“A Single Red Feather” by Jacqueline Guidry

09 February 2018 on Fiction   Tags: , ,

Lee pulled up her shade. Workers in bright orange vests scurried around the plane, their movements impressively purposeful, though she had no idea what they were doing. She’d never flown much and never from Newark, but most flights to Beijing originated in Jersey, not New York.

Her bag, with everything she might need, sat on the aisle seat next to her. She’d been among the first in line for general boarding and now watched as others got situated for the hours ahead. Strangers might’ve thought her eager to start the trip, but she’d only been following a co-worker’s advice: request a window and board as soon as possible. Those center seats looked as uninviting as her colleague had warned. Hours locked next to a single stranger was bad enough, but to be locked in the middle of a long row, repeating “excuse me” every time she needed the bathroom or a stretch, would’ve been much worse.

Ma had also been full of directives for this voyage. “Keep money in your bra,” she’d said as they shared noodles at her favorite restaurant. “Girl alone.” She clicked a thumbnail along the underside of the table in disapproval but didn’t suggest the trip was unnecessary or recommend an alternative. “Sleep on the plane?” She clicked faster, emphasizing what a mistake that would be.

Lee passed her tongue along the inside of her lower lip, a reminder not to say she was too old, much closer to 40 than 30, to be ordered around like a child. Still young, her mother insisted, a claim Lee expected to hear until Ma left this world to join Father and all their ancestors in the next. “Why don’t you come with me?” She isolated a pea with chopsticks and lifted it to her mouth. No cousin was finding fault with how she ate.

“Me? No. No, no, no.” The refusals, stalwart soldiers of protest, marched across their table. Ma and her sister claimed no relatives still in China, no one left to visit. Her dead husband’s relations? What did those people mean to her? Nothing.

Lee had issued the invitation because it was expected, but the refusals were a relief.  Travel time would’ve only handed her mother uninterrupted opportunity to dissect the many ways Lee had disappointed. A job managing insurance at a dental office that provided discounted treatments but nothing more? A marriage dissolved in less time than most couples took to get acquainted? The son-in-law Ma had once flattered as progenitor of many children to come? Escaped to Wyoming and living on a ranch with a cowgirl, the two of them the ones who might one day welcome those many children. Children? Her brother got that right, proving Lee’s childless state was her responsibility. No blame on Ma for that business. A shame David’s wives, the first a Beijing girl Ma didn’t like and the second an Oklahoma City girl she liked even less, only produced daughters, but four of them, enough to show she’d raised her children in the proper manner.

There was a break in passengers streaming aboard, but this plane wasn’t taking off with so many empty seats. Airlines didn’t earn massive profits with mistakes like that.

*

Lee had been certain there’d been a mistake, that the aunties had intended the hand-painted porcelain bowl and chopsticks for her, the red feather for David. Wouldn’t she be six on her next birthday? Wasn’t David the one who’d turned two the week the box arrived? Why did he need chopsticks when fingers were still his favorite utensils? As for the bowl? Much too fragile for his clumsy hands. But the gifts had traveled a long way, crossed an ocean wrapped in many layers of protective tissue, so when their mother distributed the presents according to attached labels, there was no arguing.

Her father’s assurances that the feather carried promises of happiness didn’t lessen her envious glances. With little brother’s permission, she traced the bowl’s delicate petals of lavender peeking among the dark green intertwining vines.

She was in the habit of doing the same with their globe, a miniature world that rested on a thin-legged black metal stand in a corner of the living room. A New Year’s gift from Ma’s sister. Very expensive, Ma said. Those aunties in Hunan Province? No more generous than the auntie on Ma’s side.

Lee was careful when she stood in front of the globe to pass a finger from the circle marking the aunties’ home in China to the one marking her home here. Father had shown her the route as soon as he’d set the globe on its stand and had used a special pen to draw those small circles. By now, her finger had traveled across water and land so often, she’d memorized the space in between and didn’t need Father’s reminders, though they were a permanent fixture, tiny islands only her family understood.

