Sometimes, when the children are especially troublesome, Meilin tells them about the Red Guard who sliced open a girl’s neck and poured salt in the wound. The girl was the daughter of the education minister of Changchun. He and his family were deemed counter-revolutionaries by the district office, so he, his wife, and their son were sent away to Lixin province for re-education. Because she had asthma, the girl was allowed to stay behind, living in a neighbor’s back room and performing chores for the family.
“Her name was Feng Hui Zhong, which means beautiful on the inside and smart on the outside. But she was beautiful on the outside too, so we called her Xiaoli, which means small and lovely.”
Meilin always speaks to her children in Mandarin. English she saves for supermarket check-out girls and for the parents of her children’s friends when she drops them off at sleepovers and birthday parties. It is a language crowded with words that carry meaning lightly like rice-paper wrapping that melts on the tongue. She wants her stories to sit heavily in her children’s stomachs.
“Your uncle Wei-lu was madly in love with her, but I used to say to him, ‘Big Brother, why do you chase after something you cannot have? You are the son of a shoemaker. Do you think she will love you if you sew her slippers of gold?’”
“And uncle Wei-lu said that neither of them would care if they walked barefoot for the rest of their lives,” recites Caroline, who knows every word of the story but interrupts Meilin in English while Alice plays with the beads embroidered on her black cloth shoes.
“One day, we were making posters to hang on the walls of our school. This was just before the schools closed down. Instead of painting revolutionary slogans, Xiaoli was copying from memory one of the poems of Tu Fu. And instead of writing in regular script like we were supposed to, she was using a very old form of Chinese calligraphy that belongs to scholars.” Meilin takes baby Cate’s hand and sweeps it slowly through the air, tracing invisible words.
Fluttering from place to place, I am like a gull between heaven and earth.
“One of the Red Guards – a fat girl with bad complexion – noticed this and dragged Xiaoli out in front of the other students.” Meilin holds up an invisible scroll, throws back her shoulders, and screeches in a broken voice. “Feng Hui Zhong thinks she is better than the rest of us because her father used to be the education minister. Look, she is copying counter-revolutionary poetry. What little work she has been doing for old man Qian has taught her nothing about class struggle. She still wants to become a revisionist teacher and fill children with bourgeois conceits, teach them that some people are superior to others. It is time that she is taught a lesson.”
Meilin no longer has to reach for the imaginary knife in her back pocket. As soon as she stops speaking, the children begin to scream. Alice runs into the living room to bury herself in the sofa cushions. Caroline bolts down the hallway to her room, baby Cate scrambling after her in giddy confusion. Only Samantha remains seated at the kitchen table, bent over her drawing. She does not notice her sisters’ sudden absence or the clinking of silverware as Meilin finishes washing the dishes. It is not until Meilin turns off the faucet, hangs up her apron, and steps out of the room that Samantha looks up, as if startled from a dream.
“Mama, you forgot to say what happened to Xiaoli and uncle Wei-lu.”
She is always the one who waits to hear the end of the story.
* * * * *
To Meilin, the confusion of colors on posterboard looks no different than other art projects that her children have been bringing home for years. But because she can feel the two women behind her waiting for her reaction, she pretends to study the painting with what she hopes they perceive as a proper mixture of maternal concern and critical judgment.
“Aya, too many color,” she says, waving her hand before the layered splatters of black, red, purple, yellow. “What is about?” Her English always disintegrates when she is nervous, but she keeps her back rigid and her chin up so that the other women cannot tell. “Too many color,” she repeats, certain of her answer. She turns to face them.
“The colors are not the problem, Mrs. Yu,” says the tall, dark-haired one. The art teacher. Mrs. Loveking. “The juxtaposition of color here is actually …”
“I’m sure you understand the importance of immediate intervention,” interrupts the small, blonde one. The principal, whose name Meilin can’t pronounce but whose light yellow hair, pinched nose, and high, frantic voice remind her of a canary. “We’ve been keeping a close eye on Samantha since she came to us last year, and while we certainly understand that every child acclimatizes at her own pace and encourage individuality in our students, I’m afraid that this,” she gestures toward the painting, “along with the obvious socialization problems we’ve been witnessing, warrants professional evaluation. She doesn’t engage at all with the other children, Mrs. Yu.”
