White Socks, Short Nails
A tale of two Ayis – fiction by Magdalena Navarro
Auntie Han took two steps back and looked at me as if straightening a crooked painting.
"Are you wearing the new socks?"
She stepped forward to flatten my hair to the sides of my head.
"Yes." Plain white, no patterns. I had changed into them at the train station that morning.
"Hmm. Show me your hands."
I obeyed, my eyes fixed on her mouth. Two of her front teeth were missing, but that did not make her look endearing. She was getting them fixed now that she had saved a bit of money. Besides, her mother-in-law's funeral had given her an excuse to go back home for a while. I was her replacement.
“Good." She dropped my hands. "Keep your nails clean and short. That's how they like it.”
I nodded and fumbled with the zipper of my jacket while she registered me with the guards at the gate.
“All you have to do is keep everything tidy,” Auntie Han said as we walked past rows of large red brick houses. “The Philips don’t have children and they're never home for lunch, so it’s not hard. Just make the bed, do the laundry and water the plants. Oh, and walk the dogs. They’re very nice. You can talk to them in Chinese, they're from a shelter in Beijing. Now when we go inside let me do the talking. They already know about you. And shake their hands the way I told you, looking into their eyes."
When we arrived, I did as I was told. I was slightly disappointed because I had hoped for a more foreign color, but their eyes were just brown, like mine. That wouldn't make for such an interesting story back home. But the Philips seemed kind and repeated my name several times, tilting their heads.
"Am I saying that correctly?" Mrs. Philips asked each time. She wasn’t, but I smiled anyway.
As Auntie Han kept talking, I glanced down at my gleaming new white socks. They seemed to be sinking into the grey carpet that covered the whole room like soft, furry concrete. The room’s few furnishings were oddly shaped; the chairs strangely low, as if they had stopped growing at a certain point. In a corner by the big window, three long and narrow black vases pointed their empty mouths to a ceiling as bare as the walls. Why was a room this large so empty? I thought diplomats were supposed to be rich. Had they just moved in?
"Li Ying, would you like to meet the dogs?" my aunt asked, so sweetly I knew she was performing. I smiled and Mr. Phillips went to let them out of the guest room.
Buttons was white and tiny and had to be kept on a leash at all times because she had a problem with authority. Zipper was beer-colored and extremely obedient. I was supposed to wipe their paws whenever we came back from a walk. If any food fell on the floor, I was to throw it away immediately, even if it had only been a few seconds.
“Just remember to wash the whites separately,” Auntie Han repeated for the hundredth time right before she left. “You’ll be all right.”
The first few days were lonely. I paced around the apartment feeling my stomach churn. I hadn't noticed how eerily quiet it was until then. Back home, silence was textured with creaking floorboards and whistling kettles; it was thin and flimsy and never prevailed over the baby next door or the landlord's TV. But this was a deeper silence, thick and absolute, a quilted void upon which life left no trace. I didn't dare to turn on the TV and couldn't figure out their glossy music system either, so I started talking to the dogs instead.
It was Buttons and Zipper that led me to the Stone Circle for the first time. Auntie Han had told me there were around thirty women working for families in the compound, but only nine showed up at the garden every morning at ten o’clock. On the grass, now yellow and parched, stone benches and tables were arranged in a circle around a metal grill, covered by a canvas. Some of the aunties arrived with dogs, some with children, but all of them wore similar puffy down jackets and big Korean perms.
Like me, most were from the Northeast, so we quickly fell into dialect. They all knew who I was and told me how good my aunt would look when her teeth were fixed. We were talking about how cold March had been when someone hushed us.
“Shh! Here she comes now!”
A woman in a mauve fleece jacket and carrying a green plastic thermos approached behind a little girl with light brown hair and a puffy purple jacket. They stopped directly in front of me and the woman spoke.
“You must be Xiao Han’s niece! When did you arrive in Beijing?”
"Yesterday, on the train from Harbin,” I said.
She had a pleasant face, flat and smooth, like a pebble in a riverbed. Her hair was tightly coiled into a bun on top of her head. Two small hoops of gold had torn their way through her earlobes over the years, pulling them down, making her look like a Buddha. On her collar there was a smudgy star-shaped sticker. Her nails were short and clean.
