Chen Shee arrives at Mr. Kan’s late in the afternoon, the saddest time of the day. The candles on the porch haven’t yet been lit, and the street is empty except for the idling Ford. In the fading autumn light, the neutral neighborhood of one-story houses looks sunken and chilly.
The driver who picked her up at the station nods farewell, fires up the engine and rolls away. The boxy rear of his car glints going down the block and Chen Shee thinks of how she and Mingmei used to watch the cabooses on the tracks behind their house. They’d crouch beside the granite heaps, terrified and thrilled when a train sprinted past. When the last of the cars had run by, they’d grab the still-warm rails, side by side. Just to feel. The cabooses would recede, disappearing around a bend, leaving stirred, hushed air.
Now, Chen Shee’s fingers are cold. She grips her suitcase and looks out from the shadowy porch. In the yard, lonesome leaves stir on the pear tree. More scatter across the dry lawn around it.
By this time, the American cashier’s checks have been exchanged at the Bank of South China. Her father has tucked the funds safely under the floorboard by the ginger jar. She wonders if the house is empty without her. Leaving Ming had been the hardest.
Chen Shee turns. She knocks and her knuckles ache in the dryness. Despite her quiet exhaustion, she senses a lingering, meandering string of hope, like the fragile web of a spider, which had begun to unspool in her months ago, when her mail courtship with Mr. Kan had commenced.
The door opens. Though the house and the porch are dim, she can see the patient broadness of the man’s jaw and shoulders. He pulls back his arm and, with one solemn gesture, invites her into the home they will share. This is what the journey has been leading to. Why then does she feel distant, as if she were imagining the present rather than living it?
Inside, the curtains are drawn together and only a sliver of dusky fields from the backyard shines into the parlor. The black furniture is covered in a layer of dust, like small pebbles across the glossy surface of pavement after rain, but the home is not unkempt. Night has come quickly and, in the low light, Chen Shee feels a calm loneliness about the place. This is the first time she is alone with a man.
Mr. Kan pats the top of the cabinet behind him then finds and strikes a match, lighting the votives that hang on the wall. The space between the two of them illuminates and she can see his beard and moustache are freshly shaved. The skin around his mouth looks tender, like the unseasoned poultry her mother used to bake in the terracotta pot—even as she thinks it, Chen Shee knows it’s a strange comparison. Why, she wonders, is she missing her mother of all people now? Momma’s the one that she lost years ago. Chen feels nostalgia pulling at her and she knows she’s exhausted. She follows Mr. Kan, clad in a pressed American-style dress shirt, to the kitchen.
At the table, Mr. Kan lights a long-stemmed candle then the kerosene lamp beside the sink. The room buzzes. The familiar smell makes Chen think of the shanty shed behind the house, tucked against the fence, hidden from the tracks, where she and Mingmei once discovered a hermit. Her sister had laughed and Chen had cried while the man, gray beard tickling his bare chest, curled into himself. His chin had touched his knees. Why do some people feel panic, feel anything so strong, while others don’t?
Mr. Kan puts water on to boil and Chen Shee senses that she’s drifting off, her elbows on the table. She’s too tired to try and look ladylike. Perhaps because of the language barrier, because they don’t know all the words they should say, the silence between them is comfortable. With the darkness all around them and the light in this one spot, glowing in a circle throughout the kitchen, Chen Shee imagines that they are insulated from the world.
She wishes she could tell Mingmei, in this very second, how things are turning out. It had been hard to let go of her sister’s fingers, sticky from the salt in the air by the dock—she knew they might never share the immediate closeness of childhood again. For the first time in her life, she’d been aware of change before it happened.
Mr. Kan serves tea—lime green with small flecks of leaves at the bottom—and sits, half an arc away from her at the round table. He sips. It’s too hot. Each of them hunches over their steaming, miniature cups. An owl, somewhere far away, hoots.
“You’re here,” he says. His inflections are stiff and he seems embarrassed by his childish, formal Cantonese. He spreads his fingers across the patterned tablecloth between them and looks up at her, his dark eyes curious and kind. Chen Shee reaches out and does the same. Their fingers don’t touch, but Chen feels herself moving toward him.
Like the legs of a starfish, she imagines regenerating essential parts of herself which before had seemed irreparable. They’d grow back and she wonders if there would even be a seam that showed where the original ended and the replacement began. How many times does a starfish lose and gain a leg in a lifetime?
