Diseases and desires

Sunday, 2018-02-04 16:06:52
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Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
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Nang was a bed-ridden patient whose whole body was scarlet, like a lobster after being boiled. The red hue to his skin made him a disgusting sight, bar his bright eyes and their sparkling, sad look.

From the moment I entered the twin-bed room with him, I realised that all he only paid attention to the ceiling and Nen, his pretty, chubby wife. She bathed him carefully every three days, applied ointment to his body in the morning and afternoon, and fed him three times a day. She also washed his dirty underwear daily and dried them on clothes line over the banister.

It seemed to me that without her devotion, he would die soon.

* * *

That morning, as I entered our room, a stout nurse pointed at the bed close to the ‘scarlet lobster’.

“Sir, that’s your bed. Put on your patient’s uniform on now,” she told me after throwing it, together with a bedspread, to me then she walked out.

“Well, nurse, nurse…,” I called loudly.

“Sir, please don’t disturb my husband. He’s just fallen asleep,” said the pretty wife in a nervous voice.

“How did such an ugly guy snare such a beautiful girl?” I asked myself.

* * *

Nang’s job prior to his serious disease was in the metropolitan morgue where few people dared to work, despite the riches on offer. His work was mainly composed of cleaning and enshrouding the bodies. He got the job by paying a huge bribe and saying he was ten years younger in his application to the hospital authorities.

His employment proved fairly profitable thanks to the huge expense of burial services, conducted at the mortuary arranged by him. After the autopsy, the rest of the funeral affairs were of no concern to the hospital authorities. The various payments for things necessary for a funeral like hired mourning clothes and head or arm black bands and more, were supplied by Nang, costing a pretty penny. The timing of the rituals, funeral procession and interment were all planned by him based on how big a bribe the family of the deceased would give him. They would pay him almost anything to ensure the ceremonies went smoothly. He made money hand over fist from the dead bodies lying in the 20sq-m room. He saved his earnings in a metal safe hidden under the stone altar in the morgue. It was there he worked diligently all day long, month after month and year after year. This was before he married Nen and he often left his old, haggard wife alone at home so he could work more.

* * *

After five years working, he had more money than almost anyone in the farming district of his hometown.

“How did he get rich that fast? His father is merely a postman!” wondered one of his neighbours.

“Maybe he’s a great gambler,” replied another.

“Oh no no! It’s thanks to support from his elder brother’s company. They import woodworks from Malaysia and Myanmar and provide coffins for Nang’s mortuary, a highly profitable affair,” said Miss Con of the local pharmacy.

Later, Nang’s elder brother, who lived in the centre of the country, transferred his whole coffin business to Nang’s mortuary.

Then on the day that Nang’s magnificent new house was completed in his native village, he proudly introduced Nen, a beautiful girl from the highland region, to his family.

Nang’s love story startled many hospital staff members.

Nen’s father came from the lowland province of Thai Binh. He settled down in the mountainous district of Bac Ha where he soon married a pretty girl of the white Thai ethnic group. They opened a small restaurant in the local market, where Nen in her late teens assisted her parents.

* * *

It was wrong to say that Nang was a bad guy. In fact, he was good-natured, quiet and very patient. Moreover, he was considerate about everything, big and small: from saving his money in buying a coffin, choosing a cheap urn for families to put the ashes of their loved ones, building his house and in getting married. All were considered minutely in detail, beyond the understanding of the residents of Tuong village.

For a time, Nang was sent to work at the newly-built Bac Ha hospital as a helper in its mortuary, pending them hiring someone full-time. As the ritual services at the mortuary were still little known and exotic to local practices, he had a lot of free time. The district hospital went for months without any patients, as did the mortuary. To idle away the monotonous and lonely moments in the boring remote area, he went to Nen’s restaurant to eat thang co soup. Day after day, she became very fond of him, a young man from the lowlands, whereas she was a rural girl who had never been in love. Soon they fell in love with each other.

“Go downstream to the lowlands with me, will you?” asked Nang one morning.

“I must obtain permission from my parents first,” she answered sweetly.

“Well, let me ask for you.”

One morning, on the way back to his hometown with the head of the city hospital inside, Nang stopped his car in front of Nen as he had planned without his senior’s knowledge.

“Can I get a lift down the road please?” she asked as if she was a total stranger to Nang.

“Why not? Get in please, my lovely wild flower.”

They had secretly arranged the escapade the previous day. It was her first time away from home and she wanted to see the city in the lowlands. The trip proved to be a pivotal moment in her life.

Back home, he made up his mind to abandon his plain rural wife in the country, eight years older than him. They had one son together, who had died years ago in a road accident.

* * *

The local court agreed to their divorce by mutual consent. To free himself, he had to pay her VND2 million for her lengthy suffering.

A few years later, at the banquet for Nen and Nang’s baby boy’s first birthday anniversary, guests came in great numbers. They were greatly surprised at the strong likeness between Nen and her son, except he had his father’s wide mouth.

* * *

One afternoon, Nang caught a cold. He coughed and coughed violently.

“Go get some lozenges or some antibiotic capsules at the pharmacy, darling,” he told his wife. “If I keep on coughing like this, everybody will avoid me,” he added.

Immediately, she drove her motorbike to Miss Con’s place to buy some medicine.

