Seven days after my mother’s death, while I stood in the Balbao Avenue Salvation Army store trying to choose between the red or blue wool coat I found buried in a trunk tucked behind kitchen appliances, her ghost came to me and said: Not that blue one.
“Are you telling me to buy the red one?” I said.
Red’s not your color, she said. So to spite her, I bought both. She walked me out the store as if she’d never left me, cold hand on my right shoulder, guiding me past the rack of faux-fur coats, the glass counters filled with plastic beads, through double doors into the sunlight. I immediately closed my eyes as they flooded with white. We sat in my silver Subaru. When I opened my eyes, she was still there, sitting in the passenger seat. Her back was stiff and her small hands were pressed against her inner thighs. She looked slightly mortified.
Well, let’s go, she said.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked
To the funeral home, she said.
Even after five years of living in San Diego, I am still not used to the perpetual sunlight. In the morning the mist covers the sky like a thick blanket, obstructing the brilliant sun for a few hours, but by mid-afternoon, the vapor will burn off and the pink light will spill into every corner and crack—unrelenting. The only sun-proof buildings that I know of are the Salvation Army store and my father’s funeral home. Both have large, moldy basements with multiple rooms filled with junk: headless dolls and strange tools, white tubs for fluid, paper screens, bamboo fans, and broken appliances. They smell like the inside of an old shoe. When my mother died, I spent so much time in both places that I began to smell like that smell. I could not wash it away.
While we sat at the red light, my mother’s ghost coughed. I waited for her to say something. I looked out the window at a housing-development lot, an expanse filled with dirt and dust and the occasional white sign marking the property as “in-construction”. I looked further back, at the houses marked by palm trees, the sloping mansion roofs and the semi-circular silhouette of hills near the horizon, looming so wide and tall, threatening to overwhelm the city.
I have something to tell you, my mother’s ghost said
The light turned green.
I couldn’t remember a single thing I wanted to say to her after her death while driving into familiar, residential streets. Strange memories assaulted me while I drove— my mama walking me to the bus despite my pleas for her not to, of my mama gritting her teeth when I came home in the late afternoons. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. I noticed that she hadn’t buckled her seat belt and reached over to touch her shoulder but instead, touched the soft cotton of the seat. Something cold went up my arm and sat in the center of my mouth. My mother looked ashamed as I drew my arm back. There was a pool of light across her lap.
This was an ordinary day, an ordinary event, I repeated to myself.
My mother said: the coats, do you know when to wear them? Red and blue, I’ll teach you how. That blue one’s not special, so you’ll wear the red one when you do your job. I’ll teach you how. You wear that red one at night when you are taking the ghosts home. You’ll need protection when you touch the corpses. See, I’ll tell you—and you must believe me when I say so—that you’re a corpse-walker. You will guide those lost in death back to their hometowns so they can be buried properly with their whole family wearing white and grieving. It is so important. You can’t understand how important this is.
“What?” I said.
We took a right into the street where the funeral home sat at the dead end. My mother bent over as if in pain, covering her stomach. She looked more solid, more real and I felt a hard knocking against my skull as if someone were trying very hard to wake me up. She even smelled like herself: Irish Spring soap and salt. I began to breathe heavily, feeling familiar panic crawl into my chest, tasting its oily residue on my tongue. I parked the car against the curb and my mother turned towards the squat house where my father lived and worked.
We saw the roof of the small building where my father burned the bodies of those who wished to be cremated. I remembered that he burned my mother’s body even though she didn’t want to be burned. He did not want to buy a plot of land to bury her, he did not want to go through any of the rituals. Paying professional mourners, weeks of weeping, the endless cleaning—and what would the point be since all her other relatives were still overseas? My father and I argued for days over who would keep the small urn where my mother rested because neither of us wanted it. I finally took it with me to the Salvation Army and stuffed it behind some plastic cups.
“What are you trying to say?” I said. She nodded at me.
We were falling into our old habits: the long silences and my uncomfortable attempts at conversation. Somehow she always assumed that I knew more or less than I did and wouldn’t believe me when I said otherwise. As a child, she refused with hostility, to address my inquires into the troubled marriages of her friends, often other Chinese housewives with kids my age. When her own marriage deteriorated after our move to San Diego, the silence took on a harsher desperation, as if, by sheer will, she could keep us all tied together in my father’s large blue house.
