THE SUN WAS SETTING in the western sky afar, shedding what was left of its warmth before it left to lighten up the other side of the Earth.
Huy loved to imagine the sun to be a spherical orange with flowery tendrils shaped like a red, unruly lion’s mane around the core. He knew that it was childish and far from facts, of course. He had learnt his fair share of basic science through his meager education back when he had had the chance to (and basic counting he could handle, but the rest of algebra–he found soon–hated him, and geometry pretty much wanted to turn his brain into jelly), and he knew full well that the sun was nothing so comical, just a flaming ball of gas, a tiny speck among an ocean filled with stars, and that single speck was doing whatever it could to preserve the even tinier ones with its embrace, sheltering them for as long as it could with whatever transient warmth still left.
A smile bloomed on Huy’s face, like a flower slowly showing off its petals.
What a good friend the sun is to the planets in its care, he mused. Until it blows up eventually and takes everything with it. United we stand, together perish, so it would seem. He added a chuckle to that, not at all in good humor.
The boy had stopped playing his latest song two minutes ago and was now letting a monstrous yawn loose, uncaring of his manners or any wayward eyes that might find him sitting by the roadside. Nobody had been on that case for at least a year now. Besides, one can’t eat manners to survive on the streets.
His mouth opened widely, showing off all of his teeth and gum and tongue. There were tears condensed at the corners of his eyes, but they never fell down. He never bothered to cover his mouth when yawning. He hadn’t cared for the last two years now.
Huy returned to playing his flute shortly afterward. He liked to think he had composed that song from scratch, but there was something inside his mind that whispered otherwise, telling him it was an old tune whose name he could not remember, but whose melodies he could call upon as easily as the lungs exhale the air from the body or how the limbs move in accordance with the brain’s will.
He didn’t know the song’s name, but he had a feeling that he should. Names are, after all, important. A gift of identity which defines one’s place within the world.
The melody was soft and sweet, and somewhere in the even deeper layers of his mind, Huy could almost recall the lost lyrics, and a voice to accompany the words, clear as an echo of a distant bell. But they hid well and never came out. It was maddening, like an itch that one can’t reach, or a word that dances teasingly at the very tip of the tongue and yet refuses to cross over the edge.
Huy released the hair he was fisting, took in deep breaths and counted to ten. He did not want to be bald before sixty, granted that he could live that long. Besides, a bald head would not be a trendsetter for any twelve-year-old kids anywhere.
His eyes trailed toward the sun again, slow in its descent and gentle in its crimson orange hue. It was a warm day, and a lazy day. People were walking to and fro with kids tottering behind them toward their waiting rides. The entire place seemed bustling with noises of people going and coming, of cars and motorbikes honking and roaring and dashing like crazed metal beasts, of people shouting for the attention of their children, of vendors crying for attention and many others begging for the same thing.
The sound of his flute by the mostly empty pavement was perhaps–he thought with a frown–the only clear note among this noxious symphony of chaos banging against the eardrums. He wished there were an off button somewhere, or a knob at least to turn the volume down.
Huy decided to ignore everything and get back to his playing. He had a belly to feed, and thus would sit there and play his flute for two more hours.
One and a half hour later, the alley cats had to come and watch him seconds before he decided to pack up, and he couldn’t for the life of him refuse to play for those poor stray souls and kindred spirits on the roads. Crowds start out small, and the cats certainly have a way of attracting a small group, though they were more interested in filming him and uploading the video online, where it would get more views than he could ever manage to get in real life.
More views, more likes and not a single bill inside his hungry, withering cap that had–he assumed–once been white. Now it looked like something brown and haunted by a horrid odor, and Huy had to get rid of the imagery as fast as it came and focused back on the flute and the videos. He would like to keep whatever nutrients he had left inside.
Exposure was good, he supposed, but he was certain that the likes would be for the cats. Everybody loves cats. With their big pleading eyes and swishing tail and beautiful coats of colors and cloud-soft paws…
He paused again at the end of a quick song to wipe a line of drool and his flute. That single moment seemed to make the cats lose their interest, and they left. The humans left, too, not long after.
“Sometimes I wonder if the cats are actually the masters behind all things. They already know how to raise the dead by jumping over the bodies and keep the living from being dead to the world for a start,” The boy mumbled to himself in his perpetual monotonous voice and decided that he had had enough for one day. His flute would not rise above the noises anyway, not with all the clamors thundering around. He picked up his cap, fisted the bills inside and pocketed them.
With the flute cradled against his chest in a manner not unlike how one would hold a baby, the young boy walked away, his tiny form appearing like a fish trying to swim against a current, unnoticed by the streams of people nearby.
He counted the bills when he was sure nobody was looking with a quickness that, in his mind, could either be achieved by (a) a thief who goes through the values of the loot when in the clear, (b) a merchant at the market or © a banker. He had had run-ins with all of those types, and didn’t know which one was the worst, so he focused on counting the money.
“Enough for one loaf of bread,” he mumbled to himself. He tended to do that. Living alone makes one long to hear another voice in one’s ears, even if the voice is not of another live being.
The boy then picked up his pace and made a beeline for a familiar vendor near the school gates.
“Evening, kid,” said Mr. Phan with a kind smile on his face as he spotted him coming. It was a smile which was contagious like the flu and compelled others to do the same. Huy did as compelled. Huy’s smile, on the other hand, was the flu. It chased people away with all the mischief that it promised within its impish appearance. How Mr. Phan still let him hang around was a mystery which he was still trying to figure out.
He had met the older man, probably in his late fifties if appearance was anything to go by, a while back when looking for cheap bread. Life in the city is anything but cheap, and even harsher for a vagabond with a flute as a livelihood. Huy sometimes imagined that he was a person misplaced in time, and briefly wondered that if it had been a different era, would he have become a good court musician at least?
In fact, many people and things Huy knew either looked like they were or indeed were relics of the past, all misplaced in the present and frozen in time, refusing to be swept along with the constant flow. Mr. Phan never once changed his looks. His hair was grey and thinning, tied into a low ponytail. His dark-colored shirt looked like it belonged in the wartime, and his khakis looked worn, black mixing with spots of grey and white. He was thin, but his eyes held a vigor that Huy never seemed to understand, and his slouch masked a swiftness of motion that he was sure could outdo most of the younger generation any day. His fingers, nine calloused and thickened digits, moved with grace as he sliced the ham and prepared a loaf for a student in line. The girl took the bread, paid and walked away.
Dark brown eyes were locked on him then.
“You’re early today. Have some water,” Mr. Phan said in the same tone he had always used with him, a deep baritone which echoed in the eardrums. His smile widened, and the scar on his cheek wrinkled. Most found it scary, but Huy didn’t mind. He knew scary things. That was not it.
The young street artist mused as he looked at the man with the dark eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses, always so happy to see him. Huy liked the thought that perhaps, in his life filled with uncertainty, there was a single rock that would not budge along with the currents and stay the same always.
An anchor to hold him down within the river of transience.
He accepted the water bottle Mr. Phan offered and smiled back. The cool liquid was heaven-sent as it coursed through his desert of a throat. Playing the flute for hours tends to do that, as well as excessive wandering and an afternoon exercise with a crazed storekeeper who thought whatever earthquake-inducing rumbles coming out of his brand-new speakers was better than his “annoying buzzes.”
Okay, Huy admitted to himself. He might have been at fault for taking the bait in the first place when he had raised his voice and told the man off in a way that no twelve-year-old should be capable of, but surely there was no cause for the storekeeper to actually take out a broom and give him a twenty-minute death race practice (with a very motivational coach yelling in the background as a whole package deal).
Huy didn’t regret it, however. Not for a single second.
People could say things about his dirty face and his skin darkened by the harsh sunlight. They could say anything they wanted about his shabby clothes and his long, wavy hair that seemed to defy gravity itself by being swept by too many a gust. They could accuse him of being a thief, which he was most definitely not, except for when he found things on the ground that nobody claimed, and it wasn’t his fault he felt threatened by men in green uniforms coming his way and telling him to stop. Excuse him, but when someone yells at you to stop, it is the most perfect time to start moving. They could insult him about anything and everything all they wanted. He would not bat an eye. It was old anyway. Even the best words turned dull after a while.
But nobody, Huy thought with a grim determination, nobody in any lifetime was allowed to insult his flute. His flute was not a flimsy stick with holes, or a wooden windpipe (“Windpipe is inside a human’s body, bulldozer!” he had said to the storeowner).
The flute had been his only companion for a long time, ever since he had been found at the doorstep of the orphanage. Growing up, he had always felt like his hands were meant to hold something, and the empty air that had filled them had made him feel oddly naked, underdressed amid the cold and rain. The caretakers had given him the flute when he was old enough to know what it was, and when his hands had grazed the wooden surface filled with patterns whose meanings eluded him still, Huy had felt a spark like a current of electricity passing through his fingertips. It was a brief sensation with lingering static, yet the initial shock had been powerful.
Huy had never parted with his flute ever since, and he had learnt how to play it, with far more commitment than anyone thought was possible for an overactive child like him.
The flute fitted perfectly in his hand and was a part of him.
He was pretty sure his playing had gotten pretty decent, though coming from himself, it probably sounded biased. Other people wouldn’t tell him, and those darn, clingy, adorable cats would certainly not. They seemed to like him enough, though, until they started meowing and begging for food, which was cue for him to pause and make them lose interest. Funny how cats can control people, though. He wished he could speak their language and learn their secrets.
The boy let out a sigh of relief as he returned the now empty bottle back to Mr. Phan.
“I decided to close up early today,” Huy said and wiped his mouth with his forearm. “Slow day. As usual. The alley cats get more attention than me.”
“Ah, then you and I are on the same boat, boy,” said Mr. Phan. “School’s out, and so far, I’ve sold ten loaves and paid for myself one.” He chuckled like it was the funniest thing in the world. It was hard not to join in.
Huy looked around. “Maybe you should, I don’t know, change the spot?” he suggested. “You know, location, location, location. I can see potential patrons here, but not many.” He looked around again. The streets were quite busy, with motorbikes whisking past constantly and figures walking by. Children were pulled closer by their guardians, and adults never spared them a glance that lasted more than a second.
Huy sometimes believed in the possibility of his imagination. Maybe they were truly misplaced relics out of time, and out of space itself. It would explain how almost nobody would bother with them, even though they were in plain sight. Mr. Phan patted his head and ruffled his hair. The older man was fast and stealthy. A terrible combination if it had been someone else.
“I like it here,” said the older man.
