Wonder taking shape as an exploration of suspense and recognition of traumas. We wonder how an event unfolds. We wonder about the terrors of the past. We wonder how the future will carry the past.
The Loudest Voice
Today is April 7th and I was sitting in bed. I wasn’t sitting in my dormitory room where Lili would sleep right across from me.
If it were an average morning, I would wake up and tidy my hair. Then I would run by the baker’s stall to exchange a yuan for a fragrant piece of yiutiao, hot off Mr. Chen’s fryer for breakfast. I would arrive to my first class fifteen minutes sharp before my classmates. As was expected of the student representative assistant, I would sit at the front of the room with an attendance notebook. If exams were being passed back, I would receive my exam second or third as the second or third placers would.
But today is April 7th and I was sitting in bed at home. I wrapped a thick quilt around myself, sat, and stared at the peeling wall. I heard thunder in the distance.
There was a knock on the door and my mother came into the room. She carried a white notebook and a thick black marker with her.
I remember when I was little I would watch her write stories to me, crafting tales with beautiful characters. I didn’t mind her silence, only her deep and warm hugs, scented with lavender oil. This was how she spoke to me. I had never heard my mother speak before. She made whimpers and occasionally screamed in the night when I was young. I knew she was loud, yet wordless.
My mother shut the door behind her and sat in the chair opposite from me. A small glass vial with a tiny cork stopper swung from her wooden rosary necklace down her chest. Then I heard a scratching of the black marker on the notebook. Finally, she flipped the notebook around.
“Jiang Ruoxi, why did you come home last night?” she wrote.
I swallowed. How could I tell her?
“I wanted to,” I replied.
“But students live in the university dormitory.”
“Okay, but today is a school day is it not?”
“Is there something you aren’t telling me?” she wasn’t satisfied. “How are your grades?”
“I scored first on Professor Zhang’s history exam.”
“I’d expect nothing less. What did you write about?”
“The Nanjing Massacre of 1938.”
My mother paused and nodded. Then her marker resumed, “A memorable period. You honor your ancestors and your family by studying this. What else has occured at school?”
“I was offered the position as Professor Zhang’s assistant and student representative.”
“Take it. When does this job start? You should be honored that a teacher is recognizing your hard-earned efforts. Didn’t I tell you that meeting with him to prepare for the exam is a good idea?”
“I got the grade.”
“As you should’ve. I heard that the previous student representative was sent to the reeducation camp for old Red Guards. They’re a bunch of rabble rousers. I expect you to take it.”
“The job,” My mother looked almost offended. “Today is Friday. I expect you to return to school on Sunday and start school again on Monday. Wasn’t Professor Zhang a distinguished professor by Yale University in the Americas?”
“You need this job and I want you to work closely with him.”
“I-I don’t know.”
“Stop being ridiculous. You will do this. You will do what I tell you to do.”
“How often were you meeting him?”
“Twice a week.”
“You may need to meet with him more. Every office hour. You need to keep your grade where it is. Don’t get cocky. He can write an excelled recommendation letter for you for your business school application to Oxford, was it?”
“Your university sent us a letter saying that they wanted to consider you along with other students from your university for a scholarship to study in Oxford. You can study law or medicine or something. Think, you’ll be the first Jiang to ever set foot in Oxford.”
“Mark my words, if a door opens for you, you would be foolish not to take it. A door has opened for the family,” the notebook shook enthusiastically in front of my face. I felt nauseous.
“Mom. I’m tired. Could you leave me alone for a little bit,” something knotted in my throat.
“This all depends on your grades and Professor Zhang. You understand?” My mother looked at me expectantly and then sighed. As she bobbed her head, her permed hair bounced. She gathered her belongings before leaving the room.
I closed my eyes and waited for my mother to leave the room. I kept my eyes closed even after the door swung shut. Worry kept knotting and unknotting itself deep in my stomach.
I cannot fail, I chanted a mantra in my head as my eyes grew hot. I cannot fail. I cannot fail. I must not fail. My family. My family. My mother. My hands felt cold. Nothing matters except for my performance. I will dance and keep dancing like the fairytale of the dancer who kept dancing until her legs were cut off. For my family. How could I tell my mother about Professor Zhang? How could I tell her that even Dr. Lan wouldn’t look me in the eye. I was the perfect daughter and had tried to be for the longest time. My mother would always brag about me to the other ladies in the hair salon and her embroidery clients.
I found that if I closed my eyes long enough I would eventually fall asleep and sometimes the world of dreams numbs reality even better than a fifteen yuan bottle of Fenjiu liquor. My body felt heavier and heavier as I drifted off. Then I had a dream. My head was suspended in an ocean of darkness. My body was either submerged in darkness or had disappeared. My mouth was missing. I dreamed that I tried to scream as a thick bodied man suddenly descended on me, but I had no mouth.
Memories were oceans, coming and receding, bringing wafts of warmth and rushes of cold. The images would swirl together and Xia was a seafarer, catching glimpses and sensations of each of them.
Xia remembered waking up twenty years ago in a sea of blood, naked. Her sisters’ eyes glazed over. Memories were pungent gasps of images, raining and splattering aching pangs.
Xia remembered them. Their faces. Hollow cheeks. Bloodied lips. Grim gray corpses. Those sunken glazed eyes always living in a stupor, a haze of sluggish motion. The stench of the walking dead. There drowned in the coldness of it all. And in their faces she saw her own.
Xia remembered what happened twenty years ago—how her cold fingers trembled gripping her older sisters, listening to the Japanese bombs fall and the collision of ash on pavement. The footstep outside.
When that happened she would close her eyes, inhaling all the lights and veins of sounds, one scene at a time, and then forcefully shrink the images, exhaling when it was a grain of rice. That would work—for a time—before memories would howl and resurrect in a culminating rainstorm.
When the greenish waves hit her, she would forget how to swim as time became a whirlpool, thick and icy. She struggles to cry, but she no longer speaks. History rendered her mute. Often, she’d lay in the dark, under the covers, and listen to a solemn heartbeat. There would be a sharp ringing. She’d remember a feeling she had a long time ago, swallowed by a sun-less, hot, and sticky darkness. She was in a river and all flowed and took her in their violent motion. Everything all too fast. Passing. Passing. Passing. And then Xia would drown.
The first person I told after it happened to me was Dr. Lan of the literature department. Surely she would believe me, I had thought. Dr. Lan knew me even when I was in my mother’s stomach. So I told her about the way he touched me and bent me over on the desk, papers scattering everywhere. I told her how I still remember his sour breath next to my ear and how tightly his hands grasped my arms. I remember the checkered blue squares on his shirt wrinkling as he pinned me down.
Dr. Lan blinked at me. Then she shook her head.
“No,” Dr. Lan slowly said. “Professor Zhang would never do that.”
I told her when he lifted up my skirt, I tried to kick him away.
“I screamed at him, I’m a virgin,” I tried explaining to Dr. Lan.
“I’m not sure. I just needed to say something. I’m innocent! I’m innocent!”
“Professor Zhang has a wife, Madame Zhang who works in the philosophy department, and a daughter. How could he have touched you?”
The memories were all at once too clear and too hazy. “I-I’m sure he did.”
“Do you have any proof?”
I unzipped my jacket to show Dr. Lan the bruises on my arms, “Look at this.”
Dr. Lan looked uneasy as if she had just swallowed something exceedingly bitter. “Ruoxi, the university can say anything about it.”
“But, but they can’t. He did. He really did touch me.”
“Did you seduce him for an exam score?” Dr. Lan’s voice grew quiet.
“No Dr. Lan!” Blood immediately drained from my face and my stomach started to churn. “No! I’m innocent! I never—I would never!”
“So maybe he did touch you,” Dr. Lan murmured to herself.
Tears streamed helplessly from my face.
“Take a moment to yourself Ruoxi,” Dr. Lan handed me a white handkerchief. “The best case scenario is if you grow strong and persevere. You have wonderful grades and you bring pride to your family, especially to your hardworking mother. Think of her sacrifice.”
“This is a little incident, but a delicate situation nonetheless. I will speak to Dr. Zhang and my supervisors about this.”
The next week, I was pulled from my engineering course to speak with a small committee about my complaints. A group of professors gathered around a long rectangular table and faced me. They all sat on tall wooden chairs and I nervously sat on a small wooden stool at the front of the room. Dr. Lan and Professor Zhang were there as well. I felt as if I were a small flower at the edge of a cliff, watching a storm surge toward me.
“Poor Ruoxi!” Professor Zhang exclaimed when he saw me. I flinched.
I examined the other professors’ faces. Dr. Lan looked at the floor.
“Ruoxi,” a professor at the head of the table addressed me. “Given your grades, we understand that you are a model student and we take pride in our student representatives and their assistants.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Ruoxi,” the professor said again. “You scored first on Professor Zhang’s latest examination. You wrote an excellent essay about the terrors of the Japanese during World War II, especially on the circumstances in our very own Nanjing. Professor Zhang came to me yesterday. In light of the previous student representative’s reeducation leave, he suggested that you be promoted to student representative and be his personal assistant as representative of your hard work. However, Dr. Lan came to me yesterday with most troubling news. She said that you came to her and told her that Professor Zhang was inappropriate with you.”
My palms started sweating.
“How could you wrong someone who only wants to help you? Students have always loved Professor Zhang.”
“It’s true,” I whispered.
“Speak up,” an older man at the table barked at me.
“It’s true,” I tried again, louder. “Professor Zhang wronged me.”
“Just listen to her,” Professor Zhang cried. “She needs help.”
The other professors at the table all murmured among themselves. Some nodded and gestured at me. Others wore unease on their faces, clearly not wanting to be a part of the conversation. Dr. Lan’s eyes were still frozen to the ground, refusing to meet my gaze.
“Ruoxi,” the professor at the head of the table repeated. “I understand that you must have faced so much pressure but this accusation is troubling. If word gets out then we will lose the face of our university.”
The professor leaned forward, sweating slightly in his chair, “So much is at risk here. Do you understand? Luckily for you, Professor Zhang told me about your mental struggles. So you must have only been nervous.”
“No, I was not—”
“Don’t make this harder than it already is,” Professor Zhang interrupted. “I only want what’s best for you.”
“Consider your grades and your future,” Professor Zhang leaned forward. I froze and thought of my mother. My family had sacrificed so much to the loan sharks just to keep me in university.
“Ruoxi,” the professor at the head of the table spoke my name as if he were delivering a prison sentence. I watched him clear his throat and wipe his sweaty brow with a spotless handkerchief, “you will either apologize to Professor Zhang for your disrespect or transfer departments. We cannot tolerate this behavior. But we will give you a grace period to think about this.”
“If you apologize, I can still instate you as the new student representative,” Professor Zhang said graciously.
“I don’t want this—”
“Think. You can help deepen the study of the terrors of the Japanese in Nanjing. You can help the cause and help our progress,” Professor Zhang continued.
“Go home Ruoxi,” Dr. Lan said quietly. It was clear: Dr. Lan gave me a warning.
I shut my mouth. Everything seemed to swim and wave before my eyes. I felt the intensity of the professors’ gazes, especially Professor Zhang’s. My hands were shaking and I closed my eyes.
“What does the ocean look like?” Xia remembered asking her mother when she had her voice. Little Xia turned to face her mother over her shoulder.
She recalled how the brush in little Xia’s hair paused mid-stroke and how her mother paused her humming. Her mother’s hands smelled of lavender oil and when she ran her hands through Xia’s fine long hair, Xia would smell of lavender oil as well. Everyone sat around the dinner table to drink some tea and unwind for the evening.
“Well,” her mother would sigh, “you’ve seen the river. We’ve passed by on the way to school.”
“That’s not the ocean,” Xia impatiently drummed her little fingers against her cheek. Xia leaned over her father’s atlas, staring at the margins marking the ‘ocean’.
