Mother Tongue

Ai Li Feng

The only language that I speak is the language of hunger. When I was born, I had no other tongue, so I opened my mouth like a switchblade and reached for my mother. My small hands warm and red as she named me in her dialect. When I ask her to translate, she tells me to learn our language, as if I inherited her tongue along with the rest of her body. Instead, the sound serrating my throat. I give up on grafting the muscle to my mouth and sever the syllables of my name into something that fits between my lips like a cigarette. My mother flinches as the smoke bleeds between my teeth and blurs my face. Renaming is like rebirth, she says. First, someone must die. From the dust, she picks a fistful of flowers and presses them into my palms. I throw them away when we walk home from the train station. In the street, white women in linen dresses wave at us and it pleases my mother to know that we will always be the same in their eyes. I smile without speaking.

At home, we dry the dishes from dinner and my mother plays the old piano for the first time since my father’s funeral. I stand on the stairs where she cannot see me, still as a shadow on the wall, and  fall asleep to the melody. In my dreams, my mother is singing to me and I cannot understand what she says. The next morning, I open my eyes to a vase filled with water and wildflowers beside my bureau. She replaces them every week when they wilt and refuses to call me by any name but the one she gave me, closing her eyes when I give it away, altered like a dress. It’s just a nickname, I tell her, and she turns away, her voice collapsing into itself. Say your name, she says. Say your name. When I try to talk in her tongue, I wound each word into something red and raw and unrecognizable. Blood blooms between my teeth, and she reaches for me, her fingers falling into my palms soft as rain. In the night, we light sticks of incense, watch them burn into nothing.

In an old train car, a restaurant sells sandwiches beside the tracks. My mother takes me there when I turn ten and buys us bacon, lettuce, and tomato wrapped in brown paper. She gives me the change and we run to the railroad, where I leave a line of nickels before the six o’clock train shrieks by. It almost winds like a snake, I tell her, and my mother looks away. The past tense of wind is wound, she says softly, and we watch the train fade like a scar. The sky hemorrhaging smoke. She turns her body like a compass needle toward the stretch of steel tracks just before the station, and I fasten my fingers around her wrist, wondering whether she would have walked back if not for me. Her feet following the railroad to previous stops, searching for its beginning. How we always start out from home. Mama, I say, and she turns toward me.

Eat, I tell her, pressing a sandwich into her palms. I don’t know how else to say, keep living. Don’t leave me. Stay for the time it takes you to eat this, if not for me. I’m here. Instead, I help her unwrap the sandwich, my hands soft and maternal. The bread breaking apart between our fingers. When we finish eating, she rips the wrapping paper into ribbons, which she folds into flowers. Anything to keep herself focused on the future, the next step. Have you ever taken the train? I ask, and she closes her eyes, crushing a bloom. Why would I want to leave this behind. When I sweep the coins off the steel, they are thin as skin and have no faces. I pour them into my mother’s pocketbook beside the passport she never needed and a photograph of my father, the film sepia and slick as blood.

At sixteen, I am hired at the restaurant in the old dining car. For my first day, my mother hammers a nail through a pair of silver coins until a mouth gapes open and she pierces its tongue with a fish hook. I can’t tell whether they’re nickels or quarters, I say, trying to read the text. I hold them up to the light but the letters are flat and faded. They’re earrings, my mother answers as she hangs them from my earlobes, weighted and wordless. Wind weaving through the open window. As I leave, my mother watches me the way she watches the trains. My shadow thinning into stretch marks as she searches for my beginning. She splays her palms over her stomach, then tears morning glory from the vine twining around the veranda and digs her fingers into the petals. Scarlet stains her nails, rusts into sepia. Her hands still sharp with the scent of metal.

