Authors: Frances Hwang
My uncle is not really my uncle, but that’s what I call him. He is distantly related to my father, and they play golf together
on the weekends. He used to be the manager of a bank, but then he quit his job to study feng shui. For a couple hundred dollars,
he will go to your home or your office and tell you if the setting is propitious. He will ask for the date and hour of your
birth and determine how the location will affect your destiny. Each place has a different impact on each person, he says.
A pond or a fountain will be a good influence on someone with wood in them, but it will spell disaster for a person with too
much fire. It is a delicate task. There are important distinctions to be made, and these will affect a lifetime. “I am a powerful
man,”my uncle says, “but it is a burden. I do not ever give my advice lightly.”
Now my uncle tells us a story of his father, who almost died when he visited his aunt on her deathbed. This aunt was a widow
with no children, and when the last breath left her body, her eyes fell directly upon him. My uncle’s father bowed before
her three times and felt immediately as if he had swallowed something cold. He collapsed onto the floor and couldn’t move.
The family called in a fortune-teller, who told them that his illness was the result of a bad interaction with his aunt’s
spirit. The fortune-teller recommended that the aunt be cremated, her ashes buried as soon as possible, and when this was
done, my uncle’s father awoke from his sickness.
“You have to be very careful when you take leave of the dead,”my uncle says. “Better not to show too much grief. Do not bow
before the dead, because it opens you up to their influence.”
I look at my mother and wonder if she is thinking the same thing. She once showed me a picture of my grandmother when she
was a young woman. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s like she’s another person,”I said. Her cheeks were smooth and round, her lips
parted slightly to reveal a glimmer of a tooth. Her mouth had not yet caved in, and she had not formed the habit of lifting
her bottom lip to close the gap. I looked at her small, bright eyes, and when I tilted my head I had a strange feeling of
looking at myself. It was the first time I ever saw my face rising beneath the surface of hers.
Your grandfather thought her illness was psychological, my mother said. The last time he saw her in good health was when she
boarded a train to Wuxi to take care of her mother. Her mother died, and two months later your grandfather went to the station
to pick her up. He could not recognize her when she got off the train. She was completely changed. She had lost more than
forty pounds, and she could no longer keep food in her.
It is difficult for me to imagine my grandmother having a life apart from her illness. Ever since I knew her, she had been
steeped in sickness, her body emanating an odor of mothballs and the bitter herbs that she drank with her tea. Her face was
gaunt and androgynous, thinly bordered by soot gray hair, and her mouth often moved in a circular motion as if she were chewing.
In her later years, she suffered a stroke, and her right hand became a useless claw that she kept near her stomach. When she
tried to speak to my mother, I heard her false teeth shifting around in her mouth as she shaped the words with a thick, rounded
Sometimes, when we were outside, I held her by the arm as she walked so she wouldn’t topple over. In winter, she wore a ratty
coat of dark synthetic fur. At eight years old, I stood at her shoulder, and when she leaned against me I felt how light and
frail she was. I loved her as easily as I loved a doll that is broken, but I never liked how she smelled, sometimes of herbs
and sometimes of baby powder, as if she were trying to cover her sickness. Her tiny eyes pierced me with their secret life.
She had been a math teacher in Nanjing, my mother said. Her gnarled left hand tightened around my wrist with a pressure stronger
When dinner is over, my uncle goes over to his desk and brings out three slivers of rice paper, each one about the size of
a bookmark. “You have all been so good to me,”he says. “I wanted to give you a gift in return.”On each slip of paper, my uncle
has written characters in red ink. At the bottom, there are two lines of inverted
’s that look like teepees or a child’s representation of flying birds. “If you believe in this,”my uncle says, “keep it with
you at all times. One day, when you find yourself in real trouble, you should burn this paper, mixing the ashes in a cup of
water. Drink half the cup and pour what is left into your bath. If you believe in this paper, it will protect you. If you
don’t believe, burn it, for it will harm you.”
I look down at my yellow slip of paper. There is already a smudge on two of the characters. Could it be a drop of my uncle’s
saliva, my own sweat, the water from the edge of my glass? My parents, I know, will hold on to their slips of paper. My mother
already believes in it, I can tell by the way she folds it carefully into her wallet. My father will keep it out of sheer
indifference. Like a true skeptic, he will forget about it entirely by the time he goes home to bed tonight.
