Lily of the Valley
by Samantha Lin
“Go in the peace of Christ,” the priest says.
“Thanks be to God,” the choir says.
“—od,” I say, and the last consonant slips past the congregation into the millennia-old limestone of York Minster. The coolness of the great grey hall does nothing to keep the tips of my ears turning pink, but I maintain my composure and look forward. One of the altos glances my way, and in the soft, auburn light, her eyes are sharp and condescending. I think her name is Mary, but unlike her namesake, I doubt she is a virgin.
We leave the choir stalls in pairs, our partners decided by divine decree. I fix my eyes on the girl in front of me, whose black academic gown flows in one steady stream. I wonder if mine is doing the same, if the billow is just as impressive, the lines just as elegant. For a moment, I feel the slightest tingle in the dip of my back, the surreal sensation of being transported somewhere magical and elusive; but we have reached the end of our short journey, and one by one, we swivel on our heels and turn ninety degrees toward the enclosed areas of the cathedral. When I reach the invisible line, my movements are as sharp and decided as the others’.
At the chapter house, the priest gives his blessings and the music director, his thanks. Their speeches follow an unwritten script, one I have pieced together after three months in the Leeds University Liturgical Choir. Beside me, after a lifetime of being subjected to the same script, Mary’s mouth crinkles and tightens in a suppressed yawn. I ignore the urge to follow her attempt to stay awake, and listen carefully to every word. As always, I understand the meaning, but the feelings are lost.
By the south transept, my housemate greets me with her chestnut curls and usual smile.
“Sayuri,” she says, and her lovely lilt turns my name into an exotic flower, like the lily that my name means. “That was fab! I knew you could sing, but that was honestly amazing!”
I lower my head in acknowledgement. “Thank you for coming all the way from Leeds. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
“Are you kidding? You’ll have to tell me when you next perform so I can come along to those too.” She gestures to my attire, the gown and the suit beneath. “And you look fantastic! I didn’t know you had to wear these—it’s almost like you’re in a Harry Potter movie.”
“Thank you. I’m happy you could come.”
Her smile slips, just a little, and a sliver of the unknown slides into her blue eyes. I open my mouth to reaffirm my gratitude, but the same, contrived words linger at the back of my throat. If only we had been taught how to express heartfelt appreciation in high school instead of wasting hours conjugating verbs; now, the only way I know how to reach out is by calling her name, but like all native Japanese, I struggle with my r’s and l’s, producing instead a halfway sound for both. I doubt she will ever notice my discomfort.
“Emily,” I say in a mumbled echo of her native tongue, then gather the courage to continue with the consonants I despise, “I am really very happy to see you here.”
When her grin widens, I do not know whether it is from amusement or happiness. My housemate has never once commented on the mangling of her name, though she often apologises for not knowing how to say mine.
“Good, Sayuri. That makes two of us.” Another show of her hands, this time to gesture at the bags I am carrying. “You got everything?”
She takes my nod as a cue to make toward the exit, and I follow, not knowing how to phrase a request for a little more time. As my heels click against the marble floor, I silently chastise myself for this lack of forethought. The outside air is as chilly as I had predicted, and I long to replace my gown with my coat. Instead, I leave the tailored navy wool draped across my arm over my handbag and pull close the lapels of my gown. The slight shift is useless against the north wind.
Emily halts, as if sensing my discomfort. “You sure you don’t want to join the choir after-party? I can go home by myself, you know.”
I think of the unfamiliar songs with their alien lyrics, of the liturgies and prayers that go beyond the music, of the condemning eyes of one saved from condemnation. Then I think of my well-meaning housemate, just as British, just as bright-eyed, whose parents will pick both of us up in the morrow and welcome me to their home for Christmas.
“I’m sure. Let’s go home.” We walk on in silence, and neither of us mention that home for me is five thousand miles away on a smaller island, where the rising sun shines over the land.
Mrs Jones has the same blue eyes, and chastises me for calling her Mrs Jones.
“It’s Anne. I feel old enough as it is.” Her voice is low and softened by laughter. “We’ve heard so much about you.”
I extend my hand for a European handshake at the same time Mrs Jones closes in for a hug, and we both pause midway. “Sorry,” I mumble, and we share a clumsy embrace. My face is hot by the time we part, and the last thing I want is to repeat the experience with Mr Jones.
Emily’s father is tall, sturdy, and observant. “I’m Peter,” he says, an arm outstretched and ready to accept the standard greeting I have been taught. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you too. Thank you for having me at Christmas.”
“Oh, it’s not a problem at all,” Mrs Jones replies with a wave of her hand. “We can’t have you spending it alone.”
