Extract from Chapter 3 in Glimmers of Redemption / Đêm thánh nhân
By Nguyễn Đình Chính
Edited by David Cunningham
… After Dr Truong Vinh Can had been found unconscious in the public bathrooms he was arrested and brought to the local police station before being transferred to the district Public Security Office for formal questioning. The offices were in a chaotic state as a result of the excessive arrangements which had been required for the funeral and transportation of the body of a recently deceased celebrated politician. As can happen in such situations there was a mix up with some paperwork and Dr Can was mistaken for a member of a gang who sold women and young girls to China as part of an ‘arranged marriage’ scheme for Chinese men. After more than an hour’s interrogation a freshly graduated second lieutenant ordered that the old man be sent to a provincial jail to await further interviews and his subsequent sentencing.
Doctor Truong Vinh Can seemed to be taking everything in his stride. Having lived alone and been ignored for more than twenty years he was used to feeling excluded and oppressed. He was taken by two fully-armed policemen through a back door and driven straight to the provincial jail. Normally he would have been confined in the area for those awaiting sentencing but due to a lack of space he was put in a cell in the area for prisoners on death row.
Thus it was that over the course of the following ten days Dr Can had the opportunity to meet and befriend one of most famous gangsters in the coastal regions, ‘Chicken Poacher’ Thach who had killed at least twenty people and had recently failed to lodge an appeal against his sentence within the one month time-limit so was now awaiting execution. As soon as Dr Can crawled into his nine-metres-squared cell he noticed that the man in the neighbouring cell was playing chess by himself in the middle of his own cell. He was quite slim but he looked healthy. He had short hair, pale skin and his mud-brown eyes gazed out of smoke-coloured sclera. One of the prison officers had warned Doctor Can that he was being imprisoned in the area for prisoners on death row so the doctor could not hide his surprise when he realised that such apparently vicious criminals could look as good-humoured and handsome as this one. When he became aware that Dr Can was staring at him Thach turned around and shaped his hand like a pistol which he pointed at the doctor while looking straight into the old man’s face. Then he snickered and farted before bursting out into a laugh loud enough to startle Doctor Can even further and caused him to drop his glasses onto the floor.
That night the two inmates started to become good friends. Thach cheerfully asked the doctor:
‘How many people have you sent to hell old man?’
Doctor Can shook his head:
‘I have never killed anybody.’
Thach nodded a few times:
‘It’s funny how people often deny their crimes even while awaiting execution!’
Doctor Can replied forcefully:
‘This is first time I’ve ever even been arrested.’
Thach laughed out loud
‘You act well but once you end up in a cell like this then there’s not much point caring as much about life any more. It’s time to be honest with yourself.’
Thach stared at Dr Can as though contemplating an old monkey. He thought for a while and then chuckled:
‘You don’t look like a smuggler or a murderer. Look at your eyes and the way you bear yourself. No offense but you look like a rapist who specializes in violating virgin teens.’
Doctor Truong Vinh Can‘s face turned bright red. Thach laughed:
‘I knew I was right. Ha ha! Where’s my award? I want to hear all about it old man. Sounds exciting, like a sexy thriller full of lusty young women, let’s hear it!’
Doctor Can crawled back into a corner of the cell and curled up. Chicken Poacher Thach sat opposite him laughing and asking lewd questions about how it had felt to pull the girl’s underwear off and if he’d bitten her or anything like that. Dr Can’s ears burned and he wished that a huge hole would appear in the ground and swallow him up. Thach continued to tease him playfully. He was very friendly to Dr Can and even tossed a fresh pack of 555 cigarettes over to the old man.
