I had only suspected it but then I heard it, and confirmed it. I thought I would at least feel sad, if it failed to surprise me. Instead I sat still and listened, picking out pomegranate seeds into a bowl.
I was the first child, the first disappointment, the first warning. When the nurse showed me to Father, he stormed out of the hospital hall to get a taxi without a word. Father’s parents, who had been waiting outside the delivery room with chicken soup, cursed and left, the lunch box unopened. Grandmother, my mother’s mother, let out a long sigh. “My daughter, why did you make the same mistake as mine? Hens that don’t lay the right eggs are called ‘spent.’ You're taking your husband’s chopping board as the pillow.” The woman in bed, ashy, deflated, barely breathing, was taking time to process her fate. After ten months of wearing a draping meat melon, losing sex appeal, drinking bitter herbal medicine and finally, experiencing an excruciating delivery in which the doctor scissored her vagina open like cutting up old fabric, she was still denied a son. Grandmother paid the bill and gave mother a small jade, a green teardrop that never dried up. “My child, it’s the only thing a mother can do for her daughter now. Women love children more than men do, not because we destroy our bodies for our children. Because only women know for sure whether the babies carry their blood. My mother left me the teardrop, and I’m giving it to you. You’re still young. If he eventually kicks you out, pawn it for a one-way ticket home.” When grandmother said “home,” she meant the village, not her house. The house belonged to uncle, her only son, as stated in her will. Mother nodded, pressing the jade teardrop hard until it could merge into her palm, and pushed me away from her breasts. She needed them to stay perky, not hanging above the loosened belly like two empty socks.
Mother got out of the hospital two days after her difficult birth, and went back with me to the sonless house. Father refused to touch her when he was sober, and touched her with his belts, slippers and hangers when he was drunk. Father’s parents grounded Mother in her bedroom, and sealed the window and the door with tapes. Women who had freshly given birth were not allowed to leave their bedrooms or to shower because any cold, of wind or water, could compromise the womb undetected like spies taking over countries. I suspected that the tapes were for sound-proofing purposes so Father and his parents, who stayed in other rooms, could sleep through the night. For them sleep was therapy, while for Mother it was luxury. They claimed that no weeping should disturb family members who had real jobs, whose labor actually counted. Mother was obsessively clean. She used cotton swabs to shovel out every cunning speck of dirt on the ceramic statues. She showered at least twice in a day and changed into fresh clothes every time. But in that month she smelled. Even after she requested her sister to bring her daffodils. The smell still lingered in her room even after it was repainted and refurnished, as if the walls had been pickled through by that smell.
Mother’s sister, the older aunt, was staying with the family to take care of Mother and the house. The older aunt stocked a large jar of red dates, a kilo of brown sugar, and bought old ginger roots every day. Older aunt said that ginger roots, unlike women, aged well. The more they aged the hotter they became. Older aunt put six dates, brown sugar, a whole ginger root and two bowls of water into the clay pot, simmering them into a thick spicy jelly. Aunt wouldn’t leave until she watched Mother swallow it. The jelly could warm the womb and fuel the blood, aunt said, despite the fact that the doctor at the hospital told mother that dates and sugar wouldn’t produce anything helpful but fat, and what Mother needed were iron supplements and red meat. Instead mother asked him if he could fix her vagina: color it pinker, stitch it tighter, to keep the husband from slipping away. Mother had protested against the jelly at first. She wanted pork, beef, chicken-soup, anything that could make her feel cared for. Older aunt threw in extra eggs and was generous with the sugar when Father’s mother wasn’t looking. Mother liked sweet food, the biggest addict in the house. Older aunt said it was because the lives of sonless mothers were soaked with rushing bitterness, so God gave them a sweet tooth to offset the pain. But older aunt didn’t know that in that equation, there was no neutralization. Sweet and bitter, they made each other shine. I learned that with my first sugared herbal medicine.
