Eleanor Bluestein

Fiction

Winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction
Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales
"Bluestein explores with affection and a wicked sense of humor the excesses and arrogance of American culture amid a nation ‘so much older, wiser, and sadder than theirs.’"
Publisher’s Weekly

Tea and other Ayama Na Tales

An Excerpt from
AIBO or Love at First Sight


Dali-Roo’s troubles began in the last year of the drought that spanned the millennium and sucked the green from the countryside. By March of that year, the tributaries of the Faro River that provided water to Pin Dalie’s agricultural suburbs flowed like drops of weak spit. Unable to coax another grain of rice from his fields, Dali-Roo exchanged his farmer’s life for the factory. His old gray ox stood on the parched, cracked earth, swishing flies from its dry itchy back, and watched Dali-Roo hoist himself onto a motorbike to join the surge of motorcycles heading from the rice paddies to the industrial outskirts of Ayama Na’s capital.

As he rode off every day, Dali-Roo would promise himself not to steal from the factory again, but every evening, filled with disgust for himself, he’d pull the cardboard box from the shelf in the shed behind the house and add another item that didn’t belong to him. A computer chip, a memory stick, a connector input line.

Dalie-Roo’s good-natured wife, Bancha, convinced that her husband had fallen under a spell, left their young son with her mother, who lived with them in the thatched roof house Dali-Roo built, and walked seven miles beneath a scorching sun to consult with the country’s leading aboriginal faith healer. During a fifteen minute audience, the bearded disciple prescribed a broth of boiled ficus bark, brown longan pods, and dried lemon peel. Bancha cooked this bitter brew for Dali-Roo every night, and every morning before he roared off to the Sony factory he held his nose and drank, for he too believed he was not himself...

Dali-Roo feared he’d end up in a cell, creating unpardonable hardships for his sweet wife because a clumsier thief never lived. The metal parts in his pocket rattled against the coins; the memory stick clanged against the sides of the lunch pail; bits of some shiny chrome thing he’d tied to his shin caught the sunlight at the hem of his pants. It wasn’t a question of whether he’d get caught, it was only a question of when. Already, his friend Yanko, whose fields had suffered the same fate as his and who worked alongside him in the assembly line without losing his head, had spotted him popping a pair of hinged black lips into his pocket. “Are you crazy?” Yanko said.

But the unwitting thief couldn’t keep his hands to himself, powerless even though he understood he was gambling his family’s future, even though he believed that a thief in this life returns as a worm in the next. His fate had been sealed the very first day at the factory when he sat with Yanko and ten other field-coarsened men at a long gleaming table in an orientation room. At the head of the table, a skinny woman in a blue silk suit stood with her hands in front of her chest, fingers formed in the pitched roof of respect, bowing slightly toward each man as she asked him to identify himself.

In front of this Japanese woman with lopsided hair and city shoes, Dali-Roo felt the humiliation of his failed crops. Ashamed to look at her, he focused intensely on the object she slid out of the shiny, hared-sided case.

“This is AIBO,” she said, stroking the gleaming metallic animal she placed on the table. “AIBO is Sony’s robot pet, a perfect adult companion.” It was the size of a small dog or cat, sleek, modern, and hi-tech.

“A purae toy!” his friend Yanko whispered, spitting out the Ayama Nan expletive with which he punctuated his sentences. “Is this what these purae people do all day while we break our backs growing rice and vegetables for them to eat? What is that dumb thing? I thought we’d be making computers, at least!”

Dali-Roo had thought computers too, but he didn’t share Yanko’s disappointment. He watched wide-eyed as Ms. Moto, her tiny breasts little points under her suit jacket, gave the robot orders. “AIBO,” she said, “show these gentlemen how pleased you are to meet them.” The metal animal rotated its pointed unidirectional ears and wagged its curled tail. “Voice activation,” she explained. “I tell it what to do and it does what I say.”

“Get the ball, AIBO,” she said, and AIBO plunged forward, moving its articulated legs in jerking awkward motions. It missed the ball repeatedly and tried and tried again, plugging away so persistently that when it finally succeeded in batting the ball with its nose, the men broke into applause, all but the disaffected, cynical Yanko who whispered “purae waste of time” under his breath. Dali-Roo felt angry at his friend and at the same time felt intensely sorry for AIBO, intensely sorry and intensely protective. And an intense surge of something else.

Something he couldn’t name because he’d never heard of love at first sight. …