New Found Land
Trinh took a deep breath before fingering the cold metal handles of the double glass doors. Holy Heart of Mary High School. High School. Three months ago she had been working as a cleaning lady for an American General, and fending off his drunken, wandering hands. He always felt bad after, and gave her an extra American dollar. Sometimes she let his hands stay on her insecure breasts for a few breaths. She needed enough money for two people on the boat.
She felt sweat spilling from beneath her slender arms, along down her side all the way to the belt of her jeans. She smoothed an imaginary wrinkle from the Hot Rod t-shirt that had been in the bag of used clothes provided by the Red Cross, when she and her mother, Tam, had successfully passed through customs into this New Found Land. They had even given her a pair of shoes to wear. She had left Da Nang, wearing only and ao ba ba and flip-flops. She had lost the left one changing planes in Montreal, and had to hop from the plane when it landed in St. John’s. She was afraid her foot might stick to the ice on the tarmac. She had never seen ice before. It made everything look prehistoric; fossilized.
She took another deep breath and pulled on the heavy door. Inside, even the tiled walls seems to have a golden aura, like the statues of the saints in the big, marble basilica downtown. She took a few tentative steps and looked down a long hallway of closed doors, seeming to condemn anyone not snug within their classrooms; native island pupas undergoing their metamorphosis.
“Can I help you?” A shattered glass voice asked, causing her to jump, and drop her notebook. The voice remained unmoved until she had gathered her things and turned around. Trinh hadn’t meant to gasp so audibly at the sight of Sister Mary Therese, but her austere, biting gaze, shrouded in folds of heavy, black drapery had drawn it from her young mouth. Sister Mary Therese’s lips were drawn in a thin, tight line that seemed to be more of a scar leftover from an improvised bomb detonation, than a mouth.
“I am first day.” Trinh struggled, angered by her limited vocabulary. She could understand much more than she could speak, having working from the General for almost a year. He had not permitted her to speak while working for him, and she hadn’t tried to find the slippery English vowels at the tip of her tongue or hidden against the roof of her mouth, until she arrived here.
“You are not First Day.” Sister Mary Therese corrected with steel precision. “You are a new student. Or, this is your first day. Come with me. We’ve been expecting you.” She turned, the tails of her black habit swirling, hitting Trinh in the ankles with a quick snap. She jumped again. She had always been a nervous child, but the closeness of battlefield concussions had made her outright jumpy. Each bang, each thud, each ear-piercing whistle of wind through the turbines, meant another broken, bleeding body to be found on the three-mile walk back to her village. She would secretly hope that someone else would find them first.
Trinh ran to catch up with Sister Mary Therese, already several good strides ahead of her, her onyx rosary beads slicing the apple scented air with each step. “You will be in here.” She said, turning to face the last door on the right. “This is your homeroom. Repeat that, please.”
Trinh tasted the word briefly before whispering. “Home-Loom.” She shuddered at Sister Mary Therese’s disapproving look, and even thinner grimace. Trinh took another breath, just like the counselor had told her to do, and said the word in her mind first. No problem with R’s there. “Home Room.” She smiled, wide up at the Sister, who grunted her approval.
Two quick raps on the door and Trinh heard the volume of the students on the other side of the
door fall silent. Sister Mary Therese opened the door and walked in, standing for a moment, allowing her habit and beads to still before addressing the class.
“This is Trinh Trang. She is a new student.” She over emphasized the words and turned to face Trinh, whose cheeks were starting to flush red. “She has come from Vietnam. Please welcome her to Holy Heart of Mary. She is still working on her English, so I expect each and every one of you to help her with this. To help her to fit in to this community. This is God’s place and we must act as He would, offering help when we can – even when it is difficult for us to do. Even when they are very different from ourselves, our values, our way of life.”
The students and a diminutive woman Trinh guessed to be around her mother’s age bowed their heads deep, chins to collarbones, and listened as Sister Mary Therese led them in prayer.
Trinh bowed her head a little, but watched with fascination. Everyone looked so unlike her, in their burgundy jackets and jumpers and crisp white collared blouses. She felt shabby, unclean in her donated clothes that didn’t lend themselves to flatter her slim frame.
“I’m not doing that, mama.” Trinh defended the American General. “I am a good girl.”
"Don’t you lie to me!” Tam shouted back, tears streaming down her face as she counted the money. One hundred American dollars. They were rich.
“But Mama, I'm not.”
“Then how did you get this?” She waved the carefully bound bills in her daughters face. “How did you get this.”
“I worked for it.” Trinh said.
“I know that.” Tam took a step closer. “But what did you DO for it?”
“I cleaned his house, mama, that’s all” she answered, thinking of the big man’s hands on her hips.
“He gives me an extra dollar any time the other army men come over. Because he can show off how polite I am. Because, I don’t speak. Because, I keep my eyes downcast. Because, I blush when someone calls all Vietnamese people Charlies or Dinks, or Gooks. I earned that money, mama, by acting the way they think a good Vietnamese girls acts; submissive.”
Tam considered her daughter’s words carefully. “This is enough, you know.”
“I know.” Trinh’s shoulders slumped forward and she began to sob. “I know.”
Tam pulled her daughter to her chest and stroked her hair with callused, work-worn hands. “It’s going to be okay.” She affirmed. “It will be wonderful. No fighting. No bombs. No one calling us horrible names. In Canada, they say that everyone is good. The missionary, at the church. They say, everyone is treated equal, because we are all children of God. We’ll be okay.”
“Through Christ our Lord, Amen.” Sister Mary Therese’s voice declared the prayer complete and she handed Trinh off to her new teacher.
“I’m Miss Pittman.” She said, placing a gentle arm around her shoulder.
“Pittman.” Trinh tried out, nervously.
“Very good, Trinh!” Miss Pittman, encouraged, giving her arm a gentle squeeze. “Now where should we seat you?”
Miss Pittman surveyed her students, mentally checking off appropriates and inappropriates as desk mates.
“Here.” She pointed to an empty seat beside a skinny boy with glasses, and flawless Irish white skin. The only other black haired child in the room. “This is Seamus.” Miss Pittman introduced and he extended his hand.
“Nice to meetcha.” He rattled off in a thick island brogue. “Call me Shay, everybody does.”
“Shay.” Trinh smiled. Miss Pittman nodded her approval, and headed back to her desk.
“Vietnam? That’s where all the fighting is?”
“Yes.” Trinh answered with modesty.
“You ever see a dead body?” Shay asked with the exuberance only young boys and potential sociopaths are capable of espousing on the topic of the recently deceased.
“Once.” Her eyes downcast.
“Oh.” Shay said by way of apology. “Um, hope it wasn’t, you know, someone you knew or something.”
Trinh nodded her head, not knowing how to respond in English as she settled awkwardly into her seat, bumping into John, the brutish man-child, in the desk behind her.
“Stupid boat people.” John muttered loud enough he Trinh to hear. “Stupid, dirty gooks.”
About the author:
Freedom Chevalier has enjoyed over twenty years success as a stage performer and a pop/country vocalist. Her plays, articles, poems and short stories are published /produced internationally. A catalogue of her publications can be found on her website.
Look for her novel Pundit, set in the gritty world of stand-up comedy, Autumn 2015. Follow her on Twitter: @reallyfreedom and on Facebook.