“Dearest Qin:” I put that down on the first line of the letter. And then I didn’t know how to continue it.
“Sorry for your loss?”
“That was terrible?”
“Please let me know if there is anything I can do?”
They all sounded imbecile, but then what could I write about?
The hissing of the water kettle on the stove startled me. I got up to pour the boiling water into the tea pot. Waiting for the tea to brew, I looked at the envelope she sent and fumbled with it. The Japanese stamp on the upper right corner of the envelope had a woman in a kimono. It’s a rectangular envelope with light blue borders. Oh, yes, the envelope with the blue borders, I could start writing about that. I sat down and picked up my pen.
“The envelope you sent me looked so familiar when I retrieved it from the mailbox. I remembered the envelope with blue borders was for a special occasion, but I couldn’t recall what the occasion was. Living in the United States for nearly forty years, I can no longer recount the different customs in Taiwan or Japan. I opened the envelope, and it was your handwriting, telling me your husband, Nori san, had passed away. And then: it was like a quick and short staccato, like a sudden flourish of lighting that illuminated the darkness. I remembered: the envelopes with blue borders are for funeral announcements.
“We have lived almost a lifetime; a lifetime of joy, of sorrow; and of everything in between. You are at this point burdened with a pain that I doubt anyone can console. But you have been toughened by age and are capable of handling difficult times by now. I think you are very fortunate that Nori passed away in his sleep. I understand it was shocking for you to wake up next to him and realize he was never going to wake up again. But with his age, and his heart condition, his passing must have been in the speculation of your subconscious mind for some time.”
I put down my pen and sipped my tea, It was scorching hot, the way I liked it. Our childhood years at the triplex played in my mind like a film. Qin’s father was my father’s younger brother, yet he had gotten married earlier than my father. Qin was three years my elder. We all lived together in the triplex with a courtyard in the middle. The three houses framed three sides of the courtyard. Grandmother had the big main residence facing the entrance, the two flanking houses lodged her two sons’ families. We had breakfasts and lunches in our own houses, and dinners at grandmother’s house all together.
Grandmother’s house had an old piano, and a young woman came from town once a week to give both of us piano lessons. Qin was very talented and dedicated to piano practice. She progressed a lot faster than I did. When she started winning competitions in town, I didn’t feel much like playing piano and was always trying to avoid the lessons. Grandmother told the piano teacher that she didn’t mean for her granddaughters to become concert pianists and stopped the lessons. Did my grandmother sense my reluctance and want to ease the rivalries between her two granddaughters? I never knew. Chinese calligraphy and orchid painting classes were taught by an elderly retired artist living with his daughter on the next farm. He came to us most Thursday afternoons. When it rained, he wouldn’t come. When it was beautiful outside, he would come twice a week. We could see his white head bobbing up and down; his slouched body trudging slowly along the walk way through rice paddy fields to our entrance. Qin and I would rush inside to announce that the teacher was coming, and the maid would prepare tea and sweets for him. One of my paintings of lotus leaves floating on water was chosen by the teacher to be framed. Qin asked me to let her have that painting, and I let her hang it in her room.
The triplex was surrounded by rice paddy fields. Qin and I had to walk for an hour to our elementary school. There were no other girls our age around where we lived; we just had each other. In spring, the rice paddy fields became carpeted with tender green shoots. The air smelled like spring rain, moist and fragrant. Qin said that was the smell of heaven. When it drizzled outside, I spread out Xuan paper and poured out black ink for my paintings in my grandmother’s study, Qin played the old piano, grandmother dozed off on her couch. Past the rice paddy fields was the end of the world on those afternoons. Even now, I cannot paint my orchids without hearing Qin playing “By the Sea” on the piano. We moved away from the triplex into town after grandmother passed away. Our parents wanted better schools for their children in the cities. My uncle moved to the capital city of Taipei for his government post. My father taught at a university in the Taichung city. I saw Qin for summer holidays and New Year’s.
I found a sympathy card with three lavender stems, tied together by a lilac silk ribbon. The lavender flowers were made up of white, pink and purple tiny beads glued on the card and the translucent violet silk ribbon was sewed on to the card. The words inside the card said, “Wishing you the peace that comes with knowing you have loved, been loved, and are still loved, even now.”
Qin and I both went to the same English Department at the only Catholic University on the island. When I was a freshman, she was a senior. She took me to lunch during my orientation week, and then I was left alone. She said that we should conceal our relationship so that we could develop other friendships. We agreed to write letters to each other on campus.
I folded my letter to put inside the card and sent the card to her with stamps of the American flag, hoping the beads on the card wouldn’t fall off while crossing the Pacific Ocean. There are many modern ways of communication now, yet Qin and I somehow kept hand-written letters for forty years. It seemed that any other type of modern exchange would destroy the joy of this quiet waiting, wondering, and anticipating.
It had only been one week when I received Qin’s reply.
The card you sent was so beautiful. I placed it beside my family picture of Nori, Eiko, and me. The beads are all intact. They hold up better than I.
