THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 7 NUMBER 2
THE BLIND WOMAN
A short story by
Nguyen Huu Tri, short-story writer, professor, translator, interviewer and editor, born in 1936 in NhaTrang (Vietnam), educated at Vo Tanh College (NhaTrang), obtained his Baccalaureate II in 1958. Pursuing his higher education, in 1959, he went to the US on the Leadership Training Scholarship (1959-1964), received his BA in English from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (1962), his M.S in Linguistics from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. (1964), and in 1981, his Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Nguyen Huu Tri made his name as a writer with the publication of “Thang Ngo” (1992), a collection of Vietnamese language short-stories, which was followed by “An Trua, Nghe Ke Chuyen Tinh”, another collection of stories published by Van (1999). He lives in Virginia.
translated by the author
I mechanically covered my head with the newspaper. I ran at a stretch across the street into the popular inn at the entrance of the alley. A sudden rain put everybody in a helter-skelter run to look for shelter. I quickly glanced at about a dozen tables crowded with customers. There was only one unoccupied chair at a small table in a corner. From afar, in part because of the dim light in the restaurant and the vapor on my eyeglasses, I could not see very clearly the two people sitting at the table. Stepping a little closer, I could see a woman with a little boy of six or seven years old. They were quiet among the noisy crowd. The boy looked tired, his eyes half-closed. The woman was looking straight at the empty space in front of her. Her slightly tanned face looked so peaceful just like that of someone exercising meditation. Their clothing was neither extravagant nor tattered. I came over and asked if I could take the empty chair. The woman startled, but she still kept looking straight ahead.
“Please, go ahead,” she said quickly, her voice unusually crystal clear.
I was rather flabbergasted when I looked at the woman’s eyes with much white in them. My inveterate habit of thinking idly promptly grabbed me. Those discreet thoughts seemed to be questioning Heaven: Why did it happen? Why does a person with such a beautiful face have to suffer blindness? If she had good eyesight, those big and round eyes would attract the whole universe.
I sat down and then turned around to signal the waiter that was looking at me from the distance. My stomach was gnawed by hunger, so I needed to have a bite. I had been wandering since morning, ignoring the heart-rending cries from my empty stomach. While waiting for the food, I was about to continue reading the paper when the blind woman tried to start a conversation with me in a crystal clear voice. Her blind eyes were still staring unseeing at the narrow space in front of her.
“I am so sorry, but I almost called his name when I saw you. It’s almost impossible that two people would look so much alike.”
The woman paused momentarily, apparently waiting for a response from me. However, I was busy wondering how she could see my face. Naturally, I had to ask.
"Excuse me, but how could you see what I look like?"
"I know. For those with good eyesight, this is difficult to understand. But for blind people like me, we are pitifully bestowed with a sharp sixth sense by Heaven. I only need to hear your voice and feel your gestures to 'see' that you look so much like him."
In a short minute, the woman had repeated twice the word "him." I became rather curious. I had not decided to inquire further when she said shyly.
"If I'm not mistaken, you came from a faraway place."
The woman groped for the child's chair and moved it closer to her. The boy put his head onto her bosom and quickly fell into an innocent sleep. The woman's reservation also seemed to disappear. Bowing her head and looking at the table top, she began to tell a story without any prelude. She did not really care whether the person facing her would listen to her story. She seemed to have waited a long time for this opportunity because she had kept her inmost feelings until today. Or she might have been able to read the questions that were haunting my mind: Since when has she lost her eyesight? Where does she live? What is she doing to earn a living? Is the boy really her biological son and where is his father? Is it true that that strong sense is helping her to 'hear' all my unsaid inquiries? As for me, it was a hard-sought and lucky opportunity to hear someone pouring out her heart at this strange place. The woman was not at all reluctant as if she was telling the story to an old friend after a long absence.
