Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, published by Granta Books, has been longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Read the first chapter of her novel in full, below.
In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. That year, 1989, my mother flew to Hong Kong and laid my father to rest in a cemetery near the Chinese border. Afterwards, distraught, she rushed home to Vancouver where I had been alone. I was ten years old.
Here is what I remember:
My father has a handsome, ageless face; he is a kind but melancholy man. He wears glasses that have no frames and the lenses give the impression of hovering just before him, the thinnest of curtains. His eyes, dark brown, are guarded and unsure; he is only 39 years old. My father’s name was Jiang Kai and he was born in a small village outside of Changsha. Later on, when I learned my father had been a renowned concert pianist in China, I thought of the way his fingers tapped the kitchen table, how they pattered across countertops and along my mother’s soft arms all the way to her fingertips, driving her crazy and me into fits of glee. He gave me my Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling, and my English one, Marie Jiang. When he died, I was only a child, and the few memories I possessed, however fractional, however inaccurate, were all I had of him. I’ve never let them go.
In my twenties, in the difficult years after both my parents had passed away, I gave my life wholeheartedly to numbers—observation, conjecture, logic and proof, the tools we mathematicians have not only to interpret, but simply to describe the world. For the last decade I have been a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Numbers have allowed me to move between the unimaginably large and the magnificently small; to live an existence away from my parents, their affairs and unrequited dreams and, I used to think, my own.
Some years ago, in 2010, while walking in Vancouver’s Chinatown, I passed a store selling DVDs. I remember that it was pouring rain and the sidewalks were empty. Concert music rang from two enormous speakers outside the shop. I knew the music, Bach’s Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 4, and I was drawn towards it as keenly as if someone were pulling me by the hand. The counterpoint, holding together composer, musicians and even silence, the music, with its spiralling waves of grief and rapture, was everything I remembered.
Dizzy, I leaned against the glass.
And suddenly I was in the car with my father. I heard rain splashing up over the tires and my father, humming. He was so alive, so beloved, that the incomprehensibility of his suicide grieved me all over again. By then, my father had been dead for two decades, and such a pure memory of him had never come back to me. I was thirty-one years old.
I went inside the store. The pianist, Glenn Gould, appeared on a flatscreen: he and Yehudi Menuhin were performing the Bach sonata I had recognized. There was Glenn Gould hunched over the piano, wearing a dark suit, hearing patterns far beyond the range of what most of us are given to perceive, and he was . . . so familiar to me, like an entire language, a world, I had forgotten.
In 1989, life had become a set of necessary routines for my mother and me: work and school, television, food, sleep. My father’s first departure happened at the same time as momentous events occurring in China, events which my mother watched obsessively on CNN. I asked her who these protesters were, and she said they were students and everyday people. I asked if my father was there, and she said, ‘No, it’s Tiananmen Square in Beijing.’ The demonstrations, bringing over a million Chinese citizens into the streets, had begun in April, when my father still lived with us, and continued after he disappeared to Hong Kong. Then, on June 4th, and in the days and weeks following the massacre, my mother wept. I watched her night after night. Ba had defected from China in 1978 and was forbidden from re-entering the country. But my incomprehension attached itself to the things I could see: those chaotic, frightening images of people and tanks, and my mother in front of the screen.
That summer, as if in a dream, I continued my calligraphy lessons at the nearby cultural centre, using brush and ink to copy line after line of Chinese poetry. But the words I could recognize—big, small, girl, moon, sky (大, 小, 女, 月, 天)—were few. My father spoke Mandarin and my mother Cantonese, but I was fluent only in English. At first, the puzzle of the Chinese language had seemed a game, a pleasure, but my inability to understand began to trouble me. Over and over, I wrote characters I couldn’t read, making them bigger and bigger until excess ink soaked the flimsy paper and tore it. I didn’t care. I stopped going.
In October, two police officers came to our door. They informed my mother that Ba was gone, and that the coroner’s office in Hong Kong would handle the file. They said Ba’s death was a suicide. Then, quiet (qù) became another person living inside our house. It slept in the closet with my father’s shirts, trousers and shoes, it guarded his Beethoven, Prokofiev and Shostakovich scores, his hats, armchair and special cup. Quiet (闃) moved into our minds and stormed like an ocean inside my mother and me. That winter, Vancouver was even more grey and wet than usual, as if the rain was a thick sweater we couldn’t remove. I fell asleep certain that, in the morning, Ba would wake me as he always had, his voice tugging me from sleep, until this delusion compounded the loss, and hurt more than what had come before.
Weeks crept by, and 1989 disappeared inside 1990. Ma and I ate dinner on the sofa every night because there was no space on our dining table. My father’s official documents—certificates of various kinds, tax declarations—had already been organized, but the odds and ends persisted. As Ma investigated the apartment more thoroughly, other bits of paper came to light, music scores, a handful of letters my father had written but never sent (‘Sparrow, I do not know if this letter will reach you, but . . .’) and ever more notebooks. As I watched these items increase, I imagined my mother believed that Ba would reincarnate as a piece of paper. Or maybe she believed, as the ancients did, that words written on paper were talismans, and could somehow protect us from harm.
Most nights, Ma would sit among them, still in her office clothes.
I tried not to bother her. I stayed in the adjoining living room and heard, now and then, the nearly soundless turning of pages.
The qù of her breathing.
Rain exploding and slicing down the window panes.
We were suspended in time.
Over and over, the No. 29 electric bus clattered past.
I fantasized conversations. I tried to imagine Ba reborn in the underworld, buying another new diary, using a different currency, and slipping his change into a new coat pocket, a lightweight coat made of feathers or maybe a cloak of camel wool, a coat sturdy enough for both heaven and the underworld.
Meanwhile, my mother distracted herself by trying to find my father’s family, wherever they might be, to tell them that their long-lost son or brother or uncle no longer survived in this world. She began searching for Ba’s adoptive father, a man who had once lived in Shanghai and had been known as ‘the Professor.’ He was the only family Ba had ever mentioned. The search for information was slow and painstaking; there was no e-mail or internet back then and so it was easy for Ma to send a letter but difficult to obtain a true answer. My father had left China a long time ago and if the Professor were still alive, he would be a supremely old man.
