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“Spare and haunting tales that ask ordinary questions about that extraordinary emotion: love.”—Chicago Tribune
The novella and five stories that make up this collection reveal the lives of immigrant families haunted by lost loves: a ghost seduces a young girl into a flooded river; a mother commands a daughter to avenge her father’s death; and in the title novella, a woman speaks from beyond the grave about her tragic marriage to an exiled ...
“Spare and haunting tales that ask ordinary questions about that extraordinary emotion: love.”—Chicago Tribune
The novella and five stories that make up this collection reveal the lives of immigrant families haunted by lost loves: a ghost seduces a young girl into a flooded river; a mother commands a daughter to avenge her father’s death; and in the title novella, a woman speaks from beyond the grave about her tragic marriage to an exiled musician whose own disappointments nearly destroyed their two daughters.
I OFTEN DREAM ABOUT THE RESTAURANT where I met Tian. Late at night, in these blue rooms, the memory flickers up before me, dim and silent, never changing. I see the simple neon sign that reads "Vermilion Palace." The drifting snow blows up against the scarlet double doors. I see myself walking toward those doors--a slight, brown girl with hair like an inkbrush, tilted eyes, and a wary mouth.
For my first few months in New York City, I could not stay warm. I wore a heavy coat and wound myself in woolen scarves, but the chill went deep beneath my skin, and the winter wind found every crevice as I walked to the restaurant on numb feet, past the subway stop, the university, and the music school, my gaze fixed on the icy pavement to keep myself from falling. I could not taste my food or feel the softness of my narrow bed. I had been in the city for two months before I even noticed the music school. And then one evening I heard a student practicing. Walking past a basement window, I caught the thread of a violin melody, high and sweet as a woman's voice. The sound rose up through a crack in the window and between the safety bars; it shimmered through me, a wave of color, blooming past the gray tenements and toward the narrow sky. I drew one cold, sweet breath of air and truly understood that I had arrived in America.
A few days later, I saw Tian. He might have been to the restaurant a dozen times before, but I do not remember seeing him until after the music. I noticed him on a stormy evening near the end of winter. He arrived just at the time of day when the low, gray light changes to dusk. I was standing at the window, watching the falling snow make bright flecks in the headlamps of the taxicabs, when a man appeared in the doorway, carrying a violin case.
"One person," he said, in confident English. At that time, in 1967, many new Chinese had come to live on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Most of them turned up at the restaurant, sooner or later. But not many spoke English with such ease. He wore a brown felt hat, and his overcoat seemed cut to fit his shoulders; most of the other men seemed content to wear whatever would make do.
"Come with me," I replied, in Mandarin. I did not want him to hear my voice in broken English words.
I seated him and poured his tea, looking down at the swirl of leaves in the water. I felt the heat of the steam in my face, the warm steel handle in my hands; I watched the tea leaves drift and slide against the blue and white cup. He thanked me in Chinese. His dark eyes followed the line of my face, my throat, down to my starched white shirt. For the first time, I felt warm.
Before I left Taiwan, my mother had said, "Beware abnormally pale men. Beware a man whose cheekbones are too high or low. Watch out for one who smiles too much. And stay away from a man who gambles." Her warnings implied that I had a choice; that these things lay under my control. But when I was a child she had often talked about the Chinese myth that every man and every woman was joined at birth to their mate by an invisible, enchanted thread. With this story, she said that there could be no controlling fate.
The strange man ordered beef noodle soup and drank it quickly. He had placed his violin case in the opposite chair, upright and facing him like a lover. I watched his ivory chopsticks flash, and I envied the violin case, dark and slender, curved like a woman. Then he glanced at his watch. He flung down a dollar, seized his coat and violin, and walked out the door. I looked twice to make sure it was true: he had forgotten his hat on the chair.
To this day I don't know why I stole Tian's hat. Perhaps his solitude gave me strength. I looked around to make sure no one watched me. Then I slipped over to his table and picked up the hat, brought it back behind my counter. He had printed his name inside: Tian Sung.
I waited through my shift. Da Dao, the manager, left to fix a leak in the kitchen, so I stood at the window, idle, as the wind blew mittens and lost bus passes past my eyes. The traffic thinned out, and a red-striped awning tumbled down the avenue. Toward the end of my shift, I caught Da Dao in the storeroom sipping from a flask. He offered to snap a week of beans in exchange for my silence, but I promised I wouldn't tell anyone.
Late that night, when the busboys had begun to vacuum under the chairs, the man reappeared in the doorway. I still remember his bare, wet head and sodden trench coat, creased with snow. He walked over and stood before me.
"You might have something of mine," he said, in Mandarin this time.
"I don't think so."
"Would you please take a look?"
I bent and looked under the counter. There was the hat, where I had hidden it, on the shelf behind some extra bud vases. I knelt and took it into my hands.
Seconds passed. "Did you find a hat?" I heard him ask. I stood up and nodded, then shook my head.
"Are you all right?"
I held my hands behind the counter and did not answer.
