When I developed diabetes, just five years ago, I thought my mother might have died of the same thing, that her blood was either too sweet or not sweet enough. Diabetes, I found, is a constant battle of balance. Anyway, that was how I knew my mother, through the faults I inherited: the crooked lower teeth, the upward scrunch of the left eyebrow, the desire for more than could ever be satisfied in a normal person.
The night we left Shanghai forever, Sweet Ma made one more show of her endless sacrifice. She refused to go. "I would be useless over in America, unable to speak English," she said coyly to my father. "And I don't want to be a burden. Besides, Bifang is almost thirteen, too old now for a nursemaid." She glanced in my direction, waiting for me to contradict her with vigorous protests.
My father said: "Don't argue about this. Of course you're coming." He was in a hurry, because waiting for him was the gatekeeper, a mean man named Luo, whom we all disliked. He had made arrangements for our hasty departure before Shanghai fell completely under Communist control.
In front of my brothers, our grandfather, and the servants, Sweet Ma continued to argue, again looking for me to say the correct words. I was supposed to fling myself at her feet, knock my head on the floor, and beg her not to leave me. And because I did not do so, she became more determined to extract this plea from me. "Bifang doesn't need me," she said. "She already told me so."
It was true. Only that morning, I had said similar words to her. She had been berating me for sleeping too long. She called me Rotten Soft Bones. She said I was just like my mother, and if I didn't cure myself of these bad habits, I, too, would meet a terrible demise. I was not quite awake, and in my longing to cling to sleep, I placed my hands over my ears and thought I was shouting in my dreams: "Stop, you moaning milk-cow." And the next thing I knew, Sweet Ma was slapping me back to my senses.
Now there I was with my family, about to flee in the middle of the night, with gold and diamonds stuffed into the soft bodies of my dolls, and there was this: my mother's hairpin. I had stolen it from Sweet Ma's dresser and had sewn it into my coat lining.
Gatekeeper Luo urged us to hurry, and Sweet Ma was still staging threats not to go. We were all supposed to plead for her to change her mind. My mind went in a new direction. What would happen if Sweet Ma did stay behind? How would my life change?
Pondering such thoughts made my chest ticklish and weak. I felt my knees and spine growing soft. This always happened when I anticipated anything good or bad, whenever I came close to allowing myself to feel the extremes of emotion. Since my mother had been the same way, I feared that I, too, would one day lose control and fall into a heap and die of excess. I had thus learned to push down my feelings, to force myself to not care, to do nothing and let things happen, come what may.
Silence would now decide my fate. "Speak," Father coaxed. "Apologize."
I waited in silence. "Hurry now!" he scolded. A minute must have passed. My legs were growing weak again. Push it down, I told myself, push down your wish.
Father finally broke in and repeated to Sweet Ma: "Of course you're coming," but Sweet Ma beat her chest, shouting, "It's finished! I would rather have the Communists run a bayonet through me than be forced to go with that wicked child!" And she lurched out of the room.
When we boarded the boat to Haiphong, I reflected in terror over what I had done. I stood on the deck as the boat pulled away, the black sky clotted with stars and galaxies, and I imagined what bright life awaited us in a new land just over the horizon. We were going to America, where joy was so abundant you did not have to consider it luck.
I pictured Sweet Ma alone in our family house on Rue Massenet, the rooms still richly furnished, but ghostly, empty of life. Soon the soldiers with bayonets would come into the house and smash its capitalist symbols, and all the while, Sweet Ma would sit in her usual chair, telling the revolutionaries she didn't want to be a burden. Perhaps they would punish her anyway for her bourgeois life. They might slap her browless faceI could picture it so clearlythe cruel men shouting for her to use her hair and tears to mop the floor. They would kick her thighs to hurry her up, aim a boot at her bottom. As I relished this scenario, playing it over and over in my mind, I became weak-limbed with fear and exhilaration, a strange combination that made me feel truly malevolent. I sensed I would be punished in my next life. I would become a cow and she the crow who would peck my flanks. And with that image in my mind, I suddenly felt bony fingers pluck my cheek, pinching until I tasted blood.
From Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan. Copyright Amy Tan 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Putnam Publishing. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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