The Beijing we saw on television, with mortuaries and grieving families, with tanks stationed at the intersections, bristling with rifles, was a world away from the Beijing my father had known. And yet, I sometimes think, not so different after all.
It was a few months later, in March 1990, that my mother showed me the Book of Records. That night, Ma was seated at her usual place at the dining table, reading. The notebook in her hand was tall and narrow, the dimensions of a miniature door. It had a loose binding of walnut-coloured cotton string.
Long past my bedtime, Ma suddenly noticed me.
‘What’s wrong with you!’ she said. And then, confused by her own question: ‘Have you finished your homework? What time is it?’
I had finished ages ago and had been watching a horror movie on mute. I still remember: a man had just been killed with an ice pick. ‘It’s midnight,’ I said, disturbed, because the man had been soft as dough.
My mother extended a hand and I went to her. She closed one arm around my waist and squeezed. ‘Do you want to see what I’m reading?’
I leaned over the notebook and stared at the gathering of words. Chinese characters tracked down the page like animal prints in the snow.
‘It’s a story,’ Ma said.
‘Oh. What kind of story?’
‘I think it’s a novel. There’s an adventurer named Da-wei who sets sail to America and a heroine named May Fourth who walks across the Gobi Desert . . .’
I stared harder but the words remained unreadable.
‘There was a time when people copied out entire books by hand,’ Ma said. ‘The Russians called it samizdat, the Chinese called it . . . well, I don’t think we have a name. Look how dirty this notebook is, there’s even bits of grass on it. Goodness knows how many people carried it all over the place . . . bit’s decades older than you, Li-ling.’
I wondered: What wasn’t? I asked if this notebook had been copied by Ba.
My mother shook her head. She said the handwriting was beautiful, the work of a refined calligrapher, while my father’s writing was only so-so. ‘This notebook is one chapter from something longer. Here it says: Number 17. It doesn’t say who the author is, but look, here’s a title, the Book of Records.’
She set the notebook down. On the dining table, my father’s papers had the appearance of whitecaps, surging forward, about to crest off the surface and explode onto the carpet. All our mail was here, too. Since the New Year, Ma had begun receiving letters from Beijing, condolences from musicians in the Central Philharmonic who had only lately learned of my father’s death. Ma read these letters with a dictionary at hand because the letters were written in simplified Chinese, which she had never learned. Educated in Hong Kong, my mother had studied the traditional Chinese script. But on the mainland, in the 1950s, a new, simpler script had become law in Communist China. Thousands of words had changed; for instance, ‘to write’ (xiě) went from 寫 to 写, and ‘to know’ (shí) went from 識 to 识. Even ‘Communist Party’ (gòng chǎn dǎng) went from 共 產 黨 to 共 产 党 . Sometimes Ma could see the word’s former self, other times she guessed at meanings. She said it was like reading a letter from the future, or talking to someone who had turned their back on her. All this was complicated by the fact that she rarely read in Chinese anymore, and expressed most of her thoughts in English. She didn’t like my speaking Cantonese because, as she said, ‘Your accent is completely crooked.’
‘It’s cold in here,’ I whispered. ‘Let’s put on our pyjamas and go to bed.’
Ma stared at the notebook, not even half-listening.
‘Mother will be tired in the morning,’ I persisted. ‘Mother will hit snooze twenty times.’
She smiled but her eyes beneath her glasses tightened against something. ‘Go to bed,’ she said. ‘Don’t wait up for Mother.’
I kissed her soft cheek. She said, ‘What did the Buddhist say to the pizza maker?’
‘Make me one with everything.’
I laughed and groaned and laughed again, then shivered, thinking of the victim on the television, his doughy skin. Smiling, she nudged me firmly away.
Lying in bed, I considered several facts.
First, that in my grade five class, I was an entirely different person. I was so good-natured and well-adjusted there, so high-achieving, I wondered if my brain and soul were separating.
Second, that in poorer countries, people like Ma and me would not be so lonely. On television, poor countries were crowded places, overloaded elevators trying to rise to the sky. People slept six to a bed, a dozen to a room. There you could always speak your thoughts out loud, assured that someone would hear you even if they didn’t want to. In fact, the way to punish someone might be to remove them from their circle of family and friends, isolate them in a cold country, and shatter them with loneliness.
Third, and this was not a fact but a question: Why had our love meant so little to Ba?
I must have slept because I woke abruptly to see Ma leaning over me. Her fingertips wiped my face. I never cried in the daytime, only at night.
‘Don’t be like this, Li-ling,’ she said. She was mumbling a lot of things. She said, ‘If you’re trapped in a room and nobody is coming to save you, what can you do? You have to bang on the walls and break the windows. You have to climb out and save yourself. It’s obvious, Li-ling, that crying doesn’t help a person live.’
‘My name is Marie,’ I shouted. ‘Marie!’
She smiled. ‘Who are you?’
‘You’re Girl.’ She used my father’s pet name for me, because the word 女 meant both girl and daughter. He liked to joke that, where he came from, the poor didn’t bother to name their daughters. Ma would smack his shoulder and say, in Cantonese, ‘Don’t fill her head like a garbage can.’
Protected in her arms, I curled once more towards sleep.
Later I woke to the sound of Ma mumbling run-on thoughts and she was cackling. These winter mornings were so lightless, but Ma’s unexpected laugh cut through the room like buzzing from the electric heater. Her skin had the fragrance of clean pillows, of the sweet osmanthus cream that she used.
When I whispered her name, she mumbled, ‘Heh.’ And then, ‘Heh heh.’
I asked her, ‘Are you walking on land or in the sea?’
Very distinctly, she said, ‘He’s here.’
‘Who?’ I tried to see into the darkness of the room. I truly believed that he was here.
‘Adoptive man. That hmmm. That . . . Professor.’
I held tight to her fingers. On the other side of the curtains, the sky was changing colour. I wanted to follow her into my father’s past, and yet I didn’t trust it. People could walk away towards illusions, they might see something so entrancing they would neglect to turn around. I feared that, like my father, she would no longer remember the reasons for coming home.
Life outside—the start of a new school year, the regularity of tests, the pleasures of math camp—continued as if it would never cease, driven forward by the circular world of seasons. My father’s
summer and winter coats still waited beside the door, beneath his hats and above his shoes.