One day, she and her mother and father and David were retracing the path taken by the gifts and visiting the Hunan aunties. That’s when she’d ask whether the feather had been meant for David. Didn’t he need as many happiness guarantees as her? Wasn’t she the one who knew how to care for precious gifts that might crack if dropped? If the aunties looked at each other in confusion, Lee would be put in mind of Ma’s frequent remarks about how strange her Mandarin sounded, as if the air she’d breathed since birth constricted her throat. Lee would have to be strong, not let those thoughts drive away the many questions she’d stored. In the hugeness of China, a country holding so many people, Ma said, no one had ever counted them all, disjointed words from Lee would crowd the air, already more crowded than it needed to be. She’d have to ration herself, ask only the most important questions. And what were those? With luck, she’d know by the time she arrived.

“When are we going?” she asked after the arrival of every box. The aunties were generous, even if they sometimes made mistakes.

“When I say,” her mother said. Her father said nothing but wore the wistful expression Lee thought of as his “going back to China” look.

She’d be a great help to the aunties, standing with them as her father had once stood, watching them steam dumplings to sell to strangers heading to work or school, maybe to Changsha, the metropolis closest to their village, grown past being a village but unable to stop seeing itself that way. This last, according to Ma. Lee wasn’t certain what job she’d get, only that she’d have one. Everyone in China worked, her parents agreed. Hard work all the time for everyone but the youngest children, adored more than was good for them. That last, also according to her mother. When Lee pressed about whether she was young enough to be adored, her mother pushed her away but not hard enough to send her to the ground. “Always the ask, ask, ask girl,” Ma said, no answer at all.

Her father’s job had been to entreat customers to buy the dumplings. Whenever his sisters had an especially profitable day, every dumpling sold, they praised little brother, declared him responsible for their good fortune. Lee liked listening to him tell this story even if it was often followed by her mother saying a boy with older sisters was always spoiled, forcing his wife to waste valuable time training him past those indulgent years. The criticism applied to other brothers, not David. Why not? Another question best not to ask until they reached China.

With her strange words, Lee couldn’t imagine herself replacing her father, who’d charmed customers into buying two or three dumplings when they’d meant to get just the one. Instead, maybe the aunties would share the secret of the steaming, a job she thought she’d like, especially on cold days. Vapor rising from the pot, bathing her face with the smells of a place so old and so new, nothing could ever seem the same again.

She wasn’t certain whether Ma had ever met the aunties. Sometimes when Father spoke of his sisters, her mother filled in details and he nodded agreement. Other times, she listened to his stories as spellbound as Lee and David. Some days, it was, “That auntie, she crazy,” and then a story to illustrate exactly how crazy. Other days, if Lee asked whether she resembled an auntie in this way or that, her mother cried out, insulted. “How I’m supposed to know this woman? How I’m supposed to say you like her, you not like her? How?” Lee shrank away then, knew better than to insist.

As for her mother’s days in China, Lee knew almost nothing despite cautiously doling out questions over time. She tried to piece together details, but her imaginings made no sense. Unlike her father, a silent man whose tongue often loosened when Changsha was the subject, Ma’s comments about Xian were limited to complaints about gawking tourists. “See pictures,” she offered as more than adequate substitute for personal acquaintance with a terra cotta warrior.

*

Later, the aunties had sent Lee chopsticks of her own and a bowl too, hers with bluebells instead of lavenders. David never received a feather, though she was certain her allotment of happiness didn’t exceed his, was smaller most days. What did her brother need with a red feather sweeping happiness his way?

The plane was filling rapidly and still the seat next to hers remained vacant. She was ready to credit the red feather, tucked inside the satchel at her feet, for this happy turn when a squat woman, neon pink cloth bags hanging from each shoulder, stopped, squinted at the seat number, at her boarding pass, at the seat number again. Lee snatched her bag to her lap and pivoted towards the window, just the sort of avoidance tactic she would’ve ridiculed her mother for pulling.

One bag and then the second landed on that once promising space. At least Lee hadn’t unpacked, was spared having to apologize for further intrusion into territory belonging to someone else. She fixed on a smile before turning back to the aisle.

“That won’t fit under the seat.” The lady frowned at the bag on Lee’s lap. “Not with what you already have under there.” She had a faint Mandarin accent, looked older than Lee but younger than Ma. Tufts of hair stuck out on the left side of her head. On the right, the hair was clipped close to the scalp, not quite crew cut style. The back swung in a pageboy just above her collar. Weird intentionally or weird accidentally? Which bode better for the long hours ahead?

