In Bloom

 

Natasha Thomas, Princeton University '20


Bai Yin, I’ve been thinking about you again recently.  It’s been months since I last thought of you. So many peaceful months. It all forgotten. Until yesterday, that is. You snuck into my mind again, like you always do eventually. They all do.

It goes like this every time. I will be enveloped in silence like a newborn child in the world. Only surrounded by soft noises and watercolors. And then you all return to me and I am like a child that has dreamt of some horrific violence that incapacitates me and wracks my body with sobbing.

It is during these times when I am most prone to drinking. Just now I’m waking up with a horrible hangover. It feels like someone is taking a mallet to my temples and, excuse the extension of this metaphor, but my head reverberates like a gong as sound comes crashing in my ears. I will probably get another drink once I can raise myself from this bed and then spend the rest of this week incredibly drunk until I forget again.

Forgive me for trying to forget you, my sister. It is not so much you as everyone. But yes, you are included, for it is your face that haunts me most. I can see you right now at the foot of my bed. You are sitting there with your two thick black braids resting just beneath your shoulders. You are laughing at me, dimples exposed on either cheek, telling me I’m a drunkard, a fool. You tell me to quit wallowing and pick myself up off the bed. Your laugh is loud, mercilessly so. I want to join in—the whole room wants to join in. It is the most infectious laugh in the world. I feel my lips smile. Ever so slowly, a red blot appears on your clean white shirt. My smile fades and you stop laughing. You look down and we both watch the blood expand in amazement. Like a gentle rose, it blooms, soaking the entire shirt. This is wrong. You are not the one that was shot. That is father’s blood.

You shake your head.

Bai Yin, I cannot breathe.

Gin clears my throat. You stand and leave out the door.

* * *

It has been two days. I think I can tell you what happened now—what triggered your memory again. Suddenly I feel inspired to write. For one thing I’m still drunk and therefore quite numb. For another thing, I have had time to think about what it was that put me into such a terrible state and believe I have identified it.

Your hair.

I was at the brothel on Tuesday when I remembered it.

It’s not what you think. I’m not that type. Well, I used to be. But now I’m genuinely in love with one of them. Zhu Hui is her name.  She’s very witty, and terribly beautiful. Her hair spills down her back in smooth tresses and she has these round lips and soft brown eyes. They are lighter than any of the other girls’ and so deep and rich that I could get lost in them forever. She is madly in love with me too. She says she waits for me. Doesn’t let any of the other men get at her if she can help it, because she knows I’m coming and she’d rather be with me. That is total bullshit, I know. But the fact she insists on it so fervently is very touching. She is thirsty for my approval even if she needn’t be. What she doesn’t realize is that she has me wrapped around her finger. Perhaps I’m too sarcastic with her. It’s a weak façade that gives me some guise of power. All I want is for her to adore me as I adore her.

Sometimes I’ll go to her and we’ll just sit for hours—my head in her lap as she fingers my hair and tells me about her life. I know all about her past now, about her childhood. About her triangulating thoughts and desires. She knows a lot about me too. Not about you. But she knows I don’t speak with my family. She knows all about my time in the army.  Stuff like that.

I would marry her, but I’m very difficult to live with. Even I find it hard to live with myself sometimes. It’s because weeks like these happen. Because alcohol. Because depression. Because poverty.  There are many reasons I would make her miserable and I would not want that for her. Besides, things are working. We have a system and its fine. It allows me to become like I am now in isolation. I worry and disturb no one, until I reemerge on the other side. You forgotten.

I forget what I was going to tell you.  Why did I begin speaking about Zhu Hui again? I would go back and read what I wrote before this but my eyes are too blurry.

Oh yes. Your hair.

It was very simple. I was with Zhu Hui. We were putting our clothes back on when she turned to me and said, “Will you braid my hair.”

“Braid your hair? How would I know how to make a braid?” I teased.

“I can teach you.”

I did in fact know how to braid hair. As a child I had learned from you. You taught me using your doll. “I know how to braid hair, Zhu Hui.”

She snorted. “Why, did you used to have a rattail?”

“No. I had a younger sister.”

“I’ve never heard you speak of her before.”

“I told you I don’t like to speak about my family. Come here. I’ll braid your hair for you.”