In early December, a thick envelope arrived from Shanghai and Ma once again sat down with her dictionary. The dictionary is a small-format, extremely fat hardback with a green-and-white cover. The pages, as I turn them, are diaphanous, and seem to weigh nothing. Here and there, I find a spot of grease or a ring of coffee, from my mother’s cup or perhaps my own. Each word is filed under its root, also known as a radical. For instance, 門 means gate, but it is also a radical, that is, the building block for other words and concepts. If light, or the sun 日, shines through the gate, we have space 間. If there is a horse 馬 inside the gate, this is an ambush 闖, and if there is a mouth 口 inside the gate, we have a question 問. If there is an eye 目 and a dog 犬 inside, we have quiet 闃.
The letter from Shanghai was thirty pages long and written in a spidery hand; after some minutes I tired of watching my mother struggle through it. I went to the front room and gazed at the neighbours. Across the courtyard, I saw a miserable Christmas tree. It looked like someone had tried to strangle it with tinsel.
Rain gusted and the wind whistled. I brought my mother a glass of eggnog.
‘Is it a good letter?’
Ma set the pages down. Her eyelids looked swollen. ‘It’s not what I expected.’
I ran my finger across the envelope and began to decipher the name on the return address. It surprised me. ‘A woman?’ I asked, suddenly afraid.
My mother nodded.
‘She has a request,’ Ma said, taking the envelope from me and shoving it beneath some papers. I moved closer as if she was a vase about to slide off the table, but Ma’s puffy eyes conveyed an unexpected emotion. Comfort? Or maybe, and to my astonishment, joy. Ma continued: ‘She’s asking for a favour.’
‘Will you read the letter to me?’
Ma pinched the bridge of her own nose. ‘The whole thing is really long. She says she hasn’t seen your father in many years. But, once, they were like family.’ She hesitated on the word family. ‘She says her husband was your father’s composition teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. But they lost touch with one another. During the difficult years.’
‘What difficult years?’ I began to suspect that any favour would involve American dollars or a new refrigerator, and feared that Ma would be taken advantage of.
‘Before you were born. The 1960s. Back when your father was a music student.’ Ma looked down with an unreadable expression. ‘She says that your father made contact with them last year. Ba wrote to her from Hong Kong a few days before he died.’
A string of questions rose in me. I knew I shouldn’t pester her but at last, because I wished only to understand, I said, ‘Who is she? What’s her name?’
‘Her surname is Deng.’
‘But her given name.’
Ma opened her mouth but no words came out. Finally, she looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Her given name is Li-ling.’
She had the same name as me, only it had been written in simplified Chinese. I reached for the letter. Ma put her hand firmly over mine. Forestalling my next question, she lunged ahead. ‘These thirty pages are about the present not the past. Deng Li-ling’s daughter arrived in Toronto but her passport can’t be used. Her daughter has nowhere to go, she needs our help. Her daughter . . .’ Nimbly, Ma slid the letter into its envelope. ‘Her daughter will come and live with us for a little while. Do you understand? This letter is about the present.’
I felt sideways and upside down. Why would a stranger live with us?
‘Her daughter’s name is Ai-ming,’ Ma said, trying to lead me back. ‘I’m going to telephone now and arrange for her to come.’
‘Are we the same age?’
Ma looked confused. ‘No, she must be at least nineteen years old, she’s a student. Deng Li-ling says that her daughter . . . she says that Ai-ming got into trouble in Beijing during the Tiananmen demonstrations. She ran away.’
‘What kind of trouble?’
‘Enough,’ my mother said. ‘That’s all you need to know.’
‘No! I need to know more.’
Exasperated, Ma slammed the dictionary shut. ‘Who brought you up? You’re too young to be this nosy!’
Ma waited until I was in bed before she made the telephone call. She spoke in her mother tongue, Cantonese, with brief interjections of Mandarin, and I could hear, even through the closed door, how she hesitated over the tones which had never come naturally to her.
‘Is it very cold where you are?’ I heard Ma say.
And then: ‘The Greyhound ticket will be waiting for you at . . .’
I took off my glasses and stared out the blurred window. Rain appeared like snow. Ma’s voice sounded foreign to me.
After a long period of silence I re-hooked my glasses over my ears, climbed out of bed and went out. Ma had a pen in her hand and a stack of bills before her, as if waiting for dictation. She saw me and said, ‘Where are your slippers?’
I said didn’t know.
Ma exploded. ‘Go to bed, Girl! Why can’t you understand? I just want some peace! You never leave me alone, you watch me and watch me as if you think I’ll . . .’ She slapped the pen down. Some piece of it snapped off and ran along the floor. ‘You think I’m going to leave? You think I’m as selfish as he is? That I would ever abandon you and hurt you like he did?’ There was a long, violent outburst in Cantonese, then: ‘Just go to bed!’
She looked so aged and fragile sitting there, with her old, heavy dictionary.
I fled to the bathroom, slammed the door, opened it, slammed it harder, and burst into tears. I ran water in the tub, realizing that what I really wanted was, in fact, to go to bed. My sobs turned to hiccups, and when the hiccups finally stopped, all I heard was water gushing down. Perched on the edge of the tub, I watched my feet distort beneath the surface. My pale legs folded away as I submerged.
Ba, in my memory, came back to me. He pushed a cassette into the tape player, told me to roll down the windows, and we sailed down Main Street and along Great Northern Way, blaring Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, performed by Glenn Gould with Leopold Stokowski conducting. Tumbling notes cascaded down and infinitely up, and my father conducted with his right hand while steering with his left. I heard his humming, melodic and percussive, DA! DA-de-de-de DA!
Da, da, da! I had the sensation that, as we paraded triumphantly across Vancouver, the first movement was being created not by Beethoven, but by my father. His hand moved in the shape of 4/4 time, the cliff-hanging thrill between the fourth beat and the first,
and I wondered what it could mean that a man who had once been famous, who had performed in Beijing before Mao Zedong himself, did not even keep a piano in his own home? That he made his living by working in a shop? In fact, though I begged for violin lessons, my father always said no. And yet here we were, crossing the city embraced by this victorious music, so that the past, Beethoven’s and my father’s, was never dead but only reverberated beneath the windshield, then rose and covered us like the sun.
