Sister in Law

I pause to admire the dragons carved into Elder Brother’s heavy front gate.  Lacquer paint brings out the rosewood’s natural purples and reds so that it shines like a freshly washed plum.  I press my palms and forehead against the carvings to breathe in the spices and incense that is deep in the polished wood.  It is a good omen.  The stillness and power of the gate send a shiver from my forehead all the way to my toes.  I have finally reached my new home where I hope to find peace and warmth for me and my baby, in spite of all that I have read. 

In the same letter that invited us to live with him, Elder Brother wrote how missionary doctors from the neighboring Jiangsu Province sliced into his wife’s brain to quiet the demons in her head.  Now my sister-in-law, Liu, sleeps most of the day.  Elder Brother described her slow, stiff movements, as if her legs are made of tree stumps.  When Liu sits, she spreads her legs wide open, one straight out left, and the other one straight right.  This lewd posture, he noted, takes up an entire bench.  Liu will not drink tea because it is brown, the color of poison.    She eats nothing but fish. 

Liu is no longer allowed to leave the house, and Elder Brother does not invite friends to visit.  He does not know if the demons inside his wife’s fragmented mind will wake up, whether she will lunge at his guests with scissors, set books on fire, or pull out her own hair.  Liu, he wrote, likes to grab at unguarded hands and jab her fingers into palms like an angry fortune teller.  I wonder if Liu does this because she misses being touched. 

I cannot imagine Elder Brother taking Liu into his bed.  I picture my sister-in-law seated upright with silk blankets bunched at her ankles, legs sprawled left and right, her eager, open body reeking of fish. And I can see Elder Brother towering over her with a wicked scowl.  Perhaps he is ashamed of his own lustful thoughts for this lecherous woman who he no longer recognized.  I do not know who I feel sorrier for— Elder Brother who is forever shackled by the laws of marriage, the servants who care for a lunatic mistress, or for Liu, who is afraid of the demons that she sees everywhere. 

I am terrified of demons that I cannot see, and all the more terrified because I finally realize that I am to meet one today.  I knock my forehead against Elder Brother’s front gate, hoping to draw in strength from the lavish carvings, but it only rattles my fear harder so that it lands like a heavy stone in my chest.   I quickly close my eyes and peel back layer after layer of the demon’s face, under which I find the familiar faces of women from my home village. With my eyes squeezed tight, their faces merge, and Liu appears.  Her smooth, untroubled forehead is laid flat above wide-set, hazel eyes.  Coal black hair, parted in the center and wound into a low bun, caps her head like an inky sky straddled atop a mountain peak.  Liu’s great beauty fills my chest with air, and I can breathe.

My knock must have been heard because it is met by a hiss from the other side.  The red-purple wood dragon breathes fire!  I jump backwards and clutch my baby to my chest, but she pushes away from me and strains to turn her downy head towards the terrifying sounds.  The doors thrust open.    


When I see a face, it always sticks in my head and I remember it, but Liu’s expressions bend and waver and I feel as if I am trying to catch her reflection in a turbulent stream.  She cannot hold one look for very long before it is replaced by another, each new expression more muddled than the last.  Her hair is not the velvety cap that I had imagined.  Instead, thorny, uneven patches bristle at the top of Liu’s head like an angry dog, and jut out like burnt bean sprouts; as much as I want to smooth them down, I do not dare touch her.  Her creased forehead is bordered by two jagged, purple scars near her temples.  I watch, horrified, as her eyes roll back deep in their sockets before they shoot forward.  Her gaze lands, hard, on my baby’s face.  Both Liu and baby are suddenly still.    

We follow Liu into the courtyard.  I wince when I notice how the soles of her bare feet are torn and rough like rotted plums; they are the color of feces.    She does not wear the decadent silk cheongsam dress that I had imagined for her; instead, she dons the same coarse cotton zhiju robes as the servants who follow at a distance with our luggage.  The servants seem to use me and my baby, who wriggles furiously in my arms, as a barrier from Liu.  Why has Elder Brother not come to protect us?

