I told myself this was going to be a day of ceremonial nothingness, that I would indulge in the void and let the tides of my consciousness carry me hither and thither. Just as I was lying down, the birds’ song outside, though soft and tenuous, sent me somewhere long-lost in time.
I was enveloped by the interminable calm of my Grandma’s house. It was a soundless calm, especially in the afternoon hours when the air was a languid emerald green, faded as if worn away by the slow, caressing fingers of time. It was in that pool of emerald green that I was always, always forced to take a nap. A nap that was, to me, criminally long, the cruel deprivation of all my unbridled fun. Yet I must sleep, I must keep my eyes shut staunchly, for waking up before 3pm would turn Grandma into a formidable figure with a grim glare. I did not fear much in the world back then, but I feared her. Reluctantly I lay on the bed. While my mind kept throwing up from its depths little made-up names for those made-up roles in my own made-up world, my ears would attune to the birds outside, their songs more melodic and undulating than any I heard on television. I remember those songs most distinctly not by their sound, but by the dreamy, somnolent afternoon light filtering through the amorphous khaki-coloured curtains. Bathing in that light, finally overcome with drowsiness, I would surrender myself to the birds’ opera, to the trees in which they nested, and at last, to the comfort of sleep.
My childhood revolved a lot around my grandma’s house. It was a physical repository of scents, tastes and memories that are, all of a sudden, flooding my consciousness in waves. Through the watery mist I see my older cousin, the days we spent at Grandma’s when we were still so close.
Together, we salvaged many priceless little items from the depths of Grandma’s age-old house: broken chess boards, disproportionately large hats, a violin with broken strings that no longer made any sound. Our imaginations ran wild as we turned the sun-drenched, rectangular-shaped balcony into different imagined spaces of our make-believe adult lives. There were a few years of such carefree play when we had only each other in our dreamland. Until her Mom died from cancer when she was only seven. I was still in kindergarten, too young to perceive that our fragile lives could end at any time, with a randomness bordering on absurdity.
Over the years of our childhoods, we saw her Dad remarry — once, twice, three times… While my every whim was fulfilled by both my Mom and Dad, she was often left alone with Grandma in that emerald-green well of silence as her neglectful Dad kept her away from his new family, like an unwanted nuisance. I could not comprehend her entrapment then, but I remember wishing for her to be stronger, to be louder, to hit her dad and the new woman in the face. I knew I would do that in her position– I had a whole well of courage and willfulness to draw from. I was beside her when she gradually retreated into her non-confrontational shell, simply nodding along and avoiding expressing herself even when asked. I would hear other relatives whisper that she was a cold-hearted, ill-mannered girl, but I knew her true, hidden character – that vibrant, full-fledged self before it got eroded away by her Mom’s death and the brokenness of her family. When I was older, I came to think that her quietness and her acquiescence were resignation to that shaping force of her circumstances – that she let herself be molded.
I remember the first time we talked about her Mom, two years after she died. My parents left us in the car for a while and she was to sleep in my home that night. It was snowing outside. We loved winter, with its snow-covered mountains and the soundlessly theatrical dance of the snowflakes. She seemed serious that night in the car. I can no longer remember what exactly she said, but it was the first time she acknowledged the death of her Mom to me. It felt concrete, like a weight descending upon us. She did not cry. She seemed to me then a detached entity, on her own against the snowstorm outside, against the tides of life.
During the Spring Festival a few years later, we were gathered in my grandma’s house watching a documentary on new-born babies on TV. She burst into tears mid-way through it. I did not know why; I could only guess it was the portrayal of maternal care that struck her as alien, beyond the scope of her experience.
Over the remainder of our childhood years, I would come to her when at times my troubles–my anxiety over my appearance, my burgeoning sexuality, my desire to escape from this small town promising nothing but stagnation– felt too grave and solemn for my miniscule, fragile self. She was like this reliable wall, hardened by forces of life, that I could lean into. I remember once she talked to me about her going away to a nursing school instead of university. It was her Dad’s decision. She had not the slightest desire for it. She did not utter a word. She went for six years, occasionally coming back home by train.
Our lives diverged more and more as our personalities emerged and stabilized. Her noncommittal attitude clashed with my crystallized goals. She stagnated while I fought for change. We became two ends of a tunnel with only our childhood in between.
Yet when I occasionally see her, I still feel like we are on those snow-covered mountains. Lying down, her singing to me in a soft voice as if afraid to disturb the sleep infiltrating the emerald-green air at Grandma’s house, I can once more indulge in being small and vulnerable, though I am not. I always wanted to protect her. I never could.
Touching those carefully preserved moments into life, I see my sealed childhood open up, revealing one forgotten scene after another . I see her, my moments with her, their emotional undertones now emerging with clarity and imprinting vibrant colors onto the canvas of my mind; I see two lives bound by kinship, drawn apart by two selves, and yet remaining ever so close at their hearts, as if all that the tides of time have done is return clarity to the murky waters of a collective childhood, a shared space in time from which we blossom into different species of flower in the end.
Liang Jingyi is an ardent lover of words who sees the crafting of narratives as a means of inner self-discovery as well as a navigation through the exterior world. She spends most of her leisure time flipping through pages of novels, writing contemplations of her own, and watching one after another film in the 90s. She hopes that her words could knock gently on the doors of other hearts and help to illuminate, in however miniscule a way, our shared human condition.