Daughter, Lost

by Julie Wu Published Spring 2011
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I water my orchids. I have placed them on the south side of the building, the best light for orchids, so as I water I face the Central Mountains, far off, where I was born. I can hardly see the green peaks anymore because of my cataracts, but as I water — just a little, for too much water will drown an orchid — I can smell the thick pine forest, the moss from Chia-Yi, where I have not set foot for sixty years.

Across the street there’s a tall building with a peeling poster of the Democratic Progressive Party candidate — the one who’s going to get us attacked, talking about independence from China. Before the building was built, I could see all the way to the Taiwan Strait. It was there, the west coast, where I was taken by horse cart, to the couple who bought me and trained me to keep their Japanese-style house sparkling clean, their altar polished.

“You were not lucky,” I say to Chio-Kwat. “I did not know, when we gave you away, that your new parents would be so unreliable.” They said they were teachers. And they were, but in music; they were Chinese opera singers, moody and broke.

“You could have asked,” Chio-Kwat says, frowning.

“Do not be insolent.”

This is her problem. Always complaining. Never accepting.

“I am not insolent,” she says. “I am just saying, you could have asked them.”

“It was your fate,” I say. She doesn’t know I had no say in the matter. It was my in-laws who decided she would be given away. And seeing how ungrateful she is, I bring out the envelope from my pocket and unfold the document. My son has written it, as I was busy being a maid and did not learn these fancy words. I hand Chio-Kwat a pen.

She squints at the paper. “What do these words mean?”

Well, she didn’t go to school much, either.

“Sign it, and you say you don’t have any right to the inheritance.”

Her face darkens. “My brother.”

It’s true. My son is a snake. My daughter-in-law is the snake charmer. But it is better to keep the money in the family. Chio-Kwat’s husband will gamble away everything or spend it on his girlfriends.

“We took you back,” I say, “and we had to pay a lot of money to those people because you left. Just after the store closed, too,” I add. “We had no money to spare.”

She drops the document on the floor and stands up. She folds her arms. It’s like the day she came home, jutting her chin out. “I won’t sign it.”

I feel a rush of anger. “Then you are no longer my daughter.”

She stands for a few minutes, looking away, blinking. She turns to the south, the wind blowing the hair off her forehead. Perhaps she is thinking about lawyers, which she cannot afford and which are a joke anyway.

She turns back and kneels down on the concrete floor to sign. As she bends over the paper, I gasp, seeing the fullness of her breasts filling the neckline of her dress, the curve of her belly. Now I know why she was so out of breath.

She throws the pen on the floor and stands up, eyes flashing. She sees my open mouth and traces my gaze to her belly.

“Ma,” she says. “I came here to tell you.”

I’m wordless for a moment, listening to the wind, to the honking of cars and the clattering of rickshaws in the street below.

She turns to leave.

“Wait,” I say. And I pull the temple money out of my pocket. “For the baby. For good luck.”

She hesitates, frowning, then grabs the money out of my hand.

She leaves, and the wind slams the door behind her. The air rises, swirling around me, and the document flutters against my legs. In the wind I smell Chia-Yi.

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