The Maize Village
Vũ Thanh glanced at her watch and then at the top of the slope. Her breath came out swirling under the flickering streetlight before dissipating into the falling night mist. The night was the twentieth of December, of the Lunar Calendar. The signature cold Northern wind slipped through the young girl’s collar, prickled at her skin, and gave her a rush.
For Vũ Thanh, this time of year was usually when she was the freest. The Tết holiday would usually have already begun at her school, so no more going there. Yet, it wasn’t quite time to actually prepare for the celebration itself. For the young girl, Tết was the three days before the twenty-third – the day when everyone would release carps for the Kitchen Gods to ride to Heaven, and the three days after the Lunar New Year Day – the days spent on visiting her teachers.
This year was special for her, though…
Two years ago, Vũ Thanh had left her old village to come up to the big city and start University. She’d told herself that she would not miss the place. Ever since the Government opened the industrial park nearby, the people of her village had changed. While they were leading comfortable lives now, it felt like the villagers no longer cared for one another as they used to.
In her Highschool years, Vũ Thanh had hardly even seen her friends, who were inseparable from her during their childhood. Everyone was busy with their own lives, everyone was worried about the University Entrance Exam, and then everyone was miles and miles away.
Thanh breathed into her hands and rubbed them together before glancing at her watch again.
It was one o’clock in the morning…
She was already in her sophomore year, but this was her first-time returning home. Last year, she didn’t buy a ticket early enough and had to spend the holidays alone in the student-designated dormitory area.
So, in her second year, she made up her mind and made sure she would return home for Tết no matter what. She bought her ticket a month in advance and picked a night ride. In recent years, many people had been moving from small villages to metropolises to make a living, so buses going from big cities to the countryside were always crowded around Tết, when everyone was returning home to be with family for the holiday. So, picking a night trip meant the price was lower and would allow Vũ Thanh to avoid a crowded bus.
Another ten minutes passed by, and the young college girl finally saw a bus slowly approaching from the top of the slope. The old vehicle definitely had seen better days; right now, it looked as if it could break down at any minute from all the bouncing it was doing. Under the old streetlight, the bus looked rusty and stained yellow with dirt and mud.
There was no signboard on it, but as there was no other bus stopping here aside from the one going to her village, Vũ Thanh wasn’t worried about getting on the wrong car. She stepped on board, showed her ticket to the driver, then turned her attention to the rows of seats.
It was dark inside the bus, as not a single light was turned on. Vũ Thanh could still vaguely tell if a seat was taken or not, though. As she was scanning the area, a light suddenly flickered on her right in the third row. Appeared before her eyes was a boy around her age, neither handsome nor ugly. However, it was worth noting that he had his hair covering his face, his eyes opened wide, showing his big white eyeballs, and his long red tongue stuck out. The suddenness of his appearance spooked Vũ Thanh and made her jump. She took a few steps back, nearly dropping the fruits she’d bought as gifts. If she wasn’t concerned with waking up people who were sleeping, she might have even screamed.
“Did I walk into a Ghost Bus?” She thought to herself.
Vũ Thanh had a pleasant voice, and she liked ghost stories, so her friends helped her start an online ghost story channel. She also tried to write novels of the genre, both as hobbies and to make some extra cash.
As a child, Vũ Thanh was terrified of ghosts and was constantly teased by her friends for it. When she was old enough to know ghost-stories were just make-beliefs, she became fascinated by them. Of course, she liked them because they’re just fictional; had she met a real ghost, Thanh was still unsure how she would react.
It was then that the “ghost” pounded the seat next to him: he was signaling her it was empty. Vũ Thanh took a deep breath and chided herself. As old as she was, she’d fallen for such an easy prank.
She put her backpack and the fruits bag under the seat, then turned to the boy next to her, half-scolding him:
“You nearly made my heart jump out of my chest with that stupid prank. Do you want me to scream at this hour and wake up the dead?”
The boy brushed back his hair. He wasn’t bad-looking when he wasn’t trying to scare her. The light from earlier was from his phone. He looked back and forth for a bit before telling her in a low voice:
“You’re right. That was careless of me. I could have gotten us both into a lot of deadly troubles.”
