Shining Path

My grandfather always used to say “Don’t judge a person until you walk a mile in their shoes.” It’s a lesson I have always tried to remember. So, when this week’s challenge prompted writers to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, I tried to think of someone I didn’t understand, someone whose life was an mystery to me, and to then imagine who they are and why they seem so enigmatic.

With this in mind, I noticed a Chinese lady standing in front of me at the grocery store. It was evening, almost dinner time, and calm in the store, though there were short lines at each cash. She stood, poised, with a large brown fur hat on her head, a pale grey wool coat belted tightly at her small waist, and a fine, broad fur colar. The cuff of a good quality brown cashmere sweater flecked with copper threads peaked out from under her coat sleeve. Her jeans were faded, but neat and clean and carefully folded up into wide cuffs above her shiny olive-coloured rubber boots.

She seemed out of place with her fine clothes and her poise. And she seemed shy. She kept her face turned downwards, her hair sheltering her and blocking her words. When I noticed that she was only buying a few things – a box of Cascade, two bottles of Rinse Aid and six cans of sardines – I wondered how she came to be in the grocery store that evening.

I decided to try to walk a mile in her shoes.

*  *  *

It was getting cold in the house. Cold and dark and grim.

This never-ending winter made everything worse; her isolation, her aloneness, the emptiness of the cavernous house.

She turned her finely featured face upward, defiantly, to the ceiling, but almost immediately let it fall back down again toward the ground in defeat. Her shoulder-length black hair fell forward shadowing her eyes.

Her name was Dao-Ming, which meant “shining path.” Her parents had chosen this name to send her in the right direction in life. And she had once believed that she was true to her name, that she was fortunate, that she walked a shining path. It had seemed that was true for most of her life. It was only recently that she had begun to doubt the wisdom of her parents’ selection.

She shivered again with the cold. It had been cold back in her village in China, too, but not like this. Or maybe it had been like this, but she had never noticed because she hadn’t been alone there long enough to dwell on that kind of thing.

Back home, she thought with an ache in her heart, there were always people around, there was always a bustle of activity. Though it was a small village, it wasn’t lonely. Not like being here, in the middle of a city, in the icy grip of the Canadian winter. There were a million people out there, but whether she was inside or outside, she was all alone.

She couldn’t communicate with them. And that was part of the problem. If only she had paid closer attention to the English lessons the Chinese Government had given her and her husband before they had come here, before her husband had been shipped to Canada and she, trailing him, had had to follow.

The life of a diplomat’s wife.

The intricacies of the language had been lost on her and though she tried to concentrate when people spoke, she could never quite catch what they were saying.

Her thoughts swung back around to home. She thought of her childhood house. It had been bigger than this crumbling mansion, but it never felt big. It never echoed like this house did. It had been full of family and friends and servants. The familiar.

She sighed a deep sigh and tried to pull herself out of the unhelpful negativity that had gripped her.

Her thoughts returned to the present. She was hungry. She was cold. She was sitting at the table in the kitchen, in a halo of light cast by the only working bulb left in the house. She held a fork in her hand, poised thoughtfully halfway to her mouth, the last sardine from the last can dangling on its tines.

“How did I get here?” She wondered. “How long have I been alone?”

She had lost track of time. It must have been a few days ago that she had gone for a walk to the grocery store. It had dawned on her that day that she needed some excuse to get out of the empty house and the grocery store was the only place she could think to go. It was safe, it didn’t require much interaction, but there were people around, and it was always open.

She had wandered the brightly-lit aisles, numbly pushing one of the garish orange trolleys, not sure what to buy. She recognized a shiny green box with the word Cascade emblazoned across it in red. The maid, when they still had one, used to buy it for the dishwasher. She put the box in the trolley and continued on.

A little further down the shelf she found some familiar bottles with blue liquid in them. Only vaguely curious about what rinse aid might d0, she had added two of them to her trolley. The maid used to buy this, too, and Dao-Ming had noticed that the last bottle was almost empty.

She pushed on again.

Two aisles after that, she saw rows of tins with pictures of fish on them. She recognized the word sardines scrawled in blue across some of the labels. Her stomach had growled at the thought of them and she picked up six tins and added them to the Cascade and rinse aid.

At a loss for what else to buy, she had gone to join the line to pay.

As she stood there, she noticed a woman had joined the line behind her. Dao-Ming could feel her eyes on her and wondered what the woman saw when she looked at her.

“Does she think I look out of place standing here in my fur hat and stole, my fine grey woollen coat tightly cinched at the waist as I grow ever hungrier? Does she like my silver and red wallet? Does it look distinct to her; fancy even?” Dao-Ming could see the woman eyeing it as she pulled out her Visa card.

Perhaps the other woman was looking at Dao-Ming’s jewels. Her rings seemed larger now than before on her shrinking, narrow, pale fingers and she tried to twist them back around the way they were supposed to be. Perhaps it was the collection of things in her trolley that caught the other woman’s attention: a box of Cascade, two bottles of rinse aid, six tins of fish.

Was that strange? Dao-Ming wasn’t sure.

She certainly felt out of place. Small and vulnerable and conspicuous in her fine clothes. None of the other ladies were dressed quite the way she was. They seemed casual, and they acted so forward with their easy smiles and their constant eye contact.

Dao-Ming dropped her eyes as she took the shopping bag and receipt from the cashier. She mumbled words that were incoherent but, in her head, they were meant to sound like “thank you.”

Now, several evenings later, as she sat finishing the last of the sardines, she tried again to figure out how long her husband had been gone. With the Embassy closed – she didn’t even know why that had happened – and her husband lost somewhere out in the world, she had eventually had to let the staff go. The maid showed her how to turn the thermostat down to save money before she left, but Dao-Ming didn’t think at the time to ask about changing light bulbs. Or much of anything else.

The last of the working light bulbs hung over her head and her last bite of food hung on the end of her fork.

She wasn’t sure what she would do when the food and the light were gone. All she could think of was to sit and wait for her husband to return. Surely he would have to return at some point. Unless…

“No,” she murmured to herself. “No, I will not think that way. I’m sure he will return and we will go away from here. I will find my shining path once more.”