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In a small town on the outskirts of Phut Wen, Vietnam, a rickety tuk-tuk clamored to a stop. The passenger was a short, well-dressed man named Henry Turner. His hands were soft and fleshy, white and small and permanently damp with sweat. His nails were pink and finely manicured, faintly perfumed with the scent of expensive cigars. The knuckles of his index and middle finger were slightly calloused from the novelty of using chopsticks.
He peeled off a few notes from a fat bundle, handed them to the driver, lifted himself out, and started down the street, occasionally wiping his brow with a handkerchief. Despite the heat, Henry walked purposefully, attracting curious stares; he was a foreigner, but he was more than that: Henry Turner was a businessman, and one who was used to getting what he wanted.
His current interest lay in the pursuit of chopsticks. Three months ago, Henry had come to Vietnam as part of a documentary team making a movie for an Asian food channel. When they dined at a local lunchroom, the place had experienced an unexpected shortage of chopsticks. The panicked server had run to a neighboring shop and brought back a pair of chopsticks for Henry, free of charge for the inconvenience.
Henry hadn't paid much attention to the souvenir, but when he unpacked the chopsticks back in England, he examined them more closely. They were made from fine ivory, were lemony-white with beautiful swirls of beige and ecru, tapering to a point at one end and lightly stroked with elegant, abstract carvings at the other.
Henry had not noticed at first, but when he touched the chopsticks to his lips – perhaps it was the novelty of using the exotic dining utensils – the chopsticks seemed to enhance every morsel with thrilling, underlying richness. They soon became his most prized possession. Wherever he dined, those around him admired the chopsticks. Thus, Henry had seen a window of opportunity. And so he now found himself walking down a dirt path in search of the shop where his chopsticks had originated.
Henry stopped in front of a narrow door and knocked. Without waiting for an answer, he pushed his way into a brightly lit shop. Several shelves ran from floor to ceiling, crowded with ornaments. Henry slid his finger along a shelf filled with ceramic cups, wooden statues, sticks of incense, and candles. He stepped slowly across the creaking floor, and then – finally! – he spotted a pair of chopsticks in a wooden box.
Henry picked them up and ran his short fingers over the smooth surfaces, turning each stick this way and that, until he was sure these were as elegantly made as his. With a satisfied smile, Henry spotted the owner and cleared his throat. The man turned, and Henry said, “Good evening! I'm Henry Turner, and I would like to buy your chopsticks.”
The man was a gaunt local with sparse whiskers and sunken eyes. He smiled a slow yellow-toothed grin and, ignoring Henry's outstretched hand, replied, “Ten dollars.”
“Ah, I must make myself clear,” Henry went on, pausing to gauge his reaction. “I want to buy all your chopsticks.” The man did not react. Henry wondered if he had understood, but he continued nonetheless. “I think that with the right marketing, these chopsticks could bring you a fortune! Allow me to explain. You would make the chopsticks, I would sell them to the right customers, and we would split the profits 50/50. I know the type of customer who will pay generously for these!” Henry was gesturing excitedly, almost knocking over a statue.
“Why, when I showed my pair to friends in England, they told me they had never seen anything so elegant, so rare. Where do you get the ivory? I showed it to a collector, but he couldn't place it.”
Henry looked keenly at the shopkeeper. The man regarded Henry carefully but remained silent. “Ah, well, never mind. I ask you no questions, you tell me no lies, eh?” Henry chuckled. He knew that the ivory trade was illegal. “This could be a great venture for you! Here, take my card.” The man took the card, then cracked a grin. “They like? They like my chopsticks?”
Relieved that the man had finally spoken, Henry gushed, “We love them! My man, you could be rich! You could hire workers, run a factory.”
The man raised his eyebrows, his grin gone, and replied, “Ten boxes. I have no more. Total one hundred dollars.”
Henry was taken aback. “Ten boxes … for now, right? You'll be able to make more by-”
“No. You buy now. I give you all I have. That is that. I cannot make so many for you to sell. I make chopsticks in Phut Wen; I sell chopsticks in Phut Wen. No business.”
A crease appeared in Henry's forehead. “That's it? But-but why? Don't you see what an opportunity this is? My friend, you have no idea the-the exposure this could bring you!” Henry pulled out his chopsticks, waving them in front of the shopowner's face. “This is more than a pair of chopsticks. This is art! And you, my friend, are the artist!” Patches of red appeared on Henry's face, as he worked himself into a frenzy.
“I am offering you the opportunity of a lifetime! Imagine – a chance to leave a wondrous legacy, something the world will remember you by.” Henry looked keenly at the shopkeeper, knowing that this moment could be a turning point in both their lives.
