Yin Q, The Home of Desperate Magic

“Have you the courage and perseverance? Certainly water is softer than your delicate hands, and yet it changes the shape of stones; but it feels not the pain that your fingers will feel; it has no heart, and cannot suffer the agony and torment you will have to endure. Do you see the stinging-nettle which I hold in my hand?…Break these nettles to pieces with your feet… and the charm will be broken. But recollect well…you must not speak. The first word you utter will pierce your brothers’ hearts like a deadly dagger. Their lives hang on your tongue. Remember all this!”

Hans Christian Anderson, “The Swan Girl”

I pressed my bare foot down on a thistle flower until I felt the long, silvery needles pierce the skin of my sole. The small puncture ripped through me as though it were the first sensation I had ever felt in my ten years—even my fingertips tingled. My vision blurred and then focused into hard clarity. This determined pain, this slow stab into my flesh was the answer. I held my breath and pressed harder.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ I was standing at the edge of the backyard, where my family’s rented plot met a field of cow corn. It was the end of the summer, and the corn stalks were tall and green. Sounds of living creatures and smells of fresh dirt rustled from the field. Farther up the property––closer to the stout, brick house––an oak tree sprawled out over the sky. The family basset hound used to be leashed to that tree year round until it died, choking on a chicken bone. A neighborhood kid must have fed it to her; we had known better. Earlier that summer, cicadas took over the tree, filling the days and nights with lusty shrieking. After three days of raspy fornicating, they shed their outer shells and flew away. When I climbed up into the oak tree’s hold, I found hundreds of crisp, brown, beetle husks, still clinging to the branches. The larvae had dropped to the ground and wiggled deep into the earth to hibernate for the next seventeen years. This brood would wake in 2000.

‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ Barefoot, I perched on a circle of bricks that my older brother had laid down two years prior, when we had just moved into that house. As he had dug into the dirt and pushed them into place, Ming had explained that the bricks would grow warm in the sunshine and it would be a good place for me to play. It made a fine altar for my sacrifice. I had gathered a bouquet of thistle weeds with my mother’s sewing scissors, the sharp ones I was forbidden to use. Those seductive, silver-green thorns served well as “nettles,” as I enacted the heroine role of Anderson’s “Swan Girl,” saving my family with suffering and silence. It was make believe. I made myself believe that if I could endure the pain, then my family would be okay. My father would stop hurting my mother, my mother would stop crying, and my brother would come home at night.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ I was a terrified child, living in what seemed like a classic fairytale. My father was both physically and emotionally abusive to my mother so it was easy then to mark him as the evil, dark monster; my mother, the good and beautiful queen. But, every member in a family that harbors intimate terror must adapt a mechanism of survival. One as cruel––to either another member or oneself––as the violence that is perpetrated by the principal abuser. The mechanism may be verbal abuse; it may be detachment and silence. Silence, we know, is a kind of injury, a conspiring sister to aggressive violence. In fairytales the protagonist often carries out their suffering and labored tasks in silence, tongues are cut, mouths are sealed, secrecy is sworn. So, too, the victims of abuse remain oppressed.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ In fairytales and religion alike, transformation is conducted through sacred pain and rites of passage: The Crucifixion, American Indian Vision Quests, fraternity and military hazing, and body modification––from ear piercing to the Judaic bris. I was beginning to use pain to imitate and make sense of the violence that surrounded me. When my father beat my mother, I felt powerless and invisible. Fairytales gave me the hope that suffering would lead to salvation, that magic was dark and dirty, powerful and unspeakable. The thistle flower was my personal coup d’état of suffering. A shift of agency occurred, as I claimed pain as my own.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ My earliest memory of witnessing violence stems back to the age of four, when we were living in the backwoods of Kentucky. The scene is like a photograph, carried forever in my pocket: My mother is crumpled on the floor and I, a little girl crying, am holding her head, red blood on my favorite, pink nightgown. My father would never purposely hit his children, so my brother and I learned quickly to be our mother’s shield. When the yelling started, we never left her side; we saw everything. We said nothing. We upheld the code of reticence that abusers rely on. We did not report to teachers, we did not call the police. My brother and I did not even talk to each other about our parents. We never directly said that our father beat our mother (even now it has never been said aloud between us). It was as if it were a secret we kept from ourselves. I had no language to say what it was that I saw, so even now my memories of the actual scenarios are skipped over, blurred, silenced.