Older aunt wasn’t there for charity. Mother paid her monthly because she needed to recover fast for another attempt at a son. Both women knew that if Mother failed, she would be divorced with two useless daughters, one of whom would be sent away, to escape the one-child policy fine. Older aunt needed a job to get out of the village, so she packed her things the day she got the call. Plus, Grandmother didn’t want any remaining daughters in the house after uncle, her last child and only son, entered middle-school. Grandmother didn’t win a son until the fifth try, and by then the older aunt was already sixteen, who had depleted Grandmother’s affection by being intelligent yet unattractive. Grandmother kept the first two sisters for chores and the bride price, giving away the rest like disposing unwanted furniture. Older aunt was already twenty-eight, unmarried, childless—more undesirable than expiring canned food. Older aunt sneaked into the city, hoping to find a modern man who would not judge her value based only on the quality of her eggs. Father kept introducing men to older aunt—his euphemism for her to leave. Finally, older aunt said yes to a retired manager from the factory and a year later, gave him two sons. Twins. The manager was revived and revered as the virility consultant. Men in his circle worshiped him. They called him “Sir” and brought him gifts, hoping for a slip of son-harvesting secret. They praised older aunt as sows, the luckiest creatures. As long as they could reproduce, they could sleep all day without worrying about being killed. Older aunt had been careful not to let my parents know, but news about sons flew fast. Father still envied the manager though my two cousins turned out to be parasitic. They lived on a welfare allowance from the government and demanded that older aunt to find them wives. “Poor is fine, as long as she’s beautiful.” Without sons, they wouldn’t be real men.
Father tried to love me when he could, and by that I meant he tried to be fair. He didn’t want to blame the wrong person. He called me Bao Bei, “Precious,” and we pretended he meant it. He channeled all his anger into alcohol, into mother who was out of shape, and into work. Father overtook overtime. He wanted reasons not to come home. But the man only gave me his disappointment, nothing else. He never hit me once, even when I scarred a boy’s face in school. I hurt the little bastard because he grabbed my butt and asked me whether I had started my period. “When’s your belly ready? I can’t wait to bless you with something good.” I clawed open his face with my nails and smashed his head with my dictionary, hard. “Something good? Huh? Is this good?” I didn’t stop until other boys pulled me away and took away my weapon. He was crying nonstop. I checked the dictionary: no visible dent. It was a good hardcover. Father went to see the principal and signed a statement, but he didn’t scold me. He held my palms and showed me how to fist correctly, for maximum impact. “You’ll need it one day. A girl has to learn how to protect herself from the dogs. If you let them touch you, you lose value and disgrace the family. You’re also protecting your family’s honor. Now punch me as hard as you can.” I punched his arm. He twisted his face before he laughed. “Tell me, it felt good, right? Such strength. My child indeed. You have my fists. You should have been a boy.” I looked at my knuckles. He was right. It had felt good when I watched the boy cry. I wanted to bottle his tears to see if tears from a son tasted good. I got the long and steel fingers from Father. I wondered if the last time he felt good was when he’d hit Mother with his perfect fists.
Mother later told me that what protected me was not my fists, but another law with the one-child policy. The government had made gender-testing illegal, knowing that its people, poor, stubborn, resilient, would bury unborn girls into rivers to keep the son-plan. It had become much harder for a baby to disappear under the radar of urban police. Besides, their second try had been fruitless, and they decided the fine money could be used elsewhere. They flew to Hong Kong, stayed in hotels for weeks, just for a half hour meeting with a physician, famous as the “sonlessness terminator.” The physician gave them detailed instructions: prescription of expensive herbs, a golden statue of Guan Yin, a goddess who was specialized in granting mortal people sons, and a schedule of sexual activities. The schedule was arranged carefully according to the lunar calendar, for sad parents to absorb spiritual energy from the sun and the moon. My parents began to lock their bedroom door regularly, and Mother, abandoned her favorite fruit, dark, imported cherries, and switched to pomegranate, a propitious fruit because of its fullness of seeds. “Must have got it from that nurse. But who knows? Maybe girls are as good,” Mother said. Quite inventive, I thought, why can’t they just admit that it’s because imported cherries are more expensive? Creativity must be the only entry requirement of parenthood, I decided.
