“Ghost Images” by Karen Collier, 2018 Non-Fiction Fall Contest Winner

“Mama, why does Daddy get his name in the Bible twice, and mine’s in there just once?” I was five when I confronted my mother as she stood at the kitchen counter, barefoot in her sleeveless blouse and pedal pushers, dipping a wet chicken leg into flour.

My mother dropped the chicken back onto the plate and reached over to turn off the electric skillet, milk dripping from her hands and making the hot grease pop.

“Let me see.” She rinsed her hands under the faucet, dried them on a sackcloth towel, and joined me as I hoisted the family Bible with its white faux leather cover and gold-edged pages onto the table.

My mother sat down and I climbed onto her lap.

“See, Mama, it says Richard Lavon Evans at the top and again there.” I pointed to the family tree inside the back cover.

“That’s not your daddy, honey. That was your brother. See, there’s a ‘Jr.’ after his name.” The corners of her mouth turned up slightly but her lips stayed pressed together, refusing to reveal her gap-toothed smile. Her hazel eyes turned from their usual green to brown.

“Where is he?” There was nothing I wanted more than a brother.

“He was older than you, but he died right after he was born.” My mother rubbed my back gently, as I reached up to wind my fingers through her wavy black hair.

She expected me to take the news hard, but because she had two brothers and a sister, she was unaware that a dead brother was better than no brother at all. She was prepared for the questions about the color of his eyes and hair and what his life had been like in those few hours before he died, but I was more interested in what he might have become. Would he have preferred The Beverly Hillbillies or The Red Skelton Show? Where would he have sat at the dinner table? What kind of ice cream would he have gotten from the truck that rolled through our neighborhood every afternoon?

“I need to finish dinner before Daddy gets home.” She shooed me off her lap.

My mother never spoke of Richard Jr. again, but I often ran my finger over his name in the Bible and daydreamed about him as my defender and confidant.

I knew I wasn’t alone in wanting siblings.  One Christmas my aunt entertained all the adults sitting around the dinner table with a story about my cousin, Susie, going door to door on the Air Force base trying to trade toys for babies.  As I sat at the kids’ table eavesdropping, I then heard my mother regale the family with the story about my pediatrician saying I needed a little brother or sister and I had thought we were going to stop at the drug store on the way home to pick one up.

My mother and aunt laughed along with everyone else, but what I didn’t understand was that having only children wasn’t their choice. My mother’s one   desire in life was to be a mother, and if toys could have been traded for babies or if babies could have been bought in drug stores, she would have had a passel of children. Instead she had only one—me—and one was better than none, and so she did her best with what she was given.

My early childhood came straight out of a 1960s television show where the parents were infinitely patient and wise. My father worked as the manager of a grocery store, bringing home all the leftover holiday candy and stuffed animals from the potato chip displays. My mother was a homemaker who filled our kitchen with the smells of pot roast and peanut butter cookies and filled my closet with rickrack-trimmed rompers. Of course I got a spanking now and then for drawing a picture of a naked boy on the back of an offering envelope in church or stealing a keychain with a dangling skull at the dime store, but mostly I was indulged.

Just as it never occurred to me that my mother wanted more children, it also never occurred to me that my mother’s childhood might have been different from mine. On Mothers and Fathers days, she scoured the racks of greeting cards at the grocery store looking for those that said, “the world’s greatest,” and I never questioned whether they were deserved. I thought my grandparents must have indulged her just as they did me. Every time we visited, my grandmother took me to Kresge’s, gave me a dollar bill, and then waited patiently while I decided how to spend it. If it was summer my grandfather hand cranked ice cream in the back yard, and just as the cream began to thicken, he would ask if we wanted him to add anything.

“Strawberries,” pleaded my mother.

“No. Plain vanilla,” I insisted.

“Plain vanilla it is.” He finished the cranking and threw an old towel on top to hold in the cold air.

My first inkling that things might not be as perfect as they seemed came shortly after my grandfather died. I was in my mid-20s, and we were gathered at my mother’s house for Christmas. My mother was only in her forties, but already her wavy black hair had turned to fine gray curls, and her body had grown soft despite vigilant exercise and constant dieting. On the day before Christmas, my mother was stirring chocolate pie filling on the stove while I played dominoes with my grandmother at the kitchen table, already covered with a tablecloth decorated with bright red poinsettias.

“Granny, remember when you used to take us to Kresge’s and give us a dollar to buy anything we wanted?” I was already fondly recalling some of the things I’d bought: a Slinky, a magic card trick, a fake Barbie.

“I just did that to get you kids out of the house so you wouldn’t drive Pa nuts.” She played the double-five.

I glanced at my mother.  She stirred faster but never looked up from the pan.

I laid the three-four on the table.

“Did you mark my ten points?” My grandmother stared at the notebook paper where I was keeping score, waiting for me to add another x to her column.

“Pa couldn’t stand all the noise, and it was the cheapest way to entertain you kids. Every one of you would take an hour trying to decide how to spend a dollar.” She laughed as she looked down at the row of dominoes in front of her.

“I thought you did it because you loved us so much.” I was genuinely hurt.

“That’s another fifteen.” She played the three-five.

A few years later, in the toy aisles of a Wal-Mart, the inkling that my family was not as perfect as I imagined became irrefutably clear.

My mother was visiting for the weekend and had insisted on taking my four-year-old son, Mitch, to buy a toy. As we wandered through the store, I closely followed Mitch up and down the toy aisles until he found the Thomas the Tank Engine section. As he rummaged through the packages, I realized my mother was no longer behind us.  When Mitch finally found the train he was looking for, we doubled back through the aisles until we found my mother standing frozen in the middle of the baby dolls.

“Where did you go?” Her breathing was quick and shallow, and tears rolled down her cheeks, dripping on her t-shirt.

“We were in the boys’ toys.”

“I couldn’t find you.” She began shaking.

“We’re right here.”

Fortunately Mitch was focused on his one-way conversation with Percy the train and never noticed his grandmother’s panic.

Later that night, after dinner, my husband took Mitch upstairs for a bath and bedtime reading, and my mother and I burrowed into the ruffled pillows on the living room couch.

“Did I ever tell you I had scarlet fever as a kid?” she asked.

“Don’t think so.”

And then she told me how she had come down with scarlet fever and when the doctor in Snyder had been unsuccessful in treating her, he told Both of her parents worked, so her father put her in his patrol car and drove her to Dallas where he checked her into the hospital and then told her he’d come back to pick her up when she was better. She spent six weeks in the hospital alone. She was seven.

“Are you kidding me?”

I couldn’t imagine leaving my son alone for even one night.

“I’ve been afraid of being left behind. That’s why I got so upset when I lost you in the store.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t know.”

A year later my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Maybe it was the fact that she’d let the genie out of the bottle by telling me about the hospital or maybe she was afraid that if she didn’t share her stories, they would be lost, but time and time again, she would ask, “Did I ever tell you…”

And my answer was always. “No,” as she knew it would be.

Her stories became increasingly painful until she reached the last one.

“Did I ever tell you about the night Jim attacked me?” Jim was her older brother, disabled not only by an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck but also from the excuses my grandparents made for him.

“No.” I held my breath.

“You were a baby. Your daddy had an overnight work thing, and we were spending the night at Aunt Betty’s.”

I nodded for her to go on even though I didn’t want to hear anymore.

