FICTION | 西瓜甜不甜？(is the watermelon sweet?)
2020 Prose Contest Winner
Chosen by Vi Khi Nao
"Highly controlled and psychically nuanced, 'is the watermelon sweet?' traverses between the unspeakable phantom world of the unanswered and the living with heartbreaking emotional fluency and cultural density. Its immediate humor is apt and its narrator is quite (startlingly) endearing. It’s exactly twenty-five pages, but it feels very novelistic and so thoughtfully composed and compressed. I felt, after reading it several times, like I had led a thousand lives with a butcher knife hidden inside a pillow. At any given moment, I would be compelled to butcher a chicken. Not for protection. But for narrative effect and longing. After each reading, I would feel this gripping fire to start the piece from its beginning again. It’s that addictive. The writing is so masterful that I could taste the details with such exact ontological fiber. It’s literary material made entirely of human filament."
Vi Khi Nao
1. 立筊 (standing answer)
One or both blocks fall but stand erect on the floor, indicating that the recipient does not understand the querent’s question; therefore, the question is nullified and the procedure must be repeated.
Though Ma said that Ba was coming back, she didn’t act like that was the case at all. The day he disappeared to somewhere in the distance, my mother pulled out the cutting board and cleaved the head off my favorite chicken, 阿田. She chopped up all the cilantro, ginger, shallots, and garlic we had in the cupboard, cracked on the stove, and didn’t stop cooking for three days straight. For the next two weeks, Ama, every corner of the house sopped in the scent and airborne taste of soy sauce, rice wine, cassia bark, ginger, cloves, and star anise. Even my bathwater began to pour out in the deep browns of 滷 stock, so I started cutting my baths short. I remember anxiously furling and unfurling my wrinkly hands every time I exited the steaming bathroom, hoping they wouldn’t end up like 阿田’s braised talons, sucked dry to the bone by the men in suits who frequented our restaurant at lunch hours.
Over those three days, I couldn’t stop crying. I grieved 阿田’s brief life and pondered via sobbing the prospects of his even briefer second life as a dish. Meanwhile, Ma went on cooking and cooking, pausing only on the third day to arrange a makeshift altar for my ba. She cleared the largest porcelain saucer of excess ashes. She swept aside the plaque and ash bowl designated for our ancestors, and then those for deities whose names I’d always forget. Out of nowhere, she produced a framed black-and-white photograph of my father, looking comically staid and weighed down by the oversized black frames colonizing most of his face. He stood gravely on some parched field, hands pocketed in a trench coat too wide and too long for his lanky frame, collars popped. For some reason, Ama, I think of the phrase 「西瓜甜不甜？」 whenever I see that photo of Ba, all serious like that, like he’s holding his big resting smile back because someone behind the camera is cheekily asking him 欸, 阿勛, 你的西瓜甜不甜? 甜不甜? 甜不甜啊?
While my mother loudly and dutifully clanked this unorthodox altar into being, I thought about watermelons and why people demanded that they be sweet. Why you’re supposed to smile for the camera and say 甜! when you’re asked that question, like every watermelon has to be sweet, like it isn’t awful that watermelons shoulder such unfair expectations, because what if the watermelon isn’t sweet, then what sort of face do you make for the photo, how would it make the watermelon feel to ruin the shot like that? Before I could say this to my mother, she snatched my hands and filled them with three red joss sticks, light ribbons of smoke trembling away from each embered tip.
“To pray for his safe return,” she said unconvincingly. With a firm grip, she guided my head and hands to bow three times before our ancestors.
Across the long sandalwood table in front of the altar, she’d laid down giant white plates, scalloped with blue glaze at the rim. She had heaped them with food: braised chicken feet, eggs, seaweed, and daikon; glossy bamboo shoots sautéed with beef strips, chili peppers, and green onion; 回鍋肉, strips of pork belly cooked twice; 菜補蛋, a browned egg omelet drizzled with chunks of preserved radish; A 菜 and water spinach stir-fried with garlic until juicy; and finally, a whole seabass steamed with a light ginger-scallion sauce. In a giant ceramic tub sat various parts of 阿田 (sans feet) in the form of 麻油雞麵線, sesame oil lazing on the surface of the broth like suds of liquid amber. I hadn’t seen this much food at once in years, not even during Chinese New Year celebrations. “It’s only been that way for us since martial law,” my father would have begun his response to such a thought, rambling forth about the grand feasts our family would have before the Kuomintang sabotaged his parents’ business, after which Ma would’ve slapped his arm and shushed him. As I watched the wisps of steam rise from the food and knit themselves into the incense smoke, I understood, on some level, that I had lost him. That maybe I had been crying both for him and for 阿田. That Ma didn’t act like he was coming back because he wasn’t at all, and that this feast was to be his first meal in an elsewhere from which he’d never return.
When my mother and I finished paying our respects to our ancestors, our deities, and my father, we perched an incense stick on the belly of ashes mounted atop each of their respective vessels. With hands stained red by the dye of the joss sticks, she retrieved a pair of 筊杯 from her apron pocket. The red paint on the round edges of the wooden mollusks had chipped away from wear, the way the skin of a heel would be shorn off over time by an ill-fitting pair of shoes. The way I felt inside, sandpapered over and over, as Ma tossed the moon blocks and asked Ba 呷飽未？, only to receive a standing answer, an I don’t understand that told us he had no idea what had happened to him.
