Fiction: Caroline Woods
CAROLINE WOODS teaches fiction and freshman writing at The Boston Conservatory and has taught advanced fiction at Boston University. Her short stories have appeared in Slice and LEMON, and she has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and two Glimmer Train honorable mentions. Before coming to BU, she worked as a travel writer. The book of ghost stories she wrote as a teenager, Haunted Delaware, received praise in The Village Voice, Writer’s Digest, Delaware Today, and other publications.
THE LITTLE BLESSING
One workday Liem Tuan got a call on his cell phone from an American number.
“Hello?” Tuan plugged one ear to block out the city noises. He never smoked at work, careful as he was to keep his hands and breath clean for his clients at the Hotel Stanley. He enjoyed taking breaks on the cigar deck, however. There he could gaze down at Ho Chi Minh City through the smog, inhaling the cleaner air up above.
“Liem Tuan, is that you? Chao?” The American woman sounded hoarse. Her Vietnamese was faulty: “I call your house, your wife give me mobile number.”
Tuan answered her in English. “Hello,” he said. “I am Liem Tuan. Who are you?”
“You speak English! Oh, my God, Carrie, he speaks English.”
“Hello?” Tuan said. “Who is this?”
“I’m sorry, we’re just happy to have found you. Liem Tuan, I’m Denise Soranzo. I’m so glad you answered. Are you busy right now?”
“No,” he said. “I am on a break.” A bus backfired loudly on the street below; he stepped away from the balcony edge.
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to speak to you. I’m Ashley’s mother – Ashley Kieu, that’s the name we gave her. We kept the name you gave her, I mean. Do you remember? The baby you found in the market.”
“Oh!” Four years ago Tuan had found a Hoa baby, a Chinese girl, in the Saigon Marketplace, and had hand-delivered her to the aunties at an orphanage. Tuan had named her Thuy Kieu, after the legendary heroine. He’d wondered about her every so often. Now he could picture her downy foreign bedroom, filled with toys. He imagined her swimming in a turquoise pool.
A thrill passed through Tuan’s bones. Look at the difference he’d made in this baby’s life! His act of plucking her from among the melons had landed her in America, lucky child. “Oh, yes, I remember. Is she well?”
“Yes, she’s doing wonderfully. Mr. Liem, I just wanted to thank you—”
Tuan heard someone speaking in the background.
“We both wanted to thank you for helping bring our baby girl to us. She’s our whole world.”
“Of course. I did only what I should have done,” Tuan said. “I am very happy you called me.”
“Our social worker tells us so few adoptive parents know anything about their children’s discovery. We’re so lucky the receptionist in the orphanage remembered you and kept your number! Wait, Carrie. Wait – Mr. Liem, Carrie would like to speak to you.”
“She’s my partner. She’s Ashley’s mother, too.”
Tuan needed a moment to consider this, but Carrie didn’t give it to him. “It seemed such a blessing when we found you,” she said, her voice weepier and more feminine than Denise’s. “And now that I hear you speak English, well, that feels like fate. You changed our life, Mr. Liem!”
Tuan murmured a short response.
Lesbians. The government had handed little Thuy Kieu over to a pair of lesbians.
The women assured him they’d maintain the girl’s connection with her Vietnamese heritage. They planned to visit Ho Chi Minh City within the year. They thanked him several more times before Tuan hung up. He slowly shut his phone and sat at one of the wrought iron tables on the patio. He studied the expensive foreign labels on the cigars in the closest ashtray until his break was over.
Ten months later, the women called Tuan early in the morning from their hotel. They had begun their trip with a five-day tour of Hanoi; now they had come south to visit the city of Ashley Kieu’s birth.
“Can you believe what’s happened?” Carrie asked him over the phone. “Sick, it makes me just sick.”
“What has happened?” Carrie had caught Tuan in the middle of tying his tie. He wiggled his jaw to keep the phone on his shoulder.
“You don’t know? Vietnam is stopping all American adoptions. They announced yesterday they aren’t renewing the agreement that was supposed to be re-signed in September. Any parents who aren’t matched with a child by June of this year won’t be given children.”