I could not give him the hat. My hands grew cold; I could not breathe. I looked at him. The storm had streaked his hair into his eyes--surely the blackest eyes of any man I'd ever met, the eyelashes laid flat with melting snow. They held an expression of deep and painful privacy. And at that moment I believed I knew what would come to be. When I returned the hat, I would exchange it for the man who wore it. My senses opened; I grew large. I believed I heard, in the howling wind, a voice of admonition, but in the end I listened to the plunge and whistle of my blood. I put the hat into his beautiful, long-fingered hands.
BEHIND this painted wall, beneath this layer of new sheathing, hides the story of our lives together. I have been silent many years, and my daughters have chosen to forget, but our family story lingers here. It waits under the floor; it has slid into the crawl space, wound around the stubborn beams and girders that were already old thirty years ago, when Tian and I first came to live in Brooklyn.
At that time, the brownstones had begun to wear away. They stood in patient rows, like tablets in a soldiers' graveyard, crumbled and soft around the edges. We considered other places: a Chinatown walk-up owned by Dao, a drafty room near the music school, and even a little Midtown flat, as clean and perfect as a jewel box; but we decided to live here. It seemed that nothing in the world could disturb us on this neglected street, in these softly falling houses.
Our third-floor flat, the "servants' quarters," pleased me with its wide back windows, sloping floors, and odd-shaped rooms that had been planned and built according to someone's idea of what servants might want or need. The spacious kitchen and living room invited company, togetherness, and warmth.
The two small bedrooms stared from opposite ends of the flat. In the back bedroom, off the kitchen, I planned a nursery for the son I hoped to bear. I loved to stand in that room and look out of its one large window, past the iron fire stairs and over the small backyards, crisscrossed by a lattice of laundry lines. I saw rows of neat, gray rooftops, treetops, electricity lines, and, far away, depending on the weather, the gray or glittering cutout of Manhattan. And it seemed to me that all the safety in the world had been tucked into this space, that my children would look out at the world and know that all was well.
Tian focused his desires on a different part of the house. Behind the foyer stood a spacious walk-in closet that had been refitted as a greenhouse, with a skylight and glass shelves. This would be his music room. He removed the shelves, soundproofed the walls with pressed Styrofoam, and repainted them eggshell white. He found an old upright piano at a junk shop on Coney Island Beach and convinced someone at the restaurant to help him move it up the stairs. Finally, he produced from his briefcase a metal music stand, which unfolded at the top into fragile, steel wings.
"Now I can work and be near you." He reached to touch my face. I stood perfectly still, arrested by the scent of his hand. Desire soaked through my skin--this warmth, which had first blossomed while I poured his tea and now flowed through me at his touch. In those early days, the feeling would come over me even when I was alone, looking out the window, or standing behind the counter at the restaurant. My breath would stop in my throat, my skin would flush, and I would feel the warmth steeping through my blouse until I had to step out for fresh air or run to the bathroom to wash my face.
We made love on the floor of the new practice room. I remember my belief--a moment of certainty just prior to abandoning thought--that our moans and cries and our foreign words of love would permeate the walls of the apartment and transform the place.
Later, after I had gone to sleep, the telephone rang: it was my mother calling from Taiwan. I sat on the bed in the dark with the phone in my hand, looking out the window, where light from the streetlamp streamed over the cracked sidewalk like frost.
"I have been thinking of you," my mother said. "I have been thinking about you all day."
She had a way of guessing what I wanted. This ability, which had been so comforting to us both when I was young, had grown more difficult as I had gotten older, and after the death of my father it had become unbearable for both of us. For this reason, among others, we agreed I should go to the United States. My mother wrote a letter to a man who had owed my father a favor, asking him to claim me as a paper relative.
"I'm fine," I said. "There's nothing new."
"How is your English class?" I had stopped attending months before.
"You need to learn English," she told me.
"I know a lot of it," I said.
"You aren't studying," my mother said. "Instead, you have met a man and married."
"That is not how or why it happened."
"Where is he now?"
"He is in the music room, practicing.
I listened to the thrum of the lines between us. Far away, I could hear the faint thread of the violin. Had I said something wrong? I took a breath and waited for sharp words. But she said simply, "It is yuanfen." For as long as I remembered, she used this expression only when discussing marriage, but she never would explain.
"What do you mean by yuanfen?"
She thought for a minute and replied, "It means: that apportionment of love which is destined for you in this world."
TIAN'S connection to the music school was, in his view, tenuous. After completing a master's degree, he had been kept on as an instructor of pre-college students, a position that gave him, and several others, an opportunity to display their teaching and performing skills in pursuit of an assistant professorship. He planned to give his junior-faculty recital in March. That winter, after we moved to Brooklyn, he shut himself in the tiny room for hours every day. He always kept the door closed--he had reached a point with these recital pieces where the smallest issues were significant and demanded his private concentration. From the kitchen, I listened to his faint practicing; the soundproofing did not completely block the music but blurred and softened it, absorbing it deep within the wall.
On the morning of Tian's recital, I woke up alone. As I lay in bed, listening to his swooping, dizzying warm-up scales, I suddenly felt our narrow room pitch up and down like a ship on a swell. I tumbled out of bed and staggered to the bathroom, where I bent down and seized the toilet, waiting there until I was sick. As I knelt against the cold floor and vomited again, I understood that Tian and I would have a child. It seemed to me that some spiritual power had focused upon me--that I knelt before a tablet of our ancestors. I wanted to meditate, burn incense as a sign of thanks to them and as a caution against any harm that might come, and my heart filled with a powerful gratitude and relief.
