To the End of the Road, then... (Nguyễn Viện )

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  • Từ: 27.06.2006
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To the End of the Road, then... (Nguyễn Viện ) 20.01.2008 07:15:04 (permalink)
Translated by Lê Đình Nhất-Lang & Lưu Diệu Vân
Everything I know about Tieu Phung is just a vague profile. Seventeen, an orphan, and is currently living with her so-called aunt, but in reality her aunt is a stingy mistress with a superficial kindness. That is one of the reasons why I want to take her with me. Because I believe I am a true benevolent person without having to prove anything further. Right at the moment I see Tieu Phung for the very first time and hear her voice, “Please have some water, it’s cooling! And you don’t have to buy the medicine,” I feel a misty sting of decency. Although I know it’s just the art of selling. She carries a container of eastern medicine on one hand, and a bucket of herbal drink on the other, but they still seem light to her. Tieu Phung lays down the container of eastern medicine on the granite chair where I seat. Surely, I cannot avoid looking into the container without appearing curious. However, “The weather is hot, please drink some water to cool down,” she offers me the glass with both hands. “Thank you,” and I drink it. “It’s very good,” and say I. “I use herbs from this container to concoct this drink, it helps to detoxicate the liver,” she insists. “How do you know if it detoxicates the liver?” “Many people drank it and came back for my help.” “How many customers do you lure in a day?” “Why did you seem to imply I lure the customers?” “Ok, it’s not luring, how much do you make a day?” “In some days, three or four hundred thousands.” “You take a half as profit, right?” She jests with me: “Wrong, two-thirds.” I look toward the ocean. Mount Father and Son (Phụ Tử) has collapsed. The assistant bus driver of the Kien Luong route says, “Nowaday, people call it Mount Breakage.” But Tieu Phung says: “I call it Mount Suicide (Tự Tử) because it seeks death.” “Do you want it to die completely?” I ask. “No, it’s most beautiful alive.” Mount Father and Son brings tourists to Tieu Phung. I say that I will send a petition to the government regarding the resurrection of Mount Father and Son so “they” won’t lose each other. Tieu Phung flutters her eye-lashes to show sympathy. She tells me the tale of a father and a son, who fought to save each other from the tiger’s attack, and together they died in the ocean. Afterwards, at that very spot emerged two little mounts resembling them. I say, right at this place will also surface two little mounts named Phoenix. “Why Phoenix?” “Because I am the male phoenix, and you are the female Phoenix.” “How do you know I am female phoenix?” “It’s because I am male phoenix.” “You lie.” “Doesn’t your name mean female phoenix?” “But how can a mount emerge from this very spot?” “I don’t really know. But I know this very spot will be my grave when I die.” “You will not die here,” Tieu Phung says. I think the same. Tieu Phung has luminous skin the color of copper. She will walk the difficult paths of this world. Tieu Phung tells me she only conducts business two months out of the year at Mount Father and Son. For the remaining months, she peddles at other tourist locations far from each other such as Vung Tau, Bien Hoa, Phan Rang, Chau Doc, where there are mountains and temples and there are people who possess strong faith in god, strong faith in the miracles of life. Tieu Phung makes a living tapping into those faiths. But everyday, she has to turn all earnings to her foster aunt. Her aunt has a Chinese husband who lives up in the Forbidden Mountain of the Chau Doc province. He grows eastern medicines and supplies the goods to his first wife, who is Tieu Phung’s foster aunt, so she can support the three children he has left behind. At the moment, he is living with his third wife, a Vietnamese woman. Tieu Phung’s foster aunt is Cambodian. Her mother is also Cambodian. But she does not know the secret of her father’s identity. I find out much later that the Chinese man, her aunt’s husband, is really her father. He carried her here all the way from Phnom Penh wh n she was just born and gave her to his first wife. I ask Tieu Phung: “Do you feel unhappy about your life?” “Why do I have to be sad?” she asks me in return. Indeed, I do feel I am a bit stupefied.