You should pick up a black cat, she said, it will help with the job.
“Is there an instruction manual or something?” I said.
This is just what I am remembering, she said and got out of the car. I followed her until we both stood outside the crematorium. It resembled a tall garage with a single machine-operated door that slid up when you entered the code. With one hand my mother touched the metal door and with the other, she touched the plastic number box. The door stayed shut, the light fell through the trees making black holes on the lawn. My mother’s ghost looked like a white curtain. She shook and shook and shook.
For dinner my father and I sat in front of the television eating Chinese takeout. My father has demanded that I eat with him, at 6:20 every evening. Even when he is too busy, he will come upstairs from the funeral home with his gloves, apron and hairnet on and stand with me for a second in the dining area, reeking of acid and death. He’ll apologize then go back down to finish his work. On those days, I don’t bother eating, even if he yells at me later for not doing so.
My mother’s ghost sat beside me, looking at the bits of egg and rice that I spilled on the table. She sat straight with her legs perfectly crossed, hands in her lap, watching the Ghost Hunters on television, illuminated in green, poking the walls with a large stick. One of them screamed and the camera panned to a spreading dark stain in the ceiling. My father began to laugh. He rocked back and forth, laughing hard, as the people on television grew more and more frightened. My mother’s ghost let out a breath, hissing at him. He continued to shovel green beans into his mouth, ignoring her. Her whole body shifted to suppress her distress.
In the year before she died, the television did most of the speaking for us. My father often commented harshly about my mother’s hair and her duties in the funeral home. It was always obvious to me in the way her whole body stiffened, the tremendous effort she exerted to suppress her distress. When she was in the hospital, my father complained to me about how reluctant she was to die and I could not disagree with him. Her discolored skin sagged on her cheekbones so that she looked like a demon and yet she insisted she was fine when I visited her.
My father went downstairs to work. I watched the Ghost Hunters on television read their many audio, visual, thermal and electrical detectors for signs of the ghost.. This ghost haunted the walls of a historical inn that had once housed settlers traveling west to seek their fortune. This ghost hung herself after waiting months at the inn for her relatives. She had a deformity on her face and could not go outside in the sunlight, lest the townsmen mock her. The Ghost Hunters pointed and nodded at their instruments, replayed a certain scratchy sound bit over and over. My mother muttered, They should treat her with some respect. She stood up and tried to turn off the television. After her finger passed through the power button a few times, I used the remote to do it for her.
I did not sleep. My mother sat at the foot of my bed and I felt her weight atop my shins. We both waited for the sound of my father coming up the stairs, opening and closing the door to his bedroom, then a few minutes later, a soft snoring. When the snores became deep, my mother’s ghost stood up and coughed. I did not understand. She coughed again, rubbing her arms. I turned on the lights. My mother’s ghost looked like my mother when she was healthy: willowy legs, thick black hair that she left loose against her back, freckles scattered across her collarbone and neck. I was amazed at how lifelike she was, her skin glowing.
When I went to dress, my mother said wear the red coat, not blue. I followed her downstairs to the front door of the funeral parlor. A pack of writhing black cats struggled to swarm inside, butting against my legs and playing with the hem of my jacket, their long tails twitching with pleasure. Some of them had green eyes but I liked the ones with gold eyes the best. My mother motioned with her arms to pick one, any one. I went through them all, picking them up by their front legs and watching their hind legs kick or dangle in the air. I tested their tails by pulling and bunching them. Finally, after deliberation, I picked one. Some of the cats hissed in disapproval and my mother’s ghost cooed apologies at them as they filed out the door.
We went into the room where my father embalmed the dead, applied makeup to the faces and clothed their naked bodies. I was surprised to find someone on the table; my father’s working habits mandated that he finish for the night before heading to bed. My mother walked to the other side of the table and beckoned me forward until we both stood directly in front of the body. My black cat wound herself between my legs, generating static electricity. My mother’s ghost made that motion with her mouth that my mother used to make when she was about to say something. Again and again, she made this motion, unable to say anything. I felt mild panic, watching her struggle the way she used to, but instead of the anxious hesitation she radiated when she was alive, she seemed excited, even eager in her stumbling.
