What It Took to Surrender

Issue 40 by Linda Heller

What It Took to Surrender

My mother is French and her happiest time, far happier than when she met and married my father or gave birth to me, took place during the filming of a Brigitte Bardot movie. She was only eighteen and an extra yet she and Bardot became intimate friends. She’d been hired to play a member of a theater audience and watch while the leads furthered the plot center stage. During the instant my mother is on screen her eyes shine with the bewildering arrival of forbidden love. The director yells, “Cut.” The extras return their clothes to the costume department. They collect their pittance and disappear into gray anonymity of the everyday world. Except for my mother. She’s decided to flaunt convention and she crouches in the shadows and waits for her chance. In the past, her opportunities were few and far between: an uncle who during her childhood gave her candies when she let him squeeze her bare bum, a truck driver who secretly drove her to Metz, a neighbor who gifted her with his late wife’s dresses years after the woman’s death. But she’s strong-willed and hopeful, and soon luck arrives in the form of an injured pigeon Bardot has brought to the set. My mother seizes her opportunity by hurrying to nurse the bird.

Bardot takes notice of her seemingly spontaneous gesture. She comes and stands over my mother. Both women deem this correct given Bardot’s importance. “He likes you,” Bardot says.

My mother pretends to be shy, just as she’s pretending compassion for the damaged creature. “I know to hold him gently against my heart,” she murmurs without looking up.

Bardot kisses the top of my mother’s head. The pressure of her lips will remain in perpetuity. Years later, should my mother chose to shave off her hair, curiosity seekers will be able to see the indentation.

“The entire world desires me,” Bardot laments. “I’m offered castles and yachts when what one wants is a lover who is free of guile, self-interest, ambition and cruelty.”

My mother asks permission to memorize this list. She receives it.

“So you understand what I am saying, the choices it’s led too,” Bardot says.

My mother nods, although her tastes run to men who are selfish, shifty and cruel. She expects to be slapped by two-timers or thrown to the floor and repeatedly kicked. Anger is manly or so she’s been taught.

“What a little darling you are,” Bardot whispers.

Thereafter, during breaks in the shooting, Bardot, my mother (now in Bardot’s employ) and a collection of three-legged dogs, bald cats, and undersized donkeys clamber into Bardot’s trailer to partake in a fiesta of unbridled lovemaking that erase my mother’s Catholic school upbringing, expose her to mute sweetness and boost her affection for women and beasts.

“I grew up in a straightjacket,” she tells Bardot. “While you? You are a mythic being who can change herself into anything she pleases, a rainbow, a centaur, a goddess, a sprite.” My mother borrows this last part from a childhood book. Bardot hasn’t read The One-Winged Fairy and she hugs her tighter.

“Forever in your arms,” my mother coos into Bardot’s ear which is large and more masculine than the rest of her.

Bardot undoes her grip.

My mother takes this in stride. She’s proficient at peeling off and then hurling the many insults that are flung at her. But Bardot isn’t a coarse villager with scabs on her knuckles. She’s an acclaimed inamorata and must be dealt with as such. “I meant forever in my fantasies,” she says and leaves Bardot’s bed to illustrate her understanding of Bardot’s need for autonomy. Her own needs are harsh wagon masters who mercilessly crack the whip. My mother wants to end these bloody lashings but she’s unschooled in most matters and doesn’t know how to get what she wants, Bardot being one of these things. My mother wants to control her and be her and outdo her simultaneously. She pivots and throws Bardot a farewell kiss.

Reviens-moi,” Bardot says and slides over to make more room in her bed.

A few of my mother’s cousins were born without fingers. Others had a congenital thyroid deficiency that compromised their intelligence. These misfortunes were seen by others in the village as cosmic punishments. The entire Gagnon clan was considered suspect and forced to scrabble at the bottom of the heap. While early on, my Chinese father lived a life of rare privilege. As a boy, he and his brothers raced across a private lake in specially carved child-sized sampans or flew kites that were decorated with long tail feathers from captive birds.