“Granny and Pawpaw and Jim were there too, and it was the middle of the night when I woke up because someone was touching me.” She paused.  “When I realized it was Jim, I started screaming. It woke everybody up.”

“Then what happened?”

“Well the next morning, Daddy took Jim to Big Springs.” We both understood that by “Big Springs,” she didn’t mean the dusty West Texas town but instead the mental hospital there.

“I was so surprised. I didn’t think Daddy’d do that for me.”

I started to cry, and my mother rubbed my back, just as she had done when I was a child.

My mother died a few months later. Along with her most painful memories, she also left me a box of photos. They document my mother’s life as she wanted it to be, but I see the reality.

One photo shows my mother as a freckle-faced little girl with barrettes holding back her wild hair, and I imagine her lying under the white sheets of a hospital bed, her face buried in the pillow as she cries, believing no one will ever return for her.

In another, she is a young woman with porcelain skin—her freckles now so faint, they’re barely noticeable—and she holds me as a swaddled newborn. I imagine her holding another swaddled baby, once again in a cold and antiseptic hospital room, and she sings softly to my baby brother who has only hours to live.

Then there’s the photo of my mother standing in the front yard of my grandparents’ house with her adult siblings. They mug for the camera, but I see my mother’s unease, and I know this was taken shortly after my uncle was released from Big Springs.  I leave this photo at the bottom of the box because it reminds me of my mother’s final story, the one that haunts me less because my mother was attacked by her own brother and more because she was surprised that her father chose to protect her. Her father, my grandfather who made me vanilla ice cream.

I wish, just once, he had made strawberry.

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Non-Fiction Spring 2018 Winner

Tuna Melt with a Side of Grief
by L.D. Zane

“Twenty-three-ninety-five for the buffet! Are they kidding?” I asked Grace.

“That’s what the sign says, Lewis. And that’s the senior price!” she responded with despair.

“For a Christmas Day buffet at the West End Family Restaurant?” I turned toward Grace and asked, “Did they say anything about the price online?”

“Nope,” responded Grace. “Just said they would be open Christmas Day and would have a special buffet. I figured that was good enough for us.”

“Well, they’d better be serving caviar for this price.”

“I suppose they’re just catering to their normal clientele, Lewis. They obviously can afford these prices.”

So could we, but it was the principle of the matter. We both stood in the cold staring at that sign as others walked around us to enter.

Finally, I capitulated. “Well… We’re here, and there’s no other place open.”

“There’s always Antonio’s,” Grace offered up.

Despondent, I replied, “Yeah, but that’s on the other side of town and you needed reservations—which we don’t have.” With a resigned sigh and slumped shoulders, I said, “Not the way I wanted us to spend our first Christmas together, Grace.” Grace reached out and held my hand. Then I said, “Let’s just do this.”

 

The waitress showed us to our booth. After she took our beverage order, we perused the menu.

“What the hell!” I spouted off, and not quietly. There was a couple in the booth across from us who appeared to be about our age. They looked up from their meals.  “Sorry,” I said sheepishly.

I lowered my voice and said to Grace, “The only thing different on the buffet is they added chopped steak. And for this they more than doubled the usual buffet price? Well, that’s absurd. I’m not getting the buffet. For the price of the buffet, we could have had a great dinner at Antonio’s. I’m just going to order off the menu.”

“I don’t want to add insult to injury,” Grace said nonchalantly, “but it looks as if they raised the prices on all the menu items by about fifty percent. They know when they have a captive audience of helpless saps with no other place to go on Christmas—other than Antonio’s or some Chinese restaurant.”

The waitress came back with our coffee and water. “Have you decided on your order?”

“I can tell you it’s not going to be the buffet,” I said with righteous indignation.

The waitress whispered, “That’s what most of the other customers decided as well. You’re better off ordering from the menu.”

“And that’s still a rip-off!” Grace chimed in.

The waitress ignored that sling and again asked, “Ma’am. What are you having?”

Without looking up from the menu, Grace said, with sarcasm dripping from the corners of her mouth, “I’ll have the tuna melt with a side of grief.”

The waitress responded with equal pithiness, “I’m sorry, but that side is not on the menu. You can either have mashed rustic potatoes, french fries, baked potato, cole slaw or mixed veggies.” And then she asked with a wry smile, “Which one would you like to replace the grief?”

Grace looked up, mirrored her smile and answered, “Just give me the fries, and please make sure they’re crispy.”

There was no response from our waitress other than, “And for you, sir?”

“I’ll have the open-faced, hot roast beef sandwich with a baked potato as my side. I’m in a better mood.”

“Absolutely.” She collected the menus and said, “Your orders will be out shortly.” My only thought was, with certain smugness, I wonder whose food they’ll spit on? Shouldn’t be mine. I was nice to her.

Grace was now staring into her coffee. So I sucked it up and asked, “What’s wrong, Grace? Is it Joel’s decision to disinvite you for Christmas?”

 

About a week and a half before Christmas, Grace received a text from her daughter-in-law, Bernadette, Joel’s wife. Without saying a word, Grace showed it to me when I came home from work and after I had settled into my favorite chair. It read like a telegram: “No need to come here for Christmas. We’re just hanging out. Going to my parents Christmas Eve. That’s all. See you at Alicia’s next week.” No “Merry Christmas.” No real explanation. But we both knew it was in retaliation for a text spat Grace had had with Joel the week before Thanksgiving about not being invited to any of Joel’s son’s football games.

For the eight years between Grace’s husband’s death and our recent marriage, she had spent every Christmas at Joel’s. It was her last tradition. And now it was gone. That text broke Grace’s heart, and mine. It also lit her fuse.

Then I read Grace’s reply text to Bernadette: “I understand. But I have to be honest, I’m very disappointed. For the first time I won’t be with any of my family on Christmas. I’ll hold yours and the boys’ gifts until we see you at Alicia’s. Enjoy the visit with your parents. Merry Christmas.”

Grace’s text was akin to a declaration of war. It might as well have said, “I hope you choke on the food at your parents’, and that you and Joel get paper cuts from opening up your gifts! My misery is on your hands.”

Foolish me. I thought only Jewish mothers knew how to dish out guilt. They may have invented it, but Catholic mothers have obviously learned well from their mentors over the millennia.

The night after Grace sent her reply, she received a call from Joel. Mercifully, I was at work. I learned that Joel started off by saying to Grace that Bernadette told him, after she showed him Grace’s response, “You had better call your mother.” And that he did.

He proceeded to rip into Grace about everything that had been gnawing at him about his mother. She returned fire. There didn’t appear to be any winners. In fact, I’m surprised there were any survivors. Grace didn’t convey to me the gory details, and I thought it best not to press her for any.

 

Grace narrowed her gaze at me and raised her voice. “Disinvite us, Lewis! And he didn’t have the balls to call or text me first. Instead he had Bernadette do his dirty work.” A melancholy shadowed her eyes. “And did you notice they didn’t even send us a card or call us today? Alicia, Albert, and their boys did.”

I did notice, but didn’t feel the need to concur with the obvious.

She paused momentarily, then said, “But that’s not what’s really bothering me.”

“Then what’s really bothering you, Grace?”

