I don’t know how to tell my mother that my brother just died.
He fell off a stupid cliff while hiking somewhere in northern California. My mother had always called him long distance from Taiwan just to mutter at him about going hiking, she thought it was such a dangerous thing to do, since Americans don’t make their trails out of cement stairs and put bars on either side of the steps like Taiwanese mountain trails.
“What if you fall off?” she would ask. Maybe she jinxed him.
He was her favorite, baby son. Growing up, my older sister and I were always beaten and scolded for the slightest offense or disrespectfulness, but not the baby, not little Wei Wei. Wei was spoiled as anything because he was the youngest, the cutest, the smartest. Mom let him have his way all the time, despite Dad’s objections that he was becoming a momma’s boy.
“Pei! Be good to your child. Otherwise the gods will take him away from you,” she would say to Dad whenever he complained that she was being too lax with her youngest son.
But despite everything, despite the bottomless allowance account, despite the brand name sneakers, athletic gear, lack of punishment and expensive schools, Wei turned out all right. In fact, he turned out better than any of us. My sister studied music at Taipei Cultural University and I went to Mu Cha Vocational School on the outskirts of Taipei, while Wei went to the University of California, Irvine. He even got a scholarship. My parents were so proud. As soon as he graduated, both IBM and Intel wanted him; he chose IBM, which turned out to be an unfortunate choice because living in California was what got him into hiking–at least that’s what Mom always says.
What Taiwanese would be impressed by hiking in California–what do they have that we don’t? We have plenty of mountains right here surrounding Taipei basin, with nice Buddhist statues at the top, you can look down and see a sea of clouds floating by, and you’re up so high the water tastes especially sweet and the air is completely clear, damp, chillier, almost unearthly. I’d brought Wei hiking before, on Toad Mountain, he hated it and kept asking if we could go home now. That was ten years ago.
And now, my brother dies hiking in a foreign country at twentynine.
Our mother will never be the same again.
Maybe we don’t have to tell her.
The Taiwan Office in America called my older sister first. She said that the “in-case-of-emergency” number he had left with his insurance company was his sister, Jade Lin’s. Mom would have been heartbroken to know that his emergency phone number was not hers but Jade’s. But of course, Jade is the only family member who lives in America, in Dallas, Texas, to be precise. Jade teaches music students at home, in a large three-story rectangular house. She has a studio on the third floor where she makes Chinese looking ragbags out of scraps of fabric and ties, which she sells to American housewives for thirty dollars each.
Jade did not become hysterical upon hearing the news, because Jade only thinks of herself. She didn’t think of calling me in Taipei until five hours after she got the message.
“Hey, Allo, you’re not going to believe this, but Wei is dead. Our brother Wei. Mom’s Wei.” Her voice sounded like she had been drinking. Jade drinks. She claims her silent American husband drives her to drink, but as far as I know, she is the one who torments him. She has a silent little son, too, about eleven by now, an unhappy little runt, Nick, whose pictures she sends us every few months.
“How…are you sure? Wei? How can anyone die hiking? When? Who called you?”
“The Taiwan Representative Office. He went to the San something mountains with some friends, and he slipped and rolled down the edge. One guy watched him go down. They’re trying to find his body right now, and they think they can find it because the friends know the spot…”
“This is horrible. Couldn’t he be alive?”
“I asked that too. The officials said that we would be lucky to get the body back in one piece.”
“What are we going to do? I mean, what can we do now?”
“Well, I’m flying up to California tomorrow morning and leaving Nick with my next door neighbor. They have papers for me to sign, and I have to tell them what we want to do with the body.”
Our brother was already being referred to as “the body.” She could have at least said “Wei’s body,” or “our brother’s body,” but she had to say “the body.” It was too much for me to think about what we were going to do with Wei, how to get rid of him, to burn him or box him and bury him…
“Hello, Allo, you still there?” Jade’s voice was shrill all of a sudden.
“Yes, yes. I…I think we need more time. To think about…what to do. And what about Mom and Dad, what about Mom? Who will tell her?”
“You, naturally,” Jade said. “You live in Taiwan. Why should I make another long distance call to hear her weep over her baby for two hours?”
“That’s a nasty thing to say, Jade.”
“I’m sorry, it’s the gin speaking. Anyway, I’ll talk to you when I’m in California maybe. We might have to break it to Mom gently, if that’s even possible.”
“I know. She’s probably showing his pictures to one of the customers in her store right now and bragging about how successful he is in America.”
“I gotta go, Allo. It’s almost one in the morning here.”
