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Diễm from days of Long Ago

Trịnh Công Sơn. Translated by Đinh Từ Bích Thúy.

Trịnh Công Sơn chụp ở ban công ngôi nhà của ông
trên đường Nguyễn Trường Tộ, Huế vào khoảng 1969.


Once there was a slip of a girl, who walked past the rows of camphor trees with their tiny emerald leaves on her way to the University of Literature in Hue.

Days, months of those years that were long ago, the girl continued to walk under the rows of camphor trees. Sunny and rainy seasons followed.

In sunny seasons the cicadas hummed their summer songs among the leaves. In rainy seasons the girl flitted under the rain between the shadowy camphor trees.

She lived on the other side of the river, and each day had to cross a bridge before reaching the rows of camphor trees to arrive at school.

From my balcony I looked toward the street, seeing her figure walking to and fro four times each day. At that time the young women of Hue had not resorted to motorbikes possessed of such dizzying speed, as now. Except for those who lived too far away and had to ride their bicycles to school, the majority walked to school with their slow, deliberate royal steps. Walk in order to be watched, to feel beautiful. Beautiful to many or to only one was never that important.

Footsteps from all directions came toward those schools with the familiar, sometimes very old names. Walk to be admired by other eyes, but also to have time to gaze at the sky, the earth, the river, water, flora and fauna.

Camphor, fish poison, red poinciana, alchornia, tamani trees and the Perfume River winding through the ancient city breathed a pure, gentle breath of dewy smoke that leavened a young girl’s soul. Perhaps that was why Hue never ceased to be a source of poetic impulses.

Ancient forts, palaces, tombs made people yearn vaguely for the past, in a way that might have saved them from the trappings of life’s desires. From then on Hue created for itself a private space, a private world. From then on people dreamed and dreamed of certain realms as if they weren’t real.

But then what was real and what was dream? In truth, one was the other’s illusion. With illusions there was a time, a very long time, when people who grew up in that little city had woven and embroidered their secret dreams and wishes.

There was the time when each dawn, each afternoon, each evening, the bells of Linh Mu Pagoda would peal through the air and echo across the river to reach each house with their lightly opened shutters, or tightly shut doors.

Time passed so quietly here, so quietly that one no longer had a sense of time. A shadowless, colorless time. Only the deaths of old people in the cold winter stirred one to life, suddenly made aware of the whispers of tombs and mausoleums in the surrounding hills.

In that quiet and dreamy landscape, drenched deep in an atmosphere that was slightly gothic, the girl continued her daily walk under the rows of camphor trees to reach her school. She walked to school as if trying to reach an unknown destination. A direction that was no direction because her steps of long ago were like steps upon happy wandering clouds of dream.

The girl walked across a bridge that spanned a river, past the rows of camphor trees, through the cruel seasons of rainy days and sunny days, to reach her rendez-vous.

A rendez-vous that promised nothing, for in that gothic realm a promise was merely a myth. All gothic dreams were unreal; by and by they dissipated.

The girl who walked under those rows of camphor trees now lives in a faraway place, with a different life. Now everything is memory. All memories are memorable but need to be forgotten. The girl is Diễm from days of long ago.

Trịnh Công Sơn
Translated by Đinh Từ Bích Thúy
damau.org/, 27.02.2009

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