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The White Swan

Update: January, 19/2015 - 13:41

Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy

by Vu Hoang Lam

At the Prosek bus stop, Hung often met a blonde girl in her late teens whose hair was usually adorned with a red silk ribbon. Every time, spotting the sparkling little flame of her blonde hair from afar, his heart beat wildly. His face then turned hot and his feet seemed to move more quickly. Her clothes were fairly simple: a blouse with a wide neck, a white swan floating on the ripples which were cleverly embroidered on the left breast and an unfashionable skirt. Whenever he saw her, a vaguely affectionate feeling surged up in his heart. "Is she a student from a poor family?" he asked himself.

However, his question had so far remained unanswered for he had no opportunity to make her acquaintance. Whenever he reached the roofed bus stop early and stood inside, she came later and stood outside, reading a book attentively. On the contrary, whenever she came to the place early and saw him coming from afar, she stood up and went out immediately. A few minutes later, when the bus arrived, she got on first and moved towards the back while he just sat down in a front seat. Strangely, she seemed to wish to stay apart from him whenever possible.

Under these circumstances, he was filled with rage. To the best of his knowledge, most of his compatriots only thought of their own way of living: to get rich, then increase their initial capital by up to three or four times. Furthermore, they would change the money into profitable goods to sell at home. In order to carry out this purpose, they went in search of Czech household commodities available in supermarkets or in junk shops that they could buy and send to Viet Nam. Soon Hung came to know clearly the dealings of his fellow countrymen and recognise the strange behaviour of that Czech girl at the bus stop. Worse still, the more deserted the stop became, the more frightened of him she felt.

***

When Hung checked in at the local condo for Room 504, a great trafficking boom among overseas Vietnamese was developing in then-Czechoslovakia.

One day a guy came to him and introduced himself: "I'm Hong the Fat, a dealer of electronic devices here. I've stayed in this country for three years." Taking Hung to his flat, he showed him a large built-in cupboard on the wall in which there were a lot of PC spare parts and electronic timepieces and smiled a satisfied smile.

"Each of these items may cost scores of kurona," he said. "They are all strange to you now. Yet soon you can get accustomed to them all and even become an expert in these affairs one day. In this country, the number of experts of that type can be counted on your fingers. They've each got a luxury car and you'd be unable to reach their level of prosperity overnight. All of them conduct extensive illegal dealings with the ex-Yugoslavians here. In the world of foreign smugglers, dark schemes are not rare things, so you must keep vigilant. Not to mince matters, here Western girls might turn mischievous too," he went on.

Hearing the man's account, Hung felt extremely embarrassed because the description about the secret society there was quite alien to him.

"One day, you'll have a glamorous Western girlfriend with blue eyes, white skin and brown hair!" Hong encouraged him further with a sniggering peal of laughter.

"That means that you've made acquaintance with lots of Czech ladies?" Hung asked.

"Of course! Anyway, 'Money makes the mare go,' you see," said Hong. "Roughly speaking, you can hardly deny such a nice and sweet Western girl."

In fact, none of the men around him shared this idea. Diep made loose-fitting jeans industriously, night and day. Each cost 150 korunas, but for his friends, he sold them for 100 korunas. Phuong took photos for conferences, weddings and funerals just for love, not for money. Others had to eke out their living by working overtime. Except for a few guys who lost all their fortunes gambling or went bankrupt, all the others earned their bread honestly.

After many a contact with his friends, Hung began putting forwards a working plan for himself: to master the Czech language. "Thanks to my five-year stay in this country, I'll be able to achieve my aim easily," he whispered to himself. "Although I couldn't finish my secondary education in my native town due to the fact that my father died young and that I had to spend most of my time to help my mother during my childhood, surely I'll become a qualified translator or a good diplomat."

One day, he asked a Czech teacher for help learning the language.

"Where do you work?" she asked him with a suspicious attitude.

"A local machine factory."

"There's no need to learn our language, I think."

"Your towering cathedral standing over there, built in the 15th century, speaks volumes for your culture. I wish to learn Czech so that I might know your country better."

She handed him a book: "So can you summarise this whole book in two pages and give it back to me tomorrow?"

"I'll try!"

The next day, he gave her the summary. She was greatly amazed, eyes wide open.

"Although I'm very busy now, I'll teach you twice a week, on Sunday afternoon and another lesson on Thursday, either morning or afternoon. Is that OK?"

So three times a week, he took a bus to her place from that bus stop.

One afternoon, when it was raining cats and dogs, he hurried to the stop. From afar, he perceived the red band on her blonde hair. Breathing heavily, he stopped at the notice board of the bus services.

"The rain will soon come to an end, I think," remarked an elderly woman standing inside the roofed shelter. "What's more, our bus might turn up in a few minutes."

Unluckily for Hung, the rain was getting heavier and heavier and the bus was no nowhere to be seen. He felt extremely cold because raindrops kept coming down on his head, then dripping into his collar.

"Why are you staying over there?" the woman reproached the girl with blonde hair in an angry voice. Hung turned round, nodding his thanks. Walking inside the hut, she told the teenager, "How could you dare to ill-treat your darling so severely and let him stay outside the stop that long? Get out and lead him in," she went on.

