In Shandong, mountains rise like fists from the earth, and pagoda trees blossom, releasing wild fuchsia plumes between the ancient fingers. Beneath the mountains, two rivers melt into a vein pulsing with grass carp, silver bream, and slippery crustaceans. It was there that my laopopo and her friends swam in the summer, opening their eyes beneath the water and counting how many pebbles they could collect from the river bottom before their lungs gasped for air. My laopopo was determined to win—once, she stayed underwater for more than two minutes, sinking to the bottom like an anchor. Her friends called her name, at first exasperated, then concerned, until they saw the jagged ends of her hair beneath. They dragged her semi-conscious body to the shore and struck her back, causing her to vomit an ocean, little wriggling fish caught between her teeth.
In my laopopo’s village the stone houses were sparse and needed to be swept every day, for the western wind blew waves of dust inside. She and her family lived in a large house near the center of the village. They were wealthy compared to their neighbors; her mother’s family had provided her with a large dowry: folds of silk cloth, jade, and land in the northern provinces.
During the day, my laopopo’s mother loved to wear her jade bracelet and fine qipao, embroidered with peonies, and at New Year celebrations, she showed the village women her jewelry, letting the jade glimmer beneath the moonlight. Her bracelet had been passed through her family for generations, the swirls of green recalling the spirits of the women who had worn it before.
My laopopo was too wild, like a ghost spirit, breezing in and out of the house with her dress torn and her ankles muddied. She was ashamed of her mother’s vanity. When her mother gloated to the other villagers, she dragged her friends away, and together they lit strings of firecrackers. She watched the sparks from each bouquet of light fade into darkness and prayed silently that her mother dissipated with them.
Every day, her mother ordered her not to play with her unruly friends, reminding her that she needed to be a respectable woman in order to marry well. She snuck out one night to meet with her friends by the creek. When she came home, her mother slapped her. You never listen to me. Pian ni, ni hao qigui. How will any man want to marry you? Through a veil of angry tears, my laopopo told her mother that she embarrassed her.
At that, her mother’s lips thinned into a line, and she locked my laopopo inside her room until her father came home. That night he struck her with a hollowed bamboo pole. The notched branches carved fierce cuts into her skin that bled when she flexed, and the neighbors next door could hear the dull thud thud thud of the cane and her low animal cries. Her mother and father kept her in the house for the rest of the week, feeding her only rice with bamboo shoots, and had their friends’ sallow son accompany her to and from school every day for months.
Afterwards, she learned to swallow her words. My laopopo beat the dust from the bamboo mats and cared for her younger siblings. She was skilled with her hands and learned to fashion slippers using scraps of leather, which she fit on her siblings’ bare feet. Sometimes her mother watched her work from behind a bamboo screen, and my laopopo turned away, biting the inside of her cheek. Though her fingernails were caked with dirt, her eyes were as clear as mirrors.
When my laopopo turned sixteen, a young man from the city moved to her village. He was handsome: straight-backed and stoic, his features hewn from glossy wood. The new school teacher, the village elders said. The girls whispered about him, flocking around him, giggling when he passed papers back to them.
Although sometimes she too admired the dip of his nose and his flinty eyes, my laopopo tried to ignore him, working hard in class, studying during her breaks, and receiving top scores in his history class. When the rest of the girls left the classroom, the school teacher called her to his desk. You have promise, he said. He asked if she had considered applying to a larger university in the city, or to nursing school. She shook her head. He placed his hand on her shoulder, and a flush radiated from her collarbone, up her neck to her cheeks. Ni hen cong ming. I think you should consider it. He left his hand on her shoulder for a moment, his touch burning through her starched blouse, before he turned back to the blackboard.
My laopopo graduated at sixteen and was ranked the second highest student in her class. After her last day of school, she and her friends, exuberant, returned to the sunlit waters of their childhood at the foot of the mountains. They dove beneath the surface wearing only their underclothes, collecting rocks that scraped their palms.
