When I was in elementary, my school buddies were my two cousins. One cousin was the daughter of my father’s older brother. Her name was Dung. Because her dad was older than my dad, she was considered to be my older sister. I called her Chị Dung Nhỏ. The word nhỏ in Vietnamese means small or little. Chị Dung Nhỏ has an older sister who has a similar name so to differentiate between the two sisters we added Nhỏ to her name.
My second cousin was the daughter of my father’s younger brother. Her name was Thuỳ. Thuỳ called me older sister or Chị Hà because my dad was older than her dad. All three of us were the same age. We walked to school together and we walked home together. Thuỳ’s mom had a kiosk that sells “Chè”, a Vietnamese dessert. Chè is a soupy dessert and sometimes contains sweetened coconut milk, red beans, mung beans, fruits, jellies, some sort of starch, or all the ingredients mentioned. It can be served hot or cold.
Thuỳ’s mom made the best cold Chè. It was perfect for a long hard and hot day after school. I remembered the cold and soothing texture of Chè sliding down my throat, yum. Chè was a great substitution for ice cream which was not easily available. We visited her mom often after school and get ourselves a free cup of Chè.
Running around the neighborhoods with cousins, I did not pay much attention to boys. The only boys I knew were mainly my cousins. The big boys were bothersome and mean. I observed them tease others all the time. I ignored the boys and didn’t allow them to bother me. They usually left me alone. All I knew was that I don’t want to stay close or sleep next to one or I’ll get a baby.
Having lots of cousins were lots of fun but sometimes could also be no fun when I get teased. My older cousins told me many ghost stories. I loved to hear them and at the same time, I was scared of ghosts. When walking home from school, Thuỳ, Chị Dung Nhỏ, and I would pass a shrine outside the entrance into an alley that led to our neighborhood. My older cousins said that the shrine was haunted. The alley was a small and narrow street that can fit only one car coming in or out. To me, it was a huge alley that seemed to go on forever and ever.
We often ran or speed-walked past the shrine quickly and not looked back for fear of being caught by the spirits. The older cousins loved to tease us. They would hide behind a tree when we approached the shrine. They then jumped out and scared us. I had never seen any spirit from the shrine. However, I was not curious enough to find out if the spirits existed or not.
There was a water well in front of my house. The well was probably 10 to 15 feet deep. The well was always filled with water at least ½ way up that I couldn’t see the bottom of the well. I was told that the well was haunted. A long time ago, some girls committed suicide in the well. People reported that spirits were still wondering about the well at night.
Every night, Mẹ Đức carried me to go to the bathroom. On the way to the bathroom, I would always look over Mẹ Đức’s shoulder and directly out the front door to see if there was anyone wandering around. Every night was the same. It was dark and quiet.
Until one night, Mẹ Đức and I were going to the bathroom. As usual, I looked out the front door. This time I saw some white figures dancing in circles in our front yard near the well. I asked Mẹ Đức to look and confirm. She saw the same thing. Immediately, she checked to see if our cousins were in bed. All of our cousins were asleep. She took a butcher’s knife and went outside looking for any intruders. She came back empty-handed. No one was in sight. It was a strange night.
There was also a rumor that I could never forget. My father’s oldest sister, Cô Luyến, was possessed. When Cô Luyến was little, her family hired a housekeeper to take care of daily chores. One late afternoon, Cô Luyến stole some money from her grandmother, my great-grandmother, and blamed it on the housekeeper. My grandmother believed her daughter and fired the housekeeper. The housekeeper was angry and ashamed of being accused as a thief and did not go home that day. The housekeeper went to a shrine and prayed. She asked the spirit to assist her in finding who the thief was and revealed the thief to everyone. After that, she committed suicide.
At the same time as the housekeeper’s death, Cô Luyến was swinging on a hammock inside the house playing with her doll. Suddenly, the hammock swung harder and faster on its own. Cô Luyến slapped herself repeatedly with both hands and screamed out loud “I did it! I stole the money.” My grandmother was shocked. She immediately came over to the housekeeper’s home and apologized. When my grandmother arrived at the home, she was informed that the housekeeper committed suicide.
From that point on, Cô Luyến would occasionally be possessed by a spirit. We assumed the spirit was the housekeeper. Her eyes would roll back showing only the white part of her eyes. She would be stammering everywhere crazily doing strange things such as chasing my grandmother around with a cleaver.
It was a pretty spooky story. One thing I did know was that Cô Luyến was always different. Sometimes she screamed about things that did not exist or did not happen. We always wonder if Cô Luyến was possessed or not. She never explained or talked to us in a cohesive manner. Cô Luyến passed away at the age of 70. She took her secrets to her grave.
Nothing really bad happened to me in terms of ghosts and spirits. Perhaps, it was because we have garlic hanging outside our door all the time. We were always careful to keep cats away from the dead. Legends said that if a black cat jumps over a dead body, the dead will turn into a vampire or a Vietnamese word called “Ma Cà Rồng”. Vampires do not like garlic so therefore Mẹ Đức made sure we have plenty of garlic around at all times.