Regardless, Ma wouldn’t approve and, knowing this, Lee took extra measures to keep a friendly face.

“It won’t fit, I tell you.” She was still frowning. “Get what you want and I’ll throw the bag up here with mine.” She gestured impatiently at the storage bin as if Lee were otherwise too dumb to catch her meaning.

She rummaged quickly, grabbed a book, a couple of magazines, a collection of KenKen puzzles and another of Sudoku, peanut butter crackers. What else might she need?

Her seatmate’s face cleared, mesmerized by every object extracted from the bag. She didn’t speak until Lee stopped pulling out items. “They can’t serve anything with peanuts on planes. Not any more.”

She looked down at the two packets on her lap.

“Allergies.”

She stuffed the offending crackers in the seat space between her and the window.

“Some people say they can tell when peanuts were on a table, even when the table was scrubbed with pure ammonia.” She reached for the bag Lee had latched shut. “School cafeterias have special tables where the peanut allergy children sit.” She hoisted first Lee’s bag and then her own into the overhead compartment with loud grunts.

A couple of passengers turned to stare and Lee felt an urge to explain she and this woman weren’t related. To Western eyes, she knew, they looked as if they must be kin of some sort. Sisters? Mother and daughter? Aunt and niece? Lee wasn’t responsible, in any way, for this woman’s odd behavior. Hardly information she could announce out loud.

*

Before she’d started school, every day brought responsibilities her mother assigned. Watch little brother; keep him away from trouble. Pluck garlic cloves from the heads. Nip off the roots of pencil-thin mushrooms. Stir mixtures of ingredients with a chopstick, careful not to splash.

Even as she ordered Lee from task to task, Ma kept to her own duties. Boil water for the vegetables she’d serve at the evening meal. Cut out a skirt pattern for Lee. Scrub a floor. Smash a meal for David, slow to get his chewing teeth. All the while, she lamented her fate. The white noise of those complaints swam through the household’s activities. How did she manage to feed her family given the poor quality of food at the local grocery where she was forced to shop because she had no car and, even if she’d had one, had no license? If only she’d married a man who earned enough to keep his family in the city, closer to her sister—not too close because that would’ve been another burden and don’t get her started on her sister’s business. But no, she had to marry a spoiled baby, the spoiling his sisters’ doing. And now? Those sisters claimed little brother wasn’t generous enough, had forgotten all they’d done for him. Did they want his family to sleep on the street, his children to go hungry? “Did they?” she asked Lee, never sure if today’s answer was yes or no and happy when she guessed right.

If Lee didn’t have a job, she was allowed Sesame Street and a few other shows. Soon her American words sounded like Big Bird’s rather than Ma’s or even Father’s. Other times, she sat at the kitchen table filling pages of the latest coloring book from her father. When she was too attentive to the picture and stopped listening, Ma gave her a shove, jiggling an arm and forcing a crayon to stray outside the lined border. Lee didn’t protest, knew she was meant to keep her ears tuned to her mother.

Father always asked whether she had a picture for him when he arrived from work where he added and subtracted impossibly long strings of numbers. She was proud of him and his easy way with figures. Some days, his boss had him checking other workers’ sums because when Father said the final answer was such-and-such, that’s what it was. No doubt. On those days when he reported being asked to review others’ figures, Ma heaped extra rice on his plate. Though she never said out loud that for today she was pleased he was her husband, he knew and so did Lee and so would David when he grew old enough to understand the silent messages of their household.

A man who identified every mistake, no matter how many numbers he saw in a day, wasn’t missing a stray smudge. On those days, he studied the garden or the field of wildflowers, the kinds of scenes they both preferred, seconds longer than was his habit, eyes drawn to the exact spot where her hand had slipped and given the purple tulip an unnatural bulge at the tip of its once pointed crown. An eye tic, easy to miss if you didn’t know when to look, announced his disappointment. “Nice,” he still said on those evenings, same as on every other evening.

She understood the word didn’t mean the same as when he was handed a picture with no defect his careful eyes detected. Some days, she wished he varied his appraisals, either lavished greater praise when her colorings were unblemished or withheld even that “nice” when they weren’t.

*

Later, when she was past the coloring-book stage, she’d wondered why she’d ever wished for less praise. She should’ve been grateful for his attempt to spare her when her gifts were inadequate instead of resentful that he gave nothing more for her best work.

