Chapter I: Yin Marriage

Hanoi, Vietnam, 199x…

In the suburban area of the city, a rather strange engagement party[1]The wedding tradition in Vietnamese are different from that of Western countries. This is translated based on the function of the ceremony, though there are certain differences. was taking place.

No firecracker, no lantern, not even so much as any decoration on the bride’s house.

But the strangest thing of all was the fact that neither the groom nor the bride could be found.

Where the happy couple should be standing stood two chairs, with worshipping pictures on top.

Both the bride’s and groom’s parents had awkward smiles plastered on their faces, but anyone who isn’t blind can see the anger burning like fire under their gazes. And as such, all the guests kept quiet.

On the wedding gifts table from the groom’s side to the bride: betel, wine, even golds were present. Yet on the side where dowry was located, there was only joss paper.

The words of the servant girl from this morning still echoed in Mr. Mạnh’s – the bride’s father – ears.

“Sir, miss had left to dig up her fiancé’s grave!”

***

Điền Quý jumped onto the train just as the door was closing, barely made it as the locomotive started moving. The young man smiled and apologized to the conductor standing there as he produced his ticket. The other man grumbled as he glanced at it before turning to leave.

He stumbled for a while to reach the toilet compartment due to all the bouncing. The smell that greeted him made Quý wince and scared him away from the toilet itself. Who knew if another bounce of the train could splash water from that dark hole up and onto him? If that was to happen, he couldn’t sit with any other human on this train now, could he?

In the dim light of the restroom, the face of a lean young man, with hair messy as a crow’s nest and stubbles like weed after the rain, looked back at him from the mirror. Quý was a strong young man, in his late twenties, wearing a shirt with his collar pulled up. He knocked on the glass surface a few times, mumbled a prayer or incantation of some sort. Then, his reflection’s hand reached through the reflective surface and shoved a pile of money at his face. The young man looked around for a bit before pocketing the money.

On the mirror surface, a line written in red spelled:

“Don’t spend too much of it; the cost is your longevity.”

He waved his hand and laughed it off:

“You worry too much, uncle! Besides, I’m running away partly because I don’t want to part ways with you just yet. Shouldn’t you give me better allowances?”

The writing on the mirror squirmed and shifted like living earthworms. In almost no time, it had turned into:

“Dream on, kid.”

Điền Quý shrugged, ignoring what was written before leaving the toilet to find a seat.

The cabin was almost empty that day, it seemed. And even better, there was a distinct lack of devilish children running and screaming. The young man stretched, took a deep breath, and almost shouted in joy. He never quite got why his parents were forcing him to get married. Why would he give up his freedom and comfortable lifestyle to run after and change diapers for kids?

“I still haven’t gotten to live my life yet; why would I want to tie a noose around my neck like a buffalo?”

That was what he thought and the reason why he ran away from home.

However, the entire cabin was spacious, and he was all alone. If there was no one to talk to, the half-day ride would be incredibly dull, would it not? The young man was yawning and scanning the compartment for somewhere to lie down and nap when suddenly, he spotted her. She was sitting at the window seat at the very end of the room. She was perhaps twenty-something, staring absently outside with her chin in her hand, her elbow on the windowsill, and a book opened on her lap. Her eyes were clear like a water surface as they reflected the scenery outside as it brushed by. The setting sunlight on the woman’s face made her glow beautifully like an oil painting.

Điền Quý reached up to smooth out his hair, but halfway through the motion, he gave up – seemingly out of laziness. The young man then made his way to the seat and asked:

“Hey stranger, mind if I sit here?”

As if pulled from her reverie, the young woman glanced back and answered him with an indifferent tone, neither warmly nor coldly:

“Sit wherever you want. It’s not like I own the place, is it?”

Điền Quý shrugged, then plopped down next to her on the bench, ignoring the strange way she was staring at him.

After a short while, he started:

“Hi there, I’m Quý, what’s your name? And where are you going all by yourself like this?”

“To destroy the world.” – The young girl glanced over and replied curtly.

