The Kindness of Strangers

By Tad Crawford

averted my eyes from the woman sitting with her back against a lamppost. I had passed by when her arm reached out with a slow, serpentine grace that drew me back.

“What is it?” I asked.

She looked as much like a dark bundle as the actual bundles that surrounded her. Her features had an oriental cast but didn’t register age. She might have been my contemporary, but just as easily could have been a decade or more younger or older. The December winds gusted up the avenue and slipped under my coat. I shivered and looked at the patchwork layers of blankets and sweaters wrapped about her.

Reaching into my pocket for a few bills, I extended my hand with the money.

“Buy yourself something to eat.”

She kept her head lowered and warded the money away by clenching her hands.

“Go ahead,” I said, pushing the bills toward her, “Take it.”

She pulled her hands to her chest to keep them away from me.

“Don’t you need it?”

She didn’t respond.

“It’s getting dark,” I said. “You should go to a shelter.”

Now she raised her dark eyes and observed me.

“The shelters are warm,” I said, “You can get a bed.”

When she kept silent, I asked, “Are you sick?”

I looked around, but what assistance did I expect? The grey sky darkened above the skyscrapers. Rush hour would begin in the shadows. It grew colder with the dusk.

“You have to move.” I insisted, but I doubted my own words. Didn’t she have a right to remain where she was? I wanted her to move so I could leave without thinking of her in the freezing wind.

“Can’t you speak?” I asked.

She reached up and touched the slender paper bag tucked under my arm. I had forgotten that I carried it.

“You want this?” I asked.

She gripped the bag to pull it toward her.

I resisted. Someone, I didn’t remember who, had given me this bag as a gift. If I had looked at the contents, I had forgotten them as well.

She wouldn’t let go, her hands and mine claiming whatever the bag held.

“Take it then,” I said irritably.

She pulled the bag to her lap. Opening the top, she smiled with a brightness that surprised me and lifted out a long-stemmed white flower with a trumpet rising from a star of petals. Reaching more deeply into the bag, she brought out two tiny plastic fish with scales the bright colors of the tropics.

Reluctantly, I returned the bills to my pocket. She gazed with pleasure on the fish and flower, which to me seemed mismatched. Rummaging in one of her shopping bags, she finally placed the fish at the bottom and the flower above so the blossom remained visible. Now she opened several of her other bags more widely. At last she handed me a folded, plastic map.

Thinking the map would give me answers to the questions that I had been asking the woman, I opened it eagerly. But in a moment I found myself disoriented, dizzy with the feeling that I had never seen what it represented. The map had no type, no chart of symbols, not even a mileage scale. She pointed to a spot, but said nothing. When I studied the glossy surface more closely, I realized that the blue of water filled most of the space. If blue meant water, I couldn’t be sure. And the small bit of tan and brown that her dirt-encrusted nail pointed to had to be an island. I tried turning the map upside down and looked on its back in the hope of finding the familiar shape of Manhattan, the Eastern Seaboard, or the downward tapering of North America.

“Where is this?” I finally asked.

Her finger traced a line from one dot to another. Was she telling me that she had come from one island to another, that she had traveled from this oceanic world to the solidity of the skyscrapers built on the bedrock beneath me? Seeing that I didn’t understand, she smiled for my plight, returned the map to one of her bags, and rose with an easy upward uncurling. Her hand plucked at my coat sleeve to make me follow her. Then she gathered the shopping bags by the handles and started along the avenue.

“Can I help?” I asked, hurrying behind her with the feeling that I shouldn’t be. She carried six shopping bags, and the white-faced flower bounced with her quick strides.

At the subway entrance, she glanced back toward me and descended the steps. I had offered what I could and had no reason to follow her. Yet I went down the steps. Hardly breaking her stride, she pushed three of the bags ahead of her beneath the bar in the gate, slipped under herself, and pulled the other three bags after her. I hesitated. If I followed her, I risked arrest. The mayor’s crackdown on petty offenses had caught a lot of dangerous criminals among the fare evaders, and the police kept stake outs on many of the subway turnstiles. Of course, I had a plastic card in my pocket that I could swipe to pay the fare, but something kept me from using it. The woman had moved down the platform. When the clerk in the kiosk looked down, I slipped beneath the bar and hurried after her.

At the far end of the platform she continued into the darkness that I had always feared. To follow her would risk dismemberment beneath giant wheels, electrocution on the third rail, or an attack by vagabonds living beyond the law. Yet I followed and saw her moving on a litter-strewn walkway beside the tracks. What I had believed to be darkness actually had many lights–red and green signals, yellow warning flashers, white flood lights shining on doors or passages that led to places I couldn’t imagine. Enormous graffiti–incomprehensible initials and numbers–boldly colored the dark walls. Perhaps we had walked halfway to the next station when she knelt on all fours with her bottom against the wall, crawled backwards, and disappeared. In a moment her hand reappeared to pull the bags after her.