His eyes darted around the streets. Huy looked up, and he could see it. Mr. Phan always had that look in his eyes, a faraway look that seemed to transcend time and space itself, a look which could see things that he could no. The old man had shared, of course, but Huy still wasn’t able to bring himself to see a world filled with elegant streets alit with streetlights blooming across the empty space like tiny fireflies, with cycle rickshaws slowly navigating the empty roads, with couples joining hands along the pavements, with delicate ladies in their elegant áo dài either walking down the streets or riding on their modest bikes during the day with their conical hats shielding their heads from the sun’s peeking.
That sounded like a world straight out of a dream.
That which Huy could see before him was a jungle, yes, with mad beasts running at break-neck speed and roaring at one another, with people shouting and streets clogged, and not once had the boy seen the fairyland that Mr. Phan insisted that had once existed. It made him almost envy the man.
He changed the subject. “So,” he coughed, looking around for anything remotely interesting to talk about. He got nothing. “Are you going to call it quits early?”
Mr. Phan jolted back to the present. “I may,” he said and sighed as he walked back to his stand. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me today? My home’s small, but there’s enough space for one more.”
It was this question again. It was endearing, yes, and Huy quite enjoyed the attention and appreciated the sentiments. But he couldn’t accept that. The sun was getting down.
“I’m sure,” he said with his impish smile and his own peace sign, thumb and index fingers forming an O, the pinkie curled and the middle and ring fingers straightened.
Mr. Phan sighed through his nose, and Huy had to fight back the dread spreading inside him and left it cold and hollow. Huy didn’t like to think that those dark eyes looking down at him held disappointment. He chased the thought away and smiled once more, all come-what-may attitude and bared teeth.
“I’ll be fine.” He said. He always had been alone, which was probably much better because of…reasons.
“Alright then, young man,” said Mr. Phan, resigned. There was silence before his frown was turned around. The smile was back on his face, and it was as though it had never left in the first place. “Now then, how may I help you this evening?”
“One loaf of bread, please,” said Huy as he. He got the bread and paid for it (“Half-priced discount for my most loyal patron,” said Mr. Phan despite Huy’s stubborn insistence).
“You be careful out there now,” Mr. Phan said with a wave. Huy waved back and walked away. He heard whispers behind him, all saying the same thing, “The nights of the full moon are upon us.”
The salty taste of the pâté, the freshness of the tomatoes and cucumbers and coriander, the heat of chili sauce and the sourness of the pickled vegetables exploded in his mouth. Huy smiled as he nibbled at the loaf in his hand, savoring each taste that tickled his bud.
He would walk until the orange with lion mane in the western sky was no longer in sight.
The streetlights were already flickering along the pavements by the time he arrived at his next destination. The air was colder, and the streetlights were doing whatever they could to chase the darkness under them while, ironically, casting new ones upon the yellowed earth. Discarded plastic bags flew around the air and made soft rustling noises as they did. In the distant, Huy could hear the faint sounds of trash bags being disturbed.
His eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness as he walked within the shadows. They hugged his form like a blanket while the cold air of the night embraced him in a manner which an old friend would greet another, and in that embrace, Huy felt somewhat safer than being in out the sun.
The graveyard was–he chuckled to himself as he entered–dead silent as always. It was his favorite haunt after he had wandered here some months ago. Little gravestones scattered around like sickbeds and decorated with the dark-green bushes. His worn sandals trod on the dirt paths, occasionally sending small pebbles and rocks flying and echoing hollowly in his ears. There was nobody around, only the barks of dogs in the distant and the whispers of the wind as they caressed the leaves and bushes.
Huy’s eyes looked at some graves as he walked. There were names, of course, and faces, and a few of them were empty. Houses without owners, for the owners had long moved on. He walked further north while mentally humming a song to himself. He would not sing aloud, heavens forbid. That would be terrible.
He looked around, at everything and at nothing. There was hardly any light in the graveyard, but he didn’t mind. The darkness never hindered him in any way. Huy took a turn, and came to sit by the bank of the pond at the heart of the graveyard. It wasn’t a big pond, but underneath the bright light of the full moon streaming down and the hissing winds stirring slight ripples on the surface, it appeared much bigger and much deeper, like a tiny ocean, perhaps.
He sat down by the bank and watched the moon within the water. It fluttered and danced with the stirred surface. He chuckled to himself as his younger self popped into his mind. He had once imagined if he could have the moon in his hand. He tried to. The moon got away, drop by drop dripping down his palms.
Now, he was simply content in watching the image of the moon–an echo of an illusion–as it painted a silvery coat on the water surface. It was a ritual. He would come here every night, had been for the last two years. He would sit by the pond in silence for a moment before he took out his flute.
The familiar texture of the smooth wooden instrument against his lips was soothing. His lips pressed gently against the surface with a sense of gentleness only a true lover could achieve, feathery yet passionate, with enough pressure but never demanding. His mind went through his mental playlist for the night. Afar, the sounds of stray dogs barking rang still, but he paid them no mind. The night was his stage.
He picked the first song, an old Bolero whose name he never caught but whose melody and rhythm he had long memorized from listening to the old street artists singing multiple times with their beat-up guitars and world-weary voices. The first note gave way to the second, and the third, and the melody played out under his guidance.
The notes floated in the air and banished the serenity, and he–for a moment–imagined that even the graveyard breezes, cold and callous as they were, stopped their playful banters and murmurs to listen for a moment. Huy smirked into his flute as he played.
Low notes vibrated. High notes intensified. The chorus broke the tranquility and harmonized with the once again blowing breezes. The lyrics played themselves in his head, sung by the same sweet yet weary souls he had met. Huy smiled a bit. He wasn’t liked by any live being in particular (except Mr. Phan) but for some reasons, he made friends with the old souls. The song slowly eased itself into a gentle end that lingered as though regretting that the end had been reached yet the desire was not satiated. The melancholy stretched on until his breath was cut. The cold wind and the trees clapped, and nothing more.
There was a moment of tranquility again. There was always a moment like this, a brief interval. Then he heard it.
“When tide of midnight’s nigh,
Why don’t you rest your mind at ease?
Why be trapped by worries,
Like an ocean with ceaseless waves?
Like birds with wings astray,
Aimless midst faraway heavens?”
The poem and the voice that whispered in the air stopped then, and Huy turned around to see the poet. He didn’t know why, but he was certain that most of the acquaintances he knew were old souls.
And for some, the meaning was quite literally.
Huy looked at lady sitting beside him, and he could see the patch of ground through her form. She was older than he was, much older, yet her face still shone with a youthful vigor unmarred by the merciless passage of time itself, for time could no longer touch her. Her outfits suggested that she, too, was a misplaced fragment of the distant past. She looked like a fairy from the picture books his teachers had made him read. Clad in a long, flowing silvery robe that seemed to have been woven from the starlight and endowed with the glows of the full moon, the lady was a delicate creature in all of her ethereal beauty.
Her features were no less enchanting, and Huy imagined how she would have looked like without the eternal grayscale mode once upon a time: lips soft like peach petals and, he fancied, would have been adorned by lipsticks so red they would have made the roses fume with envy. Her hair, like the rest of her form was a shade of mist-white, but some strands were black in the dim lighting of the graveyard. Her eyebrows were thin, two equal lines upon her pale face. Her deep eyes suggested they had seen much and boasted of a kind of intelligence rarely known to her kind at her time, and Huy wondered how deep they went, like a bottomless ocean darkened by the night and partially illuminated by the pallid moonlight.
“Lệ Nga,” he greeted her with a wave. The lady greeted back with a bow. She never waved back, and her hands were always hidden inside the comfort of her long sleeves. Formality was what she was good at, and she stuck to it.
“Good evening, young master Huy,” she said. One corner of her mouth moved upward as a frown weighed his own down. She smiled behind a raised sleeve, and spoke a spontaneous verse.
“A young face so sullen,
Like willow’s bough burden’d by rain.”
Huy huffed loudly.
“Good evening to you, too,” he said. The title of young master sat ill at ease with him. Huy knew she was doing that to spite him. She laughed, and even her laughter was pure as a dozen wind chimes ringing in harmony.
“You have improved much, I should think,” she said. Huy rolled his eyes and said, “Of course,” aloud with indifference. He could never tell whether she was being polite or sincere, or simply indulging. His face turned away from her gaze. The darkness masked a small smile upon chapped lips. Huy convinced himself that the sound behind him came from the winds blowing through the leaves.
They sat in silence, and watched as the moon on the water surface faze in and out. The graveyard’s breezes played with his black, curvy locks and sent fragrances of the land to his nose: fragrances of the wet stones, of the earth, of the grassy blades bending to the whim of the wind and of the residual essences of the offered flowers–lilies, he noticed.
“What is on your mind, child?” Lê Nga asked. Huy smirked. It was one that promised no mischief. Instead, it conveyed a challenge.
Lệ Nga smiled again behind the sleeve of her starlight-woven robe. She tilted her head. Her mist-colored hair fell down over one shoulder, long and flowing like a waterfall frozen halfway during its descent. Huy made no reply. Instead, he gently pressed his lips against the flute, and as flute was meant to do, the song began to play.
No whispers came from the breezes and the leaves. Even the moon seemed to shine more brightly, casting its light and the earthbound shadows all across the spot where the boy sat with the misty lady, both with their eyes closed. The song started slow, and picked up.
Lệ Nga hummed quietly to the melody, and began her own song once Huy’s tune reached its end.
“Whose flute’s playing nearby,
So tender sweet a cry’s echo?
Soft as autumn’s rainfall,
Yet what secret flute holds therein?
A pond’s surface serene,
‘Neath which ripples begin to spread.
Dewdrops silently shed,
A nightingale that bled its heart.
Aimless ears near or far,
Flute’s song could any start to know?
Or like Boya alone,
Without Ziqi of old nearby?
Like seas profound, hills high,
Seabed, hilltop, who might thus see?
The flute’s melancholy,
Who else’s noticed but the flutist?
Huy looked at her and saw her gazing back, a small smile on her face. He shook his head and sighed.
“You’re too good at this game,” he said quietly.
“Great minds think alike, child,” she said with a thoughtful hum. “I shall commend you on your fresh images, though. A nightingale which bled? Why?”
Huy shrugged, “From a story I once read in the past.”
“Are you sure you can’t read mind, or something, ‘cause I can start a business with that. Make more cash.”
“I never pegged you for a con artist material, either, little one. Though I must admit you hold a certain devious shine in those eyes of yours, not of a lord’s, nor a general’s, nor a king’s, but a tactician’s–half of genius, half of madness and whole of mystery. A mirage afar which can be perceived but cannot be touched.
“I have no idea what you just said, but I suppose it was a compliment. I’ll take it,” Huy said with a shrug. He continued after a pause, “So, business?”
“Hmm, then I am afraid I am of no assistance to you, child. My mind is one that is in tune with a soulmate–”
“I’m twelve,” he cut in, tone flat.