Zhu Hui came obediently to me and I set about splitting her hair and braiding it. I was out of practice, so the braids were lumpy. When I was finished she turned towards me and smiled. “How does it look?”

It was the two braids.

There was always one on each side of your face and the fringe would hang just above your raised eyebrows. The braids would swing from side to side when you ran. Whenever you bent over your work you would sweep them behind your shoulders, only for them to fall into your vision again. Your hair was never as long as Zhu Hui’s but something about the thickness or the texture brought your hair to my mind. I felt suddenly very weak. “Fine. Looks fine.” It took all my effort to say these feeble words.

“What are you looking at me like that for?” Zhu Hui asked. She went to examine herself in the mirror, but already you had set in. You were sitting right beside me. I kept my eyes cast down so I wouldn’t have to look at you. “I look so proletarian!” exclaimed Zhu Hui. “Who asked you to put it in two braids?”

“It’s the only way I know how,” I said.

I must have said it oddly because suddenly Zhu Hui was kneeling down before me. “Is everything okay, Wen Ru?”

I took out my wallet and removed some money. After this withdrawal my wallet was as good as empty.

“You’ve already paid,” said Zhu Hui.

“I have?”

“It’s upfront. As always.”

“I need to get going.” I stuffed the money back in my wallet. “Thank you.”

My eyes were blinded with your hair. You were running off, giggling, you whipped your head around to look at me, braids swinging about you. Once I left the brothel I headed straight to a nearby liquor store and asked for ten bottles of the cheapest and strongest liquor. The shop owner looked at me pityingly, but didn’t ask any questions.

This liquor is what has sustained me for the last couple days.

I looked in the mirror earlier today. I look disgusting. I haven’t showered. My hair is sticking out all over my head. It’s greasy and matted. And the worst part is, my eyes are bloodshot. I look almost as wild as Shi Hai did.

But not quite. Shi Hai’s eyes were like coals that day. No human could have eyes like that. Not that black. Not that shiny. And then there was that third eye. Yes, that is how I remember it. Looking down that barrel was just the same as seeing into a third tunneling eye of our own brother. Do you remember that?

We all froze at the dinner table. The room became frigid. The silence might have fooled someone into thinking we were all dead.

Your voice broke the perfect tableau. “Don’t,” you pleaded with our brother. “Don’t do it.”

He was thirteen years old and the gun shook in his hand. My hands are shaking now. I doubt I will be able to read these characters I write when I wake up again from this memory.

If I couldn’t save you, perhaps I could have saved Shi Hai, but I knew nothing at the time. Mother and I gaped in amazement. We were the only two kept in the dark at that point.  Our darkness was a much quieter dark than Shi Hai’s burning eyes—but it was a dark all the same. If only I’d known then. If only I’d known, perhaps our brother would not have gone to jail… But would I have gone then? And if I did, would Shi Hai have gone down the same path as me? Would he be the one here right now drinking pitifully to no end in an anonymous, crummy room in the city? Perhaps he is drinking somewhere else. What I would give to share a drink with him in this moment—to sit across from my brother.

If only I knew where he was. I miss him. He used to have the most beautiful whistle. Do you remember?

What a sweet sound he made just blowing air through his tautened lips. He loved to whistle. He loved animals too. He was always playing with stray dogs and tending to our neighbors’ horses and sheep without them asking. He knew every single one of our chickens by name and grew angry when one had to be killed. He was so soft-spoken and serious. When he first started school the other boys and girls were mean to him. He would come home with a split lip or dirt on his pants or a crumpled notebook, but he never said a thing. That stopped though. One un-extraordinary day people just left him alone. There was a mystery about him that people feared I suppose.

He wasn’t loud and boisterous like I used to be and he wasn’t fierce and charming like you. What a strange and handsome child he was and never was he more handsome or more strange than that day his eyes burned with fury and he pointed that gun at our father.

Which was louder would you say? The gunshot or mother’s scream? I could’ve sworn my ears were bleeding.

They’ve been bleeding all this time, and I don’t think they’ve ever stopped.

* * *

Today a friend came to check on me. He lives in the building. He said he was worried because he hadn’t seen me for days, but he’d heard noises coming from my room that sounded like yelling. When I opened the door he took a step back.

“Is that you? Wen Ru! You look terrible.”

