THE SACRED SNAKE

On the west side of my village, hidden under the bushy foliage of tropical almond trees and green bamboos on the slope of a rocky hill, stood an ancient, lofty temple, respectfully referred to by the locals as Quan Temple. No one knew when it was built, and it was only visited occasionally, for worshipful ceremonies at the villagers’ invitation, by a district official who arrived in a roofed hammock covered with red and blue curtains, carried by two men and accompanied by several players of old musical instruments. Whenever a drought lasted for 6 or 7 months, and the fields were too arid to be cultivated, everyone looked to the Quan Temple for a miraculous solution. The village chief and first notable would clean themselves thoroughly before bringing offerings to the shrine and begging for rain. They had to eat nothing but vegetarian food, sleep on the ground, and pray with incense for three days. If the rains still failed, then the district chief would have to perform an earnest supplication to the Jade Emperor.

How sacred the response was! After a single night of prayers by the village notaries, it would rain heavily, and the whole village would hurry out into the fields to rejoice as though they were taking part in a big festival to praise the miracles of the Quan Temple and the omnipotent invisible God, whose soul hovered over the ancient shrine and blessed local people. The villagers rarely mentioned the legend of the Sacred Snake in the Quan Temple in Duong Dan village, as they took it for granted. Everyone in the area knew the story, but only one or two curious people had ever seen it.

One evening after he had finished work in the fields, a notorious young drunkard boastfully challenged his peers to go to the temple and glance at the snake in exchange for his pretty fiancée in the neighboring village. No one took him up on his offer: the idea was so scary that even a group didn’t feel safe enough to deal with the consequences of showing disrespect to the sacred snake, let alone a single person. No one wanted to enter that dark temple and open the decorated hangings to take a close look at the sacred animal lying curled up behind the solemn altar.

But the dare wasn’t forgotten, and at a later gathering when male harvesters and female helpers got together for a joyful sing-song, a famously obstinate sturdy peasant named Bay suddenly offered to satisfy my passionate curiosity about the Sacred Snake.

“My dear Nam,” he said softly, “are you serious about wanting to see the Sacred Snake? As the son of a sorcerer, I can take you to the temple, but you must keep it a secret, especially from your mother.”

I felt scared at first, but after a short silence, and without really knowing why, I nodded in agreement.

“Give me fifty cents,” he said with a throaty voice. “I need to buy a young chicken, incense sticks and candles, and then cook a pot of porridge for offerings. After you’ve seen the Snake, you’re going to give me three bushels of paddy without asking your mother. OK?”

I hesitated. I knew I would be in serious trouble if my parents ever found out. People said that anyone who saw the sacred snake fell fatally sick due to its invisible powers. I thought about it for a moment, then blindly agreed. I didn’t care about Bay’s conditions, only whether I had sufficient strength to deal with the event.

So, on the fifteenth night of the seventh month, chosen for its full moon, Bay and I headed for the Quan Temple in the bright moonlight. He followed me on the dewy, winding dikes of the rice fields, holding a brass tray with the whole chicken, a plate of sticky rice, four candles, and a bunch of incense sticks.

“Where are you going, Bay?” asked a villager we bumped into. “And what are you carrying?”

“I’m taking Senior Tu’s offerings to Mr. Chanh,” he lied.

About half our way, when I told him how frightened I was and how I wanted to go back, he tried to distract me.

“Did you ask your parents about this trip?” he said.

“No. I told them I was going to borrow a novel to read during my summer vacation.”

We walked on. The old tile roof of the temple began to appear under the moonlit foliage, still and quiet. Once in a while, we caught a few distant sounds from nocturnal birds. The leaves of the fig and tropical almond trees rustled in the wind, their shades darkening the front of the shrine and its timeworn, moss-covered, spotty walls in the moonlight. The whole environment seemed motionless in the mixture of light and darkness, isolated from blinking lamps of distant hamlets, turning the scenery into something ghostly and mysterious. Had the flickering figure of a dancing girl dressed in white, her long hair falling over her body, been added, I would have believed I was witnessing a perfect illusory scene from a famous book of ghost stories I’d heard about.

