by Trinh Bu
She was blessed with a good singing voice. But I knew she did not like singing when she was small. She only sang sometimes at parties with friends.
Her beauty was not exquisite, but she looked charming, and her bright complexion added to her attractiveness.
The first time I heard her singing, I felt I was being bathed in a stream amid the sound of rice-pounding pestles. To tell the truth, I did not want to look up at her face because her voice rang out so sweet. The mesmerising sounds seem to come from the lips of the moon.
I made her acquaintance. And I was in great despair when she said she was likened to a lark that sang just for fun. Her future lay ahead, so I could not understand why she had belittled her voice, which, to me, sparkled like diamonds, while she saw it as marbles for a child to play with.
Then war broke out and I joined the army. Over sixteen years later I returned and learnt that she was an actress with a cai luong (reformed opera) troupe in the province. I was very glad to know that she had become an actress in the true sense of the word.
I went to enjoy her performance, just to hear her voice. In the light of the stage, she looked magnificent in the costume of a powerful queen. I smiled, remembering her dream in the old days. Now she was there on the stage.
When she started singing, I sat stunned, feeling completely hopeless. What was this voice that I was listening to! I tried to listen, tried to abandon my soul to her voice, but I could not. It was not her soulful, sweet, ringing voice. She was singing to please and receive ovations from the young audience. I was sad and disappointed. She was using a false voice.
I went home with a heavy heart. I suddenly understood that at 30, she remained an actress in the province. She could not become a household name nationwide in the prestigious theatre! I felt regret at the waste of her talent. I went to see her. She was overjoyed at seeing me, a friend from her green years. She told me about the ups and downs in her life.
"After you left school, I graduated from the senior high school and enrolled in Sai Gon Law University. But after two years, I got married. My husband was a major in the Sai Gon army in charge of a district in the city85." She paused for a moment and continued, "My husband was ten years older than I, an experienced, talented, but unfaithful man. I was young then, so I needed good care and considerate treatment, but everything went up in smoke. I fell into loneliness and despair. After the liberation, my husband had to attend an ideological reeducation class, while I was at home and did not know what to do to sustain myself. Then I thought of my singing voice, and I have done this until today. But as you know, the reformed theatre is becoming less popular and revenues are poor."
"How much do you earn for each performance?"
"One hundred thousand dong, and this is spent for my make-up things, accommodation and food. When the rainy season comes, we stay at home and our life is very difficult."
"I know that some artists are very rich now."
"They are the stars, you see. They can earn millions of dong for a night"
After a moment, I spoke to her very frankly:
"Your voice in the old days was beautiful, very sweet. Not many famous artists today have a voice that can compare with what you had."
"This is a thankless job, you know. I joined some prestigious art troupes, but there was no future."
Then she told me about some famous actresses now who used to be her junior.
"Why are they famous?"
"They are young and beautiful, so they can attract the audience easily. And what's more, there is a hue and cry in the media for them."
Listening to what she said, I felt sorry for her. In her youth, she'd been both beautiful and talented, but she did not regard her singing voice as something that would fetch money or fame. Once past her prime, her life had landed in a blind alley, and she had to return to singing to make a living. She had never sung with all her heart for the art. Even now, she was trying to play a young role and sing with a young voice. This is why she had not succeeded. She still did not understand herself. She adopted very affected mannerisms on the stage. Yes, it was a stage, but the actress should live a true life on it. She could deceive herself, but not the audience.
Five years later, on a spring afternoon, two friends invited me to a bar and sit over a few drinks. It was a bit cold.
"Which one," I asked.
"Huong Bar. We can enjoy ourselves in the first days of the New Year."
I hesitated a bit because it was a beer hall where you could be served by and with girls. Seeing my hesitation, one of the friends asked: "Why? Are you afraid of your wife?"
I shook my head.
"No, it is not that, but I don't think it's good to drink beer in this cold air"
"If you don't like drinking beer, you can drink brandy and break the rule."
I understood what he was saying. I did not like brandy as a rule, but I liked to drink it and enjoy melodies on the one-string guitar. It soothed me. When I was still hesitating, my friend said:
"There is a girl singing nostalgic tunes very well at HF6F4ng Bar today. We are inviting you there just to give you a chance to enjoy that voice."
They had touched the right chord. I loved listening to old folk songs.
As we took our seats, one of my friends said: A famous actress will sing for us now. Very good singing voice, you will see."
The actress then walked in through the door, and stopped in her tracks upon seeing me. It was her. She blushed and I was startled. To stop her from feeling further confused, I stood up and invited her to sit down.
My friend asked, "Do you know each other?"
"We were school mates."
"Oh, this is great. You are old friends. So please make yourself at home!"
My friend enthusiastically invited her to raise a toast. She was a bit shy, and looked at me. I raised my glass to her. She said in a low voice:
"Why are you here?"
"My friends invited me here."
She looked at me with sad eyes. I sensed that she needed my sympathy. I said, "We haven't seen each other for ages. So today, it's fortunate for me that I can see you here, so let's drink to mark our meeting again."
I raised my glass, and she nodded her thanks. Her smile was still sad. My friends asked her to sing.
I tried to be polite, pretending to listen to her, but in my heart, I felt disappointed. But this only lasted for a short while. All of a sudden, I heard the appealing voice that had mesmerised me so much. I felt dazed. Was it the brandy or that sweet singing voice emanating from her heart?
When my friend congratulated her with standing ovation, I knew the song had ended. I looked at her in great sympathy. I regretted that she did not sing like that on the stage. I wondered why this lark forgot its singing voice when it was flying in the sky. Only when it was caged could it find its voice.
Translated by Manh Chuong