A moment later I found myself in the hallway, breathing hard, my hand on the knob of the door to Tian's little room. The music stopped. Cautiously I turned the knob. But he had not heard; he re-tuned his instrument and impatiently began his piece again. Perhaps it would not be wise to share my news, so close to his recital. After all, we had not planned for this. I tiptoed away.
That evening we had a light dinner and left early. We boarded the subway, sitting side by side as if we were brother and sister. I stretched my legs in front of me to make him notice my new shoes. But he did not notice. I stared at the soft, black shoes myself as we lurched along in the empty car.
The steel car roared and rushed. We held Tian's violin case over our laps; he clutched the canvas cover tightly. The fluorescent lights cast bruised shadows on his high, sallow cheekbones and lavender mouth. I would have tried to reassure him, but I felt as if I were encased in a bubble of happiness and illness. I did not want to ruin his concentration. I folded my gloved, trembling hands over the violin case; I had dressed protectively in a hat, a scarf, and a long wool coat.
We arrived early, to an almost empty recital hall. Far to the left, by himself, sat an older man with a thick head of gray hair and a big mustache. This, Tian whispered, was Professor Spaeth, his former teacher and now his dean. Every now and then, someone would come up and chat with Spaeth for a minute or two, but his responses were brief, and none of the visitors stayed for long.
Tian vanished into a door next to the stage. I sat alone in the third row, too shy to turn around and watch the students and colleagues who came in groups of twos or threes and scattered themselves among the seats. They spoke fluently, as carelessly as the American customers in the restaurant. I listened to their English and knew that I would not be able to hold my own in any conversation. I could only make out a few words, including "teacher," "China," "curious."
Before I came to this country, I felt at home in the Chinese language, the way a fish feels at home in the sea. When I came to New York I vowed to practice speaking English, but it was difficult, working in the restaurant. I did not talk to customers; I did not own a television. I took classes at a community college but made little progress with the humped and tangled grammar. Instead, I spent my spare time reading novels I bought and traded with the other waitresses, books that had seduced me with their bright, familiar covers, lined up along the shelves in the Chinatown stores.
Now, as I sat alone, I was overtaken by fear. I longed to be back home in Brooklyn, curled up in Tian's big chair, with a Chinese storybook in my hand. The lights dimmed and Tian took the stage with John O'Neill, his accompanist and officemate. I had never met John, although Tian often spoke about him, and I was surprised by his height, his reddish beard. The audience gave a generous welcome. The clapping died down, the two men bowed, then took their places, Tian in front of the piano.
His bow struck the strings. It seemed to drop from above, the way a hawk will plunge with sudden swiftness to its victim. Tian bent and swayed in the vivid light, dark and wild and foreign, altogether unfamiliar. A vein in his right jaw, which I had only briefly noticed, rippled and stood out. It was like watching a man have a seizure. He terrified me. His music shuddered through me with a violence I am not sure I can describe--now delicate and now enormous, but always more powerful than his swaying, fragile figure on the stage. I felt as if he had achieved these sounds through a feat of magic or theft. I found myself pulling away from him, my back pressed tight against the chair.
How could I have chosen such an unforgiving man? I knew nothing about music, but I could hear in these sounds a man who would accept no excuse from anyone or anything close to him. The violin, uncaged from the practice room, filled the recital hall with a clear intensity; each note attacked the air, quick and piercing as a dagger. I fought an urge to run from the auditorium. Finally, he stopped. There came a prolonged and steady storm of applause. I kept my wet hands tightly folded. Tian looked straight at me and smiled, reappearing from this monstrousness. Then I did applaud. He raised the violin and began his next piece.
Afterwards, we stood next to a bowl of orange punch. Tian spoke to the people who crowded us. Sometimes he made an introduction: "Min, this is Jennings. He and I share a practice locker." I nodded and smiled. "He did fine job! He very good!" they assured me, so I nodded and smiled again. Sometimes I turned to Tian for a translation, but he seemed to be having problems with his English; he stumbled over certain words and leaned toward the others as if he couldn't hear what they were saying.
He wouldn't move from my side, and he clutched his violin case in his hand. I noticed it needed a new cover and the leather straps on the handle looked worn. I frowned; it seemed wrong that his colleagues should see him with such old things. His black wingtips were brightly polished but rounded at the soles and heels. The lapels of his jacket had frayed a little. Since our marriage, I had watched over his eating and sleeping habits, but I needed to spend more time mending his clothes and coaxing him to buy new things. I felt relieved that his overcoat hung around the corner, on the coatrack, where no one would see how shabby it was.
Tian's colleagues lingered on, congratulating him. They fixed upon him with alert attention, as if he had sprung up, suddenly, into the light. This puzzled me, since I had seen them before while visiting the school and they had paid Tian little notice.
