Edition 16: Running Shoes by Ken Liu
Giang works in a sweatshop in Vietnam, making running shoes on a production line. When the unthinkable happens, Giang goes on to see a different world to the one she’s known. This magical realism story by Ken Liu is one to make you stop and think about our consumeristic society and what exploitation is worth. SY
“You’re under quota again!” Foreman Vuong shouted. “Why are you so slow?”
Fourteen-year old Giang’s face flushed with shame. She stared at the angry veins on the foreman’s sweaty neck, pulsing like fat slugs on a ripe tomato. She hated Vuong even more than she hated the shoe factory’s Taiwanese owners and managers. One expected the foreigners to treat the Vietnamese badly, but Vuong was from right here in Yên Châu District.
“Sixteen hours is a long shift,” Giang mumbled. She lowered her eyes. “I get tired.”
“You’re lazy!” Vuong went on to spew a stream of curses.
Giang flinched, anticipating a flurry of strikes and blows. She tried desperately to look contrite.
Vuong considered her, his lips curling up in a cruel smile. “I’ll have to make you stronger through punishment. Run five laps around the factory, right now, and you’ll stay as long as you have to tonight to make up your quota.”
Giang was thankful. It was a hot and humid day, but running was a mild punishment compared to being beaten. Besides, it allowed her to stay out of the factory a bit longer, where the buffeting noise never ceased, and the big machines frightened her with their brutal and careless strength.
The first lap around the compound was easy. Her bare feet pounded lightly, rhythmically against the packed dirt. Vuong shouted as she passed. “Faster!”
Even though Giang worked in a shoe factory, she preferred to go barefoot as much as she could, like she used to when her family still lived in the countryside. Back then she had loved to run along the soft muddy trails next to the rice paddies, wiggling her toes in the earth, and looked forward to a sweet fried bánh rán sticky rice ball that her father might buy for her at the end of the month.
But then her father had decided to move to the city, where he thought he could make more money as a laborer and give his family a better life. Here, the air was thick, the rooms were crowded, and the streets were full of broken glass and nails so that she had to wear cheap plastic sandals.
Half way through the second lap, she started to feel lightheaded. It was now like breathing under water. Her shirt stuck to her skin, and black spots danced before her eyes. Her calves and lungs burned.
“Faster! Pick up your pace or you’ll have to do an extra lap.”
Giang wished that she could run away from Vuong and the factory. She imagined herself wearing the shoes that she made: sneakers that felt as light as air but were as strong as steel boots. She often admired them, thought they would protect her feet against the roughest ground, but of course she couldn’t afford such shoes.
Running in them probably feels like flying, she thought. Wouldn’t it be nice to run all the way into the sky and become friends with birds?
But Vuong’s foul curses brought her back to earth, back to the present.
It was getting harder and harder to lift her legs. Her feet hurt as they struck against the ground. She couldn’t catch her breath. The sun was so hot and bright.
“If you don’t run faster, you can leave right now and never come back. And don’t ever expect to find any work in any other factory in this town either. I know all the foremen.”
Giang was ready to give up. She wanted to stop and just walk away. She wanted to go home, where she would be able to cry in the warm embrace of her mother and fall asleep against her shoulders.
But then she imagined the scene around the bedroom after she would have fallen asleep. There would be her father, confined to his bed after he lost the use of his legs because of that construction accident. He would stare hopelessly at the ceiling, biting his lips and trying not to moan from the pain. Next to him would be her mother, who would have to get up before the sun was out to walk to the shirt factory on the other side of the city. The money she earned there paid for her father’s medicine. It Giang’s wages that paid for their food, and allowed her brother to continue in high school at the provincial capital. But now, with Giang fired, what would they do?
Her mother would only hug her tighter, of course, but Giang remembered that she was no longer a little girl.
She forced herself to run faster.
A few girls looked up as an exhausted Giang stumbled back into the factory, but most ignored her because they were too busy. Vuong impressed the owners by running the machines so fast that the girls could barely keep up.
The cavernous hall was filled with noise: the constant staccato dik-dik-dik from the stitching stations, the whoosh-slam of the stamping and die cutting machines, the hissing from the workbenches with the rubber molds and hot glue.
Giang made her way back to the die cutter, and tried to keep up with the frantic routine of feeding sheets of plastic to the hungry blades of the machine. She was thirsty and hot. The dust and fumes—chemicals, glue, plastic—made her cough and gag. Tears blurred her eyes. She wiped them away roughly, angrily.
She tried to comfort herself by thinking of the end of the shift. She would get to go home, where her mother would be ready with a pot of hot tea even though she was even more tired than Giang.
“Faster!” Her partner Nhung interrupted her daydream. “You’ve already made me fall behind. I don’t want to be punished!”
Giang’s legs were so sore that she could not stand up straight. The room seemed to spin around her. But she tried, really tried to speed up. She threw her weight forward, hoping to use the momentum of the stack of uppers she carried to move faster.
Her foot caught something on the ground. She dropped her load and barely avoided banging her head against the machine in front of her by grabbing onto it with her hands. The girls had often complained about how dangerous it was to leave broken machine parts around the factory floor, but Vuong just said they were careless.
I’ll just take a little break, she thought.
