by Jen Soong
The moon is half-full and you are packing the only suitcase you own. Well, it’s your Ma’s but she doesn’t know. The exterior is robin’s egg blue with a hard shell and hairline white cracks zigzagging like lightning. Your neck cranes towards the soft blue interior pockets and you inhale cedar mothballs.
You remember near the end, Ama spent days in the humid bedroom with lemon walls you shared, barely lifting her eyelids. Her hollow cheeks warned of death. Sometimes her arms shot up skyward and she shouted at you, “Go!” in a gruff baritone of a five-star general.
Where would you go, you wondered. You only knew the mildewed walls of your railroad apartment, where you, eldest of three girls, spooned out ginger rice porridge to squabbling mouths while Ma was hunched over a Singer hand crank at Old Tailor’s shop with her weary eyes and prayerful hands. You only knew a wandering dirt path from your squat two-story building to a one-room school to a makeshift hospital where your father doled out medicinal tinctures and hope to children who lost their toes, fingers, even eyeballs, in a forgotten war’s minefield. You only knew neglected contours of the island you called home. You only knew a decaying cemetery where bones were buried without headstones.
You imagined a life where you didn’t answer to anyone’s prayers—not your mother’s, not your grandmother’s, not your ancestors—by marrying into riches with gold and jade bowls and plum-cheeked babies. But you never dared to map an escape route. Your mother sinks day by day deeper into her grief-ridden husk, shoulders collapsing into dust. Disappearing.
You can’t remember the last time she sang. Her voice, soft and cooing, used to fill your heart with music. Sunlight danced on windowsills. Your little hands waved to passing skylarks. Laughter and song once overfilled your home. You plucked purple blazing stars for her black hair, flowing past her waist and she lifted you toward the clouds. You flew with the larks.
Then, the bombs fell from the sky and air raid sirens replaced her singing.
Moonlight illuminates a gold locket Ama gave you on your tenth birthday. You remember how she looked at you, her dark eyes narrowing to crescents, and you squirmed under her gaze. Promise you will take it when you go, she said. You nodded, she saw the future. Promise.
You finger the curves of the locket, wishing you had listened to her old woman ramblings, taking her growls more gravely. It was only after she died on your seventeenth birthday you heard a chorus of loud voices. It was as if she had passed them to you when she crossed over the riverbed. They chanted, demanded, banged on buffalo-hide drums, willing you to go, go, go. You tried to block out their angry voices by shouting back and wailing no, no, no. Alas, it was no use.
The dead live inside your chest walls now.
You pack everything you stole from Neighbor Li’s kitchen (you waited until she went to the temple) in red paper: mandarins, pomegranates, shrimp balls, oyster mushrooms, longevity noodles, sweet rice cakes and whole carp with eyeballs for good luck. An intoxicating feast. You kiss the suitcase closed. Ma would not approve. You cannot save everyone.
At the end of the month, a hungry ghost moon will rise. Their cries shake and shatter your eardrums. Their stubborn knocking pounds against your chest. You must go. Your time, Ama commands. You must make your way to the moon. You must feed our hungry ghosts.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen Soong grew up in New Jersey and now resides in northern California. An alum of Tin House and VONA, her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Audacity, Jellyfish Review, Cosmonauts Avenue and Waxwing. She received her MFA in creative writing from UC Davis. Her memoir-in-progress is a reckoning of myth, migration and memory. Find her work at jensoong.com.
If you would like to submit original art for the print issue and/or feature online for this essay, check out our art contest at bit.ly/asianvoicesart, running May 1st-July 1st, 2022.