Later, as she’s lying on her back in the twin-sized bed, she listens to Mr. Kan treading on the creaky wood boards. A cupboard closes, a metal spoon clinks against a ceramic dish—sounds she’s heard in a place faraway a thousand times before.
Her first morning in Grass Valley, Chen Shee wakes to hot, bright beams of light coming through the slanted shades. Though it’s cool outside, the air, dancing with dust particles, has been magnified feverish as it shines through the window’s thick, bubbled glass. Her legs stick to the grainy cotton sheets as she rises.
The house is silent save the distant ticking of a grandfather clock and she follows the lonely sound to the kitchen. A ball of rice perspires on a sheet of wax paper beside the icebox. Mr. Kan has written her new American name in loping scrawl. Alice, it says. To Chen Shee, the name is neither likable nor dislikable. It is, simply, a marker of the many uncontrollable and necessary changes in her life.
Her father had given her the name as he hunched over a book of American fables. He’d scanned the columns of the story with the tip of his finger and settled on the character, Alice. He finds her whimsical, he’d said. Is that what he wants for his daughter, Chen Shee had wondered. But she knows her father loves her. It’d been recognized since Mingmei was small that she would be the village yuan, their beauty. With Ming’s coming of age last spring, the men had begun calling. Chen knows their father had considered each of his daughters—their fates and their feelings—in marrying Chen first.
After studying Mr. Kan’s credentials in the catalog, Chen Shee’s father had dragged her into the muggy city on a noisy sort of day. He’d hired a woman to cover her in paint and powder and then, in front of the boxy camera, he had poised her himself, moving Chen’s limbs like a doll’s.
“Like this,” he’d said, demonstrating, his chin on his palm. Watching him, Chen Shee had struggled to control her face, twitching into a smile beneath her milky talcum mask. When the photograph developed, Chen was secretly pleased. The camera had captured her natural, laughing expression—amused and familiar. It was nothing like the contrived portraits other women might send. Chen Shee’s father fawned over the image too. “Now the gentleman of California will definitely want you for his wife,” he’d said.
The next morning, Chen Shee had woken to the voices of her father and the butcher’s delivery boy at the front gate outside her bedroom window. “The Chinese in America,” her father said. “They’re kind to their women? They keep their Chinese manners?” He paced the short length of the front gate.
“Oh yes, Mr. Yun,” the boy said, bobbing his head eagerly. He straddled his red bicycle, a basket brimming with pork cuts attached to the front. “We’re practically royalty over there. Chen Shee will be just fine.”
Her father had smiled and shook the boy’s hand, relieved. “Here, here,” he’d said, reaching into his pocket, and tipped the boy a little more.
Now, Chen Shee takes her rice and a bowl of jook and settles at the table where she and Mr. Kan sat together last night. The house is quiet and the wavering morning light is gentle. She feels that, if she closes her eyes and wants it badly enough, she could be any place in the world. She could imagine herself into another existence. All she has to do is really want it, she suspects. It feels that possible.
Chen Shee pictures the muddy nook by the stream where she and Mingmei used to lay bamboo down in the summertime, after the fields flooded. They’d lie on their backs and look up at the evening sky. The trains rumbled by, the only markers of passing time. Chen Shee remembers how she could feel the coolness of the earth creeping through the bamboo mats, into her bones. She and Mingmei had talked about their futures—they’d have an orange farm together, trade forbidden romance books in the summer, raise their sons and daughters as close as sisters and brothers.
In the shifty, warm-cool light, the two of them had spoken of things that they couldn’t at any other time. Once, not looking into each other’s eyes but rather at the stars beginning to peek out overhead, they spoke of how fiercely they missed their mother. Like she was a shadow lurking against every sun-cast wall, Chen Shee said. Mingmei had nodded, her chin bobbing up and down, the back of her head burrowing deeper in the mud. Chen Shee remembers how lucky she’d felt that Ming was her sister, that she could try and protect her, that they shared a closeness beyond any other.
When she opens her eyes, Chen Shee sees unfamiliar land through the glass door on the back of the house. She sips Mr. Kan’s lukewarm porridge. An open field beyond their splintering fence buzzes with swallows and other brush birds. The swing on the rusty play-set in the backyard drifts forward and back in the breeze.
