In the White Room
by Mandy Chen
“Tomorrow, when I get better, I’ll take Ziyao to school.”
“Tomorrow?” said the daughter, “Why, certainly. If you get better.”
“I take good care of children.”
The woman had her feet propped on a pile of pillows. The pillows were white like the bed and everything else in sight, although she secretly suspected the pallor crept to beyond pulled curtains and partitioned rooms, eating at the hospital like an influenza grown deadly. Even the sky wore a jubilant white. The daughter was looking away at the window. The woman sat erect like a hawk, her eyes critical.
“Sure,” said the daughter.
“Do you really think so?”
“You aren’t sore,” said the woman.
“No. Why should I be?”
The daughter was never sore. Not when she vanished into thin air for two weeks not calling, leaving her home with a half-grown sister, now dead, some thirty years ago. She supposed she wasn’t the best of mothers.
“You know,” she began.
The daughter looked away at the window.
“Did you hear they caught Fu Jitong last week?”
“Why, I used to know his father. He himself was never clean. I worked under him for scarcely a year, and then I refused to. He’s no man to work for.”
“Really, you did?”
“He had been one of the worst. He! Not today. Time has changed.”
“This life, it makes you greedy.”
The woman shook her head. Back then there wasn’t time for corruption. Back then life rolled out of its magician’s pocket gingerly, each crystalline surprise a stepping stone to greatness. She remembered her colleagues back then, her comrades who believed in the same grit and greatness and fought with their youth as she did. She was a woman and now the only one to have survived. All of her earlier colleagues were either dead or close to it.
“You remember Yang Lin?”
“Why, we used to see him at least once a week.”
“Last time I saw him he looked hardly alive. Couldn’t move by himself.”
“He’s past seventy, isn’t he?”
“Younger than I. His one son dead from suicide.”
The daughter rose to stand by the window. The mother followed her with critical eyes.
“You know, most of them are dead.”
“Mama,” said the daughter. “Can’t we talk about something else?”
“It didn’t used to bother you.”
“No.” sighed the daughter. “Will you try and sleep while I pick Ziyao up from school?”
The room was empty after the daughter left. The curtains were so white the woman thought of her sister.
She used to be third in the family. Now that the second died she had to replace her, somehow compensating for the loss through added chores and reduced eating. That didn’t stop the smallest, a boy, from falling prey to some lone wolf passing the village half a year later. There were many deaths after that and many tears, but none imprinted themselves as venomously as that of her sister’s, newly past eight when hunger consumed her, pulled taut the skin of her belly, her belly arched and inflated like a drum. They used the whitest curtain they had to cover her body. After the wrapping it did not take much space. It was so tiny it did not require a burial. Now and then the woman recalled her name.
The mountain roads liquified on rainy days. There was a great deal of water where they lived and no sun. Pools gathered and drenched to the core of soft earth. They were careful that year as they crossed the mud walking to school, for the year before a child had slipped and was never seen. After her retirement, the woman went back to see the mountain once, but it had been flattened to make space for a budding metropolis. It was the only mountain in that area. All around, the earth stretched, plain after plain in fertile pallor. Very rarely did a hill or two curve towards the sky like adolescent waves against the gravity of the sea. She was angry they killed the mountain. She had hated it from her youth because it stood as an extra barrier between her and the school. In time she learned to acquiesce to its presence.
She attended junior college at the age of 16, a normal school in a different town. When she graduated they offered a scholarship for her to go to university. But her brother had also graduated by then and the military school he was admitted to required tuition. The family needed money for his education, so she worked in a factory instead and sent home her first paycheck, three kilos worth of coupons. Her father owned a little workshop in town and the family was able to get the food they needed. At that time the woman was unsure why anyone had to starve, at all. The horizon was broad and clear. Miles and miles on end the earth breathed lush and eager and eternally without bearing. Not for long the war ended and Father’s workshop became public property.
The curtain stirred. A nurse came and took her blood pressure and left. She forgot to pull back the curtain.
