|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Y Nhi
After several rainy days, the sky began clearing up and turned quite blue. Standing by the window of his flat on the 11th floor of the condo, the elderly photo editor of a magazine could see early yellowish sunbeams spreading over the canopies and house roofs. Now he felt that his legs were less painful, which made his mind more at ease.
At once he flung the window wide open and looked down at the river near his very high building. He was in high spirits when he found a small sampan still mooring near the bank. "Why would it make me this comfortable while it's still in the quiet watercourse?" he asked himself. Whenever staying at home alone, time and again, he came to the window to see whether it was there or not.
Over many days, when the sky was too overcast, he grew nervous. Consequently, he slowly paced back and forth in his narrow room, suffering, unable to do anything else.
"The function of a boat usually lies in either to move upstream or downstream, but here it's just been stationary for so many days," he said to himself. Oddly enough, whenever he got up early in the morning, he was afraid that it might have left during the night.
The fact was that, during that afternoon after his leg operation in the hospital that lasted for many hours on end, when he became conscious he heard the charming chirrups of a certain little bird. He looked over to the hospital window and saw a light gray bird, as small as a soft mass of cotton, perching on a swaying willow twig. "It's quite a good omen for me," he whispered to himself. Therefore every afternoon he looked over the widow to wait for it to appear. To his surprise, it only turned up in the late afternoon on the willow twig in order to greet him with its cheerful song.
Surprisingly, not until he left the clinic one afternoon, would it stand there.
Before returning home, he approached the window of the patient's room with a pair of wooden crutches and jutted one of his arms out for the last time. It was perched on the small twig with its round little eyes and, lowering its head down, it started singing merrily.
Now, being at home, also looking through a window, his mind clung to the little boat that sat motionless on the river. "Maybe, this time my hope will be fainter," he said to himself. Those days in hospital he hoped that he would return to normal, walk as usual, without crutches, but now things were beyond his expectations: his only dream was to take a stroll on the street along the riverbank in a wheelchair early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the street became deserted.
Formerly, he went to college in wartime. His institution was temporarily rigged up in a remote mountainous area in northern Viet Nam. In his literature class there was a Polish student who was very good at Vietnamese. Once he found her quite upset and tried to assuage her.
"I hope that bad luck will soon fall into oblivion," he told her.
"On the contrary; for an optimist it seemed so; yet for such a pessimist as me, it'd get worse and worse," she answered.
To the best of his knowledge, he thought that she had some sympathy with him, whereas he also cherished some affection for that auburn-haired, blue-eyed young student.
"Poor Maria! You couldn't stand our hard living conditions here further. God bless you!" he whispered to himself.
After graduating from college, he worked for the municipal pictorial magazine as a news editor. His task required qualified skills not only in writing news but also in taking photos. Year after year, he was greatly interested in his new career, beyond his expectations. Instead of staying in the office all day long to look at various photos and to read comments, he followed some experienced specialists to different localities to get some inspirations and practices for that new kind of art genre: taking photos in order to make his articles more lively and alluring.
At first, he followed his elders in the profession of an assistant to them in different minor jobs, like acting as a moving photographer, pitching a tent, carrying heavy pieces of equipment and learning something precious about his trade, then later on he followed such a master in describing scenery as Mr V.H. He soon, from a greenhorn in the profession, became a skillful photo editor. Consequently, he was greatly loved by his colleagues. He learned from this well-known master's precious teachings such as, "From each row of trees, each dyke embankment, each ferry landing place at sunset, we can imply something like a sweet memory, an awaiting moment, a certain wistful nostalgia for the past, and so forth and so on, with a view to making our pictures more meaningful and attractive.
He also remembered his master's oft-repeated quotation from a slogan of a familiar moving picture company, "Don't think, just shoot."
In order to congratulate his pupil on his successful work, V.H. tried to get him a German camera of Leica make. The young learner was too moved to express his gratitude toward the old instructor.
Unluckily for him, an accident came to him when he tried, with the camera hanging on his shoulder, to cross a steep pass with a view to shooting a lot of colour photos of peach blossoms for the year-end issue of his pictorial magazine. He slipped over a rock and broke one of his legs. He lay motionless for a day until he was found at the foot of the pass. Immediately, he was taken to the district health centre. He stayed there for a few days before being transferred to the provincial hospital. After undergoing three operations, all he could do was move slowly to and fro in his patient room with the help of a wheelchair.
After his first photo display in town, his teacher changed the way he addressed his mentee – not so dearly as before.
"In that way, your master shows that he starts to recognise your talent as a colleague. Frankly speaking, that is rare behaviour to us all," one of his friends said to him.
Later, when the old master's eyes got worse and worse, he gave up his career for good. "God only blessed me that much," confessed the old man before giving his favourite Nikon F100 camera to his pupil.
After the terrrible accident, the unlucky young man put all his work into a filing cabinet, next to his old Leica that he had often used right at the beginning of his career. Now everything seemed to pass by like it was in a slow-motion film. As a result, he looked at the stationary, small boat near the row of green trees stretching along the quiet riverbank. Undoubtedly, it was thanks to the roll of film that had enlivened his cravings that had fallen into oblivion after so many days, months and years. He took the Nikon F100 out of the cabinet with trembling hands. By chance, a mass of old magazines and newspapers fell down to the floor.
