By NGUYEN QUANG THAN
Phát woke up at the break of dawn. He had a headache. He had dreamt he was sitting alone in a horse cart, the one which used to be seen appearing at the city gate when it was dusk, and disappearing when the city was lit up to avoid being fined for traffic offence. The horse's tail turned into a paint and ran away right before his eyes, flying into a rage and making jokes. He kept changing positions with the horse after each length of road. Fortunately, after washing his face, he felt relieved and the dream dissolved into the off-white water in the small washbasin.
He reviewed the work to be done today. At eight, attend the inaugural ceremony of an art gallery of woman painter B. He did not hold any post in the administration or in the Fine Artists' Association, but on occasions like these he was invited to encourage the younger generation. At nine, a girl much younger than he, a close friend with whom a platonic relationship had created a lot of scandals, had made an appointment to go and paint somewhere that she would keep secret to the last minute. It could be a pagoda or a coffee house about a stone's throw away from his house. It depended on her whim. He could refuse such appointments on certain days, but not today, after attending the opening ceremony of the art gallery of B. He believed in his transparent presentiment, as always, each time he saw that short, neat, fashionable hair, he felt his heart wring.
In the afternoon, he had promised to paint a portrait of Huấn, a friend of his.
It could be said that this was a special event in Phát's life. He rarely did portraits. Whenever he did, the art circle in the city expected another work by a master. But an earlier portrait he had done had brought him abject misery. Though it was not long since he had made friends with her, he had looked many times in silence at that heart-stirring young face. He thought he could count all those shining black strands of short hair that embraced that round, beautiful head. Then he took the brush up. The portrait surprised many and quickly became famous. The girl herself was stunned. When she first saw her portrait, she wanted to kneel down and abandon her life to the middle-aged artist. Fortunately, she was able to pull herself together. Everybody was very surprised that she did not love this man she so greatly admired. The age difference was not so great, and besides it was of no significance at all. Only the girl understood why she did not love him. How could one love a man who had understood her so well, to such a degree that he could depict the frail trembling of her soul on the canvas?
She got married unexpectedly. The painter knew in advance his unhappiness. For him, the girl in flesh and bone was gone, only the portrait was still living, and now he trembled only in front of the painting. "I have painted the portrait on the patch of the donkey's hide of my life". It was true that each time he did a portrait for someone, he breathed life into hues.
Yet, this afternoon, he would paint the portrait of Huấn.
- Uncle, the water is boiling.
His niece placed a vacuum flask on the table, its red lid making the room ore pleasant.
- Let me prepare tea. He looked at his niece with affection - please go to school on time. Do remember to have breakfast.
- Yes, uncle.
- Remember to have breakfast - he told her again, and only the sounds of her sandals on the staircase were heard.
The lid of the flask and the sound of boiling water in the kitchen made the studio more cheerful, and the niece, poor Đức, was the unending joy of his life.
Đức's father, his younger brother, was an engineer. He went straight from his wireless goods assembly line to the battlefield B2 in the South and never returned home. Đức's mother married again two years after the south was liberated. He cried for his brother with dull, dry eyes. His mind burned with the idea and hope of painting a portrait. But it was clear that he could do it through memory like some other artists. For him, to paint was to use his heart’s light to enlighten the object.
. So the truth emerged, the soul appeared in color on the canvas, the false outer conditioning lines, the form used to eat, drink, speak honeyed or bitter words. The truth of a cloud was really the rain.
Phát walked towards the window. Đức was walking carefully on the pavement across the street, nervous about the brand-new motor cycles speeding to and fro on the road. He thought that the portrait of an orphan niece would be the last of his life. As modest as he was, he still believed that his talent, together with the misery of his niece, would make that last portrait immortal.
He could not take a nap at noon although the opening of the art gallery and his sentimental, energetic girl friend had made him very tired. He put out the canvas, cleaned the brushes, put the knives with the ivory-colored plastic handles on the table. He closed and then opened some windows, dragged some rattan chairs on the floor from this place to that place without finding the spot he wished Huấn to sit on. He followed no particular lighting principle when he painted. He only pushed the chair deep into a space, as though pushing a child into a classroom. That moment, his studio, a small, messy room, changed completely, flooded with a different light, a different atmosphere. The branch of an old flamboyant tree drooped against the window as always, rustling as though bestowed with a soul. He sat in front of the easel to wait for Huấn, deeply absorbed in the soft feeling of creativity.
He heard the sound of the machine at the beginning of the street. A moment later, Huấn walked in. He had never driven his motorcycle to his friend's house. It was a short walk, usually. Phát could not understand why he had done that and he found that he himself had become very clumsy and awkward.
