The day Lin Mee blew up her house, with husband Wei inside, she made sure their daughter, Ming, was at a sleepover. And that was the very day Ming, 15, decided to “go all the way” with her boyfriend, forever conflating her transgressive act of lying atop him in his small attic room, pumping away with all her might, with the death of her father, and presumably, her mother.
Since she was far from being a chemist, Lin’s mixture was a bit unstable and she found herself flung far and wide into the wood which ran behind their house. Broken, burnt and bruised over whole sections of her body, her windpipe scarred, she could only crawl about like a wounded toddler, uttering nonsense syllables.
All sense had been knocked out of her by the blast.
Though Lin’s body was never recovered (not even a shrunken-head type corpse like her father’s), Ming was sure Ma was gone.
She felt she needed to be punished so when she was shuttled off to the People’s Rest Home for War-torn Victims and Others, she resolved never to see her boyfriend again. This was a good resolve especially since he had no intention of curbing his wildcat impulses while there were still virgins in the town to be had.
And that’s how all was lost for the Mee family one spring evening in June.
Or was it?
One Year Later
Ming, on Wednesday market day, inevitably found herself facing The Veil. Even if Ming had gone shopping for thread, she would be drawn to the little stall in the furthest back corner. The Veil stood rearranging the apples and pears and peaches and plums, hiding their imperfections from view, trying to deceive the customers into thinking they were buying perfection straight from the Garden of Eden. (Of course no one was fooled.) Ming patiently picked up each piece of fruit to reveal the bruise, the wormhole, the flaked-off skin.
“No touching, Miss,” the Veil softly admonished her, in her peculiar rasp of a voice, casting a backwards glance towards the depths of the stall.
Finally, one day Ming confronted her. “Why do you look back there? No one’s here but you.”
“Oh – just a nervous habit – you’re right. . .go ahead.”
Unaccustomed to being rewarded for her insolence, Ming hesitated but then settled on a deep purple plum and held it up.
The Veil shuffled her feet, glanced around again, then whispered, “Just take it.”
“On the level? You’re not going to start yelling ‘thief’ or anything?
“No. . .sweetheart.”
Ming did a double take, but her friend was waiting so she grabbed her prize somewhat guiltily, and ran. They had limited time for this outing; they were due back at the Home for lunch in 10 minutes and it was a 15 minute walk at best. They’d have to run all the way.
“Why do you always go to that creepy old lady in the back?” asked her friend.
“I guess. . .I don’t know.”
“There’s something about her. She’s so mysterious. I want to ask her things.”
“No one goes there much – you’re weird. Hey, we gotta run for it!”
Ming put the plum in her jacket pocket and they scampered off up the hill like two young goats.
The Police Commissioner stepped out of the shadows then and made his way back to the station.
Lin took off the veil when she reached her home, a beaten down shack on the edge of town that she shared with Huan. He had taken her in when he found her bleeding and dazed in the wood.
Something told him he shouldn’t bring her to a hospital. With one year of dental school behind him, he had enough skill to treat her wounds and prevent infection. While doing this, he noted old fractures, bruises, burns and scars here and there on her body. He was not really surprised. In a small town like theirs, everyone knew what a brute Wei had been, often slapping Lin in public to shame her. And she, so tall and slender as a wisp of air. Huan bathed her, he rubbed oils into her once porcelain skin, combed out her thick black hair and so he came to love her.
Huan had more schooling than most in the village and was therefore somewhat suspect. He’d run out of money for school and turned to farming a small lot behind the shack. He had just enough to get by, but when Lin arrived last year, he realized he needed more to feed two mouths. He let it be known that he would pull teeth, and with Lin selling fruit in the marketplace these last few months, they managed to survive.
“I saw her again, today,” Lin mentioned as they sat down for their late lunch.
“She’s so pretty and bursting with energy. And so sassy!” Lin laughed.
Huan wondered – as he always did – if he should tell her.
“Lin, you still remember nothing? Where you come from? How you got burned?”
“You know, Huan, that I don’t!” She traced the scar that ran from her forehead across the bridge of her nose to her right cheek. “Why are you always asking me that???”
“Sorry,” he said, getting up to clear the table.
“And no one’s come looking for me. So – ‘Here is all that matters.’ Right? That’s what you always say.”
