Chapter IV: Because you’re a Trịnh

As if having sensed the old woman’s appearance in advance, Điền Quý had been sitting upright since who knew when. From his shirt pocket, the young man presented a pack of pipe tobacco (“thuốc lào”) and a copper comb:

“These are some gifts from home to show my gratitude.”

The old woman wore a typical traditional brown dress. Her head was covered by a scarf, her hair tied into a rooster tail, distinctively of Northern rural women’s headwears of the last century. She took the pack of tobacco, bring it to and away from her nose, sniffing for a while before finally putting it down:

“It is truly thuốc lào Tiên Lãng.”

Traditional rural wear of Northern Vietnamese women last century.

She then took the comb and flicked at it with one finger. Immediately, the comb let out a powerful and deep sound, much like that of a gong. Phượng Ngân, who was sitting right next to her, had to cover her ears. Her head shook with dizziness, unable to comprehend how an object that size could be capable of such a loud noise.

“Ah, it is Ngũ Xã Copper. Since your heart is true, so shall mine be. Pray tell, what is it you seek information on this time?”

[Translator’s note: Tiên Lãng and Ngũ Xã are famous villages for the production of thuốc lào and metal works/blacksmith, respectively.]

Điền Quý shrugged:

“Oh, nothing much. This time I was hired by this lady to dig up an ancient tomb.”

“If it was just any typical tomb, someone like yourself wouldn’t need to consult an old water lady like myself, would you? Pray tell me, then, what kind of catastrophe do you seek to unearth this time?”

“Ah, it’s nothing of the sort, ma’am! There’s only this sixteen-word instruction: ‘The mute opens up; The dead’s closed smile. Rounded pond, unrounded well. Crooked star fruit tree.’ All I ask from you is advice on how to proceed.”

As soon as he finished speaking, Điền Quý quickly covered his ears with both hands.

Before long, the old woman was shouting:

“Not a catastrophe my ass!”

Then, as if only now realizing there were other customers around them, she lowered her voice:

“Graves and tombs are never simple matters, young ones. It’s best if you can just forget about digging up this grave. Heed this old woman’s advice, children, no matter the riches, you have to be alive to enjoy it.”

Before Điền Quý could say anything, Phượng Ngân had already started earnestly:

“This matter is very crucial to me. Please help us, ma’am!”

The old woman frowned, then said in a tone that didn’t allow any argument:

“If it was anyone else, they can go ahead and go die down there. But you cannot!”

Seeing the sudden change in the old woman’s attitude, targeted explicitly at her no less, Phượng Ngân was pissed:

“We’ve never met before today; why are you deliberately making it hard on me?”

“Why?! Because you’re a Trịnh!”

As the old woman finished her sentence and tried to stand up, she found herself stuck to her chair, unable to move at all. Hastily turning to Điền Quý, she said in a soothing tone:

“Perhaps I’ve lost my temper. How about we take our time and talk about this; there’s no need for violence, Master Điền.”

Điền Quý yawned and said:

“I’ve already taken everything you’re worrying about into consideration. If anything happens, I’ll take full responsibility. If you could please tell us what we need to know, I’d appreciate it very much.”

“Alright, fine.”

The old woman glanced at Phượng Ngân warily; but, with Điền Quý’s threat hanging over her like a knife to her throat, she had no way of backing out. So, while she silently cursed at him in her mind, she still had to force a smile.

***

The skinny old woman looked around the water stall a bit before whispering:

“Please keep what I’m about to tell you a secret. The fewer people who know about it, the better.”

Phượng Ngân found this request a bit redundant. While she had no idea why the old woman had to request such an obvious thing, she nodded in agreement anyway, silently telling herself it had to be another slang between her and Điền Quý.

Meanwhile, he just tapped his finger on the table and chuckled:

“No need to worry, aunty. Whatever you tell me, I can swear no one else will hear a word of it.”

The old woman then said:

“When I was still alive, I heard a rumor that when the Cần Vương Movement against the French was at its peak, there was a warlock[1] In Vietnamese, the term “phù thủy” is used for magicians, witches, wizards, warlocks, necromancers, geomancers, Taoists, etc. In short, it’s for anyone who has any control over magic. who joined Đinh Công Tráng’s army. I’m not clear on the details of what happened, but I heard he convinced the Insurgency that our country’s fate was coming to an end soon, and if we wanted to prolong it, we needed to use geomancy (Feng Shui). The tomb you two seek is called the Ghost King Mausoleum, designed by that very warlock. The day it was finished was the same day all workers involved died horrible deaths, including those who left the construction midway. The body count was enough to fill a pond.”

She paused momentarily to glance at Điền Quý and Phượng Ngân. Seeing that she’d failed to scare them, she sighed and asked him again:

“You’re determined to take her down there?”

Quý smiled:

“Some things are fated; we can’t avoid them even if we wanted to. Now, how about that 16 words? If all workers involved died tragically, I’m guessing no one knows where the entrance to the tomb is, right?”

The old woman replied:

“One of the workers etched those 16 words into a brick in his own front porch. Then he told his son to only dig it up and learn it by heart in the event of his death.”

“Why don’t we try asking the ghosts of those construction workers, then?” – Phượng Ngân wondered out loud.

“It’s been over one hundred years, miss. Do you think no one else has ever thought of doing that?”

