Do you remember the war? No, of course not. You were too small, a solemn-eyed toddler in Má’s arms. You were born in the year of the rat, a lucky, ambitious year. I was two years older, year of the dog, loyal to the end. You were little souris, little Em, and I was your Chi. I always knew I needed to take care of you.
We ran to the harbor on the last day of the war. The American soldiers were taking all their guns and boats and helicopters and leaving. You don’t remember choking on dust and panic, pushing through streams of neighbors, strangers, everyone who’d be killed or captured by the victorious northern army that ground its way to our city. Our former city.
The soldiers didn’t want to take us. No room, they said. Their shadows blocked the way. Baba argued with them, using their language against them. You owe us, he said. We helped you. I fought for you. And even though he was a full head shorter than they, they finally let us pass. You, squirming impatiently in Má’s arms; me, clinging to her hand. Auntie came after and finally, strong Baba with a face like stone.
We all got sick on the boat. But Auntie was so sick she died. Before she closed her eyes, her breath was harsh in her throat and she tried to say something to me. I was scared. I cried. I couldn’t listen to her, couldn’t listen to my mother wailing over the death of her younger sister. But Auntie gave me her scarf, a French silk one that Uncle had given her back when we had a home. She wrapped it around my neck before she died.
I sobbed into the scarf. I don’t want to die, I whispered.
The scarf sighed, Don’t cry. Be strong for your em gái. In a gentle voice, it whispered, We’ll remember Auntie together.
I wrapped the scarf around my hair and fell asleep.
Even when we didn’t have a place to live, and no incense to light, we prayed to Auntie. Má had a photograph of her, and she’d often take it out to look at. The scarf around my neck prayed too, in a gentle voice.
We lived in tents for many months. I don’t remember for how long. Oh, you were such a fussy little baby. I think you were sad and worried but you didn’t know how to tell us, so you just cried all the time. I used to lie next to you in the nylon bags they gave us to sleep in, and I’d drape Auntie’s scarf over your shoulders. I hoped you could hear the lullabies, too.
We found our way out west, to a land of dry dirt and horse shit, brown grass and brown cows.
We went to school. We made friends. Baba and Má got jobs, a house. In the house we set up a little shrine and lit incense for Auntie. The scarf sang us beautiful songs that Auntie had learned as a little girl, in her village. Some nights Má would sing along, too, in her sleep.
When I was eleven and you were eight I told you about the scarf and you didn’t believe me. I guess you couldn’t hear. You left our birth country before the magic—or the curse?—could take ahold of you, seep into your bones and swallow you.
You were free to imagine a new life: new tongue, new eyes.
I was happy for you. I still am, Em.
When I decided to live at home during university, you made fun of me. I told you it was because the state school was cheaper and I wanted Má and Baba to save money. But it was because the house sang to me and I wanted to stay. There were more voices in it now, echoes of where we’d come from, happiness bursting through the windows like sunlight. I loved to sit in the calm front room and sip tea and hear the hum of the house, the sounds I couldn’t hear anywhere else in this dry desert.
When you turned eighteen you moved as far away as you could. New York for university, then London, Prague, Tokyo. You washed the dust completely off your hands. I don’t blame you, Em. The dust can choke.
Then Baba died.
We brought home his frayed robe and his slippers and Má went to bed to cry and I sat in Baba’s favorite chair while it rocked me quietly.
I miss him too, said the chair, cradling my grief. His books still carried his tobacco-wood scent and murmured softly to me. His robe wrapped itself gently around my knees and accepted my offering of tears. I’m here, little flower, don’t cry.
That night Má and I put his photo in the little shrine next to Auntie’s and we lit two sticks of incense. Auntie’s scarf sang, and Baba’s robe said, All this fuss? Baba would find it silly. But he’d be pleased, too.
You came home for a week and spent most of it being upset at Má for the state of the house. She’d stopped throwing things away. You didn’t understand, because you don’t remember. When she ran from the army, clutching you in her arms, hauling me by the wrist, she lost a shoe. She carried her gold rings and a string of pearls in a silk cloth tied around her waist. Later she had to sell the pearls, the rings, and the cloth for food. She crossed the Pacific Ocean wearing only one shoe.
Do you understand now why she kept boxes and boxes of shoes in her closet? All stacked neatly, all labeled, none of them worn. She was saving them for later.
You didn’t like it. You couldn’t hear how the shoes laughed and chattered and dreamed of places they would one day go, on Má’s strong feet.
But they didn’t get that chance.
Má got sick in spite of all the voices in the house looking after her. When she had her first stroke her slippers woke me up, screaming with panic. I was able to call the ambulance in time to save her life. That time.