Dr Can had only been put with the death row prisoners because the other cells had been full but from the moment he arrived he was treated the same as the inmates awaiting execution rather than those awaiting sentencing. After having spent such a long time as a penniless vagabond it came as a huge relief to the old doctor to be allowed to eat as much as he wanted at mealtimes. Three times a day the prison supplied a full rice buffet with a wide variety of meat, fish and vegetables and prisoners were even allowed to drink beer and rice-wine. Dr Can always helped himself to as much as he could. It got to the point when even he could not understand why he was suddenly able to eat as much as he could. Chicken Poacher Thach in the neighbouring cell was even more astonished. He occasionally tossed half a chicken or a steak into Dr Can’s cell and the doctor always wolfed it down. Naturally what goes in must come out so the bucket in the corner of Dr Can’s cell was usually full of his excrement and it sometimes overflowed, stinking the whole place out. Thach did not take issue with it though. Thach assumed that Dr Can was also awaiting execution because the doctor never spoke or explained why he was there. It was one of those cases when two people in a shared situation become friends very quickly. Sometimes after he had finished eating Thach would complain:
‘Looking at you devouring all that food I feel jealous. I can’t do it and I’m started to feel permanently constipated. My eyes are getting weaker and I’m afraid that I’m going to go blind one of these days. Being a normal ghost would be bad enough but being a blind ghost would be an even worse fate and such a waste of an ability to haunt people!’
Since being expelled from the party and his job more than twenty years before Dr Can had lived an isolated and detached life in the morgue. In what little free time he had allowed himself he had rarely gone out to meet anyone except a few odd characters or one of the prostitutes around the train station. This was his first time inside a prison cell and the whole experience was heightened by having a prisoner who had received the ultimate sentence as his neighbour. It was a surreal situation but the doctor was intrigued by it all. When he was not eating or defecating he stared silently at Thach while the famous gangster sat meditating. The doctor felt as curious as a child in a zoo who is spellbound by the sight of a tiger asleep in its cage. During the twelve hours of daylight Thach spent eight of them meditating. During the twelve hours of darkness he spent six hours at it.
He explained to Dr Can:
‘I was trained to master qi gong and especially the internal arts of wu tang pai from a master of Tho ethnicity in the Cao Bang province.’
After thinking for a while he continued:
‘If I’d been permitted to study for another five years I’d even have learned how to deflect bullets. Unfortunately my life followed a different path and I was arrested before I could study further. But while there’s life there’s hope. Although the end of the path is now in sight I’m still trying to refine my skills just in case I can use them. There’s no harm in a bit of meditating anyway because at least it allows me to maintain my sense of calm no matter what happens.’
After another pause he spoke again:
‘In these tiger cages seven or eight of every ten patients loses their mind before they are executed. If we don’t stay strong we’ll end up going out of our minds before we know it.’
One day Thach gave Dr Can an article but did not explain anything about it. The article was entitled: “Chicken Poacher Thach has been caught and awaits execution!” There was a brief summary of Thach’s background: born in a mountainous area in the north of Vietnam; served in the army; demobilized; student of Hanoi University, faculty of Math; expelled for attacking the police while they ‘were performing routine check-ups’. Then the criminal history started to expand: smuggler and racketeer along the Saigon to Hue route; opium dealer in Cao Bang and Lang Son; arrested and imprisoned for two years but released six months early; joins a gang and quickly forms his own crew specialising in ambushes and muggings along Highway Five from Hanoi to Haiphong. The characteristics of this lawless brigand were also described: ferocious persona; mastery of material arts; as fiendish and depraved as any man alive; kills for fun and employs a variety of methods (the article mentions executions, shootings, beatings and hangings). The article also assures readers that Chicken Poacher Thach was eventually arrested for a second time on the eve of the new lunar year and now sits on death row awaiting execution.
Thach smiled at his neighbour and said:
‘The author of this article was one of my three closest friends back when we were all serving in the army. Once he came here and interviewed me for more than an hour. His name is Pham Huu Cai. Even more interesting though is the fact that the policeman who led the investigation which finally caught up with me was another one of those friends! His real name is Tran Hai and not Lo Duc like it says in the article.’
