Short story by Pham Van Anh

Επιμέλεια: Εύα Πετροπούλου Λιανού

The handicraft

“Luong, it’s your turn.” Uncle Canh’s voice called from downstairs. Brushing her hair, she quickly wrapped it in a bun at the nape and followed the handrail, carefully placed each step down. Uncle Canh welcomed her at the foot of the stairs: “Bed number 13, it’s a man. Do it carefully.”

She quietly entered the massage room. Bed number 13 was already occupied, heavy breathing. Placed a hand on his back, he groaned softly. Looks like he was in pain? Sprinkled with powder, she traced each muscle on his back. The moan was quieter and longer this time. Each piece of meat was unevenly rough, the bones were raised. He was thin and injured. Only soft part damaged, but enough to cause back and shoulder muscle swelling.

She did not dare with strong hands. The customer pressed tightly a pillow and breathed through his mouth. Each stream of air passed through the teeth. She knew the life outside, there was full of dangers and uncertainties, but she had never touched anyone so painful as this. The customers came in here were mostly simple civil servants and a few small business ladies. They brought into the massage room all kinds of stories in the high sky to the sea beneath. They casually confided and asked questions because they knew that the servants were harmless people. Standing by the massage bed all day, other servants here including her, barely know the faces of the customers, but only remembered the voices, the ribs, the shoulders…

The man today is a stranger. Just lies silently and does not talk any. He is different from the full customers as usual. He hurts. Luong gently caresses each finger on the thin, hollow chest, thanks to her vague intuition through each finger, trying not to touch the wounds. She is afraid her hands would hurt him even more.

His mother gave him a rustic name: Rice. Rolled around in the mix of troops outside the harbour, his dangerous martial finger helped him and his juniors operated everywhere as if no one existed. old-aged, he became a security guard for Xanh Disco, once a month on the dance floor, punched and kicked to entertain the rich young children.

He fights not so bad. The young gladiators are energetic and aggressive. But what they lack, he has. He’s tough, sinewy, and most of all, good at enducing hits, so he often wins. But last night he had to lose. Lost due to a brat boy just because he wanted to show off his girlfriend.

Being beat seriously! He was dizzy, his mind was in a mess. No relatives, no wife nor children, beat for more than half of a person’s life, also beat many people. But this beating he volunteered and someone else arranged everything. After the game, the body was tired and exhausted. Looked at his watch, it was still early, so he waved his hand to call a motorbike taxi to the massage center of the Association of the Blind.

For the past two years, he’d come here every month before going to a fight. Rarely come back after the fight. The first time he meets her. The previous times were done by Mr. Phuong or Mr. Thanh. He didn’t really like women touching him, especially when he was lying in bed, with only a small pant.

The reason of that, when sees her slowly coming down, he was about to force her leaving the room. But thinking something and in the end, he allowed. Lying on his stomach on the mattress, faces down on the thin pillow mixed with the smell of human sweat, he bitterly realizes that the hands that are gently stroking along his back are the hands to ease the pain for others!

She is 29 years old. That said nothing. In the Association of the Blind at the grassroots level, there are hundreds of girls like her. They live dimly, alone in the dark. Darkness plays the role of witnessing, sending off and being a grave to bury their youths with their longings. She knows herself to be no exception.

The life is gathered through her ears. That is the path she discovered for herself to gradually better understand the community outside, a turbulent world with so many worries, hardships, joys and sorrows. Over the years, she was just a shadow on the sidelines of life, indirectly receiving the multi-dimensional influences that life pushed towards her by chance.

The man who was injured the day before came back after a week. He is a regular customer of Mr. Phuong because he often comes to his shift on duty. Too much pushing, she holds into his wrist, creepy momentum, realizes the long, smooth scar prominent on his wrinkled wrist. He quietly holds her steady. Leaving out the long scar, she apologizes softly and walks out, her heart pounding…?

After his loss in the ring, he silently not leaves the basement much unless on his duty. In the eyes of the manager, he is an old wolf, and bother thing or people, when old, become rebellious and difficult to manage.

Sometimes he desires the little happiness of the blind men he meets. He sees them smiles, smiles with light. Every time he came, only talked about family, wife and children matters, but he still wanted to hear it. Listening is to understand more about happiness, although the happiness of the blind is not necessarily perfect in all respects. He is delighted to lie down on the single bed and let the blind lather’s hands beating rhythmically over his flesh. They told their family stories, ten fingers cheering as if they were sharing.

This traditional massage center of the Association of the Blind has only three girls. Several times he met, he found the three girls quite similar. So did the girl who served him on the day of his defeat. Straight braided hair, white shirt, thin face, blue skin and small hands, short round fingers.

The wound hurt that day. Nearly forty years of wandering around, today he really absorbed the blow of money. The man bitterly realized that he had received ten million (VN Dong) for the role of a clown. The serving girl seemed to know that he was in pain, only using her ten fingertips to gently stroke the wounds to relieve tension and cautiously find each acupuncture point on his body, her curved thumb pressing her force on the exact acupoint. She tried not to hurt him any more. He suddenly felt emotional.

The money of VND ten million was in the pocket of his pants hanging at the end of the bed. He braced himself to receive the hit in exchange for it. And the girl who stood for an hour by his bed was trying to heal those wounds for a salary by one thousandth. Her face was peaceful!

The injured man usually arrives on Friday afternoons. Every time after finished work, Mr. Phuong also followed out, said “thank you, next time you don’t give so much, I don’t dare…” She hears the man’s voice is bright, sullen “take it and give your wife more money to buy milk for children, adults can eat a little less, but don’t feed children lack milk, lack of quality… “. He must have given money to Mr. Phuong. So he’s really good. But why was he so badly injured? Naturally, she really wants to know his face. Mom told her that to look at the face would know the characters. But she only can see a thin figure, dry face, short hair… everything is blurry.

On Saturday night, Nga asked for leave from work and hurried upstairs to take a shower. She chirped to show that it is bought by her lover and made an appointment today to pick her up and take home. The clock strikes eight. Nga woke up and said maybe the friend was coming. Down to the living room, the friend really came. She strained her ears to listen. The boy set up his bicycle and walked slowly in, his steps entangled. She guessed that his leg was disabled, so she was happy for Nga, luckily she could keep him. A healthy man did not want to marry a blind girl adding to his burden.

He politely asked Uncle Canh let him take her out and promised to bring her home safely. Nga greeted the uncle, her greetting voice with a cheerful sound. There was the sound of pushing the foot of the bicycle, the sound of the chain spinning.

At twelve o’clock at night, Nga still did not return, Luong’s heart was confused. Was that boy a real good person, what if he is a scoundrel who ruined her life. Thinking of this, Luong suddenly sighed, she felt angry at herself and loved Nga even more. She is like her, no future! For many years, it has been difficult to wish for a useful life and a happy life. She is doing everything to keep her love for herself, it is also the right thing.

In the past few months, he has been feeling more and more tired. He officially proposed to the director of the Disco to take a break from the ring some months.

Phuong’s wife gave birth to a child. Although he was not a blood brother, he often gave him a little more money after being served. The amount is not much but enough to make the blind man grateful. Every time he came, he quickly informed about his son’s situation with gratitude and respect. At that time, he often silently imagined the boy through his father’s words. He stared intently at the men in the center, realizing that he was inferior. Despite their disabilities, they still managed to support the families while he ruined his life in alcohol and entertainment matches.

The girl was usually sitting outside the living room when he came, looking like she was waiting for someone. She is not beautiful, her face is soft and quite young. Many times he was about to ask Phuong about her but in the end, did not. The blind disadvantage ten, the blind women suffer much more. He silently wished her happy.

Nga asked her mother to stay at the center more overnight. Sometimes she went out and came back until the morning, her voice and laugh were also different. The whole center knows that she is in love, sometimes teases a few sentences that made her embarrassed to sit and hold her breath.

Was sitting, Nga turned around, lowered her voice “if my mother knew, I would die, she often told me, try to live happily with parents. When parents die, then go back to live with the siblings and grandchildren. I don’t want to, can’t I have a family of my own for the rest of my life?”

She couldn’t answer. It is possible, Nga will have a family of her own, even if her lover cannot overcome the family barrier, Nga can still have a child of her own. At that time, she will help Nga, the others in the center will help Nga. And maybe that old man would help, just like he still helps Mr. Phuong raising his baby. She was filled with hope.

