Presence

A pair of birds dart across your narrow field of vision on the screen. The last user had left the telepresence machine near the bed closest to the door before disconnecting, with the camera and monitor pointing at the open window so that you, the next user, would not have to stare into the face of a dying stranger. Hard to tell if this was an act of kindness or shame.

You nudge the thumb stick to turn around, gingerly; the motion is smooth but slow, as though impeded by some viscous fluid—most operators are as inexperienced as you, and the slowness adds a measure of safety.

The hospital room is clean, with three beds. She’s in the middle, an unmoving husk under the thin blanket. You hear a few moans from the bed on the far side, but the microphone doesn’t pick up much detail.

The bright sunlight from the window behind you makes you think the room is warm. You imagine the breeze coming through the open window, suffused with the smells from the food vendors on the street below: herb–grilled lamb skewers, peanuts roasted over an open fire, yams baked in ovens made from oil drums—foods you haven’t tasted in more than two decades.

You think the room isn’t big enough for three beds, certainly not by the standards of America, but the nurse had explained over the phone that this is the best–equipped ward in the hospital—the machine you’re in is proof of that.

The caretaker you pay every week stands up and introduces herself. You can see she’s used to talking to a head floating in a TV screen perched on top of a squat robot. You suppress the impulse to explain about vacation days, the difficulty of asking for leave when you’re at this stage in your career, the uncertainly of taking a transoceanic trip when you don’t know when…it will be over.

“I’ll wake her up,” she says.

It has been so long since you’ve conversed with anyone other than your mother in the language of your childhood that you struggle to find the right register, the correct phrases with the appropriate level of politeness. “Doesn’t she…isn’t that…do you think she needs to sleep more?”

She looks at you with pity. You act like a foreigner.

She moves over to the bed and pats the face of the sleeping woman. “Wake up! Wake up! Your son is here!”

Her shouting wakes up the women in the other two beds, who grumble. Then she uses her hands to pry open your mother’s eyes. She turns your mother’s head so that the eyes are directed at you.

For a moment, you are shocked by the way she’s handling your mother, and then you wonder if this is, in fact, the only way to reach through the haze that has claimed her; you wonder if your reaction is a result of the delicacy of your Americanized sensibilities or something else, something darker, related to how the caretaker is here while you remain on the other side of the ocean.

The eyes are cloudy and you wonder if she even knows you’re here or if she just perceives indistinct patterns of lights and shadows.

“She’s happy to see you,” the caretaker says. “See how keeps her eyes open even when my hands are off? That never happens.”

Self–conscious, you lean in. “I’m here.” You wonder how this is any different from watching you on the screen of a computer monitor. You wonder what it is you’re paying for.

The pattern of wrinkles on her face stays still like a carved mask. The paralysis from the stroke is complete.

Lifting off the blanket, the woman begins to change your mother’s diaper. You want to look away and then realize that not looking would only be a way to lie to yourself. You’re startled by the thinness of her legs in the air—pale, spotted skin wrapped around bones—and you hold your breath.

But of course there is no smell. You do not detect the excrement, the shame of your mother’s helplessness, the odor of disinfectant and rot and death. The physicality of her condition does not touch the delicate membranes of your olfactory cells. Civilization is the process of constructing ever more elaborate lies to shield us from the reality of death. You are still divided by an ocean.

The woman works efficiently and quietly. She throws the soiled diaper into the bucket next to the bed and wipes your mother clean with a washcloth. Then she lifts the legs again and puts a fresh diaper in place. You take a deep breath.

One of the other patients speaks. “You live in America?”

You turn your head around; it takes thirty seconds but feels like an hour. Then you see her, a middle–aged woman whose face is full of curiosity. You nod.

“So far away,” she says. “She must think of you often even though she can’t talk. You should come back.”

You resent her rudeness and presumption. You want to tell her about your responsibilities, the mortgage and the young children. You want to explain it isn’t easy to make it in America, to hold onto a job, to make enough money to pay for a caretaker because you can’t be here and you don’t want your mother to lie in her shit and piss for hours in the under–staffed hospital. You want to say that you’ve been trying to convince her for years to come and join you, but she does not want to move to a foreign land. You want to accuse her of trying to lash out at you because her own children have left her here to die while visiting her only as ghosts embodied in a machine. You want to bring up the point that a life of opportunities in that new, distant land, for you and your children, is what she wanted.
Instead you just nod again and you turn your face back, another thirty seconds.