“I cannot do business with you …,” he glanced at the card, “Mr. Turner.”
Henry had not been expecting this. He frowned. “Well, if that's the way you want it. But keep my card in case you change your mind.”
A while later, a disgruntled Henry Turner slouched into a bar by the inn where he was staying. He spotted the proprietor, a middle-aged man named Mr. Trindle, sitting at the counter sipping a drink. He plunked himself next to him, and took a glass of water.
“Any luck with the chopsticks man?” Trindle knew all about Henry's interest.
Henry grumbled and took a sip. Trindle sighed and patted his knee. “Ah, well. Better luck next time. Here, have one on me.” And Trindle ordered two frothy drinks. “Did he give a reason?”
Henry finished his in one gulp and replied, “Nope. I even offered to split the profits.”
Mr. Trindle sighed. “These villagers can be unreasonable. Mind you, for the most part they're decent folk.”
“Tell me about it.”
Mr. Trindle caught the bartender's attention, “Another couple of beers, if you please.” He turned to Henry. “Let me have a look at those chopsticks again.” Henry handed the box to Trindle. “Ah! Wonderful ivory, and the design … pity.” The two men sat, lamenting Henry's loss in silence.
When they were well into their fifth drink each, Mr. Trindle suddenly turned to Henry. “Do you know, Henry, what I think we should do?” he slurred.
“Not in the least.” Henry took a large swig of beer.
“We should tell that man …,” Trindle paused to burp loudly, “we should tell that man he doesn't know what he's doing. Not doing business with the great …,” Trindle wiped away the spittle that had flecked onto his chin, “ the great Henry Turner!”
Henry, who was still lucid enough to register that he and Trindle had neither met nor heard of each other before yesterday, found this statement amusing, but took a mock bow and clinked glasses with Trindle anyway.
“When he comes to you begging to take you up on your offer, you will say, ‘No! You had your chance!'” Henry laughed. “You know what, Henry, you should … you should go tell him that. Let's go tell the chopstick man! Right now, Henry!”
Despite the fact that his watch read 10:30, Henry replied, “Yes, we will go to the prude and say, ‘The offer is closed!' Henry Turner does not beg favors of anyone!” And the two men stumbled drunkenly into the night.
After trying unsuccessfully to hail a tuk-tuk, Trindle turned to Henry. “Listen, man, if you're all right with walking through a cemetery, I know a shortcut.” Cemeteries and dead bodies were nothing to Henry.
As they approached the cemetery, Trindle turned and whispered, “Quiet now. We have to crawl under the fence, and at this time of night, a visit to the graves is, well, not exactly welcomed by the locals, you know?”
As they crawled around a tombstone, Henry spotted the shack that was attached to back of the shop about 90 meters away.
“Aha! There it is!” he made to move, but Mr. Trindle put a hand on his arm.
“Wait. There's someone there.” Henry squinted, and sure enough, a figure emerged. The figure had its back to the men and was carrying something over one shoulder.
The person turned, and Henry started. “It's him!” he whispered. Sure enough, as the man straightened, Henry saw. “It's the chopstick man! But wait … what is he doing?” The man walked over to a tombstone and bent down to read it.
Trindle peered around a stone. “Strange time to pay your respects to the dead … odd fellow. Maybe we should come back another time.” Henry was about to agree when the man bent to pick up an object from the ground. “What on earth is he doing? Henry, the fellow is digging up a grave! He's removing the body! He's taking it to the shack! Quick, Henry, follow him!”
Henry and Mr. Trindle scrambled as quietly as they could until they could peer through the window.
“He's laying the body across … I can't tell what it is. Ah! He's pulled the curtain! But wait … I can see his silhouette. He has something sharp in his hand,” said Henry.
Suddenly they heard a pop. They froze and waited. Then, more distinctively, a louder crack echoed from the shack. Henry and Trindle glanced at each other in bewilderment. Neither knew what to make of the strange actions of the chopstick man.
They saw him lift a long, jagged object, turning it from side to side. Then they heard the soft whir of something electric, perhaps a filing machine. The man moved, and there was a soft clatter, like the sound of a pair of ivory chopsticks being knocked carelessly to the ground.
Henry broke into a cold sweat, and his mouth fell open. “You don't suppose ….”
Mr. Trindle turned to Henry with a look of amazement in his eyes. “Yes! My God, the man's a genius!”
Henry looked as though he was about to be sick. Mr. Trindle, on the other hand, was wild with excitement. His eyes were shining and the gleam of his wide grin was clear even in the dark. He grabbed Henry's wrist and shook him frantically.
“Henry, my friend, to think … all this time … ivory!”