I know this man is just like any other man who has been to Mount Father and Son. Somehow, I can sense his friendliness and like to exchange conversation with him, even though, I have yet to make a sale on that day. I offer him a drink while I take a rest. He has a charming way of speaking. I ask about his profession. He replies he does whatever pays. I don’t believe an elegant man like himself is a labor worker. In my simple mind, elegant people are bosses. I never dream of acquainting a rich person, I don’t intend to love a rich person either, especially an older man like him. Those rich and ridiculous boys are not of my taste. I love simplicity, just like my very own life. I listen to Buddhist chants every week. I also buy lecture CDs from the Vung Tau monks to try to reach a better understanding of the teachings. I am secured and satisfied with my life. My aunt, my sisters and I live very happily together, though life is a bit tough, especially when I have to travel far. We have a mini cassette player. We erect a temporary tent made of thatch and cardboards on a rented piece of land. We listen to Vietnamese opera and religious chanting every night before bed. My aunt is the one who often goes to Forbidden Mountain and brings back the medicine. My sisters and I, each carries a paper box containing the medicine and a bucket of herbal drink, travesl to those temples that have lots of tourists. Most often, we travel to temples up on the mountains. My aunt says that’s where we can make the most sales. My aunt says she will buy a house someday. I was out making a living at the age of ten, after I finished third grade. Never been in love for once, but I believe I know enough about men because I struggle with life every second of the day and I am used to flirty words from many. I always have a feeling I am living in an amusing game, despite of the fact that my breasts have grown considerably since last year. But I cannot forget him because he makes me wonder about his knowledge of me. I meet him again for the second time at Chau Thoi Mountain. I believe the meeting is not intentional but rather by chance. He gives me the pictures he took of me at Mount Father and Son the last time. Among them there is one in which he holds my shoulders and I lean my head on him naturally and intimately. He says: “I still believe we will meet each other again.” “What makes you believe that?” “Because that spot near Cave Temple will emerge two mounts named Phoenix,” says he with certainty. I remark, “You have not quit lying.” He cracks a gentle smile as if to forgive my suspicion, “Buddha of the Mount Father and Son is still crying because of your mistrust for me.” I know he fabricates the story, but I don’t want him to talk of Buddha in a disrespectful manner, so I ask, “How do you know I am here?” “Quan Yin shows the way,” again he speaks of Quan Yin to suppress me. I say, “Please don’t take advantage of the gods, it’s sinful.” He smiles again, a gentle smile, “You obviously don’t know the relationship between me and the gods.” And he asks, “Where do you live?” I point toward the very end of the mountain, “Can you see that tent below? On that piece of land with a shinny roof?” “Yes, I see it.”
I don’t consider that a house, it’s a box to be exact. All the walls are made of cardboards, perhaps acquired from recycled-goods traders. The roof is built out of wax paper. There is no sign of a bed or a table in the house. It’s an empty box. The land owner says, “I let them live here temporarily. I only charge utilities. I am used to that, every year they come here and live for a couple of months.”
One day when we get home, I spot a brand-new electric fan and a letter with just one sentence written on it, “Do you want to get an education?” No signature. Of course I know it’s his. I hide the letter and tell no one. My aunt asks, “What’s going on?” I keep silent. Big Sister exclaims, “Ask Tieu Phung.” I reply I don’t know either, “I am out selling from morning until now just like you.” Big Sister is three years older than me, she is not ugly, but she has always been jealous of me. Partly it’s because I make more sales than her, and partly it’s because men always cling to me. A man asks me, “Do you want to be an actress?” I ask, “For what?” The man says that acting will turn me famous. I don’t want to be famous. I ask him the next day, “What will education do for me?” He says it will alter my life. I don’t like changes. Anyway I have never imagined how my life would change into. Sometimes I watch TV, there being people who live harsh lives, but I don’t feel being sympathized with. Sympathy is not necessary. He says to me, “You haven’t realized your desire yet.” He being not me, how would he know my vagina lips quiver and my breasts harden. I want to kick him off the mountain. But I don’t want to part with his outside appearance of an intellectual.
