Hibernation by Pham Giai Quynh (Vietnamese author)
English translation: Trinh Lan Anh
Επιμέλεια: Εύα Πετροπούλου Λιανού
About the author: Phạm Giai Quỳnh (born March, 15, 1997, Da Bac – Hoa Binh, Vietnam), is a writer. Typical works: Spider, Trinh, and A thousand years (Short stories collection, 2015); Red thread (Short stories collection, 2015); Moon in Realm (novella, 2018); Of God and Man (Short stories collection, 2021).
1. He put on slippers and entered the bathroom; after doing personal hygiene, he turned on the shower. Water poured down his shoulders, arms, and calves, as he began to scrub thoroughly. Even if he spent a year without bathing, no one would ever notice. Still, he carried out the routine every day. It was a ritual, a need, to let him know he was still connected with humanity.
As he finished, he closed the door and crossed the street to the “hibernation warehouse”. On the wall, a gecko clicked its tongue after catching a mosquito as small as the tip of a toothpick, its wide mouth closed tightly on its bait. After that, it crept into the closet’s aperture, but still peeked out its tiny head and looked at him, then only disappeared a while later.
Wearing protective clothing, he entered each compartment. Although the electric light shone bright, his hand still held a flashlight to check the red and blue tangles underneath. It had been ten years, as his work kept repeating like that, like a spindle with a stable orbit. Two years after accepting the job, he became bored and began to talk with those fuzzy faces behind the glass panels containing cold air, each and every one of them. He told them multiple stories, about the long gone forest in his homeland, the days suffering with excessive thirsts without finding a single drop of water, the animals that were proliferating beyond the fences, about the forest system gradually recovering, and his own feelings when meeting the eyes of the faces’ owners, when they hadn’t fallen into “sleep”.
Catching a glimpse of his silhouette gliding across the glass, he touched his face which showed no wrinkles or signs of aging.
That day, before entering the procedure room, his father asked whether he regretted “staying”. He just signed the confirmation form then and simply said yes.
“How can you live alone?”
“I’ve been living alone all along.”
Resounded the laughter of the past. His father used to be a good dad, but his mother’s death brought him down. His mother was charmingly beautiful; she often locked herself in the reading room, immersed in a world of her own. He could no longer find anyone like her afterwards. His mother had suffered from heart failure ever since she was young, and she still tried to preserve herself when she got married and gave birth. At the age of eight, he silently drew a mask for a costume party at school. This gradually became a habit, the masks became more and more real, to the point that after putting some on, he didn’t know whether he was human, or a devil.
After the house was built, his mother chose to paint it white, and the light, though uninvited, filled every corner. It was an intensely sunny day when he was wearing a mask, hiding in the corner of the wall, intending to wait for his mother to pass by and make her surprised. Her footsteps echoed from the top of the stairs, as he eagerly waited, not knowing what to do with his limbs. His father had always kept him from being with his mother for too long, afraid she would be tired. However, in the previous evening, her mother complained they had run out of new books to read, so she wanted to go to the book street. Her father protested: “It is both dusty and crowded out there, let me go, you should stay at home.”
His mother, familiar with her husband’s personality, wrote down the book titles she needed, also added some other tools and foods to the list. His father quickly drank a cup of coffee, and left after giving his wife a good-bye kiss. That was the last time his father kissed his mother and vice versa, later on he thought so. The kiss will follow his mother during the next lifetime, and maybe it will become an embodiment of their love in the next life, if reincarnation does exist.
Back to the mask, yes, he wore it, and it seemed to blend perfectly into his face. The sun shone down his feet; he hurriedly hid from the sun, as the sun would make his shadow appear on the wall, defeating and revealing his joke. Her mother’s feet were very small, the same for the sound of her footsteps; her walking sounded like a cat probing on the wall.
At ‘the right time’, he jumped out: “Look, I am a ghost!”
His shadow was clearly visible, a small shadow with fingers spread out like claws.
In an instant, he numbed, could not feel anything. He only saw his mother’s pale face – her eyes widened, her lips went purple, and she fell. The rattan basket of dirty clothes rolled around and knocked out the pieces inside, short shirts looking like crippled corpses.
At the age of eight, he stood staring at his mother lying on the cold floor, her breath interrupted, her gaze on him gradually softened. Finally, she closed her eyes, to the world, to the sunlight that was gradually off. He dragged a pillow to her, lifted her up, but her body softened and then slowly stiffened like a log. He hugged his mother.
And he broke out into laughter, never feeling so comfortable. He had never felt so close to his mother since he was born, as he buried in her chest. Darkness slowly covered the house that was once flooded with sunlight. There was a sound of a car parked outside the gate, his father pushed the door into the house, and asked: “Why doesn’t anyone turn on the power? You two sleep already?”
“Click,” the light was on. He looked at his mother; she just looked like she was falling asleep.
After that, the funeral took a toll on his dad, swallowing all of him. He had no idea his son caused his wife’s death – it seemed; therefore, apart from being friends with sedatives and alcohol, he still managed to fulfill his role as a father.