Meilin is trying to grab hold of the canary woman’s words, but they flutter free again as soon as she catches one. She wishes that they would stop bringing her here to complain about Samantha, who is her easiest child – the one who always clears her plate and has never been sick, unlike her oldest daughter; who does what she is told and doesn’t talk back like her second daughter; who takes care of herself now and doesn’t cry or cling to her like the baby. She regrets allowing her husband to transfer Samantha out of Chinese school, where nobody complained about healthy, quiet, and independent children.
“Mrs. Yu?” The canary woman calls loudly into Meilin’s face. “I can give you names of some excellent doctors.”
“Mrs. Yu.” The art teacher takes Meilin’s hand. “Is there anything happening at home that Samantha might be reacting to?”
“Mary, this is not just about one painting,” says the principal. Meilin can see the blue veins pulsing in her pale neck.
Mrs. Loveking ignores her. “Anything that might be causing Samantha to withdraw here at school or compelling this … violent image?”
Meilin follows the teacher’s eyes back to the painting. She squints, trying to recognize something in the splashes of color. And at first, nothing appears. The paint is so thick that at places sharp ridges and peaks stand out three-dimensionally from the background. Looking at it starts to give Meilin a headache, and she is about to turn away again when the colors suddenly seem to re-arrange themselves. Where she had been looking for a picture, two characters emerge, each composed of multi-colored dots of paint. Meilin struggles to decipher the stylized strokes of classical calligraphy. As she stares, the words break apart to reveal another image, at once mingled with and hidden behind the particulated curves and lines of script.
A red mouth screams at Meilin above the slash of a gaping wound that opens to the dagger-like downward stroke of the first character. Specks of blue-black blood drift into the body of the second character, which forms itself into a man, running toward the boundaries of the painting. Gray specks of snow, or light, or salt fall over both characters and mingle with the dots of blood.
Meilin’s legs feel heavy, as if her feet had melted into the stained linoleum of the art-room floor. With an effort, she turns away from the painting, picks up her handbag from a butcher-block table, and walks slowly to the door.
“Mrs. Yu?” calls the canary woman. “Mrs. Yu!”
Meilin pauses. “Struggle,” she says, without turning around. “Chinese word ‘struggle.’” And then she keeps walking because she knows they don’t see the characters.
* * * * *
If things had gone the way Meilin planned, her son would be thirteen years old. She imagines him as a tall, lanky boy just growing into his feet; a good eater; deft hands; a brilliant mind tempered by great modesty. He sits beside her in her sunroom-turned-workshop, skiving leather while she stitches. She asks him about his schoolwork, and he bashfully admits he has just gained admission to MIT.
“Aya,” she imagines herself saying, her vision clouded with proud tears, “and I suppose you will not need your mother now.”
“Mama,” says the imaginary son, setting down his razor to wrap long arms around her shoulders, “of course you will come with me to school. Who else will cook for me? Who will help you mend shoes? We will never be apart from one another.”
But instead of a son on whom she could rest the burden of a heavy past and the hope of a lighter future, she was given four daughters, whose arrivals seemed to Meilin like punishments for acts she does not remember committing. Her resignation to their proper care testifies to her faith in the existence of such acts and the justice of her punishment, but quite often, when she is in her workshop or cooking dinner, she finds herself rifling through her memories, searching for the forgotten fault. Vaguely, she remembers when she was very young, wanting a doll with yellow hair and eyes that opened and shut. The doll wore a dark blue, velvet dress with white lace and belonged to the daughter of a government official who had brought it back from America. She knew that her parents could not afford such a doll, but she asked anyway and cried bitterly when the expected answer came. Now that her parents are dead, she regrets even more making them conscious of their insufficiencies. Perhaps the curse of so many daughters is a punishment for her disrespect toward them.
