Black Pigs and Leather Boots
“Jiang-ye, come downstairs to greet our guest.”
I rolled my eyes. My mother’s usually cheerful voice was laced with annoyance and contempt. The American had come again. Since last spring, his visits to our farm had become more and more frequent. He’d taken a fancy to my older sister, Mei-ying, though he’d never admitted it outright.
William Jameson was famous in our town. Jameson the Foreigner. Jameson the Fool. Jameson the Black Pig – dirty, useless, and altogether dim-witted. It is rumored that he once knocked over a fruit vendor’s display whilst consulting his map, ruining three thousand yuan of produce.
As I descended the stairs, I caught sight of my mother’s mousy figure slipping away into the kitchen. I heard clangs from under the sink as she pulled out a jar of second-rate tea leaves for our guest. When I reached the foot of the stairs I could see that the American was seated comfortably on my father’s antique cherry-wood chair. I pursed my lips in distaste. My father would sooner sow salt into his rice field than give my sister away to that blundering beast.
I stepped over the threshold to the front parlor and bowed slightly. “Good afternoon, Mr. Jameson,” I greeted. “Please have some snacks.” I gestured to the bowls of fruit and candy my mother had set out.
“Oh no, I’m quite full. And please, call me William,” he replied with a grin.
“Please have some, William,” I insisted. Inwardly I scowled. The harvest season had been short this year, and the oranges we bought had not been cheap.
“No thank you, Jiang-ye,” he declined.
“Not even a chocolate candy?” I persisted and moved the bowl closer to him. “Please take one,” I offered again. I was afraid he would be insulted by my discourtesy, but he yielded.
“Oh, all right then.”
He extended his hand and dug around to pluck the largest malted milk ball from the bowl. I narrowed my eyes but remained silent. He popped the candy into his mouth and began speaking, causing bits of spittle to fly about.
“So today’s your sister’s birthday, isn’t it? She’s a very lovely girl, you know. Is there to be a celebratory feast tonight? I would love to observe a Chinese dinner party. What do you say?” He looked at me expectantly, like a puppy begging its master for a treat.
“Uhm, y- yes, she is very lovely,” I dodged. How rude of him to invite himself, I thought. What a pig, I noted, cringing at his loutish eating habits.
“Are there any special dishes that are prepared?” he continued. “I hope there’s meat. Perhaps a beef brisket or lamb stew, and roast chicken! Yes, my mother makes a delicious roast chicken. But I’m sure you Chinese have your delicacies as well. Animal innards of some sort perhaps. It’d be an interesting change of palate. So how about it?”
Luckily my mother returned with the tea tray, saving me from acknowledging his unwelcome suggestion. “Good afternoon, Mr. Jameson. How are you faring? How is your book coming along?” The American began his account, and my mother, being an expert conversationalist, spoke politely during pauses in his speech.
Meanwhile, I dutifully poured three cups of mediocre oolong tea for us all. I took care not to fill the cups to the brim, as I had done that once before and Mother had chided me for giving our guest a burden. I wonder if she had ever caught the irony in her statement.
I offered the American his cup with both hands, but he did not notice, and my fingers were uncomfortably scalded for several moments. When he finally finished his tale, he snatched it with a flourish, nearly spilling its contents.
“I was under the impression that you people prepare chicken on such occasions, am I correct?” I had assumed that he would not push the matter further, but indeed I was wrong.
“Well that’s true, yes. Our birthday dinners are shared only with immediate family members, however, so I’m afraid –”
At this moment my sister entered the room, her clothes slightly damp from washing clothes in the river. Flustered, she greeted, “Oh, hello William. I was unaware that you would be visiting today.”
“Of course I would,” he replied, smiling childishly. “Now, you look stunning Mei-ying, absolutely stunning. Just …” He trailed off for a moment, then stood abruptly. “Ah well, now where are my manners?” he exclaimed with a booming laugh.
Where indeed, I thought.
“You see, the reason I came by this afternoon was to wish you a happy birthday and to give you … this.” The American produced a package that I had not previously noticed from behind my father’s chair. It was large – nearly a third of my height – and wrapped with thick parchment. A hulking red silk bow sat atop the parcel like a jester’s hat.
“O– Oh my, William that’s –”
“Ah don’t be afraid. It’s mostly filling paper, but you know, the bigger the present the better it is!” He barked out another laugh. “Here, here.”
Mei-ying retrieved the package with both hands and bowed. “Thank you very much for your generosity, William.” She cleared her throat.
“Well it certainly was expensive, but money is of no matter when it comes to you, my sweet! I think you’ll like it though. Open it!” he urged.
“Ah all right, if you insist.” She unraveled the unseemly bow and placed the heap on the coffee table. Her nimble fingers undid the twine that bound the package and pushed apart the wrapping. Inside was a pair of low cut leather boots. The heel was foxed and adorned with fancy beading, and the supple black leather provided an illusion of comfort and warmth.
My mother coughed. “Uhm, Mr. Jameson? Surely you recall an earlier conversation we had? Shoes are –”
“Oh yes, yes, shoes are inauspicious, bad luck, the whole she-bang.” He waved a dismissive hand, gesturing to the whole of the house. “Yes I remember, but no ill will intended! Surely you can accept my humble gift. Let’s just call it an honest mistake, eh?” He winked and I could see my mother’s ears turn pink.
“William,” Mei-ying interjected. “I don’t think it works quite like that. You see –”
“Ah don’t ruin the moment, Mei-ying. Beautiful shoes for a beautiful lady.” He took her hand and kissed it, then turned to my mother. “Now you were saying something about that chicken? I’m sure it’ll be delicious.”
“Well as it stands, Mr. Jameson, it is against our tradition to entertain guests during these types of meals,” she fibbed, tucking a strand of hair behind her ears. “Surely you would not want to offend our customs?”
“When you put it like that, goodness no. How silly it would be for me to intrude!” He chuckled at his own joke, which drew brief looks of derision across our faces.
“Yes, how very silly. Now I must begin tonight’s preparations …” my mother prompted.
“Oh I’d better be on my way then, shouldn’t I?” After a few parting words the American gathered his coat and trekked to the front entrance. “Have a wonderful day, ladies!” he called behind him.
“Goodbye!” my mother replied. She closed the door smartly behind his retreating back and breathed a sigh of relief.
Mei-ying chuckled as she walked to the kitchen to pour out the tea. “How long do you think it’ll be until he comes back again?”
Christine Luong, Age 17, Grade 12, Stuyvesant High School, Gold Key