When Mr. Kan returns for lunch, he asks Chen Shee if she’d like to go with him to The Unique, the women’s clothing store his family owns. In the time when Grass Valley’s Chinatown boomed, it was once a general store, Mr. Kan tells her. Since then, his parents and grandparents have been buried and the Chinese community has thinned. “Like a puddle of water spreading across wood,” he says.
At The Unique, Chen sits behind the counter on a stool that Mr. Kan has brought up from the cellar. He sits at the desk in back, figuring accounts on his abacus and comes to offer Chen Shee a cup of tea every half hour, which she politely declines. The afternoon passes, a whirlwind of dinging registers, foreign words and floppy hats.
“I was hoping you’d like it here,” Mr. Kan says at the end of the day. The sun has set outside the shop’s window and the sky is purple-gray. A shop-girl helps the last customer. Mr. Kan touches Chen Shee. For an instant, their hands are stacked, like seashells, on top of the counter. The intimate gesture in the public place thrills her. No one seems to have noticed and she behaves as if the act were natural for her too. Only now does she let herself think of the men she could have wed if she’d been unlucky.
On the walk home, the moon rises over the silhouettes of the trees and chimneys. “Forgive me,” Mr. Kan says, a profile against the dark outlines of sycamores. He pushes his hands deep in his pockets. “I’m trying to learn the words to tell you how glad I am to have you here.”
A warmness glows in Chen. The stars are bright, she notices, like at her father’s house and also like in the openness over the ship’s deck on the journey over. Life here, Chen Shee thinks, it might be enough.
Autumn passes and the air becomes chillier. Chen Shee’s life takes on a rhythm. In the mornings, she cares for their home. She rolls and bakes dumpling dough, straightens Mr. Kan’s cluttered desk, finds that a little cooking oil and sandpaper dissolves the rust on the swing-set in back. Perhaps, she muses, it will be played on again someday. It saddens her to think that her unmade children might never get to play with their Gong and Auntie, her father and Ming.
In the afternoons, Mr. Kan picks her up and she goes to work with him at the boutique. She perches on her stool behind the register, helping lady shoppers and recording special orders. Chen Shee enjoys her work. Sometimes Mr. Kan surprises her, returning to the shop with meat pies from the stand around the corner. They remind Chen of the lat cheung that Mingmei used to love from the street vendors. Chen wonders if her sister still eats the fatty meat now that she’s engaged. Perhaps instead she eats an herbal diet to promote fertility. Chen doesn’t know, but she thinks of Ming often.
With sadness, she’s felt the distance growing between herself and her sister. She knows their relationship has changed. Her memories make her, like her father’s character Alice, wistful. Ming wrote of her engagement and Chen responded, but everything sounded like a platitude. Chen Shee hasn’t written much since then. Why does she feel as if she has to choose one life over the other?
In the evenings, Chen Shee sleeps with her face nestled in Mr. Kan’s neck. After their first night of lovemaking, they’d settled into the position by chance. Now, whether they make love or not, they sleep this way, their steady breaths intertwined.
On a particularly brisk evening in December, Chen Shee sorts through the letters from Ming and her father. Each page has been folded in half to fit the envelopes. As she pulls them from the trunk, she thinks of her family’s hands creasing them, their tongues licking them.
“Archibald’s on,” Mr. Kan says from the parlor down the hall. They listen to the radio program together every evening. When the announcer calls the winning numbers, they usually follow along together, Mr. Kan dragging his index finger across the lines in The Sacramento Bee. They hope to win a new sewing machine, a turkey-dinner for four, tickets to the Nevada County Fair. It’s become a demonstration of their closeness. Tonight though, Chen Shee is in the spare bedroom thinking of people who are not present.
“It’s a big one,” Mr. Kan calls in a blend of English and Cantonese. “A trip to a bed-and-breakfast in Lake Tahoe,” he says.
Chen Shee wonders where Lake Tahoe is. Standing in front of the daybed, she looks at the first letter in her hand. In familiar handwriting, Ming has relayed the story of a yellow bird that lives in the tree in their father’s front yard. Chen remembers receiving it three months ago.
Mr. Kan recites the numbers along with the radio in the parlor.