I cross the train tracks walking home from work, coins swinging from my ears and my face hidden by hair. At the front door, I slip the key from under the empty flowerpot and find my mother in the kitchen, her face flushed with steam as she stirfries thin slices of meat. Her palms red and raw from the heat of the cast-iron pan. For a moment, I mistake her for myself, then she singes her sleeve and I fist my fingers in the linen of my dress. Mama, I say softly, I already ate at the restaurant. She stills, pushing the pan away and sweeping the knives off the butcher block, the sound of blades dull against the wooden floorboards. I imagine the stove gasping smoke and open my mouth like a window as if to apologize. Instead, she turns away, shadowing up the stairs, and I kneel before the knives, hold them gently and pretend that I can prevent every hurt.

The girl who works with me in the restaurant is named Lihua. We are scrubbing the silverware when I ask her what it means. What if a name is just a name, she says, accent thick in her throat. Everything means something, I insist. She opens her mouth to speak and I mirage her tongue into a crossroads, forked and flickering. What does your name mean? I look away instead of answering, rinse soap off the bread knife and hold it up, searching for my reflection on its serrated edge. My fingertips against the edge of my earrings as if to remember the nail and the fish hook and the empty mouth. Tell me about your mother country, I say sharply. Lihua tucks the quiet under her tongue and lets it dissolve. Okay, she answers. Her hands sheathed and softening in the warm water.

The waitress introduces herself during our break, leaning by the back door, a cigarette sliding between her fingers. You can call me Daisy, she says. It’s the only name I’ve ever had. Smoke in the room of her mouth, she holds out her hand, asks for my name, and I give her one that sounds like hers. Some kind of flower. That’s pretty, she says, and I make myself smile before slipping back into the kitchen. When the six o’clock train slows into the station, I slice sandwiches with cucumber, carrots, and cow tongue, sliding them onto chipped plates. We learn to communicate without opening our mouths, because our words disappear beneath the dust and din. I point to plates when they are ready to be served, and Lihua taps my shoulder and mimes mopping after we close the restaurant. The busboy sweeps tips off the tables and divides them, leaving our portions in the pockets of our coats. We translate our thanks into eye contact, nodding. Sometimes a smile. Daisy says that he doesn’t speak English, but there is no place for language here, only its unlearning, and the things we empty into the ache curling within our stomachs. We lock the door and turn out the lights. In the warm glow of  the kitchen, Lihua stands at the stove, stirfrying any leftovers, and we eat until our mouths are full.

My mother is painting wildflowers on the shutters of the second story when she slips off the ladder, bone snapping like a stem. For nine weeks, she carries herself on crutches. Every morning, she places the pads of her feet flat against the floorboards to test her weight. I ask her if it hurts and she tells me that the flowers she planted are the only ones of their kind in this country. Painted, I say, and she clenches her jaw, lowers her body back onto the bed. Everything hurts, she answers. The next day, the hours slow into stagnancy and she grows angry at everything. My voice rises to meet hers and our screams sharpen into shrapnel until we are only able to hurt. She limps away and doesn’t leave her room for days. The fracture in her fibula beginning to close like a door. In the evening, I open the windows and let the blue air in. Sometimes, I stand silently outside her room and pick at the peeling paint, curling up on the carpet for so long that I fall asleep. On the other side, my mother folds into herself, holds her arms close as a child. We open our eyes at first light, unable to see past the walls. Please. Don’t tell me that the only translation of hurt is harm.

I furl my fingers into buds and knock gently. Let’s go outside, I say. I open my hand and she reaches for me. In the streets, there is no one to see us. No light in which to catch our shadows. Instead, our bodies, bloodwarm, and her palm just above my pulse. I keep walking, my mother a few steps behind me, until we reach the train station and she stills, staring at the stretch of steel tracks. I’m sorry, she says. I know that you’re lonely. I’m all that you have left. She folds her arms around me. It’s okay. We’re here together. I swallow and say nothing. What I did not understand: the only kindness this country allowed her was a daughter who would leave again and again. When I was young, we went to watch the trains every day until I was old enough to be hired, to buy my own ticket, and she stopped, afraid that I would keep going. The late night train lingering in the station, my mother lets me go and I hesitate, then follow her home like a shadow. Behind us, the train ghosts into another timezone, leaves us in the past.