She took a deep breath and sighed. “Joel said, during that nasty call I had with him, that since he was seeing me at Alicia’s the weekend after Christmas, there was no need to see me twice in a week.” She grabbed her napkin, dabbed her eyes, and then grabbed mine and blew her nose. I made a mental note to have the waitress bring us more napkins.

“What did you say back to him?”

“Nothing. That’s when I hung up.”

Now I was pissed. I like Joel. He’s an affable guy with a good sense of humor. And from what I’ve personally seen, he appears to be a good father, husband, and provider. I pondered how I would have reacted had one of my children laid that at my feet.

I reached over, held Grace’s hands, and said, “You know it’s not my style to interfere on matters with your kids, sweetheart. But do you want to know how I would have responded?”

“Yes, please.”

“I would have calmly said, ‘I’m sorry, Joel, but I didn’t know there was a FUCKING QUOTA!’”

That got the attention, again, of the couple across from us, along with some of the other customers within earshot. This time, however, I didn’t apologize.

Grace burst out laughing. “That was good, Lewis. I wish I had thought of that.” But quickly, she once again turned gloomy.

I made an attempt at being jolly and asked, “Hey, what about all that Christmas spirit you’ve been lecturing me about?”

Grace snapped back, “Shut up! This is the most depressing time of the year.”

Hanukkah was never like this. My only retort was, “Here comes our delicious, overpriced meal.”

 

The next morning at eight I took my usual mile-plus walk. I returned around eight-thirty. Grace was already up, sitting on the couch, and nursing her first cup of coffee and a cigarette. I grabbed a cup of coffee, plunked myself into my favorite chair, and slipped off my sneakers.

Something seemed different as I scanned the room. And then in a flash of brilliance, I figured out what it was. Grace had taken down all of the Christmas cards and put away our fake, ornament-laden, assembly-required Christmas tree. I cautiously asked, “Grace, where are all the Christmas cards and the tree?”

“Christmas is over, Lewis. Christmas is over.”

THE END

The Slide Zone by Noah Sudarsky

Winner of the Fall 2017 Non-Fiction Contest

There’s no cutesy way of saying this: yesterday, just as our daily walk in the hills was nearing its bucolic climax, Hazel murdered a deer. As luck would have it, the bloody harvest happened across the street. What would the neighbors think?

I was about to throw her best ball into a cherished grove of live oaks when she spotted him. We were standing on the dilapidated tennis court where my kid learned how to ride a bike. The land was acquired by a developer. In a year or so, there will be a cluster of three-story houses glaring down at us. But for now, the abandoned tennis court is still a pitted, slumping stretch of macadam surrounded by trees. Lots of trees. A genuine wildlife corridor, as I preached to the City Council, using my most impassioned vibrato.

“Time’s up, Thoreau,” the head of the Zoning Board wisecracked.

It’s my fault. I tolerated these little games, which seemed so harmless. Keep dreaming Hazel. But Hazel is no visionary. She’s calculating, and predatory.  “A perfect machine,” a rocket scientist remarked the other day, as we hurled tennis balls for our respective pooches near Lawrence Livermore Lab, where Oppenheimer built the first cyclotron. Her yellow lab was left in the dust. But I never imagined that Hazel could outgun a mule deer. They’re big, agile—designed for scampering up and down the Sierras. Fawns may fall to bobcats and eagles, but the bucks? They’re armed and dangerous. Their only predator, until the wolves recolonize, is the mountain lion. Five years ago, a stag gored a neighbor’s Irish deerhound. The hound’s owner, the head of the History Department, made a big stink out of it because it happened right in his backyard, and he figured the ungulate for a kind of Mongol invader, an avant-garde for sharp-horned legions ready to take over our elevated redoubt, chomping contentedly on “deer-resistant” hydrangeas and eviscerating our pets.

But Hazel is something else. An OBD, or Oakland Brown Dog. She’s all bizness, dawg. I’ve coined another term for our hybrid, because OBD doesn’t quite capture her bushwhacker’s soul: ridgebull. In Rhodesia, ridgebacks were used to battle lions, and they climb trees. Pits have a bite-force that beats most carnivores in their weight class, and those infamous locking jaws. As the Raiders were to the rest of the NFL, circa 1984, so ridgebulls are to the rest of the canine realm: stronger, faster, badder. When Hazel was still an adorable, pudgy puppy, she was found roped to a tree in West Oakland. The Post Office worker who untied her asked my partner for directions to the pound. Gaby didn’t lose any time texting me a close-up of Hazel. I responded “No Way. Really.” We already had Banshee, a.k.a. The Great White Dope. We had cats. Rabbits—all of them rescues from a neighbor’s cottage breeding facility, but it was beginning to look like Watership Down. What would I do with Hazel, besides, when I went back to France to enjoy my mother’s rural recipes? I had always taken Banshee along with me (he was practically an Air France mascot, and they allowed him to travel on the plane despite his large size), but pitbulls, or anything pit-like, or pitish, are banned. The anti-pitbull hysteria reached a paroxysm around the turn of the century. Today, following a nation-wide eradication program, the only thing that can elicit more Jacobin indignation than a woman wearing a hijab in public is a pit. Modernité be damned. That evening, the Post Office worker delivered Hazel to our doorstep. Resistance was futile.

The thing is, Hazel isn’t some vicious beast—she’s the ultimate nanny dog. She’ll frolic with the kids for hours, and more than tolerates the repeated attempts to ride her like a carnival pony. She cleans Baby Elwynn’s ears, which makes the little one shriek with delight. Zoe will dress her up as a princess, and stage elaborate wedding rituals with our cat, whom Hazel worships. She defers to Banshee, who’s getting on in years and behaves like a perfect curmudgeon whenever she strikes a playful pose. Hazel will stalk the rabbits, but once they are cornered she will lie down and whimper, lamenting her fate but ever-conscious of the constraints and responsibilities of her station.

Of course, there’s another side to her. In the three years since Hazel graduated from puppydom, the spate of car burglaries that plagued our street has ceased. Any suspect noise at night sends her careening to the front door, where she releases a thunderous rumble (“the death growl,” as Gaby calls it) that evokes a lioness making the case for her newborn cub. The nocturnal marauders have grown scarce. If anything, we are rather in awe of her Jeckyll-and-Hyde routine. It only makes her more endearing.

 

I should have known better. Squirrels send her bolting over the high fence at the dog run. I’ve witnessed a few other dogs give it a shot, but those other pooches invariably flounder and fall back down in an ungainly heap. Hazel is the only regular who can take flight. On the Cal campus, tempted by a sashaying tail a few dozen feet up a redwood, she tried channeling a mountain lion, and propelled herself a respectable distance up the hulking trunk. She ended up hanging off a low branch as the squirrel admonished her from the safety of an upper limb, and I had to break her fall as best I could—an act of interspecies empathy that has cost me the ability to raise my left arm above my shoulder. She captured a field mouse up at Tilden Park, dispatching it before I could extricate it from those heavyset jaws.