“I know,” I grunted. I wanted him to go away. It’s embarrassing how bad I’ve gotten. This is one of the long spells. There are times when it’s been shorter. There have also been times when it’s gone on for weeks. But I’m afraid I’ve been particularly negligent of my personal hygiene this time. Screw hygiene though. There is so much dirty with this world, why be clean?

Nonetheless, my friend insisted I get washed up.  He drew a bath for me and set out some clean clothes. He kept on asking what had happened to me. I didn’t know what to say so I told him I was ill with an onset of overwrought nerves. He eyed all the alcohol bottles.

“Shit! Did you drink all this?”

“Yes.”

Five of the bottles were finished. The five remaining bottles sat by my dingy little window. The others were strewn about the room wherever I had finished them. Our family has always had a great capacity for drinking. Even you, and you were only fourteen. How mother used to beat you when she found you drunk. It wasn’t your fault though.

My friend shook his head and blew air out of his nostrils as he gathered the bottles and put them outside my door. He began to reach for the full bottles.

“No,” I said. “Leave them.”

“You are going to drink yourself to death.”

I shrugged.

“How long have you been here?”

“What day is it?”

“What?”

“The day,” I demanded.

“Friday.”

“Friday. It must have been Monday that I saw Zhu Hui. So four days then.”

“Five bottles in four days?” He gaped at me.

“Yes,” I said, “it’s the only thing that helps.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“No,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”

“Should I get a doctor?”

“I’ve already seen one,” I lied. “Please, leave me alone. I just need to rest. I will be better in a few days.”

“Aiyo.” He sighed and stood. “Let me at least get you something to eat.”

“There’s no need—”

“I insist,” my friend said, making his way towards the door. I didn’t have the energy to protest. He came back a couple minutes later with some steamed buns in a plastic bag. I devoured them quickly, which was a mistake because I felt quite sick afterwards. But I thanked my friend and told him I felt much better. Before he left he said again, “You should see a doctor,” and then closed the door quietly behind him.

A doctor. Is that where one went in these situations? There was our father bleeding on the floor and there you were at the table in stunned silence across from mother’s equally stony face. “Is it true?” I kept on asking. “Is it true?”

Where was Shi Hai?

True. Fact.

Father was bleeding on the floor.

Shi Hai’s words still burned the air. “You touched her you dirty dog! You made her put your penis in her mouth and told her not to tell! I saw you! You scum!” His burning eyes darted to mine. Tears and snot stained his skin. He turned and ran.

“What do we do?” I said to mother. “Do we go for the doctor?” I turned to you. “Do you need a doctor?”

You had buried your face in your arms. Your braids were the only things we saw. They rested quietly on your shoulders. One of them was coming undone. The ribbon had fallen out. The tightly coiled hair had come unraveled halfway.

Bai Yin, you’re killing me.

Mother said my name. “Get a doctor for your father. I will tend to Bai Yin.”

You raised your eyes and looked at me. It was like looking into the deepest wells in the world.

Bai Yin, you’re drowning me.

Your mouth was flat, your lips pressed together so tight a white line had formed around them. I looked for a smile.

I could not see your face. Bai Yin.

“He did that, Bai Yin?”

I could not see you anymore. Laughing loudly. Flipping your hair.

“I’m fine,” you said. No one in the whole world could believe you. You’d lost your face. The unraveled braid was the only thing. Maybe you said more.

I hear nothing.

There was father on the floor. Shi Hai had only hit our father’s shoulder, but he was still bleeding on the ground.

Do you still draw little flowers planted along the bottom of every page in every notebook? That’s what I want to know.

Father said he loved you. It was out of genuine love.

I joined the army.

The night I left, you and I got drunk and filled the streets of town with laughter. We decided to go looking for Shi Hai in the village. We yelled his name out in the darkened streets. People yelled at us to shut up out their windows. It was the middle of the night. Eventually we lost track of each other. I don’t even know if you made it home. I fell asleep on the sidewalk. The next morning I woke up and left on the bus out of town without a backward glance. It was a lovely spring day.

My sister, just leave me alone.

When will this good bye be over? Why do you always have to come back?

I cannot see your face and my head hurts.

* * *

Something left the room last night. What it was, I can’t remember. In any case, I feel much better today. I think I might go outside. The alcohol is gone. I’m hungry.