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Translated 2002 by Bùi Hoằng Vị

I think, at last, he’s fallen into a form of existence which is terribly

meaningless. This is what I’ve always been afraid of for years, and
when it came, I didn’t even want to realize it. I’ve been forced to
realize it only recently: His condition today should be seen as
something inevitable.

At first it wasn’t easy for him to accept this limit on his existence
either. (But whoever is able to accept it, no matter how differently
each person may react? And he is no exception.) Yes, he was too
shocked, even angry, when they informed him that he wasn’t found
injured or sick in any part of the body. The reason was only this, too
simple yet quite impossible to understand: He wasn’t to live any
longer, and instead expected to lie here and wait.

Thus, for at least three months already (you could say for three
centuries already--it wouldn’t be hard to believe) that he has been
lying and waiting here, in a corner of this room at the hospital. Besides
him, there are three other people: A very old woman, who is still good-
looking at her age, a very old man, who is also still good-looking at his
age (yet not as good-looking as the old woman), and a youth. All four
people are in white: bed, bed sheet, blanket, pillow, and clothes. All
four do not eat or drink or emit anything at all, either: All those bodily
functions are fulfilled thanks to the plastic tubes which enter the
passages of their body. Neither do they breathe: there is already a big
container of oxygen at each bed. There is also a bottle of saline
solution calmly transfusing its contents drop by drop into the right
hand’s vein, and a bottle of blood – at the left. (How many tubes are
there in all, then? What an odd scene!)

The very old woman, who is so good-looking at her age, will definitely
become a fairy as soon as her soul leaves her body, I bet. But not yet,
with her eyes opening wide all the time, staring silently at the
nocturnal sky outside the window, from time to time she would sputter:
“Red!” or, “Yellow!” Certainly, out there in the sky, there must have
been a shooting star or, very possibly, an angel, swiftly flying by.

The very old man, who is so good-looking at his age too (yet not as
good-looking as the old woman), never utters a word, despite his wide
open eyes, too, which must have seen everything, of course. No, he
won’t even blink even if those heavenly bodies happen to hurl
themselves right into this room. He looks quite experienced. Obviously,
there is only one remaining thing on earth that he is still waiting to
experience; apart from that, don’t expect to distract him with anything

As for the youth, with his eyes always tightly closed, he looks as if
already dead. There is a glistening streak of scarlet running from each
of his eyes down his temples. Is that blood? Or just tears?

Right from the beginning, knitting at the end of his bed, beside my
daughter, I have said the cost at which we have to pay for these farces
is unimaginable. At first, he didn’t quite seem to understand what I
said. My daughter didn’t either; talking with me, she is always asking

The what, mom ?

The farces, dear!

A nurse catwalks into the room, with an index finger on her lips in a
charming way, softly saying hush. Coming up to one of the beds, she
expertly takes temperature, feels pulse, replaces needles, changes
tubes, or something of the sort, and again catwalks out, without
forgetting to remind me: Whenever the bottle of urine is full, please
empty it for him, and, towards my daughter : Don’t talk loud! Only then
does the poor little girl suddenly remember her duty and bury her nose
back again into the heap of books and her school bag, which she has
brought with her and put right under her father’s bed. (She has been
preparing for the primary school final exams). Anyway, it was only
moments before she raises her head again:

You say the what, mom?

The farces, dear!

I have always suspected that the biggest mistake we ever made is to

be married: he’s not happy, and neither am I. Since very long ago he
has been considered as having lost all reflexes.

For a very long time we have almost nothing to exchange. His silence
is the very thing that makes me most uncomfortable. And I’m afraid he
won’t bother to deny it if somebody points out that his being obliged to
lie here like this has turned out to be quite advantageous to him, after
all, because, yes, you may not believe it, but truly I was still trying to
make him open his mouth up to the very last day before he was
brought here: You intellectuals today are very disappointing indeed.
Holding a pen, or a piece of chalk, preaching the canned, ready-made
truths, which, I suspect, have gotten stale and rotten long since when
already. At times you’d make such a noisy fuss about something as if it
were very important, at other times – you’d keep as silent as a mouse,
pretending to be meditative, yet always leaving the greatest question
untouched, or even behaving as if it didn’t exist ever. It is always
pretense, is it? How sad it is! It is quite possible that tomorrow you will
be appointed official member of some Association (Pen Holder
Association ? Chalk-Holder Association?) You may be recognized,
assessed and rewarded. But , I think, maybe some monkey, in its
inevitable evolutionary process, will be able to do the same eventually,
or any robot in the future will be more than capable of replacing and
outdoing you, indeed, if you can’t answer this question yourself, “To
what ends does one exist? or, “Can it be done in some other way?”
Each of us is given a hundred years’ time in order to answer it himself,
before dying; he may do it, and may even do it wrong, but if he refuses
to do it, he’d better not consider himself man any longer.