But if she is honest with herself, Meilin knows that her ambition is the cause of her troubles. Marrying a scholar and coming to America. Living in a house that is almost her own. Children who use with impunity a weightless language that does not belong to them. In short, betraying all of the revolutionary principles and ideals that shaped her childhood. The impossibility of these things, their stinging irony, makes her want to laugh. She knows for a fact that had she stayed in Changchun and married the man she was supposed to marry – a slow-minded janitor’s son – she would have had the boy she wanted. But all of the little desires that spring into the mind of a young, impulsive girl seem to have crowded out the most important desire of all, and now that she is old and no longer so foolish, she has run out of luck.
“Mrs. Yu?” The headmaster wears thick glasses and speaks in a soft, deep voice. He is standing next to Samantha, who is looking down at her patent-leather shoes. Her white knit tights have slipped down and now sag under her knees and at her ankles, lending her an overall sloppiness that makes Meilin both embarrassed and angry. “Samantha and I had a very interesting conversation,” continues the headmaster, putting a hand on Samantha’s shoulder. “Very interesting. I hope to speak to both of you again before you leave. But right now, I have to catch another meeting, so why don’t you go with Tara, who will give you a tour of the campus and then bring you back here so we can sit down and chat a bit.” He smiles and waves over a tall, blonde girl with braces. “Tara is a senior here this year. She’ll be starting Juilliard in the fall.”
Meilin studies the girl’s face as she shakes her hand, but she detects nothing unusual except a steely obstinacy in the large grey eyes. The girl offers her hand to Samantha, who does not respond. Meilin gives her daughter a little shove, and Samantha extends her hand limply, without looking up from the hardwood floor.
“Don’t worry about it, Mrs. Yu,” says the headmaster. “Tara was entirely non-communicative when she first came to us five years ago.” He smiles at Tara, smiles at Meilin, and gives Samantha’s shoulder a pat. “I’ll see you folks in a little bit.” He winks and disappears through a heavy wooden door.
“Admissions and administration occupy the downstairs floor of this building,” recites Tara as soon as he is gone. Her voice is oddly mechanical. Meilin imagines a miniature tape-recorder whirring in the girl’s throat. “There are regular classrooms on the second floor and art rooms on the third floor.” She leads them through glass doors, into a dark hallway, and through another set of doors to a winding, richly carpeted staircase rising upward past triangles of exposed beams. The walls of the staircase are stone and lined with an ascending display of framed artwork, each piece illuminated by an iron-clad lantern suspended beside it. “This building dates to 1912, when the McKresky-Lauders commissioned a famous architect named David Adler to design their new home in the shape of a medieval castle. Much of the original structure has been maintained, though, of course, the transformation of a residential space to an institutional one in 1975 necessitated expansions and modernizations.” She makes her way up the stairs with Meilin and Samantha trailing behind her. “The music studios are in a separate building attached to the auditorium, and dorm rooms for the residential students are housed above the cafeteria.” The girl turns around as if she has suddenly forgotten something. Meilin, following close behind, almost bumps into her.
“Are you going to be boarders?” the girl asks.
“No.” Meilin shakes her head emphatically. “We drive.” But then she notices that the girl is not looking at her but past her down the staircase to where Samantha has stopped ten steps below them, almost out of sight behind a curve of the railing.
“Yu Zhilan,” Meilin hisses.
But Samantha does not respond. She is standing in front of the first painting, her head tilted thoughtfully to one side. The checkered bow Meilin tied in her hair this morning has come nearly undone and dangles precariously off a thin wisp of ponytail.
“Yu Zhilan, come here,” Meilin commands in Mandarin. “What are you doing?”