She took a moment to admire Huan who was tall and rangy, splintered in spots like a much-used chopstick, but dressed neatly in a loose white smock and faded grey pants. He wore the red bandanna she had made him to keep his hair out of his face. She came up beside him at the sink, resting her head against his strong shoulder. He kissed her gently on the cheek.
He hoped no one was looking for her, but he couldn’t be sure.
It was Huan’s idea that she wear the veil – to let the burned skin heal, he told her. He heard through the grapevine that the fire had been deemed “not accidental.” Better for everyone if the townspeople and that pesky Police Commissioner thought she’d perished too. With the world becoming more diverse – even their small mountain village – people would assume The Veil had a religious reason to cover up and they’d be too polite to ask. Or so he had hoped. So far his luck was still holding, but for how long?
Huan was not the only one to worry about the young girl’s pull. Lin, when she was half dozing at her knitting, would at times feel the lid of her memory box creak open. Cloudy turbulent emotions swirled around inside the box in a veritable dust storm. Images of people she’d never seen: a thick-necked stomping man whose sight blew sand in her eyes, someone coming up behind her and choking her, but also at times a cooing fat baby, holding out her arms so she could be lifted out of the bath. This baby terrified her; this baby made her smile and yearn to hold her in her arms. Lin was no fool. She slammed shut the lid and locked it tight. Here is all that matters, she repeated to herself. Am I not happy?
The next day Huan heard that the Commissioner was looking for him. He thought of packing Lin up and moving with their few possessions to some distant city across the mountains. Before he had time to think it through, the Commissioner showed up at his door, neatly attired but with a few noticeable food stains on his shirt front. Since his wife ran off with the baker a few months ago, the Commissioner had been sore pressed to keep up his usual sartorial standards.
“I need to have my molar pulled. It’s killing me. You will do it!”
Huan knew the Commissioner prized order and ceremony above all else. His wife’s shameful desertion, his only son fancying himself a teenage James Dean, strutting through the town, an embodiment of smoldering sexuality, rumors he had gotten at least two schoolgirls pregnant, this unsolved case of arson – the Commish was on a mission to straighten things out.
Huan’s chin trembled as he ushered the Commissioner into their shack, “Sit down, Commissioner. Would you like some tea?”
As Huan busied himself with the tea things, he searched frantically for a way out for himself and especially Lin. Surely the Commissioner knew he wasn’t a full-fledged dentist; surely the Commissioner had enough money to get first-rate care for himself?
Sure enough, as they sipped their jasmine tea, the talk turned to the biggest mystery the town had ever known.
“We have a lead on the arsonist. That Mee woman.”
“Wasn’t she killed in the accident, Commissioner?” Huan asked hoarsely.
“Maybe. That depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“Hmmm.” The Commissioner would say no more, then, “The Veil lives here, doesn’t she?”
“Yes, she’s not very well, you see, I sent her out to get some fresh air, which is beneficial to. . .”
“OK, OK. Next Wednesday I come back. Make sure she’s here.”
“Oh, she’ll only get in the way. . .”
“No. I’d like a woman around for this.”
The Commissioner left and Huan knew he had no choice.
Ming had her own memory box, sealed tight, but she knew the contents by heart: Terror of her father, hulking nearby, never touching her but always knocking her mother about; her mother, frail and delicate, smelling sweetly of spices; her mother who she hated for her incompetence; her mother who could never do anything right to please her husband! She had planned on running away for good, with her boyfriend, but now – Her mother ruined everything!
At the bottom of the memory box were other snapshots: her mother singing a lullaby, braiding her hair, rubbing oils into her skin, tickling her ears by whispering funny stories in them. These were old dusty memories she didn’t look at often. And there was one corner of the box she could not even glance at, a memory she had tried to erase. . .
Wednesday came around quickly. Lin left for the market, promising to be back by the time the Commissioner arrived, to serve as his nurse. As she was setting up the stall, Ming came by.
“You’re early today.”
“Yes. The teacher is sick today so they let us out for the afternoon.”
Lin’s face lit up. “How very pleasing!”
Ming let the syllables wash over her. There was something chillingly familiar about the words. She looked at the woman’s hands – they were always sheathed in white gloves.
“Come home with me? I live right around the bend. Please. I’ll make you some lunch,” pleaded the veiled woman.
Ming felt dizzy. Her eyes kept painting another’s face under the veil. She wanted to see that face more than she wanted anything else, even if it was the face of a murderess. She said, yes.
2 p.m. and the Commissioner was in the chair.
