Generation 1.3 ... Layla.
He took advantage of his youthful strength and spent the hottest parts of the day diligently sorting through the shattered remains of ancient homes, which had been unceremoniously knocked over and half-buried in the shifting sand. He found several things that interested him personally (he had a partiality to vases), and as the client wanted canopic jars, he thought he might be able to keep these other items. He couldn't sell them here, of course, but perhaps when he returned home …
A hundred half-finished schemes entered his head and exited just as quickly. He couldn't exactly think when he was so hungry. He caught a caravan back into the town center, where he was quickly overwhelmed with the noise: the cries of animals, people haggling over goods, the sounds of food being prepared and diners enjoying meals. He moved in the direction of a most enticing scent, only vaguely aware that a nearby woman seemed very displeased by his presence … and perhaps his body odor. He was so used to life back in that small town, where everything reeked pleasantly of farm animals and fertilizer and people regularly spat onto the sidewalk and the grass and the road and everywhere else, that he had forgotten that stench was not a universally-accepted fact.
He ate a meal in thoughtful silence and returned to his distant campsite near the water. The following day, he continued his search, at least until he caught sight of a lovely figure passing by in the marketplace. He gazed at her back and asked the relics merchant who that might have been. They laughed at his pink face. "That is Layla Lufti. She is the youngest of three sisters."
"Layla," Kim Chong murmured. The name felt good in his mouth. He looked again at where she had stood and imagined her still there. "Layla." Mischievously, one of the young pages showed him the very house where Ms. Lufti lived, and all thought of canopic jars flew far from his thoughts. He could only think of that house … and the youngest of three sisters who dwelled within.
*** "… what do you mean you couldn't find it in my size in black? Are you trying to be funny? Why do I even waste my time—"
"I meant what I said! They don't have it in your size in black! What's so damn hard to understand about that? Maybe you should buy a bedsheet if you care so much—"
"Oh, go to hell! You're just as big as I am and you manage to find all of the clothes you want! But the one time I ask you to get something for me—" Layla stirred the greasy dishwater with her hand and sighed. This was normal, painfully normal. Her sisters were fretful and quarrelsome and argued for the sheer pleasure of it. She was used to it, but still …
She was startled by a knock at the door. At this time of night? Who could possibly be visiting? She opened the door timidly and was startled to see a young man, a stranger and a foreigner, standing there. She almost asked if she could help him before realizing that he wouldn't be able to understand her. And then he managed to surprise her yet again by blurting out "You're pretty" in her own language. She took a few steps backwards, let him in.
"Who are you?"
He had to guess what she might be asking. He pointed to himself and said, "Kim Chong."
Her expression became more curious. "What do you want?"
No response. She realized that he had probably spoken the only bits of Arabic he knew. She switched to English and asked again, "What do you want?" "I … come see you."
"Why?" she asked, although it was perfectly clear why.
Again with the pretty. Her giggles covered over the argument that continued on in the back of the house, and he smiled and blushed.
"You're not from here? Just visiting?" A nod. "Are you staying at the big tourist camp?" Another nod. "I will give you my phone number. Can you call me?"
'Call.' He knew that word. He also knew he couldn't do it. He shook his head, perversely pleased when she looked disappointed. "Layla!" a voice shouted from the back. "Layla, get in here!" And the look on Layla's face changed instantly to fright.
"Write down your name," she whispered frantically. "And get out of here!" By the time Aisha and Mena came storming up to the front of the house to demand Layla's opinion on whatever they were arguing over, Kim Chong was gone, gone back to the tourist camp and gone to find the young Frenchman from whom he had borrowed the very clothes he was wearing.
He wanted to stay awake, for he was certain that Layla would not have asked for his full name or his phone number if she hadn't intended to find him again. But it had been a long day and he was sleepy. He waited up as long as he could before finally falling asleep. But luck was with him after all; in the dark of the night he heard his name being whispered in a woman's voice, and he opened the zipper of his tent, Layla Lufti crept inside to join him. What she wanted with him at 1 a.m. could be easily guessed, though it would be mighty rude to talk about it.
*** "I want to go with you," Layla said when he woke up again.
"Take me away from here. You love me, don't you?"
"Love," he repeated. He took her hand and nodded.