I remember one woman in particular, redheaded and milky-pale. This was Lydia Borgmann, whom Tian had told me about: an instructor in the same year as Tian, one of his colleagues who was vying for a professorship. She was only about my size, but she wore stacked heels that brought her closer in height to the others. She kept putting her hand on Tian's arm--not necessarily to flirt, I decided after watching her closely, but to give an impression of friendship. Tian felt so happy about the recital he did not even notice. He bent his head in the Chinese way and fended off their compliments.
After a while, my toes in the high-heeled shoes began to lose all sense of feeling. The glass globe lamps seemed to dim and brighten. Tian looked at me. "We need to leave," he said in Chinese. "You look tired." He turned to the other musicians. "We're going," he said. "I've got to get Min home in time to sleep. She is not--" he paused and struggled with his English "--she's not one of us crazy musician types."
"Don't leave so soon! Come and have a beer," said John.
Tian shook his head. "No, we should really be getting home."
We waited through a moment of silence. Then the redheaded woman said, "Come on, Tian. Don't be a party-pooper." Her green-shadowed eyes widened as she spoke.
John said, his voice still cheerful, "Liddy is right."
"No," Tian repeated. "Min is tired."
"I--okay," I said. It had begun to seem that we would lose face if we didn't go.
Tian turned to me. "I know you," he said, in Chinese. "You're tired."
"No secret codes allowed! What did you say to her, Tian?" Lydia demanded. Her face loomed close: the pale bright eyes, the freckles faintly glowing under a coat of powder, the slash of lipstick, orange in the light.
We all stood for a minute, and then I said, "It is okay." My voice cracked against the words. They fixed their eyes on me.
"Come on," said Tian. He took my arm and pulled me around the corner, to the coatrack.
"I'm not that tired; I could have gone out with them." I relaxed as I slipped into the familiar Mandarin language, thoughts forming easily again. "Why did you want to leave so much?"
Tian put his arm around me. "We don't need them," he said. "Aside from John, they're not my friends. I want to go home." I leaned into him. I could smell sweat, feel a deep heat rising from beneath his white shirt, and it was with some uneasiness that I realized he was happier than I had ever seen him.
That was when I blurted out, "Your playing scares me."
He laughed. "It's because of the way you are. It's why you're happy reading novels. You're only comfortable with a piece of the world that you can hold in your hand." I considered my hands, small and ordinary in black wool gloves. Tian laid his cheek against my hair. "I don't mean to hurt your feelings," he said. "Sometimes I'm afraid of music, too. I think that's the reason I married you."
We found our coats and left the hall, walked into the clear winter night, where the lights from the taller buildings surrounded us like stars. Tian took my arm. The pain in my feet vanished, and we walked toward the subway stop.
"When I get promoted," Tian said, "we'll move to Manhattan, and then I'll be able to spend more time at home."
"Professor Sung. Professors' wives don't take the subway. You'll ride heated cabs everywhere."
"I'll get into a cab whenever I'm bored and want something to do."
"And you'll never snap another bean," Tian added, pointing at the Vermilion Palace, across the street. Its neon sign glowed red.
"Did Spaeth say anything to you afterwards?" I asked.
"Oh, he got up and left right away. He always does that."
"He never goes out to have a drink with his students?"
"He is antisocial."
"So it is acceptable to be antisocial?"
"I never thought about it," he said. "I suppose so. Why do you ask?"
We were at the top of the subway stairs. I reached into my coat pocket for our tokens. My gloved fingers touched an object there, something smooth and narrow and heavy. I pulled it out and held it under the streetlight. It was a tuning fork.
"What?" I stopped walking. "How did this get here?"
Tian took the fork; it glinted in his palm. "Who knows?" he said. "This is a nice one."
He struck the fork on his knee. "Hold still," he said, and he set the base knob on my forehead.
I stood still. I could feel it, like a current running all the way down my spine and between my legs, the powerful tiny thrumming of a perfect "A."
Tian put his gloved hands on both sides of my head, and kissed me where the tuning fork had been. I heard in his laugh a fierce recklessness. He dropped the fork into his pocket. "A gift from heaven," he said. I heard the powerful rush of the train, like a monster rumbling deep below. He grabbed my arm and we ran down the stairs.
I WAS quick-witted in those days, versatile and sly. If Tian ate a little less dinner one day, I would take care not to serve that dish again. He did not like our downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Lici, so I avoided her. One afternoon, we went for a walk in the park and I noticed him staring at a little boy. I threw a penny in the wishing-pond; I hoped our child would be a boy.
It mattered more to please him than to understand him. But as time went on, I wondered why he felt the way he did.
He had strong feelings about many little things. He insisted that we keep the chopsticks in a certain drawer. The forks and spoons went in another. And he had a special idea as to the rhythms of our days. Mornings must begin with a bowl of porridge, fermented tofu, and youtiao, a fried bread that I learned to pick up regularly in Chinatown. Over these dishes he would smile and joke. Evenings were another story. Often he would drift into a silent melancholy. He would sit in his small armchair, watching the patterns made from the setting sun through a wave in the window glass. This moody distance grew worse after his recital.
