Authors: Jean Kwok
Sylvie’s rich, at least compared to me, but she’s not so wealthy that she can shoulder that burden without feeling it. She and her husband, Jim, are even more weighed down with student debt than I am, and Jim doesn’t make much money as a guidance counselor at a public school in Brooklyn. Even though he’s from old money, Jim’s parents believe that kids should make it on their own, so he won’t see a cent of his wealth until they pass on. That is, except for the ridiculous present they gave him when he married Sylvie. As for me, instead of helping Ma and Pa, who have already spent so many years working their fingers to the bone, I’m living in their apartment and eating their food. I temp here and there but despite my ability to type really fast, the only true skill I have, work has been scarce. It’s the economy, I tell everyone, but of course I know better. It’s me. Sylvie tells me I’m not fulfilling my potential and I tell her to shut up and leave me alone.
Inside the shop, I head for the classical section and begin to relax as soon as I hear the lustrous and velvety voice of Anna Netrebko floating from the loudspeakers. She’s singing Verdi. Neat racks of CDs sit beside rows of musical scores and bin after bin of vinyl records. Old guitars and violins line the walls. I love the way it smells of paper, lacquer, and lemon detergent. Zach, the cute guy, is working again. At least, I believe he’s attractive. It’s hard to be sure without my glasses, which I wouldn’t be caught dead in around him. To me, the lines of his face and body are appealing, and I love his voice—warm, rich, and clear. He always sounds like he’s smiling at me.
“Hey, Amy. What would you like to listen to this week?”
I try to express friendliness with my face but think I’ve wound up contorting my features into something extremely awkward. “D-do you have any suggestions?”
He’s only supposed to allow paying customers to sample the music but never seems to mind my lingering visits. “Well, how about some Joseph Szigeti?”
In my enthusiasm, I forget to be shy. “I just read an article about his version of the Prokofiev Concerto no. 1 in D.”
“It’s phenomenal,” he says, pulling out a CD. “He’s proof that technical perfection isn’t everything.”
But as we walk over to the listening station together, my phone rings.
“I’m so sorry,” I mumble. “I have to take this call.” I duck my head and leave the store. I manage to answer my cell in time and the moment I hear Lukas’s voice, I know something is wrong.
he line is full of static, probably due to the transatlantic call. I cover my other ear with my hand to try to hear him more clearly.
“Amy, I must speak to Sylvie right away,” Lukas says. His voice is strained with urgency and his Dutch accent is heavier than I’d expected.
I wrinkle my brow. “But she’s in the Netherlands right now, with you.”
He breathes in so sharply I can hear it over the phone. “What? No, she is not. She flew back on Saturday. She should have arrived by now. Have you not heard from her?”
“W-we didn’t even know she was coming home. I just spoke with her after Grandma’s funeral. When was that? Thursday, right? I thought she’d stay awhile longer. She also mentioned her project there wasn’t finished yet.”
“Sylvie is not answering her phone. I want very to speak with her.”
Precise, responsible Sylvie would have let us know right away if she were back. She would have come to see Ma and tell her about Grandma. My heart starts to throb like a wound underneath my skin.
There must be some simple explanation. I try to sound reassuring. “Don’t worry, I’ll find out what’s going on.”
“Yes, please see what the situation is. When you find her, ask her to call me, okay? Immediately.” There is a painful pause. “I hope she is all right.”
quickly put on my glasses and hurry to the dry cleaners where Ma works. The faint smell of steam and chemicals engulfs me as I push open the door. I find Ma standing behind the long counter, talking in her broken English to a well-dressed woman with sleek, honey-blond hair.
“We were quite horrified to find one of the buttons loose after we picked this up,” the customer says, pushing a man’s pin-striped shirt toward Ma.
“So sorry.” Ma’s small face looks wan and pale against her black clothing, her eyes puffy from crying. “I fix.”
The woman taps a manicured nail against the countertop. Her tone is both irritated and condescending, as if she’s speaking to a child who has misbehaved. “It’s not really the quality we expect, especially after your prices went up.”