“I’m shaking,” I said. “Let’s go home, Bay. I… I…”

“Don’t worry. We’re bringing offerings to the sacred snake, not trying to displease him. Besides, I’m with you.” He was probably afraid I would really want to quit and thus take away the paddy I had promised him; however, his encouragement didn’t seem to work.

“Let’s go home. I’ll give you the paddy as promised.”

The moral lesson about a mother’s rebuke of her chicken-hearted son in my elementary school textbook came to my mind, but to no effect. That boy in the story was in a completely different situation to me.

“It’d be a big waste if you decided to quit. The Sacred Snake will certainly be in the temple this fifteenth night of the month. You should at least let me take our offerings to Him…’

“Do it… fast. But where are you going to place the offerings tray?”

“Calm down, my dear Nam. Don’t push me. You’ll commit a sin against Him.”

He laid the tray down on the ground, lit the incense sticks and the candles, then used his hands to protect them from being blown out by the wind.

“Why don’t you place the tray on the altar?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be cleaner that way?”

He kept praying in silence for some time without answering me, and suddenly, he bowed and bowed continuously before taking a portion of the incense sticks and turning around to plant them at the base of the fig tree. I could see lying there in disorder the dark lots of old and broken pots of slaked lime made of all types of ceramic and porcelain.

I began to feel more at ease. I wanted to see him perform a more solemn act of worship or a prayer, so I would be able to look without fear at the sacred snake I expected to see. But he removed the offerings tray and placed it at the bottom of the altar, about ten meters from the front.

“Why didn’t you place it first on the altar to save time and have it nearer to Him?”

Again, he didn’t answer. Instead, he became more serious and stubborn. Typical farmer, I thought.

“You know,” he unexpectedly said, “I placed it at a distance so I could gather my sincerity and calmness to worship Him. What would happen if He…?”

I understood in a flash. A tense, horrific half hour crawled by in the illusory moonlit night. I strained my eyes and stared at the light tray in the dark temple. The wind was cold, and so was the fog. I shivered all over and felt chilly.

“Let’s go home, Bay!” I repeated, thinking he had lied to me just to get my paddy.

The area around me was entirely quiet. I waited, almost out of patience. Suddenly, he took my arm and shook it hard, and I saw a black object like a long cord, as thick as his arm, sliding forward and rolling into a big lustrous circle close to the bottom of the altar, next to the tray. I couldn’t see clearly enough so I stared at the almost immobile circle, which was about one meter in diameter. I was so scared I almost shouted and ran away. Bay whispered to me to bow four times.

“Bend your head down, bow again!” he urged me. “Quick! We should not admire Him long. Let’s go. Did you see clearly?”

The whole thing only took three minutes, but the horrible feeling lived on and on. We walked back along the winding slippery dikes, with him behind me. I kept turning my head around to check if he was still with me. I felt extremely frightened.

“Will the Sacred Snake eat the offerings?” I asked when we were some distance away again. “Why didn’t you wait for Him to return to his cave and take the offerings home?”

“Who dared? And how did I know when He wanted to be back in his cave. You’re talking like a brave man now, but you’d have fainted if we’d stayed any longer, and I wouldn’t have known what to do. Early tomorrow morning, I’ll make sure He has gone before I remove the tray and empty all the offerings at the bottom of the fig tree in front of the temple.”

“I’m sure He wouldn’t eat anything. I guess He’d only smell the fragrant incense sticks until they burned out and return to his cave. Right?”

He kept quiet, but seemed pleased with his successful venture and the paddy reward he knew he’d get.

“Do you know when the temple was built?” I asked him when we almost got home. “And how long has the Sacred Snake been there?”