After chatting for a while, Vũ Thanh found out the boy’s name was Điền Mục, and he was also going to her village, saying he was visiting some distant relatives. But as the name was so strange that she had only ever heard of it in Chinese novels, as well as there was no one in her village with the last name Điền3, she was suspicious.
And the boy was strange indeed! He said the weirdest things so randomly. Vũ Thanh had been to the big city long enough to know about con men who scammed people. But con men were usually smooth and would say things so their preys would loosen up their guard. It was unlikely that they would say the weird stuff the boy next to her had been spouting.
Vũ Thanh had an image of the perfect boyfriend whom she’d someday marry. He’d have to be calm, collected, confident, and polite. In other words, everything Điền Mục wasn’t.
“Hey! If I made the face from earlier, and a real ghost saw it, what would they think?” – Điền Mục suddenly asked.
“They’d probably mistake you for one of their own and bring you down to their graves to live with them.” – Vũ Thanh replied.
At first, she’d found it funny, but after a while, it’d gotten old, and Vũ Thanh started to find the boy’s weird and out-of-the-blue questions annoying. She didn’t really know how to reply, yet she couldn’t just ignore him forever, so she ended up answering them half-heartedly.
Điền Mục, apparently oblivious to her annoyance, pointed to his face, and excitedly asked:
“Really? I really looked like a real ghost earlier?”
Vũ Thanh thought to herself:
“What a weird question! There’s no such thing as a ‘real’ ghost! And even if there were, I’ve never met one, so how should I know?”
And so, instead of answering him, she simply gave him an indifferent nod and went to sleep to avoid any further weird questions. While she was half-asleep, she heard voices but couldn’t tell what they were saying. Believing it was just people getting off the bus at their stops, she ignored them and tried to continue sleeping.
At times, Vũ Thanh felt lightheaded, as if she was being led away by someone, but someone from beside her was keeping her in place. The two sides both pulled on her like a tug of war until the people on the side of the aisle gave up and went away.
“Hey! Wake up! The bus has arrived!”
Vũ Thanh heard Điền Mục calling her and felt the sun on her face. She rubbed her eyes open to find herself on the bench at the bus station. In front of her was a bus en route to go back to the city. Startled, she looked around and realized that her fruit bag was gone while she still had her backpack.
“Someone already took it. You slept like the dead through everything!” – Seeing her reaction, Điền Mục told her as he kicked a rotten citrus leaf on the ground aside.
“What kind of gentlemen wouldn’t lift a finger to stop something like that from happening?” Vũ Thanh stood up and asked coldly.
Điền Mục shrugged and grinned wolfishly as if he hadn’t heard her. Instead, he pointed at the bus in front of them:
“Forget about that for now. Let’s hurry back to the city!”
As he was saying that, he bent down, reaching for her backpack to throw it onto the bus.
Vũ Thanh frowned, then elbowed him hard. She was born and raised in the countryside, while Điền Mục was obviously a city kid who’d probably not even faced harsh weathers. He arched like a shrimp and went down.
She then took her backpack and said as she turned to leave:
“Sorry, I’m going home to spend my Tết with my family. For the next ten days or so, I have no desire of going back to the city.”
Điền Mục was trying to get up, grabbing at the fringe of her shirt. Disgusted, she thought to herself:
“This guy is probably part of the same crew with the people who took my fruits bag. Now he’s trying to scam me again? I should have known! His name was probably fake, too!”
She brushed his hand aside and held up her fist:
“What’s your true intention? You’d better be honest, or else!”
The boy before her took a deep breath, then answered:
“The bus we took just now wasn’t for the living…”
Hearing that, Vũ Thanh fell silent for a while before laughing so hard she bent over. She wiped the laughing tears from her eyes, then knocked on his forehead:
“In all my life, I’ve never met a con man like you! If you want people to believe you, stop spouting nonsense like that!” She said as she took out her phone, dialed “1-1-3”4, and waved it before his face, “Since you haven’t really scammed anyone successfully, I’ll let you go, but if you keep at it, I’ll get you thrown in jail!”
As she took her backpack and left – walking along the road between the fields to her village, the boy shook his head and sighed. He then took out his phone, opened the note app, and typed:
“Hey, old man5! Can the police get here?”