After dinner, he took lots of the capsules. An hour later, he felt itchy all over. He had a splitting headache. He tossed about on the bed. She called a taxi to take him to the hospital. Luckily for him, Dr Tin, who was in charge of the food poisoning ward, was on duty. A draft treatment plan was devised. Consequently, Nang was put under his care as an in-patient.

After ten days in hospital, Nang’s disease had only gotten worse. Blisters appeared all over his body, even in his throat. His skin went reddish like a boiled lobster. Worse still, twenty days later, his skin was falling away piece by piece, accompanied by yellow pus. All he could do was sit, not lie, and moan terribly. At night he just stood naked. His family was asked by the hospital to buy a powder sheet for him to lie on, a new one every three weeks, to ease his pain. The GP saw him as a patient who needed special care, quite different from others. After so many days of treatment, Dr Tin concluded that Nang had an extremely rare disease. It attacked Nang’s entire immune system, which not only rendered it ineffective but also created an antibody that could destroy any benign skin tissues.

“Might I be healed completely?” Nang asked the physician.

“The chances of your recovery are fifty-fifty. Your hopes of getting back to normal depend on many factors,” he concluded.

“Damn it man speak normally, what do you mean?”

“We need to keep treating you. By chance, working in the mortuary, have you ever been involved in any mischievous wrongdoings, may I ask?”

Nang did not answer. Instead, he only looked upwards, his forehead wet with sweat.

Dr Tin walked out.

* * *

Sharing the room with Nang for weeks, I never heard a single complaints about the hardships she had undergone.

“Many doctors and nurses have praised my pretty wife’s dedication to me. I’m proud of her,” Nang said to me one day.

After more than a year of treatment, their property had dwindled away due to his huge expenses for costly foreign-imported medicine and for changing his expensive powder bed every three weeks. Nang had to mortgage his magnificent villa and vast orchard to pay the bank interest. Missing his little child Cược after a long stay in hospital, he asked that he meet him as soon as possible although the little one might be frightened to death at the sight of his sick father. His reaction was quite the opposite.

“Surprisingly, at just a year old, he did not want to let anyone embrace him but his father,” I said to Nen quietly.

Noticing what was happening between the two of us, Dr Tin looked away out of compassion.

Following him to the veranda, I asked him, “What’s his disease, doctor?”

“Loss of immunity, as it’s known nowadays. His body will get worse and worse until it is ruined completely.”

“So, you fancy doctors with your machines and stethoscopes are the losers in this fight?”

“Yes, you could say so. No course of treatment has been shown to work yet,” he replied. “The immune system must be generated by the patient. It’s not unlike a social malady, like bad behaviour. It’s trivial at first, then it gets more and more serious with every passing day, until nothing good is left.”

The click of his finger as he finished his rambling speech gave me chills.

* * *

The light in the corridor penetrated into the patient’s room. Nen, in her flowery nightgown, was sleeping on a folding bed. Accidentally, she revealed her attractive lily-white body to me. Not to beat around the proverbial bush, she looked stunning. Her nightie that curled up to her knees thanks to the ceiling fan displayed half of her slamming. My heart, among other organs, went pit-a-pat.

For more than one year, as her husband lay in his sick bed, she had been bereft of the passionate yet powerful touch of a man.

Time and again, a pair of lizards on the ceiling engaged in coitus turned my head. At night, the whole room seemed like a deserted island.

By now, Nang had been transferred to the emergency ward due to an ulceration and high blood pressure. In the meantime, Nen stayed in the patient’s room at the back of the corridor after waiting for her husband at the doorway for hours. Only she and I were left in the room. Exhausted, I fell asleep for a long while. Waking up I saw her in lying face upwards position. A few minutes later I fell back asleep. To my surprise, when I woke up I saw her sitting on the end of my bed, very close to my feet.

I got up. Suddenly, she embraced me tightly.

“I can’t stand this situation any longer. Please, hold me.”

“Oh dear…”

I was drenched with sweat.

This excited, beautiful woman was in my lap.

Our bodies clung to each other for a long while. I was bewitched by her sweet-smelling body.

The image of Nang with his scarlet skin lying just a few feet away and of Cuoc’s naive smile, flooded my randy brain. They stared at me reproachfully.

I was startled into sitting up.

“Nen, I can’t do this while your husband is being tortured by his illness in the emergency room,” I said to her.

“Please hold me, I need more energy to live like this. I’m about to collapse.”

“Just sit here, leaning against me. I’ll hold you tight so that you can sleep well. Tomorrow morning you may have more strength to look after Nang.”

The more tightly I hugged her soft body the looser her arms gripped me.

I dropped off to sleep amid the fragrance of her body.

I awoke to full daylight.

“Doctor, can I leave hospital today?” I entreated while he was visiting us.

“Hmm, you still have another treatment to go.”

“Well, could I take the medicine at home?”

“You might as well. You’ll soon recover. Is today okay to discharge you?”

“That’s great! Many thanks, doc!” I sighed with relief. Immediately, I took off the hospital uniform and put my own clothes on.

I quickly hurried out of the hospital without looking back. I was well aware that Nen’s red-rimmed eyes were chasing after me. It seemed as if a melancholy tune was reverberating around my head. Could the kind-hearted young wife have been gradually infected by a lustful virus? After her husband’s grave illness, beyond recovery, would she be able to get their mortgaged assets back?

As to me, if I had stayed in hospital much longer, could I have kept resisting my urge to give in to that lusty woman’s advances?

By Phan Dinh Minh/ Translated by Van Minh