Illustration by Đỗ Dũng
by Kiều Bích Hậu
Andras felt greatly worried during his stroll around Szent Istvan Hospital in the heart of District 9 by the Pest River. Throughout last night, he had been exhausted in the corridors of the emergency ward. An, his sweetheart, was being cared for by the best group of surgeons, led by the eminent Vietnamese-born Prof. Hoàng Lâm, her fellow countryman.
Paradoxically, Andras once strongly objected to her one-week study trip to see this famous man in Budapest. As a result, she only paid a brief courtesy visit to him at his clinic. Furthermore, her intention of writing an essay about this well-known Budapest-dweller in the beautiful European city was also cancelled at the last minute.
He wasn’t jealous of the man on the wrong side of 60, but simply disliked her plan to stay at another man’s house, less than five kilometres from her lover’s dwelling.
“Andras’s decision sounds reasonable indeed when we both love each other so passionately,” An had whispered to herself.
* * *
Unexpectedly, An’s existence now lay in Hoàng Lâm’s hands.
It was all because of the picturesque scenery in the forest near the town Szentendre and its mysterious darkness that had attracted An.
She lost her way in the deep forest while a heavy snowstorm came down.
Andras found her when she had lost consciousness and half of her body was nearly covered in ice.
Thanks to the timely arrival of a clinic ambulance, both of them were taken to Szent Istvan Hospital at once.
In the ward Prof. Hoàng Lâm cast a surprising and reproachful look at Andras, who was oblivious to the doctor’s feelings. What he hoped for was the skilful hands of the famous medical worker and his fight for her survival.
Andras looked at the brown walls of the hospital’s ancient buildings then at the bare oak trees with their twigs drawing weird patterns on the overcast sky laden with cold vapour. He felt his joints on the point of shaking. He thought he could hardly stand this miserable situation any longer, deprived of his energy for living and loving. Below the grey-looking sky, the gently-flowing Danube seemed enshrouded in secrecy under its icy water. All of these things made him even more frustrated.
He often shared his views with An about honest living conditions, about love affairs, even about suffering because it could provide them with valuable lessons. However, these were all useless to him now. “Is it the fact that I’ve been so arrogant that now I’m severely punished by God?” he asked himself. He lost his balance and collapsed. He was not himself any more. Sooner or later, he could scarcely exist.
“What would come to me if An would lose consciousness forever?” he said to himself. “Without her, how could I live just a moment?”
It was An who had come to him from Hà Nội and brought him to life here in beautiful and romantic Budapest. In a word, without An, he was nothing.
* * *
Hoàng Lâm put a hot cup of tea in front of Andras then watched him carefully.
“What a good-looking youth!” he remarked. “That’s why my young pretty fellow countrywoman refused my sincere invitation and spoiled our planned sight-seeing around Budapest and Balaton Lake,” whispered Prof. Hoàng Lâm.
An was an author whose work he had read a lot. What surprised him was her first-hand style in her look into society. The first time he met her was at a literature forum in Hà Nội. He invited her to come to see him in Budapest, if possible, to experience the real life of a man who had left home to live abroad for over 30 years. At first, she gladly accepted his invitation, but on second thoughts she broke her promise. “Surely, that came from Andras,” he said to himself.
Now, Andras had changed a lot after 10 years. Worse still, he was unable to protect An whom he loved much more than himself.
* * *
“Help yourself to the tea, please,” Prof. Hoàng Lâm urged him after a heavy silence.
In total silence, Andras did not seem to hear his suggestion while he was resting his head on his hands.
“Luckily, death has spared An’s life,” said the professor. “However, what I had done to her is to disconnect her leg joints because they went stiff after being encased in ice for too long,” he went on.
“What a grave disaster!” complained Andras. “It’s so unfair for a young and talented author that loves to walk and travel.”
“Bang” went a strong blow on Andras’s face that made him tumble down.
Standing up he challenged the doctor.
“You're going to hit me again!”
“No need, Andras! Anyhow, you’ve regained consciousness. You must take it easy to help her overcome the shock. Poor both of you!” he added. “Everything must seem meaningless to you at the moment, although I’ve done my best,” he heaved a sigh.
“Thanks for your efforts!” Andras muttered. “I guess it was all you could do”
“Clearly, there are some disasters we wish we could change, but it’s impossible! We have to accept them to some extent. ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's’ says one proverb, you see!” said the honourable man.