His fingers didn’t touch the phone screen anymore after that, but the keyboard was still typing, and a reply to his question appeared right after it on the screen:
“This is the land of the dead; no living soul can get here!”
Letting out another sigh, Điền Mục put his phone away, swung his backpack over his shoulder, and ran after Vũ Thanh, calling for her as he went.
The two of them jogged for around fifteen minutes before reaching the Village Gate. It was no longer early in the morning, but the mist was still covering everything around them. They could vaguely see glimpses of the bamboo range between the heavy white fog behind the giant stone gate. The soft wind brushed her ears eerily, bringing up an unpleasant feeling from inside Vũ Thanh’s guts. Could only one year away really changed her village this much that she couldn’t recognize it?
Vũ Thanh shook her head, it was probably Điền Mục’s fault, making that scary face and saying all that weird stuff, creeping her out. Or maybe, it wasn’t her village that changed, but it was Vũ Thanh herself who’d changed.
Regardless, standing here – before the Three-arched-entrances Gate of her village – and looking at the couplet written with Chinese characters that she’d never understood filled Thanh with both excitement and nervousness. She was excited to be back in her village, about to go back to the home she grew up in. But she was also nervous that, perhaps, after all this time, this place was no longer what she remembered it to be anymore. And thus, she was dumbfounded for a moment in front of the village stone gate.
That feeling of fluster didn’t last long, though, as Điền Mục’s voice filled her ears and brought up only one emotion: Annoyance.
“Hey! What’s the hurry? You ran like a ghost was chasing you. I can hardly keep up! Do you need to go pee-pee or something?”
The first thing that came out of his mouth as he got to the gate was both ungainly and rude. Vũ Thanh turned her head to scowl at him:
“What do you want, you weirdo? I’d already let you go once. Do you wanna get beat up or something?”
Điền Mục waved his hands before his face:
“Hey, no, no! Come on now! I’d already told you, I’m here to visit a distant relative!”
Vũ Thanh, however, did not believe him and continued to stare at him doubtfully. This young man before her was becoming increasingly weird and annoying by the minute. And the fact that he kept following her filled her with dread.
As she was thinking, though, Điền Mục suddenly clapped his hands together as if he’d just made an extraordinary discovery:
“Hey! I know! I must have not surrendered in the correct way, right? But I don’t have a white flag, and I don’t have any white pants to use instead of that, either. Can we maybe postpone that until later?”
Vũ Thanh had no word to say to that, so she left Điền Mục behind and ran into her village. The village road was exactly as she remembered it. Every single hole along it wasn’t even filled yet.
It was still in the middle of the Winter-Spring season, still a good three-month before harvest time, so a lot of people were working on the field, some with machines, others with buffaloes. As she ran along the field, people all stopped what they were doing and glanced up to greet her with warm smiles:
“Oh, the prodigal daughter has returned!”
Vũ Thanh greeted them back, pleasantly surprised, unsure when or why the villagers became so friendly again. From what she remembered of her time in Highschool, they’d always been so busy with field work that they’d hardly ever noticed anyone else, much less stopping to say hello.
Vũ Thanh shrugged. It was probably just that she’d been in the city for so long that she found the villagers’ reaction special. In any case, Thanh preferred her hometown like this! She had friends back in the city who said that people from their hometowns had changed. They were richer in money but poorer in relationships. Vũ Thanh was now glad that this did not apply to her village.
She glanced back and didn’t see that weirdo Điền Mục anymore, either. So, with a smile on her face, Vũ Thanh ran straight back home.
Vũ Thanh’s house was in the upper part of the village, with Chinese hibiscus planted on the wall and fences. When she left home for the big city, the plant was barely a seedling; now, it covered the whole wall and brightened the house with its flowers. She rang the doorbell, but no one answered.
Suddenly, a weak voice called from behind her:
“Thanh, is that you, girl?”
Without needing to look, Vũ Thanh knew it was Mrs. Mai3, her neighbor from across the road. Her son went to the city to work and wanted her to come and live with him, but Mrs. Mai said that the city was dirty and noisy, and someone had to stay behind to look after her husband’s grave. Her son didn’t pressure her and instead sent back money every month so she could live comfortably.
