Sunday, 18/02/2024 10:11

Slipping from up high


 By Hồ Anh Thái

Why do so many people fall from high-rises these days?

This sounds like a question posed in some Reflections section of a newspaper. Yet in reality, this question was raised inside his kitchen one day.

A plate of sizzling octopus stir-fried with mung bean sprouts carried over from the stove to the dining table was flung to the ground, smashing into pieces. His wife had slipped. That floor area was covered with wood and very slippery. She fell hard, rolling over. She tried to get up on her hands and knees and luckily didn’t break any bones. Her husband rushed over to help her up. Their daughter picked up the broken pieces and swept the floor, all the while relating to her mother a story about somebody having a stroke after slipping in a bathroom.

The husband chimed in, slipping doesn’t just cause a stroke, somebody walking by a bannister slipped and fell from the thirteenth floor. They died instantly.

"What a story, watch your mouth. I’ve just had a mild slip in the kitchen and you two are here vying to talk about strokes and death," said the wife.

Then she chirped with a sigh, wondering why so many people were indeed falling from high buildings these days.


So, the question ignited a family workshop of sorts. With the stir-fried octopus and mung bean sprouts gone, the couple and their daughter rolled up their sleeves to make another dish: stir-fried beef with leaf mustard. The kitchen was quickly turned into a convention centre. A family conference broke out about countless slipping accidents.

One day, a man suddenly fell from the seventh floor of a convention centre, a real one. He had slipped. Another day, a woman fell from her office, situated on the ninth floor. She had also slipped. Then some Vietnamese executive who was meeting with a partner from a neighbouring country also fell from the eleventh floor. The man was also reported to have slipped.

It’s a strange phenomenon as the bannisters at those buildings are as strong as a citadel, as the saying goes, ranging from one point two to one point five metres high. One can’t fall over them, even if one slips accidentally. One can only fall over them if one intentionally climbs onto a chair to reach them. Yet, those who were reported to have fallen didn’t seem to have any reason to commit suicide. One man was on his way to replace his boss, who was approaching retirement. One woman had just been promoted to head a management board after a bout of in-fighting against two other rivals in the same company. Another man was being embroiled in a copyright dispute over charges of plagiarism levelled by several colleagues in the same research department. Another woman was fleeing to one room after another to hide at her office because the wife of her boyfriend many times stormed straight into the workplace to make a scene of jealousy.

All of them, on one calm day without rain or wind or another, fell. Investigations yielded the same result over and over: falling by slipping from high floors.

All of these stories left many questions, rumours or, to use a trendy word these days, conspiracy theories. One can’t easily slip by accident. Even if one does, one can’t fall from up high. One can only fall to the ground if several people join forces to carry one to throw over the bannisters.

In the kitchen, the wife who was washing the leaf mustard guessed the reason those people were killed was because they knew too much. The husband who was slicing beef said the root of the problem lay in harbouring too many ambitions. The daughter who was smiling over her iPad looked up upon catching her mother’s suggestion about knowledge as the primary cause. She reported to her parents that her little brother had the terrible habit of not sitting still in the living room when visiting somebody’s home but running directly into their bedroom. When he visited his friend’s house, he also often headed straight into the bedroom. The girl then turned to her brother and scolded: "You shouldn’t do that, even if you only want to go inside to play with your friend."

The mother picked up the thread: "You can’t run into anybody’s bedroom; nobody likes to spill their family secrets."

The father warned: "This isn’t a matter of like or dislike, I forbid you from now on to run into people’s bedrooms. Suppose they are counting dollar bills for bribery or arranging packages of drugs, then some boy from nowhere runs into the scene. Even if that boy is their nephew or their child’s good friend, they’ll still grab him by the neck, sweep him off the ground and throw him over the bannisters. Then declare he has slipped."

According to the father, this wasn't a conspiracy theory. It was reality.   


Nevertheless, according to his wife, there may be another reason why many people slip. No, not because of ambition, lust or knowledge. They slip, perhaps, because they have yet to cultivate an apartment culture.

In the past, when apartments had five floors at most and bannisters were low, hardly anybody slipped and fell. It WAS only when apartments and multi-floor office buildings mushroomed up all over the place that people started going down like fallen figs. This is what is called “the apartment complex”.

An apartment culture is certainly yet to develop. How can one cultivate an apartment culture when human culture itself hasn’t been perfected? Building too many apartments with no planning isn’t different from blindly building monumental theatres without training artists. Or audiences.

In a proper apartment culture, one certainly can’t keep pets only to walk them around without muzzles, and let them release themselves freely on the streets, or cuddle them into elevators without caring a jot whether they smell terrible or look a nuisance to others who don’t love them so much. In a proper apartment culture, one doesn’t spit in elevators, litter on corridors, or throw diapers down neighbours’ hand-rails. One doesn’t throw cigar ash into a trash bag, then put this trash bag into the trash room, then burn down the whole building. In an apartment building, when one leaves one’s apartment without turning off electrical devices, one also runs the risk of burning the whole place down. In a proper apartment culture, one doesn’t see visitors off as far as the elevator, talk loudly in the corridor, leaving one’s five-year-old girl taking a chair to the bannisters to climb to catch a mantis on a bougainvillea branch. The consequence of such a case in reality was that the girl fell to the ground from the ninth floor.

According to one conspiracy theory, that girl had flown to heaven. Thanks to her parents’ hospitality and talkativeness.


