by Cao Duy Son
It was mid-June. The forecast for the day was over 37 degrees Centigrade for most of the region. In Binh Lang City, it was rather stuffy. Curiously, its small Cao Street seemed to belong to another world: hazy sunshine in the beginning of autumn. Sometimes, early in the morning, a cool breeze coming from the mountains swept over the city and made people wear warm clothes.
"What comfortable weather," some said. "How deserted and dull this place looks," said others.
In his first few days here, Phung, a civil engineer who'd come from Binh Lang, found the place secluded and boring, dulling his spirits. Three or four times a day, he used the path that ran across the street, and he felt the place would never liven up. After office hours, he returned to his stone house to the west of the commune's office. He felt quite disheartened.
Yet, after about a month, he got used to the little commune surrounded by stone mountains with a narrow road meandering round the foot of the mountains. "Have I really become its new resident?" he asked himself sometimes. Once in every while, he could see a local in indigo clothing and turban with a horse carrying a few bags full of goods on its back. As they moved together, the faint sounds from heavy stops on the asphalted road echoed in the tranquil atmosphere. He began looking forward to an oncoming market day that was held every five days partly for buyers and sellers and partly for sightseers.
When this festive event came round, Cao street suddenly became ebullient. Market-goers, huddled together in a vast area, brought along, among other things, different smells, some pleasant and some not so pleasant, that emanated from the forest produce of mountain-dwellers like the HMong and Dao, home-grown vegetables of many kinds from local farmers, poultry, domestic animals that contributed their dug and urine smells to the mix.
One day, by chance, a lonely stone house at the far end of the street near the foot of a mountain caught his eyes. Out of curiosity, he walked towards it. Inside, he saw a young girl sitting and sewing by the open window. The door was shut. Strangely, every time he passed the place, he found her sitting in the same place, sewing with a calm countenance like an idol in an ancient picture.
"How beautiful, gentle, elegant and charming she is! But she seems beyond my reach," he thought to himself. He tried to go there many times to strike up a conversation, but even though he planned everything carefully in advance, it did not happen. "She's like a pure white orchid growing in the high mountains. One day, I'll go uphill and look for this rare and precious flower. I'll pick a few and take them to her," he promised himself.
With a basket of orchids in hand, he went to her house. He saw her sitting by the window, sewing as usual. She remained as beautiful as ever with a lily-white complexion and a few naturally-wavy locks of hair falling over her high neck and eyes glowing below a fine pair of eyebrows. Through the window some sunbeams made her face brightened a bit. All of a sudden, a breeze wafted across the place and her figure flickered slightly behind a thin wisp of mist. "Am I dreaming?" he asked himself. Then he boldly stepped forward.
"Excuse me," he said softly.
She stopped working, looked at him and smiled broadly. Rosy lips curved slightly, revealing a jade-like set of teeth. His spirit soared at her friendliness. Carefully, he put the flowers onto the window-sill.
"Oh my! White orchids! Thank you very much," she said in a deeply moved voice.
Her speech sent him into ecstasy. What's more, he felt as if a fresh fragrance blew over him. "Was it the flowers or her hair?" he thought.
"These are a special present for you," he told her.
"Yes, of course!" he replied, nodding his head.
"The white orchid is a rare kind of flower found in our home town. It grows on its highest mountains. It brings good luck to anyone that finds it," she added.
"So, it has found one of the meritorious people," he exclaimed. "I'll place it on this window. However, don't forget to water it every morning," he said.
He had a radiant smile as he took his leave.
The afternoon market on Cao street began emptying itself, gradually. Goods were put back into huge baskets. Crumpled leaves, vegetable stalks and sugarcane ends lay scattered all over the place. In an empty hut, a drunken guy hummed a few meaningless chants. In the distance, humans and horses returned home along the road that twisted and turned uphill.
Phung looked at his watch. It was ten past five in the afternoon. After thinking for a few minutes, he made up his mind and sent to a poorly-rigged up hut on the roadside. As he walked up a few stone steps, he met Sin, its owner, known as the best barber in the area. He looked rather mischievous with narrow eyes and a pale complexion.
"Why do you, a city-dweller, come to this humble place to have your hair cut?" he asked with fake humility. "Well, what style do you want?" he went on.
"It's up to you, please."
As he began working the barber also began a monologue: "Hundred years ago, we citizens of this Cao street lived on godsend water during the rainy season. In the remaining months, we had to go in search of stream water in the mountains. We brought it home bucket after bucket. Now, whoever finds an underground source of water is worthy of having a gold statue!"