“Oh, were you planning on adopting another one?”
“No, no, but it kills me, just kills me. Our governments keeping families apart like that. It’s tragic. You’d think they would have found a way of working together.”
Tuan offered little comment. He agreed to meet the two ladies and Ashley Kieu during his lunch break at Maau, a restaurant specializing in seafood and Cantonese delights. The place was very popular with tourists. When he hung up with Carrie, he went downstairs. The newspaper was folded on his chair; he found an article about the government’s April 28, 2008 decision. The American government had accused his country of allowing “baby-selling” to take place. The U.S. Congress was alleging that fraud and corruption characterized the adoption system in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
“Yet there is no mention,” Tuan told his wife, Kim, as she ladled his breakfast of oxtail noodle soup, “of any disappointment our government has in the way the adoptions have turned out on the other end.” He flipped the paper over.
“Tuan. Why are you set on meeting these people?” Kim asked. “You’ve done your good deed. Now why torture yourself by finding out where the child has landed?” She set out soup for their two sons. “I’ve seen how you’ve worried ever since you got that call and found out everything hadn’t turned out exactly as you’d planned.”
Tuan lifted noodles to his mouth. He pictured Ashley Kieu – or, simply, Kieu, as he preferred to think of her – and how she had commanded the attention of an entire market four years before. There she’d been, tucked among the fruit, a crowd huddled around her. All except Tuan seemed afraid to be the one to claim responsibility. The crowd had scattered, relieved, when he finally reached for the wrinkled red face. He carried the baby for half a mile to an orphanage in the middle of town. Riding his bicycle with her on his chest seemed too risky.
On one street corner, a woman had pulled alongside him on a red moped. A younger man sat behind her, hands on his knees. Neither wore helmets.
“Would you look at that?” the woman said, widening her smile to reveal gapped teeth.
When Tuan dropped his head he saw that the baby had her face turned toward his chest and was no longer crying. Her mouth smacked open and closed, and she pursed her lips, rooting.
“She thinks her daddy’s her mommy,” said the woman’s companion.
Tuan remembered gaping at the pair as they sped off. Then, as now, he tried to remember either of his two children trying to nurse on him. Perhaps he should have held them more often, instead of being afraid to drop them. Kim was always so good at that; why should he have interfered? It was still a mystery to him that he had been so willing to scoop baby Kieu away, and with such ease. He’d found it much more relaxing to hold someone else’s – no one’s – child.
Having drunk the rest of his broth, he put his bowl down. “I don’t know why I’m going to meet them. Curiosity, I suppose. I want to see what these Americans are like.”
“God bless you,” said his wife. “Say your rosary before you go.”
Several hours later, Tuan found himself sitting at a patio table at Maau with the three strangers: two American women with strong voices and a baby who had been transformed into a person.
“This is so lovely,” Carrie said. “Eating among the bamboo.” She prodded her incisors with her tongue. Tuan forced himself not to stare at the expensive porcelain orthodontics on the middle-aged woman’s teeth. He trained his eyes on a freckle on her forehead.
“It’s a little hot out here,” Denise said.
“But this is when the guidebooks said would be best to come,” said Carrie. “Isn’t that right, Mr. Tuan? April is a good time to come to Vietnam, right?”
Tuan took a bit of the fruit appetizer and nodded. The women looked almost exactly as he’d pictured them on the phone. Even with them crowding Ashley Kieu like bookends, he couldn’t imagine them as a couple. It wasn’t just that they were two women. The one with the raspy voice, Denise, seemed wound tight as a squirrel. She wore her dark blond hair slicked back in a bun, and her shoulders were bony underneath her pink polo shirt. Carrie, by contrast, was wide and soft like a feather pillow. She fanned herself with a City Zoo brochure and simpered at Ashley Kieu. Both women appeared slightly older than he, perhaps in their early forties.
“Can we seat Ashley so that she’s facing the street, Mr. Tuan?” Carrie said when they first arrived. “I want her to take in as much as she can.”