And my mother, your daughter—a woman who complained not a single day of her life, who never asked anything of anyone, who stood steadfastly by her decision when you opposed her marriage to him, who could turn near-rotten carcasses into five-star dishes, who outsmarted every hawker at the markets and haggled better than anyone at least three districts over—she stood there throwing the blocks again and again, asking, begging that my father say yes, he’s full, thank you for the meal, flinging her arms more and more brusquely with each throw and gouging out the question from her own chest, over and over, all for an answer that we both knew would never come.
When Ma finally went to bed, all the food had been hollowed of their warmth. The last answer she received was a 怒筊, the blocks’ round bellies cutting across space like bloated slices of the moon, mocking us with the symptoms of fullness that my ba apparently did not have. Once I made sure she was asleep, I scrubbed my hands clean and began the pious work of devouring every piece of food she’d set before the altar. If I’m being honest, Ama, I don’t think I had a clear reason in mind. I just needed to do it. Maybe I wanted Ma to think, without a doubt, that my father had eaten. Maybe I didn’t want to see her hurling those blocks again, like there was somewhere she needed to bring him back from. Maybe, Ama, I was only performing the work of a daughter, clearing out the finely seasoned ashes that had seeped forth from the grief slow-cooking in my mother’s body. Or perhaps I just needed to fill myself with so much food that there was no space left for the painful heat in my own.
2. 怒筊 (angry answer)
Also known as 哭筊 (crying answer); both blocks land with the round side up, meaning “no.” It is said that this means that the gods are displeased by the question, demonstrated by the way the blocks directly fall flat on the floor.
It was around this time that I met Kuo Chia-chen. If I remember correctly, my mother paused from her year-long rage to tell me that martial law had ended one rainy morning before school. That week, during lunch break at summer school, whispers trailed from every kid’s mouth like some invisible hand was pulling them out on a long, magic string. Cheng Po-wen said the homeroom teacher for Class 1-B didn’t actually get married and move to the east coast when we were in first grade; he was abducted by the military police and shipped off to Green Island. Li Ya-shi said that her ba told her that his friend knew somebody whose subversive cousin’s pregnant wife got beaten so bad by the Garrison Command, they beat the baby out of her, except instead of a baby it was a watermelon that popped out of her womb. They weren’t sure whether to consider this a miscarriage, so the family decided to offer the watermelon to their ancestors, and it’s still sitting on their altar somewhere in Beitou, where Ma told me people never work hard, plunked and sulfur-soaked all day in their colonial-era complicity and Japanese hot springs. After someone told Li Ya-shi to stop fucking lying, Chang Ai-te said that her doctor uncle and his friends had finally been released from jail. “But they’ve kept all these secrets in for so long, none of them can let anything out anymore,” she said, nodding her head in the way of someone deeply convinced by her own words. “They can’t poop anymore, talk anymore. Nothing can come out.”
Meanwhile, all my mother loudly whispered to me about was what she was going to do to the stupid cat or 流浪狗 who broke in and ate all of Ba’s food. It turns out I’d eaten a week’s worth of ingredients, and what’s more, my father was now sitting somewhere empty-bellied. My ma swore to the heavens and at least three of my great-aunts that she would curse this thing, and she was a woman of her word.
Until you were felled by a gust of wind, Ma poured her energy almost singularly into cursing a certain someone that she didn’t realize was me. She’d ask around the neighborhood for intel on petty thieves or clans of stray cats, and eye every dog we passed by with festering suspicion. Every night before bed, I’d find her scribbling Buddhist chants furiously on a floppy piece of paper, murmuring them over and over to the chaotic scratching of her pencil. “This spell is usually reserved for extending the life of the Dalai Lama,” she explained, “but I’ve made a few changes so that I can shorten the life of this stupid cat.”
I feared for my life.
Those three months, I’d wash my hands extra after shifts at the restaurant so that I could see my hands all wrinkly and creased—I understood that I needed to simulate extra palm lines to offset the spell. Months earlier, someone had wrongly taught me that your life expectancy wasn’t predicted by the life line on your palm, but rather by the total number of lines that packed its surface. On my way to school, I would frantically count how many lines were etched across my callused palms to make sure none of the years were taken away by last night’s jinx, lose count, and start again. Soon, it sprouted into a habit I couldn’t shake off, even if I could never arrive at a number I could trust. Sometimes I felt so paranoid that I’d motion through the ritual on my walk home as well, just in case my mother used her lunch break to curse me extra. That was how I met Kuo Chia-chen, who made herself known to me by asking me just what I was looking at.
