Yü Li-hau was born in Shanghai, but received her college education in Taiwan, graduating in History from National Taiwan University in 1953. She was one of the first Chinese students from Taiwan to come to the United States. In some ways, Yü Li-hua’s life experience in the United States is typical of that of student-intellectual émigrés from Taiwan. She received her M.A. in Journalism from U.C.L.A. in 1956, married another student-émigré, raised three children, and has been teaching Chinese at the State University of New York at Albany.
What is atypical about Yü Li-hua is that she has remained a prolific writer, in a way unmatched by other émigrés. Her writings reflect an ability to absorb and reproject recent and current events and circumstances, but they are also informed by her rich past experiences. She admits that she herself enters into her writings in the statement: “A piece of writing cannot avoid having in it some shadow of its author. I feel that the distance between myself and my protagonists is shorter than most.”
Yü Li-hua is most noted for her short stories and novels about her generation of student-intellectual émigrés. These writings evolved along with the unfolding of their lives. In an earlier period her writings concentrated on the student life, careers, and marriages of the new arrivals and on their rootlessness and problems of adjustment. Now they depict the generation gap, mid-life and mid-career discontent, the degeneration of youthful aspirations, and the second generation. Yü Li-hua’s writings also encompass the greater Chinese world, as in the story “In Liu Village” (Liu-chia-chuang shang, translated by the author and C. T. Hsia in Chinese Stories from Taiwan: 1960-1970), and in the following story, “Nightfall’ (Mu).
Yü Li-hua’s better-known publications include the novels Dream of Returning to Green River (Meng hui Ch’ing Ho, 1963), Change (Pien, 1965), Again the Palm Trees (Yu-chien tsung-lü, yu-chien tsung-lü, 1966), and Sons and Daughters of the Fu Family (Fu-chia-te erh-nü-men, 1978), and the short story collections Autumn (Yeh-shih ch’iu-t’ien, 1964) and An Inside View of Conferences (Húi-ch’ang hsien-hsing-chi, 1972). “Nightfall” appeared originally in a magazine in 1969 and was reprinted in An Inside View of Conferences in 1972.
Yü Li-hua received the Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing Award in 1957 for her story “Sorrow at the End of the Yangtze River” written in English, and Taiwan’s Chia-hsin Award for the best novel in 1967 for Again the Palm Trees.
FATHER HAS ARRIVED. His face is sallow and gray, his body lean and shriveled. How defenseless he seems—like a tree in winter. People still tell stories about him, how in his younger days he was irresistible to women. I was just a child then. What was meant by a man’s attractiveness? I did not have the slightest idea. Now that I understand it, I can only think of him as a tree in the wintertime. But a tree, in the spring, should break into bloom again. And my father? . . . They say old people are always anxious at the changing of the seasons, and especially at the change from winter to spring.
Now a still, pale dawn floats in the window past the curtain. Too early to get up—but from the living room comes a ragged burst of coughing that jars awake the lightly sleeping dawn. The coughing crashes through the air; it sounds like raucous, spiteful hands slamming notes out of a piano. I tie the sash of my robe and get up to see if it is, indeed, Father. Stepping out of the bedroom, I see him standing there, a cigarette in his hand, facing the window that opens out onto the vast pale stillness of dawn. He looks as if he’s been sketched in black ink with a few deft, bold strokes: the two black eyebrows, the cheekbones, the high bridge of his nose, the locked lips. Standing in the half-light, I have time to examine all of this in detail. Can he really have been handsome once? It would be hard for anyone to imagine. But I do know what his life was like before he reached fifty, the glamor and the women, and all the pleasures that he savored in those years.
I cannot remember what year it was or where it took place, but that incident over Gold Flower—or was it Silver Flower? Oh what’s the difference? But I can remember it vividly. It was a beautiful spring day with the delicate fragrance of flowering vegetables in the air. The sun shone down on our bodies and mellowed us. Gold Flower bent over, washing clothes at the water spigot near the front gate, and I stood near her, nagging at her and begging her to take me downtown. I wanted to buy some sesame candies. She ignored me, frowning and scrubbing strenuously at some clothes on the washboard. Her full breasts inside her short blouse jiggled so much they began to irritate me. Then I looked up and saw that Father had come up behind me. Immediately, I dodged away. There was no reaction from Father: he continued to watch Gold Flower pound the clothes. I don’t think he even noticed that I had been there, or that I had darted away.
“Gold Flower,” I heard him say, “Go into my room and see if you can find my grey sweater-vest.”
