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Four Daughters MAG
There is no wind tonight. Not even a slight breeze. The stiff sheet of tatami clings to my unprotected back; its stray fragments prod against the wetness of my arms. The fan hums sluggishly. Water droplets strike the smooth surface of the shower floor. Pit. Pat-pat. Pit. Pat-pat. My heartbeat pounds with the rhythmic water droplets, creating a metrical waltz. My restless feet drape across the metal ventilation, no longer cool against my searing ankles. The heat liquefies my lungs. I pant.
“I can’t. It’s too hot.”
“Go sleep. You sleep, you will feel cool.”
Silence. My heart thuds with every pant. The fan drones.
“Mama, it’s too hot.”
“Tell me a story.”
“Go to sleep.”
“You owe me a story.” Stillness. “You owe me two stories.”
“Be quiet. Go to sleep.”
“Come on. Tell me about your parents.”
“My parents? You hear before.”
“I tell you about Ah-Tai.”
An unexpected breeze engulfs me.
“Ah-Tai was my grandmother, your great-grandmother. She was tough. Nothing like grandmothers now. She have four daughters. Always want son. Four mistakes. Four bad lucks. The village people laughed at her bad luck. She held her head high. Called it a blessing. No son, but four good daughters.”
I can see her now: her faithful, tired brown eyes, her colorless hair efficiently coiled on her scalp, her coarse hands expertly scouring old pots and pans caked with grease. She holds back her tears. “Four daughters. Think of the good men they will marry,” she reassures herself. She recites a quick prayer: “Give my daughters four healthy sons.”
“Ah-Tai lived to see everything: her second daughter’s death, then her first. It broke her heart, but she swallowed her tears. Second daughter disappeared. Rumor said Japanese attacked the train she was on. Set it on fire. Ah-Tai went to look afterward. Couldn’t find her daughter anywhere. No body. She went back every day for three months. Still no body. She had lost one of her daughters. ‘Bad luck,’ said the village people.”
The breeze picks up now. It pacifies my agitation. My lungs slowly solidify.
“Ah-Tai was 40 when she saw first daughter die. Uterine cancer. She was barely in her twenties. She was in so much pain when she died, she chewed the IV tube in half. When that didn’t cure the pain, she chewed off her tongue. ‘Cursed family,’ said the villagers.”
Her back loses its solidity. She bends with her burdens, though still quite unbowed. She stops caring. The soles of her feet become frozen, thick hide; shoes are no longer a necessity. Her heavy eyes sag, harmonizing with the withering chrysanthemums. She catches her lifeless reflection in the muddy rice patties. She cowers and cries. The village people stare. “Bad family, bad spirit,” they say.
“Third daughter lost hearing after second daughter died. No one knows why. She had high fever in middle of night. Ah-Tai took her to nearest doctor. It was too late. She had lost all hearing. He charged her 500 yuan for waking him up. She walked all the way back home with third daughter. When she got to front steps, she kneel down and kowtowed. She begged the gods to save her last daughter. Let her marry well, let her live. Then she got up and scolded herself for such shameful thing to do. She vowed to save face.”
Perhaps she is a water tiger: born in the year of the tiger, under the element of water. She doesn’t know the exact day or even the accurate year, but judging by the limpness of her underarms and the slackness of her chest, she deems herself a tiger – born around 1902. A cunning tiger with a heart of opaque glass: she weeps for her favorite pig, slaughtered for the week’s dinner. She swears off meat. She learns of herbal remedies, becoming her own doctor. She guarantees her youngest daughter a long, prosperous life because bad things only happen in threes.
“Ah-Tai pass away before your grandmother did. That was her goal. Happiest thing that happen to her. She even saw you before she died. Said good thing you do not look like her. Said it was a bad thing to look like woman with huge troubles. I wanted you to look like her. She got her last wish: perfect daughter, your grandmother. Now you know why we honor the dead. The village people said her luck changed. Her luck was always the same; she just had more faith.”
Outside, the streetlamp flickers. Dust particles steadily drift near me, casting a soothing silhouette. I shiver. The wind speaks, and I listen. The tranquil voice of Ah-Tai’s solitude swathes me. I sleep beneath the serene blanket of admiration.