My father was intent on widening his education and in 1934 he sailed from Nanking to Europe, accompanied by a male servant charged with guarding my father’s steamer trunks, each of which was filled with clothing modeled on the more conservative items in the Duke of Winsor’s wardrobe. After a quick tour of the British Isles where he was both drawn to and repelled by the methods used to torture prisoners inside the tower of London, my father enrolled in the University of Applied Arts Vienna and cheered from a distance while China fought off the Japanese.

It wasn’t until Hitler invaded Austria that he lost his psychic footing. “Back the strongest faction and you emerge with your holdings intact,” his forefather Gōng Qian Li Wei had said in 1644, having aligned himself with the Manchus shortly before the last Ming Emperor hanged himself from a low bending juniper tree. My father was an idealist nonpareil. He would have liked to go one further than Gōng Qian Li Wei and chart Europe’s course. But his allowance was inadequate to humanize Nazi behavior. Unable to book passage home, he fled to neutral Switzerland.

He was onboard the vertical train that carried sightseers to the top of the Jungfrau when the Chinese communists trounced Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, beheaded the nineteen members of my father’s immediate family and stole his inheritance. Crazed that he hadn’t been prescient enough to save his family or be slaughtered alongside them, he spent the next years obsessively sketching the house he’d grown up in, a massive three-story edifice which stood on pillars in a shallow portion of a hard-to-reach lake. Iron dragons had glowered from the many curved rooftops. These inanimate creatures had failed to scare off the invaders and in my father’s drawings, they’re living breathing demons. The act of making countless renderings of Red Chinese soldiers with charred limbs and leaking eye sockets did not ease my father’s agony. Only the passage of time allowed him to re-enter the world as a despondent quasi- participant.

My parents met in Paris. Lost in daydreams, the need to flee reality was the single trait they shared, both stumbled blindly into a procommunist rally where police armed with billy clubs were trying to hammer the marchers into the ground. My father woke from his reverie, noticed my mother amidst the bleeding and screaming, and wove his way through the melee to free her.

As custom demanded of two people, one who’d just saved the other’s life, they hurried to a nearby café for a carafe of wine.

The waiter approached.

“We’ll have something red off the truck,” my father said.

My mother nodded with false cheer. “Yes, off the truck. The cheaper, the better.” He was her first Asian and despite his perfect French and bespoke Harris Tweed suit, she assumed he toiled in a basement laundry and lived on fried dog. “Plus some bread, if that’s possible.”

“It is,” my father said. “Waiter? Get whatever you want.”

“Lunch?” the waiter asked.

“Quickly,” my mother said. “I’m starving. I shouldn’t be after what I just saw. I should crawl into bed and sob for those poor souls with their battered heads but I want to eat. Are you surprised at my callousness? I’ve seen too much. On the set and the stage and in life.”

My father asked if she was an actress.

“That and more. I’m a walking fable.” She was thirty by then and all too aware that unlike Bardot, she had not won the genetic lottery. In an effort to do what she could to transform her shortcomings, she’d dyed her hair egg-yolk yellow, intensified her make-up and changed her name to Adorlee Fleur. Such peculiar glamour frightened my father. Whatever parts of him he’d left open out of negligence clanked shut. She heard the sound, but kept her doors ajar because if she ignored his ethnicity, a difficult feat in Paris in the early fifties but wasn’t she part of the avant-garde, my father’s face with its perfect symmetry fit the classic masculine ideal.

“Do you go to the theater?” she asked. “You should. You should be on stage. And in films. The camera would love you. You’d be the first…”

“I’m an architect.”

“For chop suey joints?”

He unfolded a sketch of an austere-looking complex positioned on stilts. Engineered rivers snaked under the buildings.

My mother’s opportunities, few as they were, had shrunk. She and Bardot were no longer in touch. Her talents were limited. It was exhausting to go it alone when the trek took you nowhere and she decided with a melodramatic sigh to overlook the fact that he belonged to the wrong race.