A few nights after the performance, he stopped by the restaurant to pick me up on his way home. When he had finished at school he often came by the restaurant and waited for me, helped us finish our work by snapping beans or peapods. As I worked the register, I watched him sitting with the men at the corner table around an enormous steel bowl of beans. Da Dao made a joke and Tian responded with a remark that made them all laugh. Seeing this I felt an odd sense of relief. For a moment I believed that he could be just like the others; he was one of the others.
"Your husband is a neat and hardworking man," said a waitress.
"Nali, that's in no way true," I said, to be polite. If only he could be so simple.
I wanted to tell her that I lived with a stranger. As we walked out of the Vermilion Palace, into the floating night city, I could not sense the shape and location of his soul. Only when he performed; only then had I truly seen my husband. What I saw had frightened me. But aside from that performance, I could not see any further.
I tucked my hand in his arm; we kept walking. He treated me kindly; he did not refuse to help at home. In fact, he was fussy about it. He wanted a role in things domestic, down to the placement of the furniture. He had a plan about where each piece would go. The bed must be pushed against the wall, so we would catch the light at a certain angle. We must enter and leave the bed from the left side. This interest in our house, although it should have comforted me, left me more confused. He was so exacting, but he did not explain why he wanted things the way he did. I wondered if it had to do with feng shui and the old superstitions; I considered the idea that he might believe in these things, despite his statement to the contrary.
Since the day of Tian's recital, I had been waiting to tell him he would become a father. I had dreamed of this, planned for this; he had not objected to those plans. Why was it then, I wondered, that I did not want to tell him? I had waited until after the recital, but afterwards I had still held back. Surely, I thought, there would be a time when I could share this news with a feeling of absolute certainty, security, and happiness. Would it not be tonight?
We boarded the subway train.
"How was your practice session?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Still unreal. Everything is unreal. I feel empty--the way I imagine a woman must feel after she has had a child."
I opened my mouth, and shut it. Finally I said, "Surely that must be a good feeling, then."
"I don't imagine so," he said. "All that waiting, hoping, building. There is bound to be an emptiness after such an experience."
He spoke casually, conversationally.
At home, undressing in front of our closet, I turned to him and told him, "I am pregnant."
He was unbuttoning his shirt. He looked up, stared at me, but my statement did not stop his clever fingers. Why were my own hands suddenly clumsy?
"Congratulations," he said.
"Are you happy?" I asked. I slid between the soft, cold sheets.
He got into bed and put his arm over my shoulders. "Yes."
This ended our discussion. The next day, he came home for dinner even more silent than usual. Had I put too much soy sauce in the chicken? Hopefully, I brought him a bottle of beer and watched him drink it down. But it made no difference. Finally, after dinner, I could not be silent. We sat side by side in our cloth-covered armchairs, I asked him, "Do you not want children? Is that the problem?"
"It makes you happy."
"I have always thought that I would someday have a child. But after this child is born, I think you should go to the doctor again. To ask for one of those things."
"What do you mean?"
Silence. When he spoke, he said very gently, "I think we should put off having a second child until we're sure we're ready."
"What is wrong?" I cried. "What's bothering you?"
He was sunk in contemplation of the wooden floor. "There is nothing bothering me."
"Please," I said. "You must tell me." I felt ashamed; it was like begging. I only wanted him to take me in his arms. But instead he drew back in his armchair, frowning to himself, as if he were making a deal with whatever powers that held him back.
"This is a story that I shouldn't tell, but I'll tell you, since it's important to you. I won't tell you much. Just enough so you can understand that it has nothing to do with you."
He stopped as if to rest. I did not like the words "It has nothing to do with you." I knew they were words I would remember.
"Everyone," he began again, "has things they want to do in their lives. But sometimes there is only one thing--one thing that a person must do. More than what he is told to do, more than what he is trained to do. Even more than what his family wants him to do. It is what he hungers for."
I sat frozen, listening to the distant patience in his voice.
"I was brought up to be a scientist. To stay in China and help my family. From the beginning, it was assumed that I would do this."
To stay in China, to help the country--these were the goals all good young men in those days had wanted. "I understand--"
"No," he said, and the vein in his jaw stood out. "You cannot understand."
There was a long silence after this.
Finally he said, "On the evening I left home, my father would only say one thing. `You forget about us,' he said. `If you truly want to leave us, to leave this home, to desert your country, then this family is no longer your family. I am no longer your father. You have no right ever to think of us.'"
The sun had slipped away; his face had disappeared in the dusk. "So I don't," he said. "That was the bargain. I left them, and I do not think of them any more. But I know that there is only one thing in life that I can permit myself to do. Anything else--frightens me. I am not allowed to have it."
For half an hour, we sat in the dark. "Now let us never talk about this," he said.
I had grown up on Taiwan with my mother and my father, until his death. We lived quietly, far away from the worst of the war and the turmoil of what happened after. I had been too young to remember much of anything. I had feared only the mail, the letters fragile and white, as thin as tissue. Their news was never hopeful, never good. Sometimes after we received mail, I would look behind the house and see my mother crying underneath the palm tree, holding a frail, white letter. When I asked her what had happened, she explained to me that her family, some living and some buried in the earth of China, was being destroyed--driven far and wide, or killed, our village taken over, the earth itself run over and destroyed. Her family blood flowed only through a few women now: through my mother and aunt, and me. And I had understood that there could be nothing as precious as children and the thread of family blood.