“I don’t know. The shrine has been there since before I was born. I’ve heard that the Sacred Snake was there too. You’re very lucky to have seen it. It’s not easy to get this chance in a lifetime. But you mustn’t tell anyone, or I’ll get punished by the villagers. The truth is that the Sacred Snake really is sacred. A few years ago, a bride in the West hamlet who was mistreated by her mother-in-law went mad, tore her clothes and wandered off into the fields. One sorcerer said she was being punished by the Temple God; but another one claimed she was disturbed by the soul of Pham Nhan. Since neither of them could cure her illness, she hanged herself on the fig tree in front of the temple with a rope used to draw water from a well. Everyone wondered how a weak woman like her could climb up to the top of the tall tree to tie the cord there for her suicide. Ghosts were believed to be behind her act.”

“Who was Pham Nhan?” I asked. “And why did the Temple god punish her?”

“I don’t know much about Pham Nhan. All I know is that insane women or girls have to be helped by a sorcerer to get Pham Nhan’s soul out of them. And the reason why the suicidal bride was chastised was because on a summer day, she felt so warm after working that while sitting down to rest under the fig tree she happened to open her sleeveless vest and fan herself to cool down. After she hanged herself, a Ring ghost appeared and frightened people off walking past the temple in the evening or at noon. One time a female servant, on her way to buy medicine for her husband, went past the shrine in the dark. She was so scared she dropped everything and ran. Afterwards she said she heard strange noises in the fig tree, and when she looked up, a girl in black trousers and white blouse with her hair down jumped down and danced, sticking out her long tongue, and showing her white hands with fingers as long as bamboo leaves to ask for the betel. The servant fell severely ill for three months.”

At noon, or in the evening, people from the village would take a detour of about a half a mile to avoid walking by that temple, or under the fig tree.

When I got home the moon was directly above me in the sky. I couldn’t sleep, and my 15-year-old head was filled with unanswerable questions. “Where do Gods, and phantoms come from? Where do they live? What do they do?”

Ten days later, I got the chance to raise the question of the Temple with my father, and I asked him many questions. It was a summer noon and while reading, he fell asleep and left the red-covered book full of Chinese characters next to his eyeglasses. I came over to close the book and put the glasses on the table.

“Leave them there, son,” he ordered. “I was having such a nice time reading Bo Tung Linh’s Unreal Stories that I drifted off to sleep. They’re all ghost and horror stories, about humans living with phantoms. There’s no separation between the living and the dead.”

I pressed him about the stories, and mentioned Pham Nhan.

“Would you please tell me who he is?”

“Why do you want to know? You’re not a girl or woman. They’re usually the ones who care about him…”

“I was told Uncle Thai has to invite sorcerers to ask Pham Nhan to treat his wife’s illness,” I said, making it up as I went along.

“Has your school principal in Tam Ky allowed you pupils to learn about our Vietnamese history?”

“No, he hasn’t. The curriculum includes French history only, and very general.”

“Well, Pham Nhan, alias Nguyen Ba Linh, was a lusty figure in our history, and lived in the Tran dynasty at the end of 13th century. As the child of a Chinese father and a Vietnamese mother, he was sent to China for schooling, and there he got his doctorate and became an excellent sorcerer. When the Chinese invaded our country, our outstanding military talent, Hung Dao Vuong Tran Quoc Tuan, fought back and won a big victory, forcing the Chinese general Thoat Hoan to flee to China. He came back in 1287 with a larger force guided by Pham Nhan, who was captured by Hung Dao Vuong during the fighting, and beheaded. According to legends, his soul kept wandering around to disturb women and girls, haunting some of them until they died. Because of this, sorcerers had to be invited to treat the ill by trying to get them rid of him.”

“Dad, does the Quan Temple have any relationship to Pham Nhan?”