This was the summer of my tenth year, and the ixora bushes lining my walk home were in full bloom, the little red flowers speckling the chalky stretch of low-hanging cityscape with an insouciant charm. I’d lost interest in them a few years ago, after you taught me how to suck the nectar out of the yellow tube in the middle, and I abused this knowledge so much I caused myself stomach pains for six hours straight. But that day, Kuo Chia-chen’s voice rang from the direction of the shrubs, and I got a good look at them for the first time in a long time. The tiny flowers cracked open like the sparklers we’d light during the better Chinese New Years, half-visible through the translucent white kimono of the woman speaking to me. With thin, bright eyes, a pillowy nose, and fine long hair with chopped bangs, she looked to be on the old end of the teenage spectrum. She wore Japanese-style clogs, which was what gave it away for me.
“Are you a ghost?” I asked, somewhat rudely. “Only sad women who never got over the Japanese era would still wear shoes like that. Or people who want to die spiting the Kuomintang. That’s what my ma said once, anyway.”
Kuo Chia-chen snorted. “Yep, I’m a ghost,” she said. “What about you?”
I shook my head with unwarranted ferocity, feeling almost offended to be at the receiving end of the very question I’d asked her. As if she’d accused me somehow of lacking life; as if lacking life were something to be ashamed of.
“Then why are you looking at your hands like they’re fading away?” she asked.
“Because they are. Or I’m afraid they are.”
Having kept my mother’s obsessive chants a secret until then, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I told her how my ma begged undignified for an answer she wanted to hear. I told her how I ate all the food she made for Ba, how that meant eating my late (and favorite!) chicken, and how scary it was that I didn’t even care about that in the moment. I told her how my own mother wanted to kill me, or at least shorten my lifespan dramatically, and she didn’t even know it. I told her that Ba was gone.
Kuo Chia-chen listened to me as we padded along, asking questions and nodding now and then for me to continue. After I thanked her for listening, she told me that was what ghosts did best. We exchanged names, and then she began to speak. While she was alive, Kuo Chia-chen was for the last few years of her life what people called a “comfort woman.” I didn’t know what this meant.
“It means my job was to comfort men in the Japanese army,” she said in the strained voice you and Ma would use when I asked why Ba shouldn’t say the things that he did in public. “Well, ‘my job’ isn’t quite right. It means that I had to do a lot of things I didn’t want to do, a lot that I didn’t ask for, to comfort these men I didn’t know. They told my family I was going to work as a nurse’s assistant in the military hospital. I was seventeen.”
“I’m ten,” I offered in return, happy she finally said something I could wholly understand. As she spoke, images I associated with comfort had orbited inside my head. My ma’s 排骨湯, littered with water-logged chunks of daikon. The fizzy static of the TV on a typhoon day. The dizzying fluorescence of night markets. Mango milk fibrous against my throat, marble soda cracking open with a spray, flakes of snowy shaved ice on my tongue in the summer heat. I imagined her packing all of these things into bento boxes and handing them to a queue of male soldiers.
Her lusterless black eyes held mine for a breath, and then her laugh came crinkling across the dense summer air. The orange light from the slow-sinking sun fractured through her gauzy kimono sleeves, igniting the ixora flowers in an almost violent flare. The sight, coupled with the afterimage of her laugh in the air, made me sad in a searing way that I couldn’t articulate. When we reached my house, my mother rushed out and asked where I’d been, shaking my shoulders. “Your Ama had a stroke,” she said, each word tripping on the last. “Someone found her unconscious while she was walking home from the market.” Before I could ask her what 中風meant, or what kind of wind could hit Ama so hard she’d fall unconscious, she was dragging me by the hand to the hospital.
When I saw you lying there, your age-spotted arms wilting limply by your sides like two forgotten sausages, your short puff of hair dimmed of life, I thought I would never stop crying. I remember thinking this as a ten-year-old, before I even started crying, almost as a declaration: I will never stop crying. Even now, I really, truly believe that if I hadn’t met Kuo Chia-chen, this would have been the case. I would have cried and cried until I dried up like the mushrooms Ma used for her 肉燥. I would have cried so much my mother could use the salt from my evaporated oceans to season the food, which actually would have been a very economical outcome. I would have cried so much a river formed between me and you and I would swim and swim in it with my flabby rice-paper body for the rest of eternity.
That’s what I thought, anyway. I hadn’t seen you since my week-long visit to Hsinchu last Chinese New Year, where you lugged me around a crowded market and stuffed 肉圓 in my mouth, told me my cheeks were filling up nicely like dumplings. You always smelled vaguely of the white vinegar you’d put just a dash too much of in your dumpling filling, at least for my taste; but still, whenever I hugged you I’d bury my face in the tender nook between your breasts and the swollen curve of your belly, breathing in your fullness with a reluctant enthusiasm. And even though I hated the herb-infested scent of the clinic, I always let you hold me in your lap and tell me stories as we waited for your turn with the 中醫. On walks back to your place, where you’d lived alone ever since Ahgong died, you’d fan away mosquitoes while teaching me Japanese folksongs from your schoolgirl days. I didn’t speak any Japanese, so I always struggled to remember anything more than the tune, or the general sense of how each syllable had to be held and wriggled through the air. If I did mildly well on these lessons, you would buy me a watermelon pop from a tan vendor-uncle who you said chewed too much betel nut. I loved those popsicles for being shaped and colored like real watermelon slices—green-skinned and all. Back at home, I’d give you back massages as we watched the shōgun of Atarenbō Shōgun—whom you called “ishi atama shōgun” for his stone-headed simplicity—battle nemesis after nemesis inside a small convex screen.
