A CHINESE GREAT GRANDMOTHER,
b. 188x, d. 190x
dongping village, shandong province, china
The matchmaker lines up lunar birthdates, inspects the girl for strange marks or the presence of illness. The girl is good. “There is a family,” the matchmaker says, and so it is arranged. When the girl is thirteen, maybe fourteen or fifteen, she leaves her home in the village and goes to his. She is presented simply. This is ––– from the house of –––. The ceremony is brief. Stand here. Kowtow. Repeat. The boy is eight, maybe nine. It is her duty to help with chores and serve his parents, to look after him, her future husband, her young charge. They play hopping chicken or knucklebones, catch crickets in cupped hands and house them in small boxes, coax them to sing. The girl thinks, marriage isn’t difficult. This work is not so hard. She cannot see her short future. She cannot imagine what lies ahead, her splintered self, her sacrifice.
The house has fallen asleep. Beyond the slash of wood that serves as a window, she sees stars. The Five Emperors and the Great Bear. The Herdsman and the Weaver. She drags a finger across the heavens. Her father taught her these constellations but did not say they would follow her to this house. The same stars in the same sky even though everything is different now—the smell of the air, the taste of the dirt. With each swallow of water, she loses her voice. With each beating, she forgets who she is. Was. When the house fills with the scent of bitter iron, blood sticky between her legs, she bows her head, ready for the blow.
A cord of wood, a pen, her knees digging into soft mud. Black hair pulled tight at the nape, lily feet bleeding. Fat pigs press against the wooden slats—a sign of prosperity. Her husband is just a boy, she is just a girl. Months later, when the baby slips from her body, she will wonder, is it over? The question comes too late. She should have run when the pigs called out her hiding spot. She should have fought before the family dragged her back.
The dead do not seem much different from the living. See the ancestors lined up in rows, entombed forever, sticks of incense calling them back to the village. She could join them, cast her watchful eye without the trouble of a body. There are ways to bring about a passing—hanging, drowning, poison. She thinks of her son, her only allegiance, and hesitates. My precious boy, my little prince. She sews the strips of cloth back into a dress, avoids the river, seals the latch of the opium box. Her son has established her value, but still the family does not see her, their eyes passing through her like wind rushing down from the mountain. In the end, death comes unbidden—no one remembers how or when or where. She fades, a quiet turn of one season into the next, until no one—not even her son—remembers her name.
Everyone felt bad when she died—the aunties said it was a shame. Great-grandmother could have been treated better. Maybe she would have lived longer, it’s hard to say. A photograph of the second wife, the replacement: plain. Short hair. Traditional navy dress, frogs buttoned to the neck. She has a name, a birthdate, memories shared. She still had bound feet. She was quiet, but liked to tell jokes. These things are known: a favorite food, what she looked like when she laughed, the clothes she wore, how she died, where she is buried. But for great-grandmother, hers is an unbaptized silence. Her small history is revealed a century after the fact, told in passing by her granddaughter to her Chinese-American great-granddaughter, who wonders if such an outlandish story can be true, dismissing it as a bedtime fable, a rumor, a ruse.
Darien Hsu Gee’s work has appeared in various literary journals and has been shortlisted as a finalist for the Tupelo Quarterly Open Prose Prize. Her fiction has been published by Penguin Random House and she is the author of an award-winning craft book on writing memoir. This story was chosen as the runner-up in this year’s Ryan R. Gibbs Flash Fiction contest judged by Colin Winnette. Find more information about the contest here.