A few days later, Bắc went to see Lý Voòng and his family.
“We owe them and the local authorities an apology for this serious offence,” he explained.
“But they don’t know anything yet,” I protested. “There’s no reason to incriminate ourselves.”
"Should we wait till it gets to the district and provincial levels and we’re charged with a cover-up?" Bắc countered.!
We went to see Ngan’s father, who only laughed good - I naturedly after being told of the story.
“No problem at all. It’s a normal thing here and we don't mind a bit.”
He sent for the girl and told her of the purpose of our visit.
“It’s all right,” the girl said, blushing only very slightly! “I bathe there every day and if someone happened to see me I don’t mind.”
“Not even if it’s thirty-four times?” Bắc asked.
Ngần was taken aback. The frequency of Vĩnh visits apparently made a big difference. She turned her back on US I abruptly to hide her tears.
The incident became a criminal case and Vĩnh was ordered to stand trial for “disseminating depraved cultural material.”
Ngần took to her bed for days. A girl could forgive a fleeting admiration for her naked body, but she could not tolerate the sort of obsession suggested by Vinh’s thirty-four drawings.
I told Vĩnh he should apologize to Ngần and her parents. He agreed but asked me to go first to sound out Lý Voòng on the matter. There was no telling what a wronged father might do.
“I have just learned of the decision to bring Vĩnh to trial for drawing naked pictures of my daughter,” Lý Voòng said as soon as he saw me.
“I'm against it, so are many other comrades, including the secretary of the district Party committee. I’m very anx¬ious, though. How’s Vĩnh these days?”
“He's frightened to death. He wants to apologize to you.” “There’s no call for that,” said Lý Voong’s wife, who had settled herself on a chair next to mine. “I know that when he watched my daughter, Vĩnh was doing what I usually do myself when I am looking for new designs for my brocade.” ’ “Anyway,” she added, “after the initial shock of being watched so many times by a stranger, she’s now in love with that man.”
“Nonsense, woman!” her husband said, rolling his eyes. “Tell Vĩnh we bear no grudge against him and will do everything we can to help clear his name.”
Bắc wanted to know what had passed between Ngan’s family and I. At the mention of the girl’s love for Vĩnh, he hit upon a novel idea.
“The only way to save Vĩnh is to make him ask for the girl's hand,” he chuckled. “What a happy ending - a wedding between a Kinh and an ethnic Chinese following a cultural conflict!”
But Vĩnh was incensed when he heard of the scheme.
“What about my Ngọc Châm in Hà Nội? I’d rather go to prison than marry someone I don’t love.”
Vinh’s father, Huy Ngọc, was a well-known painter. He travelled by bus all the way from Hà Nội to Móng Cái after receiving an urgent message from Bắc.
“My son has only himself to blame,’' he said to me. “Of course. I’ll do anything I can to get him lenient treatment, but I don't want him to marry the chairman’s daughter just to save his skin.”
“Who made those things?” he asked Ngần.
“Where did she get those designs?”
“The ones with darker colors are her own. Those with brighter colors are mine.”
The painter sat down and took a long look at the girl.
“Is it true that you became ill because of my son?”
“Because he watched me thirty-four times.”
The painter shook his head and gave me an odd smile. He declined Ngan’s invitation to stay for dinner and bid her goodbye politely.
As we left, a new moon was peeping out from behind the mountains on the other side of the border. Throughout the long walk home, which took US through vast areas of eucalyptus and across two streams, the painter did not utter a single word.
It turned out that a wedding party was held for a true- blue Hà Nội man and a half-Chinese, half-Dao girl. Deputy Director Bắc presided over the simple ceremony himself, although he assumed the function not entirely out of good will.
Ngần was brought to Hà Nội immediately to prepare for the Fine Arts College the following year.
Then 1968 came and Vĩnh enlisted in the army and we went our separate ways.
Bắc eventually became the deputy forestry minister and was known as the most liberal official the department had ever produced.
On his trips to Sài Gòn. He always managed to drop by and we would reminisce about the old days.
“It's unbelievable that we could’ve been so naive back then!" he would say.
I did not agree with his use of “we” and did not believe that he had changed at all, but I never aired my opinions because we were old friends.
I never fail to call on Vĩnh and Ngần each time I return to Hà Nội.
I Ngần is now a well-known painter and her husband a respected art critic.
I Their son and daughter are following in their footsteps with some success.
In their studio the complete series of nudes by the stream in oil or lacquer is displayed. The couple has vowed never to sell the paintings.
Vinh’s father was proud his instinct about Ngan’s talent was right and that he had made the right decision allowing his son to marry her.
“But you knew Vĩnh loved Ngọc Châm and that he did not care a bit for Ngần,” I reminded him.
“I’d trade romance for talent any time,” he said.
Vĩnh’s mother was a little horrified. “But he loves his wife, doesn’t he?”
Only God knows whether all those nudes are proof of Vĩnh’s love for his wife or simply an indication of his devo¬tion to art.
I must admit, however, that I have often detected sadness in both their eyes.
Translated by Song Kiều