by Lại Văn Long
"It’s already New Year’s Eve, Uncle!" Lan said to the old painter with his palette in hand, amid the Đà Lạt highlands. "Why haven’t you gone home to prepare anything for the most important year-end dinner?" she added.
"Totally unnecessary, because I haven’t got a house of my own," he answered.
"But... yesterday you told me you’ve got one in Sài Gòn!"
"Actually, that’s a boarding house. I stay alone."
"Really! Where do your children and wife live?"
"Well... frankly speaking, staying homeless like this isn’t my aim in life."
"So, you just wander here and there alone with your painting kit?"
"As an artist, what else can I do for a living?" he heaved a sigh. "I was ordered by a few gallery owners in Sài Gòn to paint some beautiful and original landscapes of this land. In fact, they paid me a large sum of money in advance, therefore I must do my best to pay those unwanted debts as soon as possible. Sitting amid pine hills to paint their wonderful scenery with its nice and blue waterfalls and lakes here is really my dream. That’s the reason why from the day I first met you, half a month has elapsed, yet I’ve just hung around here," he explained.
"How much does one picture cost, Uncle?"
"That depends. It might be a few million, even several million dong. In special cases between friends, some might go free. Moreover, some have been kept unsold because of the pictureseque description of their beauty."
"Not to mince words, but you look fairly handsome with a cowboy hat, a pair of boots and an overcoat, like a genuine Đà Lạt inhabitant of yore," she remarked.
"Roughly speaking, in the mountains, my overcoat may keep me warm like a sleeping bag when I’m tired and cold and my boots might protect me from a snake bite. In a word, I’ve been very accustomed to a wandering and an adventurous life for creation. Well... by the way, how many butterflies have you caught today?"
"More than a dozen, Uncle! One of them, oversized and bright red, might cost a lot, say, Mom’s expenditure for approximately one month, if it may attract an expert in the European circle of entomologists."
"You go catching butterflies for the sake of your mother’s business of making a kind of mosaic of pictures."
"Quite right! Thanks to Mum’s artistic work, she can afford all the expenses for my higher education."
"A BA or BS degree?"
"I graduated from the municipal College of Advanced Education, English Department. As luck would have it, for a jobless girl I’m lucky enough to be a successor to her traditional business. By virtue of my fluency in English I can describe exactly various types of butterflies in detail. Therefore, customers usually come to our place to get some specimens for multiplying their genres in their collections when they could see, with their own eyes, my mother’s domestic insects not in nature."
"What a brave, slim lady you are! You dare to wander high and low alone in the forest to catch butterflies!"
"Uncle, I obtained a gold medal in a traditional martial arts contest in Lâm Đồng Province. Bullying me isn’t quite an easy matter."
"Curiously, coming from an unarmed combat circle, you look fairly tall, slim and pretty, as well!"
"Your praise has put me to shame. Well, what do you say to a frugal dinner at our place this evening?"
"With pleasure, Miss! But how can I get to your dwelling with this palette and sundry other items?"
"OK, your motorbike will be parked in a familiar clan at the foot of the hill; as for your bag and other things, I’ll store them."
u v u
"Elder brother, allow me to introduce my mother to you," Lan said to the artist.
"Please to meet you, sir. Lan, you must address him properly as ’uncle’, not ’uncle brother’," Lan’s mother said, criticising her.
"Although his hair is a bit hoary, he’s still quite young in character. So, I want to make him younger," Lan said with a teasing smile.
"My daughter is still childish in her behaviour to some extent. Please let her nature pass unnnoticed. Help yourself to a few hot cups of tea, will you!" the elderly woman told him.
"Thank you for your nice tea. It’s wonderful of you to move in or out with the wheelchair while you’re able to make pictures with butterflies!" he praised her sincerely.
"I was paralysed fifty years ago, at the age of five, so I’ve had to resort to crutches and a wheelchair since then. Luckily for me, Lan’s always helped me with heavy tasks," she said, disclosing the reason for her disability.
