Fiction / March 2012 (Issue 16)

A Royal Visit

by Wayne Sullins

I remember when Mother brought an earthenware bowl of water out onto the sidewalk in front of the house. She wanted to wash my feet, but I wasn't cooperating. My feet didn't need washing, I told her, in no time they'd be dirty again. One of a girl's many duties, she explained, is the proper care of her feet. That didn't make sense. How could feet be that important? But no matter how hard I fought her, Mother always won. So I surrendered to her skilful, loving hands.

Across the street the cobbler's son, Bao, was showing off his new Western-style shoes. I had never liked him much because his French was superior to everyone else's in class, and he flaunted it.

I hated wearing shoes, so, except for school, I went barefoot. I had seen pictures of a Chinese woman's feet, mangled from being wrapped from a young age, and I worried that mine would end up the same if I wore shoes all day.

Mother gently patted my calves and said, "All done." I stepped out of the bowl onto a towel. One by one, she dried my toes, treating each of them as a precious object she feared she might break. Come to think of it, Mother was that way about everything she handled. Not me—I'm clumsy, I break everything.

Unlike many of my peers who've lived as long as I have—I'm ninety-two—my memory is exceptionally vivid. I can see the red buttons on Mother's pyjamas I played with before I could speak; I can still imagine father laying new tiles on the second floor balcony of my Uncle's house on Ha Trung Street. Back then, there was still a considerable distance between things and places; a book's pages needed to be cut before it could be read; telephones stayed at home and teaching your children how to live was an important part of being a parent.

While my two older sisters were quiet and obedient, I had a mischievous streak, and I was always running away from Mother to get as dirty as possible. That day was no different, and as soon as my feet were clean, I took off, shouting back at Bao as I went, "Bet those pretty shoes can't run." Like the pushover he was, he chased after me. I turned left on Duong Thanh, heading toward the train tracks, with him huffing and puffing to keep up.

I loved trains, and often played near the tracks alone or with my friend, Thuy, who shared my fascination with the roar of their engines, the rattle and grate of their wheels against the rails. But most of all, I loved the idea of trains—they took you to places where, if you felt like it, you could disappear, change your name and start all over. Haiphong was as far as I had ever gone, but someday, I imagined, I'd board that beautiful dragon, returning, if ever, a rich man's wife sprinkled with diamonds, or maybe an actress leading a pair of greyhounds, like those I had seen in magazines.

At the tracks, I stopped and looked in both directions—no train. I heard the clatter of Bao's shoes and turned to see him, red-faced but smiling because he'd almost caught me.

That's when I saw the car pull to the curb and stop. At the time, I was too young and inexperienced to know the makes and models of cars, but thanks to my great-grandson, who practically lives on the Internet and found a site devoted to vintage French automobiles, I now know that it was a white Peugeot 201. It was so big I could have stood up inside it. "Why travel by train,'' I thought, "when you can ride in that?"

Bao finally came to a halt beside me, staring at the car, too.

"You can go back now," I told him.

"Go back?"

"Yes, I've finished playing with you."

"But I ran all this way."

I looked him square in the eye. "Bao, did you really think I wanted you to follow me? Go!"

Pouting, my little genius stalked over and sat on the curb near the car.

Something extraordinary followed. The car door opened and out sprang a girl my age. She wore a white dress and white boots with yellow buttons and had dark brown hair cut short like a movie star. Something on the opposite corner had caught her eye—a chicken. She looked at me and asked, in French, "Would you help me catch it?"

The gleam in her eye told me she was just like me, stubborn, beyond control. When I nodded yes, she looked surprised that I had understood her. She reached the scrawny brown hen first but slipped and fell. The bird flew up over the girl's head and hit me in the chest, flapping hysterically.

For a split second, I glanced toward Bao, who had disappeared, just as I had hoped he would. I wanted this girl, shining like an angel in the sunlight, all to myself

"It's under the car!" I shouted.

Although her boots were getting scuffed, she didn't seem to care. Her dress, too, was of little concern. She got down in the dirt like a boy and reached for the bird trembling under the rear axle. I ran to the other side of the car and, having done so a hundred times, succeeded in grabbing the hen by its feet.

"Wow, you're good," said my glowing new friend. I gave her the bird and it settled immediately in her arms, which were nearly as white as her dress.

"I know, let's take it for a drive," she said.

I backed away, suspicious, and more than a little intimidated by this fabulous machine.

"Don't be scared, it's my car. Emile!"

There was no one else in the car but the driver, who was smoking a cigarette and polishing his sunglasses with a blue handkerchief. He got out obediently and opened the door for us, bowing as he did. She and her pet got in first. I followed, flabbergasted. As I had imagined, it was as big as a house inside. The leather seats were the colour of dragon fruit, soft and warm. I rolled the window up and down, twice, mad with delight.

"Haven't you ever been in a car?"

The conversation was held entirely in French, mine somewhat faulty.

"No, we don't have car here."

"How come?"

"Car is for king and queen, not for little people."

"Well, I must be a queen, then. And since you're with me, you can be a queen, too, OK?"

That sounded like a splendid idea, and I settled back in my car as Emile drove north.

"Should we name it?" asked the white queen.

That the hen actually belonged to someone hadn't crossed my mind till then, but I wasn't about to spoil this magic, so I said I liked the name, Minh. "It mean clever."

"Like us, right?"

In the company of this girl whose name I never knew, never wanted to know, I felt so at ease that I let go of all concern for consequence or destination. It was hard to believe that I, a poor carpenter's daughter, should be granted this luxury. More amazing still were her boots. I told her they were the nicest I had ever seen, not daring to admit to myself that I coveted them.

She swung her feet up onto the red seat beside me and said pertly, "Try them on."

Automatically, I checked the rearview mirror, and sure enough, I found Emile's eyes there, dark and threatening.

"Don't mind him, he's an imbecile. Go on."

After struggling for a few seconds to unbutton them, the boots came off easily, collapsing in my hands, docile and eager to please. They fit perfectly, and I stretched my legs out to click my new toes together.

She proclaimed me the prettiest girl in Hanoi. She was right, I was. I still am.

Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.