Author’s note: Republishing this short story online is probably my worst idea ever, because I hate it. It’s tropey, it’s melodramatic. The ending was intended to be empowering, but it breaks readers’ hearts. Also, it touches upon too many personal experiences and familial secrets. But as much as I hate it, I also love it intensely, because it is my firstborn—the first anything I wrote after decades of creative silence while working in the soulless advertising industry. So after I quit, I wrote again, and “Bound” was born. It won a round in NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge and, later, a $2,500 grant from Table 4 Writers Foundation, and then it found a home in Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerge anthology. From conception to now, maybe 8 years have passed, but I present to you—my ugly child.
Xiwang longed to be like her mother.
She rolled up her threadbare sleeves and scowled. Every summer, her skin turned darker than sap under the Shandong sun—nothing like her mother’s jasmine skin. The aunties joked that Xiwang was trapped under a long shadow.
Alone in their quarters, she tried to fit her long, natural foot into a shoe sewn for her mother’s three-inch lotus feet, careful not to snag the red brocade on her calloused hands. Not even half her foot would fit, now that Xiwang was almost grown.
Ever since her mother’s eyes and ears began to shut, it was Xiwang who guarded the leather travel trunk. It didn’t contain much, but what it had they couldn’t afford to lose. At the bottom lay an old photograph, a fractured jade pendant, banknotes from America, and a marriage certificate. She wondered if the jade brought bad luck, if the fine lines ran straight into her mother’s heart.
The photograph of the young man, she knew by heart. Xiwang held the rectangle under a dying beam of light. Her mother always told her that she was her father’s mirror image. The shape of their nose promised strength and good fortune. Hers as well were his strong lips and forehead. When the footsteps beyond the door grew louder than her thoughts, she gathered herself and restored the treasures to the trunk. This time, though, it wasn’t her mother’s turn, and the mewing in the hall disappeared inside another room.
Xiwang thought herself lucky to have been raised as a boy, to have the freedom to walk where women don’t. She belonged in larch groves and poppy fields, toes bare upon the earth. Being a man, her mother taught her, was the only way for Xiwang to live a life of her own choosing. “Never walk my path,” she said to her daughter too often. “You cannot turn a circle into a straight line.”
But lately, Xiwang wondered what it was like to walk how women walk, wear silks instead of cotton. She wanted to tuck petals in her hair, which certainly wouldn’t be shorn if she could be a girl. But Xiwang didn’t bother to pray. The truth grew unpermitted on her body, and it wouldn’t be long before people used their eyes. The boss had begun to trail her with a sidelong squint, and whenever he was around, Xiwang found someplace else to be.
She had never met her father, but she ate and drank her mother’s stories about him so her boy self knew how to grow. If she had his face, she might as well have his heart and mind. Her mother often beheld her with great love, though it wasn’t Xiwang she saw. In one of their stories, she was just a seed inside her mother when the three of them sailed to America and docked in Niu Yue. The travelers were many-colored, everyone’s skin a different time of day. Xiwang always halted the telling before it ended. The moment America turned her mother away, along with all the other Chinese women, the fairy tale became a fable.
By letter, her father had told of a Chinese man who arrived in San Fan Xi with nothing but purpose. This man scrubbed washrooms and mopped floors and, within a few years, owned the restaurant. So her father worked his way across the country, city to city, one hot kitchen after another. He was dismayed when hatred of the Chinese followed him from the city of New York to the land of San Francisco. At least the bai gui in California didn’t accuse him of dining on rats to his face.
Most of his stories were bursts of sun in their lives. Xiwang knew about chop suey, the popular dish known in China as za sui—leftovers. She never doubted that it was more honorable to feed thousands rather than just two. She was the one who had to care for her mother, as good sons do. While she plowed, swept, and washed to help her mother pay the boss, she sowed her own purpose while her father tried to draw a line from them to America.
Unfortunately, it was three against all else. A few years ago, a great fire overtook her father’s adopted home and blackened the streets. The ground ruptured along a seam, for a time restoring wilderness. Xiwang remembered the heaviness in their shared heart and how, afterward, the letters stopped. Her mother entered long spells of sleep, lying on the bench where she used to sit. When she trembled, Xiwang melted the sap and kept the long pipe clear for her but didn’t smoke it herself. The poppy was for those with nowhere to go.
The sun fell as her mother dreamt. Xiwang gently unwound the bindings around her mother’s feet to wash them in warm water. She imagined that these folded feet were hers and that she, too, was desirable. Oh, how the men would arrive in waves, offering nuggets of gold for a glimpse of Xiwang’s beauty. And how the richest ones would look upon her behind a closed door, where there was a gown and where there wasn’t.
Jolted by a man’s voice, Xiwang turned as the boss threw a bundled package at her feet and then showed her his broad back. Through a slash in the wrapping, she could see money—what he didn’t take.
Her mother traced the postage with her fingernail and swallowed the careful writing word by word. When she began to comprehend, she rose so slowly, like a heron parting with the lake, and hid her misshapen mouth inside the hollow of her hand.
Xiwang rose also, on legs that couldn’t straighten.
“Where is my trunk?” Her mother couldn’t see past the sweet smoke behind her eyes. “Find it. You will need it. And your papers. Here, take them.” The words curled into smoke above their heads. “Do you hear me?”
Xiwang picked up the documents which had fallen from her mother’s lap. “I’m here.”
Her mother’s slap knocked her backward.
“Idiot! You’re thirteen now. If you don’t ever learn to deepen your voice, you’ll be exposed. Do you want to be a woman? Do you want to be left behind? Like me?”
The terror yawning in Xiwang’s belly opened its eyes.
“I can’t go without you,” Xiwang said. “I have to take care of you! There’s only me.”
The whole house grew quiet. Mother and child stayed huddled in the corner while the sun and the moon and the stars shifted in the sky.
The next morning, Xiwang found her mother in the tub, with unseeing eyes open under the water and the sticky residue of opium on her fingers.
* * *
On the ship, Xiwang felt like a seed coming to America again. She wore borrowed robes that were too big, like her lie. She didn’t know where to look, how to be, who she was. On the first night, she slipped into a dream, into the only house she knew, into the smoky room, into the tub. She woke up gasping. For thirty more nights, her mother held her in a watery grip till Xiwang ran out of breath.
The ship docked on a morning when the sea and sky were two grays joined by a thin line. The officials ferried all the Chinese to the immigration building on Angel Island without pausing to push their spectacles back. More men in uniforms pored over every dot and tick on her papers. To Xiwang, angel sounded like an jiao, peaceful foot, and in this prison of people and paper, her feet had a brief memory of grass.
Her documents told the story that she was a boy. The officials conferred with the wary interpreter who asked in a neighboring dialect, “Any moles or scars?” Xiwang shook her head and slouched in case she didn’t bind her chest well enough to change the ending to her story. The boss had given her a sealed letter to show her father, forgiving her mother’s debt, and Xiwang pressed her pocket every so often to make sure it was real. It was more important than the banknotes hot against her skin.
For more days than she could count on fingers and toes, a chain of questions kept her tethered to the island. She lowered her eyes in respect as they asked about her deported mother, her cook father, the trees and rivers and roads in her village. They never once asked why she said she was someone else, but her belly became hard and hurt from fear. Twice, the tired interpreter corrected himself after he called her “little sister,” and Xiwang wondered if a part of him saw through the lie. Not long ago, she would’ve told him that her words told the truth and her body told the lie, but the real lie was how people chose to be one when they could be all, half when they could be whole.
Xiwang wanted the island to be done with her, but it was her turn to be a photograph scrutinized from every angle. In the unaired room, everyone breathed each other’s worries and recognized each other by shape. The Korean women wore a large bow on one side of their dresses, and the Japanese women belted themselves in with layers of cloth. Both reminded her of fat packets of sticky rice and red bean, and the lurch of hunger made her glad to still feel anything at all.
Through days twenty-two and twenty-three, she held her middle as the pain grew with every question. When her bellyache pierced her lower back, she waited till no more eyes were on her in the lavatory and found a reddish streak inside her trousers. Shaking, she ripped a piece of fabric from her clothes and twisted it under her. Xiwang knew that her body was tired of being presented a certain way, tired of being bound by other people’s stories.
When she was called back inside the room, one of the interrogators unpursed his lips to say that her story matched her father’s. Xiwang had passed the test. With a stamped passport as her shield, she left the building and its fetters.
The Chinese were confined to a specific car on the train, and the bun she gnawed on was harder than the wooden seats they sat on. As soon as she stepped onto the platform, she saw a man searching the crowd. She could tell by the dip in his earlobe—her earlobe—that they were the same. Their eyes locked across the stream of people, and she saw how handsome she would be when she became a man. Xiwang tried and failed to yank her silken garb into its original shape. The man studied her face, looking for her mother.
