The Abortionist's Daughter
THE FIRST TIME I SEE THE FETUSES IS THE DAY JIANG'S MOTHER COMES INTO MY FATHER'S CLINIC.
I’m seven years old, playing in the storage room of Zhongshan Women’s Medical Facility Number 2. It’s a Saturday in late December, and the weather has turned cold, but short of freezing. I’m snug in my yellow school windbreaker—which is part of my uniform—and my tight ponytail is pulling on my face. I’ve been skipping through the building as usual, trying to find something of interest. Dad is the kind of doctor who helps women with their problems. My mom, a nurse, is next door in the operating room, helping him perform a procedure. Even though I’m not allowed in either room, I’ve developed a penchant for breaking superfluous rules.
The fetuses are kept in thick glass jars that stand on a black laboratory tabletop. In each jar, peach- and plum-colored slivers of flesh, some more diaphanous than others, lie suspended in clear liquid, floating like single-celled organisms of the deep. I’m sitting on a stool, eyes glued to the jars. Even though I don’t yet know what a fetus is, Grandma Lin, who lives with us, will explain it to me when I get home. Cold air is blowing from the standing air conditioner in the corner, and my skin has broken out in goose bumps. Despite the chill, I stare fixedly at the specimens, which sway in their own secret dominion.
“Ni Shi!” Dad says. “What are you doing?”
I flinch on the stool—I didn’t hear the door open. Dad is wearing his white lab coat, surgical mask and gloves.
“Looking at something,” I say.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” he says. “Go sit in the lobby.”
❧ ❧ ❧
There are three patients waiting in the aseptic-scented lobby, which consists of twenty adjoined yellow plastic seats, a wall-mounted 32-inch LCD TV, a hot/cold water dispenser with paper cups, and a semi-circular reception counter. I sit in my seat doing my math homework, which Mom makes me finish before I can play games on her iPhone. Grandma Lin detests this because she says iPhones are made by Chinese slave girls who lack the skills to do anything else, and that if I don’t learn how to do something useful—like hack into a computer or invent an ingenious method to reduce air pollution—I’ll become a slave girl, myself.
I work on math problems until the numbers are practically howling at me. When I look up from my book, Li Jiang, my best friend, wearing the same green coat and pink snow cap she wears at school, walks into the clinic with her parents. Jiang stands at her mom’s hip like a forgotten pet. Two men, one with thick sideburns and bulldog jowls, follow behind them. With the help of Mr. Li, her mother plods toward the reception counter like it’s the guillotine, her face red as raw stew meat. The man with thick sideburns says something to Xu, the receptionist, and she starts to lead them into one of the examination rooms, but before reaching the hallway Jiang’s mother pauses, closes her eyes, and begins trembling.
“I can’t do it,” she squeals, clenching her fists, and breaks down into shaky, horrible sobs.
Mr. Li clutches her with his arm and whispers into her ear. Awkwardly, Mrs. Li moves forward, no more comforted than before, disappearing down the hallway. Jiang takes a seat beside me while the two men plop down in front of the TV.
“What’s wrong with your mom?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Jiang says. Her sullen face looks pitiful.
I snatch Mom’s iPhone from her purse behind the counter and hand it to Jiang, but the games don’t interest her, and my subsequent attempts at small talk go nowhere. Jiang simply stares at the TV. The man with the sideburns lights a cigarette, but Xu tells him he can’t smoke in the hospital. Nevertheless, he continues smoking for a minute or two, drops cigarette ash onto the floor, and puts out the cigarette, flicking it onto the floor, as well.
An hour later, when Mrs. Li comes out of the operating room, I’ve finished my homework and Mr. Li has an arm around Mrs. Li’s waist, steadying her as she paces through the lobby like a zombie, her eyes dopey and distant.