Gold Flower raised her head with some surprise. Her red, glossy lips were parted slightly, and between them shone the dazzling white of her teeth. Her eyes were large and filled with the bright spring sunshine.
“My wife has gone out to play mahjong, and I don’t know where the vest could be,” Father said.
I had always been afraid of Father. I seldom looked at him directly. I did not see the expression on his face at that moment, but I could hear the urgency in his voice. Gold Flower obediently stood up and followed him into his room.
I squatted in front of the water spigot, fishing the clothes one by one out of the bucket. I took off my shoes and socks; I stepped with the soles of my bare feet on the clothes, squeezing out the chill fresh water. The bottoms of my feet were refreshingly cold, while the tops of my feet bathed in sunlight. I must have played for hours. It was only when I began to shiver from a cool wind that I noticed that the sun had long ago sunk below the horizon. The clothes under my feet were one solid flattened slab. I ran into the house and yelled, “Gold Flower! Gold Flower! Why aren’t you coming out to wash the clothes?”
Out came Gold Flower from the inner room. Even though the sun couldn’t possibly have projected its rays into my parents’ room, her face was flushed red. It was past dinner time: my stomach was beginning to rumble and I was getting irritable and snappish. And Mother was out playing mahjong. I was just about to scold Gold Flower, when I saw Father emerging from the inner room; so I held my tongue. Father had the grey vest under his arm. He walked past me; then turning his head halfway, he said, “Go get your little brother. It’s getting late.”
One night, a week later, I woke up with a violent start. My head spun: I thought I was on a battlefield, or at the edge of one. There was something terrifying me but I wasn’t sure what. I sat on my bed and put my head between my arched legs, with only my ears exposed to catch every noise. I was terrified, but still I wanted to catch every word.
“ . . . and you still consider yourself a decent person? You do it even with servants . . .”
“That’s cheap slander and you know it; and that’s all you know how to do. What could you possibly know about my behavior at home? When you yourself are never here, not morning, not noon, not night—never here. You have eyes in the back of your head?”
“ . . . I may be out during the days, but I am not dead! How dare you accuse me of not being home, when you are off doing this shameful thing? I think you’re the . . .”
“… will you control yourself? Watch what you’re saying! You’re saying I’ve no sense of shame; and what exactly do you think you mean by that? . . .”
“I mean exactly what I said. If a man doesn’t have a sense of shame, he just doesn’t have it. You don’t have it! You are nothing but an animal.”
Now, outside the window, the day is breaking in the sky. There’s no life in Father’s eyes. They stare out at a branch that shows not the slightest stirrings of any greenery. In the corners of my father’s mouth you can see loneliness. No, I can’t believe this is the man I heard that night. That raging man who beat my mother with his fists, who howled like a dog, who took Gold Flower roughly by the arm and left in a whirlwind. He was gone three days. And when he came back, everyone in the household went mute. Even the regular weeping of Little Brother was swallowed and silenced.
Not long after, Gold Flower was sent back to her village. The war between Mother and Father subsided. Only I held a grudge; every time I had to face Father directly, I would stand like a defeated soldier in front of an enemy too strong to oppose. I hated him, but I did not dare stand up to him.
In the years that followed this incident, the war never broke out again into actual violence. Nevertheless, hostility was built into the relationship between Mother and Father. Sometimes things would flare up over a photograph of a fashionable woman in Father’s pocket or the lipstick mark of unfamiliar, crescent-shaped lips on the shoulder of his shirt. Mother had never been a warm or tender woman. Now her voice became loud and harsh. Her expressions and manner became more severe. I could not bring myself to understand or forgive Father; but to my surprise, I found I had no sympathy for Mother either. Because the anger Mother had accumulated came to be like a land mine left on a battlefield: it was always exploding on the innocent passers-by, us her children.
I hear Father sighing. His sighs are soft and weak, because he doesn’t want anyone to hear them. Then he gets up slowly and painfully from his chair, his old hand against the beige tabletop, his arm trembling. He begins to pace around the room. He paces in stiff, aimless circles the way he did the night Mother left home.
The night Mother left home, that date I do remember. It was the year I entered college, the year Father was promoted to manager, the year we moved to our new home with our grand front door made of glass and our lawn as fine and smooth as an infant’s hair. That was also the year Mother found out about Father’s “other” house and the woman who was living in it. It all happened suddenly; one day she just gathered us all together and took us there. We got into the car driven by chauffeur Chang, the one who normally took Father to and from work. In a short, curt manner, Mother gave the chauffeur the name of the street. “Drive us there,” she said. The chauffeur, with his short black fingers resting uneasily on the wheel, hesitated. Mother snapped, “What are you waiting for?” Then, reluctantly, he set his foot down on the accelerator.