In what wildlife biologists call the urban interface, there is a case to be made for dogs of a certain caliber. Not long after our new neighbors moved in, their tomcat picked a fight with an industrious raccoon cub who was pilfering the kibble. It was a reckless gamble on the cat’s part, though not as reckless as putting the cat chow out on the deck in the first place. Within moments, Ace, a big bruiser who liked nothing more than to torture our own wimpy feline, was being swarmed by the entire banded brigade. I heard Gaby’s screams from the driveway, where she’d been putting out the trash. As the neighbor watched his cat being savaged from behind the safety of a screen door, I stomped up to the raccoons, bellowing and shaking my arms. Perfectly oblivious to my clownish antics, they continued their assault, a fanatical mass of surgical claws and gnashing teeth. “They’re killing him. Get Hazel!” Gaby wailed. The plaintive caterwauls coming from our neighbor’s hapless tomcat were agonizing, but I was torn about sending Hazel into the fray. The raccoons are a brazen bunch. In addition to cantankerous housecats, they will not hesitate to face off with canines that don’t adhere to their Fourierist belief system. Gaby could tell I was conflicted, so she took matters into her own hands, dashing nimbly to the front door, dreadlocks slapping down on whipcord shoulders like a sassy cat o’ nine tails. Hazel surged, her spring-loaded frame gathering momentum as she catapulted across our yard. Dispensing with formalities, she bounded over the half-open craftsman gate rather than squander an extra second navigating the narrow breach. As she neared the scrimmage line, my heart lodged in my neckline. Something terrible was about to go down, no doubt—bloody carnage and five-figure vet bills. But the raccoons must have sensed there was something different about Hazel. An undercurrent of savannah, of dusty rangeland and bushmeat. They scampered the moment they heard her distinctive roar, clambering up the tall wooden fence against which Ace lay, gasping. All but one. The kingpin himself, in his striped zoot suit, paraded atop the high boundary for a moment, growling (the sound resembled a pair of electric shears having a meltdown). Hazel, as was her wont, blasted off, landing squarely on the railing. The scowling kingpin scurried off to a nearby redwood, where the rest of his posse had retreated. They peered down at Hazel from a high bough. The wooden fence swayed under her bulk. On that promontory she maintained her balance, leopard-like. Hazel had treed the raccoons, and she spent the rest of the night patrolling the garden. Ace vanished in the confusion, and was never seen again. Cats prefer to die alone, when they can.

 

A set of sharp, slender antlers flared out from the top of the buck’s bony brow, narrowing near their extremity. Not an impressive trophy spread, but trident-like and deadly, if it came to that. Hazel did not balk. I called out to her, using my most commanding voice, but I was no match for her primal bloodlust. The buck bumped up against a tall chain-link fence on a grassy knoll north of the tennis court. He turned, springing back down the hillside, displaying his full girth. He was a force of nature, a coiled mass of muscles and bony protuberances. Hazel intercepted him. She grabbed a shank, but the buck gave a kick and she let go. Good boy, I thought. But in his panic, he collided with one of the oaks and lost his footing on the muddy slope. Hazel was on him in a flash of auburn, hackles raised high. She latched onto the nape, just behind that fairy-tale crown. Having achieved a good anchorage, she shook herself back and forth, trying to generate lethal leverage. By then I was running toward the scene and baying hysterically. “LEAVE-IT, DAMNIT, LEAVE-IT!” Within seconds, she dropped the fallen buck and came strutting toward me, satisfied that she had accomplished what she had set out to do. The stag attempt to stand, but there was something awry about the way he carried himself. His head seemed far too heavy. Listing like a sailboat that has hit a shoal and sprung a bad leak, he finally keeled over. One of his hind legs twitched feebly. He just needs to shake it off, I told myself. He will get up, he must get up.

I brought Hazel and my ancient husky back home. Banshee hadn’t even noticed the chase. It happened too fast, in less time than it had taken him to position his hindquarters favorably and drench the manzanita bush.

A few minutes later I walked out of the garage, sliding along the carriage doors and casting stealthy glances left and right before crossing the street. I jogged up the steep, curving access road that led to the decaying tennis court. Halfway up, I cut to the left, through the grove of live oaks. Beyond the oaks lay the remains of a large acacia grove, which the developer hadn’t wasted any time cutting down (there was a city ordinance protecting the native oaks, at least). Where the ground had been cleared of trees the sodden earth was already beginning to slump ominously. I thought about geotechnical questions not to dwell on the deer, and by the time I reached the area where Hazel had felled the buck, I was almost buoyant. Obviously, she could not have dispatched such a behemoth. This was no field mouse, and even a lion can’t kill a zebra with a single bite. Don’t the wildlife docs always showcase the desperate struggle between prey and predator? The buck would be long gone, how could I have doubted it?

He wasn’t. There was blood trickling from his wide muzzle, which had colored the damp leaves an autumnal red. I grazed one of the long, donkey ears. It was already cold. I cupped that cartoonish ear and gave it a little tug, just to make sure he wasn’t about to resurrect, Lazarus-like. Something inside his neck made a muffled sound. A vertebra letting go of its tenuous hold on the spinal column. Great. Now what?

A few months earlier, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I had stumbled upon an abandoned cabin in the redwood forest. In it I found a worn green fascicule entitled Feral Forager: a Guide to Living off Nature’s Bounty in Urban, Rural and Wilderness Areas. “Our future vision,” it stated, “is one of a horticultural, village-scale, community located near a wild area, but as we are still landless, our current dietary habits combine backyard-scale gardening and bulk organic staples, along with wild edibles and scavenged roadkill.”

A “scavenger-forager lifestyle” (to avoid contributing to the military-industrial complex) constituted the practical and philosophical underpinning of this intriguing, primitivist society. “The highly sought-after roadkill deer” was a prime target, but the authors (it was an collective work) didn’t hesitate to harvest dead raccoons, foxes, opossums, birds, and just about anything that could provide “untainted meat.” They called themselves roadkill vegans. “Although some die-hards may want to leave civilization behind, set out for the wilderness and practice primitive hunting and gathering techniques, we are more interested in bringing wild food gathering and roadkill scavenging into our daily lifestyle.”

I found this neo-Neolithic perspective persuasive. I had become a pescatarian because I was sickened by the plight of stockyard animals, from industrial feedlots to mechanized slaughter. Yet, despite years of deprivation, I wasn’t quite cured. I wasn’t using, but the craving for a juicy flank steak, properly aged and lightly seared over a bed of mesquite coals, had never dissipated.

Abandoning so much prime meat to rot on the hillside felt like an insult to this magnificent stag. Daunting as I found the prospect of cutting into the fresh carcass at my feet, I resolved to harvest the meat. I was no stranger to dead deer, mangled deer even. Most of the mountain lion studies I had joined up with use roadkill obtained from National Parks or Forest Service personnel to lure the big cats into cage traps so they can be sedated and outfitted with GPS collars. I did my share of dirty work, lugging bloody deer carcasses up remote mountain ranges. But this was different. The line between life and death feels so extreme, so unyielding, and yet nothing had really prepared me for the precarious nature of that divide. Just minutes ago, the buck had been prancing blissfully, browsing on the abundant fresh grass and sedges the rain had brought up. Spring was finally here, and apple blossoms were alight in the neighbor’s manicured orchard, beyond the tall chain-link fence that had created a death-trap for the luckless ungulate, courtesy of our devoted dog. Maybe we should finally re-baptize our ridgebull, I reflected. Artemis, goddess of the hunt, would be more fitting.