“All the artwork here is done by students,” explains Tara. She makes her way past Meilin and back down the staircase to stand beside Samantha, her tall, thin, pale figure a stark contrast to Meilin’s short, sturdy, dark daughter. Neither of them speaks for several minutes. Then, as if responding to a silent command issued from the wall, they both move up a step to study the next painting.
It is not until ten minutes later, after all the paintings have been considered, that they join Meilin at the top of the stairs.
* * * * *
The McKresky-Lauder Institute is a school for extraordinarily gifted children. We offer state-of-the-art accommodations and world-class instruction in every academic discipline as well as in the fine and performing arts. Children accepted into the Institute come from all around the country and each tests well above average in his/her respective field of specialization. McKresky-Lauder graduates have gone on to win international awards, join major symphonies in the US and abroad, and hold prestigious exhibitions in art capitals around the world. Our primary goal is to assist gifted, young individuals in achieving their highest potential so that they, in turn, can enrich their communities and the greater world.
“Wow, is she really a genius?” Alice asks, laying down the glossy brochure. She casts a skeptical glance at Samantha, who is dipping pieces of her peanut-butter sandwich in a glass of chocolate milk and gently bopping her head to a song nobody else can hear.
“Or a retard,” says Caroline, grabbing a carton of orange juice from the fridge. “Didn’t the doctor say she came out way below average on a bunch of the tests?” She sets down the orange juice to peer over Alice’s shoulder at the brochure, which is turned to a full-page photograph of the castle. “O-M-G, that’s a school? It’s like Hogwarts for retards.”
Meilin shoos her away impatiently and gestures Alice to continue reading.
“Okay, let’s see.” Alice turns to the next page, which shows a photo of five students and a teacher sitting in a circle on a plush blue rug. ‘The Institute can make accommodations for those students with special needs,” reads Alice.
“What’s mean, ‘special need?’” asks Meilin, taking off the baby’s bib and wiping up the sauce smeared around her mouth. Lately, she finds herself using her children’s language, struggling with the meaningless phrases that make up their existence.
“That just means kids who are different from other kids, Ma,” says Alice, flipping through the rest of the pictures. “Yu zhong bu tong.”
Caroline rolls her eyes. “It means retarded, Ma. Yu dian sha.”
“Zhilan not special need,” Meilin says emphatically, dropping the baby’s highchair tray into the sink so forcefully that Cate, startled, begins to cry. She lets the faucet run until steam rises. “She need what different?”
Alice and Caroline exchange looks.
“In China, plenty of girls not talk much. Why is wrong? Nobody wants marry loudmouth.” Meilin shakes her head and scrubs roughly at the tray. “Aya. Here, everybody have to talk talk talk all the time. But nothing to say.”
Alice sets down the brochure and picks up Cate, who hiccups against her shoulder. “I don’t think it’s just because she’s quiet, Ma. They think she’s got some sort of gift for drawing or something. Maybe she’ll be a great artist and, you know, ‘enrich her community and the greater world.’”
They all turn to look at Samantha, who is studying the murky brown sludge in her glass, her brows scrunched in concentration. “There’s peanut-butter in my milk,” she says, holding up her drink to the kitchen light.
“Retard,” mutters Caroline.
* * * * *
“Unusual talent.” Out of the corner of her eye, Meilin watches her husband roll the words around in his mouth, testing their flavor like a foreign food. She imagines his mind reviewing their daughter’s history, as hers has done almost compulsively for the past few weeks – her refusal to talk until the age of four, when, one day at the park, she suddenly asked her mother for a popsicle in Chinese and then, in English, told her sister she wanted the blue and red one; her passion for a particular grayish shade of blue and her realization two years ago, when she was five, that the blue of the sky and the green of the grass must meet somewhere in the middle of the drawing paper; her ability to sit in the same place for hours and watch a patch of sunlight migrate across the length of a carpet. Meilin wonders if her husband remembers all of these things that she herself had not considered unusual until the doctor told her so. He probably cannot comprehend how, of all his children, this one – with her stocky, peasant build and absent-mindedness -could have turned out to be “gifted” (a word whose implications of gratitude seem to Meilin a disguise for great doubt). Then again, Meilin thinks, her husband has always been more attentive to the children’s peculiarities while she has been busy bringing down fevers and treating cuts that look the same on every body.
