- This Is How It Always Is
“Oh. I don’t remember. I was a baby.”
“So be they mama,” Naw Ga advised. “You learn from listen, talk, read. They same.”
Whereas the original three had sat quietly and respectfully and listened, the twenty-some wiggled and giggled in a language Claude didn’t know while he tried to be serious with them in a language they were supposed to be learning but weren’t. Whereas the original three had been happy to have old books read to them, the new ones complained (at least that’s what he thought they were doing) that they’d read these books already many times before. As far as learning English went, Claude suspected they’d already expanded their vocabulary as much as it could be expanded from their dusting-into-dry-leaves copy of Mother Goose. He did not think terms like “tuffet,” “curds,” “cockleshells,” and “pease porridge” were likely to come up in everyday English language conversation anyway. At least they had yet to do so for him. And whereas the original three were little girls like he was, like he had been at any rate, at least half of the new kids were boys, and though once upon a time he’d been one of those too, it seemed like something his father had made up: long ago and far away and pretend. The little boys were scary because he didn’t know how to talk to them. And because what if they looked at him and realized he was one?
“You tell us new story,” one of the alarming little boys demanded.
“A story about what?”
“I don’t know any stories about new,” said Claude.
“Tell story about old,” suggested Zeya, who at this point felt like an old friend. “New story about old.”
“I don’t know any new stories about old.” Did telling them stories instead of reading them stories even count? Was that learning English?
“Tell us favorite story,” someone said, and even as Claude was about to say he didn’t know any stories, he realized that of course he did.
“Well, I do know one story. One long, big, long story about a prince named Grumwald and a night fairy named Princess Stephanie.”
“Oooh,” the kids all said, an apparently universal sound meaning “Do, please, continue.”
So he told them the beginnings of the adventures of Grumwald, beginnings he himself had gotten only by deduction, osmosis, the plot filling in slowly like holes in the sand when the tide is out. The beginning of the Grumwald story way predated him. He knew his father invented Grumwald so his mother would go out with him. That was as much a part of the fairy tale as the fairy tale itself. Grumwald was a decade older than Claude, so he had to make some parts up, fill in what he could, guess at what he couldn’t. It was tiring to make stuff up. He had no idea all these years how hard his father was working when he wished he would just read them a book like everyone else’s dad.
The clinic children had questions. What “Grumwald” mean? What Grumwald was last life to come back as prince? Why he never look inside armor before? Why he no wanna be prince since he earn prince? Claude had no idea. He would have to ask his father and get back to them.
“In the meantime, you tell me a story,” he said to them. Storytelling was hard. He needed a break. Telling him a story was a good way to practice speaking English anyway, he thought.
“A new story?” said Dao.
“An old story,” said Claude. “A classic story. A fairy tale.”
That was how they started trading stories. Every day, Claude would tell his students an American fairy tale, and every day, his students would tell him a Thai or Burmese fairy tale. He told them about Beauty and the Beast, and they told him about two birds who were reincarnated as a princess and a farmer. He told them about the Little Mermaid, and they told him about a rabbit whose squirrel tail got bitten off by a crocodile with a long tongue. He told them Cinderella, and they had that one too, which he could not even believe, except in theirs the dead mom sent a fish instead of a fairy godmother, and the prince fell in love with her because of her trees instead of her shoes.
“Why he love her shoes?” they wondered.
“It’s not that he loved her shoes. He loved her whole outfit, and that’s why she really didn’t want him to see her in her dirty old clothes.”
“Why she forget her shoe?”
“She didn’t forget. It fell off, and she didn’t have time to go back and get it.”
“How long it take to stop and pick up drop shoe?”
This seemed a fair point to Claude. It made about as much sense, as far as he could figure, as their explanation, which involved a talking fish who got eaten then reincarnated as an eggplant and then as a matchmaking tree.
His father called early in the mornings, but sometimes his mother had already left for the clinic anyway. It wasn’t just that it was night in Seattle when it was day in Thailand, it’s that it was still yesterday in Seattle when it was today in Thailand. Sometimes they had cell service and sometimes they did not, so mostly they kept in touch over Wi-Fi. Claude could chat with his brothers easily enough because they were up all night, but his parents were having trouble connecting. He was glad, though, to have his father all to himself sometimes, an occurrence rare enough in his life it wasn’t surprising he had to go halfway around the world to find it.
Penn was sorry those mornings to have missed Rosie but also happy to have some time alone with his youngest. “How are you, baby?”