Chapter III: The Six-feet-under Stall

The brick well turned out not as deep as she’d thought. If she wanted, she could reach the edge in a single leap. Knowing this, Phượng Ngân felt much better.

Inside the well, on the side of the west shrine, there was a tunnel barely large enough for a single person, with a light every ten meters. Waiting inside the tunnel was a small old woman with a slouching back and gray hair falling down around her face making her looked like an old willow tree. Seeing Phượng Ngân, she opened her toothless mouth to speak:

“Follow me, miss. Master Quý is already waiting inside.”

She was trying to be friendly, but her voice seemed to be hiding a sort of magic that made listeners shiver with cold sweat.

What she’d just said made Phượng Ngân even warier…

Điền Quý had only gone down a couple of seconds before she did. Yet, he was nowhere to be seen, and she couldn’t even hear his footsteps. Even if he started a sprint as soon as he hit the ground, he couldn’t have gotten away that fast.

Unless, of course…

He was a ghost.

The train carriage in which the two of them met earlier were in fact, not empty at all. Phantoms–those unfortunate souls that died elsewhere took the train of the dead to get home–sat in every seat, including the one next to her. Yet, as soon as Điền Quý entered, all the spirits became restless, panicked, and retreated away from him.

It was the first clue that told her he was not a simple man as he appeared.

Then, even as weird things kept happening around him since they got off the train, she wasn’t actually afraid. She was warier of him, sure, but she still didn’t believe any ordinary ghosts or demons could harm her. Even if Điền Quý and that chicken farmer Bắc were to work together, she was confident she could still get away safely.

So, when the old lady asked, she followed suit, determined to see what would happen next.

The woman appeared to be old and frail; she had to lean on the wall and tread slowly – taking one trembling step at a time. As she trailed behind the older woman, having nothing better to do, Phượng Ngân pretended to be asking random questions to see if she could unearth any helpful information:

“What was this tunnel built for, aunty?”

“To evade the bombs, miss. Now that we’re in peacetime, I had my son remove the door in the tunnel to make it more convenient.”

The elderly woman replied, showing no signs of hiding anything.

“What are you selling down here, aunty?”

“I own a water stall, miss. Business is booming down here.”

Her answer sent a slight chill down Phượng Ngân’s spine.

What kind of water stall would be making profit six feet underground? Who are they selling to? The dead?

***

As it turned out…

Her random guess was correct.

The old woman’s stall indeed served the dead.

Beneath the shrine was a simple bomb cellar, with a few low tables and some plastic chairs. A sign hung on a side, on it written “The Six-feet-under stall.”

The customers were drinking tea, eating peanut candies, smoking their pipes, or chatting. The scene was not much different from a street vendor.

“Though this street is a bit lower than others.” Phượng Ngân added silently while trying not to stare at the other customers or their dire conditions. Most of the Six-feet-under stall’s frequent customers were soldiers who died in the wars, some by bullets, others by bombs or napalm, etc. They all appeared precisely as they did when drawing their last breath, making her averting her eyes out of sympathy.

Điền Quý was sitting in a corner with a fresh pot of tea and a few peanut candies on the table in front of him. He yawned and signaled for Phượng Ngân to come to him.

Much like on the train, all the ghosts here avoided the general area where he was sitting.

Phượng Ngân sat down opposite him, then asked:

“Can we talk now, then?”

He nodded and started to explain.

The two old men they met at the train station were not just any spirits; they were hungry ghosts. Because they aid Plane-walkers in keeping the balance between the Yin and Yang Realms, they were rewarded with food and drinks, as she saw earlier.

At first, they’d thought Phượng Ngân was just an ordinary mortal, so they used slang to talk with Điền Quý to avoid exposure. However, after a while, they discovered she was not just a mortal and thus wanted to tease her.

Demons will always be demons, after all.

As for Plane-walkers, they’re those who walked between the Realms of Yin and Yang. Generally speaking, they are anyone who knows of the existence of the Spiritual Realm and anything out of the physical world. When Điền Quý heard about Phượng Ngân’s intention of entering the ancient tomb, he guessed she was a Practitioners as well, so he asked if she was also “in the business” or not.

After hearing his explanation, while she wasn’t in any hurry to believe him completely, Phượng Ngân didn’t show any sign of doubt, either. She then asked him about the human fingers and the chicken with human eyes.

Điền Quý sipped his tea and said:

“Those would be called ‘field chickens.’”

“As in ‘graveyard cat, field chicken[1]Vietnamese idiom and slang, referring to adulterers.?’”

Phượng Ngân asked, her curiosity piqued. This saying originated from the feudal era was just a way to refer to promiscuous scoundrels. What did that have anything to do with corpse-eating chickens?