All that happened that day flashed across my eyes like the wind-blown pages of days flipping up from a calendar. Whenever I try to piece together that incident in recent years, all that I can recall are fleeting images that rise and fade in my mind: that woman’s face, red like the Sundays on the calendar, so red that it dazzled the eye . . . the servant coming to open the door . . . Father’s surprise, then anger, and his shamefaced expression . . . and on that wornan’s white face, the bright red lips parted in surprise . . . then her slim and graceful back as she scurried away . . . Father was scolding, and chauffeur Chang, in a weak voice, tried to defend himself. And tangled up in it all were the hoarse tones of Mother’s voice: “So children, do you see? Do you understand? This is the father you never see day or night. Do you understand why I can’t buy that American wool fabric at Daisy’s for you? Do you see why Mother can’t buy you a Phillip racing bike? And, you, Little Brother, you need a more qualified tutor, don’t you? Why don’t you ask your father where all the money has gone. Go ask your nice father . . .”
I clung to the wall, not daring to meet anyone’s glance; not daring to look myself in the face. My small body throbbed with anger and shame; at Father, yes, but at Mother even more, because she had dragged all this out into the open right there in front of the servants: in front of the chauffeur and in front of the maid.
It all flew past me, as speedily as calendar pages blown by a howling wind. By the time I dared lift my head again, we had already reached our own front door. Close behind us, Father had also come home. I locked myself in my room, but through the door I could hear the sounds of slaughter coming from the battlefield. I wasn’t afraid, not this time. I was like a scarred and battle-toughened general in helmet and armor. My younger brothers were outside my door, weeping and begging me to mediate. I just put my hands tightly over my ears. Tears? I wasn’t going to shed a single drop.
That night, Mother left. Little Brother told me she had left with a gash on her forehead. The maid fixed us some dinner: I put the younger brothers to bed. The horrors Little Brother had seen that day had exhausted him completely; he fell immediately into a deep sleep. But even in his sleep he kept choking and crying without tears, and begging, “Ma . . . Ma . . .” endlessly. I felt myself breaking down then; I was terrified at the thought of hearing myself cry. I turned off the light and groped my way back to the bed again. I lay my face down near Little Brother’s throbbing neck, then the tears I had suppressed all day poured out.
I don’t know when I woke. Stumbling back to my own room, I passed through the small living room and saw Father there alone, pacing with his hands behind his back. The cigarette he held between his fingers had burned down so low it was nearly scorching his skin. Without thinking, forgetting everything that had happened that day, I cried out, “Father! The cigarette! . . .”
With a vacant expression, Father turns around and says, “Hmmm? . . . What? . . .”
I have to shake myself out of a fog before I realize where I am: Father has arrived. He’s my guest; this is my home. “You’re up so early Father. I would have thought you would be exhausted from your trip. Why don’t you sleep a little longer?”
Father stops pacing for a moment. Massaging the muscles in his jaw, he says, “I’ve slept enough. I’m getting older, and old people wake up carly in the morning. But why don’t you go rest a while longer?”
“I’ve slept long enough. You must be hungry. I’ll go heat up a glass of warm milk for you.”
What I’ve just said reminds me again of that scene, of that first morning after Mother left home. I was sitting in the dining room with a bowl of hot rice gruel. My little brothers had all gone to school. I hadn’t slept all night and was in no shape to go to classes. When I saw Father, in his robe, walk into the room, I hurriedly put down the bowl of gruel and stood up. Avoiding his eyes, I just rushed from the room, and at the door, I collided squarely with the maid, who was carrying in a glass of hot milk for Father. It splashed all over me. Father leapt forward with a towel in his hand; gently, he wiped my scalded arm. His touch made me tremble. It was a combination of confusion, shock, and hatred.
“Look at you, how clumsy you are. Who would think you were a college student?”
He bent over me, wiping the milk off my lapel. I tried not to look at him, but I could not avoid seeing the white hair at his temples. Unconsciously I recoiled from him. I went back to my seat at the table. My gruel had grown cold. The cigarette that Father had put down in his hurry was already burned out.
“Don’t you have classes today?”
“There are classes; but it’d be pointless for me to go.”
