Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Short Story {The Eighth Year}

The clock hanging high in the large tiled hallway moved slowly, burdened perhaps by the dozens of eyes that sat watching it. Most of them belonged to the mothers, sitting with their backs stiff against benches that lined the echoey hall. Some held a bundle that slept for all the blankets and layers of padding they were wrapped in. Some sat with arms holding up a child who stared listlessly at the nurses who shuffled hurriedly by, staring with eyes empty from boredom.

A woman with no child stood next in line near the only open door in the hall. Her hair was not the color of black silk, like every other head in the room. Instead, it curled softly in brown waves and hung just past her shoulders. She had pulled it back, as she did every day, and was huddling into her dark wool coat and scarf, the deep chill of the December air barely eased by the unheated room. Her simple clothes, unadorned by sparkles or fake gemstone hair bands like the ones that were strewn out on the side streets and sold for what amounted to a dollar or two, did little to keep the attention away. Eyes that were not glancing at the clock shifted to her and gazed over every inch of her attire, her hair, her white skin, her strange freckles, her foreignness.

Leigh wanted to stare back. She knew it was part of their ways, this open faced looking, that did not come with malice or rudeness, and was aided in part by so many decades of seclusion. But it still unsettled her, and she hated how she felt compelled to keep her own eyes averted, while absorbing the intangible probing of their unending stares.

She had come for a simple check up. Six months to go and this new little one would be joining their growing family; four children already, in a land where the One Child Policy was still enforced for these women with strict laws and measures. And soon five of them; this too, would bring stares. But now the rest of her children were at home, and she waited at this local hospital for a simple appointment. Listen for the heartbeat, check the sugar levels, measure the belly, and send me on my way. But she was not the only one, and looking at them, it shamed her a little, to think of how disgruntled she could be at the way they stared.

To come here for her was merely an inconvenience. The day had been too full of Parent Teacher meetings and piles of laundry to be hung out to dry, and going to the market to buy produce for dinner, so that she had missed the somewhat stiff hours at the more sophisticated clinic which catered to most of the foreigners. She didn’t mind coming here for the most part. It made her feel like she wasn’t a pretentious and wealthy westerner, privileged enough simply by being born in a country where things like healthcare came as an inalienable right. She didn’t mind coming here, but in a way she did, and she felt small for feeling so.

A baby from across the hall let out a small cry. It sounded weak, almost alarmingly so. The mother looked pensive, and a bit worn, though stoic and strong in the way that so many of them did, keeping emotions tucked a bit deeper than plain view for all to see. Her skin was darker too, perhaps from the countryside, where long hours in fields on the family farm made a face of coveted milky white skin impossible. Now she rocked and swayed gently, moving side to side in a rhythmic motion, leathery hands stroking a tiny face that remained hidden beneath layers of worn quilts.

Leigh watched her, wondering what it was that brought the weathered mother to this hospital in the city. Dirty floors, long lines, and nurses who still wore the quaint white caps from the 1940’s betrayed the simplicity of this place, yet it was still a pricey burden for a family from the countryside.  Disease? Undernourishment? Perhaps she doesn’t know? It hurt a little to think about. If it made her feel less removed by coming here, it also made the stark realities, the ones often merely read about, as palpable as the smell of all the stale breath that now filled the dimly lit hall.

A  nurse wearing one of those funny white hats, her tailored dress matching the dingy whiteness of her leggings, hurried up to the weathered mother. She bent over with a clipboard, talking rapidly and pointing to several lines on a pink slip of paper. Leigh watched her, trying to catch a phrase of what she was saying. The nurse seemed agitated, flustered even; she kept asking a question, but the mother answered something so quiet that it could not be heard from across the hall. The rapid talking nurse ensued, then asked the question again, but getting the same response, flatly stated, Dui bu qi, women bu neng bang ni, and walked away.

The weathered mother sat still, looking down but not at her baby. Her strong face remained placid, but tears now streamed in straight wet lines down her face. She did not wipe them away. Shifting her feet against the cold tiles, Leigh could not pull her eyes away from the weeping face and rocking figure. Denied help and for what reason? Not enough money? Did she go to the wrong place?  She had to move closer to the door now that the line was growing shorter. It would be her turn next and the clock now said four thirty. By the time she arrived home it would be dark. Dark, and where would this woman be? Catching a bus to catch a bus to catch another bus that would take her home, all the while carrying this child who would let out weak cries, growing weaker with each passing mile?

She had seen mothers like this before, on other days when she stood in the same line, being ushered in quicker than most who warmed these benches-- who would wait for hours to see an undertrained professional. She had wondered why they placed the obstetrics ward directly adjacent to the children’s cancer wing. For the women here like her, swelling with new life, it seemed an awfully depressing way to start out your one chance at a family.

