Authors: Jean Kwok
“We are all very worried about Sylvie.” Her English is quite good, though accented. I realize that English is a third language for her, after Chinese and Dutch. She’s left traces of some spicy perfume on me. The scent makes me queasy.
“Your English is v-very good.” With all my stress and nervousness, my stutter has returned.
“We have many tourists as customers. You should learn Chinese, though. Lukas will teach you.” Helena nods at Lukas, confident in his compliance, then checks out my crumpled black shirt and baggy jeans. “You do not look much like your sister.” Strangely, there’s approval in her voice.
Helena waves a hand at Lukas and he reluctantly kisses me three times too, his skin scratchy with stubble. He smells like something wild and smoky. I’ve learned to stay still and let them do the weaving around. Then I do the three kisses thing again with Willem, who handles me gently, like someone precious to him.
Someone calls out, “Hoi, Lukas!” I look up to see a flight attendant emerge from the gate behind us. She’s wearing an unusual uniform and strides toward us. She grabs Lukas and kisses him full on the lips—wow—and I notice the four stripes on the sleeves of her arms, which are wound around his neck. She’s a pilot, not a flight attendant. She’s still kissing him. No three kisses this time. Finally, they say something in Dutch to each other; he smiles and tosses his arm around her in a loose hug.
Helena and Willem look on, not quite frowning but not beaming either. They probably don’t approve of his non-Chinese girlfriend. Lukas gestures to me and the female pilot turns toward me and grins, extending her hand. “So you are the sister of Sylvie. I am Estelle.”
Her handshake is as confident as her gaze. She and Lukas make a striking couple. Her hair is so light it’s almost white and, with her beside him, Lukas is transformed from shaggy wild man into sexy artist, as if she were a light cast upon him, throwing his features into sharp relief. “I just flew back from Nairobi.”
Something falls out of Estelle’s large sloppy handbag onto the floor and Lukas releases her. He retrieves the silky thing and hands it to her. “Careful. What is this?”
“My headscarf. Carry one with me everywhere I go, have to hide my hair in Muslim countries. I never know when I will need it.” She winks at me as she tucks it back into her purse. I can’t imagine a life that would require such a thing in the handbag. Does she mind needing to hide her hair? Or does she accept that it’s her choice to go there? She speaks English almost as well as a native speaker—only it seems to cost her a bit more effort to shape her mouth around the words.
Lukas says to her in a voice that isn’t completely stable, “Sylvie is missing.”
“What?” She goes completely still. “Did you get in a fight?” A fight? My eyes fly to her face. Her brows are furrowed and her jaw clenched. She’s glaring at Lukas, as if blaming him. Why would Lukas and Sylvie fight?
“I will fill you in later.” Lukas shoots her a quelling look.
Estelle clearly wants to question him further but glances at Helena’s frozen face.
I ask, “Do you know her?”
Her voice is now clipped, the earlier effervescence dissipated. “We were kids together, good friends until she went back to the U.S. I was so happy to see her again this past month.” She shoots another pointed look at Lukas.
“We are all from the same village,” Lukas explains to me, avoiding her eyes.
Helena interrupts, “We’d better go now. Willem and I still have to work today and Amy must be tired after her long flight.”
“You have to work? But it is Liberation Day,” says Estelle. I hadn’t realized today was anything special in the Netherlands.
“Holidays are the busiest time for our business,” says Helena, and I realize that’s why she and Willem are dressed so formally, not for me but because they need to run their large Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam.
“I want to talk to you,” says Estelle to Lukas, her voice steely. “Call me as soon as you can.” Then she turns to me with a smile. “Amy, after you recover a bit from your jet lag, why do you not come out for lunch with us? Maybe tomorrow?”
“I-I’d like that,” I say, even though Lukas looks like he’s swallowed something unpleasant. Not only does Estelle seem kind but I want to find out what she knows about Sylvie.
am crammed into the back seat of the car with Lukas, who seems to take up all the available oxygen with his general air of surliness. It’s not just his physical size, although he is big; it’s the feeling of wildness around him, like he’s capable of anything. I eye his huge hands, which he flexes often. But then I study his averted profile more carefully, his raw eyes, and I wonder if I’ve mistaken misery for bad temper.