“I can’t believe this happened.” As I say this, my drunken sister has already hung up on me with a loud click.
Mom lives about a twenty-five minute walk from my apartment, in our old house. Since she and Dad retired, she turned our first floor into a little grocer’s store like they used to have in old neighborhoods–places where you could buy a small handful of green or red beans, a cup of rice, dried goods, sauces, pickled vegetables, fresh spices, junk food and chewing gum. The store is kind of a hobby, we don’t know if she ever makes any money; she enjoys the company of local housewives when they come and chat over her counter in the afternoons. She gives away free fish tofu and little jars of pickled things to frequent customers and neighbors. Everyone knows her as Mrs. Lin, the old woman with a broad face, with a small round build and tiny eyes that squint into slits when she smiles, which is often, especially when she talks about her youngest son, Wei.
A little voice inside my head repeats over and over: don’t tell her, don’t tell her. Of course, keeping the disappearance of Wei a secret would be impossible since he, like a dutiful Taiwanese son, calls her every weekend. I could pretend to be him and call her, but that would be going too far, ghost-calling for my dead brother. I would have nothing to say.
I just wish I wasn’t the one to tell her. She would probably scream through a torrent of tears and beat me with her fists, screaming that I was lying. Me, the middle child, unsuccessful cram school teacher, renter of a small apartment at thirty-three telling her that her precious baby UCI graduate IBM developer patent-winning son has died. Hiking. She would be angry at me, she would act like it was my fault, just like we blame the weatherman when he tells us there will be thunderstorms when we have a picnic planned.
I should have been the one to die, not Wei. He wasn’t a bad brother. I will miss him, especially miss when we were children; lately I only see him for a few weeks at a time every year or two. I remember when Wei was addicted to computer games in junior high–I had to do all his math and science homework, Mom made me, saying it was my duty as an older brother. He also spent many hours discovering the secrets of the Rubik’s cube so that he had worn the stickers off two whole cubes and had to write the characters for red, blue, yellow, etc. on the white papery substance left on the cube. Even now (well, two days ago–not now, now he’s dead), give him a Rubik’s cube and he’ll turn it so fast you can’t see what he’s doing; in one minute he’ll have all six colors in their own matching positions on each facet of the cube.
Wei’s last year of junior high, he deleted all the files from his computer, threw out the floppy discs full of role-playing monster-slaying games, and studied for 7 months. It took only that for him to get into the best possible senior high, Jian Zon, then in his last year there get accepted to UCI in America out of the blue. We didn’t even know he applied; it was his English teacher’s idea.
I take the longest route possible through the nightmarket, taking my time walking to my parents’ house. It’s three in the afternoon so Mom will be behind the counter in her store. There couldn’t be a worse time to tell her, with customers coming and going, expecting her to work the cash register, weigh dried goods and tell them prices.
I pass the cleaner’s and look for Lucky, the Laundromat Dog (half the dogs in Taiwan are named Lucky). I always look for Lucky because he’s been around for so long that I’m afraid that one day I will pass the cleaner’s and there will be no Lucky because Lucky died. Who would have thought my little brother would go first. Peering into the cleaner’s, I see the brown and white, sweet-faced, pointy-nosed dog sitting under a clothes-folding table, eyes lazily following passersby. Lucky is old, no doubt. Though I’ve never played with him and he hardly knows me, I love him anyway. I don’t even know if Lucky is a boy or a girl, “he” could be an old grandmother dog. I wave at grandma Lucky and drag my feet into the nightmarket entrance.
The owners of stalls and stores and mats full of clothes and shoes are smiling, happy, enthusiastically trying to get customers to buy their wares. None of these people lost a son anytime recently, not a baby son who worked for IBM and got several patents, that’s for sure. I wonder if my mother will get over Wei’s death. She told me her mother never got over my uncle’s death–he was the only boy in a family of four children, and the smartest one, an excellent young surgeon in Tai Chung before he died in a car accident. I don’t remember my grandma much, but do recall that she burst into tears at any mention of my uncle and that before her death she trembled from something called Parkinson’s disease, and the medication made her slow, made her call us kids by the wrong names, sometimes even by my dead uncle’s name. Maybe this was something that happened to women in our family, like a curse? If you love your son too much, he will die, and you will die heartbroken, trembling from a mild but incurable condition.