Lihua leaves the next summer, and Daisy says that she went out west, searching for the sea. The body of water that birthed her. She’s going home, Daisy tells me, and I think of the tiny house tucked behind town with morning glory growing on the veranda. My body as something landlocked, I tongue the edge of my teeth as if searching for a key. You will always be your mother’s daughter, Lihua told me, so I turn off every light, leaving the room dark as a coffin and latching the door behind me. In the morning, I buy baskets of flowers and bury bulbs beside the train tracks. How I never pronounced her name correctly. Now, I practice rounding the syllables and renaming her into something that sounds like me. Search for her shadow in every swathe of bodies that step into the station. She’s gone, Daisy says. She’s never coming back. In my dreams, Lihua says that every daughter is defined by her mother country. Every mother learns that love is a synonym for letting go. Again and again, I leave the soft glow of the kitchen and imagine it sharp with shadows that belong to no one. Gently, Daisy takes my hand and walks me home. Lingers like a ghost before saying good night beneath the morning glory. Every evening, her hands soft in mine.

Some mornings, Daisy slips into the kitchen with swollen eyes and unwashed hair, her clothes creased from sleeping in them. Other days, she doesn’t come at all because she couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes. I get sad sometimes, she says, into the soft silence of the evening before we close. We are watching the train wind by through the window. I’m going to leave like Lihua, she tells me. I’ve been saving my salary. I ask where she’ll go, and she shrugs, shoulders collapsing carelessly. New York. San Francisco. Any city that isn’t stagnant and rotting. She looks at me. You could come, too. If you want. And I think about allowing myself this, if nothing else. An engagement becoming a wedding filled with paper flowers, the edges of each petal thin as a blade. I crush every bloom and wounds open in my palms, red as mouths, so I gag my hands with gauze. We take the train and honeymoon in any timezone ahead of ours, smoke spilling into the sky behind us. Someone points and I follow the knife of their fingernail with my gaze as they ask if the grey reminds me of ghosts. I shake my head. I can’t, I tell Daisy. I have to stay with my mother. She shutters her lashes as she turns away and I imagine painting her eyelids with wildflowers. Okay, she says softly. Furls her fingers into bulbs and plants them in her pockets. The next morning, she washes her hair and reminds herself to do the laundry. When her train leaves the station, she forces her eyes forward.

When my mother passes on, I return to the railroad again and again, rummaging through my pockets but coming up empty. For hours, I kneel in the dust and practice pronouncing her name, ghost after ghost breathing through the lock of my lungs, but there is no shadow here but mine. The sky bruising soft and blue, I rip up daisies by the roots and place them in a vase by the window. I try to keep them alive as long as I can, but they die while there is still dirt under my fingernails, dark as blood. The next day, I buy a catalog, searching for a packet of seeds to be shipped across the sea. I plant each one beneath the painted shutters, then sweep the stairs and mop the kitchen, waiting for her to come home. After months alone, I stop keeping house, allowing dust to grow on the windows like moss. I spend my savings on more seeds from her country, the garden overgrown with so many flowers whose names I don’t know how to say. This is the only translation of grief that my mother taught me. The town has started to think that the house is haunted. In my dreams, I count the coins under my mattress, my fingers long and ghostlike. I run to the train tracks like my mother is beside me and have barely enough breath to buy a ticket. I stumble out at the first stop and slide quarters into a payphone, dialing the telephone on the second story, on the wall beside the window with the painted shutters. I’m going to leave, Daisy says. You could come, too. If you want. I start shaking my head and a laugh leaves Lihua’s throat like a cloud of smoke. She cradles my ankle in her interlaced fingers. Where does it hurt, she says. What do we leave behind in moving forward. When I wake up, the phone is still ringing. I hold the receiver so tightly that my skin echoes its shape. My mother starts speaking, and I bring a hand to my mouth as if pressing fingers to a wound. Don’t look back, she tells me. Don’t look back. In her drawer, I find a crumpled paper flower and unfold the petals into a train ticket, ironing out the creases as if doing the laundry. I open the door and don’t stop running.



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