You didn’t talk much to Ma, not after her marriage to Ba, whom you often refused to see; and yet, you’d treat us to a meal every time we visited. Whenever Ma won a round of 麻將 against us and the auntie next door, you’d allow yourself a disgruntled grunt of approval. Even when you were angry with me, even when you were chronically angry with Ma, two red envelopes turned up on our guest room dresser without fail, every 初一. This sort of clumsy softness was what I loved the most about you, I think. The kind where you would turn your face away sharply and go, “Hmph!” as you forced into our hands all the love and care that we needed to get by. Whether it was cold soba or oyster omelets at the temple, everything I ate with you and Ma tasted the best.
While I sat there crying, my ma probably explained many things to me, firmly but kindly, in the tone Kuo Chia-chen had used to tell me about her life. Tried as I might have, I couldn’t hear a thing she was saying. It was as if some sort of dam had been felled inside of me, and water now rushed forth to fill every cavity, blocking up the passages in my ears. All I could hear was the clogged sound of my nose sniffing snot back in, every three seconds or so. It was likely that Ma was telling me about how the right side of your body was now paralyzed, and how you would never speak again, never sing again. But what did it matter if I couldn’t hear you anyway?
3. 笑筊 (laughing answer)
Both blocks fall on their flat sides. This can mean different things—an emphatic “no” and a sign that the gods are laughing at the question, that they are laughing because the querent should know the answer, or that the answer to the question is obvious. The way the blocks sway back and forth when they’re dropped embodies ripples of laughter.
Every day for three months, I would visit you after school. Kuo Chia-chen would wait for me by my school gate and walk with me to the hospital, disappearing once I boarded the elevator so that I could be alone with you. She told me I could cry all I want, and nothing would change. “You have to stop crying before you have nothing left inside,” she said, nodding at her own wisdom. “I felt the same sort of despair before. I really, truly didn’t think I could stop crying, either. I felt somehow that I needed to keep crying to prove some sort of point, and it’s true that I needed to cry however much I did. But what good would it have done for me to go on crying forever?”
I rubbed my mucus-spilling nose with a knuckle. “It could help save salt money for the restaurant.”
Those days, Ama, Kuo Chia-chen’s voice was the only sound that could consistently reach me. I’m not sure why that was the case, but it was as if my life had become a movie whose audio was sporadically blotted out by silence due to some editing mistake, and the screenings were always inexplicably accompanied by a random live commentator on stage—who, of course, happened to be Kuo Chia-chen. Only when I spoke to her, too, could I always hear myself.
The spring breeze would meander through the streets and rouse the shrubs into motion, and yet the rustling I longed to hear remained absent. My ma would yell things at me, cry, hug me and whisper, throw moon blocks around Ba’s altar asking things, and nothing but absolute nothingness would ring in my ears. When my teacher called on me in class, it would sometimes get through, but when Ya-shi turned around to gossip with me during lunch break, only her long-distance spittle reached me. There was no logic or poetic verse to be wrested from my new non-hearing; only a resolute silence punctuated by Kuo Chia-chen’s round voice.
Whether she liked it or not, I could pick up on every single noise she produced—her sniffles, her laughs, her audible farts, her stomach rumbling, the quiet huffs under her breath right before she was going to scold me for something. I could even hear her when no one else should have been able to, and from inordinate distances, too. One time, while descending on an elevator with a nurse at the hospital, I heard a soft click from several floors below. I didn’t think much of it until the elevator halted on the fourth floor, its steel doors unclenching their jaws to unveil an empty corridor. Outside the wide windows lining the hallway, a flock of sparrows flapped on by.
“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this,” said the nurse, a compulsive gossip type destined to become an 歐巴桑, “but there’s this legend in the hospital. An open secret, kind of, at least during martial law. Do you want to hear?”
Before I could answer, she continued: “Every now and then 啊, the elevator stops on the unlucky fourth floor without anyone pressing the button, just like this. It’s always this floor—you know why? 我跟妳說哦: 十年前啊, a doctor hanged herself in her office on this very floor. People say that when the elevator stops here, it’s her spirit trying to draw her younger sister’s attention. It’s the best that she can do, trapped in this hospital building—pressing the elevator button, over and over, treated as a prankster.” She shook her head while facing something I couldn’t see. “Truth is, the younger sister had disappeared way before this woman did this to herself. They had seized her for the special teahouse program in Kinmen, you see.” She looked into my eyes with an earnestness only Taiwanese women her age could afford and lowered her voice. “She was a comfort woman for the Kuomintang.”
I cocked my head in her direction, uncomprehending, wondering how I managed to pick up this entire soliloquy. My mother would have scolded me for listening to such inappropriate nonsense, though perhaps she would simply be happy to know that I could hear anything for more than three seconds at all. It was unfair how I couldn’t choose what I could and couldn’t hear. That my insides should be teeming with the words of this woman I cared so little about, while my own mother was denied entry on the regular. As I spaced out, the nurse said a few things that sunk into the thick flesh of silence pressing against my ears once more. Then, she patted me goodbye and exited the elevator on the second floor.