The curtain was red, embroidered with golden lace. She hid behind it. On the other side of the curtain stood Shu, his hands twisted behind his back and his dark eyes evasive. Then the curtain was lifted, and under the fading sky she could see the faint blush across his cheeks, his brows disheveled over the sturdy nose of an honest man. He was looking away and trying to hide the fact.
They had met after she graduated from Normal School. Her mother had fallen sick so she had left the factory. She stayed in Normal School for two years and was given rations for staying When she left for the city’s foodstuffs company after graduation, she knew she could never be a teacher. Her mother thought her quite too independent and set up a meeting at the matchmaker’s. The first time she had seen Shu she had disliked him because of his silence. Later they became friends. He spoke with a vulgar accent and an almost inexcusable shyness. She married him because he was honest and hardworking and her mother liked him very much. A month later he was assigned to make planes in the far north. That had been his dream and he did not hesitate.
Now she could see the curtain stir again and the daughter coming through it. The daughter wore white that day and the cup in her hand was almost indistinguishable against the dim white glare. But her face was sallow and her cheekbones rose sharp and smooth like the woman’s. She was every bit herself on the outside, but with a weariness she had never had before.
“How are you feeling?” said the daughter.
The woman felt good now that the pain was gone. She sat erect on the bed, her eyes acute with a new finding.
“You are very much like your Pa,” she said.
Back at their home in the city Shu and she almost never met and when they did, they often quarreled. There was so much quarreling she wondered why she went home anymore, except for the children. Both were daughters, not exactly lucky, but she couldn’t care less for conventions and her mother relied too much on her money by then to point a finger. Her eldest brother, fresh out of military school, was wiring radios in Vietnam while the rest of her five younger siblings struggled with literacy, the uncanny aftermath of being made red guards when they should have been students. She had just transferred to Chengdu’s Cotton and Linen Company. The spring after the birth of her second daughter she was offered advanced training at night school. She had enjoyed the mornings and afternoons paddling from the dusty suburbs of Chengdu to downtown and back, the landscapes two racing paint panels pulled high from where the roads ran horizontally, the road racing dark and tall and new under her tumbling feet and her cropped hair fluttering against the wind. She remembered returning from night school at two in the morning, air biting into her cheeks, the city lightless and deserted but her heart too full to be cold. At the start of winter the bike slipped and ice tore loose the side of her shank. Back in the suburbs, when she dragged person and bike home Shu saw the blood and bellowed at her across the yard.
She was made manager the year the younger daughter turned three. It came as a surprise to none of them.
The daughter was pulling something from her handbag. “Here,” she said.
“You could’ve had anything.” said the woman. “If only you’d stayed.”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at, Mama.”
“You had to leave. You had to come here.”
The woman guessed when you had to leave, you had to leave. She would have understood her daughter, standing shivering that day shortly after her marriage, at the city’s train station with one younger sister hung on each arm, all wrapped up in burlap too coarse for decency. As deputy secretary of the Foodstuffs Company she had been deemed a rightist. Defending her former superiors who were accused of rightism made matters worse, and her illiterate but insightful siblings decided she had better be shipped to Dalian, where nobody knew her and Shu worked. When she said goodbye a sister cried and said she didn’t have to go. The other sister threw her a dirty look so she shushed.
Inside workers crouched in defensive huddles, sweat diffusing like some sort of airborne infection. In Dalian, she became a migrant worker and loomed for three months before before running back home the day Shu went out on business. Back in Chengdu she was dispatched to the chili factory and became a real worker.
She looked up now, saying “Can we not?” and the woman chuckled.
“I had everything settled for you. Why did you have to come here?”
“Here, take these.” In her palm the pellets glistened.
At the chili factory they crushed red chili with their feet. After stomping and grinding all day the skin took to ruddy permeability, the toes inflated and eternally dripping so she went about without socks. When the revolution ended some two or three years later, she was rewarded with a position at the Chengdu Cotton and Linen Company, where she became secretary of Party and soon, manager. With a distinctive voice and headstrong character, she had no trouble rising to president of it provincial headquarters and sat with the Premier every year since 1978 in the Central Economic Working Conference.
Her arrival at Sichuan Cotton and Linen Company stirred its stagnant existence.
The woman glared.