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ The way into my memory of the abuse is through the doors of the red brick house in Maryland. The two years that we lived in that house were the darkest and most magical of my life. It was a time when my family was struggling in the recession of the 80’s. My father kept losing jobs due to his temper at the workplace, which caused greater stress at home. He was ashamed that we were living on my mother’s single income, so the fighting and beatings were incessant. Added to that, my mother’s mother had come to live with us because a stroke had rendered her crippled. To my father, she was yet another mouth to feed, as well as another witness to his financial impotence.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ Thus, she died by his hands. My grandmother’s death, the most horrific act of violence my father committed, was a non-act. Starvation is the injury of nothingness; it forces the victim’s body to betray the life that inhabits it. It is an empty strike with no sound. On the rare occasion that we talk about it now, my mother closes her eyes and shakes her head as if gesturing, No, no, no, could undo the story. My brother never speaks of it.

Our Maryland house was nestled in Bel Air, a rural suburb outside of Baltimore. The red brick house consisted of three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, living room, den, and a basement. It sounds large, but it did not seem so at the time. We had moved from a massive, Kentucky colonial to this square, compact house, so my parents’ collection of cherry wood furniture condensed the space. In some areas of the house, we literally had to walk sideways between table and wall, china cabinet and chair.The pictures huddled closer on the walls and gravity somehow seemed stronger. The house was a rental and was regarded as one. The front door’s red paint peeled back to reveal bone white, and the dilapidated screen door, being more permanent than we, broke us into the habit of lifting it out of its frame to swing open. Stains on the floor were hidden with the arrangement of sofas and chairs. The kitchen was at the back of the house. Small and full of corners, it was never well lit. My mother grumbled at the unlucky feng shui of its placement. The kitchen should be at the heart of the house. The living room had a light wood floor and a large, sun-filled window. A baby grand piano occupied one side of the room and a charred fireplace marked the other end. Down the stairs were the basement and the den. Although I often tunneled down the dark, capsulated staircase, I rarely visited the den. It was my father’s room. He read and slept there in solitude, surrounded by his thick books of physical chemistry and mathematics. His plaques and diplomas lined the top shelves, a few leaning like toppled tombstones. I always turned left to the basement. The basement was my playground.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ My mother’s lavender room was the farthest down the hall. From the back window, we could see the branches of the big oak reaching for the house. The wallpaper was littered with violets but the room always smelled faintly of rotting carpet, even on dry days. During periods of rain, the scent would deepen like an exhalation of odorous breath. My mother kept the head of a monster on the top shelf of her closet. It was a grey leather bag, wrinkled and creased with a bulbous snout. Out of the top, skeins of wormy yarn protruded like spilling intestine. I would stare at the monster until it stared back and then squeeze my eyes shut. I don’t know why I didn’t just close the closet door.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ I slept in that room, with my mother, every night. I had started sleeping by her side when I was four because I experienced night terrors, affected by the propensity for sleeping with my eyes open–– a condition known nocturnal lagophthalmos, a freakish symptom that I still have to this day. The nightmares were a plausible excuse masking the unsaid: That my mother did not want to be in the same bed as my father. She locked the door at night but never answered when I asked why.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ I enjoyed sleeping in the lavender room, tucked under the covers with my mother every night. We wore matching, white flannel nightgowns with high ruffled necks, like maidens of long ago. My mother’s body was always warm and smelled of milky soap and facial lotion. When she read to me at night, her voice was a silken rope of safety that I hung on to, listening to fairytales and Chinese folk songs until I finally fell asleep. When she cried, I sat dutifully by her side, folding tissues as if they were lace for my Queen.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ She confided everything to me, stories that I should not have heard as a child. She told me about rape before I knew about sex, before I even knew how to multiply—that I was the outcome of this terrible act. She told me that my father beat her with a textbook while I was growing in her womb; he wanted her to miscarry. She told me that she saved me by crouching in a corner, her belly to the crook. The beautiful Queen then turned her wrath on her devoted servant. She told me that I was like my father; my temper and sullen demeanor the same. I had inherited my father’s round face and broad nose. The mirror would remind me that I was not the fairest in the land, not fair like my mother; my skin was dark, like the monster’s skin. The Queen declared: If I didn’t behave, if I weren’t good, she would leave me with my father, escaping on her own. That threat nestled deep inside. I must control myself, I must control everything, or I would be left behind.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ My mother was not intentional in her emotional abuse. She was a wife in an intolerable marriage with two children. She was an immigrant from China, a country of prevailing patriarchy that readily accepted wife-beating as a form of familial discipline. My mother was a child, herself, in many ways. She had come from a rich family that had pampered her. My parents met while she was still a senior in high school; he was her tutor.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ When my father immigrated to the U.S. to get his Ph.D. at Columbia, she followed him to the continent and attained her Master’s in genetic biology at the University of Toronto. When they reunited and married in New York City, my mother was a virgin bride, a Chinese debutante. She had never had a reason to be strong or ferocious until she became a victim. When an animal, a child, a person, is hurt over and over again, fear will eventually turn into rage. I didn’t have the maturity to understand at the time, but what I was witnessing (and receiving the backlash of) was the evolution of my mother’s pain. Her pain molted into rage, a rage that had no definition and no boundaries except to be fuel for survival. I was not the intended target, but I was there by her side in the lavender room, a child absorbing everything.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ Across the hall was a pink and apple-green room that received light throughout the day. My bedroom furniture was squeezed into that room, but it was my Lau Lau (mother’s mother) who lived there for over a year. My dolls and stuffed animals lined the shelves, but the air was infused with Chinese Oldness, a spicy, medicinal musk. Lau Lau had come from Taiwan to stay with us after her stroke because a tragedy had depleted the family wealth. She could no longer afford to be taken care of by a nurse. Besides her full time job, my mother attended to her mother for all her needs, bathing her, emptying her bedpan, and feeding her every meal.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ When Lau Lau first arrived, Ming and I shied away from the old woman, apprehensive of her antiquity and earthy formation. Once, I secretly watched as my mother bathed Lau Lau in the bathroom that was adjoined to the lavender room. My mother’s voice lilted with a Mandarin lullaby as she soaped and sponged the old woman’s large body. I was fascinated by Lau Lau’s aged nakedness, her yellowed skin, wet and bubbled with blue veins. Her toenails were thick and long, like the claws of the basset hound. My mother poured hot water over her head, careful of the golf-sized tumor that protruded from Lau Lau’s round cheek. The loving creatures simultaneously smiled, and steam rose in a white glow around their bodies. I watched, frightened and envious, but also in awe of that soft magic between mother and daughter. Mother and mother. After she was dried and wrapped safely in her soft, cotton cheepah, I approached Lau Lau and wrapped my starfish fingers around her heavy hand, on which a dense, jade ring sat like a watchful beetle. I was no longer afraid of her. She was my mother’s mother, my old oak tree.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ Lau Lau taught me to paint bamboo trees with quick brush strokes and simple lines. She taught me to say “peuya lan wah,” and I taught her the correct pronunciation of “beautiful flowers” (difficult for the Mandarin speaker). Together, we sang and shared foods. When she beheld the wonder of snow falling for the first time, I buttoned on my coat and trudged through the drifts outside her window. Her lunar face watched me with worry and joy as I waved, spread my arms out, and fell backwards into the thick snow to show her how soft it was.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ Anchored by her girth and crippled leg, Lau Lau would sit in a chair by her bed most of the day. One afternoon, as Lau Lau and I quietly drew pictures, my brother intruded and set a remote-controlled robot on the bed and directed it to crawl over the drawings. My grandmother marveled at the novel thing Ming had assembled as I rushed to sweep the papers out of the abomination’s path. Beaming from the praise, my brother retreated to his room to begin his next project. I followed him out.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ Hiding in the hallway between rooms, beyond Lau Lau’s sight, I waited a few minutes and then slapped myself in the face several times, loud enough to be heard, hard enough to redden my cheek. I slapped again and light burned in my eyes and my stomach felt hollow. I returned teary eyed, blaming my brother, and expecting Lau Lau’s sympathy and favor. Her black eyes grew big as she held my face into her dry, broad hands. I could smell the strong, gunpowder tea on her breath. With her hands at my cheeks, I was frightened that somehow her tumor would be passed to me, and I kept my eye on it, waiting for it to move or shrink. I am sure that she wanted to tell me not to lie, but she didn’t. She looked at me and the red mark I had inflicted on myself. It was not an act one scolded a child for; it was not a childish act. That night, my grandmother begged my mother to leave my father. I only understood bits and pieces and a repeated line: “This home is killing your children.”

Next to Lau Lau’s room was my brother’s. Ming’s room was entirely blue—a dark blue carpet and light blue walls. His brown bed was like a Caruso raft in an oceanic room. The family television was stationed in the corner next to a telescope that was pointed far out the window. Besides Saturday morning cartoons, we were allowed to watch one hour of television per week, so we had to agree upon a show we could enjoy together. For a while our show was decidedly “V,” a miniseries about man-eating, alien lizards that were disguised in synthetic human skin. Whenever a lizard peeled off the flesh colored layer to reveal its snake-ish head and forked tongue, my older brother would hide his eyes and I would laugh. These were not the monsters to fear.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ My brother, older by two years, and I, played together often, but there was a silence between us. Throughout the years, Ming and I developed very different tactics of survival. He became exceedingly outgoing and frequently sought to stay at his friends’ homes. He honed a detachment that bordered on denial. My brother became so “normal” that I felt betrayed, as if his normalcy belied the brutality that we shared at home. To this day, when my mother or I remark on the disturbing incidents of our past, my brother often shakes his head and replies, “Really? I don’t remember.” He’s likely to walk away from such conversations. That dis-memory wounds me; it dismembers my own memory.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ I was the opposite of my brother: taciturn and moody. I didn’t play easily with other children. My one friend, Mary, lived down the street with her parents and autistic brother, Joseph. The blonde, felicitous girl was nice enough, but my family secret always kept me from investing too much time or intimacy. I was intrigued, though, by her family’s Catholicism. They praised their god before every meal, but they ate his flesh on Sunday mornings. In every room of their house, there was a crucifix, a man nailed to a cross with blood running from the thorns on his head; their savior was in pain. That, I understood. I would have made a great Catholic. I borrowed Mary’s bible school books and read all of them. Bible stories, fairytales, my mother’s stories. They all had the same theme. Pain is martyrdom. Pain is redemption.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ Down the staircase was the basement, my domain, the room I could call my own. It was filled with leaning stacks of cardboard boxes, a labyrinth through which I crawled and discovered endless treasures of scruffy Christmas tinsel, outgrown clothing, old photographs, and books and books. The walls of memorabilia were differently configured each time I came down to play, as I shoved the items aside to create new paths. The maze of memories is ever changing, a living thing. A single light bulb hung in the middle, swaying the shadows and edges of the room. By the back wall, I discovered a fantastic chariot as I climbed to sit on the Maytag washer. A twist of a dial produced a pleasant automation. It hummed and rocked, emanating heat under my seat as I sped through Narnia and plucked jewels and Turkish Delight from the air, producing a handful of cobwebs.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ Behind the chariot was a short, rectangular window. It was so filth-encrusted that it was hard to see out of, but one could discern that the view was at ground level, and the idea of being half under and half over ground delighted me. I was in a spliced world of earth and sky, though it was too low to be really considered sky. Where did the sky begin, how many feet above the ground? Did it depend on how tall you were? Where were the books that answered these questions? The most mystical part of the basement world was the underside of the staircase. It looked just like a staircase, but up-side-down. It was a staircase for a world with no gravity, a world with no heaviness, where nothing could fall. But if it was a world without weight, then there was no need for stairs. Those stairs confounded me, an Escher puzzle—an Alice in Wonderland sort of quandary of falling up. In that basement, I was just a kid, trying to figure out the nonsense of the world around me.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ When I think back to my time spent playing in the basement, I am filled with grief. Even though it was a private place for my imagination to bloom, I was lonely there. I was scared to leave the house, lest a fight begin. I was scared of my mother leaving me. I wondered every day if she would come home from work or if that would be the day that she would get in the car, look herself in the mirror, and drive away. My brother had already begun to separate himself from the family. I was angry at him for failing to stay by my side as a fellow sentinel. He was pretending that what was happening in our home wasn’t happening and for all my powers of make believe, I couldn’t believe that away. In that basement, as I played alone, my pain was molting.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ Looking now on this dense house, peering in from above and seeing through the walls and into the corners, down the stairs, directly across from my world of make believe, I see my father in his den, a man bearing the reality of his life. He lives more beneath his home than in it. He has crossed an ocean, left his country, to find that the promises of success are lost in translation. There is no respect for genius, no respect even for him as a man. White men’s eyes roam over his wife’s body as he stands next to her, while he is mistaken for a “Gook.” He can’t keep up with his children’s language. They are no longer his children, but his wife’s children and his wife’s mother’s children. He, who was once a poor, beaten orphan, had achieved such notable scholarships and high academic praise for his intellectual superiority. This scholar, this brilliant scientist, has been reduced to an unemployed husband who depends entirely on his wife—his spoiled, young wife. His plaques and diplomas don’t pay for the groceries. He is a beggar, living off the girl he once tutored. When she talks to him, there is no respect in her voice. Respect is all that he demands. When he speaks, he cannot hear himself, he cannot articulate the fear and hurt and shame he feels inside, he has no words for those feelings; he can only demand respect. So he demands and demands and demands respect. In the only way he knows how.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ If my father has left the door to his den ajar, the light edges into the basement, urging me to be as quiet as possible, so as not to be discovered. I dread his attention, his beckon, his questions of my schooling and floundering advances for friendship. If I hear the guttural sound of his snoring , I am relieved. He is a stubborn sleeper.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ I hear music coming from his den. Tchaikovsky or Mozart records could often be heard from behind his door, but this time it is a Doris Day album that he bought for my mother when they were dating. Doris’s sparkling, singsong voice urges me to leave my rummaging for the past, to sneak to the basement door and peer into the den. My father stands near the old record player. His hands are buried in his pockets, his eyelids closed over thought, and a mess of black hair falls over his wide, brown face. His lips press together as though he is holding back a bitter reply to Doris’s whimsy. I crouch, unseen, and a part of me wants to run to him as I used to, before we had come to this awful place. I want to pull his hands out of his pockets and dance with him as Doris sings Que Sera Sera. I want it to be the way it was when I trusted him and he was my dance partner. His large hands locked safely over mine, anchoring me as my torso and legs lifted out, twirling, my body revolved around his, a steady constellation.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ I creep to the doorway and approach the orangey lamplight and chattering melody. My father turns his head, surprised, but does not extend himself. His eyebrows are tightened over the black frame of his glasses, as if he is angry or perhaps, confused by my sudden appearance. Emerging from the basement, I must be like an apparition. His mouth twitches, and I cannot see his eyes through the thick lenses. His glasses gleam. I do not wait. I turn and flee up the stairs, bursting out from the underground, panting. From below, my father’s voice bleats my Chinese name. I run to the lavender room and hide with the imaginary monster in the closet, but my father does not come searching for me. He makes no attempt to find me, and I have no words for him or the tears I realize I have seen.

I dreamt of Lau Lau’s death the night that it happened. My mother, Ming, and I had gone to New York City for a weekend to visit a friend of the family. I did not know it at the time, but my mother was taking the first steps to divorce my father. She kept this secret to herself. My father was to stay home and take care of Lau Lau, for her health had deteriorated. She could barely move herself from the bed to her chair, which was also a portable toilet. Before we left, my mother had prepared foods in Tupperware dishes, stacked in the refrigerator, each labeled with contents and reheating instructions.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ On the third evening of our visit, I called the house in Maryland and my father answered. “Tell your mother that your Lau Lau is not feeling well. She should come home to take care of her.” My mother loaded Ming and me into the car and we began the four-hour drive home. Lying stretched out in the backseat, I watched the lights of the highway sweep by, but the moon stayed in the corner no matter how fast and far we drove. I soon fell asleep.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ When I woke, I was impressed by a single image from my dream: Lau Lau, dressed in her maroon, velvet Mandarin dress, surrounded by white. I sat up and tried to focus my eyes on the road. I was stunned at the image of my grandmother’s death, still so vividly burning in my head, and said nothing.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ “I need to use the bathroom,” I whined. I needed to get out of the car, away from the dream. So she pulled us over at the next rest stop and we relieved ourselves and ordered Happy Meals‏‎‏‏.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  
As soon as we entered the house, Ming and I rushed to Lau Lau in the pink-green room. My mother headed down the stairs to wake my father, whom she found reading in the den. Ming burst into Lau Lau’s room first and happily called to her. Following closely behind, I did the same. Lau Lau was seated on her chair, her heavy head resting forward. She did not stir. She did not raise her eyes to our chatter.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  Ming turned and fled the room to retrieve my mother. I heard his voice, high and desperate, “Momma, Lau Lau won’t wake up!” I touched Lau Lau’s hand and backed away. On the nightstand, next to an empty glass, there were two crumpled, cellophane wrappers from the small moon-cakes left over from the Chinese Harvest Holiday. Each was the size of an egg. I rubbed my fingers together, still feeling the coldness of her hand, and thought how old those hard, dry cakes were, how terrible they must have tasted.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  Sirens wailed to the front of our house. Red lights flashed through the windows, streaking the ceilings. Emergency workers intruded into the house and heaved Lau Lau’s body onto a gurney. I did not know where to stand, where to be. The house was shrinking, the furniture loomed. My mother screamed in Mandarin, “Mamma, Bu yaou zdhou, bu yaou zdhou.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  A female EMT worker turned to me and put her hand on my shoulder “What is your mother saying?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  I backed out of her touch. “Mother. Please don’t leave me.”

The day after, Ming and I returned home and rushed into our Mother’s arms. My father stood near us and reached out tentatively to touch our heads. We had been sent to a neighbor’s house to sleep, as my parents spent the long night in the hospital. She kneeled down to speak to me––the light in her eyes waning. “Lau Lau loved you very much, and I know that you were special to her. You should go into her room and say goodbye because she won’t be the same when you see her at the funeral.” For a moment, I thought she meant that Lau Lau was there, lying on the bed or sitting in her chair. I uneasily walked into the room. The sun was shining in through the windows, spilling over the newly made bed. I didn’t know what to do so I knelt by the bed and clasped my hands together as I had seen Mary do to pray.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  I searched the room for something to cry about. Someone had already taken the moon cake wrappers away, but an empty water glass remained. I prayed, “If you love me, you will fill this water glass when I close my eyes.” I opened my eyes. I chose the candle on the dresser. “If you are still with me, you will light this candle.” I opened my eyes to repeated disappointment. I grabbed a pencil from the desk and knelt with it. Pressing the sharp point into my leg, I closed my eyes and conjured my dream, her face, her eyes, her hands resting on the dark red velvet of her chest. I scraped the pencil into my thigh to keep that image ground into my skin.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  I heard my mother’s footsteps approach the door. “I’m going to write about what happened,” I said and took a sheet of paper from the desk and crouched over my elbow. “How do you spell ‘ambulance’?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  My mother nodded and kissed my cheek but didn’t answer my question. “We might have gotten back in time if only we hadn’t taken so long at the rest stop.” She paused. “Lau Lau died from a heart attack… But it was your father, it is your father’s fault.” She moved to the closet and began fingering Lau Lau’s traditional dresses of heavy, silken textiles and long coats of Oriental brocade. “The funeral will be in two days, when my brothers and sister can get here. I have to send one of her outfits for the wake.” My mother looked to me.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  “The red velvet,” I confirmed.

