Pham Xuan Hieu
Born in 1948, Pham Xuan Hieu is the member of Vietnam Writers’ Association, a UNESCO researcher and collector of preserved antiquities. He lives and works in Hai Phong city, Vietnam. His published books are – The family treasured lamp (short stories); ‘The woman and the silver cup’ (short stories) awarded by Vietnam Writers’ Association; The soul of a bear (story awarded by Ministry of agriculture) and ‘Antiquities galaxy’ (novel).
Old Sin and his little Langur
By Pham Xuan Hieu
The evening market at the foot of Mt Van closed for the day quite a while ago, yet Old Sin continued to loiter among the stalls in search of the day’s leftovers to put in the bag that hung loosely over his chest. His left arm was nearly immovable, and his right one was misshapen, like a twisted piece of firewood dangling from his shoulder. He was by no means a beggar, for he only appeared at the market when the crowd was almost gone because he could not stand their glances of pity. He had no money with him when he went to the market, as he did not need it: he was able to bring home the scraps without paying.
The sun had set behind the mountain range. So far, he had been unable to find anything for this evening’s meal and for the next day. His hesitant footsteps echoed and vacant eyes stared around the empty stalls in vain. All of a sudden, he remembered the parking area, where the scattered remains from coach passengers sometimes lay on the ground.
As he glanced at the dump nearby one last time he unexpectedly heard a weird sound. With the gait of a semi-disabled man, he moved towards the strange noises, in the hope that a lame chicken or an unwanted newborn duckling could be found. To his surprise, he saw a damaged bamboo cage. He lifted it up. Two round eyes pierced from inside. At once he dropped the cage and ran away without seeing what type of animal it was. He was usually averse to eyes that gazed at him in a challenging way, but just a few steps away from the cage, he realized that his fear was unreasonable. What was he afraid of?
He decided to go back to see what kind of animal it was. Picking the cage up, he looked more carefully. Inside he saw a skinny little langur lying on the bottom of the cage. It twitched its tail, eyes brimming with tears, as if it had been waiting for help.
Sadly, a few days before its mother had been fatally shot in the back by an arrow while she was sunbathing with her baby on an exposed branch high in a tree. Blood oozed out in droplets, but in her last dying moments she tried to cling to the twigs in order to take her baby down the tree to a safe place on the ground before breathing her last. But the hunter took the baby monkey home and a few days later brought it to the market in the hope that he might earn some money from this trophy. Of course, no one wanted to buy that hungry, ugly little animal. Finding it seriously ill inside the cage, the hunter mercilessly left the caged animal on a heap of rubbish and returned home.
Old Sin found the little animal breathing heavily. He took it out of the cage, held it in his arms and went straight home. He lived alone at the foot of Mt Van. His dilapidated low-roofed thatched hut was furnished with one bamboo trellis used as a door, a creaky bamboo bed, and a few damaged pans, placed on three broken bricks used to support the stove.
“Eat up, dear,” he said to the poor primate after placing a half-consumed tin of condensed milk in front of it. After a long time without anyone to chat with, he talked a lot to the baby monkey in a soft voice. When the primate finished its tasty meal, he stretched out an old torn shirt over the bed and placed the poor animal on it. “When you grow up and recover, I’ll take you back to your natural habitat,” he whispered.
In high spirits, he caressed the little langur’s face then rubbed the wrinkled skin on its chest.
When the langur was strong enough, he took it with him to the forest one morning with the intent of letting it go, but it kept clinging to him. Eventually he was compelled to take it home. With a diet of over-ripe fruit abandoned at the market place, the animal grew quickly; it was also getting wiser and wiser with every passing day. At home it could follow any order from by its owner. Sometimes, it would even scratch its master’s back.
From the day the old man brought the little animal home, he turned over a new leaf. He taught the animal through a language of gestures he created on his own.
One day, while he and his little friend were standing by the fig tree near his hut, a group of students and their teacher approached. Seeing the small monkey tossing figs to its master, they stopped short to watch the game. At first, it threw several pieces of fruit at the students, and then the students did the same in response. The students laughed and laughed and the animal joined in their laughter. They raised their hands, shouting with glee. They gave the animal some sheets of paper, a few coloring pencils and many notebooks to practice drawing. Before leaving, the teacher gave the primate some money. Many of the students did the same, to reward it for the interesting games.
After that meeting with the schoolchildren, Old Sin became aware of many things that he had never thought of before. Although money was useful, he never had any because he didn’t want to beg. Now he led his little langur to perform before crowds of curious people eager to see its clever tricks. During each performance, it was given some money, fruit and flowers. Soon he realized that those who had previously avoided him did not really hate him. They just saw that he didn’t have anything useful to offer them. Now, thanks to his little monkey, he was not afraid of the locals any more.
Rumour of Old Sin’s intelligent langur reached Voong, the manager of a delicacy restaurant called Rung (Forest) in the Cong Troi (Sun Gate) township. One day Voong ordered one of his staff to invite Old Sin and his baby monkey to his place for some entertainment.
Standing at the center of the courtyard with hands on his hips in the indigo costume of the Tay minority people, Voong looked very imposing and bossy. A brilliant yellow light shone from the ivory pipe at his lips, which he puffed incessantly to emit the thin blue smoke of local tobacco among his obedient and flattering staff.
In truth, the baby monkey did not know how to perform any real circus acts. It could only cleverly do what it had been trained to do: laugh, cry, dance, and so on. With an intelligent mind handed down from generation to generation, the primate was said to be the cleverest creature in the jungle.
When Old Sin and his little monkey were done with several acts, he was invited to Voong’s mansion.
