Italicized dialogue indicates use of Mandarin
If you love a bird, you need to set it free, my father told me. In the dark, his voice sketched impossible things, and I watched them gather into flocks on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, their invisible feathers fluttering with the curvature of his stories. Real birds cannot follow you across oceans. And if you leave them in their cages, when you’re gone, they’ll starve into bones.
“What if the bird wants to follow me?” I asked. I was six then, and I had a yellow pet canary that I loved more than anything else. “What if I want the bird to follow me?”
Even then, he had replied. His voice had been gentle, and yet it had dripped conviction in the slanted glow of the night light. Especially then.
When he was young, my father was famous in his town for loving a woman who loved to eat the plucked wings of sparrows, raw and whole and still trembling with the smell of the sky. I used to gather whole flocks of birds in my nets, he told me once, his eyes lost somewhere beyond the white curve of the bathroom sink. His words followed the circular movement of his hands as he helped me wash my hair. They flowered in my palms like the softest kind of movement.
What happened to the lady after you left? I asked. At the time, I was twelve and too foolish to understand that there are some parts of a person’s memory that a child should not be allowed to touch. I knew only of the soft parts of my father, unfamiliar with the sharp edges that would emerge when I pressed too hard. Do you know if she’s still eating birds?
My father’s face had twisted then, just slightly, stiffening into something hard and fluid all at once. Maybe, he said. I haven’t seen her in a long, long time.
And that was the last I heard of it. For the rest of that year, and for the rest of the five years after that. Whenever the topics of our conversation drifted anywhere near the subject of this woman, I found my father pulling himself away, as if he was physically unable to speak about something that had mired in his head for so long. And because I was a good daughter, I never pursued it. It was the least I could do, considering all he had given up for my sake.
But often, I thought of that woman. I wondered about how she was doing now, if she was still eating birds, stuffing whole pigeons into her mouth in a bloom of white feathers. I wondered if she ever thought of my father, and if she did, what she remembered of him. I wondered if she remembered the sound of his voice, or the way his hands moved when he spoke. I wondered if she remembers the way he loved her.
It wasn’t until the summer of my freshman year, he brought her up again, an hour before I was supposed to go to swim practice. On the drive there, he had been on the phone, but I had assumed it was with a work colleague, or a family friend from church, and so I had not listened with as much closeness as I should have. Instead, I watched the water as it washed over the windows, tracing each rain drop as they raced down the glass. From outside of the car came the sound of the rain, and I heard the road sloshing beneath the wheels of the car, each left turn splashing muck onto the asphalt.
She’s dead, he had said from the front seat, just after he’d pulled into the parking lot of the YMCA. I turned, confused.
Who’s dead? I asked. What happened?
He turned and looked at me, his face so removed from familiarity that I was struck by the sudden fear that he had gone somewhere far away and I’d never be able to reach him again.
Your mother, he said, and to my great horror, he began crying. He bent over the dashboard, his body stricken with great, wracking sobs. Your mother.
I half-crouched behind him, unsure of what to do, or how to do it. Can I touch him? Would he shatter? I remember myself wondering if his tears implied fragility, or if he was crying despite it. In that moment, I couldn’t read him, but he must have read me. As if in response to my panic, I felt his back straightening beneath my palm, each muscle working to heave him over the gaping mouth of sadness that he must have descended into.
I’m fine, he told me after a moment, waving me off gently. You’ll be late to swim practice, if you don’t hurry.
It didn’t occur to me then that I should be feeling anything for myself, or for the mother I had lost, the one that was now sifted ash beneath yellow earth. My emotions, limited as they were by my age and inexperience, were only enough to contain sorrow for what my father had lost. For what I was to lose, if his sadness was to consume him, just as it had so easily consumed so many others.
According to my father, my mother, my niangqing, was born the sixth daughter of a family with no sons. When my father told me this, his mouth trembled. She was not supposed to be kept, he told me. She was not supposed to have lived.
I had dragged this ounce of truth out of him two weeks after my mother died, when he caught me listening to one of his phone calls with one of my aunts. It was then that I had learned her name for the first time—uttered as it was from a man who had not seen her for more than twelve years. Manqing, he had said, and I had repeated it to myself in the dark, each syllable plucked out as if on a guqin.
I hope Manqing was happy, he said into the receiver of the telephone. If nothing else, at least happy.
Maybe that is too much to ask, my aunt had replied, her voice garbled by distance. Just hope that she is safe.
When he had found me eavesdropping, crouched over the bow of the staircase like a farm rat, I had not been startled, but he had.
Why aren’t you sleeping? he asked, and when I had not responded, his gaze had been knowing, even after his eyes had left the back of my head. Instead of saying anything else, he sighed and lifted me over the railing, settling the two of us onto the couch.
