A short story by Hoa Pham
Inside it was warm like greenhouse flowers. Outside it was the end of the world.
He was waiting. Waiting for his mother to come. In his favourite yellow hat with the cosy ear flaps on and wrapped up in his red puffy parka. In his gumboots with buzzy bees.
They had just had open play time when they could do anything they liked. He made a picture for his mother out of autumn leaves. The brown foliage crunched in his hands and littered the paper with broken remains.
Usually mummy was punctual. She would arrive and take her hand in his and give him a kiss on the cheek. She smelt of perfume and newly applied lipstick. Then they would go home and have a hot chocolate while she cooked dinner.
He hoped she would come soon so he could give her his collage of leaves. He had made a giraffe and a horse.
Her powdered face was a fraud, a mask to the outside world. Sometimes she thinks the mask is transparent and people can see straight through to her soul. Only her lover has seen her wake up in the early morning- her husband leaves for work by the time she rises at home.
She did not know what her lover saw in her. She was married and worn down like a river stone. Having borne two children she was plumper than she should be. She was respectable, not the kind to have extra marital affairs. Romance and longing were for other people, not for someone ordinary like her.
Only their shared secrets made her feel alive anymore. Her husband was amiable enough, good looking enough, stable enough. But something was awry with their family set, husband and wife, son and daughter.
Outside was the distant roar of the ocean. Today he could hear the waves. It sounded like the beach had crept right up to their doorstep.
Next to him the other children were waiting too. No one’s parents had arrived yet.
He was looking at the clock.
Soon they were all looking at the clock waiting for their parents to come.
The red digital numbers on the stark black clock told no lies.
Their parents were late.
He found himself thinking of his sister. She had been crying a lot in her room. She did not cry when their parents were home, lately she had been stiff of face. But when neither of them were there and she was supposed to look after him, she would retreat into her room and cry. He would sit in front of her sliding bedroom door and wait for her to come out for a cuddle.
His sister was beautiful, with cherubic short hair. She used to go to her friend’s apartment a lot, but that stopped when the crying began. He missed his sister smiling and talking to him.
He looked back at the closed door to the children’s room. No one’s parents had arrived. That was strange. Sometimes one parent would be late. But all of them?
The children began whispering amongst themselves.
One child began to cry, snuffling softly.
They breathe heavily, and fly at each others’ touch. Her back arcs as she feels the sensation of flying. Her lover’s fingers caress the petals of her inner self. She brushes her hands over her nipples for the fleeting sharp sensation. Then it is her lover’s turn, and they sigh together, moisture mingling. From their union, a pearl is birthed from her throat. Her lover plucks the sweet gem from her mouth with her fingers. Slippery and wet the multi coloured rainbow goes into her mouth and she swallows. They know that if anyone finds out about the gems they birth, they would no longer have the pleasure to themselves.
This is her memory- a reconstruction as she surges forward on her fingers remembering how to feel. Her lover is gone now over the seas, exiled far away from all that is familiar.
I still love you. Even though they have separated us. I will never forget you. Even though they have forced this marriage on me, I have learnt how to separate body and spirit.
Everything is a construction.
Mother! He thinks into the ether, hoping that she can hear him shouting in his mind. Sometimes she does know, the hiccup before he cries out aloud that brings her running into his room. Other times she is deaf to him even when he is in her arms, warm and snug.
Where are all the mummies? Where have they gone?
A child care worker opens the sliding door and is greeted by the silent anticipation of the children sitting in rows cross legged on the floor.
She shakes her head, and now he can see how white she is and the deepest frown on her face close up. Something is wrong.
She wishes she was other than what she is. Tenses turn and twist as she remembers, sometimes she remembers the here and now, other times the past as she recalls it, in the quicksilver light of her teenage years.
When she orgasms she remembers the most. Past lovers flick by like comic book frames, the neon lights of Shinjuku out of a love hotel window, the fleeting kiss of loves that never were.
She would not exchange what she is for something else, she tells herself as she sinks into the hot bath scented with pink ginger. Her skin dissolves when she is in water and the warmth penetrates her core.
When she was younger she and her first love would don costumes on Sundays and join the cosplay parading. She was slim and flat chested and would go as Dragon Girl, a warrior in pigtails that had dragons slithering down her arms. She yearned to fly like Dragon Girl and her lover would go as Dragon Boy. That way business men would not try to proposition them like they did when her lover stayed true to her gender which was the same.
Others cannot forgive that she still holds memories of her first love dearest to her heart.
In Zen Buddhism the circle is emptiness and completeness. In Japanese literature, a mood is captured, a fleeting feeling. It is not so important unlike Western literature, for the hero to conquer all.
She only began to play piano for herself once she was in Australia. There was an old upright piano in the corner of the multipurpose meeting room in the apartment complex. No one could hear her, she did not have to think about what other people thought and felt. The sound bounced on the wooden floor, and the touch was uneven. Clunky though her renditions were, she lost herself in the tangled notes of her memory.
He vanishes inside his mind then.
A photographer taking their pictures, a flash of light over the children sitting in rows like temple statues. Then a red headed white woman speaking a foreign language gives them soft toys.
He balances the brown soft toy kangaroo on his crossed legs. Outside older children are playing.
He remembers thinking – they have not suffered. They do not know anything.