I feared that she had abandoned me. What a fool I had been to trust and follow her. I reassured myself that I knew the little distance we had just traveled and could return by myself.   As I neared where she had vanished, I saw the small entry that she had used. It looked at most three feet high with hinges on the top, the kind of door that might be installed to let a dog go in and out of a house. I considered returning the way I had come. Instead I got down on all fours as she had done and crawled backwards. My hips barely fit through. I sank lower and twisted my shoulders to pull myself all the way inside.

Beneath a high ceiling a dozen or more hanging orange lanterns cast a flickering light over the sparse furnishings. Tatami mats covered the floor. The scent of a delicate incense hung in the air. Next to the entrance I saw a rack with shoes and slippers. Quickly I slipped off my shoes and placed them on the lower shelf of the rack. Then I hung my winter coat on wall hooks above the rack. The woman bent over a low table adjusting the blue flame rising from a burner. A metal teapot shaped like a dragon stood beside a glazed mug.

She bowed to me. In an alcove on the wall behind her I saw a hanging scroll with a stream of calligraphy flowing downward in black brush strokes. Below the scroll was a small, empty shelf. Not knowing what to do, I bowed in return, not a full bending from the waist but more a hunching forward of the shoulders that let me look up into her face. Perhaps the light from the lanterns was kind to her, but now her skin looked clean, smooth, and very white. Her hair formed a dark halo interwoven on the back by golden fabric in the shape of a flower. She wore a kimono bright with abundant blossoms in patterns of red, gold, and white. Its long sleeves draped to the floor and the obi about her waist matched the floral profusion.

She gestured delicately toward a stone basin on the other side of the entry. I rinsed my hands and, for good measure, my face as well. Seeing that she still watched me, I drank a small mouthful of the water before drying myself with a hand towel. Shelves from floor to ceiling lined the walls to either side of me. One set of shelves held square woven baskets neatly placed side by side. On the opposite wall glass jars filled the shelves. She lifted her hand like a tiny, white bird flying toward the rows of jars. Unsure what to do, I simply stood in place.

She took a jar from one of the shelves and unscrewed the top. I could see a clear liquid. Holding the jar in her palms she brought her nose near the liquid and inhaled. Then she offered the jar to me. I too inhaled, realizing that the liquid was merely water. But it did have ever so faint a scent of chalk. She handed me the top and I rewound it and set the jar back on its shelf. She reached down and raised the kettle to show me how the water would be used, then gave an open wave of her hand to invite me to try the others.

Each container offered the hint of a scent like the subtle essence of something unseen. For want of better words, some waters had lightness, others brightness, some had polish, others depth. No doubt minerals had given the waters such distinctive scents, but I couldn’t be certain whether I recognized potassium, magnesium, calcium, or a mixture of these and others I couldn’t name. Had each come from a different stream or spring? Or did she add an ingredient to transform ordinary water into something more savory? Some scents gave me small reveries of pleasure. At last I made my selection and handed the jar to her.

She took it with both hands, looked intently at the liquid although I had seen no difference from one jar to the next, inhaled with her eyelids half closed, then nodded slowly. Lifting the spiny top of the dragon kettle, she poured in the water and lowered the empty jar to a shelf beneath the surface of the table. Carefully she replaced the top on the kettle which she set above the blue flame of the burner. I saw that she had arranged my white flower–a narcissus, the name suddenly came to mind–so it leaned slightly toward us in a crystal vase placed below the calligraphic scroll. Inside the vase, moving about the green stem, two tiny tropical fish fluttered their fins. I looked for where she might have kept them, but didn’t see an aquarium.

She waved her hand toward the opposite wall to show that I should make a selection from the square baskets. Raising the top of one, I saw a silky mass of green-brown tealeaves. Opening basket after basket I found green, golden, or dark leaves with aromas of cinnamon, orange, mint, jasmine, and others that eluded an easy description. A hundred baskets or more must have lined the shelves, but I finally chose one and handed it to her.

Again she used both hands to take the basket from me. Turning to the scroll, she raised up the basket and then set it beside the burner. Sitting with her legs beneath her, she unfolded a square cloth and methodically began to wipe the mug and the implements for making tea. When she had finished, she lifted the basket of tea and a bamboo scoop. Three times she reached the scoop into the basket and deposited the tea in the mug. Watching, I felt that I should sit as she did and rested my upper legs down on my calves. She picked up a bamboo ladle and carefully moved the water from the kettle to the mug. Now she took a bamboo whisk and stirred the tea into the water with ever faster movements until a foam covered the surface.

When she had finished stirring, she rinsed and wiped the whisk and returned it to the row of tea-making implements. Reaching under the low table, she offered me a piece of paper with a small dumpling.