When they’d first met, outside the restaurant, they’d tried to call him “Mr. Liem.” Tuan explained that it was customary in Vietnam to call people by their title and first name rather than surname. “Yes,” he said. “It is good for me to sit closer to the street. I can ward off the beggars.” Denise and Carrie exchanged a glance.
Ashley Kieu sat in the bamboo’s shade. Tuan watched the heavy traffic reflected in her black eyes. She’d grown into a tall, pretty girl. Her mothers had cut her hair into a shiny black pageboy with blunt edges. A Japanese-made toy sat next to her silverware, and every time it beeped she would check its miniature screen. One of her pink sandals kicked him under the café table. Tuan smiled at her. He could feel the orange heat of the sun on the back of his neck. He’d come straight from work and wore a black suit. He would probably return to the hotel smelling of perspiration.
He sighed and took a sip of water. The women had ordered coconut milk served in the shells for themselves and Ashley Kieu, because apparently coconut milk was “safe.” No ice, they’d insisted. They had asked him if he wanted a beer, but he’d explained that only foreigners drank in public.
The women were both Realtors from Wilmington, Delaware, a place Tuan had never heard of. They had the little girl sing the American alphabet song and count to fifty, which she did in loud gasps, insisting she could have gone all the way to one hundred if she hadn’t been tired. Tuan clapped along with the two women. Ashley Kieu smiled and blushed, enjoying their praise.
“Now sing ‘Ru con’,” said Denise. “You’re familiar with that, of course, Mr. Tuan?”
“Yes, I know the lullaby,” said Tuan. He listened to Ashley Kieu sing the popular Vietnamese children’s song too loudly to be considered polite inside a restaurant. Still, he enjoyed watching her eyes light up when she reached the high notes.
“We found a tape of that on Amazon,” Denise said proudly.
“That was very good,” Tuan told Ashley Kieu. “When I found you, I noticed immediately your strong voice.” A moment after he said this, he regretted it. The women puffed up like fried dough, Carrie rubbing her daughter’s forearm with two fingers and saying, “That’s right, you’re special!” and Denise turning straight to Tuan and asking, with the ice-blue stare of a wolf, whether he would turn a child over to an orphanage today, knowing that his government was no longer allowing foreign adoptions.
“Of course,” Tuan said, flustered. “What should I do, return the child home with me?”
“You think it’s all right that they’re dooming these kids to stay in institutional care their whole lives?”
“Well. Well.” Tuan crossed his arms and brushed the armpits of his pink oxford. They were damp. “I don’t know about that.”
Thankfully, their meal arrived then – grilled fish for Tuan and Denise, spring rolls for Ashley Kieu, and the seafood hot pot for Carrie (“Only twelve American dollars for all this!”). After a few quiet moments of chewing, the little girl began to wiggle in her chair. She slipped down under the table and untied Carrie’s New Balance sneakers before scampering toward the serpentine corridors of the restaurant. Carrie made a halfhearted attempt to grab the back of the girl’s overalls, then turned back to the table. She reached down to retie her shoes, pushing her graying bangs out of her face. “I’m getting sweaty. She ate enough, right, Denise?”
Tuan glanced at Ashley Kieu’s plate. She had eaten half of one spring roll and had peeled the casing off the other, spraying its contents over her plate like confetti. “But don’t you want her to sit for the rest of the meal?” he asked. “Even if she’s done, she should sit.”
“She’ll be okay,” Carrie said.
“Tell us about yourself, Mr. Tuan,” said Denise. She tried a smile but her gaze remained intense, her brown eyebrows touching close to her heavy double-fold eyelids.
“I have lived in Saigon all my life,” Tuan said.
“Saigon?” Denise frowned. “You still call it Saigon?”
Carrie clucked her tongue. “We went to the Reunification Palace and saw the famous helicopter that took the last of the old government officials away. Those must have been hard times.”
“We took her there so she would know her people’s story,” said Denise.
