The Healers

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.

Sir Terry Pratchett

I found an email in my inbox this morning from Penguin Random House.  The title, “Announcement: Sir Terry Pratchett”. I have no idea why they have my email, I honestly haven’t thought to figure it out, but I’m sure you know the rest.

I grew up reading Terry Pratchett.  Well, sort of.  His novels were the only “real books” that I spent any time with in my teens and early twenties.  I don’t remember when I read my first Discworld novel, but I was instantly a fan for life.

I was fortunate enough to meet Terry once during a signing at a local mall.  I was very nervous, and made a terrible first impression.  He had just finished signing my copy of Soul Music, my absolute favourite thing in the world at that point, and as I was handing over a copy of Good Omens I muttered something to that effect.  The problem was he took it to mean I was speaking about the latter, instead of the former as I had intended.  With a stern look he quickly wrote, “Burn this book” and then signed his name below.  I was mortified, but unable to speak another word.  I simply moved on so the next adoring fan could have their moment.  Good Omens was actually for a friend.  Soul Music was loaned to an acquaintance some years later and never returned.  Any evidence of the meeting is now gone, except in my memory, and my regret.

So many other memories have gone, good memories, never to return.  What I don’t ever want to forget is how I would go through each book and write down quotes or passages that meant something to me, that I related to deep in my core.  There were so many of them!  I don’t ever want to forget how when we read ‘Where’s My Cow’, a bedtime favourite, my boys laugh out loud at all the best parts.  Most of all I don’t ever want to forget that his words are why I want to write, and share my stories.  Although it still remains to be seen if this will be a worthwhile endeavor I think it’s important to note, encouraging anyone to be creative and live their dreams can never be a bad thing.

So that’s it, the musings of one fan in a legion of millions.  This therapy session is now closed.

A Just Giving page donating to the Research Institute for the Care of Older People (RICE) has been set up in his memory:www.justgiving.com/Terry-Pratchett

Change of Season

The first morning rays were breaking the horizon, illuminating the scattered clouds as if the world was on fire. Lynn shielded her eyes and checked the clock on the dash for the third time in the last five minutes; Jordan was almost half an hour late now. Wishing she had hit the snooze button a few more times Lynn leaned back in her seat, nobody deserves to be woken at five o’clock on a chilly autumn morning only to be stood up.

There wasn’t much for scenery at the timeworn roadside truck stop. It was on a flat stretch of land just outside of the city. Most likely built in the fifties, the plain cinderblock building with flaking white paint held a family restaurant and a small convenience store tucked off to one side. Four tired fuel pumps sat out front of the shared entrance. In a world of marketing and brand recognition it was truly just a place to stop because you needed fuel or a quick bite to eat. Not having much else to do Lynn passed the time by speculating about the lives of the other highway travelers as they came and went.

Currently sitting at a window seat in the restaurant was an older gentleman hunched over his breakfast special. His leathery face hidden by an unkempt silver beard, tired eyes keeping watch over his Peterbilt sitting out by the exit. What if he was a poet, creating works that would rival the masters, but too insecure to share with the world? On his way back to an immaculate BMW was a well-dressed business type, a double-double in one hand and a smile on his face. What if he had just told his boss to shove it and left his nagging socialite wife the keys to their downtown apartment so he could run off and start over with his high school sweetheart? It made Lynn ponder briefly what someone would think of her, a young woman sitting impatiently behind the wheel of her little Mazda, a stone’s throw from the middle of nowhere.

Lynn had recently accepted a job at Hemmett Supply Co. as support for the out of town sales group. It was grunt work but for the most part she enjoyed it, and with one exception everything was going well. Lynn’s first solo project was a proposal for a newly acquired customer. Due to incorrect information submitted by one of their vendors Hemmett lost the bid. Lynn’s boss, John, was upset but understanding. Jordan on the other hand, who had championed the account, was furious. He screamed at her over the phone for almost five minutes straight. Lynn felt terrible about the situation but there was no way to fix it. After a couple of weeks things seemed to get back to normal though, to the point recently where Jordan had insisted on Lynn coming out for a ride along. John thought it was a good way to “mend some fences”. How could she disagree?