Once the nurse stepped out, I found Kuo Chia-chen standing beside me, her geta stiff against the metal-grated floor. She laid a hand on my shoulder where I had just been patted by the nurse, as if she needed me to support the weight of her feathery existence.
“It was me who pressed the button,” she said finally, an admission of guilt that somehow weighed more than it should have. “I thought it’d be funny, but. That was just me.”
When I visited you, I adopted an air of optimism I didn’t know I could possess. I drew you get-well cards on newspaper clippings, desecrating news of the demands set forth by the newly formed Democratic Progressive Party with Astro Boy style figures. I sang ishi-atama-shōgun’s theme so loud, the nurses of the ward were sent to silently silence me. I tried to recreate Japanese folksongs from memory, stringing random Japanese-sounding syllables together and rocking them in the air, like if I shook the notes hard enough your voice would somehow tumble out from the ceiling and knock you noisily back to life—the throaty draft of return. But because I couldn’t hear, I could never stay on tune; perhaps that’s why nothing I expelled into the air could make its way to you.
Most of the time, you were only half-conscious, letting out what I discerned to be a few grunts at your most responsive. Sometimes you rested your left thumb under the folds of my fingers, and I interpreted any discernible bit of pressure exerted by that little knob of flesh as your unequivocal will to live. To this day, that’s what I wonder the most whenever we cart you off from one bed onto the next, sustain you from one bedsore onto the other. Do you want to live? Is there a reason beyond our own selfishness to keep you cordoned to this earth?
“Does your husband want to die?” you once asked Ma as we watched the stir-fry glass noodle lady fill takeout containers at her booth in the temple-cum-market. You always picked the most inopportune times to deliver serious, dead-end speeches in semi-public spaces. “Is there a reason for him to throw his life away like this, when this little rebellion of his will be nothing but a stupid tuft of dust in the annals of history? Is there a reason he gets to be so selfish, when you’ll be the one cleaning up after his mess?” I watched as Ma’s eyes darted left and right, checking for familiar faces as throngs of people passed us by, both forming and melding into the bustle of the night market.
“Has he thought once about you or your daughter?” you went on. “At this rate, he’s going to get himself killed. And that’s it—he gets to check out of all this. You’ll be the one sweeping and weeping after him, comforting everything and everyone that’s left behind with nothing to take comfort in yourself. You know that, Ahguei. He’s trying to save a world that has never asked to be saved, least of all by him. Men!” you scoffed for emphasis, launching dribble into the night. “That’s what they do best.”
Without raising her line of vision, Ma thanked the vendor and handed her a few coins in exchange for the pink-striped plastic bag of noodles. We had made the trek out to 城隍廟 just for this, and now we were consigned to an even lengthier trek back. By the tail-end of our walk home, I found myself feeling like a welted hard-boiled egg, left drowning in a sweltering silence for centuries too long.
Ama, I’ve always wondered why the phrase for “funny face” happens to be 鬼臉. Ghosts never looked especially funny to me, and now that I knew Kuo Chia-chen so personally, I really didn’t understand. To be honest, there was nothing extraordinarily funny about her face or mannerisms. If I’m being a little blunt, she didn’t have the best sense of humor—she always took things and herself a touch too seriously, and often reacted off-pitch to jokes I made at her expense. The elevator prank attempt was the only time she took advantage of her ghostliness in a way that I could respect, but afterwards, she made no more attempts. On the whole, though I found her strait-laced in a way that was sometimes annoying but mostly fun to mess with, nothing about her features or expressions seemed to merit the arm-pinches and scolding Ma used to give me when I stuck my tongue out at an older relative or frown-pouted when denied my favorite snacks. 「什麼鬼臉啊！」
Coincidentally, Kuo Chia-chen and I were speaking of this when we happened across a clearing of ghost faces. One afternoon, after I visited you at the hospital as usual, Kuo Chia-chen accompanied me to buy wheel cakes on the way home. I had learned to gesture my way through ordering food, which was really the most important type of communication in life, so the entire affair had proceeded smoothly. As my winter breaths nuzzled up against the steam of the velvety custard filling, I asked her whether she had any idea where the phrase 鬼臉 came from.
“I’m not sure,” she said, rubbing her eyes with a kimono sleeve. “But ever since I became a ghost, I’ve noticed a lot of phrases like that. 『你搞什麼鬼啊！』『你講什麼鬼話啊！』” Ghost-doing was what the hell are you doing, and ghost-talk was nonsense. What did everyone have against ghosts? I wondered, and then I moved on to wondering what Ma was making for dinner that night.
We were attempting a shortcut home from the wheel cake cart, crab-walking between the flaky back walls of houses, scarred rust-brown from air conditioner leaks. A few more alleys meant for no fully grown, materially firm human later, and we suddenly reached an empty lot I had never seen before. The asphalt glittered against the harsh rays of a slow-building dusk that craned over the short houses, stretching at the middle of the lot through the diaphanous heads of four women. Watching the light impale their flesh and saturate the pavement with shimmer, I once again felt a scalding sense of melancholy pervade my insides.