Obeying her suggestion, the girl approached the notice board, expressing her annoyance in an arrogant voice.

"You just stand there so it looks like I'm to blame? Get in, will you?" she said.

"And you'll step in, too?" he asked.

"What a question!"

"Because whenever I go in, you come out, you see. Well, your blonde hair will soon get wet."

She stared at him fixedly. Teardrops trickled over her cheeks.

"You really worry for my health, don't you? Well, let's go in, shall we?"

They stood in a corner of the hut. She put her hands on his wet shoulders, eyes glistening with tears.

***

"Frankly speaking, your friends have done crazy things. I feel nervous whenever I see any of them from afar," the girl said to Hung.

From inside the bus stop, an old woman said loudly to both of them: "Now stop getting sulky with each other, will you? God teaches us that we'd better cease being angry with one another until the sun goes down."

"Thank you very much for your helpful advice," Hung told the kind-hearted elderly woman.

"I've never met any Vietnamese who can speak Czech as fluently as you," said the girl.

"Many thanks for your praise."

"During my childhood I used to live in Viet Nam too," she told him.

"Really! How old were you then?"

"About four. But now I'm unable to remember much about Ha Noi. Well, here comes our bus. Please give me your address so that I may come to you on the upcoming holiday," she told him.

When the holiday came, Hung wanted to give his friends a surprise. Therefore, he prepared everything to welcome her, including a camera borrowed from Phuong.

Sadly, she did not arrive that day. Instead, she sent him an invitation to her birthday party. Thanks to the card, he knew her name was Ivetta. He read it again and again, word after word.

Not until ten in the evening did he come to her place. Upon his arrival, he found her friends were having a good time on the little lawn at the back of her dwelling for dancing. On the green grass, there were three rows of tables arranged in a U shape. On another small table very close to them stood some music equipment. There was also a row of tables on which a lot of foods and drinks were displayed. A little farther away, a barbecue was sending up a sweet fragrance of grilled meat. In the dim light, pairs of dancers were waltzing round and round.

"You're too late," she reprimanded him.

"If I knew that all of you were having a good time, I'd have come here much later," he retorted.

"Why?" she asked, staring at him in a surprised way.

"Because I wanted to be the only one to come here to say 'Happy Birthday to You!'"

"Oh, I see, I see. Now can you meet my mother and greet her?"

She dragged him out of the crowd to lead him into the lounge. Mrs. Zena, her mother, watched him from top to toe, smiling broadly.

"This young gander looks quite handsome!" remarked the elderly woman. "It's likely that he was too busy grazing tender grass here and there to get here early."

The brightly lit room with multi-coloured lights seemed to have turned him into another young man. In fact, on the way to Ivetta's house, he had planned a lot of things, but now in front of such an elegant lady, he was like a bull in a china shop. He took an electronic watch, a rare thing in Czechoslovakia then, out of his pocket and let it go round her wrist.

"I hope that your pair of swan wings will float along with your dreams," he told her.

"Oh dear! How clever you are to make her that pleased!" said the woman in a cheerful voice. She led him to a wall full of Vietnamese pictures: a few silk paintings with rural scenery, some portraying Ha Long Bay and many others with Vietnamese girls in conical hats with ivory or wooden ornamental things.

"So, have you ever been to Viet Nam?" he asked her.

"I went to the Cau Duong Match-Making Factory and a shoe factory in Hai Phong."

"So you visited Hai Phong City and Ha Long Town?"

"Yes I did, but just for a short time."

"Hai Phong is my native town. It was destroyed by enemy bombs and rockets. My father laid down his life in a Southern battlefield. I was the only source of consolation for my mother."

"I hope that our house will turn into a resting place for you while you're away from home. Agreed?" she suggested.

"Thank you ever so much. I couldn't expect more."

"It may be a little green prairie with a fresh, clear stream for our exotic gander," she said jokingly.

"Ma'am, this is a nice place for the swan as well."

While the dancing music was still echoing, Ivetta put her hand on his shoulder, her body swaying slightly.

"Mum, you'd better stay outside please," she requested her mother.

At once, she stepped out for the young couple to enjoy their free moments.

He stared at her lily-white neck, partly covered by the lace hem of her blouse, from which a sweet scent wafted to his nose.

She sat down on the settee and slightly swept her hair backwards. By her side, his hands lifted it a bit and delicately rubbed it over his face.

"Your blonde hair makes me greatly embarrassed. Never in my life have I been beside a fairy, like in a tale," he said to her in a deeply moved voice.

"You've exaggerated things too much. I'm still a far cry from your remarks."

All of a sudden, he released himself from her hug as if afraid of something precious that might be broken. Hurriedly he walked past the door.

"Excuse me, my dear! Bye-bye, I must be going home now," he said to her in a hasty voice.

After that, he ran away at full speed. In the street, the traffic was not as heavy as it had been during the daytime.

Suddenly, he heard Hong the Fat's comments resound in his ears.

Blue eyes, white skin and brown hair

Appeal so strongly that you feel regretful

For having failed to enjoy her gentle air.