“So sorry,” Ma repeats.
I glare at the woman’s bony back. I want to tell her that the owner hiked up the prices. Ma had nothing to do with it. She’s never even gotten a raise in the long years she’s worked here—standing on her feet all day, lifting heavy bundles of clothing, steaming, ironing, and mending. But I keep my mouth shut. I wait until the customer finishes berating Ma and leaves.
A smile lights up Ma’s face, despite her grief, when she sees me. Even though I can understand some Chinese, I never learned to speak it well, so Ma always talks to me in English. “Amy, why you here?”
I had resolved not to worry her but find myself grabbing her wrist, crumpling her thin polyester blouse. “Cousin Lukas just called. He says Sylvie flew home this past weekend, but she’s not picking up her phone.”
“Ay yah.” Ma covers her mouth with her other hand. Her large dark eyes show too much white. “She not tell us she coming home. She must be okay. Just a mistake. You call ah-Jim?”
“I tried all the way here but he’s not answering. There haven’t been any plane crashes or anything, right?”
“Of course not! What you saying!” Ma brushes her forehead three times with her delicate left hand to ward off the evil of the words I just uttered. She stares at me until I lean in so she can do the same to me. We’re almost exactly the same height and when I catch sight of our reflections in the store mirror, I’m reminded of how much we look alike—except that I wear thick glasses and can’t compare to the photos of Ma in her youth. She had been the loveliest girl in our village in Guangdong. Now in her fifties, her skin is still fine with only a light etching of lines, a silky cream that sets off her warm eyes, and there’s something gentle yet wild in her gaze, like a deer in the woods. “You go to their place. See what happening. Use the key, in dry ginger jar at home.”
“I have my own key. Sylvie gave it to me before she left. But are you sure, Ma?” I cringe at the thought of entering Sylvie’s house without permission. My mind races: What if Jim’s there? What’s happening to us? What could have happened to Sylvie?
“Sure, sure,” she says. “You go now. Quick.”
Monday, May 2
was as ignorant as the frog at the bottom of the well when I let Sylvie return to Holland. How many times must I surrender my daughter to that land of wind and fog and loss? She already spent the first nine years of her life there—and then, one moon ago, when she heard my ma, her grandma, was facing death, she rushed to book her ticket for Amsterdam. Sylvie was but a leaf, withering from homesickness, fluttering downward to return to the roots of its own tree.
I was so busy with Mrs. Hawkins, whose fair skin hid ugly features, that I did not notice when Amy entered the dry cleaners. My poor younger girl, her face stunned with fear, chewing on her chapped lips without realizing. I did not want to reveal my soul-burdens to her, especially since she was wearing her eye lenses for once. Her heart knows enough as it is.
I sat down to sew tighter the button Mrs. Hawkins complained about. I had shown it to Mr. Hawkins when he picked up the shirt and he had said it was not a problem. But he must be more than sixty years old and Mrs. Hawkins closer to forty. He is an old cow eating young grass, and so he must pay the price for his pleasure. As I worked, my mind wandered back to the blackest time in my life. It was more than thirty years ago, when I gave my six-moon-old Sylvie to Grandma to be raised in Holland. The worst thing about it was that I knew what I was doing. I had no excuse.
Pa and I had just moved to the Beautiful Country, and on all sides were the songs of Chu—we were isolated and without help. I already had the big stomach with Sylvie. There was no way to mend the pen after the goats were lost. Neither of us could speak a word of the Brave Language, English. Pa hunched over his bowl of bare rice with no meat or vegetables, only soy sauce, hiding his eyes with his roughened hand as he ate. He still loved me then with the innocence of his green years, and the hollows of his young face filled with guilt rather than accusation when he gazed at me.
We ate bitterness and tried a thousand ways, a hundred plans, but when the tiger ventures from the mountains to the plains, it is bullied by dogs. No one would help us or give us work until, finally, Pa found a job at the fish market in Chinatown. That was but one strand of cow hair among nine cows. How could it be enough? And things would only get worse after I delivered my baby. Many other couples like us sent their little ones back to China to be raised by family. That was their plan before they ever came to the Beautiful Country. But I swore I would never let go of my lovely swallow-girl.