I’ve thought about this moment many times since, as well as how I felt when I first saw the sun foray past Kuo Chia-chen’s sleeves. There’s something deeply unsettling, ultimately, about not being able to reflect light back to another’s eye, to be seen in the most basic sense, to trap a beam on your skin by way of the simple fact of your materiality. I cannot, as a living person, imagine having no choice but to let light pass through you and run its course, feeling as though your existence makes no impact whatsoever on the trajectory of a sun-filament. Watching what could have given you light and imbued you with warmth neglect you, see right through you for something a little more alive—a bush of ixora flowers, a few cracks in the tarmac—when you’re the one who needs those things the most. But maybe that’s just me, staring what I perceive to be a lack in its spectral face. Maybe the moment you become a ghost, your translucence becomes a mere event of your existence—no special cause for sadness. Either way, Ama, I felt like shit.
I stood there with Kuo Chia-chen and my wheel cakes and asked for their names, bracing myself for silence. To my surprise, their voices pulsed loud and clear, springing off the walls that enclosed the abandoned lot. The one with brown skin, sweeping lashes, and full lips was Ahli. The one with cropped bangs and a sharp nose was Hsiaofei. The one with a slick pulled-back bun and a pale, mole-packed face was Mimi, and the one with schoolgirl braids and protruding, double-lidded eyes was Ruiling. I sat down on the pavement, picked up a rock, and wrote out their names in white-gray strokes: 阿莉。小霏。咪咪。瑞琳。Kuo Chia-chen and I listened as they told me about their past lives as young women, about hazy memories that surfaced from being male praying mantises three lives back, about how they found themselves without bodies when they came to. How they felt free. How with only their heads to carry they felt more human than before, and how their laughs pealed more clearly now that they didn’t have to propel them from the pit of their bellies. They let me in on things only ghosts understood, so I left them my wheel cakes as thanks. You understand, Ama. It was all I could give them in return.
4. 聖筊 (divine answer)
“Yes”: one block lands on its flat side & the other on its round side.
Over the next year, Ma tried every which way to get through to me. She took me to the acupuncturist and brewed me cup after cup of ginger tea infused with dried oregano, cilantro, rosemary, sage, and cinnamon. She irrigated my ear canals until a massive mound of wax pooled at our feet. Every morning and night, she helped me shake my head back and forth on each side as if I were a piggy bank, hoping the coins lodged inside my ears would slide out in a few hundred clinks, but we’d only end up flooding the room with streams of waxen water that somehow existed in unlimited supply inside of me. She ground up ginkgo leaves and wild yams and dried rehmannia and made me down the powder with boiling hot water three times a day. Nothing worked, so she sculpted my earwax into a few candles, sold them to a sundry vendor at the market, and used the money to book a spirit medium consultation, as you might have advised her to do if you could still speak. You always had a penchant for those fortune teller booths that lined underground malls in Taipei. My mother inherited this, but whereas you wholeheartedly devoted yourself to the absurdity and singularity of the spiritual, she approached superstition with an outwardly pragmatic attitude, as if spirit channeling were just another discipline featured in the repertoire of Science, right up there next to psychiatry or gynecology.
We headed to the 地下街 on a Sunday ravaged by a typhoon, brandishing see-through umbrellas that blasts of wet wind upended immediately. Needles of rain jabbed down in spurts from a cloud-dusted sky, and I remember thinking that typhoons were somehow so much less daunting when they took place in the quiet, even if the quiet never did contain its physical violence. We slogged through flooding streets and kicked up splashes at every turn, my sneakers drenched all the way through. As soon as we saw the mouth of the entrance to the underground mall, we simultaneously broke into a sprint, neither of us hesitating for a single second. Looking back, it was one of the few moments during that year where my mother and I existed in total harmony, frantically charging toward and allowing ourselves to be swallowed up by what we thought would offer us refuge. Once we braked—again in complete synchrony—and caught our breaths under the awning of the entrance, the hiss of a newly formed river below, somehow privy to my ears, informed us that this, too, was no sanctuary. Unsurprisingly, the underground mall was flooded even more badly than anywhere aboveground, and at the bottom of the stairwell, gray-brown water greeted my thighs and Ma’s knees with a chilling nonchalance. Still, a spirit had to be consulted, and at least the water was no longer clapping down from above. As the overhead lights flickered on and off, strobing our wet and sweaty faces with garish yellows, we waded stubbornly on.
When we reached the consultation booth, we were led by an assistant—probably one of the mediums’ teenaged niece—to one Auntie Tsai, my mother’s medium-of-choice. A heavy middle-aged lady with eyebags big enough to house eternal truths, she wore a bejeweled bandana strapped over her short perm and a tacky floral top that cascaded in drapes, exuding the energy of a serious fortune teller and a 三八 auntie-next-door in equal measure. Ass-deep in water on a low stool, Ma took a few minutes to explain our situation to her, or at least that’s what I assumed as I watched her chapped lips move without sound.
