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Asian American Contemporary

spring


The year starts in February. Their year, to be exact.


Because it’s Spring Festival, the day when they make food together and pop firecrackers together and tell old myths that spin long into the night. Because she spends the day with her children and feels their smiles light her up brighter than the sun.


Because today isn’t just another day, but a celebration of it. Because the world keeps spinning, and time moves on, and she was born to love this deeply. To walk hand in hand with life, her life, these lives beside her. Forever. Always.


summer


He knows this room like the back of his hand.


The peeling paint that papers the walls, colored in a dull off-white that started out as sunshine yellow, fifteen years ago. The wobbly wooden table standing on three legs that creaks in protest as he sets down the wok. And, of course, the three bowls he begins to fill, china shining red and green and blue in the buzzing yellow light.


He puts a place mat in front of each of the three chairs, humming quietly to himself. His hands seem to guide themselves across the bowls and mats and chopsticks, doing the job without any hesitation. It’s a privilege he wishes the rest of him has.


The aroma of the fried rice twines through the air. He sniffs deeply, and despite how much he wants to love it, his first thought is, It’s missing something. He racks his brain for the forgotten ingredient as he portions the rice into the bowls. It slips through the cracks, impossibly elusive.


He knows this house, this room, this home. The way the walls press in on him like they’re inhaling, and the way he loves it anyway. Where he grew up on a diet of listening to two different languages and upside-down signs during the spring, annual blessings of health from far-off relatives. Over sputtering phone calls, they promised his mother that luck would arrive soon, year after year.


He feels the memory tug his mouth into a smile.


The place mats are smoothed out, the chopsticks aligned. He sits down in his chair and starts eating, trusting his family to come on their own time, just like they always have.


His sister enters the room, worry clouding her face, her dark hair pulled up in a messy bun. When she sits down and puts a clump of rice in her mouth, her expression shifts from weariness to surprise to carefully-constructed mediocrity.


He tips his head at her, and she offers an approving nod. For his distant sister, that’s the best he’ll get today.


The table is silent save for the soft chirping of the crickets outside as the evening begins, until even their song fades too. He picks at his food, hearing the quiet settle slowly. Like a magnet, he feels his gaze drawn to the empty third chair, wondering what his mother will think, if she’ll grin at him and ruffle his hair or get teary-eyed over his skills, how she will love him today, how she will fill him up.


When nobody sits down to complete their family, he feels nothing but an ache, blooming like a flower inside his rib cage.


Somewhere, in the recesses of his head, the loss had managed to slip his mind. Maybe it’s the haze drifting over his thoughts like low-hanging fog, leaving him blurry at the edges. Whatever it is, the pain twists itself from a presence to a punch, straight in the chest. His heart seems to pause for a moment, his lungs drawing to a still.


His mother isn’t here anymore to tell him what ingredient is missing, to guide his hands over the fire and the wok and show him how. Without her, he doesn’t think he’ll ever know how.


The untouched bowl, the cheerful place mat. They tug at his edges until he thinks he’s going to unravel like string. Like the opposite of a masterpiece, a half-finished tapestry on the other side of time.


He stands up. His sister’s eyes never leave her own bowl.


Slowly, he puts the rice into the fridge, hides the utensils away in the cabinet. He scrubs his mother’s spot clean like she never existed at all.


The disappearance somehow hurts even more than the reminder.


fall


When the leaves change color and the green withers away from the trees, he goes back to eleventh grade.


His sister, too, goes back to her life. He watches her return to her job, befriend her coworkers, rebuild the personality she had before. Without his mother, all his other relatives half a world away, and his father having simply left them before he was even born, she’s the only one he has left.


Everyone adores her. Her boss promotes her twice in a row. His neighbors invite her to dinner every other day. Meanwhile, he’s failing English and almost punched his classmate just yesterday. She is frustratingly perfect and he is not, will never be, no matter how hard he tries.


So now he’s sitting at the dinner table with his chin in his hands, alone again, unable to look away from the chair that still stands across from him. He can’t shake the feeling that there should be someone there, maybe berating him for his bad behavior, or having one of those classic soul-searching conversations in a mixture of Mandarin and English, a colorful twist of sounds. Melancholy coils deep in his stomach, bitter sugar that fills his mouth with rotten sweetness.


He’s lived here his whole life, and this room feels new anyway. He doesn’t recognize that painting on the wall, the colors smudging as he squints. He can’t remember which one is the creaky floorboard. His eyes are constantly snagging on the empty chair, a black hole, inescapable. 


Nausea roils inside him like a storm at sea.


He wants her to come back. He needs her to come back. He needs her stern voice and her hand on his shoulder, her gentle words and her not-so-gentle shoves in the right direction. There is no compass hanging on his chest, only the weight of this emptiness.


Footsteps pull him back to the present. He lifts his head to see his sister with two bowls of microwave ramen steaming in her hands. They smell spicy, stinging his throat.


He takes one of the bowls from her and hopes his brittle smile is grateful enough.


When she’s halfway out the door, something seems to strike her. She turns back to him, her face unreadable, eyes trained steadily on him. She’s always been withdrawn, but especially so since their family fractured into three separate shards. The only person who could coax her out of her shell is gone.


