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1 story
by Caroline Wu

Caroline Wu is a high school student from Ohio. She hopes to capture the quiet and lyrical moments in everyday life. In her free time, she enjoys painting, going on long hikes, and ribbon embroidery. She often watches Instagram movie-edits on repeat and wishes she had a pet cat, despite her allergies.

i’ve been searching for something beyond the mountain

Took Mā to her eye examination today. Wondered if I should say something as the technician silently disinfected his hands. I heard a Tsai Chin song the other day and thought of you. It’s been nine days since you’ve last returned my calls. The technician promised no utensils, no instruments necessary to check for degeneration. Mā, I picture you at every intersection, all those street corners shrinking around you. At the examination room, the doctor said relax. The doctor said promise—this won’t hurt a bit

* * *

Once, maybe a year ago, Mā said I think I was born around this time. It was a California sunrise and the sky was sinking sequins into her eyes. The dimensions between her lashes were already dying. That day, Mā talked about 1981. That breathless summer. The year of the rooster. I must have been born in the morning. As if Mā could remember her father reaching into the blankets, her body spilling into his hands. Mā said, If only I were born a night rooster. Boneless and unburdened. Nü ěr, you know what happens to a chicken at morning time? It gets slaughtered. 

* * *

When I visited Mā, she told me about the day she left the village. Her father had saved enough money to send her to university in the provincial capital. To fend off the train thieves, Mā stitched coins into her underwear. All that metal, all that promise, warm against her stomach. On the day Mā left the village, the train whistle's call was so sharp. When she hesitated on the boxcar steps, her father turned his head. Nü ěr, what are you waiting for? Afterwards, her father ran after the train. All those rail stops between them.

* * *

Nowadays, Mā only calls to tell me about her recurring nightmares. In Mā’s dreams, always, there is a knock at the front door, which swings open to reveal her father. Always, her father is spectral, and when he opens his coat, a swarm of insects emerges from his pockets. 

* * *

It must have been either two or three in the afternoon, and between spring and summer, it must have occurred in the summer. The whole incident remains Mā’s only experience with something like religious revelation. Something like apocalypse. That day, that heaving cloud of locusts, even the most minor of beasts, dampening all the sun’s unyielding radiance. As if someone asked how to stop the inevitable, and the Buddha opened his fist with an answer. And when the frenzy was over and the henhouse had gone mad and the goji was picked dry, Mā and her father were left only to stare at the sky, wondering what was left of themselves.

 

Much, much later, when Mā arrived in California with visas running between her nails, she looked half-devoured, like a portion of a body. The customs officer, young and blonde and grinning, he chuckled and said, God, you look like you’ve been to hell and back

* * *

At the last checkup, the doctor asked if I could remember when Mā’s vision first started deteriorating. But, how could I have explained that it's impossible to put a date on memory? How do I say that five years ago, Mā’s father was soaking his feet in a village bucket when his heart stuttered? I can’t describe how the bucket tipped over, how the earth beneath him flattened into puddles. Or how none of Mā’s brothers told her about the passing. Not even when we booked the three-thousand-dollar flight to visit home. And later, when Mā saw the little gravestone, she shuddered and threw her glasses onto the dirt. All the lenses and plastic and landscape refracting before her. Her brothers said, jiě, we were worried you couldn’t take it and Mā asked how could you. Mā couldn’t see but she kept on hearing her father. Nü ěr, what were you waiting for? Maybe if I’d tried harder, I could’ve mentioned how Mā claims that every day since, she wakes up to find the jailblock ceiling closing further around her. But I still can’t fit all those words onto that tiny prognosis sheet. 

* * *

Mā admits that sometimes, in private, she believes her father simply ran away. Maybe it was the politics or the farm labor that drove him crazy. He might have started a new life in Shanghai or Macao. He might have become a monk, fled up the mountain on the outskirts of the province. Maybe he had a crisis and found the Buddha. Maybe Mā’s father is sitting cross-legged on a monastery floor somewhere reciting scripture, his scalp anointed with six licks of flame. Maybe Mā’s father is still out there, his eyes still searching, still wanting for something just beyond the mountain’s reach. 

* * *

Something for the prognosis sheet: it was Mā who taught me that a rooster is knowledgeable only in goodbyes. A beast versed only in crowing for the night to come back.

* * *

In the waiting room, the fish tank is always casting this holy film onto Mā’s face. I confess, I’m not sure how long a fish, or any animal, has before it goes belly-up. I don’t know where my mother will keep all the people she cannot hold in her sight. I don’t know how hard I would need to look to figure out all these things.