Vincent drifted off to sleep lulled by the soft murmur of this voice, and if he woke early enough, he might shamble downstairs in the predawn darkness and find Gloria's light still on, the tape player turned down to a soft hush. He could hear her riffling through papers, the shuffle of her feet on the concrete floor. Soon, she would switch off the light and fall into bed and not emerge from her room until midafternoon. While she slept, Vincent moved about the ground floor, easing himself from one room to another with light, judicious steps.
One evening he discovered Gloria's thick-leafed artist sketchbook on the living room tea table. She was not one for leaving her things scattered about the rooms; in fact, during her first month in the ministry house, she had revealed herself to be an even more secretive and reclusive housemate than Alec. In the bathroom, she kept her soap, toothpaste, and shampoo in a waterproof box beneath the sink. Her coffee and creamer and her groceries, dry foods and perishables alike, were sequestered in various corners of the cupboard and refrigerator. She had never warned Vincent about borrowing or examining these items, but he understood, implicitly, that she regarded her possessions as separate and private.
He opened the sketchbook and peered inside.
Each page contained ten neat rows of calligraphy, ten characters per row, every character recorded with painstaking precision one hundred times. He turned a dozen more pages and was struck by the sheer ardor of Gloria's effort, her devotion to minute detail. Several pages appeared indistinguishable until closer inspection unveiled subtle differences between two seemingly identical sets of characters: an arcing tail that flourished right rather than left, three top-sided garnishing strikes instead of two.
He heard the front door swing open and the low scuffing of Gloria's footsteps on the kitchen floor. He had ample time to close the sketchbook and center it on the table, but there was still the imposing question of what exactly he was doing there on the sofa, the sketchbook the only possible object of interest within arm's length. She nodded toward him and uttered, "Hey, Vincent," as she treaded to her modest bedroom. She stopped and turned. "Hey," she said again. "Did I leave that out?"
"I guess you did," Vincent said. He picked up the sketchbook and held it out. The guilty pressure of it against his fingers caused him to admit his treachery. "I glanced through it, I mean, I hope you don't mind, but it really shows your hard work. I don't know much about writing characters, but it all seems very precise."
Gloria accepted the book, the cast of her face as unreadable as ever. She flipped through several pages examining her own calligraphy. "It's harder than it looks. It's -- I'm not bragging, but I've come a long way in eighteen months. You know I'm working from the same set of primers the kids use in school. About every two months I move up to another grade level. Do you know what that means? I'm learning the same vocabulary a student in Taiwan learns in one school year, except I'm learning it in two months."
"That's terrific. And what grade are you in now?"
"Soon I'll be in the fifth grade," she said solemnly. "It takes the average foreigner five years to become fluent enough to read a newspaper. If I keep at this pace, I'll be reading newspapers in less than a year. And I'll be doing other things, too."
"Like what?" Vincent asked.
"Well, translation for one thing, and something else." She ran her fingers along the sketchbook's metal spirals. "It's a special project I'm working on in my spare time. I showed it to Reverend Phillips and he likes the idea. A lot," she added. "Do you want to see it?"
She made a beeline for her room and returned a moment later with another sketchbook. She sat beside Vincent on the wooden sofa and in her enthusiasm leaned intrusively against his left shoulder. He could smell the perfumed scent of her hair mixed with a more earthy, metallic odor of black ink.
Copyright © 2004 by John Dalton
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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