After a while, Auntie Tsai gestured for me to place a hand on my lap, palm-side up. Out of instinct, I began counting the lines stitched over its surface. As I realized with horror that I was missing a prominent band that stretched from between my index and middle fingers to the side of my palm, I heard her take a deep breath that cracked through the membrane of my unhearing. She began murmuring a prayer-chant, and though I could now hear the sounds she made, these noises pushed their way to me through a pane of glass, every vibration diffused by a rocky movement between us, the way cheers at a swim meet fizzle up and disperse as you dip your head in and out of the water.
“妹妹, can you hear me?” she asked once these currents slowed.
I nodded halfheartedly, my heart hammering at double the rate. Why did my palm line disappear? And where could it have gone?
Ma’s eyes widened; Auntie Tsai smiled and leaned back in her white plastic chair. “Very good. Let’s begin.” And, with that, she launched into her reading as if she were reporting today’s discounts at the market or telling us how her nephew ranked on the university exams. “What I sense here, 妹妹, is several spirits entangling around you in knots. Each of them is trying to make themselves heard or known in some way, but with all the interference not a single voice can get through. All that 鬼話, that’s what’s clogging up your hearing. Right now, I’m shouldering some of the energy they’re sending your way, and that’s why you can hear. You understand?”
I shook my head, wondering what the difference between a spirit and a ghost was, but Auntie Tsai went on anyway. “One spirit in particular is the loudest for me right now, and he’s got a lot to say to you. Shall we start there?
“Out of all the things he is saying, there’s this reverb that keeps going: It’s okay. Forgive me. I forgive you. You and I, neither of us knew what would happen, what could happen. I mean, at least I didn’t. But even if you had the foresight, what was there for you to do? Wow, that’s a lot of things in one refrain.”
I kept staring at my missing palm line as Ma exploded her face with tears. I had never seen her cry in front of someone other than me before, and I didn’t plan on seeing it. The water level quivered to our waists, and I had to raise my palm from my lap to keep it in sight, just in case another palm line was plotting its escape.
“There’s more,” said Auntie Tsai with her eyes shut. “I see an altar, with plates of food on it. Incense smoke swirling. Moon blocks clapping against the floor. 麻油雞麵線—ah, good, and lots of 炒青菜. Respects paid, a moaning sense of guilt. A message is coming to me; I feel it. I’m going to do my best to tell you what he’s trying to say, but know that this is something like a transcription of a translation at best, okay? Well, here goes.”
Her voice took on a deeper, ethereal quality as she spoke, every few words chopped up by jagged breaths. “I lived a good life,” she began, “and I don’t want you to doubt that for a single second. I don’t believe I lived for nothing, just as I don’t believe I died for nothing. Please have faith, if only in the fact that I have faith that that was the case. I’ve heard your prayers; I’ve heard your questions, your pleas. Forgive yourself. And forgive me for leaving you behind. That’s all I can really say. I was never one for words, but I hope you will hold on to these, move them around as you wish, and find your own peace from within. Now that I am not with you, that is my only wish—this is how I truly feel.”
As generic and palatable as this speech had been, Ama, my eleven-year-old self was nonetheless reduced to tears. While Auntie Tsai went on saying this and that, I felt the water pull away from my eyeballs and my ears, washing away something around me in slow, clumsy tides.
「阿勛，你這個混蛋！」 my mother muttered, hands fenced over her eyes.
Auntie Tsai paused with surprise. “Oh, his name isn’t 阿勛,” she said. “This one’s called 阿田.”
Luckily for us, the typhoon raged on, causing the government to cancel work and school for two more days—just enough time and space for us to recover from the fact that we mistook the words of a chicken for my ba’s. Although we left the consultation dispirited and deeply embarrassed, one unmistakable triumph had come of it: now that 阿田 had passed on, having said all he wanted to say, I could hear again. As it turned out, he had created the most static out of all the spirit-messages being chucked my way. He was my favorite chicken, after all, and I guess I was his favorite human, too. I felt at peace knowing he was well and that he didn’t feel like he died for nothing. On our walk home in the torrential rain, I asked Ma if I should start telling customers that her dishes were literally worth dying for according to our former chicken, and she told me to shut up, even though I could tell how relieved she was that we could speak like this once more.
That night, she brutally chopped the head off another chicken—orange-breasted 小咕—and made braised chicken with seaweed, peanuts, tofu skin, and daikon, as well as a huge drum of 麻油雞麵線 with cabbage. To this day, I’m still not sure whether this arose from some sort of anti-chicken vendetta she’d developed from the consultation, but either way, she made no note of the irony in the situation. A while back, we’d moved you into our house from the hospital, where you lay plugged up in my ba’s former study. Ma carried a small table to your room, where we sat in a comfortable silence as we ate together, and for the first time in a year, with the gentle fragrance of sesame oil massaging the air, our silence was a choice.
When I told Kuo Chia-chen what happened the next day, she couldn’t stop laughing. I puffed up my cheeks and crossed my arms, trying not to laugh, but after a while I couldn’t help it either. Watching the wind and rain whip against my windowpane, we listened to the thunder and tried to make up ways to pass the time. We taught each other songs and drew anime characters on my arms until night fell. After I had dinner, Kuo Chia-chen told me ghost stories set on rainy evenings as I stared at my palm, tracing over the ghost of the missing line, an absence to which I had now resigned myself. We dug around the storage drawers Ma kept in my closet, uncovering an old disposable camera, two thick, military-green bomber jackets whose smell dragged of smoke, and a large folded sheet of paper, on top of which lay a small white saucer marked with a red arrow, pointing downward at the rim.