“It was a small funeral. My father-in-law was an only son, and Nori was an only son. There were no extended family. A couple of the high-ranking attorneys at the law firm came. After the ceremony, Eiko and I went to the cremation service. His urn now sits in the tatami room where I keep the dolls. I am reluctant to put it in the Buddhist shrine where his parents’ urns are. I am not ready to part with him just yet. I found a piano teacher and I am taking piano lessons. I practice every day and it is helping me to cope with this change. Eiko had to step up in the law firm that her grandfather started, and her father expanded. She has been working very hard, I hardly see her now. She leaves at seven thirty in the morning, and then she attends social events after work with the clients. She returns home at midnight when I am already asleep. The comfort is that my piano teacher praised my playing and encourages me to perform at her year-end recital. I might do that after my trip. I would like to get away for a while. I would like to visit Taiwan. I can face the island and the people now. It’s like I have paid my debt.
It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. My mind is clear, and my heart is light. After, after,” here the character “after” was smudged, and then she continued, “that incident, I was laden with loss and shame, I avoided going to Taiwan. Now, after forty years, I want to go see the island where we grew up.”
I put down the letter. Yes, that incident. Her handwriting is still so elegant and fine with strong and sturdy strokes of Chinese calligraphy. Why was the character “after” smeared? She should have gotten over it a long time ago. But perhaps the memory still lurked in the dark corners of her life.
My response to Qin.
That incident was over ages ago, I am sure you have grown into a different person by now. You were not avoiding Taiwan; you were busy building your life in Tokyo. The boys, my brothers and your brothers, wanted to give us the triplex and the surrounding land. Those three houses were vacant for such a long time after the share croppers moved out, they will need a lot of renovations to be made into a museum or a hotel. The boys told me all the fine antique furniture is intact in storage, even the old piano. Make a trip there and let me know what you think. I will meet you there when I am not teaching.”
I put down my pen, thinking about what else to write to her. That incident. I can never forget the night, and yet it was in such a haze that I could not recall all the details. I had started my freshman year. My aunt, Qin’s mother, showed up in the kitchen in our dorm where I was slurping some instant ramen in my pajamas. I had a fright seeing her there near midnight. Her hair all out of place, her makeup gone, dried tear marks stained her cheeks. She looked like an insane woman in a soap opera on channel 11 the freshmen were following at break time.
“Come, just put on a jacket,” she said.
She took the ramen bowl and the disposable chopsticks from my hands and put them in the trash bin. I mumbled something that I was hungry, but the coldness of her eyes shushed me. The latest episode of the soap opera was still fresh in my head. I wasn’t sure if my aunt was in her right mind. My aunt signed me out at dorm mother’s office for one week, she drove us to their house with me still in my pajamas. When we got in to their house, Qin was sitting rigidly on the living room sofa, trembling like a leaf in a storm. Her face pale with green veins by her brows, her eyes blood shot and her lips chapped. I sat next to her, but before I could say anything, she grabbed my hands and quieted me. Her bony fingers were icy cold. My hands hurt in her tight grip. My uncle was smoking a cigarette and frowned at the floor. I had never seen him smoke. There was a tumbler with a little bit of brown liquid in front of him. I recognized that tumbler and the brown liquid; the men drank that during celebratory events at my grandmother’s house. But this didn’t feel like a festive occasion.
My aunt went into the kitchen and started making tea. No one wanted any; she made teas when she didn’t know what else to do. I noticed the maid was gone. The boys were away at their schools. The heavy breathing in the room and the silence made me edgy. I didn’t know what had happened or what I could do; and I was afraid to ask or say anything silly. I started sobbing. My uncle looked at me and ruffled my hair. My aunt came out with sweet ginger tea and some sesame cookies. She patted my hands, gave me a wet warm towel and asked me to eat something. I didn’t know why I was crying so I stopped and had some tea and sweets. I think my aunt took me to the guest room and I fell asleep. At night, I think I heard Qin wailing and Doctor Lu came to see her. I didn’t know if that was just a dream.
The house was cold and quiet when I woke up. Some of Qin’s clothes were on my dresser, so I cleaned up and changed into her clothes. I sat in the kitchen for a while by myself. I was timid to move around the house with that air of suspense. My aunt came in quietly and started making breakfast. She made the western style breakfast: coffee, toasts, jam and butter, and hard-boiled eggs. I guessed it was easier than the Taiwanese style breakfast since the maid was not there to help her. She went out to get the newspaper and she took the paper to the study. I didn’t think I could ask for the cartoon pages, so I stayed quiet. Qin and I, the girls, were raised to be docile and obedient. I learned to be quiet at an early age. My aunt told me not to turn on the television. I could read the books in the study but not the newspaper. I wanted to ask her what had happened. I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like a fish, and my aunt said: “Your mom will tell you later. Go find a book to read in the study. Don’t go in the garden either.”