"In reality, I first saw you over 40 years ago. Now that I’m well aware that you’re in such a bad condition, I feel very ashamed," he declared.
"What do you mean, sir? I didn’t quite catch what you said!"
"OK, I’ll let you both know the following story, which seems very incredible," said the old painter.
u v u
More than 40 years ago, on the present-day Hai Bà Trưng Street, there were only a few French-style villas with pointed A-shaped roofs, painted brownish or yellow. Oddly enough, one of them had flat roofs and was built with blue bricks in a modern style. In 1968, most of them were destroyed by bombs and shells, except for this one staying intact. I still remember a big name plate attached to one pillar of its gate called the Hoa-Thông Villa...
"So, you’re an inhabitant of Đà Lạt, born and bred," said the lady.
I lived near Crossroad No 4. Every day I went to Đa Nghĩa Elementary School, morning and afternoon, passing by your house...
"But when did you meet me? What made you so repentant?" she asked.
One day while I was returning home from school I heard the sound of a certain big cricket near the hedge of your villa. Strangely, when I reached the place, the sounds came to a stop. Removing dry leaves and stones away to look for it, I discovered a big hole in the hedge. Through it, I saw a little boy of my age was playing with something like a beautiful flying dish. It hovered round and round over a wide couryard full of pots of flowers. The boy ran after it and laughed happily. For me, coming from a poor stock, I had never seen such an attractive toy. I opened the hole wider and sneaked in a bit to get a better view.
I shouted loudly when it came close to me. In the meantime, the boy saw me and screamed, "Burglar, burglar!"After that he let his big dog out. It darted toward me. Frightened, I ran away and left my satchel behind. Running after me for a few seconds, the boy then returned to the villa. When a gardener passed by, I asked him to pick it up for me.
"Well that boy was my younger brother," said the lady sadly. "When my father came back home from Japan, he got it for him as a souvenir. His name was Thông and mine was Hoa. Putting the two names together my parents called their villa Hoa Thông. However, that day you only saw Thông, not me. Right?" she asked.
The next day, at school, I told some classmates of mine the whole story. Needless to say, all of us came from the have-nots and attended a State school, contrary to the kids of the haves. So, we bore a grudge for them. As a result, I tried to get revenge. One day, I reached the boy’s house fence. Looking inside I found a little girl in a white dress playing the piano. Next to it was a plate of grapes. She looked like an angel with a rosy face. Her nimble fingers were graciously sweeping over the black and white keys, and it seemed to lead me into a dream world.
"Your account evokes my childhood so clearly that it makes me moved to tears. Could that piece of piano music played by such a handicapped girl excite you that much?" she whispered.
It was the first time in my life I enjoyed piano music, which stirred up joy in my heart. Dozens of years later, when I became an artist, whenever I was going to paint, those reminiscences again surged up in my mind. My drawing exam that widely paved the way for me with full honours to the Sài Gòn Fine Arts College was a picture in pencil of a little girl playing the piano that day. Undoubtedly, that romantic work of a soldier who had just come back home from the front lines in Cambodia with profound nostalgia for my fallen fellow combatants gave me this original comment from the Board of Examiners, "Go in search of the inspiration for this paper of yours. My sincere congratulations and wish for your everlasting happiness." That work remains on permanent display in the Hall of Fame of the school.
"Your story sounds like an ancient tale. It makes mum moved to tears, you see. And I only wish to rest my head on your shoulder. You really are the best man in the world," Lan said to him.
"You should have come here earlier to let me hear that account of yours," her mother added.
In fact, I came back here once more when your parents were still alive.
"When was that? You’re giving both of us lots of surprises, one after another," Hoa blurted out.
In 1982, Mrs Hoa, also a year-end day like this one. Sadly, I offered your family an unwanted present...
