When I was first pushed by my mother into the presence of my Aunt Polly, the bandages had only been removed from her face a few days before. They had exposed a patchwork of skin – pink and white – glazed in some places, and matt-surfaced in others, dependent upon the area of thigh or buttock from which it had been stripped to cover her burns. She had difficulty in closing her eyes (sometimes while asleep the lids would snap open). The fire had reached every part of her and she spoke in a harsh whisper that I could hardly understand. It was impossible to judge whether or not I was welcome, because the grey stripe of mouth provided by plastic surgery in its infancy could hold no expression. She bent down stiffly to proffer a cheek and, prodded by my mother, I reached up to select a smooth surface among the puckerings, the ridges and the nests of tiny wrinkles, and touch it with my lips.
In the background the second aunt, Annie, wearing long white gloves, holding a fan like a white feather-duster, and dressed as if for her wedding, waited smilingly. I was soon to learn that the smile was one that nothing could efface. Dodging in and out of a door at the back of the hallway, the third aunt, Li, seemed like a startled animal. She was weeping silently, and with these tears I would soon become familiar.
I was nine years of age, and the adults peopling my world seemed on the whole irrational, but it was an irrationality I had come to accept as the norm. My mother had brought me to this vast house and told me, without discussion, preparation, or warning, that I was to live among these strangers – for whom I was to show respect, even love – for an unspecified period of time. The prospect troubled me, but like an Arab child resigned in his religion, I soon learned to accept this new twist in the direction of my life, and the sounds of incessant laughter and grief soon lost all significance, became commonplace and thus passed without notice.