|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Van Vu Song Toan
It was first light in the morning. The dogs were barking deafeningly. Diem got up suddenly and looked out of the canvas tent. There were two dogs. One was black and the other cowhide-colored. She heard someone shouting:
"You are not allowed to be here!"
A sun-tanned man stood there, looking fixedly at her and waiting for the answer.
"This is the common sea. Is it yours, do you have the right to drive me away?" - She asked in anger. Saying so, she found out that there was a blue lighthouse standing aloft looking toward the sea. That guy had to be a lighthouse keeper, she thought. She came here looking for material for her artwork. Cambodians here have said that the sea current sent logs toward Tien Island. They were rotten logs and turned into weird shapes by sand and wind. Yes, Diem was looking for these logs in the hope that she could be able to sculpt them into the shapes she wanted.
Diem was walking barefoot along the beach; her eyes were closely following those little crabs carrying sand at the crest of the wave. Those pieces of logs were floating as if they were dancing before her. Now she could make them into the waving arms or an old woman or a kissing couple and many others. She walked deep into the island without seeing a house or a man. Out of the blue, she heard the yell again:
"Stand where you are!"
The yell surprised her. It was that guy again. She saw him standing on top of the lighthouse, measuring something. It was early morning. She walked on to look through the crack of a simple room. There was only a single bed with a blanket and a mosquito net wrapped around neatly. There was a picture of a smiling girl in a violet ao dai (Vietnamese women's traditional robe). Now he was walking towards her:
"Go back and pack everything. When there is a boat, I'll send you back home, you know!"
"This is the common island. You have no right to do that!"
"But I'm the lighthouse keeper."
"But I haven't touched the lighthouse. Do keep it yourself," - Diem said, walking leisurely up front. She found some sandy graves with incense still burning.
Diem was a painter who graduated abroad. Her father brought her up by himself. Now he was old, so his only wish was to see her in a wedding gown, as she was going to be thirty soon, or else he could not feel reassured enough to go to the other world. Diem had stayed single for a long time. She had dedicated her life to art. During a meal, she unintentionally said to her father that she did not want to have any man by her side. Suddenly she saw tears in her father's eyes that wrung her heart. To calm him down, she promised that she would answer him in one month. If she could not see any man, she would leave things to her father's decision.
She did not know why she had chosen to go to Tien Island. Where could she get a man on this deserted island? But this lighthouse keeper was a man. Having thought of it, she suddenly burst out laughing at herself.
The sun was gradually setting. Diem looked at the lighthouse, seeing a trail of smoke was belching out of the roof. She remembered that she had not touched anything for quite a time, so she intended to return to the tent to cook. But she found out that all the floated pieces of logs she had collected for a few days had disappeared.
The lighthouse was suddenly on, shining all around. From afar, those fishing boats were tailing each other. Suddenly she seemed to remember something. She shouted, running towards the lighthouse:
"Eh, you guy, why did you steal all the logs I collected? Did you know they are for my art?"
The lighthouse keeper was busy cooking. He turned, speaking with a half smile:
"Which works of art?"
Diem rushed into the kitchen, pushed him away and then picked up a burning piece of wood:
"You are a sickly man!"
"What did I do to you?" - He said in great surprise.
"Why are you here alone if you are not a sickly man?" - She asked, glaring at him.
"You are sickly, not me. Why are you here and alone on the beach?"
Her mouth dropped open upon hearing this. Suddenly she wanted to say something, but she felt bitter for herself, so she went out.
The sea wind was blowing hard, throwing her hair all over her face. At thirty, she had not been kissed by any man so far. Was it all over? Had I not any beauty, she thought? Sometimes she did not believe there was any love in this world. She was swimming with great pleasure in the sea. When she was going to swim ashore, she saw the lighthouse keeper and two dogs squatting on the beach. All three were directing their eyes towards the boat from afar. She felt cold and went ashore. When she was stooping to pick the towel, she saw a black shadow standing in front of her. She stepped back. The guy said:
"Do pack everything and get out of my sight tomorrow. What are you doing here? Leave me alone!"
She found there was something in his voice. Was it a threat? The moonlight was playing on his face. Possibly he wanted to hurt her. Suddenly she felt fear running along the spine. She remembered what had happened to her when she was 11. Her father went on business trip, and she was sent to stay with a friend of his and was abused. But she tried to keep it secret from her father. When she grew up, she felt aghast with men until now. Yet the fear was dispelled when she met Andy abroad. He was a psychologist who had explained everything to her so that she could get over that fear.
Then she got married and was with child for two months. Unfortunately, she had discovered that her husband had an affair. She fell and had a miscarriage. Her fear of men had lasted until now.
Diem was sleeping when she heard the thumping footsteps outside. She got up and looked outside. A topless man was standing there. He looked well-built.