I bowed my head. In this room I seemed to have forgotten how to speak. A great distance separated me from whatever had occupied me before I met this woman. The nut-filled dumpling was sweet. I chewed slowly to let it linger on my tongue.

After the tea had steeped, she offered me the ceramic mug. She had taken such care to make the tea that I didn’t rush to drink. Instead I studied the mug, admiring its opalescent hues. It had been crafted by hand and had irregularities in the shape of the lip, the curve of the base, and a few indentations in its sides. I touched it lightly to turn it to one side, then the other. The imperfections reassured me that it had the idiosyncrasy and uniqueness of human touch. At last I lifted the mug and filled my mouth.

The steaming vapor of the tea rose into my nasal cavities. The first taste was woody, a hint of cedar perhaps, but that faded as the spicy taste of ginger crested. When this too diminished, it left a delicate floral flavor that had been present from the beginning. I imagined it to be peach as I set the mug down on the low table.

My legs began to ache from sitting with my calves beneath me and I moved my lower legs free of the weight of my body. I watched for her disapproval, but she studied me with an expression that revealed nothing of her thoughts. When I was more comfortable, I considered whether to take another sip of the tea. She gave no hint of what I should do. Everything about the room, from the lanterns to the tea utensils to the woman herself, had an added intensity like a brightness. In this intensity I felt tranquil and thoughtless.

I can’t say how much time passed, but I realized that the sip of tea had been enough. I bowed my head to the woman. She nodded and brought out a brocaded cloth from the folds of her kimono. When she handed me the cloth, I saw that her gaze was on the mug. Carefully I wiped the rim and placed the cloth beside it.

She rose like a sapling might grow to new heights. Coming around the low table, she moved toward the low entry door. As she walked, the shifting folds of her kimono revealed her tiny feet in embroidered boots. Quickly the kimono covered her boots again, but how could her feet be half the length that I would expect for a woman of her height? Like a rumor from a distant place, the idea occurred to me that her feet had been bound. But on the avenue she had walked gracefully, easily, even with the burden of her shopping bags. And hadn’t foot binding been forbidden long ago in Japan and China?

She stood by the low entrance, her hands clasped together. The time had come for me to leave, but I couldn’t believe that she had suffered the pain of binding. Pictures returned to me from texts that I had read. The way the child’s toes would be bent under the foot and the arch forced higher and higher until a cleft formed on the bottom of the foot. The height of erotic play would be the dance of these cleft feet on the genitals of her partner. The broken gait of such women strengthened the muscles of the vagina to make intercourse ecstatic for the man. This woman’s composure portrayed nothing of this, but I had the sudden urge to heal her.

She waited for me to leave, but I fell on my knees and reached my hands beneath her kimono. Its silk brushed lightly over my arms and touched my face. My hands were as large as the feet that they embraced. I began to massage, to caress, fearful that she would pull away. I felt how the four smaller toes bent under to embed in the sole of her foot. Her cleft rose toward the impossible peak of her arch. Through the thin, embroidered fabric, I moved this flesh and bone, heat in my hands, my outlook shrunk to this only, this archaic artifact of subjugation and sexual rapture.

Could I really straighten her feet? Could my touch unbind and free her from deformity and pain? In that moment I recollected the face of an earnest, blond-haired boy. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten, but he had run up to me in the street to give me the gift of the flower and the fish. I had never seen him before, but his enthusiasm made me reach instinctively to take what he offered. As quickly as he had come, he vanished among the pedestrians crowding the sidewalks.

She moaned. Just once, a little sound chased by the rush of her releasing breath. I can’t say if it was from pleasure or from pain. My hands burned with fire. Did I give this heat to her for her healing? Or did it come from her into me?

I rose. She bowed, a graceful descent and slow arising. I bowed as deeply in return. Quickly I slipped on my coat and then my shoes. Falling to my knees before her, I settled on all fours. How long had it taken her to fill her shelves? How did each tea and the water in each flask differ from all the rest? How many combinations of baskets and jars could there be? And how much time had passed while she learned her careful preparations? I wondered at her patience. As I crawled backward through the low doorway, she remained with her hands clasped in front of her. Behind the rich elegance of her floral kimono, I could see the scroll and vase on the wall. Then the hinged door fell and she and her room vanished from my sight. The alien shapes and shadows of the subway surrounded me. For a few moments, I closed my eyes to savor the taste of her tea that lingered like the fragile reminiscence of a dream.

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Tad Crawford’s fiction has appeared in venues such as The Café Irreal, Confrontation, Central Park, and Words. He admires the free play of imagination and enjoys the writing of authors like Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami, and Samuel Beckett. Author of the nonfiction book The Secret Life of Money: How Money Can Be Food for the Soul, he is the founder and publisher for Allworth Press in New York City (www.allworth.com).


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