I turn my attention out the window. We pass fields shrouded so thickly in the early-morning mist that I can’t make out the ground underneath. The fog gathers and drifts, collecting in folds around mysterious objects below its unfathomable surface. The disgruntled sky lies low across the land, its gray clouds restless. I gasp in surprise as a ghost boat sails right across the billowing fields, but then Helena turns in the front passenger seat to say, “It is just on a canal that cuts through the middle. There is water everywhere here.”
I say, “It’s strange f-for me to think that this was Sylvie’s home. It’s a bit spooky.”
“Spooky is no problem for Sylvie.” Lukas’s voice holds real affection, which makes me warm to him for the first time. “She is fearless. She can take anything.”
Helena says in a singsong voice, “Oh, Sylvie can take anything and everything, all right.”
My head swivels back and forth between them. What is she implying? What kind of crazy family is this? I remove my glasses to clean them and, when I put them back on, notice Willem watching me in the rearview mirror. His gaze is both intense and tender. Then he focuses on the road again. It could be that he’s a bit dimwitted. Perhaps Helena chose him because of his good looks and decided to overlook any mental deficiencies. I am beginning to feel sorry for Sylvie that she had to live with this group of people for the first part of her life.
The clouds darken and a slow, steady drizzle drums against the outside of the car. After a long silence, I venture to say, “I thought you lived in Amsterdam?”
Lukas scoffs. “All Americans think everyone here lives in Amsterdam. We’re about half an hour away.”
We approach a small village, with old, well-maintained narrow houses no more than three stories high. It looks like the sort of place Hansel and Gretel would have lived, where children could venture forth and be lured into cottages by witches or eaten by wolves. Many of the houses have flagpoles attached to their facade and fly Dutch flags, which flap heavily in the rain and wind. Although the heater in the car is on, I shiver. A tall church looms in the distance, and then we pass into a slightly more modern part of town, with redbrick houses and slanted roofs.
The wheels of the car bounce against the cobblestones and I try not to throw up. A group of men too old to be seen in the skintight black Lycra that they’re wearing zoom past us on racing bicycles, heads ducked against the driving rain, disappearing into the distance like a flock of misshapen crows.
We drive up to a detached house with a separate cottage that looks like it might have been a garage once. The large two-story house stares blindly into the road, its dark windows bleak underneath the slanted roof. Willem parks under a long carport.
Helena says, “It is probably small by your American standards, right?”
I had not been thinking anything of the sort. I’d been wondering what it must have been like for Sylvie to go from this Grimm fairy-tale existence to being cooped up in our tiny apartment in hectic New York City. “W-why, no—”
She proceeds as if I hadn’t spoken. “We pay a lot of taxes. If you sneeze, you pay a tax. I will open up the house. Lukas, help her with her bags.” She opens the car door and strides off to the main house, head high in defiance of the rain. Gusts of wind assail the car windows as the deluge intensifies, and by unspoken agreement, the three of us huddle a moment in the car, waiting for the downpour to lessen.
“It is not so bad here,” Lukas says. “I was just in Honduras last year, and kids were running barefoot in rags through the buses, trying to sell snacks to the rich tourists instead of going to school. Taxes are good for something. There is even an animal ambulance to free the swans that get frozen in the canals during the winter.”
To my surprise, Willem turns around and speaks for the first time. “Do you remember when you and Sylvie found that blackbird when you were little, Lukas?” His voice is rich and sonorous. Although his English is heavily accented, he speaks slowly and clearly to make up for it. Thus, he is not an imbecile, which leaves creepy and possibly malevolent. “A cat had attacked it. Those two called the animal ambulance late in the evening without telling anyone, and before we knew it, a large white van was stopped in front of our house with all the neighbors staring out their windows.” He shakes his finger playfully at Lukas.
