On pitch black nights, a small blue lightoften appeared and flew low over the Chin Khe mountain range. I stared at the light many nights while sitting on the veranda. The light was accompanied with anguished howls echoing from the mountain. Was it a ghost? Father said: “It is Ngoc Lam angel taking a walk. There is a shrineto the angel on the mountain top”. Then I asked: “But why does she howl while walking?” And father did not answer.
I graduated from high school and father asked me not to enter university. I should stay home and work with him. A diploma would not help me and he said that he would not support me after I graduated from university.
To create work for a young manlike me, father ordered our family to sell land and transport building materials including bamboos and logs to Chin Khe valley. Other villagers said that my father was crazy, just like his army buddy Uyen. The isolated, wild Chin Khe valley had always been a grazing ground in winter. When winter came, herds of buffaloes and cows were driven into the valley. The villagers had built tents to live in so they could tend the animals until the spring crop came. But nobody had any intention to move an entire family to the valley and to make a living there.
I used to stand in front of the house and look at the mountain. Sometimes, I wanted to climb the mountain and look over to the other mountain range, but I never tried. But crazy old Uyen said that he walked along Chin Khe mountain range for about 10 kilometres.
People called Uyen crazy because of his strange grooming habits and dress sense. He was hairless from head to toe, shaving every hair on his body once a week and dressing like an anime character. Crazy old Uyen was among the first people to take his family up to the mountain. Yes, up to the mountain, not the valley, to settle down.
Twenty years later, Chin Khe Farm was flourishing with vast maize and pea fields. I built a stilted house and partnered with a friend in the village who owned a thriving tourism company to runecotourism tours to the house. Tourists would stay for a few days before they continued their journey, sleeping and eating one night in the misty valley. They often asked me what was on the mountain, but they never trekked up there.
The ill-fated girl was a tourist who had come to Chin Khe Farm. She had dinner and went to bed after on her first night.
It was a dark night. I was sitting against the house pillar and looking at the mountain. I waited and waited, even though for a long, long time, I had not seen the blue light of Ngoc Lam angel or heard the howling.
It had been an age since I had seen Ngoc Lam angel and almost as long since I had seen Can, one of crazy old Uyen’s daughters. For more than twenty years, Can and her sisters had still lived with their parents on the mountain. Crazy old Uyen and his wife would have been very old now and had not been seen coming down from the mountain for years.
Suddenly, the blue light appeared, flying low over the mountain along with the sad howling. Ngoc Lam angel was taking a walk in her estate, I thought.
“Last night I heard gibbons howling, they sounded so sad. Are there gibbons on this mountain?” – The girl asked me, leaning against the pillar.
I did not know how to answer her. The girl continued with another question:
“Is it difficult to climb up the mountain? I want to go up there” – She said, pointing towards the mountain range lying between the seventh and the eighthcreeks. It was a beautiful mountain slope overgrown with straw grass. This was where the shrine to Ngoc Lam angel stood.
“It looks near, but it could take you several hours to walk there. The road is rugged and the grass can cut your skin easily” – I said, attempting to scare her.
I had never ventured along the trail crossing the mountain side to go from the first creek to the ninth creek of the mountain range. I still wondered who Ngoc Lam angel was and who had built her shrine on the mountain side. Father told me that the shrine was sacred.
One day years ago crazy old had Uyen arrived at our house. He looked like a one-hundred-year old tree. He was sitting by two baskets of fresh bamboo shoots and a gloomy woman. He looked at me, smiling. The crazy old man pointed to that deep blue mountain range, saying that his house was up there.
“Why is the mountain called Chin Khe?” – The girl asked.
“Because it has nine creeks” – I replied.
The girl sat there with a cup of hot tea in her hand.
“I want to go up there!”
“It’s going to get cold this afternoon. You’ll freeze to death if you go” – I said.
Twenty years before, I had climbed up to the straw grass land. Can was there to welcome me. We embraced. She was 17 then and I was twenty. A few metres from us was the shrine to Ngoc Lam angel. The shrine was cold with no incense burning inside. It had not been attended for a long time.
I asked for my father’s permission to marry Can and he did not oppose me. But he looked so torn that I was upset. Crazy old Uyen was father’s bosom buddy. They joined the army together and fought side by side. On April 30, 1975, Saigon was liberated. But crazy old Uyen did not come back home that year. He took three years to return. After that, he took all his family up to the mountain to settle down. Father hadn’t had a chance to see him.
The villagers in winter had herded their buffaloes and cows into the grazing ground in the Chin Khe valley. They often talked about crazy old Uyen, his family and his daughter Can. They wondered how they survived up there. They could not live on forest fruits and bamboo shootsforever. They had not gone down to the village, even once. They had not used slash and burn farming. Had the crazy old man had gone to the other side of the mountain and traded with people there? Nobody knew for sure.
One day some villagers said that they met crazy old Uyen coming back to the village. He was enraged as his wife was sleeping with another man.
Father met me at the gate. He said:
“The girl said she would go up there”
That straw grass field was unfolding before me. It was windy and cold. I tried to climb up. The girl was wearing a blue skirt with a blue shawl around her neck. She was standing inside the shrine.
“Who is worshipped at the shrine?”
“The mountain angel. Now you should come down or you will catch a cold, please!”
“Worshipping an angel?” – The girl burst out laughing, and suddenly, she embraced me, making me fall over. I felt her warm body all over me. On top of the straw grass hill, amid those white flowers,
I saw Can standing there, looking at me and the girl.
I jumped up, racing after Can. I ran and ran along the trail leading to the mountain top until I stood on the highest peak of the Chin Khe mountain range. The road before me ran as far as the eye could see. I could no longer see Can.
The howling started to reverberate in the hissing wind. My heart felt cold.
Father was standing on the veranda, looking at me in distress. I had chased Can in the forest for three days.
“The girl has gone” he said.
“I found the shrine in ruins, dad”
“Yes, in strong winds, it could collapse easily. It’s quite old.”
I had looked for Can for three days. I knew she was waiting for me. I ran along the trail on the mountain top, then through the forests and the deep creeks. Finally, I came to a grapefruit forest. The grapefruit trees were in full bloom, spreading their fragrance everywhere. I found a trail leading to crazy old Uyen’s house where he lived with his daughters.
I never saw Can again. In the dark, cold nights, I still saw Ngoc Lam angel flying low over the Chin Khe mountain range. The howling was heard in the wind. The buffalo and cow herdsmen said that it was the howl of crazy old Uyen’s three daughters and wife. They said they had turned into gibbons.
But they also said that crazy old Uyen had brought his three daughters and wife to the other side of the mountain a long time ago.