Mr Jones begins to load my housemate’s belongings into their grey station wagon, and I fumble with my lone suitcase. He takes it from me, his mouth forming an ‘o’ of surprise when he lifts it easily into the car.
“That barely weighs anything! Emily, you could learn a thing or two.”
I stand back, clutching and unclutching my hands as the Joneses protest against my attempts to be useful. Mother and father make quick work of the dozen bags and boxes, and daughter stands with me, silently charged with the task of keeping me company. She does not seem to mind, and we speak of trivial things as we watch her parents move back and forth.
The uneasiness remains with me long after we have settled into the backseats and are hurtling down the highway. It does not sit well with me that I, born to serve my elders, had allowed somebody else’s elders to serve me. My thoughts are interrupted when Emily fiddles with a bag of crisps and shoves the opened pack in my face.
The greasy scent makes me somewhat nauseous, but I do not want to be rude and refuse. “Yes, thank you.” I reach into the bag and withdraw a small handful, careful to keep the crumbs on my skirt from spilling onto the seat.
“Let’s have some music,” Mr Jones says, and my housemate instantly perks up, her mouth still half-full.
“Oh yes, Sayuri has some Japanese Christmas songs on her iPod. We can listen to those.”
Mr Jones shoots Emily a warning glance from the rearview mirror, but I am the only one in the car to notice. “That would be great,” he says, but the reservation is as loud as his politeness.
The songs are covers of traditional carols by famous Japanese singers not known for their musicality. After spending the last three months in England, the heavy accents of my countrymen are foreign to my ears, and I can’t help but say, “Their English is actually quite good.”
In my hastiness to prove something so arbitrary and magnanimous, I had forgotten how similar I sound to the artists with their mispronunciations. There is a general consensus of mumbled agreement, soft and stifling. I swallow and try to ignore the stale aftertaste of crisps that coats my tongue, and wonder why I had not made an excuse to remain in Leeds. But the harder I had fought against the invitation, the more insistent the Joneses had become, until the four of us have become trapped in a little steel box, sealed and compartmentalised in our separate sets of etiquette.
“I have some Mariah Carey here too,” I finally say, and the collective sigh of relief is palatable in the recycled air. We listen to her sing about all she wants for Christmas and make no further attempt at small talk.
My guestroom is occupied by a double bed with thick down quilts and matching pillows, bedside drawers on either side, and a wardrobe that sinks into the wall. A single painting hangs on one end, its warm colours depicting the second coming of a foreign god with small white flowers at his feet. Lily of the valley. Someone once told me they’re a symbol of humility and the hope for a better world. I only see stagnant flowers in a cheap replica of canvas and paint.
There is enough space to fit five of my suitcases, and the measly contents of my one small wheelie make the room appear desolate. Halfway through unpacking, I stop and fold everything back into my suitcase—there is little sense in giving the illusion of being settled when I am leaving in three days. Everything about the room exudes a sense of warmth and familiarity, from the thick carpet beneath my feet to the lingering scent of orchids, but the homeliness is foreign and not for me to keep.
The digital clock says it is only afternoon, but the early evening is already upon this quaint English house nestled in a quiet village surrounded by hills and dales. I step to the window, running a hand down the heavy curtains framing the glass, and gaze outside. Even in the dimming light, the grass is greener on this side; but then I take note of the fine mist of rain, constant as the sun, and the vivid pigments of the garden finally make sense.
I take a deep breath before leaving my temporary room to join the Joneses downstairs.
“Happy Christmas Eve,” Mrs Jones says when she sees me. “Dinner’s almost ready, so feel free to take a seat. Would you like anything to drink?”
“No, thank you.” I am torn between following her instructions and offering my assistance, but when I remember my dilemma earlier, I decide to follow my instincts. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
She smiles and pats me on the shoulder, and I silently applaud myself for not shrinking back at the unexpected touch. “Of course not, darling. Just sit down and relax.” Then, in a louder voice aimed at the adjoining lounge, “Emily, are you going to keep your guest company?”
My housemate appears a minute later, and she is already wearing a black and white Christmas sweater. Her long curls are tied back loosely, the picture of homecoming.
“Come on Sayuri, let’s get you seated before mum starts shooing you out the kitchen.”
Dinner is a subdued affair, and I am careful to use my cutlery with minimal sound. Even so, my movements are clumsy, and the scrap of steel against porcelain rings loudly in my ears. When I glance at Emily’s plate, I see her slice through her roast with effortless grace. The chinks she makes sound like music.
“So what is it that you study?” Mr Jones asks. “Emily’s never good with passing on these details.”
The sudden blush in her cheeks tells me she had not known in the first place. I swallow my food and lay down my knife as quietly as possible.