“No, it’s not. The ocean is where all rivers lead to. Think of it like a beautiful lake as blue and deep as the sky, stretching to other places across the world,” her mother pressed a kiss against Xia’s head.
“Who knows what lives down there,” Xia’s older sister snickered from the table. “Maybe monsters live down there and are waiting for you to come visit, so they can snatch you up! And eat you!”
Xia’s mother glared at Xia’s older sister, “How can you scare your little sister like that? She’s only eleven years old.”
But Xia wasn’t daunted. She faced her mother, eyes wide, “We don’t know everything that lives there? How?”
“We don’t,” her mother conceded. “All creatures come and go as they please, like the wind. We can only catch so much of the wind.”
Xia looked at her mother owlishly and her mother sighed. Xia’s mother stood and went to a bookshelf nearby. When she returned she placed a small vial with a cork stopper in Xia’s palm. Water jostled within the vial.
“Here’s a little bit of the ocean for now. This is a promise that you’ll see the ocean someday.”
Xia’s mouth opened into a sweet little circle, her heartbeat racing, “Why can’t I visit now?”
“Dear?” Xia’s mother turned to Xia’s father, who turned down the radio. “It’s ridiculous. We live in Nanjing and Xia hasn’t visited the beach before.”
“It’s that war,” Xia’s father huffed. “She was born not too long before the war started. Give it some time. When it’s safe, we’ll visit the ocean.” He shook his head and turned back to the radio, dialing the volume back up.
When I woke up, I slipped into the bathroom and faced the mirror. I wondered how the woman behind the looking glass fared. I forgot whether she had a mouth or not, but I imagined that if she did she would have smiled. Humorlessly. The mirror itself was cracked and sprinkled with dust, reclined against the bathroom’s cinder block walls. Then my back crashed against the lined walls and melted on the floor. My half muffled, half wild sobs echoing off a bathroom wall.
The sink dripped: one, two, one, two, one, two. First a higher note and then a deeper splosh. Screams. I forgot whether they were actual screams or the screams that echoed in my head. My hand clawed at her face and my tears. My heartstrings curled in a knotted frenzy. When I closed my eyes I was suddenly back in Mr. Zhang’s office, squirming and kicking, bruising my knee at the corner of the table.
I remember recalling my history paper on the Nanjing Massacre in the midst of Professor Zhang’s assault. The first time I stumbled upon the massacre was when I was young. I was rifling through my mother’s bookshelf when I found a photograph of a woman with her pants pulled down by a posing man. I found the words “Nanjing, 1938” scrawled on the back of the photograph. I was reminded of this during Professor Zhang’s history class. When I embarked on my research I flinched at images like the photograph I found. When Professor Zhang started approaching me, I swallowed these images hungrily like how a drunk inhales alcohol— everything tasted bitter, but dulled something inside of me. I vaguely remembered images of women with their bellies ripped open and images of bayonets shoved up a girl’s privates. I felt sick again, but there was a strange dim satisfaction— not unlike ripping open old scabs and watching myself bleed. I could still feel Professor Zhang’s kiss on my cheeks. It felt like a stamp. I was stamped by Professor Zhang just as the Japanese had stamped their hostage women. My stomach churned and I could suddenly smell Professor Zhang’s sour breath again and hear his voice growl, “If you want to be a good girl, you will honor your teacher.”
I wanted to be a good girl. I’ve always wanted to be a good girl. I’ve always wanted to be as good as my parents would want me to be. I remember I had thought about staying as limp as a doll, like a good girl. I would be like those women in the horrors of Nanjing, like those women in the images of hospital beds— they wore lifeless eyes. My heart continued knot and unknot itself. How could it be that a historian like Professor Zhang, who studies the atrocities of Nanjing, could ever violate a woman? Did he even touch me? Was it as Dr. Lan speculated? Was it as the committee thought? Was I making this up?
