by Hao Nguyen
In the summer of my second year at university, I did not go back to my home village. Instead, I stayed in Hue. An acquaintance took me to work as a mason's assistant in Dan Nam Giao. I was reading Hermann Hesse at that time. I took along his novel Steppenwolf to read.
That was when I became acquainted with teacher Luu. I called him teacher because he was a monk. Teacher Luu was over thirty. He lived in an ancient Hue house. When the training season came, he stayed at the pagoda to study. After the class, he came back and lived in this tranquil house. He took an oath that when he chanted the prayers one hundred times, he would not come back to this house. At noon, I had lunch at a pavement food shop on Dien Bien Phu Road and then rested in Dan Nam Giao, reading the book under the pine canopy and having a nap.
Until the third afternoon, when I met a girl.
I was dead tired, so I could not read anything. As soon as I lay down on the grass, I slept right away. While I was sleeping soundly, I got startled. No sound was heard around. Nobody woke me up. I did not have a nightmare. Why did I wake up? No sooner had I opened my eyes when I saw a girl standing there. She looked at me, smiling.
The girl and I rode a bicycle up a hill and then downhill, turning right to where there was a hill of pine trees. We got into a lane running between the lush green pine trees. We had to take four more bends before an alley lined with bamboo trees unfolded before us. I was greatly surprised at the girl's house. It was a special residence, spacious, luxurious and tranquil, surrounded by age-old trees and bamboo trees. Those orchids were spreading a light fragrance around. Birds were singing. At the foot of the hill behind the house, the Huong (Perfume) River flowed in silence.
The girl took me to meet her maternal grandfather. He was about 60 years old and wore white silk clothes.
"Will you come here every day at eight in the morning and then stay until five in the afternoon? I'll pay you one million dong per month. I will also pay you ten thousand dong for your bicycle from Dap Da. Is it all right?"
I nodded without a second thought. At that time, a new university graduate working for a State agency would only make six hundred thousand dong per month. A mason's assistant like me could be paid only seventeen thousand dong a day. If I worked here, even though it was a far-flung place, the job was not so hard and the pay was so high. I would be a fool if I did not accept it.
My daily job was to help old Vu copy the family archives. Actually, he was hired to copy the family archives of other families. These family archives were very old and crumpled, so it was impossible to photocopy them. He copied the Han (Chinese) characters and I copied the Vietnamese language.
"Why don't you use a computer? There is Chinese software, you know," I asked the old man while I was writing the first copy.
"If you copy it with a computer, the archive will not have any soul. When they look at a hand-written archive, they can feel the soul of their ancestors and the breath of the history of their clans."
I did not pay attention, thinking that it was not necessary. If he used a computer, how would I get away from the job of a mason assistant? This way, I earned one million dong a month. In the first few days, the old man asked me to write each copy again and again.
"Your handwriting is nice, but you don't pay attention to it. Please re-write these pages."
After tens of pages, my wrists were so tired. On the third day, I got angry:
"I think it's all right to write that way. There is no problem here, you see."
"You won't go anywhere if you think like that," the old man said, looking skywards as if he was looking for something. "Look at those hibiscuses. Why do they have such a crimson colour? Why don't they have light red, pink or white colours? Why do these flowers turn crimson when they are in bloom?"
"Because they are red flowers."
"No, it's not that." The old man looked straight into my eyes. "They have only one chance to bloom. That is why they do it with all their hearts."
While the old man and I were copying the family archives, the girl disappeared. When we took a break, she reappeared to prepare tea for us; during lunch, she set the table. She was like a trail of smoke.
After a week, I was not asked to re-copy the archives anymore. I worked more seriously and had no more confused thoughts. I concentrated on the copying. One day, after lunch, the old man said to me:
"I'm busy this afternoon and I'll be back at three. Carry on your work alone, please."
I said yes and went to have a nap.
Then I got up and got down to business again. It was the second family archive. Outside, the wind was blowing hard. Thunder resounded upstream. The sky was overcast. I switched on the light. At that moment, the girl appeared like a trail of smoke.