Seemed to have seen the question in her eyes, Điền Quý said:

“The saying has different meanings for mortals and for us Spiritual Dwellers. Our history was filled with many wars; it’s not far-fetched to say the bodies could have filled fields and stacked into mountains. Chickens, much like dogs, are creatures with strong Yang alignment; their blood could be used to repel evil. So, these corpse-eating chickens can help to disperse Yin energy, preventing spirits from turning into evil demons that would harm humanity. The blood and feces of this breed of chickens are the strongest of all chickens in terms of repelling evil and disrupting dark magic. So, Bắc farm them to sell their blood to Practitioners.”

“But where does he get the corpses? Could it be that…”

“I’m going to stop you right there! It’s nothing as scary as what you’re thinking. Most of the corpses are dead Plane-walkers or donors. It’s almost the Twenty-First century, come on! If he was to commit murder, he’d be rotting in jail. Besides, think about it, if he were to kill people to feed these chickens, the scale of the farm would be much grander, not just a few cages, wouldn’t it?”

Điền Quý hurriedly explained.

He knew the girl sitting opposite from him was not typical. Especially that dagger stare was not something an ordinary person can possess. If she misunderstood the situation, she could end up wrecking the whole farm and water stall.

“Wait, what did you mean by ‘us Spirit Dwellers?’”

“Aside from the Plane-walkers – or Practitioners, there is a second group of people called Sighted Mortals. These are those who know of the Spiritual Realm but do not directly deal with the issues between the realms. They could be retired Practitioners or Mortals. They can either support Plane-walkers from the sideline or simply live out simple lives. ‘Spiritual Dwellers’ essentially is the term to call both groups, anyone who knows of the Yin Realm counts. Seeing how little you know about Plane-walkers, I’d say you’re just a Sighted.”

Phượng Ngân then asked him why they’d come to this water stall. They could have just gone straight for the gravesite at the destination village, so why stopped by here?

At that, Điền Quý shrugged:

“I, too, wish real life was like all those action movies. So, we wouldn’t need to know anything, just jump into the grave, and there will be someone who can explain everything we need to know and our exact mission objectives. Wouldn’t that be convenient? Alas, no such luck. I’m not an action hero; I only have one life to live. So, I can’t exactly waste it, can I?”

“So, you came here to find out more information?”

“What else can one do at a chicken vendor aside from buying chickens?”

Điền Quý avoided Phượng Ngân’s questioning gaze.

This was basic knowledge. Phượng Ngân could see into the Realm of the Dead, but her professional knowledge is next to nothing, practically an amateur.

“Can an amateur really scare Bắc, though?”

Điền Quý silently questioned his own reasoning.

Naturally, he wasn’t just sitting still while Phượng Ngân prodded him for information.

Bắc’s mother went to squeeze kumquats and prepared another pot of tea before saying:

“You two hang on for a bit. Unfortunately, her hearing is not what it used to be.”

Điền Quý chuckled:

“Wouldn’t she’d get stronger and stronger as time passes?”

“Oh, stop it, you! If you keep coming here and ask your questions and she might move on soon.”

The water lady laughed and took a farmer’s pipe from a nearby spirit.

The underground water stall, selling to the dead.

Phượng Ngân silently scanned the establishment renovated from a bomb shelter, unable to hide the excitement and curiosity in her gaze.

The more miserable-looking ones were newly dead. They huddled in the corner of the stall, where there was an incense bowl next to firewood, pipes, and a teapot. Whenever the incenses burnt out, the water lady would move to replace them with new sticks[2]In Asian culture, specifically Chinese and Vietnamese, it is believed that spirits can only eat and drink while the incenses are burning. Lighting incense is therefore the equivalent to inviting … Continue reading.

Meanwhile, those who had died for longer–and no longer had to keep the appearance at their time of death–looked like regular people. They were of all ages and genders and walking around like they were still alive. They sat at other tables, drinking tea, eating candies, or smoking pipes, looking no different from Điền Quý or Phượng Ngân. Although, occasionally, a green aura would flash in and out of them.

Suddenly, from underground, footsteps could be heard.

At the same time, Phượng Ngân felt a chill down her spine.

As she turned her head to look, a skinny old woman–with white eyes–was sitting next to her as if she had always been there. One of her hands reached up to pat Phượng Ngân’s shoulder.

Notes:

Notes:
1 Vietnamese idiom and slang, referring to adulterers.
2 In Asian culture, specifically Chinese and Vietnamese, it is believed that spirits can only eat and drink while the incenses are burning. Lighting incense is therefore the equivalent to inviting ghosts to eat. That’s why after offerings are laid on the altar, incenses are lit and plucked into the incense bowl.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: