Appeared in RE-VISIONS, Spring, 2006
Uncle still comes to my bed each night to read to me words from his thick American book. It is always late when he climbs the stairs outside the room where I sleep. He tries to step quietly, so I will not know that he approaches, but the stairs always betray him with their same creaking chatter. When they speak like this, I can hear in them the same low complaints given in winter by the slack boards of our small house in the village near Harbin where I once lived with Mi-Ma. On the coldest nights, the playful west wind would fall upon our thin walls as if he thought we lived between harp strings and were eager to dance to his tuneless plucking. If I were wakened by these troubled sounds, Mi-Ma would hum the simple songs taught to her by her mother and shame the foolish wind into stillness. Her soft voice could always calm me back to sleep. Yet there is no soft voice to soothe me when Uncle wakes me now, and I do not still recall those simple songs to hum them to myself.
Limbs of dim lamplight from the hallway stretch like branches into the darkened room as he enters. His shadow, light as a hungry sparrow, lands on my face as if to peck away the first crumbs of sleep that have collected in the corners of my closed eyes. He sits by my bed on the wounded wooden stool he found abandoned in the street one day on his walk home from the fish market. He has mended the cracked leg with glue and strong twine many times since. He says they throw away much that is still good here. I have seen that he is right.
At first when he comes I keep my eyes shut tight. They lie for me and tell him I still sleep. But once he settles on the stool, I peek between my eyelids to watch him begin his reading. He does not ever notice. He has too much trouble with the clumsy English words in his book to see that I am not yet home with Mi-Ma in my dreams. She waits patiently for me each night, while his slow, rough fingers press down upon the old pages, pushing hardest against the longest words. I think he wants to hurt these words like they hurt him. Maybe he wishes them to cry out their own names and spare him his effort. But they stay silent, and he must fumble with them as he would have me do, forcing them from his own mouth, softly, so as not to wake me, but still loudly enough so that their sly American poison will seep into my dreams and murder my memories of home.
Mi-Ma will not let this happen though. She waits for him to finish, as enduring as a weary ox each night, until he has closed his book and shuffled off to own his small cot at the end of the hallway. It is then that she is free to whisper to me stories of my father’s sturdy laugh and the times when he would dangle me like a plump, ripe pear from the stems of his fingertips. These are long-ago days that I am now too grown to hold onto for myself, so she gives them to me like soft buns, feeding me bits of my father’s ghost to make me stronger and less afraid. She tells me that his spirit watches over me now in this strange land. She tells me that he watches over Uncle too; that he, her brother, is the only hope for my future, the reason she gave me up to the great laughing ocean now between us.
I think of these things each night as Uncle reads to me. I can tell he sees nothing but the foreign words of his book. Uncle says I must practice these watery Yankee words so that I too
may flow gently with the tides here. He says that I am like a fresh, dry rag that will soak them up much better than he, his brain already sopping with the many thoughts and memories of his long lifetime. It is true that I already speak them better than he, but I hate these words. They spill from my lips like the muddy waters of the Songhua in spring, shapeless and treacherous. They have no value, only sound; no beauty, only function. Speaking them makes me dead inside.
Even my American name is dead. Susan. It means nothing in this country and only makes a sad, little noise when spoken. Uncle chose it for me when I first came here because he said it sounded like my real name. But I do not think it sounds like Xue Hua at all. Ice Flower. Mi-Ma once told me that she gave me this name because on the frozen, white morning when I born, I came out of her belly as bright and red as a wintersweet blossom.
Uncle calls himself “Jack” when he speaks to the Americans at the fish market, but they only ever call him Chan or Charlie. I hear them when I help him scrub the stand on Sunday afternoons. The women watch over me with fear, as if they think I will gobble up their children. I can tell the men think other thoughts. I hate these tall, pale ghosts with their oily skin clear like softened wax. Uncle tells me that I must learn to swallow their leers and insults as if they were sweet bean paste, hearty and filling, so that they will feed my angry heart and make it grow stout. He tells me that I must remember that there is little room in this country for a Chinese, especially a girl. He tells me that I will not see Mi-Ma again, that the Japanese have killed many people and that our village has been burned to dust. He tells me that they have given our country a false name, Manchukuo, that the Emperor has been made into a leaping monkey within his own palace. He tells me that Mi-Ma is lost to me forever.
It is true that I have not had letters from her since years ago. But I do not believe that she is dead. I still feel the steady beating next to my own pulsing heart that tells me she still lives. I know she is waiting for me, perhaps in some other village far from the bones of our old one, hoping that I will grown strong enough one day to return to my home and seek her out. Uncle does not wish me to speak like this, and will not hear me if I do. He says that I must accept my fate here; that I must always dance like the humble leaves for the pleasure of the foolish wind.
This is why he reads to me each night when he thinks that I still sleep, while I, near dreaming, long for Mi-Ma to sing to me again the simple songs once taught to her by her mother.
© 2006 R.A. Costello