In the garden, there was a lotus pond. There was a pavilion on the pond where old Vu had tea in the early morning and on moonlit nights. Sitting there, we could look down onto the Huong River and see the fishing boats. The taps on the boats to drive fish into the net rang in the tranquil air. The girl pointed to the foot of the hill where there were boats anchoring:
"It is a wharf down there, you know!" she said. "What's your name?"
"Danh. What about you?"
"My name is Yen."
I nodded. Yen was the name of the boat landing.
After that, I learned that she was only 16.
"Where do you study?"
"My maternal grandfather does not allow me to go to school."
"Why? Where are your parents?"
"They died a long time ago. My maternal grandfather brought me up. He taught me, saying that it is time-consuming to go to school," Yen said, smiling, revealing her dimples.
"What a strange man he is! He has all these weird ideas."
She did not say anything.
"So what have you learnt?"
"I've learnt how to see myself and to see words."
"Learn to see yourself?" I opened my eyes wide. "It's so strange!"
Yen looked at me with a mysterious smile.
After the copy of the second family archive was complete, old Vu felt satisfied. I only had to re-copy a few pages.
"A small mistake can spoil a bigger thing," he said to me in a serious voice. "The distance between light and darkness is not twelve hours or a semi-circle of the earth. It is only a wink of an eye. When you close your eyes, it is dark. When you open your eyes, it is light."
I was dumbfounded. Then I became absorbed in copying a whole page where I had made a minor mistake.
"We have this morning off."
It was the morning when we were preparing to write the third family archive. Sunlight shone through the leaves onto the ground. A bird was singing somewhere nearby.
"Have some tea. I'll be back in a moment."
I nodded good-bye to the old man.
"My grandfather said you have this morning off, didn't he?" Yen asked, looking after her grandfather. Her face was like a moon cropping up on the horizon, so bright and pure.
She sat on a chair. As I sipped the tea, I asked:
"I still don't understand why you fetched me that noon. Why not someone else?"
"It's no accident, you know!" she said, smiling.
"What do you mean?"
"My grandfather told me to do it."
"Your grandfather told you to do it?" I rounded my eyes at her.
"He told me to go at noon and find a sleeping student. You were covering your face with a book by Hermann Hesse, do you remember?"
As soon as Yen and I had finished the tea, the old man came back.
"Let's go. Be quick."
I was startled, looking at him and then at Yen. She nodded at me, her eyes glistening. I followed him and Yen walked behind me. We crossed a garden. After a moment, when I turned back, I could no longer see the house. It seemed the garden was boundless. It was tranquil all around. Only our footsteps were heard crunching on the dead leaves. At the end of the garden there was a small house, possibly a shed, but it was not, because it was built in ancient and luxurious style. He opened it. Yen and I followed him inside. There was only one room. In the middle there was a huge thing covered with a white cloth. I guessed it was a painting.
"Please sit down here." He pointed to a small chair.
I was confused, looking at Yen. She smiled at me gently, her eyes bright. I had a premonition that I was about to witness something unprecedented. She sat behind me. We were silent. The old man drew the white cloth off, but it was not a painting as I had guessed. It was a mirror, a large one, but it was old and no longer clear. Our reflections were dim.
"Can you see anything in the mirror?"
"Yes, but it's very blurry."
"What did you see?"
The old man and the girl seemed to say in chorus that there were three people in it.
"Yes, it's three people, but very blurry."
I wondered what they wanted me to see. I could not see anything else except for the three people and the wall behind.
He covered the mirror with the cloth and signaled us to go out.
On the way back to the main house, they said nothing while I was still wondering at the queer question about the mirror.
The day after that, old Vu told me to shift to work in the room with that mirror. So after my morning tea, I took the family archives to that room. When he finished copying one page of the archive in Chinese characters, I started to copy it in Vietnamese. When I made mistakes copying a page, he had to copy it again.
"It doesn't matter. It will be good for you."
I could not understand him. Was he afraid that I would woo the girl? I did not have such an idea in my head. And if he was afraid of it, he had the right to hire someone else. I thought about it over and over, but I failed to find out the answer. I had to leave it at that and follow his instructions in silence.
"Do remember to look into that mirror sometimes. If there is anything new, do tell me!"
I said yes. The morning passed and noon came; I took a break to have lunch and a short rest. I took the papers he had copied in the morning. At five, I went home. Actually, working in the mirror room helped me focus better on my work. Sometimes I withdrew the cloth and looked into the mirror. It seemed that the mirror was getting less dim. On the third day, I said something to the old man about it. He nodded:
"But can you see yourself much better?"
"Not yet. It's still very dim."
"I know. Go on with your work."
One night when I got home, I read the book for about one hour, from seven o'clock to eight o'clock. After that, I rode the bicycle to teacher Luu's. I prepared the tea and enjoyed it alone. Maybe teacher Luu was praying or taking notes on a Buddhist book. Sometimes he stopped and asked me some questions and then got absorbed in work again. I came back home at nine o'clock.
In the morning, I came to the mirror room and started the daily chore. When I closed the door, nothing from outside was heard. Old Vu's handwriting was beautiful. On the morning of the seventh day, I could understand it. What I had to do was not damage his writing.
I closed my eyes and thought about the blue sky.
I closed my eyes and thought about those clouds.
Still closing my eyes, I thought about the wind. My thought stopped at the wind.
At twelve, I had finished copying three pages. When I handed these pages to him, he looked at them and nodded.
It was mid-July. Old Vu said to me that I had to finish the archive book by the end of the month. Everything went smoothly. We had to re-write only two things. It seemed that with human smell, the mirror became brighter. Day in and day out, sitting opposite the mirror to copy the family archives, I could see the image of myself clearly reflected in it. The first week, it was still dim. By the third week, I could see clearly my fingers, the buttons on my shirt and some strands of hair on my forehead.
More than two-thirds of the archive had been copied.
In the last days of July, I had no time to look at the mirror frequently. There were about one hundred more pages. We had to race to return it to its owner in time. By the second-to-last day of the month, we had about ten pages. We slowed down, so I could sometimes have a look at the mirror. Now I could see my face clearly. At about four o'clock on the last day of July, the last page was finished. I dropped the pen and leaned on the chair. And I looked at the mirror.
My face was reflected clearly in it. The mirror had become bright again. It seemed to be a new mirror. I stood up and saw myself in it. I was clearly printed in the mirror. I smiled and nodded my greetings. My reflection in the mirror also smiled and nodded.
The first morning in August, while drinking tea, old Vu said:
"You've done better. I am really surprised. You've done a good job so quickly!"
"He also looked into the mirror."
"Yes. It's a miracle!"
I did not understand what they were talking about.
"You don't understand. Only a few people get the chance to look into that mirror. Others could not see themselves in it, let alone anything."
The old man nodded his head. I was still dumbfounded.
"Probably you still do not understand what has happened in the past two months. But let it be. What will come will come!" The old man signaled the girl. She came into the house and brought a book and an envelope.
"This is your monthly salary. And another family archive book. Take it home and read it. My niece and I have to go away for a time. In about one month, we'll be back. During this time, you can read the book. When you find it all right, come and see me."
She went to see me off at the head of the alley. The sky was dyeing the hill and the section of the river a violet color. A fisherman was sleeping on the boat. Somewhere, pine cones were heard dropping onto the ground.
"Do try or it will be late," the girl smiled, with those dimples. I nodded and rode away. I still could not understand why it would be late.
Teacher asked me if I had finished the job there and I answered "Not yet." He expressed his surprise and went on with his work. I sipped some tea and looked vaguely at the picture of Bodhidharma. I sipped some more tea and looked at the picture again.
For several nights, I went to see teacher Luu. The new school year began. Again I was busy with books, notebooks and exercise books. Every student seemed to be in a hurry and I was no exception. I was no longer free. But I came to see teacher Luu every night, just to sip some tea or listen to his praying, and then went home.
I was also confused.
The family archive book old Vu had given me in early August was completely blank.
For half a month, I thought about the archive book. At first, I thought the old man was mistaken by giving it to me. But I remembered his words: "When you find anything there, come to see me!" I remembered what Yen said to me about how to learn the way to see yourself, to see the words. I thought they were both wrong. Or perhaps this archive book contained something mysterious.
