The Cycle of Life and Death

Nhà văn, nhà báo Thanh Thương HoàngIn a very early morning, a group of five people - two undertakers, Phuong's mother, Phuong's sister Khanh, and Thanh went quietly towards a grave lying at the edge of an immense rice field. The grave was hidden in a clump of grass with a dark green colour, the same colour as the rice.

Having arrived after the traditional worship, the two undertakers began to dig the grave up. Although Phuong had been dead for 3 years, Thanh's deep love for her had not faded a bit. Her beloved figure always existed in his mind.

One evening, Phuong's mother had come to see Thanh. "Last night, in my dreams, I saw Phuong return home. She complained about the humidity and the cold in her grave. So if the day after tomorrow is a good day, I'm going to have her grave exhumed and moved to a dry place. Would you mind going with us?" she said. With his whole heart, Thanh had accepted her proposal.

Thanh felt inexplicably uneasy emotions as he watched the two men striking strong blows with hoes into the grave. The happy memories of the past appeared clearly in his head. How could he forget their trusts, their journeys of pleasure, and their nights of passion. They would have had to wait just one year to celebrate their wedding when Thanh had graduated from the university. But before their happy day, she died of a serious disease.

The sun was like a red round ball slowly rising in the East when the blows of the hoes hit the coffin. Phuong's mother burnt numerous joss sticks and mixed them into the ground around the grave. Khanh, her big black eyes open wide, looked on curiously waiting to see what was going to happen. She was just 14 years old, too young to know the suffering of life and death that a human being had to undergo.

The lid of the coffin was pried off. The coffin was full of water. Phuong was lying inside. One of the undertakers poured alcohol into the coffin. The surface of water gently stirred and Phuong's figure disappeared. A stink arose, everyone hurriedly covered their noses and tried hard not to vomit. One undertaker put his bare hands in the troubled water in the coffin and fumbled around. Firstly, he took up dirty, curved ribs, then a skinny humerus, radius, thighbones, slim bones, pelvis, spines and others. He gave them to his colleague to wash and put into a small glazed-terra-cotta pot.

Sadly looking at these bones, Thanh thought of Phuong's soft curves with the full breast, long tapered legs and beautiful fingers tapered like bamboo shoots. He wondered sadly: " Did these bones used to be her body and did she ever stand and walk with them? ". Her skin and flesh were no longer fragrant as they used to be. The small pile of bones made everyone felt sick. Her body was now terrible to look at. However, that could not erase from Thanh's mind the image of Phuong, attractive and beautiful.

When the undertakers took up Phuong's soaked hair, which no longer had the purely black color, Thanh tenderly and gently stroked it, even though it had become coarse. Suddenly, seeing her skull full of black and white patches, Thanh trembled with fear. The mouth of the skull opened wide in a ghastly way, the two eyeholes were deep and black. He could not stand it anymore. He turned his eyes away, but turning back, he was even more fearful of seeing that the mother's skinny and bony face with sunken cheeks, prominent cheekbones and deep eyeholes was nearly the same as Phuong's skull. Obviously, the death-knell for the mother was going to peal out!.

When alive, Phuong was well known for her beauty. She had a regular and very white set of teeth, which Thanh often jokingly regarded as "the God-bestowed diamonds" and fresh rose lips on which Thanh placed innumerable kisses. Now, her rose lips and the "glistening diamonds" had disappeared. Her mouth was nothing more than a lumpish dreadful cave!. Thanh glanced at Khanh, how much she was alike her sister Phuong. Her eyes were also big, black and sparkling; her mouth like rose petals in spring, but her face was exuding the extensive vitality, without any deadly sign on it.

A horrible image suddenly came into Thanh's mind as he looked at everyone. He bitterly thought, "Sooner or later, all of them will inevitably be dirty, stinking and completely inanimate skeletons". That image gave him goose bumps, making his hair stand on end. Dizzy, he closed his eyes and tried to forget it, but failed. He did not know what to do, but to run away from that place. He waded through the field knee-deep in water.

The mother, Khanh and the two undertakers watched his action in surprise. "Where are you going?" asked the mother, in a high voice. Worriedly, Khanh yelled "Thanh! Thanh! What are you looking for? Come back, now". Although, Thanh heard them all, he did not bother to answer. He just mumbled to himself: "what I'm looking for is myself, but I'm running away from myself, too".

At that time, the sun was giving his splendid light to the rice field full of life. A breeze was caressing gently the rice tops. Thanh saw his figure upside down in the blue sky with the masses of white clouds floating under the pure water of the rice field. Every of his steps made the water move, forming concentric circles. One after another spread farther and farther, at the same time Thanh's figure, the blue sky with the masses of white clouds reflected in the water also flickered with the ripples.

Thanh with his face bent down, was plodding heavily because of the mud and the tufts of rice that seemed to hold back his legs. Somewhere, vaguely, there was a call in Phuong's voice: "Thanh! Thanh! Come back now, please". Thanh seemed to hear someone wading behind him.

(A story in Instance and Eternity)