The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
The old man’s eyes struck me first. They rested deep in their sockets, and he seemed literally unable to take them off me. Granted, everyone in the teahouse was staring at me more or less unabashedly, but he was the most brazen. As if I were some exotic creature he’d never seen before.
Trying to ignore him, I glanced around the teahouse, a mere wooden shack with a few tables and chairs standing right on the dry, dusty earth. Against the far wall a glass display case exhibited pastries and rice cakes on which dozens of flies had settled. Next to it, on a gas burner, water for the tea was boiling in a sooty kettle. In one corner, orange-colored sodas were stacked in wooden crates. I had never been in such a wretched hovel. It was scorching hot. The sweat ran down my temples and my neck. My jeans clung to my skin. I sat still and alone, getting my bearings, when all at once the old man stood up and approached me.
“A thousand pardons, young lady, for addressing you so directly,” he said, sitting down at my table. “It is most impolite, I know, especially since we are unacquainted, or at least since you do not know me, not even in passing. My name is U Ba, and I have already heard a great deal about you, though I admit that this fact in no way excuses my forward behavior. I expect you find it awkward to be addressed by a strange man in a teahouse in a strange city in a strange land. I am exceedingly sensitive to your situation, but I wish—or should I be more frank and say—I need to ask you a question. I have waited so long for this opportunity that I cannot sit there watching you in silence now that you are here.
“I have waited four years, to be precise, and I have spent many an afternoon pacing back and forth out there on the dusty main street where the bus drops off the few tourists who stray into our city. Occasionally, on the rare days when a plane was arriving from the capital and when I could manage it, I would go to our little airport to keep futile watch for you.
“It took you long enough.
“Not that I wish to reproach you. Please, do not misunderstand me. But I am an old man and have no idea how many years remain for me. The people of our country age quickly and die young. The end of my life must be drawing near, and I have a story yet to tell, a story meant for you.
“You smile. You think I have lost my mind, that I am a bit mad, or at least rather eccentric? You have every right. But please, please, do not turn away from me. Do not let my outward appearance mislead you.
“I see in your eyes that I am testing your patience. Please, indulge me. There is no one waiting for you, am I right? You have come alone, as I expected you would. Spare me just a few minutes of your time. Sit here with me just another little while, Julia.
“You are astonished? Your lovely brown eyes grow larger still, and for the first time you are really looking at me. You must be shaken. You must be asking yourself how on earth I know your name when we have never met before, and this is your first visit to our country. You wonder whether I have seen a label somewhere, on your jacket or on your little knapsack. The answer is no. I know your name even as I know the day and hour of your birth. I know all about little Jule who loved nothing better than to listen to her father tell her a story. I could even tell you her favorite one here and now: “The Tale of the Prince, the Princess, and the Crocodile.”