The nurse was the same nurse who had called Father back for signatures, the nurse who stole formula from other mothers to feed me. She knew Mother—not well, only a friend of another random friend’s—but enough to get her a bed in the maternity ward. The nurse loved me because she was barren and I was the first child whose mouth she stole to feed. My parents didn’t particularly like her even before they figured out why she had been childless, but they liked that she liked me, as affection from hospital staff was often the most effective queue-jump. I thought I had loved her for the milk, like a duckling imprinting, just animal instinct. Now as I looked back, I realized that I loved her because I had seen my reflection in her eyes. Clear, they had never been veiled by that disappointment. I was not a non-son, a side-product. I was just me. Most people avoided her like a plague as if her infertility might be contagious, except the chief physician. She was his favorite secret side-wife, exactly because she was barren, a rare convenience for his midnight fun.
“He was a good man,” she once told me, “took me in, gave me a roof, shielded me from hospital politics. He was just a child stuck in a decaying body who needed to confirm his masculinity to stay alive. No man will marry a woman with a dead womb anyway.”
“But he keeps his pocket tight. If he can’t leave his wife, at least he should throw his lover something nice, like jewelry?” I suggested, pointing out that she wore no jewelry at all. Mother had a thin gold ring with no stone. I had Grandmother’s jade on my neck. Everyone knew that jewelry meant love.
“He doesn’t love me, and I don’t love him either.” The nurse slipped me some candy from the hospital. It was a cheap candy: white, ring-shaped, a weak dose of synthetic sweetness. Nurses used them to distract children from the long needles for injections. She knew I liked sweet things too.
“Then what is holding you two together?” I tore the plastic packaging open and licked both candy rings into my mouth.
“He wants to pretend he is a boy, and I want to feel what it would be like to be a mother.”
“Take me. My parents don’t mind. They will probably be happier that they can save paying a fine. You can even have more when I get a sister.”
She smiled. “Go home. Your mother must be waiting.”
The town was not big, whose idle mouths circulated rumors about why the nurse was deprived of a child. Some women said she must have sinned so much in her last life that God discontinued her bloodline. They preached it to their kids as an unsolicited moral lesson about karma. Some men said that she must be a slut, who let men in and out at will like a public bus, and her womb had been scraped down to a thin paper bag after all the abortions. Fewer talked about it with sympathy, the kind that was performed mostly to showcase one’s superiority as a mother. Sonless mothers were glad to step out of the shadow and pity someone else for once. They consumed the story the way they ate sunflower seeds: teethed them open, sucked the meat and spat out the shells. In this land, standards for women were high: they must remain pure before they wedded; prolific, after. The nurse’s infertility gave them a license to generously speculate and spit.
Mother didn’t like me seeing the nurse, and certainly not in the hospital when there was no queue-jump needed. She claimed that the air there was thick with germs, and it was a place of despair. “Everyone’s there because there’s something wrong!” She forced me to shower every time I came back, and sprayed disinfectants on everything I touched. When she found out about the nurse’s affair, she changed to another hospital, though that meant more trouble and less service, and the visits ended. Infertile plus sleeping with a married man: Mother saw the nurse as the courier of ill omens. Mother had to keep her ambition safe, her hope for the second chance. She wanted the occupation of being a mother herself, an occupation to stay, because Father needed someone to take care of me, the only glue left for the marriage. The nurse was a threat for both. Mother didn’t care that for me, what carried more despair was never the hospital, but our sonless house.
The nurse’s affair with the chief physician didn’t last as long as the gossiping. Everyone, including me, thought the toxic rumors would smother her, but it turned out that ovarian cancer had been waiting for its chance, and it progressed quickly. By that time I had left the town for school, she had left the hospital. She had cut things off with the chief physician, who allocated his attention to younger nurses. He was earning well and getting old. He wanted an heir to pass down his family name. He was nonetheless one of the son-seeking men. She had tried to reach me: I knew she would, but none of her words got to me but her last ones. She didn’t leave me any money before she died, but she sent me a pair of her earrings with a farewell letter. Her jewelry for me. I burned the letter, collected the ashes in a case as a cushion for the earrings, and buried them together under a tree to keep them safe. I didn’t shed any tears while my parents, already divorced then, rationed their lament, the way people felt sad when they dropped and broke a trustworthy pot. After all, hooking a new cooperating hospital staff was never easier than hooking a man.
