THE BLOODY MELON
My mother’s two stinging slaps on my cheeks made me see stars and sent me staggering backwards.
After hitting me violently, Mum pulled me to her, hugging my head, then, staring into my eyes, she asked,
"Why are you so silly?"
She abruptly stood up. I had hardly cried when she dealt me the two blows, but I wanted to know what offense I had committed.
Looking back at the row of melons, I saw the broken skin of the huge ripe fruit and its blood-red juice oozing out and felt terribly ill at ease.
"It’s a bloody-juiced melon, remember that," she told me, embracing me tightly again.
Usually, Mum forbade me to come near that row of melons in the garden, without offering any explanation. Later, I came to know the meaning of her warning to some extent. She dragged me away quickly and pushed me into the hut standing in the centre of her melon garden. Then she returned to the broken fruit, planted three sticks of incense by its side, bowed deeply three times and began praying for something I didn’t understand.
"When this kind of melon turns ripe, its blood-like juice oozes out. Whoever stares at it, whether intentionally or unintentionally, will be haunted and transformed: the blood and flesh of the melon will become his too," she warned me.
Alarmed at her warning, I swept my hands over my body to see whether it had turned abnormal or not and swore to myself that I would never go near that place again. I would, however, accidentally glance at it once more, a fatal look that destined me to a life of bitterness, suffering and torment.
Over the past 30 years that row of melons, a bad omen of my fate, had not changed at all. Those days Mum was still very young. Whenever she went to the garden in Ram Xanh area, I followed her all day long like a shadow. A boisterous boy, I ran around chasing after butterflies and picking wild flowers, as she kept an eye on me.
One day I managed to make a trap out of bamboo pieces to catch squirrels, and I put it in a corner of the garden. The next day, when I found a squirrel lying dead in it, I burst into tears. Although I was a mischievous teenager, I cried easily. My mother explained my capricious nature only by muttering, "Bloody-juiced melon," and she led me to a nearby Buddhist shrine to pray. Afterwards, she took me to my aunt, a well-known young fortune teller, and entrusted my spirit to her.
"Auntie Vi is the only one here who can protect you and give you blessings," Mum said seriously when we returned home after our visit.
After that, I believed that my fate had been cast and that my life would be forever closely tied with hers. My mother rigged up a small shrine made of palm leaves in her garden to pray for me, and she often led me to that sacred place so that I could bow before the huge deformed overripe melon she called a bloody-juiced melon.
One day I discovered lots of rats, large and small, inside that bulging fruit. I was going to tell Mum what I had seen, but she pushed my head down.
"Bow your head in prayer, dear," she urged me.
Unfortunately for me, my ill-grounded conviction would soon land me in a tragic situation. Later, when I had undergone all the weal and woe of my lifetime I came to understand the problem, but it was too late.
When I was in the eighth form, Mum remarried, and I took care of the melon garden and the hut she left for me by myself.
"These days happiness, even just a little, is precious to us, my son," she said to me one morning.
Then she told me stories about the village that stretched before our house.
"In wartime, in times of crucial fighting, no day passed without a few funerals with two, three or even five coffins going to the cemetery. After an ambush right on the eve of Tet that year, when a family of five, a couple and their three small children, died from an explosion of artillery shells as they sat around a cauldron of sticky rice over the kitchen fire. Sadly, nobody mourned for them!
"What deeply moved the villagers was the funeral of Auntie Chin’s husband, a soldier whose corpse had been taken home from the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands) region. She made up her mind to see her ill-fated lover for the last time, in defiance of the advice from the master of ceremonies. When the lid of the coffin was lifted and the plastic bag containing his body was unzipped, she turned mad. What she saw was a corpse burnt beyond recognition, except for his skull with two darkened eye sockets. She tore apart her clothes and ran away, screaming horribly.
"Any funeral in this village is regarded as one of our clan, for it is a common loss, you see. Do you understand? If you take pity of me, listen to me, dear. When your father died, you were still too young to understand. He abandoned us forever," she said. She then began to weep, burying her face into my shoulder.
At the time, I did not know much about happiness, but I took great pity on her. She had raised me in solitude and penury, and now she was entitled to enjoy her own blessings. Frankly, when I first found out her intention to get married again, I hated her. I gave up food in objection to her marriage, but gradually she managed to persuade me to accept her wish. She also advised me, "If you run into any difficulties, go to Auntie Vi, and she’ll help you." Knowing that I could find solace in her gave me comfort despite my solitude.
In my lonely years in the garden of melons, I did not find any bloody-juiced melons at all. In every crop, I tried in vain to find one. One morning, I went to the row of melons to see if I could find one of the special ones. What I saw was only tender fruit amidst green leaves. Suddenly I remembered Mum’s words, "Only on sacred plots of land can bloody-juiced melons appear."
When I was 16 years old, I was still living in that green oasis of Ram Xanh. In the stream, fish could be found in abundance, and I could catch them easily with my fishing rod. I grew rice and sweet potatoes along the banks of the waterway, earning just enough income for a humble subsistence. In order to earn more to cover expenses like books and clothes, I was forced to find other sources of profit, like carrying vegetables and fruit to the market to sell.
"My doting nephew!" Auntie Vi called me one morning when she turned up in front of my hut.
