by Thai Chi Thanh
Painter Thanh was dispatched by the Division Chief to a regiment of the Land Force to take charge of the layout of the unit's newsletter. In the opinion of his comrades-in-arms, their paper would certainly rank first at the upcoming regional military games. Surprisingly, in the first issue, which celebrated the birth of the Youth Organisation, nothing in red - the colour of revolutionary fervour - could be seen. Worse still, the figures of all the young men in combat looked effeminate, like young girls wearing green costumes. The Regiment Commissar shook his head when he examined Thanh's large picture.
"How sissy they look! Sadly, as a graduate of the Fine Arts University, you're far inferior to the less educated designers working for companies," he remarked. "In the end, the problem lies in your political standpoint. Do you see the mistake?"
While Thanh stood utterly confused, his superior made a decision.
"From tomorrow on, you'll have to work with the female cooks," he told Thanh.
To the surprise of his mates, Thanh proved fairly amenable to the decision. "Maybe he's infatuated with the beauty of these nice young cooks," they said to one another.
A few months later, the whole regiment was utterly amazed by a rumour that Thanh had drawn a nude picture of the prettiest girl in the regiment. The Commissar discovered that horrible fact accidentally. The girl was his adopted daughter.
That day, while Thanh was at the market getting vegetables for the kitchen staff to prepare for lunch, the regiment leader entered the tent of his beloved daughter to surprise her with a bunch of wildflowers that he had just gathered near the drilling-ground. By chance, he saw a picture-like sheet placed backwards on the easel. He picked it up to have a look and was shocked to see her in such a naked state. Although he kept on viewing the nice body of the nude for a long while, he felt furious at the painter's behaviour and showed pity for her naivete. "If he dares to draw this obscene picture, why wouldn't he do nasty things to her?" he asked himself.
When Thanh came back to the barracks, he was criticised mercilessly. Strangely enough, instead of admitting his negligence, he insisted that it was none other than a piece of fine art and that his chief was a narrow-minded leader. As a result, Thanh was temporarily confined until disciplinary measures could be taken. Worse still, he was demoted one grade to a private, then sent back to his former unit before going to the southern battlefield for being further "tempered."
In the face of such a shocking issue, he just smiled as if nothing had happened to him. Now that they were on the advance to the frontline, nobody wanted to make things worse, although they really wished to ask him about his unnatural behaviour. Once the squad leader, Them, asked Thanh in a sarcastic voice:
"As a painter, why do you talk much more than draw?"
"You assume that I can paint pictures whenever I want, don't you?"
"The reason is that when I stayed in Ha Noi, I realized that a picture could be made in a few minutes. Surprisingly, it looked much like the real person."
"Poor Them! Sketching a portrait is quite different from painting a landscape, you see," Thanh replied in a sad voice.
When the military campaign began, Thanh took part in more and more crucial fights. A lot of his comrades-in-arms laid down their lives, whereas many others were so badly wounded that they were taken away to be treated. Although his unit was often replenished with new men, manpower was still far from adequate. Of his commanding officers, none survived before the ancient citadel of Quang Tri fell into enemy hands. The regiment of the land force was also pounded to pieces by hostile artillery when it came close to the battlefield. Even the commissar and cooks of the frontline headquarters laid down their lives in the B-52 bombings.
When the campaign finished half of its journey, only two Northerners, Thanh and Them, were still alive. Thanh remained a private while Them became the head of the platoon, then the deputy head of the company. One day Them told his close friend to infiltrate the enemy army with him so as to get everything ready to blow up the Nhi bridge before cutting off the ammunition supply route to Quang Tri from Hue. A presentiment told Thanh that it would be the last opportunity for them to stay beside each other. Coming back to his shelter, Thanh took out of his haversack a few indispensable things such as some packets of cookies, several white cloths, a few brushes and the remaining tubes of oil-colours after the main ones (red, blue and yellow) had been used, then brought them all along with him.
In the dark, they tiptoed through the heights of the buffer zone. Not until midnight were they able to reach the Nhi Bridge spanning the quietly-flowing U Lau River. Further away, along the southern part of the river, sparkled the electric lights of the tents rigged up on the flank of Height 330. That was the rear headquarters of the enemy land force division. They carefully observed its surrounding area and chose an islet covered thickly with reeds in the middle of the current to observe the hostile situation.