Mrs. Mai opened up a water stand under the banyan tree near the village Communal House6. When Vũ Thanh was still a little girl, children her age often gathered at the stall, and Mrs. Mai would give them candies and sweets or crispy peanuts.
Vũ Thanh turned around, hugged the seventy-something years old woman tightly, and warmly said:
“Grandmama! I’m back!”
Granny Mai’s hair smelled like linden, and her breath had the scent of betel. As Vũ Thanh’s real grandparents died of bombing in the war long before she was born, Granny Mai had always been like a grandmother to her.
The old woman patted the girl’s back, saying:
“My poor girl, you look so thin! Is the big city treating you right, dear?”
“I’ll tell you later tonight, Grandmama. Where are my parents?” – Vũ Thanh let go of the older woman and asked. If anyone knew about her parents’ whereabouts, it’d be Granny Mai. She was going to call them, but as she met the older woman, she’d decided otherwise.
The old woman told her:
“Your parents took the truck up to the District, saying they wanted to bring back some Tết goods to sell. They wanted me to tell you to go ahead and prepare for the Kitchen God rituals. Here are your keys!”
She said and pushed a key chain into Vũ Thanh’s hands.
The young girl squeezed the keys in her palm and held them close to her heart. She knew from her studying in the city that things costed more in the metropolises than in the countryside. So, her parents had to make the trip, to bring back jams and other Tết goods to sell back to the other villagers, making some extra cash.
That night, Vũ Thanh made enough food for two and invited Granny Mai over to eat with her. The two of them talked over their meal about the things that had been happening since Thanh left to study in the big city.
Although Vũ Thanh had deliberately changed the subjects when the old woman asked about the troubles she faced in the big city and only told her that everything in the city was grander, more glamorous, and more comfortable compared to the countryside, Granny Mai still told her:
“Perseverance is a virtue, girl! Other people from the countryside came to the big city before you. Some of them had bad manners and didn’t save face, so city people formed a bad impression of us. But it doesn’t matter where you go, my girl, there are always many types of people; those who will be friendly and those who will be condescending toward you. But you need not feel inferior to anyone, my child! As long as you live your life properly, you will find love wherever you go!”
Vũ Thanh stroked her hair, grinning sheepishly. It would seem that the old woman had lived long enough to see through her little ruse. She couldn’t hide the fact that her two years in the big city weren’t always as pleasant as she tried making it out to be.
They talked until it was eight in the evening. Vũ Thanh then asked Granny Mai to go back home and get some rest, not forgetting to remind her to take her medicines before going to sleep. Granny Mai was old and had diabetes. Thus, she must lead a healthy lifestyle and not forget her medication. The old woman then said:
“Speaking of medication, I forgot to tell you; your father gave you a message. He said he’d recently met a young pharmacist from the Capital city, who gave him a bottle of nutritious imported supplemental dietary pills. Your parents keep it in the cupboard for you. Remember to take it!”
Vũ Thanh smiled:
“Grandmama, I’m young and strong. Why would I need to take something like that? Wouldn’t it be better for my parents to take it instead?”
Granny Mai shook her head:
“I’d already told them that, but they wouldn’t listen! They wanted to save the pills for their precious daughter. They said you needed the extra strength to study hard. Even if you don’t want to, you should still take the pills for a few days. Then you can tell your parents they are hard to swallow, and then ask them to take the pills so as not to waste them instead. That way, everybody wins.”
Vũ Thanh saw Granny Mai off to the gate without saying anything else, but her nose was already muffled. She thought to herself:
“My village is still the same. Everyone still cares about one another with the same neighborly love. My parents are still the same, wishing only the best for me. It seems only I have changed!”
She was about to close the gate when she spotted a rooster atop Granny Mai’s roof. It was preening its wings under the moonlight, looking majestic.
“Who let their gamecock loose at this hour?”
It was no secret that in Vũ Thanh’s village, the Maize Village, there was a Tết tradition of cockfighting. Fathers from all families loved the practice and looked forward to Tết even more than their children. Every man was passionate about the game, discussing it as if they were all coaches and their gamecocks all football (or American’s soccer) players. Even Vũ Thanh’s father was no exception. In his chicken coop, he kept a special place for his “Ronaldo7”.
