In this life, Tam Duc is eighty-five years old, weighs thirty-eight kilograms and travels from the Northern island of Cát Bà, to Năm Căn on the one leg remaining after meeting a French landmine 72 years ago.
It is a journey of 2000 kilometers.
Năm Căn is nothing more than the Southernmost tip of Vietnam. It splits the Gulf of Thailand from the South China Sea and acts as the place from which he can go no further.
Cát Bàis, however, is home. The place he is always born, pushed through the brittle bones of the skeleton that once was his mother to wallow in the mud quickly maturing enough to survive yet again on his own.
An ancient magic compels and nurtures this.
His mother cursed him to this existence thousands of deaths ago with intestines held in with one hand and the other stiffening, curled one last time around the quill that wrote out what Tam now is.
Saved from murder perpetrated by bandits he is now a soul catcher.
Why him and not her is testament to the power of a mother’s love for her child, selfless and universal.
Tam has witnessed many deaths, but none more horrible than watching his mother struggle to perform this last feat while dying.
The curse came with conditions of poverty, chastity and nothing short of the humanities demise could free him from it.
Like a mother love it was unyielding and forever.
Returning North he wears ancient dinge colored burlap wraps around his loin and his bald shiny scalp. Over his shoulder, he carries a black velvet bag that looks very much out of place.
He does not own the black velvet bag, it owns him. As does the magic nestled within it.
Tam smiles a toothless smile and hops along the shoulder of Vietnam’s first superhighway. The air smells of tar and diesel exhaust. In the humid heat, he approaches a small village. It is the New Year and the villagers have gathered. They laugh and celebrate.
Tam knows he is not welcome and squats in the green foliage off the road. Though today’s journey is done his real work is just beginning.
He settles down on to hot red dirt and folds his right knee over the remaining portion of his left thigh forming a tight lotus. He flips the black bag open on his lap while sniffing at the air. Its smells of rain, but in Vietnam rain is to be expected, still, he must hurry for if he doesn’t complete his magic before the rain comes, the soul he has come to collect may get lost
A lost soul is hell to recover.
Many lost souls roam for eons before a catcher happens upon them. Some are never found.
From inside the satchel, he gathers the red paper and black ink of his trade.
And waits worrying the quill against a hole in his gum that once housed a tooth. A firework is set off in the nearby village. It is loud and whistles up into the air almost invisible in the bright sky.
The screams that follow could curdle blood.
Tam then knows the name he has come to collect and scratches four quickly executed lines in black ink on the red paper.
When the quill tip no longer shines with fresh ink a boy of seven stands in front of him.
The boy nods.
“Did it hurt?” this is always his first question.
The boy nods again.
‘That’s too bad.’ Tam frowns while returning the red paper, now perfectly clean, as if never written on, back into the sack along with the black ink and quill, ‘Shall we?”
And the boy nods a third time.
Tam allows another type of magic to wash out of him. It sparkles in the air before solidifying into a portal, a hole really, one that opens one reality into another.
The boy looks to Tam unsure and Tam smiles a toothless smile and nods toward the hole.
With a burst of happy laughter, the boy turns to the hole and steps through disappearing, leaving behind only the echo of his joy as he embraces whatever it is that waits for him there.
Hours later Tears drip from Tam’s eyes as the sound of the happy child finding his afterlife, haunts him as he tries to sleep.
Tomorrow he will continue his journey North, to the next death and one day soon his own will come again, but instead of a Soul Catcher waiting for him to open a portal to a new happy reality he will be forced to scramble out of the boney womb, half-buried on a swampy island, certain he will never have an end worthy of laughter.