“Your work is magnificent,” she said. “Mine is a trifle, a chocolate you eat in one bite and forget. But an architect? He is a demi-god. Our Lord built the natural world and handed it over to you architects to complete.”

“A demi-god?” He muttered that he was just another piece of rubble that had been smashed beyond repair.

“A god and a life-saver. I would have been trampled to death if not for you.”

“So I’ve done one good thing.” He used his fingernail to make a mark on the tablecloth. “That hardly evens the score.”

“What score? Have you killed?” She flushed with excitement. “Do it. Save me again.” She tipped her chair back. He jumped up and righted it.

“Again,” she said, laughing, kicking her feet like a child.

This time she latched onto him and held tight. They talked until dusk. He told her things about his past, the kites, the sampans, the classical poems he’d copied onto scrolls, the prize jade horses he’d collected, the tutors who’d fundamentally raised him. He left out the archery virtuoso who’d led him into the garden at midnight and pushed him against a tree. “We were fortunate children. Wherever we turned we saw bounty.” His later experiences were too wrenching to voice. Instead he spoke about his philosophy of the perfect city where the population was capped at a livable number and multiple sidewalks ran parallel to each other so that pedestrians could walk without anyone encountering anyone else.

They should move to America, she said. In New York City skyscrapers shot up within minutes while Mohawk Indians who wore long feather headdresses and had applied warpaint over their nearly naked bodies danced along the mile-high girders. Paris had been shelled. New York was intact. It was experiencing a boom and sought, no, pleaded for innovative architects to come and work their magic on its unmarred soil. He’d be a fool to stay in Europe. And if he was too depleted to haul himself up out of his rut?

She took his hand in hers. “You have such elegant fingers,” she said. “You’re the most refined man I’ve ever met. Too refined. My blood comes from farmers and thieves, whores and their johns. Team up with me, darling, and I’ll spark your engine.”

Her intensity was tiresome. Still she was right. He could scarcely get through the day.

As the last living Qian, he was obligated to perpetuate the family name and recover its losses, but China had been smashed and rebuilt into an unrecognizable state that crushed tradition.

They set sail that same week, my mother deflowering her thirty-nine year old husband in an inside cabin on the lowest deck. “We conceived our daughter in an airless coffin,” he later wrote in his journal.

From the start I was long and thin like my father. “There’s nothing of you in her,” he told my mother who didn’t like children, hadn’t meant to get pregnant and acted as though she was sorry she’d pushed a screeching frankfurter out of her body instead of something useful.

“Fine,she said. “I renounce my claim. Do what you want with her.”

Liberated from her maternal responsibilities, she lifted her skirt and sang,

“I’m young again.

Set free,

And ready to kick up my heels again.”

Like most Chinese of his era, my father believed in the power of names. He’d suffered too much to hope that his child might be An (tranquil) or Fu (rich) or Heng (lasting). His colleagues called him John rather than bothering to learn how to pronounce Zhihuán (ambitious). Americans were lazy. They were provincial and racist. He named me Tansy to arm me against those defects. Tansy is an invasive plant. I too would dominate my surroundings and because its blossoms grew in tight protective clusters, a legion of relatives would manifest to help me win my battles. I never asked how this would happen. It was enough to know that my father had demanded it, as much as an unwelcome immigrant could demand anything in this country from five insentient letters.

He’d planned to build towers that were so translucent and seemingly weightless that the New York skyline would have been transformed into a faint rhapsodic dream. My mother had insisted this would happen and he’d let himself believe her. While they crossed the Atlantic, peering over the railings at the choppy gray water, she’d beguiled him with hearsay about a fair-to-middling chanteuse who’d opened a string of Broadway nightclubs within weeks of her arrival and a chef who’d lurched straight up Park Avenue on his sea legs, to take command of the kitchens at the Waldorf Astoria. “So you see,” she said. “Success is assured.”