As for myself, I don’t want to think too much about it. My uncle is a charismatic, wily man who knows how to play on a person’s
fears. If you don’t believe, burn it, he says. Yet if I burned it, it would be because I was afraid of what it might do. If
I burned it, it would mean that I really believed in its power.
I don’t believe in it. Not really.
Yet I examine it more closely, drawn to it because it holds both a curse and a promise.
ometimes I get a glimpse of what my aunt used to be. Like now, as she snores like a horse at the back of the car. She was
once a sturdy woman. She would talk to me with a slippered foot hanging off the kitchen table. Walking home afterward, I saw
my father’s mouth crease at a funny angle. Your aunt is truly something. Showing us her underwear! And it wasn’t that she
was immodest. She was earthy and obtuse. She was all skin that I couldn’t avoid. When I was a child, I was scared of her painted
eyebrows. They were darker than the rest of her face, arching to an ominous point. She would come into our house, blowing
smoke in the air, and the smell would soak into my hair like perfume.
My mother was not like this. At four years old, I couldn’t describe the difference except by telling her one day in the kitchen
that I thought she was prettier. Don’t tell Auntie, I said. But my mother betrayed me that very evening, speaking in Chinese
because she thought I wouldn’t understand. All the grown-ups burst out laughing, and then my aunt turned to look at me. “So
you think I’m not as pretty?” she said. My fingers trailed along the sofa as I moved away from her. “You think your mom is
prettier than me, hey?” All at once, she lunged, squeezing me tight. When she suctioned my face with kisses, I could feel
the hot steam of her emotion. She was a tyrant in that way, her passions swirled messily together, making me afraid. To love
and to hate was the same, and even the dog was scared of her.
Now my aunt reminds me of a bird. Inside, a clock is ticking. There is a mass of corrupted tissue wedged into her spine. It
is slowly eating at the bone. She reminds me of a bird because of her delicate legs and pointed shoes. She wears a light,
filmy dress, and her hair is newly permed. I have never seen her look so elegant. She smiles, moving carefully. Her body has
no weight, her bones filled with air. I hold her purse. I take her arm. I have crossed over the threshold into quiet rooms
without a pulse. My aunt lets out a breath, lowering herself into a chair. She rolls up her sleeve without seeming to bend
her fingers. When she presents her arm to the nurse, it is as if she is giving away her life. The nurse holds her wrist, and
my aunt closes her eyes. Something is dripping into her veins. It is a long, leisurely infusion. The nurse touches her arm,
and my aunt opens her eyes again. When she looks at me, it’s as if I’m not there. “This disease is playing tricks on me,”
My mother and aunt have sharp tongues inherited from my grandmother. My mother is cool and sardonic, her method precise. Her
words slice my heart into fine strips. Take an anti-depressant, she says when I tell her I am lonely and want to come home.
My aunt, on the other hand, knows nothing whatever about slipping needles under a person’s skin. Her violence is sudden and
elemental and creates its own atmosphere. In their circle of friends, both sisters are known to keep their husbands in line.
There is nothing simple about the life that flourishes in my aunt’s house. Plants struggle into existence with broken spines.
The pots are too small, and the sun staggers in through long vertical windows. My aunt will forget to water her plants for
weeks at a time, and as they sit and burn in the sun, parts of themselves curl, darken, and fall off. Then my aunt will give
them a little water to drink. Somehow the plants thrive, each year assuming more stubborn, fantastical shapes. I sense their
breathing—all that complex, defective life.
My aunt calls me, and I go to her bedroom. She has a separate bedroom because my uncle can’t sleep with her snoring. “But
that doesn’t mean we don’t have sex,” she once told me. She lies on her side in bed in a cream negligee. Her skin is a rough
brown, spotted with freckles. There is a faint, lasting smell of cigarette smoke, which seems to come from the carpet.
“For a second, I thought you were your mother,” my aunt says. “She’s gotten fatter, but she used to have a long, thin neck
like yours. A chicken’s neck, we called it.”