No matter how hard I try, I have always failed: He never replies.

Indeed, since very long ago, he has been considered as having lost all

I can’t understand anything. My daughter says.

Open your eyes and look at the other three beds – the other three
people, who are lying there. They are humans, all genuinely, and all
deservedly so, try to remember that, daughter--rare heroic characters,
who are all lying here today. And there, that’s the cost at which people
have to pay for a farce.

But what farce, mom?

“The Emperor’s New Suit.”

Ah, I know it then. A tale in the West, in the kingdom of dear old
Andersen, isn’t it?

Yes, but it isn’t as simple as you may take it, daughter. Formerly, your
dad and I were once there. A great kingdom, you know? There people
presented great plays, especially this one, “The Emperor’s New Suit,”
which was performed in the Fantasy Theatres throughout the annual
Festival for Theatrical Dramas. To be fair, in the history of Theatre so
far there has been nothing better than that. Of course, that’s not
including the “Crucifixion of Jesus Christ,” or the “People Read But One
Book,” which are always in great demand no matter where and when.
Yes, there is no need to mention those two; this one alone is already
plenty. It is said that this play is the greatest among the great dramas.
But, do you understand, the cost at which it is paid for is unimaginable.
Truly, so far there hasn’t been found anything so wasteful and
debilitating to both resources and humans: It would gather quite a
mass of people, 90% of whom are feeble-minded, and the 10% left are
short on common sense, or any sense of shame ( it’s all the same!) – a
band of courtiers struggling for table scraps and competing in
sycophancy, a gang of vainglorious aristocrats, craving fame and
seeking filthy lucre; they all gather round, noisily giving fulsome praise
to the invisible suit which those two great impostors are putting on the
Emperor’s body. And what about the Emperor himself? He is, as
always, blatantly poor in intelligence and aesthetics, needless to say.

But what is next, mom?

What is next? Audiences are so absorbed that they are soon found
taking part in it. The whole theatre becomes in no time the stage itself,
and the play won’t finish until everything has been reduced to such
shambles that no one knows what to make of it.

Oh, that sounds truly terrific, mom! If only I could go and see it once.
How sparkling are her eyes! Clearly, I’m unsuccessful again, aren’t I? I
feel terribly angry.

You are never going to see such a thing. I told her.

Never mind, mom! I will only stand just outside the door of the theater.
She is a real saucy hussy, making as if the theatre were just
somewhere nearby.
Nobody is going to stand just outside the door. I nearly shout. Nobody
is going to allow you to do that. I tell you beforehand, with that game,
it is equally miserable for anyone wanting to stay on the outside.
That’s true. Just have a look at the other three beds! Yes, it was them.
They used to live in that kingdom, used to be unwise enough to go and
see the farce, yet didn’t consent to join it. The old lady, do you know,
being then much younger than now, said right from the start, “That’s
just trickery again. There is not such a fabric on earth ever! The gang
is just trying to cheat again, folks!” Truly, one couldn’t tell whether she
was courageous or just crazy, but there was one sure thing: to the
proud mob nothing could be considered more offensive. Obviously, she
did break the rules of the game, and the consequence, as you can see
today, has been fatal.

But … The girl stamps her foot. She is also a very stubborn child.

If you don’t believe me, just ask your dad!

So, what about that old man? Of course, her curiosity is quite another
thing, I know.

That old man? In those days he was much stronger-bodied than now,
daughter, but his fate was no better. Right in the middle of the show
he didn’t bother to make, as one would, an excuse, say, to go to the
privy; he just, without much ado, stood up pat and asked to leave, “I
can’t see anything. There is no fabric in that weaving loom. What the
hell are you crowding, shoving, treading on one another, for?” Oh, you
can’t imagine how furious they got--those scoundrelly courtiers.
Possibly, they would have felt much better if someone were to spat
them right in the face. I thought he had been reduced to dust and
ashes. It’s a miracle he’s still here!

Poor him. God bless him! At the moment, you can believe she’s serious
enough. And what about this third one, mom?
Who ? This youth? Ah, yes, but he was only a little boy then, led by the
hand by his parents.