Neither of them knew that I.M. Pei, an M.I.T. graduate, had already claimed the one slot allotted to a Chinese architect. My father wasn’t amiable like Pei and couldn’t, like Pei, attract real estate magnates to champion him. He was a grim, perpetual mourner unable to summon enough of his former appeal to challenge his rival. Or to take a public stand and insist he be afforded the same opportunities as fair-haired men. The best he could do, under his circumstances, was to work at a low-level firm where they permitted him to plot the routes of electrical wires.

My mother’s accent hampered her theatrical career and she too despaired until she realized that it wasn’t acting per se that had driven her to perform. She wanted to be prized by the crowd and there were crowds in other places. Throughout my childhood she waited tables at the Bon Vie Bistro, where it was said that Marcel Marceau had once sampled its bouillabaisse and kissed the air. Seven days a week, she bombarded her customers with naughty sounding gibberish and close-up views of her perfumed décolleté.

Although our apartment was small, my father insisted on partitioning it so we each had our own room. Mine was in the middle and had the only window. When the terrible thrum of my parents’ nervous systems set me on edge, I’d press my nose against the glass and watch the quieter goings-on downstairs.

The doorbell rang, a rare occurrence made even more astonishing by the fact that the caller looked exactly like my father would have if he’d been a slender young woman with waist length hair. Without acknowledging my presence, my mother hurried this guest into her bedroom. I put my ear to the wall and listened while my mother sang about the lost island where love was born. “Let’s find it,” my mother said. “You and I now, this minute.” She sounded frantic. “I’ll pack a single bag. You do the same.”

The door opened. The woman burst past me and left without a word. “Elspeth,” my mother called. “Let the moon be our co-conspirator.”

Weeks later apropos of nothing, my mother said that after her visit Elspeth had caught the subway to Bay Ridge where she’d leapt like a lunatic into a bottomless pit.

My father worked long hours. My mother slept or did errands until she left for the restaurant. When I was seven, I made playmates out of blank sheets of paper that I taped together until they reached my height. The paper girl was Alice Apple Pie. The paper boy was Mac Truck. After school we’d lay on my bed and wait for one of us to speak.

Our building had fire escapes. In good weather neighbors clambered onto these grates with a drink in hand. But I was Rapunzel locked in the tower without a means to escape. Or so it seemed. Five mornings a week, I trudged up Ninth Avenue to P.S. 142 where I sat at an assigned desk decorated with whatever that the students who’d used it before me had gouged into the wood. Children see differences as inexcusable faults. My eyes had epicanthic folds. My hair only curled in places as though we’d run out of chemicals halfway through my perm. I was taller and bonier than others my age. My clothes came from thrift shops. Accordingly, even though I knew every answer, I never raised my hand and fled home the instant I could.

My father appeared to have no use for my mother. Even so he spied on her through the restaurant’s window. I was nine when he told me that she preferred the restaurants’ regulars to us, in particular a sallow couple who dyed their hair red and ate stewed rabbit with their fingers.

“They’re perfect examples of the Weimar Republic after its decay,” my father said. He refused to explain what he meant beyond saying, “You and I are too tame for her. She can’t stomach us.”

Still, when my mother staggered upstairs at four or five in the morning, singing French cabaret songs and reeking of pleasure, I pretended that while she’d caroused with anyone and everyone, I was the comet she sought in the sky, the dream she hated to wake up from. Before I dressed for school, I wrote her love notes and left them on her pillow. I’d stolen a lipstick from a cosmetic counter. I’d slather it on and press my lips against the envelope. S.W.A.K. She never mentioned these notes. This didn’t stop me from writing them.

“Oh mommy, mommy, mommy of mine.

No other mommy is half so fine.”

My father did think of me. He thought about me all of the time. I was the only person in the world who pleased him, the sole scion of a once glorious family, the reason he battled his psychic pain. My mother would have happily sold kisses on the sidewalk at a forty percent discount. My father and I were reserved. Instead of hugging, we drew into ourselves as tightly as we could and sat side by side while we each read a book, his about the purity of numbers, mine about whatever my teacher assigned.