"So, you already know my job here?" Phung asked him.
"Of course! No matter how minor an affair, all of us know it at once. All your efforts are bound to be in vain."
The certainty with which he said it, sowed some doubts into Phung's mind. "Will our research and calculations go wrong?" he wondered. "After nearly a month, our two bore-holes - one over 80m deep and the other more than 60m - have given us no sign of water. And our deadline is drawing near. A billion dong from the State Budget might end in smoke."
Aloud, he asked: "What do you know about our work?"
"Bear in mind that previously I worked for the Thin Tuc Tin Mine for more than ten years before getting fed up and deciding to get self-employed here."
That explains why he is quite different from other locals in terms of both language and character, Phung thought.
Sin offered more information. "It is said that this place also had many streams full of water. Then one day, an alien geomancer came here with several mates came and lived down here for a long time. After bribing the local authorities with hundreds of gold taels, they tried to dig a huge hole right in front of the mine entrance to look for a hidden treasure. They dug and dug for months but no treasure was found.
At last they left for good. Soon, the residents realised that all the streams had gone dry. Consequently, the village notables were made to atone for their corruption, yet the fate of the locals stayed the same. They have been in short of water since."
"That is strange," Phung thought. A lot of studies have concluded that there is water in the area."
Suddenly, the barber went off on a tangent. His was dreamy as he said: "Orchid is indeed the queen of all flowers. However, it will put its possessor at risk although luck might come to the finder."
"What do you mean?" Phung asked suspiciously, before leaving.
Another unsuccessful day elapsed for the bore-well team.
"No evidence of water, Brother," reported one worker.
"We'd better stop work today and rest," Phung replied.
Slowly, he came down the street. In the west, the sun was gradually sinking below the mountain top dimly covered by mist. The atmosphere became more comfortable, but his boss's afternoon phone call had him greatly worried. "We can afford only one more boring-hole. If we fail to find underground water, we will end up having wasted billions of dong," he'd told Phung.
All professional studies assessed high likelihood of finding water in the area. "But where does it lie? This site is clearly the most eligible. Have I violated the rules of the mountains?" Phung asked himself.
Suddenly, he remembered the young woman he'd given flowers to. Without hesitating, he began walking to her house. "Have I fallen in love with her so deeply that I've overlooked the bad omen?" he asked himself. He felt that she really liked him a lot.
She was sitting by the window, as usual. On seeing him, her face brightened. On the window-sill, the gorgeous white petals sent out a mysterious fragrance. She cast a revealing look at him with her glowing eyes. "Has she been waiting for me?" he wondered.
She gave him a shy and alluring smile.
"May I come in?" he asked.
"No, no! Just stand outside, my dear friend.
"OK, I'll stay here," he said, vaguely aware of her worry. "Your flowers look more beautiful than in the mountains," he said, enjoying the sweet smell that wafted out of her house.
"I'm told that you haven't found the water source."
"That means that you already know what I do here."
"This Cao street is very small, you see, and everybody here knows you very well."
"Frankly, I never imagined water would be so scarce here. Our project has been checked very carefully by both provincial authorities and professionals. Our company and many district officials have also paid lots of attention to its schedule and progress. We are about to run out of money. Anyhow, we have to do our best to provide the residents here with clean water. We're unable to give up our work half way."
"Come what may, don't be so discouraged, Brother."
"Is there any better site? In our opinion, this place is the best in the region."
"Can you believe in such an ordinary local as me?"
"Why not? I trust you and I am willing to listen to your advice."
Her face brightened up. She pointed at the far-away mountain in front of her house. "It's at the foot of the mountain over there. Surely, you'll find a layer of water there."
"Really? How can you know?" he was on tenterhooks. Her evident sincerity and sympathy conquered his heart.
"Certainly, we'll find it. And the first collection of water will go to you. I promise."
"Really?" she asked, smiling her attractive smile.
He nodded his head in high spirits.
"If so, I'll wait for your success," she replied in a cheerful voice.
Suddenly, a silhouette passed by a gable of the house. An inquisitive guy? Be he did not dwell on that strange phenomenon. She was there in front of him, in flesh and blood. Her confidence and enthusiasm had given him fresh hope.
"Why do I believe her? Is it because of my secret love for her?" Phung asked himself again and again.
The bottom line, he told himself, is to find a source of water, and the project was at the brink of closure. "What she says comes from knowledge handed down through many generations."