The Buick was gone; Ma had sold it. She had always been the tougher one, like the cactus in the living room, the only houseplant to survive Ba’s departure. To live, my father had needed more. The bath water lapped over me. Embarrassed by the waste, I wrenched the tap closed. My father had once said that music was full of silences. He had left nothing for me, no letter, no message. Not a word.
Ma knocked at the door.
‘Marie,’ she said. She turned the handle but it was locked. ‘Li-ling, are you okay?’
A long moment passed.
The truth was that I had loved my father more. The realization came to me in the same breath I knew, unquestionably, that my father must have been in great pain, and that my mother would never, ever abandon me. She, too, had loved him. Weeping, I rested my hands on the surface of the water. ‘I just needed to take a bath.’
‘Oh,’ she said. Her voice seemed to echo inside the tub itself. ‘Don’t get cold in there.’
She tried the door again but it was still locked.
‘We’ll be okay,’ she said finally.
I wanted, more than anything, to wake us both from this dream. Instead, helplessly, I splashed water over my tears and nodded. ‘I know.’
I listened to the sound of her slippers diminish as they padded away.
On the 16th of December, 1990, Ma came home in a taxi with a new daughter who wore no coat, only a thick scarf, a woollen sweater, blue jeans and canvas shoes. I had never met a Chinese girl before, that is, one who, like my father, came from real mainland China. A pair of grey mittens dangled from a string around her neck and swayed in nervous rhythm against her legs. The fringed ends of her blue scarf fell one in front and one behind, like a scholar. The rain was falling hard, and she walked with her head down, holding a medium-sized suitcase that appeared to be empty. She was pale and her hair had the gleam of the sea.
Casually I opened the door and widened my eyes as if I was not expecting visitors.
‘Girl,’ Ma said. ‘Take the suitcase. Hurry up.’
Ai-ming stepped inside and paused on the edge of the doormat. When I reached for the suitcase, my hand accidentally touched hers, but she didn’t draw back. Instead, her other hand reached out and lightly covered mine. She gazed right at me, with such openness and curiosity that, out of shyness, I closed my eyes.
‘Ai-ming,’ Ma was saying. ‘Let me introduce you. This is my Girl.’
I pulled away and opened my eyes again.
Ma, taking off her coat, glanced first at me and then at the room. The brown sofa with its three camel-coloured stripes had seen better days, but I had spruced it up with all the flowery pillows and stuffed animals from my bed. I had also turned on the television in order to give this room the appearance of liveliness. Ma nodded vigorously at me. ‘Girl, greet your aunt.’
‘Really, it’s okay if you call me Ai-ming. Please. I really, mmm, prefer it.’
To placate them both, I said, ‘Hello.’
Just as I suspected, the suitcase was very light. With my free hand, I moved to take Ai-ming’s coat, remembering too late she didn’t have one. My arm wavered in the air like a question mark. She reached out, grasped my hand and firmly shook it.
She had a question in her eyes. Her hair, pinned back on one side, fell loosely on the other, so that she seemed forever in profile, about to turn towards me. Without letting go of my hand, she manoeuvred her shoes noiselessly off her feet, first one then the other. Pinpoints of rain glimmered on her scarf. Our lives had contracted to such a degree that I could not remember the last time a stranger had entered our home; Ai-ming’s presence made everything unfamiliar, as if the walls were crowding a few inches nearer to see her. The previous night, we had, at last, tidied Ba’s papers and notebooks, putting them into boxes and stacking the boxes under the kitchen table. Now I found the table’s surface deceitfully bare. I freed my hand, saying I would put the suitcase in her bedroom.
Ma showed her around the apartment. I retreated to the sofa and pretended to watch the Weather Channel, which predicted rain for the rest of the week, the rest of 1990, the rest of the century, and even the remainder of all time. Their two voices ran one after the other like cable cars, interrupted now and then by silence. The intensity in the apartment crept inside me, and I had the sensation that the floor was made of paper, that there were words written everywhere I couldn’t read, and one unthinking gesture could crumple this whole place down.
We ate together, seated around the dining table. Ma had removed a leaf, transforming the table from an egg to a circle. She interrupted her own rambling to give me a look that said, Stop staring.
Every now and then, my foot accidentally kicked one of the boxes under the table, causing Ai-ming to startle.
‘Ai-ming, do you mind the cold?’ Ma said cheerily, ignoring me. ‘I myself never experienced winter until I came to Canada.’
‘Beijing has winter but I didn’t mind it. Actually, I grew up far away from there, in the South where it was humid and warm, and so when we moved to Beijing, the cold was new to me.’
‘I’ve never been to the capital, but I heard the dust flies in from the western deserts.’
‘It’s true.’ Ai-ming nodded, smiling. ‘The dust would get into our clothes and hair, and even into our food.’
Sitting across from her, I could see that she really was nineteen. Her eyes looked puffy and exhausted, and reminded me, unexpectedly, of Ma’s grieving face. Sometimes, I think, you can look at a person and know they are full of words. Maybe the words are withheld due to pain or privacy, or maybe subterfuge. Maybe there are knife-edged words waiting to draw blood. I felt like both a child and a grown-up. I wanted Ma and me to be left alone but, for reasons I couldn’t explain, I wanted to be near her.
‘What is the ‘ming’ of Ai-ming?’ I asked in English, kicking a box for emphasis. ‘Is it the ‘ming’ that means to understand, or the ‘ming’ that means fate?’
They both looked at me.
‘Eat your chicken,’ Ma said.
The daughter studied me, a pleased expression on her face. She drew a shape in the air between us, 明. The sun and the moon combined to make understanding or brightness. It was an everyday word.
‘My parents wanted the idea of aì míng,’ she said. ‘To cherish wisdom.’ But you’re right, there’s a misgiving in it. An idea that is . . . mmm, not cherishing fate, not quite, but accepting it.’ She picked up her bowl again and pushed the tip of her chopsticks into the softness of the rice.
Ma asked her if there was anything she needed, or if there was something she would like to do.