“When I was growing up, I knew a boy named Zhang Chao-Xiang,” says her husband, walking over to her and picking a shirt out of the laundry basket she has set on the bed. “Have I ever told you about him?”
Meilin shakes her head no and jerks a pair of trousers from the basket. She is impatient with these stories that have nothing to do with anything and stung that, as usual, she has failed to guess what her husband is thinking. “Aya, another hole.” She pokes her finger through a tear in a pant leg, then tosses the trousers into the mending pile on the floor.
Her husband smoothes Caroline’s green t-shirt against his chest to get the wrinkles out. “He was the son of one of our neighbors. We grew up together, went to the same schools. We called him Xiao Houzi, little monkey, because he was very small and skinny and walked with a limp. Everyone used to tease him at school because he was not athletic and spoke with a stutter. So nobody ever waited to hear what he had to say.”
“Except you,” says Meilin wearily, rolling a pair of Alice’s socks. It is useless to lead him back to the topic. She has learned, after fourteen years of marriage, that she must wait for him to chart his own circuitous path to meet her.
“Right. I had to walk home with him every afternoon, and since I never had much to say myself, I listened to him talk. One evening, we were walking home late from school. This was just after the Cultural Revolution began, so we must have been around twelve or thirteen. When we got near to our street, we noticed two herons flying above the rooftops toward the Temple of Heaven. They were flying in such a way that their silhouettes against the red sky seemed to form the word ‘peace.’ I turned to Xiao Houzi to remark on this and found that he was whispering something to himself. ‘What are you mumbling about?’ I teased him. He said that the birds reminded him of a poem he had written, and he recited it out loud to me. It was a very good poem. I was surprised.”
Meilin sighs and takes the mending pile to her sewing machine. “Everyone was writing poetry then. So what?”
“Yes, true. But he did not write revolutionary poetry. Nevertheless, as he grew older, many people began to consider Zhang Chao-Xiang a poet-prodigy,” her husband continues, laying the folded t-shirt on the covers and starting on another. “He was invited to join a counter-revolutionary group of writers who admired Western poets like T.S. Eliot. When he was eighteen, he secretly published a volume of his work. We were not seeing each other much at that time since he had left home to live with friends. My own parents were under house arrest by then, and my sister and I were sent to the countryside for re-education. But Xiao Houzi had a copy of his book delivered to me on one of my visits home, and I remember thinking, as I read it, that he had somehow managed to create a middle-language between the restraint and precision of Chinese and the freedom and impetuosity of English. In just a few pages, it seemed to distill for me all the hopeless dreams I had for China and for myself at that moment.”
When he starts talking like this, Meilin always pictures in her mind the tall, skinny near-sighted boy who showed up at her door seventeen years ago, holding a book in one hand and in the other, a pair of broken shoes. She remembers his swollen and bleeding feet; his gaunt cheeks that hollowed more deeply into dimples when he smiled; his reckless plan of walking the 200 miles from Changchun to Shenyang to see his new baby nephew. She lifts the cover off the sewing machine and searches for the right color thread to patch the trousers. “You might as well tell me what happened to your little monkey friend.”
“Soon after his book was published, the government found out about it, and officials came to his house. They interrogated his parents. His father was a carpenter and a supporter of the Proletarian movement. They insisted they did not know what had happened to Chao-Xiang, but the officials did not believe them and accused them of conspiring in counter-revolutionary plots. They were beaten, and his mother was left for dead. When Xiao Houzi found out about this, he wrote a letter of self-condemnation to his parents, cursing his writing and his other bourgeois practices. Then, he gathered every copy of his book that he could find, poured gasoline over them and over himself, and set himself on fire.”
