Chapter VII: The Lynx and the White Dog

[Translator’s note: The title of this chapter is referring to the mythical creature Lynx, not the animal with the same name in Vietnamese. As mentioned in an earlier post, when the animal was introduced to Vietnam, we used an already-existing word–one originally used to refer to the mythical creature–as the translation.]


After the tào phớ seller disappeared under the bridge, Điền Quý signaled for Phượng Ngân to get down from the xích lô with him. From his pants pocket, he produced a child-shaped something–the size of a human head–wrapped inside banana leaves and put it on the seat of the cyclo. Their driver grinned widely, causing his forehead skin to crease. Under the moonlight, three more pairs of ears grew out of his cheeks. All eight ears, along with his chin, sagged down into small pouches. At the same time, the wrinkles on his foreheads opened up into eyes, all twelve in total, including the two normal ones.

“Your true form is showing. Be careful not to get seen!”

Điền Quý hastily warned.

The panicked cyclo driver drew in a deep breath and held it in, his face creased like a dried-up fruit. Then, his extra ears and eyes started to creep back under his skin, and his face returned to normal.

After the xích lô driver had cycled away, Phượng Ngân turned to ask Điền Quý:

“What kind of creature was that?”

Ba Bị, what else? Nine pouch-straps, twelve eyes.”

“Wait, wasn’t ‘ba bị’ a reference to the pirates who kidnapped children? Six men each squad, a pouch for every two, three pouch-straps each bag, totaling nine straps and twelve eyes.”

“Yes. Exactly so.”

“Then the guy from earlier?”

“He’s also Ba bị.” – Điền Quý replied succintly.

“Can’t you see how contradictory the things you’re saying are?”

“Originally, the terms referred to pirates, but as people started to use it to scare naughty children, they also began to believe in a cannibalistic monster with that descriptions. Before long, their beliefs pretty much made the creature you saw earlier blink into existence. What’s contradictory about that?”

Điền Quý said as he raised one of his hands up to stifle a yawn.

Ngân looked over and chuckled:

“You’ve been sleeping all evening, isn’t that enough already?”

“Can’t help it. I was born this way.”

For some reason–probably her intuition, Phượng Ngân sensed Điền Quý wasn’t telling the truth.

***

Phượng Ngân took out her lipstick and turned it over in her hand. Her senses went into high alert, focusing on every tiny change in her surroundings. She was ready: as soon as whoever was hiding in the dark was to come out for a sneak attack, she’d take them down.

She knew for certain someone was there!

She clearly felt a gaze locked onto the two of them, searching for their weaknesses.

Meanwhile, Điền Quý had gathered firewood into a pile and started a small bonfire. He then produced a dried fish and began to cook it over the open flame. The scent of the fish turning yellow under the heat was mouth-watering. While she could have survived without food for a day, the last time Phượng Ngân had any was still early that afternoon, so the smell of food made her stomach grumble loudly.

Just as the fish was cooked to just right, a black cat slowly stepped out of the bridge’s shadow and approached the fire. The firelight illuminated snake-skin-like patterns that covered the black cat’s body from head to toes. The feline pupils seemed to radiate a ghostly emerald glow.

The cat raised one paw and started picking at its teeth with a single claw while eyeing the grilled fish in Điền Quý’s hand.

The young man threw it to the cat, then motioned at Phượng Ngân and said:

“Don’t worry, she’s no stranger to the Yin Realm.”

The feline ignored him and focused on its meal. Only after there were only bones left and it was done cleaning itself did the cat stood up:

“Follow me!” – It said.

Điền Quý and Phượng Ngân fell into steps behind the black cat. As soon as they stepped foot under the bridge, a suffocating stench hit their face and made their eyes water. The odor was unmistakeably that of rotten decay. Judging by how strong the smell was and the fact that she couldn’t smell anything just a few steps away just now, Phượng Ngân knew this bridge was under enchantments.

Cyan will-o’-the-wisps rose up from the river beside them, illuminating the riverbank path. Along the side of the riverbed slope, human arms poked out of the bricks at the bridge’s feet and swayed in the night wind like they were high grass.

The scene was both horrifying and strange.

The cat led them to a broken and abandoned bus at a corner, then scratched on the headlights a few times. The bus door opened up, revealing a white dog sitting on the driver’s seat. One of its hind legs rested on the wheel while one front paw fanning its body using a conical hat. Its nose glowed in the dark like a ball of fire.

Điền Quý yawned and asked:

“How’s business these days, bro?”

The dog stretched and replied:

“I’ve been starving, bro. You know anyone who’s hiring you wanna introduce me to?”

Điền Quý chuckled:

“There’s a seasonal job, only one trip a year. If you agree to it, I can contact the fat man for you, then you’ll be called on December 24th.”

“Oh, f*** you! I ain’t no f***ing reindeer!”

The dog barked loudly then threw its hat at Điền Quý’s face.

