by Thi Van
His house was next to mine, but when I grew up, I did not know him. Mother told me that he joined the army when I was still very small. Only his mother, old Hai, was left living alone, selling sundries. We shared a hundred-year-old terminalia tree. On summer days, a lot of people took shelter under the shade of the tree. When he just joined the army, his cousin in the next village sent his children to live with old Hai. Day in and day out, having heard about the ghost living near the terminalia tree, the children left her alone and did not come to stay with her any more. She had to live with her two cats.
Then the war was over, but her son did not come back. Later I was told that he had entered the Fine Arts School. He came home once or twice. My mother wondered why he did not get married. Old Hai was left living alone again. Then one day, old Hai could not wait for her son. She went to the other world. She died in silence. My mother cried as if she was her relative. After several telephone calls, her son finally came home. He went into the house in silence. He did not cry, but his face was withered. His eyes were deep…. Then he sat down by the side of her bed, his bony shoulders slightly trembling.
After his mother's death, he returned to his home village for good. All he did day in and day out was painting and having meals with the two cats. He wrapped his mother's stool with a jute bag and sat on it to draw pictures.
His bamboo house was not large. It was very humid and dark inside. He cleared everything inside to use it for his studio. He even had to make a door to get more light. But he decided to sit under the trellis of antigone flower to draw pictures. I was in the 12th grade at that time at the provincial high school. I did not like anything abstract. So I felt like he was from a different world. He lived an austere life. I had a thousand questions about him in my mind. He was both visible and non-existent.
The second floor of my house was bathed in sunlight. Every time when I went up there to clean or to dry clothes, I always looked into his house with curiosity. Under the trellis of antigone flowers, he was absorbed in painting and the dead terminalia leaves were scattered all around him. But he never deigned to look at me, even once. With the impulsivity of a teenager, I hated him. What an eccentric man he was! But I wondered why I hated him, while I wanted to be closer to him. The more mysterious, more non-existent he was, the more curious I was. Actually he had something mysterious about him. Whenever he sat down before the easel, I heard "Serenade" by Schubert playing on his cassette player. Was there any connection between the music and the painting? What was he painting?
Once I found that he looked really sad. He sat there for several days painting. Yet, all of a sudden, he dropped the brush and went to and fro in the yard, his hands embracing his head in misery. Right at that time, he looked up and saw me. I was in confusion.
"Eh, girl, is it raining?" he asked me. It was the first time he talked to me.
"What's the matter with you, uncle?" I asked.
"Oh, no, nothing!"
"I think there's something that saddens you."
"Yes, something bad must have happened!"
"Eh, it's not good to be curious, you know! Particularly with such a lovely neighbour."
"I think such talented people as you can make a lot of money. Look at uncle Thanh at the end of the street who draws portraits and decorations for weddings. He's got a lot of customers, so why don't you do the same?"
"Oh, each person has an ability of his own. I don't have that ability, you know!"
"So what do you draw pictures for?"
"Just for painting! That's all!"
"So who pays you? What do you live on?"
"On my salary!"
"You've got a salary, haven't you?"
"Yes, that's right! I used to be a soldier, you see!"
"Is your painting beautiful? May I see it?"
The afternoon rain suddenly poured down. Dead terminalia leaves were flying all over the yard. The trellis of antigone flowers was swaying. He stayed there until the raindrops fell down repeatedly on the verandah. He was moving everything quickly into the house. I also tried to get all the clothes. But out of the blue sky, my shirt blew away down to his flower trellis.
"Don't worry! When the rain stops, I'll bring it back to you."
I thanked him in silence and ran quickly into the house. The rain lasted so long. We finished dinner and it was still raining. It was gradually getting dark. I tried to learn my lessons, but I could not tonight. I felt so melancholic and empty.
Suddenly there was a "Mew, mew!". The painter was looking for the cats. I felt so sad about him, but so tired. I fell slowly into sleep.
I kept thinking about my shirt, which had flown over to his house. After school, I went to see if he had given it back, but I did not find it. I had to go to his house.
He was painting something. Under his feet were the two cats."Serenade" was being played. I went in and said "Hello" to him.
"Oh, my neighbour, do come in!"
"May…. May I have the shirt, uncle?"
"What? Your shirt?.... Oh, I forgot. Yes, the shirt fell onto my house.… Why am I so absent-minded? Let me see!"
He was looking for the shirt in great confusion, but I could not understand it. Did he really not remember or was he pretending? He went to search in the house and then in the yard. I felt so uneasy and was about to leave when he said:
"It flew onto my house and in this place. I did tell you that I would bring it back to you…. But where is it now?"
I was about to burst out laughing at his childish gesture. A moment later, he jumped for joy:
"Here you are! It still lies on the trellis, but it is very wet, you see!"
"It doesn't matter, uncle!" I said.
"I'm really good for nothing. Actually I did not remember it…. I was looking for the cats. I'm sorry!"
"Don't worry! I have to wash it again anyway. Thank you!" I said, turning to go home, but I bumped into the easel.
It was a large oil painting depicting the forest in the dusk with gold sun rays shining on the stream. Green grass lined the stream. A faraway mountain was covered with illusory mist…. An incomplete painting, but it clearly reflected the painter's mood.
"What a beautiful painting!" I blurted out.
"What do you think?"
"I find it a life-like painting!" I said.