Then Nga got pregnant. The boyfriend fought fiercely for his parents to ask for his wife. The wedding was simple, the guests came to congratulate all the brothers and sisters in the association and a relative. Nga wore a pink long dress, followed the groom to greet everyone. Nga’s mother greeted guests, met everyone, said some words “my family’s happiness is still big”.

After the wedding, Nga quit her job at the center and went home to help her husband taking care of the bakery and the baby. The bike now loaded for three people, it seemed fun, creaking and squealing with every turn of the wheel.

He came when the whole center gathering each other to the street to buy goods, only the old guard man at the door and the blind girl. He told to the old man he couldn’t wait, if the girl could do it now. He turned towards her, waiting…

He came when the whole center invited each other to the street to buy goods, only the old man at the door and the blind girl. He told the old man he couldn’t wait, if the other girl could do it now. He turned towards her, waiting…

Uncle Canh asked, Luong did not answer, but quickly got up and walked into the male customer room. The second time she serves for this man, the wounds were scarred, old and new, under her hands. He wasn’t injured like last time – a sense of good mood spreading, her hands slithers boldly along his body. The toned muscles of the middle-aged man gradually softened and relaxed.

When the bell timed out, her hands kept rubbing then quickly said: “Mr… do you want me to massage your face?”. While he was wearing slippers, he was startled: “Thank you…! But time is up”. “I can work overtime without charge. Really.” The girl said as if afraid of losing customer, made him laugh. The voice is half request, half begged. Unable to refuse, he lay down, his mind is full of question marks.

Luong performed hands of movements. Starting from the top of his head, she lightly touched his forehead, crossing the nose, glided over his thick eyebrows, full eyes holes, thick nose wings, cheekbones…. The owner of the face suddenly started grabbed her wrist: “Girl, tell the truth. What do you want to touch my face for?”. The sharp and harsh voice made her stammered out of breath: “Sir, I… I… just want… to make you comfortable, not mean anything”. “Hey, tell me the reason quickly, or I won’t let it go.” She panicked really. Wrists are still pinched: “Why? Do you want to show off your blind people’s ability to touch other people’s faces?” – The mockery hidden in his voice, Luong took a deep breath and said slowly: “I just want to feel people’s faces. Living in the dark, it’s all just an illusion. I hope to recognize good people and bad people through their faces”. “How do you see me?” “My hands tell me you’re a good man.”

Her arm was free from the grip and fell freely onto the mattress. The smell of sweat gradually got out the room. Unconsciously, Luong raised her hands to the face.

Since that day, she has not seen that customer again, although she still intends to wait. Mr. Phuong said that he also wanted to meet him to show off his baby who knew how to call “father, mother and Uncle Lua”. Turns out his name is Lua. He also said that Lua, who works as a security guard at the dance, gets beaten up a lot but has no one to take care of him. Or is he sick, she thought idly.

She gave birth to a son, and is now staying with her mother. She asked Uncle Canh’s permission to return early to visit Nga. Uncle Canh sent her a little money, told him to buy something to visit Nga instead of him, and said that he was happy for her to have a family. Luong greeted him and carefully traced each step on the sidewalk. The old man went to the door, followed her footsteps and muttered to himself: “You too, daughter. You will surely find a home for your own.”

The motorbike driver picked up customer at the beginning of the market lane, which she was not familiar with, so she carefully bargained. Be quiet, he told her to pay whatever she wanted. The sharp voice surprised her. They go to the curve of alley, braking sharply, causing her to fall face down on the driver’s back. With a strong smell of sweat, she blurted out and asked: “Is it Mr. Lua?”.

The person sitting in front of her was slightly startled, crouched down and drove away in the rain and dust. Hesitating for a moment, she boldly put her hand forward, lightly touching the bead of his left hand that was holding the steering wheel. Slipping on her five fingertips was a long scar. The man was silent, she was also silent in the crowded street. In fact, who he was, what he did, why he was injured… for her now, it doesn’t matter. His fingers told her he was a good man and always would be.

She believed so!

(Translated into English by Khanh Phuong)