“Where is that woman?”
“Why don’t we just get started, Sir? She’ll be here any moment.”
The Commissioner begrudgingly agreed as he was in a lot of pain. Just then, the Veil came in, the schoolgirl trailing behind.
Huan paled and dropped his instruments on the floor.
Lin was chirping happily about this thing and that, oblivious of the dangers. She took off her veil and faced her audience.
Huan hoped the scars and the damaged voice would safeguard her. Truth was, Ming wasn’t sure who she was looking at. But the Commissioner had a pretty good hunch.
Lin moved around the small room, fixing the plates with rice and little bits of stir fried pork. She happened to look over at
Ming and something in her posture made her think again of that fat gurgling baby wanting to be picked up. She couldn’t help herself. She went over to Ming and put her arms around her neck. She kissed her cheek. Tears were coming down Lin’s face, wetting her apron.
Ming’s first impulse was to push her away; she tried. But Lin did not seem to notice. And Ming suddenly breathed in the smell of this woman, the air redolent with the scent of cloves, ginger and cinnamon. She breathed deeply and held on. Tears started to spring out of her eyes too.
Huan was holding his breath. The resemblance between the woman and the girl was astounding. Surely the Commissioner. . .
The Commissioner was looking at Ming now. White-faced, he started to pace the small shack. His reputation! Things were slipping out of his control. He was known for tracking down miscreants and for removing them. The party bosses had counted on him until recently when he’d had to call in favors.
These problems – this unsolved house burning that killed Wei Mee and his wife. Why was her body never found? They’d found just bones which turned out to be from the thigh bone of a yak – was this some kind of joke?
The Veil – she’d appeared recently – from where? He needed to check it out, take action, show the party he was still in the game.
The Commissioner coughed into his hand to get their attention. To Ming, he said, “Who is this woman you’re with?”
Ming shook her head. “How should I know? I met her in the market today and she asked if she could make me lunch.” She looked at Huan who gave her a small nod.
To Lin, he said, “Why are you crying?”
Lin said, “This pretty girl doesn’t mind that I am not good to look at. She is not afraid. I was so worried about that. She forgives me my scars. Right, Ming?”
“Hey,” said Ming, wiping the tears on her sleeves, I thought someone said something about lunch. I’m a growing girl!”
Glad of the distraction, The Commissioner sat down to eat. He pulled down the brim of his hat instinctively and kept his eyes on Ming. Wasn’t she the Mee girl he’d placed in the Home? Her cover story was that she’d spent the night with her friend. Not quite! Then the baby came along three months ago and he’d spirited her away to his cousin, one commune over. He sensed he might be in a lot of trouble. If he could only make it six more months, he could retire. But if the bosses found out –
They ate in silence; Huan pulled the tooth (no charge).
The Commissioner would not leave. He just sat there, staring at the women in turn, drinking enough tea to float an armada.
Ming squinted up at him, in a menacing way. She’s realized her advantage, he thought, in a way she hadn’t three months before. He read her message.
So he decided, “Here is the only thing that matters”. They could all keep their memory boxes sealed shut for the moment.
In the months following, the Commissioner started visiting at unannounced times, always bringing generous portions of “leftover” food. Huan even gained a little weight. Ming was spending almost every lunch time with Huan and Lin Mee. She would pick Lin up at the market and walk back home with her. Lin was teaching her how to cook, even sew, which Ming had always hated, and Huan showed her how to strum chords on his guitar. The house smelled of cinnamon and other spices and he witnessed lots of kissing, hugging, stroking and singing.
Finally, the Commissioner saw a way to arrange things just so. Huan and Lin added a room onto their shack and Ming moved in. Her friend visited often. Lin Mee removed her face covering.
Then one day the Commissioner brought the baby and the baby never left again. She called Lin, “Grandma,” which Lin loved.
The Commissioner managed to retire with all his honor intact and the first thing he did was to pack his wayward son off to the capital to do his damage there. “Good riddance to you,” he said as he shoved him onto the train.
Things were orderly again and neat and better than before.
“Case closed,” ruled the Commissioner, as he played with the baby.
Do you know that Lin Mee never burnt down another house and never knew she had in the first place? She was forever happy living in the Here, caressing this strange girl and her baby, while singing lullabies of faraway times.
* * *
Janet Garber is a mother, has always been a mother, and will always be a mother. She lives in Northern Westchester with her husband and two cats.