The man on the table must have died in the nursing home nearby. My father gets his best business there. Old Chinese men and women shuttled to the nursing home when their sons and daughters no longer feel obligated to take care of them. When they die, they come to my father. There is a wake, a funeral, the burial or cremation and then the sons and daughters begin to forget that someone they love has died. The old man lying on the embalming counter was covered with smallpox scars, even under his pubic hair.
My mother rubbed her shoulders, then her hands, and at last, her face.
“Just say something,” I cried.
My mother’s ghost said: First, you’ve got to cover his body completely. Then have your cat run her smooth fur all over this body so that there’s an electric current going through. Then you will pick up your magic wand—wait you don’t have that yet do you—well, anyway, clench your whole body because the corpse is going be heavy. Heavy because it carries a lot of life-weight and now it also carries death-weight. Then there is also the weight of everything it’s forgotten because it is dead. Make sure to clench your butt, that’s really important. Then the corpse will rise and it will walk with you as you walk. You will ask it for an address, or a direction and then you will lead it back home.
I said, “you can’t be serious, I don’t understand any of the logistics—”
My mother’s ghost touched the dead man’s knee. A rattling sound came from upstairs. She nodded, looking away, and said, please just do it, just do it.
Just do it, just do it, my mother used to say, an irritating habit that I ignored. Especially when we lived in Toronto and she would tease me about cleaning the toilet before I’d leave for my best friend’s house on Saturday afternoons. In the years following our move, she began to say it all the time, often to herself when she thought no one was listening. Just do it, just do it, while I begged her to not leave me with my father after school. She knew my father’s temper struck quickly. He was eager to boss me around the house making me do chores in the funeral parlor while criticizing my slow pace, my frequent mistakes.
One morning, I woke up with a bloodstain on my sleep-shorts. I was already on the verge of tears when I hastily stole one my mother’s pads and hid the stained shorts, wanting to crawl out of a body that had betrayed me. My mother shook her head and made that familiar motion with her mouth. Around the kitchen counter we circled each other, my crotch itchy and hot from my mother’s pad.
I began to imagine my father at the entrance with his arms crossed, his pickup parked in the third slot from the left. The jade disk that hung from his rearview mirror visible from where I stood to meet him at the bottom of the steps. An animal knowingly walking towards a trap that would kill it. His hand would slide down my back, leading me away, his nails digging into my shoulder. He would mumble about my mother that stupid woman, what does she say about me? that I won’t take care of my child, I do more than enough! She’s selfish. She steals my money, she steals my time, she’s a thief and you shouldn’t believe anything you hear from her. She hates children. She didn’t even want to have you. Trust me, we’re on the same side. Your mother won’t say anything but if she did, you wouldn’t even want to hear it.
My mother said just do it, just do it. The sunlight poured in through the kitchen windows, yellowing the walls and granite counters; I wanted to vomit. She patted my hair, put my homework in my backpack, and took me to the bus-stop, looking at me with that mild expression of discontent as the bus drove away. Throughout the day, I felt something in my chest crumble into pieces on the floor. I found myself at the counselor’s office, sitting on the faux leather chair unable to articulate what was wrong, why I cried. A blur of pinched adult faces, a blur of hands and offices. I remember hating waiting, hating my mother and my father, hating the sunlight, hating not knowing who was going to come and take me home.
We reanimated the dead man. He sat up on the stainless steel table and my mother made a joyful click with her tongue. His shoulders and neck were stiff. My black cat leapt on the stainless steel table and rammed her body against the stomach of the man. His eyes remained closed.
“Uh, where do you want to go…?” I asked.
The man moved his lips. I looked at my mother and she made no sign of recognition. His eyebrow twitched. He said something again and my mother said, don’t you have a map?
“I can’t understand what he’s saying,” I said.
The dead man moved his mouth more urgently. I watched his tongue flick back and forth in his mouth as grunts poured out. I began to sweat and looked to my mother for help. She tapped the man’s shoulder and encouraged him to keep talking.
...owning hotel… he said.
“Where?” I asked, clapping my hands.
His tongue loosened, …my hotel…
“Where?” I insisted, touching his leg. He flinched, as if I burned him.
Firecrackers…smoke in the courtyard. My wife wore a persimmon colored gown. This is where we lived. A seaside town, his whole body convulsed, milky eyes rolling up and down. My mother grabbed his shoulders and held him as he continued to seize with the violence of messy remembrance. And all I wanted was an address.
He isn’t from around here. I think the best you can do is lead him to the ocean, my mother said.
