village hired a man from a neighbouring village, who used to climb trees to cut branches or to gather fruits and cut excessive branches of the huge cotton tree at the edge of the village to prepare for the storm season. The man climbed to the top of the tree and looked down. And then it happened.
He held on to the tree top and howled in horror. He couldn’t climb down. It took our villagers and his relatives half a day to bring him down. Then he fell into a coma. He was feverish for days. In delirium, he held his pillow tightly and howled as though he were still on the tree top. The fever was gone later but he never came to his senses again. He became mad. My fellow villagers said that he was possessed by the cotton tree ghost. Sometimes, I saw him walk naked past my village. He walked and danced, mumbling something unintelligible.
Since then, we didn’t dare to play around the cotton tree anymore. Every time we had to go past it, we counted to three and ran as fast as we could. The stories about the cotton tree ghost became much more scary and mysterious after the climbing man had gone mad. At nights, people would hear whispers in the canopy. Later on, grown up, I know that it was just the wind playing in the leaves.
A few days ago, a friend of mine wanted to plant a Chinese fig tree. It took him a lot of time and effort to find one. But then, he suddenly decided not to bring it home. He said this tree was a favourite habitat for ghosts. That was his real reason not to plant it near the house. I, too, have heard stories about Chinese fig tree ghosts since my childhood from my grandma and other villagers. My grandma said that she heard them screeching on a fig tree and an incredible stench pervaded. In those days, I used to see in my dreams that the fig tree ghosts chased me so closely that my legs were twisted. And each time, frozen in horror, I clung to my grandma, my tongue sticky, ‘Grandma, the fig tree ghosts chase me.’ Without her warm arms and voice that smelled of betel, I would have gone mad with fear.
Yet, waking up the next morning, I came down to the family pond and looked toward the fig tree in an abandoned garden. Its ripe fruits hung invitingly. During the day, their yellow colour and aroma allured me. At nights, the imagined ghosts of the tree pulled me into an evil whirlpool. I asked my grandma, how can the fruits, so aromatic, host ghosts? She said, because the ghosts love that smell.
In past times, villages were enshrouded in an ephemeral atmosphere. It was always dark inside low mud houses with straw roofs. There was no electricity. After dinner, people extinguished their lamps to save kerosene. After that, they did everything by touch. There were big gardens everywhere, full of trees and bushes. All of that created a nightly world full of scary hallucinations.
Later, I learned that the aroma of the fig fruits attracts nocturnal creatures. Bats come in large, black flocks to feed on the figs. They beat their wings unceremoniously in the canopy and thus spread the stench. They fight for the ripe fruits and screech. Rats also climb up to eat these fruits. They often cling onto each other and make a big black bunch hanging on the branches. The ‘evil’ aroma of the figs mixed with the stench of the bats, their wing beats and their screeching make the night full of unperceivable horror.
Now I am a grownup. At night, the village is showered with bright electric light. Youngsters sing in a karaoke shop nearby. People shout, watching a Premier League match… all that has swept away the old-time mysteries. For myself, it is all irrevocably, regrettably gone, like a lost world. That was the inner world of my soul, a world of secrets that I dreamt to discover.

Illustration by Phan Ngoc Vinh

In the book of Australian short stories, ‘Dingo’, that I translated many years ago, there was a story about a young boy with a mysterious world. He was told a story about a flute player and walking hills. Every day, at sunset, he stood by a window to count the hills heaving in front of him. He could never count exactly the number of hills. So he believed that the hills were walking so that he could not count them. Later he fell into a sleep and dreamt of walking hills.
But one day, a big change happened in his life. He became a young man. The hills stopped walking. The young man counted day after day, and there were always 9 hills. He cried. He had become a man, and his strange dreams together with the world full of mysteries had gone forever from his life.
And I am now in the same situation, like the boy in the story. The pure and subtle beauty and the secrets of this life seem to have forgotten me. I was pulled into the whirlpool of practical life with too much scrambling and anxiety, too much envy and suspicion, too much apathy and calculation. That’s why I often come back to my village; my childhood’s world, full of mysteries.
*Mr Nguyen Quang Thieu is a well-known poet and writer

By Nguyen Quang Thieu*
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