He was born in Hong Kong and had an extremely dim childhood. His father was a driver and even though the man was hard working, he could not afford to feed eight mouths in the family. They frequently went through days with neither food nor heat. He had a very distinctive character. As a toddler, he had already reserved a special love for his siblings. He was willing to show self-denial in dealing with people around him. Ironically enough, when they decided to have one mouth less to feed, he was the one to be given away to a rich aunt of his. This aunt could not have children, so she had asked to adopt one of her nephews. He then had to leave his most beloved ones when he was only four years old. He felt the deepest grief when he lost his mother’s love and had to live without her warm tenderness, even though he had not fully enjoyed her affection. He cried face down on the floor to beg to live at home. His parents' grief was no less profound, but they had lost one child before, because of lack of food and medicines when he was seriously ill. They did not want to bid "farewell" to a second child, so they painfully and silently chose "separation in life" in hopes to see their son again someday. In the end, he packed to go live with his aunt in Taipei. During a dozen years growing up far away from his parents and siblings, he had visited home only once or twice with his aunt. In spite of his aunt's whole-hearted care and nurture, the feeling of loss and loneliness never ceased to follow him throughout his childhood and adolescence. By the time he entered the university, he had no longer got along with his adopted parents. Even though he was always grateful to them for raising him, he could not humor them. His aunt and uncle owned a huge import-export company, so they wanted him to study business in order to one day take over their assets and help them become the richest people in the nation, or better yet in the whole world.
Against their will, he loved literature over everything else. He knew perfectly well how unfortunate the plight of the pariah in society was. Yet, money and wealth were for him trivial and frivolous possessions in life. In fact, his foster parents had been disappointed when they saw his first poems published in school newspapers. Then, when he was finishing high school, a teacher who loved his poetry heartily helped him publish his first collection of poems. From then on his resounding fame spread all over the country. And in no time his poetry was published in Hong Kong, smuggled into the mainland and gradually translated into many languages. His poetry was adored for its extraordinary ideas and his timeless love poems were set to music. The saddening thing was the fame of a super poet did not bring him any riches. After having failed to convince him, his uncle and aunt stopped paying for his education. That was why he was dragging the life of a poor student until the day he won a bachelor's degree in literature and began teaching. His adoptive parents found him and forced him to give some of his earnings even though for them, it was only a very small amount of money. Perhaps they were still angry and just wanted to punish him for his disobedience. He paid his debt of gratitude without raising any complaint and continued his frugal life in order to send his savings home so his parents could raise his brothers and sisters.
He had been teaching for a few years, but after one summer he did not return to school. The media reported that the people's beloved poet was missing. However, after a while the case was forgotten gradually and no one was concerned any longer. As people would expect, his poems no longer appeared. The truth was that he, along with a friend from a wealthy family, had gone to the mainland with an unannounced purpose. They had gone through painful steps to get necessary papers to enter Shanghai.
I was born and grew up in Shanghai, and at that time I was a member of the Shanghai City's folk dance and song ensemble. I imagine there is no way you can guess what role I used to play in that group. I don't dare to brag about it, but I was a key artist in the orchestra. I was outstanding in all the performances of singing, dancing, theatre and gymnastics. You probably have seen the act in which a dozen people ride a bicycle on the stage. I played a crucial role in that performance. The state pampered me and I had innumerable fans. In particular, I played the role of a blind woman leading a hard life in the feudal time. I was gratefully bestowed by Heaven a special performing talent, so a great number of spectators was moved to shed tears and choked with indignation by the play. I spontaneously became "the blind woman in Shanghai." I had been playing that blind character for a few years until one night I appeared on the stage at curtain call. I could hear the roaring applause but suddenly my vision dimmed and the spectacle in front of me was slowly sinking into darkness. I was taken to the hospital and treated by the most famous physicians, but after many attempts they had to give up and give me this never-ending obscurity. My own gloomy world has been just like the cold and desolate stage behind a velvet curtain without even an ethereal light.