Ai-ming put down her bowl. ‘To be honest, I feel as if it’s been a long time since I had a good night’s sleep. In Toronto, I couldn’t rest. Every few weeks I had to move.’
‘Move house?’ Ma said.
Ai-ming was trembling. ‘I thought . . . I was afraid of the police. I was frightened they would send me back. I don’t know if my mother was able to tell you everything. I hope so. In Beijing, I didn’t do anything wrong, anything criminal, but even so . . . In China, my aunt and uncle helped me leave and I crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan and then . . . you bought my ticket here. Despite everything, you helped me . . . I’m grateful, I’m afraid I’ll never be able to thank you as I should. I’m sorry for everything . . .’
Ma looked embarrassed. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘Eat something.’
But a change had come over Ai-ming. Her hands were shaking so hard, she couldn’t manage her chopsticks. ‘Every day I go back and think things over but I can’t understand how I arrived here. It’s as if I’m a fugitive. At home, my mother is struggling. I’m afraid to sleep . . . sometimes I dream that none of this really happened but then waking up becomes a nightmare. If my mother had me with her, if only my father was alive, if only he hadn’t . . . but the most important thing is that I make something of myself because, right now, I have nothing. I haven’t even got a passport. I’m afraid to use the one I had before, it’s not . . . legal. It wasn’t mine but I had no choice. I heard that if I could get across the border into the United States, there’s an amnesty for Chinese students and I might qualify. Even if I have nothing I’ll pay everything back, I swear it. I promise.’
‘Zhí nǔ,’ Ma said, leaning towards her. The words confused me. They meant ‘my brother’s daughter,’ but Ma had no brothers.
‘I wanted to take care of them but everything changed so quickly. Everything went wrong.’
‘There’s no need to defend yourself here,’ Ma said. ‘We’re family and these are not just words, do you understand? These are much more than words.’
‘And also,’ Ai-ming said, turning pale, ‘I’m truly sorry for your loss.’
My mother and Ai-ming looked at each other. ‘Thank you,’ Ma said. The sudden tears in her eyes stilled everything inside me. Despite all we had been through, my mother rarely wept. ‘And I’m so sorry for yours. My husband loved your father very much.’
On the first Saturday that Ma didn’t have to work, she went downtown and came home with socks, sweaters, a pair of winter shoes and a coat. In the beginning, Ai-ming slept a great deal. She would emerge from Ma’s bedroom with jumbled hair, wearing a pair of my leggings and an old T-shirt of Ma’s. Ai-ming was afraid to go outside, so weeks passed before she wore the new shoes. The coat, however, she wore every day. In the afternoons, she read a lot, sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of my father’s books. She read with her hands in her coat pockets, and used a cleaver to keep the book flat. Her hair sometimes slid forward and blocked the light, and she would wind it up and tuck the bundle inside the neck of her sweater.
One night, after she had been with us about a week, she asked Ma to cut her hair. It was just after Christmas, I remember. Since school was out, I spent most of my time eating chocolate Turtles in front of the television. Ma ordered me to come and spray Ai-ming’s hair with water from the plastic bottle, but I refused, saying that our guest’s hair should be left alone.
The women laughed. Ai-ming said she wanted to look modern. They went into the kitchen and laid down sheets of newspaper, and Ai-ming removed her coat and climbed up onto a footstool so that her long hair could fall freely into Ma’s scissors. I was watching an episode of The A-Team and the cold swish of the scissors, as well as their giggling, made it impossible to concentrate. At the first commercial break, I went into the kitchen to check their progress.
Ai-ming, hands folded as if she were praying, rolled her eyes towards me. Ma had cut about a third of her hair, and the long, wet ends lay on the floor like massacred sea creatures. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘how could you?’
Ma lifted her weapon. ‘You’re next, Girl.’
‘Ma-li, it’s almost the New Year. Time for a haircut.’ Ai-ming had difficulty saying Marie, and so had chosen the Chinese variant which, according to the dictionary, meant ‘charming mineral.’
Just then, Ma detached another sizeable chunk of hair. It fluttered, as if still breathing, to the floor.
‘It’s Canadian New Year. People in Canada don’t get haircuts at New Year’s. They drink champagne.’
Each time Ma pulled the trigger of the plastic bottle, a fine mist shrouded Ai-ming, who squeezed her eyes tight against the cold. As I watched, Ai-ming transformed before my eyes. Even the pallor of her skin began to seem less dire. When she had cut to shoulder length, Ma began shaping bangs that slanted across Ai-ming’s forehead in a decidedly chic way. She was very, very beautiful. Her eyes were dark and unclouded and the shape of her mouth was, just as the poets say, a rose against her skin. There was a flush to Ai-ming’s cheeks that had not been there an hour before, colour that rose each time Ma gazed at her for long moments, assessing her handiwork. They had forgotten all about me.
When I went back to the other room, the credits were rolling on The A-Team. I collapsed on the couch and pulled my knees up to my chest. Festive lights shone in almost every window but ours, and I had the sensation that our apartment was under scrutiny by residents of a UFO, unsure whether to land in Vancouver or fly on. The aliens in my spaceship were asking themselves: Do they have soda? What kind of food do they eat? Maybe we should wait and return in spring? Land, I told them. People aren’t made to float through the air. Unless we know the weight of our bodies, unless we feel the force of gravity, we’ll forget what we are, we’ll lose ourselves without even noticing.
Ai-ming had been reading one of my father’s bilingual poetry books. I picked it up now, a book familiar to me because I had used it in my calligraphy lessons. I paged through it until I came to a poem I knew, words my father had underlined,
Watch little by little the night turn around.
Echoes in the house; want to go up, dare not.
A glow behind the screen; wish to go through, cannot.
It would hurt too much, to see the swallow on her hairpin.
Truly shame me, to see the phoenix in her mirror.
To Hengtang I return at dawn
Fading like light on a jewelled saddle.
I read the poem twice through and closed the book. I hoped that my father, in the afterlife to which he had gone, was also celebrating Christmas and the New Year, but I feared that he was alone and that, unlike Ai-ming, he had not yet found a family to protect him. Despite my anger at him, despite the pain that wouldn’t leave me, I could not shake my longing for his happiness.