My father believed that his accent savaged his dignity and turned him into a joke. When the need to express himself became too great to ignore, he wrote poems on slips of paper.

“Memories cry out to be heard.

Shall we listen?

There’s no danger if you don’t believe what they say.”

And “I carved you from a pebble.

My strokes were crude.

I nicked myself and bled.

But you are flawless.

Amazed at what I’d wrought,

I tucked you into a shoe the length of my finger.

Where you sleep, dreaming of dragonflies reflected in blue water.”

When I was ten, my mother told me about the red-headed couple. The Vogels had been at the center of the German theater until they’d forfeited their fame to come to America and embrace the new. “Can you grasp how remarkable that was?” she asked. “The extent of their devotion to art? You’ll meet them when the time is right.

When I was eleven and searching the wastepaper basket for homework I’d lost, I came across a balled up sheet of paper. It was stained with tea. The ink had blurred and still I could read what my father had written. “Of the many forms of love–love of the body, the mind, the soul, unrequited love, murderous love, life-giving love, which may I claim? I long to press my heart against the object of my desire. Instead I bind myself like a mummy and make do by gazing at her as she sits roped off and on display at the Museum of Degradation.”

Sick to death of stifling his talent, my father decided to construct a scale model of the sort of skyscraper he’d hoped to build. He used cellophane for the walls and quarter-inch dowels as girders. For once, he said, he’d refuse to compromise and would allow his ideas reach their full maturity however long that might take. He worked in the private inside his room until one evening, my mother was at the restaurant, when he asked me to stand still and close my eyes.

He slid his creation over my head.

“For you,” my father said. “The first sanctuary in the City of Distant Peace.”

I stood incased in a transparent, light as air building. Each room had a little prize inside it that rested on the clear cellophane floor–a silk flower, a gumball, a tiny pink rubber baby, a plastic chick, a shell that contained a paper water lily, a tiny rhinestone ring, a little key chain, a miniature book, pleasing objects meant in this case to be looked at, not touched–which bothered me until I understood that my father believed for safety’s sake that it was better to keep one’s treasures perpetually off limits.

He owned a camera with a timer and he positioned it so he could take photos of himself and his part-human/part-manmade structure, as we stood walls away from each other yet achingly close. At bedtime he returned the model into his room to study it and possibly add wings.

The Vogels had two extra tickets for an evening of light opera and they invited me and my mother to join them. I was twelve by then. “The Vogels want you to wear the dress their daughter wore to concerts when she was your age,” my mother said. I heard the excitement in her voice and pictured something frothy and pink with a scalloped hem. I waited beside her while she took it out of the box. She held it against me. It was a vile turtle green and nearly transparent.

“I won’t wear it,” I cried.

“You have to. The Vogels chose you over many. Their daughter died. Today is her birthday. They want to see life in her frock, to see it bloom with youth. As parents of a dead girl, their wishes come before yours. Take off your undershirt.”

Raised to be obedient, I obeyed, horrified that my father stood nearby.

“Daddy,” I said. “I can’t go outside like this. Don’t make me. You can see through it. My… Daddy, they show.”

His skin had a strange waxy sheen. His lips tightened around his cigarette.

“She’ll be fine,” my mother told him. “This is her chance. Don’t you want her to succeed?”

“Succeed with whom in an indecent dead German’s dress? Where is your shame?”

“I don’t need any,” she shouted. “You have more than enough for the three of us. Gerhard Vogel is the publisher of Üppig Magazine. He can open worlds to her.”

The doorbell rang. The Vogels had come to fetch us. Their car was double-parked. The motor was running. My mother rushed me out before my father could stop us.

We had front row seats. In keeping with the Vogels wishes, I sat between them. Mrs. Vogel had powdered her face a stark white and drawn such thick lines around her eyes I wondered if she was going to climb up onto the stage. I’d just learned that in 1935 she’d starred in a musical about a duchess who’d escaped her abusive husband by joining a troupe of puppeteers. Mr. Vogel had been a theater critic for the Hannoverscher Kurier. They’d met backstage where he’d swooned at the sight of his future wife’s dadaesque beauty.