Her traveling companion shoved the smaller of her bags under the seat with another grunt, this one earning condescending smiles from several passengers in the middle row.

At least she knew enough to get an aisle seat, wasn’t cramped in a narrow space where you had to keep both elbows to yourself. Think about that before you laugh, none of you polite enough to cover your mouth. Lee wasn’t sure why she mounted this silent defense. If she’d been a distant observer, wouldn’t she have joined them eagerly?

“I don’t believe it.” She was settled now, belt buckled.

“Pardon?”

“The peanuts. I don’t believe anybody could tell a peanut had been on a table after it was washed with ammonia.”

“Ammonia’s strong.”

“Kills everything.” A pause. “Peaches.”

“What’s that?” Hadn’t they been discussing peanuts? The abrupt change would’ve been more disconcerting if not for all those conversations with Ma where similar twists appeared. Poor selection of greens at the market, then a leap to her sister’s pleasure over a daughter’s great catch of a husband. Number two granddaughter’s triumph in the spelling bee, then Ma’s certainty that Mrs. Han, hostess at her favorite restaurant, was cutting two ungrateful sons out of her will.

“My name. Peaches. Well, not my real name but what most people call me.”

“That’s your name, then. Right? What people call you—doesn’t that have to be your name?”

Another grunt, this one higher pitched than the others. Suspicion crowded her face until Lee gave her own name, the only one she had. No one had ever summoned her with a name like Peaches. She’d never been Buttercup or Sweet Pea, Lotus or Petunia. Nothing like that in her family’s lexicon.

“So what do you believe? What do you think about that peanuts business?” She made it sound like the newest economic scandal, another scoundrel discovered with arms buried in the till.

She weighed her response, searching for the inoffensive. Fourteen hours was a long time to spend next to an irritated woman and she was confident Peaches would find numerous ways to express that irritation. Lee glanced out the window. No one close by. Departure must be imminent.

“Don’t look out the window,” Ma had warned when she heard the advice Lee was following. “People look out a plane. Hours and hours, they look. First thing they do in China? Find a roof and jump.” When Lee looked skeptical, Ma dug a finger into her shoulder. “It’s true what I’m telling you. I know the stories. All true.” After awhile, she’d conceded not everyone jumped; a few brave resisted the compulsion. Who knew whether Lee would be one of those? Better to avoid the windows.

She wasn’t supposed to be alone the first time she set foot on Chinese soil. That had never been what she’d pictured. Now she toed her sole companion, the embroidered case Ma had created for the ashes with nary a complaint about arthritic fingers, this a duty she was required to perform for her husband with no fussing. It was Lee’s idea to add the feather and Ma had fretted over that for days. Never dress the dead in red or they’ll become ghosts, drifting lost forever. Red was the color for happiness, not mourning. But wasn’t red the color of the plaque set outside the home seven days after a death? And didn’t that prevent the soul from getting lost? Wasn’t her husband returning to the place he’d left decades earlier and might not his soul be in special need of guidance? No GPS in the afterlife. The issue was finally settled when she and her sister tucked bits of yellow and white paper around the feather to protect against dangerous spirits.

Ma and her sister had been 28, 29 when they arrived in New York and began aiming their complaints, for the most part, at their new country, ignoring the old. How could either of them remember every step a proper Chinese woman followed? But once a matter was decided, uncertainty was not part of the sisters’ vocabulary.

Father had died within a day of his doctor’s prediction. She’d handed the diagnosis, pancreatic cancer, and her estimate of his remaining time to the family during the same visit. Father had admired her straightforward way with disease. So many days and no more. How could a number man disregard this most important of numbers?

Before the cremation and services, Ma and Lee had cleaned the body with a thin paste of water and talcum powder, swabbing gently across every inch of him as if he might flinch at the first harsh touch. She’d never seen her father naked and the smallness of him was unexpected. The thin rails of leg bones, always hidden by pants before now, seemed too insubstantial to support the man he’d once been.

