These are the things I know are true:
My name is LuLing Liu Young. The names of my husbands were
Pan Kai Jing and Edwin Young, both of them dead and our secrets
gone with them. My daughter is Ruth Luyi Young. She was born in a
Water Dragon Year and I in a Fire Dragon Year. So we are the same
but for opposite reasons.
I know all this, yet there is one name I cannot remember. It is
there in the oldest layer of my memory, and I cannot dig it out. A
hundred times I have gone over that morning when Precious Auntie
wrote it down. I was only six then, but very smart. I could count. I
could read. I had a memory for everything, and here is my memory
of that winter morning.
I was sleepy, still lying on the brick k'ang bed I shared with Precious
Auntie. The flue to our little room was furthest from the stove
in the common room, and the bricks beneath me had long turned
cold. I felt my shoulder being shaken. When I opened my eyes, Precious
Auntie began to write on a scrap of paper, then showed me
what she had written. "I can't see," I complained. "It's too dark."
She huffed, set the paper on the low cupboard, and motioned that
I should get up. She lighted the teapot brazier, and tied a scarf over her
nose and mouth when it started to smoke. She poured face-washing
water into the teapot's chamber, and when it was cooked, she started
our day. She scrubbed my face and ears. She parted my hair and
combed my bangs. She wet down any strands that stuck out like
spider legs. Then she gathered the long part of my hair into two
bundles and braided them. She banded the top with red ribbon, the
bottom with green. I wagged my head so that my braids swung like
the happy ears of palace dogs. And Precious Auntie sniffed the air
as if she, too, were a dog wondering, What's that good smell? That
sniff was how she said my nickname, Doggie. That was how she
She had no voice, just gasps and wheezes, the snorts of a ragged
wind. She told me things with grimaces and groans, dancing eyebrows
and darting eyes. She wrote about the world on my carry-around
chalkboard. She also made pictures with her blackened
hands. Hand-talk, face-talk, and chalk-talk were the languages I
grew up with, soundless and strong.
As she wound her hair tight against her skull, I played with her
box of treasures. I took out a pretty comb, ivory with a rooster
carved at each end. Precious Auntie was born a Rooster. "You wear
this," I demanded, holding it up. "Pretty." I was still young enough
to believe that beauty came from things, and I wanted Mother to favor
her more. But Precious Auntie shook her head. She pulled off
her scarf and pointed to her face and bunched her brows. What use
do I have for prettiness? she was saying.
Her bangs fell to her eyebrows like mine. The rest of her hair was
bound into a knot and stabbed together with a silver prong. She had
a sweet-peach forehead, wide-set eyes, full cheeks tapering to a small
plump nose. That was the top of her face. Then there was the
She wiggled her blackened fingertips like hungry flames. See what
the fire did.
I didn't think she was ugly, not in the way others in our family
did. "Ai-ya, seeing her, even a demon would leap out of his skin," I
once heard Mother remark. When I was small, I liked to trace my
fingers around Precious Auntie 's mouth. It was a puzzle. Half was
bumpy, half was smooth and melted closed. The inside of her right
cheek was stiff as leather, the left was moist and soft. Where the
gums had burned, the teeth had fallen out. And her tongue was like a
parched root. She could not taste the pleasures of life: salty and bitter,
sour and sharp, spicy, sweet, and fat.
No one else understood Precious Auntie 's kind of talk, so I had
to say aloud what she meant. Not everything, though, not our secret
stories. She often told me about her father, the Famous Bonesetter
from the Mouth of the Mountain, about the cave where they found
the dragon bones, how the bones were divine and could cure any
pain, except a grieving heart. "Tell me again," I said that morning,
wishing for a story about how she burned her face and became my
I was a fire-eater, she said with her hands and eyes. Hundreds of
people came to see me in the market square. Into the burning pot of my
mouth I dropped raw pork, added chilis and bean paste, stirred this up,
then offered the morsels to people to taste. If they said, "Delicious!" I
opened my mouth as a purse to catch their copper coins. One day, however,
I ate the fire, and the fire came back, and it ate me. After that, I decided
not to be a cook-pot anymore, so I became your nursemaid instead.
I laughed and clapped my hands, liking this made-up story best.