I must have looked confused because another of the aunties spoke up.
"Li Ying, this is Auntie Yu,” she said, gesturing to the woman. “We all look up to her here. She is a friend of the ambassador's wife!"
Auntie Yu let out a single dry laugh and shook her hand dismissively.
"Please, Xiao Ma, that was ages ago! That was the old ambassador's wife. I don’t know the new one all that well,” she sighed. "Besides, I’m getting too old. Soon they’ll have no use for me here, with so many young faces ..." she looked at me and smiled again. "You must call me Auntie."
"Thank you, Auntie." It was impossible not to smile back at a face like that.
"Good, good." She pointed her green thermos at one of the red brick houses behind us. "Well, we must get going. Today is Sara’s birthday and they’ll want us inside.” She looked down at the little girl and gave her a squeeze on the shoulder. “Sara, tell the aunties how old are you today.”
Sara was busy trying to reattach a race car sticker to her jacket. She looked at us shyly and then tugged on Auntie Yu’s jacket to whisper in her ear.
“No, that was last year,” she whispered back. “How old are you this year?”
Sara extended five hesitant fingers and smiled when the women burst into a choir of praise.
“Well, there you go! Say bye-bye now. Bye bye, Xiao Ma! Bye-bye, Xiao Li!” they waved.
We all waved goodbye back. The moment Auntie Yu disappeared, Auntie Ma hissed slowly, poisoning every syllable, "Stupid conceited cow."
I looked at her, surprised. Her face had turned a virulent red.
"One year! She's just one year older than me and she calls me Xiao Ma! Can you believe it?” The women shook their heads in sympathy. “Like I’m some twelve-year-old schoolgirl or something!”
"Everyone hates Auntie Yu,” she went on, “even the dogs. The airs she puts on! She's only here because her good-for-nothing of a husband used to drive around the ambassador, a million years ago. Someone made her a resumé in English and that's how she gets the best jobs.”
“The foreigners don’t know anything,” another auntie put in. “They're completely clueless. Someone makes a recommendation and they all follow blindly, as if she was the only one with experience. You know what Auntie Yu says on her resumé?" She didn't wait for me to shake my head. "She claims that she has raised seventeen foreign children and taught them all Chinese! Isn't that rich! Teach! Teach what? She can barely write, the moron!"
“It's not just the baby-sitting,” Auntie Ma said. “Auntie Yu also convinced the foreigners to give her all their recyclables so she can cash them in! She snuck behind our backs and went door to door telling them to keep the bottles for her!”
“Can’t you just tell your families to give them to you instead?” I asked.
“That old lizard could make sure I don’t work again! She knows people. The diplomats come and go, but we stay here.” She stared at the space where Auntie Yu had been before. “I’m not going back home.”
The aunties of the Stone Circle loved speculating about how unhappy their employers were. They saw depression in a few empty bottles in the trash, anxiety in tags still dangling from dresses purchased months ago. The aunties didn’t gloat about it, but there was a glimmer of pleasure when the talked about the dark side of wealth.
The dogs couldn’t be happier, though. They were a source of joy for the aunties, who discussed them at length, comparing them and projecting on them traits of their own personalities. Loki was easy-going like Auntie Xi. Rufus hated lamb, just like Auntie Wang. Many of them had been taking care of the dogs for so long, they felt closer to the animals than their owners. They sighed and said things like: "I just don't know what will happen to Copper when they leave." Without the aunties, the dogs would be just as unhappy as their owners.
But no topic filled the silence quite like Auntie Yu. Though she never physically joined us at the Stone Circle, everyone always seemed to know where she was and what she was doing. I saw Auntie Yu teaching the gardener how to plant trees. Auntie Yu told me she doesn’t use any beauty products, it’s just her northeastern blood. Auntie Yu recommends using a slice of lemon to whiten your teeth.
Since I was new, I had very little gossip to contribute, but they all became excited when I said I sometimes ran into Auntie Yu on my way out of the compound.
“You must talk to her!” they chirped. “You’re new, she’ll want to talk to you!”
“And you must tell us what she says,” added Auntie Ma.