If he focuses on bits and pieces of her at a time, he recognizes her. Those impossibly dark eyes, that unyielding posture, the slight frown on her face that’s always either amused or annoyed.


Then he takes her in as a whole, and he wonders if this person was ever his sister at all.


This dining table used to be her sanctuary: now, her own bedroom has replaced it. Every month or so, when they eat at this off-kilter surface together, his ears buzz with silence.


It feels like he’s lost two family members instead of one.


Sit with me, he almost says. Please, talk to me. Be with me.


The words get stuck, just like they always do. This time, he feels tears spring to life too, ready to fall.


He turns to the wall and wipes them away, a hot flush of embarrassment rising and warring with the loneliness, the longing. When he looks back, she’s already gone.


winter


The snowflakes drift past the window in a way nobody could ever call graceful. He stares out at the clumps of white, watching them tumble and somersault to the ground like excited children. He can’t find any beauty in their motions.


On the eve of his sixth birthday, he couldn’t sleep. He’d gotten up in the middle of the night and saw his mother disappearing through the door to the attic, a black-and-white painting of a single crane tucked under her arm like something illegal. Quickly, he’d dove back into his bed and held very still. He never saw that frame again.


It's been exactly a decade since then. Happy birthday to me, he thinks dully. Briefly, he thinks about getting a candle to blow on, then decides against it. He already has too many wishes that will never come true.


Around the dinner table, more paintings like that one have been appearing, day by day. A bird here, some bamboo shoots there, a dragon coiling across paper above his head. The gray billows and swoops across the paper in delicate clouds.


If there’s one thing the past few months have taught him, it’s that being okay is an art form. It’s a masterpiece hanging in a museum that he tilts his head at, one way and the other, trying to figure out why people call it beautiful. Because all he sees is amorphous blobs, shapeless strokes, brushes of paint on a canvas that mean nothing to him.


The new additions to the room have a curious effect on his emotions. They’re a reminder of the good times, and a reminder that those times are gone. A remnant of the person who loved him, of the person that will never love again. He’s walking a tightrope far above the ground, where every step is more unsteady and the path ahead is nearly invisible. Alone, with no hand to hold.


The door opens, and his sister enters the room. This time, she’s holding rice noodles, and they smell exquisite.


They sit down in sync. She offers a bowl and a pair of chopsticks to him, and he begins eating greedily. It’s about five minutes later when he realizes his sister’s bowl lies untouched on the table. She’s nowhere to be found.


Gone again, he thinks, but when she returns, it’s not empty-handed. She grips a dusty frame tightly, like it might break if she doesn’t hold it together. As she reaches toward the last available wall hook, he stands and walks closer, making out the shape of a crane taking flight.


And all of a sudden, he’s sobbing.


It doesn’t usually come on this fast, he thinks dimly. But his vision is already blurry with moisture, he feels himself getting hot, and dizziness fills his brain like an expanding balloon. This is one of those things he can’t control. The tears keep flowing, and he tries to wipe his face dry. It doesn’t work. He feels so fragile without her.


Without her. Without her. It thunders through his head, again and again, until he feels like he might fly apart because of it. His chest heaves shallowly and his heart beats like a trapped bird’s wings. This life is not the same. This life will never be the same. 


Then someone’s arms encircle him, pulling him in, and they collapse to the floor together.


His sister is easily a half-foot taller than him. She holds him tighter as his tears stain her shirt and simply stays there, for minutes, for eternities. She is warm and steady. He curls into her comforting weight like a young child.


“Tell me about her,” he says quietly. “Please.”


So she does. She talks, her voice music he hasn’t heard in ages.


About their mother’s dream of becoming an artist, and how dark ink stained her fingers whenever his sister came home from elementary school. Before he’d been born, a new drawing adorned in black and white appeared in the house almost every day. She hung Chang’e in her bedroom and phoenixes in the kitchen, dragons in the dining room and birds soaring south by the windows. She never used colors. She liked finding the beauty in simplicity.


About the galleries and collections that’d rejected her artwork, over and over. People wouldn’t understand her subjects or her style, they’d explained, which meant that she was too Chinese for them, and that they didn’t even bother to consider anyone with skin like hers. He feels anger flush in his cheeks at that.


About her passion waning, little by little, after her husband left two weeks before her son was born (me, he thinks with a jolt) and her free time was halved. She slid the ink bottles into the backs of the cabinets and stored her paintings in the attic, welcoming her children’s light-haired, bright-eyed friends from school with a clean slate.


About her unabashed passion for Chinese New Year and the dozen vibrant dishes she whipped up every year. He’s never been able to cook quite like her.


About her lovely ink wash paintings, gathering dust away from the world.


About the way she’d lingered at the door of her children’s rooms one night, her son already asleep, her daughter just barely awake enough to register her words. Good night. I’ll see you in the morning.


The next day, the sun rose and so did her daughter. She found her mother alone in bed, the life stolen from her body by the virus they didn’t know she had.


