Tell A Tale in 500 Words

Four Senses By karen ashe

The bell above the door tings. I hear the hiss of rain, then air rushes in, laced with donkey-shit, dim-sum steam, fried noodles. Vendors yelling carts rattling, drunks squabbling. The door closes, trapping us in silence like flies in amber.

The workroom is separated from the shop by a series of lattice work panels, draped in sweet-smelling blossom to keep us hidden from view. I sit close behind them, so close I can hear the rustle of the ladies' Cheong-sam, the soft brightness of their whispers, they slide of the notes being folded into the money drawer.

The shift in the air stirs the scent of the flowers, memories of my village; the sound of my mother singing, the gurgle of the river in winter, the haunting call of geese on the move. Apple pears sliced in a bowl. The sun on my face.

The needle stabs tbe tip of my thumb. I bring it to my mouth to check for bleeding but thankfully there is none. The squelch of the tailor's sandals grows louder, closer. He halts somewhere behind me. Did he see me stab my finger? My heart beats so fast I can barely hold the needle. I slow my breathing. I cannot drop the needle. There is a slap, somone further along the row cries out. The sandals squelch on.

Tailor employs an inusual training method. Boys are locked in the cellar, in total darkness, until the can sew straight lines of the tiniest stitches. If they survive that, they are brought to the workshop, where they must sew with their eyes closed. If their eyelids flutter open, he threatens to sew them shut. If they pass this test, they may open their eyes, but must only look straight ahead. 'Forget you have eyes! You have only four senses now.' I was his best apprentice; it came naturally to me.

So we sit in our long rows, stitches in a seam, crosslegged, eyes straight, sewing endless lines of tiny stitches, piecing together garments that will ride in carriages, attend balls, lie folded in steamer trunks like secrets.

Tailors' assistant gathers the work, the needles and thread. I hear the key turn in tbe padlock then the tailor loads the bobbins of thread into the wooden cabinet. They must be protected from the rats. A bowl is placed on the ground in front of me. I bring the spoon to my mouth, eat till it scrapes the bottom.

It is 22 steps to my bedroll. 300 stitches in a sleeves, 749 in a trouser leg. At home it was 472 to the well, 115 to the apple-pear tree. I knew night was falling by the rising of the birdsong. Could sense snow coming by the smell in the air. Learned from my mother to turn my head towards my father's voice. To smell before tasting. Brush walls with my fingertips. Keep my face to the sun. Follow the sound of her singing.


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