Liu spreads her arms wide, arches her back, and points her chin to the sky.  She trundles forward in this unwieldy position for a few steps, then abruptly stops and lunges toward a statue in the courtyard.  I think that she believes she is giving us a tour.  Each time Liu gestures, my baby waves her own little arms and pushes her legs against the fabric of the cotton sling wrapped around her.  Her feet fight their way out of the tight folds, and she jiggles them violently.  When Liu points, baby points.  When Liu screams, the baby opens its toothless, pink mouth and lets out a soft hiss.  When Liu grimaces, the baby smiles.

When Liu is not throwing her arms wildly around, they hang limp at her sides so that she walks like an unstable, flightless bird.  I notice, in these few still moments, that only Liu’s hands remain soft and strong and steady—the result of her former years as principal nursemaid to Song Hu Province’s most noble families.   Her hands are all that remain of the great woman she once was.     

When we near the house, Liu spreads her arms wide once more, and aims her face up at the sun so that her scars glow, purple and red.  Liu’s mouth opens and closes, soundlessly. I search the sky to see what god or flying creature she beckons to, and catch Elder Brother watching us from a window high above.


It is a sleepless first night.  Song Hu winters are bitter, unlike in the Honghe River Valley where I come from, where temperate winds blow in from the Pacific and break against the mountains that protect my village.  In Song Hu, ice wraps itself around our bed at night and steals our warmth.  I cup my palm over my baby’s eyes otherwise they will freeze shut when tears leak out.  Neither the servants nor Elder Brother come to help even though my baby’s cries echo through the halls.  They must be too tired from looking after Liu.  I feel useless at comforting my baby, and for one wretched, sleep-hungry moment, I picture her dead in the snow outside Elder Brother’s lovely gates, with tears and lips frozen, blue and hard, on her face.  I imagine it is quiet then, and I can finally rest.  Is it possible, I wonder, to be driven insane by lack of sleep?   

I do not want to lose myself or my baby to such thoughts of madness or I might be turned into a fire breathing dragon like Liu, so once more I close my eyes.  The exquisite rosewood gate opens again, and I am greeted by Liu and Elder Brother.  Liu gives me a tender smile, accompanied by a slow, graceful bow which exposes the top of her head.  The part in her hair is perfectly straight and milky white, like a guiding light in a sea of blackness.  Elder Brother’s coarse robes are stained, and I notice how cowed and nervous he looks in Liu’s presence.    Liu stops the clamor of servants who rush over to help, and nods her beautiful head at Elder Brother who comes forward to take my luggage.  When his foot catches on the hem of Liu’s cheongsam, which is made of the finest silk and embroidered with sleeping dragons, Liu’s hazel eyes, steady and unblinking, lock onto mine as if to say, this is my life as it should be.

A hiss from just outside the bedroom door rips me out of my dream.  The fire breathing dragon has come.  My baby howls but a gurgle catches in her throat.  I panic and blow air into her mouth, as my fingertips press life back into her spongy chest.  The agitated movements cause her diaper to unravel so that urine leaks out and freezes against her legs.  Liu crashes into the bedroom and snatches the large safety pin from my trembling hand.  With precision and lightening speed, she refolds the baby’s diaper.  Liu raises the safety pin high overhead and, before I can scream, strikes downward towards the baby.  When I open my eyes, I see that the baby is safe, silent, and suckling her own lower lip, her eyes droopy with sleep. 

Neither the demons nor doctors have stolen Liu’s expert nursemaid training.  Her steady and strong and soft hands can still reattach a diaper on a squirming baby.  I search in Liu’s eyes for some recognition, to see if she knows what she has done, whether she is aware of what gentle care she is capable of giving, but I am met with an empty gaze. In the dim light cast by my lantern, I see her eyes are the color of coal.   


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