“Would I have had the same effect?” my mother asked. “Or because I am even more beautiful, would your heart have stopped beating before we had our first kiss?”

“Adorlee,” he snapped. “This isn’t the night to conjure wickedness.”

At present the Vogels put out a local German language weekly. They also managed an apartment building in Washington Heights, a section of the city that was a mecca for European’s who’d been displaced by the war.

“Klara was blond,” Mrs. Vogel said. “And deliciously plump until the...” Her eyes watered. “Well, at least you’re tall like she was. Hold still.”

She sprayed me with perfume from a tiny glass atomizer. Dry air hit my neck. I sniffed but couldn’t catch the scent.

“It was Klara’s,” she said and kissed the bottle. “Each drop is sacred.”

Her husband took the bottle away from her and held it to his heart. “This brings her back,” he said. “My big healthy Klara with her flaxen curls.”

“My turn.” My mother reached for what remained of Klara in her liquid form.

Mr. Vogel turned away to protect his relic. “Adorlee, you ask too much. Don’t be so greedy for what’s not yours. It’s unbecoming.”

“And still I’m your goddess.”

“On rare occasions.”

She leaned toward him so he could see that she’d rouged her cleavage and dusted it with glitter. “Just one spritz, Gerhard, if it’s all you can spare.”

“Don’t press me. You’re only here as a chaperone.”

The curtain opened. A woman with an enormously thick neck walked onto the stage. As befit the occasion, she wore a tiara and a black sequined gown. The lights dimmed. A spotlight lit her face. I could tell she stared at me. I cringed and covered my chest with my hands while an unseen announcer said, “Songs from the Samerzand Highland, by Karl Maria Von Ressler. ‘The Night Queen.’”

A cymbal sounded. The woman sang,

“Play your pipe so we may find you, Ruland, my love.

Let your music fly up to meet us.”

A man joined her. “I am more spirit than body,” he sang in a high girlish voice. “More lion than lamb. Less master than slave.”

Mr. Vogel asked if I was as happy as his Klara used to be when she played in the meadow.

I wore white cotton anklets and a pair of my mother’s pumps she’s stuffed with socks so they’d fit after a fashion. He put his hand on my bare leg and squeezed it while he used two of his fingers to pull my skirt past my knees.

“We must grate our hearts into powder,” the woman sang.

“And scatter this trembling matter over the fields.”

“Klara is with us,” Mrs. Vogel said. “She’s sitting safely in my lap. Tansy, can you sense her?”

Mr. Vogel heard his wife and as though Klara was close by and his growing heat would set the brittle dress on fire, he jerked away his hand.

The next morning, remnants of yellow dreams hung on in my consciousness. My father stood over me.

“Get dressed,” he said. He’d piled some of my clothes on my bed. “The rest of our things are in the trunk.”

“Adorlee’s too?” She’d recently asked me to call her that.

“Just ours.”

“Why? Where are we going?” We’d never ventured out of Manhattan, not even to sail to the Statue of Liberty. “Is it all right with her?” She was still asleep.

“Yes.”

“What about school?”

“This is more important.” To fulfill a familial duty, we were going to visit his cousin in upstate New York.

I’d never heard of this cousin. Had he come down from the ethers to right our wrongs?

My father had packed during the night. He’d used a flashlight and tiptoed about like a burglar. To take as much as he could, he’d filled the trunk to bursting with no thought to its weight. When he’d used the trunk in 1934, weight hadn’t mattered. A porter had hoisted it onto his back and walked in a stoop while my father strode ahead. But he could no longer summon help with the snap of a finger. We were on our own without even a dolly and we had to transfer our things into grocery bags like the poorest of people. We’d buy a suitcase en route and if we had to leave most of our possessions behind, my father was practiced at that and I was a quick study.

The luggage my father bought did not meet his standards. It was a purplish-red for one thing and the flimsy chrome buckle was only for show. I could tell he was embarrassed while he carried it to the station and onto the train.