That day was already the twentieth; Tết was very close, indeed. So it wasn’t so strange that a gamecock would happen to get loose and ran to Granny Mai’s house.
Vũ Thanh did not pay any more attention to it. But for a very brief moment, it was as if the rooster widened its eyes to scowl at her.
Điền Mục plopped down next to the bamboo bushes, crying out loud:
“Hey! What the heck is wrong with this village?”
As he saw Vũ Thanh ran into the village, fearing for her life, he followed suit. But it didn’t take long before she disappeared in front of his very eyes. Finding it odd, but having no other option, he kept moving forward. But, as he did, the road under his feet just seemed to stretch out indefinitely. After a while, a white mist rolled in and covered everything, and he couldn’t tell left from right. Điền Mục had no choice aside from picking a random direction and pushing forward. But whenever he did, he would soon find himself out of the village, with the three-entrances-stoned-gate behind his back, each and every time.
The same weird chain of events kept looping over and over again until it was the middle of the night, and he’d once again found himself at the village gate. It was then that his phone popped out of his pocket. Hovering in front of his face, the phone unlocked itself, opened the note app, then a message was gradually written:
“This is a village of the dead. Naturally, the living like yourself can’t enter easily.”
The boy grabbed the phone from the air and typed:
“Hey! But the girl from before, she’s a living soul, how come she could enter just fine?”
Answering him was a line that could make the hair on one’s back stood up:
“Don’t be foolish, boy! Ye mustn’t think she could enter, but rather, she was let in!”
“So then, what should we do now?”
Điền Mục’s fingers danced on the phone’s keyboard. He truly feared for the young girl’s life. This village really wasn’t a place that should have anything to do with the living.
This time, answering him was short and simple:
Điền Mục pouted, and typed back:
“Hey! And here I thought you were oh-so-great and powerful. It seems you have greatly exaggerated about yourself, old man…”
This time, aside from the clattering of the keyboard, his phone screen also cracked. Điền Mục peeled off the screen protector to find that his screen didn’t escape the assault. Sighing, he muttered to himself:
“Hopefully, it was just the glass panel that was cracked. Otherwise, I’m going to have to pay through my nose!”
He was still struggling to figure out a way to enter with the “old man” when a singing voice rang out from behind the bamboo cluster.
“The village road snakes and winds into a maze,
My grandma walks me to the gate under the burning blaze.
Darkness comes when the wind pulls the clouds,
As the sun goes West, we go South!”
Điền Mục turned around and was still pondering on what to do when a line appeared on the phone screen:
“Hurry, boy! Close your eyes and chase after that voice!”
The young man clicked his tongue but followed the instructions given anyway. He shut his eyes and ran after the singing voice. The tune of the song being sung was “Pop goes the weasel.” However, the lyrics were entirely different, to the point of reminding Điền Mục of another song, one in Vietnamese at that8. While he was running, he was sure he’d trip or impale himself on something along the way, running around blind like this. Perhaps a skewed bamboo shoot? Or maybe a hole on the road? Or a rock? But, as he ran faster and faster, he found the bumpy road leading into the Maize village – that he’d spent the entire day walking through – strangely different under his feet. Điền Mục felt as if he was running on an ice-skating rink or a bowling lane. The road under his feet was smooth, perhaps even smoother than the paved roads in cities.
Ahead of him, the singing voice still poured into his ears, going as low as a bullfrog at times and as high as an Asian koel at others.
“My grandma walks me through a maze,
As the road snakes and winds under a burning blaze.
If love's a game, the sun's the matchmaker,
When the wind changes, at the village gate stood my grandmother...”
Điền Mục kept his eyes closed ever so tightly, seeing nothing but complete darkness. The white mist creepily rolled in again and covered him, but this time, with the singing voice guiding him, Điền Mục was unaffected. His feet kept hitting the ground in faster and faster strides.
The wind picked up. The wailing wind was blowing so hard Điền Mục’s jacket was flapping like a kite. The boy thought to himself that the wind was so strong it might even blow the moon away. Also, with such a noisy wind, could he even keep hearing the singing voice?
Fortunately, the voice went higher and stronger as well, symphonizing with the steady pace of the sound a wooden bell9 made, seemingly unaffected by the howling wind. However, the singing voice did change to a creepy rasping voice that made the hair on the back of Điền Mục’s neck stood up.
