A Haunting
By Ju (1993)

When the train pulled into the station it was only six; but dusk has fallen. His only luggage was a holdall and a folded easel, and it would have been easy enough getting off but he had to wait some minutes for the pushing crowd to clear. His friend the photographer was waiting at the gate: they shook hands, happy to see each other after this long time, not speaking but smiling. Both are in their forties; the painter, living in town, somehow looked older than his years; and his friend, here in the country, looked younger. They are both tall and rather lanky, and both heads beginning to turn gray. Come, there's a cart... still two miles to go before we get to the village, his friend said, as they came out of the station. There was no one in the cart; its mine, he added, my son drives it. I borrowed it today. They passed through flat plains dotted with black palm trees; the sky near the horizon was a bright scarlet, and higher up a darker blue. It made a somber scene. As the cart rolled swiftly, they talked about work, families, and mutual friends. The horse cart slowly went up an incline: not steep, although high. On the top they could see the village nestled in a hollow. The points of light from the houses looked rather like fireflies.

They came down the other side, passed through the village, and went up a another hill. The house stood at the top, dark and alone. At the far end of the wide garden a small stream meandered at the foot of an incline. There was no gate in the fence made of closely planted cactus. The painter felt happy at the lack of a gate. Doesn't your house look like a house in a Hitchcock movie? he teased. Yes, could be, his friend replied. Later on I'll tell you about its history....you'll be surprised. You play a part in it, too. It was an old timber house, with tiered roofs.

The walls were dark with coatings of crude oil. Inside the house in the parlour, what drew his attention immediately was a big photo: a black and white portrait of a lady, whose eyes stared at him with a piercing look; a daring look; a brash, proud, inquiring look. The face...a mysteriously lovely face. The soft tendrils of hair fell on her wide forehead, and the slender brows raised in question. Her eyes...the bright eyes seemed to pierce his very soul. What a great photo, he exclaimed. His friend smiled. When he was introduced to his friend's wife and two sons, he glanced again at the photo. Of course, its the wife's, he thought. But she looks younger then, he thought to himself. The photo looks as if it were years old, anyway, starting to yellow at the edges. But the eyes of the wife are gentle, docile; none of the daring, piercing look of the photo. Why not? People change...she is still pretty, he thought, but with a maturity not seen in the photo. Stay as long as you wish, his friend said. Lots of scenes to paint...there, near the cliff. But I want to paint this house, he protested with a laugh. His friend nodded. I know. Even over twenty years ago I knew you would want to paint this house. He looked at his friend in surprise. But, you said you came here only when you married...its not twenty years yet, is it? His friend drew nearer, smiling. Listen, I have things to tell you: not here. Later.

That night they strolled out onto a little lane passing around the house and down a meadow. They could see the side of the house. A window was opened in what looked like the master bedroom; it was an old-styled window, with an arched fanlight and louvered windows. Suddenly he realised that it was the same window that he had seen in the photo. The eyes of your wife, he told his friend, they are so bright in the photo.... That is not my wife, his friend said. His friend was not joking; the eyes look old and tired. I must tell you...but its not something I can write in a letter, and we couldn't meet for so long...the photo you saw, lets just say its the first woman I loved. Its not strange you thought it was my wife; its my wife's mother. Oh? he exclaimed in surprised. Yes, that is my mother-in-law. But at that time she was not my mother- in-law yet, he continued. Consider it a fable, he went on. Twenty-five years ago, an eighteen year old boy fell in love, lets say at first sight, with a woman. As you know I live about 15 miles from here, still a struggling photographer. But I come here to this village sometimes, to take photos at weddings, parties, festivals. One day I was hired to take photos at a noviciation ceremony; it was to go on for two days, so I was to stay the night. The first evening, I had some free time, so I took a walk with my camera and my tripod. There, that stream, I came by it, and saw the house...from about here.

There did not seem to be anyone inside: it was all very silent and dark. I stood around, looking for the best view; I set up my camera there...over there. He pointed to a space not far off; he saw a clump of bamboo, the pointed leaves trembling in the breeze. He also saw his young friend, setting up his camera, looking at the house. I remember some of your paintings... windows like this one. I thought I'd get a few shots for you. I was looking through the tele-lens and just about to click the shutter, when the window opened suddenly; and that face...the most beautiful face Id ever seen. Just like a dream...the window framed her upper body, making the picture complete. The eyes ...looking out, searching, such bright eyes ..I was caught in their spell and I don't even remember pressing the button several times. The dark tendrils of her hair framing her pale little face...I kept shooting. I can never forget seeing a tiny mole under her chin and another at the corner of her lips. Then suddenly she disappeared; I waited, waited, still looking through the lens, waiting for her to appear again. She didn't. My heart wasthumping all the way to my lodgings. I couldn't sleep; I kept longing to see her again.

The next day, busy at my work, I heard about a death: someone at the big timber house near the stream had died last evening. I felt such a shock...god, if it were her...I asked desperately, who, who is it...they said, the old man. Oh, I said, her father, you mean? They laughed at me; they said I must have seen the pretty daughter already, what a fast worker. I felt happy, you know, for the people at that house sent a message to say they need a photographer. Really, taking photos at a funeral was at that time not quite done, but I accepted...I wanted to see her again. The funeral would be in two day's time, so I went home, then came back. Imagine how hard my heart was beating going up to that big house! I saw the pandal in front with the body laid out; quite a lot of people there. And some of them told me how he'd died. He'd been bedridden for months, nothing very serious, just old age; they were surprised he died this suddenly. But I wasn't interested; I just wanted to see the daughter again. One man pointed out someone to me: that's his only daughter, he said. It cant be true; it was a young girl, not more than 15. Yes, quite pretty, a lot like the face I saw the other day, but no, not the same person.