I smile. I don’t tell her that whenever my mother looks in the mirror these days, she complains about how she looks more and
more like my aunt. Her face is wider and heavier, age spots spreading along her cheeks. “She’s afraid of getting old and ugly
like me?” my aunt would say.
My aunt gazes at me for a second. “You haven’t ever been kissed, have you?” I start, and she laughs at me. “You’re just like
your mother, so conservative. I was worried that she would become an old maid, but then she met your father. I felt so sorry
for your father, especially before they were married. Once, when they visited me, I noticed there were scratch marks on his
arm. I asked where they came from, and he flushed, saying he had tried to kiss your mother in the car.” My aunt chuckles.
“Your mother was a real prude! You should have seen those scratches!”
She sighs and asks me for the time. “Dr. Chang is coming. He’s going to make me some secret potion of his.”
I ask her what is in the potion.
“Who knows? Chinese medicine that tastes bad. I’ll ask him to sweeten it with rock sugar. He’s most likely a fake, but I have
nothing to lose.”
I tell her about the acupuncturist that my friend’s mother sees every week. She’s supposed to be some kind of miracle worker,
I say. She feels your pulse and knows what is ailing you.
“Give me her number,” my aunt says. She shifts in bed, resting her face in the palm of her hand. “Do you know what I miss
most of all?”
What? I ask.
“The feeling of hope. Of having a future.”
Yes, I say.
“It’s no good living when you have a death sentence hanging over your head.”
But all of us are hoping, I say. If you only knew how much we are hoping.
“I know,” she says. Her face trembles and she begins to cry.
“Sometimes, it becomes such a burden—other people’s hope.”
I hear the sound of my cousin’s motorized wheelchair as he steers himself along the hallway. He stops in front of the half-open
door. The frame is too narrow for his wheelchair to pass easily through. For a moment, he stares at both of us crying, and
then, without a word, continues along down the hallway.
“Why don’t you take Basil out with Philip?” my aunt says. “Yes, yes,” she urges. “I need to get ready for Dr. Chang.”
Outside, Philip asks me if I can adjust his glasses. They are slipping down his face. I set them higher up on his nose. How’s
that? I say. Yes, thank you, he says. The dog barks, straining under her leash. Okay, Basil, I say, beginning to walk. Dona
Basilia wishes to take a shit, Philip says.
We walk the beagle to the pond that borders the back of a neighbor’s yard. Even in summer, the pond is murky brown with insects
trembling on the surface. My sister and I tried to fish here when we were younger. Philip would sit a little off to the side,
watching. He couldn’t get too close to the water because his wheelchair would get stuck in the mud. I never caught any fish,
though my sister once dragged a turtle to the edge.
I release Basil from her leash, and Philip and I watch her tear around the pond, her mouth stretched into a grin. She runs
around me in circles, asking me to chase her, and when I reach for her coat, she nimbly dodges away. I look at my cousin as
he stares at the pond with heavy eyelids. He is ten years older than I am, with a sensual face, unusually large and sagging.
I have always wondered if his face would be the same if he could walk. The weight in his body is unevenly distributed, all
in the face and stomach, while his legs grow thinner every year. Over time he has become immured within his skin. It is thick
and dull, faintly tinged with blue, his blood circulating slowly in his veins. His arms and legs always feel cold, and if
you pricked him with a needle, he would tell you that he felt pressure but no pain.
As a child, I was devoted to him. I cut up his food and lifted the fork to his mouth. He didn’t seem to mind when I dropped
pieces into his lap, staining his pants. If he wanted to blow his nose, I would fetch a tissue. His feet would fall off the
footrest, and I would grab his ankles, positioning them better. Like this? I’d say. Yes, he said, thank you.
Things are not so easy between us now. He is more silent and withdrawn, and I have somehow developed
personality. I am more selfish, I think. There isn’t the same pleasure in waiting on him as before. And he knows this.
I hook the leash onto Basil’s collar and we head back to my aunt’s house. Both of us laugh over the beagle’s impetuous crawl.
The dog strains with her nose along the ground, and I hold her back to keep myself from flying along the asphalt. My aunt
watches us from the doorstep. She wears a thin robe, her arms crossed over her chest. “That dog is going to live longer than
me,” she says.