You didn’t visit. I got emails from you, sometimes calls. You didn’t like coming home for Christmas and you always had an excuse. You were trying to save money, you were too busy at work. I didn’t mind. By then Má and I lived in a fortress, protected by piles of clothes like snowdrifts, empty Tupperwares gleaming in the sun. Newspapers stacked against the wall, keeping us cozy. Bags of recycling which we’d gathered but didn’t have the heart to send out of the house, once they started sharing their stories.
I called you when Má had her third and final stroke. You’d book your flight out of London tomorrow morning, you said. As soon as you could.
That night, she died.
The nurses gave me her things. Her slippers and her robe and her little worn purse, they cried softly with me. They missed her too. Her sweater, with holes in the elbows, murmured comfort to me. Her hair clip and her brush sang a mournful duet, remembering the threads of silver shining in her black curls. I held them close to my chest. “It’ll be all right,” I told them.
Don’t cry, they said. Má always loved you, even if she never said it. We could tell she did.
You arrived the next evening, jet-lagged and irritable. I didn’t blame you. You almost managed to hide your shock as you picked your way through the things in the house. You looked around. “I should probably get a hotel,” you said.
“I made space in your old room.” We spoke in English, which echoed strangely in the house.
You didn’t want to sleep there, but you nodded. I appreciated that. You were trying to be a good sister. Your hair was tied up tight and smooth into a ponytail, you wore sober dark clothes, you hugged your expensive purse tight to your chest as if afraid to let it loose, as if it, too, would join my wild community of singing, chattering objects.
We made the arrangements for the funeral. We put Má’s urn next to Baba’s, and lit three sticks of incense.
On the last day of your visit, we had breakfast that morning at the café down the street.
“We have to do something,” you said. “About the house.”
I waited. I knew what you would suggest. I wanted to force you to say it.
“We should sell it, split the money.” You noticed my silence and interpreted it correctly, because you continued quickly. “It’s a solid three-bedroom in a decent area. We could use the money. We’d have to clean it out, though,” you continued, not looking at me. “I could call a service. I’d be happy to pay for it.”
Throw them away? Silence the voices? “Em, the house is my home. I want to keep living there.”
You hesitated. We were still raw, together. “It’s not in very good shape.”
“I’ll fix it. I’ll take care of it.”
But I didn’t, as you know. I couldn’t. It was too much. I could only add more to it. More lost souls, more lonely objects, more empty boxes, more more more. They arrived in a flood, fleeing, to my sanctuary. I listened to them, talked to them, sang back to them. They took care of me. They built walls to keep me safe, they sang of home, of lush mornings, warm evenings, of frogs’ hymnals in the river, or far-off mountains filled with birds I’d never seen. The roof leaked, the walls molded, the floors rotted, but the things cocooned me.
You gave up trying to persuade me to move out, at least for a few years.
Then two weeks ago, you called me. “Happy birthday,” you said. You’d be in the area for work, you’d like to come see me. Catch up. Unspoken, but clear to me, your sister, who’s known you all your life, was your desire to get rid of the house and “move on.”
Move on. As if memories and the past were something you could move on from.
Something you’d want to move on from. What happens to a memory if no one remembers?
Maybe it’s because you don’t remember the life we had before the war. We had a beautiful house, Em, with a courtyard and a pond full of fat goldfish. Even during the worst of the war we had neighbors and friends come over every day to drink tea and trade news. We had cousins and aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas. Má made banh xeo for Baba’s colleagues and French crêpes for the soldiers who came to ask for advice, for help. There were always voices in the house. We were never alone. Our house was where everyone wanted to be.
I know you’re at the front door because the wood quails under your precise knock.
Don’t worry, the clothes on the floor whisper. “Thank you,” I say.
We’ll protect you, the boxes blocking the window say stoutly. We won’t let anyone in you don’t want. “I appreciate that. But you can let her in.”
You walk in. You stand in the middle of the room. You have a look on your face that I think of as your “business” face, the one that you used to show teachers in school. “It’s getting worse,” you say. “These conditions aren’t safe.”
You don’t believe me, but I know every single thing in the house. I know that under three layers of paper and plastic lies a hand towel that a friend sent to Má a decade ago. It remains mostly quiet, but she’s so engaging and full of stories when she wakes up to speak. On the shelf under a comfortable blanket of dust is the urn of Baba’s ashes. It likes to tell his goofy jokes, usually around dinner time. Má’s wedding ring is in a jewelry box under piles of shoes and boots on the closet floor. It sings me her favorite songs when the moon rises.
“I’m fine.” I ask some coats and bags to slide off the couch so I can offer you a seat. You ignore it.