He ducked out of the way.

Only then did the dog saw Phượng Ngân standing on the side. It shot Điền Quý a reproachful glare, then licked its front paw before using it to smooth out the hair on its head:

“Oh, where are my manners? Apology, miss! I was having a bit of fun with my bro and didn’t see a lady was present. Please forgive my rudeness just now!”

Phượng Ngân nodded:

“It’s fine. No need to change your behavior on account of me being a girl.”

The canine slightly raised its chin:

“Ah, but miss, you misunderstood. This is how I behave normally.”

After clearing its throat, the dog continued:

“Quý must have brought you here on official business. In that case, we’ll talk business first, so as not to waste your precious time. Then, afterward, if you don’t mind, I would appreciate it if you could be my guest and allow me to treat you to a meal.”

Điền Quý intervened:

“Hey, bro, I sincerely wish to remind you humans do not like to eat dog food.”

“I know that, goddammit!”

The canine half-screamed at Điền Quý, but then it voiced cracked as if it was about to cry:

“It’s just that, on that day, I forgot to look at the date and went out during the full moon, so I couldn’t control my instincts.”

Phượng Ngân said:

“Since you’re Quý’s friend, how could I refuse? There’s no time like now, so how about we talk while we eat?”

Hearing that, the dog was overjoyed. It stood up, bent a seat into a table, then jerked its head at Điền Quý:

“What are you waiting for, boy? Take it out, don’t keep us waiting!”

Điền Quý replied:

“B**** please, I ain’t even lying when I say those smart like you are chained all over my hometown[1]Vietnamese expression, used to imply/compare someone’s intellect to that of a dog (in Vietnam, dogs are often chained to trees or dog houses)..”

“Oh f*** you!”

The dog started cursing at Điền Quý. But then it glanced at Phượng Ngân, remembered it still needed Điền Quý’s cooperation, and changed to a pleading tone:

“It’s late already; no stores open at this hour. Let’s just say I’ll owe you one this time. It’s not like there are women here every day!“

Only after hearing that did Điền Quý put his hands into his pants pocket to take out all kinds of food, from fruits and cakes to canned meat and rice wine, enough for a four-course meal. Witnessing that, Phượng Ngân wondered how much his pants can hold. However, as she hadn’t eaten since afternoon and was stimulated by the grilled fish earlier, she soon forgot about that to focus on the meal at hand.

The dog also put its rice hat on and immediately turned into a man in his thirties, with hair white as snow and a ruggedly handsome face.

The three of them silently ate for a while before Phượng Ngân finally asked:

“So, the story about the tào phớ seller was all true?”

“Yep, all true.” The white dog replied, “It’s been over twenty years since. He was just a teenager back then; now he’s already old enough to be a middle-aged uncle.”

“Which means he was able to avoid the same fate as the rest of his clan thanks to your protection?”

“Nah, do we look like we have that kind of power? Hmm, how to explain this? Simply put, it’s his occupation that tied his remaining two hun and six po to his body, preventing outside forces from stealing them. That’s why he’s safe from the fate of getting his souls and spirits sucked out of him.”

Phượng Ngân said “ah” once, secretly filed away the information that the enemy could capture the souls of living people, then asked:

“That kind of benefits just for selling tào phớ?”

The white dog glanced between Phượng Ngân and Điền Quý, then burst out laughing:

“While it’s true many ghosts and demons like white tofu, that’s just like any other job. The reason that kid still got his souls is his other occupation.”

He stopped to snap his fingers. At the other end of the bus, the black cat seemed to sigh before clearing its throat and humming a dramatic tune.

“Just get to the point of him being a corpse retriever. Why are you wasting time on sound effects and sh**?” Điền Quý interrupted with a wide grin.

“F*** you, boy! That was my moment! Say, what did I ever do to you to deserve this stick-in-the-wheel[2]Vietnamese idiom, referring to the act of sabotaging someone. treatment?” – The white dog growled.

“Oh, I don’t know.” This time, Điền Quý didn’t back down, instead glared back at the dog, “Who was it that gave my parents the idea of marrying me off this early again?”

The dog shrunk back and cleared his throat:

“Well, you know what they say, ‘cultivate one’s body, start a family, rule the country, then pacify the world.[3]Chinese/Vietnamese proverb, meaning you need a healthy lifestyle and family before you can do bigger things in life.’ You need to start a family and settle down, to avoid running around and causing troubles. It’s a good thing! You should thank me for it. It’s not easy to find such a good match for you.”

“How about no? I refuse to just get married to whomever my parents pick for me.”

Notes:

Notes:
1 Vietnamese expression, used to imply/compare someone’s intellect to that of a dog (in Vietnam, dogs are often chained to trees or dog houses).
2 Vietnamese idiom, referring to the act of sabotaging someone.
3 Chinese/Vietnamese proverb, meaning you need a healthy lifestyle and family before you can do bigger things in life.

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