❧ ❧ ❧
At home I tell Grandma Lin about Jiang’s mother and the fetuses. Mom and Dad are in their room, talking. The smell of ox bone soup wafts from the kitchen, the metal pot rattling from the burner. Grandma Lin, my mother’s mother, is bony and stooped; most of her front teeth are brown and black, and I don’t sit too close to her because of her breath, which smells like molded bread. Although she was the best student in her high school, she never attended university. She worked for many years as a seamstress. Her husband, my grandpa, died more than a dozen years ago of lung cancer.
Grandma Lin sets my bowl on the kitchen table, and as I slurp the broth from a porcelain soup spoon the warmth cascades into my belly. The tender meat falls off the bone as I bite into it, and I grin at the old woman, who sips from her own bowl and smacks her lips with approval.
“So what are they?” I ask, regarding the fetuses.
Grandma Lin groans, tightens her lips, and looks down at her soup. She acts as though she doesn’t want to explain, which is unusual for her, since she always tells me everything—especially when I ask her a question.
“I don’t know how to tell you,” Grandma Lin says.
“Just tell me!” I say impatiently.
Grandma Lin groans and looks up from her bowl.
“You know where babies come from?” she asks.
“A woman’s tummy,” I say.
“Hm,” she says.
“So?” I say.
“What you saw are fetuses,” she says. “Babies who haven’t been born.”
My spoon stops in mid-air as I try to comprehend this.
“Oh,” I say. “When will they be born?”
Grandma Lin gently shakes her head and looks back down at her soup.
After dinner, I ask the old woman if she will brush my hair and sing “The Emperor’s Daughter,” a nursery rhyme she and Mom have sung to me since I can remember. But lately Mom says I’m getting too old for it. We sit on the sofa, and I lay my head against Grandma Lin’s shoulder. The old woman’s voice warbles out the tune, and as the plastic bristles crawl along my scalp, I doze off and start to dream of Ms. Gronkowski, my English teacher from Wisconsin.
❧ ❧ ❧
On Monday I see Jiang on the playground, sitting on a concrete bench in a bright green knitted sweater, her hair disheveled. My backpack is heavy from my math book and homework papers, so I heave it onto the space next to her and sit down. The Zhongshan sky is hazy, and the scent of a fire carries in the cold air. Five kilometers away, thick gray smoke mushrooms from a shoe factory smokestack.
“Is your mom okay?” I ask.
Jiang gives me a blank look.
“She’s been sleeping,” Jiang says. “When she wakes up she starts crying.”
“What do you do?” I ask.
“About what?” Jiang asks.
“About her crying.”
Jiang shrugs. She gazes at the playground equipment. Her hair, usually done up neatly, hangs loosely and frayed, missing its jasmine smell.
Ms. Song, the dowager on recess duty, moseys by, her jade whistle hanging from her neck. She has beady black eyes and graying hair. She teaches sixth grade, and the older students say she’s the meanest teacher in the school and that she never married because she’s too irascible, instead of being amenable like women are supposed to be.
“Why aren’t you girls playing?” Ms. Song asks, her face expressionless.
“We’re talking,” I say.
Ms. Song shakes her head, mumbles something inaudible, and saunters past.
“Did you do your math homework?” I ask.
“No,” Jiang asks.
I think of asking her if she wants to go down the slide, but I know she’ll say no, so I just sit with her and listen to the hum of the wind. Finally, Ms. Song blows the whistle and we go inside.
❧ ❧ ❧
In the afternoon, in English class, I’m staring at Ms. Gronkowski, who is wearing an amber cotton blouse and dark blue skirt. Young and beautiful, she teaches us twice a week. Because my English is poor, her undecipherable words flit past me like fireflies. Nevertheless, I’m mesmerized by her blue angelic eyes and shimmering glint of unbound blonde hair, which smells of honeysuckle. When she gives us worksheets, I constantly raise my hand for help just to get a whiff of it, and when she asks if I understand, when her eyes peer into me, I’m too dazed to answer. I just smile. Before she arrived, I’d never seen anyone with natural blonde hair. Not in person. I’d never spoken to a foreigner.