“A kindred spirit.” Huy imagined she would have rolled her eyes, but she didn’t. Manners and courtesy were always hers to command (or to be commanded by). “Soulmates do not exclusively refer to the…romantically involved, child.”
“If you say so.”
She nodded her head, and like everything she did, the action was delicate to perfection. She looked at the illusion of the moon below, and then at the moon above with a wistful look in her haunting orbs. Her lips parted, and words streamed out to form the familiar verse beneath the full moon, its words spoken so softly as though they were not to be shared.
“Two souls are thus entwined,
Red thread of fate thus binds them so.
Till heads of mist are grown,
Two voices share one oath aloud.
High Moon’s witnessed shared vow,
Two lives forever bound by troth.”
Huy looked at the sky with her, and began to count the stars. It would take a while for Lệ Nga to come down from wherever her mind had wandered off to. She always did that, letting her mind swim freely among the Silver River above, sparkling as if endowed by tiny diamonds.
Huy loved this sight. The graveyard was always a perfect place to gaze upon the stars. Such beauty could be found where signs of life were all afar.
“How was your day, child?” Lệ Nga asked some ten minutes later without looking at him,
Huy shrugged nonchalantly and spoke in the same manner, “Slow day. Not many people stopped to listen to my playing, except the cats.”
“Cats are the loveliest of creatures.”
“Enough to brainwash people?”
“I should think so, yes. They do possess a certain charm with their serene gaze that pierces one’s soul. Eyes that hold much therein.”
“Have you seen the eye of a tiger?” Huy asked.
“I do believe once in my lifetime. They were mesmerizing, and terrifying, and enchanting and many more at the same time. There I was, face-to-face with a beast that could have delivered me passage to the eternal Yellow River, and yet all that I remember was how breathtaking those eyes were, so true and straight, so uncomplicated and so focused on a single purpose. Death has never appeared so magnificent to the eyes of a mortal.”
“That sounds lethal,” Huy commented.
“It is what it is. Different eyes have different sights, and do mine. I see what I see, and I speak what I perceive,” she said with her attention now fixed on him. “In that manner, I suppose we are quite similar.”
He sighed and changed the topic. He was twelve, and being compared to a ghost of a lady from a feudal era was not what he wanted to hear from anyone. Old soul or not, he still wanted to keep what was left of his childhood. “How’s your day?”
Lệ Nga said in a more subdued tone. “I engaged in quite lovely conversations with my neighbors, old and new alike. The newcomers have been restless all day, and the little ones are still having problems adjusting. Poor dears,” She looked at the graveyard behind her then. The space between the beds of stone was filled with moonlight. Sleek shadows from the trees spread. The figures in white walked about.
“There are many of them here,” Huy observed.
“Some have moved on already. Many of these are the new ones. Freshly buried and confused, too. But they are adjusting and killing time with idle talks.”
Huy smiled, “Kill that which kills you when alive.”
Lệ Nga returned the gesture, “A fine reversal of role. Have you eaten?”
Huy groaned again. “Yes, mama, I have.”
“You need to take better care of yourself, child. The streets are not kind, and neither are the rains and the shines. Perhaps you should take up on that man’s offer. What is his name again?”
“Mr. Phan,” Huy said in a voice that screamed I have told you this many times already.
“Yes, him. It is not unreasonable, and it is not intrusion if it is offered.”
Huy waved off her words as one would with flies and mosquitoes. “His house’s tiny, and he needs to live as well. I can’t impose like that. Not after his wife…”
Lệ Nga sighed. “I see. May I ask how?”
“Traffic accident. A drunk driver ran the red light while she was out collecting scraps. She died on the spot.”
“May her soul know peace, “Lệ Nga spoke sincerely. “Is she here?”
“No. I saw her picture once, on the pedestal. She’s not here, or I would know,” the boy said quietly as he glanced behind as he walked away from the pond. The graveyard was a dull place, filled with black and grey and dark green. In the night, fading figures of misty hues roamed about on the dim dirt paths. They were whispering, and their voices blended with the breezes that haunted the area. The dead were never loud among themselves. They rarely were. They shared murmurs, and they discussed things which were either really old or mere assumptions made based on whatever snippets they had managed to get from the morning visitors.
“My son’s getting married,” said a Mrs. Thiên to a newcomer with a smile. Huy knew her rather well from the stories she had told him. She had lived a bittersweet life, with half of her childhood spent on staying away from smokes and guns and explosions, and the later half spent caring for her only son while widowed, a child who had grown and was now getting married, apparently. “Such a lovely lady his fiancé is. I’m sure she’ll make a fine wife.”
“Fine wine?” shouted her longtime neighbor nearby, an elderly creature with a hard look and an appearance of a whitewashed banyan tree: big, thick-skinned and filled with wrinkled. Huy could almost imagine him when he had been alive, with dark skin kissed by the sunlight, broad shoulders and a firm chest always puffed out with unconcealed pride and eyes which spoke of nothing more than loyalty to his people. The soldier’s cap was still on his head, which he gave a tug at every few minutes if only to see if it was still there.
“Wife!” Mrs. Thiên shouted. Mr. Trung’s brows knitted. His face crumpled up. The wrinkled formed a complicated pattern.
“Whine? Who whines?” he asked, leaning closer and cupping his ear.
“Wife!” Mrs. Thiên shouted into it. The newcomer, a woman in her thirties or so, was long gone by now.
The man leaned closer with a pronounced frown on his face. Huy shook his head and chuckled. When didn’t he have a frown on his face? His hearing problem was the result of hearing too many explosions up close, and the dead unfortunately didn’t have the luxury of hearing aids.
It was comical in a depressing way, Huy mused, as the neighbors shouted back and forth. They always gathered lots of attention to themselves at night, and Mrs. Thiên had been saying something about making up for lost time.
Lệ Nga was hovering beside him. None of the older residents looked at her much, but the newer ones did. Her presence alone commanded attention from the unknowing. She was, after all, the Elder Earthbound here, and that alone made her a respected ghost. There were glances that were less than respectful from some newcomers, but she never cared much. Huy cared, though. The fingers around his flute grew twitchy.
Mrs. Thiên shook her head and clicked her tongue, deciding that her conversation was done. She turned around, and smiled a radiant smile. It was refreshing, like the clearing of mist when morning comes.
“Young man!” she came to Huy and offered a small bow to Lệ Nga first, who bowed back just as respectfully. The old lady reached out a hand toward the boy’s messy hair, but then her face scrunched up like she had suddenly remembered herself, and the hand dropped midway as though broken. The smile was suddenly no longer as bright, and the mirth no longer as abundant. Huy smiled a rueful smile. The dead don’t break habits. Habits are all that they have left and if they are broken, what would be left of them anymore?
“Good evening, Mrs. Thiên,” Huy said.
“Evening to you, too, lad,” said the woman. “You came at the perfect time. That old coot over there is getting on my last nerves.”
“Love?” Mr. Trung chimed in, and all he got was a “Dream on!”
Mrs. Thiên turned back to Huy, smiling a thin-lipped smile. “Now here’s one who can hold a conversation,” said the old lady. Huy saw the corners of her smile falter. “That is, if you’re not too terribly busy or anything. I would hate to keep you from whatever you’re working on. Don’t let an old lady pull you down, lad,” She spoke as though she was jesting, and the laugh that left her transparent lips were feeble, a breeze which could barely lift a feather on the ground.
“Not at all, Mrs. Thiên. No time like the present, yes?” Huy grinned. Mrs. Thiên looked as though she would have showered him with candies and cuddles and kisses on the forehead then and there, and maybe a few pinches to both cheeks along the way.
“Excellent!” she exclaimed. She burst into a frenzy of syllables without further prompts. She went on and on about her son, picking up on the previous conversation and talking about how proud she had been–and still was and would always be–of his achievements, academically and professionally.
“He was such a sweet, sweet boy,” said the old lady with a nostalgic smile that brightened that corner of the graveyard. The dead don’t have much left, other than time and memories, and they hold dear to both, the former to kill, and the latter to save.
And to share.
She continued speaking, about her past life, of the times spent underground as the raucous noises of guns and cries and explosions made the earth tremble furiously, of the soothing words her mother whose face she could no longer remember with clarity sang to her. It always held the usual wet and high-pitched quality. She would talk about the joy when the battles were won, of the hardships that came later. Huy listened. He always did when the dead talk. They have memories, and he had time. He would give them his time, and they would give him stories.
“It was the most beautiful day of my life,” Mrs. Thiên looked at the heavens adorned with the diamond sparkles and the biggest pearl among them all.
Huy imagined that, perhaps, if her eyes could have been kissed by those lights, they, too, would sparkle with a gleam exceeding any wonders out there. “Thành asked for my hand in marriage, and the world seemed brighter despite the rain pouring down on the roof of that shabby café above our heads. The rain seemed warmer despite the its cold drops leaking through, and the cold seemed to disappear to leave us lovebirds alone in our nest. I remembered a rainbow in the distance, encircling the horizon afar.” Her eyes looked ahead, as though the rainbow was truly there within the night. She paused for a long time. Her entire form trembled not from the cold. Her fingers shook; her lips were pressed together, occasionally parting to whisper words meant only for her ears. Huy observed as the moonlight shone more on her form, casting a silvery outline around her being, aglow like a white halo that continued to grow brighter and bigger with each passing second.
She looked back at the boy seated at her gravestone.
“Would you like some fruit?” she asked sincerely.
“No thanks,” Huy said. “They’re yours.” He eyed the fruit and the flowers, a beautiful banquet of white lilies–her favorite. The flowers looked fresh. The fruit, however… Huy decided to leave those for the worms.
Mrs. Thiên nodded and continued after a quick prompt. “Life wasn’t easy. It wasn’t light and brilliance all the time. There were storms and thunders on our path, fights and disagreements and of course, how to earn our keeps. We did all we could, find jobs in all corners we wandered to, but we made it work somehow. By heavens, we made it work. He found a job as a security guard, and I a seamstress. We did our best and saved every single bill we managed to collect. Hunger shared was hunger lessened, and pain shared was pain halved. Laughter shared was laughter tenfold. “
She laughed the to prove her point, and those gathered laughed with her. Their voices soared and drowned out the conversations of the wind and the leaves before they subsided.
Mrs. Thiên carried on, “And the second time I saw rainbow was a few days after my boy came into this world. The precious little angel stayed in my embrace as I gazed at him and listened to his energetic cry. O, that cry,” her eyes closed out of habit, and her voice grew even shakier with emotions that she could remember when she had been alive. The halo’s gleam intensified.