Tian did not discuss his childhood again. He never mentioned what had happened to his parents, how he had managed to flee the north and head to the coast, when he was just a teenager. I knew only what I could gather from his tastes: that his family had been educated, cultured, passionate. I assumed his parents had supported and indulged, up to a point, his love for music, but I also knew that this kind of family, this kind of faded scholars' class, had suffered when the Communists came to power. And I knew that the Communist government would not look favorably upon a family who had let a son run off to the West.
I began to see that all of Tian's specifications--the chopsticks, the breakfast food, the placement of lamps--were slips of willpower, signs of a forbidden loyalty to this other house that he had been barred forever from entering. Vigilantly, he fought against his memories of this house, but it could be called to mind by a simple trick of light, and it could not be forced away by sunshine or special food.
My mother would have said the dead were whispering in his ear, and although I did not believe in such things, I felt afraid. It seemed there were two Mins--an outer Min and an inner one. The outer Min looked plump with happy words and deeds; she had the round cheeks of a woman who would bear a child, a woman whose husband filled her with tender love. The inner Min starved; she woke in the middle of the night, then lay for hours wondering what was wrong. I wanted to call my mother, but decided against it on the excuse that it was too expensive. In reality, I did not want to admit to her that my marriage had come to this.
I fell asleep; my mother came to me in my dreams. I stood before her, small and sad, and she looked me over, as if counting my bones. She shook her head and beckoned me to sit with her and have a cup of tea.
"One wish," she said. "What would you see?"
I made my wish and looked down.
There it was, glimmering on the cup's round surface. I could see the simple courtyard house, similiar to many old Chinese dwellings. It had gray, slate tiles, wooden lattice windows lined with rice paper, and a small courtyard. Here was the spot where his parents liked to sit and watch the bees that lazed about his mother's apiary; here stood the table and bench where Tian had sat and learned his characters. I followed my vision through these rooms, absorbing every detail, every trick of light. I could feel a palpable sadness there, filtered through its walls.
I knew that I was seeing Tian's true home. Some part of him would always be there. I wanted to look into corners, underneath the furniture. I wanted to remember all the details of this vision, to create that house in this new world, but then I felt the vision fading, and the cup slipped from my hands.
My cry struck the walls and echoed back. Tian knelt over me, holding my face in his hands. "Min," he said. "Wake up. What is it?"
His voice sounded kind and tired, indifferent. I gasped, unable to hold it in, "You don't like it here! You'll go home. I know you will!"
We sat through a moment of silence. "No," he said. "I'll never go home." His arms loosened their hold on me. I laid my ear against his chest and listened, knowing that my blurted words had cut him and could never be taken back. I kissed him and began to comfort him in the best way I knew how. We were silent and clumsy; our hands trembled. Tian's narrow kneecap nipped the inside of my thigh, and at this brief pain, I was filled with a sudden need to weep. I felt full to breaking, but I forced away my tears. I opened my eyes. A pale light lit the walls for a minute, a blink perhaps from the night's dark eye. I glimpsed Tian's face folded on itself, the vein that ran down his right jaw. I caught one glimpse before the pale light vanished and we were enveloped again in dark. I ran my hand over his throat. The feel of the vein--thick and smooth, like a scar--stayed in my fingers long afterward.
ON the morning of Anna's birth, Tian happened to be at school rehearsing for a chamber music concert. I took a taxi to the hospital and called him from the nurse's desk, but the baby came faster than his subway from Manhattan could. An easy birth, they said, and a healthy child, a healthy girl.
When I learned the baby was a girl I turned my head to the wall, feeling frightened and alone, as if even in this modern world the birth of a girl-child left me vulnerable, precarious. Tian said he didn't care about the baby's sex, as long as I had pulled through safe and sound. When the nurse left the room, he got into the hospital bed and held me, but despite this, despite the comfort of his words and hands, I could not shake my feeling.
We gave her the Chinese name of Anyu, Tranquil Jade, and the American name Anna. She grew intelligent and sturdy--a well-behaved first child. Perhaps the heavens took heed of my disappointment and produced a careful soul and body--sound and solid, taking no chances. She did everything exactly when the Chinese rhymes declared she would, flipping over at three months, crawling at eight, teething at nine with barely a murmur.
The Chinese also say that daughters take after their fathers, but whenever I looked at little Anyu I saw my own face. She had round bones, dusky skin, and brown eyes, as small and neat as almonds. Early on she began watching me and Tian and everything we did, as if she were trying to hold us in her gaze, to memorize us in case of future loss.
"Isn't she terribly serious for such a small child? Does she seem happy to you?" Tian asked one evening as we were sitting with the baby on the couch.
"Of course," I lied. "She laughs a lot when I take her to the playground. She loves to sit on the baby swings." But I wondered if Anna had dropped out from my shadow. Perhaps she could feel the fears I took such care to hide from Tian. She looked up whenever he stood to walk across the room, and when he left the room, she watched the door. When she learned to crawl, she started to follow him to the practice room, and I would find her sitting outside its closed door. I tried to reassure her, "Baba just needs to practice now. Baba will be back soon. Baba loves you." Sometimes my voice rang hollow, even to me.