I asked a friend of mine in the chemistry department to fetch certain chemicals that could help read the white paper. I guessed the old man had played a dirty trick on me.
But I failed to make it say anything. It was clear that the book had only white paper. There was nothing in it.
When could I see it? And how?
Teacher Luu was absent for a week. I came to see him every night but I could not see him. I thought he could explain what had happened to me since Yen came to fetch me in Dan Nam Giao and tell me about this white paper archive book.
It was Sunday night and it was raining cats and dogs. I stood waiting for teacher Luu in the alley. It was about ten o'clock at night. I felt tired, but tried to wait. He would come back, I hoped. I was drenched. Right at that moment, teacher Luu tapped on my shoulder:
"You're wet to the bone!"
I followed him into the house. He handed me a dry towel to wipe off the rainwater. He prepared the tea and listened in silence to what I told him. When I finished, he was still silent. I also said nothing. There was a blackout. He lit a candle and looked out of the window. It was still raining.
A moment later, he said slowly in a low voice:
"It is your own task. I cannot meddle with it. And nobody else can do it."
"You can't even give me some advice?'
He looked at me in silence.
"Or an explanation?"
He smiled and shook his head. After a moment of silence, he looked at me, saying:
"Starting tomorrow, please don't come to see me."
"To tell you the truth, I should have gone already, but because you came to fetch me, I had to return here."
I opened my mouth in great surprise. How did he know that I came to fetch him?
"I know it," Teacher Luu said, looking at me gently. "I cannot help you, but I came back anyway. I told you that you cannot stand in the rain. You'll get wet. If you want to get dry, you've got to go home. Do you get me?"
I looked at him, still in confusion. He continued:
"I've got this for you."
I tried to reach for it, but I could not. How strange! I could not even touch his hand. I looked up for help. But I could not see anything, except my image in the mirror. The image in the mirror nodded at me and smiled. I fell onto the tea table.
When I woke up in bewilderment, the day had already broken. I looked around in surprise, then stood up in sadness. My head was heavy, so I tried to remember the night before. It was clear that I had gone into teacher Luu's house. Why was I now in front of the gate of his house?
I must have fallen in front of the gate last night and had a dream.
I had a fever for two days. When it was over, I looked at my watch and found that it was the third of September. One month had gone by since I received the archive book from the old man. Probably they had come back.
I put the book into the bag and slung it over my shoulder. Then I bicycled to his house. I wanted to find them and explained everything. This funny game should be stopped, even though it was a bit late.
I went through Dan Nam Giao, climbing up the slope and then down the slope, then turning right where I saw a pine hill. I continued to ride on a trail with pine trees on either side. I took another four bends and an alley lined with bamboo trees appeared. I heaved a deep sigh and looked around.
In front of me, there was no house at all, only a pot of land with bamboo trees. There was not any sign that there used to be a house here. I dropped the bicycle onto the ground, opening my eyes wide. Sweat was running down my spine. After a few minutes standing there in great confusion, I suddenly took the book out of the bag just in the hope that this was a true story, not a dream. I was trembling, turning every page of the family archive book, hoping to see anything there. Who knew, maybe a miracle would happen. What if I saw words on those white pages of the book, and old Vu and the girl Yen appeared from those bamboo trees, telling me why I could not see the house or them? But the more I turned the pages, the more hopeless I became. All the papers were blank. I looked up at the blue sky, feeling empty all over.
Old Vu, Yen! Do you hear me? Which clan does this family archive book belong to?
To the clouds from prehistoric times?
I stood alone in the morning wind. The sky remained blue.
My whole body was trembling.
Right at this time, the whole book became so light.
As if it was nothingness.
I looked around.
A trail of blue smoke was flying upward in sadness.
I followed it.
The family archive book with no words had turned into that trail of blue smoke, flying gradually upwards, leaving me behind on the immense, deserted earth.
The trail of blue smoke flew higher and higher and disappeared in the morning sun.
It was like nothingness.
Translated by Manh Chuong