I selected the sharpest knife I could find in our kitchen, but it wasn’t quite sharp enough to slice through the thick mule deer hide. Not easily that is, and it was getting dark. Working quickly, which isn’t a good idea when you are field-dressing your first deer, I reached inside the body cavity to cut the windpipe, which allows the guts and organs to spill out of the carcass if you do it the right way, on a slope with the head facing uphill. But in my haste I grabbed hold of something else, not the trachea, and cut through that instead. Immediately, I smelled the stench of decomposing vegetable matter. At least, when I pulled out the guts, everything came, the way it ought. There was a cupful of brown fluid inside the empty body cavity, not enough to taint the meat if I flushed it out. I moved the organs off to the side—the scavengers would make quick work of them. I saved the liver, for Hazel and Banshee. Then I skinned the deer, which took a long time in the deepening dusk with my dull blade, and finally managed to hack out the haunches and the ribcage.

I grew faint at one point, and I must have swooned because I opened my eyes with a start and saw that my knife had fallen inside the bloody, gaping cavity. It was an ordeal, cutting into another sentient being, but I was hopeful that even Gaby (who hasn’t tasted any meat since she was Zoe’s age) might try some haunch of venison. The argument for veganism is societal and ethical (as they’ll tell you at Farm Sanctuary benefits), not gastronomical. This musky flesh would represent the sum total of my carnivorous passion for this season and in all likelihood for many seasons to come. My flash syncope was merely a symptom of my own depleted nature. Harvesting the slain deer wasn’t just the proper thing to do, in theory, it also felt right—far less dislocating than buying a slab of meat whose existential framework, from birth to the processing plant, was a study in degradation. I felt more human afterward, not less.

I left a bit more than the innards for the hardcore cleaning crew, those masked banditos and the over-communicative crows that woke me up at the brink of dawn most days of the week. All the scavengers deserved their fair share after all, not just me. Before Hazel entered our life, I’d spotted a bobcat sitting calmly on his haunches on the game trail that winds along the edge of our neighbor’s house. He was unfazed, and we locked gazes. All of a sudden, the mystery of our fish basin’s dwindling koi population was resolved. The remains of the dead buck would serve to sustain more than the local carrion-feeders, it would nourish the entire carnivore guild. Our friendly neighborhood apex predator, otherwise known as Hazel, was providing for the entire food chain.

 

The End

“Marriage Backwaters (A Love Story)” by Shelley Wood

Shelley Wood is the winner of our Winter 2016-2017 Non-Fiction contest. 

We had traveled to South India to explore the famous Kerala backwaters, but we figured while in Kochi, we may as well visit Mattancherry Palace with its mural of Lord Krishna playing the flute while pleasuring eight milkmaids at once: six with six hands and two with his feet.

“His feet?” Tyler asks, his eyebrows hopping.

“His feet,” I repeat, pointing at our guidebook. We take a moment to gaze at one another, husband to wife, 13 years married.

Whoa.

Our guide, Jaisal, leads us through the building—a squat, whitewashed house that was a gift from the Portuguese to the Maharaja of Kochi in 1555. It is 97°F indoors with 76% humidity –our slow ooze through this musty palace feels as if through a toor daal, so thick and spicy is the air.

We drift past the colorful murals teeming with beasts and humans, a tangle of many-armed torsos and jumbled faces, trying to pick out the regular cabal of Hindu gods and goddesses –Vishnu with his conch, Shiva with his cobra. We’re keen to spot Krishna, easily identified by his blue complexion and deific dexterity with the milkmaids. But Jaisal begs us to pause before each painting, explaining that these murals are a series depicting the Ramayana, the epic love story of Rama and Sita.

Panel one depicts the three wives of Dasharatha with his three sons, one from each wife. In the second panel is Rama, one of the sons, banished from his father’s court for 14 years. The next features Rama’s faithful bride Sita, captured by the evil king Ravana who flew over from Sri Lanka in a flower helicopter.

We snap awake.

“Pardon?”

Jaisal nods, smiling. “Yes, a flower helicopter.” He knew this would get our attention. “Even at the very beginning, they had this kind of flower technology.”

I’m wilting. I don’t have the energy to press Jaisal on the finer mechanics of floral aeronautics any more than I can summon the enthusiasm to ask him whether he himself is married. This is my standard question –like all Westerners we’re fascinated by India’s arranged marriages.

***

Indeed, with every guide tasked with showing us the marvels of the subcontinent—on the long hours spent driving from city to city or strolling through the monuments and mosques—we’ve grilled them with questions, prying shamelessly into their marital history.

What I sense from their responses is a subtle lack of uxoriousness. Subir, our guide in Rajasthan was proud to the point of bursting over his two grown daughters, but questions about his wife he brushed aside. Avi, in Varanasi, shrugged when we asked his opinion on marrying for love. “No need”, he pronounced, swaying in the bow of the tattered dinghy he’d hired to shepherd us up and down the banks of the Ganges, the banks smudged by the smoke of funeral pyres. Couples can fall in love after they get married, he explained. And if they don’t? No problem, they just start a family sooner. Avi and his wife married young and swiftly had three children. “This is better,” he assured us. “Marrying young. Then the girls know what to think, you understand.” Seeing my blank face, Avi tried harder. “They have someone to follow,” he clarified. I shot a look at Tyler, who answered me with a wink.

Avi addressed the question to Tyler, not to me: “And you? Many children back in Canada?”

“None,” Tyler answers cheerfully, and Avi’s gaze, sad as the brown river, glides over to me pityingly. I look away.

Later a man with Bollywood eyes, and a silk-weaving company that had been in his family for generations, coaxed us successfully towards the purchase of some overpriced scarves. During the performance of flinging out and layering piece after piece of exquisite fabric—saris, shawls, and stoles—on the floor of his shop the man said: “This is the difference between India and America. In America, you hang beautiful things on your walls. In India, everything beautiful we hang on our wives.”

At the time, we laughed. How true, we murmured, how lovely. But later the silk-seller’s comment sneaks back and riles me: the objectification and imbalance. Where is the to-and-fro, the mutual respect, a place for choice and partnership? Or, I reasoned, would I feel differently if I, too, could be a wife so revered and inscrutable? I can’t be sure. What if this was the only world I’d ever known?

But my unease tags along with us, a sulky sightseer. It doesn’t help that we are visiting fortress after historic fortress, each with lavish rooms built for wife-one, wife-two, wife-three –none of whom were permitted to leave their quarters. At the Amber Palace, the Raj had 12 secret corridors leading to the separate chambers of each of his 12 wives so he could come and go unobserved. At Fatehpur Sikri, the emperor had a life-sized game of Parcheesi installed in his courtyard, where he used real women from his harem as game pieces.

“And can you guess what his prize was if he won?” our grinning guide ribs my husband: wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Our genial chaperones must see me frowning from time to time and inevitably turn our questions around: how long have we been married? How many children? Our answer—13 years, no children—makes their eyes turn soft with confusion. “One dog,” we tell them at first. Then we realize, in India, where tatty mutts skulk through the streets like drug-dealers, this answer has no connection to the question. And this, it seems, may be one spidery thread linking everything that seems so unfathomable in India to the world we know back home. Because even in North America, some of our closest friends don’t understand that our dog, who we chose over human offspring, has been woven densely into our first-world, childless love for all these many years.