Tuan cut himself a bite of fish. Did they expect him to discuss the helicopter? “I am thirty-six years old. I have two children, both boys. My wife and I are Catholic.”
This seemed to strike a note with Denise. She nodded slowly.
“Are there many Catholics here?” Carrie asked. She turned as Ashley Kieu came barreling back toward their table, almost tripping a waiter carrying a tea tray. “Or are you a minority?”
Tuan watched, silently impressed, as Carrie swept the little girl into the crook of her arm and guided her to sit down in one motion. Her touch seemed lighter than air; she used no force, yet the child sat. He had seen his wife operate on his sons using the same instinctual grace. “Yes, we are a minority.”
“Ah.” Carrie pushed the girl’s straw toward her mouth, urging her to drink more coconut milk. “We know all about that.”
“What do you do at the hotel?” asked Denise.
“I am the manager of the gentlemen’s spa at the Hotel Stanley,” Tuan said, “which is one of the finest in the city. I have been manager for six years.”
“I’m curious where and how you found our baby,” said Carrie. She reached over to adjust the American barrette that kept slipping out of Ashley Kieu’s straight bangs. “We’d love to hear the story. It’s just such a blessing that we’re able to talk to someone who was there the day Ashley was found. So many people have nothing, not even a date. You know, we celebrate the day you found her as her birthday. It’s the closest we have to a real birthday.”
“Shh,” Denise said. “Not in front of—” She nodded toward the girl. “Ashley has a birthday like everyone else.”
Tuan offered a tight-lipped smile in response to this nonsense. He was irritated at hearing that word again – blessing. As though he had gone to the market that morning to buy coffee and fruit simply to fulfill these women’s destiny. As though he’d studied English at night school for three years simply to prepare for this lunch. These women probably thought him a lowly nail technician. They could have no idea what kind of finesse tending to Japanese and American businessmen entailed, especially at a five-star hotel.
“…So we’d love to hear the whole story,” Carrie finished.
Tuan wasn’t sure what she’d been saying. “Why don’t I address Ashley? Ashley Kieu, would you like to hear about when I located you?”
Ashley Kieu had finished her drink and was tapping her empty coconut shell on the table. Tuan repeated his question, but the child only gaped at him until Denise said, in a saccharine voice Tuan was surprised she could conjure, “Sweetie, do you want to listen to Mr. Tuan?”
Finally Ashley obeyed, but she held on to the coconut.
“Well, Ashley Kieu,” Tuan said. “I found you with the melons. Your blanket was pink. There were no toys or note in the blanket – just you.” He glanced at Denise, then continued, “I could see you had been fed recently. Your parents…birth parents…must have cared for you because your cry was loud and very strong.” He paused. The two women hadn’t flinched at the mention of Ashley Kieu’s parents.
Denise nodded firmly. “We want her to know her parents were probably very poor, that they did what was best for her.”
Tuan continued, “Yes, they must have been poor, to have given you to-to American parents, but they also must have fed you with what milk they had because your grip was very forceful too.” He squeezed his pointer finger with the opposite fist. “This is what you did to my hand!”
Ashley Kieu laughed loudly. “Ouch,” she said. The toy on the table began beeping madly and having what looked to Tuan like a kind of seizure. He felt deflated; he had lost her attention. “Mommy!” she cried. Quickly Carrie reached to stop the toy’s spasm.
Tuan turned for a moment toward the street. A mass of school children in navy uniforms blew past the restaurant on their bikes.
“Ashley,” said Denise. “Did you know Mr. Tuan named you for a famous warrior lady? Why don’t we put the toy down for a minute. You should tell her about her name, too, Mr. Tuan.”
“Not now,” said Ashley Kieu.
“Okay,” Carrie said. She doesn’t have to, she mouthed.
“Yes, now,” said Tuan. He felt sweat beading on the back of his neck. “This is your one lunch with me, Ashley Kieu.”