It was inevitable, of course, that Ai-ming would discover the boxes under the table. In January, I came home from school and found my father’s papers completely exposed—not because she had moved them, but because she had pushed the dining table backwards. One of the boxes had been completely emptied. Ba’s diaries, spread across the table, reminded me of the poverty of the Vancouver flea market. Worse, Ai-ming could read every character while I, his only daughter, couldn’t read a single line.
She was making cabbage salad and had grated so much horseradish that I wondered whether the cabbage would actually fit.
I said that I didn’t know if my stomach could handle that much horseradish.
She nodded distractedly and flung the cabbage in, tossing it wildly. Everything flew up in the air and rained down into the bowl. Ai-ming was wearing Ma’s ‘Canada: The World Next Door’ apron, and her winter coat underneath.
She went to the table. ‘Once, when I was very small, I met your father.’
I remained where I was. Ai-ming and I had never spoken about Ba. That she had known him, that she had never thought to mention this to me before, filled me with a disappointment so intense I could hardly breathe.
‘This afternoon,’ she said, ‘I started looking inside these boxes. These are your father’s things, aren’t they? Of course, I knew I should ask your permission, but there were so many notebooks.’
I answered without looking at her. ‘My father moved to Canada in 1979. That’s twelve years of papers. A whole life. He hardly left us anything.’
‘I call this the room of zá jì,’ she said. ‘The things that don’t fit. Bits and pieces . . .’
Inside my head, to calm the shivering that had started in my chest and was now radiating to my limbs, I repeated, over and over, the words Ai-ming had used but which I had never heard before: zá jì.
‘You understand, don’t you?’ she said. ‘The things we never say aloud and so they end up here, in diaries and notebooks, in private places. By the time we discover them, it’s too late.’ Ai-ming was holding a notebook tightly. I recognized it at once: it was tall but thin, the shape of a miniature door, with a loose binding of cotton thread. The Book of Records.
‘So you’ve seen this before?’ When I still didn’t answer, she smiled sadly at me. ‘This is my father’s handwriting. You see? His writing is so effortless, so artful. He always wrote with care, even if the character was an easy one. It was his nature to be attentive.’
She opened the notebook. The words seemed to float on the surface and move of their own accord. I backed away. She didn’t need to show me, I knew what it looked like.
‘I have my own zá jì,’ she continued. ‘But it’s everywhere now, and I don’t know how to contain it. Do you know why we keep records, Ma-li? There must be a reason but what good does it do to keep such insignificant things? My father was a great composer, a great musician, but he gave up his talent so that he could protect me. He was an upright and sincere person and even your father wanted to keep a part of him. Even your father loved him. But they let him die. They killed him as if he were an animal. How can anyone explain this to me? If my father were alive, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be alone. And your father, he wouldn’t have . . . Oh, Ma-li. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
Ai-ming did something I had not seen her do since her arrival more than a month ago. Not only did she weep, but she was too overcome to turn away or cover her face. The sound disturbed me so much, a low keening that dismantled everything. I thought she was saying, ‘Help me, help me.’ I was terrified that if I touched her, her pain would swell inside my body and become my own forever. I couldn’t bear it. I turned away from her. I went into my bedroom and closed the door.
The room felt very small. Family, I whispered to myself, was a precious box that could not open and close at will, just because Ma said so. Ba’s picture on my dresser hurt me so much. No, it wasn’t the picture of him, but the feeling it caused, this chafing emotion that turned everything, even my love for Ma and Ai-ming, bitter. I wanted to throw the picture on the floor but I was afraid that it was real, that it contained my father himself, and if I damaged it, he would never be able to come home. The rain outside hammered against my thoughts. Down the windowpane, it changed and slipped, and all those rivulets of water, growing large and small, joining and shivering, began to confuse and mesmerize me. Was I as insignificant as that? Would I ever change anything? I suddenly remembered the scent of my father, a sweetness like new leaves or freshly mown grass, the smell of his soap. His voice with its oddly formal syntax, ‘What does daughter wish to say to Father? Why is daughter crying?’ His voice like no voice that had ever lived.
I remembered, against my will, how I’d overheard Ma saying that when Ba was found, he’d had almost no belongings. She’d been speaking on the telephone, long distance, to a friend in Hong Kong. She said that the suitcase, full when he left, was empty. He’d gotten rid of everything, including his wedding ring, his Sony portable CD player and his music. He hadn’t even been carrying a photograph of us. The only note he left was not a goodbye. All it said was that there were debts he couldn’t pay, failures he couldn’t live with, and that he wished to be buried in Hong Kong, at the Chinese border. He said that he loved us.
Once each year, my father used to take us to the symphony. We never had good seats but Ba said it didn’t matter, the point was to be there, to exist in the room while music, however old it might be, was being renewed. Life was full of obstacles, my father used to tell me, and no one could be sure that tomorrow or next year, anything would remain the same. He told me that, when he was a young boy, his adoptive father, the Professor, had gone with him to the symphony in Shanghai and that the experience had changed him forever. Inside him, walls that he had never realized existed suddenly revealed themselves. ‘I knew I was destined to have a different kind of life,’ he said. Once he became aware of these walls, all he could think about was how to pull them down.
‘What walls?’ I had asked.
‘Mìng,’ he said. ‘Fate.’ It was only later, when I looked up the word again, that I saw that mìng 命 meant fate but it also meant life.
The knock on the door brought me back to the rain, to the room and myself.
‘Ma-li,’ Ai-ming began, sitting at the foot of my bed. She had turned the desk lamp on, and she looked like a pale shadow I had cast. ‘I shouldn’t have read your father’s diaries. This is what I wanted to tell you. I’m truly sorry, Ma-li. Please forgive me.’
The quiet intensified. I was sitting as far away from her as I could, on top of my pillows.
Ai-ming whispered, ‘I am truly a very fearful person.’
‘What are you afraid of?’
‘That your mother will ask me to leave. I can’t survive by myself again. I know I can’t.’
Shame welled up in me. Her words reminded me, somehow, of Ba. ‘You’re family, Ma said so.’
‘It’s just, Ma-li, our lives are confused. And there is this . . . heartbreak between your family and mine.’
I nodded as if I understood.
Ai-ming continued, ‘My father loved music, like yours. He used to teach at the Shanghai Conservatory, but that was before I was born.’
