Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Scroll - A Vietnamese Uncanny Tale

Seers, Shamans, mediums, psychics, visionary authors and all those who experience precognition of what is to come, have long captivated me. They find their place in my novel, The Ming Storytellers but also in this short tale which I wrote when I was fifteen. This is based on a true story told to me by my grandmother, Phuong Lan. I've often thought it would translate well into a screenplay, perhaps in a Twilight Zone styled series based in Asia. For at its core, is the uncanny, that is, the ambiguous blur between the paranormal and the way we conceive our reality to inform it with an occultic meaning.

Here it is, slightly edited. I hope you still enjoy it.

The Scroll

Lost in profound reflection, Bao Lee tried to visualise images from the past. His wooden villa in the country of Thanh-Hoa and that vast plain stretching out beyond the shaded veranda, how he missed them. The double teak wood doors with their outstanding carved characters that would automatically greet any newcomer, they seemed barred and vanished forever. It was a spacious villa and the main room, adorned with European furniture and a gallery of traditional portraits was the most impressive of sights. Who would have thought that in Annam, the central part of Vietnam there lived a province governor who had established an exact replica of a French lounge? Who would have thought that his opulence would be short-lived? But one had to admit it would have made quite an impression on Trang Trinh, the day he came, the day everything was to change. Blessed be Trang Trinh.

When the doorman introduced the newcomer, Bao Lee raised one eyebrow. Before him stood a man of whom he had heard volumes. Once they were seated in front of each other, Bao Lee examined Trang Trinh. Yes, it was the young clairvoyant. Or so the people of Annam referred to him. He would spend hours examining palms, studying books on astrology, comparing the stars' positions to that of the planets and meditating mystically. Sometimes his words were merely spoken and not evidenced by eventual happenings but there were many times where his prophecies found themselves beneficial to the imperial court. The young man was no charlatan. No, he had rightfully earned his doctorate and his abilities in the occult were a pleasure to ponder.

After a ceremony of silent tea-drinking, Trang was brief about the purpose of his presence. His father, previously imprisoned for political reasons, was determined to escape and continue his movement. But Trang knew that if the escape failed, his father would be shot. This was why Trang had imposed on the honourable Bao Lee who he kindly requested to do a favour for his humble servant, to do whatever a province chief had the power to do and help liberate the venerable Phuong Trinh.

"You will not be at a loss," affirmed Trang reverently. "Please consider that if you agree, I will thank you more than twice." Several bows preceded his departure.

At the time, people came from a multitude of villages to plead for Bao's assistance. The need for money was the reason for most of these visits. How wise he had been not to refuse this time. What would have become of him if he had not sent out the money order to pay for Phuong Trinh's bail? Reflecting on this, Bao breathed heavily. He ran his palms across his chest, arms and scalp. Yes, he was all there, in one piece. Thanks to Trang Trinh.

It had begun with the mysterious scroll. The minute Bao Lee set his dark eyes on the sealed scroll of paper, he almost felt as though it would be key to the rest of his existence. Trang Trinh was still overwhelmed with joy from the thought of his father's freedom. The fortune teller could not help but tremble lightly with emotion as he held the rolled paper gently, presenting it to his benefactor with a tender gaze.

"Thank you. Thank you," he said, bowing deeply. "May the path where you walk on be sprinkled with the most fragrant lotus petals."

Bao Lee reached to grasp the odd gift and better examine it. The parchment's surface felt smooth although somewhat tarnished because of the low quality. He was about to let open the wax seal when Trang Trinh placed a firm hand on his arm.

"Promise me! Promise me that at exactly half past noon on the third day of the fourth lunar month next year, you will take the scroll outside with you. Only then will you read the content of this letter."

Taken aback, Bao Lee said nothing. Then reluctantly, he nodded to honor the promise.

During the following three months, Bao Lee nearly forgot about the letter. He spent his working days normally, enjoying the cool of the evening without wondering about the scroll's message. Besides, his cousin whose house had recently crumbled in ruins from ravaging termites needed his assistance and busy days kept him away from the yellow paper resting on his bedside table. The doorman, his only companion, had left him and even though there seemed none to keep him company, Bao Lee ignored his growing curiosity. Being alone had no influence on him. It did not until the end of the year.

