A Pair of Shoes

JU I is a 25-year-old amateur writer of peasant origin, who since his graduation from junior middle school eight years ago has been employed as a teacher. This story originally appeared in the Communist periodical CHINA RECONSTRUCTS.

BY JU I

TSUI-YING was in a quandary when she came back from the meeting. She kept roaming about the house and didn’t even answer when her mother asked what was the matter with her. The matter was that the Communist Youth League branch committee was calling on everyone to donate old shoes for use of the commune members digging a new reservoir, because working in all that water and mud was hard on shoes. Tsui-ying was a Youth League member and wanted to set an example for others, but since only she and her mother were at home, where was she to find men’s shoes? She thought of taking out the pair of cloth shoes she had just finished making. But people would be sure to ask, “Tsui-ying, where did you get those? There’s no man in your family.”

It was really a fine pair of shoes that Tsui-ying had just finished. They were for her fiancé, Shuang-hsi. She and Shuang-hsi had been going steady for several years now. They had planned to get married the previous year, but the wedding date had been postponed again and again because both were so busy. Not until the fifth of this month had they finally decided to have the wedding on the sixteenth.

On the day that they settled the date, they went to a photographer’s shop and had a picture taken together. Then Shuang-hsi purchased a fountain pen for her as a gift. Tsui-ying had wanted to buy something for Shuang-hsi too, but she didn’t know what to get. Besides, she thought it just a bit vulgar to buy a gift in return. Then it occurred to her that Shuang-hsi’s mother was getting on in years and was finding it tiring to sew, so she decided to make him a pair of shoes.

Tsui-ying, who was known as a clever girl in the village, bought a foot of black cloth and one of fine white cotton and made a pair of uppers so sturdy that they would wear for years. Even more work went into sewing together the layers of cloth for the soles. The stitches were so neat and orderly that, whichever way you looked at them, vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, they all seemed to be in rows. She made the stitches in the middle of the sole in a peony pattern.

Usually Tsui-ying could finish a pair of shoes in a day and a night. But these took her seven days. For one thing, she didn’t want people to know, so she couldn’t work on them too long in the daytime. Not even wanting her mother to know, she did it out of the latter’s sight.

When the shoes were finished, she locked them in her trunk. Now she would have to place them in front of everyone. Just thinking about it made her blush. “ Oh, well, I shouldn’t care about that too much now,” Tsui-ying reasoned. “The important thing is that the people at the work site need shoes. Let them laugh!” And she picked up the shoes and went out.

When she arrived at the place where the shoes were being collected, she tossed her pair onto the table without waiting in line, saying, “ Please register them.”

“Who’s donating them?” asked the commune accountant, glancing at the shoes and then at her.

“I am.”

“You have shoes like these in your home?” the accountant asked with a smile.

“I didn’t steal them,” said Tsui-ying quickly, a faint red coloring her cheeks.

Fortunately for her, the people in line were getting impatient. “Register the shoes,” someone put in. “She could buy a pair, couldn’t she?”

The accountant let her go and turned to the others. Tsui-ying was about to place her pair on the pile when the old woman who was in charge of it took them from her hands and said admiringly, “You can’t buy shoes like these. Look at the stitches! What a lot of work they must have taken!” Her words brought several others over to look at the shoes. Afraid of being questioned further, Tsui-ying made up a story.

“That’s a pair my mother wanted me to make for my cousin. Since he doesn’t need them right now, I’m donating them to the reservoir builders.”

That stopped the jesting.

When the shoes were taken to the construction site, all the old pairs were grabbed up in no time, but that one new pair sat there like an exhibition piece. No one would take them. The commune chairman offered them to several people, but met the same answer: “Tramping in mud and water is kind of hard on shoes. It’d be a pity to spoil new ones. Besides, this pair is much too fine. Better let somebody else have them.”

So it became a problem to give the shoes away. At the lunch break, they became the topic of conversation. “What handsome shoes! Whoever made them must be a very fine seamstress,” said one worker.

“The folks are donating their best shoes. Now we should really work hard,” observed another.

One young fellow joked, “I’ll bet some girl must have made those for her boy friend. Look, there are even peonies on the soles!”

“Go on.” The commune chairman waved the young man aside. “It’s already hard enough to give them away.” Then he turned to the others. “ I say, someone had better take these shoes. Since they were donated, we’d better accept the graciousness. Put them on and work hard as repayment. How about it?”

But no one would take them. Finally the young man who had noted the peonies came back and said to the chairman, “Give them to Shuang-hsi. He’s going to be married on the sixteenth. New shoes for the new groom!”

They had found the right person at last, and there was a burst of cheers and applause. Naturally Shuang-hsi refused, but the chairman said, “You take them even if you don’t want to wear them now. Put them on for your wedding day, as a souvenir of building the reservoir.”

Finding no more excuse, Shuang-hsi accepted the shoes. He wrapped them up in three layers of paper and put them beside his pillow at the worksite sleeping quarters.

But it was only on his wedding day that Shuanghsi finally put the shoes on. Not wanting to dirty them, he avoided walking in mud and even in those places where the dust was thick. When he met Tsui-ying at the commune registration office, he stepped just a bit higher than usual, hoping that she would notice them. But Tsui-ying had already seen the shoes from a distance and was amazed beyond words. “Is it really the pair I made?” she mused. “ It’s too much of a coincidence!”

Shuang-hsi caught her expression. “ These were given to me when I was working on the reservoir,” he said proudly. “See how fine they are! The girl who made them has a clever pair of hands.”

Tsui-ying couldn’t keep from smiling broadly.

“What are you smiling at?” It was Shuanghsi’s turn to be surprised.

“ It’s really something,” replied Tsui-ying. “I’ll tell you later.”