|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy|
by Tran Thuy Mai
When a young woman is compelled to sell off her body for money, it’s her great shame. Yet, when an artist willingly offers his or her soul at a dirt-cheap price for fame, his dishonour becomes all the more horrible. This oft-told tale is a real tragedy in the matters of talent, money and heart.
The glamorous young lady with a nice and straight nose and curving-up eyelids sitting on a sophisticatedly carved armchair was Tuyet N., the owner of the Kinh Duong Fine Arts Gallery, which would be inaugurated at 8 o’clock in the evening. There would be about two hundred visitors at the opening ceremony, an official municipal newspaper predicted. Some bigwigs were attracted by the logo bearing the Egyptian Sphinx’s image on the invitation card, while some others by the rumour that the gallery hall, situated inside a magnificent 4-storeyed building and facing a major street of the city, would soon become an international centre for painting business thanks to a secret potential influence ruled by this fair shopkeeper.
Over the past month, what related to this gallery had become a stimulus for the residents’ curiosity: the charm of its keeper; the origin of the plot of land and of the building itself; the amount of money spent on it; the artists and poets often present at the showroom; and, last but not least, the pictures to be displayed. All of them had been the talk of the town with a lot of imaginary details similar to an ancient tale.
In the meantime, Tuyet N. knew that lots of people were also interested in the opening ceremony. Therefore, she told her employees to make the event very thoughtfully. No shortcomings could be forgivable. She wished that the inaug-uration would have highlighted her fame and prestige in the arts circle.
Her group of receptionists carefully selected was composed of pretty young girls in their late teens in bright red modified silk robes with little baskets of flower or trays full of glasses of wine in hand waltzing in and out under the guidance of a programme director. She just sat on a velvet-covering ceramic seat. Her small lily-white feet with their rosy heels looked like a precious set of things on a carpet of the same material.
“During the buffet, you’d be seated here most of the time,” the director told her. “Everything else will lie in others’ responsibility. What you would do is to keep yourself attractive and charming, that’s all,” he added. She nodded her consent and smiled an alluring and exquisite smile so brilliant as a rainbow that he bent down his head in submission.
All of a sudden, there was a hubbub at the door. She looked back. Her swift movement made her thin low-cut blouse wide open to display part of her nice breasts. He could not help staring at them pleasantly.
“No more visitors! Both the hostess and I are too busy to welcome anyone else,” he told the two guardsmen standing on the floor of the varandah. Immediately, they closed its main door to prevent a newcomer, a thin and small girl with shoulder-length hair, from entering.
“Would you mind letting me in to meet the landlady, just a minute, please?” she entreated.
One of them took a scornful look at her. His eyes glanced at her faded jeans, her loose-fitting blouse which revealed a flat bosom and her queer long, wavy unkempt hair. He looked at her as if she had been a low-rated product displayed on the rack at a discount.
“Hey kid, get away or else…,” he warned her.
Through his unfinished expression, Na knew the meaning of his statement, “Here, nobody looks horrible like you.” They in brilliant uniforms were standing on the shiny, stony floor in front of a large glass door, whereas she was like an ugly uninvited girl. She closed her lips tightly and stepped back a little. Her eyes turned angry and challenging as if they had been those of a wounded wild animal.
Immediately, she turned back then went away. The high street running before the Kinh Duong Gallery had many asphalted alleys like small by-streets although they had no names at all. They were planned for tourists’ strolls in search of exotic things like souvenirs. Leaving the major street, she walked into one alley then stepped into a flat in which a lot of pictures were hung on the wall or placed against them at random. In a word, it was an interesting study across which she walked past before entering another small room through a small door.
In contrast to the outside nice room, this one looked shabby and untidy. Its furniture pieces were one double bed and a few tiny stools, an easel lying in a corner and numerous pictures at the foot of the wall. There was a small window at the back to get light for this gloomy room.
On the bed with a lot of little things lying scattered here and there, sat a young man leaning against the wall. He was making a sketch on a white sheet. Some sunrays pierced through the small window and perched on his lock of curly hair and on his straight nose. The girl stopped at the threshold in front of him. She took a passionate glance at him.
Suddenly, he looked up. Finding her, he felt deeply moved and very blissful. Tossing both his brush and sheet aside, he hugged her tightly. They indulged in each other’s breaths for a long while and imagined as if they had been in the seventh heaven. Finally, she released him and lay down on the bed. A few minutes later, she rose up, quickly walked to the corner, took a purple dress out of an old wardrobe then straightened it. It still looked fairly nice although it had been fallen into oblivion since the left college of arts.
“What are you doing?” he asked her.
“My dear Tuan, did the landlady come here this morning?” she said to him after putting her dress on the headbed and applying some make-up on her face.
“Yes, she did, darling. She told me that she only wanted to see you, my dear Na. Meanwhile, she regards me as a good-for-nothing guy, doesn’t she?”
“Not quite so! I’ve ever told her not to disturb you on trivial matters when you’re at work.”