She put her elbows on the table. One wore a cartoon bandage. With a frown, she slid the toy next to her plate. Though she seemed to capitulate, her face held the kind of challenge, Tuan thought, only a child could give an adult. She had been testing him. He knew for sure then that the child longed for structure. Children were like puppies, his wife always said. They needed a leader. He pitied Ashley Kieu.
“You see,” Tuan said, slowly, trying to engage her interest, “Thuy Kieu was a woman who had to leave her family and work hard. She loved her father and brothers very much, so she sacrificed herself for them. Then she met a man and fell in love. She did not love the man her parents chose. She loved someone else. And because she was a hero, she was allowed to choose her own fate.” He glanced at the women, who were nodding. Clearly they identified more with Kieu than with the parents in the story. This worried him.
“I felt a little like Thuy Kieu,” Carrie said, “when I came all the way to Vietnam alone.”
“To bring me home!” Ashley Kieu exclaimed.
“Why did you come alone?” Tuan asked.
“We thought we’d have a better chance of being approved if we didn’t say we were lesbians,” said Carrie.
“Carrie,” said Denise. “We don’t need to discuss that with Tuan.”
Carrie laughed. “Well, you’re not going to turn us in, Tuan, are you?”
Tuan cut his fish into careful slices. Could he turn them in? His thoughts went to Kim and their two boys. Would they welcome a sister? Logistical thoughts flashed through his mind. Ashley Kieu could have his son Pham’s room, the one overlooking the clean side of the alley. The boys would sleep in bunks. Yes, it was possible.
And the government…the government was unhappy with the Americans now. Yes, Tuan could see it all; there would be a story in the newspaper. The Americans claimed their morals were superior to those of Vietnam. The world would accept this position until Tuan reported this dishonest woman, Carrie, and her lesbian spouse. Vietnam would reclaim Ashley Kieu and a slice of its honor. Ashley Kieu would learn how to be an Asian child again. Instead of playing video games, she would attend university in Ho Chi Minh City.
When he finally looked up from his dish, he realized the women had been watching him tear his fish into shreds and consume it with his knife and fork in both hands, lowering his face to the food like a bear. He looked down at the bones scattered across his plate, mortified. “Excuse me,” he said.
Carrie was smiling at him very kindly. “You’re funny, Mr. Tuan. I hope you don’t mind me saying that.”
His discomfort increased. For a few minutes they sat in the ambient noise of the restaurant, listening to the birds in the bamboo and the waiters clicking the lids of coffee pots open and closed. At last he swallowed a gulp of water and said, “What is your hometown like? Ashley Kieu’s situation concerns me. I wonder if there are any others who—”
Denise cut him off. “Who have adopted children, yes. There is a girl in her preschool class who comes from Kazakhstan. And we have a wonderful babysitter who was adopted from Korea. She’s sixteen.”
Carrie added, alternately smiling and checking her braces with her tongue, “Her birthday is right around Ashley’s, and we got a cake for the two of them.”
“That is, well, not what I meant,” Tuan said. Were the women this unaware of how unusual their family was? “I just worry she will be teased, because—”
“Our area is very multicultural, Mr. Tuan,” says Carrie.
“Very,” Denise said. “Very many Asian children.”
“Yes, but…” How could he put this, in front of Ashley? He opened his mouth.
“Dessert!” said Ashley Kieu. The waiter set a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with raisins in front of her. Everyone watched her take a bite. “They’re green,” she said.
“What, baby?” Carrie wiped a drip off Ashley’s chin.
“The raisins are green.”
“That’s because they’re from green grapes, not purple. They’re golden raisins.”
“There are some Chinese girls in our area, too, Mr. Tuan,” said Denise. “Their parents have formed a kind of playgroup that we’re joining. Even though Ashley is Vietnamese, they will have a shared experience.”
“But you must know,” said Tuan. He realized why he’d been so irritated earlier, when he’d listened to Denise talk discuss the Reunification Palace and the little girl’s heritage. “Ashley’s Chinese.”
“What?” said Denise.