We found seats that faced each other and, aside from a few lurching trips to the bathroom, we stared out the window without saying a word. Most of the landscape was flat. Houses had been patched together mismatched room by room. My father glared at these atrocities until the villages fell away and we traveled through long stretches of wetlands.

We neared Ossipee and my father confessed that the relative wasn’t really a relative but the grandson of his family’s major-domo. The major-domo had an odd surname. My father had spotted it in The New York Times legal section, contacted the man’s namesake and discovered that yes, his hunch had been right.

Mr. Suo was the only Chinese person on the platform. It was early October, yet his breath was visible. “Gōng Qian,” he called and ran toward us, bowing.

My father waited with his shoulders thrown back. “Thank you for your kind invitation,” he said. “It was sudden. I know.” He stuck out his hand to shake Mr. Suo’s.

Mr. Suo continued to bow.

“Please,” my father said. “This is America. We’re all equal here.”

“How kind. You’re very kind.” Mr. Suo reached for the suitcase. My father didn’t protest.

Mr. Suo’s house was so small it would have struck me as comical, a clown house where a hundred clowns might rush out to greet us waving paper bouquets, if we’d come as a family on route to somewhere nice and we’d begun the trip before my mother had…or my father had… But when was that? Before my birth, their marriage, the war, the Big Bang? Now the house like everything else just seemed inadequate.

The front door opened. Mr. Suo’s wife held a runny-nosed toddler. A slightly older boy clung to her skirt and stared at my blue Chinese eyes.

Mr. Suo led us into the bedroom. Three beds and a crib were jammed together. “For you,” he said. “I wish it was a palace. A man who grew up in one wants one, I’m sure.” Embarrassed, he cackled. “You’ll need fresh towels.”

“Where will you sleep?”

“We’ll manage. The high and the low are in this together. My grandfather and his family died next to yours, voluntarily, out of duty, like my duty to host you. Their bodies were thrown into the same pit. The bones of the Qian’s and the Suo’s became indistinguishable.”

Mrs. Suo had prepared tea and almond cookies. Mr. Suo motioned us to follow her into the living room.

“We have to go,” my father said. His hand shook as he reached for a cookie. “There’s a train in half an hour.” Without thinking he shoved the wafer into his pocket. “Tansy?”

Mr. Suo blanched. “Forgive us, Gōng Qian. Forgive us for whatever I, my wife and my children did. Give us a second chance. Please. For my grandfather’s sake.”

“Forgive us,” the wife parroted. It wasn’t her language. The words were hard for her to pronounce and still she kept saying them while we bolted toward the car.

Cabs were expensive and we walked the mile home from Penn Station, my father carrying the suitcase we’d never unpacked. A firetruck was at the curb. My mother had pressed her naked body against our sixth-floor window, lowered it and stuck out her head.

“That’s my wife,” my father said without masking his rage. “She’s an actress of sorts. It’s just another of her shows.”

The elevator was out of service. We took the stairs two at a time.

“Why do you hate me so much?” my mother cried when she saw us. The room was in shambles.

My father threw his coat at her. “Cover yourself. Tansy, go in your room.”

I stood rooted.

My mother hugged my father’s jacket. “How could you do this to me? Am I that evil, that deserving of shame? I turned the house upside down searching for a note. I thought, my God, they wouldn’t sneak off like bandits clutching my sanity. I ran to the subway in my nightgown. Imagine it? How crazy I looked. As crazy as now. I had no idea where you’d gone and still I searched. My feet are torn and bloody but that’s my punishment for wanting you. Why are you here? Not for me. Did you forget your good gloves?”

My father kicked the suitcase. It was made of spongy vinyl and it toppled over with the softest of thuds. “We’re here because I’m incapable of stopping my daughter from consorting with deviants. This morning we fled Hell. This afternoon we slunk back. Why were you at the window? Who were you hoping to attract that you haven’t already serviced?”