Since then, from the age of eight, he often saw his mother everywhere in the house: in the bathroom, living room, kitchen, garden, on the terrace. Even when he went to bed, he found his mother standing in front of the room, smiling at him. In his dreams, his father chased after him with a knife, a fierce expression on his face. He was quickly captured, and the weapon in his father’s arms sank, coming more and more closely. Suddenly, he found out his father was wearing his mask.
“If I didn’t leave, I would go insane,” he said.
In middle school, he asked his father to let him attend a boarding school. Without hesitation, he said yes, but on the day of seeing him off, he suddenly uttered, “You are more and more like your mother.”
And then, he saw his mother follow him to school, into the dormitory. She did not scold him, just watched and sat next to him when he had nightmares. She sat on the bench watching him take his physical exam at the stadium; she sat by the bedroom’s windowsill, silent. Gradually, when reaching puberty, he found out that his face has become similar to his mother’s, and he has even been harassed by his classmates a couple of times.
He dumbfoundedly looking at himself through others’ hibernation state, as cold air fills everywhere, taking over his eyesight, covering his face.
2. The sunlight shone down on the road dotted with acacia vegetables; a gecko crawled out to bask. Sometimes some small animals still got past the fences to enter the city, and as they did not cause any harm, the security team decided to ignore them.
As human activities were suspended, even the epidemic was locked down, or rather, pathogens were pushed out of the universe. Too safe that it was boring, he said.
Twenty years ago, when the biodiversity of flora and fauna faded away and the earth’s temperature soared, scientists around the world made environmental claims that humans had to find a way to stop operating for twenty years so that these systems could be gradually restored. The only remedy that time was ‘being frozen’. He was only two years old then.
Demonstrations took place everywhere, as almost everyone condemned the plan. However, suddenly one day, a piece of news broadcasted right at the square about the murder of more than twenty scientists studying the freezing process of living organisms. Above all else, it was spread out every corner around the world, followed by the participation of the media craving for shocking information. Details on the machines involved were posted on newspapers, television channels, social networks, along with successful experiments on volunteers’ bodies.
Like the table had turned, public opinions began to change. At first, those who lost their lives being disgraced were praised to be heroes, and sometime later, people began to sign the applications for “hibernation”; a large number of individuals not voluntarily risking their lives turned into “caregivers”, or, to be exact, were trained to be global machine maintenance technicians, and, at the same time, to protect fellow human beings from the danger of animals gradually taking over nature flooding into the city, even though the electronic barriers had been firmly built.
The “hibernation project” has undergone over thirty years of research and completion, not to mention the seeds that emerged decades earlier, he said, and to avoid imminent destruction, mankind needed to do this.
He turned on the lock to the storage door, and switched on the electric chair right after. Sitting down, he started to light a cigarette, eyes squinting at the pale gray sky; it looked like it was going to rain that night. On the opposite side, there was another man almost dozing off on the bench. He had never asked his name, and they had never talked to each other. Then, words were replaced by gazes, light smiles and implicative nods. He pulled out a pocket book, and began to read aloud the lines inside. It was an old story written more than two hundred years ago, about a cricket’s journey and its maturity. The authors of those books that he had remained as a part of the past, only their works lived on. His voice sounded monotonous, but still, he kept reading as if it was a ritual. If he didn’t do it, he was afraid he would forget how to talk, and would become silent when the world returned to its natural reel.
Ah, he forgot to introduce the man. He was about his age, seemingly from another city. “But it is not a big deal, all the cities of this era look alike,” the man said a while later. He also felt that is true. The new world order put the whole infrastructure in a certain mold, making ones seldom get lost in the place where they were born, and other places as well. Because of that, over time, fewer people would travel, especially after some of the world’s great wonders gradually disappeared due to the harsh weather.
When preparing for the hibernation campaign, he used to see the man walking on the street, blended in the crowd, letting out loud yawns, also making weird noises in his throat that turned everyone’s head around to look. He didn’t seem shy at all, just going straight when catching those stares. He saw him several times and realized one thing in common: he was only like that in public. It was a kind of harassment, he said, feeling not very sympathetic.
Later, when the city turned into tranquility, the man stopped behaving strangely, just lied down in the middle of the road, letting the ants crawl over him, or pretended to be motionless and did nothing; every time he yawned, he even hurriedly covered his mouth. Being looked and pointed at by no one, he became delicate to himself.
Later, when silence gradually filled the city, he talked to the man. After all, this would be the only person near him for decades, he said. He wanted to live alone but was afraid of being alone.
“In the end, there would be only you and me here, so…” The sentence remained incomplete.
He looked at the man, without saying a word, then held out a packet of cigarettes, Vina 2190. The man smiled at him and took one, saying such a pack is rare, but still chemically heavy. He then glanced at the cover of the book. “I also have one at home, the 2002 edition,” he continued. “Only one part remains; when I found it, the book was half eaten by termites.”
“You can come to my house,” he said, “there is a separate reading room with countless books that you can read for a lifetime.” His job for a day was simple, checking the electrical system to see if any animals get into the messy wires, or if there are any freezers having temperature problems. After that, he just spent his time on books, or walked around because electricity was only minimally used, focusing on the hibernation process. He could not find anything else to entertain.