There was no doubt Father was even more aware than I of the despondency and resentment in that sentence. As he lit a cigarette, he pushed in front of me the second glass of hot milk the servant had just brought in. “Drink this. I’m not hungry just now.”
I took the glass and sipped at it. Tears kept falling into the milk and dissolving. Father sat silently, smoking his cigarette. Then he said: “I know what you and your brothers are thinking, but you haven’t even tasted life yet: you don’t know anything about how the world works. It would be pointless to try to give you an expianation now.”
“You don’t need to explain. I saw it all myself.”
“Some things . . . ,” he stood up and began to walk around the room, “you can’t just look at what’s happening on the surface and think that’s enough to pass judgment on. You have to dig out the causes, the reasons, the roots. But, in any case, you don’t have to worry: your Mother will return.”
“I know.” During all those years of bickering, Mother had stayed not out of any feelings of tenderness toward Father; such feelings, if she had them at all, were far too weak to stop her. Rather she had stayed purely out of concern for us, her children. We were the cords of hemp that bound her legs and arms. And twisted around her, too, were the admonitions of the Three Obediences and the Four Virtues. She was a woman bound by tradition, a woman not prepared for independence in a new society. I never worried that Mother might leave for good. What made my heart so sick was that I knew that between Father and Mother there would never be any hope for harmony.
In a desolate tone I had never heard him use before, Father said: “Since you’re not going to class, would you mind coming with me to look for Mother? Maybe if you were there, there might be more of a chance that she’ll let me apologize gracefully.”
I don’t know if it was the white hair on his temples or the flagging spirit in his voice; or maybe it was that when he said, “let me apologize gracefully,” all the fierceness of Mother’s face and voice came rushing back to me; or maybe even something had matured in me, some capacity for empathy . . . But in any case, I had a sudden urge to put my hand in his and say, “OK, I’ll go with you.” I took the glass of milk in both hands, drank it all in one gulp and stood up.
Mother did return, but that woman never left. The atmosphere at home fluctuated from beautiful to stormy. When it was fine and cloudless at home, Mother would sit at the edge of the round table in the living room with her needlework in her hands; and Father would rest on the rattan chair near the window. The smoke from his cigarette looked like a fog swirling and coiling and escaping out the window. From the living room, the sound of chatter and laughter spilled into the den where my brothers and I sat doing our homework. My younger brothers would be in unusually high spirits, and as for me, doing homework would be as easy as turning over the palm of my hand. No homework could give me any headaches at those times.
But when it was cloudy at home, the living room was like a sheet of lead. Mother would light cigarette after cigarette, and with every one she lit, the sound of the match being struck scratched painfully at my heart, and at my brothers’. The unoccupied rattan chair was like an internal organ that had been ripped open and left hollowed out. Father went off for days at a time. But always it was only after a bitter and dispiriting argument with Mother.
One time when he left, I tailed him on my bike, following the pedicab that he had called at the corner of the street. He was going, just as I expected, to that woman’s place. She, looking like a Japanese geisha girl on a color postcard with her fair skin and crimson lips, opened the door herself. I was far away, but still I could see the smile on her face when she caught sight of Father. It was gentle and soft, submissive on the surface, seductive underneath. She was the kind of woman that could charm and soothe a man — or a woman for that matter—into a kind of pleasurable state that disarmed all criticism. Seeing her, even I could not hate her. My first reaction was to search in my mind—when had Mother ever smiled like that? Mother’s face was well proportioned, it could even be called handsome, but somehow it was hard and chilling. If only she would smile like this woman to soften her severity. In that brief moment on the street corner, seeing this woman’s tenderness, then seeing Mother’s raging face in my mind, I began at last to have some understanding of what Father had meant on that occasion when he tried to defend himself.
“You don’t need to boil it,” Father said. “Just hot is fine for me.”
I poured the hot milk into a glass, added two teaspoons of sugar, carried it carefully to his side, and set it down in front of him. Lightly, he took the teaspooon in his fingers and stirred the milk. The fingers were as elegantly round and tender as they had ever been. The only change was that the nail on his index finger had grown discolored to a coffee brown from smoking. I looked at my Father’s hands and thought of the women who had passed through them. There were questions I wanted to ask. When I lifted my head, I caught a glimpse of his glassy eyes. Those eyes betrayed his depression, loneliness, and the silence of old age. I took a cigarette from the pack he’d placed on the table, picked up his lighter, and only then, for the first time, did I notice what an exquisite piece of artwork Father’s lighter was. It was a delicate perfume jar with an elliptical cap that, when pressed, flew open to let escape a light green flame. Such an ingenious and delicate toy, I thought, could only be a keepsake from a woman. Was this the lighter Father had been using all along? I had been away from home so long I couldn’t remember. I fondled the lighter in my hand a long time, contemplating it; that caught Father’s attention.