All the while his parents and older sister were talking, the little boy was glueing his eyes to his iPhone, but his ears didn’t miss a word from the family workshop about slipping and falling. Upon hearing about the five-year-old girl falling from the ninth floor, he shouted, "I know her, I know her. She fell into a spongy box on the back of a shipper’s motorbike. She didn’t die."

The little boy’s story made his sister remember another one. Their old uncle, who lived in a house on a street downtown, faulted apartment residents for being nosy and resolutely refused to sell his house to move to some place high up.

"There isn’t anything fancy about living in apartments," he said. “I used to live in an old-style apartment, with the 5th floor being the highest. In the summer, I had to go down to the ground floor to pump water, or else carry buckets of water up the stairs. There isn’t anything fancy about apartments."

"Even if you live in apartments, your electricity and water supply will also break down someday. If the situation drags on, you’ll have to call a water company to deliver water to you. Then you’ll have to carry it up all these stairs into your apartment. Imagine that. There is nothing fancy about apartments.

"In theory, firefighters’ ladders can reach as high as the eighth floor, but in reality, you can’t be sure. I’ve left my old apartment to buy a private house, which is a sign of upward mobility. Now you tell me to sell my house to move to an apartment. What backward mobility. No, I won’t. I won’t. I won’t.”

In his house, the uncle hired a helper who happened to be talkative. She had a way to embellish the story about the five-year-old girl who fell from the ninth floor. She said that from what she’d heard, that little girl was cruel at heart. She used to fool a cat, tying a piece of rag to its tail, then burned the rag. The cat shrieked and ran all over the apartment, almost setting fire to it. Luckily, it just set off the alarm and sent the whole building into chaos. People recalled that day, the girl saw a mantis crawling on a bougainvillea branch on the balcony. She climbed up, intending to catch the mantis to play with it, break its claws and tear its wings. She waited for her parents to take the visitors to the elevator, then took a chair to the balcony and climbed onto it. She stretched her arm to catch the mantis and fell. Or so people said.

All of this the helper had heard from others. Of course, she hadn’t seen the accident with her own eyes. It was just another conspiracy theory, to repeat the trendy phrase again. The helper didn’t just tell the bare details but also sprinkled them with her commentary.

“That little chit had a hell of good luck. She dropped right into a cask filled with spongy boxes. That chit will grow up in some extraordinary gangsterly way. According to the security affairs newspaper, at five years of age and forty kilos in weight, upon reaching the ground after falling from the ninth floor, that girl had turned into a load of over one hundred kilos. Imagine if she had landed on somebody’s head.”  

Afterwards, the helper herself had an epilogue that made the whole family, husband and wife and their two children, remember. Her idea of a one-hundred-kilo load falling upon somebody’s head felt like a premonition about what was to come. On the twenty-third of lunar December, or Kitchen Gods’ Day, when the kitchen gods were supposed to fly to heaven to report on human affairs in the past year, the uncle walked out onto the pavement in front of his house and saw a golden carp vendor passing by. Little yellowish, reddish carp were swimming inside cellophane bags. The uncle asked to buy a few goldfish to release in honour of the holy day. He knew all too well that a goldfish released at one end of the sewer would be re-caught at the other end, so to speak, and sold all over again. A school of fish released into a lake would be immediately caught up again by somebody’s net. They would be sold once more. Several times over. It’s similar to human trafficking, with eighteen-year-old girls being sold and re-sold repeatedly. Everybody knows the formula. Buying fish and birds to release is thus just cruelty disguised as mercy. The mouth sings prayers, but the heart is filled with daggers. So, the old uncle hated modern apartments but still loved this depraved tradition of fish releasing.

At that time, the helper was watering a few flower pots on the balcony. The balcony was on the second floor, right above the uncle’s head. Being nosy by nature, she pricked her ears to the floor below. She leaned her head out and called down to her boss not to buy that kind of fish, which was a fake Chinese fish being painted over to resemble a golden carp, whose paint would peel off on their way to heaven with the kitchen gods, like girls sweating and smearing their make-up all over their faces. In a short while, she, the helper, would run out to the street market to buy a fairer fish for him. No sooner did she utter these words than she lost balance, wobbled, floundered, and threw herself over the hand-rail.

Everybody knew the ending of this story. Like the five-year-old girl falling from the ninth floor, the helper didn’t die. She had only fallen from the second floor. She didn’t suffer any serious injuries, either.

The problem was only that she fell right onto her boss’s head. The old uncle of the family thus lost his Lunar New Year holiday, as he had to lie in bed nursing his neck in a plaster cast, but he still thanked his lucky stars. He was fortunate not to break his neck. If his fate was to slip, he couldn’t escape. He would slip, if not from a high-rise apartment, then from the second floor of a street-front house. If it wasn’t he who slipped, then his helper would.

When the family workshop was reaching this moment in their story-telling, the little boy carried his iPhone and ran over to the balcony, looked down and around, as if to estimate how high from the ground his fifteenth floor was, and how many kilograms would he weigh if he fell with his current mass. His parents shrieked loudly in unison as if to chase away bad spirits. "Go inside. Right now."

The stir-fried beef with leaf mustard was done. The wife carried this dish over with another plate filled with steaming fried banana cakes. It suddenly dawned on her what had earlier caused her to slip. Perhaps when she was slicing the bananas, a small piece had been thrown down to the floor, making her slip. The little boy picked up a banana cake with a bare hand, intending to eat it first. His sister immediately shouted: "You have to eat rice before eating cakes."

His mother also shouted: "You can’t eat banana cakes. Your final semester exams are coming, do you want to slip on a banana skin?"

His father chimed in, remarking that the exam room was quite high up, on the sixth floor.

Translated by Đỗ Linh


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