by Phuong Trinh
After recovering from a stroke, painter Phong Luan had a revelation: His days were numbered.
Recently, he had been having strange dreams where death came to him very lightly, like falling asleep. His soul would escape his body and float into the air like a leaf drifting away in the wind.
Surprisingly, he decided to take a journey to a far away region one day. Being alone, with no family and on the wrong side of 60, his decision surprised everybody around him.
Through the aeroplane window, he watched the green fields pass below and thought of the women who had come to him so easily and then abandoned him.
His plane landed on the tarmac of a coastal city in central Viet Nam, and the passengers hurriedly retrieved their luggage and filed through the exit. By chance, a young man helped Luaân push his trolley out of the baggage-claiming area, but from there he had to pull it by himself with his left hand, because the stroke had nearly paralysed the right. "We each have our cross to bear," he mumbled to himself. Luan wasn't worried about these minor discomforts, but what he did struggle with, was not being able to draw or paint with his injured hand. He had to say goodbye to fine art forever. He had enjoyed a good run with his work. At the age of 20, he had won awards for painting and was highly appreciated in art circles. His house was close to a bakery, and the owner had led a happy life with a good wife and a handsome son. When painting in the park, he often saw the baker, who would walk with his wife and son. Looking at them peacefully play, Phong Luaân wished he could exchange all his prizes for such calm and blissful moments.
After many years, he had only succeeded in drawing a few lesser-known paintings of average quality and remained alone. "Such a lonely life is usually destined for the elite in the art world, not for an ordinary artist like me. What an injustice!" he whispered.
Now he was past 60, he was afraid of women. Phong Luan had taken loving care of women, he missed them, he craved their affection and sought their friendship, nothing more nor less. The women who came to him soon left, but it was always Luaân who drove them away.
"The die is cast," he complained of his destiny. He could paint no longer, but still, paradoxically, kept looking forward to perfect happiness.
Leaving the airport, he found a small room for rent in a house on the coast. He wanted to see the sun rising out of the sea and enjoy the rhythmical sound of waves kissing the shore at night. Unluckily for him, it rained continuously those days due to a storm.
One night, while it rained incessantly, and the strong winds passed under his door and through the cracks in the window, he limbs went numb with cold. All of a sudden, he heard three knocks at the door. He sat motionless on his bed, because of the cold, but also his instant fear of burglary. But strangely, the knocks became more and more distinct and pressing. Finally, he stood up and walked to the door, and slowly opened it. In front of him stood a woman.
"Excuse me. May I ask if you are Mr Phong Luan, the painter?" she asked politely.
"Yes. That's me," he answered calmly.
"So, I haven't knocked at the wrong door, have I?"
"Come in, please. It's so cold outside," he said.
Under his bright lamp, he saw her properly. She was about 40 years old with a tanned complexion, plain appearance and an anxious expression. She was poorly dressed.
"I'm sorry, but is there something wrong?" he asked.
"Just a trivial problem. I've been looking for you over the past 20 years," she replied in a northern accent. To his surprise, her eyes were brimming with tears. "Who is she?" he asked himself. He searched his memory for a familiar face, but his memories betrayed him.
"Perhaps, you can't recognise me," she said, slowly wiping away her tears with a handkerchief. "You were very busy back then," she added.
"Forgive me, old age has eaten up my good memory. Would you mind telling me your situation from beginning to end?" he asked.
"We met a long time ago, when you arrived at the coastal province of Quang Binh to help the locals," she said.
"Quang Binh during the floods?" he asked himself. "Actually, I did go to the hardest-hit area to help people," he added.
That day, Phong Luaân and his companion had brought relief funds gathered from relatives and friends in Sai Gon to donate to the victims of the floods. They had one hundred envelopes full of banknotes with them, and each had to carry them in opposite directions to 50 needy households.
Paths leading to local houses were all flooded, but their return tickets had already been booked. Both of them had to fulfill their mission without exception, in spite of the heavy rains and high waters.
He remembered reaching several houses, isolated by the floods. He had tumbled down repeatedly through the slippery lanes. "Where did I meet her in Quang Binh?" he asked himself, but still he couldn't place her.