"Do prepare to go. There is going to be an incoming storm in a few days' time" - He said loudly.
She looked surprised. If the storm came, there was only he and she on the island. She continued to gather the floating logs and sculpture them into a work of art called "The Motherhood". She wanted to present it to her father. Her mother left her father when she was only five years of age, so her mother's image had never stayed in her mind. She tried to recall it, but couldn't.
The lighthouse keeper suddenly rushed in and yelled at her:
"Why have you stolen my pictures?"
"Which pictures? Why would I take them?"
He rolled his eyes and glared at her as if he wanted to eat her. She said gently:
"Do you think someone has stolen them?"
"Oh, God! Who is here except you and me?"
"Have you searched carefully? Why do you accuse me falsely?"
"Falsely? I've lost many things since you are here. You know!"
"Nonsense! What have you lost?"
"I've lost freedom. I am living alone here and you've come. What for? I want to have loneliness, you see!"
She tried to convince him to go and fetch once more. She went inside together with him and searched the empty room. Suddenly, she saw something in the window. They were pieces of paper being littered in front of a mice hole. He saw it and burst out crying. This was the second time she saw a man's tears. What was he crying for? Only for the two photos, she wondered?
He rushed out of the room. She ran after him and finally found him falling down on his knees before the graves. He was mumbling something.
It was midnight and the wind was hissing powerfully. The sea was getting rough. She heard the rain falling outside the hut. She was going to go out when she saw the guy and two dogs standing before her. He was quickly gathering her things and she followed him into the house. The storm was coming. The rain was falling harder. The lighthouse keeper was swaying in the wind while climbing up the lighthouse. Suddenly she felt pity for him.
Then he went down and built a fire. They both sat down. He opened the picture he had asked her to draw through his description because the original had been lacerated by mice. It was the portrait of a couple. He mumbled:
"Thank you very much. This is the only picture of my parents I have," - He said, beaming.
"I can't even remember my mother's image," - She said it to him suddenly, heaving a deep sigh.
He looked at Diem with those gentle eyes.
"They both died on the same day when I was 10."
"Why are you here alone? If anything happens….?" - She asked suddenly.
He looked at her as if he wanted to ask her why she came here alone.
"What's your name?"
"My name is Lu, what about yours?"
"My name is Diem."
Then he explained to her that he was called Lu, but his real name is Phuc. He was saved by the liberation fighters. His parents, the lighthouse keepers, were barbarously killed by the Pol Pot genocidal regime. She looked squarely at his eyes. Those sad eyes! She sat closer to him.
The wind was still roaring outside. Looking out the window, the sea looked like a monster. Lu said out of the blue:
"I like storms, you know!"
Diem was about to burst out laughing, but she knew he had reason to say that. Another picture was of a girl who looked pretty. She asked:
"Is she your lover?"
"Once there was a storm coming and the girl had appendicitis, but it was impossible to take her inland, so she died. Have you got a tummy ache?"
"Will you go home tomorrow? And never come here again, you know!"
Diem said nothing.
"Is she your wife?" - She asked.
Lu's eyes became sad. He caressed the dogs. He told her that when he was 10, he grew up with two other lighthouse keepers. He was sent to a training course and then came back to work here. The wind was abating. She found her hands in Lu's. Diem felt moved. The fire was dying, but it had some live coals left. They kissed each other. Then she found he was lying on her. She let it be. Her body was now as hot as a burning coal. She cried slightly:
"Oh, dear, Phuc!" - Her two hands were clutching his back tightly.
Outside, the wind stopped blowing. The last drops of rain were heard on the roof. They lay there, embracing each other and sleeping soundly until the first ray of sunshine shone through the window. Lu woke up, but Diem was not there. He went to look for her and found her cooking.
Having found Diem packing things, Lu felt like he was on tenterhooks. He now wanted her to stay with him, for good. When she was about to go, Lu ran to stop her. He embraced her tightly. He took her to the graves. Then he showed her a small one:
"This was my child!"
Lu told her that he knew his wife while he was on leave. His wife was a fishmonger. She came to live with him for a few months and was with child. On a stormy night, she got appendicitis and fortunately she was saved, but his child died. This was its grave. After that his wife came back to her home village and never came back to him. It had been five years.
Lu looked at Diem. Out of the blue, Diem embraced Lu tightly. The island was getting gradually farther. Diem stood on the boat's prow and looked towards Lu. Lu stood rooted there and suddenly he tore the picture into smithereens. He ran along the beach, crying:
"Forget me. Go marry another man! Forget me!" - Lu continued to cry until the boat disappeared in the skyline.
By instinct, she knew something was growing inside her. She caressed her belly, saying softly:
'You and I will certainly be back to Tien Island!"./.
Translated by Manh Chuong