Qin slept most of the time. Doctor Lu came to check on her, and a nurse stayed with her. I read her books. My uncle let me use the study to do drawings, and my aunt let me help her in the kitchen. Qin came out of her room some afternoons, her face puffy and eyes swollen. I went back to the university after one week, and my aunt said to just tell my friends I had the flu, yeah right, flu in August. I continued my classes. No one bothered to ask me why I was gone for a week. One evening, when I was in the library, a girl came up to me calling me Qin. We did look alike. This girl told me that I shouldn’t stop school and she was happy that I came back. I didn’t bother to explain to her that I was not Qin, but I decided that I should call my mother. My mother told me to check on Qin and that she would tell me everything during winter break.
My aunt came to pick me up in late November to spend a weekend at her house. Qin hugged me long and tight when I stepped into their house. She looked so much older; there was something missing in her demeaner that I couldn’t name. It took me years to figure out that she was missing her childlike innocence. She seemed to carry a certain melancholic air, a sadness that made me want to cry. And I did, I didn’t know why, but I started weeping when she was hugging me.
She let go of me and sighed. “I am going to Japan, to study the language. You know how I am always so fascinated by Japanese culture. My mom’s old friend has a room for me, and it’s near the language center. I also got a part time job at the Taiwanese consulate in Tokyo to help out in the office.”
We saw her off at the airport that weekend. She met Nori at a book club. He was twelve years her senior and had lost his first wife and baby to childbirth. I received Qin’s long letter, while I was packing to come to the United States after college. She had finally found her soul mate. He had also experienced a great loss, and she felt close to the sorrow in his soul. They decided to walk the journey of their lives together. Somehow, I felt such relief like a burden was unloaded from my shoulders.
That winter break after Qin left, my mother told me the secret that had been hanging over my head for nearly four months, testing my patience. Qin and this boy in the business school met on a senior trip in summer. They fell in love and wanted to be married. The boy came to my uncle’s house to ask for her hand. My aunt and uncle asked them to reconsider, the excuse they gave them was that they were too young. The truth of their reluctance was the boy’s family. The boy’s mother was the third concubine of a very wealthy merchant. The first wife of the merchant did not bear a son after three daughters. The second wife was barren and tried to commit suicide a couple of times. This third wife, the boy’s mother, had little education. She was working in a tea house where business people gathered and had met this merchant. The merchant took her in as a third concubine and bore this boy. This boy, as the only heir, was to take over the business after he graduated.
Qin and the boy were young and blind, they schemed to elope. The boy was already at the fishing village, waiting for Qin, to take the next boat out to Macau. Qin was about to board the train when my uncle caught up with her and took her home. The boy was found drowned in a pond near the dock next morning. Whether it was an accident or a suicide, no one knew. It was on the news for quite a few days. The merchant tried to influence the police to launch an investigation on my uncle but it came to no avail.
“Oh, what was Qin thinking? That kind of polygamy in a family. I don’t even look at their boys. They are all pigs,” I said. I was always outspoken with my mother. She was the only one that explained issues to me and seldom scolded me.
“Ping, Qin is your family. Don’t talk about her like that. You should support her. You don’t know what happened. And don’t call anyone pigs. Those boys have a different upbringing and it’s not entirely their fault,” my mother said.
The thought of not being able to see Qin for the upcoming New Year and the following summer pained me.
“Why didn’t you guys let them get married? What a mess!” I said, almost in tears.
“Oh, you were just saying you don’t even look at those boys, now you want Qin to marry one? Qin would have had to deal with those unfulfilled women, mental illnesses, and the greed with excessive wealth. At her tender young age? I don’t think so.”
“But they were already in love. You think you are in the sixteenth century? Romeo and Juliet?” I said, remembering the play we read at school.
“Marriage takes more than irrational love. It’s difficult to explain. You will understand later,” she said.
Yes, now, after a divorce, after years of therapy, after I remarried, and stayed married, I do understand. What a price to pay for understanding.
Qin was in Taipei for Chinese New Year in late January. She then travelled down to the triplex. I will meet her at the triplex during my spring break in March. Will there be fields carpeted with green shoots, spring rain, moist and fragrant air; the smell of heaven for two old young girls?
I tried to picture Qin in my mind: Her long almond eyes, her small nose, and the slightly protruded left canine teeth that sometimes gave her a hint of a mischievous smile. How am I going to greet her? Will the old familiarity still be there? Will we weep? What am I going to say to her? There are no words. I can come up with no words. I will hug her, long and tight, and I will hold both her hands, turn them over and kiss her palms. The hands that had written to me unfailingly for forty-three years.
Catherine C. Con grew up in Taiwan. She earned a BA in English Literature from Fu-Jen Catholic University in Taipei, Taiwan and an MS in Information System from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She is a Computer Science instructor at University of South Carolina, Upstate. Her short story, “A Tale of Two Paintings,” was published in Emrys Journal in 2019 and nominated for the 2020 PEN American Literary Awards. Her flash nonfiction, “Birthday,” was published in Tint Journal in Fall of 2019. Her nonfiction, “Eggs,” was published in the Bare Life Review. Her nonfiction, “This Writing Life,” is forthcoming in Emrys Journal in 2020.