He picked them up, one after another, and opened them all to see why he had kept them so carefully. Not until he saw a picture of the Thay Pagoda in the northern country carried in one issue did he find out the reason.
During that period of time, when the first prize from the annual photo competition went to one of his works, he was accused of plagiarism. Consequently, a lot of newspapers and magazines launched an attack against him. Some were against, while others were for him. Worse still, a few others strongly criticised V.H. as an estheticist who had gone beyond the limits of realism and ignored the lofty function of a genuine artist.
The young man was going to defend his master's honour to the press, but the latter did not agree. "We can hardly defeat them with word of mouth. Let's prove ourselves right with our creative works, that's all," the old artist told his pupil.
Now, V.H.'s pupil had grown rather old. He often went away here and there to take photos as usual for many months. As a result, he took home many superb pieces from those trips. However, he considered his living conditions so serious that he made up his mind to keep them safe and sound as proof against any disadvantageous situations in the future on the one hand, and as souvenirs for his children to enjoy on the other.
Heaving a sigh, he stood motionless for a while, then put the piles of old newspapers and magazines back in their former places for his honest and devoted female helper to sell for her own purposes.
One day, she enquired him after his family's living conditions when he had sunstroke and had to eat porridge for many days on end.
"Might I ask you one question, just one, my dear master?" she said when she brought him the soup.
"OK, come on, come on."
"Where have your relatives, say your wife and children, been living so that you have to stay alone like this?"
"Sadly, my spouse died young. As for my single daughter, after getting married, she followed her husband to settle down in a region tens of thousands of kilometres away."
She sighed and looked away when she heard his story. That was the first time he had told a stranger about his family background.
Except for a small monthly salary for her, together with paltry earnings from her selling odds and ends found in the house, he could hardly support her more.
Now, owing to her absence for a few days because of her husband's appendicitis appointment at the hospital, the man was compelled to have meals by himself. Opening the fridge, he found his daily food ration ready. What he was meant to eat needed to be put in a microwave oven for reheating for a few minutes.
"Poor me!" he blurted out, eyes in tears. "This miserable life of mine has finally left me a bit of sympathy, some heart-rending moments to survive," he complained.
He put the camera trap across his shoulder. He felt as if something cold had run throughout his body like the first time he used his Leica. He tried observing the scenery of Ho Tay (West Lake) during a summer morning through his window.
He drove his wheelchair towards the window. He spent half a day there to choose a suitable position for taking photos. In the bright afternoon, he looked at the river below and got ready to press the on button. Poor him, there was no boat in sight at all! "Is there anything wrong with my eyesight?" he asked himself. Turning his camera off, he tried to observe the riverine landscape once again. The rows of trees along the bank of the river remained green and the water flowed quietly. Yet his favourite little boat was nowhere to be seen.
He just sat there for hours. Time and again, he searched for the boat. But all his effort was in vain.
Not until the newsboy knocked at his door would he open it a few minutes later. Unluckily for him, the boy had gone. Usually, he often spent a few minutes to chat with him. The old man had found out that the teenager also had a flair for taking photos. Once, he spent an hour talking with the old man about technique. He also showed that he was very keen on digital cameras.
Actually, the young man was taking a tertiary course in an arts college. He eked out his livelihood by delivering reading materials to subscribers from house to house. Therefore, when he brought him the daily or weekly late, even when he forgot to do so, the old man did not reproach him at all.
"Don't worry, reading is one of my daily habits, as for the bulletin of information or the current affairs and so forth and so on, I usually watch them online," he said to him when the newsboy failed to perform his job. In fact, sometimes the old man looked forward to meeting him for this, that and the other, so as to idle away his sorrows.
"Some day, I'll come to your place for a long chat," he told the old man. Surprisingly, one day he paid a visit to the old man. At first he thought that the helper came to tidy his place, yet to his surprise it was the newsboy.
"Am I bothering you too much, sir?" he asked the old man.
"No, not at all. Just a bit surprised because I've been living alone for a long time, that's all," he replied.
In fact, the old man tried to tell him that it was he who had brought to his small and cold room a new warm draught of wind, which moved him to tears. Now, the young man came to know the reason why master V.H. had previously liked him so much.
"I've just finished my three-day visit to the charming Tay Bac (Northwestern) region of our country," he told the old man. "I took a lot of photos there, for I wished to store its beauty for younger generations. With the camera in hand I left my temporary dwelling-place early in the morning to record some features of its wonderful scenery. They are already here for you to see and comment on, sir," the young student explained to him in an excited voice.
"OK, let me have a look at them, my dear young friend," the old man said, his voice becoming more friendly. "Now sit down first, will you?" he suggested. With his PC, the old man opened the young artist's file. To their surprise, they saw in front of them a magnificent landscape with terraced fields and hill slopes fully covered with gorgeous flowers and blossoms of all kinds in the northern region. Among them was one called the tam giac mach flower, which the old artist had never seen or heard of before.
Closing his eyes and resting his head on the top of the back of his armchair, the old man stayed silent for a long while.
"When does that kind of flower open?" he asked the young student.
"Sir, by the end of autumn, between October and November. Surely, I'll return to the locality next year," replied the graduate trainee excitingly while his master asked himself in a dreamy voice: "Why hadn't I gone back to the northwestern region at the end of autumn?"
Translated by Van Minh