On the shore, as they were drying themselves, my laopopo’s friends began to giggle, stifling their mouths. My laopopo turned to see what they were staring at. In an alcove near them, she could see a man bathing in the water, his torso and shoulders exposed to the blue wind. She had seen the bodies of young boys before, with baby fat that clung stubbornly to their ribs and legs and a single comma at the center of their stomachs, just like hers. But never a grown man. The muscles and tendons strained beneath his deeply tanned skin. When he turned, she could see his profile—the dip of the nose, the brows that formed two dark dashes over his eyes. It was their school teacher.
One of her friends laughed too loudly, and the school teacher looked toward them. My laopopo saw the surprise in his glance and then the embarrassment, a faint trace of red that heated his cheeks. Her friends quickly scattered, collecting their blankets and scrabbling up the cliffside to the woods, still chittering, but my laopopo watched him, paralyzed.
He nodded to her once and then looked to the shore, where his clothes lay on a slab of rock. She turned away, burning with curiosity, then quickly felt shame at her own inquisitiveness.
When she finally stole a glance at him, he had already finished dressing and was making his way towards her, careful not to slip on the rocks.
“Ni hao,” he said, when he was only a little distance away. He looked much younger with his hair wet, the water glistening on each strand like the dew that dotted the mountain clovers.
“Ning hao, laoshi,” she said, inclining her head. “I’m sorry, I should have left earlier. All of my friends went. I’ll go now, please excuse me—”
“Mei guan xi,” he said. His brow wrinkled with the effort of choosing his words. “I’m sorry you had to see that.” They looked at each other, their faces mirroring each other’s shame. Then, inexplicably, they began to laugh.
They stayed together by the river until nightfall, their feet and fingers numb from the wind. At sunset the shore was rimmed with the same brilliant orange of the koi fish my laopopo read about in stories. By the river, her school teacher told her about his life in Beijing, the motorbikes he rode, the rush of sound in the city. How his father had not wanted him to become a teacher, but he insisted because he loved teaching his younger brother history, loved the intricacies of hundred-year-old maps and the strategy of war.
He showed her how to skip a stone, though she already knew how. After his pebble skipped across the surface three times, she stood and tossed hers. It danced across the water, skimming the river six times before landing with a plunk. He whistled. She laughed. She liked how he looked at her differently afterwards.
Eventually, the darkness swallowed the sun, and they made their way through the forest to the village together, the space between their bodies only a breath.
My laopopo lived the next few months drifting in quiet happiness, spending long days by the river with the school teacher. The following summer, he proposed to her. My laopopo’s mother and father were overjoyed, her friends awed.
She and the school teacher conceived their first child in the waters that she had once nearly drowned in. The petals from the pagoda trees spun around their bodies in slow orbits.
The bullets came in the ’30s. First a staccato, like rain drumming against dried canvas. Then the skies swarmed with buzzing planes. Thunder rumbled in the south. The War had begun.
My laopopo left her childhood home in Shandong for Taiwan with her husband and a single suitcase. She bowed to her father and her mother, shifting her feet in the dust that she spent years sweeping away. Her mother was still just as vain. At village celebrations, she wore her qipao, the peonies unraveling into thin threads, yet over the years, she had softened. She no longer nagged her daughter, and once she married the schoolteacher, she recognized that my laopopo had become the sole responsibility of her husband.
When my laopopo bowed to her mother, her mother whispered, Be well, Xiao Wenying. She pressed a small pouch between her daughter’s clasped hands and looked at her with eyes full of mourning.
When my laopopo finally reached the military compound in Taiwan where she would spend the next two decades of her life, she opened the pouch. Her mother’s jade bracelet fell onto her lap. She slipped the cold green circle over her wrist.
At the beginning of the war, laopopo’s husband, my laogonggong, had been enlisted as a pilot for the Kuomintang. They moved to Taiwan shortly afterwards, and lived together with their four children in military housing, a grim place of bone-wrenching heat and industrial efficiency. Their complex, number 57, was painted a sickly green, though the yard bordering the property was expansive, and bursted with chrysanthemums and osmanthus flowers. Chickens and dogs roamed the roads, scattering when military trucks barreled down the wide paths.