“International Relations.” I try not to think about my l’s and r’s, and the mixture of both.
“And you’re here on academic exchange, right?” I nod. “What’s your home university again?”
He says the word ‘again’ as if he means it, and I am almost convinced by his cultural politeness.
“Kansai Gaikokugo Daigaiku.” The three sets of blank faces are answer enough. “It’s a university in the Kansai area. We have many international students and exchange programs.”
Mrs Jones nods, her eyes earnest. “Is that anywhere near Tokyo?”
I have repeated this answer enough times to do so again without any thought. “It is about as far from Tokyo as Leeds is from London.”
“Ah, but I bet your trains are a lot faster than ours,” Mr Jones says, and I suddenly feel like an intruder again, inserting myself into this family affair. There are many ways I can respond to his statement, but I have been raised to only consider the polite ones.
“The English countryside is a lot more beautiful,” I reply. “I like it very much.”
I am surprised when Mr Jones lets loose a stream of laughter, the sound accompanied by his wife’s. “A very diplomatic answer,” he finally says. “I see why you’re pursuing international relations.”
His words make sense, but the meaning is lost to me again. I have only spoken the words written on the script intended for guests in a foreign country, and they have no bearing on my chosen area of study.
“Dessert, anyone?” Mrs Jones asks after she has cleared the table, and my housemate answers with more enthusiasm than usual. I follow her lead without hesitation, though the tightness in my stomach tells me I have already reached my limit.
As I work through my slice of cheesecake spoon by agonising spoon, I listen to the Joneses exchange the latest news about their relatives and friends and remain silent, an outsider to this season of festivity.
“We’re going to church now,” Mrs Jones says after the second set of plates has been cleared. She has a soft smile that reminds me too much of the condescending looks I receive from my fellow choristers. “Would you like to come?”
A month ago, when Emily first issued her parents’ invitation to me, she had leaned against the doorframe of my room in Leeds and told me in her light-hearted manner that her family goes to church on Christmas Eve. In my curiosity about the English tradition, I had expressed my interest in attending with them, so long as her parents would not take offence at my lack of religious belief. Now, my certainty begins to slip, and I struggle to keep the hesitation from finding its way onto my face.
But Mr Jones has seen, and he turns to his wife. “Anne, maybe we should just—”
“I would love to,” I say, before realising I had interrupted my hosts. It takes a lot of effort not to apologise for my transgression, but I instinctively bow my head. “If you would have me.”
“Of course. We just weren’t sure if you’d be comfortable, that’s all.”
“Mum, didn’t I tell you Sayuri sings in the choir? Just yesterday she was in the Christmas service at York Minster.”
Her surprise is genuine, as is Mr Jones’ irritation at her daughter for not having mentioned it earlier. “The York Minster? My, that’s impressive. What was it like?”
We begin to make our way to the car, and I am given some time to ponder my response. How am I to tell her of the warring emotions that slide to the surface
whenever I sing praise for an unknown God, alongside a score of devout Christians that eat and breathe His word? How do I begin to speak of the pure delight of making such divine music, the chords and harmonies and voices I have only studied but in which I had never immersed, this delight that runs alongside the constant fear of making a mistake, not in the notes, but in the procession, the prayers, the traditions and rituals? How can I ask, without crossing all the boundaries of etiquette, about the girls and boys, the men and women, the priest at the pulpit, who go through each service as if they are mere formalities, as if their path to heaven is lit by a line of boxes that gets ticked at every communion, every confession, every Sanctus and Agnus Dei, every ‘amen’?
Even if I had perfect English, I doubt I could voice these thoughts, not here, not now, not like this.
So instead, I smile as she opens the door for me, and climb into the car. “It was magnificent. I cannot wait to sing again.”
Mr Jones brings the engine to life, and his wife says just before closing my door, “That’s wonderful to hear. You’ll get to do just that at our church tonight.”
The Joneses become so enamoured with my voice that they are still talking about it the next day during Christmas dinner.
“How angelic, how heavenly,” Mrs Jones says after grace. “Truly, a gift from God. Potatoes?”
“Yes, thank you,” I reply, when all I really want is to silently take in the feast laid out before me, then ask about the different foods, their meanings, and why a meal that starts at noon is called ‘dinner’.
“Where did you learn to sing like that?” Mr Jones asks, as he helps himself to some whitish sauce. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t know the Japanese are so well-versed in this kind of music.”
The choir director had asked me the same question at my audition, after I had sung Faure’s Pie Jesu. “Your pronunciation needs work,” he had added, “but I can’t fault your technique and tone. Simply divine.”