She spoke more about her son, about his days as a toddler, of how her husband had passed away before her after a vicious stroke on a harsh summer day, and how she, alone and aggrieved yet never defeated, had raised her child into adulthood. Words came out of her pale lips like a river gushing over a broken dam. Memories poured out unrestrained. Each word was spoken with a love that Huy imagined could only be conveyed by a parent. By a mother.
The young boy listened with rapt attention, nodding at the right places but never interrupting. It was Mrs. Thiên’s moment, and the soil she was hovering above was her stage, ad she was the storyteller of the night. But Huy could not help but feel something sharp poking at his heart as he listened to the mother’s account.
He wondered what it would feel like to hear someone speak of him like that one day, with eyes shut and a smile so big it hurt. He shook his head and refocused on the ghost.
“This morning,” said Mrs. Thiên, “they came to me, hand-in-hand and fingers locked. I saw their rings, and I saw their faces. They told me of their meetings in the rain, and the rainbow they saw after the rain. It must be a sign. It must be…”
Her voice trailed off to a silence that was warm and comfortable, like that aftermath of a symphony, the note of silence when all else had been conveyed. Her body began to glow brighter. She was a ghost no more, and before Huy now stood an elderly woman with a body of ethereal silver clad in the moon-woven fabric and hugged by the halo.
“You’re leaving,” Huy said softly. It wasn’t a question. He smiled at her, close-lipped and subtle as opposed to his usual toothy ones. He convinced himself that the stinging behind his eyes were only the result of his sleepiness.
“I am,” Mrs. Thiên nodded. “I feel that I can rest in peace at last, knowing that my son will be in good hands.” She looked at the moon and the stars and the Silver River overhead, then at the boy. “I don’t know where I’ll go to. I don’t know if I’ll see my beloved there. But I suppose he must be there. I feel it. Woman’s intuition.”
“He must be,” Huy repeated.
She studied the live boy among the dead, and gave another smile. “I’ll miss you, lad. I hate to leave you behind.”
“Don’t. You deserve your rest. And I’ll miss you, too. I’d tell you to write, but I don’t think they invented the mail up there yet.”
“Is it too late for one last favor?” she asked after a long, satisfying laugh, her voice hopeful.
“Flavor?” asked Mr. Trung, “I like ‘em salty!”. She gave him a chuckle and a shout (“Quiet, you!”) before she turned back to the child.
“It’s never too late for anything,” he answered, sincere.
“Then would you please let this old soul listen to your playing one last time?” Mrs. Thiên said. Huy nodded and moved the flute against his lips. The wood had gotten cold from the mist and from the wind. Tentatively, he played a song–Mrs. Thiên’s favorite–about the love of a mother, as vast as the Pacific Ocean and just as deep.
The notes soared through the empty air, captivating the souls of the departed and the earthbound, of the lost, the cold, the restless and the displaced, all of whom had been sent to this realm of timelessness to await their moment. There were more spirits than there were graves, spirits sent here temporarily until Diyu settled their problems with overpopulation for or until they settled whatever businesses they still had with the realm of the living and move on. They were many, and their reasons for staying were just as many. But right now, they were one. All eyes were all looking at him, listening to his flute and drinking in every single note as though they were the finest of wine or the sweetest of treats.
He could hear a woman sing the lyrics aloud in the background to his music, a music student named Trang who had been caught in an unfortunate accident involving gravity and poor construction. More voices joined in from all around. They were all types of voices, of the old and the young, male and female of different backgrounds, all coming together to perform the sendoff for the loud neighbor who often spent the nights shouting and bantering with the ghost with one deaf ear and yelling all the way till sunrise. She would be missed.
Mrs. Thiên smiled, and her smile was like glass, fragile yet so utterly beautiful. She looked around at her neighbors, faces old and faces new, faces weary and faces fresh. The older bowed. The younger waved. The strangers nodded their heads. Some unfortunate children clapped quietly and jumped up and down. She was the brightest among the misty ones, and she was fading already. Her form slowly turned to glittering specks which flew heavenward.
The wordless song reached its end, and silence reigned. There were no claps, no shouting. Just solemn silence.
The Elder Earthbound spoke up from where she was.
“Long has fairy been ground’d,
To dust-laced Earth now bound no more.
To realms where her once bore,
May bliss thou evermore shalt taste.”
Mrs. Thiên looked at the faces of the dead once again, and she laughed. Her laughter was rich and clear. Her lower body was gone now, joining the stars in the heaven. She reached out one hand and, for a brief moment, Huy could feel warmth on his head and the feeling of calloused fingers sweeping across his messy hair.
No wonder cats like being petted, he thought with eyes closed. When he opened them, Mrs. Thiên was no more. Neither were the dead. Only Lệ Nga remained by his side. Her eyes gazed toward the east, where the barest hints of sunlight began to peek out of the horizon afar. The graveyard was still encased in shadows for now.
Huy wasn’t surprised, given how he had listened to a person’s lifetime being passed down to him. Time flies when one forgets oneself.
His eyes began to droop, and his body felt heavy. He wanted to sleep, but not yet. He couldn’t fall asleep here.
“You should take up on that man’s offer,” said Lệ Nga. Huy didn’t have the strength left to answer. When he looked around, he saw nobody, just lonely beds of stone among the lonely leaves rustled by the wayward winds.
Huy sighed, and set out of the graveyard before anyone came. He moved like a shadow within the shades, and hid himself inside the nearby alleyway where his cardboard bed awaited his arrival at the very end. He carefully, almost ritually, placed the flute inside a box and reached for his tattered blanket. Sleep always came easily after nights like that, and as soon as his head touched the rumpled up sweater, he was dead to the world.
Huy woke up sometime at noon, or a bit later, he wasn’t sure of that. His method of telling time was primitive at best, and it wasn’t like the sun had numbers and hands on its spherical surface. Judging from how high it was, Huy guessed it was already past noon. His stomach growled, and his mouth groaned.
“Again,” he grumbled to himself. “Food, songs, cats, night, sleep. Dreadful cycle.” The boy pushed his weigh up and took his flute. His brain wasn’t awake yet, and all he could see with his eyes were dark shapes and a haze.
It got a jumpstart more effective than coffee and sugar overdose when a voice spoke up.
“Good afternoon, young one.”
He would never admit to the sound that had come out of his lips, nor would he ever admit to how high he had jumped and how loud his heartbeat sounded to his ears. That was one perk of living in the shadows: foolproof plausible deniability–no witnesses, no evidence.
“What is with you and jumpscares and stalkerish behavior?” he hissed at her accusingly, like a cat with raised hackles, eyes slit, fangs bared and claws out.
The woman, dressed in a medieval high-collared gown made of the darkest material he had ever seen, regarded him, silver eyes shining behind the thin veil over them, which Huy had no idea why she would even wear. It didn’t exactly cover anything.
She raised one eyebrow, but said nothing in retaliation.
Instead, she said, “I would like to commend you on your performance last night. That was a beautiful passage, child.”
Huy was wary of this woman. Stranger dangers and all. The alarms in his head always seemed to simultaneously go off when she was near, and not without reasons. Firstly, she was talking to him. Secondly, she was still talking to him civilly after two minutes of contact (Mr. Phan was the sole exception of this). Thirdly, she knew about the ghosts, and probably more. But most importantly, her appearance was abnormal.
She appeared like a shadow and she came and went like one. Her clothes made her like a ghost that owned a wardrobe filled with medieval costumes which the tailor had accidentally spilled barrels’ worth of black ink on. But Huy knew ghosts, and this one, he knew well, was no ghost, nor was she a human, either. If she were, he would have stolen someone’s cell and dialed 113 the first time they had crossed path already. No, she was something else, something more powerful, and much older, and that only he could see her if she allowed herself to be seen.
“What will happen to Mrs. Thiên?” he asked the woman.
“She will make a quick visit to this region’s Underworld, Diyu it is called, I believe. She’ll have an audience with King Yama and be judged. With her accumulated merits, she will be fine. Of that I am confident.”
“Thanks, Lo…Lo-re…” he tried to pronounce her name. He failed.
“Don’t strain yourself. Just call me as you usually do, child,” said the woman in black.
Huy had dropped the name and settled with calling her Miss Shades after the first three times of butchering it. She hadn’t shown it, but Huy knew she had been quite insulted, displayed only by a rise of a dark brow upon a corpse-pale face. She looked at him like she was trying to figure out a puzzle.
“Is there something on my face?” he asked, head tilted.
“There is always something on your face,” she said.
“Thanks,” he swiped a hand downward over his face. “How about now?” The woman said nothing. She was looking at him again wordlessly, sizing him up, and Huy was reconsidering his plan of finding the nearest phone and dialing 113. Either that or his last resort.
After a long interval of complete silence, the woman in the black gown with eyes of moonlight spoke up, her voice ringing in his ears and inside his head, “There will be another night of the full moon tomorrow.”
Huy nodded. “So? I love full moons. Pretty diamond in the night.”
“Have you not heard the rumors?”
The woman stayed silent for a moment before her voice spoke in a whisper, “That is not for me to say directly but for you to find out. Find it out, then we shall talk. I have an appointment elsewhere now, so do excuse me.”
Huy blinked, and the lady was gone, and had taken all the chills in the air with her. That woman, or thing, or whatever she was, scared him. She terrified him, paralyzing him with her owlish gaze and cryptic words.
A thoughtful frowned crossed his features. It was indeed the last night of the full moon. The hair on his back stood up and he felt a shiver creeping up his backside like a huge centipede moving one foot at a time, tantalizingly. Huy shook his head and picked up his flute. He decided that he had no time for this. The effect of the Ghostly-But-Not-A-Ghost-Lady Caffeine had worn off, and his mind was once more a mess. With a long-suffering groan, Huy retrieved his prized flute and got to his feet.
His stomach was not going to feed itself.
I must have been cursed in the past life, Huy thought with great annoyance and frustration sharing a bonding moment by the campfire inside his head.
His glare was aimed at a cat nuzzling against his foot. It was always a cat. It wasn’t as though he hated them. On the contrary, he loved cats, but he just didn’t particularly like to have all of their hair and, heavens forbid, worse things on his only items of clothing he owned. He had tried to chase this one away, and yet, it came to him, for some reason. His faded jeans must be a good scratching pole.
But the cat was not the focus of his annoyance, he just wanted to blame something for his misfortune, and the coal-colored feline was a convenient target. He tore his eyes from the ball of fuzz stretching and yawning blissfully on his lap and looked around.
The park, a good thirteen-minute ride from the graveyard for most and a half-an-hour walk for him, was filled with people up and about. Some had fingers entwined, some had arms locked, some walked with company, some sat alone with a canvas in their hands while others with newspapers, some were seated with friends practicing with musical instruments and laughing merrily away, some sat alone with a dreamy look on their faces as though they were questioning themselves why they had even left their beds at all. Huy sighed and absentmindedly ran a hand along the cat’s backside. He had been playing for more than two hours now, and so far, he wasn’t faring better than the previous day.