“Death. I was on my way to meet Death. Who else would want me?”

“I do,” I said.

“You? Ha. I woke up singing, thinking about how pretty you looked. The dress was daring but a woman has to be daring. She has to use what she has. Or she gets nothing. I had talents and used them. How many people are loved by a legend? The Vogels…”

“I forbid you to say their names,” my father screamed. “What happened to their child? Something involving soldiers and chocolates?”

“She starved to death.”

My father let out a sound I’d never heard before. He lost air and folded in on himself. Still clutching his jacket, my mother opened the suitcase and put away our things. It was only six o’clock. None of us had eaten and still we hurried to our separate beds.

Some of our neighbors had been on the sidewalk during my mother’s suicide attempt or had heard the siren and run to their windows or my parents’ shouts had reached them through the building’s thin walls. When these neighbors passed us in the hallway, they pretended that nothing had happened. We appreciated their tact. We’d never been a normal family and they knew not to expect that from us.

The image of Klara gorging on dirt forced itself into my dream. I woke distraught that I hadn’t been able to save her. “There are all sorts of hungers,” my mother had said months before I’d met the Vogels. She must have been reciting lines from a play where consequences were remedied by a peck on the lips, a play with Bardot as the heroine, my mother in the role of the naughty maid, my father as… But he’d never waste his time in what my mother had described during their first meal together as a bonbon you eat in one bite and forget. And while most hungers weren’t as fatal as Klara’s, my parents’ cravings had rows of razor-sharp teeth that feasted on their souls.

No guns had been fired yet the air reeked of decay. Then after weeks of drunkenly standing guard outside my bedroom at night, weeks of pointed silence, of behaving as though my mother was a malevolent ghost that had to be sent back to hell, my father joined her at the kitchen table. Without asking if she minded, simply by pulling out a chair and collapsing down on to it while she sat red-eyed, clasping an empty coffee cup, he signaled a change. His pride had deserted him. The idea that he was too high-born, high-minded and talented to live among the world’s lesser beings now struck him as grotesque. He’d abandoned his fastidiousness, deeming it another foolish stab at self-worth. Stubble darkened his chin.

“Adorlee,” he said, “if there was a God he’d put a limit on the amount of destruction a couple could generate. Whatever that number we passed it long ago. I’d like a cease-fire.”

For the first time in their history, he reached for her hand.

She let out a tiny cry and pressed his hand to her breast. I expected him to cringe. Instead he lowered his head while he awaited her verdict.

“Tilda,” she said. “My real name is Tilda. Tilda Berger.”

“Tilda Berger, then, can we make a stab at forgiveness, accept where we are and the rot we created?”

She shook her head yes.

“We can?” His eyes were glassy.

“It’s not too late to dance,” she sang under her breath.

To sway cheek to cheek,

Under a smiling moon.”

My father didn’t respond to her cue and sweep her into his arms like a movie Lothario. The most he could do was to linger at the table.

Still the starting distance between them had been so great that he might as well have tunneled his way from Imperial China to a slum in Dax-sous-Bois where my mother and her fingerless cousins lumbered through the muck. Against his better judgement, his mushrooming disgust, he’d chained himself to her while she, despite her own trepidations, her awareness that he was damaged, had shackled herself to him. Armed with the naiveté of a Christopher Columbus aboard the Santa Maria, they sailed toward adversity. In light of all this, my father deserved great credit for the stab he’d just made at correcting their marriage. As did my mother.

And me? How was I affected by their reconciliation? As I watched from the doorway, my chest blazed with a rare joy that singed the edges of my shame and reduced it somewhat.

About the Author

Linda Heller

I received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, had an honor story in The Best American Short Stories 1991, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, won a Literal Latte Fiction Award and have had stories published in Boulevard, New Letters, The Alaska Quarterly Journal, The Writers’ Rock Quarterly and other literary magazines. I've also written and illustrated fourteen children’s books. THE CASTLE ON HESTER STREET has become a classic and is part of the nationwide third grade curriculum.