The three of us sat in my silver Subaru as I drove towards the ocean. San Diego was a wasteland at night, the dark misshapen with the heads of palm trees and skyscrapers, light pollution bleeding on the blue desert. A landscape from an elaborate fantasy filled with dangerous beasts, thirsty for anyone that could satisfy their hunger.
My mother held the dead man in the backseat when he began to tell a story:
Always, a special room in my hotel for the corpse-walkers. No one else in the village wanted to give them a place to stay. But I did because twenty years ago, they brought my cousin home when we thought he would become a hungry ghost. I knew these walkers well, two brothers and their father before them. I always wanted to have a safe place for them to rest.
My mother stroked his hair as he closed his eyes. I gripped the steering wheel. His voice, unlike his cracked and peeling skin, was lively and strong, as if he were speaking through a microphone. I could understand him perfectly now.
I heard rumors from my neighbors that the country was renewing itself. The old superstitions and myths were no longer legal to believe. It was strange to me how people talked about the corpse-walkers as if they only existed in stories. Did you know that one brother liked to eat cold watermelon with a silver spoon? Did you know that the other brother would often burst into tears in the middle of the woods?
My mother didn’t tell me stories as a little girl. I learned to avoid the topic of her past life in China because she always suggested that if I enough time to ask her silly questions, then I also had enough time to vacuum the whole house and sweep the front porch. Silence was the likely answer to anything other than straightforward questions. But I was free to imagine a history for her, based on little snippets of information I gathered eavesdropping on her and my father’s arguments. The kind of trees my mother climbed, her childhood home made of sweet-smelling wood. What terrified her about the dark. Now, in the backseat, my mother was gently coaxing the dead man to continue by massaging his neck.
I wanted to keep them safe and for many years I was successful. During summer one year, they were walking the corpse of a murdered son back to Yunan so his parents could bury him properly. I forgot to shut the gates and two boys, who were stealing cucumbers from the fields at night, saw the corpse walkers enter my hotel. They found the corpse walker rooms. When I discovered what had happened, I bribed the boys two hundred yuan to keep quiet. But one of the boys reported what they saw to the county office and soldiers came. There was nothing I could do anymore. I can’t describe the way their faces fell when the soldiers came through the doors. The brothers were tied together and paraded through the town, forced to scream their sins through the streets. Townsmen threw pieces of metal, rotten food, buckets of shit and urine at them. They laughed. Afterwards the brothers were shot.
“No more, no more,” I said, covering my mouth with one hand. We were driving downtown and the car was suddenly flooded with bright lights. I was scared of the pedestrians lingering outside bars, what they might do if they saw us and misunderstood the situation. I would be the one deemed guilty.
The old corpse kept talking: I was only forced to pay a heavy fine as my punishment, since I also housed People’s Liberation Army Soldiers in my hotel. I thought I was free but then years later they came to arrest me for owning the hotel and hiding money from the party. And I survived that. I survived and my son grew up and came to America. He sent for me when he made enough money. I survived the flight and I survived the first few weeks here in this town where everyone moves too fast and the light is too much on the eyes. Then my son grew tired of me and put me in an old people’s home. A stranger’s home. Can you believe that I could not survive that? He made a choking sound.
I parked the car at the top of the ridge and the three of us walked in a line from the car, down the stairs to where the cement met the sand touching dark water. The sound of the ocean, like the sound of a beanbag thrown forcefully into someone’s hand, thundered in my ears. I found a stick bleached pale by sun in the sand and made this my wand. My heart was going crazy. I handed the wood to the old corpse and he grabbed the end. I led him on. My black cat sat on my shoulders. The waves swallowed me as I breached the water and trembled at the chill. I led them on. My red coat floated behind me. The water came to my knees, my hips, my bottom lip and when I yanked my stick back the old corpse was gone, gone walking back home.
My mother’s ghost followed me everywhere and commented on all my decisions. She gave me directions to places I’d been before. She complained about the extra cookie I ate. She tugged at my blue coat and made soft unhappy noises in her mouth. I was annoyed by her verbose personality, like the kind of nagging, over-concerned parent that I always saw on television.