During the few weeks preceding the new year, Bao began to feel the first effects of unsatisfied curiosity. At first, the nagging in his chest was left unnoticed but as the days progressed, Bao's bedside table became the centre of his attention. He was ceaselessly roaming around the room even during his working hours, blowing the dust off the faded paper even when it was a product of his imagination. He might have known the dimensions by heart. The colour, he would have recognised it amongst a thousand sunset hues, but how he longed to read the mysterious contents of that scroll.

After returning from a New Year function in the late month, Bao Lee had had his share of promises. So what, he thought. If I read the letter at midnight tonight or at noon on the fourth month, what difference does it make? What will Trang Trinh do then? Curse me? The man is poor and his occupation is one which depends highly on coincidences. What if I read the scroll tonight?

Outside, the moon shone gloomily permitting only a timid light to penetrate the bamboo screens. Bao ran upstairs sweating with excitement. He would have taken three steps at a time had the stairs not made a sinister creaking sound under his mass. Thoughts hastened in his tortured mind, as he made it to his room, panting furiously. Bao lit the oil lamp on the bedside table but in his frustration, knocked it to the floor. Cursing himself for his clumsiness and forgetting the scroll for an instant, he bent low to pick up the lamp. Horror. The sight that greeted him filled him with repulsion. Channelled within the thin intervals of the wooden flooring was a thin procession of termites. He hated those insects. Was it an omen? Bao poured the remaining of his hot tea into the wood intervals. Slowly the nauseating urge to satisfy his unanswered questions disappeared and he replaced both scroll and lamp in their respectable place.

The second month saw a different man in Bao Lee. If Buddha advised patience and loyalty from his followers, Buddha's wishes would be granted. He began to attend more to business duties, granting aid to the poor farmers in the district and often suggesting innovative ideas to the leading agriculturists. The state of the province was improved and a strict barrier was erected between Bao and the scroll. But he still wondered about what he would see when the fourth month came. What if the message was an unpleasant one? It may even mean another omen. Bao frantically buried the disturbing thoughts to the back of his mind. And where was Trang Trinh all this time? No doubt, he was now laughing over the mischief that he had created in his province chief. And although the disturbing hypotheses were numerous, Bao Lee never touched the scroll until the time arrived.

The calendar showed clearly that it was the third day of the fourth month. The date was given an incredulous stare from Bao Lee. He had waited so long. He wondered what the outcome of the day would be. He spent three morning hours in profound meditation bowing to the Buddha sculpture in the main hall. At lunch, he sat before a lacquered table and began to eat the steamed carrots he had prepared. Each bite seemed to take years but he held on.

In a few minutes Trang Trinh's gift would hold no more secrets. Gone would be the insatiable pangs in his chest. Gone would be the conflict in his soul. Gone would be...a nearby clock struck the half hour. Bao Lee stood, solemn. He began to contemplate the green sight from his dining room window. How beautiful were the plains reaching towards the distant mountains. It was a long, appreciative glance.

He looked at his watch, remembering Trang Trinh's instructions: "Take the scroll outside with you. Only then..."

Outside? Well, why not.

The scroll in hand, Bao stepped outside his villa. The afternoon sun greeted him with a sudden glare. Nervously, Bao stepped down the veranda and accelerated down a grassy slope. The moment he had longed for had finally arrived. He inspected the seal and tore it off. With trembling fingers, he fumbled to unroll the scroll. His avid eyes widened, ready to devour each of the characters he would discover. But just as he raised the scroll towards the blinding sun, a sudden clamor behind him caused him to lose his grasp. The parchment fell to the ground. In an instant, the air was filled with dust and wooden particles. Succumbing to a violent cough, the astounded Bao, spun round only to witness the last wall of his mansion collapse to the ground. He realised that had he stayed one more minute inside, he would have been crushed to death.

Remembering the scroll, the trembling Bao reached forth to pick it up. Overwhelmed with a feverish wonder, as though he knew what he would find, he began to frantically unfurl it. Then, he gasped. In front of him was a blank parchment.

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