"No, it's not life-like, my dear girl! If it is a life-like painting, it means it is not true. Do you get me?"
"No, I don't."
"Do you find it joyful?"
"It's beautiful, but not joyful!" I answered.
"Seems like you're starting to get it! But why do you think it's not joyful?"
"It's so deserted and wild."
The old man was really surprised at what I said.
"Thank you! Do you know you have just given me a precious gift?"
"Why is it a gift?" I was also surprised.
"I have taken pains to express my idea which lies inside the painting, among the patches, the lines, the colours and the plan. What you've just said is really what I wanted to express, you know. That means I've succeeded. This is the most precious reward for my artistic labours."
"But I often heard you playing music while painting. Does that have any connection with it?"
"You're going too far! What an intelligent girl you are! Well, all right. You have surprised me a lot. Yes, it has something to do with it. But it would take quite a long time to tell you the story, while you don't have time…."
"Oh, no, it does not matter, uncle! Do tell me now because I have the whole morning to listen to you."
"Don't you have to wash your clothes?"
"I've finished already!"
The painter looked at the picture thoughtfully. The air was quiet. The terminalia leaves were falling…; I held my breath to wait for him. He started:
"You see, this is a landscape painting, isn't it?.... And you find it sad and melancholic, don't you? It happened at the fiercest war time…" His voice lulled.
At that time, his artillery unit was fighting in the Quang Tri battle field. He had a close friend, Chau. In the unit, he was the best at painting while his friend could play music very well. His friend came from a teacher's family. His unit had an accordion. Whenever there was a party, his friend Chau played it. Among the pieces of music he played was "Serenade". So, he and Chau became close friends. One winter night he had a chance to go back to Ha Noi on business and visited Chau's family. He told a lot of stories of the battlefield. In the warm and cozy atmosphere of the family, Chau's father asked his two daughters to play "Serenade". Chau's sister Lien played the violin very well as she was a student at a music school. He never forgot the image of Lien playing the music. After that, he was invited to stay and have dinner with the family. He sat next to Lien. And on the day he had to go back to the unit, Lien came to see him off. She gave him two packages of gifts, one for him and one for her brother Chau. She said to him that she was waiting for him and her brother to come home safe and sound after the victory. Then they said goodbye in a hurry.
He and Chau became bosom friends. They cared for each other as if they were brothers. One day, he and Chau were assigned to go up Height 320 to determine the coordinates. The dusk was falling on the mountainside. They crossed the mountain to the other side. Suddenly Chau looked at the stream down there and said to his friend: "You know, this is the stream in the 'Serenade'. It's so tranquil and beautiful". They stopped at a clearing where there was a trail. They were walking a little bit far from each other. Out of the blue sky, there was a terrible roar. He ran away, but stopped in his tracks and turned back. A big tiger was wrestling with Chau who was struggling against the animal with his AK. He aimed at the tiger and clicked the bolt of the gun, but Chau yelled:
"No, don't shoot! We'll be exposed!" Right at that time, the tiger pounced onto Chau and he yelled, "Help! Help!"
He pulled on the bayonet and rushed forward. The tiger left Chau and turned to him. He retreated and fell down.The bayonet pierced through the tiger. The animal died, but he was also injured while wrestling with the tiger. He ran fast to where Chau was lying. Blood was all over Chau's body. He shook Chau hard, but he did not answer. He carried Chau on his back and ran towards the stream. Chau died in his arms. His own wound was badly infected. So he was sent to the rear to Quang Binh hospital where he was healed and discharged with the doctor's advice that he had better not marry any girl. He accepted the news without saying a word. He took it as his destiny. He was demobilised and went to study painting at fine arts school instead of going home to see his mother, because he did not want to make his mother unhappy about the news. He did not even dare to see Lien and her family.
Having heard the story, I felt great pity for him and I wanted to help him, but I did not know why. My young girl's heart had never been moved by anyone. So I wondered if it was… love. No, it was not! Every night I heard him coughing, my heart seemed to clench. I felt that he was getting emaciated.
That day, after school, I went upstairs to dry clothes as usual. The trellis of antigone flowers was quiet. I asked my mother, who said that he had been hospitalised since early morning. I visited him at dusk. He lay motionlessly there. Suddenly he opened his eyes as if he had a presentiment.
"Is it you?" he said, smiling weakly.
"How do you feel now?" I asked in a low voice.
"The old wound relapsed, you see! It does not matter!"
"Have you often got it?"
"In the past, I did not get it, but now…. you can see it."
"Please don't speak any more!"
He nodded slightly and closed his eyes. A moment later, he said:
"Thank you for coming!"
I understood that he did not want me to stay any longer. Suddenly I felt self-pity and a bit of anger with him.
"I want to help you! I'll do anything! Do you agree?"
He shook his head.
"Thank you, my kind-hearted girl! It's all right now…. Let the doctor take care of me…."
I stood up right away…. But when I saw the radio cassette at the head of the bed, I said:
"Shall I switch on the music for you? I want to listen to "Serenade" by Schubert."
"Do you? Switch it on, please!"
The melodious music was so sweet in the tranquil air. From the window, a brilliant light shone onto his bed. He leaned his head on that side, where the sun was shining its last rays before it set. I looked at him…. and turned away. My eyes welled up in tears.
Translated by Manh Chuong