- Hello! Huấn opened the door with a soft greeting.
- Please, sit down. Phát indicated the rattan chair. A stray bee was buzzing around in the room.
Huấn sat on the chair. He was only one or two years younger than Phát, but looked much younger. His face was a little long, his hair fell on one side, just long enough to cover the corner of one eye like a shade. On Huấn's face there was always a friendly smile with small, white teeth. He was a little confused as the rattan chair seemed to struggle under his body which had started to get fatter. This was the first time he had posed for a portrait, so he did not know where to place his hands with their fingers as pale and slender as a girl’s. He looked like a cat which wanted to huddle further into the smallest form before it sprang upon a big mouse.
Huấn wanted to engage in small-talk as he usually did with his own circle of friends, but Phát only looked at him and meticulously sharpened a pencil. He probably did not need to use a pencil, but he sharpened it attentively and studied his friend’s face attentively while remembering their friendship.. A few decades ago, they had sat at the same desk in the same class, both loved by their teacher, Hoang. Hoang suddenly disappeared before the August Revolution broke out. The storm of war and revolution took them to different places, returning to their native city with different fates. Teacher Hoang became a professional revolutionary cadre in charge of an important agency in the city. Huấn followed the teacher's path. He was resourceful, flexible and was led and trusted by the teacher, and his promotion was a little faster, becoming his teacher's deputy a few months ago. Recently, Hoàng had died suddenly, and Huấn was appointed to the vacant position. While the whole faculty was stunned and felt orphaned at Hoang's death, nobody was surprised that Huấn was asked to take over.
Phát was greatly saddened by the death of his former teacher, and regretted very much that he had not painted a man who he greatly loved and admired. He blamed himself for not visiting the teacher often, but could not tell that death always walked faster than man. He had been totally absorbed in his work. When Huan invited him to visit his new house just allotted to him on his recent promotion and expressed his wish to have a portrait done of himself for the bedroom, Phát agreed immediately. He felt this could compensate for his neglect of close friends in the past. He also knew that a portrait with his signature would be a keepsake that could help warm up the hearts of friends, and for a good friend like Huấn, he would never regret expending his modest talent and time. He was very glad on hearing about Huấn's promotion to the post of teacher Hoang, really glad, though he did not pay much heed to that prestigious post. He had earned some success in the art world and wished that his friends in different fields could also attain all that they deserved to enjoy. He wished nobody would suffer retribution or be forgotten in this busy, narrow life.
Not everybody shared the artist's sentiments. One melancholy afternoon when he was at a café with his girlfriend, there were two people at the next table in hushed conversation about the death of teacher Hoang and the promotion of Huấn. His girlfriend motioned him to listen, but he finished his coffee in one gulp and stood up. Envy grew rapidly like wild grass, and he did not care for it.
The memory of school life resurfaced as he continued to sharpen the pencil he never used. He sharpened it in silence, looking at his friend and silently sending kind words his way.
Then he started painting.
As he worked on the first strokes, the silence deepened. There was only the sound of dying gasps as though the artist was in the coils of an invisible snake, and the end of the cigarette blinked as he smoked. Knife and brush glided over the canvas like a breath of air. He always joked that the portrait artist was different from the hairdresser only in that he did not talk while he worked. Silence, that was the light, the contemplation, the model’s life engraved with innumerable involved complexities. The light in the room changed as it mixed with the reflections from the wet colors and folded lines on the canvas. Huấn’s face was also disappearing, the lines making up his face breaking into pieces, taking on another form, gradually emerging out of the canvas.. It began moving and emitting it own light, that coffee house in the misty afternoon, his girlfriend pinching his hand, her face changed, the low voices of the two people sitting at the next table, their eyes dimly visible through the smoke of the cigarettes... Inside the bar the owner was complaining about her cat, the flies were buzzing around a pot of sugar... The instant he stood up and walked to the door, the two men looked at him, they could have not known that he knew Huấn.
He walked a few steps backwards squinting at the face that had appeared on the easel.
He was amazed. What was in front of him? It was definitely Huấn. Huấn was looking at him, nobody else. But why were there these lines? Where was this black spot? Where? And the right eyes of Huấn seemed to have broken from inside out, and from there oozing out, a grey line that had make the cheek burnt and swollen, and the skin and flesh disintegrate. He took pains to mix the royal blue color; he would use the blade of the knife to press it... That grey line, could it have been tears? But there were no tears on that face, the tears distilled from altruism and kind-heartedness. The poisonous look from the right eyes of Huấn had made the left side of the face darker. He had released by mistake a locked up evil spirit from a story his mother had told him. The spirit was dancing on the portrait that had just been finished. He clutched his left hand tightly with his right as if he wanted to punish it (he used his left hand to paint). But to no avail. Nothing could save it. Exhausted he sat on a low stool, threw the knife with its ivory plastic handle on the floor, and covered his face with his hands.