***

In Mattancherry Palace, Jaisal is doing his best to hold our interest through each of the Ramayana murals. Towards the end, he tells us, Rama ends up trooping over to Sri Lanka via Adam’s Bridge, built by monkeys across the Gulf of Mannar, ultimately slaying Ravana and rescuing his beloved Sita. I’m charmed by the story, particularly since this legendary couple had been married 14 years before Rama set out to save Sita. I turn a blind eye to the lower corner of the penultimate panel, which depicts Sita seemingly squatting in a Hibachi leaping with flames to prove her chastity to Rama. I want to believe in this love story, just as I’d also like to see the many-limbed Lord Krishna giving his eight milkmaids their due until he’s blue in the face.

Alas, we never get to see it. This particular scene is in a downstairs gallery, closed for renovations. There are no postcards of this painting in the gift shop, and I’m too chicken to hazard an Internet search of “Mattancherry Palace Krishna pleasuring maids” for fear of what Google might turn up.

***

The next day, we head out from Kochi onto the Kerala Backwaters —a warren of lazy waterways lined with soaring coconut trees and rice paddies. Fleets of houseboats thatched with palm fronds glide languidly past kids being paddled to school, mothers laundering clothes on the steaming banks. Some houseboats are ferrying foreign tourists like us, but the backwaters have also become a popular destination for Indian honeymooners.

In the scorching afternoon, we step into a slim and tippy skiff to tour the narrower channels that serve as paths between the homes. Another couple joins us: newlyweds from Tamil Nadu, married in a ceremony just three days ago.

The couple endures our nosiness politely. Yes, they are very happy together. No, they hadn’t met before they wed. They are both engineering professors, only at different universities. They beam at this detail, as if it is proof of their compatibility. Side by side on their narrow bench, bobbing in the current, they could be newlyweds in Venice or Disneyworld, awed at the prospect of a life together –whatever it might bring. I think: who am I to presume their marriage might end up anything lesser than my own?

Later in the canal, we come across a snake, thick as a bicep, floating on the surface—dead or sunning itself, it’s not clear. The sight of it causes the Indian man to spring up, rocking the boat, then cower towards his new wife, who looks on amused. “I’m very afraid of snakes!” he tells us, unnecessarily. Then he turns to his wife and repeats himself more tenderly since this is new information for her as well. Everything is. My dear, I am very afraid of snakes.

***

Door to door, it takes five flights and 42 hours for us to return from Kerala to the Pacific Northwest. We are somewhere in the flight path over Myanmar when our beloved dog, back home, is rushed to the vet and diagnosed with a fatal mass that is bleeding internally –terminally.

He holds on until we get back, cradling him like a toddler while he bellows with pain. Our second night home, he collapses in his blood-red urine. Our minds are a thick clot of jet lag, insomnia, and anguish by Friday when the kindest vet that ever walked the earth comes to our house to help our old boy die. After the vet leaves, my husband turns to me with a face so stripped and raw with shock and grief I’d do anything in my power to keep more hurt from getting at him.

Here is our own Ramayana mural. In panel one, a childless couple flies over the sea in a flower helicopter, hurrying back for a stricken creature that is part child, part beast. In the next, a medical man is carrying a bundle of soft fur and old bones wrapped in a brown fleece blanket out to a chariot in the driveway. In the third and final panel: the man and woman are standing as one, husband and wife, bodies clenched so tightly together they’re a single torso leeched of color, weeping on both faces, four tangled arms holding on for dear life.

The woman says: “India feels like a million years ago.”

The man’s face is contorting against her shoulder –she can feel it– wet with tears, his mouth opening and closing, no sound coming out. Finally, he manages: “We went to India?” And they stand there, shaking with sobs or laughter—it doesn’t matter which, so long as they can just keep standing.

“Probed” by Ellyn Gelman

“Probed” by Ellyn Gelman is the second place winner of our Fall Non-Fiction Contest.

pregnant-1427856_1920I hit the snooze button on top of the digital clock. 6:30 AM. My husband, Dan, reached around my belly and pulled me up against him and we spooned in silence until the snooze alarm sounded. Married for ten years, together for fifteen, I knew every bit of his thirty-four-year old body as intimately as I knew my own. His morning erection pressed up against my backside, the sport scent deodorant he applied with exactly five swipes in each armpit every morning, the dark hair on his forearms that ended precisely where his hairless hands began. Even the smell of his breath after a night of snoring was familiar and oddly comforting.

“Do you want me to go with you today?” I felt his words in my hair just above my right ear lobe and a tiny feather from the quilt rose up and rode on the waves of his voice.

“No, I’ll be fine. It’s just an ultrasound,” I said as I slid out of bed and walked to the bathroom. “I’ll call you this afternoon when it’s over.”

“Let’s see what we have here.” The radiology technician flicks the light switch to darken the room. I think she’s told me her name but I can’t remember. Fresh cigarette smoke wafts from her as she types my age—thirty-four—date of last menses—no clue.  The smell stirs a familiar craving in the part of my brain that refuses to forget nicotine, despite four years of abstinence and a solemn pact with God to never smoke again.

I shiver, naked from the waist down.

“Here we go,” the tech says as she inserts the transvaginal probe. The top of her head hovers between my legs, right above my bent knees that have been draped with a white sheet. The demarcation between her dark roots and bleached tufts reminds me of sea grass in late autumn.

It has been four weeks since our embryonic transfer. The probe ignores my tender, hyper-stimulated ovaries. Five weeks ago this same probe searched for the number of ovum (eggs) my ovaries had produced—the final tally was twenty. Today the probe’s high frequency sound waves search only for a fetal heartbeat.

I shift my gaze to the random pattern of pinholes, and short, gray, wavy lines on the white ceiling above me. Hormones have wreaked havoc on my emotions, and, without warning, my eyes fill with tears that cause the pattern on the dropped ceiling to become a watery distortion that looks like slow-moving sperm. Hot tears trail down my temples and puddle in my ears.

The pressure of the probe increases, as does my discomfort. I remind myself to breathe.

Dan and I are thirty-four years old and we have been mired in this world of infertile baby making for ten years. This is our second and last attempt to have another child. I cannot put my body through this again—hormone shots, needle-aspirated egg retrievals, embryo transfers (if we’re lucky), and the mind-numbing disappointment of a negative pregnancy test.

“Here it is,” said the technician.

I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and lift myself onto my elbows to get a better look at the black and white monitor.

“How many embryos were transferred?”

“Five,” I said. I don’t tell her that three of the five embryos were identified as fair, two were considered good, or that the last time we tried IVF we transferred three embryos—one fair, two good—and none of them implanted. I don’t tell her that our first cycle of IVF resulted in only one fair embryo, and that he’s three years old now, and I especially don’t tell her that I feel greedy for wanting another child.

“I found a heartbeat,” she says.

Rapid-fire goose bumps tingle in my scalp and spread to my limbs like champagne bubbles. I hear the magnified watery heartbeats, and, when I spot the tiny pulse on the screen, I can’t help but laugh out loud. Elated, I begin to relax.

The tech discovers another heartbeat, separate from the one I had been looking at.

Oh my God—twins. This is so exciting. Dan should be here.

“I think there’s more,” she says.

“No, no more,” I said as the beats of my heart pound in my head.

She pulls out the probe and instructs me to empty my bladder, in order for a better look.

I wrap the white sheet around my waist and slide zombie-like off the table to the attached restroom. The fear I have managed to suppress begins to unfurl and spreads to my gut. I sit with elbows on knees, face in hands long after I’m empty. Maybe more? Does she mean three? Four? All five? What if there are five babies growing inside me? The tech knocks on the door and asks if I’m okay. I splash water on my face and dab it with a paper towel before I return to the table and assume the position.