He was faring worse than ever, actually.
The sight of his cap made his stomach drop, and not at all in sympathy.
He looked at the meager stack of crumbled bills he had been making. Lunchtime had long passed, so he would settle for an early dinner later.
Huy decided to take a short break and get a drink. Luckily, the drinking water was free, and he had a fresh bottle in his beaten messenger bag. The liquid cooled his throat, and he sighed again in bliss as he refilled the empty container. He would save it for later. They charged toilet fees around here, and Huy did not want to spend what he had made on that just yet.
The bench of stone was already warm when he sat down. The next minutes was spent sitting still and staring at the people enjoying their morning routines.
The boy was bored, but at least the cat was having fun. The temptation to talk to it was almost irresistible, but he managed to quell it.
A homeless mental case would not be appreciated. But at least there would be a bed and food in whatever psychiatric I would be taken to, right? He asked himself. Okay, now I know I’m losing my mind to boredom. Help. Stress Relief. Stalker Corpse Lady. Anything!
Black eyes darted around in desperation, searching for anything at all to relieve his mind of stray thoughts which progressively sounded more tempting. His vision latched onto the nearest thing around like a drowning victim to a lifeline, just a bench away.
A couple was sitting there, oblivious to any world not of their own making.
Normally, Huy was not an eavesdropper, but he was bored. He would do anything for entertainment and to make himself forget the growling in his stomach and the crazy voices inside his brain (barring a few things that would land him in the bad side of the law. He had had quite enough trouble with men in green anyway).
They duo didn’t seem older than thirties, he noticed. Huy leaned back against the backrest and looked up at the leafy canopy overhead, enjoying the warm kisses of the scarce sunlight that managed to bypass the rustling leaves.
“I love you,” said the guy.
Huy turned away and stuck his tongue out. Just my luck that my sole channel of entertainment is a romantic sitcom, he thought. He had watched some back in the orphanage before it… He shook his head and focused back on the present. There was no need to go down that particular memory lane toward to a dead end.
He sucked in a deep breath, and went back to the sitcom. Better that than nothing. Calloused fingers absent-mindedly ran over the back of the cat. Its purrs were somewhat delightful to his ears.
“I love you, too,” the girl said, but her voice was softer and shyer. Her face, he noted, was flushed, and her eyeballs looked anywhere but the male. A small upward twitch of her thin lips could be seen before it was hidden behind her hand. And there it is, Huy mentally exclaimed. Let’s hope it won’t turn into a musical.
It didn’t, and Huy found himself strangely dissatisfied.
They talked about everything and nothing at all, from their projects to what to buy for a mutual friend’s birthday to plans for future outings. Huy was about to leave after he had heard enough, but then, a new topic reached his ear, one that–like an enchantment–compelled his being to stop moving.
“Are you going to Hiếu’s death anniversary tomorrow?” the girl asked. The boy, whose name was Bàng, sighed. A world-weary sigh it was, one far more suited for old teachers and philosophers instead of a man barely past twenty springs.
“I might,” he said.
“He was your best friend,” the girl, Hoa, continued. “It would be, you know, the right thing to do.”
“But seeing his picture just makes me feel…” he stopped.
Huy nodded sagely, though it looked more like he was nodding toward slumber. Sympathy was what he could share with the guy. It is always easier to make oneself believe in the make-believe, and hope that perhaps, reality is but a whimsical fantasy.
For a long time, Huy had tried that. He didn’t believe that the orphanage had been burnt down, either, even after he rushed out of the white room and dashed back to the site with tears blurring his vision. He would return again and again, and still, the empty spot remained after the rubbles were cleaned up.
They had told him he was the lucky one.
Some luck, Huy thought bitterly. A surprised yelp escaped his lips as the cat jumped away, hackling and glaring meanly at him.
Huy looked at the fresh scratches on his palm, eyes focused on the small dots of red slowly coming out.
He was alive. He was the only one alive.
His mind was reliving memories of the five years being shuffled from one orphanage to another–a square puzzle being forced into a round frame. None had kept him, the Lucky One, for long and the child was certain that the kids and the caretakers had been whispering things behind his back.
That which the doctors had called luck was a curse.
The entire orphanage burnt down, and he was the only one to be safe within the rubbles. Huy sighed and got back to listening. Anything to keep the memories at bay.
Bàng said, “I still can’t accept it, you know. I read the paper, but I couldn’t believe it. I can’t still, with him being gone and all, and we grew up together.”
His girlfriend said, “Nor can I. Hard to believe that Liên would just, you know, do something so cruel to him. How could she just…” A pause, followed by a softer voice, “I have two funerals, and I don’t know which one to attend.”
That poked at his interest. Huy glanced at the couple. His mind was already making excuses to his conscience that he wasn’t being creepy.
“Humans are unpredictable,” she sighed. “Childhood friends and all, and then suddenly, we don’t know who they are anymore. Friends turn on friends. Lovers turn lovers scorn. Maybe we should move out of this district. I heard there have been cases like this for decades now. I feel unsafe here.”
“Cases like this happen everywhere, Hoa.”
“I know,” Hoa sighed, “But do you think those old rumors are true? All of these double homicides happened on the same date, under the full moon. Tonight and the next! I’m wondering if the curse of the full moon is not as baseless as it sounds. Even my friends are talking about that right now. I feel…uneasy.”
“They can talk up a storm out of anything. You know that. Let’s talk about something else, shall we?” Bàng suggested after a moment of pained silence. “How about a walk?” Huy saw the girl nod and they vacated the bench, heading off, hand-in-hand. Huy looked at them go. His eyes lingered on them for a moment longer, before he, too, decided that his break was over.
He pressed the flute to his lips and began to resume his work again, ignoring the rumbling of his stomach and the smells of something delicious fluttering nearby.
As someone slipped another 5,000 dong bill (which was quite a generous amount) into his hat, Huy called it a day, packed up and left. It was five already, and that early dinner he had promised himself was calling.
“Another slow day, I assume,” Lệ Nga asked. Huy grumbled as he bit into his steamed bun as a hamster would, one nibble at a time.
He nodded and chewed, silent throughout the process.
“I need to find something else to do quick,” he said softly, eyeing the dumpling, “But I doubt anyone will let a scrawny street kid work, and there’s also the problem of child labor, which is something nobody would like to get roped into.” He took another bite, chewed in silence and swallowed. “What should I do?”
Lệ Nga regarded the child. Her brows came together, and her lips opened and closed a few times, carefully choosing which words to allow passage. “I apologize, young flutist, but I cannot do anything more than offer you company in this cold realm.”
“Thanks for that,” Huy said and winced. It came out more sarcastic than he intended. “I mean, I truly appreciate your company, Lệ Nga, and I didn’t mean…”
The lady laughed behind the long sleeves which now covered her hands. She looked at the flustered boy with a glint in her eyes.
“Worry not, child,” she said. “I am not one who is easily offended.” Huy nodded. The knot inside him was untied, and it felt at ease. They settled back to their routine, looking at the two moons with a serene look upon her face.
“You love the moon, huh?” Huy said conversationally.
“You could say that…The moon is always so beautiful during these three nights,” said Lệ Nga, “Whole and complete, like a work of art, actually. A beautiful sight, a beautiful lie. A perfection that is but a projected illusion.”
“Those in pursuits of beauty and the arts often are.”
“Okay, change of topic! How’s your day?”
They talked a little more before making their way to graveyard and exchanging talks with the rest of the earthbound ones. The dead have lots to say. They have time, and they yearn for attention. They fought for his attention most of the time, like siblings fighting over a shared toy. Huy found the thought as amusing as it was unnerving.
He was not a trophy, thank you very much.
They shared talks in turn (after lots of outcries and shouting matches), and Huy tried his best to converse with the new faces. They seemed lost as they had appeared the previous night. There were a few more tonight, it would seem, and not all of them were of Vietnamese descent. One ghost spoke in–he assumed–French, and Huy had nodded and smiled throughout the exchange like a bubblehead.
The boy looked at Lệ Nga, and found that she was enjoying herself with a group of artists and singers and poets of the prewar and modern eras. He stuck to shadows and snuck away toward one of the furthest patch of land without a gravestone, barren and decorated only by sparse trees and bushes and lots of dirt.
He blew a note, and a gruff voice answered.
“What?” Official Tùng boomed.
He was an old man, and like Lệ Nga, another lost fragment of the past, one that never could find peace for reasons unknown. He was an old soul as well, and Huy knew somehow that he was the second oldest among the spirits dwelling in this place. The ghost had once let it slip that he was an official in a time of great chaos and turmoil, but had refused to elaborate which one, nor had he said a word about his rank, though he insisted on being referred to as Official Tùng. Modesty was about the only thing Huy found likeable about the ghost.
Even his physical appearance showed his age as a mortal, somewhere around early seventy, old and shriveled and face lined with wrinkles. His eyes, however, shone like a pair of twin stars within the night, suggesting a sharp-edged intelligence that Huy never had the courage to explore in depth. His beard was long and bushy, reaching down and covering the front of his chest, and his hair was tied up into a bun behind his head. His outfit was a simple robe hugging his frail form, exactly the same as the day he had died a natural death on his own, lonely bed.
He was a creature nobody else would approach in either life, except for the boy with the flute and the knowledge that the dead cannot touch the living (in most cases). Currently, the expression on his face when greeting him was his sunniest disposition–one a person would wear after biting a lemon by accident and even glaring at the offending lemon.
“Good evening, Official Tùng,” said the boy. He pressed the knuckles on his right hand against his left palm and bent down slightly at the waist, mimicking what he had seen on TV when passing through the streets. The Earthbound Elder looked at the young man, and Huy couldn’t decipher that look. Huy imagined that the old ghost either looked like he was coming up with a way to hide his remains or was searching for something in the act to unleash his disapproval on.
“What do you want?” he asked with a voice of authority, like the rumbling of a distant thunder. Even the wind quieted down for a second as he spoke.
Huy smiled his feline smile again, charming and sickly sweet. The Official raised his long eyebrow, unimpressed. He was unimpressed at everything, actually. “I just want to say good evening to you, sir.” His smile widened. The other’s frown deepened.
“Good evening. Good night. Good riddance,” said Official Tùng as he made to sink back into the earth again.
“Wait!” Huy shouted urgently.
“What?” the ghost sighed. Huy briefly wondered if one could become an official for knowing that single word alone. It sounded powerful. ‘Excuse me, Official, how do you suggest we carry out an economic reform?’ –‘What?’ And the conversation was over.