"Our house was completely ruined by the floods, except for one corner with two partly-collapsed walls. I saw with my own eyes my parents being swept away by the violent current…," she explained to him, her voice low.
"Her house had been turned into a mass of broken bricks in Quang Binh that year?" he asked himself again. "She must be wrong, I witnessed such destruction in Phu Yen Province, not Quang Binh," he whispered. "Houses in Quang Binh were only submerged in water to the roof, they had not fallen into ruin, he added. Nevertheless, he kept listening to her out of politeness.
"I remembered while I was holding my younger brother and crying amid the wreckage, you came to us. After giving us the relief money, you just stood watching me for a long while. Now, 25 years have elapsed, yet I'm still able to recognise you," she said.
She kept staring at him. She seemed to be waiting for something important and her voice became even softer, "then you told me you wanted to draw a picture of me, otherwise the grief on my face would haunt you forever."
Her story made sense, and distracted him from the cold, although he had a feeling her facts weren't all correct. "Is my old age and illness making me confused?" he asked himself.
"What came next, miss? Did I sketch a picture of you?"
"No, you couldn't because your friend reminded you your flight was going to leave soon. Perhaps, you failed in recognising the look of a 15-year-old girl who had just lost nearly everything. As for me, I've been haunted by your piteous expression so long ago."
"Did my face seem unusual then?" he asked.
"Yes, you appeared to show great worry for my poor situation," she replied.
He was stunned by her account. It was beyond his imagination: a 15-year-old girl with unkempt hair, in tatters, hugging her younger brother in her trembling arms, with a pale face looking at the terrifying devastation from mother nature, in her young eyes, a raging storm. There was just one thing he couldn't do that day, to properly sketch her.
"Did we ever meet after that first encounter?" he asked.
"Yes, but only once. I saw your photo in an art column of a small literary magazine. Later, when the hurricane was over, my brother and I were taken to Sai Gon to look for jobs. There, I was married and had two sons: the bigger one is now a seventh grader. I have always looked for information about you, especially over these past two years after our legal separation. The main reason was to return the kindness you'd shown to me. For many nights, I've often dreamt about you and that expression on your face."
"I see, that is an impressive story, and how did you find my address?"
"This past week, I met one of your neighbours by chance. He told me you had come out here to stay, alone. I immediately left in search of you. I felt a strange feeling that if I didn't find you immediately, I never would," she confessed.
"I'm deeply moved by your search for me over these past 25 years and that you've taken such trouble in finding me. I'm also very sorry for not being able to draw your picture. I'm very sorry…," he said.
"There's no need to apologise, sir. The reason I came here was to visit you and find an answer for the questions I've thought of for so long, "where has he gone?" and "what has he done?"
Outside, the rain continued pouring down, and he begun telling her about how he lived in the small room next to the sea.
It was very late at night, but the fluorescent lights on the ceiling were still on and their conversation kept going.
The distance between them had shortened throughout their time talking. Sometimes, she would wipe away saliva that built in the corner of his mouth, evidence of the stroke he had suffered.
She placed his right hand on one of the sofa's pillow and another at its back for him to lean against. He poured her out another hot cup of tea.
The next morning, the house cleaner discovered the old painter had died in his small room. He had passed away calmly in his sleep.
The story should have ended there, but there were more details about the painter's death.
When all of his belongings were inspected, the house cleaner found the sum of his money was not enough for his board and lodging, and not even enough for the laundry he registered when he checked in.
Many people have told me at age 60, with such a serious illness, the power of his mind had been significantly weakened. But the maid thought otherwise. "It's likely he was deceived in terms of both love and money. Last night, I saw a woman enter his room. Looking at her casual clothes and strange appearance, I was doubtful about her behaviour," she remarked.
That's what I knew about him, but as for the woman, I admit I know nothing else about her.
If you were to ask me why I'm telling you this story, I would be compelled to go ahead a little further.
The death of the old, unknown painter in a far-away region seemed rather unordinary. His legs were stretched out in a natural way. His right hand rested on a pillow and his left hand on his thigh. The skin on his face looked slightly thin and his eyes were closed, but barely visible on his lips, a subtle smile of pure satisfaction blossomed.
Translated by Van Minh