Fiction · 05/06/2020

Remembrance

Back when the White Terror was ripping through Taipei and Tainan and dozens of other rising cities and villages that I had never set foot in, all the kids were scared that they would come home one afternoon and throw down their bookbags and baseball bats, and their fathers and grandfathers and big brothers who were intellectuals or had graduated from university would be gone — rounded up by police, chucked into jail for a year or two or five, where they would be starved and interrogated and bleeding, and their pre-existing diseases, if they had any, would slowly then rapidly bloom, unchecked, until the diseases had taken over and set fire to their entire bodies, and, if they were extra unlucky like fat Little Ching’s bespectacled uncle had been, beaten for seven and a half minutes and then shot squarely between the eyes, so that all thirty-eight years of his scarlet blood and brains splattered in a dripping X-formation on the wall behind him as the surrounding living men shouted, “You Communist! You Communist!” at the still bright whites of his eyeballs. Back then, we heard from Little Teng, whose older cousin was a policeman, that two young men in blue Kuomintang uniforms would stand, glaring, erect, on either side of the doomed prisoner in every execution: one to check his pulse to make sure he was forever dead, and the other to rip up the goodbye letter he had written with pain and tears and grace and drowning sorrow to his wife and children the night before — right in front of his pooling deep brown eyes, a good six seconds before he was shot: “Now who will remember you?”

When it was my father’s turn, he was taken between lunch period and math period and by the time I arrived home, my mother was crying on the tile floor and my aunt was fanning her with the beauty magazines that my father absolutely despised but my mother could not stop flipping through, even when she was giving the babies their daily bath or cooking dinner or pressing my father’s checked ties and shirts and pants: “Your country has betrayed your own father,” she sobbed, and her green earrings dangled to the ground and her long orange skirt was sprawled out behind her like a vibrant, fallen palm. Back then, if our fathers or brothers or uncles were taken away there was nothing we could do but tug our bleached uniforms back on at six-thirty in the morning and toss our bookbags over our shoulders, which were shuddering from being sore from shuddering, and announce to Little Ching before the seven-thirty flag salute with all the superiority and bravery we had left, “I hope my father doesn’t turn out like your uncle,” and watch him harden and squint and point two fingers at the beige square of flesh between our eyes. Back then, I tried not to go home right after school because my mother would inevitably be looking away, out the kitchen window and into the courtyard where my father, who had been a top history professor at the National University, used to sit and smoke his favorite cigarettes and read the morning paper, or my mother would be looking down at all of the shimmering jewelry that she had collected from generation after generation of fashionable aunts and great-aunts and worn when she had met and dated and married my father, necklaces and brooches and rings that she liked to lay out, one by one, on the silk bedspread to admire from time to time, and not even her own mother, my grandmother, who had moved from my mother’s older sister’s house to our house the morning after my father was taken away, could get her to eat more than a teaspoon of rice, or leave the house to shop at the Pink Boutique and have coffee at her favorite cafe, or hold my brother or sister when one of them started crying, and so instead of going home right away I would sit at the yellow and red stall outside the primary school and order rice roll after rice roll, drizzled in brown sauce, with the money my father had placed on the chair by my bed every Saturday until he was taken away, or I would crouch in the comic book corner of the Hsiao Shu bookshop, my scratchy blue skirt bunched around my knees, and read until I grew immensely irritated by the number of times Popeye had to come zipping back to save Olive Oyl, infallibly lean and stylish, to the point where I wanted to scream and shred the book in front of old Mr. Hsu, the thin, pockmarked owner of the bookshop, or I would nestle inside the metal bottom of the tunnel slide at the park near my father’s university and wonder if my grandmother or mother would come searching for me if one day I decided to not come home for dinner — but I was always, always back in the house and in my pajamas and cotton slippers at six-fifteen, setting the table for four while my father’s green plastic Kyoku radio, which had rounded edges and two pristine silver dials and was my mother’s gift to my father during their first New Year’s together, crackled blurrily in the background.

Before I was born, when my father first started dating my mother, they would write letters in Japanese and speak Japanese to each other and dine at Japanese restaurants and drink at sake bars because Japan was still “trying to be in charge of everything in the world,” but perhaps this being in charge was not, as one might think, a wholly malicious thing, according to my clean-shaven father as he wiped his brow and then his glasses with his silk handkerchief, and during their morning flag salute, when they were even younger and going to school in Tainan, it would appear as if two suns had risen: one diffuse, yellow, and distant, the other great, red, hot, imminent. This second, red sun, perfect in darkness and roundness, would burn during the day, as my ten-year-old father, sweating and smiling in his blue and white jersey, scored a glittering home run for the Little Tainan-Tokyo Tigers, and the red sun would burn during the night, as he gazed up at a looming poster of the blue and white Chunichi Dragons, two rows of twenty-four, six-foot-tall beasts with puffed chests and bats in hand and dreamed that he might be one of them one day, and the red sun would burn as my twelve-year-mother, with her pink lips and black pigtails, cut short because she could not grow them any longer or they would be snipped by the stiff-faced headmistress in front of the entire sixth-grade class, danced from one corner of the fabric station of the Hayashi Department Store to the other, skittering back and forth between the pink cherry blossom print and the lavender cherry blossom print, which she would request, in girlish but fluent Japanese, for the lady to measure and cut two-and-a-half neat yards, and bring back to her mother, my grandmother, to trim further and sew into her thirteenth birthday dress, and the red sun would burn as my grandmother stared at this rich and beautiful patterned cloth in her hands, imported and purpled and embroidered with a single metallic thread, and remembered, in a language that was not Japanese, the innumerable birthday portraits that my mother, sloe-eyed and pearl-skinned, had taken while swathed in cherry blossom and arabesque and blue sea wave prints, and the red sun would continue to burn in all of its scarlet force and sweeping progress, burn brightly until finally, one flashing night, this great ruby sun was destroyed and the Hayashi Department Store and its state-of-the-art golden elevators violently shattered, and the Little Tainan-Tokyo Tigers became the Little Tainan Tigers, and a different, darker, more vicious force, one from our very own kind, blazed through our homes, bellowing: Who will remember you?