The girl had very simple, innocent eyes; what I had seen were piercing eyes. I just had a glimpse, but I do know the difference.  After I while I met the person who had hired my services: I thought I would go mad; it was her, and she was the old man's wife. Seeing her up close, I searched her face; what loveliness, what beauty. I had thought she was in her twenties, but no, seeing her up close, I realized she was really in her thirties. And her voice...just as I had imagined, it was husky and low. I love her. I love her. I felt I could do anything to get her. But the gossip I heard about her was unsettling: when the old man fell ill, she had left home with a lover; she had been gone for over two years, and came back only this morning, when informed of his death. See, she is now an heiress, how lucky for that lover of hers! How could this be? This...beauty, this glorious face; I see daring and seduction in her eyes, but not cruelty, not lies. I could not believe it. Taking photos of the ceremony that day, I secretly shot lots of her face. I saw not a trace of tears in her eyes; I felt bad about that, but the little daughter, how she cried! The mother didn't bother to comfort the child, but anyway she was very busy, I must admit.

The 'lover' wasn't present..but then, he wouldn't be, would he? After the funeral I could have gone home, but I stayed. People stay overnight at funeral houses for a week, to keep the house open, and they play cards to pass the time. I cant play, but I sat and watched. She played, with the men from the village. I sat near her, and every time she raised those eyes at me...she knew. She knew I'd fallen for her. She knew she'd caught me. She smoked a lot; I don't, but when I lighted her cigarette, and she cupped her hands on mine, it filled me with joy. I wanted to fell in her arms; when I closed my eyes, she smiled a little. I had to be careful about others seeing it all. Its not so strange that an 18 year old boy should fall for a thirty year old woman, he went on, its just strange how long it lasted.

I still love her, he added. But she must be quite old by now, the other said. The photographer turned to his friend. No, no, she can never be old, she will always be thirty. Then he gave a short laugh. Did you....get her? the other asked. He was surprised to see that this question made his friend blush...a forty year old father of two sons! His friend smiled sheepishly and looked towards the house. About a week after the funeral, I went to give her the photos, he went on. except the ones I secretly took of her, both the earlier ones and the ones at the funeral; I left them at home. Looking over the photos, giving me the money, she asked, where's the rest? She knew I'd taken a lot of her alone at the funeral. How much for them, she asked. I laughed and said, I'll give them to you...will you come to my place, or shall I bring them? I said, I don't want anyone to see.. And besides, I said, I have earlier ones. She looked surprised. So I told her that on the evening the old man died, I'd seen her at a window and that I had several shots of her. She looked really alarmed; she asked harshly if I'd shown them to anybody. I said, no, no, not a soul. She seemed relieved. Two days later she came to my studio, and asked for those photos and the film as well. I secretly kept one, the best, and gave her the rest; she burnt them before my eyes. From then on she treated me like a friend. I kept going to see her, but she was seldom there. The daughter and one elderly aunt were the ones usually at home. And when I saw her again, there was a man with her...her 'friend' she said, but I knew it was that chap. Quite a sleazy looking fella. I heard the old man left a bundle, but she spent a lot...even had to mortgage the big house.

She told me about that, and then urged me to find money, save up...as if she was hinting that I would get her if I could save the house. So, I gave up my camera for a while and went into business, buying up the produce from these farms here. Well, time went on, I was doing well, she was still seeing that chap. Then from that one negative I kept, I made a big print, the one you saw. Only then I noticed...did you..? vaguely, behind her, a clock with the hands at 5.10. Well, the doctor had stated that the old man passed away at about 5 in the evening; the aunt had said no one was in the house at that time. But she was there, at that time. That doesn't concern me; but anyway, rather a coincident, she herself passed away soon, at about 5 p.m. You know the cause of death? A miscarriage.

Well, you can guess the rest. I managed to save the house; and the daughter, that sweet little girl, how she cried; she look upon me as a close friend of the family. I married her, of course. I've lived in this house since, and you know, I feel her near; shes here. I dream of her often, I think it is her way to visit me. But, he went on, I'm sure he knew I would marry her daughter. And I know she is happy about that. And, he added wistfully, she will never be older than thirty now, will she? v
(The above short story was translated by MTG)

Ju

Born in 1958, Ju (real name Tin Tin Win) began writing while still in medical school. Her first short story was published two years before her graduation in 1983. Her first novel, A Hmat T'ya "In Rememberance" published in 1987, was an instant best seller. She continued to win acclaim as a writer who focused on the role of modern women in society who are juggling love, ambition and family values. Her characters display the high intelligence and strong minds of the educated Myanmar women.

So far she has published fifteen novels, seven collections of articles on the enviroment and the arts, and seven collections of short stories. Seven of her novels have been made into highly successful movies. She said her favourite novel from her own works is Chit thu yay dai ky'ma ye nya tway "My nights written by my lover", based on her year-long visit to the United States.