During the mourning period, our house was filled with relatives and floral arrangements. Grand displays of lilies and roses were set around the piano like fortress walls. After all the guests had left, I crawled under the piano. My father walked into the room and stood in the empty room, not seeing me. Suddenly, he fell to his knees and cried as if he were being stabbed. He, alone, had known how ill Lau Lau had become the night of her death. He must have left the house for the weekend, trapping the old woman to her body. The single telephone was far down the hall, in the kitchen, where the Tupperware dishes in the refrigerator were untouched. Not a single meal was made, no water in her glass. Her toilet under the chair had not been emptied for what appeared to be days. Without lifting a hand, he had killed her. The silence screamed.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  From the floor, my father begged forgiveness. He was not asking it from me, but I curled my fists and clenched my teeth. No forgiveness, no mercy for you, Father. That morning, I had spooned urine from my toilet water into his tea before I served it to him. Surely, the poison of my hatred would stop his heart. Yet, I was also at fault. I had dreamt of Lau Lau’s fate, yet hadn’t hastened to prevent it; my trifling delay assisted her end. We were the guilty, my father and I.

After Lau Lau died, my mother left the family to find a job up north. She returned every weekend to prepare a week’s worth of dinners and to assure me that if we thought of each other every night at the same time, we would magically be together. My mother had a plan to find a house on her own, to which she would rescue my brother and me. She promised me this, but I trusted nothing anymore, no one was safe.With my mother gone most of the time, my father asserted his right to sleep in the lavender room and I moved to sleep in the pink-green room. For company, I dragged the basset hound into my narrow bed every night. I cried myself to sleep, missing everything that mattered, with the burly dog hugged in close. She had such awful fleas that I was bitten everywhere and scratched until I was covered with bloody patches of torn skin.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  My father insisted that the hound stay out of the house and be locked back to the old oak tree. Feeling sorry for the old dog and myself, I began to bring her food from my pre-made dinners. A few weeks later, after the cicadas had flown off, the hound dog died, choking on a chicken bone. I swore to others that it must have been a neighborhood kid who had fed it to her, but I wasn’t sure. I found the hound at the base of the tree, her eyes lolled up, as if searching the branches above. Green drool ran from her mouth. The stiffened corpse stayed chained to the tree for several days until my mother came home for the weekend and we buried her in the yard. Dandelion and thistle weed quickly sprouted from the burial ground.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  In the last days of our time in Maryland, I was standing at the edge of our backyard. I pressed my bare foot down on the thistle flower until I felt the needles pierce my skin. The puncture ripped through me. This determined pain, this slow stab into my flesh was my answer; I held my breath and pressed harder.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‏‏‎ ‎ ‎‏‏ ‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎  As I stood under the twilight sky with thorns underfoot, my mother packed our bags inside the house. Her trembling hands folded shirts and pants into neat piles and tucked them away into brown boxes, boxes that would lift her life away from this house. The watchful jade beetle had crawled from Lau Lau’s hand to her own, passing down the rule of the matriarch. She would leave the violence behind; no one would hurt her or her children ever again. Occasionally, my mother would stop to wrap ice in a handkerchief, pressing the coldness to her bruised cheek. If she had looked out the window, past the old oak, she would have seen her daughter stamping nettles with tender, bare feet, desperately believing in magic.