I noticed that she held herself more confidently. She wasn’t required to make any eye contact with strangers on the street, wasn’t required to ask an attendant for help when she couldn’t find the aisle with the spoons. I believed this comforted her. She wasn’t required to talk to lawyers and judges or my father, who often forced her to greet the patrons at every funeral he held at the home. When my father knew the family of the deceased, which was often, he forced my mother to recite an elegy at the funeral, as a sign of his courtesy for the guests. I remember every time, my mother gripping the front of the podium so hard she shook, looking as if she wanted to die.
At night, when I wanted to sleep, my mother’s ghost sat at the foot of my bed with her legs crossed, staring knowingly at me, as if my nightmares filled with bloated corpses washed up on the sandy shores of another beach, or my dreams in the shape of other people’s terrible memories were just a small consequence of an inevitable change in my life. The corpse-walking work became a relief.
I led many old corpses back to hometowns made with sounds I could not understand. One of them gave me a quick lesson out on the beach before he walked away. He said: all these provincial names are directional, the names tell you exactly where to go. For example, the province north of the river, south of the river, east of the lake, west of the lake, east and west of the mountains. It is so easy to find your way. a Young men will set out with nothing to explore the back country and soon, the land will be instinct, an imprint under their browned skins.
“I don’t think directions are specific enough,” I said while yanking my wand out of his hand and pushing him into the water. He wobbled a bit but continued on. My mother patted my hair, put her thin hands on my waist and said I am glad I am seeing you grow up like this and I said, “You’re dead.”
It was easy to talk to my mother’s ghost, so much easier than talking to anyone whose heart still beat. We chatted about my teachers at school and my difficulty making friends. She didn’t have a lot of advice, but liked to make fun of the people I hated.
I stopped worrying that I would offend my mother, which is what I did most when she was dying in the hospital. She already had doctors and nurses constantly reminding her of the time before death. Two months at most, which she spent lying down keeping her silence. I kept the silence too in the hospital room with its walls and sheets and medical instruments encased in metallic white. We spent our time together staring out the window at the sun. You know what I wanted to say? I wanted to say just do it to my mother and her death so that I could stop worrying. I wanted her to leave and I hated her for leaving me.
I was falling asleep at dinner. My father made us sour noodles and I pushed them around the plate. The television hummed in the background and I began to drift. He tapped his chopsticks on his plate. When I didn’t open my eyes, he barked at me to clean up the table. My mother’s ghost sat in her usual place, between us. She watched me stand up and stack plates and chopsticks. The kitchen lights were harsh on her face, staining her skin a sickly white. My father sighed loudly and began to rub his eyes.
“Sorry, for yelling,” he said.
I moved the bowls of food into the kitchen and turned the water on.
“I said, I’m sorry for yelling,” he yelled.
I heard a rustling from my mother’s place at the table. Her soft voice began scolding him. Warm water ran over the dirty dishes, mixing with oil and crusted noodle. I dipped my hands into the sink and began to scrub. My mother appeared beside me and tried to grab the drying towel.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said.
We stood together for a while, listening to the water and the walls of the house groaning. The kitchen smelled like vinegar and eggs. My mother began to sing a familiar, old lullaby. As a little girl, I didn’t know how to tell my mother that the song never put me to sleep because the longing to be home after traveling for a long time bathed the song in a sorrow that made me want to weep. it was a lullaby that didn’t have an end, because my mother kept adding to it: how the speaker trekked mountains, forded rivers, jumped trains, rode a plane, went through customs and realized that she went in the wrong direction. Too far away to go back. Needed to keep moving.
“Is this supposed to be so sad?” I asked.
She finds her way back in the end, my mother said.
“Do you wish you could go back?” I said.
My mother bit her lip and watched me drain the sink filled with soap and debris.
Your father did not want to move to America, but I was the one who persuaded him to get the visa. He never wanted to be here.
“I can’t believe he listened to you back then,” I said.
I feel guilty about many things still, but especially your father, she said.
“You’ve lived with him for so many years,” I said, “how have you not gotten over it?”
The moon was visible through the small window above the sink. On the windowsill, my mother’s succulents were drying up. I poured some water over them. My own body trembling.
“I doesn’t matter anymore,” I said, “you’re dead.”
One night, the corpse we walked was an old woman who took one look at me when I reanimated her and began to weep. I turned on the lights because I was so scared and found the old woman stroking her naked breasts and moaning over and over I’m lost, lost my looks, lost my land, lost my daughters, lost completely. My mother’s ghost made a low wet cry with her mouth. I felt my old doubts surface, stuffing my chest like cotton.