Professor Zhang’s touch and his smells were all very confusing. How could I tell my mother about this? And if I took this job, how could I hold my head up high? This was panic. And panic arrived like train light memories. Passing. Passing. Passing.
I looked outside the window of the bathroom. I noted my height from the earth as I watched the cars pass our apartment building. It had just begun to rain. To fall or not to fall, I wondered. The thought of being free, free to join wind and crumple all in a sweeter rush seemed just as sweet. But the wind howled like the screams of a thousand women. That's how the massacre was described in the books. Yes, if I were to slip a little bit, I would leave Mr. Zhang and my mother’s teaching of familial burden behind. Yes, I could fall like a little rain drop. The screaming would stop.
I decided I would leave today. Passing. Passing. Passing. An image of my mother in my apron drifted into my head. I ripped my eyes away.
After I showered, I wore a thin white dress. There was a chill from the window, but I paid no mind. When I opened the door, I slipped back into my bedroom and found an empty sheet of notebook paper from my desk. I selected a pen from my pencil case in my bookbag and began to detail a letter describing my situation as clearly as I could. This was what my mother deserved before I would finally leave. When I finished, I folded the letter, feeling a cold determination. I stumbled into the living room. The door to the balcony was latched shut, but loose enough so that if I were quiet, I wouldn’t wake my mother who lay asleep on a patched sedan nearby. I breathed a sigh of relief. She was quiet and this was unusual. I placed my folded letter on her lap.
Back at home, I’ve always been scared of my mother when she was asleep. When she was awake she would always be writing to me, instructing me on what to do next and what she would have done on an exam or in a relationship. But when she was asleep, she was almost another being entirely. In the middle of the night, there would be a whimper and then banshee-like wailing and screaming piercing through our thin walls. When I was in first grade, I brought a classmate to sleepover one time, but after a night listening to my mother, she never slept over again.
“There’s something wrong with your mom,” a visiting classmate tried to explain. My cheeks glowed red. Yes. I knew that.
“Why can’t your mom talk?” another visiting classmate asked.
I really couldn’t explain. It wasn’t like she was deaf. She clearly heard everything I said. If she had a thought, she’d write her words down on a notebook with a thick black marker.
“You need to control her,” an old neighbor berated my father. He had heard my mother’s wails through the walls. Baba would apologize and offer to buy the neighbor a drink.
“I’ll need more than a drink to get over that,” the neighbor would mutter as he left.
My mother would remain in bed, but she’d curl into a ball and her screams would continue. Her hair would cover her face and her fists would clench. When I finally couldn’t take it anymore, I’d rush into the bedroom and scream, “WAKE UP.”
But she wouldn’t. She would keep quaking and wailing from her spot in the bed. I never knew why. I had never heard my mother speak before. Despite her wordlessness, she carried the loudest voice. How Baba dealt with this almost every night, I wasn’t sure. He would quickly wake up, grab a washcloth from the bathroom, run it under cold water, and then gently place it on my mother’s face. She’d wake up after a while and gasp. Then he’d pull her into his arms.
“Shh,” he’d murmur, stroking her hair. “It was another dream. You’re alright. You’re with me.”
My mother would keep shaking, but her sobs would soften until she’d fall asleep again.
“Go back to bed,” Baba would say to me. Then I would scramble back to my place under the covers, but my mother’s screams still rang in my ears and in my dreams. I still remember her screams.
Xia remembered how her cold fingers trembled gripping her older sisters, listening to the Japanese bombs fall and the collision of ash on pavement. Again, the footsteps outside scraping the earth. Her mother quickly hurried them under the table. Then the pounding of the door. They fell quiet looking at one another. Grandmother and grandfather peered from the threshold. Their father opened the door and was filled with bullets, the same way their ration sack was filled with rice in the market—starting with a few grains and then an outpour. Mother screamed and screamed, moving to cradle Xia’s one-year-old sister under the table. Ashen green men spilled into the room.
The green men spoke an unintelligible language— brunt and harsh, metallic and robotic. One of them barked something and then they all dispersed like ants.
