Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ma-Lai (Part 3)

“Thank you, husband. I can’t handle the stomach pain anymore. I will be back soon.”

When she returned, my uncle was sitting on the floor, snoring loudly. My poor husband, he must be very tired for him to be snoring so loud. I am glad he’s asleep, though. She went to place a pillow under his head and a blanket over his body. Kissed him good night and crawled into bed feeling much better now that her stomach pain was gone.

Yes, the next morning delivered a new death in the village. Luckily, it wasn’t my uncle and he was very thankful it was not his wife. They had another month before the next full moon to sell all their assets. My uncle told himself that he was not going to take the chance and will sell everything at whatever price people offered; though his wife would debate with him concerning this. Still, he loved her more than he loved Buddha, so he agreed to sell the items at the true value and was able to sell only one third of the furniture. Only a few more days, and the next full moon will arise.

The day before the full moon, my uncle kept a close watch on the villagers and his wife. He had to make sure she was safe especially when they survived this far. That night, my uncle could see that his wife was in pain again. He thought it was odd that she seems to always have stomach pains during the night and never during the day. He wondered if she was having an affair and this was her reason to sneak off in the night to meet with her lover. Yes, I know. She was supposed to be this ugly woman so why was he so madly in love with her? Love makes you stupid. That is my answer.

Okay, so my uncle had it in his head that she has a lover. That night, he went to bed early and she did, too. She woke up to my uncle’s snore and got out of bed oh-so-very-quietly as to not wake him up. The minute she closed the door, my uncle instantly got up and ran to the door. He watched her go towards the barn. He went after her when he saw her go through barn door. He tried very hard to stay in the dark where she would not notice him. As he got closer to the door, he heard a pail fall indicating that someone was coming his way, so my uncle ducked behind a stack of clay pots. He was able to see through the cracks and saw particle hair that looked like his wife as it passed by. He hid his body and face just as he noticed that it was a floating head with the intestine following it. As he shook his brain in disbelief, he thought: The head and the intestine are floating in mid air! Oh my god, that was a ghost! He could not believe it. He reasoned with himself that he was mistaken and that he was in a dream. After a minute, he sobered up and investigated the barn to make sure he was mistaken.

At this point, he would rather find his wife naked in the arms of another man. He went in the barn calling her name, “Ngoc!” She didn’t answer. He said, “It’s me, you don’t have to be afraid. I don’t care if you have a lover, just come out. I forgive you.” Nothing. He went through the whole barn and didn’t hear a sound. Nothing. Then he noticed an area in the far back of the barn. In the corner, there were old clothes stacked about five feet high. That was odd to him to have so many clothes in a pile. He walked over to the pile of dirty clothes and noticed his wife’s barefoot. Oh my god, she is probably naked with her lover right now! “Get out from there! I see you!” He yelled as he went around the pile. “What the hell!” He saw her naked body lying on the dirty clothes, her naked breast showing. Nothing was on her, not a man, not a blanket, not even her head. Then, fear crept over him and made him realize that the ghost has his wife and killed her. He ran to the village elder’s home to ask for help. It was now an hour past midnight. As he banged on the door crying, “Help me, help me! The ghost killed my wife!”

“What is it? Are you sure? Is your wife dead?” Asked the elder trying to put on his slipper before leaving the house to follow my uncle.

“Yes, yes, my wife’s head is missing. And all I see is her naked body!”

“Wait! Did you say your wife’s head is missing and her body is still there?”

“Yes. Come with me quick so I can show you!”

The elder stopped and took my uncle arm and told him to stop. “Quan! Tell me one more thing before we go! Were there any blood on your wife’s body? Tell me. Do you think she was raped and her head chopped off?”

“Raped! Raped! Blood. Blood.” He yelled at first, then quiet down when he tried to remember if he saw blood. “No. No blood. What does that mean? No blood? She’s dead! She doesn’t have a head!”

“Okay, Quan. This is what I want you to do. You have to calm down. Come to my house and I’ll explain what’s going on.”

“Calm down? What? Are you crazy? How can I calm down when my wife is dead?” He screamed, ready to punch anything and everything that was in his way.

“QUAN! I know what I am saying. Come to my house. I think your wife is okay. I will explain. Just come to my place and I will give you some whiskey to calm your nerves. Come! Trust me. Come!”