After a moment of shock from the strange answer, Điền Quý rolled his eyes, clapped his hands together, and said:

“Great, we’re on the same path, then!”

It was the girl’s turn to look surprised. She swallowed hard and tilted her head over to him:

“Don’t tell me, you’re a criminal?”

He shrugged and replied with a straight face:

“Nah, I’m just unemployed.”

That got a giggle out of her:

“Are you that desperate?”

“At this rate, I’ll take whatever job I can find!”

She laughed again and then asked in a different tone:

“Well then, Mr. Unemployed, want to take a trip with me? We’ll split whatever profit we get?”

Điền Quý looked over and chuckled:

“Didn’t think I’d find a colleague when I got on the train.”

“Not quite. At least, I’m technically not officially one yet.”

“Still an Apprentice, then?” – He leaned back on the bench.

“No. To be precise, I’m not licensed, but I’m aware of the Yin Realm.” – She lowered her voice to answer as she glanced around the empty compartment.

Hearing that, Điền Quý stretched his shoulders and yawned:

“Look, graves are places where Yin Qi precipitate and ghosts and demons gather; living people like ourselves better steer clear. Unscrupulous things like grave digging are no joke; we could end up paying with our lives.”

“Wait, how did you know I was planning to dig up graves?”

“How did I know?”

He simply repeated her question back to her while staring at her with a strange gaze. After a while, she suddenly ah-ed as if understood, took out an eye-dropper from her bag, and pressed it into his palms. Then, with a smile, she said:

“Oh, where are my manners? You got dust in your eyes, right? Poor thing!”

***

The two of them talked for a while and got to know each other better. Điền Quý introduced himself as a geomancer, wandering in search of a thrill with no real destination in mind. The young girl didn’t say anything to that, so it was not clear whether or not she believed him.

As for her, she claimed her name was Trịnh Phượng Ngân, a primary school teacher currently on leave. She was going to the Northern mountainous provinces for vacation while looking for a grave mentioned in her family genealogy on the side.

She said:

“I heard from my family that there are many treasures in the ancestral graves, so I’m taking advantage of the trip to do some treasure hunting. With it, I’m hoping I can build a more spacious new school for the children. So if you have nothing better to do anyway, how about we do this job together, then you can do whatever you want with your share while I’ll donate mine to the kids?”

Điền Quý replied:

“We can cross that bridge when we get there. But, for now, I’m more concerned about whether or not you have any clues about your ancestral graves? Otherwise, if we just start digging without any preparation, we might end up inside our own graves.”

Phượng Ngân said:

“I don’t quite understand it yet, but there’s a sixteen words instruction that goes: ‘The mute opens up; The dead’s closed smile. Rounded pond, unrounded well. Crooked star fruit tree.’ Also, the destination is Town A. According to the tickets, it’s still another four to five hours before we get there, though.”

“Oh?” The young man smiled, “Great then. If that’s the case, I’ll get down at town A with you later. Let’s see how fearsome your ancestral grave really is!”

His companion returned his smile with one of her own, seemingly unaware of his momentary unnatural expression just now.

Before long, she smiled again and asked:

“What about the train tickets? Surely it couldn’t be a coincidence that you’d always meant to go to Town A from the start, could it? If necessary, I can talk to the conductor for you.”

Điền Quý thought to himself:

“Heh, this girl is testing me.”

He then cleared his throat and said:

“You’re right; I wasn’t going to get off at Town A. I was going to get off an hour after that. So, I can just get off there no problem.”

As if waiting for that exact answer, Phượng Ngân asked:

“Well then, I’m sure you don’t mind showing me your ticket?”

The young man was startled at that, his face a clear sign of nervousness:

“It’s just a ticket. What’s there to see?”

“I’m just curious, that’s all. Besides, like you said, it’s just a train ticket, it doesn’t hold any secret information, does it? If you like, I can give you mine to look at. What are you afraid of?”

Phượng Ngân tilted her head, her gaze locked onto him like spears ready to pierce all lies.