Today she is talking about something called an infinitive. As she drums amber chalk across the chalkboard, I lose myself in the hem of her skirt, in the pristine ivory of her skin, and I imagine she is my big sister, or my aunt, and she’s lying on a large round bed, the kind I’ve seen on TV and once at a mall in Hong Kong, her hair silky and glimmering, just like the bed’s comforter; but instead of teaching attire, she’s wearing a lilac gown, and I’m lying beside her, snug in my pink cotton pajamas, my head cradled in the nook between her shoulder and breast; she brushes her hair with her hand, flinging it over my face.
My brief escape into paradise ends when Hui Min, the boy in front of me, passes me the new worksheet, dangling it in front of my face. I take one of the papers and pass the others behind me. Then, as usual, I raise my hand for help.
❧ ❧ ❧
The next weekend I spend Saturday at the clinic. Not many patients come in; the place is deserted for hours. After I finish my homework I wander about the building, skipping along the hallway, happy to be free of math problems and Chinese writing. A mouse scurries down the hallway, away from me, and in an empty examining room I watch a black cockroach scoot through the loops of a pair of forceps.
Bored, I leave the room and meander down the hallway. The storage room door is unlocked, so I open it and turn on the light. The jars of fetuses, however, no longer stand on the tabletop, and the air conditioner is off. I turn off the light and step back out into the hallway.
The door to the operating room stands ajar, and a sliver of light, in the shape of a ruler, spills through the crack. I step closer to the door and listen. Cold. Quiet. The sign on the door says “Staff and Patient Only.”
I step toward the adjacent examining room and hear Mom and Dad talking through their food, their words muffled. I traipse back to the operating room, push the door open, and step inside.
A pungent aseptic odor burns my nose. Glass cabinets and a counter lie against the opposite wall. In the middle of the room, against the wall, lies a reclining patient’s chair with gray vinyl padding and rubber ankle stirrups dangling from two rods at one end. My little feet creep toward the chair, my heart pounding like the Haer washing machine at home. I don’t know why, but it’s something I have to do, something I need to see, even if it gets me in trouble.
A rolling metal table stands on the other side of the chair. On top of it, a tray of silver instruments: forceps, tongs, a scraping tool. Next to the tray lies a syringe and several ampules, and beside them stand dark brown vials of anesthetics and antiseptics.
I climb up onto the seat and lean back. The lights above flicker, humming their electrical song. Is this what the women see and hear? I wonder. I grab the pair of forceps from the tray, hold them with my finger and thumb. Clamp them together. Release.
My parents’ voices crescendo in the next room, their chair legs scooting against the floor, so I wrestle myself out of the chair and scamper out of the room.
❧ ❧ ❧
Later, at home, Mom and Dad are yelling at each other in their bedroom.
Grandma Lin sits in a chair at the table, knitting, as I eat a bowl of rice with chicken, mushrooms, ginger, and watercress that she has steamed. The old woman cooks better than Mom, but I keep this to myself, unlike the story Grandma Lin told me yesterday—that Dad’s frequent visits to Hong Kong when I was a toddler were due to a girlfriend he had there.
Mom and Dad don’t fight very often. As far as I can tell, when they do, it’s almost always because of Grandma Lin, and they always fight in Cantonese.
“That saber-toothed bat needs to watch her mouth!” Dad says. “If she makes one more dirty remark to our daughter, she’ll find herself on the street!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mom says. “She’s my mom. We’re responsible for her!”
“She’s poisoning Ni Shi’s mind!” he says.
“Since when is the truth poison?” Mom asks.
“There are some things you don’t tell a seven-year-old!” he says. And so on.
I look at Grandma Lin with humility.
“Are you mad at me?” I ask.
Grandma Lin laughs. “Why would I be?”
“I didn’t keep your secret,” I say.
Grandma Lin coughs up a laugh.
