Tani Loo

When the stranger comes, she claims it’s by accident; She points in different directions to tell you that she followed the wrong path. She sits facing you like all the others who have wandered down your path, but when she opens her mouth to say something—anything, really—no words come out. And when you try to answer her, you find that your voice is lost too.

The footprints of strangers like her are indented in the mud surrounding your home, and the path leading up to it turns from russet to sienna due to constant use. Some marks are darker because they bear more weight, while others are small and light. The strangers leave parts of themselves behind in the words scrawled in the mud, images of their imagination projected onto you, and signposts outlined by piles of grass strands spread over cracked soil.

You step aside and open your door to her. You wave your arm in a gesture that’s supposed to be welcoming, friendly. And she steps over your threshold and seats herself across from you at a table designed to serve the purposes of two.

You try speaking in different tongues to her: the one your mother and your mother’s mother gave you, the one your friends repeated after you until it was only an echo, and the one your mentors taught you to adapt to a different setting. But she doesn’t pick up on your linguistic cues or inflection of vowels immediately, and you don’t pick up on hers.

So, both of you lean forward across the table and mouth words without really saying anything. You read the subtle movement of each other’s lips and the shrug of a shoulder in order to comprehend what it is you’re trying to get across. You watch her fingers run over the grains of wood on the table. Then, you do the same over every nick and dent, hoping to grasp the concept solely through your sense of touch and the heat that strangers have left behind.

It seems to be nothing more than a futile effort.

An idea occurs to her, and she gestures to the door wildly. You don’t know what she means to do, but you don’t attempt to relay your concerns through a game of charades. Instead, both of you rise from your seats and exit the house.

You follow her along the path—twisting, turning, backtracking—until she arrives at a spot that has yet to be marked. She places her hands on her hips and makes a huffing sound as she swivels her head around in search of something else. While she does that, you walk a couple of feet away, pick up a crooked stick, and return to her side triumphantly.

For the first time, her lips stretch into a small smile and she nods.

She begins to write, but the dirt is hard and the process is slow. It’s difficult to discern the straight line of an “l” and the curve of an “r” between the cracks in the soil. She continues to try to tell you why she came to the wilderness that you call home, and you think you have an inkling of understanding.

You leave her to find another stick to write your words. You don’t invade the space that she’s claimed with her loopy, wide letters. But you make your own, close enough so that she can see your handwriting side-by-side. Your cramped, small strokes in the dirt are not the same as hers.

By tapping you on the shoulder, she indicates that you should watch her response. She drags the stick through the dirt, pressing harder this time as new cracks form. You realize that she is creating images of the things she’s been trying to say.

She draws a home, but it isn’t yours. The home is quaint and rays of light beam through several windows. There’s a garden of flowers growing on the sides of the house, and the vast ocean is pictured behind it. Waves are one long stroke of curves, creating a current that leads to another island and another after that.

Some paths are straight and short, leading to other homes or buildings. The details are so scarce that she doesn’t linger over those paths for long. Other paths are winding, stretching so far that they almost touch your words. To those paths, she adds more fallen tree stumps and upside down maps.

But next to each image, she writes words, and you realize that she’s sharing her language with you. She’s showing you how to pronounce her words and what they mean. And she’s showing you where she came from—the home she grew up in, things she’s done, and places she’s thrived in.

You still don’t hear her voice, but you can visualize it. Her words are taking shape to create a life of their own. Even in the quiet, you think you hear the faint call of something you once lost.

You open your mouth to say something, but she presses her pointer finger to her lips to indicate that you shouldn’t speak yet. She points at your stick with hers and nods before placing down her own. And though she doesn’t say the words, you know what she means.

Using your stick, you draw a house about the same size as hers. The sun shines down on it, and the grass grows tall but neatly around the edges. Fish swim in circles in a large, rectangular tank. Characters in a language you’ve never spoken but have always known mark both entrances and exits. You linger at this house, filling in all the details you can remember.

When you move on, your paths are much longer than hers. They move steadily around obstacles in the shape of stacks of paper and fallen rose petals. Only the very last path leading to your current home is short. You decorate it with footprints, sticky-notes, and discarded paper clips.

You’re surprised when she places her hand over yours to stop you from adding more to your story. She scrunches her nose, examining both of your final paths that led up to this moment. Then, she picks up her stick and adds to both her own and yours. She draws four wavy lines connecting your images together.
Sitting back to admire her handiwork, you tilt your head.

The intersection is perplexing because you’ve never seen a stranger connect images so easily. You wonder how many paths, how many strangers you’ve crossed alone. Then, you think of how many paths all people must cross, communicating with other people in other languages.

The next time she opens her mouth, she voices her words. The sound is fairy-like, high-pitched and melodic. She tells you all the things she couldn’t say earlier, and she does so in the language of her parents, friends, and mentors. Her voice is a mix of everything that she’s ever known.

When you open your mouth to reply, you find that yours is a little hoarse. You lead her back to your home and offer her tea or coffee. She accepts the coffee, and you chat about the complexity of creating a good drawing. Together, you believe you’ve exhausted your words, and by then, your voice returns fully: deeper and more sure.

 


I have been a writing consultant at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s Writing Center for over a year. I work with students, faculty, and staff from various disciplines at every stage of the writing process with any project. My interest in creative writing is grounded in my roots: Hawai‘i, particularly regarding issues of identity and race. Place-based pedagogy contributes to my facilitation of the collaborative process between myself and other writers. I aim to support and maintain diversity in writers through their voices. As a result of inhabiting both the literary and writing center worlds, I have been exposed to a multitude of ways to approach writing. In the writing center, I have learned the importance of expressing and sharing one’s ideas by simply talking about writing with others. Thus, I approach literature and my own writing at a slower pace with more patience and understanding for the writer and the writer’s intentions.

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