Suddenly, the heaviness of the village deaths dropped on my uncle’s shoulders and he couldn’t fight anymore. “Yes, I will listen. Tell me that my wife is okay. Just tell me that everything is okay.”

In the living room of the elder, the old man weaved his knowledge plain and simple for my uncle as he poured a large glass of homemade rice whiskey. “I told you about Ma-Lai. They have three lines around their necks and they are usually women. What I did not tell you is that the Ma-Lai leaves its body in the middle of the night. Her head and intestine leave her body. She floats and roams the land until she finds human feces. Ma-Lai doesn’t eat like we eat. She likes to eat human feces. The feces coat her stomach to keep her satisfied until the next full moon. Whomever feces she eats, that person dies the next day. That is why we have to burry our waste or cover it with a bowl so she can’t get to it.” The elder took a drink as he watched my uncle closely. “Now tell me; think clearly. Did you see a head floating by your wife’s body? Try to remember.”

“I saw, I saw. I saw nothing.” He lied, but he told himself that he wasn’t lying. I didn’t really see anything except for the naked body. He shook his head, “I think you are right, maybe I was wrong. I saw my wife’s naked foot and ran. I didn’t want to see her with her lover. I need to go back and confront her. I am sorry I woke you up. Forgive me. I love her too much to want and believe that she has a lover. I need to be a man and confront her.” He looked desperately into the elder’s eyes. “Will you forgive me?”

“Ai yah, yes. I forgive you. It’s late and everyone in the village is worried. I understand. Go home to your wife. I won’t say anything to anyone about tonight. Make sure to tell your wife to get rid of her lover or else they both will be punished for adultery.” The old man replied kindly, knowing the stress everyone was carrying.

“One thing, how do you kill a Ma-Lai?” My uncle asked curiously.

“Oh, that’s simple. The hard part is figuring out who the Ma-Lai is, but once you know, you follow it during the full moon. When it hides its body and the head is detached from the body, you just flip the body while the head is away. When it comes back, the head can’t reattach to the body. When the sun comes out and the moon disappears, so will the Ma-Lai’s spirit. It will die before the first rooster crows.”

My uncle thanked the old man and walked home praying to Buddha that he was only dreaming and that he was mistaken about his wife. He went back to the barn where he saw his wife last. There was the pile of clothes, still five feet high. He took a deep breath and walked around the pile. Nothing. His wife wasn’t there. No body was there. Yes, it was just a dream! The stress is getting to me. I didn’t see anything and only imagined it. His walk was lighter as he entered the house. His wife was sleeping soundly in bed and he was at peace once again.

The next day, my uncle asked his wife where she went last night. She got very upset and asked, “Where did I go? Where were you? You leave me in the middle of the night and I waited until I couldn’t wait anymore. The next thing I know, I find you in bed! Are you having an affair?”

Remember when I told you my uncle loves his wife? Well, he did; a lot! He was afraid she would leave him, so he asked for her forgiven and told her that he was not able to sleep because of the stress and went to visit with the elder. He won’t do it again. They both dropped the subject and were happy again. Though, my uncle was still worried that his wife would leave him, he would stay awake every night until his wife fell asleep first. After three weeks of her staying home every night. He stopped worrying and was able to sleep early and got some real rest. His mind and heart were so fixed on his wife that he didn’t even cared that a death occurred the night he spoke with the elder.

The next month, during the night of the full moon, my uncle was exhausted and went to bed early. His wife said she had one last load to wash and will be in soon. The minute he saw his bed, he flopped on top of the blanket and snored. The full moon shined through his bedroom window and woke him. As he got up to close the curtains, he saw the back of a head and intestine floating towards the barn. Oh my god. The Ma-Lai is coming to get us. I must warn my wife. “Wife, wife, get up.” He looked towards the direction of his wife and saw nothing. Fear drained the blood from his body. He ran outside towards the barn to the exact spot with the pile of clothes. There it was, his wife naked with her head missing. He couldn’t allow himself to be weak much longer and flipped her body over as he screamed and cried, “Oh my god! My god, no!”

The minute his wife sensed that something was wrong with her body; she floated back to the barn. There. There was her husband, shaking as he cried, “This isn’t true. It can’t be. It is a just nightmare. Wake up. Wake up!” As he slapped his face over and over again.

“Husband.” She whispered. Her voice was soft and dreamy. “Husband, you are dreaming. Go back to sleep.” Was all he heard.

“Husband, go back to sleep.”