“Secret?” she says. “There are no secrets, Ni Shi. Everyone is into everyone else’s business. Someone is always watching. The government knows everything about you. Someday they’ll know what you are thinking.”
I bite into a slice of ginger, and the juice burns my throat. I chew each bite of chicken slowly, seeing how long I can savor the taste. Grandma Lin asks about my school lessons, and I tell her that, in addition to math and writing, we’re learning about Chairman Mao, the concept of unity, and that Taiwan is part of China.
“Mao,” Grandma Lin says in gravelly disgust. “There’s a true vampire. He drank more blood than a hundred Draculas.”
❧ ❧ ❧
During the next few days, Jiang starts to look like her old self. She dons her hair in pigtails and works diligently on the math worksheets, her pencil bearing down against the paper, knuckles clenched, with determination and focus. She brings her completed homework assignments on time and answers teachers’ questions in class.
I ask her about her mom.
“She quit her job,” she says. “She stays at home now.”
“What does she do?” I ask.
“She watches TV.”
I think about it for a moment.
“Then who did your hair today?” I ask.
“My auntie,” Jiang says. “She’s been coming over. And one of my older cousins helped me with my math.”
❧ ❧ ❧
At night I dream Mom and Dad are fighting. They’re in the kitchen. Dad is holding a small sharp knife, and Mom throws a frozen chicken that smacks him in the nose. Suddenly Dad turns into a clown, his nose a big red ball, and he’s riding away from Mom, down the street, on a unicycle.
“I’m going to Hong Kong!” he says. “My girlfriend’s waiting for me!”
“What about your daughter?” Mom asks.
“Who?” Dad asks.
I wake up with a start. When I pull the comforter and blankets off, a chilled vacuum of winter air swallows me. I rise from the bed, step into my slippers, and pad into the kitchen, the cotton fabric of my pajamas clinging to my skin. A nightlight beside the toaster beckons. I’m thinking of pouring myself a glass of water from the water dispenser, and my hand is on the dispenser’s lever, an empty glass beneath it, when the wan shape of a ghost glows from the living room.
My stomach sinks, and for a moment I’m breathless. My heart pounds away for seconds before I recognize the ghost as Grandma Lin, pacing in front of the living room window, the moonlight spilling a milky radiance onto her alabaster night gown, the soles of her slippers scraping across the wooden floor.
As I pour the glass of water, Grandma Lin turns toward me.
“Ni Shi?” she says.
I take the glass of water and join her in the living room.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I say.
I tell her about the nightmare. She stays quiet, looking at the floor. In the moonlight her wrinkled face pales with a hint of contrition. I can tell she blames herself for my nightmare.
“I don’t know why I said anything,” she says. “When you get old, you’ve got one foot in the grave. You feel useless and say hateful things. Don’t pay any attention to me.”
I drink my water. We both stare at the moonlight.
“You’re my grandma,” I say. “You’re not useless to me.”
Grandma Lin hugs me and I reach my hands up and around her bony shoulder blades, her skeleton-like fingers clutching me.
We talk a while longer, and I sip the last of the water. Then, because of the intimacy and euphoria I’m feeling, I tell her my own secret version of the Moon Lady story.
The Moon Lady was American. Her hair was silky blonde, smelled like honeysuckle, and reached down to her waist, whipping around her hips like a pet cat. The other women, who were Chinese, had only black hair and, being jealous, banished the American to the moon. But because the American had a Chinese friend, a girl who she thought of as her own daughter, who brought her the greatest joy and comfort by brushing her hair, she visited the girl’s home regularly, in secret, flouting this most absurd rule and laughing during her days on the moon at her enemies’ inability to contain her.
❧ ❧ ❧
The next weekend I’m in the clinic doing my homework. Xu is sitting behind the reception counter, huddled over her iPhone, texting. Two women are sitting in the lobby, and one of them starts having a seizure. Xu rushes to the woman and tends to her, helping her to lie down.
