The following is a translation of a short story written by a famous Vietnamese author, Nhất Linh (actual name Nguyễn Tường Tam). It was published in 1934.
My wife was gravely ill, but I had to continue working and I left her at home by herself, without anyone to care for her. One night, she became very weak, fainting several times. That was the night my supervisor ordered me to be the locomotive engineer for the train transporting the Governor General. It was a golden opportunity for me, but I knew I could not leave my wife at home. I went in to see my boss to tell him that I had a sick wife to take care of. He blew up, pounding on his table and chair.
“I don’t want to know about it. Be at the train station tonight at 10! Otherwise, you can leave and never come back here. Get out!”
His words and threatening tone kept me wondering all the way home. Once there, I sat next to the bed and looked at my wife. I saw right away that I could not go to work that night, even if I had to lose my job.
She noticed my worried expression and asked me what was bothering me. I told her what had happened with my boss. After hearing me, her face brightened up noticeably and she said:
“You must go to work! There is nothing to worry about! I am feeling much better already. Go, and tomorrow afternoon come home with some goodie for me.”
Seeing her talk and laugh so cheerfully, I felt more confident. I changed and went to the train station. I arrived there at 10 sharp. But once I got the train rolling, I suddenly began to worry. I knew then that I had been reckless. A strange sensation took hold of me, and I feared that I was not going to see the face of my wife again. However, that feeling only lasted a short time.
The train crept along the mountainous road, struggling up and down one pass after another. I poked my head out of the window, trying to look straight ahead, but all I could see was a thick wall of mist lit up by the train headlights. Suddenly something struck me.
Imprinted on the mist was the image of a woman in a billowing dress waving her arms. I rubbed my eyes, thinking I had seen wrong, but the woman was still there.
I knew I was not dreaming. I knew it was a real image, one that anyone else could see. I grabbed the arm of my helper, pulled him over and shouted:
His mouth opened wide, his eyes bulged, and he yelled in a sudden panic:
“That is really strange! A ghost, boss!”
Whenever the train crept forward, the image of the woman backed up ahead, fading away then becoming clear yet again, drifting in mid air.
Her arms kept waving steadily as if she meant to tell us to stop because there was some danger ahead.
“Something strange is going to happen,” I told my helper.
“Yes, boss. That image is making signs for us to stop.”
The image had started waving slowly but her movements became frantic as if she became alarmed because I did not seem to heed her warnings.
“Sir, let’s stop to see. It must be a ghost!”
“No, we can’t stop for no reason.”
At that point, I was like a senseless person who had lost his sanity. Yet, somehow I heard in the distance the voice of the woman telling me:
I tried to listen carefully. I grabbed the brake lever but could not bring myself to use it.
A moment later, the voice of the woman had become clearer than before.
“Stop, stop at once!”
Without thinking, I pulled on the lever with all my strength. The engine vibrated, the wheels squealed in the dead of the night. The train slowed down, continued on for a short distance before stopping completely. I did not have time to get out of the cab before the chief of the guard detail ran up and shone his flashlight on me.
“What’s the matter?”
I hesitated. Unwilling to tell him the incredible truth, I said:
“There is something strange ahead. Let’s go look.”
At that point, the high officials in the Governor General retinue had also arrived on foot and tagged along behind us. We had only gone a short distance when we heard the noise of a waterfall. I then remembered that we had arrived at the N.G. bridge.
Several days of heavy rain had swollen the river and it was now a thundering torrent. We proceeded to move forward and arrived at the river bank. We brought up our lights to peer into the darkness. Everyone was stunned. The violent waters had grabbed the N.G. bridge and sent it toward a whirlpool where it had broken in half.
If I had not stopped in time, the entire train carrying the Governor General would have fallen into the raging river. No one would have survived. No accident could have been more catastrophic. I was the one who prevented it from happening. I stood there, not understanding completely what had happened.
The leader of the government officials was overwhelmed with joy. He asked me:
“How did you know when to stop?”
“I don’t understand myself.”
The others were also extremely happy and pestered me with similar questions, but I had no answer for them. After a while, everyone stood back to let the Governor General approach. He did not mind that I was a simple laborer and in his joy at having escaped certain death, he grabbed and shook my hand, a hand blackened with coal dust. He praised me warmly.
I was sure that I would be rewarded handsomely later, but I did not care for any reward. I only thought of my wife and wondered how she was faring.
I retraced my steps back to the locomotive and immediately saw some kind of insect stuck to one of the headlights. Looking carefully, I saw that it was an enormous butterfly caught on a headlight. It was flapping its wings to try to escape.
Looking at the butterfly, I at once realized what had happened. The image of the woman imprinted on the mist was that of the butterfly. Her head was the shadow of the butterfly’s head, and her waving arms were the insect’s wings flapping.
I caught the butterfly and was about to let it go, but in the end I decided to keep it. I looked at the clock in the cab. It showed exactly two in the morning.
The following day, when I opened the gate to our home, the little servant boy came running and informed me that my wife had passed away at one in the morning. I am not usually superstitious and thought it was just a coincidence. However, I am convinced that my wife’s soul had taken hold of the butterfly so she could protect me from the terrible accident that could have happened that night. But what use was it for me to have avoided the accident? Wealth and fortune meant nothing to me. I was just like that butterfly, its body was there but its soul was somewhere else.