And so I lingered near the compound’s poorly lit passage after work the following day, hoping to hear the telltale clinking of her recyclables. She was unusually late and it was very cold. I had already turned to leave when I heard her footsteps emerge under the orange glow of the streetlamp.
“Li Ying!” a voice called. I was surprised to see the little girl walking by Auntie Yu’s side, her face puffy and red, as if she had been crying. “You got off late today.”
“Uh, yes. So much to do,” I mumbled.
If she noticed my nervousness, she didn’t mention it.
“Sara dropped her stickers,” she said. “We need to find them so she can go to bed. Would you help us?”
I really had no reason not to, although I felt guilty thinking of the women at the Stone Circle. I pulled my jacket tighter and followed them into the dimly lit garden. Sara Hawthorne led the way, tugging at Auntie Yu’s arm until she finally let her run. I took my cellphone out and used the light from the screen to look for the stickers.
“I remember when your aunt started working here, long ago,” said Auntie Yu as we walked the gardens. She was looking at the ground too, although she had no light. “She wasn’t even married yet. The train broke down before it reached the city and she had to walk for hours to make it here on time for her interview. She’s a proud woman, your aunt. She didn’t want to ruin her good shoes, so she walked all the way here in her socks.” Auntie Yu laughed softly. “I had to lend her mine before she changed, you know?”
I didn’t know what to say. Shame pressed hotly against the skin of my face. But before I could force myself to speak, Sara squealed with delight and ran over to us waving the stickers in her hand. She rewarded Auntie Yu with two of them and she gave me one as well, insisting that I stick it to my collar immediately. It was a small red race car with a yellow stripe and a big smile.
The next day, the women at the Stone Circle asked me if I had run into Auntie Yu the night before. I could feel Auntie Ma’s eyes on the sticker on my collar.
“It was too cold to wait,” I said, sinking my hands in my pockets. “I went straight home”.
It was almost a week until I ran into Auntie Yu again. She was alone this time, and asked me if I wanted to ride the bus with her, since we were going in the same direction. If I had known it would be the last time we would see each other, I wouldn’t have bothered with all the pleasantries about how cold the spring was or complained about how difficult it was to find a seat on the morning bus. We would have talked. I would have spent more time looking at her face, trying to understand why anyone would hate it. But I thought all that could wait.
It was Zipper who let me know something was wrong the following day. Buttons was so loud that her barking wasn't news, but I had never seen Zipper so agitated. She was pacing anxiously by the window, whining dolefully. I turned off the vacuum cleaner and called them over, but neither acknowledged me, which was strange. I took them outside, and as soon as we reached the garden I realized we weren't the only ones. There were six or seven foreigners in suits walking around and talking rapidly. The guards peered in from their posts. All the women from the Stone Circle were already there, standing under the pale sun. Two were sobbing.
"What happened?" I asked.
They all started talking at the same time, unable to listen to each other. Sara Hawthorne was dead. She had gone to sleep and not woken up again, no matter how many times her mother had shaken her and called her name. Someone had seen an ambulance rush in around six that morning with the flashing lights on, but soon after they had been turned off because there was no rush, not anymore. People were going in and out of the Hawthornes'. All over the compound the dogs had started barking and there was no quieting them, because they seemed to know. They knew before anyone else.
"And Auntie Yu?" I asked.
"The guards said she left with the ambulance," someone said. "She was only wearing one shoe."
I stood dumbly next to the group, unable to stop thinking of Auntie Yu and the shoe she wasn’t wearing.
"A terrible tragedy," said Auntie Ma finally. Her mouth was a thin line.
“Terribly unlucky,” sighed someone.
“Who, Auntie Yu?” Auntie Ma said. “No, she’s not unlucky. Think about it, she’s had a long career. She’s lucky that it happened now that she’s old; she already made her money. Now she’ll finally be able to retire." She looked at me and smiled faintly. "And make way for new arrivals."
I stared at Auntie Ma in silence. I didn’t know where to start. My eyes felt white hot, almost incandescent in their sockets. I held her gaze until I burned the smile off her face, until everybody quieted down and watched the two of us. Their eyes never left me, not even when I turned around and walked away. Not even when I left the compound.
Magdalena Navarro left Barcelona for Beijing five years ago but she still wants ice in her water