I sketch an image of Tieu Phung sitting on a rock, smiling, and I ask myself whether the ability to taunt is a self-defense reaction or is it a thorough understanding of life? I indecisively stare at Tieu Phung and think no matter what I should give her an angelic look. Moreover, I don’t want to emphasize the sensual details of her succulent breasts. However, she seems as if she wants to show off her butts while turning her waist to glance at me, with that deliberately innocent ramshackleness. Wantonness is an instinct and it should be celebrated. Whether romanticizing life makes it better, I am not certain of that. But I still want to depict Tieu Phung as an eternal and karma-free beauty. Probably it’s just because I want to avoid a seduction.
Mup tells me about that time the security guard tries to seduce her. He often conceals the merchandise for her and sometimes he even gives her money. In exchange, she has to let him touch her breasts. He wants to take off her pants but she refuses. A few minutes in the office can’t push things any further. He tries to make night dates with her, but she keeps putting him off. She says she wants to save herself for true love. Mi and the gang think Mup is stupid for allowing an ugly old guy to take advantage of her. “Don’t know who is the stupid one, you guys think you’re smart and yet you keep losing your investments,” she retorts. “We would rather lose assets than let him touch our bodies. How disgusting,” they shoot back. Mup is offended but she says airily, “I know many girls who want their breasts squeezed but no one wants to squeeze them.” I have no opinion in this matter. I just feel sorry for her. I suppose Mup is lucky if she can get anyone to squeeze her breasts. The security guard has a wife who is not only ancient but also club-footed. Let’s enjoy the pleasure of life while it’s still possible. I like the teachings of the monks at the temple. Who knows what’s right and wrong.
Tieu Phung calls me on the phone, “I want to visit the city this Christmas, but I don’t know anyone there.” I say when you come just call me and I will show you around. Tieu Phung makes me promise. Small thing. Deceitful people often don’t have faith in others. I don’t think Tieu Phung is used to deception, she just lacks confidence. And I promise her to put her at ease. I don’t expect her to be able to get away as she wishes.
Mi boasts, “Having a guy suck your cunt is so great I can’t stand it.” I ask, “You have a boyfriend?” She nods. I ask, “You are so tight-lipped. You have a boyfriend and no one knows.” “I have to keep quiet. You keep quiet for me, too,” she pleads. I ask why she has to keep quiet. She says because her boyfriend is a monk at the temple. Buddha bless you. I don’t understand this situation. Mi has long legs similar to mine and a skipping, sprightly gait, undiminished by a bucket of incense in her arms. At night, she likes to go to the temple to listen to the monks’ Buddhist teachings, I don’t think it’s because she wants to see her monk. I can’t guess who he is. I ask, “So what is your plan?” “No plan. Just enjoy myself for now,” she says.
I draw a symbolic cunt. An imaginary cunt, in fact. Vague circles dissolve on the surface of deep water, trembling, passionate. From nothingness to existence spans destiny. Meaningful and meaningless. Experience does not enrich one’s creativity or one’s existence. My paintings sell. Art is not my dwelling place. I believe I have successfully tricked everyone, including the art critics.
Sometimes, while standing in front of the ocean, I feel empty and anxious. I don’t know what I’m waiting for. But many times, while looking down from the mountain, I also feel serene. I like the sound of the trilling temple bell. I like to listen to the monks’ leisurely chants. There is not a single boy worth noticing, although I frequently hear my friends tell many nasty stories. My aunt often stares at me, she says she is afraid my life will turn out badly. I say I am not a beauty so my life won’t be difficult. He says I have dewy eyes. They will bring me misfortune. The storm has gone on for many days. There is not a single tourist. I stay home, lie under the blanket and sleep like a rat wedged in a dark hole. And I feel my body whispering, responding to a vague call. No one can tell me who gave me life or what is the true significance of my own body.
[to be continued]
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