Viet Nam News
by Thu Hằng
At half past six in the morning, the piano teacher was woken up by the ear-splitting funeral music on the ground floor.
“Tormenting the living even after death? What a weird old man!” she blurted out. However, she felt remorseful for her inconsiderate complaint. “Such a performance by a great number of players certainly must have cost him a lot of money,” she remarked. A few minutes later, she wrapped herself up again in the thick cotton blanket. The music of the band, together with the cries of street vendors made the narrow alley feel like a bustling market. Closing the back window, she saw a pot of exotic orchids on her balcony in bloom. The ill-fated old man had given them to her last year.
“This rare type of plant is called the rosy heart-shaped orchid. I’m offering it to you as a token of my love for the melodies you play on the piano,” he said.
“Thanks, but I’m always out all day, I won’t be able to look after them,” she told him.
“No problem! They just need a little sunshine and water: in the shade just a cup of water a week is enough. You’ll be glad of them when they bloom,” the old man tried to persuade her. After that he talked a lot about all kinds of orchids with their noble features and profound meanings. “Orchids are similar to gentlemen: too delicate for ordinary humans to value,” he concluded his lengthy explanation.
Out of respect for the old man, she accepted them reluctantly. She put the pot in a corner of the balcony. Then she took no notice of it. She disliked him because he kept sticking his nose into her business.
One evening she returned home late, drunk out of her mind. Getting out of a swanky car, she drawled to the driver:
“I’m fine. You should go home. Goodbye!”
The young man, wearing expensive perfume, but still stinking of whiskey, kissed her cheeks and neck again and again, hugging her firmly.
“Let me take you upstairs baby girl,” he told her.
Suddenly, the door flung open.
“I’ll give you a hand,” said the old man downstairs.
“Go back to bed you old git,” the young man growled.
He ignored the driver’ suggestion.
“Give me your door key, daughter,” he told her, helping her in.
“I’m very sorry! You’re her father?”
“Yes. You’d best go home sharpish kid.”
He turned without a word and hurriedly drove away.
The old man placed her on the bed, took off her shoes then covered her with a blanket.
A few seconds later, she vomited profusely. At once, he fetched a basin, wetted a towel, put it in warm water and cleaned her face. Then he tidied her house. Not until she fell into a deep sleep did he return home. The next morning, he brought her a hot bowl of gruel mixed with eggs, some aromatic spices and a glass of orange juice.
“Thank you very much,” she said. “You’d better go home though, leave me alone, please.”
Sadly, he left silently.
Since then she noticed that the old man’s window was always ajar and his ceiling light was on whenever she came home late. One night her room was broken in to. It was the old man who fought the burglar off, losing two teeth and breaking his wrist in the process. On another occasion, she found him repairing the wooden rail of the corridor leading to her room. “I’m afraid that you may tumble downstairs when you come home late in the dark,” he told her. Again she thanked him reluctantly. To her surprise, when the path stretching across their condo had lots of pot-holes after heavy spring rains, he mended so all the residents would be safe.
When children came to her place to learn piano lessons, he seemed very content. They were warmly welcomed by him and chatted with him to their heart’s content. “Our life is badly in need of lots of things. One of them is music, similar to air and flowers, my dear kids,” he would say to the children. “Furthermore, music can control crime, ease sadness and solve hostility. Music is the spice of life,” he added. He became even more vigilant, keeping a close eye on any young man who visited her at night.
“Mind your own business, old man!” she once scolded him. “Who do you think you are?”
She did not realise that he was stung bitterly by her cruel words.
* * *
Once, while she was angry with her lover Hải, she threw away all the gifts he had given to her.
“Go away you bastard,” she shouted. “Go back to you whore!”
“Keep calm honey,” he consoled her, hugging her tightly. “She has helped us a lot.”
“You got more than ‘help’ from her. Go away, you disgust me!”
“If you don’t like our relationship, I’ll give her up at once.”
She deeply resented him if she was being honest, but she was going to marry him, even though she had caught him having sex with his boss’s wife. They had fought often, but this time it seemed like he had left her for good.
Her dreams shattered, she fell into a deep sleep. In the late afternoon, her old neighbour knocked at her door and walked in.
“Keep calm, my dear. Everything will be all right. It’s just a storm in a teacup,” he comforted her. “Now drink this glass of hot milk and relax.”