The streets look especially filthy today. Gum, blood-like stains of betel nut juice, scraps of paper, cigarette butts here and there on the bumpy asphalt and cement. A cockroach or two scurrying, some uncovered sewers with a dozen mosquitoes buzzing above them, children crying, toddlers falling down, men yelling and women screaming. Laughter. Chaos. The street smells like fish and smoked ham and fried chicken all at once. The unmistakable aroma of sweet roasted sausage assaults my face in its treacly heat; I’ve always hated sausage and the lemon, strawberry, and other inappropriate sausage flavors disgust me.
I am suddenly overwhelmed by everything, the odors, the noise, the crowded street, people brushing against me and thinking nothing of it. I am a bereft brother going to inform his parents that we are a bereft family; these people have no right to push someone who has the look that I have on my face, the look of someone who just lost a loved one far away. Several times I consider turning back. My parents don’t have to know, if I just ignore the problem it might go away, my mother might forget she has a son in California, and everything will be okay, even if it feels like there’s something, someone missing.
I’m at the door of my mother’s store. You can’t see her when you first walk in because she deliberately designed the counter so it was to the left of the door, facing the back instead of the front door. Bad feng shui, I suddenly realized, I should have thought of this before and warned her. Do not work with your back to the door. A superstitious ex-girlfriend once told me that, and though I still think she’s nuts, I can’t help suspecting there’s some truth to the little sayings she repeated all the time. All Taiwanese are a bit superstitious at heart–even the most rational of us think there’s no harm in taking precautions–just in case. I need one of those lucky talismans my ex-girlfriend used to carry; I don’t know how to face Mom without one. Actually, Wei was the one who needed a lucky charm, or a tiny crystal Buddha figurine tied around his neck with a piece of red string–if he hadn’t died, our lives would still be normal.
I take a deep breath and walk in. Mom is not at the counter. Great, I can go now.
“Allo, what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be getting ready for work?” It’s Mom, emerging from the condiments and rice aisle. I had completely forgotten about work, I’ll have to call the cram school and tell them I can’t be there.
“Uh, mom, I … I’m not teaching tonight,” is all I can say.
“Why not? What kind of expression is that? Did you lose your job? Did they fire you? I told you you should have gone to a real university. Didn’t I tell you?”
“Ma, I’m not fired. I just don’t feel well.”
“Where are you sick? I have medicine here in the drawer. Every kind of medicine.”
“Is Dad upstairs?” I ask, feeling like I need someone else here. The customers don’t count.
“I think he might be watching TV, I didn’t see him go out. You can go look for him.” She begins absentmindedly counting the change in her coin arranger and doesn’t look up. I don’t feel right going up to get Dad, but it also seems the wrong moment to be telling her about Wei; it would be catching her off guard.
“Ma, when was the last time you heard from Wei?”
“Ah,” her eyes light up and she finally looks at me. “Last Saturday I think. He said he was planning another one of those hikes soon, the silly boy. I tell him not to do it and he still does. He is too smart, nobody can tell him what to do, he never listens.”
“What if something happened to him, Ma?”
“Pei! What are you saying, it’s bad luck. Don’t say things like that. Are you cursing your younger brother?”
“No, Ma, I said if. What if.”
“There, you said it again! What is wrong with you, Allo?”
“It’s just, it’s just…” my voice trails off into a whisper, “something happened to Wei.”
“I told you to stop saying that!” she yells. “Are you on drugs?”
“No Ma, please listen to me. Wei went hiking. He fell off a cliff. He died.”
“Shut your mouth! You monster. You liar. Wei is fine, what are you saying? You are just saying this to make me crazy, you are jealous of your brother…” An elderly couple who had been putting green beans into a plastic bag quietly dump their beans back into the sack and walk out of our door, where they linger to eavesdrop. A baby at the back of the store starts crying in its mother’s arms at the sound of Mom’s shouting.
“I’m sorry, Ma. I’m really sorry. They told Jade in America and she called me this afternoon. So I came to tell you.”
“Where is he? Where is he? I want to see him,” she sobs.
“In California. Jade will tell us later tonight, when it is daytime there.”
She can no longer talk; she puts her head on her folded arms and weeps, like a girl who sat next to me in junior high used to do because her father beat her. My mother’s whole body convulses, she seems such a large, quivering bundle and a little old woman at the same time. I don’t know how to comfort her, we never hugged in our family, so I stand there, patting her back so lightly she probably can’t feel it.
Yu-Han (Eugenia) Chao was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. She received her BA from National Taiwan University and MFA from Penn State. The Backwaters Press published her poetry book, We Grow Old, in 2008. To see more of her writing and artwork, please visit http://www.yuhanchao.com
Read an interview with Eugenia here.