Be bold enough, you'll find it really wonderful.

"Oh no! How can I go beyond my chosen path? I must be careful in my choice: what's basic can stay for ever and what's ephemeral can vanish," he said to himself.

After a long time, he had not seen the little flame sparkling on the silk ribbon over her blonde hair. He was in a daze of nostalgia. Perceiving the silhouette of a girl from afar, he thought of Ivetta on her birthday. He wondered which of his friends frightened him with his wicked behaviour, keeping her away from his company. On the weekends, he often read novels in his hired flat.

Since he met Ivetta, he stayed at home all day long writing poems. "Poets of worldwide recognition have their romantic works, so I must have some of my own," he promised himself.

One afternoon, while he was writing in his diary, his doorbell rang loudly. It turned out that the visitor was none other than Ivetta. She hugged him tightly.

"Have you missed me?" she asked him. "I'm coming from Dresden via Fusikova Station. I came to visit you immediately."

"Oh dear. How happy I am! By the way, read this one, my dear," he said, showing a sheet of paper to her.

For Evitta,

Your hands turn into a green tree shading my face

Holding your hands, I feel I walk under a shady place.

My heart goes pit-a-pat, like the bird's chirrups on the branch…

Taking off her coat, she hurriedly prepared dinner.

They listened to music on TV. She swayed to the slow rhythm of the music.

In the street, the rumbles of armoured cars gradually died down. The dark began covering the canopies. Inside his room, he got excited in the waves of love. He was unable to resist what Ivetta had stirred in his heart. They waltzed out and in until they were dead tired. She switched off the music. She took a long draught of brandy from the table and poured the rest between his lips. She lit a cigarette and took a drag, then placed it in his mouth. By the dim light of the lamp on the small bedside table, she dropped onto the bed.

"Well, my dear gander, do you know how the female goose calls her lover?" she asked him.

Hung was like a dull boy learning the first lesson about love. She hugged him tightly against her breasts and poured burning kisses on his body. He turned quite obedient and submissive. He felt as if he were in seventh heaven.

Several days later, she took him to the nearby river to contemplate its melting ice. Then they walked across the ancient bridge built early in the 13th century. Her blonde hair swept over his face.

One day, she pressed his head against her breasts.

"I'm going to inform you of one important thing: I wish to have a child with you," she told him.

"In my native village, the inhabitants have a similar sense of humour," he said, kissing her hair.

"No, no, it's no joke!" She placed her finger on his forehead.

"I don't want to displease your mother, my darling."

"Such an idea doesn't really exist in this Western land, my dear foolish gander."

"My beloved Ivetta, I have my old mother at home to care for. How can I have the heart to let her live alone there?"

"Oh no! I don't intend to marry you. I only want to have a child with you and I'll raise him by myself, that's all."

***

She bore him a nice baby boy with black hair, blue eyes and a straight nose. Looking at the newborn baby sucking his mother's tits, he felt extremely happy. He knelt down in front of her in deep gratitude.

In the melting season, young buds began bursting out on dry twigs.

The period of homecoming of overseas Vietnamese employees was drawing near. Hung intended to put his name on the list of the last group for repatriation. He sent home letters through the first departing members to tell his mother about his situation in the foreign land.

"When you receive my letter, please hire a 10-seat minibus to take my mother to Noi Bai International Airport to welcome my return home," he told Thuong, one of his best friends, before he left.

"You'd better come to our embassy to register your departure as soon as possible, then phone me at once," he advised Hung.

In the lounge of the embassy, Mr Han, the secretary, opened the registration book. "Your name isn't on the list for the next turn," he said to Hung. "Strangely, your working contract has come to an end. You'd better ask your employer to see what has happened."

It turned out that Ivetta had requested Hung's boss keep him back because of private reasons.

"What shall I do now?" he asked his company director.

"Miss Ivetta must sign this document to declare that everything has been solved appropriately and that her above-mentioned proposal is null and void."

Immediately, he went back to Mrs Zena's place.

"Over the past weeks, Ivetta just cried and cried," she told him. "I don't want my daughter to be driven into such a lamentable mood."

"Mom, we've agreed on that matter."

"No more explanations! Take her and little Dusek home immediately, will you?"

Seeing Hung, she stopped pushing the pram and hugged him tightly.

"His first tooth has already come through," she said in a joyful voice. "Now put him on the bed, darling!"

"My beloved Ivetta, I've been away from home for five years. Now I must go back to settle Mom's affairs there. After that, I'll come back here to live with you and Dusek forever. Would you mind signing here on your proposal?"

She embraced him tightly and signed it at once, then said to him in a lovely voice, "I wish to have a baby girl soon. Is it okay? When they grow up, we'll travel across the world."

"How will I be able to live here longer when my contract has ended?"

"Don't worry about that! You'll certainly get a job easily when you become a Czech citizen," she told him. "Now, you'd better relax a bit before we have dinner."

During the meal, he drank and drank a lot before falling asleep.

"I must… return. Let me… come back home. Please forgive me…" he muttered during his dream.

Ivetta couldn't understand his request in Vietnamese. All she could do was to provide him with a sound sleep.

Translated by Van Minh

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