Then he quickly pushed the small table with a tea set on it and pulled a chair very close to where Huan was sitting.
- Please have some tea. Just relax for a moment.
Huấn seemed nervous, but tactfully did not look at the unfinished picture. Besides it was now hidden from view by the slightly hunched back of the artist. He sipped the cool tea.
- Until now I have not been able to forger the death of teacher Hoang - Phát suddenly said.
- How can we? - Huấn shrugged his shoulders a little bit.
- It was quite unexpected.
- All the people in my office were quite taken aback.
The two men were sitting over their cups of tea, the sound of tea flowing gently into their throats could be heard. Huấn’s silent laughs rang out for a long time before his smile, so affectionate and trustful, returned slowly to his face. Phát stepped back a little and picked the knife up.
He scratched the layer of the oil paint on the right side of the face that had not yet dried with a determined action, the veins on his hand bulging and pulsing with the beat of his heart and breath. The grey line disappeared in the broken eye, leaving an open space. By mixing a little cooler color, he used the knife to adjust the sketches gently, his eyes closely following the face and the smile of Huấn, and he made all the lines reappear with and even greater excitement. He was immersed in his work when evening came without notice. When the patch of sunlight was dying out on the window, he hurriedly stepped back, looking askance at the face already formed on the easel.
His whole body was trembling. Was it his eyes that had observed this and his hand that had painted it, or someone else’s? Still the same eyes, the cold, sharp look of the left eye, the right eye was still broken, and that grey line, which he had intentionally rubbed out from the rotten cheek of a drowned man, had now reappeared, even thought it was dimmer, achieving a degree of subtlety that any master artist would wish for. The evil spirit that danced on the portrait had become more arrogant, all his efforts at driving it away had been futile.
In an instant he understood that he had been successful. He had not made any error in arranging the background or lighting. He had painted what needed to be painted - the truth about a man.
There was nobody to blame now, except the innate talent which had seldom appeared in such a perfect manner as this time. Going against truth was a serious crime, he was so terrified that he quickly took the piece of soft cloth which he used to clean his hands to cover the portrait. There is hardly anybody who likes to see the truth about himself.
In sadness and fatigue, he sat down again on the chair. Huấn stood up, a smile still on his lips, and walked closer to the portrait. Phát gestured, "Oh, no, not yet finished!" and before the surprised eyes of his friend, he took the piece of cloth off the easel and turned it against the wall.
His niece brought a flask of newly boiled water, added some more tea into the teapot, and the gentle, sweet perfume of jasmine spread in the studio. Huấn pulled Đức into his lap, caressing her soft, but thick hair.
- Oh, my niece, just a short time ago, and now... - He said with tender smile.
Đức leaned against him, her bright eyes full of confidence and sympathy. She looked at her uncle as if wishing to say to him: "Uncle, Huấn is so kind, so gentle, your friends are all good." It was that look Phát had just read that made him confused and lose the self confidence, the confidence in the moments of talent that had appeared in his hands. Was it talent that made a man he had always thought about with gentle memories, a man with that sweet smile, appear so different on that canvas? Was there any evil treachery? Had he betrayed his friend, or was it his obstinate, sclerotic hands that had betrayed him?
- Do you remember the exact date of the 100th day death ceremony of teacher Hoang?
- 23rd of this September - Huấn answered perfunctorily, he was so anxious to have a glance at his portrait. He would hang it in the bedroom and it would have heart to heart talks with himself each morning, each afternoon, it was like a drop of honey falling into his pot of happiness to make it complete.
- As a matter of fact, our teacher died a little young, a rare talent and soul.
- Cardiac arrest. It is quite a normal thing to happen at his age. A very careful legal medical examination has been undertaken - Huấn said quickly.
Phát recalled that afternoon at the cafe, the two men speaking to each other in a low voice, his girlfriend pinching his hand, inflicting a sharp pain. But he could not remember anything, only that at that moment the owner of the cafe was complaining about the moral conduct of her cat. It seemed that the words and dark plots of the men would not be able to reach his ears.
- Was the teacher upset about anything? - He asked Huấn.
- I don't think he was. All the senior and junior officials showed their respect to him.
- He was already dead. A sentence which was almost meaningless, so Phát corrected himself. - A generous and lenient man.
And he cried with dry eyes. The tears were falling somewhere inside him.
