The moon hung low like a spotlight over the Phan Xi Păng Mountains, drowning out the stars in a cloudless sky. Below the terraced yellow rice fields seemed to glow in the night. A soothing northern wind rustled leaves as a Chestnut Bulbul chattered in the distance. The tranquility of the night was undone as residents of a remote village gathered to celebrate Tết Trung Thu, the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.
Neighbours greeted one another as trays of candy and fruit were set out and boxes of moon cakes exchanged. Drums and cymbals crashed while Ong Dia danced around the dragon. Children wearing colourful homemade masks marched around the village, their lanterns fashioned after butterflies and stars shimmered as they drifted into the night.
After pausing to watch the procession a young woman turned to continue on her way. As she walked, a young man emerged from the shadows and took up beside her, matching her stride as they continued on together. With a shy smile they took each other’s hand and slipped away unnoticed.
Hushed excitement grew to playful teasing and laughter as the village disappeared into the background. Without a care in the world they chased each other through the forest until they came to a broad clearing. As they crossed, dancing in the moonlight, the young woman spotted a small lagoon tucked into a rocky outcrop on the far side. She dashed for the lagoon, tempting her companion to follow.
When they arrived the young man quickly shed his clothes and dove in. While he floated in the warm water, he sang a love song to the young woman. She was content to sit hugging her knees, toes splashing at the water’s edge. Seeing that the she would not be joining him, the young man dove deep into the lagoon. As the disturbance cleared and his eyes adjusted to the dim surroundings, he saw the monsters.
Tightly stacked against the rock wall was a cluster of huge, ancient looking fish. Almost two metres long, their spiked fins swayed against thick, dark scales. Split lower jaws pulsed out of time with the motion of their gills. Armoured heads held eyes like polished obsidian. They numbered at least thirty, and while there was no outward sign they had been alerted to his presence, their eyes seemed to penetrate his soul.
Terror struck the young man with such force that within a moment he was out of the water and running as fast as his bare feet would carry him. Alarmed by the commotion the young woman hastily gathered his scattered clothing and followed, keeping an eye on the water at all times.
A safe distance into the forest they paused to catch their breath and for the young man to dress. Even though the young woman begged, tears streaming down her face, he was not able to speak of what he had experienced. Once again they joined hands and without another word continued on their way.
After what seemed an eternity the couple arrived at the village and returned to their respective homes. Alone in the dark the young man fought the frightening images that lingered in his mind as the celebration continued outside.
The next morning the young man found enough courage to relay his story to the village elders. While some were in disbelief, a group was organized to investigate the situation. The story spread quickly and those brave or curious enough followed along as the contingent headed into the forest. Light hearted jokes were made at the expense of the young man initially, but as the group neared the lagoon their mood became more reserved.
When the group arrived they kept a nervous distance from the water line. The young man, pale like a ghost, refused to go near the lagoon at all. Seeing no evidence of any unusual activity from the surface, a man who had spent time in Yen Bai as a fisherman volunteered to go in for a closer look.
Carefully submerging himself in the water the man made his way to the center of the lagoon. Failing to see anything out of the ordinary he inhaled deeply and then dove down into the water. Veiled in the shadow of the rock wall he spotted the giant fish, just as the young man had described. For a moment they watched each other, but as he began to surface two of the monsters broke away and came toward him. Frantic to escape, the man thrashed for the safety of the shore line. As he was being pulled from the lagoon the other villagers spotted his pursuers, jaws open wide and coming steadily for the shore as the tips of their ragged dorsal fins broke into the open air. Hysterical, the villagers fled the scene.
Following the encounter the elders forbid anyone to return to the area, fearing evil spirits would bring misfortune to the village. For a time their warnings were heeded.
The predawn silence was broken by the opening and closing of a thin wood door, followed by the shuffling of tired feet. An old man, wrapped in a threadbare blanket, slowly made his way out of the village and into the forest as a hint of frost settled around him. The far off cry of a Gibbon was the only other sign of life on his journey. After a time he arrived at the lagoon, his breath escaping in ragged, choking clouds.
The moon emerged from behind a passing cloud, illuminating the haze hovering over the water’s surface. He knelt as tears rolled down his weathered cheeks. He gazed up and began to pray to the moon. He prayed for his children and his grandchildren. He prayed for his soul and for a peaceful end that the disease destroying his body would not give him. Unable to stand the old man began to crawl into the water. As his frail form dipped below the surface he saw the monsters coming for him. He closed his eyes and surrendered completely as he felt their jaws take him. What he thought to be his demise became something else though. Instead of pain his body began to pulse with comforting warmth, strength and energy replaced his weariness.
The old man’s face broke the surface into the chilled air as he was released by the creatures. He moved to an upright position and began to tread water, turning to watch as they returned to the shadows. The man waded to the shore and once again wrapped the blanket over himself. He dashed back to the village, joy filling his heart as the realization of what had just happened took root.
A visit to the village doctor the next day confirmed what the old man already knew. He was cured. Tales of the miracle spread quickly and for days the sick and elderly made their way to the lagoon to be revived or cured. Eventually others came from surrounding villages to the South and West to share in the phenomenon. No longer thought of as monsters, they became known as Người Chữa Bịnh, “The Healers”.
The miracle endured for a short time. One day, in much the same way they arrived, the healers left us. As the years passed stories would come from surrounding provinces, although known by different names the essence was the same. For the most part their existence has been kept a secret from the outside world, a blessing not to be exploited. Most rumours were simply thought of as folklore and ignored, anyone who did choose to investigate arrived too late to find any evidence save a happy and healthy population.
To this day it is not known where they come from, or eventually where they go. I was the first to see the healers, and I pray that when my time of need arises that I may see them once again.