“It was a gift from Yoshiko, more than ten years ago. It’s had to go into the shop for repairs a few times, but it’s still good.”
His words startled me; the exquisite lighter slipped from my hand and hit the floor with a crisp “bang,” shattering the halfawakened dawn. My surprise was not so much at the discovery that Japanese goods could last such a long time: it was at hearing Father mention the affairs that had always been taboo. He saw the look on my face. “Now that you’re a mother and a wife yourself, your understanding of the relationship between husband and wife must have matured. I don’t need to hold back in what I say anymore, do I? But I’m not trying to make any pleas for myself.” He stopped talking, stirred his milk. The hot vapors that had been rising at the mouth of the cup had already cooled, weakened, like the smoke from my cigarette, which I had lit and not yet smoked. The smoke and the steam from the milk, which Father had not touched, rose up and mingled together, then dispersed into the air.
“What’s the point of explaining things that are long past?”
“You’re right, what’s the point? I’m not even going to try. I just feel like getting it off my chest. It’s been bottled up for too many years. It would be good if you could understand. But if you can’t, don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.” His voice was hoarse, the way it used to be when he came home drunk in the middle of the night. It was the gutteral voice I remember hearing when he had thrown up or had been chain-smoking, sitting in the living room after a quarrel with Mother. But now these memories don’t bring back the anger that I used to feel toward him. Now it’s compassion I feel, a compassion close to pity.
“So, Yoshiko was that woman? Where is she?”
“She passed away, in the third year after you left home.”
“I remember the oldest brother wrote me saying that the feeling between you and Mother had changed. Could it possibly have something to do with ï I couldn’t bring myself to say her name, as if afraid that if I mentioned it again, that fair and radiant face would reappear. “Perhaps the death of that woman has something to do with it?”
Father shook his head. “The feeling I once had for your Mother disappeared a long time ago. It didn’t last very long after that incident with Gold Flower.”
The name Gold Flower sent a chill immediately to the soles of my feet; a chill that traveled rapidly through the rest of my body. Now that whole scene played out again in my mind: I was trampling the damp clothes under the water spigot, they lay still and lifeless under me. Gold Flower had been gone so long the sun that had been warming the tops of my feet had already set. I could not hide the accusation in my voice. “How can you put the blame on Mother for that affair with Gold Flower?”
The weary, defeated expression in his eyes returned. “I don’t blame her. I could never blame her. In all these years of squabbling back and forth, have I ever let fall one word of blame in front of you children? Your mother is an upright woman. A dutiful woman who can endure hardships. When I was poor, she did not complain. When I was rich, she didn’t grow arrogant. There was just one thing: on an emotional level, she was too icy toward me. In the several decades of our marriage, with the exception of the first one or two years, I have always felt that life with your Mother was like a winter that would never pass.”
With a pair of hands that were still supple, not yet withered or dry, he gently rubbed his dry, wrinkled jaw. His palms rubbing against his stiff whiskers made a chafing, scratching noise. “I don’t blame her. The affair with Gold Flower was my fault. I apologized to your Mother; I admitted my fault to her. But she refused to forgive me. She never did forgive me. It’s human to make a mistake. If she hadn’t made such a scene in front of you children, my sense of shame wouldn’t have turned so much into anger. But making such a scene, kicking Gold Flower out—exposing my failings to the whole neighborhood! And anyway, I was young then. Young men are always getting into fits of anger and going off shouting that they don’t give a damn. It’s only natural.”
He had much of my sympathy. Just remembering Mother’s curses made my ears burn. Still, I said, “Do you mean to say that Mother should have tolerated all of this? That she should have let Gold Flower remain in the household after all that?”
“No, that’s not what I mean. She was right to get angry. And driving the maid away was only reasonable. But if, after it was all over, she had forgiven me … if she had accepted me again, maybe . . . ” He fell silent again, stirring the milk that had long since lost all its warmth.
“. . . maybe there wouldn’t have been a Yoshiko?” I said, so softly it should have almost been inaudible; but it came through distinct and clear. There were other women in Father’s life before Yoshiko, but in comparison, none of them was of any significance.
Stirring the milk as if this helped him think, Father said, “That’s hard to say, very hard to predict what might have happened. But at least, if your mother had forgiven me, I would have tried to make up for that mistake. Whether I would have been successful or not is hard to say. But your mother’s temper drove me thousands of miles from her. And as time passed, the ice grew thicker and more impossible to melt. Later, when I ran into Yoshiko. . . .” He stopped again, staring down at the cup intensely with his tired eyes. “I’m thankful that your mother did reject me so severely. Because otherwise I would never have known how the tenderness of a woman could make me feel so warm.”
As if he wanted to veil the fond memories of the woman he had, without meaning to, suddenly revealed to me, he picked up the glass of milk and roughly drank it down. Then he began to cough, coughing so violently that green and black veins stood out near his temples. For some reason my impulse was to stand up and massage his back, pounding on it with my fists. Yet I could not do it; I sat there and could not bring myself to move. It was only when the cigarette ember between my fingers nearly burned down to my skin that I jumped up, looking for an ashtray.
Father’s coughing continued violently. His withered face had become as red as a dried maple leaf, a maple leaf writhing as it falls from the tree. He turned to face the window as he coughed, as if hiding his face from me. I don’t know why; maybe he didn’t want me to see his face in such contortion. From my angle, I could see his profile clearly. He was coughing so violently that tears had begun to flow from his eyes. His neck was stretched forward and his back bent. He was a helpless old man standing there in front of that window. And outside, a few naked grey-white birches stood in the desolate winter.
I forced myself to do something after all; I approached Father and began to massage his back, gently pounding on it with my fists. I wanted to pound the forgiveness I felt for him into his heart. My brothers and I had always felt Mother was the one who had been mistreated, even though during those days when Father was absent from home, Mother never wept in front of us. We had made a secret pact that as soon as we finished school and got jobs, we would rescue Mother from her pit of misery.
In less than six months after the oldest brother got married, he and his wife took Mother in. And the other two, the next younger brother and the youngest, also began their careers, so Mother could take turns staying in three different homes. Occasionally she came to visit me too, in my little world. I don’t know whether it’s because I inherited some of her strong will, or because all along I reserved some small part of my heart for Father, but whenever Mother and I were together, things were never completely comfortable between us.
Then Father abandoned the solitary lifestyle that he had followed for so many years and unexpectedly came to live with me, his daughter. Was he possibly trying to find some thread of family warmth in those few, pitiful strands of empathy I could offer? Oh Father!
“Father, if you and Mother didn’t feel any love for each other, you should have gotten a divorce a long time ago.”
He was gradually recovering from his fit of coughing. From the pocket of his robe, he took out a white handkerchief that had been folded neatly into a square. He dabbed his eyes; then, putting the handkerchief discreetly to his mouth, he removed the clot of mucus that had been coughed up. He folded the handkerchief slowly and put it back in his pocket. Without turning to look at me, he said, “Divorce is the privilege of your generation.” Then he went on, “At that time, even if I could have gotten a divorce, and even if I had wanted to, I wouldn’t have done it. But if your mother raises this with me now, I’ll not hesitate, because I don’t have to worry about her livelihood anymore.” He picked up his cigarettes and the lighter, lit a cigarette and took a drag from it. “But why bother with a divorce now? Our lives are almost over.”
When a man in his forties or even earlier says “life is almost over,” there isn’t the least bit of sorrow in his heart. He knows very well that forty is the prime of life. When he reaches fifty or so, he may say it again, but he still doesn’t believe it. But when he gets up to sixty or over sixty, like Father, and when his past has been a glorious one; when a man in this situation says life is almost over, I wonder what kind of feeling he has in his heart. His career days and his warm-natured women are all things of the past. Even his wife now belongs to his sons. And his daughter? Well, she does offer him an ounce of acceptance, but just the minimum that arises out of pity. Is this all that remains of a whole lifetime? All I can find, when I study his face, are these few pathetic remnants, and the memories and images of the past.
Facing the window, he finished smoking his cigarette. Then, at last he said, “I’m a little tired: I think I’ll go lie down for a bit.” His tone was almost as if he were pleading for my approval of that remark. Suddenly a fit of pathos gripped my heart.
“Go rest,” I said gently. “I’ll make sure the kids aren’t too noisy.” He put the lighter in his pocket and turned to go. I was afraid to look at his face. In a voice as calm and unstrained as I could manage, I said, “Father, we’re all very happy that you came to live with us.”
“Father’s been living with me for about a month now.”
“I’m aware of that. He wrote me.”
