This novel is nearly completed after five years of researching, writing and editing.
It’s a story of a young Chinese-American woman with a tormented past returning to China to investigate her brother’s mysterious death. The book focuses on the historical and psychological impact of a tumultuous past on individuals and families and is a mediation on themes that are still relevant in our contemporary world. It is ultimately about people, their fears and hopes, their secrets and desires, and how they reconcile with their past and move forward.
Here are the beginning pages of “Song of The Daisies”
Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow
— Oscar Wilde, “Requiescat”
Song of The Daisies
My plan had failed and now I was running for my life.
I had almost reached the woods when I heard the first gunshot. I turned and saw a crowd pouring out of the gate. Lots of noise: footsteps, shouting, then motorcycles starting up. I quickened my pace. More gunshots in my direction, then a grenade exploded—too far away to harm me. I looked back again: the people were still where they had been, shooting in my direction as well as in other directions, the motorcycles merely circling around. This puzzled me until I realized that they—the Smackers, my enemies, the ones who had murdered Hao and whom I had wished to kill in retaliation for Hao—thought I was bait of their rivals, The 815, the Red Guard faction my brother and I belonged to.
The brief delay saved me. I disappeared into the woods, ran and ran, with every step my desire to live increasing, until a single voice, Hao’s, came to me: “You must get out alive!”
Suddenly the gunshots seemed much nearer and I even saw flashlights approaching the woods. Then, from beyond the woods, the deafening chatter of machine guns started, interrupted by several explosions. The flashlights disappeared. A thought came to me: The 815 was launching a raid! But I didn’t pursue the thought. I could think of only one thing: survival.
My legs, which had turned into adrenalin-fueled machines with no apparent physical limitations, carried me along. I crossed the woods, through a construction site, across a yellow rapeseed field, over a wide, dry creek, until I saw a half-loaded coal train about to leave the tiny station. I jumped on the last empty car and two days later I was at the border of Guangxi and Guangdong, five hundred miles from home. When I got off the train I climbed on another, then another . . . till the one that stopped in Anping, my hometown.
When my parents asked me about Yong, my brother, I said I wished he was dead.
Twenty-six Years Later
I jolt awake from my daydream, sweating, as the taxi stops in front of a three-story building. The brand-new, gleaming white hospital wing is connected through a long hallway with the rest of the old structure, unrenovated for more than a decade: Anping’s First Municipal Hospital. I wipe the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand and pay the driver.
“Wow, you’re well connected,” the driver says as he marvels at the white building. “I’d be happy if I could die there.”
I walk into the VIP ward, where the marble floor is covered with Persian rugs and a three-tier crystal chandelier sparkles from the vaulted ceiling. The receptionist, dressed like a flight attendant with a blue silk scarf at her neck, greets me with the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen from service staff in China.
When I reach the hallway leading to my father’s room, I quicken my pace unwittingly almost to a run. Dammit, I have to admit that I can hardly wait to see my old man.
I smell roses as soon as I enter Room Six and after introducing myself to the nurse, Nurse Sun as she tells me, I put my small suitcase behind the door—I came directly from the airport in Guangzhou—and sit on the wicker chair beside my father’s bed. He is attached to an IV and vital-signs monitor, covered with a thin blanket from the chest down, his skin pale, his mouth slightly open, his head bald with wisps of gray hair on the sides. His sunken cheeks look like holes in his square face, where deep wrinkles have formed beside his nose and mouth. I lean close and feel his shallow yet unhurried breathing. I haven’t seen him for thirteen years. Has he changed? Yes and no. At first glance I know he’s my father but as I keep looking at him his face seems to take different shapes. From certain angles he turns into a complete stranger. I’m puzzled, then I realize that I had never observed him this way, not when I was a child and certainly not as a grownup. It is weird to see him so close. I feel like an intruder, a voyeur.
