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Thursday 1 January 2015

Post Tenebras Lux

I hold her hand, transparent parchment, and trace the thin blue veins with my forefinger. The beep beep of monitors behind me go about their business, signaling life in blood, lungs and heart.

I look at her face, a sea of wrinkles, the eyes closed. For how long now? A milky gaze, even when they are open. Everything is slack, the skin, the mouth, the forehead, the chin, even the eyebrows. The neck is leaning to the left.  Should I move her head? Will she notice? Does she care?

I get up. I fluff the pillows. I put her head straight. I do it for me, not for her. I’ve been here a month, visiting every day. 

“Hey, how is she?” The door opens and Barb, my older sister walks in.

I shrug. I look at her, bustling in, with a big bag of food, crossword puzzles, books. Ever the practical one.

I came with nothing and stare at the body that is my mom. I grit my teeth to say, “is.” I am so tempted to say “was.” 

“Where is she?”

“Huh?” Barb turns around after putting the pen on top of the crossword puzzle.

“She’s there. I know she’s there. I just can’t see it. I want to see it!” I sob.

Barb holds me close, rubbing her right hand up and down my back, saying nothing. Like when we were little, sporting pigtails.

I pull away gently and give her a weak smile.

I walk towards the window. It is raining. The drops make rivulets on the pane like tears. Tears I cannot, will not shed. I can still hear my mom saying, “What’s the use of crying?” She was never one to give in to tears. She’d do, do, do instead. I will be a good girl now. Dry-eyed.

I sit by her bed.

Barb says, “It’s ok. Go ahead and cry. She won’t know.”

I shake my head and look at her and we burst out laughing, tears running down our faces.

“We cheated, Mom,” I say and look at her pale, sleeping face on the white pillowcase.

Barb smiles as she wipes the tears from her eyes.

“You remember what she said, about how she wanted it to end?”

“Yes, I can give it to you word for word. She said it so many times, waving the wooden spoon she was baking with or the rag she was dusting the shelves with, or the pen she was holding. How could I forget? She said, ‘We all have a beginning and we all have an end. Is it because we make so much of beginnings - all those baby showers and hugs and congratulations and oohs and aahs-that we no longer know how to make beautiful endings, that we hide the drooling, the incontinence, the vacant stares, the smell of disinfectant?’ She said that about having an end but she never said how she wanted it to end.”

Barb looks down at her hands.

I look up at the blinking machines.

We look at each other. A long time. I see the corners of her mouth lift. It echoes mine.


Published in Kaleidoscope, Writer’s Abroad Anthology 2015 (Oct. 2015)

Soy Milk

It was the last time. He chose a yellow straw, put it in the glass of soy milk. Slowly, leisurely, almost reverently, he took a sip. Another. Yet another. The cool sweet drink caressed his throat. Then there was none.

He got up from the table, took the glass, threw the straw, washed the glass with water and dish-washing liquid, her words echoing in his ear, “Don’t just rinse it. You don’t get rid of germs just with hot water.” How many times had he nodded his head, smiled and just rinsed anyway. Unless she was watching.

She was not. It had been a long time since she was. It had been seven months and three days.

He had come home to an individual-sized tetra pak of soy milk. Under it, a piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook. “I’m sorry.” That was all. He had wrapped the soy milk carton in the note, folding its corners just so, putting one-inch scotch tape in the middle and on both ends, like a carefully wrapped present. He had put it on the top shelf of the fridge. It had been the first thing his eyes saw every time he opened the door. No longer.

He looked at the paper in his hand, the words still black, the folds clear and sharp where they had embraced the box.


Published in Offshoots12 (June 2013)


He takes another drag on the cigarette, a long hard pull, remembering the first time. That oomph that rushed to his head, trickling down light and lovely through every nerve.

It was a simple pleasure stolen in the fields, hidden by stalks of corn, high and dry. After a  hard day’s work, that welcome oomph. He plopped on the ground, put his hat over his eyes, pull on the cigarette and basked in the lazy late afternoon sun.

He listened for the rustle of the stalks that told him she was coming. A fast swish swish. She baked for the family and brought him three cookies every afternoon, still warm, wrapped in a napkin. She sat on the ground, the cookies on her lap while he kept his eyes closed. She took off his hat and put the cookie in front of his nose. He inhaled deeply, opening his mouth. She always gave him three guesses but he only ever needed one.

“Do you know there are 127 ways of roasting chicken? I’m trying one with crushed peanuts and diced oranges tonight. I was mixing the batter for the chocolate chip cookies when Sam saw the picture on the recipe book. He pointed with his chocolaty finger and looked up at me with those big green eyes of his. I couldn’t say No, could I? That little tyke follows me around and with those eyes, red curls and freckles…”

“A lethal combination right?” he chuckled.