‘What did he do afterwards?’
‘He worked in factories for twenty years. First, he built wooden crates and, later on, he built radios.’
‘I don’t understand. Why would he do that if loved music?’ The rain was falling so hard it was hitting the window like flecks of silver. Without warning, I pictured Ma waiting at the bus stop, her coat sticking to her, the wind and the wet chilling her bones.
‘I met your father,’ Ai-ming said, evading my question. ‘When I was a little girl, Jiang Kai came to my village. My father was very happy to see him after so many years. It was 1977 and Chairman Mao had died and it was the beginning of a new era. Many things were changing but, even so, my father was careful about showing his emotions. But I saw how much Jiang Kai’s visit meant to him, and that’s why I’ve always remembered it. And then, after my father died, Jiang Kai called us. Your Ba was in Hong Kong. I spoke to him on the telephone.’
‘Ai-ming, I don’t want you to talk about my Ba. I never, never want to hear his name.’
‘Mmmm,’ she said. She put her hands inside her coat pocket and immediately took them out again.
‘Why are you always so cold!?’ I asked, confused.
She clapped her hands together to warm them. ‘I left Beijing in winter and I think the cold got stuck in my bones because I can’t get warm anymore. My mother and my grandmother helped me leave China. They were afraid because . . . I couldn’t pretend. I couldn’t go on as if nothing had changed.’ Ai-ming burrowed further inside her coat. She looked terribly young and alone.
‘You miss your mother a lot, don’t you?’
Something clicked in my mind. I clambered off the bed and went out. The notebook with her father’s writing, the Book of Records, was easy to find. I picked it up, knowing it would please her. But when I offered the notebook to Ai-ming, she ignored me.
I tried again. ‘Ma told me it’s a great adventure, that someone goes to America and someone else goes to the desert. She said the person who made this copy is a master calligrapher.’
Ai-ming emerged from coat. ‘It’s true my father had excellent handwriting, but he wasn’t a master calligrapher. And anyway, no matter how beautiful the Book of Records is, it’s only a book. It isn’t real.’
‘That’s okay. If you read it to me, I can improve my Chinese. That’s real.’
She smiled. After a few moments of turning pages, she returned the notebook to the bedcover, which had become a kind of neutral ground between us. ‘It’s not a good idea,’ she said. ‘This is Chapter 17. It’s useless to start halfway, especially if this is the only chapter you have.’
‘You can summarize the first sixteen chapters. I’m sure you know them.’
‘Impossible!’ But she was laughing. ‘This is how I used to badger my grandmother into doing things she had no intention of doing.’
‘Did your grandmother give in?’
I pulled the blanket around me as if the question was settled.
‘Before you feel too comfortable,’ Ai-ming said, ‘I should tell you that my grandmother was known to everyone as Big Mother Knife.’
‘That’s not a real name!’
‘In this story, every name is true.’ She tilted her head mischievously. ‘Or should I be saying Girl? Or Ma-li? Or Li-ling? Which one is your real name?’
‘They’re all real.’ But even as I said the words, I doubted and wondered, and feared that each name took up so much space, and might even be its own person, that I myself would eventually disappear.
Perplexed, I curled up into the empty space between us. Ai-ming was still turning the pages of the notebook. I asked what Big Mother Knife looked like. Ai-ming stroked my hair and thought for a moment. She said that everything about Big Mother was both big and small: long eyebrows over slender eyes, a small nose and big cheeks, shoulders like hilltops. From the time Big Mother Knife was a little girl, she had curled her hair; by the time she was old, the curls were so fine and thin they seemed made of air. Big Mother had a jackdaw laugh, a terrible temper, and a shouting voice, and even when she was a small child, nobody dared to treat her lightly.
I closed my eyes and Ai-ming set the notebook aside.
In teahouses and restaurants, Big Mother Knife and her younger sister, Swirl, could sing harmonies so bewitching that problems large and small disappeared beneath the enchantment of their voices. They travelled from town to village, Ai-ming said, performing on makeshift stages, their dark hair bright with flowers or strings of coins. Story cycles like The Water Margin or Wu Song Fights the Tiger could last a hundred chapters, and the old storytellers could spin them out over months, even years. Listeners couldn’t resist; like clockwork they arrived, eager to hear the next instalment. It was a time of chaos, of bombs and floods, when love songs streamed from the radios and wept down the streets. Music sustained weddings, births, rituals, work, marching, boredom, confrontation and death; music and stories, even in times like these, were a refuge, a passport, everywhere.
In those days, your village might change hands every few weeks, one day to the Communists, the next to the Nationalists, the next to the Japanese. How easy it was to mistake your brother for a traitor or your beloved for an enemy, to fear that you yourself were born in the wrong moment of history. But in the teahouses, anyone could share a few songs, anyone could lift their wine cup and toast the validity and the continuity of love. ‘People knew family and kinship were real,’ Big Mother said. ‘They knew regular life had once existed. But no one could tell them why, just like that, and for no good reason at all, everything they cared for was being ground to dust.’
She was eighteen when she named her newborn baby Sparrow, a humble name rarely used for boys. The little sparrow was a bird so common that gods and men, idealists and thieves, Communists and Nationalists, would pass over him in disdain. The peaceful sparrow was weightless because he had no baggage to carry and no messages to deliver.
Throughout his childhood, Sparrow was startled awake in little towns. Teahouse patrons shouted drunkenly beside his mother and aunt, the men thundering like trombones and the women trilling like flutes. By the age of five, he was earning his keep, performing ‘Song of the Cold Rain’ or ‘In That Remote Place,’ ballads so stirring that even those with nothing but dust in their pockets tried to feed him something, a nibble of turnip or a crust of bread, or even a puff from their foot-long tobacco pipes. ‘Here is the little sand sparrow (or golden wing, or red sparrow or stone sparrow),’ the grandmothers would say, ‘come to peck at our hearts again.’