Time seemed to slow down, each moment lingering in her consciousness like a memory of childhood.
She felt the pressure on her fingers, and a brief moment of unbelievable pain as the cutter blades sliced through.
Nhung’s shouts and screams seemed to come from a great distance. Sorry, Giang thought, I didn’t mean to get you in more trouble.
As she fell, she saw a broken, rusty spike at the foot of the machine rushing up at her face. She closed her eyes.
Shadows gathered around her. More shouting. The loudest voice belonged to Vuong: “Back to work! Back to work!”
Yes, Giang thought. I have to get back to work. I’ll get up in just a second, Mama.
But she could no longer feel her hands, her legs, her body. She felt herself soaking into the stack of uncut uppers under her. She willed herself to grab onto the fibers, to entwine herself into the soft material. She couldn’t just fade away. She had work to do.
“Why throw these away?” She heard Vuong speaking impatiently to someone. “They’re perfectly usable! Just a little blood. You want me to take it out of your wages?”
And then she felt herself lifted onto the conveyer belt, sensed the sharp blades of the die cutter slicing around her, endured the metallic, heavy punch of the pneumatic press, bore the sting of needle and thread, and tasted the bitter flavor of hot blue. She wanted to scream, but could not.
I’m sorry, Mama.
Enclosed in a dark box, Giang remembered little of her journey across the Pacific, over the highways of this new continent, into the warehouse of the shoe store. By the time she finally woke up, she had been taken to a new home in this suburban house in Massachusetts, where she was wrapped in shiny paper and placed under a tree with many other wrapped packages.
She didn’t understand the language spoken in the house. But she did understand the happiness on the boy’s face as she was unwrapped and taken out of her box. He flexed her and put her on his feet, and bounded around the house.
She also understood the look on the faces of the parents as they looked on: Giang’s father used to smile at her just like that as he handed her the sweet bánh rán.
With time, she learned that the boy’s name was Bobby, and that he wanted to run fast and long.
Every morning, Bobby took her running. She loved running in the crisp, cold air. It was so quiet here, different from her home back in Vietnam. Bobby ran at an even, effortless pace, and she liked the graceful, rhythmic pounding sound she made against the pavement. Sometimes she imagined that she was flying, skimming, dipping over the ground, like a pair of fluttering sparrows.
The pounding also allowed her to speak. Thwack, thwack, thwack, she sang to the dew-speckled grass and sun-warmed sidewalk. Crunch, crunch, crunch, she greeted the gravel in the driveways and the pebbles lining the road shoulders. She observed the comfortable, large houses around her, the clean streets, and the wide, open spaces. She listened to Bobby’s breathing, even and deep, as though he and she could run forever.
Giang tried to not feel sorry for herself. Sure, she was no longer a person, but a thing. But in her old life at the factory, she had often felt that she was little more than an extension of the machines, a lever or belt made of flesh and bone instead of metal and rubber. Cradling Bobby’s feet as he ran made her feel almost more real, more alive by comparison.
She did miss her mother, and often wished that she could get a message to her: Mama, I’m fine; I don’t worry any more about money, food, quotas, pain. She hoped that her father was feeling better, and that they found a way to keep her brother in school.
Spring turned to summer, then to fall and winter. Giang liked the challenge of finding her footing in the ice, but running in the snow was hard on her body. Cracks appeared in her, and water seeped in. She could feel that she was losing traction, her grip on the ground.
It was spring again. Bobby opened a box and took out a new pair of shoes.
Giang looked at the newcomer with dread. As Bobby kicked her across the floor, squeaking, she whispered to the new shoes, but they were not like her, not alive. Bobby laced the new shoes on his feet, and hopped around to try them out.
Then he bent down and picked up Giang, lacing the two parts of her together. Her heart leapt. Bobby didn’t forget about her. She wasn’t being replaced. They would go on running together.
Being draped around Bobby’s neck as he ran was a different sensation. She liked being high up, being able to see things. It was a bit like when she was little, when she rode on her father’s shoulders to watch the parades at the festivals.
Giang wanted to sing an old song that her mother used to sing. She wished she still had her voice. She wanted to tell Bobby her story, about the dusty, noisy factory, the chattering girls, the sweet-smelling tea at home, her mother’s calming voice. Bobby would be interested, wouldn’t he? In a way, hadn’t his desire for good and cheap running shoes called her across the Pacific into this new life?
Bobby stopped by the side of the road. Dark electric wires stretched overhead.
And then she really was flying, high into the air. She reached the apex of her arc and began to fall, but her laces were caught on the wires, and she dangled high over the road, empty as far as she could see in both directions.
Bobby was already disappearing down the shoulder of the road. He didn’t look back.
Giang sighed and settled down. She imagined the years ahead, the rain, the sleet, the snow and the sun. She imagined herself growing old and falling apart.
But a powerful gust of wind tossed her about, whistled through the holes in her sides and the cracks in her soles. Up here, the wind was strong.
“Hello,” Giang tried out her new voice and startled the sparrows dozing on the wire. She was now loud, louder than she had ever been.
I’ve finally run into the sky, she thought. I’ll become friends with the birds.
As the wind continued to howl and groan through her decaying body, she began to sing her story.
Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a silkpunk epic fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint, in April 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories.