Angered when realizing she was being teased by ghosts, Phượng Ngân was about to beat them into a pulp before Điền Quý intervened:
“Hey now, they were just joking. No harm, no foul, right? Besides, we’re all in the same business here, aren’t we?”
He then turned to the ghosts, gave them some joss papersJoss paper (or ghost money): An umbrella term for the types of papers made and explicitly used in many Asian countries as burnt offerings to the dead. These offerings are not just limited to … Continue reading, and asked:
“Since you two are locals here, can you tell me where Mr. Bắc’s house is?”
“Chicken Vendor Bắc, right? Exit the station, turn left, then walk for around 200 meters. Turn at the alley; it’s the ninth house.”
After the two old ghosts answered, they pointed at the stacks of joss papers in Điền Quý’s hand. As soon as the notes were handed over, they turned into ashes and fell to the ground. Only then did Điền Quý turned and signaled for Phượng Ngân to follow him to Bắc’s house.
Only after the ghosts were out of sight did she ask:
“Hey, wait! What did you mean by ‘all in the same business?’”
“It’s exactly that. They are in the same business.”
He answered casually as he walked before stopping midstride as if realizing something…
“Wait, don’t tell me… You didn’t even know about that?”
Điền Quý turned around and asked with a grimace.
“Of… of course I know!” – Phượng Ngân turned away, clearly embarrassed by his sudden questioning.
Seeing her reaction, he sighed:
“This is not a good place to talk. Let’s get to Mr. Bắc’s first, then I’ll tell you.”
Phượng Ngân looked around at the streams of people on the street hurrying back and forth to make a living before nodding in agreement. Currently, the entire country was on the path of modernization and industrialization. If they were to talk about ghosts and demons in broad daylight, best-case scenario, they’d be considered crazy; at worst, they’d have to explain themselves at the police station for spreading superstitions.
It took Điền Quý and his new companion around half an hour following the old ghosts’ direction to find Bắc’s Chicken Shop. While the shop was not far from the station, the town itself used to be a battleground of the recent wars, so the roads were arranged like a maze, with lanes and alleys crossing and overlapping. Although they weren’t nearly as confusing as Hanoi’s old quarters, they were complicated enough to give people from elsewhere like Điền Quý and Phượng Ngân trouble navigating.
Bắc’s Chicken Shop was nothing more than a shabby, dark, and damp house with iron roofing. Even from afar, the loud sounds of wings flapping and the foul stench of chicken poop were distinguished.
In front of the door sat a half-naked skinny man, fanning his profuse sweat away. Phượng Ngân guessed this man must be the shop owner, Mr. Bắc. So far, everyone Điền Quý had interacted with since they stepped down from the train had been either ghosts or demons, none human.
Điền Quý took a few more steps before shouting a loud greeting:
“Bắc, my bro!!!”
“Oh, hey! Is that you, Quý? What made the dragon come visit the shrimpVietnamese expression, used to express joy of seeing a highly valued guest. Also a way to both show hospitality and self-depreciation. The literal meaning refer to the hierarchy of the Water Realm … Continue reading today?”
Bắc raised his head to look at the newcomers with hazy drunkard eyes. When he saw Phượng Ngân behind Điền Quý, his lips perked up. He colled the younger man’s neck down in an embrace:
“Damn, boy! I heard about you getting married but was too busy to go to the wedding. What a coincidence that you newlyweds would take your honeymoon in this middle of nowhere!”
At that, Phượng Ngân spoke up, in a voice that was neither cold nor warm:
“The nature of our relationship is certainly not that. Do not misunderstand.”
Bắc gave an “ah” before smiling mischievously:
“Running away with your secret lover, eh? Damn, son! It’s like you’re living a drama film, why didn’t you te-”
The coldness and sharp edges of Phượng Ngân’s daggered gaze made the chicken farmer gulped down the rest of his sentence. Điền Quý then said:
“We only met on the way here. But, she’s my client, so to speak.”
“Oh, so it’s business. Dammit, boy! You should have lead with that before she scared me into nearly wetting my pants.”
Bắc brushed off his clothes and straightened up, then pushed open the gates and led them inside.
His shop was a simple Northern traditional house with three big rooms and two smaller ones. The entire front yard had been renovated into one big chicken coop, leaving only a tiny and dark trail next to the left wall. As soon as Phượng Ngân set foot inside, a stinky odor made its way into her nose, and she winced at all the cockroaches crawling across the yard. However, seeing the chicken vendor’s and Điền Quý’s indifferent expressions, she willed herself to look casual.