“Is there something you find funny?” asked the Official. Huy shook his head and wiped the grin from his face. The ghost’s eyes narrowed, and his lips turned into a cruel sneer as though he was looking at a bug under him. He hated spiders, Huy remembered.
“Not at all, sir,” Huy said. The ghost looked at him impatiently. Huy continued, “Actually, I have some questions I would like to ask.”
“Go ask that courtesan companion of yours.” He waved the boy away. Huy stood his ground and said in the ghost’s face, his voice as cold as steel and just as sharp.
“I have a question to ask, and you will answer. Understand?”
The Official glared back. Time stilled between them as their eyes were locked with one another. The air seemed colder, and the wind blew anywhere but that particular spot. The leaves hovering above the area remained unruffled, and the moonlight itself stayed away from the site.
The Official released a long-suffering breath. His mean look never lessened, but his shoulders sagged as though a heavy bag had been removed from it.
“Speak,” said the Official. Huy smiled a triumphant smile and cleared his throat. He definitely did not want to sound like a chipmunk after that display of bravado.
“I want–excuse me,” he coughed again. The Official raised an eyebrow, but made no comment. Huy resumed, “I want information.”
There was a moment of quietude. The glare lingered on him, unusually heated for one coming from the dead, but the Official made no move to either prompt or discourage him from talking. Huy went on after another cough (It’s cold tonight, his mind told him), “Do you perchance know of any strange rumors in town? I know you’re the hands-on and wandering type, so you must have picked up on something during your little trips outside the graveyard’s boundary. Don’t deny it. I saw you the other day. I saw you last week, eyeing a boy with a cone of chocolate ice-cream.”
“Tricks of the light. And do I look like one with gossips to share? Go ask the old widows over there,” asked Official Tùng as he waved the boy away. Huy stood rooted to his spot. The old ghost looked down, and due to the lack of light, Huy almost though the ghost had given a rueful smiled, “Thick-faced you are, boy.”
“I walked under the sun and in the rain a lot. It helps plenty. Thanks,” Huy replied naturally.
“I don’t like that tone,” said the ghost. Huy would have retorted, but he decided it wasn’t worth it. Instead, he repeated his question instead.
“Rumors are many, present in every dynasty. Humans are creatures that crave stories, and some will gladly say anything for a good story. Rumors are spun either like spider webs or threads of fine brocade. In the end though, they are just that, appearances, worthless without some weight to wrap around.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Huy pondered for a while and looked up. “Are there any rumors related to, I don’t know, couples having fallouts on a night with the full moon?”
Official Tùng stroked his beard and hummed. “Which kind?”
Huy continued, appearing uncomfortable, “Oh, you know, with both ending up six feet under afterwards.”
Official Tùng nodded to himself. He ran his hand up and down his beard. He always did that. Just like Bao Gong on TV, the boy noted (there was an old lady near one of the streets he frequented who loved watching that show, and he knew she didn’t mind sharing with her back turned to the door and eyes fully locked onto the screen).
Official Tùng began, his voice grave, “I have been here for a long time, and I have heard many stories of such nature. Throughout the ages, the wrath of a scorned lover is like a blaze of the Avichi’s fire. Many say a curse is involved–one which is cast on young lovers who swear their eternal loyalty to the heaven and the earth, to the mountains and the ocean, and yet, oaths are simply that–a breath exhaled and lost to the wind. Betrayal forces the rose to bare their thorns and turns the delicate into the lethal. I know not the origin of such a talk, but I know it originated long before my time. From what I have stood witness to through the ages, this rumor is not entirely without a foundation on which it presides. Same method, same night, witnessed by none but the cold full moon up high.”
Huy hummed this time. His fingers tapped his chin in turn as he stared at the ground. He did that a lot when he was lost in his thoughts. The boy looked up then, staring straight at the old Official. The latter seemed intrigued.
“You don’t assume–” the boy began, only to be cut off.
“Evidence, boy,” said the Official. “Look for it. Find witnesses. Never assume. I was not paid to assume. I was paid to deduce, as should you.”
“So you were a judge,” Huy said with a grin, jabbing his finger at him in a hah-I knew-it fashion. Official Tùng’s glare returned. His mouth formed a sickle, sharp and dangerous.
“This conversation is over,” he said before sinking to the ground. In his absence, the winds blew once again, and the moonlight shone upon the lone boy within the shadows.
“Nice talking to you, judge,” Huy said and turned his heels.
A sound resembling a tiger snarling could be heard, but he ignored it and quickened his pace.
It wasn’t easy finding out the details. It was nothing short of pure luck that he had caught Mr. Phan at home on his day off. Even better was the fact that the old man had saved up his newspapers. “Bread needs wrapping, after all,” he said.
Huy had spent half a day rummaging through the stack of one-year-old papers at the old man’s house and found the names he needed.
A groan came out of his lips as he sat down on an empty bench in the park again. His legs hurt, and his slippers would be used as flyswatters at night. The feeling of warm concrete against his bare soles didn’t make him feel good at all. It was liberating, but it felt wrong somehow, naked and unprotected. Each step made was precarious and calculating as though he was performing a balancing act on a thin line. Huy would have to adapt until he found a new pair of footwear later.
At least he had managed to grab hole of a discarded newspaper whose headline read TRAGEDY OF YOUNG LOVE. He wrinkled his nose at that headline.
“Are they selling newspaper or cheesy titles for a theater play?” he said to a cat nearby. It stopped cleaning its fur and spared him a blank look, head tilted and eyes filled with an ocean of indifference within. A second later, it went back to cleaning its body.
Huy huffed. Cute yet imperious creatures they are.
The cat looked at him, gave a hiss, and dashed away. He looked at its retreating form, but soon found his attention directed at the paper laid out in his hand.
He read the contents to himself, eyes running swiftly through the pages.
He never yelped. That was what he would convince himself at night or years into the future. At the moment, though, Huy was too busy making sure his heart stayed where a heart should stay and that his breathing didn’t sound too much like his last breath was leaving him.
“What is wrong with you, lady? Is it fun to scare people into having cardiac arrest?” he shouted in a whisper, eyes carefully sweeping across the area and looking at the peaceful people enjoying their morning workout or simple strolls. Some were looking at him. He hid his face behind the wrinkled paper.
Miss Shades was sitting at his bench (again), delicately sipping from a cup of tea so dark it almost seemed like a shadow itself. Huy closed his eyes, breathed in and out deeply and counted to twenty. It would be a scene for a kid to suddenly have a heart attack in public, and he did not appreciate people crowding him. Too much warmth.
He shook his head and opened his eyes. The teacup was gone, but the lady remained seated. Even her posture screamed royalty. Her eyes were looking straight ahead, and her delicate fingers were fiddling with a new piece of accessory around her neck: an amulet of some kind, within which a rich glow of red was seen, like a mini sun glowing amid an eternal starless night in outer space.
She held a wistful expression which seemed torn between being at war and at peace. He knew that look. Lệ Nga had that look, too, and Mr. Phan when he thought nobody was looking. They were there, but their eyes seemed to be gazing far beyond the horizon and staring at a picture he could not see, some nostalgia unseen to outsiders.
Huy sat down, straightened the paper and coughed softly. The lady in black looked at him. They sat at the opposite ends of the bench. She didn’t like touching, and the sentiment was mutual. Nobody would like to touch a stalker and give them more fuel for whatever crazy stew they were cooking, he thought and scooted away as her stare lingered on his form, silver eyes unblinking.
There was a moment of silence which drowned out all the buzzes and noises around him. It reminded him of the graveyard’s tranquility, calm and peaceful.
“You never answered my question,” said the lady. Huy was proud that he didn’t jump off the edge of his seat.
“What?” he asked.
“Anything interesting?” she repeated, sounding bored. Her monotonous voice could rival his own, and that, Huy knew, took serious skills. The twinkle in her eyes, however, said otherwise. Huy didn’t understand this woman. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to.
“Uh, I was just going over a strange case,” he said carefully. “Or cases. This is just the latest one. Happened last year,” He showed her the headline. Her face was like a pond with water untouched and surface unstirred.
“A cheating boyfriend, a failed romance, two deaths,” the lady pondered, “there is hardly anything strange about this. Love makes people do unusual things, some for the worse.” She paused as though something had gotten stuck in her throat. Her pale fingers traced the amulet again, with the tiny sun still glowing warmly within. She resumed, “or for the better, which may be worse than for the worse.”
Huy said nothing and let the woman have her moment. The moment seemed important to her. He filed a comeback for later.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s something weird about this one. It’s not the only one, for a start. There have been many others of similar nature. I know heartrending and breathtaking romances exist everywhere, but the patterns are just too identical to be coincidental.”
“Oh?” the woman said. Something in her voice told Huy that she already knew. He went on anyway.
“It’s always the boyfriends who are found cheating later on. The couples went for a walk at night, had a spat and the girls walked away in tears according to witnesses if any. Then the next thing we know, both lied dead on the night of the full moon, always on the sixteenth. The boyfriend got stabbed through the heart, and the girlfriend followed after the deed was done. I checked. The stories are the always same.”
“I hear plural words yet see only one paper in your hands, and certainly more details than what was written,” said the lady. Huy looked away.
“I have other sources. It’s been a crazy morning.” Huy stifled a yawn.
“So it seems,” said the lady.
“Do you know anything about it?”
“What makes you think I know anything about it?”
Huy shrugged, “You strike me as the type to know everything.”
The lady sat back and watched the people passing by, oblivious to both of their presences in the secluded bench. “I know many things, child, and one thing I know best is that one can never know everything. Besides, I am not at liberty to directly disclose the affairs of the worlds beyond, even with you, child.”
“Thanks for wisdom, Sia,” Huy huffed. His eyes did a perfect roll before they landed on the paper once more.
“Why don’t you talk to them?” the lady suggested. Huy shuddered as though cold.
“Victims of violent ends are not exactly fond of reliving their pain,” Huy’s hand instinctively reached for his throat, “but something tells me you already know that.”
They settled for silence again, though it was not as uncomfortable as Huy thought it would be. Huy stared at the paper without reading anything. His mind was racing, and his face was crumpled up in focus. His gut was onto something, and Huy knew to always place his bets on his gut feelings. They had saved him before when he noticed a strange man had been tailing him on a night five summers ago during his return from school. It was one encounter he would not soon forget. The sounds of laughter and footsteps rang around him, but he paid them no mind.
Suddenly, he felt another wave of chill running up and down his spine, like someone was moving an ice cube along his back. Huy looked at his left, eyes staring at the empty air. There was a napkin, neatly folded and weighed down by a pack of KFC ketchup, where the woman had once sat.
“Why didn’t you leave some fries with it then?” Huy huffed as he reached out for the object, his movement hesitant. The front was white, and the back was decorated with glossy dark ink. How the lady had managed to write cursive letters in ink on a napkin, Huy didn’t know.