Oh...I have forgotten to tell you that we had met two years before started losing my vision. Actually, he had left Shanghai when this horrible accident occurred. When we were together on the night before he left, he promised to come back to look me up. I still remember his whispering voice as though it was just uttered yesterday: "Remember you're my only love. I will strive to achieve something in the shortest time and will come back to you." I did not realize I was pregnant with this child until he had left. He seemed to plunge into my life like an arrow, leave in me a drop of blood and then suddenly flew away like a bird unexpectedly taking off to the open sky. I believed that he loved me with all his heart, so I was determined to wait for him. In some strange faraway place in this world, my lover would never know he had such a cute and well-behaved son, don’t you agree? Neither would he know how hard I had been fighting to keep this boy alive. I did not really care about people’s disparaging criticisms; what bothered me most was the order of the state. They wanted me to get an abortion, for the music group needed to have me play the role of the blind woman.
I vehemently opposed the management’s proposal. Finally, they made some concessions and allowed me to take leave for six months. After this child was born, I went back to work but wasn’t happy. The reason was while I was on leave, the ensemble found another woman to replace me. She looked rather like me but of course much younger and healthier than I was. Admittedly, she was a talented artist and in no time had advanced to a rather high position. Theater reviewers and fans began to raise her to my rankings. We took turns playing the blind woman in the musical. But after a while the management began to give me the cold shoulder. Although I was still young and not quite experienced in arts, I knew that I should follow what is called the "law of elimination." I resigned from the group and came back to lived my mother. Fortunately, my father had once saved up and hid small assets and later left them for my mother. Because of this, I did not really have to worry about earning a living to raise my child. Besides, while my life was evolving into another direction, nothing in this life meant as much as he did to me. Even my singing career, which I had cherished for many years, had lost its value.
One night, prior to my leaving the folk dance ensemble, a stranger looked me up backstage after my performance. The man introduced himself as a friend of his and handed me a hastily written letter from him. The man also gave me a wad of paper, saying it is a dozen of his new poems. My lover and I had been away from each other for two long years, so I was enormously happy when the man brought news from Beijing. The stranger had to leave in a hurry, so I did not have a chance to write back to him. I read the letter again at home and realized that he did not give an address. He wrote that even though Beijing and Shanghai are not really far from each other, it was not yet convenient for him to come back to me. He wanted to remind me that he was still unfailingly faithful to me and was still dreaming of an early homecoming. Reading his poems, I was bewildered to find that his tones and themes had changed entirely. There were no more romantic love poems of the past, except for one that he dedicated to me. Obviously, there was an intense and thorough metamorphosis. In front of me were poems glorifying freedom, peace and democracy. By my ears were the thunderous lines ardently against the regime and for the basic human rights. The themes had changed, but the quality in his poetry remained incomparable.
The encounter boosted my morale a little. Although he was far away, I thought to myself that above all he was a poet deserving to live a poetic life. No one would "lock up" a poet, don't you think? Oh, I almost forgot to tell you another detail of his life. Talking about "jailing" poets, I suddenly recalled that his foster parents once attempted to "put him under arrest" in that manner. Although they had let him fend for himself financially in college, they changed their attitude after he graduated and became a well-known poet. They did not really like his "romantic literature," but they inevitably felt proud of his glorious success in this endeavor. His foster parents knew many rich people in the business circle in Taipei. Through matchmaking, one of those families agreed to give their daughter in marriage. I never cared to ask him about his love life or whether he had a happy marriage. I did not know whether he decided to get married just because he wanted to fulfill the duty of a pious son, or that he truly loved that young girl. I only knew that the girl adored his poetry and they had a son together. This means that this sleeping boy right here has a half brother in a very far-away place and no one knows when they will meet each other. Neither do I know whether he has promised to come back to them or not.
After I stopped working for the music group, I hung around at home with my mother for many months. One day I happened to look at some clouds flying aimlessly in the clear blue sky. I told myself that even inanimate things like clouds ploughed a long way to look for friends; as a human with a soul, why didn't I go search for other humans? I decided to go out in search of my lover at all costs. I had packed and was ready to set out on my trip when unrest took place in Tianamen Square. I had to put off the trip, but I left for Beijing immediately after the situation got better. And for the past three years I have been searching for my lover all over this city, but there hasn't been any luck.
