Karen Ashe is a writer based in Glasgow. She writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry and is working on her first novel. She was awarded a Scottish Book Trust New Writer’s Award in 2016 and has been published in Mslexia, and was highly commended in The Bridport Prize.
The bell above the door tings. I hear the hiss of rain, then air rushes in, laced with donkey-shit, dim-sum steam, fried-noodles. Carts rattle, drunk men squabble, mahjong tiles clack against the table top. The door closes, trapping us in silence like flies in amber.
The workroom is separated from the shop by a row of lattice-work panels, draped with sweet-smelling blossom that keeps us hidden from view. I sit close behind it, so close I can hear the rustle of the ladies’ Cheong-Sam, the soft brightness in their voices, the slide of the notes being folded into the money drawer.
The shift in the air stirs the scent of the flowers, brings memories of my village; the sound of my mother singing, the gurgle of the river in spring, the haunting call of geese on the move. Apple-pears sliced in a bowl. The sun on my face.
The needle stabs the tip of my thumb. I bring it to my mouth to check for bleeding, but thankfully there is none. I cannot damage this suit. The squelch of the tailor’s sandals grows louder, closer. He halts somewhere behind me. My heart beats so fast I can barely hold the needle. Did he see me stab my finger? I will my palms not to sweat. I cannot drop the needle. There is a slap and someone further down the row cries out. The sandals squelch on.
The tailor employs an unusual training method. Boys are locked in the cellar in total darkness until they can sew straight lines of the tiniest stitches. If they survive that, they are brought to the workshop, where they must sew with their eyes closed. If their eyes flutter open, he threatens to stitch them shut. When they pass this test, they may open their eyes, but must only look straight ahead. Forget that you have eyes! You have only four senses now. I was his best apprentice; it came naturally to me.
We sit in our long rows like stitches in a seam, working long after the tailor turns the lock on the door and the blinds rattle down the windows. The assistant gathers the work, the needles and thread. I hear the key turn in the padlock then the tailor loads the bobbins of thread into the wooden cabinet. They must be protected from the rats. A bowl is placed on the ground in front of me. I bring the spoon to my mouth, eat till it scrapes the bottom.
It is 22 steps to my bedroll. 300 stitches in a sleeve, 749 in a trouser leg. At home, it was 472 steps to the well, 115 to the apple-pear tree. I knew night was falling by the rising of the birdsong. Could sense snow coming by the smell in the air. I learned from my mother to turn my head towards my father’s voice, to smell before tasting, brush the walls with my fingertips. Keep my face to the sun. Follow the sound of her singing.
Shizuka’s back is aching. She rolls onto her side on the tatami, feet searching for her slippers. She gets up, slips on her yukata, trying to stretch out her back, but her growing bump pulls her forwards, always forward. Her belly is a tight ball; how quickly it has grown from seed to watermelon. It kicks in response to her touch, and she smiles. If only this silent conversation were enough, she would keep it inside forever, but she so longs to see its face.
She sets the water to boil for tea, opens the back door and stands in the warm spring sunshine. The lumpy hills are purplish in the morning light, unchanged since her childhood. The air is fresh and cool on her cheeks. She kicks off her slippers and wades out into the field.
She will be no use if the baby does not come before harvest; she can barely bend. Reaching her hand into the murky water she can smell the earth beneath. She stretches her fingertips to feel the root, pulls hard. It comes away with a small tearing sound.
The sheath is green and plump and when she parts it with the nail of her thumb she is barely breathing. The sheath splits down the centre and there, like a row of baby teeth, pearly white and gleaming, sit the little beads of rice. It is not yet ready. Soon.