Ma insisted her husband wanted his ashes divided, though neither Lee nor David had ever heard him express this wish. Part of him was returning to the waiting ancestors, but Ma also had plans for the rest of him. She dug a hole to bury some of the ashes next to her brother-in-law, all of him resting in a single grave, not portioned here and there like a vagrant unable to decide where he belonged. Now, she and her sister could share Tomb Sweeping Day and, after the cleaning was done, enjoy whatever cold foods they’d prepared for themselves and the husbands. She buried more handfuls in a flowerbed of asters at the entrance to the office building where he’d worked. It was a Sunday, the office closed, she said when Lee suggested this might contain a criminal element. Closed, so no crime. There’d been no arguing Ma out of the illogic of her conclusion. She was grateful for the money his employer gave her and dismissive of Lee’s explanation that the life insurance check had nothing to do with how much the company valued her husband, everything to do with the premiums they’d kept current.

All those places Father supposedly directed his ashes distributed, yet none reserved for his children. Had the direction been communicated then ignored? Were there no directions at all, the scheme originating with Ma alone? Whatever the explanation, why not a thimbleful for Lee, another for David, one for each granddaughter? Were all of them less important to the life Father had lived than an office building, a brother-in-law he’d never liked, a cadre of dead relatives, many of whom he’d never met? Had Lee received a share of ashes, she would’ve purchased a locket to store her portion, worn that on a chain around her neck, a reminder of what she’d meant to her father, he to her.

David, unbothered, excused Ma’s every whim. Grief, he said, as if that explained all. Lee could pinch ashes for herself, he’d suggested. Not without permission, she told him. “Permission granted,” he’d said as if it were his to give.

Ma wasn’t a newbie just off the boat, so why did she cling fiercely to the ways of her youth when her husband died? Was she capitulating to the inevitable power of childhood? Did that mean Lee would one day find herself piling rice on the plate of someone she loved? If she’d mounded some on her husband’s plate, would they still be married, the cowgirl and the ranch relegated to someone else’s world? Then again, maybe anyone who received outsized servings from Lee wouldn’t know what to make of it, wouldn’t understand each extra grain harbored love and admiration. How could she explain that equation without sounding like Ma’s foolish daughter?

“Well?” Peaches gave Lee’s elbow a poke. Even Ma would’ve hesitated at jabbing a stranger.

Lee had pondered for too long, the hesitation itself bordering on the wrong answer. She turned away from the window and back to Peaches. “I believe allergies can be really bad.”

She waved a hand, brushed away the pesky explanation having nothing to do with those ubiquitous peanut claims.

“But even with extreme allergies,” Lee said, “ammonia should erase every trace.”

She nodded enthusiastically. This was more like it, the deference she was owed as Lee’s elder.

“Some children might exaggerate their reactions, get more attention that way.” She thought of David’s daughters with their exotic ailments, rashes appearing mysteriously, slight temperature elevations equally inexplicable, churning intestines that sounded as if the child had swallowed a small engine. Ma blamed all this on her granddaughters having no brother to distract them from their self-absorption. Lee should be grateful for the brother Ma had given her, she said, taking full credit for producing a son.

“That’s it,” Peaches said. “Exaggeration.”

The easy agreement was more liberal than any her mother would’ve offered. She turned to the window again, choosing, for the time being, to ignore Ma’s directive.

*

It had been easy for Ma to choose Lee’s clothes for the first day of kindergarten. Hadn’t she finished hemming the ankle-length silk dress just the night before? The fabric felt cool and sleek when Lee rubbed it between two fingers as they walked the six blocks to kindergarten. Her backpack held three sharpened pencils, a spiral notebook with Big Bird on the cover, and the red feather. That last was her secret. She didn’t understand exactly how the feather dispensed its happiness quota but expected to need help, especially this first day.

She’d spend mornings in a classroom now, Ma returning to walk her home after dismissal. She was to pay careful attention, obey her teacher’s every word and in that way bring honor to her family. The direction about obedience, issued independently from both parents, was not to be forgotten.

The first activity of the morning was forming a circle, sitting in place until it was your turn to stand, say your name, and share three facts about your family. Lee heard little of what her classmates said, focused as she was on what she should reveal.

What were the right three things? Your family does that? My family the same. That was the reaction she wanted. At her turn, she stood as others had before, said her name, one hand smoothing her dress. But when a girl gave a sharp yip and another did the same, she lowered her flushed face and sat. Did she want to share later, teacher wanted to know. Lee kept her chin tucked, which teacher took for a yes, though the three facts she’d chosen had flown out of her head and might never return.