The blind woman stopped telling her story right there. She pointed awkwardly at the top of the table.
"I am sorry. Please go ahead and eat before the food gets cold."
I turned around looking at the dish that the waiter had put there without my attention. The boy woke up and muttered a few words but then went back to sleep, his head leaning on the woman's stomach. The woman asked timidly:
"Are you in Beijing on business?"
Somehow I wasn't bothered by her curiosity. Instead, I was quite comfortable in front of this stranger.
"No, I am not. I came to Beijing because I have an acquaintance here."
"Wonderful! You have probably enjoyed seeing your friend, haven't you?"
"To tell the truth, I haven't seen her. And I probably won't see her."
"Excuse me, but what you've just said sounds really strange to me!"
"I thought to myself that you would think so. However, with your permission, I will tell you a little story about "her."
I raised my eyes to discreetly observe her reaction and met a delicate and beautiful face. She bent her head a little and closed her eyes momentarily. Her smiling eyelids seemed to approve of my request. I'm not the type of person that tells one's secrets to anyone. But this woman in front of me seemed to have some kind of mystical enticement that made me feel as though I was instantly carried away in an emotional whirlwind. And I poured out my heart to her almost absurdly.
She stepped out of my life without turning around even once. The reason, well, only she and God know! Can you imagine? It was the day before our wedding when she unexpectedly disappeared without a word or a trace ...just like a...a what? Let's call it like a wisp of smoke vanishing in the boundless air. Even her family did not know where she went. Afterwards and by chance we found out she entered the convent to dedicate her life to The Savior. Of course, I was broken hearted because I love her truly. But what dismayed me most terribly was the fact that I was not able to make heads or tails of her action! I began to look for an answer. While I was eager to discover the truth, she seemed to be indifferent and to think that an explanation of her action was unnecessary. I only made a sheer conjecture since I wasn't able to figure out what she was thinking. I eventually succumbed to destiny. I gave in but at the same time I created for myself a rather odd habit. She has been sent by her Order on social assignments in different places. When I get the information, I always travel to her place of service. I have traveled to every corner of the world, but I have never intended to see my lover. All I have wanted to do is to admire the beauty of the scenery where she is living. That is my only purpose. Perhaps it is a pretext for me to travel here and there. Somehow I have begun to enjoy following a hazy shadow. I came to Beijing right after I had heard that she was working in a nursing home here. Of course, I am not going to look her up just because of a simple reason: I have given up for a long time."
The blind woman suddenly interrupted me, her enthusiastic voice being that of an optimist.
"Excuse me, but I don't want to hear any more. That is enough for me to completely disagree with you. I venture to think that you're wrong when you decide to give up on looking for her. In your case, quitting means you do not love her faithfully. You need to be unselfish in love. Besides, this life is so wonderful; why do you give in that prematurely? I really cannot accept your thinking.
"I'm sorry for being so blunt in expressing my sincere thoughts. We're just two strangers meeting each other out of the blue right here on two very tiny spots in this infinite universe. And we are taking each other into our confidence without any apparent reason. We're doing this just because we are trying to shed some of our overwhelmingly lonely feelings, don't you think? However...I just want to tell you frankly that I am very proud of myself for not having given up. I love this life in spite of its dark side. On the other hand, he has always been on my mind. And I promise myself that I will keep searching for him and won't stop until I collapse."
The blind woman woke up the boy and slowly rose to say goodbye to me. Suddenly, she said in a very soft voice.
"Sir, I would like to speak to you about a few things. If it's not inconvenient for you, could I see you again here tomorrow afternoon? Goodbye now, sir."
Stupefied, I looked at the child leading the blind woman out of the inn. I turned around to look at the food that had gone cold a while ago. On the plate, a whitish layer of thick grease covered a few pieces of meat and vegetables. I poured myself a cup of hot tea and drank it in one gulp. I paid the waiter and stepped outside to the veranda, not yet knowing where to go. Under my feet, a little stream of rainwater was flowing along the worn-out veranda. Suddenly I pictured a great billowing river where the blind woman, the boy and I were creeping up among its flotsam and jetsam.