“I just—I’ve been thinking.”
“Would you like to go back to Chengdu once you get better?”
“But I’ve not been here a month!”
“They have better doctors.”
“I’ll be alright in a while,” said the woman. “And Ziyao needs taking care of.”
“Mama, we don’t need you to—”
Their eyes met. The daughter looked away.
“I’m sorry, Ma. You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”
“I want to go.”
Her arrival at Sichuan Cotton and Linen Company stirred the still water existence of its mechanic body. For three years the machine had rested barren with seeds, dyspeptic belly protruding, surface corrupted beneath eyes of censor. They welcomed her with hidden files and rewritten histories. Looking back at it now she was proud to say after six months of combat, here character dulled the off-putting glare of her co-workers – a result of her female identity. The men had at last gotten over a shared sense of shame. Even Deng softened. When he fell sick with fever a year later she lavished on him all sorts of cares and favors on him so the proud General Manager could not but bow once and for all. Afterwards she ensured the employment of his three children and eldest grandson. As a matter of fact she took, under her wings, all that had been loyal to her. In 1978 she sat with Premier Hua.
“And where is Deng now?”
Again, she grew aware of the all-encompassing whiteness of the room. A hospital wing. She could not remember why she was there. Had she fallen down? Hit herself in the head, fainted? She did not believe so. And then someone spoke and she forgot all about that, too.
She looked and saw the daughter, for a while mistaking her for a ghost of hallucination. whim not sure this is the right word. But her white shirt sagged, and the buttons were displaced, the frills of her skirt a decaying umber. She looked now and thought, how they could never forgive each other: her for her abandonment and for the ways she slumped, dragged, dulled, her eyes downcast elusive, a housewife. Hopelessly worn at thirty three.
When she heard herself called she was scared. It reminded her of her sisters howling the night her own mama died.
“Mama? Mama? Mama?”
She was scared. In her head the past swirled like glass, shreds broken into words misunderstood, words rich and pompous that used to melt at the tip of one’s tongue but now meant nothing at all. She closed her eyes to see the world looked any different. When it didn’t she thought of how one life topped another—became another and how at the end of time they all grew reword one and timeless.
“Oh, Mama!” cried the alien voice. “Please, oh please—Doctor!” And she heard herself speak in equally alien tone, “Cut it out, won’t you?” and that’s when it all stopped.
She was hiding in the kitchen. Outside her daughter stood barring the door yelling at a belligerent Deng who came to demand a share of housing. “Let me in,” she heard him say, “let me in you shameless—” and the daughter said “No”. He said, “I came to see your mother. You have no business interfering.” She was hiding in the kitchen listening, knowing she could not afford argument with a potential right hand. Outside the younger daughter was yelling as if in labor.
“Get out,” she said. “I said, get out.”
The woman laughed, startling her daughter.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
“Ha, ha,” she said. “Ha ha ha.”
The woman shushed.
“What’s the matter?”
The daughter began to beckon for the doctor so she stopped.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m sorry. I’m really fine.”
“You remember Deng?”
“Yes. Will you be good and take a nap while I have a word with Doctor Zhou?”
Then she who begged and said she was only joking and the doctor went away.
Nineteen ninety-five she and her team flew to the United States of America to learn about cotton planting and the processing machines. She had never sat in a plane for so long. She caught her first glimpse of the sunny California land through the plane window. It reeled under her in a speeding circular motion, the mild green soil stretching looped and curvaceous. At customs she was questioned for a long time. In their eighteen days of exploratory stay they plunged through the deep South, traveling from the western coast to the east. All five senses open for knowledge. She was impressed by the quality of its swarthy soil, vigorous as a lad and purified by the cover of vegetation. There were so few people for so much land, and she began to think thatGod must have favored this place over everywhere else. The vegetation machines with big tires crawled along the surface of the soil, would have no use back home due to the bumpiness of the land and the poverty of the peasants. Where we had peasants, America had farmers, rich farmers who lived in big two-story houses, with pools and mechanical irrigation. Beneath the soil tubes formed a maze of human ingenuity. Everything was so mechanical. Every plantation was a world of its own. while back at home the peasants wrestled with small scale economy. She’d been saying this the past few years…that they needed specialized, sustainable farming. They needed to stop using manure for laziness sake, because it drilled heavy metal into the core of land and corrupted soil and mind. But China was growing, alright. Now they told her they moved the cotton industry to Xin Jiang where the temperature was fit.