Mid-morning, teacher led them outside for recess. Lee’s partner, Abby, had round blue eyes giving her a perpetually startled look. Her sleeveless top was nearly the same shade as those eyes. Where did a girl find shirts mirroring her eyes? The two of them seemed to have nothing in common and yet teacher had matched them. Why? Lee also didn’t see any explanation for the other pairings, mainly girls with girls, boys with boys, and she wondered about those too.

As instructed, the partners held hands to march down a long hall, passing classrooms on either side. Words and occasional numbers tumbled from those rooms, but they were impossible to string together into any sensible pattern. None of the kindergartners spoke, not even the rowdiest of them. They were to be quiet, teacher had said, not disturb scholars at their work. Lee liked the new word. Was she also a scholar now?

They stepped into sunshine brighter than when she and Ma and David walked to a park or store, much brighter than their apartment where the three of them spent much of the day. The school playground sported a sand pit, a set of monkey bars, and three tire swings, all of this surrounded by well-tended grass. Ma, who fussed over every bare dirt patch at their local park, would be pleased.

Teacher explained they were to be good citizens here, just like in the classroom, not step past the grass, though they could play wherever else they wanted. When they heard this—here she rang the bell she’d carried from their room—they were to line up, same partners. “Now, skedaddle,” she said. Another new word but less appealing than scholar.

Students raced past Lee and Abby to grab a swing, climb the monkey bars, or squat in the sand. Abby headed towards the grass, just past the third swing, and Lee followed. Teacher’s directions hadn’t suggested partners couldn’t leave each other, but there seemed no point in separating. “Why is your dress so long?” Abby asked. Was she one of the yippers?

“Ma made it.” Had she absorbed her mother’s gift for replying to questions with words that made no effort to tell a person what she wanted to know? Until that moment, she’d never suspected such a possibility and now didn’t know whether to be unnerved or cheered.

“My mom doesn’t have a sewing machine.”

She wasn’t sure what to make of this. Was Abby’s family too poor to afford a machine? Was her mother too stupid to use one? Was her family so rich, they wore only store bought outfits despite the inferiority of such clothing, no matter how expensive?

“She wouldn’t make me wear a long dress to school.”

“I wanted to.” She hoped her friend, the term stolen from teacher’s constant use of the word, didn’t smell the lie.

“Now you can’t hang from the monkey bars.” She made that sound like the most tempting of playthings.

“I don’t like monkey bars.” Another lie. Two in such a short time. Had school transformed her so quickly?

They reached the edge of the grass. One more step and they’d be on the forbidden sidewalk leading to a building they weren’t invited to enter.  “I didn’t think there’d be so many rules,” Abby said.

“I did.” Surely a classroom required more rules than a family.

“You did?”

Was that an undertone of respect for her superior knowledge? She decided it was. Maybe she’d report Abby’s admiration and maybe that night Ma would pile extra rice on her plate.

“Our teacher doesn’t need all her rules.”

Of course she did. If school lost its rules, didn’t that mean others might also vanish? And without rules, how would a person choose from all the possibilities thrown at her? Stand close enough to breathe another person’s air or take a few steps back? Look for chopsticks or make do with a fork? Push your way through a crowd or wait your turn to see what attracted the gathering? Wear a silk dress or a shirt that matched your eyes? On and on, never ending.

After recess, Lee kept expecting teacher to demand recitation of her family facts, but that never happened. She bowed her head towards the feather, still in her backpack, for its good work. Wasn’t she happier for not having been made to speak? Then again, would she have to talk tomorrow or the day after or next week? If never, might her classmates resent her being the only one allowed to keep family separate from school? Tomorrow she’d leave the feather at home, not sure it was any better at making sense of school than she was.

As Ma walked her home, Lee reported on the morning, ending with the reminder Abby had repeated as they left the classroom at the end of their day. “I’m not supposed to wear long dresses at school.” She buried a hand in her skirt pocket, readying for a clip on the head. Instead, after lunch, her mother hemmed a dress, shortening it in the style Lee recommended. In the throes of her amazement at being obeyed in this way, she forgot to mention her new friend’s ignorance about rules and her own superiority. No need to mention the moment of disgrace when she’d stood empty-minded facing a circle of classmates.