The little songbird never ceases chirping, Chen reads. She can almost see the laughter in her sister’s brushstrokes. He sings sunrise to sunset as if it were a well-paid job. I wonder what he’s saying, Ming had written. Chen, what do you think? What would you say if you were a bird? Mingmei’s letter continues but Chen Shee’s vision glazes over, shifting out-of-focus. The ebony characters become fuzzy. She wonders if Ming and her father are hurt, if they realize she feels as if she must distance herself from what she’s left behind in order to move forward with what she has here.
“We won!” Mr. Kan comes tearing down the hall. “8-7-3-6-4, 8-7-3-6-4,” he says. The newspaper quivers in his hand and a sea of foreign symbols swims in front of Chen Shee’s eyes. He grabs her hand and their two palms press together the letters from Ming.
“Two nights, you and me, next to the famous, sparkling water,” Mr. Kan says. He cups her hands in his. Chen Shee taps her fingertips against the letters. She’s never seen Mr. Kan so excited.
When she and Ming had discovered the hermit in the shanty-shed behind their house, the man had uncurled and invited them in. Chen Shee had held Ming back, her palm flat across her sister’s stomach. The nature of what their reply should be seemed obvious to her. But Mingmei had peered her head into the hermit’s humble makeshift. “You must be hungry,” she’d said. “We’ll return with salt snacks and tea.”
The man had looked up at them and smiled—greedily, Chen later said, joyously, Ming said. Why, Chen Shee had wondered then and for these months since, had they seen different things? Why had she felt fear and her sister generosity?
Eventually, they’d gone inside and eaten supper with their father. As if by unspoken code, neither mentioned the man. The next morning, when Chen peeked into the shanty, the hermit was gone and only an imprint in the shape of a body remained in the loose granite stones. Life, she’s learning, is something like that—full of choices that must be made with resolution, or they linger, eerie and unfinished.
On the morning she and Mr. Kan depart for Lake Tahoe, the sky is especially crisp and bright. The air is cold and Chen Shee suspects the first snow will fall soon. She’s not familiar with the seasons here, but she can feel it on her skin as she climbs into the Ford.
Mr. Kan turns the car onto the main highway, but Chen Shee hardly notices the pine trees whizzing by, the rocky cliffs descending below her. Dark shadows alternate with flashing sunlight. The fiery contrasts make her forehead ache and she leans back onto the headrest. It’s painful for her to imagine Mingmei becoming someone she doesn’t know.
“Would fresh air help?” Mr. Kan says, glancing over. He touches Chen Shee’s arm lightly.
She lowers her window and leans out of the Ford, her hair spraying wildly in the air rushing past. She can smell the earth. They climb the winding trail, staying close to the side of the mountain, and she likes the noisy, pounding wind. She feels as if it’s cleansing her, pieces of herself drifting away.
“Beautiful sky,” Mr. Kan says, peering through the windshield.
Then, they swerve. His hands have slipped on the wheel, Chen can see, her thoughts throbbing fast in her head, and there’s a boulder in the road. Her body knocks against the sideboard.
“Landslide,” Mr. Kan says. He puffs air out of his mouth as if the world were a balloon.
Chen Shee’s mind beats like a heart. How close her head, stuck out the window, had been to the side of the mountain. For a flashing second, she had seen the pebbles and the mud and the roots as if through a magnifying glass. She thinks of Ming nestling her hair in the mud by the stream as they lay on their backs and talked into the twilight air. Mingmei, Chen thinks, is becoming a woman far away. Her throat stings, remembering the one person she has always wanted to protect. She’s ashamed—it hadn’t taken much to make her give up.
“Are you okay?” Mr. Kan says. His usually smooth, creamy forehead is furrowed.
“I’m fine,” she says. Slowly and deliberately, Chen raises her eyes. Black road, arching sky, the cool sun above. She’ll write Ming, she thinks into the openness. I can still love you far away. You will always be my little sister. “Yes, you and I,” she says, reaching across the car’s stick shift and settling her hand on Mr. Kan’s thigh. “We’re okay.”
He sets his on top and together their hands look like the wings of the songbird Ming had spied on in her father’s yard.
Chen Shee rests her chin on the ledge of the window. She looks out beyond the car once again. But this time, in the side-view mirror, she sees the road they have just traveled disappearing behind them and sees her life with warmth, not wistfulness in the receding signs, trees and now, boulder. What, she wonders, is one to do but drive around when a rock tumbles in the path?