Early in the morning, they realised that this was quite an ideal place, for it was both secret and worthy of investigation. Another advantage for them was that it was located at the back of the frontline.
"Here their force is thinly arranged and their vigilance is thinner," Them said to his mate. "Try to keep their targets in your mind, dear Thanh. Just stay here while I go back to our headquarters to report their activities and positions to our superiors before leading our men to the offensive places." Saying so, Them went away. "Boom!" resounded an explosion a few minutes later when he stepped on enemy mines.
Now Thanh was alone at the frontline. Paradoxically, for the first time in service he found himself comfortable due to the fresh breeze wafting to him from the riverbank, far away from the terrible sounds of the hostile artillery.
"I'll have to hide myself carefully, or else I'm asking for trouble, even death," he whispered to himself.
The next afternoon, while recollecting some changes in the enemy's activities, he suddenly heard a peal of laughter. He widened the gap created by a cluster of reeds. In front of him, a young couple was playing with each other only one stone's throw away. In the afternoon sunshine and on the blue and clear water, the two figures in their swimming suits in contrasting shapes and contours created a breath-taking view. The youth had a bronze complexion and a strong, firm body; the girl had lily-white skin and soft curves. All of a sudden, they swam towards Thanh, only ten metres away. It seemed to him that he had seen such a nice scene in a large painting by the French artist Ingres.
Again the courting couple burst out laughing. They appeared to be in seventh heaven.
"Huong Huong," somebody called from the bank. At once, their peals of laughter came to an end. On the riverbank, an officer in a camouflage uniform was waving to them.
"Oh dear, my colonel's come back," said the young man, swimming swiftly to the bank.
"You mean my dad," she called after him.
They entered the nearest tent. Thanh stared at them passionately. "How wonderful! In the enemy barracks there appears such a fairy scene!" Thanh whispered to himself. Soon the colonel also stepped inside the big tent with a high aerial. A few minutes later, a salvo of big shells rumbled and flew towards the forest where Thanh's unit was staying.
These explosions reminded him of his arduous task. At night, he covered his hiding place more so he could sleep better and gather more strength for the upcoming struggle. Unfortunately, when he closed his eyes, the images of the young couple flickered continually in his mind. He longed to create a picture of the splendid scene. Getting up, he felt the tubes of oil, the brushes and cloths. "It's a very rare opportunity for me to catch such a vivid sight. If only this locality was not a battlefield, but a quiet and serene rural landscape, and I were not a soldier, but a painter going in search of the exotic and the beautiful," he said in a dreamy voice.
From a nearby hamlet echoed a cock-a-doodle-doo. The reed canopy over his head rustled softly and the ripples murmured around the quiet islet. Not until the enemy's heavy guns rumbled behind Height 330 did he make up his mind to draw a picture of that couple - right on this small abandoned island.
The noises of their fast motorboat woke him up. "It's already early in the morning," Thanh said to himself. He cleared away the reeds to observe things more comfortably. Taking some biscuits out of his bag for breakfast, he figured out the painting which had previously shaped itself in his mind. He made everything ready to carry out his dream. "If the couple doesn't turn up, my plan will come to nothing," he said to himself.
Luckily, in the late afternoon, the girl appeared. Excitedly, Thanh spread a white cloth on a smooth plot of land and got ready to fulfil his aspiration. "Why is she swimming and diving alone today?" he asked himself. Without their peals of laughter, the air sounded dull. All of a sudden, he came out of the bushes on the bank. Again their happy laughter resounded over the river. They swam farther and farther, close to the islet. Playing with each other mid-stream for a long while like two otters, they finally went ashore and took shelter in the canopy of a large tree to stay away from the cold wind. A moment later, they plunged into the water again. They swam and swam for a long while. When they came near Thanh's place, they just stood there for several minutes. After that, they went ashore again, then found a secret clearing without thick clusters of reeds and lay down to chat.
"My honey Huong Huong, you should return to Hue tomorrow. Otherwise, your dad will fly into a fury," he told her.
"No problem, darling. The end of my vacation is still a long way away."
"You're going to spend your whole holiday on this dangerous battlefield, aren't you?"
"Frankly speaking, the river flowing across this place is much more interesting than Thuan An Beach."
"What an adventurous mind! Here, bombs and shells don't appreciate fair ladies, you see."
"You're just kidding me, just like Dad."