Meilin selects a dark blue spool and fits it onto the pin. There are too many stories like this, she thinks, guiding the thread through the machine. She has become strangely numb to them. Her children’s reactions when she tells them about her past always take her a little by surprise – did she feel the same kind of thrilling fear when these things were happening around her as they do when they hear their parents tell such stories? Should she have? Is her detachment the natural result of distance and time, or does it indicate an emotional failing of which she has only recently become aware? She slides the trousers under the needle.
“We can send her back to Chinese school,” she says. “What is all this fussing for? She is no different from all the other girls in that school Nobody there thought she was ‘gifted.’” She says the last word in English, expelling it like a bite of rotten lychee nut, and turns on the sewing machine. Behind her, she can hear her husband moving the laundry basket off the bed, opening a drawer to put away his pile of clean clothes.
“There is a scholarship she can apply for, isn’t there?” he finally says. He is standing in the doorway, his back to her, holding the brightly-colored stacks of their children’s laundry. “I think she should apply for it.”
Meilin knows he is waiting for her agreement, but she turns back to her machine. She pushes her foot down hard on the pedal and lets the staccato hum of the flashing needle drown out his silent expectation.
* * * * *
When Meilin learned she was carrying her third daughter, she drank cactus juice to chase it out of her body. For a month, she hoped that the pale, bitter liquid she drank every morning would make the inside of her body an unpleasant home for the baby and persuade it that life would be terribly difficult. “We do not have money for three children, and you will not get any toys,” she warned the stubborn child, who remained unaffected by the juice and, to spite her mother, grew bigger than either of her sisters. So big, in fact, that Meilin had to have an emergency C-section to get her out. And because Meilin branded the birth an act of disobedience, she has never stopped to consider whether her warnings to the unborn child of hardship and deprivation had any effect on the healthy, easygoing girl it has become.
It is this disturbing thought that stirs and swells in Meilin’s mind as she settles to her morning’s work, and instead of picking up the boot that needs re-heeling, she climbs the stairs up to the corner room shared by her two younger daughters. It is the smallest room in the house, but it has two large windows facing in different directions, and on this warm April morning, Meilin throws them both open. She flips over the covers on the beds so that the sheets can air out in the soft, slightly damp breeze. She picks up a stuffed animal from the faded pink rug and replaces it next to its friends on Cate’s dresser. She runs a fingertip along a shelf of the bookcase and closes the closet door all the way. She is not sure what she is searching for.
A gust of wind scatters some papers off the desk beside Samantha’s bed. Descending through the air as if on invisible swings, they drift across the room toward Meilin’s feet. She sees that they are loose leaves from a Chinese copybook, which she insists that her three older daughters keep to practice their characters now that they are no longer attending Chinese school. Ba bo bei bai bao. Samantha’s writing is bold, irregular, messy, the strokes frequently escaping the confines of the lined blue boxes. Shaking her head at her daughter’s carelessness, Meilin bends to pick up the papers. As she collects them in her hand, she realizes that the writing on some of the sheets no longer follow the straight lines and sharp corners of the regular script taught in school but round and sway into loose cursive, the tail of one character flowing into the head of the next, until the ordered boxes have been completely forgotten. Meilin tries to remember if cursive is taught in first grade. She places the stack of paper on Samantha’s desk, tucking a corner under the heavy lamp, then notices two more sheets of paper that the breeze has swept under the desk. Lying face-up on the carpet, these contain not ten rows of writing but only three characters each, painted horizontally across the page. The ink is so thick that the delicate tissue paper has dried in wrinkles beneath it, and the rows of blue boxes are almost completely obscured. Standing in the shadow of the sugar maple that spreads its budding branches outside the window, Meilin stares at the ornate strokes of her daughter’s calligraphy, the complex juxtapositions of lines and curves that seem at once achingly familiar and indecipherable.