“Sell me your monkey, mate. Living with you, it’s both miserable and good-for-nothing. If it stays here with me, it’ll be happy; what’s more, it would help me earn lots of money,” Voong said to the old man.
“Please, forgive me, my Lord, he is my dear friend. Without him, I’d die of sorrow,” Old Sin said.
“Death is your own problem. I’m fond of the animal, that’s all. Here’s some money for it. Take it and go home at once!” Voong said to the old man, taking some banknotes out of his pocket and tossing them at the poor man’s face.
Old Sin stood up, stared at him and smiled scornfully. His smile made Voong extremely angry, for nobody had ever been bold enough to show contempt for him.
“You’re not willing to sell it, are you?” Voong said, lifting the old man up by the collar.
“No, not at all, Sir!” Old Sin replied without fear. “Frankly speaking, I don’t want to sell him.”
“What a cheek! Drive him away,” Voong said to his men.
Immediately, Old Sin was pushed violently. He tumbled to the ground. A few seconds later, he was dragged to the compound gate.
Meanwhile, the little animal was shrieking bitterly. It wanted to rescue its master, but any effort was in vain. The baby monkey was confined in a steel cage that had previously been home to another monkey that, unfortunately for the creature, had failed to please customers.
Voong’s restaurant became more well-known than ever. The little animal not only refused to amuse the audience, but also showed its hatred against them. Each time it showed its anger it became a laughing stock for viewers. Many patrons would go to the restaurant to see the poor creature first then enjoy a special delicacy – monkey brain – to attain longevity.
Many species of trapped primates were kept in cages in a special “monkey room”. In this room there was a round marble table with a 10-cm hole in the center. Whenever customers wanted to enjoy monkey brain, the manager would remove one ill-fated animal from its cage and tie it limb from limb to a post under the table. The monkey’s head was placed through the hole with about three centimeters exposed above the surface. The top of the head was shaved carefully and washed three times with alcohol. Customers would sit on the simple stools that surrounded the table. In front of each diner was a small set of plates and spoons and numerous spices. Before the start of the banquet, spirits were poured into small crystal glasses and they were raised. “Cheers!” they would shout to pray for health and prosperity.
By this time, an executioner in red clothes and a white turban would wield a large sharp-edged knife in hand in readiness to serve the customers. At their request, the knife would move close to the surface of the table and in a flash the top of the monkey head would be cut off. The executioner would then lift the top of the skull from the still-living animal, revealing a red mass of brain slightly throbbing up and down amid the sound of clinking glasses and joyful “cheers” of the gastronomes that would fill the room. Meanwhile, the poor animal under the table would wiggle violently, with lamenting screams penetrating the room.
One bigwig in particular frequented Voong’s restaurant to entertain his upstart friends with this special delicacy.
“Old Voong’s just bought a clever monkey. It’s as intelligent as a human. What’s more, it’s a precious and rare species of animal,” this VIP guest was told by one of his staff one day.
“Then get there immediately and tell him to try to arrange a special party with that monkey for me,” said the VIP.
“I’ve already asked him to hold a party for us, but he refused point-blank on the grounds that the langur is a key source of income along with the profits he earns from his catering business. So he doesn’t dare kill it for meat,” said his servant. “Maybe if you talk to him directly he would agree with your request,” he added.
On Sunday evening, the VIP and his up-and-coming friends went to Voong’s restaurant. The manager himself welcomed the customers at the compound gate. Barely even waiting to get out of the car, the VIP began dealing with the matter without restraint.
“I’m told that you have a strange new monkey, haven’t you?” he asked Voong.
“Yes, Sir! It’s here in a cage,” he said as he invited the guests to visit the monkey room.
Looking at the queer appearance of the animal, the VIP said to himself, “such a rare primate must have a very nutritious and healthy brain”. Turning to the manager standing behind him, he whispered something in his ear.
“Yes, yes, Sir! For such a saviour as you, how could I have the heart to refuse,” replied the owner respectfully.
Now, the special guest wanted to see Voong show off his skills at that remote yet well-known restaurant.
Although the monkey room was ready, everybody stood in the courtyard to witness Voong’s ability in capturing the wild animal.
In an odd change of habit, the little langur that usually cried loudly and ran wildly now kept totally silent and let the shopkeeper reach in and pull it out of the cage. All of a sudden, Voong was overwhelmed with regret. He wished to keep the monkey in order to entertain lots of customers for more money. Also, if he killed the animal for meat his famous “monkey restaurant” would be less attractive to connoisseurs. He pondered over the matter carefully while taking the limp langur out of the room.
For its part, ever since the day it was shut up in the cage the monkey had tried to escape, but always in vain. It missed the master who had saved its life and raised it in penury and despair terribly and remembered the moment his saviour was tortured right in this very courtyard. It always wished to take revenge for its master and run away at any cost. It now had a golden opportunity.
Voong brought the baby monkey to the VIP and allowed him to caress the smooth yellow fur. To everyone’s surprise, while they were touching the animal it pissed on Voong’s face, scratched the bigwig’s cheek and then shot away and disappeared.
From the day Old Sin lost his most precious possession he fell seriously ill. He tried to consider all the losses and gains in his life before confessing his last sins to God before passing on to the nether world.
Living alone at the foot of Mt Van ever since childhood he had led an honest life, without annoying anyone, nor depending on anybody for his existence. Would his next life be different? Only God knew! All of a sudden, he was startled and opened his eyes wide. He felt a little hand fondling his forehead and reinvigorating his strength.
“No matter what, I must be alive and do something meaningful for my poor little monkey in order to protect and care for him,” he whispered.
(TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY VAN MINH)