Mother’s face broke into tears as the green men dragged Mother out from under the table and ripped Xia’s brother from her arms. Their bayonets, already crusted in something red, ripped through her brother’s chest. And the baby hung limp as he soared in the air and slammed into the wall.
Like birds to a fish, the green men descended on Mother. Xia remembered watching her mother’s body shudder like a fish as the birds descended on her, hungrily ripping at her tender chest and legs. Her clothes shaved off like scales. The green men pinned her flailing pale arms above her head and chained them together. She screamed as their mouths and teeth tore at her breasts. Her hair sobbed a black trail of tears down her face. Mother stopped screaming, Xia recalled, and her voice became like the wind through a pipe, struggling and gurgling to gasp free, rising to a shuddering pitch before sinking to a quiet sigh.
She slumped. Motionless.
They finished, next to her husband’s corpse.
Grandmother dragged the three sisters out from under the table into the next room. Grandfather barred the door quickly with chairs and brooms. They rushed into the corner and fell silent. The children quaked and elderly petrified. Yet they held tight to their closeness.
And they waited.
Xia’s eyes would not close and she still saw of her mother writhing naked on the ground. The green men upon her, stepping over her father, soft on the ground, soft and full of the bullets they filled him with. She still heard their beastly cries, whoops, and roars. The picture of it all too clear. Suddenly her body no longer felt like her own and the images she saw from her eyes no longer felt like her own. The world around her washed in blue, whirling. Her breakfast churned in her stomach, rising acridly in her throat. And in the silence, Xia remembered how her heartbeat thundered in her ears, screaming for the cries she suddenly forgot, becoming the loudest voice.
Time became thick and icy. And all was quiet, except for the heavy toll of Xia’s heartbeats, cleaving her chest, and occasional screams piercing through the walls around them. Xia watched as her grandmother swept a wrinkled thumb across her sister’s face, wiping a wet stream. Her grandfather’s brow furrowed as he held them closer.
I stepped out into the balcony. I calmly made sure to shut the door to the living room behind me. My bare feet tapped the cold cement floor. When I stepped outside, I immediately felt the rain tap my body. As I drifted near the edge of the balcony, a heaviness took to the air— a kind of rooted gravity the gloom of the water carried. The deluge was all very dream like, blurred to the senses and at the same time very present. There was a crispness to the cold. Tempest tinged the grays and whites and dark hues took the day in heaving gasps and infinite weeping. White whipped across the skyline. Everything was submerged in the wet and crystalline. My white gown was drenched by now and clung to my figure.
I watched the cars pass me down below, whip by and by and by. The rain seemed to create pale gray waves drifting across the cars streaking by down below—as if the roads themselves had turned into an ocean. Pedestrians and their umbrellas down below became sheep herded by the rain. I thought of the women of Nanjing being herded like oxen. I continued to watch the cars below, their motions were brisque and apathetic. I stretched out my arms and stood tall. The rain teased me. Imploring me to join the rain droplets as they fell. Yes, I thought, it would be easier than another day with Mr. Zhang. I thought of Dr. Lan. I thought of my mother and closed my eyes.
The wind howled and I heard the cries of a thousand women again. I heard them being taken and retaken by ten thousand other Mr. Zhangs, except when the Mr. Zhangs would speak, they would speak in rough noises I couldn’t understand.
The past became the present and I would be history, I wondered in delirium. Then I leaned over the edge of the balcony. Everything would be like a dream.
The door pounded.
Then fired the sounds of the green men. Their barks and howls. More joined in.
Xia’s grandparents jumped and held tighter to one another like a drowning man to a raft. Xia’s sister let out a jagged cry. There was another thud, and another, and then came what sounded like a furious thunderstorm, raining fire crackers. The chairs and brooms barricading the door shuddered violently, bending and quaking.
Xia remembered how the door burst open, the chairs and brooms flying across the room, and the green men flooding, spilling in. They came with their bayonets. Grandfather and grandmother moved in front of the three children and the green men thrust their knives into grandfather and grandmother like kitchen knives to lard. Xia heard the same sickening squelch of the metal through flesh and their gasps. And their bodies fell like sacks of rice to the ground.