Any hope of escaping the day’s adventure vanished as Jordan’s Acura barreled into the parking lot at a reckless velocity. Lynn exited her car and locked the doors as he pulled up beside.

“Hey buddy!” Jordan called from his open window.

“Hi Jordan.”

“You ready to go? Big day ahead of us, I’m really excited to have you out here!”

“Happy to be here.” Lynn said with a forced smile. Excited was definitely not the word she would have used.

Lynn opened the passenger door of the RDX, dropped her laptop bag in the foot well and her water bottle into the door pocket. The cold leather seat creaked as she sat down and buckled up. Even with the window down the aroma of last night’s intoxication still lingered. The oversized sunglasses Jordan wore concealed them but Lynn could imagine heavy lids with blood shot eyes beneath. Immediately Jordan accelerated out of the parking lot and on to the highway.

“Big day! Thanks again for coming out, been waiting a long time for this. Here, I got you a coffee.”

Jordan grabbed a to-go cup from the center console and forced it into Lynn’s hand. Not wanting to be rude she took a swig. The coffee was bitter and had a strange aftertaste but Lynn did her best to hide any misgivings.

“Do you like it? It’s my special blend.” Jordan said.

“Nice.” Lynn said, not wanting to cause any undue tension.

Even on a good day Jordan made her feel uneasy. While she hoped it was just the hangover there was something different about him today, something that didn’t bode well.

As they drove on Jordan explained who they would be seeing and what issues might be brought up. They briefly discussed office politics but it was mostly Jordan complaining about how terrible everyone was. After a short time they ran out of things to say so instead sat quietly as the landscape rolled past.

The sun was creeping higher in the sky, flashing in and out of view between the trees that lined the road; Aspen’s with their changing leaves signaling the new season, slender Pine trees pointing tall towards the heavens. Lynn was watching the tree line, hoping to see some of the local wildlife, when Jordan broke the silence.

“So what made you come out here anyway? You’re from the coast right?”

“Most recently, but that’s not really where I’m from. I like to move around, experience different cities and their culture.”

“You’re not running from anything are you?”

“No. Just trying to find myself I guess…”

Lynn paused, suddenly feeling light headed. She shook her head gently and blinked a few times, trying to drive the sensation away.

“Just in time.” Jordan said with a satisfied grin.

Lynn’s vision began to blur. She tried to move or speak but her body refused to respond. Without warning the car quickly slowed and made a sharp right hand turn. As everything went black the only sound to be heard was of car tires on a gravel road.

Lynn forced her eyes open, trying to focus. The room was cold and dimly lit. She was laying on a tarp which covered an unforgiving wood floor. Her coat and boots had been removed, her hands tied behind her back and legs bound at the ankles. The rope was coarse and tightly wrapped, the pressure was uncomfortable. Immediately in front of her was a worn leather recliner and next to it an old lamp with a large Bear figure at the base situated on top of a simple looking end table. There was a window above the recliner but it was obscured by plastic and faded curtains which gave only an impression of the trees beyond swaying in the breeze.

Lynn began to shiver, her breath ragged. Trying to get herself under control she became aware of someone, or something, rustling around just out of sight. Suddenly Jordan ambled in front of her with a brief look back, checking for signs of life. Lynn’s first instinct was to shut her eyes, to buy some time, but instead she quietly held Jordan’s gaze.

“Oh good, you’re awake. Can I get you anything? Another coffee maybe?” Jordan laughed low and continued on his way.  “That was rhetorical by the way.”

“You’re making a mistake.” Lynn said.

“Shut your mouth. I know what I’m doing.”

Fumbling to attach a sheathed hunting knife to his belt, Jordan came back to Lynn and knelt down inches from her face.

“Let me explain something to you. Things are hard out here. My customers are struggling to stay in business which means more pressure on me. I bust my ass twelve to fourteen hours a day just to keep up. And then to top it all off, I get people like you coming in and making the whole situation that much worse!”

Lynn turned from his harsh gaze, “I’m sorry. It was a stupid mistake.”

“Shut up!” Jordan roared, standing once again. “You’re useless! A waste of space! It’ll be the last time you cause trouble for me though.”