The caretaker hands you a pair of nail clippers. They click securely into the manipulators at the end of your arm. “Why don’t you trim her nails?”

You are flustered. You haven’t ever tried to cut someone else’s nails.

“It’ll make you feel better.”

You are surprised by the kindness in her voice.

Your fingers are shaking, afraid to hurt her, but the robot has been programmed for this. You just have to nudge the thumb stick this way and that, to squeeze the handles when the screen tells you to, and the waldos do all the rest. The safety routines ensure that you do not injure her while giving you the illusion of doing something for her. As you watch the remote manipulators hold one of your mother’s hands, you imagine how cool the skin is, how weighty the desiccated muscle and skin wrapping the rheumatic joints feel.

Her eyes remain open the whole time.

You visit her every night. You become more skilled at driving the robot and they give you more control, to allow you more speed and degrees of freedom. You learn to change her diapers, to wipe her down, to sit next to her bed for hours and watch her face for imagined signs of movement. You listen to the soap opera playing on the TV in the background and you get to know the patients rotating through the other two beds. You do not meet their visitors, who timeshare your body.

These robots are built for the guilty, for those too far away and with too many excuses. Despite your awareness of the illusory nature of your presence, of the lie technology helps you to tell yourself, you do feel better.

You disconnect and find yourself unable to cry.

The nurse’s words echo in your mind.

She went to sleep last night and did not wake up.

The thought that you might actually be relieved to no longer have to make the visit every night makes you turn away from the mirror over the dresser.

You try to think about how characters in movies react when this happens, and then you think what is wrong with you that you have to emulate fiction.

“Is everything all right?” your wife asks.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” you snap.

Your daughter comes to you.

“My nails are too long,” she says. Your wife usually takes care of this kind of thing, but today she’s out, grocery shopping.

You hold her in your lap and pick up the nail clippers. You smell her hair, fresh lilac and sweet jam—she’s just had some toast with strawberry preserves. You wonder if she’ll like herb–grilled lamb skewers.

You think about how strange it is to describe what happened as losing someone when the real loss happened years ago, so gradually that you weren’t even aware when it happened. You can’t remember the moment you decided you would not go back. You can’t remember the moment you accepted that she would not come to join you. You can’t remember when you became American. You think about how a thousand small decisions add up to irrevocable changes, how not deciding is the same as deciding. You think about how people expect you to act a certain way when they don’t know anything about you.

Your daughter squirms in your lap, making herself more comfortable.

You think about how to describe to her the grandmother she has never seen. You think about how to explain yourself to her, how to justify your choices, when she is old enough to understand. You think about the price you pay for a new life on another continent, an ocean away.

You think about absolution that will never come because the judge is yourself.

You wait to squeeze the nail clippers because your eyes have grown hot and wet and it’s hard to see.

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Ken Liu

Ken Liu

Ken Liu (kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a silkpunk epic fantasy series, was published by Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint, in April 2015. Saga also published a collection of his short stories later in the year.

3 Responses to “Presence”

  1. 100 Short Stories in 2014 | Brewing Tea & Books

    […] “Presence” by Ken Liu in Uncanny – my review […]

  2. Uncanny, issue 1 | Brewing Tea & Books

    […] “Presence” by Ken Liu An immigrant dealing with his dyeing mother on another continent. Dealing with not being there for her. As everything else I’ve read by Liu the story it’s full of emotion, without pulling on your heath strings. This makes the story all the more emotional and powerful. […]

  3. 9 intriguing science fiction & fantasy short stories – Maria Haskins

    […] Presence, by Ken Liu in Uncanny Magazine. This science fiction story broke my heart a little bit. If you live far away from your family, if you’ve left the place you grew up to live somewhere else, if you are an immigrant or expat of any kind, this one will likely cut you close to the bone. […]

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