Seriousness was pressed into him that day.
I’m not like them. I cannot be carefree.
She has a younger brother. He is the only reason that she would not wish death on her parents. She had prayed to the old gods, the dragons of earth, water, fire and heaven.
When the dream came true she was terrified by the freedom she felt, falling into empty space.
He had the ever present filial obligation to look after his older beautiful sister. Even though she had abandoned their ancestors and the family shrine.
Now the soft toy kangaroo is worn from where his baby hand had clutched it every night in his foster home. One eye is missing but somehow the kangaroo yields to being squeezed in between his shirts and shoes in his suitcase.
What do you call the hopping mouse with a bag?
Melbourne is the first place she could see the stars in the sky. She is stunned and spends nights lying on her back on the roof of the apartment complex gazing at the Southern Cross and the rabbit in the moon.
During the daytime the sky is electric blue, arcing overhead. The streets are empty. Without the mass of people to hold her in, she feels the boundaries of her self dissipate and fade.
She is the legal guardian of her brother, being over 18. Australians think she is younger than she is, other Asians see the creases at the corner of her eyes and backs of her hands and say she is older. Since her parents died, guilt and responsibility makes her shoulders tense and her hands ache with pain.
Her brother has retreated inside himself. She is cocooned in her own silence and shame. They live in the same apartment and eat the same brand of instant ramen together but are each alone.
His sister taps on the computer keyboard late into the night, early into the morning. Once he surprised her laughing quietly at the screen. She shows animation to the CGI and flat of face to her little brother. Her phone beeps melodic messages constantly.
He studies the international baccalaureate in a school uniform that is slightly too big for him. His English picks up when he is interested in doing so. Their parents legacy had already been earmarked for their education. Without being told, the siblings do what their parents would have wanted.
He watches his sister’s movements. Sometimes she stays at university overnight and doesn’t come home. He fails to say anything. Some nights he watches TV until she returns.
He becomes immersed in anime that he is familiar with in Japanese, that is dubbed into English. He is swallowed up by the characters and is taken by one androgynous lone hero, who sometimes is referred to as a girl, other times a boy. He styles his hair in the same shaggy cut and peroxides blond.
No one is around to say no to them. She starts drinking lychee liquor in cans, imported from Japan. Then moves on to vodka and cordial. Sometimes she leaves empties around for him to finish off when she isn’t looking.
New Years Eve. At home they would go to the shrine for luck and write their wishes on wooden tablets to hang up and blow in the breeze. Last New Years Day she was with her lover. They had bought identical pink outfits at the sales and pretended to be sisters, walking together with linked arms.
At the Inari temple they had posed for snapshots under a giant stone fox statue adorned with the red bib and wrote their dearest wishes for their love in kanji on fox shaped tablets. Ringing the bells for luck they swore to never be parted and never to forget.
This year she remembers as she throws 500 yen coins into the stone dragon fountain for luck. At her home temple she had bought an extravagant gold tablet for the spirits of her parents. This alleviates her guilt, appealing to the same celestial gods to look after them in heaven.
Music was her joy from when she was a toddler. She was taken to a Suzuki method concert when she was three. Little girls in white dresses played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the violin in unison, the youngest being two years old. Her mother asked her which instrument she would like to play and she said piano. There was only one pianist amongst the little girls, and she had always felt she was different from the rest.
Mother learnt alongside her at first, a memory that made her fingers ache in sympathy. Balancing a 500 yen coins on the back of her hands to train her hands flat and straight. Doing five variations of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and listening to the Suzuki repertoire on her mp3 player at night.
Then the recitals began, first in the guise of music camps. Guests to their home were treated to a little night music by Mozart. By then her mother had stopped shadowing her. She was eight when the competition began in earnest. She began to make up her own music, her own variations. Then one evening her mother, cooking in the next room, put down her chopping knife and walked into the room. The music jarred to a stop.
“What are you playing?”
“I’m making up a surprise for the teacher.”
“Don’t ever do that again. If you play that to the teacher how bad will I look? Concentrate on your recital.”
Her mother left her, and so did the desire.
Her duet partner was assigned to her. A solemn girl, taller and four months older. Their mothers met, assessing each other under the teacher’s supervision. The two girls practiced together. The boundaries between them dissolved in the melding of their tunes, and when they won their first eisteddfod.
She rediscovered joy then staying at her duet partner’s house overnight. In this house they were allowed to read past midnight. They exchanged clothing, and secrets.
They played live to a TV studio audience to showcase their teacher. It was broadcast nationally and she was showered with attention for a day.
Their families went on excursions together. Then on one trip the mothers had an argument. Her mother blushed with anger told her they were going home early.
She never saw her duet partner again. She has been looking for her double, her collaborator, her muse ever since.
In his sister’s shadow he bloomed from benign neglect.
Maybe this is why she cannot perform anymore. The last time she drank a can of coffee before she was scheduled to play. She shook and sweated all over the keys. Then she disassociated, the audience dipped out of sight and she was far away, unable to access the joy that was once hers.
Her teacher was unsympathetic. The girl was a hard worker but fell apart under pressure. Soon the lessons ceased all together.
She does not realise that her mother’s lies parallel hers.
He does not realise his destiny is preordained like tram tracks from the stories he emotes.
The stories between the lines and spaces on the pages.