Điền Quý knew her words were laid out like traps to test him. He reached into his pocket, pulled out the ticket that had already been punched, and gave it to her.

The destination was set as “Province D,” three stations after Town A, with a few dozen kilometers in between.

Phượng Ngân stared incomprehensively at the ticket…

Điền Quý’s reactions didn’t add up.

She had been practicing martial arts since she was a child, and thus, was very confident in her eyes and instincts. So she knew she didn’t misjudge the situation. Just now, when she mentioned Town A, he was surprised, as if he couldn’t believe it was her destination.

The ticket could be faked. While the young girl didn’t know how he could have changed the content of the pass in front of all the prying eyes in this compartment, that didn’t mean he couldn’t. Though… that was unimportant. What’s written on the ticket could be faked, and his attitude – when asked about it – could be just an act; only his unconscious reactions were genuine.

While she was full of doubts and questions on the inside, her face betrayed no expression whatsoever. She handed Điền Quý back the ticket and said:

“Well then, I guess you won’t need my help, after all.”

He chuckled and replied:

“In that case, you owe me one this time. Next time, should I run into a problem, I hope you can return the favor.”

Phượng Ngân simply shrugged:

“How can you grow a beard out of that thick skin of yours?”

“Haven’t you heard? ‘Thick skin is a sign of kindness!’”

***

When the train reached Province A, about fifty kilometers from their destination, Town A, it had to stop due to some technical issues. The train driver informed everyone that it’d take around two to three hours and that they could go out for food and drinks. Seeing it was about dinner time, Điền Quý asked Phượng Ngân to accompany him in finding a nearby restaurant, both to fill their stomachs and to kill some time. The young girl found this an excellent opportunity to find out more information and test her companion, so she accepted his offer without hesitation.

Province A was in no way a bustling metropolis. There was a distinct lack of traffic to-and-fro about the place, nor were there many shops or merchants around. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the train stopped here for reparation, people would probably mistake this place for an abandoned station. However, as soon as the two of them got off the train, they spotted two middle-aged men sitting at a nearby stall, eating chicken legs and drinking beer. Điền Quý immediately ran to them and struck up a conversation with a laugh:

“Hello, uncles! Where are you going that you have prepared beer and snacks like this?”

The two men shared a look before replying:

“First time taking this train?”

At the young man’s nod of confirmation, the man on the left said:

“No wonder you’re surprised. Frequent passengers like ourselves are used to it by now. We’re prepared out of necessity, kid.”

“So does that mean the train always runs into problems around this part then?”

“Yep, every single time…”

As one of the older men finished saying this, he raised his beer to clink with his companion before continuing:

“No idea why, but every time we get to this station, the train breaks down, and the staff gets out to fix it. And whosever face pales like a tree frog’s butt[2]“Face pales like a tree frog’s butt,” sometimes “face green like a tree frog’s butt”: Vietnamese idiom, meaning “face pales with worry and fear.” Vietnamese tree frog (or Annam tree … Continue reading are sure to be a newbie.”

“Oh, you’re one to talk! How many times has your spine got chilled over it? How are you better than them?” – The other older man chimed in, and they both laughed out loud.

Phượng Ngân, who had been standing on the side and listening all this time, suddenly joined with a joke:

“Then why don’t you two ask the staff directly? Who knows? Maybe this station is haunted by some ghosts?”

The two older men burst out laughing:

“Don’t you know, miss? There are ghosts everywhere!”

“Like ourselves, for examples.”

A gust of wind blew past, and with it, the middle-aged men’s feet disappeared.

Notes:

Notes:
1 The wedding tradition in Vietnamese are different from that of Western countries. This is translated based on the function of the ceremony, though there are certain differences.
2 “Face pales like a tree frog’s butt,” sometimes “face green like a tree frog’s butt”: Vietnamese idiom, meaning “face pales with worry and fear.” Vietnamese tree frog (or Annam tree frog) is a species of tree frog found only in Southern China, Vietnam, and Laos.

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