Surely, Tuan thought, these women can tell that Ashley Kieu and I are ethnically different. He suppressed a laugh. They obviously could not, which was why they were teaching a Chinese child to sing Vietnamese songs. Why hadn’t he thought about it before? “Yes, Ashley Kieu is of the Hoa people. She is a Chinese girl. I am surprised—”
“But no, she’s Vietnamese.” Denise crossed her arms. “She’s from Vietnam.”
“She was born here, yes,” said Tuan. “Perhaps her parents and even her grandparents were born here. But she is not of the Viet people. I am, she is not. I am surprised to see that the social workers in this country or in yours did not tell you. There are many Chinese in Saigon. One in every fifteen people, I believe.”
Denise looked confused. “I-I don’t think we should be saying all this in front of Ashley before we think how to explain.” She held up a hand. “We need to plan this better.”
Tuan somewhat enjoyed seeing Denise squirm. “What is so wrong with the Chinese?”
“I’m just surprised. Don’t accuse me of bigotry, you jerk,” she whispered. “I’ve just been working so hard to preserve her heritage, and I just didn’t expect her to be Chinese.”
Finally Carrie spoke; she had been focusing on the lilies in the center of the table, her hands in her lap. “Don’t call him a jerk. He’s telling us her story. How can you deny Ashley’s story?” Her eyes remained fixed on the vase.
“Common sense, Carrie. Common sense.”
A sudden clutching feeling gripped Tuan’s throat, as though someone were squeezing him around the neck. How dare she call him “jerk” in public, and in front of the child? “I have children, too, and you should know you cannot prepare for everything,” he said. “Did you think she expected you being lesbians?”
“How dare you,” said Denise.
Tuan’s mind moved quickly, preparing a response. But then he looked at Ashley Kieu. Finally the beeping toy did not hold her interest. She was pinching her lower lip between forefinger and pointer and turning her head from mother to mother.
“Just leave him out of this,” Carrie said quietly. As Denise and Carrie glared at each other, Tuan had a sudden inspiration. “Come on, Ashley Kieu,” he said. “Let’s look at the bamboo.”
The little girl slid obediently to the floor and brushed off her shorts in a very adult gesture that made Tuan’s heart pause. The women did not say a word as he took her small hand and led her past the kitchen and through the main dining room. When they encountered two big trays blocking the path between tables, Tuan lifted her into his arms. Her body felt solid and healthy. She didn’t ask to be put down when they passed into another stone-paved patio, empty save for some stacked wicker chairs and a fishpond with a waterfall.
They could no longer see Denise and Carrie’s table. Tuan thought of the jacket he’d left draped on the back of his chair. “Do you want to look at the fish?” he asked Ashley Kieu. He dangled her over the koi pond, and she giggled.
“Do it again!” she shrieked. Tuan wondered if the waiters would hear her. He set her on the ground, and they watched the giant goldfish surface, bringing their bulbous brains and round mouths to the surface as they tried to feed.
“We should get them some food,” she said. “I have fish food at home.”
“Do you know how to say ‘food’ in Vietnamese?” Tuan asked, knowing that she didn’t. “Dồ ăn.”
“Dồ ăn,” she said. She pronounced the word correctly on her first attempt. “You want some đồ ăn, fish?”
“Would you like to see if we can find another fishpond, Kieu?”
She took his hand again and they wandered through another busy dining room lined with white and red wallpaper. The interior of the restaurant seemed to expand. Tuan couldn’t even remember where the exit was. The girl asked him to carry her again after a woman almost ran her over with a bamboo chair. He hadn’t carried his own children in years, and he had forgotten how tiring it was. His breathing became heavy. The open design of the restaurant allowed all the humidity of the jungle surrounding Saigon to blow through the various dining rooms. He noticed tiny spots of mold along the baseboards. The moisture in the air was so thick he felt he could chew on it. He thought of his bicycle and how difficult the ride would be in this heat.
When they reached another patio – how large was this cavernous place? – they discovered an empty stone basin instead of another koi pool. A waiter sat smoking on its ledge. “If you’re looking for the restrooms,” he told Tuan in Vietnamese, “they’re back that way.” He gestured with an ash-tipped cigarette.