When she finally falls silent and takes a deep breath, her hands clutching at the rug, he sees vulnerability etched into every line of her face. "You know, I don't think I'm ready to put this up yet," she says, gesturing to the crane painting. For the first time, he notices the dark bags adorning the crevices beneath her eyes.


“I don’t want to forget her,” he whispers.


“We don’t have to,” she promises, her tone wavering. “We just have to move on.”


The only smile he can summon is small, but it’s better than it used to be. Words spill from his mouth, unbidden, certain. “Will you teach me to speak Mandarin?”


She looks taken aback, and then she laughs, short and breathless. It’s nothing like how full it used to sound, twining with his mother’s voice and rising to the roof. Maybe they’ll never get those days back.


Maybe it’s okay to laugh anyway.


“Yeah,” she says. “I’ll try my best.”


spring, again


She raises her eyebrow at him as he enters the room, struggling under the weight of three different plates. “How are the dumplings?”


“Soggy,” he admits. “I left them for too long.”


“They don’t look that bad.” She steals one from his plate and takes a bite. “Never mind, they’re horrible.”


He glares, and she grins back.


They've hung up the crane painting together, right next to the window. It’s been a few weeks since he found himself able to look at it without feeling grief tug at his insides. A few days since he asked her if they could display it in the room.


A few hours since they put up sign after sign and turned them all upside down, signifying fortune’s imminent arrival. A few minutes since they finished cooking a half-dozen dishes in celebration of the New Year.


For the first time in forever, he finds himself happy again.


He tastes the fried rice as his sister inhales her own food. A cacophony of taste explodes on his tongue. It’s far better than it was last year, but he still catches himself thinking that something’s different. It’s not quite the way Ma used to make it.


“Really?” his sister asks, and he realizes too late that he said the last sentence out loud. “I think it’s pretty good, if you ask me.”


“It’s still missing something,” he says. It comes out almost like a plea.


“You think so?” She must see panic on his face, because she quickly switches into a reassuring tone. “It’s okay, we’ll figure it out together soon.”


Together. Soon. He feels the words burst happily like firecrackers in his chest. They’re a promise of the days ahead, of what’s to come. Because he’s not alone, and he never will be.


“Xīn nián kuài lè,” he says haltingly in Mandarin.


It’s riddled with hesitations and far from perfect, and yet she understands. “Happy New Year,” she answers.


They dive into their dinner and exchange conversation: quickly in English, slowly in Mandarin. And it’s a slow realization, but it’s a sure one: he has a glowing future waiting for him, with people he loves and people he will love by his side. For a second, he can see it with freshly hopeful eyes.


This food will taste like some new authenticity, and this language will roll off his tongue like music. These firecrackers will light up the darkness like red and gold stars. These scars will not heal because of time, but in spite of it.


The hole in his heart will still be there, but its jagged edges will have smoothed like they are already starting to. He will fill it with love, with hope and joy and laughter, day by day. A part of him is gone, but that’s what life is for: rebuilding from your broken pieces.


And each morning when the sun rises, leaving the spice of good fortune on his tongue, he will still be with her. He will have moved on. His memories will shine like the old paintings around this table dusted clean, and he will know how to be okay, one stroke at a time.

March 12, 2021 17:22

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10 comments

Courtney C
03:29 Mar 14, 2021

Oh my god, this was good. I was nearly on the verge of tears, and I don't consider myself an overly emotional person. The writing was beautiful and captivating, the characters were so real you feel like they could bleed, and I am absolutely devastated after reading this. This is one of the best stories I've read on Reedsy, hands down. Great work

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Ellie Yu
05:33 Mar 14, 2021

This comment almost made my heart stop with happiness. Thank you, thank you so much. :)

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Claire Lindsey
15:38 Mar 14, 2021

Ellie, this is just lovely. Your imagery is incredible; it’s vivid and unique. And the emotion—it resonates throughout the piece in every little detail. You write about grief with empathy and delicacy. The metaphors about being okay are so striking, I’ll be thinking about this story every time I go into an art exhibit now. I could go on and on about this story. I do my best to leave a small critique where possible, because I personally find it helpful when people give me things to consider changing. I hope you take my suggestions in the sp...

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Ellie Yu
18:02 Mar 14, 2021

Thank you so much! I'm really glad you enjoyed reading. Your critique is very insightful, and I'll definitely take it into account. Funnily enough, I did incorporate his birthday into the story originally, but then something happened and I cut it - I don't even remember why! Again, thanks for this meaningful comment.

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Srestha Mondal
06:21 Mar 19, 2021

A beautiful journey from despair to hope.... loved it :)

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Ellie Yu
13:59 Mar 19, 2021

Thank you, I'm happy you liked it!

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Lemon Lime
02:49 Mar 18, 2021

gorgeous! could be a short film

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Ellie Yu
03:29 Mar 18, 2021

Thank you for the comment and the read! I can't say I've never imagined one of my pieces being a film... but hey, an author can dream. :)

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Grace Sam Awa
07:54 Mar 16, 2021

A magnificent story dear, I just liked it so much.

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Ellie Yu
15:44 Mar 16, 2021

Thank you for the kind words!

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