She lifted his hands up then observed his ten fingertips. Except for one, the rest had whorls on them. She kissed them passionately.
“Some day, you’ll be a great artist,” she whispered to him in an affectionate and admirable voice.
“But what’s happened to you?” he asked. “Those days, you’ve always been worried about some serious things. Why do you have to conceal me?”
She kept silent for a few seconds then made up her mind not to tell him. In reality, their flat would be rented at the cost of US$2,500 for three years. Quite a great sum of money for them! Therefore, Na wanted to conceal the amount from him, for fear that he would be frightened to death.
Standing up, she quickly walked to Tuan’s place. She strongly pulled the screen: a big-sized oil painting showed Na in her birthday suit. Oddly enough, thanks to his gifted craftsmanship, with the same lock of hair, shining eyes, slim body, thin shoulders and small breasts of hers, the young girl in the painting seemed to be another Na. It was her soul under plain cover of her body that we might detect in saintly pictures of the Middle Ages.
When she thought that some day her picture would be on display for sale, she felt greatly broken-hearted. However, there was no way out when their life was driven to a stalemate due to high rent. Yet she comforted herself that some day it would lie in the collection of a noted arts-lover, or better still in an arts museum of worldwide recognition; as a result, her romance would be eternally enshrined in everybody’s memories with a beautiful dream that all painters had ever cherished.
Na and Tuan fell in love with each other in the first year at the College of Fine Arts. He was the best student of his class, while she was only one of its average learners. She was always broken-hearted due to her too clumsy fingers to help her describe the purest emotions in her heart. She often drew several pictures of her lover, but all of them were secretly hidden in the wardrobe, simply because they were in short of attraction and vitality. The angelic faces of the models in general had been lamentably petrified in their pictures and turned coarse and superficial without a soul.
Her inferiority complex was the main reason for her to regard him as an idol. Later, when they began to co-habit, she became his sweetheart, his friend, his maid and his main model because he had no money to pay for professionals on the one hand and he only wanted to portray her on the other.
u v u
Na firmly and proudly stepped on the shined floor of the Kinh Duong Gallery, head rising high, with such an exquisite gait that the two guardsmen let her pass in deep respect.
Entering the hall, she found its receptionists sitting on two rows of settee close to the opposite walls. In the meantime Tuyet N. was gracefully walking on the dark red carpet to move towards a big armchair as an empress who was approaching her throne. Going after her was the event guide who watched every gesture of hers.
“OK, very good! Remember that before sitting down, you’d turn round so as to display your bare back for lookers-on to contemplate your beauty and they’ll be completely conquered. Now, look at me,” he told her.
Tuyet N. stood up to imitate each of his movements. He performed them carefully and re-adjusted her actions, from finger to foot, when she was seated on the velvet carpet lying under the armchair.
Right at that moment, Na stepped in abruptly. Tuyet N. reproached her, “As I have just told you that the exhibits shown here had been selected ten days ago. By now, I don’t want to welcome any other artist or his painting.”
From the moment she got in, she had tried to control her emotions in face of the haughty hostess.
“Lady, both painters B.D. and T.D.N. have just had their pictures brought here, haven’t they?” Na said to her.
Tuyet N. smiled an icy smile. “How can you dare to compare yourself with those famous artists?” she asked Na in a scornful voice. “We only accept master-pieces of outstanding artists to make public,” she added, glancing at the newcomer. At once, she discovered Na’s outdated dress that had dazzled the two guardsmen a few minutes before. Na shrank up. All her proud and high-brow looks had been deprived of. Yet, she tried to deal with the matter in a convincing voice, “Lady, I come here not for myself, but for the sake of another person, or precisely speaking, a genius. If you see him, you can hardly turn a blind eye to him. Moreover, I was told that you’re a patron of artists and that you can discover and encourage talented men as well.”
After that, Na took a small photo out of her bag. It showed a large painting that Tuan had portrayed, his favourite one in his career. Holding it with her two trembling hands, Na offered it to her.
“If so, where is your genius? Why didn’t he get here?” the elegant woman asked Na, glancing at the photo while she remained seated in her armchair. Na became speechless. She was afraid that if she disclosed the truth to Tuyet N. she could hardly stand Tuan’s attitude: never to resign himself to ask for a favour from any arts gallery owners. She returned the photo to Na after a few seconds of consideration. “Anyhow, it’s a piece of good news,” Na whispered to herself.
“Lady…?” Na muttered.
“You’ve said that he’s a genius, haven’t you? Yet, I’ve never heard his name so far!”
“Lady, as usual, at first a genius is unknown to the public. In my opinion, if his painting is displayed in your showroom during the inaugurational evening, it would allure marked art dealers’ attention. They might purchase it at a high price and your gallery would obtain a lot more profit and fame; therefore your gallery would be a prestigious place for new talents,” Na entreated persistently and convincingly.
“Quite right! If an unknown guy has his pictures displayed here, tomorrow he’ll be respected as a master in arts,” Tuyet N. said, shrugging her shoulders.