Still smiling Thach continued to talk:
‘Life is strange. It’s almost like a novel sometimes. After Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence we were all demobilized. I went to study Math in Hanoi University, Cai took a press course to be a journalist and Hai decided to become a policeman so he went abroad to Germany to study in a police university there. Ten years later we were all living completely different lives. As I said, life is strange sometimes.’
Thach lay back and stretched out on the cold cement floor and reflected for a while before he chortled to himself and picked up his story where he had left off:
‘Hai is the only one who knows my weak point and that’s why he was able to capture me. When we were in the army we used to speak long in to the night every night and I shared all sorts of secrets with him including my Achilles’ heel. During the war against the French my family was evacuated to Chiem Hoa in Tuyen Quang Province and then on the eve of the new lunar year my mother died of tuberculosis. That’s why every lunar new year’s eve I light some incense at an altar to my mother. When we were in the battlefield and did not have an altar I always set one up and then when the incense had burned out I took it apart. Hai is an attentive kind of guy and he knew that this ritual is my Achilles’ heel. Near the end of last year I disbanded my gang and returned to visit my hometown before going abroad for a while. At the time Hai was in charge of the unit which had as its mission to find and arrest me. Before he caught me we had crossed paths three times at different train and bus stations but I had always evaded him and caused him to lose face. The fourth time he hid in the back yard of my old house and then at midnight he barged into my house just as I was relighting an incense stick which had stopped burning. He was on me before I knew it and thus it was that I was defeated by an old buddy of mine.’
Dr Can read Pham Huu Cai’s detailed description of the scene and how Thach had been unable to throw the emergency grenade he always kept attached to his belt because he would have killed himself too. The article went on to explain how two policemen and numerous militia helped Le Duc to truss the gangster up like a pig and bring him to the city’s central police station. The journalist praised the tremendous foresight and courage that had been displayed by Captain Lo Duc in dealing with such a dangerous situation. No mention was made of the Achilles’ heel which had finally cost Thach his liberty.
There was a custom on death row that preparations for an execution only began half a day before the prisoner was placed in front of the firing squad. This custom had been implemented to help prisoners ignore the reality of their impending doom until their last few hours on earth. On the tenth evening when Dr Can was sipping on some coffee and smoking a cigarette after a meal of grilled dog and canned beer Thach said to him:
‘Hey doc, I’ve got to leave tomorrow morning.’
He announced it just like that and then became as silent as a rock. At five o’clock the following morning four policemen arrived to escort Chicken Poacher Thach from his cell. Dr Can had been unable to sleep during the preceding night. He had lain there and smoked his way through a packet of cigarettes although he had not dared to cough or even breathe heavily. As morning finally broke he fell asleep. He awoke later to the united roars of the other inmates as they bade farewell to their comrade after the reports of the shots fired by the execution squad who finally ended his life had reached their ears.
Doctor Can was not there to bear witness as Thach strode with his head held high between the four policemen into the nine-metre-square room near the entrance to the prison. Thach was treated to a large plate of steamed sticky rice with chicken and was allowed to smoke a final cigarette. He refused to say any final words and refused the offer of a piece of paper and a pencil with which to write some final message. A scrap of paper and the stub of a blunt pencil did not allow a man much space to expound his thoughts anyway. The doctor also did not get to watch as Thach was knocked out and transported like a carcass to the execution fields to the west of city where a pole had been prepared beside a freshly dug grave. The nine-man execution squad was waiting for him with their guns primed. If the doctor could have witnessed these final scenes of Thach’s life he would have seen how he suddenly turned incredibly pale, soiled himself and collapsed to the ground despite being attached to the pole. The four policemen struggled to stand him upright again but finally managed to do so. Then BANG! His head lolled towards his shoulder and blood began pouring out from the holes in his overalls through which he had been shot.