My laopopo and her husband lived in an uneasy stasis for years. When he was at home, my laopopo relished every moment. She cooked scallion pancakes for him, pressed his laundry, and listened to the nightly report on the radio as he slept. But she could not deny that things had shifted, subtly, immutably, around her. Even when laogongong was with her at home, the war seemed to follow him. He forgot to smile, and he tired easily. When he laughed, the sound strained in his throat, twisting into a cough. Once, when she tried to comfort him after he returned from a brutal military expedition, he burst out at her, each word as cutting as a blade. You can never understand the war, and its cost. What it is like to see a man die before your eyes. The door slammed behind him, and she stood for a moment in shock. She swallowed, then began to sweep the floors methodically, asserting control over what she could. My laogongong apologized to her afterwards, cradling her head against his shoulder, but my laopopo could see the weariness in his eyes. At night, after they made love, anxiety festered in her stomach, sour as overripe durian, even with his body warm beside hers. She worried for his life, and she worried that the war would corrode him from the inside, leaving his body battered and empty.
Over time, their first child grew to be a tall, round-cheeked girl, and in the decade or so after, my laopopo gave birth to three more children, each a few years apart. She cared for them when her husband was away, bathing them every evening and hand-crafting tiny leather slippers the same way she had for her siblings. Their chattering and near-constant demands held her attention in the daytime, but when her children were asleep, she curled up in her bed and watched ribbons of moonlight unfurl across her ceiling, thinking about her husband.
Whenever he left for military expeditions, she waited for a sign that he would return. She tilted her head upwards so often, searching for an omen, that her spine began to bend like the stem of an orchid. Once, his plane spiraled out of control, crashing in a scallion field. When he came home, my laopopo cried out when she saw his face, swollen violet. She reached out to hold him, but when her skin touched his, pain flared in his eyes, dark and raw. She stepped back, biting her tongue, and ushered him to a bed, where he could lie down. She washed his wounds and rewrapped his bandages. When she turned away from him, she wiped away her tears. Weakness was unthinkable. She had to be strong for him, and for their family.
Later, the military report said that a farmer had found him amid the wreckage of his plane and hefted his broken body to his farm. He could not recall the incident.
Afterwards, my laopopo began to have nightmares. Every weekend, her husband drove her and their four children to a remote region three hours from the compound, where the children would shimmy up the trees like small monkeys, calling to each other. She and my laogongong usually floated in the water close to shore, but in her dreams, the water thickened to rust, and a numbing sensation spread across her body. When she turned to look at her husband, his body was bloated with water, his face pale as the inside of an oyster shell. Then she realized the rust darkening the river was his blood, leaking from a welt on his forehead.
One day, laogongong left to patrol the eastern border of China. He was due to return in three months. He did not.
The military report later said that a telephone pole had fallen on his military truck as he was driving through the compound. It crushed his skull, splintering his bones like wood. A freak accident.
He was one of our very best, the military general who stood at her front door said. A true tragedy. My laopopo did not hear him. She was drowning, rust clinging to her skin. No nightmare had prepared her for this.
Ever since my laopopo had left Shandong decades before, she had exchanged occasional letters with her mother. They contained mostly prayers and platitudes. Her mother’s handwriting, so thin and elegant before, had grown scratchier with time. Sometimes my laopopo strained to remember her mother’s face, and fear leapt in her stomach when she could not recall its precise features. But she could still hear her mother’s voice clearly, the way it spat out words, cold as river-smoothed stones. Who will marry you? Who will take care of you when you are old? My laopopo imagined her husband’s body, crumpled inside the military truck, folded into steel. Who will love you when I have died?
After my laogonggong’s death, my laopopo sat down at her desk to write to her mother, telling her of the tragedy. The message was brief, terse. There were no words for her grief.
To support her four children, my laopopo became a businesswoman. The military provided her with compensation for her husband’s passing, and she parceled out the money carefully, setting some aside to hire a contractor. In the following year, she oversaw the construction and furnishing of three small housing units in her backyard, which she rented out to soldiers and lone travelers who needed lodging. With a steady source of income, she managed to balance her checkbook, file her taxes, and care for children, only occasionally seeking help from her friends.