The truth was, he didn't have the first idea whether or not he loved Layla Lufti. But if he did not know love, he at least had some dim idea of jealousy, and he knew that if he did not take Layla along, one day another man would have her. And he didn't want any other man to have her. So they came back to the town of Riverfront Meadow and Kim Chong found that very helpful government clerk, and after a small, perfunctory ceremony, Layla Lufti became Layla Shin Yi. Kim Chong gave his neighbor the requested canopic jars (as it turned out, Layla herself had several) and they retreated to the plot of land to set up house. The trees had grown, he had purchased a tent and a stone chest to store valuables, and now he had a wife. He was happy.
Layla, naturally, was not so easily impressed. She was not enormously wealthy, but obviously she had had more than this in Egypt, and she expected a house at least. Unlike her spouse, Layla was no farmer; she was a scholar. She demanded a computer for writing.
"Don't have," Kim Chong explained. "No power." "Get power."
"Cannot, no money. Tent good, live in tent."
"No!" she cried, and sat on the ground to sulk. "This is your home, why do you live like this at home?"
He was distressed by Layla's anger. He found Ginny McDermott and had a quick talk with her before bringing back a notepad and a pencil. Layla refused the gift at first, but finally relented. "Where will I cook?" she asked as she brushed open the notebook and began to write by hand. After years of typing, it felt so strange!
"Ah … will get."
"Get what? There is no electricity, no stove, no refrigerator …"
"Will get!" Kim Chong called and rushed away again. He returned with a sooty fire pit and several sturdy sticks. Layla was aghast at the notion of barbequing—she did not eat meat—but he quickly assured her that he only meant to roast the fruit in his pocket. That evening they dined on sweet apples and smoky plums drizzled with lime and honey and spent their night staring up at the sky.
"Sorry for not have," Kim Chong said quietly. "Will give better when have money."
And Layla smiled at him.
*** Kim Chong awoke with the dawn to tend his plants, but Layla had managed to beat him outside. She was already writing busily. The scratching of her pencil was the only sound until she asked Kim Chong why he didn't have a house.
"Very poor," he explained briefly. "Grandfather die, cannot leave here. Must stay, work."
Layla absorbed that news in silence. The early morning noises continued without interruption until she spoke again. "You must buy toilet. Nowhere to go. And shower. We should not stink."
"… ah, yes." He had trained himself to go to the bathroom twice a day—when he went into town, and again before he returned home for the evening. He normally took showers at the public gym. But it was only natural that a lady wouldn't tolerate that sort of arrangement. He would have to talk to Ginny about all of this. And he did, joining his neighbor on her wraparound porch just as the moon rose that evening. She grinned at him and offered him sweet tea. "Hey there. Heard you got yerself hitched."
"'Married.' Just slang. Sit down." He sat. "You look kinda sad. What's up?"
He gestured to her large barn. "Must build. Wife want."
"Your wife wants a damn barn?"
After more blundering, he finally managed to make Ginny understand. "So right now you need a little bathroom, and eventually you're gonna need a house. Okay. I'll make sure you have the toilet by tomorrow morning. Find some good rocks for me and I'll front you the cash. And make sure to get your building permits so you don't get in trouble with City Hall." Relieved, he went away in search of Layla. He finally found her by the river bank, flipping small fish from the water with a crude fishing pole. "Not eat meat," he said, pointing and laughing.
"Not for me," she said quickly. "For you, for plants."
*** Ginny was as good as her word and arrived the next morning with a pallet of cheap pine boards and a cheaper toilet. While she constructed a crude outhouse, her husband pounded stakes into the earth and nailed boards to the stakes. By the time the sun blazed down at noon, he had made an enclosure for the small orchard that Kim Chong had so carefully cultivated. Layla watched the goings-on from a distance as she covered an envelope with postage. Her sisters had been very unforgiving of her decision to leave so abruptly, calling her "a fool," "a young fool," "a damned fool," and many other variations on the insult. There was no point in being offended by their behavior, so she ignored it and instead thanked them for contacting a publisher on her behalf.
The publishing house of Milton & Griffords had shown considerable interest in the fragments of the novel that they had been able to read. It was certainly no masterpiece, but it was good writing for a 22-year-old woman who had little experience of life, and they wanted to begin publishing. It was fortunate for her that she already had seven of ten chapters typed and saved at home. It appeared that she would have to write the final three by hand, though. She considered the ring on her finger. Part of her sisters' anger stemmed from her rash decision to marry on a whim—at least, that was all they could call it. They didn't understand why she would choose to marry at all, let alone a strange boy that she couldn't possibly know anything about.