“Really? About what?” Suddenly I felt hurt. It was as if my children had been bullied on their way home from school and had gone running to strangers before they came to me.
“When have I ever lied to you?” she said sharply, her eyebrows raised in reproach. All of a sudden she had pushed me back to those days, more than ten years ago, when I had to stand there and be lectured after I had said something wrong. “Your father says nothing special in the letter. Just that he’s staying at your place.”
I waited for her to ask about Father’s health, but she just went on knitting the sweater in her hands. It was a pale pastel color, probably for my brother’s child. She was always knitting in the old days, when she was left alone too often, as if she were pushing away the solitariness with every stitch. When we used to come home from school in the late afternoon, we would see that ball of yarn rolling around like an unsettled heart on the spacious, but soundless parquet floor. When she concentrated, she frowned, contracting her eyebrows, all her attention fixed on the two metal needles. In those days, she had to be solitary. Father didn’t give her any other choice. And now? She herself chooses solitude.
“Father’s health is OK. He does cough a lot, especially at night. And it seems he sleeps very little. He always gets up early in the morning.”
Mother did not reply. Father’s hair hasn’t gone completely white yet, and still hasn’t thinnned out. Only the hair at his temples is gray. His old age is all revealed in his lusterless eyes. But Mother’s hair is not only more than half white, half of it has already fallen out as well. Now she combs it into a knot at the back of her head. Her face is wrinkled, but it hasn’t lost its oval contour. What most clearly shows her age are the loose folds of skin hanging from her jaws. Could it be that the skin sagged from the way she had drooped her head over her unhappy, endless knitting? She has used her hands to kill so many lonely hours.
“Why do you keep knitting? I thought the doctor told you to rest your eyes.”
“It makes me panicky when I just sit here idly.”
“Come stay with me for awhile. Little P’ei only goes to school for half a day: he can chase away the boredom for you.”
“It’s too much trouble going back and forth. And anyway, they need a helping hand here. Your sister-in-law’s never done any housework before. At least when I’m here, I can teach her something.”
“Who’s ever done any housework before they’re married?” I caught myself and suppressed what I was about to say next. Instead, I shifted, “I get bored myself sometimes; there’s no one home for me to talk to. Come and keep me company.”
“Isn’t your father there? You always seemed to have a lot to talk about with him; at least much more than your brothers ever had.”
“Father has become more taciturn than ever. He can sit by himself for hours; he’s already thumbed through the few magazines we have in the house so many times that they’ve fallen apart. He takes Little P’ei to the store sometimes to buy ice cream or a toy, but aside from that, he never sets foot out the door. I guess living by himself so many years with nobody to talk to, he’s gotten used to it.”
Mother did not reply. She ripped apart the row of stitches she had just finished knitting; then, putting the stitches back on the steel needles and carefully counting the number, she knit it over again.
“Mother, let bygones be bygones. Father is very sad, I can tell. Give him another chance. You two living apart like this makes all of us uneasy.”
“Us? Who’s ‘us’? Your brothers all think this is the most reasonable arrangement. Your father isn’t short of money. When he lived in the country, he had a maid to take good care of him. Now that he’s living with you, he’s looked after even better. What could possibly be wanting?”
“What’s wanting is someone for him to talk to. An old companion.”
“Did it ever occur to him, in all those years, that I might also need someone to talk to? All day long I used to sit like a mute, and my mind would run in circles, thinking of where he was, talking and laughing with that low-class, shameless woman. And in my agony, I imagined to myself: maybe they are talking about me, and laughing at me. Did he ever give it a thought, that I sat there alone all day long? I didn’t want money; I didn’t demand good food and expensive clothes. All I wanted was someone to be there so at least I could open my mouth once in a while and say something. Do you think he ever thought of that?” Her hands were moving quickly over the yarn; her words, too, seemed to skitter out nervously. Her needlework had gotten into a mess. At last she gave up, put down the yarn, and simply sat facing me.
“We all know Father wasn’t fair to you. But …”
“It’s good that you realize that. No use trying to plead his case in front of me. No matter what you say, I’m not going to live with him.”
“I didn’t say I want you to live with him. I just want you to come visit; because the younger brothers don’t welcome him here, he can’t come see you. I see him sitting there by himself sometimes and not saying a word all afternoon. It makes me so sad, Mother . . . I feel so sad for him …”
“And what about me? Didn’t you ever feel sorry for me?”
“I did, I did. But you’re tougher than Father. So . . .”
“Oh I am? And how can you tell? What makes you think that?”