Then Ma’s letter arrived. She had moved to Holland with my possessing-money cousin Helena and Helena’s husband, Willem, and they had just birthed a baby boy named Lukas. Grandma spoke of the cool air conditions, the ample broadness of their house, how Helena burdened her heart that Lukas would grow large as the only child of the Central Kingdom in their neighborhood. There were too few Chinese in Holland, as Helena herself knew well. That was the reason she’d returned to our village in the Central Kingdom to snatch up the good-to-look-at Willem as her own.
I scanned the letter, jealous that Helena had stolen my ma to care for her son. I would have given anything to have Grandma with me here in this strange and hostile Beautiful Country. But when I looked around the tiny space Pa and I were crammed into, I brought my heart in accord with both emotions and reason. Helena’s family possessed money and they could provide for both Grandma and their baby. I made myself eat my discontent. Helena’s own parents were too busy with their multipatterned lives to help Helena and Willem with their child. I should be grateful they had offered Grandma a better health situation than she had had in China.
I read on and realized Helena was putting forward more than that.
My heart stem,
if you were to entrust your most precious fruit to me, perhaps it might alleviate some of your burden. It is at the asking of your cousin Helena that I write this. She and Willem would care for your child like their own cub until you are able to care for her yourself. Or come to Holland simply to see your old ma and accept the gifts only a mother can pass on to her child.
I puffed air. Helena’s flowery words and cunning language did not deceive me. She did not like me very much. From one fact, I could infer three. Her offer was to her own advantage, of course. She did not need to worry about my taking Grandma away, her babysitter and serving woman, and she would gain a play companion for her son. To be fair, Helena was asking for another mouth to feed, a body to clothe, and for that I was grateful. She would even pay for my flying machine ticket. But I would only bring my child to her as a last resort.
Then Sylvie was born. Sally, I named her in English. That is still what is written on her birth certificate. But in the language of the Central Kingdom, she has always been my Snow Jasmine, Sul-Li. It was the Holland people who did not recognize the name Sally, the Holland people who renamed her. She left me as Sally and returned as Sylvie.
She was so dainty, a small people-loving bird, clutching my finger as if it were a branch, Pa’s great hands caressing her cheek, which was as flushed and tender as a peach. We had exhausted our meager savings by then. Earlier, no one wanted to hire a big-stomached woman who did not speak the Brave Language, and now, no one would allow me to come to work with a baby. What path would the fates have chosen for us, my Snow Jasmine, if only I had kept you here with me?
In that blistering New York summer, Sylvie wept sobs, and the little wind stirrer in that narrow room, stuffed with me, Pa, and her, offered no relief. I did odd jobs—bits of sewing, stringing fake pearls into bracelets—to earn more money. I washed her pee cloths in the bathing vat. Pa started a second job, standing tables at a meal hall until deep into the night. It ground us down until, in the eighth moon, the white ghost took my purse bundle.
I had gone into Chinatown with the hope of finding a job in a bread-baking shop. They had taken one look at Sylvie strapped to my back with a piece of cloth and sent me out the door again. With low breath and no strength, I was the last off the underground train at our stop in Queens. I was half running, trying to catch up to the other passengers, when the white ghost cut them from my view. He had eyes as blue and flinty as the blind old beggar of our village in the Central Kingdom. With one hand he grabbed my purse strap and with the other he shoved my shoulder so hard I stumbled and fell to the ground.
Desperate, I twisted to avoid landing on Sylvie. A flash of agony burned its way up my arm, footsteps running away. The white ghost wailed over his shoulder, “Fokkin’ Chinee!” That much of the Brave Language I already knew. I lay there, stunned, with my cheek bleeding against the concrete, glad to hear Sylvie weeping on my back, glad she had survived to cry. What if he had grabbed the straps of the baby carrier cloth along with my purse? What if I had landed on top of her? What if we had fallen onto the train tracks?