His eyes slowly closed because he desperately wanted to believe it. He could feel the weight on his head dropping over his chest.

“Husband, you’re dreaming, flip the body back to how you found it.” She called out to him as a nightingale sings to its owner. “Flip the body back.” What? If I’m dreaming, I don’t need to flip the body back. He told himself. He placed his head next to his wife and slowly drifted.

“HUSBAND! I need you to flip my body back! Get up and flip my body back!” Her shriek pumped adrenaline into his brain as he jumped to his feet. Out of disbelief, he ran to the door, but she floated after him blocking his way out.
“Husband, please. I beg of you. Don’t kill me. I love you.” She sobbed trying for his sympathy. “I promise I won’t do this anymore. I promise. I will try my very best to control my urges. Don’t kill me. Don’t you love me? I love you. Don’t leave me for dead.”

He couldn’t bare the tears any longer and walked back to the body. “You promise?”

“Yes, I promise.”

He flipped her body back and she instantly connected with her body. She got up and hugged her husband.

He couldn’t look at her and only said, “Quickly, we must pack our things and leave tonight.”

They left that village in the year of 1974. After the communist came, my mother never heard or seen him since.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ma-Lai (Part 2)

The villagers gathered to mourn the young man’s death and gave money to help the widow until she could find a new husband who could take care of her and her three children.

With the sad news, my uncle and his wife did not try for a baby. The weird thing, it seemed that this new village was cursed or something because every month, there seemed to be another death. No markings on the person, no specific age group or sex. One day they were healthy, the next they were dead.

One day, after a long day of hard work, my uncle needed to go to defecate, but was far from home and didn’t have the energy to walk to the nearest river. Luckily, he found a stick in the woods and dug a hole. After he was done, he buried it. He wanted to make sure that it didn’t spread any diseases and he didn’t want anyone to step on it by accident. Usually, if the ground were too hard to dig a hole, you would need to place a bowl over the feces. It was my uncle’s lucky day for finding the stick, because he didn’t carry a bowl with him that day. Don’t ask me why. It is the culture. It is like asking why do dogs bark and cats meow. There is no explanation. It just is.

When he was done, he sneaked around to the other side to hide his embarrassment. There were two elders crouching on the ground whispering. My uncle knew these two men. They were respectable men who had nothing to hide, so the fact that they were whispering, it must have been big.

“Ah, excuse me.” My uncle interrupted, making sure they knew he was there. He didn’t want them to think that he was eavesdropping. “What are you two talking about? You look so intense.”

The elders looked around, looked over their shoulders, looked behind them and pulled my uncle down. “Don’t talk so loud in the woods. The villagers are afraid of all the deaths that are going on around here. It seems that there is a pattern. People would die the day AFTER the full moon.” They whispered.

My uncle was shocked. He never even thought about a pattern. He just thought it was odd that people were dying like the people were dying in the last village. He knew that there might be a war going on because the Northern Vietnamese were trying to recruit the villagers to push the Frenchmen out of Vietnam. He only assumed it had to do with the Communist. “So you think the Communist has something to do with this?” He said in a low voice, fearing that his life would be next if “they” ever heard the word “communist” come out of his mouth.

“Ai yah! Who cares about the Communist? They are just a punch of gangsters trying to be some important organization. We’re talking about life and death here.”

“Oh, sorry for my naiveté. Please continue. What do you think is the cause of all these death?” He asked feeling sick to his stomach, hoping that they don’t blame my uncle for bringing bad luck to the village or something related to that.

“We think there is a Ma-Lai in the village.”

“Ma-Lai? What’s that?”

“Where were you born? In a city?”

“No, whatever that means!”

“A Ma-Lai is a person who is half-human and half-ghost!”

“Oh come on, stop fooling around. Tell me the truth! I can handle it! Is it like a code for Communist or something?”

Smack! One of the elders slapped my uncle on the side of his head. “Listen and stop being so stupid!”

“Okay, okay, it’s a Ma-Lai. What does it do?”

“Ai yah, these young kids! They know so much, yet so little. Like I said, a Ma-Lai is half-human and half-ghost.”

“Wooohh, how is that possible?”

“Who knows, it just is. It’s like asking me why is Buddha fat. He just is!”

“Okay, old man, just tell me about this Ma-Lai.”

“A Ma-Lai is usually a woman. You can tell who is a Ma-Lai by the number of lines she has on her neck.”