That night, as she lay in bed in the dark room she shared with her already-sleeping brother, Lee remembered about the rules. Could she mention this tomorrow? No, she decided just before sleep took her. Mentioning her superiority on the second day would be taken as untoward bragging, undeserving of a single extra grain.

*

Later, she’d come to understand her parents gave as much warning of the difficulties she’d encounter as they possessed. Blaming them for what they didn’t know made no sense. But for a long time, she’d insisted on her suspicion that they’d intentionally withheld vital information, her resentment a tight ball in her chest.

Take-off was smoother than she’d anticipated. If anything, the plane’s size eased it off the ground without the runway hiccupping of smaller, more reluctant craft. Had Ma realized how easy it was to set sail for China, she might’ve changed her mind and joined Lee. The trip’s just begun, Ma would’ve reminded, if she were here.

“They’re too pampered is what I think,” Peaches said.

“Pardon?”

“The children. The ones with allergies and the others too. Nearly all of them.”

Where were those royal peacocks, their every desire satisfied? Even in China, only the very young were petted and spoiled.

“You have children?”

“Nieces,” she said, as if her brother’s daughters excused her childless state.

“Smart cookie,” Peaches said. “All that work. Never stops.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “Your ma’s not pleased. Mine, the same.” She glanced around, on guard for eavesdroppers. “She hounded me, called whenever she heard someone in her forties, fifties, one sixty, had a baby. Ma, I told her, I’m not changing diapers on a baby and on you at the same time. That shut her up.”

“It would,” Lee said.

“She hasn’t given up on adoption, but when she bugs me too much, all I say is the one word. Diapers. That shuts her down.”

“I can see why.”

“Use the idea, if you want.” She smiled at her generosity. “You have years to go before your ma gives it up.”

“Thanks.” She didn’t specify whether the gratitude was for the diapers or the acknowledgement of her remaining youth, though the latter, for true Chinese women, would’ve been more insult than praise.

Every time Ma returned from weeklong visits with her sister, she reported that, once again, most residents in New York’s Chinatown had proven to be less than fully Chinese. They might speak fluent Mandarin or Cantonese and manipulate their chopsticks as adeptly as any native, but that didn’t make them true Chinese. Lee puzzled over the meaning of this assessment surely intended to include her and David. Chinese but not true Chinese. When Lee asked what she had to do to be true Chinese, Ma cackled and gave her a shoulder push as if Lee had told the funniest of jokes. If she needled for a more satisfactory answer, Ma’s face tightened and she said nothing. She wasn’t required to share this with a daughter, always begging for more, never satisfied with all she’d been given.

“Anyways,” Peaches said, “you can change your mind. Decide not to break your mother’s heart.”

“I’m divorced.” The red feather she’d kept in a narrow vase on the mantle throughout her marriage hadn’t guarded against that.

Peaches slapped the air with an outstretched palm, much as Ma would’ve done. Recently, Lee had taken to dismissing the necessity for a husband and apparently Peaches felt the same.

Ma’s sister knew someone who knew someone whose cousin had used artificial insemination and the resulting child, closely inspected, displayed no abnormalities thus far. Her sister was keeping a careful eye on this baby and reporting to Ma regularly. With each week of continuing normality, Ma was as encouraged as if the child had been her own grandson. So far, Lee had limited herself to comments about that family being relieved; they took a risk and had yet to pay a price. Good for them, if their luck held. Like Peaches and her diapers, that brought Ma’s recitation to a standstill. Lee didn’t expect the approach to work indefinitely, knew Ma was marshaling arguments, but when those started spilling she’d counter with her own set of objections. The first: Who can guide a child when she hasn’t figured out her own proper path?

The plane had reached cruising altitude and now attendants pushed carts with drinks and packets of pretzels and cookies. Lee took coffee, declined the rest. Peaches took extra pretzels and cookies and two cans of tomato juice. After the attendant rolled his cart down the aisle, she wedged the booty into her bag, then pulled out a jar of cold cream and a mirror she placed on her tray. “Whatever they offer, take,” she ordered. “By the time we land, you’ll have enough to get through a full day or two.” While she spoke, she plastered cream across her face.

Several bathrooms were available throughout the cabin, so why perform this very private ritual in this very public place? Then Lee noticed another woman in the middle section also applying cream and a lady on an aisle seat pinning her hair in curlers. Was this considered appropriate airborne behavior between Newark and Beijing? Were passengers discarding normal inhibitions, indifferent to the witnesses surrounding them?