“Calm down, calm down, I can lead you back home,” I said.
The old woman moaned louder, making a mess of her hair with her hands—you don’t really know what you are doing, you’ve got no history, none at all, youth is not worth it, youth is such an indifferent thing and so on as we sat in the car and drove to the ocean. She repeated herself over and over even as I led her into the sand and we both waded into the water but she refused to let go when I yanked. We tugged back and forth until I screamed at her: “WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO?”
And she said: don’t remember.
I was dizzy with nausea. I struck the old woman’s stomach with my foot. I dragged her onto the sand and beat her body with my stick. Her wiry shoulders and warped brown skin and all those bones that laughed as I hit her. Somehow there was a hole in the blue sand that night, big enough to fit her body, bent like a translucent insect. I buried her with pieces of shell and broken branches and smooth stones and all that sand. All that time the only thing I heard was just do it, just do it except it was not my mother saying it, it was my own mouth.
As a child, my fantasies about my mother and the world she grew up in were my own private garden that I carefully maintained. Whenever I believed I had new clues, I retreated from a reality dull with my mother’s silence. But I wasn’t very good at it, growing frustrated when I reached into my head for a new image, only to find a white blankness. The garden of my imagination was overgrown with weeds, disorganized with crooked poppies and chrysanthemums growing amidst empty, untended plant beds.I overlooked this garden, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work it needed to be beautiful.
It would’ve continued to be that way, except for someone I met while we were still living in Toronto, a girl whose name I no longer remember. She was skinny like a copper wire and had a wide, loud mouth, eager to tell me stories that my mother never told me, curled up together on my twin-sized bed, with our fingers through one another’s hair. We constructed the world our mothers grew up in—a world with fox demons and ghosts and little naughty gods whose only joy were to prank humans. This was the China we knew. A China ruled by the invisible hungry beasts that roamed the land with more compassion and love than the humans that hunted them. The girl whose name I no longer remember teased me about my quiet, sparse stories so we made a game of trying outdo the other person in length and complexity, knitting ourselves into the fabric of these stories, as if we really lived those lives.
There was one story that I began to remember after I became a corpse walker. The particular details—names, colors, smells—were lost to me, but I remembered the end. As punishment for her cruelty, the Empress was forced to watch her palace and all her possessions burn, completely helpless to the flames consuming her most precious things. Out of desperation, she ran to her burning garden to die in the soiled white peonies, knowing that the fire would devour her along with the lush beauty of her plants. But the gods played a trick on her. She remained unscathed by the smoke and heat while her garden withered into ash. In the morning, she found herself buried under the blackened remains of her once-ornate garden, the only thing she cared for during her time as Empress. She begged the gods to kill her. They refused. Have a good life, they laughed, now that what you love most will never return.
In the morning, my father announced that he had checked my room after using the bathroom and found me missing. He fiddled with his cereal spoon while his face grew large and red. I said nothing, rolling a grapefruit under my palm to soften the skin. My mother’s ghost sat between us with her head between her hands, already anticipating my father’s harsh yelling: why am I not being responsible, why am I distracting myself from my duties to school and the funeral parlor? The table shook as he slammed his fists into the granite. He asked me again and again, So why did you do that, huh?” and the grapefruit tore between my hands, spilling cold juice all over my fingers and the table.
“I made a mistake,” I said.
“You were extremely careless,” my father said, rubbing his face. “Just like your mother.”
My mother’s ghost whimpered. My father stood up and left the room and she followed him to the refrigerator, muttering soft protests. He slammed the fridge door and began to pour the soured gallon of milk into the sink, the white liquid splashing across his hands and wrist. My mother began to yell at him to pay attention. I leaned back in my chair and looked at the ceiling fan, at the texture of the walls and the scattered sunlight. My father said, “I will not be treated this way,” and my mother replied, what are you going to do when everyone leaves you? The whole kitchen stank of sour milk and I walked out, leaving them both in their bickering.
My father was so angry that he forgot to buy groceries for a whole week. On Friday, when we ran out of oatmeal, I went to Trader Joe's with my mother’s ghost, who pointed at the things I needed—the organic skim milk, the peanuts, some green beans—and wrung her hands nervously as the total came up. When we came back, I sat eating canned peaches at the kitchen counter while my mother watched me spoon the sugary syrup into my mouth. Something had unsettled her; her mouth trembled as she made the same motion to speak, wringing her hands in anxiety. I ignored her. My father opened the basement door, adorned in his yellowed apron. When he noticed me on the countertop, he automatically said: “Wipe the juice off your chin. Use a bowl. You’re disgusting.”