“Chi, you need help. I worry about you.”
That may be the first real thing you’ve said since you walked in, souris. “I’m all right. Really.”
Your brow wrinkles. “I can come again tomorrow to help you clean. If you want.”
No no no no no! The house tenses. The cups in the cupboard and on the coffee table and on the floor tremble. I force a smile. “No, thanks.”
You hesitate, and nod. You pick your way to the bathroom, shut the door.
You’re talking to someone quietly on the phone. The bathroom door leans out a little to let me listen. “It’s not safe for her to live here, alone,” you’re saying. “The house is uninhabitable. I mean if a health inspector ever saw these conditions…yes. I know. Something has to be done.”
You turn away and your voice dies to a mumble.
Something has to be done, the lamp beside me repeats anxiously. What does that mean?
The empty beer bottles rattle. We can help! We can help!
She’s going to get rid of us! The entire house has taken up the wail. She’s going to demolish us! A massacre!
I put my hands over my ears. Their collective panic frightens me, I can’t think. Auntie’s scarf says, She’s always been a stubborn one, like your mother. But you can talk to her and make her see. Make her understand.
“Keep her here,” I ask the house. Until I can reason with you. Until you can hear the voices, too.
Your voice rises from behind the door. “I have to call you back,” you say. “The door’s stuck.” You rattle the doorknob.
We’ve got her, says the door, reassuring. Safe.
I lay my hand on the door. “Em, please listen. I’m just trying to take care of everything in the house.”
“Let me out!” You bang on the door.
Ouch! The door says.
She seems unhappy, the clock on the wall says. She’s only been here twenty-eight minutes, and she’s so unhappy already.
Something smashes and shatters on the door. The whole house flinches and I do too. That was the soap dish, the door says. Gone now.
“Stop it, Em! You have to listen. You can’t hear their voices, but they’re real.”
There’s a long pause. “Oh, Chi. Of course I can hear them.” Your voice is a sigh against the wood of the door. “Why do you think I left home? God, the incessant chatter! The stories and songs that went on and on and on and kept me up at night. You have to get rid of them. They’re drowning you out.”
Drowning me out? Is that what you think is happening? You don’t hear how much they care about us? “All this time, you pretended you couldn’t hear them. Why?”
“I just didn’t want to talk about them. I wanted to ignore them.”
My knees feel watery and I sit on the floor where clothes and towels make room for me. I lean my back against a stack of boxes. “They’re trying to take care of us, like Baba and Má.”
“Baba and Má are gone. They’re dead, Chi. Those voices are just echoes, like ghosts. They aren’t real people.”
“They’re holding the fragments of people’s spirits,” I say. “At least, that’s what I think. You can let her out now,” I tell the door.
The door creaks open and you’re in the doorframe. You reach for my hand and help me up.
“You’re really okay living like this?” You sweep your arm at what, to you, looks like chaos. And for the first time in a long time, I feel ashamed. I don’t know what to say. You step towards me, swinging your purse over your shoulder, tucking it under your elbow. “Don’t you want something else in your life? It’s like living in a tomb. A tomb full of crap.”
“Then I’m a tomb-keeper. Someone has to be. I was here when Má was in the hospital, struggling to breathe, so you didn’t have to be. I was here looking after Baba, so you could stay in London. I never resented it. I stayed here so you could go. But it’s not fair to be angry with me for that.”
Your face crumples like paper in the rain. “I’m sorry. I never asked you to sacrifice for me like that.”
“It wasn’t a sacrifice.” I touch Auntie’s scarf, wrapped gently around my neck. “They took care of me, too. I can’t abandon them. We’re the only ones left who can hear them.”
You sit on the arm of the couch. “Then maybe we talk to them. One by one. Have you tried asking what they want? Maybe they’re ready to leave, too. Maybe we can say goodbye. Thank them, and send them on their way.”
“Maybe?” I look around. Maybe, maybe, whispers the door. Perhaps, say the newspapers. The clock says, I’ve been with you for forty years, I suppose I could use a rest.
Auntie’s scarf flutters away from me and drapes gently around your shoulders. You were always lucky and ambitious. Clever, too. You take care of your big sister.
Your fingers twine in the scarf. Your smile is luminous. “I forgot what it’s like,” you say, almost to yourself. “It’s never lonely here.”
Oh, Em, I’ve missed you. The house has too. But you might be right, maybe it’s ready to say goodbye. And we’ll carry with us what we need to, in our hearts. I know you’ll help me do that.
(Editors’ Note: Miyuki Jane Pinckard is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2021 Miyuki Jane Pinckard