“Look how many years you’ve managed to endure. You raised us single-handedly, and now we’re all grown. That in itself must have taken incredible strength. And through all those years, you’ve never cried in front of us, not once.”
She stood up abruptly. The yarn in her hand fell to the floor, but made no sound. “Haven’t you heard of swallowing tears into the stomach? Ai! You’re still a child, you still don’t understand.” She turned her face to prevent me from seeing it, but from where I was sitting, I could see the trembling of her loose chin.
I wanted to go to her, hold onto her shoulders, stroke her back, kiss her graying hair. But I could only sit there motionless. When I was younger, once after she and Father had had a vicious fight, Father had shouted violently and left. Mother, with her hair disheveled, just sat there and gasped in the living room littered with broken china. My heart had been full of sorrow and sympathy for her. I had rushed forward to hug her; but she put out one hand and pushed me away. “Go away!” she said. “Go away. Don’t touch me.” I will never forget the icy expression in her eyes.
“Oh Mother,” I said sadly, “I came here to cheer you up and look what I’ve done. I’ve upset you.”
“Your father sent you here to plead his case.”
“No, he didn’t. Father’s never said anything about wanting you to go see him; he just asks about your health. This is all my idea; it just seems to me that after fighting tor a litetime, it’s time to think about a reconciliation . . . especially since Father’s health is so bad.”
“So he’s finally begun to think about my mealth, has he? When I was giving birth to Little Brother, you couldn’t even catch sight of his shadow. When I screamed out, neither heaven nor earth responded. I was in pain until midnight. Then, in the middle of the night, I had to beg the Changs next door to take me to the hospital. It wasn’t until three days after Little Brother was born that your father came crawling home, soused as a pile of soft mud. You should really ask that pitiful father of yours whether he remembers this incident.”
“Even I remember it. How can Father possibly forget?”
“Well I suppose now that his health is getting bad, he must be looking for a nurse who won’t cost anything. How did his health get bad in the first place? He used to spend handfuls and handfuls of money on those women of his—why can’t even one of them come wait on him? Would that be too much to ask? What about that one woman, the one he kept in such fine style in that house …?”
“Yoshiko? She passed away a long time ago. Cancer of the throat.”
Mother picked up the yarn that had dropped on the foor. She put on her glasses and concentrated again on her knitting. She knit two rows, then ripped them out, knitted and ripped, knitted and ripped, again and again. In the past, she had been able to knit without even using her eyes, without a single flaw, without ever dropping a stitch.
“Mother, you must have known about it, her death I mean.”
Dusk had begun to fall; the room was darkening. I couldn’t see Mother’s expression very clearly, but her voice seemed to have softened, to have grown more feeble, like the voice of an aging person. “I knew about it. For a week after that woman died, your father couldn’t swallow one grain of rice. He tried to hide it, but I saw him break into tears more than once. I knew about it.”
I could not imagine a man crying. Father, crying? I could not imagine it.
“Mother, consider it for awhile.”
She shook her head and went on counting her stitches. “You might as well go on home now. It’s getting late. Little P’ei will be looking for you.”
III. MY PARENTS
Father became ill. A cold, a stomach ache, rheumatism, old age, and loneliness all converging on him at once. He slept fitfully, feverish, talking in his sleep. He seemed to have called out Mother’s name; or maybe it was Yoshiko. I couldn’t make it out. I called Mother on the phone; she had nothing to say, and of course she wouldn’t mention the idea of coming.
That night, when I came home after filling a prescription, I found Father huddled next to the phone, wearing a thick blanket around his shoulders. He coughed and talked at the same time. I don’t know if it was because he was talking, but his hands trembled and he had to pause often to gasp and wheeze.
“It’s OK . . . just an old problem … I know . . . I’ve already tried those … I know . . . yes … It is done . . . too much . . . That’s right . . . why bother . . . Hui-chen, you’re right . . . you’ve always been right… I know. I know. They’re all fine! … I feel ashamed . . . No no, please don’t rub it in . . . OK. Don’t worry. She’ll be right back . . . No, that’s not necessary, that’s not necessary . . . How about you? Take good care . . .” A fit of coughing made him unable to continue. I steppped forward and held onto him. I helped him back to his room and into bed. The telephone receiver that was left hanging seemed like an exposed scar. I could hear Mother’s voice coming out of the receiver. It sounded far away, but at the same time urgent and shrill, saying, “I am coming. I am coming,” or was it “I am not coming. I am not coming.”?
I really couldn’t make it out clearly.