I came back to that inn the next afternoon. Neither the woman nor the child was anywhere to be seen in the inn. I did not know why, but I was eager to see them again. After a rather long wait, I went back outside. I was looking around when a woman beggar and her child came close to me. I almost burst out shouting for joy when I recognized that they were the same blind woman with the child that I talked to yesterday. But today she was wearing sunglasses and had a scraggy wooden stick in her hand. Both of them had dirty and ragged clothes on. The woman lowered her voice to request to see me at the old tree deep inside the alley. The child briskly led his mother toward the appointed spot. I accelerated my pace to follow them, keeping a reasonable distance. As soon as I got to the tree, the woman started to talk without stopping while keeping her voice low enough just for me to hear.
“Sir, to begin with, I apologize for lying to you about one thing. The whole story I told you yesterday was true, except for one detail. I am not blind as I told you so. For the whole period of time when I was playing the role of a blind woman, after the curtain call every night, I was in a state of anxious suspense. I was afraid that I would become really blind, but, Thank Heaven, I still have good eyes. These days I have been pretending to be blind and to be a beggar in order to gather news about his whereabouts. You probably agree with me that everyone must himself put on a certain mask to survive in this path of life, don’t you? As for me, I have chosen for myself a very modest and innocent mask as you have seen. But…I should stop my verbose commentary here. I’m taking the liberty of asking you a favor that I guess is not beyond your capacity. These are some dozens of his new unpublished poems. I promise not to bother you unless it’s extremely necessary. I’m not sure why I’m asking for your help, but I will be grateful to you forever.”
I grabbed the bunch of paper in a plastic bag that the woman handed to me after carefully looking around her. At the same time, I took a small piece of paper out of my pocket, hurriedly wrote my address and slipped into the hand of the woman that has disguised herself as a blind person. I acted like a machine, without being conscious of what I was doing. The woman stared at my eyes but I did not know whether or not she was pretending to be blind under the dark glasses. I knew unmistakably that she did have the saddest and most beautiful eyes in this world.
The woman said quickly.
“It’s not very convenient for us to stand longer here. Please let me say my last words: I promise myself never to surrender. Goodbye and once again, thank you very much for your generosity.”
The woman patted lightly on the child’s shoulder and told him to lead her away. I was just standing there, looking at two “professional” beggars. I was standing there motionless as if being stupefied by Heaven!
A few days later, I left after having seen most of the tourist attractions in Beijing, where my lover was living her ascetic life and where there was a disguised “blind woman” searching all over the place for her lover. A few months after I returned home to America, I had the Chinese poet’s collection of poems published. At the same time, I had my own poems printed, but they were so uninteresting compared to those of my confrere.
Almost a year had gone by when I received a letter from Shanghai one evening after I came home from work. I was beside myself with joy since I could guess who sent the letter. I had no other acquaintance on the mainland besides the woman stranger, who was pretending to be blind. Opening the letter, I was utterly taken aback when the man in the enclosed photo has an incredible resemblance to me. The other photo shows a gravestone with the name of the dead inscribed on it. There were all in all a few lines in the letter, which did not have a return address: "Sir, I have found my lover. He joined the democracy movement and has died mysteriously. He is gone but I know his poetry will last forever. Respectfully, The blind woman in Beijing."
Dumbfounded, I looked at the short letter in my hand, in which I suddenly noticed some water-spotted words. I imagined silent tear drops had fallen on the letter page from the most beautiful eyes in the world.
From the speakers came the voice of a woman flight attendant announcing we were approaching the Shanghai International Airport. I looked out the window and saw white clouds floating here and there searching for each other. I unhurriedly took out my briefcase a book of my poems. I tenderly wrote a few lines of dedication: "To the blind woman in Shanghai. I love you because you love life and humankind with all your heart. I promise I'll never give in."
NGUYEN HUU TRI
translated by the author, 2005
The Writers Post
founded 1999, based in the US.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Nguyen Huu Tri 2005. Nothing in this magazine may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.