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The Art of Hearing Heartbeats


The old man’s eyes struck me first. They rested deep in their sockets, and he seemed literally unable to take them off me. Granted, everyone in the teahouse was staring at me more or less unabashedly, but he was the most brazen. As if I were some exotic creature he’d never seen before.

Trying to ignore him, I glanced around the teahouse, a mere wooden shack with a few tables and chairs standing right on the dry, dusty earth. Against the far wall a glass display case exhibited pastries and rice cakes on which dozens of flies had settled. Next to it, on a gas burner, water for the tea was boiling in a sooty kettle. In one corner, orange-colored sodas were stacked in wooden crates. I had never been in such a wretched hovel. It was scorching hot. The sweat ran down my temples and my neck. My jeans clung to my skin. I sat still and alone, getting my bearings, when all at once the old man stood up and approached me.

“A thousand pardons, young lady, for addressing you so directly,” he said, sitting down at my table. “It is most impolite, I know, especially since we are unacquainted, or at least since you do not know me, not even in passing. My name is U Ba, and I have already heard a great deal about you, though I admit that this fact in no way excuses my forward behavior. I expect you find it awkward to be addressed by a strange man in a teahouse in a strange city in a strange land. I am exceedingly sensitive to your situation, but I wish --- or should I be more frank and say --- I need to ask you a question. I have waited so long for this opportunity that I cannot sit there watching you in silence now that you are here.

“I have waited four years, to be precise, and I have spent many an afternoon pacing back and forth out there on the dusty main street where the bus drops off the few tourists who stray into our city. Occasionally, on the rare days when a plane was arriving from the capital and when I could manage it, I would go to our little airport to keep futile watch for you.

“It took you long enough.

“Not that I wish to reproach you. Please, do not misunderstand me. But I am an old man and have no idea how many years remain for me. The people of our country age quickly and die young. The end of my life must be drawing near, and I have a story yet to tell, a story meant for you.

“You smile. You think I have lost my mind, that I am a bit mad, or at least rather eccentric? You have every right. But please, please, do not turn away from me. Do not let my outward appearance mislead you.

“I see in your eyes that I am testing your patience. Please, indulge me. There is no one waiting for you, am I right? You have come alone, as I expected you would. Spare me just a few minutes of your time. Sit here with me just another little while, Julia.

“You are astonished? Your lovely brown eyes grow larger still, and for the first time you are really looking at me. You must be shaken. You must be asking yourself how on earth I know your name when we have never met before, and this is your first visit to our country. You wonder whether I have seen a label somewhere, on your jacket or on your little knapsack. The answer is no. I know your name even as I know the day and hour of your birth. I know all about little Jule who loved nothing better than to listen to her father tell her a story. I could even tell you her favorite one here and now: “The Tale of the Prince, the Princess, and the Crocodile.”

“Julia Win. Born August 28, 1968 in New York City. American mother. Burmese father. Your family name is a part of my story, has been a part of my life since I was born of my own mother’s womb fifty-five years ago, and in the past four years I have not passed a single day without thinking of you. I will explain everything in due course, but let me first ask you my question: Do you believe in love?

“You laugh. How beautiful you are. I am serious. Do you believe in love, Julia?

“Of course I am not referring to those outbursts of passion that drive us to do and say things we will later regret, that delude us into thinking we cannot live without a certain person, that set us quivering with anxiety at the mere possibility we might ever lose that person --- a feeling that impoverishes rather than enriches us because we long to possess what we cannot, to hold on to what we cannot.

“No. I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.

“You shake your head. You do not believe in any such thing. You do not know what I am talking about. I am not surprised. Just wait. You will understand what I mean once I tell you the story I have borne in my heart for you these past four years. I require only a bit of your patience. The hour is late, and you are surely weary from your long journey. If you like, we could meet again tomorrow at the same time, at this table, in this teahouse. This is where I met your father, by the way, and as a matter of fact, he sat right there on your stool and took up his tale while I sat exactly where I am now, astonished --- I will admit --- disbelieving, even confused. I had never before heard anyone tell a story like that. Can words sprout wings? Can they glide like butterflies through the air? Can they captivate us, carry us off into another world? Can they open the last secret chambers of our souls? I do not know whether words alone can accomplish these things, but Julia, your father had a voice on that day such as a person hears maybe only once in a lifetime.

“Though his voice was low, there was not a person in this teahouse who was not moved to tears by the mere sound of it. His sentences soon took the shape of a story, and out of that story a life emerged, something actually living. The things I heard that day.”

U Ba looked at me and stood up. He brought his open palms together in front of his chest, bowed ever so slightly, and left the teahouse in a few quick, light steps.

I watched until he disappeared into the bustle of the street.

No, I wanted to call after him. Do I believe in love? What a question. As if love were a religion you might believe in or not. No, I wanted to tell the old man, there isn’t any force more powerful than fear. There is no triumph over death. No.

I sat hunched and slouching on my low stool, feeling that I could still hear his voice. It was tranquil and melodious, not unlike my father’s.

Sit here with me just another little while, Julia, Julia, Julia…

Do you believe in love, in love…

Your father’s words, your father’s…

My head ached; I was exhausted. As if I’d woken from a relentless and sleepless nightmare. Flies were buzzing all around me, landing on my hair, my forehead, and my hands. I didn’t have the strength to drive them off. In front of me sat three dry pastries. The table was covered with sticky brown sugar.

I tried to sip my tea. It was cold, and my hand was shaking. Why had I listened to that stranger for so long? I could have asked him to stop. I could have stood up. But something had held me back. Just when I was about to turn away, he had said: Julia, Julia Win. I could never have imagined that the sound of my full name would unsettle me so. How did he know it? Did he in fact know my father? When had he seen him last? Could he know whether my father was still alive, where he might be hiding?

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
by by Jan-Philipp Sendker

  • Genres: Fiction, Romance
  • paperback: 286 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press
  • ISBN-10: 1590514637
  • ISBN-13: 9781590514634