The wave hit her, pushing her down to the ground. She struggled, a cold flame called fear, coursing through her, and she pushed against their green vests. Another wave. Two searing somethings pierced her arm. Blood, so much of it, too much of it, made rivers across her skin and on the floor. Xia gasped. She became an unwilling earth, but all her rivers were spilling sticky, hot ocean. And those green invaders stretched across the growing oceans of red, clawing at her body. They peeled her clothes as easily as the fishermen at the market skin their fish, revealing her red, bony flesh.
She clawed at them once more. She heard the screams of her sister. Then something heavy smacked her across the head. Something hot. Something sticky. So many, too many hands. The pounding of her chest coursed through her head past a sharp ringing. Xia thought her lower ends had either burst into flames or froze over. There was a numbness and there was everything and there was nothing.
Then, light. I was manhandled backwards and thrown into the bright living room. My mother towered over me. She was a small woman, but she somehow dragged me from the balcony’s edge to the living room floor.
My note was also on the floor. The door to the balcony swung open and the rain blew into the living room. She waved the note at me and for the first time, I made my mother cry. She threw herself at my waist.
Her beauty parlor name tag dangled from her lapel. It read: Mrs. Xia Jiang, 10 years of service.
Her scarred and wrinkled hands touched my face. She still smelled of lavender oil. Then my mother fumbled under the sedan for her notebook and a marker.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she waved the notebook in my face. Tears streaked down her cheeks and I suddenly noted the dark spots and the shadows around her eyes.
“Dr. Lan didn’t believe me when I first told her. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
“You didn’t want to disappoint me by jumping out the window?”
“Everything was too much!” I put my hands over my face. I was breathing heavily. “No one believed me. No one wanted to listen.”
“You thought I wouldn’t listen?”
“You didn’t. You kept making a checklist of things for me to do, but you’ve never asked how I was. It’s always about my future and school. You and Baba work so hard over time to put me through university. But if I continued with Professor Zhang, I would lose the family’s face.”
“Forget about losing face. I almost lost my daughter.” She wheezed and coughed. Was she convulsing? Was she sick? How long had I been away from home?
“Mom! Mama!” I wrapped my hands around her hand. “Don’t push yourself.”
Then there was a rasp. I barely missed it. It was so quiet I could’ve mistaken it for the wind and the rain hurtling in from the open balcony window.
“Ru. Si,” my mother managed.
“RU. SI,” my mother wailed. “RU-SI. RU-SHI. RU-SHI.”
She was saying my name. Whatever caused her to be silent for so long seemed to break its hold on her. I heard my mother speak for the first time. Then I cried with her. Even when the sky cleared and when Baba returned home from work, we held each other for a long time.
If Xia died, the world wouldn’t exist. Who knows? Maybe in death she’d finally recall what her grandparents’ faces looked like, instead of the watercolor hazes she imagined them to be. It would be easier than falling asleep and it would only take a step to finish it all. In her dreams, there could only three colors to her world: red, black, and white. Even the somberness of gray broke the rhythm. She sleep-walked through life and the rotating colors of red, black, and white—dreams of a red and white flag billowing against the dark night and the sounds that came with it. She thought of this often when she had been left for dead in her grandparents’ bedroom. She had lain on the floor for days hoping one of her family members would stir from the ground to put their arms around her. But the longer she stayed in the house, the colder she became. A scent had started to stir. What kind of smell? Rotting eggs? Rotting meat? Xia couldn’t put her finger on it. It grew stronger by the day.
But if Xia died, who would tell her story to her children and what would become of her husband? Xia remembered all that had happened to her. She remembered someone placing their hand on her chest and then scooping her up. She remembered waking up in a hospital and suddenly realizing she had lost her voice. But as wordless as she was, years past surviving the massacre, Xia realized this every morning when she would jolt awake. Life, even now, was difficult and Xia found it difficult to breathe at times. Goosebumps would stand ripe on her skin from her dreams. Her husband’s arm would drape heavily around her torso. Baby Ruoxi would lie in between them with a thumb in her mouth. Her dreams and restless nights sometimes caused the baby to cry, but her husband, her new family, would be there for her. He was a hard worker, but money and food rations were especially tight even by the end of the Cultural Revolution. She often wondered about swallowing one too many pills or slipping out the window of the apartment when the fits and dreams would come back.