For three full days after Thach’s death Dr Can could not sleep and no longer had the same appetite as before. For three full days he just sat in the corner of the cage with his knees up to his chin and his head bowed like a despondent monkey. He occasionally glanced over at Thach’s cell as though expecting to see him meditating as usual. At midday on the fourth day he dreamed that Thach flew back to talk to him. In his dream the cell was full of the orange haze which Dr Can now knew was the smoky manifestation of a recently deceased being. His cell became so cold that he was almost afraid of freezing to death or that the demonic apparition would kill him and send him to hell. Then the haze shimmered and retreated. The doctor heard a male voice sobbing: “Please burn some incense for my mother.” Suddenly Dr Can awoke with a start. Wiping the sweat which his terror had caused to stream from his brow and his armpits he thought to himself: “It seems that all he wanted to do was to give me that one message.” At which thought he himself began to start gently sobbing. He dropped to his knees, lifted his eyes to the ceiling and began praying to any remnants of Thach’s soul that were still listening:
‘I have heard your request. I promise that if I get out of this prison alive the very first Tet when I am free I will go to your hometown and burn some incense at your mother’s altar at midnight on the eve of the new lunar year.’
Despite making such a promise to Thach’s soul Dr Can could not have known that he would be in a position to fulfil it soon afterwards. Two weeks after Thach was executed Dr Can was released from prison. The previous confusion with the paperwork had been cleared up once the police arrested the human trafficker Truong Lao Ca and his gang while they were transporting nine young women across the border. Doctor Can was released with an apology from the administrative authorities who were responsible for such cases.
Doctor Truong Vinh Can regained his liberty on the third day of a bitterly cold period which lasted seventeen days. Tet was on the way but the weather was unrelentingly harsh. On the eighteenth day gale force winds began blowing as a storm blew into town. It was so cold that all of the local poultry and cattle developed a case of mass constipation and the streets were as empty of people as during a plague. As soon as he was freed Dr Can went to the execution fields to the west of city where there was a small hill next to the huge dam which Dr Bui Thanh Cong had been instrumental in designing. Dr Can went there to visit Thach’s grave. The grave had sunk a little during the prolonged rains and a riot of weeds had sprouted around it. The weeds were bright green even though the soil around the grave was barren and yellow. Feeling sorry for Thach the doctor burned a stick of incense for him and squatted down to stare in silence at the fresh grave. His sorrow was like a worm slithering around inside his body and it made him feel nauseous. Crouching in the rain as a cold wind blew through the execution field Dr Can pondered the way different people have different destinies and how some people seem to have less fortunate lives than others. He was not too concerned about who was better or worse off but he knew that he felt heartily sorry for those who had to experience an excessive amount of hardships during their time on the planet. Then he picked up a handful of soil and gazed up at the sky as he allowed the soil to spill through his fingers. Given that it had been more than three weeks since Thach had been executed his spirit had probably already left this place and there was no hope of seeing that orange haze near the grave any more. After standing there for a while with his head in the clouds he suddenly blinked his eyes rapidly and refocused on his immediate surroundings. The stick of incense had burned down to its stub. He bowed three times then turned around to leave. He knew that he had to leave even though he did not know what he would do as there were still three weeks to go until Tet.