My eyes are moist but I hold back my tears. I whisper “father” but, of course, I get no response. He’s in a coma and has been for four days. How ironic, I tell myself. One week ago I received a letter from my father, the only correspondence he’d initiated since I left China. He didn’t write when I graduated from Purdue, nor when I got my first job, nor when I got married and later divorced, nor when I went to work in Barcelona for three years, nor when I moved to San Francisco, though I had sent him a one-line postcard each time, a duty I deemed necessary as a daughter. “Return as soon as possible,” my father’s letter wrote. That was all. No greetings, no explanation, no “please.” Just the way you can expect from an old, hardened, uncompromising, no-nonsense ex-soldier.
The letter had arrived with a pile of bills and advertisements which I fetched from my mailbox after returning at 2 a.m. from a house-warming party one of my clients had thrown in her 5-bedroom adobe in Napa. I didn’t open the letter right away, but held it and looked at it for a long while, surprised at its light weight and also how small and tidy my father’s handwriting on the envelope was, like a woman’s. Then I secured the unopened letter on the side of the fridge by a small round magnet, and didn’t touch it until two days later, until I received a call from Weiming, my cousin, telling me that my father had fallen in a park and was in coma. He was sent to a nearby hospital first, Weiming said, where the doctor recognized him as the former mayor and called Anping First Hospital’s VIP ward to have him admitted.
I now think of Mao Zedong’s embalmed body in its crystal coffin in the Mausoleum in Beijing, which I visited once before leaving China, if only to see what a man who had turned millions of people’s lives upside down looked like up close. Mao’s waxed face shone and he appeared content, as if he had no regrets for his life and legacy. Unlike Mao’s face, my father’s has a grim aspect to it, as if he had been unhappy before he fell. I suppose people will say it’s ominous to compare one’s comatose father to a dead person. He’s alive, he’s breathing, isn’t he? But I cannot help putting the two faces together.
As I lean forward my chair squeaks under my weight and at this instant I see my father’s right eyelid twitch. Just a quick movement. I am startled, expecting that he’ll open his eyes, but no, he remains asleep. Sighing with relief, I move the chair back. Of course, I want my father to wake up from the coma, but the truth is that I wouldn’t know what to say to him if he opened his eyes at this moment.
A terrible thought crosses my mind: maybe it’s better if he doesn’t wake up. That way I would be completely alone with my secrets. Wouldn’t that be nice? Think about how a feather that has escaped gravity dances in the sky. Don’t you admire its freedom?
Unsettled by the sin I’ve just committed mentally, I get up to survey the room. It is nicely furnished with an adjoining guest room and a private bathroom. Two of the walls carry framed brush-and-ink paintings of mountains and bamboos. Outside, a lush garden blossoms in the early summer breeze, where the smell of roses originated. Beside the window, French doors lead to the garden.
Nurse Sun is taking my father’s temperature. She’s a pretty young woman in her mid-twenties, meticulously made up, her hair braided into a thick rope. She bends to open his blue-and-white-striped hospital gown and sticks a thermometer under his armpit. I watch the solid muscles on my father’s arms and his square shoulders, no less intimidating to me than when he was thirty or forty. When my brother Yong and I were small we used to hang on his arms like monkeys. That was our daily exercises and contest, to see who could hang on longer and who could swing faster. I can almost hear our echoing laughter now, which brings a slight smile to my lips, though it quickly turns bitter. Those happy days were too short, those days when my father still smiled and when my mother combed my hair with her fingers gently. A blink of the eyes and we became someone else, my father, my mother, my brother and myself. All strangers, sometimes enemies to each other.
Just now two doctors appear, trailed by two young women doctors who look like new residents, with eager eyes and nervous smiles. The two men, Doctors Feng and Ouyang, introduce themselves and shake my hand.
Both say not to worry. Doctor Ouyang says that though it is always challenging to diagnose the cause or causes of a coma, my father’s general condition is positive. Doctor Feng, a short-legged young man, announces before discussing my father that he is the nephew of the hospital’s Chief of Staff, as if that calibrated his medical skills. He stammers, bombarding me with jargon—hypoxia, reticular activating system and the like. The two pupils nod frequently and take diligent notes. I have to interrupt Doctor Feng’s lecturing when he utters the word ‘Oculocephalic re…re…re…flex.’ Luckily, Doctor Ouyang steps in and gives me a simple explanation.
