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A Portrait Of The Deseased

Update: June, 14/2015 - 00:34

Illustration by Doã Dung

by Duong Ky Anh

Artist Thanh Doan looked up at the dark foliage and listened to the cracking sound of rubber tree fruits. Sunlight shone through the thin layer of leaves onto the ground, creating a fan-shaped light. A wierd scene caught his attention. A 9-year-old boy was tied to a tree. Four or five boys of the same age stood around, kicking up a racket. One boy pointed a sharp knife at the captive boy.

At first he thought it was a game, but a closer look revealed the anger in the eyes of the boy tied up. He rushed foward and seized the knife. It was a wooden knife.

The boys scattered at his unexpected appearance. He stooped to untie the boy.

"What game are you playing?"

The boy shook his head.

"What's your name?"

Silence.

"Is your house near here?"

The boy remained silent. He leaned against the tree, his hair tousled and shirt torn. He might have wrestled with the boys earlier. Doan felt the boy was trying to contain the heavings in his chest. Something abnormal had happened, he thought. He took the boy's hand and said: "Let me take you home."

The boy let the artist take his hand, but he did not move. He stood still by the tree. The artist was getting a bit irritated when he heard a voice cry out:

"Oh, my son!"

The boy ran to the voice. The artist turned around and saw a young woman carrying a bucket of latex in one hand. The boy embraced his mother, and cried his heart out. Then he spoke in a low voice that the artist could not hear. Doan turned and walked fast back to the trail that ran as far as the eye could see along the rubber tree lines.

The first strokes of his brush that would form a picture were already coming into his mind.

The next morning, he took his easel, brushes and pastels and went deep into the rubber plantation. His steps took him, unbidden, to where the boy had been tied the day before. It was a peaceful dawn and the birds were twittering their songs. He walked on until he saw some houses with corrugated roofs that stood close to red-tiled two-storey houses.

In a spacious, airy area that offered a panoramic view, he put down his bag and began to work, forgetting his surroundings altogether. After a while, when he looked up, he found the boy standing behind him, looking at his sketch. The boy looked different. He wore a thin T-shirt, and looked clean and handsome.

He stopped and signalled the boy to come near, but there was no response. The artist walked towards the boy:

"Do come. Do you like this?" - He showed the picture. The boy nodded his head. He remained guarded.

"Is your house near here?"

"Yes, it's near, uncle."

"Where?" - The artist turned towards the hamlet.

"It's over there…."

"Is it that last corrugated-roof house?"

"Yes, it is."

The artist smiled.

"Which grade are you in?"

"I don't go to school. My mother teaches me."

The artist did not ask any more questions. They sat down together. Then he took out a piece of paper and started to draw the boy. As the boy looked fixedly at the artist, his face took shape gradually on the paper. When he was done, Doan gave the picture to the boy, who cried out in surprise:

"Oh, it looks very much like me!"

There were a lot of people on the trail to the hamlet. Some of them looked at the artist curiously and said something to each other. He looked at his watch. It was 11. The wind began to blow hard. Dark clouds appeared in the sky. The rubber plantation turned dark and it began raining. The artist quickly collected his drawing kit and ran after the boy to the house at the head of the hamlet. The boy quickly pushed the door open. The artist put the easel in a corner of the house. The boy was joyful as he took a stool and asked the artist to sit down.

Very soon, the young mother appeared in the yard. Drenched in the rain, her youthful body was accentuated. She stopped in surprise after entering the house. Doan stood up:

"I'm sorry for this suddenness. The rain came down so fast…."

"Do sit down, please," - she said and went into the room.

The boy took a coconut into the kitchen and a moment later, with a beaming face, came out with a glass of coconut water. He invited the artist to drink. Doan nodded his thanks. Then he lit a cigarette and looked around. The house was clean, with a shining floor. Everything was in order. But he felt that there was something missing - a man in the house.

A moment later, the woman appeared in thin silk clothes. The keen eyes of the artist discerned that the lady was not born to be a rubber plantation worker. She looked as beautiful as the models he used for his paintings.

The rain stopped as fast as it started. The sound of a motorbike drew near. A Honda turned into the yard and stopped right at the door.

"Sorry, are you artist Thanh Doan?"

"Yes!" The artist said in great surprise.