- Now, tomorrow you should go to Chung and ask him to take a middle-sized photo of yourself.
He explained that he needed a photo of Huấn to perfect his painting. Chung was a close friend of both, one of the rare photographers who could raise the art of photography on par with painting.
They drank tea and exchanged some comments about their friend whose portrait of Mother won a major prize at an international photo competition. A foreign paper at that time wrote: "The author of the portrait knows how to choose that point in time when the deep soul of the mother of Vietnam appears on a common face, this is something that only a great artist can do..." Phát remembered this evaluation, so he asked for a photo taken by his friend.
* * *
The artist walked down the street. He had not used a bicycle for years. On official trips to places far away, he took a bus to the nearest point available, completing his journey by horse cart or boat. The hot spell was not yet over but the gentle onset of autumn could be felt. A mix of the north-eastern and southern winds, cool but drier on the skin, was fanning the streets. The streets seemed larger with the wind creating a kaleidoscope of dust, making the sun yellow red and the high buildings look far away as if they were touching the horizon. The mirage and the far away felling made people anxious in their wait for autumn. In the air there was something that did not clearly define the change of season, making the artist fitful. The leaves on the trees were less green, but not yet turning yellow, the grass carpets in the flower garden were no longer young and fresh, the bark of the flamboyant trees on the street were sporting tiny grey cracks.
For the last few days, a feeling of annoyance had nagged Phát. At times he doubted his skill, at others he felt he was a little cruel. The portrait of Huấn was still kept hidden, and he had not taken it out because he did not want it to haunt him any more than it already did. Finally he went to see Chung.
He firmly believed that Chung would not refuse to take a photograph of the portrait of Huấn and it was time now to prepare the dark room for that purpose.
Unlike Phát, the photographer had a spacious property with a garden, some single storey houses roofed with ancient tiles, and paths running around garden, paved with light blue clinker. Chung arranged a set of rattan chairs and a table in the middle of the yard and prepared tea. Phát did not want to lift the cup of lotus flavored tea.
- Please give me the photo of Huấn.
- Not yet finished.
Phát looked into his friend's eyes, feeling sure that he was lying. Chung's confusion excited him. His face was pale, the self confidence of a photographer-artist was missing. He looked confused and tired like a famous singer who had just sung a song out of tune before an adoring audience.
- You are lying. Let me see it. I need to see it.
Unable to struggle against the penetrating eyes of the famous artist, Chung lowered his voice:
- I have spoiled that photograph.
- Artists of genius are usually not able to assess their own work, Goethe once said. Let me see the photograph.
They went into the room. Chung pulled from of a bunch of papers a medium sized photograph. Phát thought his heart had stopped. The photograph in his hand seemed to be one with the portrait that had cost him his appetite and sleep for the last few days. Still the eye that wanted to be broken, the rotten cheek and the black line; not the tear, but the pitch darkness that covered over the half of the face, the face of solitary confinement, Phát thought, darkness and solitary confinement, the ideas coming unbidden.
- You're a photographer of genius. He put the photo on the table.
The photographer did not know that with these words Phát reaffirmed his own talent after some days of wrestling in doubt and hesitation.
- I have spoiled that kind, smiling face of his. Chung was confused.
- It is quite a pity, that sweet smile, but you are a genius. You have again chosen the desired moment in time. There are things which only art can do, can express.
- Do not mock me, it is bad for me, Phát.
- No, don't think so. It is said that Van Gogh lacked models, that's why he often painted portraits of himself. I don't think that's right. He did it because he wanted to confess. I've got to go now.
The artist walked out of the house as if he was running away. The orphaned niece, the spark shining for the last part of the road for his life, was waiting for him at home, and maybe lunch was already prepared.
* * *
Finally, one away or another, Huấn was also able to see his oil-paint portrait and his photograph. The artist and photographer, his friends, said that they did not understand why they had created such bad works, and were sorry about it. They promised to create other works later.
Back home, Huấn was sad. He did not eat dinner. He sat by the table and found his heart empty. Suddenly the wind came in through the window and blew a typed page on to the table. Huấn took it, feeling his back very cold, sweat soaking the roots of his hair. He struck a match to burn the piece of paper. The damp air of early autumn and trembling fingers betrayed him. No match-stick would burn. Huấn had to put the paper back to its previous place, and then place a very thick dictionary on it. Not reassured, he put another pile of books on it.
He usually typed two copies of letters and documents, the paper that was blown away was the file copy of an anonymous letter that had led to the heart attack of the man he had just replaced.
Suddenly he knew that he was probably the only person who could understand why the portrait was like that.
On the night of 6