Tian taught a music theory class that met at nine in the morning. In the first few months he slept in the back bedroom while I stayed with Anyu in our room, waking every few hours to feed her and silence her infrequent cries. I felt grateful when she learned to sleep through the night, so he could rejoin me in our bed.
As he had wanted, I had gone to be fitted for a diaphragm. I wondered if he had been ready for Anyu; I could not tell. He treated her fondly, but in a detached way, as if she really belonged to me. Perhaps he felt absorbed by work, where soon promotions would be announced. He spent so much of his time at school that I had to keep him up to date by phone.
"She said, `Baba,'" I reported. "She asked for you."
"She knows who's boss."
"She stood up today," I told him a month later, when he called unexpectedly, during a rehearsal break.
"That's fine," he said. Then he added something I couldn't quite hear.
"What did you say?"
"I said I called to tell you I'm coming home early today."
"Don't you have another rehearsal?"
At five-thirty, I looked out the front window and saw him walking up the street as if pushing against a wind. Heavy shoes sounded on the stairs. I met him at the door.
"Well," he said, "I'm glad you're still here. I wanted to tell you my side of the story before you got wind of things." Then he laughed, as if he had just made a clever joke, but his face was gray, his forehead set in rigid lines.
"What do you mean?"
"I was `passed over.'" Carefully, he sounded out the English words.
"What does that mean?" I asked as gently as I could.
"It means I didn't get the job."
"That's crazy," I said. "They must be crazy." I started to ask him exactly what they had said, but ate my words. I actually bit my tongue--I felt its muscle crunch between my teeth.
"They say they're aware of how much I'm contributing to the community and they hope that I don't go somewhere else just yet. They're offering me a few more years at this level. So I'll have another chance the next time a position comes up."
"That's good," I said.
"I'm old! I'm already older than most of them. I was already too old to start a career as a performer. If I can't make it now, when can I make it?"
"You're not old," I said. But I wondered. Although his hair remained thick and glossy, he wore an expression such as I had sometimes seen in men who had moved just barely past their prime: bewildered, as if they could not understand how the time had shifted under their feet.
Hours later, while we were getting ready for bed, he confessed to me that Lydia Borgmann and a male cellist had both been given jobs. And he told me the story that had been circulating in the department. This concerned the matter of Lydia's missing tuning fork.
Almost two years ago, at Tian's recital, a friend of Lydia's had returned the tuning fork she had borrowed for an orchestra rehearsal. Lydia was wearing a skirt with no pockets. She had run into the lobby and slipped the tuning fork into her coat before rejoining the audience. When she returned to the coatrack after leaving the reception, the tuning fork was missing. Then a few weeks later, during chamber orchestra practice, she had seen Tian produce that very fork from his violin case. It was a special German brand, which she doubted very much that he would have managed to buy himself, given the obvious condition of his finances.
"This is ridiculous," I said. "She obviously put her tuning fork into the wrong coat. She and I are about the same size, the coatrack was crowded, and we must both have been wearing black wool coats. How were we supposed to know that it was hers?"
"That must have been what happened," Tian said. But his voice was bewildered and vague. He sat on the bed, confused, slowly buttoning his faded flannel pajamas.
"Did you tell them?"
"Well I--I couldn't think of what to say. I was so upset. And I had forgotten how you found that fork. To make things worse, Liddy never spoke to me about it when she saw it. That happened months ago. John found out eventually, and he told me."
I remembered the way Tian had refused to get a beer after his reception. What was it that had made me so uneasy? It was as if he were afraid to become a part of the music settlement. "Did you give it back?"
"Of course. She wasn't around, so I put it into her mailbox with a note. I was so upset. Maybe I should have waited and spoken to her. Maybe..." He had buttoned his pajamas wrong and had to start again.
"You need to go to school and act like nothing is wrong, tell them the story of my coat pocket as if it were a funny story."
I stared at his pale face, his fumbling fingers. "You're not guilty!" I cried. "Why do you look that way?"
I turned out the light, as if to shut off his thought, and got into bed. Surely the tuning fork was a small matter, but only in itself. It was their opinion of Tian that had been tarnished--or had he misunderstood the story? Certainly such a small thing would not cause enough suspicion against him to refuse a hire. More likely, I believed, it was only one matter in a series of small things--a culmination of drinks refused and other misunderstandings. I began to understand this, yet I also knew that I would not be able to explain this to him, to make him understand.
I remembered the night of Tian's brilliant recital--we had been so lighthearted, so happy, walking arm in arm through the sparkling street. We had inventoried our desires, caressing and counting them as if they were prayer beads. It must have been this admission of hope that had been our downfall. This great, forgetful happiness had led to what had happened. Why else would Tian have simply accepted the tuning fork as if it were a gift from heaven? I heard again Tian's reckless, almost angry laugh. He had wilfully forgotten that there was no such gift, that one should beware of any such gift. He had been greedy, careless. I thought of the tuning fork as it had lain in his palm, silver under the streetlight. I shivered.