“I heard auntie say mom was a fool,” I told him, trying to gauge the level of unease that was sliding down the planes of his face in flat sheets. “Is mom a fool?”
No, my father had said, after a pause. His voice was whisper-loud, and I felt it skimming the insides of my ears with every word. She wasn’t a fool. She was just too bright for them. Too loud for them to silence.
I had paused then, too.
“Couldn’t you have brought her to America with you?” I asked, and I didn’t realize until after the words had left my mouth, just how long I had been waiting to know this. “Couldn’t you have snuck her over onto the ship in your pocket, like you snuck me over?”
I had asked him this because according to him, I had been small when he had come to America. Small enough to carry, small enough to love without squinting at. Often, he had told me he wished I would stay young, and I had thought this meant that he wished I would stay the size of a small infant, easy to put into his pocket and play with. It wasn’t until I was older until I realized what he had really meant, and by then it was too late to taste anything other than regret.
No, he had replied. Then slowly, he had reached over to turn out the light, leaving the two of us sheltered in a boneless kind of dark. I could not bring her.
Even now, I cannot articulate the sorrow that made a home of his voice when he said this. My father is not whole now, I remember thinking, as the quiet settled over us. There was a quality of entrenchment to his voice—to the way it was too small for his throat, and to the way it slid around his mouth like a rootless thing. And yet up to that point, I had never known my father as anything other than a gentle man, so his sadness, slow-seeping and syrup-sweet as it was, did not catch me by surprise.
“I’m sorry,” I had told him. It was, perhaps, the only honest thing I could have said at that moment.
“I’m sorry, too.” He said this in English, though the words lay flat and motionless on his tongue. It was, perhaps, the only honest thing he could have said.
After I went to college, my father sold the house we had lived in for twenty years, and moved to an apartment complex near the city. When I came home for winter break, I found that he had given away my childhood canary, and that my bedroom had been turned into a home gym.
You’re a big girl now, he told me when I asked him where the bird had gone. You don’t need a canary anymore.
I had looked at him then, really looked at him, and I saw that he had changed. He was thinner, and his hair had gone completely white. There were new lines around his eyes, and his hands, when they weren’t clenched into fists, were trembling.
“Are you sick?” I asked, and I remember the way my voice sounded—too loud in the small room, and yet not loud enough to fill up the sudden, yawning chasm that had opened up between us.
No, he said. I’m not sick. I’m just old.
But I knew he was lying.
A few months after that, he was gone.
I was in class when I got the call from the hospice nurse, telling me that he had passed away in his sleep. I left immediately, and when I got to his apartment, I found that he had been tidied up. His clothes were folded neatly on the bed, and his shoes were lined up against the wall. On the nightstand was a picture of the two of us, taken when I was five and he was still unbroken. I stared at it for a long time, not knowing what to do. Not knowing what questions to ask. Not knowing who would answer.
According to my aunt, who came to visit me after the funeral, my father had loved my mother with all the ferocity of salt to a wound. She had told me this on a late-night walk through our residential area, the two of us striking out flat-footed over the paved sidewalks.
Your mother was a beautiful woman, and I can see her face in yours, she told me. Perhaps it was a rite of passage for her to have said this, because no other person who has ever met my mother has ever described her as beautiful, not even my father. She and your father were married when they were both seventeen, because she was not loved by her family, and he was loved too much.
When she said this, I had marveled at the age the two of them had been assigned in this retelling of their story. Seventeen, the same age I was. In my mind’s eye, I saw the two of them—a younger version of my father, angular and gangling. A lovely, faceless woman, whose mouth was blooming with stray feathers. Too young an age to even begin to understand devotion, and yet the perfect time to learn it as a way of life.
“Were they happy together?” I had asked.
I think she loved him, my aunt told me instead of answering. Her face flowered open at these words, as if she was releasing something she had kept bottled up for years and years. In her own way. Even if she was not willing to come to America with him, she was willing to let him bring you. And doesn’t that mean something?
Doesn’t that mean something? That night, and many nights afterward, I wondered about this to myself. Was there a significance to my mother’s absence? Was the space by my side proof enough that she had cherished me to let me go?
When I couldn’t find an answer, I found myself thinking up versions of their time together. In one retelling, he was the son of a magistrate and she was the daughter of the well-woman, and the two of them met over the still-born water of their county reservoir. In another, the summer heat brings the two of them into a thicket of jasmine flowers, and they are married with white flowers in their hair. Always, I found myself drifting off to sleep on the third try. In it, the two of them are flushed and dressed in red silk. My father is tall and browned and smiling and my mother is not a fool, or a bird, or a handful of ashes. The two of them are smiling at each other. They are always smiling at each other. There is no ocean between them.
Amy Wang is a writer from California. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the New York Times, and Columbia College Chicago, among others. You can find her taking long walks, translating Chinese webnovels, or on Twitter @amyj_wang.