Not at liberty to directly disclose, but not above telling me to do whatever dirty work that needs doing, He sighed and pocketed it. The boy, barefoot and hungry, walked away from the sunlight and the happy people about. Nobody cared when the boy walked down the Tân Kỳ Tân Quý Street. He did not enter the place, and instead entered his usual haunt at the end of the alleyway. The boy sighed as he sat down and looked at the sky above.
He would sit there, eat the plain loaf of bread he had bought along the way and wait until the sky turned from blue to bloody red and until the sun bled dry and the heaven began to darken. It was then that he made his move.
He had a lead to follow.
The streets were mostly empty. It was to be expected. Nobody would want to hang out in front of a graveyard when the night was upon them. The air around always grew chillier, and the winds more bitter, sending the smells of earth and leaves and stone scattered in the air. Any noise deemed normal during the day turned into a nightmarish version of itself at night.
Huy lingered in the shadows, away from the streetlights. His eyes wandered to the houses with the closed windows all around him. Light could be seen coming out from the cracks, warm and inviting yet ever so distant.
The boy took out his napkin, and read the cursive writing once again just to be sure.
On it was a verse, and an address.
There were voices ahead, he knew, and he followed the voices down Bình Long Street. It was an empty place also, unusually so. The curse must have scared people away except the two figures ahead with hands entwined. They were laughing and chatting merrily as they headed east. Huy followed them, using the shadows as his cover and his size to his advantage. Sometimes, being small helps, but Huy hated appearing as though he was only half his age with twigs for limb and a raven’s nest for hair.
The Wheel of Fortune must be stuck on forward to misery, Huy thought with a sneer.
The couple walked together, oblivious to all else around them. Huy watched until they both disappeared inside a karaoke lounge. The child remained hidden in the cold night and entertained himself with random thoughts and even talking to himself at times in hush voices.
His eyes always were trained on the illuminating doors of the lounge as he stood in the darkness. Huy eventually left when red and blue lights pierced through the night and the deafening sounds of sirens shredded the silence.
“When the pig’s ruled half its reign, lights shall show a wrongful end,” he muttered to himself as he walked away. “Must be past ten already, then.” He looked back at the scene and the street already packed with people and murmurs and light for one last time before he was gone. Nobody noticed the child who was one with the shadows.
The walk back to the graveyard didn’t take much time. He had run there at top speed. He passed the ghosts and waved his hand with forced politeness in greetings. He didn’t trust his voice, so he settled with waving for now. They tried to rope him into conversations, and he declined politely.
The dead are insistent, but they know the boundary when they see one (again, in most cases).
“I have something I want to discuss with Official Tùng,” he said the latest group of adults. They were diverse, but they had been young when they passed, no older than thirty. They didn’t press and instead went back to arguing about which superhero was the best.
Memories and time.
Huy shook his head with a smile and made for the patch of land without a gravestone, hidden from the moonlight and covered by the leaves which hardly swayed with the wind.
He blew on his flute four times this time, and was met with an expression so fierce, it would chase any being away at first glance. The Official’s beard stood up and his eyes became all white. His lips curled downward at the corners, and his teeth were bared, keeping the growls that were threatening to break free. Huy wasn’t fazed.
“What?” the dead judge grumbled like a lion getting ready for a territorial war.
“Evening,” Huy said simply and gave the ghost a wave. He didn’t feel like bowing tonight. The ground looked soft all of the sudden.
“You look like a dead man walking, boy,” said the judge.
“Two of a kind, that’d make us.
Official Tùng ran a hand down his transparent beard and hummed thoughtfully. Huy could sense his eyes on him, but he didn’t care. The ground really looked soft. Was it as soft as it looked? Huy pondered.
“How was the search?” the ghost asked. Huy didn’t answer. He heard a huff, and a voice slightly softer. “Have you banished your suspicion yet?”
Huy tore his eyes from the dirt ground and looked into the eyes of the ghost. They stood in silence. It was a kind of silence in which all questions are answered, and all doubts are to be removed, and yet, denial insists on overstaying its welcome.
Official Tùng hummed again. “What are you going to do?”
“What am I supposed to do?” he asked, his voice almost one with the breeze. The old judge regarded him with eyes of steel.
“Am I able to?”
Huy frowned. “Why don’t you give it to me straight? I am asking for advice here, and all I have are riddles that aren’t even proper riddles for crying out loud.”
The judge shook his head. “I just did. You just refused to listen.”
Huy’s face fell. “Am I even allowed to do it?”
“That I do not know. But you have the power, boy. Power the rest of us do not possess, that I possess no longer. The power and the knowledge to either let it be or make it end. One choice can make all the differences.”
“I don’t want this,” the boy replied, his voice shaky and fragile.
“That’s power, child, never without repercussions. Mine was a fate condemned to loneliness for that which nobody could comprehend.” The old judge looked at the sky, and resumed in his deep baritone, “Heavy is the hand that holds the sword. Weighty is the head which dons the helmet…Burdened is the heart that must be true.”
With those words, the old ghost faded away, his image dissolving to mist, leaving the boy alone to his thoughts. Huy stood still and looked at the ground again, his left hand a fist by his side while his right one holding onto his flute with trembling fingers.
How long he had been standing there, Huy didn’t know.
But he knew what he had to do, and his heart was like a spear which would fly true.
The pond at the heart of the graveyard, which Huy had named Moondrop, was beautiful as always beneath its namesake, with water shimmering in the light. It was the last day, the sixteenth, and the night was always so lovely a sight to behold.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t show up.” Lệ Nga said from where she sat by the lake. Her back was turned to him as she spoke.
Huy said nothing, nor did he get closer. He watched her closely, taking in the sight of her ethereal mist-like form, her transparent being, her long flowing hair like a half-stilled waterfall given shape. Some strands, he noticed, were darker than the others under the enchanting moonlight.
He played a few notes, and the notes formed a spontaneous song.
Lone sail afar flutters,
In search of a harbor nearby.
Beneath the red-stained sky,
A place to rest, where might one be?
Amid the restless seas,
Could one day shoreline be reached then?
Stillness like a thick blanket fell on the scene, shattered only by the hesitant voice of the young man in the distance.
“Evening, lady,” he said. She laughed. It made his heart jolt. The sound was like a dozen wind chimes, pure and cleansing ringing together or a canary singing its signature song.
“I thought we were already past the formality, child. We are friends, after all. By the way, that was a bit, what’s the word, melancholy, perhaps. What brought about this state of mind, young one?”
“Can I ask you for a favor?” Huy asked from where he was standing. She made a hum.
“I do not know. Can you?”
She gave a nod toward the water. Huy said, “Show me your hands.”
The wind blew and tousled the child’s hair and even made the few dark strands on Lệ Nga’s head sway slightly. The silence was cold, colder than the night itself.
“May I ask why?” she started. Her voice was pure as though endowed with pearl.
“Just curious,” Huy answered.
He heard a sigh, and she turned around to face him. She was as beautiful as the day he had met her some months ago, with features of a fairy from the legends: lips like peach petals pressed together, hair flowing elegantly behind her back and eyebrows thin and delicate upon a pale face. Her eyes then were dark, dark as the shadows of the streets without light.
“Are you going to tell me my fortune?” she asked. The wind chimes were cracking. The canary was slowly forgetting its song.
“Perhaps. I am planning on starting a new business. Getting more money. Playing the flute alone is not making the cuts, and heaven knows I need a new pair of shoes,” he replied, and wasn’t surprised to see how easily the words flowed out of his mouth. Lệ Nga laughed, and behind her, the lake seemed to laugh along, sparkling with mirth and ripples on its surface.
When the laugher died down, Lệ Nga looked at him. Huy was staring at her with more patience than ever, and more determination than she had ever seen him. A sigh escaped her lips, world-weary and old. It wasn’t easy to be reminded that she was old.
Slowly, she moved her hands out of the sleeves with the tentativeness of a warrior unsheathing a sword.
That was all Huy could see. Her entire hands were black, and from what little he had caught sight of, so were her arms beneath the loose fabric.
“When did you know?” she asked him. There was no accusation in her voice, only curiosity. “I was certain I was thorough in containing the infection to my arms alone.”
“I had prior experience, and my suspicion,” he replied. “You never showed me your arms and hands. I talked to the other departed, and they said they always saw you heading outside the graveyard on this day and never came back until the late hours. There are only two beings who could walk freely outside this graveyard, two Elders, so do not deny that you haven’t been sneaking around. And today, I had another curious tip, and all of my doubts were banished. I saw you leaving the karaoke lounge, right before the police came.”
“Ah, so my eyes were not tricking me then,” said Lệ Nga, nodding as though she was falling asleep. “You were there, hiding in the shadows like a vulture stalking a fading prey. Clever boy. And a bit naughty, too, spying on a helpless maiden in such a crude manner. I do hope you shan’t make a habit or hobby out of it.”
Huy wasn’t impressed. “Why?”
“Why what?” Lệ Nga said, “Why someone like me never had a marriage? Why I was still single when I passed away? Why I never left this world? The list goes on, but the night does not.”
“Why did you possess those girls and make them end their boyfriends in such a way?”
Her smile was turned upside down, and her eyes immediately appeared dark and stormy, like a warning of an approaching tornado. Her face, once beautiful and fair, was a now a face of hatred and anger, twisted and marred with cracks running along the mist-white façade.
Memories and time she had as all the departed did, but Huy knew as he looked at her, both had been unkind.
“They deserved what came their way,” Lệ Nga said as though she was giving a sermon, that what she said was irrefutable.
“Those creatures promised marriage. They vowed. A pledge is a sacred word. A promise is one’s honored given. An oath is one’s essence bared, witnessed by the high heaven and the earth below, seen by the sun and the moon that ‘round the four skies roll. Those creatures trampled upon all of those, dishonored all of those, and shamed those whose hands they had asked for. Are they still considered humans, then, or beasts that can only regurgitate swallowed words?”
“They were wrong, I know,” said Huy, using a tone one uses to placate a child throwing a tantrum (he had had much practice in the past, with some successes). “Sad as it is though, promises are broken like bones on a soccer field all the time.”
That was the wrong thing to say. He really wanted to try his new flyswatters on his teeth right there and then.
Lệ Nga’s entire body began to glow, but not with a silver halo like Mrs. Thiên’s had, but with a thick, ominous aura, reaching outward and appearing either like thin arms with sharp claws or shadows of grotesque tree branches in the night.
Huy cursed his mouth. It did that most of the time, leaping before his brain could work.
And most the time, it was his bones that paid the price.
“Calm down!” he cried out, one hand forward.