She laughed, caressing a red lock and tucking it behind his ear. He’d never heard anyone laugh like her, as though afraid it would be taken from her even before it had begun.

He lit two cigarettes and put one between her lips. Hand in hand, lying on the ground, looking up at the sky. After the last wisp of smoke, he turned to her. All warmth and cookie crumbs in the tendrils of her hair.

One day the rustle of the stalks was slow in coming. She didn’t sit down. He got up. No cookies. She put one hand on his. She put one finger, trembling, on his mouth.

“Don’t ask. Don’t say anything.”

He looked at her, the questions dying on his lips as she shook her head, her eyes red, her cheeks wet. He reached for her, his whole body a prayer. The breath caught in her throat. Then the turn of her right ankle, the frantic swish swish of the stalks and the yellow dress with the little blue flowers was gone.

He never got the oomph back.

He looks at his hand, the wrinkles deep, the brown spots dark. He stares at the cigarette. He brings it to his mouth, the tip burning, the smoke rising, the ashes clinging.



I squint and lean hard against the steering wheel. I draw back and sigh. Snow, snow, snow. Thick and fast.

I love snow cloaking every fir and pine around the chalet, sparkling diamonds in the sun especially when I’m nestled inside with a fire roaring and a good book half-lying, half-sitting in the mamasan, a huge white, round cushion cradled in wicker. I push, stretch and snuggle and the cushion makes a niche for me.

I fell on the chalet in the summer, walking lost in the mountains of St Cergue. A path, trees and there it was. All wood, all geraniums, all Swiss. At the épicerie, five kilometers away, I got the number and booked the chalet for the winter.

The only thing I dragged from Geneva was the mamasan.

I locked up the house, left plants and keys with my spinster neighbor. It felt strange at first, this picking up and going, no longer sitting, watching, waiting.

Tick tock tick tock, my heart had counted each second, each minute, each hour, each day. Staring out the window in the rocking chair, dawn seeing pink, then orange, then fire on the white mountain peaks. Then dusk kissing them red and purple. The same colors on the mountain in the picture on the wall above the bed, above the white head on the pillow. His hair had not been as white as the starched white pillowcase. He had always liked to sleep on starched white things. I could never be bothered. Until then.

He had slept. He had often slept. Up, down, up, down the sheet covering him went and my heart fluttered to its silent beat. One day the sheet above his chest moved no more.

I sat in my rocking chair and stared out into my mountain-of-many-colors. A long time. A very long time.

The day came, the day for turning the house from holding two to one and as closets and drawers emptied, as tears no longer came, one last thing remained. The attic. And there it was. The mamasan where two twentysomethings had spooned themselves into one, its round emptiness waiting to enfold me.

It has been in front of the fireplace of the chalet ever since. Now only three kilometers away, waiting. I squint in the snow, change gears, drive up the steep mountain road. The tires skid on ice, I brake; the car dances and flies.

I struggle to open my eyes. It is dark. It is quiet. I am in my mamasan at last, a mamasan of snow.


Published in Foreign and Far Away, Writer’s Abroad Anthology 2013 (Oct. 2013)

Death and Noodles

The phone rings. My brother’s voice from the other side of the world.

“It’s mom. It’s bad.”

I put down the phone. I stare out the window. The Mont-Blanc glares back at me, stark and cold.

I ask for leave, pay the bills, ask the neighbor to pick up my mail. Three planes and 20 hours to get from where I am to where she is.

“Why French?” I can still hear my mom’s voice, her head over my shoulder as I fill in my college application. “Why not Chinese? You are one, after all.”

 “Precisely, I know enough Chinese. I want to learn something new. And I love the sound of French!”

“You always were different.” A shaking of the head, a shrugging of the shoulders. A giving up of her dream, an acceptance of mine.

I look out at the cotton-candy clouds, the blue sky a perfect foil to their tender puffiness. Nothing tender and everything puffy, everything angry red in my mother’s stomach. The images my brother emailed got stuck on Pause on the DVD of my mind.

I lean my head against the window. I close my eyes. I take a deep breath. Another.

“Hot towel?” A touch of Asian hospitality at the start of a long flight. I reach my hand for the towel. I hold it between thumb and index finger, shake it out, lean back and lay the towel gently over my face. The heat is a welcome sting.

I want to stay under that towel for a long time but soon the stewardess comes to collect them. She gives me the menu. Roast chicken with mashed potatoes or stir-fried beef and vegetables with noodles.

“Always pick the Asian dish. You won’t be disappointed.”

Will I always hear her voice?

I smile. She will laugh when I tell her.

“You who pay me no mind when I am alive, you will hear me from beyond the grave?”

I eat the noodles. “Always serve noodles on birthdays. It means long life.”

I watch a movie, two movies, three movies.