"The director of the plantation asked me to take you to see him."

"How did you know I was here?"

"I asked some workers in the hamlet."

The artist stood up. He thanked the lady and rubbed the boy's head with affection.

As the Honda got back on to the road, the artist asked:

"What do you do in the plantation?"

"I'm in charge of the guards' team."

"Is her husband a soldier of the Sai Gon regime?"

There was a moment's silence, then he slowed down and said:

"Her unmarried husband was a cruel Sai Gon army officer, and he fled to a foreign country."

"Why was he an unmarried husband?"

"The revolutionary army came before they could organise the wedding…. But they had a boy together. That's the boy you met."

The artist felt a bit unsettled.

"I understand."

The next day, the artist took his painting bag to the forest again. The same scene was being played out again. The boy was tied to the tree and the others were making the same noises, as if they had hunted down a wild animal.

"Kill this brutal thug!"

"Kill him!"

"Kill him, let's kill this thug!"

The boys saw the artist, but they did not run away. They stood back to back instead.

"Who allowed you to do this? Who?" - the artist shouted in anger.

From then on, the artist felt sudden rushes of anger. Whenever he was moved or angry, his face turned pale, he clenched his teeth and his eyes looked wild and fearful.

He met the director of the rubber plantation and told him everything he'd seen.

"I do know this…." - the director said with a pensive look. "Two years ago, her father, who used to be the plantation owner's secretary, sent a letter of guarantee, inviting her to go to France. I reported it to the local authority, which supported it. I met her here in the office and told her, but she shook her head. I pity her and the boy with all my heart. This hatred must be neutralised. It is high time that we start sympathising and reconciling. I did have some room to intervene in this case, but it was still difficult."

"Did she want to stay back?" - the artist asked.

"Right after the liberation of the South, she came to meet the leaders of the plantation and applied to work as a latex extractor. She had to work very hard from the very first day. I intended to arrange another job for her, but many opposed it. There must be some secret, but she would not speak it! When this rubber plantation was returned after the revolution, she was still in Sai Gon…. She worked diligently…. She learnt the job well and got used to it. Everything was going smoothly until several months ago. It was probably instigated by some grown-ups, but it has encouraged these boys to do this cruel thing to her son.…."

***

One afternoon the artist was sitting and looking at his painting intently when he heard a step rustle the dried leaves behind him. He turned and caught the sad black eyes of the woman.

"Yes. Are you looking for me?"

"Yes. I would like you to do me a favour," she said.

"What can I do for you? Shall we meet in the plantation guesthouse?"

"Are you afraid of being a party to….?" She said, smiling.

"What should I be afraid of? Nothing to fear. Do sit down," - the artist said, feeling a bit hurt.

"I would like you to draw a portrait. I'll pay you what you ask."

"Your portrait?"

"Oh, no! I would like you draw a portrait of the deceased!"

"The deceased? Can you explain?"

"He was a liberation fighter, the boy's father, but everybody thinks …."

"Is he not your son?"

"Why? Of course he is my son. I gave birth to him!" - Tears flowed out of the young mother's eyes.

"I still don't understand ," the artist said.

"Nothing difficult to understand," she responded with a far-way look in her eyes. "During the war, I fell in love with a liberation fighter. My son is his son. He has never returned… I did report this to the responsible people, but they don't believe me, only because I am…."

The artist tried to calm himself. He wondered if he'd heard it wrong. But the woman was sittting right in front of him, in the flesh. Her story went back to when she was 17 years old, in the prime of her life. She was called Little Hai, but her birth name was Tran Thi Ly Thuan. Ly Thuan's father was a Northerner, an agricultural expert, and he was the secretary of the BRC rubber plantation. He had three children. His first son followed his career. After he graduated from a Paris university, he returned home and worked as the secretary for the BRC rubber plantation, like his father. The father owned a rubber plantation in the disputed zone. There were two administrations at that time. The Sai Gon regime controlled the zone during the day, and the revolutionary administration ruled the zone at night. Ly Thuan's father had to act like he was on both sides. He gave medicine and supplies to the liberation army.

Ly Thuan was sent to Sai Gon to study when she was 14. One year before Sai Gon was liberated, she was arrested twice by the Sai Gon regime because she had taken part in the anti-war movement, but she was released because of her father's contacts. Her father only told her to be careful, he did not prohibit her from joining the anti-war movement. She had joined the patriotic movement popular among Sai Gon students at that time. The last summer was a dream for her at her father's rubber plantation.