"You shouldn’t say more or else mum will faint... " Lan said. "Please tell her something pleasant while I prepare a plentiful dinner to feast you," she went on.
"OK, anything more joyful," Hoa insisted.
Hmm, let me take you out for a stroll in your wheelchair, Mrs. Hoa.
"Another moving surprise! Let’s go this way to the butterfly cages. Formerly our compound was 1,500sq.m. To tide us over in difficult times, we had to divide it into smaller portions and sell lots of them gradually, year by year. Now it’s only 700 sq.m. in area. I’ve tried to keep the rest intact for Lan’s dowry later and for the rainy days as well," Hoa told him.
"On the whole our villa has been in bad condition. Is there anything else you can remember?" she asked him.
Of course, a lot: the large flowery verandah, where you were playing the piano, the big courtyard where your younger brother was playing his flying dish, the same iron gate.... Well, now let me open it wide to push you out.
"I’m afraid that my neighbours would ask themselves whether you were my son-in-law or my darling," she replied with a gorgeous smile.
The present-day Hai Bà Trưng is now much more bustling. Those days, every Mid-Autumn evening, we kids of the needy clans made a lantern parade and sang merrily on this road.
"At those moments, I usually watched the processions from our balcony in a merry mood," Hoa said.
This place was then called Crossroads No. 4. Every evening at the lamp post stood a street vendor’s handcart carrying bread and soy milk. In 1975, when a Liberation Force’s military lorry came and parked here I also rushed out to see Communist fighters. Later, when I was drafted as a new soldier in uniform, I smiled and whispered to myself, "I’m a Communist" too...
"As for me, I remembered that on Buddha’s birthday, when flowery parades left the Linh Quang Pagoda for the Hòa Bình ghetto I felt greatly excited while counting multi-coloured lorries slowly passing by," she recollected. "Well, dinner’s ready. Let’s have a meaningful meal," Hoa said.
u v u
Lan, you really are an excellent cook,” I said.
"Sadly, mom has never had a good word to say for my cooking!" Lan chimed in. A few seconds later, she added, "Actually, later in the afternoon, you left your account unfinished about your first contact with Mum and about your so-called unwanted present for her. Now, I’m very anxious to know that missing part."
Well, at that moment, while I was interested in the cricket’s music, the dog barked noisily because it had smelled my presence. My naughty gang, owing to their hatred for the pet, threw lots of things at it. The poor little girl at the piano; one egg-sized stone landed right on her forehead. She screamed in pain and collapsed. At once, all of us ran away.
The next day, our headmaster gave us a good thrashing by order of the villa owner. Furthermore, we had to kneel in front of the class for an hour with his threat that we would be expelled from school if we committed that crime again...
"As a result, my father had to ask a GP to come to our place for my treatment. Surely, at the moment you didn’t know that I had been paralysed from the waist down," Hoa told me.
Not yet! As to my visit to your family for the second time by the end of 1982 you were still in a Sài Gòn hospital being treated.
"You then brought a ’hurting present’ to my maternal grandparents. What was that?" Lan asked.
Your brother’s Death Certificate and his diary in French.
"Why and where did you get them?" she said further.
Give me some more tea, please. Now the cricket sounds from the garden are making me very sad for they make me to miss Thông, my enemy in my childhood then my beloved comrade-in-arms in the battlefield...
"I’ve still kept his booklet intact for over 30 years. In his diary, he mentioned a close friend called Nhân, or Võ Nhân. Obviously, it’s none other than you!" Hoa exclaimed.
When Đà Lạt was liberated, those who stayed in rented houses, like us, were given priority by the revolutionary authorities to be the first households to settle down in new economic regions. We left Đà Lạt centre along the road meandering among the Prem hills in big lorries as the needy families for R’Chai mountainous area, over 40 km south of the city when I was 13. Several years later, when I finished Grade 9 in a far-away new secondary school I was, together with some classmates born in 1962, drafted in 1979 during the general mobilisation. After three months of training at Di Linh military school, we were dispatched to Cambodia to fight the Pol Pot regime. Our whole company of nearly a hundred rural boys of Lâm Đồng was sent to high areas of Battambang.