Back when my father was taken, when I was twelve years old with short black hair and days and hours away from graduating sixth grade, I did not know what to remember and what to forget, I did not know what to look at or who to listen to, at home or at school or anywhere else because my father was still gone, with only his books and his suits and his glasses left behind, and because my mother, who had stopped wearing lipstick and long dresses and sandalwood perfume, remained dead silent from when I woke up until when I went to sleep, although she had started smoking my father’s cigarettes, cigarette after cigarette, and because neither Teacher Wu, the sixth grade teacher, nor the headmaster of the school nor the other children’s parents nor the other children themselves could make me truly laugh, or truly cry, even when they tried and even when one of them cracked a yellow watermelon on his head and blood dripped slowly down behind one ear and disappeared into his collar, and I did not know who to listen to because before I knew it, old Mr. Hsu had closed up his bookshop without even saving me my favorite comics, or maybe the blue and green and maroon volumes inside had been burned by the men who had taken away my father on the day I was supposed to show him the progress I had made on my history report that was worth half my grade, and I did not know who to listen to because all my grandmother could remember to do was serve breakfast and lunch and dinner and fruit after dinner, until one night between dinner and fruit she picked up my father’s green Kyoku radio and threw it hard against the ground because no one was ever going to tell us what was really going on or when it was all going to end or who was responsible for this madness and violence and shock and sadness, this great, black, sadness, that was crushing her heart and my mother’s heart and my mother’s sister’s heart — no one was going to tell us, not today and not tomorrow and not for many years to come, but at least I had my entire life ahead of me, I was only twelve, she said, I didn’t know any Japanese and I hadn’t gone to university yet or attended my father’s classes, although he had always been innocent, she said, and I hadn’t marched in any protests or smoked contraband cigarettes, which is what had started this all, and I didn’t wear horn-rimmed glasses, and I was an obedient girl and would be safe, she said, if I could remember what I was supposed to remember and forget what I was supposed to forget, if I could remember who had betrayed us and forget who had betrayed us, remember who had betrayed me and forget who had betrayed me, but by the end of that night, the night that my grandmother broke my father’s green radio, which caused my mother to collapse all over again when she found the pieces in the morning, the night that my grandmother forgot to cut up fruit into tiny wet cubes after dinner and serve it in a cold dish with water and sugar, all I would remember was that I had been betrayed — simply, wholly, sublimely betrayed — and ten long, thunder-gray years later, when I graduated from university and my mother and grandmother, now in a wheelchair, and brother and sister appeared with red flowers and hard candy and an oval tin of rice rolls and sauce, all I would remember was that night that my mother continued to sleep and my grandmother broke my father’s green radio and forgot to cut up fruit into tiny wet cubes, and fifteen years later, when I wore my mother’s jewelry in my hair and my father’s handkerchief around my wrist and processed down the aisle, slowly, to the opening of Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” my father’s favorite symphony, I would feel the same, and many, many years later, when the government found and released a box of yellow letters from the White Terror years that had been written by prisoners the night before they were executed but had not been ripped up in front of their knowing brown eyes, my black-haired daughters, all four of them, would ask immediately if my father’s letter was one of them so they could touch something their grandfather had touched, the last thing he had touched, and I would tell them no, no, yes, he was one of them, one of tens and hundreds and thousands of them, but his letter was not one of those letters, although if they wanted I could tell them the story I had told them since they were old enough to ask and old enough to listen and old enough to cry, and this is the story I would tell them:

Back then, many, many, many years ago, when I was twelve years old with short black hair and striped cotton pajamas and a marbled lucky charm strung around my neck, and everyone was missing everywhere in some form or another, I would imagine the same small, shimmering, candy-colored scene each night, after I had combed my hair and crawled into bed and folded myself up underneath the constellation of comic strips that I had cut and pinned to the ceiling: In the morning, as the sun rose, I would open my eyes and wake up slowly, sweetly, to the scent of my mother frying thick, sizzling slices of beef, which I would tuck between two fluffy rounds of pancake and swallow between sips of tea. My mother would brush my hair like I was going to run for class president that morning, or take my graduation portrait, or attend my own birthday party, which she would do everyday, while I squinted and squirmed and chewed. Teacher Wu, in her navy blue dress and stiff scalloped collar and curled black hair, would present me with the highest honors a pupil could receive for the final history report and for sixth grade national history in general, which I would accept with grace and modesty and a confident step, and when I came home in the afternoon, my grandmother, who liked to make jokes and wear bright patterns, would rock my sister in one arm and my brother in the other and tell me to please turn up the radio so she could listen to the opera program at four o’clock and her favorite newscaster at five, whom she surmised must be handsome because his voice was so rich, and so I would, I would laugh heartily and turn it up so loud that I would barely be able to hear the kettle whistle and the neighborhood dogs bark and the doorknob turn at exactly six-thirty. And then my father would walk in, hat on, tie on, glasses on, and he would take off his shoes and pick up my sister and nod to my grandmother and hold my smiling mother, who would be holding my brother, and then he would look at me and reach into his briefcase and draw out a packet of rice rolls and a pink cherry blossom eraser and a new comic book from the bookshop, and say:

Come here, my love, of course I remembered.

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Grace Chao is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She has been published in Z Publishing’s America’s Emerging Writers series.