Putting the hoe down on a row of sweet potatoes, I stepped into my shanty. Embracing me tightly, she began to cry.
"Your mother… " she said with a sob.
"My mother! What’s happened to her?"
"Poor nephew! Your mother’s passed away. Her body’s just been taken from Sai Gon to her burial site."
At once I run out of the hut, through the woods teeming with snakes and thorny plants.
Three years had passed. After my mother’s death, I gave up my schooling and lived alone in Ram Xanh. Auntie Vi’s frequent visits, always with gifts, like a handkerchief or new shorts, kept me from feeling lonely. I was grateful to her and regarded her as my spiritual mainstay.
Late one evening, when I was nearly 17 years old, she came to me. All of a sudden, rain came pouring down, and she was unable to return home. I yielded my bamboo bed to her and gathered dry twigs from the house to make a fire so that I could read throughout the night. I fell asleep. She woke me up and told me to go to bed, offering to stay awake to keep the fire on. I did as I was told and soon fell into a deep sleep.
Late at night, when I rolled over in bed, I felt her warm body under the blanket. I held my breath and did not dare to stir. Opening my eyes, I only found darkness. Then her right hand swept over my chest.
"Darling, you’re my man, for your mother sold you to me spiritually, you see," she whispered. I had no choice but to obey her orders.
When I awoke at dawn, she had returned to her native village. I went straight to the stream where I often went when I was upset.
I tried to figure out what had happened to me during the night, but I knew that I had become an adult before I even turned 17. I had had sex with a woman 10 years my senior. I couldn’t help but bear a grudge against her. Why on earth had I become hers? Why did Mum sell me to her? I sobbed and sobbed with loneliness and confusion. My youth was gone forever. I blamed myself for my shameful plight.
The next week, Vi dropped in on me.
"Do you miss me?" She asked.
I did not reply, keeping my face solemn.
"Hey, remember that the ghost begs Buddha for alms and not vice versa," she warned me with an old saying.
She put half of a boiled chicken in a plastic bag on the table. Immediately, I left the hut and walked to the stream. She followed me.
"Or else, I’ll set you free and leave your fate to the mercy of God!" she threatened.
I turned back and stared at her. Suddenly, I remembered the story of the melon with blood-like juice, and I felt terribly frightened.
"Get into the hut, and I’ll pray for your freedom," she said, pulling me in.
On the bed, she started falling into a trance, looking upwards, eyes wide open as she whispered magic words. At last I put myself under her sway, giving in to the ecstasy of the trance.
"Anyhow, the die is cast," I said to myself. From that day onwards, she spent almost every night with me.
The next year, she improved the hut on her own accord, buying a large mattress and spreading it on my bamboo bed.
"I’m with child," she told me, and she insisted we live together as man and wife.
"We’ll turn over a new leaf, and you’ll lead a better life. Why can’t we openly live under the same roof? To be honest, you have no other choice," she said smugly.
I had became completely under her control. Later, while I was lost in thought, she asked, "What are you thinking about?"
"Absolutely nothing," I replied automatically.
"So much the better," she said with an icy smile.
Sometimes, I thought of love and freedom and became depressed.
"Am I happy? What does freedom mean to me?" I would ask myself.
The answer was always no. I was not happy because my existence was quite meaningless. I had never fallen in love, and, what’s more, I had never been loved by anyone but my mother.
"My darling, I’m your servant, and I’m always at your disposal," Vi would coo.
I was so accustomed to her deceitful words that I developed a habit of being lulled by her artificial sweetness on the one hand, while also remembering Mum’s warnings about the bloody-juiced melon. But I preferred to lie alone on my bamboo bed rather than to sleep on the soft mattress with her soft voice whispering in my ears.
After more than 20 years of cohabitation, in front of the watching eyes of the villagers, I got angry with both her and myself. Sometimes I thought that because I had accepted that way of living, I had to suffer the consequences. If I complained about it, I would be a laughingstock. Time and again, I had been humiliated by villagers’ nasty remarks, but I turned a deaf ear to them all. What was the use of explaining my situation? I only wished to be left alone.
Even my submission was not enough to please my aunt. She thought that once she had me under her control, she could do whatever she wanted to me. In her eyes, I was a nobody in the village, not worthy of her compassion, and she tortured me mercilessly. Once she forced me to lie down on the bamboo bed and brutally beat me with a big stick while forbidding me to cry.
The day I knew would come finally did. This year, from my row of melons, there appeared one gigantic fruit. Day after day, I had come to the place where the melons of different sizes and colours grew. I studied the largest one, hoping that it would bring good luck and wisdom to me. It was my stupidity and superstition that had crippled my reasoning. Now, I hoped the appearance of this great fruit might shake me into consciousness.
I made up my mind to neither quarrel with Vi nor to let her break me spiritually. I paid no attention to her shrine either. Although I continued living with her as her husband, in fact I led a separate life from her. She became nothing more than a mere silhouette to me, a shadow sharing my home.
One sunny morning, I sharpened my axe and then walked to the garden of melons. I chopped the huge fruit with one violent stroke. It broke in two, releasing a distinctive fragrance. I picked up half of the fruit and lifted it up to my mouth to bite off a large piece. A warm, bright red liquid poured into my mouth and tongue, making my mind clear again.
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. Updated: 03.12.2008 .