She knew she was being too harsh. And yet the same thoughts would often run through her head at the grocery store or when the men came to repair the bath tub. At once sour and critical of what seemed such backward ways, and then strangely moved and humbled as she watched them care for things or think industriously in ways she and her bourgeois wastefulness knew nothing about.

The quaint nurse had returned, this time joined by a matching companion. They helped the weathered mother to her feet, handing her papers and somewhat matter-of-factly directing her to a different desk where she could request additional aid. The Woman followed them with her eyes. The nurses too looked tired, their days long spent with lines of anxious parents that shoved and jostled and thrust papers in their face and demanded things, since that was the only way to get anything done around here. The mother slumped against the desk window, baby crying again now. A hand fluttered, waving her away with that pink slip again.

Stop being so dramatic, Leigh tried to look away. She didn’t know the whole story, of course, and even she did and if it were true there were a million more stories just like it. What could she do? The six of them, they gave so much away as it was, and even if they gave away everything they had it would not be enough to solve the world’s problems.

But the weathered woman, she was not the world. She was just one. And Leigh, with the foreign colored hair, she was not the world, she was just one. One helping one: this she could do. She fingered the envelope in her pocket, fat and full with the crisp bills the bank had just given her. The last of the hard earned and long saved funds to add to the stash in the back of the sock drawer, the stash that they had scrimped and saved and endured eating rice and beans for, all to fly home for a Family Christmas they had not tasted in eight long years. 

It’s not mine, she argued, a small bead of worry starting to creep into her mind. Who was she to give away these weeks of sacrifice and long laid plans? They would be hurt, would not understand, it would be like slapping all their small but sweet efforts in the face. The Boy’s allowance, The Girl’s Lemonade Stands this summer, it wasn’t hers to throw away. What would she tell them? She had only meant to go out this day and get the last of the cash to buy the tickets tomorrow. How could she walk in the door and tell them she had given the rest away? She couldn’t. She must try and forget about it. After all, she didn’t really know the whole story anyway.

Just listen for the heartbeat, check the sugar levels, measure the belly, and send me on my way. She closed her eyes and tried to think about snow falling on Christmas Eve, the feel of climbing the stairs again to her old room, the children cuddling and giggly in the old bunk beds next door. They finished and she buttoned her coat hurriedly, wrapping the scarf to cover her hair and half her face. They stared, but she marched quickly through the wide glass doors, air smacking her cheeks and making her eyes leak tears that blew icy in the night wind.

The weathered mother stood there. Huddling her bundle, looking intently at the map lighted blue and fluorescent outside the hospital doors, she did not glance up.

Leigh felt her heart beat fast, faster than it ought to be, were she meant to keep that fat and heavy bundle of crisp pink bills. The scenes of bustling airports and joyous hugs, children’s crumpled faces and another Christmas gone flashed through her mind like one of those bullet trains that was there and gone in the time that you blinked. The weathered mother had turned, started walking into the darkness. Leigh felt her feet quickening to catch up, her arm reaching out to gently lay hold of the puffy brown coat, her hands pressing the thick white envelope in between the brown leathery fingers and layers of quilts. She quickly but firmly stated what this was in simple Chinese. Ni xuyao bangzhu. You need help. Take this. Please. God bless you.

Walking home now in the darkening twilight, Leigh’s shoulders felt light, and perhaps her head a bit too. Now it was her cheeks that coursed wet, the tears streaming down beneath her scarf and making paths down her neck. Who had ever said that to give would not mean sacrifice? But the rest of the way now seemed unclear, and though her blood buzzed with the intensity of a moment that had now passed, she knew that six sets of eyes awaited her at home. She dreaded those eyes.

Hours later, the telling and the flood of more tears behind her, she lay still and silent beneath the soft comfort of flannel sheets. Strong hands clasped hers as they stared into darkness. Perhaps something greater than snow flurries and the comfort of loved ones had been gained. It was not for them to know, not now. For them it was enough to know that they had been given a gift, and it was meant for giving. 

Her breathing grew soft, eyes heavy with the evening full of tears. He turned to kiss her cheek before she drifted off, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth, “Eight years in a row now love… and you’re almost getting good at it.”

-Christine Keegan © 2010
This is a fictional story, written as an exercise for Mortal Muses theme for the day {Giving}


  1. Wonderful story Christine, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Wow! Thank you for musing with us. I hope you enjoy the 18 days. ♥ tam

  3. oh gosh! this is really wonderful to read christine! very descriptive too =) i love it!

  4. Thanks for sharing your heart and mind with us!