Her contemptuous words seemed to strongly defy Na’s self-respect. Her face turned quite pale. The director laughed teasingly.
“To the final analysis, what I’ll gain if I become a launching-pad for a nobody here?” she added, without glancing at Na, which made her greatly confused. Tuyet N. gave the photo back to Na.
“That’ll do. My patience has come to an end,” she told Na.
Hurriedly, Na snatched the photo so that it might not fall to the ground. She seemed in despair when she thought that her golden chance was likely lost.
“Lady, can you help a talent in difficulty? We shall never forget your benevolence,” Na insisted.
“I don’t find any talented man in dire poverty. I join the arts world, not to help others live on charity.” After taking an encouraging glance at the director, she turned away. At once, he stood up, seized Na’s hand the dragged her out of the hall.
“Let me alone, please. How ruthless you are! Have I ever disturbed you?” she objected to his rude action.
“Hey, what a foolish kid you are! You can hardly get a footing in this business circle here,” he whispered to her.
“My lover Tuan has also said so. He’s tried to prevent me from going, yet I’m determined to…,” she mumbled.
“As for haughty people like her, you have to get her consent rather than to ask for a favour. Moreover, you’d heighten your value to the utmost. It’s no use appealing for her mercy,” he advised Na.
“Impossible! I can’t do otherwise,” she said emphatically. He shook his head.
“Have you got a notebook here? If not, a piece of paper is also OK. Well, you can jot down this at the back of your painting. It’ll be your last chance,” he told her then he read Tuyet N.’s E-mail before they reached the door.
u v u
Hung Ro, one of the rough bodyguards, in his loose-fitting plain clothes with many pockets and wrinkles to conceal his tiny sophisticated weapons, was sitting on the threshold of the floor in front of his master’s room. It was large and situated deep inside. At its back stood many big glass panels whose curtains prevented the light outside from going in. What shone the whole room dimly were the four small bulbs placed half hidden in the ceiling. In the middle of the room, on a large settee lay a slender man on the wrong side of sixty whose face was almost covered by his hair. He was smoking a cigar in an ancient ivory pipe. His lying posture conjured up the image of a curled up old cat. Every time he sniffed, a little brightly red flame revealed his half-closed eyes on his thin face, where his dark grey lean lips were obscurely shown under his bushy beard.
The big bodyguard was seated at his elderly master’s feet. He silently and comfortably inhaled the sweet-smelling smoke from the cigar with his half-closed eyes too.
The boss watched what was happening in the large hall thanks to a large-sized screen of a big camera placed close to the sofa. On it he saw Tuyet N. smiling happily.
Taking his mobile phone out of pocket, he read the messages with his unaffected countenance. All of a sudden, he attentively stared at the small display of his handset.
“Hey Hung Ro,” he called the bodyguard. Immediately, the strong guy sprang up. Glancing at the screen of the mobile phone, he knew what his boss meant. He opened the e-mail of the computer. In a few seconds, the bright image of the pretty girl’s painting clearly appeared and attractively allured the old man.
“Hung Ro,” the boss called his bodyguard again. By order of the master’s call, the bulky guy proceeded to the door.
A few minutes later, Tuyet N. wormed her way across the velvet screen and stopped by the sofa then sat beside her lover.
“You want to see that picture, don’t you?” she asked him. “In fact, I have refused to accept that commonplace painting. Frankly speaking, I can’t stand the appearance of second-rate things in my gallery. What’s on display here must belong to great artists,” she added.
She pressed her fresh body in a lowcut nightie at his meagre one. At once, one of his hands caressed her breasts while the other remained holding his cigar. Closing her eyes slightly, she fondled him with both: her warm body and sweet voice.
“I’ve selected the number of pictures in such a way that matches your zodiac for this year. The fortune-teller told me that it would be utterly dangerous for you if I chose the wrong one,” she whispered amorously to him. He nodded his head emotionlessly. She suggested further, “I’ll call Hung Ro to serve you, OK?”
Strangely, he shook his head. She pulled his hand out of her breasts and stood up.
“Why do you say that I’d be the owner of this gallery?” she asked in a reproachful voice.
“In fact, I don’t know what you wish. Being aware of your fury, for it would make you ugly,” he warned her, cigar remained in hand.
“Now, just two things, Sir: either you’d honour my right to ownership here, or you can’t see me at this place any longer,” she said resolutely.
“Really?” he blurted out. “I thought that you prefer to stay here rather than to return to that notorious karaoke bar when I first met you there,” he added.
His definite reply surprised her greatly. She just stood there in bewilderment.
Staying comfortably in the sofa, he wriggled his feet, stretching his lips sarcastically. “Oh dear! How thick and tight my stockings are!” he exclaimed. She was on tenterhooks a bit. A few minutes later, she told him in a sweet voice, “Just a minute, my dear.” She quickly walked in, then came back right away with a new pair of stocks in hand. At once, she knelt down, took off his shoes and stockings. She replaced the new footwear for him reluctantly while he kept on looking at the ceiling inattentively.