“Ming-ben,” Xia suddenly wrote on her notepad to her husband. “If anything happens to me, please take good care of Ruoxi.”
“Xia, what are you talking about?” Her husband sat straight up in bed.
“Anything can happen. You’re about to be promoted soon at your job. You should be able to care for her—”
“No!” Ming-ben cried out and pulled her into a tight embrace. “Are you planning on ending yourself? Please. I want to take care of both you and Ruoxi. I promise I will take good care of you. Even if it means I have to work over time I will support the both of you.”
And now, she couldn’t do what she thought she had to do. Now, she knew. A new wonderment filled her insides as a fire lifts a lantern. And this was her kind of love, choosing to watch this family as small as it might be grow. It was hers and she swore to grow it in every way she knew how. That idea was warmer than the dreams and fits she would have. That idea would lay her to rest, to sleep peacefully for the rest of the night. Her own fear expected her disappearance from it all— spotlighting the ease of falling or swallowing past the tipping point. And now life proved ever more beautiful. The minutes she exhaled and inhaled the air, under the cruel and beautiful world, were all that mattered.
The next day we sat by one another quietly at the ocean side. We had visited long ago. My mother was already scribbling on her notepad. She wasn’t used to talking yet, but I now understood. We had to be gentle with one another.
“I want you to have the life and future I never had. I never had a family who helped me this way. They’re all gone now. They were all lost to the massacre.”
My mother had never talked about her family before. And now it was like a cruel joke. I didn’t realize that the very incident I studied was truly a part of me.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“What’s the use of reliving the past over and over again? All I need now is you and your Baba.”
“Why didn’t I know about what happened to you?”
My mother ignored my question and kept writing. “I’ve thought about ending things. I know how it feels. I’ve wanted to jump from the balcony you tried jumping from. I’ve wanted to join my family. But why haven’t I? It’s because of you and your Baba. I have a new family. I can’t leave my family. If I did, I would hurt the two of you.”
We sat in a growing silence, but it was not a cold silence. But something warm. I couldn’t understand it. Perhaps it was the smell of my mother’s lavender-scented hands resting softly on my lap. I closed my eyes and thought of my mother’s quiet history. I wondered what more hadn’t she shared. What else did she hide from me.
“What now? What happens to your school?”
I felt a sharpness inside of me. Yes, there was still Professor Zhang. I thought of the board and the cold round table. My mother’s hand squeezed mine. I leaned my head against her shoulder and we watched the ocean churn, shifting its form, swelling, growing, remembering it’s past songs as the wind whistled above the waves, and crying out a new verse.
The first time she brought her new family to the ocean side, Xia watched her husband chase a baby Ruoxi along the shallow tide. She smiled when her husband swung her daughter into the air and her daughter squealed with delight, falling into her father’s arms. In the distance, Xia watched the horizon break from its cold muted purples as faint hints of fuschia and fire melted through the clouds. This was a sky enrobing in the colors of a phoenix’s birth, taking on hints of gold on its wispy feathers. It is sunrise. She felt the water rush to her toes and to her soul’s core. She felt its colorless coolness and inhaled all of its nostalgic fragrance. There was a hint of lavender oil somewhere. Xia rubbed her hands together.
The ocean is no longer in a simple vial on a bookshelf long ago in Nanjing. She feels the wash of living water and it is clean. Xia saw her daughter rush toward her with open arms. Ruoxi’s Baba was close behind. She knelt with open arms as she watched the waves chase her laughing daughter. Her daughter’s laughter was the loudest voice she heard and it was a beautiful sound.
This ocean of newness was clean, Xia decided, and she was anew.