An Excerpt from “Papa and Mama”

… first published in May 2010, in the award-winning anthology,
The Dragon and the Stars

Papa was swimming listlessly in his glass tank, so Ning wrapped her hands around him, and though he writhed and flapped his reddish-gold tail, she managed to get him into a bowl of fresh water. He looked sicker than yesterday. She hoped the spoonful of salt she’d stirred into the water would invigorate him.

As she hoisted his heavy tank to the bathroom to scrub, she started singing what used to be Papa’s favorite tune. Sometimes, she wondered if he could hear her. After all, he was immersed in water, unlike Mama who was perched in her carved wooden cage and could sing far prettier songs. But despite Ning’s doubts, she sang for Papa as he had sung to her when she was little.

Two years ago, not long after Papa and Mama had died in the train wreck and left Ning an orphan, Uncle had come home one morning with a fish in a red bucket and told her this was Papa.

She didn’t believe him at first. She was thirteen already, not a gullible little girl. But as she yelled at Uncle for lying to her, the fish popped its silvery gold head out of the water, and as its gleaming black eyes met hers, a flash of tingling warmth shot through her, and she just knew …

Uncle didn’t scold her, as he sometimes did for being disrespectful, but sat patiently with her to explain.

Each morning since the seventh and last day of her parents’ funeral, Uncle had risen before dawn and ridden his bicycle west along the dusty village streets till he reached the old bamboo grove Mama had enjoyed strolling through with Papa. There, Uncle would get off his bicycle and push two sticks of smoking incense into the ground. After telling Papa and Mama he was there, he’d hike down the beaten trail to the lily-covered pond where Papa had spent most Sundays fishing. For an hour, Uncle would trudge around, peering into the clear water, after which he’d head for work.

For ninety mornings, Uncle had left the bamboo grove empty-handed. But on the ninety-first morning, he glimpsed a dazzling shimmer amidst the reeds growing along the pond’s shallow edges. When he strode over, he spotted a luminous fish. It was shorter than the span of his hand and had a silvery head, a vivid yellow body blazing with orange streaks, and a reddish-gold tail.

Uncle knew there was no other fish like it in the pond. When he dipped his hands in to scoop it up, it didn’t swim away or struggle, removing any doubts in his mind that this was his brother reincarnated.

Now the fish was Ning’s to care for, which was her duty as his daughter.

Three days later, on the hundredth day following her parents’ death, Uncle found Mama flapping through the grove. Mama was a golden yellow bird with a silvery white crown, orange wing tips, and a red streaked tail that glistened under the sun. It was from these colors that Uncle knew her, and when he called her name, she came. Mama matched Papa in so many ways. They both were fond of the same colors, and now in their reincarnated forms, their body hues matched.

Uncle had bemoaned the fact that Mama couldn’t share Papa’s tank. But Ning secretly rejoiced when he said they could start eating meat again, for there was no longer any danger of them unwittingly eating her parents.

Two years had since passed. Papa had grown to almost twice his initial length. But now, he was ill. The more Ning thought of it, the more convinced she was of her failing. Uncle had always said it was his duty to give his brother and sister-in-law a home and keep them safe, but it was the daughter’s duty to see to their health and happiness. Ning wondered where she might have gone wrong.

Mama squawked when Ning transferred Papa back into the big tank. “Just a moment, Mama,” Ning said.

Mama continued squawking, making Ning’s skin prickle, but Ning finished tossing food into Papa’s tank before stepping to Mama’s cage in the corner.

“I’m here, Mama. Shh …” Ning cooed to Mama, but Mama still screeched raucously.

Ning felt at a loss. Mama had never been hard to take care of. All Ning had to do daily was clean the cage and give her ample fresh water, seeds, and nuts. She’d done this already after coming home from school. Why then was Mama so riled up? Ning poked a finger through the bars, intending to stroke Mama, but Mama pecked at Ning’s hand, almost nipping her.

“Mama, please, what’s wrong?” Ning asked.

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