After the doctors leave I say goodbye to Nurse Sun, make for the door and grab my suitcase. I long for solitude and rest. The smell of the roses is so strong that it gives me a headache, or maybe I’d have the headache anyway without a trigger since I haven’t slept much for almost four days.
Before I walk out, I turn to look at my father one more time. Nurse Sun, who is writing something on my father’s medical chart, suddenly raises her head and says, “Your father is a good man. He’s helped me pick up my son from school quite a few times when my husband and I were busy at work.”
“Oh, that’s nice to hear,” is all I can say.
As I reach the lobby, Nurse Sun catches up with me and thrusts a brass key into my hand, saying that she thinks that is the key to my father’s apartment. She had found it in my father’s pants pocket when he was admitted. “In case you want to stay there,” she says.
My father’s apartment is in a shabby, nine-story building, identical to several other buildings nearby. It was built probably less than ten years ago but the pollution has made it look ancient. In front is a stone sculpture shaped like a woman holding a torch. It is missing half the torch and there are many dirty handprints on it, especially around the woman’s chest and hips.
His apartment is on the sixth floor. The unlit stairs are steep and narrow, the light bulb—if one was ever installed when the building was erected—must have been broken or stolen and I have to grope forward so I won’t miss a step. After my eyes adapt to the darkness I make out vaguely the advertisements all over the cement ground and the walls, in red and black paint, services ranging from locksmith and food delivery to treatments for athlete’s foot and cancer. The ceilings are covered with illegal power lines, some dangling dangerously just above my head, like some kind of death threat.
An apartment on the fifth floor has its door half open and through the gap I can see a pink wall with a poster of a scantily-dressed Marilyn Monroe. Whoever lives there must have heard my footsteps because the door swings open fully just as I reach the landing, as if to greet me, the sudden brightness almost blinding me.
A skinny young girl in wrinkled pajamas appears at the door, shoeless, a cigarette between her fingers. Her long hair is coiled carelessly into a thick braid, retained by several small butterfly-shaped clips above her ears. Under her high, wide forehead are plucked eyebrows and oversized eyes with heavy blue shadows on her eyelids. Her lips, cherry red, stand out in her pale face. Beyond her dramatic makeup she’s really just a kid, no more than sixteen or seventeen.
“You’re Moli Yang, Mr. Yang’s daughter, right?” she smiles, her voice sweet. Before I can reply she says, “Sorry, it must be a lot of climbing for you.” She goes on to explain that there is no elevator because elevators are not required for buildings under ten stories. “That’s why most buildings here have nine stories. They’re cheaper to build.”
“Who are you? How do you know my father? How do you know me?” I wish I could have been kinder to such a sweet voice but her sudden appearance startled me.
“Your father and I have been neighbors for five months and sometimes we go grocery shopping together. He likes the pork-rib porridge I make and I like the red-bean cakes he makes. We exchange recipes quite often. He said I’m a good chef and my cooking reminds him of your mother’s.” Her face oozes innocence and pride. “And he’s told me quite a bit about you. He said you walked more than three thousand miles from here to Beijing to see Chairman Mao. You were only fourteen that year.”
I don’t know what to say. It’s all weird, isn’t it? My father and this young girl, who looks like a . . . I refrain from drawing a conclusion.
She continues enthusiastically: “He said the day you returned home you were covered in dirt and mud, your clothes were rags and you looked like you’d come from a battlefield. He said you were very brave. He said you were tougher than most boys.”
The truth is that I wasn’t really that brave. Many kids my age did things like that back then. The school had shut down anyway and many places provided food and lodging, free, if you claimed to be a Red Guard. And the crime rate was low—unless you counted government crimes.
“He’s proud of you!” She looks at me now is as if I were a rock star. Then she fires her questions. “Where is your father? Is he traveling? I haven’t seen him for quite a few days now. When is he coming back? How’s he doing? If you call him, could you tell him I said hi?”
No sooner do I tell her that my father is in coma than she starts to cry. I have to comfort her, saying not to worry, that my father will wake up in a week at most. She’s a kid, after all. Her tears stop as fast as they came. She dries her tears with the front of her pajama top and breaks into an uncertain smile, saying that she hopes that my father will come home very, very soon.