“You mean, no one can find the spirits of those workers?”

The old woman simply nodded at that as confirmation.

Điền Quý then asked:

“So, about those 16 words, where should we start, ma’am?”

“From what I can remember, about twenty years ago, when our North was heavily bombed, the descendants of that worker attempted to follow that 16-word instruction to dig up the tomb to get rich. But in the end, their entire clan of over a hundred people died tragically and unexpectedly. The sole survivor was a son who was away on a business trip in the District. Unfortunately, when he heard the news, he was overcome with grief and became muted. You two can start your investigation with him.”

***

Only after buying a bottle of chicken blood did the two of them leave the Six-feet-under Stall and Bắc’s shop behind. The sun was already in the west, painting the dusty road yellow. Điền Quý glanced at his watch and said:

“We’ve probably already missed the train. How about we find somewhere to settle in for the night?”

Phượng Ngân was silently looking at her feet.

The old water lady had already revealed the tomb with the sixteen-word instruction was the Ghost King’s Tomb, which was connected to Đinh Công Tráng, and had nothing to do with the Trịnh’s family. Which meant all of the reasons she made up on the train had been debunked.

She then recounted what Điền Quý had said to the old lady’s intervention:

“Some things are fated; we can’t avoid them even if we wanted to.”

It was clear that he knew something regarding the fact that “the Trịnh cannot go down to the Ghost King’s Tomb.”

“If he knew it already, why hasn’t he exposed me? Could it be that he’s planned to take me down that grave from the start?”

For the first time, Phượng Ngân flinched. The more time passed, the less confident she felt about seeing through the scruffily dressed young man in front of her.

In the end, however, she still doubled down and ran to catch up to him.

“No matter what his intentions are, I’ll dig up that grave even if it’s the last thing I do! Otherwise, I’ll never get out of this cursed yin marriage!”

Phượng Ngân clenched her fists and swore to herself.

***

Điền Quý let her pick an inn for them to stay the night…

“I’m guessing you’re already tired of all the ghosts and demons mumbo-jumbo, right?”

He yawned before adding:

“Though, do be quick about it! I’m sleepy already.”

Phượng Ngân sighed but went into an old bookstore to ask for directions to an inn named Hương Rừng[2]Hương Rừng means Jungle Odor in Vietnamese. that a relative once told her about anyway.

As much as she didn’t want to admit it, Điền Quý understood exactly how she felt. The entire day today, she’d saw hungry ghosts, corpse-eating chickens, then been at a water stall for phantoms. While she wasn’t afraid of any of them, she was sick and tired of it all.

Hương Rừng Inn turned out to be a cheap guesthouse. After getting there, the two of them rented rooms for the night, planning to investigate the tomb builder’s muted descendant in the morning.

In her room, Phượng Ngân pulled out a chair and started to count the money she had left.

As she ran away from home, she didn’t have to plan carefully, and therefore, didn’t pack a lot of money. Just the train ticket alone cost over half of her money. The rest was barely enough to pay for the rooms for three days, and that’s without accounting for any fees for food or other activities.

Phượng Ngân sighed:

“Let’s see. I first have to find the last survivor of that clan, convince him to explain the 16-word instruction. If that works out, I’ll have to go nearly a hundred kilometers on foot to get to Town A, then find my way to the Ghost King’s Tomb. That sounds… impossible.”

It was true what they say, “Difficulty binds wisdom[3]Vietnamese idiom. Meaning, the difficult situation one faced may serve as a deterrent keeping one from being able to think one’s way out of it. There’s another saying that usually go along with … Continue reading.” As long as she was faced with money problems, her confidence in finding the Ghost King’s Tomb diminished.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.

Then came a man’s voice eerily like Điền Quý’s:

“Ngân? Hey, Ngân! Let me in and pour me a sip of water, would you?”

Phượng Ngân looked over at the clock on the wall; it was already 10 PM. She stood up, went over to the left side of the room, and pressed her ear to the wall. The Inn was a low-budget one with cheap rent, so naturally, the room quality was terrible. The walls between rooms were thin, without any decent soundproofing in place. So, even without stepping out of her room, she could hear Điền Quý snoring like a saw next door.

The rain was practically pouring outside.

The young girl pulled out a chair to sit across from the door, then pulled out a lipstick from her shirt pocket and tapped it on the chair’s arm a few times.

While it was unclear what the lipstick cover was made of, every time it hit the chair’s arm, a sound like that of a good sword about to be unsheathed rang out loud and clear.

She then said to the general direction of the door:

“If you’re smart, you’d better go away! Or else you won’t have time to regret once I have to open the door!”

The rhythmic sound of rain outside could still be heard, but no longer were there any human voices accompanying it. The room fell back into silence as if nothing had happened just now.

Notes:

Notes:
1 In Vietnamese, the term “phù thủy” is used for magicians, witches, wizards, warlocks, necromancers, geomancers, Taoists, etc. In short, it’s for anyone who has any control over magic.
2 Hương Rừng means Jungle Odor in Vietnamese.
3 Vietnamese idiom. Meaning, the difficult situation one faced may serve as a deterrent keeping one from being able to think one’s way out of it. There’s another saying that usually go along with it, “wisdom born out of difficulty,” having the exact opposite meaning: the difficulty one faced may serve as motivation for one’s wisdom and creativity to shine through.

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