"Ay yah." Ma covers her mouth with her other hand. Her large dark eyes show too much white. "She not tell us she coming home. She must be okay. Just a mistake. You call ah-Jim?"
"I tried all the way here but he's not answering. There haven't been any plane crashes or anything, right?"
"Of course not! What you saying!" Ma brushes her forehead three times with her delicate left hand to ward off the evil of the words I just uttered. She stares at me until I lean in so she can do the same to me. We're almost exactly the same height and when I catch sight of our reflections in the store mirror, I'm reminded of how much we look alike—except that I wear thick glasses and can't compare to the photos of Ma in her youth. She had been the loveliest girl in our village in Guangdong. Now in her fifties, her skin is still fine with only a light etching of lines, a silky cream that sets off her warm eyes, and there's something gentle yet wild in her gaze, like a deer in the woods. "You go to their place. See what happening. Use the key, in dry ginger jar at home."
"I have my own key. Sylvie gave it to me before she left. But are you sure, Ma?" I cringe at the thought of entering Sylvie's house without permission. My mind races: What if Jim's there? What's happening to us? What could have happened to Sylvie?
"Sure, sure," she says. "You go now. Quick."
Monday, May 2
I was as ignorant as the frog at the bottom of the well when I let Sylvie return to Holland. How many times must I surrender my daughter to that land of wind and fog and loss? She already spent the first nine years of her life there—and then, one moon ago, when she heard my ma, her grandma, was facing death, she rushed to book her ticket for Amsterdam. Sylvie was but a leaf, withering from homesickness, fluttering downward to return to the roots of its own tree.
I was so busy with Mrs. Hawkins, whose fair skin hid ugly features, that I did not notice when Amy entered the dry cleaners. My poor younger girl, her face stunned with fear, chewing on her chapped lips without realizing. I did not want to reveal my soul-burdens to her, especially since she was wearing her eye lenses for once. Her heart knows enough as it is.
I sat down to sew tighter the button Mrs. Hawkins complained about. I had shown it to Mr. Hawkins when he picked up the shirt and he had said it was not a problem. But he must be more than sixty years old and Mrs. Hawkins closer to forty. He is an old cow eating young grass, and so he must pay the price for his pleasure. As I worked, my mind wandered back to the blackest time in my life. It was more than thirty years ago, when I gave my six-moon-old Sylvie to Grandma to be raised in Holland. The worst thing about it was that I knew what I was doing. I had no excuse.
Pa and I had just moved to the Beautiful Country, and on all sides were the songs of Chu—we were isolated and without help. I already had the big stomach with Sylvie. There was no way to mend the pen after the goats were lost. Neither of us could speak a word of the Brave Language, English. Pa hunched over his bowl of bare rice with no meat or vegetables, only soy sauce, hiding his eyes with his roughened hand as he ate. He still loved me then with the innocence of his green years, and the hollows of his young face filled with guilt rather than accusation when he gazed at me.
We ate bitterness and tried a thousand ways, a hundred plans, but when the tiger ventures from the mountains to the plains, it is bullied by dogs. No one would help us or give us work until, finally, Pa found a job at the fish market in Chinatown. That was but one strand of cow hair among nine cows. How could it be enough? And things would only get worse after I delivered my baby. Many other couples like us sent their little ones back to China to be raised by family. That was their plan before they ever came to the Beautiful Country. But I swore I would never let go of my lovely swallow-girl.
Then Ma's letter arrived. She had moved to Holland with my possessing-money cousin Helena and Helena's husband, Willem, and they had just birthed a baby boy named Lukas. Grandma spoke of the cool air conditions, the ample broadness of their house, how Helena burdened her heart that Lukas would grow large as the only child of the Central Kingdom in their neighborhood. There were too few Chinese in Holland, as Helena herself knew well. That was the reason she'd returned to our village in the Central Kingdom to snatch up the good-to-look-at Willem as her own.
I scanned the letter, jealous that Helena had stolen my ma to care for her son. I would have given anything to have Grandma with me here in this strange and hostile Beautiful Country. But when I looked around the tiny space Pa and I were crammed into, I brought my heart in accord with both emotions and reason. Helena's family possessed money and they could provide for both Grandma and their baby. I made myself eat my discontent. Helena's own parents were too busy with their multipatterned lives to help Helena and Willem with their child. I should be grateful they had offered Grandma a better health situation than she had had in China.