But it only took a few steps for her to feel eyes on her back in the darkness. On the narrow dark path barely large enough for a single file, she was bringing up the rear, so those gazes couldn’t have been from Bắc nor Điền Quý.
The further along the path, the colder it got. At first, it was rather refreshingly soothing, but now Phượng Ngân felt as if she was inside an ice tunnel. Then, in front of her, Điền Quý suddenly stopped in his track, pulled out a crumpled talisman“Bùa”: A term in Asian culture, referring to a piece of paper, white or yellow, with writings on them to use for various purposes, including, but not limited to, warding off evil, sealing … Continue reading from his pocket, and gave it to her:
“If you’re cold, stick this to your body.”
Phượng Ngân didn’t believe a piece of paper could change the room temperature, but since Điền Quý had offered, she didn’t feel like outright declining. However, as soon as the talisman touched her shirt, warmth spread through her entire body and the cold from earlier disappeared completely.
Instinctively, she looked at his back. The man in the rumpled shirt in front of her suddenly became mysterious under the flickering light.
Only then did something strike her as odd: If Điền Quý was familiar with this chicken farmer named Bắc, why did he have to ask for direction from the two ghosts from earlier?
She was filing this thought to the back of her head and about to keep moving when she heard a slight knock.
The sound was incredibly soft; had it been anyone else, they probably would have missed it. But Phượng Ngân was no oridinary girl. From the moment she set foot into this alley, she was on extreme alert in case of traps.
The source of the sound was from the chicken-cages area on the right.
Under the faint light, lying on the flowery tiles, standing out like an ink stain on a blank piece of paper, was a human finger–a slender, pale, stiff human finger. Judging from the length and shape, it was clear it was not that of an adult but rather one of a child around 10 years old.
Her surprise continued, when from a cage, a chicken head poked out through the bars. The fowl head, with messy feathers, moved slowly as it gazed at her warily with widely opened eyes. Then, with lightning speed, it grabbed the human finger with its beak and retreated back into the iron cage.
In her heart, Phượng Ngân knew her eyes didn’t play tricks on her.
Moreover, the chicken head that had poked out just now didn’t have eyes like that of an ordinary chicken. Instead, it had eyes that eerily looked like human eyes.
Bắc’s backyard was a simple brickyard, with a well near the east wall and a shrine near the west wall. An emerald comb was left on the edge of the well.
There was no route to get here that didn’t go through Bắc’s house. As a result, rarely did anyone ever come here, even those who bought chickens from him.
Bắc took the comb, walked over to the shrine, turned the Guan Yin statue around, and combed her hair three times. Immediately, from under the brick came knocking sounds and a hoarse voice:
The chicken farmer turned to look at Điền Quý. Only after the younger man nodded did he reply:
“Come down then.”
After saying that, the voice from under the yard also fell silent.
Điền Quý shrugged, pointed at the well, and turned to Phượng Ngân:
“Do you want to jump first, or should I?”
“Huh… Wait, what?”
Seeing her hesitation, he didn’t say another word. Instead, he walked over and jumped down the east well without a thought.
Witnessing the chicken with human eyes pecking on human carcasses earlier had slightly spooked Phượng Ngân. Who knew what could happen if she were to jump down that tiny, dark, deep well? However, after gathering her own courage and self-confidence, she jumped down after Điền Quý.
And the darkness swallowed them both up…
|↑1||Joss paper (or ghost money): An umbrella term for the types of papers made and explicitly used in many Asian countries as burnt offerings to the dead. These offerings are not just limited to money/currency for the dead, but sometimes include clothing, shoes, hats, and even houses, cars, etc., as time changed.|
|↑2||Vietnamese expression, used to express joy of seeing a highly valued guest. Also a way to both show hospitality and self-depreciation. The literal meaning refer to the hierarchy of the Water Realm where a dragon is considered royalty while a shrimp is just a lowly guard.|
|↑3||“Bùa”: A term in Asian culture, referring to a piece of paper, white or yellow, with writings on them to use for various purposes, including, but not limited to, warding off evil, sealing entities, bewitching someone, etc. As there are no one equivalent words, it’ll be translated depending on the usage between paper talisman, sealing papers, etc.|