The day before, she told me she had stared at an unlucky star falling
out of the sky and then it dropped into her open mouth and burned
her face. The day before that, she said she had eaten what she
thought was a spicy Hunan dish only to find that it was the coals used
No more stories, Precious Auntie now told me, her hands talking
fast. It's almost time for breakfast, and we must pray while we're still
hungry. She retrieved the scrap of paper from the cupboard, folded it
in half, and tucked it into the lining of her shoe. We put on our
padded winter clothes and walked into the cold corridor. The air
smelled of coal fires in other wings of the compound. I saw Old
Cook pumping his arm to turn the crank over the well. I heard a tenant
yelling at her lazy daughter-in-law. I passed the room that my
sister, GaoLing, shared with Mother, the two of them still asleep. We
hurried to the south-facing small room, to our ancestral hall. At the
threshold, Precious Auntie gave me a warning look. Act humble. Take
off your shoes. In my stockings, I stepped onto cold gray tiles. Instantly,
my feet were stabbed with an iciness that ran up my legs,
through my body, and dripped out my nose. I began to shake.
The wall facing me was lined with overlapping scrolls of couplets,
gifts to our family from scholars who had used our ink over the
last two hundred years. I had learned to read one, a poem-painting:
"Fish shadows dart downstream," meaning our ink was dark, beautiful,
and smooth-flowing. On the long altar table were two statues,
the God of Longevity with his white-waterfall beard, and the Goddess
of Mercy, her face smooth, free of worry. Her black eyes looked
into mine. Only she listened to the woes and wishes of women, Precious
Auntie said. Perched around the statues were spirit tablets of
the Liu ancestors, their wooden faces carved with their names. Not
all my ancestors were there, Precious Auntie told me, just the ones
my family considered most important. The in-between ones and
those belonging to women were stuck in trunks or forgotten.
Precious Auntie lighted several joss sticks. She blew on them until
they began to smolder. Soon more smoke rose--a jumble of our
breath, our offerings, and hazy clouds that I thought were ghosts
who would try to yank me down to wander with them in the World
of Yin. Precious Auntie once told me that a body grows cold when it
is dead. And since I was chilled to the bone that morning, I was
"I'm cold," I whimpered, and tears leaked out.
Precious Auntie sat on a stool and drew me to her lap. Stop that,
Doggie, she gently scolded, or the tears will freeze into icicles and poke
out your eyes. She kneaded my feet fast, as if they were dumpling
dough. Better? How about now, better?
After I stopped crying, Precious Auntie lighted more joss sticks.
She went back to the threshold and picked up one of her shoes. I can
still see it--the dusty blue cloth, the black piping, the tiny embroidery
of an extra leaf where she had repaired the hole. I thought she
was going to burn her shoe as a send-away gift to the dead. Instead,
from the shoe 's lining, she took out the scrap of paper with the writing
she had showed me earlier. She nodded toward me and said with
her hands: My family name, the name of all the bonesetters. She put
the paper name in front of my face again and said, Never forget this
name, then placed it carefully on the altar. We bowed and rose,
bowed and rose. Each time my head bobbed up, I looked at that
name. And the name was--
Why can't I see it now? I've pushed a hundred family names
through my mouth, and none comes back with the belch of memory.
Was the name uncommon? Did I lose it because I kept it a secret too
long? Maybe I lost it the same way I lost all my favorite things--the
jacket GaoLing gave me when I left for the orphan school, the dress
my second husband said made me look like a movie star, the first
baby dress that Luyi outgrew. Each time I loved something with a
special ache, I put it in my trunk of best things. I hid those things for
so long I almost forgot I had them.
This morning I remembered the trunk. I went to put away the
birthday present that Luyi gave me. Gray pearls from Hawaii, beautiful
beyond belief. When I opened the lid, out rose a cloud of moths, a
stream of silverfish. Inside I found a web of knitted holes, one after
the other. The embroidered flowers, the bright colors, now gone. Almost
all that mattered in my life has disappeared, and the worst is
losing Precious Auntie 's name.
Precious Auntie, what is our name? I always meant to claim it as
my own. Come help me remember. I'm not a little girl anymore. I'm
not afraid of ghosts. Are you still mad at me? Don't you recognize
me? I am LuLing, your daughter.