I started boarding school early after the third grade. Older aunt had been busy with her own sons, and Mother, already a divorcee, found it hard to work and love me at the same time. Magically, she earned well, enough to afford a decent boarding school and a new apartment. It was easier for both of us. She bought me a cellphone, which made me one of the cool kids. When I got sick, she gave me taxi money. The only thing she cared about besides grades was the danger of puppy love. Once, she tore up a letter in my drawer. “Don’t you dare let anyone touch where you pee. Women who have sex before marriage are damaged goods, and men would bargain a price down. You hear me?” I never gave a damn about the letter or its writer, but I didn’t want to miss a chance to enrage her. I said, “Then how can I tell whether my fiance is fertile? You hated me to see the nurse, remember? What now? So I can get a divorce like you?” Though I knew fully that only female infertility would produce a divorce. The nurse had told me that for every couple who came to her hospital for sterility, the problem was always the husband. She said, “Men who are healthy and functional won’t try to heal their women. They just change wives.” But it felt good.
“To get a divorce you have to get married first, which I doubt if you can, for all that ice-cream and cold drinks. Wear the jinxed earrings from a dead woman. No man will want you and no baby would come out of your cold womb, not to mention a son.”
“Then you have nothing to worry about, Mother. If I’m infertile, there won’t be consequences. I'll make sure I wear my protection on my ears. A win-win for both of us.” I didn’t care. I was meant to leave before the son fever caught me, and I did.
But the son fever caught someone else. Father called one day, the call that brought me back to see Mother. He was getting remarried, and he was being polite by letting me know. He talked about how no one would sweep the tombs of sonless men. He said there was a single fellow in his village, and people kept asking him for loans. Their requests were shameless, frequent, and large. They took his money because they knew they wouldn’t have to pay back, because he didn’t have any son left to collect. Father told me that his girlfriend, who was twelve years younger than him, was pregnant, and he should be a responsible man. The government had just announced the new policy, allowing a second child. He had raised me and paid for college tuition. He couldn’t miss his chance.
“Bao Bei, I just can’t dry out the roots of our family tree. You will find your husband and your child won’t pass down my family name. I have my own duties as a son. You will always be my Bao Bei.”
“You misspoke, Father. It was your tree. Never mine.”
Though Mother stopped loving Father years ago, his remarrying prompted her fury. She started to unleash all the pains she remembered: his leaving the delivery room, the spicy jelly, the smell, the hotel expenses, the ridiculous herbal medicine. She tossed them all out as if she was rolling out an old musty blanket and dusting off the lice. She told me about the chief physician, how he refused to help her get a son. Karma, she said, because things didn’t end well for the physician. He had been fired by the hospital for negligence, only a year after the nurse’s death. A married couple came to see him with a gift, waiting for his verdict: if a son, touch the left ear; if a daughter, touch the right. After the ultrasound scan, the chief physician touched his right earlobe and the couple, calm, tearless, went ahead to prepare for an induced abortion. But when the midwife looked closer into the fetus in the kidney dish, she gasped: it was a boy. The patient family printed out red-letter posters, banners, and came to the hospital every day to retell the heartbreaking story of how they’d lost a son. The hospital paid for an expensive settlement and the chief physician disappeared. His white gown had been stained with son-blood, the worst blood. I stood up to find some snacks. We both knew how consuming it was to recount decades of pain.
I saw some pomegranates in the kitchen. Overly ripe, slightly shriveled. I washed one and began to peel while Mother resumed her storytelling. People in big cities didn’t know how to eat pomegranates like us. I knifed a circle around its head to reveal the seeds, cutting just enough without leaking the juice. Precise like scalping. Then I picked out the white, and hammered the other end hard with my perfect fist. Out of it rained a world of small rubies into the bowl, a flood of blood-pumping red. As I hit and hit, each time harder than before, the small rubies pyramided. The small rubies looked like millions of warm, tireless wombs of this son-land, sealed up tightly, helplessly, by the blotchy, ugly skin of son-seeking heat.
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