“What’s the deal with Kenya? He’s been staring out the window forever. Can you check up on him?” Marlene asked her daughter while drying the breakfast dishes.
“Mom,” twelve-year-old Stephanie whined, “he’s a dog; they love to stare. He’s probably dreaming about chasing squirrels or digging his nose in the trash.”
Home from school thanks to a PED day, Stephanie was watching Sesame Street in the den while Kenya, their five-year-old Border Collie, sat on his bed, fixated on the house across the street.
The target of Kenya’s fixation was their elderly neighbor, Sophie Sung. Almost every morning, the two would lock eyes for a split second before Sophie checked her mail.
When Mr. Sung had refused to forfeit his seed stock to the Japanese invading army, one of the officers unleashed a German attack dog at the seventy-three-old rice farmer. After the brutal attack, during which Mr. Sung had suffered gaping bite marks all over his frail body, he along with his wife and daughter were thrown in a detention camp. For his insubordination, Mr. Sung was placed in a cage, covered by a thin curtain.
For hours on end, ten-year-old Sophie would glue her eyes to the curtain, thinking that maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to see more — like slowly regaining your vision in a pitch-dark room — than the motionless shadow of her father slumped inside the cage. He died a month later from malnutrition and rabies.
Occupying the bed next to Sophie’s in the squalid dormitory of the camps was Bo Huan, a man in his late-eighties, blind in one eye. He wore a traditional Chinese dome hat and sported a wispy silver-white goatee. One rainy afternoon, while gazing forlornly out the window, Sophie heard the crumbling voice of Bo Huan directed at her.
“I saw you look at the bowl of rice before, you know, the one inside the guards tent. Best not too look at what we cannot have, my young one. I also sensed your confusion and anger when looking at that dog who mortally wounded your father.”
Sophie turned to Bo Huan, who was perched on the edge of his bed holding a short stack of penciled drawings.
“Trapped underneath their frozen souls, my dear, is a tender, warm spot that is longing to get out, just as much as you have longed for that bowl of rice. Why don’t we make it so, young one? Let us free them.”
“Free them?” Sophie asked rhetorically. “How about us?”
“We possess a freedom they don t have,” Bo Huan replied while still smiling.” We are bound by nothing more than walls and enclosures. It is they who are trapped; it is they who’ve lost their freedom.”
Sophie understood what he was trying to get at, that the human spirit trumps all, that we are free to feel what we want to feel, even under the face of oppression. But regardless, she found Bo Huan’s sympathy for the enemy — even though disguised in metaphor– jarring.
“Here.” Bo Huan pulled out a blank sheet from underneath his stack and handed it to Sophie. “Draw a picture of the dog, but in your world.”
Perplexed, Sophie asked, “How do I do that?”
Bo Huan showed her a drawing of one of the guards in civilian clothes standing behind a fire. In it: his military uniform engulfed in flames. Beside him was a man of the same age, ostensibly a former guard, holding a bag of soil. Both were staring solemnly at the fire.
Sophie took the sheet, placed it over the back of her food tray and started drawing. About ten minutes into her assignment, she paused, shaking her head in disappointment. “I can’t do this! I’m no good. It doesn’t even look like a dog!” Sophie slammed her pencil on the tray and stormed out in tears, where she was met with the loud, coarse bark of the German Shepard. He was tethered to a pole and foaming at the mouth. Sophie hastened back inside where Bo Huan was standing by the door. She wrapped her arms tightly around his scrawny frame and cried.
“It’s going to be alright. Let me help you. This takes practice. You should see the first drawing that I did when I was your age; all they did was laugh and mock me.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Kyle was in his mother’s kitchen sifting through a row of medicine bottles. He was looking for the one labeled Trexall, which was for Sophie’s rheumatoid arthritis. Since Sophie preferred taking her medicine with her meals and liquids, she kept them in the kitchen as a matter of convenience.
The sunlight bouncing off the glass pane of the adjacent cabinet door was blinding Kyle. “I can’t read a thing,” he murmured. He went over to the window and pulled the curtain cord down few inches. Sophie protested, “No!”
“Right, forgot about the curtains. Sorry, Ma.”
The curtains in Sophie’s home were to be never closed, under any circumstances.
“You had your hand on it before; it’s the third one to your right,” she said while seated by the kitchen table rubbing her bum ankle.
Sophie had moved into this two-story Victorian townhouse after her husband passed away ten years ago. There were two features of the home she particularly liked: the tall, inviting windows and its spacious backyard where she gardened. What she found unsettling was the fence, for it had reminded her of the one in the detention camp. But the ever resourceful Sophie had a solution: she masked the cross-linked fence with pre-grown shrubs and massive flower pots. Her ‘garden of the living,’ as she liked to call it, was lush with vegetation. It was a hallmark of the home.
“Did you call the pharmacy and doctor to advise them of your new address?” Kyle asked.
“Yes,” Sophie said.
Because of her progressive arthritis, Sophie was being moved to a nursing home, which had taken them three months to find. This one had finally met her requirements — access to a garden, big windows, a clear, unobstructed view of the outside.
Kyle walked over to Sophie and extended his hand, prompting her to get up. She wrapped her arm around Kyle’s and the two slowly made their way to the stairs leading to the basement which lead to the garage.
“No, wait,” Sophie said abruptly. “I want to go through the front door; it’s important.”
Flustered, Kyle replied,”Ma, why make the extra effort? Your ankle is bad as it is.”
Kyle escorted her mom down the stairs. Sophie looked across the street and expected Kenya to be there, staring.
And he was..and did.
Kenya barked, but it was one of sorrow and anxiety, akin to a dog barking at someone in distress or at their master for abandoning them. The dog was not accustomed to seeing Sophie go this far, and certainly not with company. He barked again.
The two would lock eyes for the very last time. But this time, her look was deliberate, not impulsive.
The next day, two men from the moving company arrived at Sophie’s home. When they walked into her immaculately kept room, one of them stumbled on a pile of sketches on her night table. The mover flipped through them with half-hearted interest, noting the common feature on each page: a pair of retracted curtains in between which showed Sophie’s subjects, from her family enjoying a picnic to an elaborate fruit basket to children playing barefoot on the street around a gushing fire hydrant.
“Wow, I wish I can draw like that,” said the mover.
“Dude you couldn’t draw cash from an ATM machine,” his co-worker quipped.
“The first mover looked over to him and retorted, “Hey, I had forgotten my password. Smart ass.”
Returning his attention to the drawings, the first mover shuffled them again and fell upon one that caught his interest: it showed an Asian girl, perhaps ten or eleven years old, with her dog, a German Shepard, sitting on the edge of their farmhouse veranda. Behind them: the girl’s parents carrying a tall flower plot. The house overlooked a horse pen surrounded by five young Asian men, one of them holding a bag of fertilizer. They were leaning on the edge of the pen, looking at the horses grazing the fresh, young grass that had just begun to grow after a harsh winter.