As he wandering around uncertain what to do next his feet took Dr Can to Chicken Poacher Thach’s house in Van Phu Hamlet in the village of Lai Giang. While he had been alive Thach had never told anyone about his address. In the article he had shared with Dr Can it had merely said that his hometown was in Hung Yen Province (although that was the old name of the region). After he left the execution field Dr Can went straight to the train station and boarded a train which happened to be refuelling there at the time. When the train left the station Dr Can was already asleep beside the window and he stayed that way until two members of staff shook his shoulder and informed him that train had arrived at its final destination. Dr Can got off the train and instead of walking through the gate he crossed back over the track and took off across the nearby fields. He crossed streams, climbed hills and travelled in a straight line as though trying to elude an unknown hunter. After three days of such trekking his clothes stank like a rubbish dump. By the fourth day his lips were cracked and his face numb. On the fifth day his ears became as shrivelled as dried mushrooms. On the ninth day his right trouser leg was torn off from the knee down. At the end of the thirteenth day his clothes were as ragged as a beggar’s and the stench from his body was unbearable even from a few metres away. At twilight on the fourteenth day at twenty-five to seven he arrived at Van Phu Hamlet in the village of Lai Giang. It was a small hamlet consisting of just a few houses clustered at the foot of a small mountain. Ten minutes later he found himself inside Thach’s house. Why had Dr Can travelled in such a way for fourteen days and how had he survived during that time? Who knows but perhaps he had some benevolent spirits assisting him. All we need to know is that he found the right address. When he knocked on the door with his cane a small black dog came running out to bark at him before sidling over and rubbing up against his legs in a display of puppyish affection. An ethnic minority woman who had her eyes wrapped in cloth passed him with a coil of wet bamboo twine which had been soaked in the pond in the yard. Doctor Can was about to question her but she spoke first:
‘Are you from the district police?’
Doctor Can was going to answer but she carried on:
‘It’s alright. I am willing to let you have the house now. I have to go home to take care of matters there anyway. Thanks to your lot nobody around here wants anything to do with Thach or his associates now. Now here you lot are, the district police, come to do your check-ups and take ownership of the place. You might as well come in.’
Dr Can followed the woman across the porch. Inside the house it was dark and gloomy. Everything was covered in mould and it was as cold as the inside of a refrigerator. Oil lamps had been lit and placed on a large black wooden altar which was shiny enough to catch the reflections of the picture of a young woman with sad, wide eyes that had been placed there. The melancholy air that even just this photograph exuded was enough to bring a tear to the eye of anyone who looked at it for any length of time. The woman said:
‘That’s Thach’s great-grandmother who died on the day she learned that her grandson had been executed. She was eating some food when suddenly she hiccupped, started coughing up blood and then died. Poor woman.’
After a moment’s silence she carried on with her explanation:
‘Last month Thach’s father returned to this house in a fancy black car. It had been exactly twenty-four years since he had brought Thach to be looked after by his grandmother but he finally came back to visit his son. He must have read something about Thach’s arrest and he had decided to come in search of his son. He was quite a kind-looking man who was very likeable. His face and his spirit were those of the type of person who is born to be a leader. That night I was coming over to borrow a pestle and mortar from Thach’s grandmother and I happened to catch sight of Thach’s father standing in front of this altar. He lit some incense for his wife and was about to begin bowing to the picture but instead he just stroked the photo. Then he suddenly cursed and started crying in pain before retreating hurriedly. It was quite difficult to see because of the weak light and my fading vision but I managed to see that Thach’s father’s hand had become all swollen and that a dark yellow liquid was seeping from his fingers. I believe it must have been some sort of karmic force that caused it to happen.’
Suddenly a frosty wind blew through the house. Doctor Can turned away from the altar. The woman with the covered eyes had vanished. Had she been a human or another ghost? Doctor Can slumped down onto the floor of the porch and sat there shivering. It was the night of the new lunar year and the sky was inky-black above him. The whole hamlet was as quiet as though all of its inhabitants were holding their breath in anticipation of the midnight hour and the arrival of the new lunar year. Occasional small explosions could be heard in the distance. Thach’s house at the end of the hamlet got colder and mistier as the night wore on. Around three or four hours before midnight Dr Can placed a packet of incense sticks next to the altar in order to be ready for night and then he fell into a light sleep. He was exhausted after having spent many days and nights traipsing up hills and through valleys. He did not know that he was sleeping on the exact spot where Chicken Poacher Thach had usually sat to burn incense for his mother. At midnight there was a sudden roaring sound and then the noise of fireworks exploding. Dr Can woke up and hurried to place the incense which he had prepared onto Thach’s mother’s altar. Imagine his fear as he saw blood-red tears streaming from the sorrowful eyes of the woman in the picture on the altar!