“Ni Shi!” Xu says. “Go get your dad!”
I shove my book and worksheets aside and spring from my seat into the hallway, toward the golden sprawl of light beneath the operating room door. Even in an emergency, I’m afraid to intrude upon my dad during surgery, and I briefly pause when I reach the door. Hurry!, my conscience urges, and I open the door.
A patient lies in the chair, in a white gown, her legs spread and holstered by the stirrups at the ankles. A fuchsia mask made of plaster covers her head. Dad and Mom are wearing white surgical masks and operating gloves, and Dad is holding some kind of probing instrument. Blood glistens against the silver tool, and the sight steals the breath from me.
My parents’ eyes immediately home in on me: Dad’s dark and serious; Mom’s calm and attentive. Instead of berating me, Dad waits for me to speak, patiently holding the instrument.
Somehow I manage to get the right words out, and Dad hurries from the room, pulling his gloves off along the way. But I can hardly move—I remain standing and staring at the masked patient.
“Ni Shi,” Mom says with a tone of warning.
Finally, I back up and close the door.
❧ ❧ ❧
At school I try as politely as possible to glean more information about Jiang’s mom, but Jiang shows little interest in disclosing the details.
One day she tells me she’s going home for dinner, and I ask if I can join her. It’s been several weeks since I saw her mother at the clinic. Before that day, Jiang and I would visit each other’s house often, at least once a week.
Jiang’s house is in a smaller building than ours. The outside walls are grayed and discolored by mold, and you have to walk six floors up a cold dark stairwell before you see the red good luck sign in Mandarin attached to the front aluminum door. When Jiang opens it, a fresh aroma of steamed rice hits me, flirting with my palate.
“Dad, Ni Shi came with me today,” Jiang says, pulling her backpack from her shoulders.
“All right,” he says from the kitchen.
As I step inside, I see Jiang’s mother sitting on the sofa, staring at the LCD TV, wearing a curt smile. Her feet rest flat on the floor, her hands folded properly in her lap. Her hair is coarse, and I notice a brown stain on the sleeve of her blouse. She briefly looks at me, then her head swivels back toward the TV.
“Hi, Mrs. Li,” I say. I lower my own bag of books to the floor.
Mrs. Li doesn’t answer.
“Hi, Ni Shi,” Mr. Li says, appearing at the edge of the sofa. “Glad you could come over. Mrs. Li isn’t feeling very well today, but she’s happy to see you. Try to make yourself comfortable.”
Jiang sits on a cushion by the coffee table, and I take my seat in the corner of the sofa. Jiang grabs the remote and changes the channel to a TV show featuring child singers.
“Wasn’t your mom watching something?” I ask.
“She doesn’t care,” Jiang says. “She watches everything.”
Mr. Li serves the three of us bowls of rice with pork, eggplant, and seaweed.
Mrs. Li glances at her bowl, the steam spiraling like a genie from a lamp. Jiang notices me staring.
“Don’t worry about her,” Jiang says through a mouthful of rice. “She’ll eat it later when she gets hungry.”
Mr. Li eats at the kitchen table. Jiang laughs at a girl who butchers a New Year’s folk song. I take a few bites of the rice and pork, but like Mrs. Li, I suddenly don’t feel very hungry, although the food is palatable. I do my best to eat three-fourths of it, and then I set the bowl on the coffee table. While waiting for Jiang to finish, I notice a green hairbrush lying on the other side of the table. I grab it, sit closer to Mrs. Li, and begin brushing her hair. As I do, I sing “The Emperor’s Daughter,” smoothing out the tangles and massaging her scalp with the bristles. Mrs. Li seems to enjoy it and smiles just like she did before. When I finish, I set the brush down and lay my head against her shoulder. A minute later, she begins sniffling, and she looks at me with astonished, mournful eyes.
“Thank you, Ni Shi,” Mrs. Li says, holding my head against her. “Thank you.”