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art by Shane M. Gavin

British Colonial

Amanda Clark lives in Oregon where she works as a writer and project manager. She spent four years living and working in China, during which time she visited Tibet, Mongolia, and Southeast Asia. She has an undergraduate degree in English Literature and advanced degrees in Physics. After graduating, various jobs in research and high-tech project management ensued.

Her hobbies have included Hapkido and Taekwondo, in which she holds black belts, as well as hiking and horseback riding. She fantasizes about spending a month writing in a ger in the Gobi Desert, taking breaks for a cup of airag or to watch the sun set at the foot of the singing dunes of Khongoryn Els. She struggles with the knowledge that she won’t be able to read every book or write every story she wants to before she dies.

But she intends to try.

Winter sand blew down across the city from the Gobi. It had been at the drapes, weighing them down like dreadlocks. Elise pushed the dusty fabric aside and watched the Beijing skyline through the slats of the walnut plantation shutters. A creamy haze shrouded the skyscrapers, and the stench of fresh asphalt seeped through the gap at the casing.
She rubbed the pulverized sand between her fingers, embracing her defeat at the hands of the maid, who had no concept of what he meant by "the apartment must be perfectly clean." She unwrapped the new ivory pashmina from around her shoulders and set it on the dresser.
Cheap, 30 Yuan, REAL silk--I give you friend price because you speak Chinese.
He would say, "It's not a good color for you and the prices were better in Cambodia."
Time to finish packing. Elise picked up a page of red stickers, to mark the items to be left behind, and turned back to her bedroom, decorated to his taste, in British Colonial.
The creak of the ceiling fan marked each turn of the wicker blades, driving dust and warm air down, toward the massive four-poster, encased in olive silk bedding, one side crisply tucked, the other rumpled from a week's careful sleeping.
Elise peeled a red sticker off the page as she surveyed the suitcases laid out on the floor. She crushed it into the pineapple skin pattern carved into the mahogany bedpost. The bed would take up too much of their shipping allotment. She regretted the loss of the footboard inlay, an ebony jaguar, with white ivory eyes.
It blinked.
Then it curved its spine into a very domestic looking cat stretch while she ran a knuckle over its back. When she took her hand away it let forth a whiplash cry. Elise waited for her mother-in-law to come running in and scold her for watching TV when there was so much to do. As if it was her duty, now that he had gone missing.
The woman had spent the morning putting red stickers on her things while Elise followed, removing them. Items his mother hated were certainly things the export agent would force her not to take, especially the small trinkets Elise had bought in Tibet. One already lay secreted between two modest dresses in the suitcase she packed at dawn, a painting of Green Mara done on lambskin. The Tibetan deity had been quite insistent about not being left behind.
God! When would the woman leave? Her antagonism grated like notes from a guitar tuned sharp.
"You're not looking hard enough. Why aren't you down at the embassy, harassing them into helping? They won't listen to me. I'm just the mother."
Elise had gone to the safe then, which he thought she didn't know the combination for. She had silently taken out the small book, the one she was never to touch because it was confidential, for work.
"Ask one of them how to reach him," Elise had said, handing it to his mother, just to get some peace. After calling the women, each of their names written in perfect block letters, his mother gave it back. She retreated to the living room, saying she would wait for the export officer.
Who would come soon and stick more red tags on items that couldn't leave China.
A splash and the laughter of women made Elise turn.
The rice pickers were at it again, on the black lacquered panels from Saigon. The four panels took up one whole wall of the bedroom. Bamboo thin, dressed in cotton wrap pants and frog collared shirts, one stood wrestling with a carp while her friend tried to catch it in her wide brimmed straw hat. Their voices reminded her of a belly dancer's bells.
He would never venture so far in-country.
Opposite them, over the headboard, hung the painting of Angkor Wat. It would be wise to take it down, box it up, deal with it later. She put one knee on the rumpled side of the bed.
Or, she could leave it. Without her, it would fall silent, in time.
The embroidery of "A Passage to India" flowed over the olive silk between her and Angkor Wat, stitched across the duvet in gold and orange and white. He paid hundreds for it. She begged him not to, telling him plain would be better.
"The woman is so... feminine," he said. A castigation.
Elise smoothed out the folds, uncovering the destination. Palms swayed and the scent of crushed jungle grass rose up. An elephant lumbered along the rising trail, carrying a lady wearing a pith helmet, tied on with a white scarf. Her caravan stopped in a clearing where a white-columned mansion loomed. The lady made a queenly descent to where a Punjab boy waited, offering tea in Florentine Wedgewood. The lady turned and raised her cup to Elise. A salute. Another boy arrived with a plate of pastries. The smell of buttered scones and quince jam wafted up. Elise stroked the silk, felt the lady's silent invitation vibrate among the threads.
Elise sighed, a gentle refusal, then crept onward, to the painting of Angkor Wat.
At the headboard she sat back on her heels. The sweet scent of frangipani wafted down from the painting. Elise closed her eyes and drank it in. The scene had been painted for some festival she didn't remember the name of, the oil fresh and slightly sticky when they bought it. A hot day, with cascading falls of frangipani flowers on tall poles at each vendor's stand, chains of waxy white buds dripping scent everywhere. She opened her eyes.
Angkor Wat in oil. Its crumbling turrets and monks' warrens framed by serpentine balustrades, captured in gold and brown. The sun was already lost behind it, the horizon darkened to blood orange. He stood in the foreground, missing it all.
Her husband's mouth formed a tiny O. He waved his arms, pressing his tiny body out from the painting, held in by some invisible barrier.
The voice sounded tinny, like a vinyl 78 spun on an old Victrola.
Her hand hovered over the surface of the canvas, not quite touching him, a little ridge of hardened oil. Slowly she curled her fingers into her palm, and let her hand drop.
"It's not real. You said so yourself."
She pulled a red sticker off the page and stuck it on the frame, then rolled off the bed. It didn't take long to pack the duvet, then fill the suitcases with the cosmetics and other personal items the movers wouldn't ship.
Angkor Wat would stay.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Author Comments

"British Colonial" pivots on constraints. I sat down to write a one scene story, less than 1,500 words. The view from my apartment in Beijing, where I lived from 2007 to 2009, popped to mind. Then I asked myself, what if the art and furnishings collected while living abroad really began to breathe and live? That got me typing, and it feels to me that the characters in this story are all, in different ways, constrained.

I see it as a tale of a woman with her native power throttled so tightly that her own wild magic bursts forth to restore balance. Maybe it's a cautionary tale. I'll leave that for the readers to decide.

- Amanda Clark
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