Did he ask to leave too?

No, daughter. It was only when he came to the procession that he …

Ah, but you do know him. Yes, definitely.

Me? What did you say?

Why, you have read the tale many times already, haven’t you? The
last part … about the little boy, don’t you remember?

What little boy ? Uh …Ah yes, I recall it now. The part about the
procession, when there is a little boy shouting, “There, the Emperor is
naked,” is that right ? But how could it be him here? So, those people
also ...?

No, hardly anybody did anything to him; he was still too little. That
incident alone has frightened him to death.

But what’s the matter with his eyes? He scares me.

It’s only tears, daughter. Sometimes they are red, because of blood.

But why is that?

I don’t know. I only wonder how we all meet here again. The earth is
round indeed.

My little girl keeps quiet for a while.

And dad, mom?

But I don’t reply.

Just a moment ago there was a shooting star outside the window. It
was blue. (But the old woman, who is so good-looking at her age, again
sputtered, “Red !”) No one knows whose soul it was among those who
lie waiting in this hospital. However, it couldn’t have been his: Had it
been, he believes, it would have been amber, or green (I believe so,
too.) I didn’t show it to my daughter. It was too late; furthermore, I
didn’t want to distract her.

The little girl has now buried her nose back again into the heap of
books as well as the school bag. (For whatever it’s worth, she needs to
pass her primary school final exams, doesn’t she?) She is truly naive. I
think, just now, it is very possible that she does believe in the story. Oh
no, I don’t mean the The Emperor’s New Clothes, which everybody on
earth already knows; I mean the aftermath of the play. He must think
that I’m too extreme. Usually, he can’t understand where I’ve picked
up those things. I never come to any schools or libraries like people do.
There, I believe, there is nothing left to learn. I’d rather brood over all
the things people today throw away, all the things being sold by the
kilo, greatly reduced in price, dispatched as junk. Only those things are
reliable and expected to retain some nutrients--an answer. But such
things would never be expected to exist in his libraries or academies,
would they?

Anyway, he won’t open his mouth, I know. Even if I had answered the
little girl’s question, saying, “Dad played the role of the intellectual,” it
would have been the same. He has been faithful to his role for so many
years, there is no reason he would betray it at this point. More than
ever, his silence is not only permitted but becomes absolutely
necessary. Yes, he can’t fail realizing this. I have therefore begun to
suspect that, finally, he has found himself a mode of existence which is
most suitable although, in other people’ opinion, that might only be an
endless, most extravagant, at the same time, most obscene and
absurd death.

It turns out that the star just a while ago was the old man’s. Yet only
when smelling the fragrance of white lilies vaguely emanating from his
bed do I suddenly realize that. A little wonderstruck, I even drop a
knitting needle on the floor. The old man has gone quietly, his eyes,
already closed, do not need to be closed by anybody else. Certainly,
there is no other experience on earth worth his wait. I don’t call the
nurse but reach for my daughter’s hand, not taking my eyes off him.
The little girl realizes it rather quickly too, her face turning white. (This
is the first time she’s seen a dead human.) But I don’t want her to
mistake my intent:

He is a saint, daughter. Just come near him and see.

I push her slightly toward the poor old man, and there she comes,
standing quiet at the end of his bed .… Just a while later the nurse
shows up. As ever, she catwalks into the room with an index finger
charmingly on her lips, again softly saying hush. Coming up to his bed,
she skillfully takes his temperature, feels his pulse, then shakes her
head, turns off all the tubes entering his body, without forgetting to
ask my daughter : You know this one? The little girl shakes her head.
My daughter is still standing there while the nurse shrugs her
shoulders and then, catwalking out of the room, she goes find a doctor

My little girl turns toward me, her face still deadly white.

Does everybody have to go through that once, mom? She almost

whispers, coming up close to me.

Yes, if he is a saint, daughter. I’m almost whispering too.

And how about an ordinary person, mom?

An ordinary person has to go through that quite a few times, before his
actual death.

I say, and suddenly feel terribly sad in my heart. Streaks of scarlet are
still running from the youth’s eyes down his temples, glistening more
than ever …. Right at that moment, the very old woman, who is so
good-looking at her age, sputters again, “Yellow!” Another star has just
fallen across the nocturnal sky outside the window. A star of amber
color. Yes, it was amber. I’ve seen it just in time while raising my head,
and at once burst into tears. In spite of everything, I still love him, do
you understand?

Saigon, Oct-Nov, 1991