by NHAT LINH (2)
Translated from the Vietnamese by TRUC HUY
Adapted from a friend’s account.
It was pitch-black outside. In the compartment of second class, I was alone face to face with Trach, an old friend, that a sheer chance had made me meet him in the same train. Ten years ago, he was still conducting the train and lived in a precarious financial situation like me. We were both amazed and happy to meet each other again in this coach.
While speaking to him, I noticed, lain by his side, a very beautiful box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. I took it up to admire it more closely, and I opened it fortuitously. My friend appeared to be dissatisfied but, out of consideration for me, he did not say anything. Then I found out something quite unusual : locked up well in the box was an enormous butterfly with its wings already damaged. I told him :
– Butterflies, like this one, are commonly seen in my region ; they aren’t of rare species. Why do you want to preserve it with so much care and affection ?
– It’s true. It is a very common butterfly. As a matter of fact, it’s just a bombyx, but for me…
The roar of the train passing on a metallic bridge interrupted his sentence. He listened attentively to that sound, and then declared :
– We are just crossing bridge N. G.. It’s precisely on this bridge, in its middle, that I caught this butterfly, ten years ago…
His face seemed to change expression. I presumed that there was something the matter with him, so I hastened to ask :
– This butterfly is undoubtedly related to some kind of story, isn’t it ?
– Yes, a sad story … It happened to me more than ten years ago, about the time when you made a move to Saigon ; and myself, I was still conducting a train and worked on this line. No need for me to tell you in what situation I was then ; you know that well.
– In the same situation as mine…
– However, I did not tell you one thing : by that time, I was just married, but I kept it secretly from my family, from everyone, from you. My wife and I, we lived in poverty, yet we were really very happy. My wife, however, was too fragile to support all these privations, and her health’s condition declined day after day. Then, with time, she became seriously sick. Unfortunately, I had to continue to go to work, although there was nobody to look after her at home.
One evening, my wife lost consciousness several times ; and that precise evening, my superior ordered me to lead the official convoy of the Governor General. It was a true chance for me, but I could not accept. I immediately went and saw my superior to explain to him that my wife was very sick. He flew into a white rage and shouted to me :
– I don’t want to know ! Either you will show up at the station at ten o’clock tonight, or you can quit your job right now and it’s not necessary for you to come back again. Get out of here now !
His words proved to be inflexible ; and me, I could not know which decision to take. However, when returning home and sitting beside my wife lying in bed, I realized, in seeing her, that I could not leave her alone at home like that, that I needed to remain by her bedside, whatever would happen, even should I lose my job.
My wife, seeing me so anxious, questioned me. I told her the whole story. After I finished my account, her face became very radiant, she said :
– You will go there ! There is nothing to worry about. I’m all right. Moreover, I feel myself much better now. When you return home tomorrow evening, don’t forget to bring me a small gift.
I saw her laughing and speaking merrily ; that reassured me. I got dressed and left for the station. When I arrived there, it was exactly ten o’clock. However, right after the departure of the train, I started to feel myself very anxious : I realized that I had behaved inconsiderately ! I got a very strange feeling, something like a presentiment : it seemed to me as though, when I left my wife alone at home like that, I was not going to see her again, alive, at my return.
I tried to concentrate myself in operating the machine, but that hardly lasted very long. Suddenly, the train seemed to oscillate and lean on one side, as if it were going to overturn. My heating aid released his shovel and grasped me :
– Hey ! What have you tonight ? This turning is dreadfully dangerous, and you did not slow down. Did you fall asleep ?
I did not fall asleep but if I was there well upright, my spirit, on the other hand, was somehow with my dying wife, at home, lonely in our small house. I had dazzles in my eyes and I was covered with sweat.
We entered a mountain ravine. It was a rough pass for the train, because of upward and downward slopes. I leaned my head outside through the door to look in front of me ; but that night, there was a thick fog. One could not distinguish anything except a white gleam formed in the beam of the two headlights.
Suddenly, I saw … very distinctly, I saw, in the fog, the silhouette of a woman wearing a very loose white dress, standing over there, at some distance ahead of the train, her arms fully stretched out. I rubbed my eyes, believing in a hallucination, but the silhouette was always there. I called my aid and sent him to look by the door, then asked him :
– Don’t you see something ?
Hardly had I finished these words that the silhouette disappeared. My aid leaned his head outward then replied :
– I only see the fog ! You must have a dream.
– No way, I saw very well a silhouette of a woman in the fog, but she has just disappeared.
My aid laughed, incredulous. He took his shovel and added coal into the boiler ; and me, on the other hand, I could not move from there, my eyes still looking the route in front of me. A few moments later, the woman’s silhouette reappeared again, this time much clearer, and stretched her arms wide open, as if she wanted to bar the train from moving on.
Again I called my aid, but this time he pretended not hearing me, feigning absorbed in throwing coal into the boiler. I knew that I did not dream, I knew that the silhouette was real, and that everyone would see it. I caught my aid’s hand, took him to the door and said with determination :
– Now, look again !
His mouth and eyes wide opened with great fear, he uttered :
– It’s very … very strange … It is a ghost !
As the train advanced, the woman’s silhouette moved back, floating between sky and ground, and being specified and growing blurred in turn. Then, the silhouette waved both arms in full gesture, as though she wanted to convey to us to stop, that there was imminent danger.