For the first time in her life, she appreciated the old man’s kindness.
“Why are you always so kind to me?” she asked him.
Before he could answer, Hải flung the door open.
“You hypocritical bitch! How can you sleep with this old goat?” he raged.
“Mouth on this one eh? Get out you cad!” shouted the old man. He managed to keep control himself when he found his neighbour infuriated. He knew that she still loved that wanker. His lips trembled. When Hải slammed the door shut, she muttered, “Go away, old man! Why do you always bother me?”
* * *
After that, the old orchid-growing gardener fell ill.
The next day, she put her rucksack on and left home early.
“If Hải hadn’t found the old man looking after me, would he have abandoned that wicked woman to return to me with an apology? Would I have ignored his betrayal to bury my head in his chest? If he had promised again and again that he would forget that whore for good would I have believed him and let him kiss me? After all that, would things have returned to normal?” she asked herself again and again.
At the theatre she worked at, she replaced a colleague who was ill in the main show.
Reaching home when the funeral procession was slowly moving along her small alley, she didn’t see any relatives behind the old man’s hearse.
* * *
After five days’ performance, she returned to her place. To her surprise, she found her leftovers mouldy and the rats’ dirty footprints on the dining table.
Worse still, her pupils started to quit their classes, one by one. She became depressed bit by bit.
“Your music now sounds soulless,” observed one of the learners’ father when he came to pull his daughter out of the lessons. “My daughter pities you. Frankly speaking, I don’t want her to be haunted by your sad music,” he went on.
That little pupil was the last to say goodbye to her sorrowful teacher.
* * *
Unable to stand her stuffy room, the piano teacher opened the door to step to the balcony. A fresh draft of air blew a delicate fragrance over her face. “Dear me, the sweet smell of the rosy heart-shaped orchid!” she said. Immediately, she lifted the flower pot and put it on the table.
After tidying the house, she began to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonate. A beautiful melody from the piano flooded the entire room. It softened her suffering which had stayed bitterly in her heart, different to the soul-destroying sounds she played in noisy karaoke bars, filled with the stench of cigarettes!
When the piece came to an end, she stood up. To her surprise, a young man was staring at her. He seemed very happy with her performance.
“Esteemed teacher, let my beloved child take lessons under you again,” he asked her.
Taking a deep breath, he exclaimed surprisingly, “Wow, what a wonderful exotic fragrance!”
“It’s the sweet-smelling rosy heart-shaped orchid in the pot over there”, she said, pointing at the pot of flowers on the balcony. “Have you ever seen them before?”
“Never! I’ve just heard about them from my daughter. The kid’s afraid that if they’re not watered properly, they’ll die soon. She also says that when the plant is in bloom again, her teacher will become pretty and joyful as she was before. The orchid grower told my little girl that story.”
“Why is the old man’s door still closed?” he asked one of her neighbours.
“He died six days ago,” she replied. “I remember that while alive, he once told us that he had ever been invited to play for the Munich Symphony Orchestra, but after the war, he was too mentally scarred to hold down a job. He chose gardening as his trade as he thought beautiful flowers, like music, were gifts from God. I think his wife and daughter were killed by an American bomb. He also told me that when his daughter was three years old, she would ask him to put her on the stool to practise the piano so that later, she might be a music teacher like her mother,” she concluded.
Hearing the story about her old neighbour, the teacher felt deeply moved and repentant.
* * *
Before going downstairs, the neighbour pointed at the pot of rosy heart-shaped orchids and suggested, “You should play more piano, teacher. I remember that whenever you performed, the old man always opened all his windows so that the orchids could enjoy your wonderful music. If you play soon, they might survive,” she added.
While going downstairs, she also said:
“Our kind-hearted old gardener left a will saying that his room should be used as a music-training centre for kids. He also wrote that he hoped the music teacher upstairs would hold her former vacant post. Poor him, he often told me he was afraid the orchids would be forgotten about. It looks rather withered now. I hope that you can bring it back to life in the days to come, my dear teacher.”
* * *
Now, those orchids still bloom when spring comes. They were cared for by them all: the old neighbour, the young piano learner or her father, as the old man did when he was still alive. If anyone admired its gorgeous blossoms, they were told they were thanks to the music teacher or, precisely, to her wonderful playing.
Translated by Văn Minh