“Number of lines? I’ve never noticed a woman’s neck. I’ve always preferred to look at her hair.”

“Well, start noticing! We need to find this Ma-Lai and kill her before she kills all of us.”

Suddenly, a group of three women with baskets of vegetables walked by trying not to show their fear since they didn’t know whom the killer was.

“It’s getting dark, we should walk back with the girls.”

“Hey, old man, I want to know more about this Ma-Lai. I have a wife I want to protect.”

“Oh yes, sure, sure. What did I tell you so far?”

“The number of lines on her neck!!!”

“Oh yes, most people have one or two lines on their neck. A Ma-Lai has three lines. That’s the secret number. Three. Look around and if you see three lines on a woman’s neck, bring her to the elders and we’ll bind her to the ground and chop her head off. That’s the only way to kill her. You have to separate her head from her body before the next sunrise. We won’t have to worry for another week or so. She only comes out when the moon is full, that’s how we figured it was a Ma-Lai; we would find a person dead the day after the full moon. Trust me, I’ve seen this before when I was 10 years old. It’s a Ma-Lai.”

That night, my uncle couldn’t sleep. He wanted to protect his wife and he didn’t think he could fight a ghost. My uncle thought of a way to sell all of their belongings so they could leave before the next full moon. Then he realized that he didn’t ask how the Ma-Lai striked. For the past months, there were random deaths; the sex and age of the victims didn’t match up. So if I wasn’t able to sell all of my assets before the next full moon, we still have a chance of survival. With that thought, he was able to sleep.

Two weeks past and he wasn’t able to sell a thing. The villagers all thought like he did. People were trying to sell so they could leave the village alive with their family. That night, two weeks since his last conversation with the old men, the moon was full. It was the biggest and brightest it ever had been that year. Everyone locked themselves in their houses, and prayed to their god, Buddha, to protect them.

That night, my uncle tried to keep his wife by his side, but her stomach ached and she said she needed to go outside because she ate something bad. He told her that he would go with her. “No, I would like to go by myself. I am too embarrassed to have my husband hear me and stay by my side while I go. Don’t worry about me. I will scream if anything happens and I will be right outside, not too far away.” She said reassuring him so he would not worry too much.

“Okay, you promise not to go too far out?”

“Yes, just far enough so the smell won’t reach our house or the neighbors. I promise to scream if anything, any small sound frightens me; I will scream.”

“Sure, I will wait for you in the house.” He looks at the clock as the second hand clicks on the number eight. Great, 20 minutes until midnight. I think we should be safe.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ma-Lai (Part 1)

My uncle, on my mother’s side, was a handsome man in Vietnam. So handsome it caused him to be narcissistic and didn’t find any of the women in his village attractive. No matter how beautiful the girl was, he didn’t feel the chemistry – none what so ever. He would wander the village and lived a life of mediocrity because he didn’t feel that life had any value or any pleasure because he was alone without that significant other to share his life with. Months after months, he got more depressed and wanted a miracle, a stranger to walk into the village, but that never happened. One day, after a year of being unhappy, my uncle went to the family and told them that he was leaving. He wanted to travel to see what the world can offer. He wanted to see if the gods had a wife for him because the women at his village weren’t suited for him.

On the night of the full moon, he packed his belongings and took all the cash he had, gave my mother a hug and said his good-byes to everyone. My mother cried, her mother cried and the rest of the sisters cried. He truly was handsome. He was taller than most of the men in the village. His hair was black and not dark brown and his eyes were big. He had a strong jaw line and was built like Tarzan from working in the fields. He wasn’t just a fieldworker; he had a brain, he had imagination and ambition. He came up with a method to collect all the rainwater into big jars for drinking and bathing. Owning a refrigerator in Vietnam was expensive because electricity was hard to come by. The kind of refrigerator they had was a box made of metal and you would have to go to the market to buy a huge cube of ice to put into the box. Then you can store the food you wanted to keep cold. Fish would make things smell bad, so they would never put the fish in the ice box. He came up with the idea of preserving the fish so that the family wouldn’t have to throw away the rotted fish. Uncle told the family that you could make fish jerky. He also knew how to bargain with the locals for goods without paying the usually price that everyone else had to pay. “Yes, your uncle was a catch all right,” my mother would say.

