She had been the dot in the eye of the dragon; the final touch bringing it all to life. Mother’s painting, just like her stories were captured by a paintbrush of wings. It carried a piece of the sky she shared in the red sun rising over fields of canola baked yellow.
It is our world, Fănshè. Our heart’s home, Qiānjīn. Made of the five movements in Wǔ Xíng. Where we can always follow the forever winds back to one another.
Over the canvas my fingers followed a steady walk between worlds and dragonlore, their fading scales in tinted brushstrokes whispered to me a spell of things both real and imagined. These were the tales of the ancients, tradition, and wonder. A place where my mother’s past and mine intertwined. Now that I am twelve, and she is gone, all I see is a broken truth.
There are two sides to every truth, Qiānjīn. The black, the white. Life and death. The beginning and end.
I could hear mother’s voice as I touched the horizon where the crimson of her world met the milky light. My fingers, dry and cracked caught at the lip of each rise and bump of paint on the linen.
Today, the hundredth day, the last of the ceremonies, no warming hand would come again to meet my heart space. No peck of a kiss from her pointed finger would land on my muddy pellet spot between my eyebrows.
This painting told her story while time added up to equal her fate. All I had left were fabled tales.
I closed my eyes on the everlasting wish that her stories were true. That she still rode on the back of the dragon, Huŏ and would fly back to us again. That here, now, down below the sacred heavens and skies of Tiān, I didn’t send her away.
“Light it, Francis.” Aunt Mei’s voice traveled through me in whispers of my mother’s tongue.
I looked up at my stepfather, who gently nudged me on with his silence. I stole a quick glance inside the standing furnace already alight with stacks of kiln pilings and burrows of heat. Its mouth gaped open. A tongue choked with ash. It held its own breath to wait for me.
How could I ever go through with this? Her words played on heartstrings pulsing with the cheesy, fiery world of crackling light. I couldn’t move. Every ounce of me locked her out.
“Go on,” my aunt pressed gently on my elbow.
This was my duty. I was the only daughter. It was my job to light the golden candied offering with the joss stick. I stood and let my mouth hang open to gawk at its rolling charcoal tip. To light it would mean it was true. That I accepted that Mother was gone for good.
My hand trembled. It should have been an honor to hold the wick. But for some reason my fingers wouldn’t move in the right direction, nor of my own will.
The red gourd furnace whirled with a taunting heat. Its laughing flames teased like an old monk staring down from the mountaintop. And out from the pot belly hole in its center, large enough for a small person to climb inside, came a heat I knew. A close acquaintance, where we burned used-up canvas and drop cloth, among other things. The heart of the fire in the belly of the giant kiln spoke to me and their stirring voices brought me around.
Send her on, my ancestors whispered.
I knew I would fail them too.
I studied the ash pilings as they built up on my joss stick. The smell of smoky incense worked as an overwhelming lure.
I looked up at Aunt Mei. There seemed to be little of the softer ox-haired bristle left in her these days. She did not look back. Everything about her transformed in a wash of warped acrylic on canvas.
Her eyes, a tinge greyer, pinching new-flaked wrinkles that peeled back. Her temper came a fuse shorter, while all echoes of laughter drip-dropped down the drain. Changes so ripe, a brush’s weight was all it might take to tip her balance.
Aunt Mei said that to be taken into Huò, the fire on the breath of the dragon is the worthiest of all possible deaths. That fire is yang in character. That it moves upward, and its energy expands to reach out and touch everything. That in Wǔ Xíng, wood feeds fire, where fire creates the earth, and its balance is to prosper from the universe.
Mounds of twizzled candy like gold ingot bricks waited there, piled high on the sliding platform in a container folded like a boat. Their sweetened offerings would serve as Mother’s currency along the Yellow Springs of the On’Yomi river passage. The uneven keel stuck out its lower lip in bales overflowing with the tiny gold paper sycee. The result of folding and folding until there were enough to fill the offering bowl from stern to bow and let my fingers bleed. Each well-meaning crease of baby boats inside was meant to send Mother on toward Tiān.
I slid my free hand down the length of the scratchy skirt I wore. It smelled of strange things. Oatmeal and sun cooked mud pie. The kind made of real mud without magic to bake them up right.
Something inside the urn popped, and I startled back to a memory of a fragile, glass treetop Christmas ornament I had broken on our first holiday with my stepfather, Wayne. He arrived at just the ripe time, right after I turned three. A time when my memories began to stick.
I remember him quietly murmuring a “Tsk” that to my surprise, had not been in scolding, but rather to calm my tears. That had been the first time I decided that his hand was safe to hold. The day I started calling him my bàba.
I studied him now. His long jaw set straight and narrow. Tall, beyond the tallest tales I’ve ever read. And bent where he stood towering over me, like the shade of a leaning tree. But it was in his peppered blue eyes that crinkled and beamed sometimes when he looked at me. This was where I came home.
Had I snuffed that out too? Wayne had been the first one I opened my eyes to after that night, over a month ago. The night my magic roots unhinged themselves and the embers took flight on stolen winds. The night Mother’s song drifted out of our life for good. I could see it in his half-sleeping smile, even then. Slumped over the hospital bed, clutching my hand tight in his. Did he know my terrible truth?
I’ve been waiting for him to say something. Anything. To look at me with a stern gaze and say, “Look what you’ve done.” But his silence was far worse. It met my brittle heart shattering it into tiny pieces every time I looked at him and he didn’t look back.
Wayne only stared at the ground while Aunt Mei swallowed down unseen tears. I searched for her strength. She brought to mind the fables of a forgotten time. A time when I woke to the tailwinds of mother’s stories. The one about the legendary crane who stood alone, balancing on a turtle shell, watching as her entire flock of chickens were swept away.
The question that always came, “They aren’t real chickens, are they?”
I recalled Mother’s lofty smirk whenever she had to answer to anyone’s skepticism, “Real chickens or not, we must all hold steady and strong to rule over the winds that are sure to come.”
“Francis, please,” my aunt pleaded, and I startled out of the memory transfixed by a single tear that slipped down her cheek. A sickening bubble inflated in my throat.
I brought my gaze back, back to my duties, back to the fire, but wishing with all my might that I could wake from this side of the dream.
That Mother was only hiding among the feathery flecks of ash, ready to burst out with peek-a-boo giggles from behind the curtains just the way she had when I was little. To know that she would return to us in time, and my aunt would find her color again, and we could all see past the smoke that kept getting in our eyes. Instead of what the police officers in sharp black and blue uniforms and starchy official hats kept repeating those few days after. That my mother was dead and gone.
The joss stick trembled in time with my hand. I held an inch away from the flames. I tried holding on with hands as my wrists continued their jelly dance and the shaking moved up my arms.
Just as the crackling light of the now and today was preparing to swallow me whole, a larger hand came to my rescue. The hand of my mother’s champion. Little of the hero left inside him now, but a hero, nonetheless. Wayne cupped his palm up under my own, and together we brought the offering to light.