Every morning she looked out over her yard, watching her three oldest daughters sling satchels over their shoulders and hurry onto the public bus to school. Her fourth child, her only son, tugged at the hem of her pants as she prepared scallion pancakes for dinner. She cut stalks of scallion into tiny green knots and kneaded them into flour and yeast until the mixture was soft, squelching like mud at the mouth of a river. As she wrung the dough, her jade bracelet slid down to her wrist, shining dully.
Her son continued to clutch her leg with eager eyes until she cleaved open a papaya and scooped out the seeds. He mumbled happily when she gave him a sliver, the gooey innards collecting under his fingernails and in the corners of his mouth. My laopopo examined her son and could see his growing resemblance to his father; they had the same soft, dark mop of hair and probing eyes.
When her older children returned from school in the late afternoon, they played with the dogs in the backyard and scattered chicken feed across the pockmarked land before starting their schoolwork. At dinner time, my laopopo set out five bowls of jasmine rice in a circle, leaving one chair empty next to her. She imagined her husband’s steady presence beside her, his rich, baritone laugh reverberating in the small room. As they ate, my laopopo listened to her children’s chattering and the clinking of chopsticks against porcelain. She no longer turned on the radio; whenever she heard the crackly static of military reports, she smelled rust, cold and metallic, and felt the nightmares she had buried within her crawling to life in her chest.
Every night, after her youngest children had fallen asleep, my laopopo lit sticks of incense and placed them in front of her husband’s shrine in her bedroom. Braids of smoke twined around his portrait, a stern photograph of him in his military uniform, his eyes glinting like dark coins. She set a plate of fresh papaya and mango in front of his shrine, and prayed that he smelled the heavy perfume of ripe fruit and the sweet smoke drifting towards the heavens.
Alone in her bedroom, she allowed herself to weep in the semi-darkness, cloaked in a veil of incense. Her bracelet sat cold and heavy on her wrist. The green of the jade had deepened over time, as if it sensed the weightiness of her thoughts, the grief that clouded her dreams.
Her tears fell down her cheeks, wetting her lap. She wrapped her arms around her stomach, swaying back and forth, until she felt, suddenly, a movement within her body. A gentle nudge inside of her stomach, like a muscle twitching. She placed her palms on her stomach tentatively, and felt the skin ripple beneath her hands. She breathed in sharply.
My laopopo had suspected that she was pregnant—her stomach had begun to swell only a few weeks prior, and her monthly bleeding had ceased. She wiped the tears from her face and met her husband’s solemn gaze in the picture frame. Was this his parting gift to their family—a new life? She felt a great awareness of her body and of the young baby unfurling inside of her. Love for their child swelled within her, warm and tender as sunlight.
She closed her eyes and remembered the first time she had felt this same sense of wholeness, of unfiltered peace. She was only a child then, willful and sharp-tongued—a schoolgirl intent on proving her friends wrong. Pagoda petals swirled over foaming waters and lodged themselves in her hair. The sound of the river sighed around her, swallowing her friends’ calls as it enclosed her in its fist. She remembered the watery sunlight fracturing on her skin, the fish weaving around her arms, the strands of hair floating, ghost-like, around her face. She remembered closing her eyes, listening to heart beating faintly in her ears, slowing to a dull thud until she became another stone at the river bottom, calm and immovable.
FROM HAN: “I am half-Vietnamese and half-Chinese, and though my grandmother and grandfather were born in China, my mother was raised in Taiwan. I have always felt a connection to Taiwan because it was my mother’s first home—I remember visiting the country twice as a child in the summertime and walking around her elementary school and her old apartment. Oftentimes, I ask my mother about her life in Taiwan, and I find that I subconsciously weave fragments of her childhood memories and dreams into my stories and poems. Though I only stayed in Taiwan briefly in the past, I hold onto my heritage by excavating and recording my family’s past.”