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by Tran Thuy Mai At forty, her complexion remains pinky-white without a trace of wrinkles. Yet a very close look would reveal some tracks around her neck, though these are usually covered adroitly by elegant necklaces. Mr Han, her husband, looked so smart and cordial today. With greying hair and a slightly bent back, he seemed twenty years her senior. Dieu entered the party room, impertinently wondering if Mr Han could be as successful in bed as he was in business. The couple were in any event living happily together. Mr Han was trying to finish laying down a garden just in time to welcome their wedding ceremony and the opening of an art gallery by his wife, Mrs Nguyen Thi Truc Ty. Dieu entered the gallery, where the thirty paintings of hers on display unfolded before his eyes. The music of Bach, and then of Mozart or Beethoven, played beneath the murmur of the crowd. The viewers were highsociety people with glasses of champagne in their hands, talking and praising each other without having a look at the paintings. Most of the paintings were of flowers, women and still life. Her women often had big eyes, long hair and blurred hands. Was she bad at painting hands? It was said that she had not gone through any painting course. So the women’s faces in her paintings looked very similar to one another. As far as her still life paintings were concerned, there were vases, tea sets, some other things within the narrow inventory of a typical woman. A painting that hung all alone in one corner caught Dieu’s eyes because it was so different from the others: it was a life buoy on a billowing sea. The buoy was round and red, a stark contrast to the ash-grey stormy sea. The idea of the painting gave him a feeling of violence. He stopped there for a time. "Hi, Mr Dieu. I’ve heard about you for a long time, but only by sight today," Mrs Truc Ty said, standing by his side. Hearing this, Dieu looked up. The air was suffused with Tresor perfume. He immediately recognised: all the faces of the women in her paintings were her face. "Do you know me?" "Anyone does if they take up the brush. My husband said that he had to invite you several times before you accepted to be our distinguished guest today" Her voice was light, but so strong and charming. A little confusion registered on Dieu’s face. He was a seasoned painter, so he did not want to mingle among those officials and
executives. But now, having seen her in the flesh like this, he should not have refused her husband’s invitation so many times. "Please, would you give some remarks on this gallery now that you’ve come here," she said, taking his hand to a small velvet-covered table in a cormer. An autograph album. He had to write a few lines of his impressions in this book. A few days before, having read some comments praising her paintings in some newspaper, he showed his contempt, yet now that he saw how the woman looked, he took up the pen and started writing right away without any hesitation... "I was really surprised by your paintings..." Then he brushed the pen aside, thinking "What a fool I am!" and he consoled himself that at least he was really surprised at the painting called A Life Buoy. The next morning, having woken, Dieu was suddenly dizzy with that Tresor perfume somewhere in the room. But he ended up with his recognition that it was only an illusion. A very strong illusion, and he was raring to paint that illusion. The telephone was ringing... Who was calling so early? Mr Han was. He wanted to invite him for breaskfast. Mr Han’s voice was ringing loud and clear, telling Dieu that the reception had come to a successful end beyond their imagination. At the breakfast table, face to face, Dieu would now be able to see that Mr Han was much older than he had appeared under the lighting in the gallery. Thinning hair and a large forehead. Fortunately his eyes were still lively. At the end of breakfast, Mr Han invited Dieu to be his wife’s painting teacher. "Is it your idea or..." Dieu asked in a measured tone. He had the feeling that he was entering an unsafe area. "Yes, it’s my idea, but it came from Truc Ty’s wishes first." It was rumoured that since the marriage, Truc Ty had not gone out, except for shopping or for joining her husband at parties. She was said to be her husband’s prisoner. However, Dieu could tell that she was clever enough to rig her own private lordship. To teach painting... Dieu was filling tobaco into his pipe, thinking. A famous painter who had several times joined international painting exhibitions had not fallen to teaching a student to draw tea sets, flowers and vases, had he? Dieu was wondering why Mr Han had listenend to his wife so easily. Yet, finally he had accepted it. He felt so regretful right after that. This woman was not so short on talent, but she had no previous training. He then met her and remembered her A Life Buoy painting. "Why did you draw the life buoy?" A message? Or a cry for help? Dieu thought in silence.