The director of the Binh Lang Water-Supply Company was greatly surprised at Phung's plan. After hearing all the explanations of his hard-working engineer, he was a bit embarrassed.
"You'd better discuss the matter with the district authorities to shift from the current site. If possible, put your idea into operation as soon as possible. We can maybe extend this for five days, not more," he warned.
"The extension of five days doesn't matter to me at all, sir. What about my responsibility?" he asked the employer.
"You will have to compensate for any loss," the boss said.
"OK, my house facing the street will be my mortgage," he answered resolutely.
"Phung, think more carefully, you might be asking for trouble."
"If the worst happens, I'll go to prison. I'm not afraid."
"You're mad!" his boss exclaimed.
Another four days had passed, yet water remained elusive. There was just one day left for Phung to accomplish his task. The sounds of the boring machine resounded in the tranquillity of the forests and mountains.
"You'd better sleep for a few hours. If you stay awake like this continuously, you will fall sick," one of his workers warned him in a kind voice.
He decided to heed the warning. He left the noisily-operating machine and walked into a rigged-up hut to take some rest. Soon he fell into a deep asleep. Another worker came in and dropped beside him heavily, which made him get up at once. He looked outside, it was still pitch-dark and everybody seemed to be sleeping or in the process of falling asleep.
"What! Wake up, wake up, all of you. Why have you stopped working?" Phung shouted loudly.
The light was switched on and the machine continued to operate.
"Oh my god! Why has the steel tie-beam (at the base of the machine frame) been removed?" exclaimed one man. "Who? How? It weighs about 40kg at least."
"Without the supporting frame, the machine will be ruined," Phung said, taking charge. "We have to look for it immediately. Everyone must hunt for the thief and take it back as soon as possible," he told his men.
Finally, the steel beam was found at the foot of a big tree. The thief was none other than the barber himself.
When the structure had been assembled again, the machine resumed working steadfastly.
"Dear Brother Phung, is today the deadline for our mission?" asked one worker.
"Yes it is."
"We've drilled nearly fifty metres."
"Keep drilling, friend. We'll find water up soon." Just as he said it, someone shouted with excitement.
"Hey, everybody! Water!"
"Wow! It's gushing out."
All the workers stared at the drill. It seemed to them that water was ejecting up stronger and stronger with every passing second.
"Drill a few more metres," Phung ordered.
The machine worked with greater force and water came up in greater abundance. When the drill went all the way down, a column of water went up fast and high in a huge fountain. The workers' laughter filled the forest. Phung soaked in the exhilaration. He had a sudden, moving vision of streams, creeks and ponds full of clean water, green ricefields and more than 200 households on Cao street enjoying pure water.
There were sounds of people running. After a few minutes, the sounds grew louder. Cao street residents rushed out of houses and ran to the sites, making it more and more crowded, although the whole area was still dark. Everybody surrounded Phung and congratulated him on his great achievement. Suddenly, he pushed through the crowd. Finding a big empty plastic container nearby, he picked it up, filled it with clean water and ran as fast as he could to the lonely house at the foot of the mountain, wanting to thank the woman.
"She must be the first to enjoy this," he said to himself. "I love and need her. I'll marry her."
To his surprise, the door was wide open but the window by which she sat was shut. The basket of white orchids remained on the window-sill, but its petals had withered. In great consternation, he jumped up the few stone steps and knocked on the open door.
"Is anyone in?"
He walked in. The house felt deserted and cold. A few paper sheets made of bark were scattered on the humid floor. The sewing-machine remained on its table by the window. A sudden cold breeze swept through the house, carrying a thin veil of mist. A few minutes later, the mist began dissolving, leaving small drops of water on the pane which glistened brightly like tiny pieces of glass. Then the mist slowly came in through the window. In the mist, he perceived her silhouette appear vaguely with a joyful peal of laughter.
"Am I dreaming? Where's she now? Why did she leave this place without any notice?
"Here's the water I've got thanks to her help. I'll leave it here as my souvenir for her home-coming. I hope it frees her from the worries and annoyances caused by violations against the rules of the jungle."
His trembling hands touched the withered petals lightly. Cupping some water in his left palm, he dipped fingers of the right hand and sprinkled the flowers with the water drops. A few drops fell on his fare feet.
Then he left the house, feeling a bit crazy.
A thin wisp of mist which came down from the mountains chilled his feet, as if they had been stuck by scores of needles. In the mist that seemed to float gently in the air, a silhouette formed itself, mysterious and charming beyond his imagination.
Again, he asked himself: "Am I dreaming?"
Translated by Van Minh