When we unpacked the sheet, a wheel of Chinese characters unfurled before us, ringing a small black circle where a single white character was printed: 靈. “What is this?” Kuo Chia-chen asked.
I thought about the reruns of Esprit d’amour and The Exorcist I’d seen on TV. “I think it’s a spirit board. For talking to ghosts.”
I don’t remember who came up with this idea, Ama, but either way, we ended up testing the spirit board all night, trying to see if it matched up with things Kuo Chia-chen said. I would ask her questions, and we’d each put a finger on the saucer, letting the spirit of minute movement overtake us.
“What’s your favorite food?”
“…It says ‘curry.’”
“What’s the name of your first crush?”
“Hiro. He was Japanese, and also handsome.”
“It says ‘周杰倫.’”
“What? I don’t know anyone called that.”
We went on like this until we were fed up with the inaccuracies of the board, tossing it aside. After trying on the bomber jackets, we fiddled around with the disposable camera, which had only one photo left in its roll. We debated for a while about what sort of picture we wanted and decided to try to take a photo of us together. Sitting side by side, our faces pressed against each other, I stretched my arm out as far as I could and stared into the lens.
「西瓜甜不甜！」I exclaimed, pressing down on the shutter before she could answer. And with that, Kuo Chia-chen disappeared. It was the last time I would ever see her.
No one ever tells us why others leave us behind, but I suspect that even if they did, the reason would never feel like enough. Months later, when I picked up the disposable camera’s photos from the camera store, I suddenly felt certain of this. Ba, Kuo Chia-chen, 阿田, and the legions of chickens before and after him. In a way, you. Even if you could have said your goodbyes, even if I had a million years to prepare myself for your departure—how could anything like this ever feel right?
The photo I took with Kuo Chia-chen—somehow the only one aptly exposed in the entire roll—featured me with an overly toothy grin stretching from cheek to cheek, next to her floating, bodiless head, lips pursed in a pretty smile. As I walked home from the camera store, I wondered if she felt freer, lighter now. If she felt anything at all.
A horde of middle schoolers rolled past me on bicycles as older teenagers stabbed through the plastic film of their foamy tea drinks with wide-mouthed straws, forming a crisp chorus against the chirps of sparrows circling above me. Deciding to take a long way home, I cut through a few alleys and reached the gate of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.
Marshaling what little English he knew, Ba would always call him Chiang Kai-shit. And now, the same nickname rose in a mass of high-pitched cheers, stirring my insides like tea leaves bleeding into water. “Chiang Kai-shit! Chiang Kai-shit!”
I walked toward the source of the hubbub and found myself in a large square, where pinches of women dressed in green had gathered, working up a racket with handmade signs and various chants. The signs ranged from dense demands like DISMANTLE THE 831 SPECIAL TEAHOUSES / SAVE UNDERAGED ABORIGINAL GIRLS to straightforward ones like 吃屎，蔣介屎. When I approached the crowd, a small group of young women scattered apart and let me into their orbit like a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Pausing in between chants, they introduced themselves to me as Ahli, Hsiaofei, Mimi, and Ruiling.
“Strange,” I said, clutching the photograph against my chest. “I feel like we’ve met before.”
Ahli laughed, sunlight glistening against the coat of sweat on her cheek. “Maybe in our past lives, don’t you think?”
We chatted for a while after that, and when Mimi said she was hungry, we sped off on their motorbikes to a dumpling place nearby. There, I nibbled through the crystal skin of pork-cabbage dumplings, adding extra white vinegar to my dipping sauce—a habit I’d picked up from thinking about you too much. Afterwards, Ahli gave me a ride home. On the highway, the velocity of our movement beat against the still air, the howling pressed against my ears a gale of our own making. Halfway through the ride, the faintest drizzle began to fall from the sky, visible only against the apricot light of the sun. As I watched short threads of 太陽雨 bloom off car hoods and helmets in faded color, I knew I would walk into your room—Ba’s old study—as soon as I reached home. Behind a cracked-open door, I would say, 「我回來了，阿嬷。」And when I sat down next to you and took your hand in mine, I would sink my ears into your silence, bathe in your humdrum breath. I wouldn’t tell you about my day, I wouldn’t ask questions. You already had the answers, and I would listen.
Emily Yang was raised in Taipei, Taiwan. She is always missing papaya milk and her bidet. Her work has been featured in the Margins, Waxwing, and the Adroit Journal, among others. She tweets unprofessionally @taromilkpng.
Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018), Umbilical Hospital (1913 Press, 2017), A Brief Alphabet of Torture (FC2, 2017), Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016) and The Old Philosopher (Nightboat Books, 2016). She was born in Long Khánh, Vitenam, and lives in Iowa City, Iowa. For more information visit her website.
Photograph by the author, Emily Yang.