I said to my aid :
– I think it will occur something abnormal.
– Yes, the silhouette seems to gesture to us to stop.
The woman’s silhouette persisted in making great gestures of arms, which became increasingly faster and faster, as if she were desperate not to be able to make herself understood.
– I think we’d better stop the train and find out what it is. It’s certainly a ghost !
– You should not do that. There is no reason…
Then I heard a sort of buzzing and steady noise that continually amplified in my ears. I felt myself as if I were going to lose conscience at any moment : a voice reached me from very far, a woman’s voice that said to me :
– Stop ! Stop !
As I listened attentively to that voice, my hand held firmly the brake, ready to apply it, however not daring to do so. Again, I heard the woman’s voice, more distinct and more urging than ever :
– Slow down ! Apply the brake immediately !
Not realizing what I did, with my eyes shut, I jammed on the brakes brutally. The sudden movement shook all the coaches ; the iron wheels howled in the silence of the night. The train still ran a little distance more, then immobilized. As I hardly climbed down the steps, the train guard came running, holding a lantern in his hand, and asked :
– What happened ?
I was confused, not knowing what to answer. Who would believe me even though I would tell the truth ? I mumbled :
– There is something very strange. Let me go and find out with the lantern.
Coming to the news, the officers of the Governor’s delegation joined us and, before this unexpected event, accompanied us. At some distance from there, we heard the roar of a waterfall. By gathering my spirits, I realized that we were at bridge N. G..
On the previous days, it had been raining abundantly ; and it was probably the torrential flow that caused such a tremendous sound. Arrived at the edge of the river, what we saw with the gleam of the lantern struck us with stupor : the torrent had divided the bridge in two.
A little more, if I had not slowed down in time, the convoy transporting the Governor would have been precipitated in the ravine, and none of us would have survived. One could not imagine such a more appalling catastrophe, and it was I who had avoided it by a hairbreadth. I was standing there, stupefied, unable to understand what had happened.
The train guard, glowing with great relief, asked me :
– How did you know that it was necessary to slow down and apply the brake in time like that ?
– I really don’t know.
With joy painted on every face, the officials made circle around me, assailing me with questions to which I could not answer. Then they drew aside to give way to the Governor General himself. Although I was only a simple railway worker, the Governor did not hesitate, in his joy, to shake my hand soiled with coal and to express to me his congratulations.
It was undoubtedly that I was going to receive a deserving award or honor but, at that precise moment, it was to me of little significance, since I was totally absorbed in thinking to my wife, ill and lonely at home.
When I got back to the train, I suddenly caught sight of something stuck on one of the headlights. As I looked at it more closely, I saw that it was a very large butterfly, taken in the headlight and still being struggled to free itself from there. It was precisely the same butterfly you see here in this box.
I understood the whole thing immediately by looking at it. The truth was this : the woman’s silhouette of a few moments ago was in reality the shadow of that butterfly projected on the fog. The head of the animal was the head of the woman’s silhouette, and its beating wings her waving arms.
I caught the insect and was about to release it, but thinking that it had saved my life, I decided to keep it as a souvenir. At that very moment, the clock in the train indicated two o’clock in the morning…
The following day, as soon as I arrived at the steps of my house gate, a kid got out precipitately, announcing to me that my wife had died ; she died in the night, around one o’clock in the morning.
I’m not superstitious and want to convince myself that it was merely something fortuitous, that it was just a coincidence. However, I could not prevent myself from thinking that my wife’s soul had been reincarnated in this butterfly to preserve me from that accident, that night.
What is the meaning of my life now ? I have survived and have saved my body, but for what ? Wealth and glory are vain things for me now. I am now very much alike this butterfly, even though my body is here, but my heart is elsewhere…
When he finished his account, my friend closed the mother-of-pearl inlaid box and said absent-mindedly :
– Now, there is left here only the remains of that butterfly, without its soul !
(1) Translated from “Bóng Người Trên Sương Mù”, a story from the collection “Anh Phải Sống” (You must live) by Khái Hưng and Nhất Linh, published in 1937.
(2) Nhất Linh (real name : Nguyễn Tường Tam, 1905-1963), was the most important pre-war Vietnamese novelist. In 1931, he met Khái Hưng (real name : Trần Khánh Giư, 1896-1947), one of the most famous Vietnamese authors of the first half of the 20th century, and the two founded, in 1933, the “Tự Lực Văn Đoàn” (Self Strength Literary Group). He contributed largely to ensure the literary revival in Vietnam during the pre-war period. Nhất Linh’s main works are :
– “Nắng Thu” (Autumn’s sunlight) – 1934 (novel)
– “Đoạn Tuyệt” (Breaking the ties) – 1935 (novel)
– “Lạnh Lùng” (A lonely life) – 1936 (novel)
– “Anh Phải Sống” (You must live) – 1937 (short stories) (in collaboration with Khái Hưng)
– “Hai Buổi Chiều Vàng” (Two golden afternoons) – 1937 (novel)
– “Đôi Bạn” (Two friends) – 1938 (novel)
– “Bướm Trắng” (White butterfly) – 1939 (novel)
– “Xóm Cầu Mới” (Cau Moi hamlet) – 1958 (novel)
– “Dòng Sông Thanh Thuỷ” (Thanh Thuy river) – 1960-1961 (novel)