"They're all so silly," I said to calm him, although my heart had pushed against my ribs. I put my hand on the back of his neck. "Let's forget about this," I said. "You're a harder worker and a more talented musician than any of them. It's only jealousy." I pulled him closer and ran my hand over his chest.
"Wait," he said.
"What is it?"
"You haven't put in your--"
I smiled in what I hoped was a distracting way. "I'm ready," I said, "for our son."
"No," he said. "No son."
There was a moment of silence. Suddenly I felt awkward, smiling at him like that. I lay back and drew the blanket over my breasts. "Why not?"
"We have Anyu. We don't need any more children."
I folded my arms underneath the blanket; I could feel the goosebumps there. I took a shallow breath. "No more?"
"Musicians can't afford children, you know," he said, and his voice held a light and bitter note that made me flatten into the bed. "Maybe you should have married a richer man."
That night I woke to the muffled strains of music. The music drove me out of bed and into the foyer, where the air took on the smell of human sweat. I squinted through a crack near the hinge of the door to the practice room. In the silvery beams from the skylight I saw him playing, swaying desperately, enclosed in the little room. His shoulders and arms encircled the violin and bow as if he were about to crush them. His strong fingers hit the gleaming strings with audible force. His right arm drew powerful, seemingly interminable long notes, then convulsed as he struck deep chords near the frog. I feared he might snap something by pushing too deeply into the strings. I feared he would crush the wood in his hands.
Then his bow skittered off the strings. A single beam of light slipped down from the skylight, illuminating one wild eye. He knew I was there. He flung open the door. Did I seem as much of a stranger to my husband then as he did to me? I imagine how he must have seen me: a frightened woman, a stranger in cheap cotton pajamas with her hair smashed from sleep. "Go to sleep," he hissed. I hurried. I hurried back to our room and forced myself to drown in sleep before he returned.
The next morning Tian left early; he had a lesson to give at nine o'clock. I stood in the window and watched him leave, shoulders bent as if he were walking into wind.
I dressed Anna in her warmest clothes and took her for a walk. The carriage bumped on the broken pavement. Clouds hung low and hid the view; a sharp smell of snow filled the air. I had heard old women say that if a wife cannot bear a son, she will lose her husband. I did not believe in old women's sayings, but as I walked along and smelled the coming snow I began to understand them. They had been shared by generations of women who lay awake in anger and confusion, trying to understand how to make their husbands happy again.
"Mama," Anna was saying. "Mama, Mama." Guiltily, I stopped the carriage. Lately, she had begun to have specific fears; she saw menace in ordinary things: pigeons, headlights, faces in photographs. I knelt down and wiped a tear from her face.
"What is it?" I asked.
She examined my face with her small eyes and looked away.
I walked faster. I pushed the carriage to a little playground several blocks from home. Anna liked the bucket swing. I placed her in the swing and noted with relief the way her eyes began to shine, her plump legs to wave.
"Do you want more?" I kept asking. "More?"
I pushed her harder and higher. The quiet air filled with her shrieks of joy. I knew she would be tired and cross before her nap, but I did not stop. I pushed until I made myself dizzy, but I could not throw off the weight of fear.
She fell asleep on the way home. My arms were shaking as I lifted her from the carriage. I went to the closet and pulled out the cardboard box that I had not touched since Anna was born. My school papers, neatly filed away like fossil bones of my lost thoughts. I took out a folder and went through the papers, not stopping to read or try to remember. I was looking for a paper clip. When I found one I removed it quickly, tearing the page. I stuffed the folder back into the box and pushed the box back into the closet. Then I went into the bathroom and took out the round plastic case that held my diaphragm. I unbent the paper clip and made a tiny hole near the edge.
|The Eve of the Spirit Festival||154|
Posted June 26, 2005
As an avid reader of Asian, Anglo-Asian, and Asian-American literature, I highly recommend this lovely collection. The characters here don't verbalize their angst, they endure it with grace and acceptance. Chang pays quiet tribute to those who gave much to see a better life for their children--even if they realized that the changes they wrought would also leave a sense of loss and of diminished identity. Her writing is exquisite--she wafts into your heart instead of intellectualizing or exclaiming. I'm looking forward to reading *Inheritance* next.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 22, 2005
This book is absolutely amazing. If you are looking for a book that you will pick up over and over again, this is it. Chang's characters are very vivid and we are able to share their feelings on the most intimate level. The novella is a superior piece that flows well and allows us to see the various struggles people face in life. The stories continue the theme of hunger nicely and create equally enchanting scenarios. Every piece is fresh and very different from the one preceding it. This book truly deserves all of the praise it has received.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 30, 2003
Chang weaves the painful experiences of immigrant life and the intricate happenings of being American. Her prose is comparable to the almost similar genre written by authors like Ha Jin and Amy Tan. Her short story entitled 'Pipa's Story' is reminiscent as a shorter version of Tan's 'The Bonesetter's Daughter.' Would definitely recommend to anyone that is interested in Asian immigrant prose.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 4, 2000
The title piece deserves to be a classic in the novella form. It is a fiercely moving and uncompromisingly written long story by a younger writer who I look forward to reading in the years to come.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.