But Truc Ty did not answer, her eyes did not leave the brush. It was her first lesson. She was allowed to paint anything she liked. It was obvious that Truc Ty would draw a woman with a flower in her hand. It was that same face. And her hand... Dieu looked serious, pointing to the hand drawn carelessly. In response to it, she said: "Teacher, I did not want to give much treatment to painting the hands because, in my opinion, those hands need no attention!" – Her voice was now so high-handed, not so sweet and gentle as the other day. It seemed to him that it was not so easy to teach this student at all. Dieu pulled the drawing from the easel and brought it to her eyes, so that she started back. Dieu knew he was the first to hurt the illusion of her talent. A rough hurt at that. This woman was living amid luxury and blind praise and he was not going to be a part of it. So he said in a cold voice: "If you want to work as a real artist, you should start from the beginning." "A real artist?"... So what have I done thus far? She was thinking hard. Her pride had now been wounded, so she was like a wild cat, so strong and so attractive. She turned away. He said with a controlled voice: "If you to learn with me... you should throw away all those rubbish praises from some gutter newspapers. If you don’t agree, you can go home now" Truc Ty turned pale upon hearing those words. She pressed her lips and put the torn picture into a leather bag at her foot. Together she also put some things she had put on the chair, her handkerchief, the sunglasses and some other odds and ends. "She could not bear it. She’s going home", Dieu thought. But she was not. Having done these things, she got another drawing paper and stretched it on the easel. Dieu felt relieved. She then took the brush and, out of the blue sky, tears brimmed over her eyes. Her pride had gone through a rough trial. She was drawing, trying to swallow her tears. Dieu walked to stand behind her. Then in a soft voice, he guided her by taking her hand to adjust the brush. It seemed that he had never been so triumphant. A famous artist, he was not poor, but not so rich as her husband. But he felt that he had won above her husband by proving to her that he had another power over her, the power of talent. "Why did you draw that life buoy? In comparison with all your paintings, only that painting is worth enjoying ," Dieu said, reminding her of his old question. Truc Ty had now studied with him for over half a year and the relationship between the teacher and the student had become closer.
Today she wore a blouse of soft stretcher material with a large collar, disclosing her white skin. "Is it a surprise for you that I have made such a beautiful painting?" Dieu smiled, thinking that it was strange for this woman who was always lauding herself first even before other people lauded her. "I did not say it was beautiful, but it can be said that the idea of the painting is what I like very much" That small gift of praise from such a teacher as Dieu made Truc Ty happier than did a hundred other people’s praises. She was breathing hard, her cheeks became rosy. It was gossiped that before she had married Mr Han, she had a very troubled life. That Mr Han met her at a tea room where she had sang, not so well, but her beauty had paid off. That Mr Han was not her first husband and that ever since his possession of her, he had to guard her as if he was keeping jewelry in his safe. Was that red life buoy really her cry for help? Was it the wish of hers to get out of the prison of man’s money and rule? And who was that life buoy more than he, a renowned artist who could understand so profoundly the human soul? These ideas and that snow white skin boldly imprinted on that black blouse had haunted him. "Is it, teacher?" – Truc Ty asked him something that had startled him. "I believe that you’ve got a good gift, so I’ll help you join an exhibition in this region"... "A regional exhibition? – Truc Ty asked with reserve. "Yes, the Northern part of the Central region of the country." – Dieu said – "You can rest assured of it, I promise" "I am told that you’re introducing the paintings to a Hong Kong-based paintings exhibition"... Dieu looked stupefied. This woman had more passion than he thought. An art exhibition in Hong Kong? Dieu laughed. He was yet to think about answering her in such a way as not to hurt her when Truc Ty looked up at him... Her glint had made Dieu go around to her back so that he could have a look at the picture she was painting, but also to hide his confusion. But Truc Ty turned and put the brush in his hand, asking him to adjust some lines in her painting. Dieu took her hand and suddenly the brush was trembling. It was clear that she wanted to attract him through the signs of her eyes and body.
Dieu tightly took her hand and put the other hand of his on her shoulder. But she quickly avoided him as if she was doing it unintentionally. She stood up and turned the easel toward the window as she wanted to have a better look at the picture and so doing, she could be separated from him. Dieu also made believe that nothing had happened and continued to talk about the technique of spraying the paint to create some visual lines on the cavas. "She was afraid of" – he thought. She liked me, but she was afraid and then avoided it. She was afraid of losing that huge asset, the fame, the safety. Dieu shrugged his shoulders in challenge. Inside him suddenly flared a lightening and he was determined to make this woman fall down, right from her weak points. A few days later Dieu gave Truc Ty thick books of collections of paintings he had gathered during his exhibitions abroad. There was a tomb with all the paintings of the nudes. She was leafing through pages and then she cried with joy: "Oh, God! How beautiful they are!" "They are the beautiful women and their beauty have been kept for ever thanks to the art. Without these art works, these women would have been long forgotten" – Dieu said, trying to have a serious face. "Do you think through it’s these paintings and sculptures that these women could become famous?" "Of course. Beauty is only short-lived and it’s the very art that helps make them eternal" Truc Ty kept a close look again at the painting of nude Maya, her cheeks had suddenly become rosy. "I’m told that the lover of this woman is the painter of genius, Goya. He himself had painted her"... Dieu nodded, his face was really serious. He knew that many middle-aged women had secretly worried about time and their age, and they felt very well about the beauty of their bodies and also they knew that sooner or later their bodies would be faded with time. Truc Ty closed the book and said nothing more. She was about to go home. It was clear that she was being attracted by the idea of becoming eternal, but she was sill hesitating and worried... Dieu was determined to deliver a final blow: "These special paintings have been often kept secret by the authors. They can be made public at the right time when the work is received by purely artistic spirit."
His voice was cold and serious while his body was getting so hot like a burning furnace. One month after that, he had hovering sleeps, dreaming about that masterpiece. He had really painted a lot of nude women since he took up the brush. A lot of young girl students and beautiful women had sat down for his painting. He had known different shapes of women’s bodies, but he had never lost his sleep as of now. He could not control himself and a voice was echoing in his head, haunting him all the time. He tossed and turned all through the night, so he subsided into sleep in early morning, dreaming about Truc Ty taking off her clothes. Suddenly there were continuous knocks on the door and he got startled in great fright. Dieu opened the door. Mr Han appeared out of nowhere in front of him. He was carrying a walking stick. He suddenly grasped Dieu’s shoulder and his leg buckled, so he wanted Dieu to help him to stand firmly. So it turned out that Mr Han did not come to attack him. He said: "I’m sorry. I’ve got very bad rheumatism, but I’ve got to go to Singapore anyway on business. So I want to invite you for breakfast and for a chat" Dieu felt greatly relieved. What was up with him that he had to fetch him in this early hour? Or had Truc Ty disclosed something? No, she was definitely not a fool Mr Han chose a private room where only two of them could sit and enjoy breakfast together. "I’m told by my wife about the Hong Kong art exhibition. She is so hopeful, but I know it’s not so easy for her" "I don’t think it’s so difficult. Your wife had sometimes..." Dieu said, thinking about this sly old man. He tried to use well-chosen words. But Mr Han continued: "My wife has an illusion about her talent. Actually she has got some talents, but it has been exaggerated and made her unable to recognise herself" "They have praised her because she is your wife, that’s that" "I know it, and very well at that" – Mr Han said – "But I want it that way. Her temper is not so pleasant at all. She is said to have married me for conveniene, but it is not that. She cannot bear any other men than me because I know how to caress her pride" "Anyone can go in for narcissism, but your Truc Ty has got it more than others. You see, throughout her paintings, all the women in them have her face. Well, now let’s go back to the Hong Kong art exhibition... I’m thinking about the way to answer her so that it should not shock her" "It’s because of this that I came to see you" – Mr Han patted strongly at Dieu’s shoulder – "I know she cannot be an official invitational guest. But I can look out for her for all the
time when she comes and stays to participate in the exhibition in Hong Kong.... The problem here is that we would like to ask your favour to get us an invitation paper, and please don’t let her know this arrangement" Dieu looked fixedly at Mr Han. He wondered if Mr Han was a cracked man when he spent a lot of money to let his wife come to Hong Kong with another man, then Dieu looked himself at the mirror. There a younger, bearded and strong man was standing. He was hesitating and considering. Or was he hatching some dark scheme againt me? – he thought. After breakfast, Mr Han was limping out of the restaurant first, and Dieu stayed back for a moment, feeling so srorry for Truc Ty when she had to give care to this old man. Why not, she needed a life buoy and he himself would be the life buoy for her. Three days later, Dieu had an addiitional invitation ot the organising board and Truc Ty was invited to the exhibition. He phoned her immediately. At the other end of the phone, Truc Ty was overjoed at it, then she said in an interrupted voice: "Thank you, my teacher..." "I wish that this is not your empty thanks.... I will make much more for you than this invitation. I want you to be eternal in art, you know" Dieu thought that she was intelligent enough to understand his implication about nude paintings. "Are you at home tonight? I’ll come to see you then," Truc Ty said in a weak voice. The car pulled up in front of Dieu’s house and switched off all the lights. Today Mr Han was already in Singapore and she drove the car herself. Different from the other days, tonight she put on casual wear with a large kerchief over her head. In the living room, Dieu had a bottle of quality alcohol already on the table. Truc Ty waved it away slightly, telling him that she did not drink it. She said right away as if she wanted to avail herself every minute of tonight... "I have to come to you immediately. I know you’re very concerned about the fact that I could afford having an opportunity. But for me now, this inviation is not valuable any more!" "...?" "I want to confess something to you that even my husband does not know it. The painting work for me is only much ado about nothing, you know. I do it only to make me a little famous so as to be worthy of he himself!" "Do you think he’s so great a man?" Dieu said sarcastically. "Even if he’s nearly sixty, he’s been admired by many ladies," Truc Ty said, smiling.
"They have admired his money" "Maybe. Beside him, I’ve found I’ve got nothing valuable except my beauty. And my beauty is getting faded day in day out. Have a look, you can see it..." Truc Ty pulled off the kerchief on her head, disclosing her face without any make-up. It was a face of a middle-aged woman with crow-foot cracks at the ends of her eyes and her skin was not smooth at all. Why did she come to see him in such a naked face? Was it that she felt remorsed for rekindling the flame inside a man? This had gone against her narcissism. "Teacher, I think I could not be a success in painting, but I wanted you to help and by the way I wanted to seduce you... I’m really guilty..." It seemed someone was pouring cold water on him upon hearing it. Darn it! Women only want to live with one man, but they want still to have many men die because of them! "When you informed me that I was invited to Hong Kong, right at that time, my husband’s rheumatism had become more serious than ever, so I have to leave for Singapore early tomorrow. If he could not recover well, I should put my painting hobby aside so that I could have more time to give better care to him... From this moment onward, I need not to polish myself any more..." "Very interesting indeed!" Dieu laughed grimly – "From now on you’ll play the role of a faithfull wife.... But faithful for what? For him? Or for his assets?" "For seventeen years now, he has been grapling with the market, so many worries on his face, but at home upon seeing his wife, he smiled immediately just because he was afraid that his wife could see his worries. If I needed anything, he would satisfy my requirements at any costs. When I was small, I had no love from parents, and when I grew up, I got married to an unfaithful and thankless husband. He had salvaged me from dire poverty and he was really my own life buoy..." Dieu’s mouth dropped open. He was able to stammer a few moments later: "But how could you... be able to live happily with... with such a man, who is now...?" "My dear teacher, with me, sex is the great gift of love, and it cannot be greater than love" Having said it, she walked down the steps. Dieu covered his face with his hands and coughed. When he stretched out his hands, he could see upon them the unmistakeable stains of red blood.