The other caregiver recalled, “My mother never mentioned my father. She raised me in a house by the forest where she grew a lot of vegetables and sunflowers. She said she liked sunflowers because they can guide lost ones to find the sun, but I don’t understand what she meant by that. My mother used to take me deep into the woods, where there was a stream that was almost dry, just a creek, to be exact. She arranged some stones to make a stove, washed a thin slab, boiled it over charcoal, then grilled the pre-marinated meat. The scent of roast meat spreads throughout the air, and a small dog peeked in the distance. I could tell from the appearance that it was a wild dog. ‘Are there still stray dogs?’ – I asked my mother. There were always such wild animals, my mother replied, and fortunately they were still free from human containment. Listening to that, I remembered the image of the fat pets in the city which could lie sunbathing all day. Sometimes, they would raise their heads to look at passersby, but because of their body weight, they simply just lie there, and could only move thanks to their owners.”
“In their eyes,” he continued, “I see boredom, helplessness. Staying in touch with the forest for a long time, I know that those animals belong to the world out there, filled with green grass and bushes, constantly owning the territory, constantly fighting. They might die anytime but at least they properly live, not merely exist.”
“What area is your mother now?” He asked.
The man slightly shook his head, “My mother passed away. She was one of the scientists killed that year, along with her colleagues, though they worked hard on finding plausible ways to save human race. In the end, the research has been accepted and carried out anyway…”
Throat filled with smoke, the man laughed mockingly, “What is the use of honor when the person is dead. There have been times when I wanted to shut off the entire freezing system, because I knew that in those compartments, there were people who had protested, laughed at my mother’s work, even the one that cut her throat right on my birthday.”
“But you didn’t,” he felt a sudden pain in his stomach, as if it was pricked by a sharp needle.
The man looked at him for a while, then nodded, “Yes, since I’m not them. I don’t know how to kill a human.”
He said, for a long time, the man and him usually drove to the sea. “I could only see that deep blue shade since my forties. I awkwardly held the buoy while my friend swam far away. It was rumored that there were sharks in this place before but they were extinct. Now those fierce images can only be experienced through the 3D generator.”
“What a pity,” the man said, “I used to want to hunt sharks.”
He never told him about his mother, nor did he say he didn’t dare to go to the sea because he was afraid he would see her in the figures of those silver waves. However, he started to realize signs of aging. Although he had been taking pills for youth maintenance, there were crow’s feet in the corner of his eyes, and he counted every single one. Sometimes, his friend also complained about this, wanting to be in his early twenties until the time of Defrosting.
“And I’m gonna fall in love,” the man said. “My pick is a very pretty girl already in hibernation. But if my body continues getting old, I will soon become her uncle.”
He bursted into laughter upon hearing the confession; seeing his friend seemed a little angry, he laughed and said:
“To be honest, I’ve never had a first love.”
3. He wiped off the cold air covering the glass, standing face to face with his father whose age and cells in the body stopped at the age of fifty. Sitting on the brick floor, he leaned against the closet, right below his father’s feet. When he was a child, he liked to read books in the back lawn; behind him, his father watered the flowers, and his mother was in the kitchen. He liked to hang around the heels of his father, but after his mother’s death, he became afraid to meet him, even living in the same city was difficult.
“How many years have passed?” He said, touching the creases in the corner of his eyes. “Now I am at the same age as yours; if we meet again, I am not sure whether there is any awkwardness when we talk.”
He laughed bitterly, “Maybe you’ve never heard of this, it was about the sudden death of mom-”
That day, he stayed in the warehouse for a long time, until his only friend came in panic as he was worried that something bad happened. The man looked at him holding his head down to his knees, cold air clinging to his hair and clothes forming a translucent filter; it was clear that he was crying. The other caregiver looked up again and saw the glass case behind him; there was a man in his fifties inside. Suddenly, realization dawned on him. Taking some steps back, he walked out, and started to light a cigarette.
“Finally, I can let it all out,” he said. “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? When I only dared to mention when my father was in hibernation, when I’ve lived halfway through life. But maybe everything is over. In my dream, I saw my mother smiling, she said she was on her way to another world.”
The ground was covered with a thick layer of yellow leaves; occasionally, there would be the sound of a road cleaner crushing the leaves, echoes interrupting the quiet space.
The man looked up as he stood in front of his eyes, a bottle of wine in his hands.
“It’s tequila 2081,” he held out a bottle of amber liquor and said with a bluff.
After that, he did not remember how he lived. Sometimes, they went into the supermarket to find snacks and beer cans to ease the boredom. During that time, he witnessed the remarkable progress of science in AI research. He once saw a robot in charge of shopkeepers sneaking out near the barrier to stroke a kitten.
“Thank goodness they all seem to be kind,” the man commented upon listening to the story.
“So, let’s drink for the artificial kindness!”
He bursted out laughing. The two drank beer under the starry sky, watching fireflies lit up from the forest outside the fences, cans filled the ground. Seemingly even the wind is attracted by the vapors, lurking on the thick foliage.