A Penny for Elder Ninh

My first experience with death happened to me in the second grade. It was not my death, or the death of anyone that I even knew. At the time I was seven years old, and I was starring as one of the munchkins in the play, “The Wizard of Oz.” My claim to fame was being the first munchkin to peek his head out from behind a tree, with a purple hat and purple costume, as Dorothy materialized in Oz. All these tales of magical worlds, talking animals, and evil witches filled my young imagination with all types of monsters throughout my waking moments.

My family lived in Provo, Utah at the time. There was an extremely old Vietnamese woman that my parents liked to visit often in the nearby town of Orem. She seemed to resemble to me a real life Wicked Witch of the West. In my culture, we have some very traditional ways to address our elders, and I was to call her Elder Ninh. She had stringy white hair and was so wrinkled that it was hard to see where the folds of her eyes began, yet I always remember how dark and deep her pupils were. Her skin was discolored all over with dark brown and reddish pink age spots, like muddy bruises of a sort. She was toothless, and constantly liked to chew on some leaves that turned her spittle red and her mouth a pitch black, and she had a stale smell of moth balls and menthol about her. This woman always made me feel uneasy.

For some bizarre reason, my parents loved Elder Ninh and whenever we went to her house, she loved to pinch my cheeks and tell me what a cute little boy I was. Then she would feel the meat on my arms and tell me I needed to eat more, and sniff my fingers and face, and worst of all, gnaw on my arms and ears and head with her lips and gums. It was a constant ritual she did, all the while my parents would smile and laugh and have me tell her what I was learning in school. In my culture, when in the presence of our elders, we have to stand dutifully with our arms crossed, politely answering everything in the affirmative with the simple word, gia.

Elder Ninh was from the central highlands of Vietnam, and she spoke in the dialect of the Montagnards, the aborigines of Vietnam. The Montagnards were the original mountain people that were in the area now known as Vietnam when the first Viet tribes of China migrated South, hence our name, Viet Nam, which literally means Viet South. These Montagnards practiced what we called bua, what the western cultures would refer to as the black arts or voodoo. In my culture though, bua is more widely tolerated and accepted than what the word voodoo evokes in the casual westerner.

At that time, my father worked in the nearby coal mines of Price, and some evenings he would come home covered in dark soot. I cannot remember why exactly, but I somehow imagined that Elder Ninh had gotten the leaves that she liked to chew on from these coal mines, and that’s why her mouth was black. When I mentioned it to my father, he laughed, as always, then warned me that Elder Ninh could read my mind, and if she knew what I was thinking, she might chew on my head and arms.

It was frightful for me to stand in front of this woman, unable to understand half of what she said to me because of her dialect and accent. I could only stand and nod, my arms crossed obediently in front of me, saying gia gia gia the whole time. My father’s warning had only made things worse. Every time she cackled, her mouth would open wide, and all I could imagined were dark leaves growing in some cave that she was harvesting, while at the same time trying to push those thoughts away for fear she might pluck those thoughts out of my head. I prayed the whole time she would not cast a spell or decide to eat me.

Sometime later that year, we went to her house for what I was told a special occasion. Little did I know, that day I would experience death reincarnated. There was a small community of Vietnamese in Utah, and every so often all the families would get together for celebrations. This day seemed like any other at first, with my mother and the other mothers all bustling together in the kitchen, rolling up and frying egg rolls, cutting up venison, and stewing chunks of pork. My father and the other men drank Heineken, and smoked 555 cigarettes from France, all the while discussing politics about both America and Vietnam. I loved to sit and listen to my father and the other ex- military men as they plotted how they would be ready to continue the war against the communists once the United States decided to go back in and help to liberate Vietnam. Then we could resettle in our homeland again.

Elder Ninh was like the grandmother amongst all the adults, and I was not the only kid that was scared of her. Some of the kids would scream and hide their faces behind their parents whenever she would open her mouth to either laugh or speak. This day, she had a red headband tied over her head, and after everyone had eaten, Elder Ninh came into the living room and began speaking. There was a quiet silence from the adult men, and many of the women and children were told to go into a different room. All the talk of war and liberation of our country had me feeling brave, so I told my father I wanted to stay. My father had a proud look on his face, and proclaimed to the other men that his first born son was braver than some of their older children. My mother had also decided to stay, and I sat between them for safety; by this time I was feeling quite nervous myself. I was given a shiny, new copper penny, and was instructed to give it to Elder Ninh when she came by with the wooden bowl she had in her hand.

My mother had quietly explained that the Montagnards believed they had a way of communing with our dead ancestors, and that’s what Elder Ninh was about to do. She herself had only heard of this ritual, and wanted to see it firsthand. There was a man that had a red headband sitting cross-legged on the floor, and Elder Ninh began to rock back and forth, both of them chanting in what I assume was the Montagnard language. I am not sure when it happened, but there was a subtle shift in the air that was almost imperceptible, yet everyone in the room knew there was a different spirit in the body of Elder Ninh. She was still chanting, but now her movements were much more fluid, almost as if a young woman was now inside the body of this crone. She had her eyes closed, and was dancing like a puppet on some invisible strings, grasping her wooden bowl above her head. I was watching, fascinated, when suddenly she was standing before me, holding forth the bowl, and I dropped in the penny. Elder Ninh moved on around to the other guests, then knelt in front of the red headbanded man.

Red headband man then began pouring something into the bowl, and my mother hissed under her breath that it was blood, and grabbed onto my father. Red Headband then dipped a paintbrush into the bowl and began painting some characters on a white sheet he had in front of him. Elder Ninh then began to say certain things to the adults that were watching. My mother said there were dead spirits inside her speaking. At some point, she turned to where my small family was seated and said something unintelligible in her harsh accent to my father, while pointing at me. My parents understood though; I could tell from their reactions that they did not like what they had heard.

My parents were in a somber mood on the drive home, and from that day forth, we never went to visit Elder Ninh again. My father never told me what she had said, and became quite upset whenever I asked him. It was not until many years later, after my father had passed away, that my mother finally told me on one of her visits to me in the California Youth Authority that Elder Ninh had told my father he would never see his firstborn son become a grown man. My mother confessed that my father had thought Elder Ninh meant that I would die at a young age, and if the family was to speak about it, her premonition would become true. My mother admitted with tears in her eyes that she now saw Elder Ninh was speaking more about my father’s death, and how he would leave this world before I grew up.

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