By Joy Huang Stoffers
After the funeral, my daughter leads me back to our hotel room. I lean on my cane. I watch her attempt to draw the curtains shut. She inherited her father’s white complexion, but my size. To shut the curtains she must perform a full-body dance. The rings scrape against the rod.
In the echoing darkness, she sits me down in the armchair. Too soft. It demands nothing of my back, which sags like a broken dumpling. I hold my cane out of habit; it’s an extension of my arm. I let her remove my loafers. She swaps them for white slippers featuring the gold Grand Hotel emblem. My feet relax into these plush homes.
She peels back the white comforter until it meets the yellow coverlet. She tells me to nap. To rest because it’s over. She’ll explore. I ask her to take the dictionary. There’s an app on her phone. I repeat my request. She nods, the corners of her mouth jerking upward — subtle, like the twitch of a rabbit. Fitting, as that’s her year.
When I am certain she’s out adventure traveling, I limp to the curtains, slipping through. I arrive on the balcony and sit on one of the chairs. The air is humid and smells of earth. My slippers absorb the sheet of damp.
It no longer appears to be raining. I pull my chair up to the red balustrade. The caps on the posts are gold, carved into half-open sacred lotuses. Water droplets, the size of my biggest liver spot, pepper the handrail. I sweep my hands across the firm thickness. Turn my palms to my face. Dirt and dew, mixed together. I rub my thumbs across my fingerprints. Nature’s ink.
Against the grey sky, a faint rainbow has formed. A half arc. Half disappears into the heavens. Half disappears into the sea of broccoli trees. An over-welling: the tears spill over. They drip, trip down my weathered cheeks. I wipe them, smearing myself with nature’s ink.
My face dries. I feel the dirt-dew harden on my cheeks. I willingly wear the discomfort. This is the stain of neglect. I brand myself. The decades since my escape have been too kind. I want to fulfill this one filial duty. I drape my mind in the color of mourning. I must think, I must live in the whiteness.
For this is my motherland, and I have abandoned it.
Motherland. The land that is mother. The land of my mother. My mother’s land. I breathe in the sky, the trees, the pagoda roofs below. The taste of Taiwan is fertile, tropical. It awakens the accent sleeping in my tongue. I call for my mother. First as a child. Ma, almost like the Mandarin for horse. Then as adults knew her, by forename. Lotus flower.
My mother embodied her name. Raised in paddy fields, transported to assist in one man’s economic cultivation. She grew in stages. Young to mature seedling, flowering to fruiting, underground maturing to resting. Plucked while her leaves were growing. Replanted, but not the same. Delayed. Flower withers, lotus blossoms, roots harden. Tethered to a rough cultivator, her flower bud lived half as long. Her seedpod sucked away the rest of her beauty. But those underwater roots, they lingered.
In my early twenties, I mocked her roots. Asked why she wouldn’t let me move them. Away from rampaging cultivators, we could replant in clearer waters. Again and again, she pointed to the soil of motherland. I called her crazy. I thought her shallow, obedient surface continued downward, all the way to roots’ end.
I stayed until my own uprooting. He helped me fall, watched my ungrounded feet fly. Underneath the rush of air, I heard my mother’s choked gasp. At the hospital, broken leg before us, I cursed her. To live and die by her roots.
Years sew wounds into scars. Bones heal, but sometimes one leg extends beyond the other. Each uneven step, each restless change of weight, each act as permanent reminders of stained time. Pride can be the root of a desert plant. Its staying power must not be underestimated.
I hear the room’s door open. My daughter’s voice pitches panic. I sit and wait. She scolds me, throwing gestures like white petals. I let her wipe nature’s ink from my cheeks. When she is done fussing, I tap the other chair with my cane. She takes her place at my side. We look out. Pagoda roofs, broccoli trees, endless sky. The rainbow has faded.The sun is waning. It is almost time for the last meal of the day.
Ma, my daughter asks me, is it like you remember?
I respond in my native tongue, in the language I never taught her to understand.
Is it ever?
Roland Buckingham-Hsiao is a visual artist and researcher based in the UK and Taiwan. His work investigates the boundaries of language, viz. text-image, text-body and text-object relations. He is currently engaged in doctoral research on the performative aspects of calligraphy at the University of Sunderland.
Joy Huang Stoffers hails from East Brunswick, NJ. She holds a BA in English from Rutgers university and an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University, United Kingdom. Her debut novel, Whasian (Harken Media 2015), is available now.