I give Mr Jones the same answer I had provided three months earlier. “My parents love Classical Music, and I started singing lessons when I was seven.” I struggle with the ‘v’ that comes out sounding like a ‘b’. “I love music. I love singing.”
Picking up my fork, I spear a Brussels sprout in a clear signal that I do not want to continue this conversation. Another Japanese would have understood, but these English natives with their epitome of Western politeness and reservations are in an entirely different category to my people and me.
“And what do you feel when you sing the words of God?”
My housemate jumps in for me. “Mum, Sayuri isn’t religious, not in that way. But the turkey this year’s fab.”
“But surely, there’s Christianity in Japan. It was the missionaries that first coaxed your country to open its doors to the rest of the world.”
I would never consider making such generalised statements about the United Kingdom, although I have thoughts aplenty on its history and its tangled relations with the church; the fact that Mrs Jones, such a quintessential English woman, has not extended the same courtesy stirs a stifling swell of anger inside me.
“I cannot speak for my country,” I reply quietly, “only for myself.”
“And you said that you love York Minister, that you love sacred music. How can there be such a marvellous cathedral and splendid music, how can you have so much love for them, if God does not exist?”
My anger dissipates into hesitation. I have asked myself the same question countless times, after each Benedictus, each tierce di picadi, each resonant note that pours out from a choir of perfect voices. The answer still eludes me, but I am certain it cannot be found in the church, in the Christmas dinner, in the sincerity of Mrs Jones’s bright blue eyes.
“I don’t know.” Then I remember where I am, the things I have learnt and do know. “Emily is right—the turkey is delicious. May I please have more potatoes?”
“Of course, dear.” Her voice is not so warm anymore, and neither is the food.
Later at night, when I zip up my suitcase and survey the bare room, I realise I have not once addressed my housemate’s parents by their Christian names, and neither have they me.
My train arrives at Leeds three minutes late. I pull on my gloves and exit the station with my lone suitcase.
Once again, I am looking down a stranger’s path with the echo of my heart as my constant companion. The streets are uncharacteristically quiet, and I wonder
how many of the indistinguishable faces, wrapped in their hats and scarves, are actually here by choice. It is so easy to become one of them, to slip into the rhythm of their steady steps, and I am there amongst the scattered group in no time, filled with direction and an elusive sense of purpose.
On the way back to my flat, I pass a man wearing his telltale vest, saying “The Big Issue” to a congregation just leaving a service at the local church. I have seen him on a daily basis, but never stopped to look. Now, I notice his clean-shaven jaw, the loose threads on his faded jacket, the depth of his eyes. He spots me and extends his arm, a copy in hand.
“The Big Issue, ma’am?”
The Northern notes in his deep voice are smooth and sad, and strangely beautiful. His fingers are bare and pink from the winter chill, and he begins to lower his arm, as if he does not expect me to stop. A Japanese beggar would’ve politely done the same. That small reminder, more than anything else, gives me pause.
But when I look through my purse, I find a debit card and no more than a few pennies.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have two pounds.” I pause and calculate the route to the nearest cashpoint. “But if you can wait just a—”
“Don’t worry about it.” The lack of disappointment in his voice does nothing to alleviate my guilt. “Thanks anyway.”
I stand there for a moment like a useless ornament, ready to be stored in the dusty boxes kept for Christmas remains. Together, we watch half a dozen people walk by with perfectly blank faces that can only be sculptured from their perfect awareness. Let us not draw the attention of the homeless man and the Asian girl, they must be thinking.
“Why do they do that?” I ask softly, when the last of the congregation has left, and a robed man closes the church doors. “Why do they preach, and preach, and that is all? I don’t understand the religion in this country.”
The man shrugs. “Because this country doesn’t understand it, either.” He looks at me closely, and I unconsciously straighten my shoulders. “Where are you from?”
“Japan. Near Osaka.”
“Osaka,” he repeats, but the man speaks it the way I do, stressing the first syllable instead of the second. “I’ve been there once, on a choir tour. I used to sing—still do, actually. Do you know any Christmas carols?”
He asks me with a deep seriousness, as if the twenty-fifth of December has not already passed. Somehow, I do not mind the small discrepancy—here, talking to the stranger on this secluded evening, I feel more carefree, more courageous.
“Yes. I sing for the Liturgical Choir at the University.”
His eyes soften. “I did as well, a long time ago. Shall we?”
“Yes,” I repeat, and we decide on a song and a starting note, and ease into it as if we have done this for years.
My l’s are still indistinguishable and I still cannot roll my r’s, but our voices blend and drift up into the open sky. And this time, when I sing about the birth of a man-God in a manger, my heart is not so heavy, and I feel a little less alone.
This story won 1st prize in the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts International Student Short Story Competition 2012.