Lukas grins. “Pa, you are just as tenderhearted about animals as Sylvie. Once you found out, you filled its shoebox with so much cooked white rice, we were afraid it wouldn’t be able to breathe anymore. Sylvie had chased the cat away. She was so worried about that bird. ‘It needs its mama, it needs its mama,’ she kept saying. We searched for the nest for hours with no success. I still remember that man in the white suit. He took the blackbird away in a cage and the next day, they called to tell us it was doing fine. It was being raised with a foster bird mother and a group of other baby blackbirds and would be released once it was fully healed. You told Sylvie, ‘Do not worry, it has a new mama now.’”
How many moments like this have I missed? The enormity of the existence my Sylvie had before me yawns at my feet like an abyss. She had another family, these strangers I’m now meeting. For a second, I wish Pa were like Willem, sophisticated and well-spoken, someone who could joke with his children.
“Does she have any pets in the U.S.?” Lukas asks me, not quite meeting my eyes, almost shy.
“She still loves animals,” I say, with more heat than I’d intended. Sylvie’s mine. No matter how many stories they have about animal ambulances, I know her better than anyone. “But she and Jim can’t have any pets because Jim’s allergic to everything.”
At this, Lukas’s face closes up. “That is a pity. It looks a bit lighter outside. I will take your suitcases.”
As I step out I wrap my jacket more closely around me. The storm has turned day into evening. It is freezing for May. The wind feels different here, more penetrating, piercing the thin cocoon of warmth I’d found in the car. We race into the main house. Helena has turned on only a few lights, and it somehow manages to feel even chillier than the bleak weather outside. I stare at the darkened stairwell, which has steep, tiny steps that look like they would only fit half a normal foot. The living room is depressing and tasteless, as if someone flipped through a pile of decorating magazines from different decades and copied the pages at random. The walls are modern in dark gray, clashing with the orange-and-gold marble floor. A brown leather couch dominates the room, forbidding and stern, bracketed by two puritanical armchairs that face off against a traditional Chinese wooden opium table. None of the stiff furniture seems to go together, despite the apparent expense of each individual piece. Willem flips on more of the lights and I catch sight of my reflection against the main window, pale and wrung out, like an old dishcloth.
There are framed photos of Lukas everywhere—very handsome, now that I can see his face without the overgrown stubble. Impish, long-lashed dark eyes, his father’s fine features. Gangly adolescent. Estelle and Lukas, laughing together into the camera, like two teenage models posing for a perfume ad. Lukas, small and skinny, missing a few teeth, wearing swimming trunks and holding up a piece of paper that reads
. A family photo of Helena, Willem, and Lukas in front of the Eiffel Tower. They all squint into the sunlight as if they’ve been blinded. A studio shot of Helena and Willem’s wedding: A young Helena sitting in a cake of a dress and Willem awkwardly poised with his arm around her. A small basket filled with what looks like identical triangular bits of folded paper sits beside a half-assembled paper sculpture of a creature—a coiled cobra, perhaps.
I search for a picture of Sylvie and can’t find anything: only there, a small stubby finger on Lukas’s shoulder; in the background, strands of black hair over a purple jacket; part of a knee, resting next to Lukas’s leg. Sylvie has been deliberately excised, made into nothing more than a fall of hair, a disembodied hand. With painful pity, I think,
Sylvie, was this the home you longed for?
At the far end of the living room, a long hard dining set looks like it’s been bolted to the floor. Helena is bustling around in the open kitchen, where I also find an altar for Grandma. I clasp my hands together and bow low. The incense holder overflows with ash. Finally, something I recognize here.
As I straighten, Helena watches me approvingly. “Let me show you to your room.”
Even with my small feet, I am careful climbing the shallow stairs. My bags have disappeared, which means someone has probably already brought them upstairs, thank goodness. Helena and Willem’s bedroom is on the second floor as well, along with the main bathroom and a little room filled with cabinets and boxes. There’s another room that smells faintly of medicine, an old person’s room. I know instinctively that this must have been Grandma’s. An empty key chain and a few pieces of china are all that remain—a Kuan Yin, serene on her lotus blossom, sits on a small raised altar in the corner. A bracelet of polished wooden temple beads, like the ones Ma wears, lies abandoned next to the bed. Helena pauses by the doorway and I see grief shadow her face. She wraps one arm around herself as if she is cold.