Do you want an explanation? I have none. I noticed that my red coat was tearing at the edges and losing its color. I kept it hidden inside my blue coat when I hung it in my closet. A few more nights and I would have to scrap the whole thing. One evening, I saw my black cat sitting on the fire-escape of a neighboring apartment complex.She didn’t seem to recognize me as I whistled for her to come down. I finally confronted my mother’s ghost one evening, in the lobby of the funeral parlor.
“Am I being fired?” I asked.
In the darkness, the curves of my mother’s ghost grew faint; there was only her spine left hovering in the air. I held my hands together to keep from touching her, uncertain of their effect s on her fragile state. We never discussed it, but I knew anyway, what was supposed to happen next.
I think I’d like to be led back, she said, bowing her head.
“I can’t do that,” I cried.
She stroked my arms, you are doing so well.
I ran upstairs to my room. I made a cave with my blankets and attempted to be invisible: first my hands and then my legs, until the last part to go was my face. That was the hardest—the tiny nose, the curved lips and all that olive skin around the eyes—but after many hours, that too disappeared. I felt my mother at the foot of my bed, waiting. My mother who gave me no useful directions and no useful advice. My mother, whose only words to my father when she was still alive and married to him, were be quiet, please be quiet, who in life seemed to wish more than anything in the world to be alone, unattached to history, time and place.
She made a small whimper and I lifted my blanket to see her face contort with pain as she doubled over. My mother’s ghost screamed and was suddenly filled with sound.
She said, …back home, west of the river we grew so much wheat we used it to stuff our mattresses. Every summer our village flooded. The only reason I left is because my grandfather was arrested for owning too much property. All our pear and persimmon trees burned down by the soldiers.
My mother shook with the effort of spewing those memories. I didn’t want to hear anymore, paralyzed in the filtered red light of the sunset, amazed at my mother, stronger and more alive than I’d ever known. It terrified me to know that this was all it took.
I would like the chance to go home, she said.
It was dark when I went outside, my red coat glowing under the garage lights. I took the silver Subaru to the Salvation Army where I had left my mother’s ashes many weeks ago, my heart hammering in my chest so hard I thought my sternum would crack. I arrived five minutes before the store closed. I sprinted to the kitchen appliance section to look for the oblong, ceramic urn I’d stashed there weeks ago, but it was missing from behind the plastic cups. When the lights began to turn off, I pushed wine glasses and mason jars onto the floor in panic—then gave up. I grabbed a small shot glass and ran out. I walked through green and yellow fluorescent lights until I saw my car. The back seat was filled with bits of trash.
I held my breath as we drove to the sea, suddenly unfamiliar with silence, now accustomed to the chatter of my constant companion of the past few months. The sky was a massive dark sheet, pressed taut so that light filtered through the little tears and rips in the fabric.I parked and walked down the stairs to the beach. During the day people sunbathe here and make shapes in the sand with their bodies as they roll around making love. People come to to buy shaved ice from the vendors and play Frisbee with their dogs. Families picnic, the children wade into the water with floaties while their parents teach them how to swim.
At night, drunk teenagers come to build fires and kiss. The cliffs are giant doors carved from ink to other worlds where ghosts sit around tables and play Chinese Go and eat sunflower seeds.It’s a world where becoming a ghost is simply a rite of passage. Every young girl wants to become a pop-star ghost, an astronaut ghost, an artist ghost, a storyteller ghost.
I used to come to this beach before my mother’s cancer, before she claimed her death. I slept in the sand and dreamed of speaking a universal language of body signs that could convey even the unsaid, forgotten things: I was born here, home is nowhere, here is home and not-home.
I scooped some sand into the shot glass and waded out into the water. I knew that somewhere in the distance, the ocean turned into the lip of the sky, though it was difficult for me to see. I heard the rising of the waves. I could see the moon and her stars reflected in the water and the white lines of foam lathering and dissolving into the blackness. I walked into this water alone. I sat down in its coldness. Again and again, it lapped at my thighs, tickling me while burying me deeper and deeper in its wake.