Lệ Nga halted her advance, and the shadowy limbs stopped growing. Huy nervously glanced back. There were spectators, silver-colored beings who were not as discreet as they thought they were, all pure and still eligible for a fair judgment and eternal rest. Huy would not allow the miasma to contaminate them all. And this one, Huy noted grimly, was a powerful one, much more powerful than the boy in the orphanage’s basement.
“I know you’re angry,” he said. The misty lady snarled. It sounded feral, the sound of a beast cornering its prey. “But, is it necessary to end them in such a violent way?”
“It is,” she said in a voice that was no longer her own. Huy imagined three people speaking together, and their voices blended into one, distorted and echoing.
“The men are at fault, yes, but what about the women? What did they do to deserve death?”
“Wives must follow their husbands wherever they may go, even to the Yellow River below.”
“They weren’t even married!”
“They were betrothed!” Lệ Nga cried. “They vowed. They pledged beneath the moon. I saw them! I bore witness!” The tendrils of darkness stretched again, clawing the ground and sucking in the shadows cast by the moonlight.
“That is unfair!”
“Life is anything but fair,” said the depraved one. “Mine was anything but fair. Born a lady and endowed with beauty and talents, but what were those in a time when talents should not belong to a woman, and beauty was but a commodity to be gauged and bought? Then I met him, I loved him. He pledged his life to me, to take me out of my prison, and for a moment then, I thought of freedom, of a life spent with one instead of many, of a life spent together with a beloved and not with strangers, of a life filled with happiness that had for so long been foreign to me, skirting just right out of my reach. I gave him my trust. I gave him my love. I gave him my being! And what did he do? He trampled it all–a cruel foot upon an already withering flower. By his oath, I could have been a concubine, a fate that would have been far kinder than what I had tasted, but he denied that as well, tossed me aside like a used scent jar, a cracked mirror no longer whole.”
Lệ Nga paused, and laughed. The wind chimes had shattered, and the canary had forgotten her song. She laughed at the heaven above as though she was cursing it, challenging it. Look down and see what you have made, her laughter seemed to convey.
“So I ended him,” said the lady when the laugher had subsided, “Heavens witnessed, and the moon stood by. I ended him and myself then and there, two bodies underneath the diamond sky.”
She stopped, and for the briefest of moment, Huy saw Lệ Nga again, as herself.
“Please leave,” she pleaded. “I wish not harm on your being, child. My life was an endless forest with no exit, but you are the only clear pond within it which gave me my meager joy. Leave now while you still can, before the pond is by my hands soiled.”
“Lệ Nga…” Huy started softly. He gave his head a vicious shake, and spoke in a louder, firmer tone, “You will continue to taint your hands even further if I walk away now, won’t you?” No answer came. The hands of shadows reached out and embraced her whole being.
Huy sighed through his nose. She was gone. Whatever sanity that had been once Lệ Nga’s was gone, replaced by a miasma-infected being that could spread discord where it walked in the night. He needed to stop it.
Huy played a tune on his flute. It wasn’t like the usual songs he played, soft and melodious that haunted the minds of the departed. It was a war song, quick-paced and harsh like a conquering storm tearing down trees and stirring up walls of dust and dirt on its path.
The hands of shadows stopped moving and began to retreat back a few inches. Waiting they were, and baiting. Huy could see them slither like eyeless, multi-headed serpents–a horde of hydras made of shadows and commanded by an ancient grudge.
“What happened to you, I don’t know,” Huy said then, “not in full details, at least. And I won’t try to pretend that I understand, Lệ Nga. But know this. Times have changed, for better and for worse, but they have changed, and they won’t turn back. You can’t just apply whatever outdated justice that once existed to this current age.”
“I can. I will!” the Miasma Seed growled. Tendrils darker than the night erupted from the earth where she stood. “The unfaithful be condemned!”
She was beyond reason, Huy knew. He could feel it–the heaviness inside his chest that made his breathing labored not unlike the sensation he had once felt so many years ago. The Miasma Seed had already taken root inside her, and it was beginning to sprout. It could not be left alone anymore, or the entire graveyard would be at risk.
He played louder, his pace faster, and his songs more frenzied, like a series of war cries amid the clangs of steel and iron on the battlefield. The hands of shadows did not retreat, but they did not advance, either.
“Pure moon on us doth shine,
Whose cold steel hath divided thee?”
Lệ Nga’s voice was gone, swallowed and replaced by a screeching version of it, like nails running across a blackboard. The wail she let loose was one of anguish and of hatred. It screamed above Huy’s flute and silenced the murmurs of those behind their stony beds. The negativity rolled out in stream, thick enough to be cut with an actual knife.
Lệ Nga was gone. The acceptance almost broke him, but he didn’t let it.
Huy detached the flute from his lips and sighed. The hands advanced then, like a horde of hissy, hungry predators. Lệ Nga’s wailing continued. He felt it all. All of her pains, her sorrows, her betrayal, her anger, her hatred, and her regrets. The hand around his flute shook as though it was holding something heavier, a dagger whose blade was stained with red, droplets dripping toward a small puddle on the earth.
The image stuck, and he opened his mouth.
Huy started singing.
There was a reason he never sang, or changed his manner of speaking to anything remotely resembling the act of singing. Two, actually. The first one was that his singing was terrible, either sounding like a gutted pig or a rail signaling summer. The second was that it held a distinctly horrible quality to it.
Horrible enough to make the dead come back from their graves beyond.
The earth split open as though mines had been placed under it and gone off at the same time. Fleshless limbs emerged, ivory underneath the ghostly moon. They cried and wailed and yelled and shouted as they broke through the ground, dragging whatever weapons they had with them: swords, halberds, clubs, spears, staves, shields, quivers and many more. Some skeletal warriors were perched upon their proud stallions, stuff of nightmare with no flesh like their riders and eyes like burning pits or dying stars. They galloped forward, and the snakes arched back, hissing in fury.
It was a horrible dance that followed, a sight only the departed beheld with awe and with trepidation. Netherworld arms slashed and hacked, driving the shadow snakes back at a steady pace.
How does one snuff out the darkness? One might say to shine a light on it, yet light only casts more shadows. No. To snuff out the shadows, one must use the shadows, darker and more potent, and conquer the lesser essence by force.
The demonic army raged on, waves after waves, their formation tight enough to stop a fly’s entry if any was suicidal enough to try.
Lệ Nga sent more hands from her being and raised more from the darkness around her. Still, they were no match before the army of the undead. Newer tendrils were swiftly done away with by a rain of arrows from all around. Hisses and crackles filled the air, and flashes of white slashed through the darkness, which was material to them.
Huy walked behind a line of foot soldiers, shields on all sides and escorted by a group of horsemen in the rear. Their spears struck true and straight. Any hands which got close were easily banished back to nothingness. But they would come back. A grudge could not be killed so easily.
The army fought on and on. War cries from lipless mouths came out as quiet click-click-clicks of bones shifting and teeth grinding. Many were consumed wholly by the shadows, their forms devoured by the lightless void. Yet they would not fall back, forming an infernal wall between their commander and his enemy.
Dark-colored arms slashed through the snakes like knives through butter, and moments which seemed like a lifetime later, the Miasma Seed was surrounded, pushed down to the ground with spears forming a cross under her chin. She stared at Huy. The spark of ingenuity within her eyes was gone as was the rest of her. Lệ Nga was now a shadow of herself, a beast that needed to be put down permanently.
The soldiers parted, forming a way for their general. One skeletal creature approached Huy and kowtowed, two hands steadily holding up a sword, its blade darker than the darkest night and as light as a crow’s plume.
Huy stared into the Miasma Seed. It stared back without feelings or acknowledgement. It stared until it stared no more. The Seed dissipated into a wisp of dark vapor and disappeared in the air after minutes of wailing in agony. The silence that followed was eerie.
With trembling hands seemingly drained of blood, the boy pulled his sword back and replaced it on the kneeling skeleton’s offered hands.
“Your work is done. The battle is won. Be gone!” he ordered. They obeyed. They always obeyed. They bowed and crackled in the way only skeletons could crackle. In a blink, the infernal army was no more, back to the grave in the realms beyond.
Huy stood before the lake then, shimmering still with the moonlight’s blessing. His eyes fell to the ground. It looked soft, and he didn’t resist its calling anymore. Unstable knees fell hard on it, enough to leave scrapes, but he didn’t care. Droplets fell on his torn jeans and fists, blurring his vision. He pressed his flute to his shaky, blue-pale lips and began to play an uneven tune. A long, mournful song with erratic pauses and pitches streamed forth like a brook gently flowing and like a school of fish freely riding its current.
In his mind, he could almost hear a voice as sweet as a dozen wind chimes speak to him. He stopped when the song of service had reached its final note. Eyes heavenward, he sat where he was, too exhausted to move yet.
“Droplets of Pearls are shed,
Now tainted by the red-dyed ground.
By virtues one is bound,
Keep them one must throughout one’s life.
Fealty men live by,
Chastity women strive to hold.
Seas may drain, hills may fall,
Yet honor must by all be kept.”
Huy gave a chuckle, humorless and monotonous as always as he turned to the new presence.
“I thought you hate socializing.”
Official Tùng stood regally, his hand running down his beard and his eyes fixed upon the water surface filled with gentle ripples.
“I do,” he said and walked away back to the shadows which had for so long been his companion. For the rest of the night, Huy would sit, with his knees tucked tightly against his chest, by the moonlit pond and went through every single song he had played there, from the first meeting to the last one played before the requiem. No ghost came to him. No whispers were heard. It was just him and the lake and the moon and the flute and the wind together like old friends at a table, mourning a missing presence.
He could almost hear a song inside his mind as he stretched on the final note.
Whose flute’s playing nearby,
So tender sweet a cry’s echo?
What feelings flute now holds,
Who but the flutist knows fully.
The boy would stay there until the crack of dawn, at which point he would try to get up and rub his face dry with his dirty sleeve. He would limp past through the empty graveyard and the silent gravestones, past the two figures in the patch of land where no light touched, one clad in a robe of mist and the other in a gown darker than the darkest night, and make his way out of the area. For the entire day, he decided, he would sleep.
And when the evening hours came around, he would have to pay an old friend a visit and spend some time there.
And maybe, he’d ask for a new pair of shoes while he was at it as well.
Huy is a homeless boy with a haunted past trying his best to survive for another day. A cardboard box in an alleyway is his bed, the darkened walls form his room and the sky makes his roof. His constant companion and source of bread and milk is the flute he was given at a tender age, and his friends are either stray cats or "old souls." But Huy has a secret, and it is one he will take to the graveyard with him when the day is done. When a cryptic warning arrives out of the blue from an acquaintace who loves scaring him to death with sudden entrance and whispers, Huy has to acknowledge that a powerful curse is at work, and only he can put a permanent stop to it.