“No. The shrine was built by our village a long time ago as a historical site in the region. Some seven or eight decades ago, an anti-French movement was formed and led by, among others, Senior Vo The Mai, a graduate who bravely set up an ambush against French troops on the slope of Cay Coc, near Tien Phuoc. His militia had a reputation for extreme bravery, and fought only with knives, machetes, and simple weapons against the French invaders. There was one problem, though. Our peasants naïvely believed that the French could be killed easily because they wore knee-high boots, and as such, once they fell, they could not bend their legs at the knees to stand up again. So to try and make them fall over, thousands and thousands of toe-sized inedible hard nuts were thrown on the French paths from Tam Ky to Tien Phuoc. The French, of course, simply walked all over them with their metal-soled boots. Senior Vo The Mai took a bullet in the heart and died in Go Don where the villagers, out of respect for his sacrifice and in commemoration of him as a national hero, ceremoniously buried him and built a temple in his memory, right where you’ve seen. Through the years, many myths were spread, making both his soul and the temple sacred. People even talked about the appearance, in moonlit nights, of an old man walking leisurely with his bamboo cane in front of the shrine, reciting poems, and laughing aloud. Behind the altar in the temple lived a sacred snake, a huge black copperhead believed to be the materialization of his soul. I’ve seen the snake myself, one time when I went with your grandpa to bring offerings to the temple to ask his help for my examination at the capital. I could see it, not clearly of course, measuring about five meters long and moving from behind the temple to the bottom of the fig tree in front. Your grandpa, very calm, retreated while continuing to bow and pray. He told me the Senior’s soul recognized our sincerity, and that my examination would be successful.”

He then paused briefly before going on. “The Quan Temple and the Sacred Snake are sacred symbols of the Senior’s comfortable soul in heaven, the soul of a patriot and national hero. The shrine became an ancient site for the districts of Tam Ky and Tien Phuoc, where annual ceremonies were held by the villagers with noisy performance of gongs and drums. Thanks to it, Senior Huynh Thuc Khang successfully passed his doctorate examination in the capital and went on to nationwide literary fame. On his glorious return to his home village of Thanh Binh in Tien Phuoc, in spite of the solemn welcome for him, he stopped at the Temple to thankfully bow to the God, setting an inspirational example for everyone in the area.”

* * *

“In August 1945, a group of so-called revolutionaries seized power, and on the pretext of removing all old customs and superstitions, they quietly abolished all our traditional holidays and destroyed the solemnity of temples, shrines, pagodas, and churches. Instead of letting the villagers tend cemeteries and visit tombs in the morning of the first day of Tet, the way they always had done, they ordered them to do it collectively in the afternoon, since during the very early hours of the day, they used loud speakers to call everyone in the area to assemble at the Quan Temple to celebrate the revolutionary Spring and the first Independence Tet. The villagers, forced to be energetic with their sticks, knives, sickles, and personal weapons, gathered in the front of the shrine under a jungle of flying yellow-starred red flags. Behind the tall podium set up on the grassy knoll, Le Thuyet, the new Chairman of Tam Ky district, in his abnormally large suit, clumsily read the wishes of that pirate Ho from the central government in Hanoi. Local cadres had a rare opportunity to show their proud faces to the people. Slogans were shouted, and reverberated round the surrounding forest and mountains.

Suddenly, from the rear of the crowd, came a series of screams; women and children started yelling, and people scattered in all directions. Everyone was trying to elbow their way past everyone else, fleeing headlong toward the narrow dikes. The organizers were stupefied to learn that a two-meter copperhead had shot out from the base of the fig tree toward the Temple. The loud speakers shouted in vain for people to return and continue the ceremony, but no one listened, in case the sacred snake returned and finished them off for good. Only three ‘Autumn revolutionary’ cadres remained on the podium; two others of their team had disappeared.

“So the sacred snake was a reactionary… Senior Vo must have disliked the Revolution so much he ordered it to act against the scheme of disturbing the solemnity of the Temple. Seniors in the area all showed their satisfaction in silence. The Temple’s quiet solemnity returned, and it’s been a peaceful echo of the past ever since.”