She nodded, her throat locked by a rush of words. It had been a while since she heard the word behind her name. The word she had come from was hope.
Travelers parted around them as he unfolded the boss’s message. Xiwang glimpsed her mother’s name in the letter and noticed for the first time how the characters for Meng Lian resembled faces with shut eyes. Anguish bowed his features as he read and reread the story within.
They said nothing as the streetcar carried them through town, but she devoured fatty pork out of a tin from his pouch. Memorizing the moving city was like memorizing another language. Her father stepped off, and she followed him to a two-story building more orange than the sun.
To her surprise, the door opened before they could touch it. A Chinese woman greeted her father by name and invited them in. Her red smile could slow time—and they were in her house, not his. From the porcelain and glass, it was evident that she did not lack. The perfume of gardenias soothed Xiwang as she sat alone in the parlor and listened to them whisper. Mixed voices and soft laughter fanned out from the floor above, and she pretended she was home again, listening to the aunties be with the men. The woman returned first, her father following in quiet contemplation.
“Your father wants me to ask you a question, but don’t be afraid.” Hanging limp from her thumb and forefinger was the letter Xiwang had carried all the way from Shandong. “Xiwang, are you really a boy?”
A torrent of hammering filtered in from the street, a city lost in repair. As she thought about the question, she noticed the fine layer of dirt dulling the edge of her trousers despite her best efforts to keep them clean, dirt that had buried itself in her lungs, been scrubbed deep into her bones. Why did she let her mother build a city atop a fault? Xiwang found her voice.
“I’m still your child.”
Her father sighed, releasing the last of his hope, and grew smaller as he backed away. An invisible paintbrush deepened the lines on her father’s face.
“What am I going to do with a daughter? A son is a pair of hands. You’re just a stomach.”
It felt as though she and the room were tilting in opposite directions. “But we did this to be with you! I am a boy because of you!”
He nodded slowly, but he wasn’t listening. He only heard the arguments in his head. “Miss Wu will take care of you,” he said. “It’s the only way to pay your mother’s debt.”
Miss Wu grabbed Xiwang’s shoulders and pulled her around. “You made it to America because your mother sacrificed everything. Now it’s up to you.”
The stranger with her face left, the door exhaling between them.
“You don’t need him. In the end, he’s just a man.”
Just a man. Xiwang tried on the foreign sentiment, and the photograph in her mind blurred. Just a man.
Miss Wu led her to a bedroom with the reddest sofa and largest bed she had ever seen.
“How were you planning to grow a mustache?” Miss Wu sighed, almost with envy, as she looked her over. “Look at your clear skin. Your waist.” Her palms found the soft depression above the hook of Xiwang’s hips. Then Miss Wu tucked her short hair behind her ears and lifted her chin. “There. A moon here, a moon there, and soon you’ll need to braid your hair to keep it off the floor. Your beauty is just beginning. Let me find gowns that will fit you. Would you like that?”
“What about my big feet?” Her toes reflexively curled under.
Miss Wu removed her own shoes. “Big feet like these?” After Xiwang got a good look, Miss Wu held a few pairs of shoes against her soles. They were all embroidered like her mother’s but made for long feet.
“I won’t make you stay, but if you do, you’ll be one of my little sisters,” said Miss Wu. For Xiwang, she chose a red pair emblazoned with a fiery bird. “You’ll start earning soon enough, for both of us, and it’ll be more than you can count. I’ll teach you everything I know, but everything you do will be your choice. In my house, we choose our own paths.”
After she left, Xiwang shrugged off her borrowed clothes and eased off the tight loops of cloth that bound her breath. She hugged her body, holding herself and her mother, and every exhale felt like a goodbye. Goodbye to the house with the painted aunties, to the fields of poppies rising toward the sun. Goodbye to her home east of the mountains and the secrets people wove to make it through. Goodbye to her dreaming mother and the loving father who lived in stories. She could let her hair grow. She could wear gowns. She could walk where men walk and do everything they did. And as long as she bled, she would receive visitors and their gifts. One day, she, too, might run a house of sisters, like Miss Wu.
Sliding her arms through the sleeves of an open jade gown, Xiwang reclined on the sofa as she had seen her mother do, one leg long over the side. Closing her eyes, she lifted an imaginary pipe to her lips.
© 2016 Karen Yin. All rights reserved.