|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Vu Huy Anh
The policeman led Sen through the gate of the detention camp and said:
"Now go back to your home village and make an honest living there."
His voice was imbued with love and pity. Sen remembered sitting in this room several days after she had been arrested, hearing some policemen discussing her case in the next room. This policeman had asked the other policemen to release her because her situation was so pitiful. She had never been involved in entangling other girls in prostitution before. But another policeman said that she should have been detained longer just so they could hear public opinion – for news of this case had spread far and wide. Some newspapers had made spectacular news of it, spinning her unfortunate predicament into a huge drama. That was why Sen had been detained until today. At the end of the day, she had been forced to go back to her home village under the care of the local authority. What a shame she had caused to her relatives and fellow villagers, she thought. However, her punishment was light when compared with the cases of other call-up girls who had been sent to the correction camp.
So now she had to return to her home village and to her childhood name – Sen. Her home village was located at the end of a large river flowing into the sea. There were vast rice fields and lotus ponds. It was also a fishing village. Some of the girls in the village had taken the name of the beautiful summer lotus flower (sen in English means lotus). As a Vietnamese folk verse says, "What is more beautiful than lotus? Those green leaves, white flowers mingled with yellow stamen. Yellow stamen, white flowers and green leaves. So close to mud, but the flowers are not touched with the stinking smell of mud."
As time went by, the market economy developed rapidly and localities vied to open tourist spots in the river mouths and coastal areas. Her homeland had become a regional tourist destination. Two-storey and three-storey houses were festooned with billboards advertising various comforts for tourists. Travellers poured into her homeland, particularly men. Apart from good seafood, the area also offered another cheap attraction: country girls. Some of the girls worked in the fields in the daytime and prostituted by night to get some extra money. They worked in the guest houses and restaurants – even in the pine trees. This happened quite casually day in and day out. But unfortunately for Sen, she was arrested by the police in the hotel, although she was released immediately afterwards. It was rumoured that the police made the arrest mainly to capture the man, a senior official who had been trapped by his opponent. A young reporter named Van Hien had come to meet Sen to write something about the case. Sen told him that she had finished her junior secondary education. Her village was near the sea, connected to it by the big river, so a lot of the village girls married fishermen and sailors who passed by the village. Her mother was one of them. But she left her father to follow another man when she was twenty-two and Sen was three. Her father was so sad that he left the village to settle down in the coffee-growing Highlands and marry another woman. Sen lived with her paternal grandmother, who had toiled day in, day out to bring her up. When she grew up, her grand-mother was over seventy. Sen had to quit her education and work in the fields to sustain herself and her grandmother. When tourism developed in her homeland, Sen sometimes prostituted without her grandmothernotice. In the face of such a harsh life, she had to follow her girlfriends in the village in making a living, shameful though it was. She wanted badly to get an honest job so as to be able to get a good man.
Having heard Sen, the reporter ran his eyes over the reception room of the commune People's Committee and stood up, walking towards Sen. He took her small hands and caressed her hair. This made Sen feel so emotional that she inclined her head and nestled it in his body. Hien embraced Sen and stooped to seal a warm, gentle kiss on her rosy lips. Then he stopped, leaving Sen sitting there and returned to his seat, speaking in a low voice: "I'll see you in the provincial capital tomorrow." After that he tore a piece of paper from his notebook, scribbled the address of a hotel and handed it to Sen. Sen put it in her pocket, smiling her agreement.
When they met, Hien was aggressive, lusting for her. Sen gave everything to him, wishing she could be his wife. However, she stopped thinking about it, feeling so ashamed about her fate that she cried. Hien quickly guessed the reason, so he kissed her eyes, her lips, her breasts and her… They made love again. After that, he consoled Sen:
"Don't get so upset, dear! You're beautiful and lovely. You'll have a bright future. I'll help you. To begin with, from today you will have a new name – Huong Lien – proving that you are as sweet-scented as the lotus flower. What you did was only because circumstances forced you into it. You are always fragrant for me. Nobody dares to throw stones at you like in the Bible, when people throw stones at Mary Magdalene, because they feel that they are in the same situation as you."
Then he told her the story of how Jesus saw a crowd arresting the so-called prostitute Magdalene and putting her in a hole for them to throw stones at. Jesus said that if any one of them found themselves cleaner than the girl, they should throw the first stone. Nobody dared to step up: young or old, female or male. In the end, they all left stealthily. Jesus gave his hand to Magdalene and pulled her out of the hole and then he said: "Now, please go home. These stone throwers are not as clean as you."
Having heard the story, Sen recognised Hien's sympathy. He gave her his address in Ha Noi so that she could arrange everything and go there. Sen did as he told her. In Ha Noi, Sen stayed in a house Hien had rented for her. Later he found her a job in a fashion shop. In the first half of the year, their love continued to radiate warmth and pleasure. In the second half, Hien's love to her gradually became insipid. Sen was very sad, unable to understand why. Was he like every other man she had met? Or was he afraid of plunging into a relationship with her without loving her sincerely? Sen tested him several times to see if he would get jealous, but he did not show any change in emotion towards her. Was it possible that he did not love her any more? Or had never loved her? What Hien had said about his love to her thus far – could it be just the same lies as those men she had met? Thinking about it, Sen became so sad and sick of everything. Her inner feeling told her to return to the prostitute's life. Sen went to look for pleasure to fill in her emptiness and she met a rich man from Sai Gon. This man took her down there. Later she was in the hands of a designer who had given her some chances on the catwalk. Huong Lien had a lust for having sex – both for curiosity and satisfaction – while she worked there.
Until one day, when the rich man took her back to Ha Noi. He asked her to bring along some other girls, and she did as he wished. In the end, it turned out that the rich man took the girls for some senior officials and partners of his. While these men were in the middle of having sex, the police burst into the room and arrested them. Huong Lien wanted to explain, but in vain. She wanted to see Hien very much, but she had never seen him again. She knew that he had married the daughter of an editor-in-chief of an influential newspaper. She only hoped that he would not write anything bad about her.
Lost in thought, Sen approached a cafe near the detention room and waited for her cousin from her home village to take her home. The cafe as deserted. There was only an old man of about 70 sitting over a cup of coffee. A newspaper was on the table. She saw a big headline about the prostitution case accompanied by a photo of a nude girl. That startled her. She walked towards the old man to ask for it. The old man recognised her in the photo. Sen felt so ashamed. But the article had no byline. She wondered if Hien had written it. Whoever wrote it, it was like throwing a stone at Mary Magdalene. The more she thought about it, the more hurt she felt. She cupped her face with her hands and burst out crying. The old man came to console her. She told him everything. The old man tried to comfort her with encouraging words, asking her to go back to her homeland and try to turn over a new leaf. He was a senior journalist. He had recently come up with a lot of ideas about the conscience of a journalist, about how reporters should be careful and responsible.
In the end, Sen's cousin came to take her home. The old journalist consoled her again and looked after her until she disappeared in the cloud of dust of road and of life. He shook his head in disappointment, walking slowly to and fro, thinking…
Translated by Manh Chuong