As Jordan moved back across the room Lynn swiveled her head to follow his path, he stopped in front of a large metal cabinet and threw the doors open. Straining to see the contents of the cabinet it became clear to Lynn how serious of a situation she was in. Assortments of rope, chemical containers, and tools were stacked inside. The tools were ugly, implements of torture no doubt built with purpose by Jordan himself.

Lynn started sobbing quietly, she pleaded with Jordan. “Please untie me. I promise I won’t fight. Please…”

Jordan paused for a moment, then turned to Lynn with an unpleasant smile and said “Maybe… Yeah, maybe I will untie you. That could be even more fun.”

Jordan unsheathed the hunting knife and knelt down to cut the ropes from Lynn’s wrists and ankles. Lynn flinched and a whimper escaped her lips.

“Oh I’m sorry, did I get you a little there?”

Jordan returned the knife to it’s sheath and moved back to the cabinet. He began whistling an unusually chipper tune as he gathered items in preparation for what was to come.

Suddenly there was a dull thud followed quickly by throbbing pain and vision awash with stars. Jordan fell to his knees, right hand covering his cracked skull, blood seeping between his fingers. With his left he fumbled for purchase on one of the cabinet shelves to stop from collapsing completely but only succeeded in scattering most of the shelves contents aimlessly on the floor.

Lynn dropped the heavy cast Bear lamp, now bloodied, bits of scalp and hair sticking to it like a grotesque fungus. With Jordan crumpled on the floor, barely conscious, she bent down to grab the hunting knife from his belt.

Lynn stood back and scanned the room. It appeared to be a small log cabin; rustic might have been the word if the situation was different. To the right of the recliner and now empty end table was a small room, door slightly ajar, an old army surplus cot and some discarded clothing on the floor. Beside the room was a makeshift kitchen. On the crudely built countertop sat an old camp stove along with a few well used cast iron pans and cooking utensils. Empty whisky bottles were piled up in the corner. A large water container mounted to the wall had a hose hanging down into an enamel basin. Just off of the kitchen sat a compact table and single wooden chair with Lynn’s coat draped over the back. As she moved toward it she was abruptly pitched forward by Jordan as he fell into her, arms around her waist.

“Bitch…” Jordan said.

Lynn screamed. Struggling to remain upright she swiveled quickly and plunged the hunting knife into his upper back. Jordan cried out in agony and dropped to his knees. Lynn immediately followed up with a powerful kick to the groin, as Jordan folded to the floor he exhaled sharply and then was still. Grabbing the lengths of discarded rope Lynn quickly bound his hands and legs to ensure there would be no more surprises.

Exhausted, Lynn staggered to the kitchen chair and sat, watching Jordan while she caught her breath. After a moment she leaned forward and pulled her coat onto her lap. Digging in the front right pocket she quickly retrieved her cell phone. A single bar on the service indicator danced in and out of view so she took a chance and dialed, after a short pause it began to ring.

“John speaking.”

“Hi John, it’s Lynn. Listen, I’ve been trying for almost two hours now to get ahold of Jordan and I haven’t been able to get through, cell reception is brutal out here so I’d like to make my way back if that’s all right with you, maybe work from home for the rest of the day.”

“Jesus. Lynn I’m really sorry, I’ll touch base with him and find out what the hell is going on. I know he’s had a lot of pressure on him lately but that’s no excuse to leave you stranded. I appreciate you making the effort, head home and we can talk in the morning.”

“Thanks John, I appreciate it.”

With that the phone fell silent. Lynn walked back beside Jordan and knelt down in much the same way he had only moments before.

“Well Jordan, I’m sure this didn’t turn out quite the way you expected, did it? You made the whole process too personal and that made you reckless. I don’t know where your anger comes from, but it was your downfall.”

Lynn put the exposed tip of the hunting knife to Jordan’s side, he recoiled slightly but gave no response save for a low groan.

“On the other hand I am anything but reckless. I learned from the best and was a very keen student. They’re never going to find your body Jordan, soon enough your feeble existence will all but be forgotten.”

Lynn stood and surveyed the cabin once more, taking inventory of anything that would prove useful for the task ahead.

“Well, guess I’d better get to work.”