There are three tiny hearts beating in my womb, each one given a generic obstetric code—A, B and C.

The relief that there are not five embryos diminishes the anxiety that there are three.

“So what are you going to do?” the tech says as she cleans and readies the probe for the next patient.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you going to keep all three?” She says that some patients with multiple embryos choose to selectively abort one or two. Her casual disregard irritates me.

“What I think,” I say, “is that I’m going to have triplets.” I pull on my elastic-waist pants and slide my feet into my shoes. Despite my use of the towel, I have no control over the excess lubricant that begins to leak from me and soak my white cotton underwear. Dan calls my underwear big ole cotton jobs. I try to remember if the gel was clear or if it had a color that will leave behind a stain. Without another word, I exit the room that reeks of organized science and out into a new domain of random chaos.

It is cold dark outside, and I wander around the parking lot until I locate my Honda Accord. I sit with the ignition key in my hand. It’s not that I don’t want three babies. I would love to have three more babies, just not all at once. I hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand, and let loose a single desolate sob, “Triplets?” I’ll never take triplets to term. I had pre-eclampsia with my first baby and he had to be induced two and a half weeks early. I reach for a crumpled brown napkin I left behind on the passenger seat, and blow my nose.

Dan and I knew the risks when we decided to transfer all five embryos. How does one choose which embryo to transfer and which to leave behind? We knew that transferring all five embryos would increase our odds for another baby, one baby, and if we were really lucky, maybe twins. Four weeks ago, it felt right to transfer all five embryos. Today I feel selfish, a bit greedy..  It is almost six-thirty. I need to get home to my little boy and my mother who is looking after him. Dan is expecting me to call him at work with the results. I rest my forehead on the steering wheel but I can’t stop the tears. I guess the joke is on me, God…I prayed for babies and I got babies. I take a deep breath and call Dan on my recently installed car phone. He picks up on the fourth ring.

“Guess what?” I say, “We’re having triplets.”

“Lessons” by Karen Chen

“Lessons” by Karen Chen is the winner of our Fall 2016 Non-Fiction Contest. 

It was 7 A.M. August morning. My mother called home. She spoke too loudly, the way she always did over the phone, as if I couldn’t hear her over the U.S.-Canadian border between us.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Mom.”

She was quiet for a moment. “Your aunt passed last night.”

The word for passed in Mandarin is outwardly deceiving. The words literally meant that Aunt walked away, but I knew what my mother really meant and that this sort of walk was something people didn’t return from.

“Okay,” I said stupidly. “When are you coming home?”

“Soon.” She hung up. It was the first time she answered that question with something other than “I don’t know.”

My father wandered into the kitchen, bleary-eyed with his shirt untucked. “Who called?” he yawned.

“Mom,” I said. “She said Aunt Anqi passed.” My voice grew quieter with every word, until “passed” was only a semblance of a whisper.

He paused for a second with his hand on the coffee maker. “We knew it would happen soon,” he sighed, letting his arm rest on the counter as the rest of him slumped against it.

I nodded with dry eyes and sat down at my desk. It was my birthday. I was finally sixteen years old. Neither my father nor I mentioned it.

***

My father has a sister as well, but Aunt Anqi (pronounced ahn-chee) was the aunt I saw the most often and spent the most time with. On paper, I just write her name down as Aunt, because to me, she is the most important one.

My family stayed at her house whenever we took trips to China. She would often feed me cookies and fruit gummies from the local market. At six years old, I proclaimed during dinner that Aunt’s cooking surpassed my mother’s, which left Aunt jubilant and my mother disgruntled. “Eat more,” Aunt encouraged happily, pushing plates toward me. I always did. Later, for dessert, we would break peanuts out of their shells and talk. I would tell her about school back in America; she would try to teach me quicker ways to remove the peanut shells and nag at the way I sat in my chair. “Sit up straighter. All young ladies need good posture.”

Aunt kept her curls perfectly coiffed each day, and when I stayed with her, I found her in the bathroom combing black dye into her white hairs on a regular basis. “She cares too much about her appearance,” my mother would say dismissively, carrying the gray and white in her own hair proudly. “Who cares if she has some white hair? She’s in her sixties.”

Aunt would swat my mother with her arm. “It’s important for a young lady to always look presentable,” she sniffed. “You should teach your daughter that as well.” And she would turn to me, the corners of her lips lifting into a satisfied smile. “Isn’t that right?”

It lifted my spirits to see Aunt driving my mother to speechlessness, a feat I’ve never accomplished. “Yes, of course you are right,” I had said. I let Aunt smooth out the wrinkles in my shirt and push my shoulder blades back as my mother shook her head. I never thought about why Aunt treated me the way she did, only that sometimes she stood up for me when no one else did.

That same year, Aunt and I made egg tarts together for the first and last time. She demonstrated how to whisk the eggs, leaning her bowl to the side and aggressively whipping the chopsticks against the porcelain edges. “Your mother never taught you? Well, it’s about time you learned,” she grumbled. “Six years old and you still don’t know how to do anything in the kitchen.” I mimicked Aunt’s smooth motions as perfectly as I could, but still she leaned over to clasp her hands over mine. “No, more like this. Yes, good, you’re learning.”

When the egg tarts came out of the oven, they tasted bland and lacked a sufficiently firm texture, but they were the first things I had ever baked. I glowed with pride. Aunt clucked her tongue and reprimanded, “Hold the tray with both hands; it’s going to fall.”

***

The Last Trip with Aunt happened thirteen months before she died. I had wanted to go to math camp instead.

Even though I pleaded for my parents to let me spend my summer upstate surrounded by shapes and formulas, they forced me to go on a summer trip with them, Aunt, and my cousin. “We bought tickets months ago,” my parents argued. With regret, I tucked away my math camp application forms and got ready to go on the road.

These summer trips together were a tradition; the same group of us traveled together annually to places all around North America – a tour of Yellowstone National Park, a weeklong stay on a small boat in Toronto. That summer, we went to Vancouver and the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Aunt walked along the roads with me, admiring the mountains high up in the distance. Right before the trip, the doctors in China had reported that she was fit enough to travel with us. Her cheeks glowed as she trod along the path.

In the middle of the Last Trip, my mother injured her arm carrying too many suitcases up to the hotel rooms. She sank into an armchair and winced with pain. The medicine patch on her arm smelled like chemicals and the remains of something that had broken apart.

When my mother had fallen asleep, her injured arm resting over the other, Aunt took me aside. “Do you see what happened to your mother?” Her voice was serious and stern. “All because you didn’t help her with those heavy suitcases.

“You are going to be the reason your mother dies early.”

For hours, I hugged my knees, shaking uncontrollably. I was an ugly crier, the sort that cried in rushes and storms.

I told my cousin, who screamed at her mother, “Why would you tell her that? That’s going too far.”

“She needed to know,” Aunt barked back. “She’s constantly ignorant and unaware of what’s happening around her.”

“You always say these sorts of stupid things!” my cousin, who was an adult in her thirties, shrieked. “How tactless can you be?”