At that time, a liberation army team had infiltrated the plantation to get medicines in the night, but they were ambushed by Sai Gon soldiers. As the fight raged, Ly Thuan was very tense. She could not sleep. In the morning, she got up early and went out to see what had happened. She saw a man lying unconscious close to the water tank. She tiptoed closer. He was a liberation fighter. He suddenly opened his eyes in fear and tried to get up on seeing the girl, but could not. He had lost a lot of blood. He signalled for some water. Ly Thuan quickly ran to her room and got water for him. The liberation fighter recovered gradually. On the second night, he had almost fully recovered.

He told her: "Thank you for saving me. I have to go now. When my wound is fully healed, I'll come to see you. Are you the youngest daughter of the plantation's owner? If so, your name must be Ly Thuan."

Her eyes widened, but she said nothing.

One day, the liberation fighter disguised himself as a latex extractor and broke into the plantation. He knew where the girl often sat reading. It was a sunny afternoon. He appeared out of nowhere.

"Oh my God! You scared me to death!" she exclaimed.

"What are you reading, Thuan? Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky?"

She looked at him in surprise. He understood her look. "Do you think we liberation fighters are illiterate?" She found that he looked quite different from the day he was seriously wounded. He told her that he was a third-year student. She was surprised again.

"Look, can you tell me something about the North? Because my father's homeland is also in the North."

"When the country is reunified, I'll take you up there. I'll tell my mother about you."

At the sound of a military car of the Sai Gon army, he quickly took leave of Thuan.

One night, she heard a knock on the door. She thought the Sai Gon soldiers were out to trouble her. She pressed her ears to the keyhole and heard a low voice:

"Thuan, it's me…."

She opened the door. In the dim light of the night lamp, she recognised the liberation fighter. She pulled him into the room and closed the door quickly.

"How did you get in?" - She asked in a low voice.

"I've been here since noon. I hid myself behind the water tank…."

She knew he had to stay until daybreak, when he would be able to blend in among the rubber plantation workers and get out.

Night fell. It was quiet all around. He told her to go to bed and lay down on the floor. At about 2a.m. unable to contain herself, she called to him. He climbed onto the bed and they embraced and kissed ardently, forgetting everything in the world.

When she got up in the morning, she could not understand what had happened during the night. She buried her face in the pillow and cried. After some time, she quickly changed her clothes and did the laundry. She looked at the young man lying on the bed, sleeping soundly like a boy. She could not believe her eyes. They say that if you make your bed, you must lie in it, she thought to herself.

They parted at 8 o'clock. He disguised himself again as the rubber plantation worker. She went back to Sai Gon. Before he left, he told her: "Sai Gon is going to be liberated. I'll be back for you…. If you agree, we will marry each other. If I don't come back, it means I have died in battle."

Artist Doan listened to the woman's story, his eyes glued to her beautiful face as it expressed different emotions. He was moved. After she finished telling her story, she pulled a small photo out of her pocket. More than 10 liberation fighters were sitting in the picture, all of them smiling. The artist looked carefully at the photo and said:

"I'll help you. Don't worry!"

He put all his heart and soul into this work of art. He walked around her room, trying to imagine a picture of when they loved each and when she waited for him by the window. Then he walked into the forest to where the liberation fighter had been wounded and tried to crawl his way out of of the enemy's encirclement. And then he imagined the day when the liberation fighter came back on victory day to be with his lover. In a dusty uniform he ran towards her with his arms wide, waiting to embrace her….

He was amazed that the woman had been waiting her lover for so many of years despite a grievous misunderstanding.

After a month of hard work, he finished the painting. After he took the full-length painting to the woman, he felt completely exhausted. When the cloth covering the painting was pulled down, she burst into tears. She pulled her son close to the painting and said:

"Your father has come home, my son!"

The boy blinked his eyes, looking at the young fighter in the painting. He felt the man in the picture calling to him: "My dear son, I'm coming home!"

The portrait of the liberation fighter was set in the fan-shaped light shining through the rubber trees. In the distant horizon was a red skyline…

Translated by Manh Chuong

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