“Is this the exit?” Tuan asked, also in Vietnamese.
“It’s there.” The waiter pointed in the direction of Carrie and Denise’s table.
Tuan said nothing. He took Ashley Kieu’s hand and blinked a few times. “We got a little lost,” he told the girl. “We went deeper into the restaurant than I realized.”
“Okay,” said Ashley Kieu.
Holding hands again, they began walking back the way they came. A large-breasted American woman was blocking the entryway back into the dining room. It took Tuan a few seconds to realize it was Carrie. “Oh,” he said.
She looked like she had just stopped crying. With a plump hand, she held a linen napkin to her face. He let Ashley Kieu go to her.
Carrie held out his jacket. “Thank you,” Tuan said mechanically.
“I don’t want her to see me like this,” Carrie whispered, pointing at her eyes. Her daughter hugged her leg. “But I thought I’d come find you. Thanks for taking her for a little while as we straightened things out.”
“Yes. That is why I brought her to look at the fish.” Tuan took the offered sport coat. He was sure his slick palm would leave marks on the fabric. “Where is Denise?”
“Denise went out. She needed to walk a little.” Carrie watched Ashley Kieu play with the ropes bordering the patio. The muscles of her face, gone slack, appeared older.
Tuan felt his stomach clench. “Did you already pay for the meal?”
“Yes, don’t worry about it. We got you.”
“No, please.” Tuan reached for the wallet in his back pocket. “I’m ashamed.” He found three bills and handed them to her.
“I won’t take it, Mr. Tuan,” she said. “I don’t know how to thank you. Denise maybe can’t understand this, but I think you can. You don’t know how happy you’ve just made me.”
“I – pardon me?”
Her eyes had become very distant. “Have you heard the Chinese legend? About the red thread that connects people who are destined to meet?”
The Chinese and their “red thread.” He resisted rolling his eyes and nodded.
“I’d known since before I even met Denise that I would adopt a Chinese baby one day. I started going to meetings in the community for parents looking to adopt from China eight years ago. And then I met Denise, and I felt so blessed when she said she’d do this with me. We waited on the list to adopt from China for almost two years. And I felt the thread, that red thread they talked about. But then the service shut down – we found out China wasn’t giving babies to Americans for a while.”
“Just as Vietnam is now,” Tuan said slowly.
“Yes. But I knew I was a deserving mother.”
“You still felt the thread?” He avoided her eyes.
“Oh, yes, I still felt the thread. We decided to look into Vietnam, which didn’t feel right at first – oh.” She bit her lip. “No offense.”
“None taken, Miss Carrie.”
She smiled and wiped her eyes. “Well, now I know that thread held. And you helped us. So thank you.”
Tuan was unable to say, “You’re welcome.” The fact was, he had almost ignored the baby’s cry that morning in the market. He never planned on telling anyone, but his instinct had been to leave her there. Certainly someone would take her eventually, he had told himself.
It was the long walk that did it, that made him think. Who else could have picked up this child? Someone who needed young labor, perhaps, or worse; she could have been trained as a beggar, a banana seller, a street child with broken teeth. At the moment he signed the paperwork at the orphanage, the sense of accomplishment, of silly pride, had been overwhelming. Good that it was me. That was what he kept telling himself, for weeks, even years afterward. Good that it was me.
“I think I should leave now,” he told Carrie. “It is time for me to go.”
For the first time since he’d met her, Carrie looked at him and frowned. “Are you sure?”
Tuan was already slipping into his stuffy wool-blend blazer. He accepted a hug from Carrie and allowed her to promise to send him updates about Ashley Kieu. He didn’t study the girl before he left. That way, he wasn’t positive that he would remember her face.
During his bicycle ride back to the Hotel Stanley, Tuan felt strangely light. The wheels wobbled. He whispered a small prayer for the girl.
“The Little Blessing” originally appeared in Slice magazine’s Spring/Summer 2009 Issue: Going Home.