Lee corralled a sudden impulse to make sure her father’s cremains were still confined in their vessel. Where else would they be? And yet, how she wanted to sift through those ashes, coarser than expected because Father had clung stubbornly to the shape he’d held in this life. How she yearned for the feel of the red feather teasing her palm with its elusive promise of happiness, the desire to touch it nearly overwhelming.

“If you don’t want something, give it to me.” Peaches' pink lips and dark eyes were the only color left in her face. She might’ve been a white-masked performer in one of the traditional operas Ma enjoyed. Peaches, unadorned, hadn’t seemed like either the innocent heroine or the sinister villain of those extravaganzas, but with her disguise she could’ve turned into anyone at all. “If you need face cream, let me know.” She lowered a flattened palm towards the satchel at Lee’s feet. “Too fancy for make-up.”

“No make-up in there,” she confirmed.

Peaches grunted twice and Lee wasn’t certain what those were intended to convey. Then the masked face bobbed up and down.

Lee took this as approval. “I’ve never been to China,” she confided, expansive in that sudden air of acceptance. “I don’t imagine I’ll return after this.”

“You never know.” She pulled out a moistened, disposable cloth and swabbed the right side of her face.

“I’m bringing my father home.” She bent to run fingertips alongside the travel satchel Ma had meticulously prepared for her husband’s journey back to the only place where a Chinese man was truly Chinese.

Peaches stopped wiping, her color now evenly divided between white on the left and natural on the right. She’d become a drama mask and maybe that explained why she seemed to be looking at Lee differently. But no, there was more. “Ahh,” she said and brushed the black band Lee had rolled to her wrist as soon as she’d left David and Ma in the terminal. She’d meant to remove it altogether but had been distracted, first by security, then by an urge to guard her cargo from other travellers swarming around her, and finally by Peaches. The band, worn at Ma’s insistence, was unnecessary even in China. Father had been dead much longer than a hundred days, but Ma had been certain the waiting auntie would appreciate the gesture. “I thought,” Peaches whispered, “but wasn’t sure.”

Was that respect or sympathy and which did she deserve? Wasn’t she a dutiful daughter who’d paid the funeral expenses, as tradition demanded, and kept silent when Ma crowned David the new head of the family? Wasn’t she stepping into the unknown to accompany her father to his village? If Ma were here, would she serve Lee extra rice or say that performing your duty doesn’t earn a grain of recognition? What did Lee deserve? Respect for accepting her obligations or contempt for taking on burdens others should’ve shared?

His last sister waited to add her baby brother’s ashes to those of their dead sisters and ancestors, all of the family in this world and the next eager for a wandering son’s return. Although bedraggled with age, the single red feather curved inside the satchel and around the box containing Father’s remaining ashes, still declared the indisputable. Despite his many years away, Father had always been a Changsha boy who knew exactly where he belonged, exactly where true happiness lay.

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Jacqueline’s work appeared most recently in Carve Magazine, Compose Journal, Cumberland River Review, China Grove, and Still Point Arts Quarterly. Another story is forthcoming in The South Carolina Review. She has received five Pushcart nominations. Her novel, The Year the Colored Sisters Came to Town, was selected for the Pen/Faulkner Writers in Schools program and was the community read in Kansas City, Missouri and Windsor, Connecticut. Jennifer Lyons, her agent, is marketing her second novel, a study of war’s impact on the family, friends, and acquaintances of a soldier severely injured in Afghanistan. Keep up with Jacqueline at www.jacquelinemguidry.com.

Studio, Late Afternoon, 30 x 24, oil on panel. Amy Brnger has lived with her family and worked as an artist in Portsmouth, NH since 1987. She received her undergraduate degree in Studio Art from the University of New Hampshire in 1986 and also received degrees in counseling and education from UNH and Plymouth State University. Amy creates images reflecting the natural world, especially gardens, landscapes and flowers. She is represented by a number of galleries in New England, received support from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and was awarded two Elizabeth Greenshields grants for paintings. When not making art, she teaches painting classes and designs cards, prints, and calendars.  To see her work, go to http://www.amybrnger.com;  Amy Brnger Art and Paperworks on Facebook; and Amy Brnger Art Cards on Etsy.com.

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