My mom is a good storyteller - probably where I got my gift. I like to tell stories. I just need to hear it once and I’ll remember it to recite it, like I am reciting to you now. Are you ready? You really should crawl into your bed and get comfortable because I am going to explain what happened to my uncle – his life before the Communist came in and took over Vietnam.

My uncle traveled from one village to the next for 6 months. He would stay for only a couple of months in each of the village until he came to this one particular village that was different from the others. It was gloomy like his mood. He didn’t ask questions. They didn’t ask questions. They all kept to themselves and never talked about they lives. They didn’t care who you were, what you wanted or what you liked. They were just people who were there because they were just there. My uncle liked this. He was able to be and did not have to try hard to prove himself. No one spoke to my uncle unless he asked him or her a question. After two months of solitude, my uncle got restless. He started noticing a particular girl in this village. She wasn’t beautiful, she wasn’t plain looking; she was more ugly than anything. Her body was different from most Vietnamese people. He didn’t quite know what it was, but there was something different. She had two arms, two legs and a proportionate body, two hands with 10 fingers and two feet with10 toes. What was it that was different about her? He wasn’t sure. Because Uncle liked to solve problems, his curiosity drove him to speak to her. Her eyes! Yes, her eyes were haunting. They were a little darker than usual with a white cloud in the center. Was that it? Or maybe it was the way she looked at him, the intense stare, as if her eyes were weaving a spell over his mind, his heart, his soul.

A month later, they were married. His new bride wanted to leave the village and start a new life. Her name was Ngoc, which means Pearl in Vietnamese. They moved to the next village where my uncle taught the villagers how to harness the rainwater and preserve their food for the rationing. They lived a very good life there in the village because everyone valued my uncle’s knowledge. He was in good spirit because he finally had a wife and was an important person to the village.

After a year of living at the village, a plague hit the village. People were dying in the village, but it would always be the day after the full moon. No one would understand why this plague would strike randomly without a sign of illness at all. One day, the person would be alive and healthy, then the next morning, that person is die. As the French would say, “Fini!” Ka-put, Dead, Gone, No More.

One day, my uncle was walking by a tall rice field and over heard two elder women talking. “I tell you, this never happened until that young man, Quan, moved in with his wife.” Said one lady as she was cutting the rice grass.

“You right, that young man is good, but the wife if bad. You see her neck? You see how many lines she has on her neck?” Asked the woman who was gathering the grass into bundles.

“You are correct! She has one too many lines on her neck. One too many.”

“We must tell the head monk and ask for help.”

Uncle didn’t want to hear anymore and left without being noticed. He wondered what the monk would say, because my uncle could not understand what they were talking about: One too many lines on her neck? What does that matter? How many lines are you suppose to have? Crazy old women! Forget this, we’re leaving as soon as I get paid for my work.

That month, before the next full moon, my uncle and his wife moved to another village. They started they lives over, built a new home, showed the villagers how to ration their goods and how to preserve the rainwater. Things were good again. The villagers liked my uncle; they respected him and valued his input.

After five months of the good life, my uncle decided they should start a family. He thought it would be romantic to make love to his wife under the full moon that night. He was full of ideas and went into the jungle to scout a good spot for their romance. As he was walking he thought of all the little children and wanted to bring them home to his family in Vung Tau. My uncle couldn’t contain himself anymore and ran to his house.

“Wife, wife, it’s almost dark, come with me.” But his wife wasn’t anywhere to be found. He went through the village asking for his wife, but no one saw her. That night, he slept alone until past midnight. His wife came back and crawled into bed with him. She was full of energy and full of life. She wanted her husband and they made love that night in bed.

The next morning, his wife looked satiated, as if she had eaten her fill for the week. A knock at the door. Both husband and wife look at each other curiously. No one has knocked on their door at 8am before. My uncle opened the door to see one of the elders of the village. “Good morning, brother. Are you well?”

“Yes, but there is news in the village. Mr. Tam died this morning.” Announced the elder.

“Oh no! Are you sure? Mr. Tam is a healthy young man. He’s only 33, right? How can he die? He doesn’t even smoke!”

“His wife tried to get him out of bed this morning to go to work. That was when she realized he felt cold and hard. Poor woman, a widow at 23 with three young kids!”

“Thank you for letting us know! We’ll come over and give our respect. What time will the villagers be there?”

“I think 3pm. Good, good. I will see you then.” The elder answered quickly. He needed to announce the news to the rest of the village.