|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Vu Le
It was an early morning in summer. The sun was shining over the tree canopies along the street. In the afternoon, the bright yellow light began spreading on hi-rises.
In summer most of the motel rooms were occupied. Therefore the housekeeper, Chieu, had to arrive to work earlier than usual to carry out a lot of tasks, say, counting the rent for James, doing the laundry for Andy and tidying the room for Atsume. At work, she felt as happy as if she were working in her own house, always busy welcoming guests. Although she did not remember many of the guests' names, she could call the room number of each during their stays for just a few days or for several months on end. Among the latter groups, some left behind a lot of odds and ends before continuing their unfinished trips.
Sometimes, looking at those cast-away things, she burst out crying since many of them were what she usually dreamed of: untold books, strange coins, and so on and so forth.
"Perhaps they wanted to throw away many unnecessary things to make their next journeys easier," she said to herself.
Walking across the motel showroom, she smiled when she found her own image on a large mirror.
"Though I'm a poorly educated girl from a needy family, I go downtown every day to work in one of the richest districts in Sai Gon," she whispered to herself. "On a boneshaker bicycle I ride to a little motel situated in a less busy side street and pressed between high blocks of flats. In fact, I feel very close to those thrifty tourists."
Her motel was a French-style villa, neglected for a long time, with a small brick courtyard. Its drive was overgrown with mint and rosemary bushes. In reality, it was a beautiful and a bit old-fashioned building that possessed a fine past, quite different from others that had been improved and embellished according to the modern trends of society. It seemed to be a place that might be bound up with nostalgic souls. Each of its residents seemed to have an untold story. In every room, there was a small cabinet which seemed to store a lot of secret things inside, whose keys were in Chieu's hand – a one-hole ukelele musical instrument from Andy, a bamboo ashtray full of cigarette butts from Atsumi. All the things in a resident's room appeared secret to her.
Once the middle-aged, Korean Atsumi suggested that if Chieu would be his girlfriend, she would lead the idle life of a housewife with a single task: go shopping. Consequently, she was on tenterhooks. By chance, while tidying the room of Mrs. Nguyen, a Vietnamese woman good at Korean, Chieu overheard her reply to that Korean man in a depressed voice or found a torn photo with only Nguyen and her smiling little boy intact, while the man's face was disfigured. So Chieu turned a deaf ear to the Korean man's sweet words. A few days later, when she saw the Korean guy taking to a young Vietnamese girl with a calm and submissive look, Chieu wished to say a few words to her, for instance, "Raise your head high and go in search of another decent job, instead of following him," but she just kept quiet. Ironically, Chieu was also looking forward to a better life.
Chieu picked up the coins that James unintentionally dropped at the foot of his bed while she was tidying his room and put them all in a vase. "Maybe some day I'll take a journey with them," she whispered, laughing at her romantic mood. "Yet, where might I go when I've never gone beyond the boundary of this town?" she asked herself. What she did every day was watch residents coming and going with their knapsacks. "If only they hadn't have left the ukulele or the bamboo ashtray, I'd have taken a stealthy glance at them, even only once!" she said to herself.
One day, when the noticeboard had just been put up, a Western man with reddish brown, curly hair entered the motel. His rucksack sent forth a fragrance of cinnamon and anis, which loaded her inquisitive mind with numerous questions. What made her fairly pleased and extremely surprised was the fact that he rented an attic room. Another new cabinet full of secrets and fragrances might be waiting for her!
Not until the afternoon sunshine faded away and the streetlights turned on would she leave the motel for home. In fact, she did not want to return to her place early when her pretty mother remained at home, before she went to the karaoke bar to waitress. She was afraid of her mother's grumbles about Chieu's loneliness. Contrary to her daughter's unpractical mind, she was down to earth in this matter.
Although Chieu had explained a lot to her, she remained stubborn. Sometimes, Chieu felt very upset. "Is she really my mother? She's never listened to me," she asked herself sadly. At the age of 10, she told her mother that she would like to go to school, but her mother only put a small box of name cards into her hand then resolutely went away. "The die is cast," Chieu said to herself. She knew that from that moment on, she had to support herself entirely. Now that she was 18 years old, Chieu continued dreaming of schooling. In the meantime, her mother remained at work in the karaoke bar and at night she eked out her living by serving men's carnal desires, for she remained good-looking. What's more, she was unable to do anything else to earn money but make use of her beauty and body.