When my mother woke up, she rubbed my back and said it’s okay, don’t worry, it’s not your fault. That night at dinner, my aunt and my cousin sat on opposite sides and ignored each other as they reached across the table for food. That was the first time I noticed the rift between them. But I began to remember all those times, months earlier, when my aunt and cousin had refused to eat food the other had cooked, each silently declaring the other’s food to be inferior to her own. There were all those times when my cousin screamed at her mother, “You stay in my house and do nothing, but you’re still unsatisfied with everything!”

“I can’t do anything because you’re always unsatisfied with everything I do.” Aunt’s voice was as stiff as the curls in her hair.

When I saw my cousin and Aunt together in Canada the next summer, Aunt was already in the hospital. There was no one left at home to bear the brunt of my cousin’s explosive anger, which had been whittled away by fear and despair. I was sad to see it go.

***

When Aunt went for a checkup right before the Last Trip, the doctors gave her the same diagnosis as always: she had high blood sugar but was healthy.

Eight months later, she went for another checkup. This time, the doctors told her she had cancer, and that it had spread to her liver.

There had been no visible physical symptoms of her illness. Everything thought she was healthy, including her, until it turned out she wasn’t.

She flew to Canada so that the doctors there who specialized in liver cancer could give her treatment.  They all said, It’s too late. I’m sorry, it’s too late.

***

My mother and cousin had always complained about Aunt – little things, like she’s haughty, she’s vain, she’s so stubborn. That didn’t change after Aunt was admitted to the hospital in Canada, but their insults were more blunt than barbed. “She didn’t want to take a walk outside her hospital room because she didn’t want the other patients to see her in her hospital gown,” my mother said half-heartedly after returning from visiting Aunt one day. “How typical.” I had gone with her, but I said nothing.

It was early August. The whole family knew Aunt didn’t have more than a month left.

***

After being discharged from the hospital, Aunt came home for a little bit. She spent all her time in bed, drifting between sleep and wakefulness. The room smelled like illness – an expired, bitter smell. My cousin and I made chicken soup and brought it upstairs to her.

Aunt was getting thinner every week. Her veins protruded from her arms, which had become a sickly yellow and shook as she held the spoon. “Too salty,” she rasped. For the first time, my cousin bit her lip and said nothing, just headed back downstairs to remake the soup. I stayed with Aunt. She opened her mouth, as if to say something to me, but she only coughed. Her small hand sat like stone in mine, her fingers fluttering like a heartbeat.

***

Aunt had never lived in our house before. I had lived in hers, and we both had lived in her daughter’s house in Canada, but she never had the chance to stay with us.

Two months before Aunt was diagnosed with cancer, my mother invited her to stay with us the coming summer. “Come to New York,” she offered. “It’ll be fun.”

“Sure,” my Aunt snarked. “I’ll come and see just how poorly you do housework.”

Of course, she never did. By early summer, she was already thin and bedridden. By late summer, she was already dead.

***

Aunt passed away in her sleep. It was August 2015. She was only in her sixties, everyone murmured. How regretful.

I never cried over her death. Instead, I began to stand straighter. I pushed my chest out and my shoulders back. Whenever my mother cooked dinner, I hurried over to help her with the easy tasks, like sauteing the vegetables or beating egg yolks. And I kept my hair looking presentable; I didn’t have Aunt’s coiffed curls, but I made sure to brush my hair daily and use water to pat down loose strands that stuck up before I left the house. For me, remembering Aunt was remembering the lessons she taught me, no matter whether they were right or wrong. They were little things, but I performed every small task meticulously and methodically.

I was the only one who acted differently after Aunt’s passing. My cousin conducted her business as she always did, occasionally exploding into fits of anger and sharp-edged words. My mother continued to let her white hairs grow. I alone mourned by changing.

During the long winter months following Aunt’s death, I thought about how Aunt taught me those lessons as a way of teaching me how to grow up. How to become a woman. I tried to do both of those things for her, because it was all I could do, because I was the only person left to do them.

Slowly, she began to vanish from my memories. I relied on pictures to remember her face, the way her hair was shaped, how she smiled with tight lips and no teeth. I became confused, unable to discern what exactly I had felt for her: grudging respect or annoyance, melancholy or apathy. Or maybe it wasn’t confusion; maybe I had just never known in the first place.

***

In February, six months after she died, I realized that the image of Aunt in my mind solely consisted of the things she told me. A lot of things that should have been obvious were question marks in my head; whether she was a good person, whether I loved her. She wasn’t the kindest person, I thought. But I liked her. I liked eating with her, talking about school with her, having her pay attention to the way I walked and the way I did things.

I had tried to honor Aunt’s memory the best way I could, the way I thought would please her most – one adult carrying on another’s legacy as a remembrance of their familial relation. But every time I completed an action the way she had taught me, it felt methodical to the point that it felt meaningless. Between the two of us, I was the ghost, wandering through each task aimlessly. Aunt had never been transparent to me, because I was the one who never tried to see through her.

Sometimes I stopped, the brush still stuck in my hair, wondering if that was the right way to mourn. It wasn’t the manifestation of longing or desolation or an emotion I felt I should have been consumed by. I didn’t feel what my mother and cousin must have felt, as a sister and daughter respectively. I had learned and memorized Aunt’s lessons, thinking I was becoming an adult, but I was still just a little girl wrapped up in her own world, unable to see what was happening around her.

Still selfish, I thought. The words were bitter in my mouth. Aunt tried to help me change, but she was an adult and I am not and I am still waiting to grow up but she’s not there to help me. I knew her lessons but I didn’t know her, and now it was too late.

***

For months, I wondered why I was the one Aunt imparted her knowledge to, and now I think I found the answer.

These were the harshest words Aunt ever said to me: “You are going to be the reason your mother dies early.” Maybe that is the way Aunt spoke to her daughter and younger sister their whole lives. Perhaps those words formed the backdrop of their childhoods.

I remember my mother and cousin’s complaints. My cousin and aunt’s constant fighting. You’re vain, you’re picky. It must have stemmed from something deeper. Perhaps the cause was Aunt’s morals, which she stuck so closely to but ultimately drove her away from her loved ones. And then I think about how serious Aunt had been whenever she spoke to me, how her eyes had lit up when I complimented her cooking over my mother’s.

Oh, I think. She must have been so sad. She must have been lonely.

***

The room is silent. It is 8 P.M. on a warm summer night in New York. I am peeling peanuts at the dining table by myself. It is July, which means that my seventeenth birthday is in a few weeks. The one year mark is rapidly approaching, and with it comes a memory – one of the lost ones.

“Anqi, where are the cups?” my mother asked.

“Anqi, we are going outside for a walk,” my father called.

We were staying at Aunt’s home in China. I was six. “Anqi, Anqi,” I chanted. “Anqi, can you pass the bowl of cherries?”

My mother smacked me lightly upside the head. “Hey! You can’t call your aunt Anqi,” she reprimanded. “That’s her first name. It’s Chinese etiquette that only adults call other adults by their first names.”

Now I roll the syllables around in my mouth, tasting them. “An-qi,” I say aloud. The words sit awkwardly on my tongue, but they don’t feel foreign. A strange feeling tugs at my heart – the knowledge of something lost, something leaving – but the words seem almost visible and tangible hanging in the air, almost as if I could peel away their shell with one stroke to reveal what hides inside. I watch my aunt’s name even after it disappears, drifting away in a gentle breeze, passing by, passing on.