She returned to the United States of America in nineteen ninety-five, visiting cities as well as farmland. She remembered feeling horror-struck and embarrassed at first sight of Vegas. Personally she disproved of the gambling and extravagant colors but knew she was not one to judge. New York was a different story, what with the shiny grayness of tall metal and steel. She was impressed and a little disgusted by the way one floor grew on top of another, the people enfolded like napkins in an American fast food combo.
The daughter was speaking. She no longer felt funny.
“And what about Deng?”
“Yea. Deng. Manager Deng.” said the daughter. “You’ve been talking about him.”
The woman did not remember talking about Deng. But she nodded and said, “Ah.”
Suddenly the daughter teared up. She raised a hand and turned quickly to the window.
“Ha!” said the woman, vaguely irritated. She no longer felt funny. “And what’s your problem?”
The daughter said nothing. The woman said, “There, there. Deng never forgave you, did he? Never uttered another syllable to you.”
“It’s horrible,” said the daughter, breaking into a smile.
“It is. You’d been a fierce little girl, hadn’t you? Now, is he alive?”
The daughter teared up again and she felt horrible for bringing it up.
“Did you know they moved the cotton industry to Xin Jiang last year?”
The daughter shook her head.
“I say China is growing fast,” said the woman. “The scale of agriculture has expanded. There is increased specialization.”
“That’s right,” said the daughter.
“The economy is good. God must like China too, don’t you think?”
“You look worried,” the woman commented. “What’s the matter?”
“Aren’t you tired?”
“Not at all.”
“Why don’t you try and take a nap?”
While pretending to take a nap she saw her mother. Her mother was a pretty woman, unlike her, the uneducated daughter of a rich landowner, with very dark hair and deep-set butterfly eyes. It was in nineteen seventy-one that she died, having lived a long, fulfilled life, her hardships ending just when fortune was about to shine. Her favorite son always believed she died of happiness. The woman remembered finding out about it two days after her promotion, driving a car for the first time and seeing all around not trees but shapes, humanly shapes weaving like dancing green spots in the sun. She suddenly felt a strange urge, a jerk of the heart muscle, a sort of primeval palpitation like a baby seeing the world for the first time, the light intrusive the shadows transmute and the heart all colorblind.
The doctor believed her mother died of dyspepsia. Her lips were still wet with the juice of her seventh persimmon when the woman found her, eyes wide unblinking, with no sign of death but the glaring death notice hung over her hospital bed. She looked like one who decided to skip a breath as a joke but never remembered to inhale again. The woman believed she died of forgetfulness. ( I love this paragraph)
A nurse came and went, her existence causing no disturbance in the harmony of the room. She lost her train of thought.
Something clicked inside her. She realized that when you added white to white, either white remained white.The original whiteness was incapable of becoming whiter. Just the same with harmony, or peace of mind. Extra doses of peace were as futile as climax in the face of anti-conflict. The only thing that lasted was repetition.
Presently she heard her daughter again. The little girl leaning with one arched brow screaming at the top of her lungs “Get out this is my house”.
The morning light shone blackly through a cluster of fog. Behind the window of the hospital wing the daughter stirred, her arms sore from a night’s pillowing where she dreamed of cake and confetti for her little son’s wedding. An arm’s length away the woman slept, mountainous lines heaving in the still peace of a resting Buddha. The daughter yawned. It was a good dream.
“Oh Mama,” she said. “if only you could live to see little Ziyao in suit and tie.”
She yawned again and rose to check if Mama was awake. She wasn’t. When the daughter leaned down to plant a kiss her cheek was cold, and she could not hear breathing.
Mandy Chen is a student at Northwestern University, hoping to study creative writing. She is inspired by the works of Hemingway, Faulkner and Dostoyevsky, and strives to become a martial arts master.