"Why does she go to work so late today?" Chieu asked herself.
"Stop working," said her mother. "Accept the Korean's proposal or the Western guy's suggestion. To the final analysis, your mother is but a prostitute," she admitted.
Saying so, she left home. The makeup hid the sorries on her face. Her beauty gradually ruined her heart and soul.
"Who has crushed her so lamentably?" Chieu asked herself. "Men or my father? Is it Dad who has relied upon his distortions to separate me from Mum? Besides, he has tried to instill into my mind the image of a gentle, generous and ambitious man," she went on. Yet, her mother never disclosed anything about him, so Chieu's origins had so far remained a mystery to her.
"Is it the fact that Mum picked me, an abandoned baby girl, up to raise with a view to binding me with a certain foreigner for her own profit?" Chieu often asked herself.
Chieu just wept and wept. Soon she fell asleep in her dark flat. Every night her mother was wrapped up in the arms of her lover; then her mother got up and, in a mini skirt, went to work early to leave her little one in his care in the dark. When he went out too, she cried and cried. Of course, that happened a very, very long time ago.
Now Chieu had reached adulthood. Yet she kept on dreaming of lying in her arms at least once again. Although Chieu was often alone in her dark room, she felt quite safe and sound.
It turned out that the newcomer in the attic was a Frenchman. He was no longer young, but not old either. "What does he carry along in his trip?" she asked herself, waiting for something new in her adventurous mind. Surprisingly, he stayed in his cozy nest throughout the day, as if he were an escaped convict, not a tourist at all.
Once, while putting the wet laundry to dry on the balcony, she watched him writin, with blue smoke curling up from his ashtray. Late in the afternoon when she took the dry things downstairs, she also found him totally engrossed in writing. Before returning to her flat, she saw him remain at work in his room.
Now her mother did not go to the bar late in the evening as usual. She told Chieu that she would soon go to the US with an overseas Vietnamese. "Later, I'll return home to take you to that promising country," she said to Chieu in an icy voice with a satisfied smile.
"Dear Mum, I'll follow your advice, provided that you might lead a happy life," Chieu replied.
"You'd better stop working for that low-rate motel, neither a cheap hotel nor an expensive guest house. How can you hope for a new better life, if you still try to cling to it?" she declared resolutely.
Nevertheless, Chieu kept on working for the motel manager who had whole-heartedly supported her over so many years. Moreover, the place had opened a window to the little world for her to see and amuse herself.
One evening, when it started raining, Chieu hurriedly gathered the dry things out of the balcony. All of a sudden, the strong-built Frenchman rushed out to help her with a broad smile that she had never seen on his face, then he took them all into his attic. She followed him into his room. He placed all the newly taken things on his bed, proceeded to the window and lit a cigarette.
"What a downpour!" he exclaimed.
"Such is our Sai Gon, Sir," she remarked cheerfully with her limited English vocabulary. After that, he uttered a lengthy statement in French in a sweet voice, but she was unable to understand him. She responded in Vietnamese. Both of them just smiled timidly and sympathetically.
He checked out early the next morning. The attic was tidy as it had been before he came. What was left behind was the fragrance of cinnamon and anis.
On the writing table there was a notebook with a leather cover. That was the greatest secret that she had ever found. Although she could not understand its contents, she knew by instinct that there was a message left to her via their passionate looks, a kind of dumb dialogue between them, during the previous afternoon. Sitting on the bed she opened the book, page by page. Incidentally, right on its first page she found nothing but the words deja vu. "Is it really a message sent to me?" she asked herself. In fact, she had found many books in different languages left behind by various residents. Yet, this one had a special feature – all the other pages were blank, except for the last one with the name Faifo and the full date in figures.
She took it home and tried to decode the meaning of the message. She consulted a lot of places of interest in the country for tourists. Finally, she knew that Faifo was the former name of the present-day Hoi An, a world-famous locality for holidaymakers, especially for French travellers, which she had never set foot in. So she decided to go there.
Leaving behind the noisy town where she had been living and working for many years, she went to Hoi An by train with a small rucksack and the leather-cover notebook. She had an instinct that she would certainly find him there to return him the book with the words deja vu in hope of turning over a new leaf.
Translated by Van Minh