On the first day, I was entrusted to keep guard with a pale guy my age. The two of us stood back to back in a small shelter camouflaged by twigs and leaves. Our AK guns aimed in different directions. A few minutes later, that guy sat down at the bottom of the shelter to jot something down.
"I can’t understand what you’re writing, my friend," I told him.
"I’m keeping a diary in French." "You’re good at French?"
"Yes, of course! I went to school run by the French authorities in my childhood."
"Downtown Đà Lạt. It seems to me that you also live there?" "Yes, on Hai Bà Trưng Road, close to Crossroads No 4."
"And you? Where’s your house?" I asked.
"Hoa Thông Villa."
"Do you remember that one day you let your big dog chase after me?"
"So, you were that naughty boy who threw a big stone at my elder sister! As luck would have it! If I’d been at home then, you would have been beaten black and blue," Thông said jokingly.
"To the best of my knowledge, you’ve got a pretty sister, haven’t you?"
"Where is she now?" he whispered to himself in a dreamy voice.
"So, my younger brother failed to tell you that I was handicapped?"
Oh no! Not until Thông was seriously wounded and taken to the field hospital did he whisper into my ears, "Keep this diary for my elder sister. She can read French." That day I cried my heart out. I reproached him a lot about his refusal to ask for a job in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He just smiled before closing his eyes for the last time at 3 PM on October 9, 1982. We buried him at the foot of a big bodhi tree, close to a famous pagoda in the outskirts of Battambang. Later, we tried to look for his grave and those of three other martyrs, but all our efforts came to nothing. Every two or three years, I went to that bodhi tree in Cambodia with some cheese, ham and chicken sandwiches and a few tins of condensed milk to pay homage to Thông.
"How do you know that Thông liked milk and sandwiches?" Hoa asked me.
During the hard time at the battlefields, I often wished a bowl of phở with beef or chicken, whereas Thông only dreamt of a few sandwiches of cheese, ham or chicken. Once I asked him, "Why didn’t you flee the country to lead an ample life abroad, because of your family’s wealth instead of living a miserable life here," he replied that if he had gone abroad who would have taken care of his weak sister on the one hand and that his family would have been in trouble on the other.
In 1982, when I arrived at your place again with Thông’s diary and Death Certificate you were in Sài Gòn to be hospitalised.
"But why didn’t you drop in on us once again?" Hoa asked.
I thought that you must have, both pretty and high-born, got married; so you were beyond my reach. If I had known that you had been this handicapped I would have replaced Thông to look after you since then.
"Nhân, do you know that Lan’s father is also a painter? After he left Huế for Đà Lạt on business, one day he saw me in the wheelchair trapped in a muddy puddle he pulled me out. As a result, a sketch called ’Tiding over Difficuty’ was created. Now it is hung up in my bedroom. When we said goodbye to each other, he promised that he would, together with his parents, come back to Huế to ask my parents for my hand in marriage. Poor him, when his coach reached the Hải Vân Pass, it tumbled down, resulting in his death. You see, my fate was incompatible with artists. If you had been in love with me, you would have become miserable. Otherwise, any pity from another man would go counter to my nature. So, you shouldn’t reproach yourself that you haven’t paid enough attention to me or else you would put me in a difficult situation."
u v u
"Well, our New Year’s Eve banquet is ready, everybody. Surely, it can’t be so insipid as the previous ones. Is that right, Uncle Nhân?" Lan asked.
"Yes, certainly, my dear Lan!" I replied. "And right at that sacred moment of paramount importance, I’ll draw an oil painting showing your mum in the progress of making a flowery picture with the following caption: ’Thanks to the cricket’s music of yore.’"
It’s hoped that it might put an end to my long adventure too," I went on.
Translated by Văn Minh