“A time will come upon us all.
And some will rise while others fall.
A time will come for us all.
And what we choose matters...
A time will come upon us all.
And some will rise while others fall.
A time will come for us all.
And what we choose would matter!”
Suddenly, the wind stopped completely, the cold mist also disappeared. Điền Mục opened his eyes to peek, just in time to see his phone flying straight toward him with lightning speed. With no time to dodge, Điền Mục couldn’t do a thing as the phone hit him on the head. Hugging his skull in pain, the boy was frowning as the phone kept hovering back and forth in front of his face. The words on the screen read:
“We’re in, kid!”
“Hey! Why did you have to hit me, old man? Couldn’t you have found a different, gentler way?”
“Ye can’t see me, nor can ye hear me. How else was I to get your attention?”
Still scowling and rubbing his forehead, now with a lump starting to take form, Điền Mục put the phone back into his pocket. In front of him were rice fields stretching out as far as his eyes could see. Behind him, the singing voice was growing weaker and further away:
“When the wind changes, I find her at the gate...
When the wind changes, at the gate, I find her…
When the wind changes, I find her at the gate...
When the wind changes, at the gate, I find her…”
Điền Mục took a deep breath, adjusted his backpack over his shoulder, and started striding toward the houses in the distance. Along the way, people he met all stopped what they were doing and glanced up to greet him with warm smiles:
“Oh, the prodigal daughter has returned!”
It was well past ten o’clock at night by that point.
The time for working in the field should have ended four to five hours ago.
But everyone was still working hard in the field; their faces were masks of unwaveringly warm and friendly smiles. Điền Mục stood there and watched them for well over ten minutes, but their expressions didn’t even change once, not so much as even a blink of the eyes or a twitch of the lips.
Under the moonlit night, the warm smiles of the villagers suddenly became creepy and monstrous.
The young man shrugged:
“Hey! I walked into the Maze Village! But the villagers here are even more of a puzzle!”10
He laughed at his own joke as he strode away.
The moon seemed to have moved a little up high in the sky, suddenly appearing a little more crescentic than before.
Family names (Back) and Given names (Back) in Asian culture, Vietnamese included: The first name, or given name, actually goes after Last name or Family name. Names in this book are kept as they should be in Vietnamese. Also, as Family names in Vietnamese culture are usually much more common than that of Western culture, any single-syllable name of people appearing in this book and any possible sequel will be their Given names, unless expressly stated otherwise.
Hotline for Police in Vietnam (Back).
In the Vietnamese original, Điền Mục technically calls the old man “uncle.” However, as this is just a way to address older people in Vietnam, “old man” was used in this version to better address the relationship between the two of them. The old man's casual wear is chosen based on modern Vietnamese men's everyday wear (Back).
Communal House/Communal Temple: Can be considered the symbol and most important structure/building of each Village in Vietnam. It’s where all the Villagers would hold meetings to decide everything regarding the village. It also enshrine Thành Hoàng, the Headgod of each Village. As such, both terms can be used to describe it (Back).
Referring to the famous football (or American soccer) players, Cristiano Ronaldo, who is beloved by Vietnamese football fans (Back).
Guiding song: In the Vietnamese version of the book, the song used was a reference to a Vietnamese song popular in the early 2000s (Bà tôi, which means “My Grandmother,” written by Nguyễn Vĩnh Tiến and performed by Ngọc Khuê). However, as the song itself is copyrighted, and the lyrics and meanings are unfamiliar to International readers, this song was made up instead as a workaround. It is not, in any way, a translation of the song in question. The only similarities shared are some of the imagery relevant to the plot (Back).
A type of instrument originated in East Asia. Typically used in Buddhism and Taoism rituals, as well as certain forms of music. Click here for more information from Wikipedia (Back).
In the Vietnamese original, Điền Mục was making a wordplay here, using a word from the song to describe both the village and the people in it. However, wordplay is very hard to translate, and there’s no equivalent word in English that can truly utilize everything the word meant in Vietnamese. In this book, Điền Mục was making a different wordplay with Maize, Maze, and Puzzle. It should also be clarified that The Maize Village is purely a fictional town and named as such for this wordplay to work (Back).