“It all depends upon your viewpoint. But there’s one point that you, you alone, can do: save her life with all your love. Always stay beside her with your two strong legs. That’s all,” he concluded.
* * *
Andras knelt down beside An’s bed.
“Where are your hands, my dear? Let me see them at once,” he said in a soft voice.
“My hands as well!” she whispered in a choked voice.
In hesitation, he pulled his hands out of the thin white blanket and found her skinny body sinking into the mattress.
“You’re afraid my hands shared the same fate, aren’t you?” she asked.
He did not answer because of his choked voice. Eyes in tears, he held her hands in his trembling ones. Suddenly he touched her engagement ring bearing a tiny piece of jade. He buried his face in her hands then kissed them for a long while.
An stared at his face with her beautiful eyes, dark hair flowing over her white pillow. Tears were trickling down her cheeks.
“What a beautiful ring!” she whispered. “But why have you broken your oath taken in Budapest that we’ll get on well along our entire lives like sweethearts, companions and heart-to-heart friends for life beyond the common sense of any married couple?” she asked. “Could your love for me change a lot when my legs are ruined?”
“Oh no no, far from it! One certain thing is that I’ll be all the more in love with you. But now we’d better get married so that we may really live side by side in our whole life.”
“But…but… I’m interested in going around with my legs,” she insisted.
“Okay, I’ll carry you on my back.”
An looked at the doorway. No tears could be seen on her cheeks.
“Around the world on my strong legs,” he said then lifted her up to the window. He pitied her light weight, about half of what she was before.
An embraced his neck and pressed her cheeks against his chest. It felt like he was squeezing her heart.
“He loves me dearly indeed. But could he carry me to the peak of Gellbert Hill?” An asked herself. “Although I’ve lost my legs, my mind remains sound. Will our hearts have the same beat in our enjoyment of arts?” An whispered to him.
* * *
Andras was preparing everything for a romantic wedding ceremony, kept secret to her of course, and unheard-of in the marital history of Budapest. All took place like a dream. A young man married a pretty patient when she just left hospital on a small pathway covered with a carpet of white roses with two different shades in between – one in red, symbolic of Andras’s heart, and the other in pink, the heart of An. It would happen in a sacred and jubilant atmosphere in which the groom, in a black suit with a dark-red flower on its breast, carried a white bridal gown on his left arm. Then he would take her out of the hospital in both of his arms. A wedding of pure love.
* * *
Reaching An’s bed in the hospital, Andras was greatly surprised when he found it empty.
“Where’s An?” he asked himself.
He left the white wedding gown on the vacant bed. He went in search of her. She was nowhere to be seen. Immediately, he hurried into Prof. Hoàng Lâm’s room.
“My dear professor, where’s An?”
“Regrettably, she returned home to Vietnam. It’s me who booked her a one-way ticket,” he replied, standing and leaving his computer.
“How could you do such a thing?” Andras screamed. “You knew today was our wedding day, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did. An told me about everything,” answered the elderly professor. “Her explanation sounded so reasonable that I had to meet her request immediately,” he answered, trying to loosen Andras’s tight grip on him. “Take it easy, please. You can fly to Vietnam to meet her.”
Andras drove to Budapest International Airport at once.
He found out her plane had taken off two hours before. Therefore, it would land in the Seremetyevo of Russia. At once he bought an air ticket for the earliest flight to Moscow to chase after her in the hope that he might catch her either in Russia or Vietnam.
While waiting for an early flight out of Budapest, he ordered a coffee in the restaurant and looked for more information. Unfortunately for An, the flight she took from the Russian capital had an accident. It blew up in the sky and crashed. Only two male passengers survived.
Andras left the airport restaurant. He walked away unsteadily. The whole world seemed falling into pieces in front of him. A waiter suddenly called him when he found Andras’s mobile, laptop and bag abandoned on the coffee table. However, he did not turn back. He wasn’t himself but an image of yesterday.
Andras remembered that one day An had told him that an ideal death for human beings was to pass away in flight where neither medicine nor operations were necessary before they breathed their last.
“Was it just a bad omen?” he asked himself.
A blissful marriage or a romantic wedding? All the beautiful dreams of his youth would never come true. Worse still, their sacred oath sworn in Budapest would never be fulfilled.
With her young death An had put an end to their solemn promises midway in order to return back to the world of the immortals.
Translated by Văn Minh