Once, in the chaos, they passed a troupe of blind musicians in an abandoned village. The troupe walked—hand to elbow, elbow to hand—guided by a sighted girl who was only eight or nine years old. Sparrow asked his mother how the blind musicians, swaying forward like a rope in the dust, could hide themselves when the warplanes came, strafing houses and refugees, trees and rivers. Big Mother answered brutally, ‘Their days are numbered. Can a single hand cover the sky?’ It was true. Year after year, the roads cratered and collapsed, entire towns vanished, crushed into the mud, leaving behind only garbage, dogs and the putrid, sickly sweet smell of bodies numbering in the hundreds, the thousands, and then the millions. And yet the lyrics of ten thousand songs (‘You and I are forever separated by a river / my life and thoughts go in two directions . . .’) crowded out everything in Sparrow’s memory so that, as an adult, he retained very few memories of the war. Only this troupe of blind musicians could not be erased. Once, at the start of the war and then, astonishingly, near the end, they had reappeared with the sighted girl, now a teenager, coming from nowhere, disappearing to nowhere, a ribbon slipping endlessly between the buildings, their instruments humming as they passed. Were they real? Without realizing it, had he, Big Mother and Swirl, like the musicians, found a way to survive by becoming entirely unseen?
It was 1949 and the civil war was staggering to its conclusion. They were in a town by a large river, and outside, the melting ice made a sound like all the bones in China cracking. At one point, between songs, Big Mother’s face appeared, upside down, wide and soft, peering under the table.
She gave him a single pear syrup candy. ‘This will keep your voice sweet,’ she whispered. ‘Remember what I say: music is the great love of the People. If we sing a beautiful song, if we faithfully remember all the words, the People will never abandon us. Without the musician, all life would be loneliness.’
Sparrow knew what loneliness was. It was his cousin’s small corpse wrapped in a white sheet. It was the man on the sidewalk who was so old he couldn’t run away when the Reds came, it was the boy soldier whose decapitated head sat on the city gates, deforming and softening in the sun.
Waiting, Sparrow perfected his library of songs, singing to himself, ‘My youth has gone like a departing bird . . .’
Months later, when Chairman Mao stood atop the gate of Tiananmen Square, shouts of joy erupted through the airwaves. The radio carried the Chairman’s melodic voice into streets and homes, even under the tables where Sparrow felt he had waited forever, and proclaimed a new beginning, a Communist society, and the birth of the People’s Republic of China. The words wrapped like a filament around every chair, wrist and plate, every cart and person, pulling all their lives into a new order. The war was over. His mother dragged him into the open, embraced him so hard he couldn’t breathe, she wept and gave him so many candies his head spun. The very next morning, they took to the roads once more, walking home to Shanghai.
After vanishing for years, Sparrow’s father returned a revolutionary hero. Ba Lute was a tower of a man, round as well as tall, with wide hands, thick feet, and startling triangular-shaped eyebrows. A Flying Horse cigarette was forever crushed between his meaty lips. But the soft waves of jet black hair that Big Mother had once described to Sparrow had disappeared; his father’s enormous bald head gleamed like the moon.
On their first meeting, his father plucked Sparrow from the ground and flew him over his head. ‘I was a book of zero when I joined the Party!’ Ba Lute shouted. Sparrow tried not to vomit. He had always been a slight boy, and this slightness now convinced his father that Sparrow was still a little child. ‘I was a pig’s ear!’ his father cried, strangely triumphant. ‘But our Supreme Party crushed me down and made me new again. I was reborn by the blood of my brothers in the People’s Liberation Army! Long live the Communist Party! Long live Chairman Mao Zedong, the Red Sun, the Great Saving Star!’
Held aloft in the air, Sparrow gazed at his father in painful, dizzying devotion.
The Party favoured them with a traditional laneway house, not far from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. It was two storeys, with an inner courtyard and spacious side wings, with room enough for five families, yet despite the dire housing shortage, only two other people shared the courtyard: a husband and wife surnamed Ma, who had lost all three sons in the fighting. Together with Ba Lute, they painted the words, ‘Trust the Party in Everything’ on their common brick wall, their feet tapping an intricate rhythm all the while.
Big Mother was the only one who didn’t have the heart for music. Here in her childhood city, she found herself dreaming of her dead parents and her missing brothers, of Swirl’s lost husband and child, fantasizing that they, like Ba Lute, would miraculously appear. She was going blind in one eye (‘From looking at you,’ she told her husband) and she saw that her youth, those years of catastrophe and flight, of running along a precipice, had come to an end. Gone were the crushing sorrows and terrors, and gone, too, was her independence. She feared she had no idea how to live in peace.
Worse, she had somehow ended up married to the king of slogans. Everything was ideological with the man. Ba Lute demanded shoes made of humble straw rather than everyday cloth and, in addition to committing the blackboard news to memory, he read the Jiefang Daily religiously, his arms open as if to hug the words of Chairman Mao. The Great Helmsman, her husband informed her one morning, had said love was no excuse for withholding criticism.
‘When did I ever spit the word love at you?’ she said. ‘You Communists are all delusional.’
Aghast, her husband twitched his cigarette at her. ‘If you had seen me at Headquarters, you would know how my comrades respected me!’
‘Forgive me . . . I was lugging your son around on my back. I walked five thousand li hoping to trip over your big face again! Meanwhile, where were you? Off at ‘Headquarters,’ playing the piano and dancing polkas. You melon! Who’s the true revolutionary hero?’
He dismissed her. It didn’t matter. Their incompatible love made her feel hollow, as if the world had turned out to be flat after all. In honour of her husband’s hero status, Big Mother Knife had been assigned an excellent administrative job at the Shanghai No. 2 Electric Wire Company. The twice-daily political meetings were so endless and excruciating she wanted to stick her fingers in the sockets. By now, Sparrow was eleven years old, and his parents’ arguments floated past him as lightly as a whistle of wind. In addition to his regular schoolwork, Ba Lute was tutoring him in music theory and jianpu, a notation using numbers, lines and dots
which Sparrow had first encountered when he was three years old, long before any other writing had entered his life. His father said that jianpu notation was accessible to everyone, and even the humblest daughter of the humblest peasant could read it. Numbers could describe another world. Now, while his father sulked and his mother shouted, he swayed at his desk, singing and singing again this exhilarating music in front of him, his audition piece for the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Every hair on his head seemed to flutter like wings. The score his father had given him to learn was Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, arranged for the Chinese two-stringed violin, the erhu.