While the loving couple was indulging in love, Thanh covered the white cloth with various patches of colour. Although his artwork remained unfinished, he expected that it would be one of his masterpieces. The composition was fine and he had used a clever blend of colours to portray the blissful moment.
The sound of motorboats could be heard more and more clearly. They forced him to stop working. He looked out through the wide space between reed stems. A motorboat with a lot of soldiers on patrol was approaching the islet. Suddenly, one of them shouted out, "VC's, VC's over there!" Immediately, he shot a salvo, raising dust near the place where the couple was lying. They shrieked loudly and stood up at once. By now, the boat had reduced its speed and come nearer to the islet. Huong Huong and her lover waved their hands to prevent the troops on patrol from firing at them. The soldiers burst out laughing, then jumped ashore. Unluckily for Thanh, while he was camouflaging his place carefully again, a soldier spotted him.
"Oh dear, there's a VC combatant lying in ambush over there!" he screamed loudly. "Bang! Bang!" went his gun. Thanh staggered and collapsed on his painting.
As Thanh was carried to their motorboat, the couple was still awfully frightened. Things had gone beyond their imagination. While the soldiers were gathering war booty, they burst out laughing, holding the picture high. At first Huong Huong thought that it was merely a white flag, but when she found them huddling together and laughing to their heart's content, he led her lover to their place. They looked attentively at her beautiful body. Her father, the colonel, also arrived there. Glancing at the wet painting, its corner a bit stained with blood, he stared at her angrily. When he was going to throw it away, she held his hand back.
"Dear Dad, would you mind giving it to me, please?"
That night, she sat motionless in front of the picture. As an arts student in philology, she had seen many well-known works of fine art, but none of them impressed her so deeply. Perhaps that was the first time she had admired her own beauty. "Surely, the painter must be so talented, such a nice and delicate soul, to paint it so superbly," she thought.
The next morning, she asked her father's permission to visit the VC soldier. He gazed at her. "He's dead," he said in an icy voice. That morning, he ordered the lieutenant, his daughter's lover, to take her to Hue by jeep. On the way, she asked her darling to find the grave of the ill-fated painter. He promised to help her with a bit of annoyance.
But he could not keep his word, because three months later, when she was with child, her lover died in action.
These evenings in the Huong Huong coffee house in Hue, a strange customer usually stayed for hours. He drank a cup of coffee and smoked some cheap cigarettes. Most of the drinkers here were regulars. In their opinion, he was an eccentric guy due to his cut-off hands and scarred face. Besides, whenever the shop owner or her daughter turned up, he looked at them passionately. He said nothing but "Thank you" when somebody gave him a lighter.
That afternoon, there were no customers in the cafe except for him. He just sat silently at the table with his cold cup of coffee.
"So Mum's come back home," the daughter said to her mother. "Your novel is still in the press, isn't it?"
"It will soon come out, my beloved daughter." She nodded to the weird-looking customer. Then they went in together.
"My dear Huong Giang, Grannie has sent me a certificate of guarantee for me to go to the USA," she told her daughter.
"What do you think about it?"
"Well, it's quite a problem, my dear! If I refuse to go, I'll feel bad because she has been alone there for years. If I do leave, my mind won't rest easy."
"Mum, I see, I see. There are only two of us here. Therefore, going away isn't a difficult matter for you to solve."
"The problem isn't as simple as that. What about your deceased father? How can we have the heart to let him stay here alone? Moreover…" she heaved a sigh.
"Mum, why are you that moved?"
"Come what may, we might just as well welcome Grannie home," she suggested. They suddenly grew silent, remembering that their only customer was still present. But a moment later, when they went out, they found only a banknote tucked under the cup of coffee, cold and intact. To her surprise, the daughter saw an old magazine left behind on the stool. Picking up the already-opened paper, she found an account entitled The Unfinished Painting.
"Mum, he left his magazine at his table. Your story's in it," she said to her mother.
"No reason why…" she whispered to herself, then rushed out to the alley. She could not spot her special customer among the rush hour crowd in the street, but she assumed that he was the person in her article.
At that moment, he had already sat down on a motor-taxi, his face deeply moved. When the vehicle started to move, he glanced back at the Huong Huong coffee house. "Thanks and farewell to the lady who unexpectedly became the model for the incomplete work of my lifetime," he whispered to himself.
Translated by Van Minh