Spring festival, before the fish arrive: Teresa Teng croons from the radio; I hum along as I hang paper decorations, the reds and golds bright against our cream-colored walls. You’re in the kitchen making dinner—Shanghai-style sauteéd niangao, braised cod, stir-fried green beans. Sizzle, pop. Water runs from the sink, interrupting the music for a moment, and then I hear your slipper-soft footsteps padding to me.
When you wrap your arms around me from behind, I sink into your embrace, the decoration in my hand lowering as my arm relaxes. You nuzzle my neck, place a kiss behind my ear.
“Xin’gan…” you murmur. Darling. The word sounds so tender on your lips, every sound liquid and resonant. My eyes flutter shut.
“…that decoration should be the other way around.”
My eyes snap open. I can’t read Chinese the way you can, but I can recognize the shape of the characters enough to understand their balance. I can tell that the character 福 in this diamond of red isn’t upside-down like it should be.
I roll my eyes. We’re both second-generation, but you care more about these things, about the details of our shared heritage. Sometimes I think you actually believe the superstitions, that putting up ingots will bring us fortune, that which way this decoration hangs really does matter.
I turn the 福 on its head then tack it to the wall.
I turn to look at you. Despite my flicker of annoyance, my voice is warm: you may hyperfocus on details, but in the end, I find that trait more endearing than frustrating. You smile, your eyes curving into those twin rainbows I so adore; when you plant a kiss on my forehead, I shiver and laugh.
“Perfect. Now fu can dao.”
Fu dao—luck arrives. I understand that pun, plus the one where we eat fish so that nian nian you yu.
You take off your apron and hand it to me.
“I have to run to the store—we’re out of scallions. Can you keep an eye on the stove?”
I watch you leave, sending you off with my gaze.
I end up burning the fish. I get caught up in reading a book, and by the time I smell the smoke, it’s too late. I flush when I tell you, tears pricking my eyes, but you’re forgiving about it. We salvage what’s edible. I still feel guilty, though. Nian nian you yu—every year we’ll have more, except this year I guess we won’t. We have just enough, and when I think back on it, part of me believes that that’s why our luck runs out.
On the eighth day of the spring festival, the fish arrive. Silver-black mackerel the size of charter buses, they rise from the sea, beating overgrown fins against the air. The logical half of my brain says that fish aren’t aerodynamic enough to fly, but I’m watching the live news reports, seeing photos that can’t be faked streaming in on my computer. I remember then that people say bees shouldn’t be able to fly either, and yet they do.
The fish hit the coast first. You work out in Westwood, whereas I’m nestled further inland in Arcadia. Eyes unblinking, mouths gaping, the fish take out the skyscrapers downtown, including the one that houses your office. They thrash their sleek and muscled tails against glass, against steel, and send worlds shattering as they raze entire buildings, leave hundreds of bodies in their wake.
I’m texting you furiously, trying to get a response. The phone lines are jammed, a million calls trying to funnel through to this area at once, but still your last message makes it to me. Tears blur my eyes as I read those four words over and over again.
Xin’gan, I love you.
The fish returned to the sea in the end, only to come back the next year. Year in, year out: nian nian you yu.
We adapt. We learn to corral them, to move them away from city centers, to predict their movements. They always arrive sometime between the sixth and ninth days of spring festival—creatures that abide by some lunisolar calendar, too. We can’t save the people we’ve already lost, but there’s still time enough to save ourselves.
In my grief, in my regret, I latch on to the only things I can control. I hang decorations the right way, make sure our apartment, so empty without you, is filled with red and gold. I never burn the fish again, and I always make sure there’s extra. On Qingming, when it’s time to sweep your grave, I bring food and include a piece of salted mackerel. As an apology, maybe, or as my own private vengeance against the fish that took you.
Luck follows me and keeps me safe.
But oh, xin’gan, I miss you.
© 2017 by S. Qiouyi Lu