A man’s impatient voice shouts from inside her apartment. “Who are you talking to? You’re wasting my money!”
So she is indeed a prostitute. She beams apologetically, says goodbye and walks back into her apartment. Before she closes the door she says “I’m Yuzi. Welcome home.”
Home? This simple statement gnaws at me and makes me stand still, pondering. Home is where the heart is, I have heard. Where is my heart? I honestly don’t know.
That night, in my father’ small two-bedroom apartment—I have canceled my hotel booking—I awaken from a fitful sleep. I am glad that I didn’t dream that old dream, the one I had when I was dozing in the taxi. I was scuba-diving in the ocean on a hot, sunny day. The water was soothing; tropical fish were swimming through exuberant coral. I was happy. I dove deeper. Suddenly the fish were gone and so was my scuba equipment—no tank, mask or fins. Around me was grey blankness, no living thing in sight. I wanted to get to the surface but the water was heavy and sticky: the harder I kicked the more I sank, pulled down by kelp that had sprouted from nowhere and entangled my legs like a monster’s poisonous hair.
I had been in my teens when I first had the dream; since then it has invaded my subconscious on and off like a disloyal pet. Sometimes, it’s just fragments. The pinkish sky, the blue ocean and the tropical fish with incredible colors, all mysterious yet innocuous. Some other times, it expands and evolves, making me wake up in the middle of the night soaked with cold sweat. When I was much younger, I used to cry and scream after having had the dream. But after I turned 30, I’ve learned to cope with my pain better, learned to lick it silently like a lioness who’s lost her only cub.
An old scar doesn’t hurt; it just itches, a reminder of the unpleasant and the torrid. To me, my wounds, after all these years, are still open, a thirsty mouth that can never be fed enough.
The guest bedroom doubles as my father’s study. It is lined with bookshelves that hold mostly selected works from previous Chinese leaders, politicians’ biographies and memoirs, and Party documents, neatly arranged and aligned by category. I take down several books and browse my father’s notes in red ink: nothing stands out as controversial or provocative, as if the notes’ sole purpose were to be read aloud at a Party meeting, or as if my father were afraid the books might be confiscated, to be used in evidence against him.
His socks, underwear and shirts are arranged similarly to his non-fiction books, and even his shoes are grouped by type and color, as if ready to march to a battlefield. I keep searching, opening every drawer and file cabinet, not knowing exactly what I’m looking for, my findings including Anna Karenia, To Kill a Mockingbird, and a dog-eared copy of Crime and Punishment—a surprise, as I don’t recall having seen my father read fiction.
The only drawer I cannot open is the center one in my father’s desk. It is locked. I search in vain for the key. Under a bottle of ink at a desk corner I see a piece of paper folded into a square. I pick it up and unfold it. In the middle is my brother’s name, written in alarmingly large letters, encircled by many small question marks. The handwriting is my father’s. The ink is so thick that it has seeped through the paper.
What was he thinking? I ask myself. Yong is dead, long dead. Dead for almost seventeen years. Yes, he died ambiguously, died a convict without family present, but whatever questions and doubts we had after he died belong to the past. What good could come from dredging up the past after all these years?
But if not for Yong what else could incite my taciturn father to ask me to return home ‘as soon as possible’? He doesn’t have cancer or any other terminal illness, something that might provoke him to send me such a letter, and he couldn’t have foreseen when he wrote to me that he would days later fall into coma.
I look up and see a large framed photo of an unidentified desert hanging above the desk, the sand golden in the sunset, the dunes rippling to the horizon, beautiful yet clearly taken by an amateur because of the poor focus. The photo seems misplaced among the brush-and-ink paintings in the room, so out of place that I wonder about its significance.
I also wonder why my father, as my cousin Weiming told me, moved out of his spacious riverfront apartment, provided by the government after his retirement, rented this small apartment in a much less affluent part of town and now lives a hermit’s life, having cut off ties with all his old colleagues and friends. What’s so attractive about living here? There’s no view, nor relatives nearby.
I look again at the desert photo as if it would give me an answer.