But Layla had big plans for herself, plans that could not be fulfilled by living in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. She intended to be a famous writer. And to do that, she needed to see the world. She had seen that opportunity lying with Kim Chong Shin Yi whether he was aware of it himself or not. She was sure now that he was not even remotely aware of it. Still, though, she loved him. His earnestness, his gentleness, his work ethic … and his body.
God, his body.
He was no mere farmer, she knew that much. What he really was might be beyond her scope. He didn't talk about his past unless she really pushed, and he didn't seem to enjoy it when he did. Still, he seemed to be happy with her, and she could be happy enough with him, she supposed.
She dropped the letter into the box. Kim Chong returned shortly before one; the McDermotts had gone away. He roasted lunch over the coal pit while she watched and occasionally wrote.
"How much more write?"
"Not sure, cannot rush …"
"No no, take time," he said in a reassuring voice. She felt a sweet feeling flood her chest. Once lunch was finished she stood at the garden gate and watched him plant some more seeds. "Good seeds," he said proudly. "Good plants, good to eat, sell for much." He turned to look at his wife and fell silent. The neck strap of her dress hung into two pieces. The top had begun to slide downwards.
"It broke," she said.
"Uh-oh," he answered, and smiled. He woke up several times that night to the sound of the tent flap being unzipped, and the distant rumble of the new toilet being flushed repeatedly. As naive as he was, he knew what that meant. While he lay awake and waited for Layla to return, in the back of his mind he began to think of the names of all the little girls he had known from another lifetime ago, way far away in a little village in the north of China.
*** Layla did not discuss her pregnancy immediately. In fact, she continued on with some habits that her husband found quite alarming. When he finally, timidly, asked her if she wanted some new clothes, she shook her head. "House first, then we get clothes." Kim Chong was nothing if not resourceful. He promptly paid a visit to the local scrapyard. Then to the second-hand appliance store. Then he visited Ginny McDermott, who called a builder on his behalf. "They'll have a manufactured home up for you in three days."
"Home?" It was an odd word to say. After being a nomad for nearly four years, he would finally have a house?
"Yup, I'll show you some floor plans on their website if you want."
In the end, Ginny drew a rough sketch of what he could expect and told him to give it to the foreman. "Enclosed bathroom, open kitchen and dining. 'Bout as simple as it comes, and you can add on rooms later. Like a nursery," and she smiled.
Ginny's estimate turned out to be quite accurate. The builders brought a quarter-home to the lot and had all utilities connected and inspected within three days. The foreman warned Kim Chong that without a front door, though, anyone could steal from him. At this notion, Kim Chong chuckled. Anyone who needed to steal his few items was worse off than he was!
He sat at the tiny table alone, staring up at a simple painting that he had found at the local consignment shop. It was a childish painting, but he liked it all the same. It made him think of quiet days on a hillside outside of Shang Simla.
"Kim Chong!" Layla was padding up the steps, holding the handrail. She looked around at the small space before going straight towards the only door. Once she opened the door, her posture immediately expressed disappointment, so he was prepared before she turned around. "Kim Chong!" she said again, and this time there was no smile. "What is this?"
"Bathroom, so we don't stink."
"But … no bed?"
"You ask for shower! Did not say bed!" He was laughing, but Layla didn't seem amused. Finally he calmed down and sighed a bit.
"Layla. I not mean make you sad. I just not think. So use always sleep on ground, forget that woman need different."
"You sleep on the ground? Even in China?" She looked a bit skeptical.
"Yes. When grandfather alive, he take students out for training. Train for weeks, on hill or mountain. Sleep in rain, snow, whatever. Always on ground. Too hard for many people, too hard for women. They leave because too much hurt. I have no woman around, I not use soft. Forget. I not do to make sad. I get you bed."
"But … what about you?"
"I not need bed." She watched him walk away and seat himself in front of the tent, and all of her anger disappeared. Almost shyly, she followed him and sat down next to him before reaching for his hand.
"I don't need one, either," she whispered.
~ to be continued
Strangers in a Strange Land -- Gen 1.3
Mar 31, 2012 by spladoum
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